almost Turkeypen Gap to almost TN-VA Border
Straightest Ridge Ever Camp to Final Tennessee Camp
AT miles: 23.9
Total miles: 473.6
Elevation change: 4495ft gain, 4678ft loss
My final full day of hiking in Tennessee picked up right where the previous day ended. While this is true of pretty much all days during a thru-hike (that’s kind of the point), today the similarities felt especially potent. Perhaps that’s because it was the last full day in the fine state of TN. It felt like a Tennessee day, through and thru. Who knows if Virginia is going to have a different vibe or not? One thing I know for certain, Tennessee can keep its snow. After today, I’ve had enough of that nonsense.
I was still tired when my alarm started vibrating and blowing its wind sounds in my jacket pocket. I snoozed it a few times, but as we all know, that doesn’t really buy anymore sleep, it just makes the next phase of the morning feel a little more rushed. However, with the light of dawn just an illusion through the trees, I took my time writing and eating handfuls of granola. Actually, I did get kind of tired of how long it takes to chew a handful of granola.
I was packed and hiking by 8:45am, a bit later than usual, but I was confident that the day would work out anyway. Time stretches and distorts over a long day of hiking. Sometimes I move faster than I expect. Other times, usually before lunch, I wonder how I’ve hiked so little distance. In the end, I always wind up right where I am supposed to be when the walking stops. Starting at 7:30am or 8:45am? It makes no difference.
The air was perfectly still and warm as I continued on the lumpy, straight ridge on its shot north-ish. The sun was working hard to burn off a thin layer of cirrus, which veiled most of the sky, but I was fine without any extra layers anyway. Perfect walking temperature. I cruised along the wide round ridge top on brown oak leaves, between oak trees. Schoolhouse Rocks’s, US Constitution preamble song got stuck in my head as I tried to, and was successful at, remembering what song was stuck in my head yesterday.
During the gradual descent, as the ridge faded, I couldn’t get something else out of my head. Last night, reading notes in my app about what was coming today, I found mention of vegan milkshakes, not two miles from trail at the upcoming road crossing. After hemming and hawing for a few miles, I decided that if I didn’t at least make an effort, why was I thru-hiking at all? Surely, I could trade an hour of that stretchy, thru-hiking time for a delicious vegan milkshake. Who knew when, or if I’d have another opportunity. I rang up Rabbit at the Rabbit Hole Hostel to inquire. Sure enough, they did actually exist. Unfortunately, he didn’t currently have the needed ingredients in stock. I told him, no problemo, we’d catch him on SpiceRack’s SOBO in a few months. Something to look forward to.
After leaving the ridge for good, the trail brought me gently to the pavement at TN 91. I had just been considering adding an electrolyte packet to my water (it’s no milkshake, but I wanted something tasty now), when I spied a wee bit of trail magic nestled at the base of a large oak. I picked up on of the lemon lime Gatorade’s and took a big swig. It hit the spot.
What came next was easily my favorite moment(s) of the day. Immediately after crossing the road, the trail entered a grassy pasture, as wide and open as the sky itself. The sun was burning bright now, and the meandering half mile was as pleasant as could be. It was still too early in the season for cattle grazing, so I had the green grass all to myself. I followed the gravel trail as it wound from post to post, next to a barn, through a fence, and to a bench. I perched there to extend my time in the idyllic scene. This grassy patch was one of many that quilted the wide valley stretching north to Virginia. It was peaceful above all other adjectives. I could have hiked quite happily like this for many more miles.
But it was not to be. Back into the forest and up another ridge. I gathered water then stopped for lunch at Double Spring Shelter. For the second day in a row, I had a picnic bench to myself and I made full use of it as a drying rack for my socks, a table for my food, and a prop for stretching my legs. I ate a ton of oatmeal, washing that down with handful after handful of BBQ Lays. SOS stopped by for a quick visit, commenting on how nice it was to have dry feet again. I agreed, dry feet are great.
I packed up and followed him up the ridge. Of course, right after speaking fondly of our dry feet, the trail became inundated with soggy drifts of snow. These were the deepest yet, by a long shot. Some dunes peaked at a few feet high, though most were only tall enough to engulf my shoes. As warm as the day had become, the snow was practically just water, so my socks quickly became saturated with melt. I was grateful for others’ footprints through the deep sections, and I relied heavily on my poles for balance as I slopped down the trail with a little less care than was prudent. Still, I stayed on my feet, and actually had some fun sliding around.
The snow was relentless, and frustratingly concentrated to pretty much just the trail tread itself. Something about how the wind has been blowing the day of the blizzard had piled it here, in the slight depression of the trail. SOS, when I caught him, made the point that he was glad he wasn’t here to see them being formed. That was a good way of looking at it.
I filled up on water for the final 15 miles to Damascus, VA from a piped spring at a road crossing. Almost four liters was a heavy load, but necessary to save me a trip to an out-of-the-way water source several miles further down the trail. I huffed and puffed up a steep section, then struggled through and around another couple miles of snow drifts. I was over it at this point, and just wanted the easy cruising promised by the elevation profile.
The snow disappeared as the ridge turned a little more eastward. That slight direction change made all the difference, and the trail dried out completely. I was kicking through crunchy leaves in no time. A few other hikers were setting up at the final shelter before town, and we made some chitchat about the rain tomorrow and where everyone was staying the next night. I didn’t have much knowledge on either of these subjects, so mostly listened and laughed to myself about how stoned one of the younger hikers was. He was laughing too, at everything, as he powered through his pot of mashed potatoes.
It was still only 4:30pm, so I hiked onward, learning a little bit about chimpanzee hunting parties from SOS. Fascinating, terrifying. He faded behind me, perhaps waiting for his buddy Stealth, and I walked alone the last few miles to camp. I was dead tired and ready to stop for the evening when I rolled up to the pre-chosen flat spot. I pitched my tent better than usual, just in case the rain showed up early, then sat on a log to finish off my chips and a few other things. When the evening darkened, I dove into bed, grateful for the comfort after a long day. That snow had really taken a lot of energy out of me, with large irregular steps and constant readjustments. The rain would hopefully wash away the last of it.
Yep, a classic Tennessee day. And the last for a while. With Virginia just a few miles ahead, I’m ready to put TN in the rearview. The state offered plenty more than I expected, and I’m excited to find the unexpected in Virginia. Hopefully, plenty of burritos, and maybe another chance at a vegan milkshake.