AT Day 10 – The Cloud Rollercoaster

Cheoah Bald to Walker Gap
Cold n Clear Camp to Warm n Cloudy Camp
AT miles: 17.1
Total miles: 170.3
Elevation change: 4219ft gain, 6027ft loss

Ahhh, Day 10. The second easiest day to calculate average daily mileage, right after Day 1, just ahead of Day 100. No calculator required! At this point in a thru-hike, average mileage is less important than how one feels, however. With the body still adjusting to the rigors of daily abuse, big muscles toughening up, small muscles appearing out of nowhere, and hiker hunger just getting revved up, what matters is staying healthy. The miles will come. It is inevitable. I’m grateful to feel as good as I have so far. My mileage isn’t huge, but neither are my aches and pains, just a lingering twinge in my knee, which has so far responded well to a responsible amount of stretching. This keeps the rest of my muscles happy too. At this point, knocking on the door of the Smokies, I’m right where I need to be and feel great about my progress. I hope to feel the same on Day 100.

That’s the Smokies to the north. Looks like fun.

Surprisingly, the temperatures warmed up during the night, so it was a balmy 40-something when I peaked through my mesh door at the neon orange horizon. A high ceiling of cloud had moved in overnight, and Just Mark was up and wandering around, oggling the views. I was happy to observe everything from bed, but he convinced me to get up and check out the view north, behind me. The clouds had flipped since last night. Now the dark peaks rose from a sea of mist like islands floating in the sky. A wave of white poured in slow motion over a ridge, one pool to another. It was a sight to see, to say the least. I got back in bed to eat some trail mix and slowly start packing up. The temperature dropped and a light rain began to fall. I hastened my pace and got moving before being tempted to wait it out.

The trail dropped me steeply from the summit, along a narrow ridge. Much like yesterday’s descent, it twisted and turned, narrowed and slid cleverly through some rugged terrain. Fortunately, the rain was brief, allowing me to use both of my poles for stability rather than using one hand to hold my umbrella. More than once, I was glad for all four points of contact.

An unexpected patch of cold.

A bitter breeze blew across a wooded saddle. Interestingly, this spot not only felt colder, but looked it as well. Delicate ice formations clung to brancesh and pine needles, perhaps rhime. Considering how warm it had been on Cheoah, I chalked it up to some sort of voodoo temperature inversion. Crazy.

Nature is capable of incredible things.

It was misty and empty down at Stecoah Gap so I kept on moving. It was time to go up for a while. The trail bounced back up a a ridgeline, heavy on the vertical gain, light on the switchbacks. I warmed up quickly although I never took off my rain jacket. At the top, there was some more jagged rocky stuff interspersed with thickets of Mountain Laurel, which to me feels like the east coast cousin to the West’s manzanita and madrone. Beautiful twisting branches of reddish bark, small and hearty green leaves. While I was up there, the sun almost broke through too. It warmed up and I was feeling fine. I whistled small snippets of songs by The Shins all the way to lunch at Hog-something Gap.

In and out of the clouds during a lot of ridge walking.

Deep stretching, eating, and relaxing took the better part of two hours. I heard one bird, but otherwise had that small section of forest to myself. I was cold and stiff by the time I got moving again, and hiked fast to warm up just as a light rain started to fall.

I pulled out my umbrella and stumbled down the trail, slipping on all sorts of things. Two dudes watching for birds at a trailhead offered some friendly chitchat about the spring flowers that I’ll miss, and properly defined “Floridian” for me as anyone not originally from around here, from Florida to Alaska.

The rollercoaster shot me back up into the low clouds again, up a ridge, down a hillside to a shelter. A southbound section hiker told me that he knew I was a thru-hiker because of “a wildness” about me and my ratty shoes. I took that as a compliment, understanding exactly what he meant. I’ve seen that wildness in other hikers, in SpiceRack, in the mirror. It creeps into the eyes, the hair, and the smile. And under the fingernails too. Mine are filthy.

I don’t understand it either.

Up yet another ridge, then along it. Light rain came and went along with slippery green stones and my patience for them. I was tired, a long rest at Fontana Dam so close. I just wanted to call it a day so that I could get to tomorrow.

I camped shortly after starting the long descent to the lake. With just over two miles left to go, I was set up for an easy hike in, leaving plenty of time for a hot shower, stretching, and some r&r tomorrow. Looking at the elevation profile of the upcoming section through the national park, I’m going to need a recharge.

Favorite moment of the day? Whistling and hiking. It was brief, but it was pure, and the closest thing I’ve heard to real music in a while.

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