I woke to more rain.
“Sounds like rain.” said mom.
“You think?” I said in a sleepy voice and went back to sleep for a bit, because, really, what was the point of getting up.
Of note was the fact that it wasn’t thundering or lightning.
When we finally did get up and get packed, the guides, mom and I huddled briefly.
“Well? What’s the verdict?” I asked.
“You did great yesterday. Do you feel any better today? Not really? OK, well, let’s get to Massie Gap and see how that goes.” said Tricky.
“Works for me.” I said and off we went for the day.
I was pleased and nervous at the same time. Apparently, I had been ok yesterday and it seemed that they really did want me to continue (phew). We had a big day ahead of us (well, in the grand scheme of thru-hikers, we were doing absolutely minimal mileage).5.2 miles from Wise shelter to Thomas Knob shelter (a meadow just to the north of it.) Most of it was hard climb including Wilburn Ridge. But it was also shaping up to be the neatest day on the trail (IMO) with Rhododendron Gap, the wild ponies and really nice views.
We packed off and I basked in the fact that the first bit of the day was rolling hills rather than uphill.
I had been looking around me, but I was focusing on keeping moving. The woods nice to be in, some sunlight dappling through. Toward midday, the clouds started to cover the sky, but that was when we hit the open area at Massie Gap and moved on to the ridge.
DSC00758.JPGThese are the famous wild ponies of Wilburn Ridge (although they are amenable to being approached carefully…) and they aren’t as skittish as I expected. Mom was in heaven.
[And as a side note, in the August 2007 edition of Backpacker magazine p. 31 (no useful links, just to their base site) there is an article about Mike Magnuson doing this part of the AT south to north and taking pictures of the ponies that we saw this day.]
Actually, we messed with Almanac while we were hiking up to the ridge. When we had out pack shakedown, Almanac had talked mom out of bringing apples for snacks and really talked her out of wanting to give some apple to any ponies she saw on the trail (Leave No Trace philosophy and protecting the ponies’ ability to keep foraging on their own for food.). So while we marched along, mom in front, then me, then Almanac as sweep we were talking about the ponies.

Almanac:”So, we’ll be seeing ponies soon!”
Mom (Rocky):”Hey, kid, got the carrots?”
Me:”Right here!” (no, I didn’t…but I am a good straight man.)
Me:”Just kidding!”

Mom did get to commune with the ponies after all.
Just over the hill from that set of ponies was a mother and baby wandering around in a clearing by the trail.
We had lunch just past a series of rock steps (and this is how mom got her trail name… “Rocks are HARD.” (said with a straight face…hence she is Rocky.) ) which would make a believer out of anyone in the absolute wonderfulness of trekking poles. I had left off my knee brace this day (on the left knee Monday, the right knee on Tuesday and without even a twinge either day, I decided that wearing neoprene sounded supremely icky and so I left it off but put it in an outside pocket if things got bad.) and even through the brutality of those damn rock “stairs” (some of which were a bigger step up than my leg… I did a bit of crawling up with my pack and all… grace, you know.)
DSC00893and with lunch (and my arrival 10 minutes behind the rest of the crowd) the question of me not being able to keep up was suddenly moot. Never really was mentioned again, I still felt like death warmed over and I was balancing the sudafed doses, because having your heart race uncontrollably is uncomfortable. Add that sensation to hard physical exertion and its truly awful.
The thing is, I was having a great time.
I am a masochist, aren’t I?
The weather was good and I was noticing the great scenery. The first few days, I was more concerned with me being sick as a dog and being upset over my lack of speed (and other things) but the weather was actually really nice out. The parts of the trail under tree cover was nice and cool (the elevation didn’t hurt) and it really only rained a few choice times conveniently when tents were assembled or when we had a tarp to run under like little chicks under their chicken mama. The only time we caught it on the last ten minutes of the day’s hike (this day as a matter of fact) but really everything was just peachy.
We were almost to the ridge that was the dangerous part (it wasn’t a ledge or anything, but it was a clearing on the top of a mountain-this set of pictures gives a good perspective of the ridge area almost two years exactly before we were there) and the clouds were starting to move in earnest toward us.
So we moved along at a pretty good clip and as fast as I could on the other part of the saddle while the clouds kept moving.
Fat Man's SqueezeWe made it with no problems, no thunder or lightning, it didn’t rain, but it was overcast. And we also started seeing the rhododendrons off the trail. Rhododendron Gap was just ahead through a tunnel called Fat Man’s Squeeze. I thought it was really cool, but I hear a bit of grumbling from other folks who seemed to be slightly unnerved by it. You had to rest your hand on one side of the cave while you held your trekking poles in the other, but it wasn’t bad walking through at all. Here’s Flame and Wanderer working through the cave.
Just beyond that, the rhododendrons started to bloom in earnest. You could hear bees buzzing all over and see those big, fat clumsy black bees lilting around the blooms.
I saw Hollywood, Flame and Wanderer just before they disappeared into the rhododendrons at the sign and then I entered in myself. It wasn’t like what I built up in my head, but as nothing ever is, I still enjoyed the view.
A few more climbs and then we moved on to a flat part on the trail…where it started raining. I had put my pack cover on that morning (fit nicely over the thermarest Z-lite I had strapped to the top (and help keep me from scraping my sleeping pad up as I tended to do with it up there.) and stayed put with the help of an elastic band that snapped under my shoulder and back padding of the pack. Mom, Almanac and I stood under a tree to get out of the rain, but it kept getting harder, so I took off my pack and put my rain jacket on.
I really didn’t want to, I was sweaty and a bit too warm, but I figured I’d be wet one way or another and staying warm was better than freezing my arse off in the cold rain.
I didn’t realize we were right on top of camp. Five minutes later, I see everyone under a tarp (still in the process of being put up) and Tricky telling everyone to put warm things on so no one would get hypothermic.
I almost regretted stopping for 3 minutes to put my raingear on as I would have been able to get into camp at the same time everyone else did… priorities, you see.
It slacked off raining after about 15 minutes and we put up our tents attempting to chase the sunshine to dry them off a bit.
A bunch of folks went to tackle the Mt. Roger’s trail to the summit and some of us stayed in camp with promises to put all the stuff left out to dry in the remaining sun in case it started raining again.
Mom tried to start a fire again, but was having a hard time of it as everything was so soggy. Day 3She sent me off foraging for tinder and wood to very little luck. Eventually, mom snagged some of the firestarter from Tricky and managed a fairly smoky fire.
We had a raven near us the previous night near Wise shelter, and someone said it was bad luck to have a shapeshifter so near… however, ravens are part of my personal totem crowd and I was thinking that it was a lucky break. The raven was back tonight and yelled and squawked at us all during dinner.
Speaking of dinner, I actually wanted it this evening.
I wasn’t hungry, per se, but the thought of spaghetti noodles was really interesting to me.
I ate as much as I could then the rain started again lightly while we cleaned up and put our bear bag up and packs under the tarp for the evening.
I suppose that having a stuffed up nose on a weeklong backpacking adventure might not be considered to be the optimal thing, but frankly, it meant that I couldn’t smell others (or myself) as we ripened during the week.
Mom and I did break out the baby wipes after the storm started really going. There was thunder and lightning and everything (some rather close by… less than 1 Mississippi); we wiped of 3 days of sweat, and in my case a great deal of the trail all over my legs (how do I get that grubby? goodness.) helped to make us feel somewhat less grubby and then got into our sleeping bags and listened to the rain.
Good day.
Better night’s sleep.