Slab Town Road to Over A Quarter Of The Way
Thirty Mile Meadow Camp to Windy Burrito Camp
AT miles: 25.1
Total miles: 558.4
Elevation change: 5689ft gain, 5108ft loss
What makes a day out here great, or awesome, one of the best? So many things, of course, have the potential to get me there. A combination of stupifying scenery and weather, good company and easy laughs. All of these are potent makers of good times, and they are not in short supply out here. However, there is an intangible element that takes a really good day and upgrades it to great. Maybe it’s a personal thing, striking a particular chord, deep down, that is unique to me and perhaps linked to my unremembered upbringing. Maybe it’s all about catching me on the right day, or in the right mood. I’m not sure, and there is an element of mystery to it. Nope, I can’t tell you for certain why today was the best day yet, and I’ve had some great ones already. That said, I can identify the elements that got it close, even if the final boost came from somewhere I don’t understand.
*Alert Alert* Burrito. 20 miles ahead. *Alert Alert*
That’s what I saw last night as I was looking at the day ahead. Hidden in the comments in the navigation app were glowing reviews for the Mexican restaurant attached to the Exxon gas station at Highway 81. At just twenty miles away, it was the perfect distance from me to satisfy not just a late afternoon snack, but also to justify packing out a burrito for dinner. One restaurant, two meals. Tomorrow would be a good day.
The sun was just cresting the hill behind my home on the pasture when I started hiking at 8:30am. The air was humid and the grass slick with dew. Some puffy white clouds drifted lazily overhead. Another flip-flop hiker who started from Damascus, Fancy Pants, flagged me down from behind just as I got moving. She was as excited as could be to meet another hiker, her enthusiasm for the trail bubbling uncontrollably. It was fascinating to see how fascinated she was by everything, and I left her in the meadow to snap pictures of daffodils. With burritos on the agenda, the flowers did not hold the same appeal for me.
Less than a mile later, I crossed a wooden bridge and ran into a bit of trail magic at a road crossing. I gratefully grabbed and ate a banana while the guy gave me a tour of his skoolie conversion and the history of his church’s trail magic for hikers over the years. When Fancy Pants finally arrived, almost tearing up at the sight of her first trail magic, I slowly revolved myself around my host towards the trail. With the morning getting late and many miles left to go, I needed to stay focused. I gave thanks and said farewell. Time to hike.
The sunlight was gorgeous through the trees as I followed the trail along an old railway bed. The flat was a nice way to warm up before the trail turned left and started uphill. The sun and humidity combined to have me sweating profusely as I churned up to the top of a ridge. My legs were feeling recovered even after 30 miles yesterday, but a tough climb is a tough climb.
Once on top, I caught a precious breeze, and was able to speed up the pace a little bit. The exceedingly rocky trail and deep piles of drifted leaves prevented totally mindless cruising, but I made good time nonetheless. Down through rhododendron tunnels, I met a group of trail volunteers doing some maintenance. Friendly people taking on important work. One of them even handed me a packet of cookies. The milk chocolate was something I couldn’t eat, but I was too stunned to turn them down. I left them for the next hiker a couple miles further at the Mount Rodgers NRA visitors center.
More rocky ridge walking followed until lunchtime. The humidity had baked off at this point and a tremendous wind was now washing through the treetops. In the heat, I appreciated the cooling breeze that reached me as I sat on the leaves and dug into various bags of food that I arranged around me in a messy, but particular order. My sweaty socks baked on a rock to dry, my shoes and their insoles sat separately to do the same.
Thirty minutes later, I was full and hiking again. A small king snake basking on the trail startled an embarrassing yelp out of me as I struggled up the next steep climb. That left me grateful for two things 1. That it wasn’t a copperhead, and 2. That there was no one else around. It was the first snake I’d seen so far. The days were warming up. Hibernation season was over.
Steep rocky down, steep rocky up, another steep rocky down. As I did my intricate dance across the irregular points that covered the trail, I thanked the thick cushioning in my shoes for keeping my feet safe from excessive abuse. Still, eventually the rocks’ gentle poking started to feel less like a pleasant massage and more like a form of slow torture. When the trail linked up with a burbling stream and some softer dirt through the rhododendrons, I sighed, releasing the pent up stress of hiking on trail so hostile to ankle health.
To celebrate that health and give me power for the final four miles to burritos, for the first time during this hike, I plugged into my tiny Mp3 player and turned on some tunes. Now I love music, a lot. But for some reason, on the PCT I was inspired not to listen to any for the first month. I saw the time off as a way to get acquainted with my new home in nature, to leave my ears open for whatever they may hear, and to not insulate myself from my surroundings or fellow hikers. When I finally did crank Taylor Swift’s Red album on a hot desert day north of Tehachapi, it gave me a boost as large as 1000 shots of espresso. I recreated the experience on the CDT with similarly amazing affects. Although I face planted at least twice, Linkin Park’s One More Light, inspired me to run down the trail for a few miles.
For this reintroduction, I chose something a little more subdued. I wasn’t craving music today, and so didn’t want to bombard my senses with overwhelming energy. Instead I chose a classic, a strongly sentimental album. If you’re not already on the Taylor Swift bandwagon, then I don’t think that I can help you. However, give Lover a listen next time you are out for a long walk. It might not do for you what it does for me, but that’s okay. It’s still a great listen.
Listening to those tunes was like coming home. When the opening guitar lick of the title track twanged, I got full body chills and was transported back to the CDT, remembering and feeling the day SpiceRack and I left Dubois, discovering an unexpected yurt just three miles in. We’d decided to stay, got stoned and listened to this fresh Tswift album for the first time. This was one day before we brewed the pioneering mug of cookie dough coffee, starting and ending under a brilliant sky of stars to hike a 35 mile day. Four days before SpiceRack told me that she couldn’t hike with me anymore. Six days before I learned that her pack had been stolen while she wandered in the desert, delirious with fever. Seven days before we were reunited in Atlantic City. And on and on and on… It was all there. No wonder I had chills.
I sped gently through the rhodies, volume low enough to hear the water and the squeaking of my pack. I made a short, but wonderful detour to visit an old farmhouse, preserved as a museum for anyone and everyone. As I approached on the immaculately kept green lawn, it was as if I was walking into a photograph of a time long past. Some of the outbuildings were gray with age and slanting, but the main house shone bright under a coat of white paint. A green swinging chair rocked in the breeze on the porch. Two old fogies (their words) rode in on horses without a care in the world. They sat on the porch to eat lunch and return to a simpler time. I enjoyed our conversation and petting Sampson the horse, then moved on, practically smelling the fresh beans on the wind.
As the trail cut through wide pastures while I neared the highway, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of euphoria. Everything was coming together in that magical way that sometimes happens. Maybe the track Afterglow had the power to improve my mood alone, but I guessed that it was anything and everything contributing. The weather, the place, my journey. I distinctly remember saying to myself that I was “so freaking happy.” And this was before burritos, even. I think it goes without saying that pure euphoria qualifies as my favorite moment if the day.
I cruised up to the Exxon and wandered inside. The order taker helped me craft a dank vegan burrito out of beans, rice, and fajita veggies. I ordered two to-go (An immense thank you to all of you who have donated to my burrito fund. The product of your generosity brings me so much joy. Again, thank you.). I ate one delicious blob of goodness on the bench outside. The other, I stuffed in my pack for later, along with the additional supplies that I grabbed from the convenience store. With the extra few bars and trail mix, I would now be able to skip a trip into Band, instead carrying on to Pearisburg, 45 miles further up the trail. Who wants to visit Bland anyway?
With a pack of refreshed heaviness, I scooted under the highway and turned back onto the grassy trail. The final few miles to camp were tough for my weary legs. The 30 mile day had definitely caught up with me. I dragged myself up the steepest of climbs, through the deepest if leaf piles, to the top of a small summit. I just missed the sun disappearing over the horizon, but was treated to the oranging, then pinking and purpling of the clouds overhead.
I pitched my tent using every single guy line to stabilize it against the blowing wind. I sat in bed and enjoyed my second burrito a little more slowly this time. The desperation was gone now, replaced by a relaxed exhaustion. Laying back I noticed that I could see the blinking light of the Exxon station in the distance. A burrito night light to put me to sleep while I digest my burritos. I rehashed my day. Yep, the best day.