By the next morning my concerns were more widely defined. Today’s hike entailed a descent to Laurel Falls followed by a hike down the river, a 1,700 foot climb and then 1,400 foot drop to a campsite 14.5 miles away. The first few steps were like walking on egg shells. The next few were like walking with the eggshells implanted in my knee…..then the Ibuprofen kicked in.
At one point I came upon two women hiking southbound. They saw me limping and asked if they could say a prayer for me. The one who asked was named Grace.
I came into Dennis Cove and worked my way down the familiar terrain to Dennis Cove Gap. One particular tree looked inviting so I plopped down and ate a pack of tuna and a very melted Mounds candy bar. I attempted to charge my phone. It would not even though I had two power packs. With 1% of battery left I made a last ditch effort to call a Verizon phone help number. The phone number given was a digit off. Death came quietly and the phone did not suffer. I had decided that it would not have wanted extraordinary measures taken so I made a mental DNR and did not defibrillate it when it died. I seemed suddenly very alone. It took a moment to remember that before cellphones everyone hiked this trail with no contact with anyone. I felt better about it….except the knee and the fact that I needed to find Huck and Ray still more than 10 miles in front of me somewhere.
The trail from Dennis Cove was an old railroad bed. Tall rock walls cut from the cliffs reminded me of the Stumphouse Tunnel railroad. About a mile in I crossed Laurel Fork Creek and before I knew it I was looking down a rock set of steps that had to be over 1,000 feet long…all down high steps…pounding….knee bruising….I stopped. It was decision time. No phone…no one on trail near me…no easy way out. I flipped a mental coin….heads or tails….it came up knees. I descended. The falls was impressive but I was unimpressed. I worked my way down river at one point walking a person wide rock trail along the river. The relative flat ground was a relief. For a mile and a half I walked along the river. Several day hikers came to me from the other way. “Where is the waterfalls?”, they would ask. I wanted to say, “follow the water” but I refrained. It brought memories of hearing emergency folks on the same road as an event asking where the wreck was or which house was on fire. I always wanted to say it would be the house with smoke coming out of it or the car with really big dents sitting diagonal in the road.
After a mile and a half I came to the point in which the AT turned away from the river. Oh my goodness. It climbed straight up the rock face. It may go on forever! I began the climb. It was one of the first hot days we have had….of course. 1,700 + feet to the top. At one point I intersected the same railroad bed..then a series of switchbacks and then about 5 false summits. I ran out of water….candy was melted. I didn’t like this. My knee was hurting again.
Finally I reached the summit and found Pond Flats which was a campsite area with a water source. I stopped and drank from the spring for about 30 minutes while filling my water bladder. I now had about 2.5 miles to go while dropping about 1,400 feet. New Ibuprofen and re-hydration kicked in. The additional water allowed me to move without a limp or pain.
From that point it became a race with the sun. It was setting to my left and it was going to be close. Each switchback I found it lower in the sky. Finally it sank below the mountains to the West. I found myself hiking in the dusky leftover light that still peaked over the Western Mountain. Those who lived in that direction didn’t necessarily need it and I appreciated the loan of the light….it was needed. Finally the trail turned with the contour to the side of the mountain away from the now absent sun. It got colder and darker.
But….on this side of the mountain I could hear the sounds of cars…U.S. 321 and a slight view of Lake Watauga. It was about 1,000 feet below me. I picked up my pace….but instead of getting closer to the sound of cars it seemed that I was hiking back and forth on the switchbacks without gaining any ground. I was paralleling the highway and with each switchback I was walking great distances in order to gain 100 feet of elevation loss. I walked faster. Just as I thought I was making progress the trail turned back to the side where the sun had once been. It was gone. Off in the distance I could see campfires. I picked my way along the trail. From behind me I heard, “Hey!” I jumped out of my skin. I had not heard him come up from behind. He thought it was hilarious. I thought it aged me. He went by me and picked up a few small trees and threw them to the side of the trail just so that I could see that he was able to do it. I was, once again, unimpressed. As a matter of fact I almost missed the itty bitty symbol that signified a possible tent site to the right.
I turned right and walked about 500 feet. I could see one tent there but I couldn’t see other sites in spite of the fact that I now had my headlamp on. I didn’t recognize the tent but I called out to see if they were aware of another site where Huck and Ray might be.
A head poked out of the tent…just a head. “Defib!!!” It was Huck. I breathed a sigh of relief. “There is a great site over there”, he pointed. I stumbled over that way and set up just my rain fly….no way was I going to set up the entire tent. It was 08:30 P.M. I was ready to be done with the day. Tomorrow I would decide whether or not I would hike on.