Day 38 – Saturday, April 16: Dennis Cove Road (Black Bear Resort) to Stealth Camp (Hampton, TN side trail), 2.8 miles, 421.0 total AT miles.

Note: I’m uploading yesterday and today’s post from the trailhead outside of camp by headlamp light. It was spooky at first, but I’m fine now. It’s crazy how going around the bend (or in our case tonight, into a small valley to camp) can totally disrupt cell service. It’s really something I take for granted living in the city.

I woke up and immediately felt yesterday’s run down the mountain. My thighs were stiff and my feet were killing me – my toes literally throbbing. It was early, about 7:30, and I hobbled to the shower.

The shower was awesome. I stayed in there for about half an hour. When I finally made my way back to our cabin, everyone was up and packing. The shuttle for town was to leave at 9:00am. The four of us hung out on the front porch and waited.

  
I got a chance to weigh myself on the scale – I’ve lost a little more weight. Not much, but still noticeable. My pack, with four days food and two liters of water, weights 38 pounds. I hope to get that down considerably once I make my summer gear swaps.

While I had no real business following Shaggy and Medicine Man to town, I figured I might as well stop by the Dollar General and grab some snacks before hitting the trail. I threw my pack in the shuttle and headed to town.

I’m glad I did. Within five minutes of walking with my pack on, I knew something was wrong. My feet started hurting very badly. I’m sure all these days of strong hiking haven’t helped, but I now know I need new boots as soon as possible. Every step was excruciating. I changed into my camp shoes and continued on to McDonald’s for breakfast.

I got to meet Medicine Man’s parents (and Summer), before they left to go tour the area. I compulsively grabbed a few extra things from Dollar General and made my way back to the shuttle stop.

While I could have gotten off at the trailhead, I rode with the guys back to Black Bear. Shaggy bought some fuel and the three of us took off. Sort of.

I was hobbling. For two days, I had southbound AT hikers tell me how much of a treat the next couple of miles would be. I tried to be excited as I walked through miniature canyons and made my approach to Laurel Falls – but my feet (really my toes) were on fire. I could move, but slowly.

   

Shortly after Laurel Falls, the trail splits – one went to Hampton, one continued on as the AT. I found Shaggy and Clutch waiting for me at the crossroads. They knew my feet were in pretty bad condition and wanted to see how I felt before making the 2,000-foot ascent to Pond Flats. I couldn’t do it.

It was very disheartening. We sat there for a few minutes and discussed our options. It was decided that, considering our recent good mileage, taking a day off to rest was for the best. Shaggy was still going strong, but didn’t want to get too far ahead. Clutch wanted to rest as well.

As we were doing some trailside planning, a father and his two young kids approached. He wanted to know if he could help us out in any way. If we could get to town easily, maybe grab some steaks from the grocery store, then taking a day to rest our tired muscles might be worth it.

We set our packs down at a campsite by the river. Shaggy stayed behind. I decided to walk the trail in my camp shoes to see if a change in footwear really made a difference. I also figured a short walk (with no pack on) would help keep my muscles loose. And I could gauge how I might feel hiking tomorrow.

After a level walk from the trail crossing to the parking area, the helpful dad drove Clutch and I into town. We stopped at McDonald’s (for Shaggy), Subway (for Clutch) and Brown’s Grocery for me. I bought steaks.

Clutch and I made our way back to camp by 4:30. I started a fire and, noticing Clutch had run a clothesline, decided to wash my socks by the river – I even made clothespins out of sticks. 

Dinner would have been awesome, except I managed to buy the toughest steaks imaginable. They were inedible, I kid you not. I mean, check out our setup – I made a separate cooking fire using this grill grate I found. Dinner was so bad that, after a few minutes of pretending we could eat those steaks, we broke down laughing and threw them in our trash bags. I improvised a quick dinner and made my way to bed.

  
I’ll be honest – I’m concerned about my feet. I’ve got a few options. Assuming the tightness I felt with my boots is due to swelling, I might be fine tomorrow and can carry on (slowly) towards Damascus – it’s only 47 miles away. If not, I can try to hike in my camp shoes – folks do it all the time. Either way, I’ll know first thing tomorrow – that ascent up to Pond Flats is pretty steep.

One thing is certain, if I can’t hike out tomorrow, I won’t. I’m not going to put this whole thing at risk because I’m being stubborn about getting to Virginia quickly. 

If it comes to it, I’ll bite the bullet and hitch to Elizabethton (the next town over). From there, I can catch a ride to Johnson City and buy new boots from Dick’s Sporting Goods. I wouldn’t be that far behind the group. Worse case scenario, I’ll see everyone in Damascus.

The good news is I’ll know in a few hours.

On hitching: I never thought I’d be “thumbing it” from the side of the road with such gusto. If you’re concerned, let me assure you, so am I. It’s weird.

But, folks that live near trail towns are used to giving hikers rides – a few even have trail names without actually having set foot on the trail (more like a road name, which is another story entirely).

I’ve learned a few tips to ensure I get a quick hitch. First, keep the pack on – it looks heavy. Second, keep the trekking poles out – it shows I’m hiker, that I’m hitching for a legitimate reason. Third, swap the sunglasses for eyeglasses – Canuck taught me that one. And finally, stand in front of a church – it works.

I’m going to bed hopeful about tomorrow. Small injuries are bound to happen. Please don’t worry. I’m going to finish this thing.

Breakfast: McDonalds Chicken Biscuit, hashbrowns, side of biscuit and gravy, coffee

Lunch: 6″ Subway Roast Chicken sub, 10 McNuggets

Dinner: Chewy steak then (sigh) beef jerky tortilla roll ups dipped in McDonalds BBQ sauce, granola

Day 37 – Friday, April 15: Stealth Camp (US 19E) to Dennis Cove Rd. (Black Bear Resort), 24.9 miles, 418.2 total AT miles.

I woke at 7:00 – kind of late for me. I was first out of my tent and went over to check on the hawk/falcon – it was still alive, very alert to the movements around its teepee-cage.

Medicine Man and Shaggy woke up as I was breaking camp. We sat around waiting for 8:00, expecting a call from the Carolina Raptor Society. When no call came by 8:15, Medicine Man and I hopped on the phones.

I eventually got in touch with some student volunteers from Lees McRae College – they help staff an animal rehabilitation clinic that takes in injured birds of prey. Because they were so close, we decided to meet one hour later at the trailhead. 

The goodbye between Medicine Man and Vladmir (the hawk) was touching. He handed the bundled Vladmir to the veterinary student who placed him/her in cage. Apparently, if Vladmir pulls through, Medicine Man will be invited to his release back into the wild.

Right before the hawk exchange, Clutch rolled into camp. Apparently, he tented just a few miles away from us and was ready to move. The four of us set off at 10:30, with no clear goal on how far we should shoot for today. Saving Vladmir took some time. I decided to hang back for a little while – I had cell reception and was desperately trying to figure out a way to get to an REI.

While I’d really LIKE to exchange my tent, I really NEED to buy new boots. I’ve read that long-distance hikers’ feet will grow by a full shoe size over the course of the hike. I’m beginning to wonder if my heel blister and toe nail pain are related. Truth be told, the only reason I didn’t rent a car and drive to Asheville this morning is because I couldn’t find one – the Bristol NASCAR race is this weekend.

I put away the phone and started hiking at 11:00. After a difficult little push out of the valley, the trail leveled off and I started making some really good time. While my feet were certainly sore, everything else was doing fine.

  
If I wasn’t walking across fields, I was strolling through pine forest, with only minor ascents and descents for several hours. At around 2:00pm, I turned a sharp corner in the trail, and ran right into Shaggy, Medicine Man, and Clutch having a hot lunch. I plopped right down and joined them. After a quick break, we were off again.

At 4:00, we came across a park bench – a store-bought, wrought iron bench, that someone had lugged up the trail. We paused to talk about our options.

My personal push to Damascus puts me on par with Shaggy and Medicine Man’s push to Hampton – we all want/need to be in Hampton by tomorrow morning. For me, Hampton is only 47 miles away from Damascus – easy to accomplish in my self-imposed drive to Virginia, now in its fifth day (3 days left).

Shaggy has new boots waiting for him at the post office. The only problem is that they close at 10:00am tomorrow.

And Medicine Man is meeting his parents in Hampton. They’re driving Summer, his golden retriever, down from Massachusetts to hike the AT.

After consulting the AT Guide, we saw that there was a hostel only three miles outside of Hampton – and they offered shuttles. Shaggy could get his shoes, Medicine Man could get his dog, and I can be that much closer to Damascus. Clutch was just along for the ride.

The problem with the hostel (Black Bear Resort) was that it was 14 miles away and we had a few nagging climbs ahead. I made a quick call and was happy to hear that the four of us could get a cabin for $45 (shower included – it’s been 5-plus days without a shower). The catch was that we needed to get there by 8:00, 8:30 at the latest, to secure the cabin.

Fourteen miles (plus the half mile trail to Black Bear) in four hours is well outside of my hiking ability. I would need to be hiking as fast as I could, for four hours straight, to make it on time. Thankfully, we’ve got Clutch.

He’s Swiss-German and one of the strongest hikers on the trail. Within 5 minutes, he was well ahead of us. Although the hostel reservation was on my card, I gave Clutch permission to get the room.

I was feeling good. I couldn’t feel any pain in my heel or toe and pushed as hard as I could – at times literally running down the trail just to gain a few extra minutes.

At 7:30, Medicine Man, Shaggy and I stopped to check our distance away from Back Bear. We were at the top of White Rock Mountain and the hostel was 4 miles away. I quickly called to explain that we were sorry and should be there within an hour. The caretaker was completely fine with waiting, but I felt bad. I had been hiking hard all day and it was looking like I was going to come up a few miles short of my goal.

I was still feeling strong. At first, I just started jogging down the mountain, using my trekking poles to hop over rocks and logs. Then I started building momentum – it began to feel not that unnatural to run with my pack on. I paused to take a quick picture of the setting sun and zoomed on.

  
I must have looked “crazy and insane” as I ran down that mountain. I spooked some hiker tenting just off trail – he was walking around with his shirt off and I came barreling down the trail. He jumped and yelled. Because I was watching roots and rocks whiz beneath my feet, I didn’t see him. I screamed out loud and kept running – I didn’t stop to give an explanation.

I reached Dennis Cove Road and checked my watch – 8:05. I was a short ten-minute walk away from Black Bear Resort. I put my trekking poles away and started strolling down the street. At 8:15, I walked through the front door and nearly right into Clutch. He was finishing a pizza – he had been there for half an hour.

While I didn’t meet my goal, pushing myself hard had it’s advantages – I was the last customer to buy snacks from the camp store. I bought a whole bag of stuff – enough for Medicine Man and Shaggy to share when they finally arrived. Medicine Man was maybe 20 minutes behind me – Shaggy another 30 after that.

But when he did arrive, the three of us feasted. I was starving. After dinner, I noticed a couple trout fishing by flashlight outside our cabin. I spoke with husband for a good half hour. When I returned, everyone was asleep.

Right now, I’m sitting on porch. My legs feel good, but my feet hurt terribly. I’m actually a little concerned. My toes are red and my heels are raw. When I make it to Damascus (hopefully in three days), the first thing I’ll do is buy a new pair of boots.

I’m feeling good about this past week – this is how I want to be hiking.

While I was hiking today, I got a message from Savage – Moon Boots woke yesterday with bad ankle pains, his shin splints flaring up. The three of them (Canuck included) decided to stay at a hostel tonight in Roan Mountain – that puts them a full 25 miles behind. I hope all is well. As I’ll probably be staying two nights in or near Damascus, I’m sure I’ll see them.

Breakfast – Sierra Mix Clif Bar, dried cranberries, a Snickers bar

Snack – Little Debbie Brownie, the last of my beef jerky

Lunch – Fettucini Alfredo Pasta Side with crumbled bacon

Dinner – one frozen cheeseburger, one frozen chicken sandwich, small bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, Mrs. Freshley’s Frosted Honeybun

Money:

$11.75 – room charge

$7.89 – Dinner