Elk Garden to Slab Town Road
Barking Pearl Camp to Thirty Mile Meadow Camp
AT miles: 30.3
Total miles: 533.3
Elevation change: 5200ft gain, 6896ft loss
I wish that I could say that hiking 30 miles today was my plan all along. That would have made it a little bit easier, a little more relaxed. While checking the elevation profile the night before, I did notice that I was entering a section with relatively little elevation change. That excited me, and “30” flashed in my brain, but I told myself that it would be smart to wait until I’d eaten through more of my heavy resupply from Damascus. That was the end of it, or so I thought. Late in the day, it occurred to me that 30 miles on Day 30 sounded pretty cool. With the hole I’d dug for myself this morning, it seemed impossible at the time, or at least unlikely that I could pull it off. But who was I to question my legs’ ability? I decided to give them a shot. They’d surprised me before, and they didn’t let me down this time either.
My alarm started ringing as usual, well before sunrise. I tootled around, doing what I do, writing and considering, before my brain fully woke and concocted a plan. A unique mixture of conditions were conspiring to potentially result in an epic sunrise view, a rarity on this trail, what with so many trees and clouds. The sky was clear, still twinkling with the brightest stars holding out against a brightening horizon, and I was just a quarter mile away from the top of a minor bald. What would Spice do? The answer was obvious. I sprang into action, packing up like a fiend, not wanting to miss the sunrise now that I had committed to it. I even skipped the trailhead privy as I scampered across the pavement and blitzed up the grassy slope.
My extreme haste wasn’t totally necessary, but I got the full show as I perched on a flat rock in the morning wind and ate my breakfast. Big hills to the east and west blocked my views in those directions, but I could see for days in others. Milky mist pooled in the valleys to the north, artificial lights blinked through the trees to the south. A shred of high cloud flamed pink above an ombréd horizon of neon orange. The full moon glowed through a humid haze, looking dusty as it hovered above Whitetop Mountain. I mindlessly crammed granola and trail mix while watching the peaceful scene unfold. The sky brightened further, then the orange of the horizon began to pour down the mountainsides. By the time the sun crested the hill behind me, it had lost its warm color, but cut through my chill. The show was over, time to hike. Breakfast with a show. I thanked SpiceRack for inspiring me to make it happen.
With the privy in sight, but a quarter mile backwards, I decided to risk it by pushing to the next one in four miles. The rocky and rooty trail around Mount Rodgers didn’t make it easy, and I just barely made it, thankful that the commode was both unoccupied and easy to find amongst the dense fir trees. After avoiding disaster, I was able to enjoy my surroundings as the majesty of the Grayson Highlands became apparent around me.
The trail skirted the transition zone of stunted fir to sweeping grassland. As I traversed this edge, I was granted far distant views in both memory and miles. The Roan Highlands were the only thing I could name with certainty, but I knew that there were more familiar ridges packed into the dense folds of the earth in between here and there. Camping was both abundant and top notch. I made note to return for an extended stay.
The entire sky was now glazed over with a thin layer of white, blowing out the sun completely. I waited for a large family to pass on the wide trail, then ran into four of the famous wild ponies that inhabit this paradise. They were beautiful creatures, though not exactly majestic, with short legs and long mains that rippled in the rising wind. They weren’t shy either, clearly not afraid of humans and eager to lick the salt from my trekking pole handles. I snapped some pictures while rebuffing the advance of a particularly friendly pony, not eager to recreate the goat nibbling incident from my time hiking in Switzerland.
Even with the wide open grassy views, the Grayson Highlands were distinctly different from the Roan. These lumps were rockier, both on the trail and in large, jagged piles that looked like good places to weather a storm or hide treasure. I couldn’t help thinking of Rohan in Lord of the Rings, which got my mind imagining all kinds of cool things. The rocks kept me from moving fast, but that was a good thing. I took my time, enjoying the uniqueness of these Highlands.
More ponies, here and there. More humans too, as I approached the popular trailhead at Massie Gap. Fortunately, the AT made a wide U-turn back to the hills. I finally started to make good time as the trail smoothed out and the people disappeared.
It was after I took a leisurely lunch on a flat patch of grass, that I realized the potential coolness of hiking 30 miles on this day in particular. However, with only 11 miles hiked by 2:15pm, I wrote it off as unreasonable and out of reach. Hiking past dark seeking an arbitrary mileage badge was irresponsible, I told myself. But those gears in my brain kept turning. The wind was literally at my back as I crossed the final grassy section of the Grayson Highlands. It scooted me along, seeming to give encouragement. At a place named “The Scales” I learned the term “high-country weight”, which is one I’ll use for years to come.
I decided to do what I do best, try hard without commiting to anything. I could hike hard and see what happened, without expectation. There are a lot of factors that need to line up to make a 30 happen. Desire, terrain, weather, and probably some other things. Nutrition, maybe. Etcetera. I could take care of the first, but the second two would dictate whether or not I would be successful.
Fortunately, I had terrain on my side for the rest of the way. I practically jogged down the gradual trail. A tread of soft leaves was occasionally interrupted by piles of boulders dressed in green, but otherwise, the trail was as good as I could have hoped for. I passed one idyllic shelter in a widely spaced forest of campsites and fire rings, then crossed another paved road before starting the second to last climb of the effort.
The dark clouds above began to spit a light rain, but it was one that I heard more than felt. However, if it picked up, I had strong doubts that I would make my goal. Not only is it not as fun, hiking in the rain is also slower and more treacherous. I had no intention of throwing caution to the wind if the ground got slippery. As I climbed, the rain held off, offering nothing but a coolness to aid the sweat accumulating on my brow. I reached the top, still churning out the pace I needed to. I ate a Luna Bar (not as good as yesterday’s), then changed up my stride for a long downhill ride.
The wind was hellacious as I tumbled down the other side. The treetops howled like a freight train and branches cracked and exploded loose, crashing to the ground, splintering on impact. The world was getting wild. I was getting wild. Down an easy old road, then contour around the side of a valley. I was still feeling good, and with each mile that ticked by, I felt more confident that I would succeed.
I kicked through deep drifted leaves on the way up to Comer Creek Falls. A tremendous gust of wind gave me an encouraging boost up this unexpected uphill. I took that as a sign. The universe was on my side. I was all in now, I was going to make it. Thanks, universe. I loaded on three liters of water at the cascading falls. It was a heavy burden to add for the last 6 miles, but I needed enough agua to make it through the night. No choice, and my legs felt strong.
The final climb followed trail as gentle as could be and I made great time, downing my final Luna about halfway up. Avicii’s Wake Me Up bumped in my head, occasionally finding its way into the world through my panted verses and sagging whistles. The sky lightened and the setting sun dipped below the cloud layer as it neared the horizon. It lit the forest the same orange hue that I witnessed with the sunrise, putting natural bookends on the day. I looked behind me. It appeared that the darkest clouds had gotten beached on the high hills of the Highlands. I had walked out of the weather and was rewarded with a beautiful evening cruise. I ate my last food, two packets of gummies, and made the long turn, starting the last downhill to camp.
Despite my poles attempt at sabotage, I made it down the supremely smooth trail, past Trimpi Shelter, through a gate, and into a large pasture. Fortunately the cows were absent. In the gathering gloom, I checked my mileage. I had made it. With no one else around, I literally patted myself on the back. Nice work, my man.
My legs were tired and twinged in new places, but I felt better than I expected as I pitched my tent. We would see how I felt tomorrow, but I was less brain fatigued than yesterday, which I took as a positive sign. My dinner of mashed potatoes mixed with an onion soup packet was voluminous and epically delicious, a fitting end to the day. I munched on Oreos from a lying position, while writing my notes on the day’s happenings. Nope, I didn’t see a 30 coming, but I was glad I pulled it off. 30 on 30 felt as cool as it sounded. I wondered if I would feel the same tomorrow.
There were a few special moments vying for my FMOTD, including the glowing sun dropping below the clouds as I approached the end of a long day, and it is perhaps the obvious choice that takes home the prize, The SpiceRack Sunrise. Moments like that one, where the dynamic majesty of nature unfolds before you, have been rare occurences on the AT so far. I’m always so busy doing something or going places. The rising sun was peaceful, the scenery gorgeous, and I was able to connect with someone that I miss very much. Hiking 30 miles is a sidenote compared with that. A tiring, punishing sidenote.
Also, I think that amidst all the excitement of hiking my first 30, it is far too easy to gloss over the majesty of the Grayson Highlands, mile for mile, one of the most beautiful parts of the AT so far. The balds and meadows themselves were a blast to explore, and the views were also spectacular. Looking west, amazing parallel ridgelines shot north. To the southeast, I could track the last week of hiking, all the way to Roan. To round it out, Grayson also hosted the best, most scenic camping of the AT corridor that I’ve seen. Flat grassy spots in a stunted forest of fir with epic views to far off places. Amazing.
Bonus math question: If one were to hike however many miles per day matched the day’s number since the start, how many days would it take to hike the entire 2200 mile Appalachian Trail? For example, hike one mile on day one, two miles on day two, etc.