Nolichucky River to almost Hughes Gap
Cloud All Day Camp to Fleeting Moonlight Camp
AT miles: 27.3
Total miles: 381.6
Elevation change: 7630ft gain, 5290ft loss
As the trail brought me way up from the rushing waters of the Nolichucky to the serene quiet of the slumbering forest, there were a few moments that will stick with me forever. Most of the day was spent with my head down, crawling up and over large lumps, similar to several other days on the AT so far. With warm weather, views through the trees, and snacks in hand, that by itself is more than enough. These other, transcendent moments were the guacamole to this burrito. Not required for a good time, but makes you wonder how you live without when you have it.
The night was dry and warm. I actually slept solidly until my alarm, which has been rare this past week. I messed around eating granola by the handful as the morning brightened and my brain dusted out the cobwebs. I mixed a coffee packet into my small bottle, anticipating the need for rocket fuel on this monster day of uphill.
The morning walking was fine. The narrow canyon was lush and rushing with numerous creeks, the likes I hadn’t seen on the AT thus far. That was all good and well, except that it hampered my ability to poop responsibly. The ground was a diggers nightmare of river rocks, and there was too much water nearby anyway. I tried not to panic, and hiked on with necessary optimism. A couple miles later, as the trail switchbacked up the canyon wall into dryer pine forest, the urge became too great. I dropped my pack and clambered up a viciously steep hillside to find my private spot. Everything worked out, but it’s those small struggles that make backpacking such a rich experience.
Back on flat ground and ready to rumble, I cruised past an empty shelter, then followed the trail as it contoured around a steep mountain, dipping into and out of sharp drainages playing host to tiny streams of pure water. Nearing the top of the ridge, for that is where the AT lives, I happened on some creative trail magic, a plastic jar of Chalula sauce packets hanging next to the trail. I was full on sauce, but appreciated the gesture.
The trail up from Indian Grave Gap was rooty, rocky, and relatively flat. At least to my morning, coffee legs. The mountain laurel and rhododendron gave way to spindly oak that wooshed in the gusts of wind. Wide views through the trees revealed gray hills covered in a fluid mosaic of playing sunlight. The cloud ceiling was low enough to cap some of the higher mountains, while many of the low valleys were bathed in light. I envied them, but the air up here was warm, for which I was grateful.
The cloud hung just overhead when I pulled myself up the grassy bald of Beauty Spot. The uninspired name might not have been creative, but it was accurate. The aforementioned views were even better up here, connected and expansive. A few fire rings scattered on the wide summit suggested that this was a popular place even though I had it to myself. It was around here, that I figured out that I’d been wearing my shirt inside out since Hot Springs. That tells you how many times I’ve taken off my shirt in that time.
An easy down preceded a brutal up to the top of Unaka Mountain. All the sweat and labor to overcome the massive stone steps was worth it, however. On top was one of the most unique and peaceful forests I’ve ever visited. It was mystical. An enchanted quiet hushed my thoughts as I entered the dense Red Spruce. The light faded. The trees were both dense and spread apart. The forest floor was remarkably bare except for a delicate carpet of lumpy green moss. Like my mind, the wind was quieted, held at a respectful distance by the tree tops somewhere overhead. This forest was both wonderful and spooky at the same time. I felt as if I had equal chance of meeting a fairy or being shredded by a wearwolf. I bounced through on a trampoline of tiny red needles, resisting the urge to look over my shoulder.
I dropped back into the oak forest of the lower hills and made quick work of the remaining miles to lunch at Cherry Gap Shelter. The sun was taking over, so I spread out my tent to dry and fell into an easy conversation with Hawk, a six-time AT thru-hiker, and maybe some sort of YouTube celebrity. I’d heard him mentioned by two day hikers I’d met, but was unfamiliar. Turns out, he’s just a good dude. I snacked from my numerous baggies while we compared notes about hiking and van building. I was getting to the dregs on a lot of food items, but I was unable to wipe them from tomorrow’s menu with a greedy handful, even though my hiker hunger was raging. It was stupid, but knew that the last slice of dried mango would be even tastier after 25 more miles. I ate a bar instead to satisfy my cravings.
I’d made great time in the morning, 15 miles by 1pm, which was a good thing because I lost steam all afternoon. The ridge rollercoastered relentlessly, rarely maintaining a steady altitude for more than 50 yards at a time. I sweated uphill, then flipped on my hood for the downs. Hike and repeat. The views through the trees were more of the same. Sunny and shady hillsides, beautiful and impossible to capture with a camera through the trees.
When my new shoes started bothering my heels, I knew that I was nearing my limit for the day. My legs were running on empty too, so I fed them a fruit snack and my last bar from my hip belt pocket. One more climb up and over Little Rock Knob stood between me and camp. One final push.
Near the top is where I found the final moment of transcendence. A rocky break in the rhododendron provided a window to a life-size painting of dramatic lighting and endless horizons. Buddha rays burst through a brilliant cloud on the left. Layers of hills folded to a dusty peach horizon before finally flattening to a straight line. Some small farms dotted around added to the old-world feeling. I imagined that this scene had sat, relatively unchanged, for centuries. A distant cow mooed, a perfectly timed finishing touch. Between the forest on Unaka and this living painting, I had a tough choice deciding my favorite moment of the day. I decided to leave it undecided. No reason to pick one over the other. They both totally ruled.
My aching feet were begging me to get horizontal, so I pulled myself back to the trail. A tiny bit more up, then a moderate down put me at a wide saddle with camping galore. After piling into my tent, I had no reservations about finishing off my food items this time. I was hungry, and I had plenty of extra bars to get me through tomorrow. A SpiceRack comment had reminded me of the ancient backpacking proverb, “if you’re always eating your best food, then you’re always eating your best food.” Besides, most of the hard work was done, right? I knew that it wouldn’t be all cruising, but I was looking forward to experiencing the Roan Highlands in all their sunny glory. Not yet though, I was getting ahead of myself. Lying down was the thing to look forward to now.