Davenport Gap to Walnut Mountain Shelter
NorCal PCT Camp to Sweaty Climbs Camp
AT miles: 22.8
Total miles: 270
Elevation change: 6801ft gain, 4642ft loss
The warmth of the day, blazing hiking pace, rapid fire conversation, and sweat pouring into my eyes made today a total blur. For the first time since saying goodbye to Rooster, I hiked a significant portion of time with another hiker. It was a nice change from the near total solitude of the previous weeks, but it wiped me out. My legs or mind won’t be ready for that level of engagement for a little while.
My sleep was fitful and clammy in the warm air of the lowlands. The uncomfortable sticky feeling told me that I had my layers wrong and that I desperately need to do a load of laundry. It was so warm, in fact, and I felt so nasty, that I even washed my face in the first creek I crossed. The cool water was rejuvenating in a way that my sleep had not been, and I dripped away down the trail feeling fresh, tasting the salt of days old sweat at the corners of my mouth.
The sun was still stuck in the hills when I twisted down the creekside trail, past a waterfall and through rhododendron, to a dirt road just off the main highway. There, a man with a beard and a top hat was set up for some early morning trail magic. Even though I was just getting started for the day, I eagerly satisfied his request that I drop my pack and take a seat. I scarfed the first fresh fruit I’d had since Dick’s Creek Gap, half a moon ago.
Then out of the woods came a rarer sight than fresh produce, a hiker going for the Calendar Year Triple Crown (AT, PCT, CDT all in one year). His name was Poles and he looked the part with cruddy shoes, a tiny pack, the shortest shorts one could wear into a restaurant, and suspiciously tan legs. He pulled out some of the most awesome purple pants this side of the Mississippi, and fixed himself a quad-shot of espresso. This dude meant business.
I was excited to meet another hiker, especially one hiking faster than me. I also had big plans for the day, so I got hiking again after my second tangerine even though the party was just getting started. I knew that Poles would catch me before long anyway.
I crossed over the rushing Pigeon River, then under the concrete overpass which carried a river of trucks and cars between the ‘villes of Ashe and Knox. I saw my first ever cardinal along the frontage road. Shockingly red, very cool. Almost immediately on the other side of the road, the trail turned me skyward for a climb of a few miles and many panting breaths. I gave it my absolute best effort, thankful for the relatively cool morning air and, at least a little bit, wanting to put on a good show for Poles. He was faster than me, no doubt about it, but I didn’t want to be embarrassed. Thoughts of him drinking champagne at his sixth and final terminus, thinking about old AtHome (that’s my name out here, btw) putting up a good fight, helped me put up a good fight. I gave it all that I had, and glided up the trail like some kind of hiking robot, built with sweat glands for some reason, reaching the summit of Snowbird Peak in great time. No sign of Poles yet. I wandered around the strange navigation tower on the meadowed top, then joined some other hikers on an adjacent summit to oggle the truly magnificent views of the Smokies and surrounding hills. The folded layers each held a unique bluish haze. It was something out of a painting.
And that’s where Poles caught me, and he jumped on my bandwagon when I decided to get moving. It made sense. As little contact as I am having with other hikers at my pace, he probably hadn’t shared more than a few sentences with anyone since starting out. I led the way, mostly down and around, through one of those classic oak forests. Poles talked a lot, which was fine by me, putting a curious, youthful emphasis on his curse words. I was fully focused on moving fast and staying on my feet. Roots hidden under the leaves kept grabbing at my toes, threatening to launch me forward into an epic faceplant. Besides, I was curious about this guy. What kind of person has the hairbrained idea of hiking not one, not two, but three of the nation’s longest trails and actually tries to pull it off? A different kind of person than me, that’s what kind. He’d hiked the AT in 2018, so he sort of knew what was going on, and it was reassuring to hear that he had low expectations for his odds of completing all three. With the megafires out West, even just finishing the whole PCT in a single push seems nearly impossible. Not to say that it is not worth trying. He had big goals, and that’s cool with me.
I had no concept of time, speed, distance, or location. I just hiked. Sweat poured into my eyes on the uphills as the day warmed up. All the while, Poles spoke with an ease that suggested he was exerting no more effort than he would during a bubble bath. It was great to change things up and have a friend for a little while, and it was awful at the same time. A few hours of this was enough for me. I stopped at a flat spot for lunch. Unsurprisingly, Poles said he was going to keep going. As he sped up the trail, I told him good luck, be safe, and that I better not see him again. I don’t think I will.
I went into full recuperation mode then. I emptied a packet of electrolytes into my water, then downed the whole bottle. I ate all my lunch things without thought, just staring at the wide open forest. I felt delerious and disoriented, like a boxer between rounds, just trying to keep down and up pointing in the right directions. The good news was that I had already taken a good chunk out of my daily mileage. Maybe I could take it easy this afternoon…
Unfortunately, that never happened. The trail undulated upward and my legs felt empty. Each climb was intimidating and endless, no matter how short. Eventually, I did catch a cooling breeze on the top of something, which gave me some hope for the rest of the evening.
The reputation of Max Patch alone was enough to get me up the wide, grassy summit. This was a spot straight out of the Welsh countryside, and I enjoyed a trip down memory lane as I spun around, enjoying the panorama. A haze buffed out all the details of the surrounding hills, but it was beautiful nonetheless, and the hulking mass of the Smokies was easy to identify. A guy with an impressive radio setup tried to chat me up about the trail, but my introvert conversation budget was depleted for the day. I tried to be polite, and got moving as soon as I could.
I needed to make some serious miles in order to set myself up for a half-day into town tomorrow. Fortunately, the trail finally gave me a break, and I was able to make stellar time for the final sixish miles. Poles would have been proud. Well, stellar time until the final mile at least. The final uphill almost killed me, and I had to drop it into low gear to grind on up. A beautiful sunset gave me an excuse to catch my breath. As the sweat chilled on my skin, I knew that this was my favorite moment of the day. I’d worked hard to get here, and the forced stop was a reminder of why. The moment was as perfect as they come.
The final quarter mile to camp came without expectation or excess effort, and I settled in for the evening, all alone at an ancient shelter on a ridge. I wondered if Poles was still hiking, putting in the miles. Hiking with him had been fun for a little while, but it ain’t my style. Nope, couscous at sunset is my style. It’s a good way to be.