Have you ever written something and then had a problem saving and lost it all? I wasn’t as unfortunate to lose this whole entry, but I did lose half of it and subsequently was too frustrated to re-write it for a while. Hence, finally, part 2 to my only AT hike this summer, just a few weeks late!
In my previous blog post, I highlighted some of the current regulations for hiking on the Appalachian Trail during the pandemic and how they shaped this hike. This time, I’m not going to focus on any of the guidelines and instead recap the hike itself. If you’re reading this and haven’t checked out that previous post, I highly recommend you read it first! One of the most important things to do before hiking or traveling right now is to keep up with the local guidelines.
New with this post – some trail statistics! I use the guthook app for the mileage and elevation info I’m going to include. I hope this is useful to anyone here just looking for basic information about this section of the trail, rather than the stories that accompany it!
I am the absolute farthest thing from a morning person, yet that Friday morning I woke up before the sun came up, before our alarms. Knowing I was about to return to the Appalachian Trail for the first time since last September is one of the few things that could give me that kind of early energy.
It stormed on and off throughout our drive from Northern Alabama to the Tennessee trailhead, and moisture hung in the air by the time we had parked one car where we planned to end our hike, and driven back to our starting point at Standing Bear. The last time my boyfriend and I were there it was May of 2019, after we hiked 241 miles to that point from the southern terminus of the AT before skipping up to Damascus, VA to continue hiking the AT northbound. I braced myself for the ascent ahead of us that late afternoon, knowing it wasn’t going to feel as easy as it would had we just emerged from the portion of the trail through the Great Smoky Mountains.
To my delight, the simple joy of being back on the AT far outweighed the physicality required of the uphill climb. We only passed one other group of two hikers heading northbound, and encountered two groups of hikers heading southbound. We emerged at a clearing for a FAA tower on Snowbird Peak, where swarms of gnats eagerly greeted us. We continued on just over half a mile into the woods again before setting up camp at a stealth site right along the trail.
We were alone, and we were home. Rumbling thunder threatened overhead but never followed through, making for one of the quietest nights I can ever recall on the trail. No critters, birds, animals, or wind, but only a silence thick enough to allow me to hear a faint ringing in my ears and cause me to toss and turn every couple hours at the slightest rustle of a leaf.
The AT is anything but flat, yet the only way I’ve ever attempted to describe it before is in the way my body feels. Looking at the numbers above makes it all the more obvious that we wound up at roughly the same elevation as we had the day before, after climbing up and down all day long. For the southern portion of the trail, I can truly say “how typical”.
The trail has this strange phenomenon in places, where you can be alone deep in the woods all day long, then finally emerge at some road or landmark that is comparably way too accessible to wherever you just were. I thought based on experience that the number one location for this variance in extremes was Annapolis Rocks, the highest point in Maryland where last September we laboriously hiked up to through the woods alone all day only to emerge into a crowd of people at the end of a mountain road leading to the view. It turns out this was only a precursor to what we were about to experience at Max Patch.
Max Patch is a known major landmark along the Appalachian Trail, and it’s obvious why, as its 360 mountain views from atop the bald were unrivaled. As we approached the top as some thunderstorms were clearing, we actually thought for a second we might have it almost to ourselves as we questioned the safety of leaving the tree-line while the thunder and lightning were still near. How naive we were.
It wasn’t just us and a few others, but an overwhelming amount of people already setting up camp atop the bald, with a steady stream to follow for the next few hours. As there was a parking lot right at the base of the path leading up the final hill, this spot was also accessible without the need for a day of physical exertion. We witnessed those who likely had experience being here before making optimal use of the situation and pulling coolers all the way up the hill to begin Saturday night.
We snagged a stealth camp spot just below the hill but still on the bald with a view in one direction, yet it was no respite from party central. There were even two separate couples taking engagement photos with a photographer, and my boyfriend offered up the view behind our tent spot for their use for a little while as he could see they were having a difficult time finding an isolated clear spot to take their photos.
This isn’t what we expected during our weekend of hiking, but we still took it in as part of the experience. What we couldn’t deal with however, was the fact that there was no reasonable place to use the restroom. Envision finding yourself in an area packed full of people, with no tree cover or private areas unless you were to walk quite a ways, yet no facilities at the parking lot either. We can laugh about it now and even laughed about it in the moment, but also learned that in the height of searching for a place to go and discovering that even the areas past the treeline were full of campers too, it wasn’t a situation we’d feel the need to put ourselves in again. I’d love to go back to Max Patch at a less crowded time to really be able to take in the view, but I think experiencing that Saturday night in July was the only way to know this firsthand for the future.
This day will go down as an infamous hiking day in my catalog of AT memories. There were all of the usual hiking things. And then there was this thing that happened, where we just wanted to keep going when we really should have stopped. We started so early just to leave the sunrise crowd at Max Patch that we had a lot of daylight ahead of us. It was a pretty portion of trail with constant little water source crossings and shaded areas and we started saying “What if we have a 15 mile day in us right now? What if we have a 20 mile day in us?” This may seem like a lot or a little, depending on what type of hiking shape you’re in. I can tell you that not having been doing any frequent hiking this summer, especially with a pack, I should have kept the daily mileage pretty low to ease in.
About halfway through the day, my knees started to hurt. We had made our goal Deer Park Mountain Shelter, with the idea that if we went farther today, we could have a short easy morning to the car. A few hours more and the pain worsened, yet in my head I was too set on reaching the destination we had put in our minds. We eventually reached a point of no return where we had to commit to getting there unless we wanted to dry camp, meaning camp without a water source nearby. Sometimes a few extra miles is not a big deal, but when something hurts and you’re moving pretty slow, having to commit fully to a few more miles can feel like it takes a big mental push.
It was somewhere in this final push that I was just putting one foot in front of the other on a slight incline section while talking with Sukae behind me that in a split second flash of a memory, a rattlesnake’s rattle sprung to life full force and I jumped back before I could process what I was hearing and seeing.
I had almost just stepped on a rattlesnake, the closest I ever desire to be to a rattlesnake in my life again.
I have a snippet of memory of seeing the snake below me when it set off the rattle and spared me a second to get away. The snake blended in with the trail so well that upon backing up, it took us a moment to locate the snake staring us down in strike position, even though he was right in the path where I had almost just placed my foot. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I felt thankful that rattlesnakes give a warning first. The slope was so steep and thickly grown in on either side of the trail that we had little choice but to wait for the snake to move if we wanted to press forward, and it took some coaxing from Sukae to get me to walk past that spot after we finally watched it disappear somewhere into the woods. I couldn’t shake the thought that it would jump back out at me when I passed by it’s path, as irrational as that would be.
We reached the shelter a few miles later. Sukae was already setting up the tent as I had encouraged him to go ahead of me while I baby-stepped my way down the trail and actually contemplated walking backwards a few times because it seemed a less painful solution than the way facing forward was going for me. I was so exhausted after the day’s hike that I began questioning myself when I got close to the side trail entrance to the shelter, thinking I had passed it and second guessing my own mind and gps a few times as I walked back and forth and back again along the same strip of trail. When I took longer to get there than Sukae expected I would, he called my name out and his voice helped guide me home for the night. I only had to walk another 50 feet around a bend and I would have seen the side trail entrance. Sometimes the mere act of dusk setting in through the woods after a particularly tiring day can do weird things to the mind.
After swiftly falling asleep just the two of us at the shelter site, I stirred sometime around 2:30 AM. The noise that woke me was quickly accompanied by the glow of a headlamp somewhere in the vicinity of our tent, and although I was surprised to hear another hiker show up in the middle of the night, I immediately rolled over and dozed off again upon realizing there was no threat.
Despite showing up so late, the night hiker was the first to rise in the morning. We had a nice chat and learned that he was thru hiking, the first thru hiker we encountered on our mostly solitary hike. We passed a few of our remaining snacks on to him and he was on his way, closely followed by Sukae, as I soaked in one of my favorite scenarios – being the last person to leave the shelter in the morning and having the the view of the woods to myself to stretch. As much as the purpose of a hike like this was for Sukae and I to hike together, we knew we would both be happy if we had at least one moment to ourselves on the trail to spend in our own styles.
Sukae met me at the hostel next to the small parking area at the trailhead, already having paid $5 for a shower while I had probably still been a mile out, just trying to baby step my way to the car. Had this been a thru hike, making a mistake like I did and continuing on while I was already in pain could have caused me many zero days. For just a weekend hike, the consequences were small knowing that I would be able to go home and stay off of my feet.
Something this weekend hike allowed us to do that a thru hike wouldn’t have was being able to experience the backroads of the area as we went back to get our other car at Standing Bear. The mountain roads of Appalachia really do harbor a beauty of their own. It’s not like being out west with vast expanses of open mountain scenery, but more like feeling enveloped in the towering rolling hills as their greenery constantly threatens to overtake every twist and turn.