"Always pack your sense of humor!" (Appalachian Trail quotation. Anonymous. Probably because someone knifed him.)
McAfee Knob. We were on our way. Full packs. High spirits. And hiking poles (thank goodness for hiking poles).
The trail was beautiful and, far more than other trails I've hiked, heavily traveled. I think every student from Virginia Tech goes to McAfee Knob on the weekends. Every. Single. One. I was thrilled to see the iconic AT mark on the trees as we moved up. About 1/4 mile up, we found a kiosk with a trail log next to it. Thru-hikers will leave messages for one another in these logs or a simple "We're still on the trail" message. We eagerly looked through it but found mostly entries from dayhikers like us.
I was still feeling terrific. We continued on to search for the John's Spring Shelter, which looks like this:
|Photo Courtesy http://blog.twoknobbytires.com/2010/11/22/mcafee-knob/|
As we hiked, small groups of college students giggled past us, some of them hand-in-hand as they scooted along the path toward the Knob. Apparently, watching the sunset from McAfee Knob is a dating rite of passage at Virginia Tech. My sense of humor still intact, I joked with them as they passed and explained that Sparky is a labradoodle and Mr. McDougal is a Scottie to each cooing twentysomething.
We hiked. And hiked some more. Our packs were heavy but manageable and we were looking forward to spending the evening outside.
About an hour or so into the hike, we came to John's Spring Shelter where a fairly large group was setting up tents for the evening. I stayed at the top of the trail with Sparky while my guy and Mr. McDougal ambled down to the shelter to assess if there was room. He spoke with them for a few minutes while the women oohed and aahed over Mr. McDougal and then he came back to the top of the trail. The next shelter was about 1.4 miles away and did have a water source so we could get some more water.
OK. I was game. We moved on.
The light dimmed and we moved as quickly as we could. My knees were started to ache a bit but I was still in pretty good spirits. We were down to a bottle and a half of water but figured we'd be OK since the spring was about an hour's hike away.
We rounded a corner and found the spring...bone dry. No water. We assessed the map. No water available until PAST McAfee Knob which was still about 2 miles away. Night was falling. We figured we could make do with the water we had until morning but it would mean no coffee. (WHAT?) We came to a junction a few minutes later which pointed to a shelter in one direction (which sounded pretty noisy already) and uphill to some campsites. We chose the latter option and hiked up to the campsites which were....full.
We had not much water. The sky was darkening quickly. And we were all getting pretty tired. But, hey, what's another couple of miles?
In a gym on a treadmill, I can walk 2 miles in 30 minutes. Out on the Trail with a full pack after having hiked four miles already (mostly uphill), 2 miles sounded like a trip to the moon. At that point, I was moving at maybe 1.5 miles per hour when the trail flattened out. During the steep uphills, I was lucky to get 0.5 miles per hour. My companion was super supportive and, even though he can move about twice as fast as I can (if not faster), he paused to wait for me and to offer up a joke or two to keep my sense of humor from deflating.
We moved on. Up, up, up. My thighs were burning, my glutes were on fire. We finally came to a junction of the fire road and the McAfee Knob final trail. The sign indicated 1.3 miles to the Knob. Which meant we were over 2 miles away from the next campsites. We faced a decision at that point that neither of us considered: we could take the fire road OUT of the area and just give up for the evening OR we could continue on and find the campsites and do what we came to do.
We moved on. Up, up, up. I found this chart to show the final ascent to the McAfee Knob. This is what we were doing from 7:30 to about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday night:
Up, up, up. At one point, I felt like I'd been afflicted with some sort of palsy. My legs would simply wobble when I tried to move them. I shuffled upward, using my hiking poles to support much of my weight as I swung my legs up, up, up. I began giggling. "Yeah, it's a good thing we didn't stay at that campsite at Apple Orchard Falls earlier today. That would have SUCKED to have set up camp, taken a NAP, had some wine...this is WAY more fun that THAT." He apologized much of the way up, taking all of the blame for our predicament. I protested that I am an adult, too, and that we made the decision together but, honestly, all of us KNOW that I'm no grown-up. :)
My muscles no longer cooperating, I WILLED myself to keep going, marveling at the very IDEA that AT thru-hikers (the successful ones, anyway) often hike 20 miles EVERY DAY. Those people must be made of solid steel.
We came to a crest. A CREST. FINALLY. He said, "THIS IS IT. This is McAfee Knob!" We leashed the dogs (because it was pitch black by this time and we didn't want one of them to accidentally step over the edge into oblivion) and we saw this:
|OK. NO, this is not my pic. But this is the view. And it WAS a full moon. And we DID NOT sit on the edge. Photo courtesy jon_beard.|
I forgot about my quivering muscles. I didn't think about my thirst. I looked at that view and thanked God for everything I could think of but, most especially, that view in that moment and the fact that I was still alive...mostly. It was worth it.
Our spirits rejuvenated, we still had to find a campsite. It was late. We were tired. (OK, my hiking companion was tired...I was EXHAUSTED.) We started going down. Down, down, down. My knees were screaming with every step. Down, down, down, down.
At one point, Mr. McDougal walked over the edge of a long downhill slope. We coaxed and called. He was so tired we were worried one of us was going to have to go down the steep slope to retrieve him. We called and begged. He moved up. Up, up, up. My hiking companion extended a hiking pole when Mr. McDougal was almost to the top, "Just grab on, Dougal!" That tiny trail dog propelled himself up and he finally made it back to the trail. We gave him some of our precious water as a reward. We still don't know HOW or why he went over that edge but we were so relieved to have our little guy back in action...and without one of us having to break our necks to retrieve him.
After about another hour of downhill in the dark, after over FOUR HOURS on the trail, he called out "This is it! We're here!" Water. And a campsite. Totally open. With a picnic table. I wanted to sob with relief but I was too tired. We set up the tent quickly and then he hiked out to gather some water. He came back with three full bottles of water. The dogs lapped up about half a bottle quickly. We both drank greedily.
And then he cooked ribeyes over an open fire, steamed okra and boiled rice. It was incredible. Delicious. And worthy of any four-star restaurant.
And we woke up to this:
And the campsite we set up in the dark turned out OK after all:
And in the morning, we took the fire road out with its gentle slopes and fairly even terrain. We hiked out in less than two hours.
It was beautiful. But that guy in the guide who said you could do it all in four hours? No. No, I don't think so. At least not with a full pack and one knee-hobbled hiker. And when I find the guy who wrote it I will....say not very nice things.
I am sore. I am still bone weary. But I'm already planning my next Great Hiking Adventure. Who's with me?
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