My food survived the night. I cooked apple-cinnamon oatmeal topped with granola. Eddie ate two teaspoons of instant coffee—straight up, no water. I said, “Isn’t that a little bitter?” He said he didn’t mind because it really got him going. Eddie shouldered his pack and zipped off to the north. I headed south in light rain. The temperature was cool. Birds were singing. Flame azaleas bloomed along the trail. Raindrops dripped from the orange flowers and glistened when the sun came out. As I passed through a pasture, the sun bore down from its eleven o’clock tilt. Steam rose from the grass. Back in the woods, I filtered water from a stream and splashed the coolness on my face.
The first half of the day, I walked two miles downhill, two miles level, and three miles gradually uphill to Iron Mountain Shelter, where I ate lunch with two thru-hikers, a young man and woman named Eats-A-Lot and SNP. I cooked Spanish rice with ground beef and tomatoes and spooned it over slices of cheddar cheese in a tortilla. SNP sat at the table with me and scanned her guidebook for an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Damascus. Eats-A-Lot reclined in the shelter behind me and farted, grandiosely. I said he should change his name to Farts-A-Lot. He talked about forming a utopian village when he finished his hike, presumably a place where people ate a lot of beans.
The next seven miles to Vandeventer Shelter were no harder than the first seven, but as the day grew long, my legs grew tired. In the weeks leading up to the trip, sitting comfortably with my itinerary on the computer screen, I planned daily-mileage goals without consulting the two workhorses under the desk. Seventy percent of the days called for pulling fourteen to nineteen miles. Did I overestimate my horsepower? The last mile of trail leading to the shelter was through rhododendron and flame azaleas in full bloom, which helped me forget I was tired.
Vandeventer Shelter bustled with boy scouts early evening. They were boiling water for freeze-dried meals, so I joined them and cooked macaroni and cheese with ham and mixed vegetables with pineapple upside-down cake for dessert. After supper, a boy sat with me on a boulder behind the shelter to watch the sun go down over Watauga Lake, way down in the gulf of the mountains. He said he wished his father could see this, but his father had stayed home. The boy said he was probably watching television. It was getting dark, so he went back to his friends who were settling into tents. One adult leader shared the shelter with me. When the boys quieted down, the faint sound of fishing boat motors rose from the lake. I thought about my father and both grandpas who had taken me fishing. For a moment, I was back in the boat with them.
The boys were boiling water early for instant oatmeal and hot chocolate. I cooked cheddar cheese grits with ham and peas. After breakfast, I filtered water from the spring, which was down a steep path from the shelter. A few minutes after leaving the shelter, two small bears ran across the trail in front of me. Would the mother bear emerge next to protect them? There was no sign of her. She had probably crossed the trail in front of the cubs before I got there. Vandeventer Shelter, with its view of Watauga Lake, draws lots of campers. Bears were known to scrounge littered food here and climb trees at night to steal poorly hung food bags.
There was one water source over the first six miles, and I missed it. My water bottles were empty when I got to Watauga Lake. The trail came out on a paved road, which led to a boat-launch area. I stood a foot into the lake on a rock and filtered water six inches below the surface and six inches above the lake bottom—to avoid drawing in pollen or oil residue from the surface or sediment from the bottom. When I was done, a man who had been fishing from shore gave me two ice-cold bottles of water from his cooler, which I drank on the spot. The fish weren’t biting, so he offered me a ride back to the trail. He said the town of Butler, which had been inundated when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dammed the Watauga and Elk Rivers after World War II, reappeared in the winter of 1983, when the lake was drawn down to make dam repairs. The trail went across the dam—deep water on one side, a dry gorge of rocks on the other.
I cooked bean-bark stew and wrapped it in a tortilla with slices of cheddar cheese for lunch at Watauga Lake Shelter, a long mile from the dam. After lunch, I filled a bucket with water from a rhododendron-lined stream and took a sponge bath behind the shelter. Bringing the bucket—a one-gallon ice-cream container—had been a last-minute decision. I carried it upside down in my backpack and slid it over the items at the top, so it didn’t take up much space.
It started raining just as I was ready to leave. A long-distance hiker named Seeker arrived. We talked for an hour in the shelter until the rain stopped. She said she was seeking—hence the name—a spiritual connection with nature. What was I seeking? I thought of it more as finding, a two-way proposition: I find something; something finds me. The mystery of what would come around the bend—that intersection, that serendipitous moment—excited me and kept me walking. Of course, serendipity can be one-sided. Just ask the mouse who meets the owl for the first and last time.
I leaned heavily on my hiking poles for five miles, ascending to the flat top of Pond Mountain. When the trail leveled at the top, I sang an old song: “I like to singa, about the moona, and the Juna, and the springa, I like to singa, about the sky so blue, and a tea for two…” I quit singing and put on my poncho when it started raining. The next three miles dropped steeply to Laurel Fork Creek over rocky terrain. The trail leveled once creek side but tested me again for the last half-mile climb, over slick rocks and mud, with darkness closing in, to Laurel Fork Shelter.
A young man named Lone Wolf and a huge Rottweiler named Max occupied Laurel Fork Shelter. Max’s loud bark stopped me in my tracks until Lone Wolf calmed him down so I could approach the shelter. I changed out of damp clothes into long johns and a fleece jacket before cooking supper with my headlamp on—ramen noodles with ground turkey and sauerkraut. My food bag was safe in the shelter—no bears would come around with Max standing guard.
Lone Wolf had been living in the woods, fishing Laurel Creek for trout. He was escaping—at least temporarily—the life that had been fixed for him back on the family farm. The vibe I felt in the shelter was that I had entered his lair: he, the dicey host, and I, the wary guest. After supper, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the opposite side of the shelter from Lone Wolf. I clicked off my headlamp and laid it by my side along with my pocketknife and hiking poles.