Today was a day of firsts. It was the first day of the fifth week of my thru-hike. It was the first time I got out of town this early (7:30 am). It was the first time that the trail took me through the middle of a town. It was the first time that the trail crossed a large river (The French Broad). It was the first time that the trail took me over a highway on a bridge. It was the first time that I saw a deer. It was the first time my rain gear, clothing, shoes, and socks were soaked through to the skin.
My early start was mostly prompted by the rumor of rain. I’ve walked in the rain before, but thought that a head start would give me some extra dry time on this short, 11 mile day. It was rather nice walking through Hot Springs in the early morning before all the hustle and bustle began. After crossing the bridge over the French Broad, I discovered that there are some really nice campsites along the bank of the river for those that prefer not to stay in town.
The usual M.O. for a town departure is that you immediately start climbing straight up for thousands of feet to regain your position on the mountain ridge line, but not today. There was a small climb from the river providing several excellent views of Hot Springs, including Lovers Leap Rock. Later on, I encountered another first when I came upon a small dam containing a cute pond.
It was about then, halfway through the day, that everything stopped being cute. From Tanyard Gap, I faced a steep 1,300 foot climb, followed by a 600 foot drop, followed by another steep 600 foot climb to get to the shelter. As I began the first climb, the skies opened up and released a rain torrent of biblical proportions. Climbing is usually no huge deal. I do it every day. But usually, I can see my goal and have a sense of making progress. But when you are walking against the current of a river of mud, and can only see 30 feet in any direction, it makes it seem like it is taking forever to make any progress. In the end, it took over six hours to hike this “short” 11 mile day.
Having my wishes granted has come to seem like the norm on this hike, and today all I wished for was to make it to Spring Mountain Shelter and find room in the shelter for me. I made it to the shelter looking like a wet sewer rat, but apparently there was not a place for me. When I arrived at the shelter, I peeled back the tarp and asked, “Is there any room at the inn?” Some guy who I had never seen before had appointed himself shelter asshole and responded by saying, “The book says this is a five person shelter. There are five people here. Therefore, there is no room.”
Now, the shelter has yet to be built that wouldn’t hold more people in bad weather than what “the book” says. But, instead of giving him the strong left hook to the jaw that he deserved, I quietly departed comforted by the fact that trail karma will eventually render him a just punishment, preferably turning him into a bear snack. There was also another guy in that shelter who is my age that I have camped with before, that became an accessory to the fact when he refused to speak up, or even make eye contact. I will deal with him later.
Moving on, I climbed the hill in the pouring rain, pitched my tent, and climbed inside. After stripping down and piling my wet clothes in the corner, I sham-wowed the best I could, put on my dry sleeping clothes, and climbed in my sleeping bag. I’m not sure why, because it was only 2:00 pm, but I fell asleep for three hours. I awakened to the sound of people talking and laughing all around me and the sun shining through my tent. For a moment, I thought the whole rain thing had been a dream, but there was that pile of wet clothes in the corner of my tent to bring me back to reality.
Eventually, I came out of my tent and discovered that a tent city had been constructed around me. Not only that, but every branch, bush, or piece of string that could support the weight was covered with wet clothing. The couple that was right behind me on the trail said that they also got the same treatment at the shelter, and they were still pretty ticked about it.
I seem to have lost the original bubble of friends that had been hiking along with me. Nearly everyone here is a new face to me, or someone that I met at the Laughing Heart. The only exception is that Mandrake and Rockhoppper are back with me, but only because they took three “zeros” in Hot Springs to enjoy the endless chocolate fountain. Rockhoppper also showed me a picture that she took of a pastry she had purchased with a unicorn imprinted on it. I guess some hiker fantasies do come true, even if metaphorically.