US 19E to White Rocks Mountain
Mountain Harbor Bed Camp to Grass Island Camp
AT miles: 20.7
Total miles: 424.2
Elevation change: 5338ft gain, 4364ft loss
I really did not know what to expect from the day. Would the brutal cold still linger? How much snow would be on the ground? Would all the springs and water sources be frozen solid? Of course, the only way to find out was to see for myself. The unexpected zero day was restful and kept me from freezing to death. However, now it was time to strike out and find the answers to questions that rarely get asked until the answers are staring at me in the face. Snow or no snow, cold or warm, I would find out soon enough.
The three dudes from the previous evening made a quiet and civilized exit from the bunk room before dawn, leaving me to snooze in the relative warmth of my bed and all of my clothes. I was actually quite comfortable, but it was supposed to be about 4F outside. I felt no rush to find out just how accurate that was. I rolled over and finished up some internet chores as the world outside brightened.
Downstairs was much colder than the bunk room. TicTac and Trail Mix huddled under blankets, clutching mugs of hot drink. Apparently the pipes were now frozen, so I would need to use water from the refrigerator to make breakfast. That was cool, though. The refrigerator was one of the warmest spots in the place. I microwaved oatmeal, then chili, spooning those down along with a banana and some toast. The porta-john outside was more than adequate to satisfy my toilet needs.
After putting braids in my hair and packing up, the bright sunshine outside looked mighty inviting indeed. When I stepped from the sliding barn door, it was into a thawing world of dripping snow and fresh renewal. The temperature was pleasant in the sun, and I quickly applied sunscreen to all my exposed skin.
With the hour change sneaking up on me, it wasn’t until 11:20am that I actually started hiking back on the trail. There was plenty of snow on the ground and in the trees, but it was melting fast. And I didn’t even need to break trail through the fresh pow. A few pairs of shoes had already packed the inch of snow down into a slushy strip of brown through the white. I fell in line and squished along, up into the hills.
Aside from a few chances to look back at the Roan Highlands from the occasional meadow, my view was limited to a tunnel of snowy rhododendron. It bowed under the weight of the snow still clinging to the drooping leaves. The intermittent thuds from falling clumps sounded like footsteps or the click of a trekking pole, which had me constantly turning to see who was gaining on me. No one. I had the footprints to follow, but I was alone.
I quickly warmed up and was hiking without any extra layers within the first few miles. The storm had been an aberration, a brief Arctic interlude between warm spring days. On the sunny south slopes I kicked through slush and slid in mud. In the shade, the small drifts of snow crunched and groaned with each step.
I passed a caravan of four new hikers, learning that the other hostel had been the place to be. They weren’t the only hikers to stay there, and it had been positively roasting inside. As I sloshed ahead, I wondered where all these people had come from and how I had missed them. Not that I regretted my solitude at Mountain Harbor, just that it was rare to see that many hikers in one spot.
Jones Falls was a worthy detour to see the ice-coated logs and massive sheets of icicles hanging from a cliff. After that, I kept my head down, both to find solid footing and keep it away from the low branches. The trail squiggled around hillsides, crossing a rushing creek on a small log bridge at each crevice and corner. The hiking was easy, and I cruised.
I met Stealth and SOS as I sat on a log, eating a lunch of chips and oatmeal. They had just breaked at the nearby shelter and were revving back up for the afternoon push. They seemed like cool dudes, and actually had been moving at a similar pace to mine. I’d been maybe a half day behind them for a week or two.
They moved ahead and it took me a couple hours to reel them back in. In the meantime, there were water crossings and rhododendron tunnels for days. I started singing the Christmas tune Let It Snow, when I was reminded of hiking through snow in Southern Colorado on the CDT. I’d hated the song then when SpiceRack kept tempting fate, and I still wasn’t a fan of it today. When it transitioned into Jingle Bell Rock, I wasn’t exactly happy with my brain for taking me there either, but it was an improvement at least.
I finally caught the other two at a spot that looked similar to a lot of other spots I’d seen today. They only had one pole between the two of them, and so moved slowly through mushy spots and across creeks, even though they powered up the climbs. I learned that Stealth was formerly the Shaun From California that I had been bird-dogging. Nice, caught him! Being from a similar part of the country, we had a lot to talk about in relation to our experiences on this side of the USA. A shared theme was the unexpected lushness of the eastern forests and the prevalence of the web of thru-hiking infrastructure that ensures frequent beds and hot meals, seemingly everywhere.
It was nice talking with him, and I left the pair when they stopped for the evening at Moreland Gap Shelter. I wanted a few more miles from the day before the Sun relinquished its hold, handing the reins to the Moon and stars. I trudged through deep drifts of snow as I climbed the long ridge of White Rocks Mountain. Fortunately, there were still tracks to follow, but this was the deepest snow of the day, six inches or more where the wind had piled it into neat dunes.
The orange sun dipped low through the trees. A beautiful view of the ridge from Unaka to Hump flitted through the trunks and empty boughs. I kicked down a long switchback to camp, stopping a lot to soak up the sunset colors reflecting off of the untracked snow. I wasn’t sure if this would be the last significant snow on this trip, or how long it would last, so I wanted to notice and truly see it. These final tenths of a mile were cold and my feet were wet, but I was well aware that this was also my favorite moment of the day. Recognizing that while I’m in it, is a true privilege.
Camp was a perfect spot under a large twisted oak, on a bare patch of green grass next to a flowing spring. A white tail deer bounded away as I approached. How did I get so lucky? I watched the last golden rays of the sun illuminate my tent as I filtered a bunch of water, in case the source was frozen in the morning. I pulled on most of my layers, then jumped in bed and started eating. While my spanish rice soaked, I downed three small peanut butter, noot, and sriracha burritos. The bright moon shone through my tent, eliminating the need for my headlamp. After a final scoop of pb and handful of cookies, I buried my face in my quilt and rolled over. There was no switch to turn off the moon, and it was time to sleep.