23.1 miles, 1129.5 overall (Darlington shelter)
I’m up and ready to leave around 7. That is when I figure the free continental breakfast should be ready by. It is not. I wait until 7:15 and still nothing. At this point Mouse and I figure nothing is coming until at least 8. Not willing to wait that long, we hike the half mile to a Subway where we get breakfast flatbreads. When we get back it is 8:00 and still the common room isn’t open. Mouse finally calls the hotel’s service number and when she mentions the problem the person sounds confused about why it isn’t open yet. Five minutes later it is open.
I ask about getting a ride back to the trail and am told that the staff have a meeting at 8:30 so they can’t take me until 9. So much for an early start. I make them pay by eating several of the complimentary muffins while I wait and taking a banana for later. When I finally get back to the trail and start hiking it is 9:20.
The trail today should be easy but it runs through the Cumberland Valley where there is no camping allowed except at a backpacker’s campsite near Boiling Springs. My options are to do an 8 mile day and camp there or go 23 miles to the next shelter. Even with the late start, due to the flat terrain I could still make it to the shelter at a reasonable time so I put my head down (figuratively) and get moving. Since I need to crunch some miles I decide that today will be a music day and I put in the earbuds.
The first few miles are some small ups and downs but they are notable because of the presence of a rock maze! The maze actually turns out to be what I’ll call a bit of AT whimsy. It consists of large, boulder sized rocks that the trail twists and turns through when it could have just as easily gone around them. Later when talking to Gato about it he compares it to walking through a fairground funhouse where you follow the arrows even though you know there is a faster way through. I like the description and enjoy the route. I catch Bottomless Pit at the end and he is less appreciative.
From the maze I pass Center Point Knob, the original AT midpoint, and descend into the valley. As I come off the ridge the trail winds through large farm lands, mostly following windbreaks through the fields. It is a beautiful change of pace although it makes me thankful I am wearing my long pants today because it is perfect tick habitat. Before long I get through the fields and I enter Boiling Springs.
The town of Boiling Springs seems small but well-off. On the way in I walk by the Children’s Lake with some nice houses on the other side. I reach the ATC regional office at the end of the lake and find Squidword, Wonder, Fresh, and Dora hanging out. I ask about food and Dora recommends Caffe 101 where she just finished eating. I drop my pack and head there immediately, trying to waste as little time as possible.
The shop is wonderful. It has sandwiches, coffee, ice cream, and all kinds of goodies. I order a BLT with onion and cheese added and get a root beer float to wash it down. The tables inside are all taken so I sit outside where a little girl, probably 2 years old, keeps looking at me and smiling. I figure she likes my beard.
By the time I get done eating, fill up my water at the ATC, and get going it is 1:30. I still have 14 miles left to get to the shelter. I crank the music back up and get moving. Before long I’ve caught up to Wonder and Fresh who are hiking a bit more leisurely. I pass them quickly, informing them that I’m on a mission today. I could probably hike with them instead but I want to get to the shelter as early as possible. Rain is in the forecast and I’ve been getting lucky lately by getting in just before it rains. I don’t want to push my luck.
The terrain continues to be flat but it is somewhat muddy due to all the recent rain. I pass some day hikers and trail runners as well as some backpackers. I catch Kitfox, Mancub, and P-squared as we pass over I-81 and through a cow pasture. I make sure to inform the cows that they are big dumb animals, in case they didn’t know. Eventually I get to the Scott Farm Trail Work Center and find Squidword and Dora resting at a picnic table. I decide to take a break and end up staying there for a while. My feet hurt more than usual, probably due to an abundance of flat land and asphalt on the trail today. With 4 miles left I don’t leave until just after 5.
The remaining trail takes us up out of the valley and back onto a ridgeline. It is somewhat steep and I stop to get water at a spring on the way up. I arrive at the shelter around 6:30, making my whole hiking day about 9 hours long. It’s not bad considering I stopped for lunch for almost an hour and also rested for a while at the trail center. I set up my tent for the night and, just as I’m sitting down to cook dinner, it begins to rain. Once again I have timed my arrival perfectly. I wonder how much longer my luck can last.
At the shelter tonight are several new hikers I haven’t met before. First I meet Two Percent who I find out is a chemical engineering major from Virginia Tech. He is hiking with Smoke who is a German man. I also finally meet Froot Loop. I had started reading her trail journal before I started the trail because she is also a Hokie and she started so far ahead of me. I’ve been slowly catching up to her until she took about 5 days off to visit family and since then I’ve been about a day behind. No longer! I finally meet her as well as Rook and Phoenix, 2 women she has been hiking with.
As I eat my dinner I joke around with the people in the shelter. Also there are Dora, Gato, and the Peace Corps guys (Squidword, Wonder, and Fresh). At one point I think about how earlier in my hike I would be considering how to assimilate into one of these groups. Lately I don’t think in those terms anymore. I am much more comfortable hiking my own hike without anyone else. I know that no matter where I end up at the end of the day I will run into other thru-hikers. I will know some of them and others I’ll get to meet for the first time. Either way lately I’ve found that it is incredibly easy to strike up a conversation, and I’ve been running into fewer and fewer hikers who I would rather not be around. It seems as if there is something about this point in the trail that has filtered out the bad and left the good, while at the same time those of us who are left have all converged on a sort of thru-hiker set of behaviors and attitudes that make it so easy for us to relate even without knowing each other. As a result I’m not as worried about sticking around those whose company I know I enjoy. I look forward to finding out who I’ll meet tomorrow on the Appalachian Trail!