Monday September 4, 2000
Awakening at dawn is like second nature to me and nothing is more rewarding than the great outdoors. The air was distinctly fresh, the small creek rippled a faint good morning call. What a day to take a walk in the woods!! The only problem was,...... everything was still soaking wet since it rained again during the night.
Nothing like a power bar and a granola bar to give you a rush to wander along the Appalachian Trail. Our destination today was to parts unknown (to us). Lewis and Clark would have been proud of our explorer instincts. Actually Meriwether Lewis was born and raised less than 15 miles from the Appalachian Trail in Charlottesville, Virginia.We hit the trail by eight, said our good-byes to Corn Dog who planned on hiking 32 miles. We immediately crossed Skyline Drive which was 200 yards removed from Pinefield Hut. Although we were that close to the roadway, I never heard any road traffic during our overnight stay. The dew was extremely heavy and the trail was still dangerously slick but that never stopped seasoned hikers like us. We had 5 miles of experience under our belts now. Once again the wildlife (deer) was everywhere but any panoramic views of the landscape was extremely limited, actually it didn’t exist because we were hiking in a “green tunnel”. We were completely enveloped in a tree canopy. The woods completely surrounded you. You could only see maybe 100 feet to your left and right but in front of you.....lots of footsteps. During one stretch that morning we had a large doe pace us for approximately 15 minutes about 50 feet in front. The PATC volunteers maintain the trail with diligence and the second best worker along the trail is probably the deer. The deer heavily browse the underbrush along the trail keeping the vegetation in check except for the briar patches.
Once again Bill and Bob stretched it out and were ahead of Mike and myself. There is a strong tendency to keep your eyes riveted approximately five paces in front of you. I constantly reminded myself to soak in the surrounding nature and was justly rewarded with countless deer sightings, and small clearings where you could envision settlers 200 years ago living in the wilds. These small clearings indicated earlier dwellings because the old narly apple trees. How could a family ever eeck an existence on top of these mountains is impossible to comprehend.
About a mile past Pinefield Hut, we had our first panoramic view of the mountains. A large outcropping facing the east revealed a never ending series of valleys below. Weaver Mountain was definitely a Kodak moment. But the most exhilarating feeling was heaving a rain soaked pair of shorts down the mountainside. Further revelations proved I wasn’t the first and definitely not the last to discard an unwanted item in this fashion. The granite outcropping absorbed the sun and became nature’s clothing dryer. I scattered several items in hopes of reducing some of the wet weight. Bill and Bob were anxious to move on but Mike and I elected to soak in the sights a few minutes longer.
After a thirty minute rest, we reassembled our backpacks and continued our grand adventure. Bill inquired our whereabouts on the two way radio, soon after we got going. Mike replied, “Sorry Bill, but we’re still at the overlook sunning ourselves, 2 gorgeous blondes are rubbing suntan lotion on us”. An immediate response shot back over the radio from an unknown person, “Where are you?”.
After the lookout, we descended to Simmons Gap and immediately ascended another 1000 feet of another unnamed mountain. Two miles up and just when you get to the top you descend another 1.5 miles to Powell Gap. We already had accumulated six miles for the day and it was only eleven. What laid ahead was Hightop Mountain. A climb of approximately 1500 feet to an elevation of 3500 feet. Now this mountain was nonstop uphill. Numerous switchbacks reduced the severe steepness in areas. I felt like “The Little Engine that Could”, but the damn mountain wouldn’t stop. The rest stops were numerous, yet never long enough. The insides of my legs were getting chaffed from the constant friction of endless hiking and the heavy moisture accumulation didn’t help. I felt miserable but being macho you can’t let the others see the fatigue. Bull. Wimp.Mike must have felt the same way. Mike was definitely feeling like Katz at the moment. He removed his tent from his backpack and threw it 30 feet into the woods. Anything to reduce the damn weight factor. Later he remarked he should have put a note on the tent stating, “If found please return to Mike Kidd at............”
Even though my legs were galled raw, the final galling was when we encountered two PATC volunteers who were maintaining the trail. These two gentlemen were in their eighties. They each had a day pack on. They had hiked to the summit of Hightop and were proceeding back to their car at Smith Roach Gap. I was winded, dead tired, galled and here are two spry men twice my age, appearing as if they were teenagers. We inquired as to the whereabouts of Hightop Hut and they said it was less than a half mile. It was the longest half mile I ever encountered. During this half mile trek, Mike lightened his load numerous times. Throwing seemingly useless items into the woods including water. Finally he sat down exhausted. Mike said, “I’m sorry but I can’t go any farther”. I was bone tired also, but the thought of the hut just ahead was paramount on achieving. I took a small tote bag of Mike’s to lighten his load and told him to follow when he was ready. Oh what a site when the Hightop Hut came into sight. Relieve. I had just accomplished a blistering, whooping 8 miles. In perspective, Corn Dog was going to hike 32 miles in the opposite direction. Okay he was less than half my age. About 15 minutes, Mike came wandering into camp.
Bill and Bob arrived at the campsite probably an hour before my arrival. They had already cleaned up and ate. I immediately realized that the best measure of relief would be a hot shower. Okay I was brain dead at the time, the facilities were identical to Pinefield except that the water (spring) was 200 yards down a hill. With soap and a towel, I immediately trudged to the spring. Talk about invigorating. A cold spring water wash off stood my hair at attention. I never felt anything as cold as this, a quick brisk splash down brought monstrous goosebumps to my skin. But the feeling of elation on being fresh was overwhelming.The campsite quickly filled up for the evening. The majority being thru hikers.
A journal of the hikers is in the hut and made for interesting reading. I even spied Corn Dog’s entry from the previous day when he stopped here for lunch. It appeared that two different age groups were thru hikers. Young hikers (18 - 24 years of age) and seniors (60+). The D.C. hikers with the Dalmatians pulled into camp about three hours after our arrival. They were approximately 40 years of age and were section hiking the trail. Section hiking is when you segment the trail, hiking 3 days to a week. In comparison to a day hiker, who walks one day at a time with limited backpack provisions. At sunset a thru hiker, Can Do, a cranky 65 year old man started complaining about the Dalmatians. The D.C. guys promptly set up their tent behind the Hut.
Eleven people would be staying overnight in the hut. Overcrowded but livable by my tired standards. I decided to take the high bunk for the night (less crowded). As the sun was setting, it started to rain again. Tin roofs and rain create an intolerable racket, the only saving grace was I was completely exhausted and quickly zonked out. In the middle of the night, Mother Nature beckoned, my bladder was swollen. But how do you get down with eight sleeping people directly below you. Thank God, Mike’s bladder was awakened at the same time. I instantly sprung down into his vacated sleeping area. Mike queried me about all the racket, and I said the rain on the roof was quite noisy. Mike immediately replied, “That’s not rain, that’s rats!”
The next morning everyone was stirring at sunrise. Bill awoke with a 6 inch diameter hole in his pants where the critters had rummaged for and evidently retrieved some morsels of food. Thank God, he wasn’t wearing the pants at the time. Bob remarked that he was batting them away all night. Bob was reading A Walk in the Woods and spied the passage when Katz and Bryson stayed overnight at Hightop, one of the hikers killed 32 critters. Evidently their off spring have been fruitful and multiplied. Once again breakfast consisted of a couple of power bars and a granola bar. A quick walk down to the spring to replenish our water supply for the day was in order. Everything back into the backpacks and off for another exciting day in the woods.Upon resuming our hike we traversed about a half mile to the crest of Hightop Mountain at an elevation of 3,587 feet. The view was outstanding. This was only the second vista after hiking for over two days. The trek down Hightop was treacherous since it was strewn with slick granite rocks and countless tree roots. A small stream meandered alongside the trail in sections. This section was rather steep and the deer were sparse. We came out of the woods at Swift Run Gap and crossed Highway 33.The Saddleback Mountains with an elevation of 3,375 feet was our next objective. The hike from Hightop Hut, through the Saddleback Mountains and to South River area was uneventful. Once again the vistas were nonexistent. We were completely engulfed within the “Green Tunnel”. This section was exceptionally level, instead of going over the mountains we were traversing the valleys between the mountains. Clearings and apple tree grooves reminded me of the early settlers of the 1700’s who originally inhabited these mountains.I was actually getting my hiking legs and we hiked together for the eight miles from Hightop. No one really said anything during these eight miles until we stopped for a break. The accommodations from the previous night was on everyone’s mind and another night of rain and rats was inconceivable. We realized if we maintained this pace we would be getting to the next hut around noon time. We decided that a hot shower, a dry bed and a warm meal would be the best. Only 12 miles ahead was the comfort of Big Meadows Lodge. Our pace became youthful with the tangling of this reward ahead.