The Final Shakedown
After stumbling into my trail name, I hiked into Atkins and then went home to spend Easter with my family. On Tuesday, I was back at it. I hiked all day from Atkins without seeing another soul and spent the night alone at the first shelter. I carefully hung my bear bag and whistled while I cooked and did camp chores. As evening fell, I played an audiobook aloud with my phone, hoping the noise would keep the bears away, or at the very least that A Wrinkle in Time would so entertain the bears that they forgot about their appetites and just lingered to listen to the story. Eventually I turned it off and nestled into my sleeping bag.
I woke up the next morning uneaten, so I packed up my things and set off for Chestnut Knob shelter. It was another pleasant day of hiking with a cool boardwalk to a bridge over a river that threatened to spill across the top from all the recent rain and snow. In some places, the trail was contained in a narrow wooded corridor less than fifty yards across. On each side, cattle grazed in green pastures. I finished The Handmaid's Tale and put my headphones away so that I could silently process the abrupt ending to the story and the odd, thought-provoking epilogue as the trail began the relentless climb up to Chestnut Knob.
It's an unusual mountain. The trail ascends in switchbacks through dense woods, and then it emerges into an open grassy area. You feel like you are approaching the top, you must be, but then it just keeps going up, one false summit after the next, as this open field gets wider and the woods recede on each side. After a half mile or so, there's a spring fed pond, here near the top of the mountain. I filled up both my containers, knowing it was a dry campsite, and then was appalled to find that 1.8 miles still remained to the top, 1.8 uphill miles. The views open ridgeline were expansive. Farmland in the valley below and then a series of overlapping ridges of the mountains in three directions, fading to pale blue. Eventually I reached the edge of the open ridge and the trail reentered the woods but somehow managed to keep going up for another half mile before I emerged at the summit. At 4400 feet, the wind was strong and cold. Chestnut Knob Shelter is not a three-walled wooden lean-to like most shelters on the A.T. Instead it was more like a primitive stone cabin, fully enclosed with wooden platforms to sleep on. The wind whistled across the metal roof, and the weather forecast was grim, but I trusted this little fortress had seen harsher conditions than these, and it was still standing.
Even though this was the one shelter where I would have felt safe alone (thanks to that fourth wall keeping the bears out), I ended up with plenty of company. Three friendly section hikers from South Carolina and two gaunt thru-hikers arrived as evening fell.
When I woke up the next morning, my water bottle, sitting on the picnic table inside the cabin, was frozen. The little thermometer on my emergency whistle read 26°. Outside, we estimated the temperature was even lower and with the 20mph winds, it was a frigid trip to the privy.
I started down the mountain in all my clothes, only changing into my hiking outfit once I reached the stream a thousand feet below, where the temperatures were milder. I hiked just under 12 miles that day. The weather improved and my feet and legs felt good, but I had an upset stomach so the miles seemed long.
I spent the evening at the next shelter convinced I would be alone again, but then two different thru-hikers arrived. We chatted about trail names and food and my imminent departure to Georgia. Then I pitched my tent and spent a cold night with my Sawyer water filter so that it would not freeze. I barely slept and resolved to buy a warmer bag when I got home. The next day I was exhausted and my stomach felt worse, so the eleven miles to Brushy Mountain Outpost were difficult. Nevertheless, I hiked in early enough to get a milkshake before my dad arrived to pick me up, so morale was high. I ordered the lightest 20° bag I could get from REI for under $100 and packed up my things to fly to Georgia.