13.8 miles, 835.5 overall (Maupin Field shelter)
In the morning I can’t help but wake up by 7. I spend a few minutes in my tent before packing everything up and heading to the shelter to eat breakfast. By the time I get out of my tent the Boy Scout troop is already gone and, true to Boy Scout fashion, they have left no apparent evidence that they were ever there. I eat my bagel and peanut butter with a couple older section hikers who stayed in the shelter last night. I inform them of the trail magic that will be transpiring at the bottom of the mountain courtesy of my family and invite them to join when they get there. Then I finally get moving around 8:30.
I decide to wear my Five Fingers shoes today for the second time, figuring I only have 5 miles downhill to the parking lot. I remember the trail being somewhat easy and think this might be a good chance to try the shoes again. It turns out I was wrong. I must have suppressed the memory of the rocks at the top of the Priest. It takes me a little over an hour to go about 2 miles. At this pace I’ll never make it down the mountain. By the time I stub my toe on a rock for a third time I have had enough and I switch back to my trail runners, just in time for the rocks to quit and the trail to become more smooth. I wore the shoes in exactly the wrong order today. I make a mental note not to use the Five Fingers at higher elevations or on ridge lines where rocks are likely. It takes me a little over 2 hours to do the 5 miles downhill.
It is nice to be able to do the Priest again. To refresh your memory, during my second shakedown hike I had a lot of trouble coming down this mountain because of my knee. This time I am able to get down it pain-free, other than the aforementioned self-inflicted Five Fingers disaster. It is almost like exorcising demons to be able to redo this section. This time I am the expert, telling everyone else which pieces are hard and which are easy, and flying through in half the time of a weekend hiker.
At the bottom of the mountain my family is waiting and hugs abound. They have been planning this day for about 2 weeks now. Almost everyone is there – Christy, my mom and her husband, and lots of Christy’s family – about 12 people in all. Christy even brought our dog, Miranda. They have already caught Catnap who made it down a bit before I did having slept on the top of the mountain. He is already munching on some snacks while the family is setting up the rest of the spread. They have brought hot dogs and hamburgers, chips, all manner of snacks (iced honey buns, Snickers, fruit leather, gorp, Clif bars, etc), sodas, water, fruit salad, and probably more stuff that I’ve forgotten. It is epic.
At first I hang around Catnap trying to make sure he feels welcomed and included, but it quickly becomes apparent that I don’t need to. He is mingling just fine, so I spend time with the family instead while munching on some of the food that is already out. Next to arrive are Einstein and Teflon who really booked it to get here. They stayed at the Dutch Haus last night so they started from back at the parking lot below Spy Rock where Mac, Snap and I were dropped off yesterday. On top of that they missed the first shuttle from the Haus so they got a later start, yet they arrive less than an hour after I do. Also eventually showing up are Mac and Snap who really took their time getting out of the shelter this morning, Dakota Dan, Runner, Blue Fox who slack packed back to here from further ahead on the trail, the Myakka Mules, and a few other hikers. It is a great group and I’m glad my family finally gets to meet some of the people I’ve been hiking with. With this group I feel like they really get a great sense of the thru-hiker community. All of the hikers spend a good amount of time sitting and eating. There is plenty of food to go around and nobody leaves hungry. In fact they are encouraged to take food with them. Several leave with honey buns, Clif bars, and other goodies added to their packs.
By 2:00 or so the hikers start to leave. Just about everybody has their eyes set on Waynesboro tomorrow. Whatever they don’t hike today will need to be covered tomorrow, so they want to get more miles in. As the others trickle out I start preparing to leave as well. Christy has brought my resupply as well as two warm-weather sleeping bags for me to choose from (she’ll return the one I don’t pick). I go with the 40 degree rated REI Halo. I am excited about the half pound that this switch will remove from my pack until I switch back to the 3season bag in New England. While the family starts packing up I also pack up, filling my food bags with treats.
**Spoiler alert, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to hear about the ending to Hancock**
It is hard to say goodbye knowing how close I am to home. I feel like I have been gone so long at this point that, when I think about how much longer I have left, it seems silly to keep hiking. I have to remind myself why I’m doing this and how much I would regret it if I stopped. I think about the trail ahead and what lies in store for me. As I hike I picture myself as Hancock in the final sequence of the movie where he has to get away from Charlize Theron in order to save them both. Each step I take back onto the trail is a huge leap that makes me stronger. At first the steps are hard but as I get further along they become easier until I am simply hiking again.
**End spoiler alert**
By the time I’ve hiked in a few miles I feel like I’m getting my mental focus back. It helps that for several miles after the parking lot the trail is uphill so I can put my energy into climbing. It is almost therapeutic, the way climbing used to feel in Georgia, and I make good time. It is 9 miles to the second shelter where I plan to stay tonight, leaving 21 tomorrow to Waynesboro. I leave the parking lot just before 4 and have 3 miles done in about an hour. Unfortunately the trail gets a little harder (or I get a little slower, or both) and the other 6 don’t go quite as quickly. They do offer some great views though, especially from Hanging Rocks. I pause there for several minutes contemplating watching the sunset from the location. If I weren’t so set on getting to Waynesboro I probably would take the time to enjoy the sunset here while I ate dinner. However I realize that this area is my backyard and I can return often after thru-hiking. I make a mental note to come back here and I even spot a campsite on the descent that would be an excellent base camp for the mission.
I arrive at the shelter just after 7. It is bustling with activity. There are several section hikers who have claimed spots around the main shelter. On the way in I pass Einstein who is hiking out to a satellite camping area that I passed on the way in. I join him there after getting water near the shelter.
At the camping area it is me, Einstein, Teflon, and Tamir. I must not have been far behind them because they are setting up camp when I arrive. While I set up my tent Teflon starts work on a fire but doesn’t get far before his allergies bother him too much. I take over and soon have the fire started. Tamir, who ate a honey bun and is now satisfied with not cooking dinner, takes over tending it while everyone else cooks. He observes that he has had a “food bag neutral” day having had breakfast at the Dutch Haus, lunch at the trail magic, and dinner supplied by the trail magic. We sit around the fire and shoot the breeze while we eat and the sun goes down. While we eat we notice a brave little rabbit hopping around the site. He comes within mere feet of us several times while looking for leaves to munch on. Such a mellow dinner around a campfire with interesting people is a perfect ending to a great day. I’m looking forward to what tomorrow brings as we head into Waynesboro on the Appalachian Trail.