Day 58, 9:22 pm: second supper is a Ziploc filled with ramen noodles, peanuts and rehydrated vegetables. Polishing off the meal, I lean back on a rock and take a deep breath of the refreshing cool, quiet air beyond the faint trickle of the spring near Blue Mountain Shelter. I say to myself, “tonight’s the night.”
With about 50 miles to Springer Mountain and the southern terminus, tonight will be the last night of my journey. I have lofty ambitions for how I want to spend the following hours hiking through the darkness. But as many a long-distance hiker knows, the elements play no favorites. Within less than a mile from the spring, I feel the first drips of rain. “No problem,” I think, “just a passing shower.” Hiking through the winding tunnels of rhododendron in the warm summer air, even by headlamp in the drizzle is a familiar and soothing experience to me.
The Southern Appalachians are my home. Nothing wrong with one final rinse before the finish. The sky opens up. I’m instantly soaked and the visibility of my high-powered headlamp drops to within just a few feet. What little I can see of the trail before me becomes a creek. I push on through the torrential downpour. How long can it last? This summertime storm apparently has no end. Miles creep by in the dark as I grow cold and tired of the relentless rain. Once again, the trail has taught me about humility.
I’m having difficulty following the path with limited visibility. My best guess is to continue following the stream of water rushing over the tops of my shoes. The water suddenly diverges in two directions. Looking up, I make out a wooden post. I lean in close enough to read the attached sign, which indicates that this is a side trail to Low Gap Shelter. Within an instant, I’m following the path to the lean-to. It’s a no-brainer and yet it’s after 1:00 am and there may be somebody asleep in the shelter. I don’t want to startle anyone awake… I also can’t keep hiking in this neverending deluge.
As I near the lean-to, I see a light shining, which is certainly a bit odd at this time of night. I direct my light toward the shelter to let the occupant(s) know that there is a hiker approaching. Once I am close enough to need not yell over the pouring rain, I greet the lone occupant who has set up his tent inside the shelter. Paul has been having difficulty sleeping due to fear of bears and snakes. He seems genuinely happy to have the company of a soaking wet shadow of man descend upon this shelter at some ungodly hour.
I savor being out of the rain for a few moments and talk with Paul. My ambition to continue hiking through the night is down, but not out. “I’ll wait here until it lets up a bit,” I say, starting to shiver. To minimize delay, I hope to resupply at Neel Gap right as the store opens at 8:00 am. Waiting till dawn would put me a couple hours behind.
Paul suggests that I get going no earlier than 4:00 am. “I read that one guy made it from Neel Gap to Low Gap in less than four hours,” he says.
“Where did you read that?”
“On the wall.”
I shine my headlamp across the wooden wall of the shelter, which has been filled with the witty and not-so-witty remarks of vandals armed with sharpy markers. This kind of graffiti is an increasing problem on the trail. But on this gloomy, bizarre night, the writing on the wall is somewhat prophetic, almost welcome.
Sure enough, on the wall beside Paul’s tent, some proud hiker has documented his hike from Neel Gap to Low Gap in under four hours. Getting colder by the minute, the plan for bedding down for a couple hours grows on me. “Okay, sounds good,” I say as I unpack my sodden gear.
A hard rain patters on the roof of the Low Gap Shelter drowning out most other sound. I can hear an excited squeaking. It’s 2:00 am and I’ve just bedded down. I shine my headlamp and spot three mice crawling around on my gear. Despite my exhaustion, I know I must protect the dwindling calories that will fuel me to my last resupply at Mountain Crossings. I extract my body from my damp quilt to find a rusty nail in the rafter from which I can hang my pack. Beside the nail, I read some more graffiti on the wall:
Into every life a little rain must fall. –Space Cowboy
I don’t know who Space Cowboy is, but his cosmic message strikes a cord. I have a flashback to my second night up in Maine, almost two months ago: lying down in a dark, musty lean-to, listening to a storm and wishing it away. Shivering all night only to awaken to more cold rain. Picking my way through slick rocks and saturated evergreens. Straining against wind above tree line over Whitecap Mountain and across the Barren-Chairback range. On the other side of these mountains, I ford swollen rivers and nearly get swept away. Almost two months and a lifetime ago…
This Georgia rainstorm is as relentless as the one through the Barren-Chairbacks. A perfect set of bookends for this trip. I set a light alarm on my cell phone and say goodbye to Paul whom I hope not to wake in two hours time.
“Godspeed,” says Paul.
4:00 am: The light on my cell phone beckons me to resume the final 43 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve gotten little to no sleep, but I’m thankful for a lull in the storm and seek to take full advantage of it. I pack quickly and quietly, which is easy enough when there is little to pack. I give thanks for a breakfast that consists of a handful of peanuts and raisins from a bag half-eaten by mice.
An Off-Season Journey along the PCT
6 days ago