Eastern Continental Divide to Johns Spring Shelter
Two Oceans Camp to Over The Snow Camp
AT miles: 26.4
Total miles: 719.7
Elevation change: 6873ft gain, 8474ft loss
Like flipping a light switch, the weather forecast for today flicked from sunny and cold, to snowy and cold. Of course, I was asleep when the change occurred so I was surprised to awaken to a world of white. While it was beautiful and fun at first, the weather eventually wore me out. In the end, the snow and wind were essential ingredient to not just the parts of the day where I struggled; but also the best moments. I think that it’s interesting how that worked out, and maybe a lesson to pull from the rollercoaster of emotions. There is no good or bad in nature, there’s only what you make of it. That’s easy to say now, bundled, full, and warm in camp. Hindsight at its frustrating finest.
At a couple points in the night, I awoke when the gusting wind howled across the ridge, vibrating the loose edges of my tent and flinging pellets of graupel sideways. In the red of my headlamp they looked like pink streaks of light. I observed this and thought it was kind of cool, then returned to sleeping. So, after the alarm jingled and the day brightened a little bit, I was both surprised and not, to gaze out at a world dressed in white. It’s funny, even as it was snowing, I had faith in the weather forecast I’d seen just before falling asleep. It had predicted a clear night. Clearly, reality was proving to be different. As if to rub it in, the forecast now showed snow flurries all day and night, extending into tomorrow. Huh, the old bait and switch.
The morning descent from the Divide was quite pleasant, out of the roaring wind and in the brilliant sunshine. The forest was a winter wonderland of the fluffiest snow imaginable. For the first mile, the world was hushed except for my swishing through the leaves. Then, as the sun warmed things up, the sound of melted drips began to pitter-patter all around me. A few birds joined in, adding music to the peaceful overture.
All of that was good and all, and I absorbed as much of it as I could, but the privy at the next shelter had my name on it. I slipped and slid on wet and uneven footing down to the busy structure, then got in line to use the facilities. The wait almost killed me, but I took some deep breaths and ate a packet of Pop Tarts. It was all going to be alright. And it was. Afterwards, I chatted with the shelter occupants for a few minutes, then continued down the trail at a less frantic pace.
After filtering water and another extended conversation with some flip-flop hikers at a trailhead, I really needed to make up some time. I shook my head after looking at my watch. Three miles by 10am. Why do I struggle so with getting a strong start to the day? Yet again, I asked my legs to pick up the slack.
I turboed across the flat valley bottom, over a few wooden bridges, working hard to make up some miles and also to stay warm even with the bright sunshine. As I powered up the reasonable switchbacks to the opposite ridge, the expected snow flurries began flinging the daytime equivalent to shooting stars into the side of my face. Before long, I was engulfed in what I would call a blizzard, not a lowly flurry, with wind whipping ice horizontally and limiting visibility. However, for the climb at least, I was happy for the chill.
As I crested the ridge, this round of snow moved on, leaving me in warm sunshine next to an unexplained wooden bench. With the elevation profile leveling out for a few miles, I tasked my wind jacket with keeping me comfortable, and zipped my water filter inside to keep it from freezing. The next stretch was along the ridge of my dreams, exactly what I had hoped for so many times the previous few days, only to be disappointed when the rocky reality became apparent. But not this time, not here. The trail was wide, smooth, and grassy, perhaps an old road. I made great time, eating a Clif bar and watching the ferocious wind bend the adjacent trees with terrifying ease. I thought of the old Keffer Oak, a couple valleys over. How many wind gusts had bent, but not broken that mighty tree?
Reaching the snout of the ridge, the trail switchbacked gently to the creek far below. It was on this descent that I lost myself for a few minutes to the spirit of the wind in what would become my favorite moment of the day. Reflecting the copious energy crashing all around me, I felt a wildness as I tumbled with grace back and forth across the hillside. The sun was shining, and gnarly clouds of snow wiped away some of the surrounding valleys and hills. I felt as free and untamed as the weather. My pack was no longer a heavy burden to bear. I spread my wings and pretended I was an airplane, making the force of the wind a reflection of my speed and strength. I slowed it down when the leaves deepened and the slope steepened.
At Trout Creek, feeling fine, I spread my foods in the sun and began my celebratory lunch. I’d made great time after all, and felt good about that. The weather permitted me just enough time to recharge, but would have liked to lounge a little bit longer. The next flurry forced me into action with a direct hit.
I packed up in a fierce blast of snow. Again, I would have called it a blizzard, a squall at least, but what do I know know? This snow was the densest by far, and started sticking to the ground and drifting between my shoulders and pack. It varied between fat clumped flakes falling gently, to wind driven pellets flying like scatter shot. I pumped my legs hard to work up the warmth I needed to stay comfortable.
The snow was here to stay for a while this time, and it soon wore out its welcome. I grew tired of being flecked in the face, and sucking the little flakes into my nostrils. As I struggled up and around a steep, jagged ridge, I also accepted the reality that I would likely miss any views from the epically named Dragon’s Tooth at the top. Not that I had been looking forward to them. I didn’t even know the spot existed until yesterday. Still, it is nice to be rewarded at the top of a tough climb with something. Even if that something isn’t a view, then at least a moment of no snow in the face. That didn’t sound like too much to ask for.
But not today. I ground up the steep trail, many times thinking that I had made it to the top, many times disappointed to find that I hadn’t. But then I was there, surrounded by a large gaggle of day hikers who appeared out of nowhere up an invisible trail. I also met Dave, a section hiker taking advantage of the fine weather, who was the first person I’ve ever met randomly who actually reads my blog. He recognized my pinwheel, and said hello. That was cool, and brought up a whole array of humbling new feelings. After checking out the Dragon’s Tooth, no views but still pretty cool, I raced down the slippery cliffs, past the clean-smelling college students in their fraternity hoodies.
The sun kind of came out as the trail leveled off near the valley bottom. After gathering information at a kiosk about the camping restrictions through the next section of trail on either side of McAfee Knob, I set my target for Johns Spring Shelter in seven miles. The area surrounding McAfee Knob, dubbed Virginia’s Triple Crown (McAfee, Dragon’s Tooth, and Tinker Cliffs), is an über popular hiking destination with the nearby Instagram crowd, and so requires some extra management to keep acceptably clean. It was 5pm, and I felt good about my chances for making it. I filtered water, and shot a spoonful of chia seeds. I also crammed an extra Clif bar for good measure. Gosh, I was hungry.
I touched the sun briefly as I blazed across muddy pastures, then up the next ridge. I was tired and cold for the final few miles, not exactly happy, but not unhappy either. Worn out, tired of being cold all day, missing the sun. The temperature was hovering in the high 20s, but the clouds were clearing up. Now if this wind would die down a bit… A few flecks of continuous snow were a tortuous reminder that it could change in an instant. The trail, at least was relatively friendly, and I made good time to the shelter, reaching it just after sunset. A family had pitched their tent inside the structure for some reason, taking up the whole space, but I didn’t mind. I found a spot as far from it as possible to avoid any rodents who might want to visit during the night. While waiting for my couscous to soak, I ate handful after handful of other snacks. My Oreo stores dwindled precariously. So hungry.
Full and warm, I thought back to the Keffer Oak yet again. It’s strength gave me strength. How many storms had it weathered in over 300 years? A lot, that’s for sure. I’d weathered my fair share of storms too. This was just another one, and the sun always shines again. Besides, the weather forecast had improved to sun all day tomorrow. Not that I trusted it, but it was better than a forecast calling for a blizzard. Tired, I found sleep easily. Be strong like the Keffer.