James River to Cow Camp Gap
Cow Fart Glasgow Camp to Cow Camp Gap Camp
AT miles: 25.5
Total miles: 821.1
Elevation change: 8140ft gain, 5167ft loss
A drastic shift in the weather during the night not only cranked up the thermostat, but also directed a firehose of moisture to my neck of the Appalachians. I hiked away from the James River, feeling a continent away from the icy wind of just a few days before. The sweat flowed and did little in the warm humidity worthy of an equatorial jungle. My umbrella stayed close at hand and did a lot. And as always, my legs did the most, hauling me and my heavy load up and over two gigantic mountains. The day was new and fresh in so many ways that I didn’t mind the stinging salt in my eyes, or the debilitating lassitude brought on by the humid warmth. Fresh, warm, and sticky, kinda like a cinnamon roll. It was a cinnamon roll kind of day.
Waking up in the Glasgow town shelter, the first thing I noticed was the warmth. I hadn’t exactly bundled up for the night, and was comfortable when I went to bed. Now, however, I was overheated, and fumbled in the dark for my jacket zippers. I released some steam and got up to pee, slipping on my Crocs and stepping to the porta-pottie. Not only was the air warm, but it was humid too. I could feel it on my skin, a thin film of moisture, and on my gear as I stuffed it away. A complete covering of gray clouds whipped across the sky like they had important places to be.
The weather forecast looked gnarly, with oodles of rain, wind, and potentially lightning lashing the mountains through the evening. I wanted to get out of town and back on trail before the rain could convince me to stay another night, so wasted no time (okay, just a little bit) packing up, eating my leftovers, and wandering to the road. I hiked less than a mile out of town, through scruffy corn fields, to a highway junction where I figured I might see more traffic, and thus, have better luck hitching a ride. The wind still carried with it the smell of cow farts, and I guessed that maybe it was manure fertilizer, rather than the animals themselves, that was responsible.
I didn’t have to weather too much rejection before I caught a ride with the patron saint of hitchhikers, Dude in a Pickup. He was friendly and knew the drill, flicking his blinker to pull over even before I could tell him where the trailhead was. I unloaded, gave my thanks, and sorted out my stuff. Valuables and jacket back into my pack. Pack onto my back. By 9am, I was once again hiking on the AT, feeling like I’d already accomplished a lot for it being so early in the day.
The rain and climbing began pretty much immediately. The heat and humidity would have killed me if I hiked in my rain jacket, so I was grateful for my umbrella to deflect the fat drops. I was dripping sweat anyway, dying for a breath of fresh air carried on a breeze. After a mile, I got just that, only moreso. The rain stopped for the moment, and the wind picked up as I switchbacked higher into a roaring gale. Unlike the wind of the previous week, this provided gloriously cooling relief from the sticky warmth. The trees shook and bent with each furious gust. I climbed higher into the tempest, bracing myself with a wide stance when stopping to take a gulp of water.
I rested for a few minutes at the top of Little Rocky Row to consider the view that I had earned so far. The dark clouds looked menacing, sitting on some of the higher summits. I looked back at where I’d come from, no Apple Orchard Mountain today, just a cloud. Patchy showers of rain hazed out details here and there. The one thing with any definition or sharpness was the James River, snaking through the wide valley far below. The water gleamed like a river of mercury in an ocean of charcoal, bright and pure.
Just in case a thunderstorm was in the cards, I hiked fast to get up and over the high summit of Bluff Mountain. Most of the hard work had already been done, so I was on the cloudy summit in no time. No views either. Down the other side I went, pulling out my umbrella again when the rain revved back up.
I passed a shelter that would have made a perfect protected lunch spot except for the fact that it was a quarter mile off trail. I kept going without fully considering the implications of my actions until it was definitely too late to turn around. By skipping the shelter, I had committed to potentially hiking all day without a decent break. Oh well. I ate a Clif bar, gooier than usual in the relative warmth, and tried not to think about all the yummy, some-assembly-required lunch items I was carrying, and now not going to be eating.
But my hunger got the best of me, so at the next water source, I dug in, scarfing frantic handfuls of chips and nuts. Before I was done filtering two liters of water, I was full and had an almond butter, chia taco in hand. The rain was merciful, and only got me a little wet when I was caught, wrist-deep in my bag of BBQ Lays.
Operating as I was on little sleep resulting from too much bedtime phone noodling, my full belly quickly slunk me into a food coma. The warm dampness all around me didn’t exactly perk me up either, so I hiked the first few hours of the afternoon in a daze. The wind was a distant memory as I floated on flat trail around a reservoir through a mixture of small pine and big oak. It felt like I was living in a hot tub, and I fantasized about finding a covered space to take a nap. The rain came back in full force, but I was unconcerned with such trivial matters. Water dripped off my umbrella onto my pack, then down my lower legs. I was wet, but I was warm. Frustratingly tired, but comfortable.
I waited for a fresh pang of hunger to sharpen my senses. Instead it was a near miss with a salamander. No bigger than my pinky, I saw the tiny orange creature as my right foot descended to rest on top of it. It was destined to be a direct, obliterating hit. However, just in time, I shifted my weight to the outer blade of my foot, creating just enough space under my sole to keep the little guy alive. That swift reaction perked me up a bit, and I walked with more purpose and attention afterwards. Now I knew that there were tiny little vertibrates to look out for and not smoosh.
Turning away from the reservoir, an extremely interesting informational sign gave a brief history of the small sharecropping village of freed slaves who lived and farmed along Brown Mountain Creek. The context provided something to mull over as I followed the trail up the intimate valley, along and among ruins of stone walls and homes. Thick green moss covered the jumbled piles, and I tried to imagine the life the residents had lived, if it was satisfying or hard. Harder than hiking the AT, no doubt.
After a couple miles of this contemplative hiking, I stopped to filter enough water to get me through a night of camping and 13 miles to the next on-trail source. As I sat, letting gravity do the work, the sun burst through the clouds above, instantly changing the character of the forest. Birds came to life, singing their little hearts out. The aroma of the damp earth intensified, carrying with it a subtle sweetness of tiny buds that I hadn’t noticed in the gloomy rain. It was a hopeful turn, and easily became my favorite moment of the day. I turned my face towards the sun, closing my eyes, just feeling the heat. I let myself linger for a little bit longer. I hadn’t had a proper lunch break, after all.
The final climb up Bald Knob was a massive undertaking, and as challenging as any of the trail so far. I sweated with a crushing pack up 2400ft in three and a half humbling miles. The sun and humidity had me dripping with sweat, and I trudged purposefully, but without any vigor. Coaxing myself forward, I told myself to trudge half a mile more before a break. Just a little bit further. I monitored the distance tick by on my watch in disbelief, growing as slowly as it was. The sweat on my upper lip tasted particularly salty, exactly like the dregs of my tortilla chips in town. Finally, panting and dripping, I hauled myself atop the wooded summit, hazy with cloud. Dropping down the other side to a saddle, I felt good about having made it safely before any lightning started. A quick check of the forecast showed that it was still a possibility tonight, even though the clouds had largely disapated. Keeping this scenario in mind, I pitched my tent as best as I could, away from dead trees and using all the guy lines.
I tumbled inside, finally finding my covered place to rest. While my Mexican rice soaked, I ate so many things, hoping to revive myself just a little bit. It had been a challenging day, physically and mentally draining, and when I looked at the stats I understood why. Over 8k feet of elevation gain was the explanation. Woof, no wonder I’m beat. And I was.