“There is something almost primal about standing atop a tall mountain, as if you have satisfied some deep and ancient part of human nature which drives us to explore our world and to reach new heights.” – Wash
I was one of the first hikers out of the gate, but five or six slack packers passed me during the first two hours of the day. Without backpacks, they were rushing to do 27 miles to Troutville where the shuttle driver would pick them up, return them to the hostel, and then return them to Troutville the following morning. As previously discussed, I don’t slack pack as a matter of principle. The AT is meant to be enjoyed, not rushed, and that was especially true of this section of trail.
Around noon I stopped at Catawba Mountain Shelter to get water. While there, I met and got information on the trail ahead from Matt, a friendly and helpful ridge runner. An hour later, I was standing on McAfee Knob, the most famous ledge and among the top two most photographed spots on the AT. I have been reading about this ledge and looking at hiker photos on it for more than two decades. This is the ledge Robert Redford and Nick Nolte are standing on in the movie poster for A Walk in the Woods (a photo-shopped picture as neither actor has been to this spot). It all felt a little surreal. I waited my turn for a photo and then a young man named Terrence took several pictures of me on the ledge. It was cloudy out so there was limited visibility, but even the clouds provided a neat backdrop for this iconic spot. The final few pictures involved me sitting on the edge of the ledge, the scariest thing I’ve done since climbing the Shuckstack fire tower in the Smokies. It was another medium sized step in overcoming my fear of heights.
At Campbell Shelter, I stopped for water and met some young Tennessee Volunteer fans out on a section hike. Towards the end of the day, as storms once again threatened, I made a final climb to the stunningly beautiful views from Tinker Cliffs, passing ETA, Training Wheels, and their tents. (She earned that name after falling down several times during the first two weeks of her hike, including once just walking by a campfire.) Apparently Revolutionary War deserters hid out at Tinker Cliffs repairing pots and pans for money and acquired the name “tinkers.” The trail follows right along the edge with drops of 150 feet. It was a perfect spot for tenting with a view, so I called it a day after 14.9 miles. I cooked some Ramen Bomb on a large, flat rock on the edge of the cliffs. As I dozed off to sleep, I wondered what it must have been like to live up there as a war deserter, repairing pots and pans, while others were down below fighting for independence and the creation of a new nation.
I began the day with another great section of trail. In fact, the hike from McAfee Knob (yesterday, mile 711.4) to today’s Hay Rock (mile 723.5) comes in at 4th place, so far, on my favorite sections of the trail. There were at least five scenic overlooks with views stretching for miles. Having exhausted most of my water supply up on the cliffs, I stopped at Lamberts Meadow Shelter to get more. This was yet another shelter that had been closed indefinitely due to bear activity. As I filtered my water a little faster than normal, I had my head on a swivel in anticipation of a bear arriving and going all Revenant on me.
Of the 10.8 miles hiked today, the final few into Daleville/Roanoke were scenic and relatively flat. I was looking forward to getting there because the plan was for Debbie Freeman, a longtime family friend, to pick me up and treat me to some southern hospitality. Long ago, my family got to know the Smyth family (Debbie’s maiden name) through the school friendship between Debbie and my oldest sister, Ellen. My mom and Debbie’s mom also became close friends and kept in contact for over forty years. My first memory of the Smyth family was as an 8-year-old, in 1974, when my family returned from our military assignment to Germany. Before moving into our home in Dover, Delaware, we stayed with their family in a big home out in the country. My main memories are of a house full of cute girls of various ages, a bumper pool table that I was allowed to play, and a rope swing. I love this country! Their dad was a newspaper editor and I remember him constantly sitting in his big chair with a newspaper and pen to mark it up. Their family was very kind to us, and it’s interesting that 42 years later, Debbie and her husband Bill would once again show hospitality to a tired long distance hiker like me.
The first treat was seeing and learning about her latest hobby, beekeeping. I learned the ins and outs of starting and maintaining a hive and the role of each type of bee. The magnificence of their design, roles, and coordinated effort to survive once again pointed to a Grand Designer. It was all fascinating and now I’m thinking about getting Lil Jan a beehive starter kit for her birthday. If I ask for her permission, I bet she’d say, “No honey.”
After starting my laundry, I headed straight for a shower and bath. Debbie provided me with muscle-soothing Epsom salt and lavender bath oil. I had never had a bath with an essential oil before (or even a nonessential oil) and it was luxurious! I laid back, took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and all was right in the universe. I imagined snapping my fingers and having two eunuchs in togas enter, one holding a platter with grapes and cheeses and the other a cold Mountain Dew. I snapped back to reality, put on Bill’s bathrobe, and headed down to supper feeling like a million dollars. Debbie prepared a scrumptious meal featuring chicken, asparagus, bread, and more! It was so, so good. It was great catching up on what our respective family members have been up to.
The next morning, Debbie filled up my tank with a wonderful breakfast and then took me to Wal-Mart to resupply. She then returned me to Daleville and the trailhead. She and Bill were excellent hosts and I truly appreciate their kindness to me. After eating some pasta and salad from Pizza Hut, I got back on the trail at 2:15 p.m.
The rest of the day was uneventful. I hiked 11.2 miles and then tented near the Wilson Creek Shelter along with several other hikers. It was good to see and chat with Gamel again, and also to meet Tree from Indiana. He received that name from fellow hikers after knowing and sharing too much information about AT trees while under the influence of something.
As I dozed off to sleep about 9:00 p.m., I caught a final faint whiff of lavender and then it was gone forever.
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