Garden Mountain to almost Jenny Knob Shelter
Brutal Finish Camp to Plastic Water Camp
AT miles: 25.8
Total miles: 610.2
Elevation change: 5164ft gain, 6030ft loss
My night spent on the jagged rim of Garden Mountain was peaceful and restorative. When I awoke naturally before my alarm, my brain was in a much better place than it had been yesterday evening as I clomped up the rocky trail. Still between my ears, but more hopeful. Giving my legs a good stretch, I noticed some tight spots and made a note to do better at stretching regularly, like I had been when my knee was still bugging me.
I was treated to a view of the sunrise through the trees and my tent mesh while I ate several handfuls of granola and trail mix. Gosh, I was hungry. The orange sun pierced through a clear sky. The wind that had buffeted me all day yesterday was now non-existent. It was a new day, a fresh start. I was packed and hiking at the usual time, feeling mostly awake.
The trail was still a rocky mess of irregular limestone covered in branchy detritus, but I saw it in a new light today, fresh as I was. It also helped that my pack felt ten pounds lighter, and maybe actually was considering all the water that I had consumed during my evening of rest. I was able to appreciate a particularly rugged pile of large boulders that I certainly would have ignored yesterday. The morning light struck them in such a way that they seemed to glow from within in an otherwise shaded forest. That was cool.
The trail left the top of Garden Mountain without a final view into Burke’s Garden, which I felt was unfortunate. However, I was grateful to be headed downhill on smooth trail again. Besides, I felt something building and wanted to make it a few miles further to a shelter privy without delay. I boogied on through the classic AT forest, stopping for a few minutes to chat with a section hiker slack-packing to the next road. It was a fun conversation and certainly worth my time. Even with the palaver, I made it to the privy without drama.
After gathering water, I shot up a quick uphill then settled into a good pace along a smooth two miles that followed an old roadbed. I wondered why the road had been built in the first place and about the age of the trees that now sprouted from the middle, reducing the navigable portion to a narrow strip near the edge. The road was nice, and a lot easier hiking than sticking to the ridge proper like is so often the case out here.
Dropping back down, I made it to the rushing Laurel Creek. A big wooden bridge spanned the minor cascades. Water poured over short shelves of limestone, stepping from swimming hole to swimming hole. It was still early in the day, but warm and sunny, so I dunked my face and shirt, not ready to fully commit to a total soaking. I could have stayed under the bridge all day, but instead filled up my bottles and kept moving. This was the last on-trail water source for 19 miles, so I hoped that the rumored water chaches were stocked and waiting.
Some gradual switchbacks straight from the PCT made the next climb through pine trees an easy affair. The ground was gravelier and the air dryer. Again, the trail joined an old roadbed as it contoured around the length of a sharp ridgeline, and I made great time, loving the easy miles and warm air. I stopped for lunch at a particularly pleasant grass patch, popping off my damp shoes and pealing away my sweaty socks. While I pulled baggies of food from my pack, I realized that I was carrying an abundance, and so grazed with impunity on the many delicacies scattered around me. A sudden moment of self awarness struck me as I stuffed potato chip fragments into my eager mouth. I was definitely used to being alone. Anyone could tell that, by how I shoveled the flakes in large piles from bag to mouth. I kept the distance between the two at a minimum so that the cascade of wayward crumbs fell back into the bag, ready for the next scoop. It was animalistic, primal. And hilarious. Catching myself in this primitive state was easily my favorite moment of the day.
The cruising picked up where it left off, and the next few miles drifted by to the tune of rustling leaves as I kicked through deep drifts that sometimes obscures the trail completely. I giggled like a fiend, enjoying myself just a little too much. A gravel road took me the final mile to a highway crossing, depositing me at Brushy Mountain Outpost.
The store was closed as expected, and I was thrilled to find a small cache of water sitting next to the road. It smelled and tasted like it had been baking in the sun for days (and it probably had been), but in the absence of another option, I filled my empty bottles, preparing for a night on the 12-mile dry stretch ahead.
I could feel myself dehydrating already during the mile walk on pavement over a busy highway. Trucks screamed by, an ambulance wailed. I marveled at the scale of the massive modifications made to the mountains, which allowed vehicles to travel through them with such easy haste.
Stepping off the road, I climbed steeply through rhododendron to yet another ridgeline. On top, I was grateful to find that the trail followed more old roadbed, rather than the rocky BS of yesterday evening on Garden Mountain. I tried to breathe through my nose to save moisture and covetted my remaining liter of water filtered at Laurel Creek. The deep leaves continued for miles, reaching their zenith where they piled in the depression between trail and log, and were knee deep for a hundred feet at a time. I hoped that there were no copperheads hiding down below.
To scratch an itch that had been bugging me all day, I put in my earbuds and turned on an album by the the pick-slide and clap-track masters, Boston. Corporate America is probably my least favorite of their five albums that I am familiar with, but the title track was stuck in my head. I rocked out, up and over minor peaks, switching to Muse’s Drones when Boston ran dry.
Speaking of dry, I was just about to cave and start drinking the plastic water when I found another water cache at a road crossing. Some of this water was fresher smelling, so I chugged what I could, hoping that I hadn’t pushed my dehydration too far.
I carefully creaked my way another mile and a half to camp on tired legs and stumpy feet. I was dead tired, and tired of the uncomfortable blister on my left heel crying at me. A small flat spot appeared on the summit of a small hill, as they reliably do out here, and I pitched my tent on a deep layer of composting leaves. I gave stretching a full-hearted, though only half-effective, attempt, then got into bed to eat and exist in a state of non-movement. It was a warm night, so I lounged half-draped under my quilt, listening to the leaves rustle all around. Feeling worn out and ready for an easy day, I calculated what I needed to do to make that happen. 25 miles tomorrow, then an easy nero to Pearisburg. Not too shabby. I could work with that.