Over A Quarter Of The Way to Garden Mountain
Windy Burrito Camp to Brutal Finish Camp
AT miles: 26
Total miles: 584.4
Elevation change: 7159ft gain, 6535ft loss
Today was one of contrasts. The weather kept me bundled up until early afternoon, before breaking out into a bright and sunny day. The hiking came easy, until it turned impossible. The best ridge dovetailed with the worst. All in all, it was a good day, and it reminded me that a lot can change over the course of 11 hours, or 26 miles. For better or worse, that change is what I signed up for. It’s why I’m out here. My legs just wish that the change was a little more gradual today.
The wind didn’t let up all night, and may have actually gotten more intense. My tent did a good job of rebuffing the gusts, but eventually, after I’d slept off my initial weariness and burrito coma, the whooshing wind, flapping tent, and groaning oak never let me dip deeper than a light snooze. A light rain splattered in short bursts, like my intermittent sleep.
When I got moving for the day at the usual starting time of 8:30am, the rain was finished, but the wind showed no sign of relenting. I had needed to keep my rent anchored as I packed it to prevent it from blowing down the hillside. Dark clouds scooted by overhead, on the way to somewhere, and moving fast.
I took the same approach in order to stay warm. After all that tough climbing to end yesterday, I had nowhere to go but down to begin today, which made it difficult to work up some heat. I skipped the water source at the bottom of the hill, deciding instead to push up to the next so that I could actually warm up a little bit.
I found shelter from the wind and a comfortable temperature as I followed the trail up through a classic forest of oak and beech. A bird somewhere mimicked with startling accuracy the sound of an old seesaw, or rusty swing set blowing in the breeze. It was the kind of sound effect used in a horror movie and contributed to a strange vibe. I ate my fig newtons and brownie things, pulled from my shorts’ pockets, without stopping.
A gentle old road-turned-trail brought me down the opposite side of the ridge, depositing me in a gorgeous pasture at the bottom of a narrow valley. The wind still kept me moving, but I couldn’t help stopping frequently to spin in place to absorb the bucolic scene. With the weather as chilly as it was, it was fitting to find this area empty. It was still hibernating, perhaps just beginning to think about starting a productive summer cycle. In a few weeks or months, I’m sure it would be teaming with life, animal, insect, and hiker.
A short stretch of forest brought me to the next pasture where I ran into a few of the same trail maintenance folk that I had seen yesterday. I was halfway through my pre-lunch bar when I walked up on them clipping some overgrown brush. They recognized my pinwheel, and we caught up like old friends. It just so happened that they would be the only other people I saw all day.
The clouds started breaking up as climbed up and over yet another ridgeline. Even though I was hungry, I pushed a little past my lunchtime in order to give the sun a little extra time to warm things up and to get the fording of Lick Creek out of the way. The notes in my app warned of a knee-deep crossing or worse in times of high water, but my shins stayed dry as I churned across the gentle flow. I planted on a piece of the old bridge for lunch, taking the opportunity to wash two pairs of socks to combat the unsustainable growth of crustiness and odor. After hanging them to dry and tipping my shoes so that they could drain, I munched on lunch while trying to imagine the force of water that had lifted the formidable bridge that now lay tipped on its side, discarded along the river bank like a dented up beer can. The water must have been flowing serveral feet higher and well wide of its banks. An awesome, terrifying scene, I’m sure.
The big climb of the day came next, 2000ft up to Chestnut Ridge. Highlights of my short baseball career bubble to the forefront of my mind as I ground up the steep grade. I couldn’t remember my final game, or if I had appreciated it as the last time I would lace up my cleats and roam the outfield. What was it, 15 years ago now? The sun was warming, yet perfectly positioned at my back to dry my socks while my engine stayed cool in the shade of my backpack. With this chilling arrangement, I was able to skip the next few water sources and nurse my morning haul all the way up to where the grade flattened out and the views opened up.
The grassy walk along Chestnut Ridge was stunning. Turning around I could easily identify Mount Rodgers and Whitetop Mountain, connected to the meandering ridgline of the Grayson Highlands. And from here, I was on the opposite side of the same striking parallel ridgelines that I had ogled at from over there. That’s what all those ups and downs had gotten me up and over. The sight was as sweeping and vast as any other of the trail so far. The geology of this ancient range made more sense and felt more cohesive than ever before. I noticed myself feeling impressed in a way that I did not expect to be in southern Appalachia, and for that I was grateful. To feel that feeling, to discover something new, was exactly why I was out here.
I carried on in a state of bliss up the wide tack of green-brown grass, cutting through a patch of red thorny things. A tremendous amount of coyote poop and owl pellets scattered the ground, small piles of fur and tiny bones. This was a dangerous place to be a rodent.
Near the top of the ridge, I gathered water from a pipe on the side of a rough road. The heavy load would need to be enough to get me through the night. I lugged it up to the Chestnut Shelter where I got my first view into Burke’s Garden, a crater-like depression that formed when a subterranean structure of limestone caves collapsed many eons ago. Now, the enclosed area was home to an idyllic scene of rural perfection. Nothing but farmhouses and rolling green pastures. I looked forward to walking the next eight miles around the rim, no doubt with great views the whole way.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The final miles of the day were brutal to the max. The serrated ridgeline was ludicrously steep, up and down. The trail tread rocky and treacherous. Tree debris knocked loose by the ferocious wind added more obstacles to my weary legs. It was a grind the whole way to camp, an effort without reward for the views were all but completely obscured by trees. I struggled under my heavy load, both wishing that I had eaten more to quiet my stomach and that I didn’t need to eat so much of this heavy food. A small herd of white tail deer bounded away as I approached with such freedom and grace that I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or enthralled.
I crossed a road, then made camp at the first small flat spot I could find out of the persistent wind. I said goodnight to the sun at the moment each of us dipped low for the evening. I nursed my tired legs and ego while eating Oreos and soaking my Mexican rice for dinner. As I spooned my cold mush by headlamp, I realized that yes, I hadn’t seen another hiker today. Just the trail maintainers. That was PCT level solitude. Heck, that’s more like the CDT. Unsure if that was a good thing or not, I looked forward to tomorrow, when I would escape from this worst of all ridges. Maybe I would find another one like Chestnut. That was the best, easily my favorite moment of the day. What dreams are made of. Dinner and chores complete, I was ready to put that thought to the test.