Days 28-29: Big Bald, Big Miles
May 10th: Jerry Cabin Shelter to Hogback Ridge shelter
May 11th: Hogback Ridge shelter to No Business Knob Shelter
Day 28: I take my first fall of the trail today, bruising my tailbone on the ground, my elbow on my trekking pole handle, and my dignity on the smug thoughts I was thinking earlier in the day during a muddy section of trail. "I haven't fallen at all yet," I thought, congratulating myself for my sure-footedness. (*all people who know me laugh aloud*) Hours later, on a seemingly innocent gravel downhill, my footing gives way and I'm on my butt. I blink up at the forest while I wait for any pain to set in. I catalog no injuries that could threaten a thru hike, so after gingerly bending my arm a few times, I heave myself to my feet and keep walking.
Day 29: Today we hike 20 miles. I'm receiving my lightweight down sleeping bag in the mail in Erwin, and the post office is only open until noon on Saturdays. So, it's a long day, our first Twenty, to put us close enough to get to Erwin by mid-morning tomorrow. Luckily, friends from the Smokies tramily Ashley, Robert, and Mike all plan the same thing, so it feels like a team effort.
I am first out of camp, but I quickly sacrifice my lead to stop to take photos of a vibrant orange salamander and then follow a spur trail to a view. The others pass, and then we are close together as we cross under the interstate. In the distance, I can see a high mountain with a grassy summit. Surely not... but it is. That mountain is not reserved for another day. It is Big Bald, the mere halfway point for our 20 mile day.
I feel heavy and slow on the relentless climb, but I'm never so winded that I have to stop for longer than a sip of water. Evidence, I tell myself, that I am getting stronger. I listen to a podcast and walk up and up and up through the woods, backwards in time as spring recedes into winter. Green grass, still, but only buds on the trees at higher elevation, no leaves.
The steepest part of the climb is at the end, and then I emerge on the bald. Moments later, I reach the summit, where Etienne, Rob, Ash, and Mike are seated in a circle in the grass with the whole world expanding out in every direction. It was one of the best moments of the trail so far.
After lunch, we continue, and I feel the miles accumulating, but I have to keep going. I start an audiobook of All the Light We Cannot See and grow so enthralled in the story that I don't stop as the shadows lengthen. The steep, rocky trail relaxes into a level path that wraps around the side of the mountain as if tracing a line on a topographic map. Finally, my phone dies, and the last two miles feel infinite. But of course, they are only two miles. So, an hour later, I walk slowly into camp, where my friends are pitching tents or boiling little pots of water for dinner.
A 20.8-mile day. I am exhausted, but proud of us. It feels like a figurative milestone as well as a literal one. We are getting our trail legs. Soon, a 20-mile day will feel no more daunting than 15 felt a few weeks ago. Maybe one day, we'll hike a marathon. I'm not in a hurry to get to Katahdin, but I like this physical challenge.