The reward of a thing well done is having done it. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I awoke with the weird sensation of being in a bed…because I was! The first voice I heard was my tibial collateral ligament telling me we were taking the morning off. One thing I’ve learned out here is to listen to your body. You have to be able to hike with a certain amount of pain, but you also need downtime to rest your body and mind and regroup for the next section ahead. Over the long haul, I’m not going to be able to out-tough or out-ego the AT. It is far superior on the toughness scale. But as a 50-year-old, I may have a chance to beat it by making wise choices related to rest, nutrition, hydration, mileage, and weather. That’s really my only chance.
As I rolled out of bed, I also realized that we were out of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Bubble was about to burst. Some folks (Orbit, Mom, Stitch, and Deadwood) were departing that morning. I was departing mid-afternoon and still others (like NesQuick) were taking a Lumpy zero. On top of that, Princess Elle and BooknBoot had been sucked into the great Gatlinburg vortex, and Master Wayne was at home eating Cheetos and watching Netflix. Such is the nature of hiking bubbles…you love them, appreciate them, and ride them while you can. And if you’re lucky, you’ll cross paths with one or more of your friends again further down the trail. I also found it interesting that in 5 days in the Smokies, under tough conditions, I had learned more about these people than many of my casual acquaintances back in the real world. You can learn an awful lot about a person during a 5-hour, uninterrupted hike with him or her.
I gave Lumpy a final fist pump, thanked him for his hospitality, and coveted his beard a final time. His parting words to me were, “In case anyone hasn’t told you lately, I’m proud of you.” While I suspect those are his parting words to all his customers, he sounded sincere and I appreciated them. In fact, I may have gotten a little lumpy in my throat.
I got back on the trail about 2:30 p.m. After a 5 mile, 2500 foot climb, I was standing on the beautiful grassy bald of Snowbird Mountain. I looked up and saw a really interesting facility. It looked like a building one would enter in order to solve a puzzle and unlock a new world in the computer game Myst, one of the most popular PC games of the 1990s. I was tempted to enter, throw some switches, and be instantly transported to Katahdin. Unfortunately, it was just an FAA Control Tower, with a warning sign that if you mess with anything, people could die.
After a 6.9 mile afternoon, I arrived at the Groundhog Creek Shelter and set up my tent nearby. As I cooked my 2.5 servings of New Orleans-style Rice with Shrimp and Ham, I became acquainted with a whole new cast of characters, including…
– Lindsay and Patrice – 2 ladies who are making a movie about women thru-hikers entitled Thru. Be sure to check out the trailer at thruatdoc.com. I told them that if they changed their minds and decided to include a token man in the film, I would like the character Fob to be played by Bear Grylls.
– Little Bear, Squirrel Nut, and two friends both named Tyler who made great fires.
– Tree Hugger – a man who wears the same hiking shirt as me along with a kilt. He literally stops and hugs every tree with a white blaze on it, and says a short prayer asking that God will protect him and keep him on the right path. That’s a lot of trees, folks…and a lot of prayers. I can only remember hugging one tree…a double blazer at Quesalupa Gap, but that’s ground we’ve already covered.
I got an early start this morning and was thankful the pain in my left knee had subsided. As I began the descent into Brown Gap, I came across an old man with a white beard just wandering along the trail. He had no pack or gear and we were several miles from civilization. We exchanged hellos and he smiled and told me he was fine. I found it kind of odd but I hiked on.
About 10 minutes later, I caught up with Lindsay and we discovered some Trail Magic! Yes, there was a case of cold Cokes along the side of the trail by a tree. I can’t be certain but I believe the bearded man was a Trail Angel who had hiked way out into the wilderness carrying a case of cold sodas for me and my fellow hikers. I suspect he wasn’t looking for praise, which explains why he had walked southward from the Cokes. His reward was intrinsic, because he knew that he had refreshed and encouraged some hikers. That might also explain the big smile he gave me as I passed by.
The highlight of the day came at mile 253.9 when I summited Max Patch Bald. Several years ago, my family decided on a Christmas vacation in the mountains. I insisted we take a day trip to Max Patch, a place I had read about in various AT books. The family was reluctant to say the least, but I told them the view would be well worth the 30 or so minute trip to get there. It ended up taking an hour and a half to get there. When we arrived at the parking lot, the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees and the winds were gusting. Half of those in our group refused to get out of their cars. The other half begrudgingly followed me up the bald. With each step, the temperature dropped a degree and the wind picked up. At the summit we all were frozen to our core and looked like Jack Nicholson in the maze at the end of The Shining. We took a two second look at the view (which was spectacular!), and then rushed down the mountain to get in our cars to warm up. The family was not happy with me. I knew this because they told me so. I was the butt of jokes for the rest of the vacation and still get grief over Max Patch. So it was great to return on a somewhat warmer, low 40s, day and think about my sweet family.
As I descended toward Lemon Gap, I entered a beautiful section featuring rolling hills, stream crossings, birds chirping, and mountain laurels. I remember thinking that the place looked like how I would imagine the Garden of Eden. Ironically, not even 5 minutes later, I came across my second AT snake! He was a little fellow, scurrying across the trail. Had he offered me an apple, I would have been really tempted to go for it.
After a personal best tying 18.4 mile day, I stopped at a stealth camping site on a ledge by a stream. I was alone, but fortunately Rocky, a really cool section hiker, strolled by to snap a photo of me and the site. I dozed off to the sound of the stream, with visions of Hot Springs dancing in my head.
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