AT Day 21 – The Die Is Cast

High Rock Shoulder to Nolichucky River
Just In Time Flat Spot Camp to Cloud All Day Camp
AT miles: 27.3
Total miles: 354.3
Elevation change: 5692ft gain, 7917ft loss

Not all days on a thru-hike are glamorous and epic. Sometimes they are most notable for getting the hiker one more day, a handful more miles, closer to the destination, whether it be a border, Maine, or a burrito in the next town. While these days may lack the sweeping vistas that humble the soul, they are an essential and common part of any long journey. The highs can only feel so high when there is space between them. Today was one of those spaces. Not that it was a bad day, or unsatisfying, just that I needed to think smaller to find the magic in nature, it wasn’t flying in my face around every corner. Instead of oggling distant mountains, I stuck my nose close to the moss, delighting in its delicate complexity and vibrant green variance. That was yesterday, this was today. A different day, satisfying in its own right. And an important day, one that required careful consideration and making decisions with consequences. The endless cloud walking and brain grinding hazed out a lot of the details, but I enjoyed the challenge. A good day, all around.

The morning rain was relentless. I lay in bed wondering just how long I would be willing to wait it out. Hiking in the rain is one thing, but leaving a dry, warm place and rolling up a soaked tent is a pretty large barrier to overcome. I slowly moved in the right direction, and by the time I was ready to hike, the rain had vanished.

Under the highway at Sam’s Gap.

I got on the trail wearing no extra layers. The world was damp, and it was warm. I made quick work of the smooth trail down to the highway at Sam’s Gap. Trucks screamed by, so many trucks, as I followed the white blazes through the underpass and back into the trees on the other side.

For once, the trail did not immediately climb up from this gap. Instead it cruised flat, and even trended a bit down for a couple good, warm-up miles. I stopped to chat with Lifeguard and Spoon, while petting their exuberant golden lab, Louie. They were cooking up breakfast on a log after warming up with a few miles of their own. After the usual introductions and getting acquainted, the conversation inevitably drifted to our strategies to survive the impending cold-snap. While checking the weather last night in my tent, I was shocked to see the eye-popping numbers coming to the area on Saturday. We’re talking snow and near-zero temperatures, not considering wind-chill. With the trail climbing back above 6000ft for the exposed ridges of the Roan Highlands, at risk was not just our comfort, but also our digits, maybe our lives. I had decided to spend two nights at the Greasy Creek Friendly, just a half-mile from trail at the start of the high walking. The others had found dog-friendly accomodation in Erwin. An unplanned zero day was not ideal, but it was better than dying.

Weather forecast screenshot. Probably not a good time to be hiking.

I left them to their oatmeal, and shortly found the uphill that I knew was coming. I kept my head down and churned skyward, optimistic that what happened yesterday would happen again. Maybe the clouds would open just in time to show me the sea of clouds once again. Realistically, I kept my expectations low. This cloud felt dense. My breath billowed and the trees dropped heavy drops.

When I did reach the top on Big Bald, all I could do was read about the amazing views. The big grassy lump, like Max Patch a few days earlier, reminded me of the hills in Wales or England, moreso today because of the driving mist. I quickly became chilled on the exposed slopes, and boogied down the other side, following a good trail and wooden posts back into the sheltered forest.

Driving mist on Big Bald.

I gathered water at Bald Mountain Shelter, put on my rain jacket, and flew down the gradual trail. An endless stream of gunshots, or perhaps fireworks, echoed in the invisible valley to my right. I hiked for a couple hours on the rounded ridge, and they were still going as I descended to Whistling Gap, ready for lunch.

The sun almost broke through for a few minutes just as I was digging into my snacks. It wasn’t the same, rapturous joy as yesterday, but I wasn’t complaining. I just put on my sunscreen and kept munching. Besides the obvious visual indication when the world brightened, my legs were the first part of me to notice when the sun shone brighter. Somehow, they instantly warmed, each time the shadows grew deeper, even when they didn’t cause any of their own. Leg voodoo. In between bites, I called CeCe at Greasy Creek to book my bed. She was extremely friendly and welcoming, but something she said got my brain churning again. As I packed up and started walking, the gears started turning, then running in overdrive. Was there another way?

I crunched the numbers. I was roughly 40 miles from Greasy Creek, today was Wednesday, and I wanted to be off the trail all of Saturday, maybe Friday night too. That meant slowing down quite a bit, and then taking a whole day off on top of it. I was also 65 miles from the next opportunity to get under a roof. It would be an epic haul to get there by Friday evening, but it was within reach. Making it there would maximize my use of the excellent Friday weather and get me beyond the high elevations before the snow hit. Hmmmm. Could I do it?

Hiking hard, thinking hard.

I agonized over this question for hours as the cloud reengulfed the trail and the drizzle started back up. Engulfed in my own mental cloud, storming and crackling with logic and emotions, I carried on the trail as fast as I could. If I was going to push the full 65, it meant I needed to make at least 15 more today (AKA, a lot). I wasn’t going to let that option slip away before I could make my conscious decision.

I checked the forecast one more time with a sip of service at the next shelter. Sunday morning, when I planned to leave Greasy Creek, was still going to be brutally cold despite bright sunshine and a warming trend. 14F is a lot warmer than the Saturday low of -24F, but it was still darn cold. That sealed it. I wanted to get up and over the Roan Highlands before the storm. I made a call to Mountain Harbour on the other side to book my spot, then regretfully called CeCe again to cancel. She was as understanding as could be and confirmed that I wasn’t crazy. The die had been cast. I’d made my decision, betting on my legs. Now I needed to execute.

Slick walking.

I found my big-mile stride for the final 6 to Uncle Johnny’s hostel where, if this was all going to work out, I needed to pick up a couple more food items to see me through. The trail was a little treacherous at parts, leaf-covered roots covering a narrow strip high on an we extremely steep slope, but my footing was sure and mind laser focused. I was alive.

The noisy and wide Nolichucky, way below, but not for long.

I heard the Nolichucky River long before I saw it. Dropping way down dozens of switchbacks, it appeared out of the mist, a roiling brown torrent 100 yards wide. It was powerful, a spectacle. The long descent reminded me of approaching both Belden and Sierra City on the PCT. The steep pine forest and rushing water snapped me back to 2015.

Drew, the manager at Uncle Johnny’s, was just heading out to walk his dog when I scampered out of the trees. Recognizing me as someone who might be in need, he introduced himself and offered to reopen the store for me. It was 5:40pm now. He closed at 4:30pm. I thanked him profusely while grabbing two extra dinners and a handful of Luna Bars.

Cozy and warm Uncle Johnny’s. Not much action today.

Wood smoke pumped out of the bunkhouse chimney as I huddled on the covered porch, reorganizing everything. I transferred my neon shoelaces to the brand new pair Timp’s I’d been carrying since Fontana, some 180 miles ago. It was time to say goodbye to my trusty Lone Peaks, which had carried me twice as far as originally intended. It was time to put more cushion in my step, and lighten my load. I checked that I had everything, including my marbles, then pressed on to find camping before the night got too dark. The plan was in motion. Here I go…

Out with the old, in with the new. Thank you, Lone Peaks.

I crossed the mighty Nolichucky, then disappeared back into the woods. I bounced on clouds with every, freshly cushioned step. My legs felt better than they had any right to feel after the long day. Two miles later, by headlamp, I made camp. The whirlwind was over. Now I could finally relax knowing that all I had to do now was what I’d done the last few days, hike all day. Do that, and I’d make it. Do that, and I’d experience the anticipated Roan Highlands in the warm glory of 60F and sunny. I ate a bunch of stuff, then lay back, satisfied, watching the moon shine through my tent canopy and thinning cloud.

Favorite moment of the day? I had to go back to the beginning. Speaking with Lifeguard, Spoon, and Louie was a good memory. Interesting people, bottomless puppy energy, and good vibes all around.

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