Days 39-40: Chasing Waterfalls
May 21st: Stealth site Mile 398 to Moreland Gap shelter (15 miles)
May 22nd: Moreland Gap Shelter to Boots Off Hostel (15 miles)
On May 21st, we pack up our tents under a clear blue sky, but there’s rain in the forecast for the afternoon. Early in the day, we pass a mile marker made of sticks. We’ve hiked four hundred miles since Springer Mountain. Four hundred miles! But the number pales in comparison to the distance that remains: nearly 1800 miles still left to go. We’re not even 1/5th of the way.
Nearby, a spur trail leads a short distance to a waterfall. We take a short break there, clambering around on rocks to find the best photo angle and to feel the cool spray of mist from the cascading water. But there are thirteen miles left to hike, and we know the warm sunshine won’t last long, so we follow the side trail back to where our packs are waiting, leaning against a tree.
I have a foam sword that I found in a hiker box before leaving Damascus, so I hurry ahead until I find a narrow bridge across a creek and then defend it like the Black Knight in Monty Python. Etienne’s pack is adorned with the helium balloon that he bought for the parade, but as soon as the raindrops begin to fall, it droops and bobs along behind him just a few inches from the ground. So far on the trail, we’ve been among the plainer, less eccentric hikers (because the Appalachian Trail draws some very eccentric people), but now lots of people pause and ask us about these pointless possessions. We have silly answers. The sword is for the bears, and the helium balloon is for reducing pack weight.
We make it to a shelter just moments before the sky opens. I fix myself a tuna wrap, feeling lucky about our timing as other hikers arrive minutes later, soaked to the bone. That feeling gradually evaporates as the rain continues. We wait a while, but eventually we have to keep moving. Soon, I’m drenched. I like my Frogg Toggs, but they soak through in heavy rain. And it rains for the rest of the day. We see a fat turtle and another waterfall, and then hike through endless rhododendron to Moreland Gap Shelter.
I don’t like sleeping in shelters. I am a little afraid of mice, and I worry that other hikers will hate me for using an inflatable sleeping pad that crinkles about as loud as a jet engine any time I move (and I sleep like a rotisserie chicken, rolling over all night long). But it’s nice to camp near a shelter when it rains. That way, there’s a dry place to unpack and cook and eat and change, so the only gear that gets wet is the tent itself. If I’m at a shelter with a nice overhang protecting the picnic table, I don’t mind the rain at all. When I leave my pack on a nail in the shelter and crawl into my tent, the world outside disappears, and the sound of the raindrops on the ceiling puts me to sleep like a lullaby.
Once again, the sky is clear by morning. We get an early start and the trail is easy for a couple hours. Then, at Laurel Falls, there are steep stone steps that make my knees ache a little, particularly the right one. I don’t think much of it then, but later on, from northern Pennsylvania to Katahdin, I won’t be able to forget it.
The falls are huge and powerful and noisy. The trail picks its way downstream beside the river, hugging a rock face just a couple feet wide and a couple feet above the rushing water. After lunch, I see a snake, my first of the trail. It’s slender and black, and it hurries away before I can take a picture. Then we climb Pond Mountain. I fall behind Etienne, so I’m by myself when the thunder begins to rumble. I stash my phone and headphones in a ziplock but don’t bother to put on my raingear on such a warm, sunny climb. I’m at the very top of the mountain when the storm arrives, and I get soaked. But the rain doesn’t last long, and I am comfortable and cool as I descend the shady switchbacks to the bottom of the mountain. I find Etienne at the road, and we decide to stay at the nearby hostel instead of hitchhiking into Hampton, Tennessee. We still have enough food from Damascus to keep going without resupply.
Boots Off Hostel is my favorite so far, with the possible exception of Elmer’s in Hot Springs. It’s new and thoughtfully designed for hikers. There is plenty of storage space, modest resupply, and a lamp and outlet and curtain for every bunk. The showers are outdoors, where the water pours from holes in huge metal buckets, but it’s good and hot. I find a fat frog in the shower stall with me, but honestly, he only adds to the charm.