Crushing The Burroughs: Catskill Mountains

It had been some time since we’d taken on a substantial backpacking trip, but Matt had managed to piece together four options for a Summer Solstice weekender in the Catskills. Ranging in difficulty from short to long, we had PDF maps numbered 1 through 4 respectively.

On the invite list were the usual suspects: Matt, Anton, Olga, Jeff, Erin, and yours truly. I started a new job last year after returning from my AT trip, and invited one of the guys on the IT team I’d gotten to know pretty well: Nick. Matt also invited a long-time friend, Mike, to join us.

As our trip deadline drew near, we’d thrown in several opinions for the trip via a Facebook event page that Matt had kindly set up, but the trail outlined on map #4 really stood out for most of us. It was by far the longest: starting at Woodland Valley Campground trail head we would continue up and over Wittenberg, Cornell, Slide, Table, and finally Peekamoose. This route would pass through The Burroughs and along the Slide-Peekamoose Trail.

Deciding to spend the night close to the trail head, the majority of our group made reservations to stay at Woodland Valley Campground on Friday night. On a whim and best guess, I picked out two sites: 30 and 32 as they looked relatively close to the creek. I booked 30 and Matt the other.

I’d taken Friday off from work and so had Nick, which meant we could get on the road pretty early. I arranged to pick him up on the way as he lives right off the I-87. Nick had told me that he was borrowing some gear from his dad and that it was “old and had seen some use”. When I pulled up to his house his dad’s external frame pack with tubular steel hip belts was leaning up against a car in his driveway. It was huge, and the tent and other accoutrements were placed on top, strapped on by one of those old bungees your folks used in the 70’s to fasten luggage. All in all, this thing came up to higher than my hips when standing on the ground. It was massive. Thank god I’d decided to bring some of my own gear: ULA Circuit, 20°F TQ and some other ultralight gear.

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We set off at around 12:30pm and our scheduled eta was around 2:30pm. Hitting traffic about an hour in slowed our journey but we got to camp around 3:00pm. After checking in and driving to site 30 I realized that I’d made a very lucky choice: we were right on the creek! Amazing.

We unpacked and went through my gear for Nick to use – I think in total I helped shave about 20lbs off his base weight alone. I hung my hammock and Matt rolled in about an hour later. This was Matt’s first outing with his new hammock gear, so I was stoked for him. Matt’s always been a tent guy, and I think his tent/sleeping pad choices tallied in at a considerably larger weight.

We got some wood from the ranger station and set about building a fire and making dinner. Mike arrived shortly after Matt, and we got some hotdogs on the go right away. Anton and Olga had decided to arrive on Saturday morning as they both had to work on Friday, but Jeff and Erin were driving up that night.

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Wine and hotdogs, what a combo. As night drew in I wanted to hit the sack hard. Plus I was just jonesing to have some hang time. I bade the boys a good night and slipped into my hammock, zippered the side and I was out like a light. Slowly rocking, hanging between two trees only feet away from the creek – sleep came fast.

Waking up at 3:00am needing a leak, I realized that my “nap” had turned into a full-on sleep fest – I spotted Jeff’s car parked and their tent pitched over on site 32. Cool, they’d made it. After doing my business I felt my body shake uncontrollably – it was freezing and there I was standing in only shorts and a t-shirt. I hurried back to my hammock and pulled my ZPacks quilt up and over me. I was laying there listening to the flow of the creek whilst peeking out at the stark white moonlight through the trees above me. I love this time of night, it’s so peaceful. It’s like the moon is shining just for me to see.

As usual I’m the first one up. I unzip my hammock and just lie there watching and listening to the water gurgle by without a care in the world.

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First things first: where’s the coffee? I unlocked the car and start to unpack some of the breakfast stuffs and Nick pokes his head out of the tent – he decided to use my SMD Lunar Duo instead of the 6lb monster his dad had loaned him. He slept well which was good to hear.

Matt slipped out of his hammock shortly after and got his coffee grinder and espresso maker right to work. Anton and Olga arrived around 9:30am and it was good to see them again – haven’t had the chance to hang out since they got married a few weeks prior.

We needed to drop off a couple of cars at the end of the trail — southern trail head of Peekamoose — and Mike’s car off by Slide Mountain. He was just going to join us for a day hike while we kept going all the way for an overnight on Saturday.

Once back at Woodland Valley I insisted on the obligatory group shot – I like taking these as we always look so clean and refreshed, unlike the shots I take a day or two into these trips at the end, disheveled and filthy.

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We set out quite late — 11:00am to be exact. We had a lot of ground to cover and some serious elevation change to handle – 11:00am was way too late for a hike this long.

Crossing the creek we started the ascent up Wittenberg. I’ve got quite a lot of experience climbing mountains on the east coast, but this first climb was up steep dirt/rocky trail and boulder/outcropping scrambling for close to ~3.5 miles. Straight up, and it kicked my arse.

For what seemed like an eternity, we summited Wittenberg and we all spread out along a smooth rocky outcropping that delivered 180° views over the Catskills before us; beautiful valleys and lush green rolling peaks – stunning. This was the payoff we’d all earned with our sweat equity.

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A quick bite to eat (I opted for a spam single wrapped in a flour tortilla with a splash of Frank’s Red Hot, and we all took photos and cool panoramas. We were soon hoisting our packs and we headed down the mountain and onto the climb up Cornell.

The hike up Cornell wasn’t nearly as rough as Wittenberg, but it did offer its own fair share of bouldering/crag scrambling which littered the ascent.

No real view off Cornell, maybe a couple of lookouts, but most of us just kept going. Our biggest climb of the day was straight ahead: Slide Mountain.

Standing at 4,190′, Slide Mountain is the highest peak in the Catskills. From the side, Slide may look like a children’s playground slide: the steep climb on one side leading to the top, and then a long steady downhill the other side. From Cornell we were heading up the [very] steep side. This climb was brutal and far steeper than Wittenberg. Granted the distance needed to summit Slide was shorter, but the extra effort required to hoof ourselves up and over was exacerbated by the angle of ascent.

Holy effing moly.

If I stopped to catch my breath once, I did it ten times. And the weather had gotten warmer, too. Luckily we’d been graced with a lot of lower-level shade during the earlier part of the day, but as we neared these summits, we were more exposed to the sun – and it was hot.

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Once at the top of Slide there were no real views again, not like Wittenberg, but there were several small spots you could walk out to – but nowhere we could all gather and drop our packs. At a few areas on the trail we could look back and see the summits of Cornell and Wittenberg in the distance, green and rolling, smooth almost: trust me, they were anything but “smooth”.

I’ve often thought that the energy needed to climb serious elevation was harder than the descents of similar elevation loss. That myth was busted during my descent from Mount Cammerer out of the Smokies. Descents are way harder: with 20-30lbs of added weight pushing down hard on your knees and other joints makes for a rough hike downhill.

We stopped for a short break to catch our breaths and chug water, then headed down the long rocky descent to camp. Four long knee-destroying miles down we went, single file for the most part as the going was rocky underfoot. I’d hiked behind Olga for a couple of miles and we caught up on life and sundries. When the trail is as rocky as this it’s hard to not look up at the surrounding beauty, fearful of rolling an ankle on that one bastard loose stone. My eyes affixed always a few feet ahead of me as I traverse this descent I see Olga’s left ankle roll – completely at 90°. Shit, she yelped and hobbled to the side of the trail. I know only too well how that feels – with all your weight pressing your ankle to its outer limits you’re treated to an electric jolt of pain that shoots all the way from your foot upwards through your entire body. Man does that suck.

She slowed her pace and took it easy for the remainder of the hike down Slide.

About two hours after rounding the summit of the largest mountain in the Catskills the trail started to level and we heard the welcome sound of a fast moving body of water. Were we at the river? Our campsite for the night was situated right next to East Branch Neversink River and the sound of water got the group excited. We picked up our pace a little as the trail flattened out and through a clearing the river came into view in all its glory. Finally, we were here.

Crossing a cool wooden bridge we followed the trail a little more and there were an abundance of campsites littered to our left and to our right. We spotted another bridge off to the left where the trail veered and, over that one, we found our own little paradise. Right on the creek’s banks, we’d found our home for the night. It was perfect.

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Jeff and a couple of others had mentioned keeping going up Table and make camp 2.7 miles farther, making for an easier Sunday – the majority, including myself, were completely spent. It had been a long arduous day and the temps had been pretty high. Nothing could have dragged me away from that campsite – I was famished and tired, stinky and greasy.

We scurried like worker bees vying for spaces to pitch our shelters; Matt and I had the simple task of finding two trees to hang from: the others searching for flat ground, sweeping the forest floor with their boots checking for rocks and roots. I love my hammock, and this is the #1 reason I choose to hang instead of tenting. I’m completely free of the task of searching for flat ground.

Matt and I had our hammocks up pretty quickly, and the others were unfolding poles and clipping into brass grommets into tent corners. I helped Nick with the SMD Lunar Duo I’d loaned him for the trip, and I turned to see Jeff stripping. He looked like a lifeguard ripping off his clothing to save a drowning boy and, down to his pants, he sprinted for the river. I managed to start recording and catch it on video – good times. Hitting the frigid water he let out a cacophonous howl; the forest alive with his echoes and high pitched laughter.

We’d soon started a fire with much help from Jeff and Erin, and before long we were chowing down on various freeze dried accoutrements and instant mashed potatoes. A blazing fire centered within a circle of well-fed hikers, we laughed into the night telling stories and sipping on aged tequila.

My body hit hiker midnight (it had to be earlier than 8:30pm, and it was still light out) I and was the first to hang my hat for the night. Sliding into my Blackbird I was out like a light. Rocking to and fro as dusk turned to night, the evening sky and its myriad diamond-like stars peeking through the tree limbs above.

The next morning was pretty standard: baggy-eyed and hungry hikers climbing out of their shelters like zombies clawing their way out of graveyard crypts in the Thriller music video. I’d opted for a no-cook breakfast of frosted Pop Tarts again, choosing to only boil water for coffee.

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Jeff and Anton headed over to where their food bag was hanging and yanked the cord. Somehow the cord managed to re-loop itself through the carabiner for a 2nd time – it was stuck, not coming down or going up so the stick could be removed (we PCT hang our bags on our backpacking trips). The bag wasn’t budging, and even with Anton climbing on Jeff’s shoulders, it wasn’t going anywhere.

Jeff wasn’t about to give up so easily.

He tried to shimmy the tree from which the bag was hanging but it was too thick to grab around its girth. I motioned to another tree next to it that was much skinnier. Jeff needed no further prompting and leapt into action. Shimmying the smaller tree he climbed to the height of the food bag and with some tugging he pulled it free. Applause abound, the food was freed.

Matt was still in his hammock. I’m sure he wondered what was going on with all the laughing and shouting. Erin helped him wake from his slumber by gently rocking the shit out of his hammock and yelling like a banshee. He wasn’t too pleased – good job they’re related.

We were all packed up by around 7:30am and, right after our obligatory group photo, we headed back onto into the trail headed for Table Mountain.

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Off the bat we were treated to a ~1,500′ elevation gain to the summit of Table, some viewpoints but nothing like Wittenberg the day before. The pine forest on top of Table was beautiful to walk through. A flat and soft needle-cushioned trail that felt like we were wearing our favorite slippers, we made a good pace down the other side and back up again to summit Peekamoose. The descent and subsequent climb between these two was minimal. We stopped for a bite and a quick rest stop before summitting Peekamoose, knowing the downhill to the trail head was going to be long.

I hate the descents. Reminds me of Mt Cammarer in the Smokies: six miles straight down. This wasn’t quite six miles but it was close to it. We passed through the three distinct levels of foliage as we descended, and after a good two hours we reached the Peekamoose trail head. My feet and knees were shot, this was a rough downhill indeed.

Erin and Olga agreed to drive Nick and me back to my car at the Wittenberg trail head near Woodland Valley campground. My feet were barking and my knees swollen, and the ride through the winding mountain roads back to my car was very relaxing.

Great trip with great friends; my backpacking weekends with these guys become more enjoyable each time we hang out. I’m also very happy to be able to cross another five 35’ers off the list – nine down, 26 to go.

Climbs, smiles, and ~15 miles (566.5m)

I rolled out of bed at around 6:00am and Specs was still asleep (we’re sharing a double room to save money), so I tended to my morning doings in a quieter fashion than normal.

Teeth brushed I opened the front door and spied the sunrise; and it was stunning. The sun was just above the horizon and was throwing yellows and oranges over the Appalachians in the distance. The hills were still blanketed by rolling mist as the humid forest floor shed its moisture from the downpour the day before.

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It wasn’t long before Red Specs and Tie Dye emerged, and we were also joined by Double Dare — a class of 2003 AT thru hiker — and breakfast was on the cards. There’s not much to do in Bland, VA – a Dairy Queen, Dollar General, a gas station, and a Subway. We hit up DQ and pounded breakfast sandwiches and burritos. Specs, Tie Dye and I saved some of our burrito breakfast to take on the trail for lunch.

We headed back to the motel where Double Dare was being picked up for his shuttle to the trail — a spot farther north than we were heading today — and Bubba rolled in at around 8:30am. Bubba provides a shuttle service for hikers in and around the Bland area.

We had to wait until Bubba returned for our shuttle to Walker Gap. We were on the road by 9:30am, and I hopped in the back of his truck as Tie Dye and Specs shared the cab up front. How often do you get to ride in the back of a pickup truck?!

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It took literally 45 minutes to get to the trail head at Walker Gap, and the ride trough the mountains albeit bumpy and long, was gorgeous. I spotted three deer (one of which stood majestically, and starred at me as we followed the forest road) and the smell of freshly dewed fauna was spellbinding. We arrived and hopped out of Bubba’s truck like three teenage gymnasts – we were ready to take on the day.

We’d decided to slack pack and flip flop today as the elevation map looked a little kinder southbound than going north. Our goal was to reach VA 610 where we had finished yesterday, 14.9 miles away. Given we were staying at the motel again tonight (I’m expecting some packages on Wednesday), it didn’t make sense taking a full pack; slack packing is easier on the body, and bigger mileage can be enjoyed with less stresses on the muscles and joints.

I led our trio up the first climb (remember, there’s always a climb out of a “Gap”), and I was going great guns. The 1.3 miles and 890 feet of elevation gain was easy, making the summit in 20 minutes. It felt great to get so much clean trail air in my lungs. At the top was Chestnut Knob Shelter, a fully enclosed concrete block shelter. The views from the summit were, as always, beautiful. We snapped away before heading out.

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A slowly descending rolling hillside was gorgeous to hike trough, and views to the east were plentiful. We passed many AT hikers going north and most of them looked wiped out; their climb (our pending descent) was a lung busting 4.4 miles over a 2,077′ elevation gain – ridiculous.

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We took our sweet time going downhill, and we spent at least a couple of hours making our way down. We stopped by a small stream to refill our water bottles and grabbed a bite to eat: burritos! They were cold but a couple drops of Texas Pete’s hot sauce turned them into gourmet food.

We came to a gravel road (VA 625) and Soul Sister was here talking to some section hikers. It was nice to see her and she and Tie Dye caught up. Photo op and we continued on.

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The trail was muddy and wet as it wound through the forest alongside creeks and streams and I pretended to be a tightrope walker along many of the notched log crossings. I was having a great day.

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Slight descent for about a mile and we came upon a gorgeous footbridge which crossed the wide and deep Lick Creek. We stopped and took some more photos and enjoyed watching the abundance of small fish swim about.

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From there we had a pretty steep and long climb, and the day had become very warm – it was at least 80°F and humid. For 1.2 miles we climbed 736′ and the heat was brutal – the cork handles of my trekking poles were soaked and slippery with sweat which had rolled down my arms and over my hands.

Once we got to the top of Lynn Camp Mountain we realized that we’d taken our sweet time all day – not starting until 10:40am didn’t help, either. We’d scheduled a 4:00pm pickup with Bubba from VA 610, 7 miles away, and it was 2:45pm. We were not going to make it, not a chance. Tie Dye called him and we were given a 5:30pm alternative. Chugging what water we had left, we ran — and I mean ran — down to Lynn Camp Creek. I was down in 15 minutes and my ankles, knees, and everything else was holding up nicely. Then came a 2.5 mile climb to Brushy Mountain – we didn’t think to stop at Knot Maul Branch Shelter to say our hellos to two other thru hikers – we were on a mission. The climb was long, humid, and prolonged. It completely kicked my ass and drained whatever was left in the tank. I was spent. I took some video while descending through open meadows and without the tree cover it was awfully hot.

O’Lystery Pavilion was at the bottom and to the side of VA 42, and the trail continued on the other side. The trail was level for the next mile, then it went up, and I had nothing left. Absolutely nothing, my body yearned for the hike to end. I bumped into Nutella as I climbed — I’d met her a few times before, nice girl — and asked how far the road was. She was it was “just up there”. I hate it when people say shit like that. I need to learn to stop asking stupid questions like these, because it’s never just up there or just around the bend.

I had to climb over another two stiles, which at this point of the day felt like climbing over giant wooden ladders. They weren’t, they were only 5-6 rungs at most. The meadow by the side of VA 610 came into view, as did the road shortly thereafter. I let out a WHOOP! and with my head down and body aching, I made my way to the road where Bubba was waiting. One more stile to climb over, I seethed in disgust. It took all I had left to pull myself into the back of the truck, and my knees were completely shot. They throbbed, and I had a headache, too. Tie Dye and I exchanged some conversation in the back as we headed “home”, and I fidgeted the whole trip trying to find comfortable positions for my beat-up legs.

Red Specs raided the hiker box inside the motel office and finagled some shower gel, which is a luxury out here.

Showered, changed, and smelling like “fresh mountain spring”, we took a (painful) walk down to the gas station to pick up a 12-pack of Heineken and I ordered two large pizzas and garlic bread for the three of us. We enjoyed the rest of our evening woolfing pizza and beers outside on a picnic bench in the parking lot and watched the night roll in.

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With full bellies we turned in. My right knee feels swollen, and I intend to zero if I’m in worse shape in the morning.

I was out like a light.

Miles hiked today: 14.9

Hemlock Hollow, thru-hike sorrow (290.2m)

Not much ankle pain this morning, but I still had to hobble to the bathroom from the sofa.

Around 7:30am, Cap woke up and began packing final items before our hike. I had my day pack set and my regular pack ready for delivery to Hemlock Hollow, a hostel with bunks and cabins 16 trail miles from our Hot Springs starting point this morning. We were slack packing, and I’d spoken with Hattie the night before — the owner of the hostel — it was going to be an easier day without our full ~25lb packs. Excited to return to the trail; hiking helps to warm up muscles and aids in circulating what lubricants I have left in my aching joints.

Coffee, group photo, and we were on the road back to Hot Springs by 8:45am. We stopped at Reggie’s for breakfast on the way which was a treat.

By the time we got to town it was almost 11:00am, so we said our farewells to Lola and we were off.

Four ibuprofen, down the hatch. I still had some swelling this morning.

Steep and prolonged climbs followed, and I was feeling great. New shoes felt superb and I was making a fantastic pace. After the climbs the trail became hill hugging and sweeping through gentle PUDs over some beautiful areas. Green tunnels and easily navigable trail, I was on a roll.

About half way in (8 miles) my left ankle started to tweak, and so did my right extensor tendon. You have to be kidding me, not now.

Three more ibuprofen; I had to keep both the pain and swelling down and keep going – it was close to 3:00pm and I still had another three and a half to four hours to go.

I pushed on and each step began to feel like I had hammers smashing me in the feet and shin. My left ankle was painful on both the outside and inside, agonizing.

By 5:30pm I was hobbling and leaning heavily on my trekking poles, and the downhills — which were aplenty — we’re destroying me.

Four more ibuprofen.

My spirit and determination was waning, and fast. It took everything I had to keep going and I hung back with Alfalfa for the final few miles. I was coming in last. I know it’s not a race, but when I’ve been one of the first to finish each day, this was a big telltale sign of what was about to become the inevitable.

Reaching the hostel at 7:00pm is was in so much pain that even standing still was excruciating. I’d told Alfalfa, Cap, and Tom that I thought today would be my last day, I just couldn’t keep popping close to a dozen ibuprofen every day. They were shocked to hear me speak with such conviction, but they’d all seen how much pain I was in, and how much medication I was taking.

I called my wife and brought her up to speed about me quitting. As usual, she did her best to motivate me, playing to my passion for staying the course; but I think my decision had already been made a week ago coming down to Davenport Gap. I was sick of pushing, tired of being in pain – it’s exhausting, and I wasn’t enjoying the trail anymore.

I’m done.

Hot Springs, halle-effing-luljah (273.9m)

Six o’clock and I figured it was a good time to get up. Cap shouted across to see if I was awake. We’d expected rain through the night but it never came; it was pretty windy most of the night, though, and it ripped out one of my stakes in the early hours, turning one corner of my tarp into a loud flapping cuben flag.

Tie Dye headed out onto the trail at 6:30am as she’d not slept, and Cap, Tank, and I were on the trail by 7:30am – the earliest we’d broken camp since starting our thru hikes.

We had 7.6 miles to get to Hot Springs and our pace was quick out of the gate; we got to Deer Park Mountain Shelter — 4.3 miles away — in a little less than an hour and a half. Steep climb to the top of Deer Park Mountain and then a long 2.4 miles downhill to Hot Springs.

Have I mentioned how much I hate downhills?

After being dropped off on the outskirts of town by the trail, we followed the white blaze across the street to a set of steep (and slippery) stone steps leading down to the main road through town. Looking left we could make out the “AT” tiles laid into the sidewalk. It wasn’t long before we rounded a corner and saw the restaurant: Smokey Mountain Diner. Tank, Cap and I took a table and ordered coffees and food; both lads ordered their “hungry hiker” burgers and I opted for their “skillet breakfast” – our plates were cleaned with ease. Camel and his son Alfalfa made it into town shortly after and joined us for breakfast. Tie Dye had been in town a little longer and had already paid a visit to the outfitters to collect her packages. She joined us for breakfast, too.

After breakfast I walked over to Bluff Mountain Outfitters and picked up my packages; one had some awesome goodies all the way from NY: a new Sawyer Squeeze filter (my original one had frozen on night #1 at Hawk Mountain Shelter), a nice sheet of Polycryo, and some post-it notes with cute messages on them!

I picked up some XS sized nylon stuff sacks for my first aid kit and other gear that I’d kept in the small cuben sacks I’d ordered from ZPacks. As it turns out the cuben used for the small stuff sacks isn’t that “thru durable”, and certainly not long distance worthy; there are small tears appearing in all the sacks I’ve been using.

I also picked up a new pack, a ULA Circuit. I’ve been using my Six Moon Designs Swift pack for some time before the AT, and it’s a great weekender. What I found to be a negative on this long distance thru hike is that the hip belt has no real benefit. 99% of packs have wraparound waist/hip padding that provides support and comfort, then the hip belt pockets are attached to the belt. With the Swift, the pockets are the hip belt. No matter how tight I pull them around my waist they’d always end up slipping down. Another negative that had recently started happening is that both shoulder strap buckles don’t hold the webbing as firmly as they used to. I’m constantly retightening and retightening. It’s annoying and frankly it’s just not an appropriate product for my needs. Oh, and the left sternum strap webbing has come loose of the buckle when trying to adjust the height. I’m pretty dissatisfied with it.

After being measured and fitted for the Circuit by one of the outfitter’s specialists, I feel it’s going to provide me with a much sturdier ride, and the popularity of the ULA line with thru hikers is also very encouraging.

Captain Dan’s good friend, Ken Jolley was picking us up from the outfitters and driving us the ~90 miles to Dan’s cabin in NC. We’re taking a zero there and I’m hoping that I can rest up my ankles again.

The skies opened and it bucketed. We threw our packs inside large plastic sacks that Ken had brought with him and tossed our gear in the flat bed. Four guys on the back seat, Cap riding shotgun, and Tie Dye straddling the console. Sardines.

The rain was torrential the entire trip to Cap’s cabin and eased off later in the day.

His cabin is fantastic and had an almost Aquone Hostel feel to it. Completely open concept inside, 60″ flat screen, awesome kitchen with a massive butcher’s block island, and two bedrooms. There were two large leather sofas which were so comfy; I baggsied one right away.

By early evening we were all starving again so we made haste for a local Italian restaurant: Tuscany. Plates piled high with different types of pastas and sauces along with 25 wings, there was little left after our wolfing. Dessert followed, and with full hiker bellies we retired back to the cabin and chilled.

The sofa was hella-comfy.

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Max Patch, a Walnut, and a mighty Bluff (266.4m)

I’ve been hiking with painful ankles and tendons for roughly five days now, and much to my chagrin, I’m popping about a dozen ibuprofen daily. It’s not the smartest move to be masking the pain, but they do help with reducing the swelling around my ankle and tendons.

My left ankle has yet to heal fully and remains swollen, and I pulled the uppermost tendon on my right foot/shin a few days ago; I haven’t seen a doctor yet, but my own research points to the extensor digitorum longus. It doesn’t hurt at all on the climbs, but going along the flats and especially downhill is agonizing with each step: heel to toe, and when the front of my foot touches the ground it stretches that tendon – sharp pain. I’ve been trying to land flat-footed and it helps, but I’m taking the whole weight of that right step on my right hip now instead of the knee/quad, so my hip aches.

Shoot me.

I’d bought two ankle braces from Walmart while in Newport and have been wearing one on my left [rolled] ankle; it’s been pretty good so far (read: not rolled since). The right tendon issue started during the massive descent from Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies after leaving Cosby Knob Shelter with St. Croix, Blue, and Bitter Goat. The hike down was a 3,000′ descent over 4.2 miles to Davenport Gap. It was long, painful, and extremely unpleasant. Every step pulled on that tendon and yanked at it with such deep ripping pain that my face would wince and grimace on every, single, step. It was the first time that I had to stop and rest going downhill. Imagine for a second: I’m pretty much taking on steep prolonged climbs without stopping, and it’s the descents that are bringing me to a painful halt — all the while I’m concentrating on where I placed my left foot — none of this made any sense to me, I became frustrated and angry. After finding the balls to stay on the trail after the previous day’s ankle roll, I now had this new injury to contend with.

I was waking every hour or so at Brown Gap, and each time I would drop an expletive; I’d completely forgotten to take out my painkillers from my bear bag which was hanging 15′ off the ground over 200′ away from my camp. This wasn’t a mistake I’d make a second time. I dragged myself up at 7:00am and launched into morning mode: bear bag down, breakfast readiness, hammock breakdown, teeth brushing, water guzzling, pack packed, and I was off. It was 9:00am by the time I set off, and it was a doozie of a climb off the bat. Things leveled off and we reached Max Patch in good time. We had complete 360° views, and it was some of most serene landscape I’d seen since Springer. The top of Max Patch is one huge dome of grass, like a hemispherical lawn. Gorgeous.

Downhill again for 5 miles and it was slow going again for me. The ibuprofen I was popping — sometimes 3 or 4 at a time — was wearing off in a few hours and my tendon was killing me.

We passed two women walking south in the AT with their dog, Rusty; one of the ladies, Rebecca, told us that her husband Tom was at Lemon Gap with trail magic. Apparently he was there making bacon and eggs, along with homemade cinnamon buns and biscuits. Our spirits lifted instantly and our pace increased to what seemed a jog. Tom and his truck came into view along with a long row of lawn chairs, and a picnic table full of food, tea, and other goodies. Fist bumps with Tom and we filled our plates with sustenance. I think my favorite thing about the whole scene were the chairs. It was so good to sit, just to park my arse and not move. I was in heaven and so were my feet.

We took a lovely 45 minute break and I literally had to peel myself off my seat. Standing I could feel my knees and feet had locked up. I’d been praying for a hill, a goddam mountain to climb so it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Just beyond Lemon Gap and the incredible generosity of Tom and Rebecca, we arrived at the base of Walnut Mountain. I let out a sigh of relief; finally a climb.

Thank. Shitting. God.

Walnut wasn’t a huge climb, but it was steep in places and I could keep moving, and moving uphill. I wasn’t in pain anymore. It was a descent on the other side and I took it slowly, then I was at the base of Bluff Mountain — fu*king brilliant — 1,000′ elevation gain over 1.7 miles. I was up and at the summit pretty quickly and stopped to take some shots.

We’d decided earlier in the day to hike the 15.8 miles from Brown Gap to Old Road, and our campsite was 3.2 miles away… and 1,971′ down. Come the f*ck on. At this point I was completely and utterly over going downhill. It hurt, and really, really badly. My ibuprofen were lasting two hours at a time at this point, and for the most part doing absolutely nothing for my extensor tendon – nothing.

By the time we got to Old Road I was an angry and twisted old man. Hobbling off the trail I found two trees to set up my hammock and set to work. Not before dropping another three vitamin I’s (ibuprofen are commonly nicknamed vitamin I on the trail). Cap, TD, Tank and I set up shelter alongside one another and we shot the shit for about an hour until I hit the sack about 7:00pm. Hanging and swinging gently, I was out like a light.

It was about 11:00pm the first time I woke up to a throbbing ankle. Three vitamin I’s and I was back asleep again… until 1:30am. Rinse, repeat, four more times.

One good thing: my calves are starting to look like they’re made out of blocks of granite.

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The Smokies almost smoked me (238.1m)

I’ve not slept a solid night whilst hiking the Smokies; my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad felt like sleeping on a block of granite (despite trying different firmness options), and I would turn over 45° every 15-20 minutes: back, right side, front, left side, back… and so on, all night. My knees and ankle would flare up in pain all through the night and I would spend 10-20 minutes awake trying to “think” through the pain. I’d listen to my own breathing, anything to try and get me to sleep. I’d get a rhythm going and it would be interrupted by a rumble of snoring. Seriously, it was an exercise in futility.

I sensed the typical nuance of hikers waking and I felt dead-like. The worst of hangovers without a drop of alcohol passing my lips, and my eyes looked like sheeps’ fannies. St. Croix was, as ever, chipper and smiling. “Morning, Jolly!”, came his salutation. I grunted with a wry smile – he understood. For the next 20 minutes I was in and out of fatigue and mental failure, I felt completely smoked and ready to go nowhere… except home.

Blue, SC, and Bitter Goat asked in succession how my ankle was — it had been a topic of conversation the previous night — I kept the conversation small, and through one side of my mouth I muttered “I’m ok.” I wasn’t.

It felt like an eternity between me waking and getting around to packing, and I remember SC asking how I was – I stood up and turned away from him while simultaneously responding “I’m good, man” – I was fighting back some tears by this point as I’d started to succumb to the fact that my AT thru hiking days were over; I was still in pain. It was extremely upsetting. I’d failed.

We said our goodbyes (they were packed and ready to hike) and I was alone – two other hikers left at the shelter that I’d met only the previous night. I made coffee. Slightly better.

I’d been texting with the missus about my condition and where my mind was since the night before, and this morning she sent me something I was not expecting: one hell of an inspirational and motivational message:

“First of all, get that negative vocabulary out of this conversation. U are tired and in pain. If you weren’t. We wouldn’t b having this conversation. Tomorrow is a new day. U just have a little more pain to go. In a few hours you will b closer to comfort. You can do this. You’ll bitch about It in your head. But tomorrow you may think differently. U will always remember it was hard but u will b glad u stuck through this. This is part of the trail. U knew this would happen and CAN get through it. Be my little engine that could. Come on David. I’m rooting for you.”

I changed gear.

I finished packing and hauled arse up and north and I’d caught up with St. Croix, Blue, and Bitter Goat pretty quickly.

High fives were thrown and I felt good; it felt good to be amongst friends again.

After the 2.1 miles of ascent, it was time for the 5.2 miles downhill. Downhills are brutal, especially with such sharp descents and rock littered trails. Every step was a concentrated step, there was no way I was going to rush this and destroy my ankle with another roll. I had Bitter Goat and Etch-a-Sketch (met her the night before at the shelter) sign my ball cap.

I got to Davenport Gap around 1:15pm and was blown away by trail magic: cold sodas and chips of every variety. Epic times.

I called Melissa Browning from the 2013 AT Guide (page 32) and she picked me up and dropped me off at the Motel 6 in Newport. It only took her about half an hour to get to Davenport Gap which was superb. I threw my pack and poles in her trunk and we were off. I waved goodbye to my hiking buds and they disappeared in the dust kicked up from Melissa’s car as we curved downhill.

Melissa was awesome; we shared stories and I took in some of the local info. She has an incredible shuttle service that covers most areas around this part of the trail but draws the line going as far as Clingmans, for example. It’s best to call her and ask: (423) 623-7074.

Melissa will be dropping me off again day after tomorrow. She’s making my zero day extremely easy to navigate.

I did laundry at the Motel 6 and afterwards walked 0.5 mile to Walmart to buy some ankle support and pain meds. I bought some shaving foam and a razor, too. My face is getting messy.

On the way back I stopped off at Sagebrush Steakhouse – small cup of chili and a burger, just perfect.

I wasn’t too pleased with the group of locals that walked in two hours after me and flipped the channel to a baseball game they never even watched.

Twats.

Whatcha gonna do, huh? I’ll behave. They’re lucky we’re not in Donny or NY, I’ll leave it at that. They’re noisy and obnoxious.

It’s 8:51pm and it’s time for bed. Icing the ankle shortly, then shut eye.

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