Saturday Oct 23rd 2021, 0630-1845
Bald Mountain Shelter to Little Laurel Shelter, SOBO AT mm 1898.6
6980 gain, 8430 loss
To make up for the lack of miles the day before, we planned another really long day. It was hard to get moving in the morning. The fog rolled in overnight, making the conditions cold and wet with condensation. I set out wearing all my layers for warmth, including rain gloves and skirt. I was so glad I didn’t camp on the bald. I would have been in the cold wind and damp all night. The shelter was the perfect spot to sleep, saving the bald experience for the early morning.
We reached it just as the morning glow was starting to appear in the east. Between this and the light of the moon, I was able to walk without my headlamp. We climbed above the fog, entering a land of surreal beauty. It was stark and bitterly cold, with a layer of frost on the grass sparkling in the moonlight, just as the sky sparkled with stars. I felt like I was climbing right into the night sky, a void all around, my feet the only thing just barely clinging to the surface of the earth. This must be close to what mountaineers experience when they make their early morning summit bids to craggy peaks. It also reminded me of the time I watched the sunrise from Haleakala at 11,000′, the giant volcano that makes up most of Maui. The name means House of the Sun.
We stopped briefly to try to capture some of the beauty in pictures. We couldn’t of course. I did get some shots of the Mt Mitchell range poking above the clouds, an island unto itself. I could barely discern which were mountain peaks in the sea of clouds. I would have liked to have stayed for the entire sunrise but it was too cold, so we pressed on.
The morning light revealed a sea of fall colors on the surrounding hillsides. It seemed as though yellow and red paint had suddenly rained down. The cold spell just days before had ushered in this rapidly changing landscape. It was such a contrast from the dark blues, grays, and whites we just descended from on the bald. The rest of the day was a feast of colors.
Being a weekend, day hikers, trail runners, and backpackers were out in droves. They were all heading up to the bald as we were coming down, so naturally we had to step aside for every one of them (uphill has right-of-way). No worries, it’s not like we were in a hurry to finish our 2,200 mile thru-hike before winter (we most definitely were). At one point, I stepped aside on an uphill slope for a large group of about 15 day hikers. My foot slipped on the slanted muddy surface and as I stuck out my trekking pole to catch myself, it snapped in half. I went down rather embarrassingly in front of everyone. Much worse than my hurt pride was loosing another trekking pole, especially for such a silly reason. I knew I could fix it in the next town but I’d be down a pole for 40 miles until then. My poles feel like a part of me, so hiking with just one makes me feel off balance and out of whack. Needless to say, I was in a rather bad mood for a bit and not willing to step aside for any more people on the trail. I was on my way to Georgia, coming thru!
I was happy to meet 2 guys who were out doing trail maintenance. They were each working solo, enthusiastic about the couple of miles they had adopted. The passion that such people have for the trail is so enlightening. We thanked them for their hard work and dedication. We also had a strange encounter with a backpacker who was walking ahead of us, then did a 180 at a switchback to start heading towards us. He was older and seemed very fatigued, even though he was going downhill. He had a large external frame pack with the load situated very high. He greeted us, marveling about how the trail had just started going up again. We were very confused by his behavior but reluctant to question his motives. We made small talk and he mentioned that he was coming from Sam’s gap (behind us), this being his first day on trail. We still didn’t say anything but began to suspect that when he’d come to the switch back, he’d turned too far and started heading back up trail from where he’d just come. Fatigue can lead to disorientation. By the time we pieced together what must have happened, we were a ways down trail. We probably should have gone back for him but I guess he’d have to learn things the hard way.
The afternoon brought several climbs, the first over amusingly named Big Butt Mountain, then Firescald Knob. They both had some fun rock scrambles and the latter had several grand viewpoints. I took lots of pictures of the fall foliage. Some day hikers asked how long the trail from the “other side” of the the mountain had taken me. Not knowing (or caring) which side trail or gap they must be referring to, I replied simply and succinctly: months. This was in fact the truth but ended the conversation quickly. They looked at me like I was daft and I refrained from explaining myself, since I still wasn’t over my earlier broken pole incident.
The rougher trail slowed my pace considerably, especially the way I was already limping along with one pole. Mud pulled ahead and I was left to be grumpy at myself. To make matters worse, my headphones stopped working so I couldn’t entertain myself via my MP3 player. The AT claimed a lot of equipment this day. Later I re-discovered that I had a bunch of John Denver songs on my phone, which brought me out of my funk at the end of the day. Some awesome backpacking ladies also shared their homemade waffle, cream and berry sandwiches with us, which were amazing! Spontaneous trail magic happens at the times I often need it the most. One of the ladies was from Hawaii, which brought me full circle back to my thoughts on Haleakala and the name for this post. Mahalo to these 2 trail angels.
The day ended with a great cruise down a mountainside, rocking out to John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. A campfire and cozy hut greeted me as the light faded…just perfect. Tents and hammocks were all around but the shelter was empty and open. Weekenders are usually eager to test their new gear setups, arriving early to pitch tents and hammocks, while we were just eager to throw our sleeping bags down and crash from 12 hours of hard hiking from dawn to dusk. I still had time to stretch while soaking up the warmth from the fire. It was so nice to go to sleep with it crackling just outside the shelter. Ahhh.
PS—an ode to day hikers, weekend warriors, and section hikers: I am one, was one, and will be again. I value and recognize the importance of getting outdoors to hike, whether it be a 1/2 mile or 2000. I know that thru-hikers adopt an air of superiority / ego when it comes to hiking a long trail. As the miles build up, we become really important…in our heads. It’s human nature to prioritize such large accomplishments over smaller ones. And we make comments that can be taken as demeaning and belittling. My banter about other hikers reflects the frustration I can sometimes feel about sharing the trail, especially with weekend crowds, along with the sarcasm I often apply to life, in an effort to be humorous. But I do passionately believe that the outdoors is for everyone and that there is plenty of room for all types to enjoy it. Forgive me for my gripes. All the hikers, runners, bikers, hunters, etc that I meet deserve to enjoy the trail just as much as I do. I’ve been in most all their shoes myself and appreciate that they’re awesome for living life to the fullest, in any way they can. I’m really privileged to be a able to thru-hike as much as I do but this does not make me better than anyone else. Amen.