A strange thing happens after I part ways with Two Bad Dogs: I see ZERO THRU HIKERS on the trail all day (and only four section hikers who are heading south.) This is quite surprising, as this happened only once on my entire PCT thru-hike, and there are more than twice as many people on this trail.
It’s nice being alone, though. I sing as loud and off key as I want. Hike fast without stopping. Say hello to the squirrels and birds. Pee wherever.
The morning starts with a crazy climb up Albert Mountain. It’s a short trek to the top, but the dirt path ends suddenly and the trail goes straight up a mess of boulders and tangled roots.
“Really?” I say aloud and laugh. Throw my trekking poles up ahead of me, scramble hand over hand up the slick, muddy rocks. Repeat this ten times or so until I reach the peak.
The view at the top is stunning. Mountains stretch across the horizon like lines of corduroy. Tufts of green explode in the valley down below. I take my pack off, snap some photos, force down a bar. The hiker hunger hasn’t hit me yet.
The descent, like the climb, is steep as hell. My right knee has been bothering me a bit for the past few days, but this, this hurts. With each step, a lightning bolt of pain shoots down the side of my knee. I yelp when it gets unbearable but push on. Remember the advice Dewey gave me last year on the PCT when I had shin splints.
“Walk harder. They’ll go away.”
I hope it works this time, too.
It’s early afternoon when I reach the highway that leads to Franklin, North Carolina. Before I have a chance to stick out my thumb, a shuttle from the local motel pulls up and the driver takes me eleven miles to the Sapphire Inn. I shower, do my town chores, eat dinner at a kitschy hot-rod themed restaurant with red leather booths and an old-fashioned soda fountain. Get a text from Ellen–she and Patrick and Space Time did 23.5 miles and they’re in Franklin! We all pile into the room and stay up late using the free wifi, pecking away in the glow of our little devices.
Per usual, it’s raining when we hit the trail in the morning. I push on ahead of the others, head down, slogging through the mud. A few miles in, I meet a group of guys snapping photos of the Swinging Lick Gap trail marker (years ago, someone gave in to temptation and took a knife to the “L”.) We leapfrog throughout the day, stop to take a break at a shelter together to escape the rain.
I like these guys right away. The way they talk shit to each other, making jabs and dishing ’em right back.
“Don’t you worry, Tick Tock,” Moose Head says. “You’ve got it coming soon.” The guys laugh, and I do too.
Burnsides catches up to me and we stop at Cold Springs Shelter to cook dinner. He asks, half joking, if I want to bust out my headlamp and night hike twelve more miles to the little resort town up ahead.
“Let’s do it!” I say. We’re talking it through when the other guys arrive. They don’t want to hike any further, so we set our tents up on a nearby ridge instead.
We finish our dinners, clean our pots, retire to our respective shelters. The guys scribble in their journals, read books, map out the next day’s miles. There’s good cell service up here, so I send some texts and scroll mindlessly through photos on Instagram.
A fart echoes from one of the guy’s tents, followed by a chorus of laughter. Another fart. More laughter.
“Goodnight, Never Land!” Moose Head yells from his tent.
I chuckle softly, turn my headlamp off. Then one by one, the glowing tents turn dark.