almost Delps Spring to Leroy Smith Shelter
Powerline Camp to Trailhead Birthday Camp
AT miles: 7.9
Total miles: 1285.1
Elevation change: 630ft gain, 1247ft loss
Heeey, happy birthday to me. I’ve had a lot of great birthdays in my 32 years on this planet, but I’ve never experienced one during a thru-hike. I started north from the Mexican border on the PCT a week after turning 25 in 2015, and I was a few months into 29 by the time SpiceRack and I started south on the CDT in 2019. To be on the Appalachian Trail, deep into the Appalachian Trail, as I ring in the new year is a trippy experience for this reason. How can I be a touch shy of 1300 miles into a long hike when the mountains of my youth are still blanketed in deep snow (maybe, it’s been a dry year in CA)? This is partly the magic of the AT. Winter is just now loosening its grip on the eastern mountains, yet here I am, revoltingly stinky with the accumulated sweat and grime of months on the trail. What a treat. To have the continuity of the trail link the end of one year to the beginning of the next is oddly comforting, as well. To have friendly faces waiting for me at a trail junction, even more so. Cake, hot food, and thoughtful notes from the ones that couldn’t be here, what more could I ask for?
With plans set to meet with Spice and Tango just seven-ish miles up the trail, for the first time in a while I woke up without feeling the pressure of the trail to get up and moving. That was birthday treat enough. I snoozed my alarm twice, making sure to sip some water each time to get the day, nay the year, started on the right foot.
The sky did that strange thing that it likes to do, starting perfectly clear before pulling and painting gray out of thin air. I watched it happen as well as I could while tipping back my bag of trail mix until it was just scattering crumbs in my beard. Packing up went faster than it ever had, perhaps because I lacked the fumbling urgency of previous mornings, perhaps because I was older and wiser.
My pack and body both felt lighter and more agile than they had in weeks as I dodged the tall tufts of tick-grass on the short climb back to the trail. With just three bars and a smear of peanut butter to my name, I was counting on the promise of hot food ahead, and enjoying the freedom of a body suited to carrying a heavier load. The small rocks that had slayed me yesterday were of no concern and I tiptoed and glided over them.
With time to burn, I moved without urgency, trying to notice more, trying to think less. I sat on a log, just because it looked like a nice place to sit. I watched the light change with the flowing clouds. But I could only sit still for so long after so many days spent in constant motion. Even with my focuses lollygagging, I reached the trail junction to the Leroy Smith shelter a little early and alone.
However, thirty seconds later, here came Tango bouncing up the trail, tail high and ears perked in my direction. He’d caught my scent. Then I saw someone that I didn’t expect. Natalie, all the way from Colorado, followed the panting hound, SpiceRack right behind her. Bearing gifts of flowers, Oreos, and hugs, they encircled me, somehow not repelled by my stinky socks. We said hello, ate some cookies, and Natalie touched her first white blaze.
A mile down the side trail, we reached Blackbird, parked in a large gravel lot, home for the next 24 hours. The celebration commenced with a hot shower, my first since DC, then continued with endless rounds of fizzy beverages and plates of food. I didn’t even step foot in the van, and just lounged in a comfy chair, eating what was placed in front of me. Chips, salsa, guac, booch, strawberries, and tea. A towering, van-baked cake, rustic and chocolatey, followed. It was worthy of the occasion, worthy of my hiker hunger, and I looked forward to eating some more for breakfast. A few raindrops prompted us to set up the awning, but the evening was as warm as the conversation and company. The precipitation was no bother and had been replaced by a Tiffany spread of stars behind a clearing sky by the time I had spooned down my third portion of lentil, cauliflower, and kale stew.
The following conversation and digestion period covered a range of topics, both close to and far from trail. My belly gurgled contentedly and joined in the warming spread of happy energy pulsing in my limbs. This whole birthday-on-trail thing was pretty sweet. A stick-breaking racoon trundled through camp, then we called it a night. Spice and I pitched our tent, giving the full comfort of the van experience to our guest, then lay down on the dirt, right where we belonged. Lying next to her in a tent for the first time since last July felt right. We each got CDT shivers, and I fell asleep with memories of the past echoing in my empty, old-man skull. 31 year old me did a good job of getting this far on the AT. I was excited to see the new and improved version take me the rest of the way.
Thanks for all the support and well-wishes, everybody. I love you all.