Vapor rose from the forest floor in the morning following the rainy night. Max was half asleep on the ground below the feet of Lone Wolf, with one eye on my oatmeal. Lone Wolf was asleep in his bag. I walked away quietly after breakfast and headed toward Kincora Hiking Hostel, two miles away. On the way, I came to Laurel Creek Falls, which poured over wide rock steps into a deep, shaded gorge surrounded by rhododendron and eastern hemlock trees. This was the end of the line for trout heading upstream. I walked into the creek across slick stones to filter water. The creek flowed fast, so I put a rock on the intake tube of my water filter to keep the prefilter at the end from washing to the surface in the current.
Five young thru-hikers sat around the table on the front porch of Kincora Hiking Hostel. They had been there several days looking after a woman in their group who was ill. Kincora was a log cabin. It had a lounge with a sofa, chairs, a wood-burning stove, and a shelf full of books. Bunk beds were in a backroom. I borrowed shorts and a shirt from the hiker box, tossed my laundry into the machine, and took a luxurious shower. While my clothes dried, I used the kitchen stove and utensils to cook red beans and rice and trail angel cake with chocolate sauce for dessert. The kitchen wall was covered with Katahdin summit photos that thru-hikers had sent to Bob Peoples, the proprietor. Bob, revered in Appalachian Trail circles, leads trail maintenance projects for thru-hikers to participate in when they arrive at the annual Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Virginia. Bob was in Spain during my visit, but the hostel stayed open with five-dollar suggested donations, which I gladly contributed. When it stopped raining, I set out for Moreland Gap Shelter—six miles away and mostly uphill.
The strenuous climb wore me out. When I took off my pack, a sharp pain radiated between my lower back and right hip. I tied my tarp between two trees beside the shelter and walked gingerly over to some nice folks at the picnic table. One young thru-hiker, with the unfortunate trail name Shitty Pot, cooked two batches of spaghetti and grits. He seemed pretty happy with that concoction. I made lasagna with a side of ratatouille and peach pie for dessert. A friendly couple, New Knees and Siva, cheered as I attempted to hang my food bag in front of the shelter. Throwing the rock sack toward the branch, I felt like a pitcher on the mound—missing the strike zone, foul balls, etc. When I finally got the line over the branch and the bag hung, it hung too low—easy pickings for a bear. So, I aimed higher and succeeded shortly before sundown.
During the night, cold wind blew through the open ends of the tarp. On a warm night, the airflow would have been welcome. I slept in my long johns, fleece jacket, and wool cap. The ground sloped to the left, causing me to slide off my sleeping pad throughout the night. I tried sleeping on my back with my knees up to alleviate the back pain, but that wasn’t my normal sleeping position. I spent most of the night on my stomach, switching arms under my head every so often when they fell asleep. It was a long night.
In the morning, I cooked grits with ham and tomatoes topped with pizza-flavored cheddar cheese goldfish crackers. My lower back had stiffened overnight. Attempting to stretch, I could not bend or twist to the right without inflicting a jolt of pain. I took two pain-relief pills and soldiered on toward Mountaineer Shelter. It rained all morning—as if my gloomy mood required it. A group of northbound hikers passed by at three times my speed. One of the young women asked how I was doing, and I said, “Tired.” I felt bad for passing off negative energy, so later, when others asked how I was doing, I stood up straight and said, “Great,” before resuming my laggardly pace when they were out of sight.
The trail was mush all day—liquid loom. The footing was slippery on hills, and when the trail leveled, my boots sunk into the black muck with a sucking sound. I skirted the puddles at first, but before long, I plodded right through them. Why waste extra steps? A deer with her fawn crossed the trail ahead of me and left hoofprints in the mud. Due to the rain, I snacked on trail mix and sweet potato bark instead of cooking a hot lunch.
Mountaineer Shelter was a welcome sight when I arrived late afternoon. Compared to the small cinder block or rock shelters I had slept in so far, Mountaineer was a villa. It had wood siding with three sleeping levels. The top loft overhung the front area of the shelter, providing space underneath to move around and stay dry. When the rain stopped, I fetched a bucket of water from the spring below the shelter and stepped into the woods for a sponge bath. Back at the shelter, I cooked Mexican beef and rice with apple pie for dessert. One hiker had claimed the top loft of the shelter before I arrived, so we spent the evening in our separate worlds.
I looked over my itinerary under the light of my headlamp: one full day behind schedule, thirty-two miles to go to my first mail drop. I had one full day’s rations in a vacuum-sealed bag, plus extra snacks and one lunch. That would hold me to my mail drop at Greasy Creek Friendly hostel. If the back pain slowed me down even more, I could hitch into town at Highway 19 and buy food. When I clicked off my headlamp, the darkness was profound—I could not see my hand in front of my face.