Another day closer to June, and it’s still cold.
I created a misty chimney with my breath and enjoyed the fact that my whole body, except my exposed cheeks and chin, were warm and snug in my down sleeping bag. I was amazed that I didn’t have a hangover after last nights drinking. My inner dialog started immediately.
Today would be a great day for an after-breakfast nap. It’s not like I have morning meetings.
C’mon Gabe, 3 days of hiking will get us into Erwin. Warm Bed, hot shower, fresh food. – this from my inner Drill Seargant.
43 miles, 3 chilly mornings, but the hiking should be manageable since I’m breaking it up into three 15 mile days.
It took me about an hour to make the transition from cozy sleeping hiker to packed-and-ready-to-move hiker. DEETS, Teddy, Skittles and Jem had long since started hiking. Snow White and Plunge were enjoying a leisurely Pop Tart breakfast while Whiskey Will finished packing his gear.
“How u doin Doc?” Plunge asked as I changed into my hiking clothes. Once Plunge learned that I was a surgeon, he wouldn’t stop calling me Doc.
“Hey Plunge, my trail name is Sketch remember? You’re going to cause an identity crisis.”
His easy and natural grin lit up his face. “Whatever you say, yer the Doc.”
I left the shelter at 9:36, which was later than I’d planned, but earlier than I would have if I’d taken an after-breakfast nap. For the first 20 minutes, I try to hike slowly to give my body a chance to loosen up. Also, just like with normal people, accidents are most likely to happen near home (our home happens to be in a different place almost every night, but the rule still applies to us). Soon I’m moving at a nice clip, passing Teddy and Skittles.
Then I see Pooch up ahead. Something drove me to hike faster in the hopes of passing him. Something about this charismatic, confident alpha-Marine that I barely spoke with at Standing Bear Hostel brought out my Irish. I’m gonna say that he sensed me too because he stayed about 10 meters in front of me for over a mile, but he’s probably just a faster hiker.
Finally, he stopped at a blue blazed trail that led to water. He mentioned pizza and soda at a new hostel called Hiker’s Paradise just a few miles ahead and we agreed to meet there. I was already carrying enough water so I took advantage of my lead. The signs leaning against trees that tempted me with burgers, hot, “oven fresh” pizza, and sodas were almost as much motivation to hike fast as my inexplicable need to get there before Pooch.
I congratulated myself on winning the race when I left the trail to walk a half mile down a paved road to the hostel. An extremely long half mile later I reached a corrugated metal shed in the middle of a delapidated lawn. No way this would pass any kind of building inspection. This must be the new hostel.
There were washing machines and dryers lining the wall by the front door (probably there to provide structural support), a refrigerator and freezer stuffed with microwaveable foods and Digiorno’s pizzas. 2 pizza ovens were waiting for me. A picnic table that looked like it had been borrowed from a nearby park was pushed up against the other wall. If it were closer to the trail, this place would truly be a Hiker’s Paradise.
I was nearly finished with my pizza by the time Pooch strolled in.
With little preamble, he said, “full moon tonight. I think this might be a good time to night hike.”
“Really?” I pulled out my guide book. “Doesn’t look like there are any good places to stop unless you plan to get to the shelter at the top of the mountain after midnight and wake everyone up.”
“I was actually thinking about hiking all the way into Erwin.”
” Seriously? That would be a 43 mile hike!”
“I actually started at Little Laurel shelter, so it would be a 50 mile day for me.”
“Ha! Best of luck to you Pooch, I’m too old for that kind of craziness.”
“Think about it. By the time we finish, we’ll be in Erwin, eating decent food in warm beds and catching up on Game of Thrones.”
He lost me there. I promised Monica that I wouldn’t watch Game of Thrones until we were back together, but there was no way I was gonna say “my wife won’t let me watch that show.” However… It would be epic. 43 miles in one day. And my birthday was fast approaching, so I would be hiking one mile for every year I was alive. I looked at the elevation profile, and estimated that we would be climbing (and descending) more than 6000 feet over those 43 miles.
“I’ll think about it on my way up to the next shelter.”
I picked up an extra 6 sodas to surprise everyone as Hogback Ridge Shelter, which was to be our home for the night, and headed back onto the trail.
Hogback Ridge Shelter
I arrived at the shelter around 3, well before anyone else aside from a hiker that had stayed the whole day there to rest a sprained ankle. I felt great. Plenty of energy, and the cool temperatures made for ideal hiking weather. I looked at the guide book again. Only 27 more miles to Erwin. Wouldn’t it be awesome if… Nah.
Jem hadn’t even taken off her pack when she said “you’re thinking about hiking all through the night to reach Erwin? That’s crazy!”
I handed her an orange soda and answered without thinking “I guess so.”
We lingered until sunset, eating and resting and basking in the stunned adoration of the other hikers. I don’t know that I really struck an inspiring sight, but I was suddenly looking forward to proving to myself, and to others, that I was still capable of achieving the improbable. And equally important… If Pooch could do it, I could too. Right?
The hiker with the sprained ankle decided he wanted to join us for the first portion of the hike. his trail name was Curious George, and we had never met before. Even after explaining the unnecessary risks of hiking at night with a sprained ankle, and hinting that we might be hiking faster than he was comfortable with, he was adamant.
At sunset, we donned our headlamps and headed out. Jem played the concerned mother role perfectly. “Text when you get to town. And stay safe. And drink plenty of water!”
Hiking at night is its own kind of beautiful. Even though the moon was full, we were beneath a canopy of trees most of the time so our visual fields were limited to the cones of light provided by our headlamps. Sounds became more pronounced, and I could tell that I needed a shower worse than I thought.
The first several miles flew by. Curious George demonstrated the origins of his trail name by asking an endless series of questions “what was that noise?” ” how many bears have you seen” “what did you do before you started hiking the trail.” Pooch and I turned up our headphones and motored on.
“RRRRYYYAAAHHHH!” The sound came from Pooch and it scared the crap out of me. But not nearly as badly as the 2 pairs of glowing green eyes that appeared behind us. I’m proud to say that I roared. Not the squealing squeek that you’re afraid will slip out when your startled. I couldn’t make out the identity of the paired eyes but they weren’t afraid of us, and I was pretty sure that green eyes belong to predators. All 3 of us turned to confront these monsters. Trekking poles raised and ready to defend our Snickers with our dying breaths if necessary. A few menacing slashes in the air and more manly grunts and the eyes were gone.
About a hundred yards later, they were back, and this time we noticed the reflectors of a family tent nearby. The paired eyes got close enough for me to identify our stalkers. They were 2 Labrador’s guarding the family camp site. I still think it’s weird that they weren’t barking. Regardless, we pushed past quickly in case they were considering us as potential chew toys.
“What a waste of good adrenaline. I’ll probably be needing that extra push in a few hours.”
As we approached Bald Mountain shelter, the clouds and wind enveloped us. It was chilly, but I had my winter gear on, and so long as we kept moving, I was great. We were all doing great actually. This isn’t so bad. Beautiful in a way.
Curious George’s headlamp was fading by the time we reached the shelter on top of Bald Mountain, so he decided that he’d had enough for the night. He hadn’t had any big slips and his ankle was holding up well. He would be able to reach Erwin within the next 2 days.
Pooch and I headed for a nearby spring to stop for midnight meal. The descent down to the spring was tortuous, treacherous, taxing, and undoubtedly the most difficult 500 meter stretch we hiked that thus far. But at the babbling spring, in a sheltered cove, we rehydrated spaghetti, I cooked hot chocolate, and we settled into a surprisingly genuine conversation. The rest of the night was a team effort. I dropped the competitive push to keep up with a Marine and stopped feeling like I had to prove that I was more than an Air Force retiree.
Several hours later, we were still hiking. And surprised that we were still hiking at about 2.5 miles/hour despite the dramatic elevation changes and rugged terrain at night.
“Pooch, we’re actually going to do this. We’re gonna make it to Erwin in time for breakfast!” That thought kept me going for the next few hours.
No Business shelter
Around 4AM, we were getting so tired we had to stop to rest after each short but steep 200 foot climb. “We got this.” Felt like the 19th mile of a marathon (and in retrospect, it WAS the 19th mile of the night hike- but 35 miles for the day) The finish line was still too far away to visualize, but my body was exhausted.
When the sun started to come up, I really wanted a nap. Pooch, who was already probably getting to know me, and my propensity to “take a nap till the pain goes away,” wouldn’t let me close my eyes. “C’mon Sketch another 8 miles and we’re there.”
When the sun finally shed enough light that we could take off our headlamps, I felt an amazing release of pressure on my head. Pretty sure that headlamp has flattened out a few of my wisdom wrinkles.
After what seemed like an endless winding course along ridge lines, the Trail finally brought us to the final shelter before Erwin. The shelter itself is aptly named because there is no water source, no privy, and no bear cables. Just a wooden 3-sided box to sleep in before making the grueling 6 mile descent into Erwin.
I promised myself I wouldn’t take off my pack when I reached the shelter. Otherwise, I would want to sit, then lay down. When I saw the surprised look on Panama Jake’s face (who had passed me 2 days earlier), and told him we’d hiked through the night, he told me not to stop, and that I’d probably beat him in to Erwin if I kept moving. Pooch was ready to move on. We agreed to stay together until we reached the shelter, but beyond that, we planned to move at our own pace. I was physically and mentally exhausted. And I knew that if Pooch had to slow down or wait for me to take breaks, it would make it harder for both of us to make it.
“I’ve just gotta fucking get there!” Pooch said as he tapped into hidden reserves of anger and motored off down the trail.
The descent into Erwin is called the “knee buster” by locals because the trails follows relentless root and rock covered switchbacks for 6 miles. Along the way, there are beautiful vistas, chances to see the prize at the end of the hike.
About 3 miles from Uncle Johnny’s hostel (the instersection with the Trail we would use to get a ride to our hotel) I started hearing traffic sounds, but the switchbacks continued. I began promising myself I could lay down, but only long enough to eat 6 Skittles, and I had to keep chewing. My feet and knees had been inflamed and sore for so many hours now they didn’t hurt, just throbbed. As I lay back on the edge of the trail against my pack, it started to rain. Sweat flavored water mixed with Skittles in my mouth as it ran trough my beard. My vision blurred and I felt dizzy as my body sluggishly adjusted to being horizontal after hours of upright movement. More salt is good right now
I wanted to sleep. In a bed. I wasn’t even hungry. Just can’t force myself to move anymore. I tried to tap into my own hidden reserves of anger to get me down the last few miles. I conjured images of my fight with God, recalling vividly my sense that He seems like an abusive parent. Too much suffering, no apparent reason. I was suffering right now, but this time, I was the reason. And within me, somewhere, was the strength to get beyond the pain and to a better place.
I got back up. I’m sure I didn’t look like a graceful hiker. But when I eventually descended far enough, and saw the trail open up to the paved road that leads to Uncle Johnny’s, I was floating.