After packing in the morning and restlessly pacing around my house, I left for Damascus at around 11:30, ready and raring to get the ride over with. Given that the group has exhausted much of Virginia, all of Maryland, and about a quarter of Pennsylvania, that meant a decent amount of driving. In my case it was I-81 for about 6 hours. To no-man’s land I went.
We booked the largest room at the Old Mill Inn. It happened to be right on the dam in town near our departure point. So close to the damn, in fact, that we could hear the roar of it every time we opened up our back door. It was a little like the sliding door scene from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
I arrived first and waited for everyone else. The town is a Verizon-only one in terms of cell phone service, so I was left with e-mail over wifi as my method of communication for a while. Factor walked in around 6PM and Compass and Jiles shortly thereafter. Dreamer wasn’t due until around 11PM, so we all drove the hour South to drop off the truck at the terminus as the rain started and the darkness fell. We left the truck on the edge of Watauga Lake, where we saw several closure notices on account of bear activity in the area. Good thing we hadn’t planned to camp in that area! For dinner we stopped at the Captain’s Table in Hampton, Tennessee. We arrived four minutes before closing and the staff was extremely accommodating. We made sure to eat quickly and tipped well.
Back at the Inn we passed the time waiting for Dreamer by watching Seinfeld re-runs and catching-up on what we’d been up to. He arrived as expected and shared a few beers with us. Given our early start the next morning, we all grabbed some sleep shortly thereafter.
We’re the first in the breakfast buffet line the next morning. What I’d thought was a 6:30AM start was actually a 7AM one! The waitress welcomed us anyway as we all ogled at the vast array of food spread on the table at the head of the room. The eggs came out in a tray that made them look like corn bread. We devoured the food and guzzled the coffee quickly before going back to the room for final preparations.
We hit the trail just a short time later at 7:45. The weather was beautiful: mid-60s with a slight breeze. We needed that breeze as we took on the first 3.5 miles into Tennessee for the first time. The incline was steep at a 500 ft/mi, but since it is the first day and we all have fresh feet, we all take the steep grade in stride. The only annoyance is the chill we get when stopped due to the breeze meeting with the sweat.
We reach our first trail milestone as we come upon Abingdon Gap Shelter. It’s much different from what we’re used to in other states. For starters there is only a single, rudimentary floor upon which to sleep. It seemed like it could only accommodate 5 or 6 people in there, and even that would be a stretch when you added equipment. Next, there was never any privy to be seen. A shovel leaned against the side of the shelter served as the only waste management implement. At least the locations of the shelters themselves was good - most of them were right alongside the trail, thus we didn’t have to waste any extra steps hiking into and out of them. I wish I could say the same for the associated springs, but they all seemed to be 0.3 miles away from each shelter and down incredibly steep inclines. Who wants to add over a half mile to your trip fetching water? Not me.
We paused for lunch at the shelter and the breeze pelted our sweaty clothes. Factor donned his space blanket to keep warm while chugging water like it was going out of style. We tried to engage in conversation, but neither of us could hear anything over the crinkling of his Chipotle burrito costume. Dreamer brought out his huge (heavy) bag of pistachios for everyone to share while Compass threatened to fall asleep sitting upright.
Departing Abingdon Gap Shelter, we go through a series of ups and downs that are roughly equivalent to a meat tenderizer on our legs. What appeared to be ridge- walking on the elevation profile was anything but. We reach the Double Springs shelter and find a nice spot to string up our hammocks. There’s little fanfare for dinner and we all retreat to camp. It’s a chilly night, but everyone finds good rest from the exhausting hike. Jiles eases us to sleep with some wonderful Paul Simon tunes, which help me keep the Megadeth songs out of my head for a small amount of time. I’d (foolishly?) listened to Rust In Peace on my way into town and couldn’t get Dave Mustaine’s snarling vocals out of my skull.
Dreamer claims later that he got double the sleep he normally gets on that night. Being that he has a new born daughter, I tend to believe him! I slept fitfully until after midnight, when my body finally gives up on the day (and on Paul Simon). Par for the course for me. I recall at some time during the night hearing at least two owls hooting nearby, followed by the screech of something that might have been prey. I thought “oh, cool” to myself before drifting back to sleep - exhaustion had taken its toll.
We thankfully start the day at 8:15 with a downhill, which eventually opens up to a wheelchair-accessible trail through a farm. It’s a gorgeous scene and we stop to allow ourselves to take it in even though we haven’t accumulated much mileage. After quite a while of picture taking we notice a baby cow directly to our left. It doesn’t appear to be in good health and ambled away when we approached it.
We push past the rest of the thankfully-easy farm path and into the mud-laden valley of our next big climb up Iron Mountain. It’s surrounded by rhododendron, which we think of as the mangroves of the swamp. Unfortunately they aren’t blooming any flowers at this time of the year. They just serve as a marker of sorts for “more mud coming”.
As we work our way around Iron Mountain we encounter the Uncle Nick Grindstaff monument, which is the tomb of a hermit that lived on the mountain’s ridge for over 40 years. Found dead on the mountain in 1923, his tombstone inscription is pretty bleak: “He lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone.” It’s not the first time that we’ve come across grave sites on our treks in the woods, but it might have been the first solitary one. It also had a peculiar look to it that I don’t think I’ve seen before.
On the ridge past Iron Mountain we suffer through a series of mini up-downs that make us all think back to the roller coaster in Virginia. Our legs are beaten and creaky and the soles of our feet are howling. We reach Vandeventer shelter for a much-needed rest, but we push on in search of a campsite next to Watauga Lake that Dreamer saw on Google maps.
On the way up to the shelter I went through what I call the “doldrums” of every year’s hike. It’s the time when I question why I’m out there, and why I continue to voluntarily suffer through such pain. We see Lake Watauga in the distance, which has conveniently shown itself just in time to improve my spirits. It served to break the monotony of what people call “The Big Green Tunnel” and focused my mind enough to complete the section.
We encounter the steepest grade that I’ve seen on a hike on our descent towards the camping spot near the lake. Not knowing exactly where the side-spur trail is, we split the difference between our last checkpoint at a spring on the ridge and the next milestone at Wilbur Dam Road. We hit the road without encountering any spur trail, which boosted our mileage for the day from a planned 14.4 miles to a grueling 19.1 miles. Dreamer lightens the mood during the drudgery with his uncannily accurate impression of Trump.
Gazillions of thru hikers pass us as they pushed up the mountain as we head down it. I’d guess 20+ were heading to Vandeventer, which was the nearest shelter past the bear-closure area. We think we have it all figured out until we discover that the lake camp spot we’d been hoping for no longer existed. The side spur trail that might have once led to the shore was overgrown and sketchy, so we opted instead to camp out right off the road itself. Since it was mainly a dam access road, there wasn’t much traffic when it came time to sleep.
Although the forecast for rain had been pushed back further and further as the day went on, the rain bill finally came due after dusk. The storm rolled right over us and unleashed its full fury just north of us. It had without a doubt the loudest thunderclaps I have ever heard. I was jolted awake from the verge of sleep several times as it roared above us and pelted our rain flys. It settled down after midnight and I slept like a rock.
We broke camp at just past 7AM, and everyone was feeling great after the previous night’s experience. Although scary, it was something none of us will forget. We’re all excited to see some views of the dam and the lake, not to mention the shorter total distance due to the additional mileage of the day before.
The rain had done its good work on the ground and the terrain was extremely slippery. What was already a muddy mess the day before had turned into an absolute bog. It grabbed our shoes and provided endless difficulty on the downhills, slowing us down.
Before long the dam area opened up before us and gave us what might have been the best view of the trip. This mist still clung to the hills, providing a mystical sheen to everything around. It made the guys look like they were on an epic quest a la Lord of the Rings. After the dam we picked up the trail around the lake, which provided just a few more “screw you” uphills for us, only to go right back down to lake-level a few hundred yards later. The huge amount of rain pushed the lake up onto the trail itself at some points, making negotiating footholds a bit treacherous. No one wanted to get soaked shoes in the last few miles.
We made our way around several of the “fingers” of the lake and came upon Compass’s truck in short order. The pain was over! We grabbed some delicious buffet breakfast at Shirley’s Home Cooking. It was just what the doctor ordered and we all gorged on grease and coffee before heading back to Damascus.
I should anticipate my mind “getting stuck” on certain things on the second day, after I’ve had a night of re-acclimating myself to sleeping in the hammock. I need something to break out of that. For most of the second and third day’s hikes I had the last three songs I’d listened to in my head, which happened to be songs from Megadeth’s “Rust In Peace” album from 1990. Not the worst thing in the world, but I could have picked some happier songs to keep my feet going.
My orange dri-fit hat bit the dust this year and I didn’t bring a replacement. That was a mistake, as I was constantly wiping off sweat from my brow at every available opportunity. Over the winter I bought a wool Buff, so I wonder if this would make a good sweat absorber for the day. If it dries quickly, I could also use it as a head wrap at night too.
I brought my lightweight poles, but stowed them in the trunk at the last minute. I regret that! I should think of them for the pain they avoid rather than the weight that they add. They transfer weight to my upper body on each footfall, thus could probably improve my happiness-level in future years.