Coleman Gap to Panther Gap
Life Is Better At The Beech Camp to Sunny Oak Camp
AT miles: 19.4
Total miles: 119.7
Elevation change: 4081ft gain, 3796ft loss
The rain that came and went throughout the night was falling with full force when I decided to get moving in the morning. I’d waited as long as I could, with light condensation spray splashing on my face with near constant dedication. Not much seemed to have changed in the night except that my headache was gone and my mood improved. A few handfulls of trail mix revved me up for a damp start to the day.
Most of my gear stayed semi-dry as I stuffed it into my backpack, but my tent was collecting puddles the size of the Pacific before I could get it rolled away. I squeezed as much juice as I could from this burrito, but it was still nearly triple its dry weight, not that I’m particularly expert at weighing things with my hands. I slid it into the mesh back pocket, hoping for a chance to dry it out before I needed to pitch it again.
I was warm hiking in my rain jacket, holding my umbrella in one hand. Almost too warm. At least all this rain was bringing reasonably warm temperatures to the Southern Appalachians. I was just about to pop off another layer when I unexpectedly reached the shelter at Carter Gap. I turned in for the privy, and stayed just long enough for the rain to disappear, leaving a cloudy, dripping forest in its wake.
A few other hikers were just getting started for the day about the same time. Most impressive was Titanuin, 78 years young, and hiking on two hip replacements, hence the name. Just by sheer luck, I guessed the name of her furry companion, a shaggy border collie named Buddy, soggy and loving it.
On a whim, I took a short spur trail to a viewpoint, not expecting much. However, to my delight, the swirling clouds thinned, then opened up, revealing a majestic view of rolling ridgelines and more clouds. I sat there for a while, taking it all in, not knowing when I would get it again. At last, I got moving. I’d only made three miles by 10am and needed to keep boogying.
The trail helped me make good time down and then along a rocky traverse. The dampness, rhododendrons, and trail character reminded me of lowland trekking in Nepal. Not a super relatable comparison, I’ll grant you, but that’s what I was reminded of. Needless to say, I was surprised yet again by the variety of terrain seen in such a short distance so far. Naturally, I was relating the present to the past to help make sense of things, and it was cool to keep drawing these wide-ranging similarities.
The sun started breaking through just as I hit the climb that I had been warned about, Albert Mountain. The trail shot skyward with little to no wiggles at all. Just straight up for a quarter mile to the summit. I panted and sweated, one big step at a time. Supposedly, this is what the AT is like in New Hampshire, all the time. Let’s just say that I hope that this description is hyperbole.
I gasped to the summit fire tower. Unfortunately, it was locked, but the slab of granite was dry, in the sun, and prime for a yard sale. I lay out all of my stuff, tent, socks, jackets, food bag, to dry in the in the warming rays. Feeling the heat on my back was a glorious see sensation. I was a world away from the misery of yesterday. How could that even be the same trail?
I gorged on all the delicacies from my food bag while chatting with Tinman, who was similarly pleased to dry out his gear. He moved on and I stayed, making a phone call home. Speaking with SpiceRack lifted my spirits at least as much as the sunshine. It was so good to hear from home.
I could have easily talked away the whole afternoon, but with the time creeping to 2pm and with 12 miles left to hike, it was time to make tracks. I packed up all the various now-dry fabrics, swung on my backpack, and got moving. The trail was some of the smoothest so far, following old roads through rhododendron thickets. The gentle grade allowed me to test these old legs and I practically flew. It felt good to lengthen my stride and put it in cruise control. No slippery rocks and roots to worry about here.
The afternoon was so damn pleasant that I even dunked my head in a creek. I worked out my braids and let my hair hang free. The warm sun, dry trail, and mellow switchbacks brought me back to the early days on the PCT. The smell of oak washed over me, bringing with it the warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. I know that the PCT in Southern California doesn’t own the smell of warm oak forest, but it always will for me. Squirrels rustled in the leaves. Leaves rustled in the breeze.
I could have hiked like that forever. I wish the sun had stayed high, that I could have lived in those sweet moments. They will be hard to match. The sun sank below the western ridge as I pulled into camp at Panther Gap. With views of the valley below and all the way back to Albert, I pitched my tent and sat in the warm evening air, waiting for my couscous to soak. I lay down thinking that this was by far the best day on trail yet. Each one brings its own challenges and rewards, and on days like today, no searching is needed to find the good stuff. I’m soaking in it.