Even in the dark of the Standing Bear bunkhouse, I woke just as the sun began illuminating the common areas outside. Shapes of buildings were forming outside the open window next to my bunk, and I took the morning songs of birds fluttering through the trees as a sign to get a move on with my day. I packed quickly and quietly so as not to wake the other hikers in the bunkhouse and only had settling up left before I could resume my journey north. I searched around the check-in building, past the tree houses and drying laundry on the side of the wrap-around porch, and even rang the doorbell. Still finding myself alone, I added up all my expenses and left 2 crisp $20 bills on the small clipboard placed directly on top of the sign in sheet I had used the day before. I gave various dogs a few more loving pats, backtracked once for my trekking poles and drying socks, and took off down the trail.
My day began with a 2,500 foot climb over 4.5 miles out of Standing Bear. I was generous with my time knowing today would be the lowest-mile day remaining in my trip and took frequent snack and water breaks. Both knees held up fairly well, but today was my first day of taking Vitamin I more than one time. My left knee appreciated the varied grade of the AT, but the gash on my right was outlined in red and squirting pus if touched. I’d have to get a second opinion on that after meeting up with Dad in Hot Springs.
My excitement grew with every mile that took me closer to Max Patch. I’d be staying at Roaring Fork Shelter, just outside of the camping restrictions put in place to protect the bald. I was curious what I’d find on the grassy mountain top – last I’d heard the frequent Leave No Trace violations had left the bald in incredibly rough shape resulting in the 2 year use restrictions in the area, according to a newspaper clipping my Gram sent me from the Asheville Citizen Times.
As I slowly climbed toward the summit and left the treeline behind me, I instantly knew whatever was being done to rehabilitate the area was working. I admired a vast array of butterflies, wild blackberries, wildflowers of all colors and sizes, and birds darting between the tall grasses lining the trail. As the Blue Ridge Mountains appeared in a panoramic view with every footstep north, I thought of the man at the hostel who had been called to trek on foot from Houston to these very mountains. Those moments soaking in the sun at the summit of Max Patch, admiring the 360 degree view around me, I knew I was answering the same call by exploring these mountains I’ll always call home.
As I climbed the large wooden steps around the summit, lined with locust logs and reinforced with large metal bars, I thought of the National Trails Day my Dad and I participated in with the Carolina Mountain Club years ago while I was still in college. Our team leader was named Skip – and Skip was 80 years old. After waiting out a lightning storm for over an hour, we were finally approved to begin our work for the day – removing old rotten steps and installing new locust logs in their place. The long day of manual labor left my Dad and I with a deeper appreciation for the hard work that goes into maintaining every resource on the trail, and also how Skip could hoist 2 large locust logs one on each shoulder without seeming to bat an eye.
Tonight was the first Ramen Bomb of my trip. For those unaquainted, a Ramen Bomb is the staple food of hiker-trash culture and consists of a package (or two) of Ramen Noodles and a package of instant mashed potatoes. It’s a carb-ilicious concoction that can only be finished by someone afflicted with a gnarly case of hiker hunger – and I finished it with so much zeal I burned my tongue on my titanium spoon.
After a few days in the Great Smokey Mountains with the rangers and Standing Bear, it was beginning to look like I’d have the shelter to myself for the night. That only happend once on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and I could’ve easily caught up with other hikers if I wanted to, but after 1,000 miles without spending a night alone the temptation was irresistible. Though at this point I’m no stranger to solo nights on the Appalachian High Route, I still had to calm myself once or twice when particularly large branches fell from the treetops or squirrels playing among the leaves caused mini-showers of acorns beneath them.
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