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Day 42: Zero day at cabin

Day 43: Iron Mountain Gap to Roan High Knob Shelter, 13.7 miles

Day 44: Roan High Knob Shelter to Overmountain Shelter, 7.1 miles

Day 45: Overmountain Shelter to Mountain Harbor Bed and Breakfast, 8.7 miles

Day 46: Mountain Harbor Bed and Breakfast to campsite at Upper Laurel Fork, 13.2 miles

Day 47: Campsite at Upper Laurel Fork to Dennis Cove Road, Kincora Hikers’ Hostel, 11.2 miles

Day 48: Kincora Hostel to Vandeventer Shelter, 17.5 miles

Day 49: Vandeventer Shelter to Abingdon Gap Shelter, 22.7 miles

Day 50: Abingdon Gap Shelter to Damascus, Virginia, 11 miles

Total miles: 468.2

Miles to go: 1,717.1

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I wrote my last post while I was waiting for Caroline to pick me up at Iron Mountain Gap. Her first surprise was that Ben Swanson, a friend from my time in Jacksonville, made the trip with her. Ben had contacted Care about sending me a letter, and she jokingly suggested that he could just come visit me with her. That was the last thing on Earth I would have expected, and it was such an excellent surprise.

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The next couple days spoiled me. We took a full day off at the cabin, a beautiful little home right on a creek near Roan Mountain. I got to soak my feet in the creek, take a nap, enjoy some chicken tetrazzini (my favorite home-cooked meal) that my mom sent up with Caroline, and then we drove to town to pig out on some barbecue. It was perfect.

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The next day Ben hiked 13.7 miles with me. It was a great representation of the trail so far: decent distance, a couple tough climbs but nothing too hard, overcast and chilly. I loved having Ben there to share it…it means so much to me that he came up. Care parked on the other side of the mountain and met us at the shelter. When Ben and I got in she was already hanging out by the fire with Tank and J-Rex, who I hadn’t seen since Erwin. That, having my sister and friend spend time with my hiker family, was amazing. After all the back and forth trying to plan the logistics, the timing could not have worked better.

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On Saturday we hiked a mile and a half before piling into Care’s truck and heading into town. We grabbed some breakfast, Tank and J-Rex got to re-supply at the store, then we headed across the street for round two at the barbecue place. Hiker hunger has definitely kicked in for me…I don’t think I’ve ever had such a bottomless appetite. Caroline was amazed, but I don’t think Ben had any problem keeping up.

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After lunch we drove back up to where we left off and hiked seven more miles. It was great terrain over some beautiful grassy balds, but the weather fought us…cold, windy and lots of sleet.

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Our day ended at Overmountain Shelter, one of the coolest spots on the trail so far. It’s a big red barn that was converted to an AT shelter a long time ago. Care had been there a few times before, and that was the target for her visit, so I’d been looking forward to it for a while. The barn is perfectly situated overlooking a valley, and we slept on the second level, which was warm and spacious.

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It’s a popular spot, so there was a great group of people that night–including a couple of thru-hikers carrying a banjo and fiddle. They were really talented, and their music could not have fit the scene more perfectly. While they were playing, the setting sun behind the barn lit up the hills in front of us, and then a bright, full double rainbow appeared over the valley. I know I get enthusiastic easily and use lots of superlatives, but that, the night before Easter, was possibly the most surreal, enchanting moment of the trip so far. My pictures here won’t do it justice…if you’re on Facebook, look for the ones Caroline posted for a better idea.

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Goodbyes in the morning were difficult. I could not believe how well Care and Ben connected with Tank and J-Rex. It was like they’d been hiking with us the whole time. As they walked back to the truck and we kept moving north, and I started thinking about not being home for Easter dinner, I found myself feeling homesick and a little mopey.

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But, as I’ve seen happen so many times already, the trail provided. The sun came out for the first time in a while, and it turned into one of my favorite days of hiking so far: warm and sunny, wide open grassy balds, great company. We leapfrogged with Daddy Long Legs and Baby Steps, just about the sweetest couple in the world (pictured below), and I even got to listen as they sang together while they walked.

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We had a long, rocky downhill later in the day, and my shoulder started acting up. It had been hurting a bit for a few days, but now it was screaming–exactly like it was before my neck got really bad coming into Hot Springs. That meant time to slow down and let it rest. Coming down the mountain I was bracing myself for more goodbyes, certain that I’d have to stop and Tank and J-Rex would move on.

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When we reached the road crossing, though, I realized that they were both more open than I had expected to the idea of stopping early for the day. So we walked down the road to Mountain Harbor, a little inn rumored to have one of the best breakfasts on the trail.

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Bonus: the family running the place likes to cook giant dinners at no extra charge on holidays since everything in town is closed. They call it their form of trail magic. The lady cooking all the food said “Sorry, dinner’s not really my specialty” as she unveiled a giant ham and turkey, tons of sides, and a ridiculously good cherry cheesecake. There were about 20 hikers enjoying dinner together that night, and later I rested on the couch with a bag of ice on my shoulder, watching basketball and enjoying the company. Easter was officially redeemed.

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After a breakfast that was even more epic than the dinner, we walked back to the trail. My shoulder felt rested, and since then I’ve been more careful about stopping every few miles to take my pack off for a minute and stretch it out, so I’m optimistic again.

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We had another beautiful day of hiking, ending at my favorite tentsite so far, a perfect flat area right next to a creek intersection.

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Tuesday was more of the same, and then we stayed at Kincora Hostel…the kind of place where you put your sleeping bag on the bunk and try your best not to touch the mattress. The owner, Bob Peoples, organizes massive trail maintenance projects through this whole section, and he’s something of a legend out here. I got to sit on the porch and chat with him for quite a while, listening to his stories and gathering as much information as I could.

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We did 17.5 miles the next day, much of which was spent circling and climbing over Watauga Lake, a giant, bright blue lake with tons of branches winding through the mountains. I made a mental note to return one day as a normal person and explore the area more fully.

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That night’s stopping point, Vandeventer Shelter, was covered in Chuck Norris-style jokes in honor of Bob Peoples, like “When Bob Peoples sleeps here, the mice bring him food,” or “When Bob Peoples walks, his shoes get blisters.”

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Thursday morning, Tank and I started talking about our first 20-mile day. I was pretty sure we’d end up stopping short and camping somewhere, because the day before we had high ambitions before deciding to stop at 17. But this time was different: we felt strong, the terrain was agreeable, and word of trail magic in the middle of the day meant we covered about four miles with our boosters on. (We had to pass a couple hikers to make sure we got there in time.)

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So a little before 7:30, we limped into the shelter after 22.7 miles, sore, exhausted and entirely thrilled. (That’s why it’s bold in the summary up top. That was a big deal for me.) It was a good day…at least until I found out that the water source for the night was about a third of a mile straight down the mountain.

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A long day Thursday meant that we could wake up early Friday and do the 11 miles into town before lunch. We dodged thunderstorms all morning but managed to miss the worst of it yet again. And we crossed into Virginia, our fourth state. That was another huge moment…I’ve really been looking forward to that milestone.

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I’m taking today off in Damascus, another town the trail goes directly through. I’ve eaten almost everywhere in town at least once, and I’m counting the hours until I can eat dinner…and then probably two breakfasts in the morning. There’s always a fun sense of a reunion coming into town, sitting by the road and chatting with people you haven’t seen for days. With all of our different paces and strategies, it’s amazing how often we see people we thought were days ahead or behind.

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(And speaking of hiker hunger, as I was writing this someone came by and said that a Baptist church nearby had just set up a load of free food under a pavilion. You could watch the word spread up and down the street, a dozen or so hikers coming out of all the different buildings and streaming toward the pavilion. Nothing like hot dogs, chili, salad and pudding to hold us over between lunch and dinner.)

This last section has been amazing in so many ways, thanks to Caroline, Ben and Tennessee. I’ve loved all the grassy balds, green fields, creeks and lakes, and the broad rivers that, if you sit long enough, I swear you’d see Huck Finn and Jim rafting down eventually.

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So Tennessee was fantastic, but Virginia’s been calling for a while and it’s time to answer. About a quarter of the trail is in Virginia, meaning I’ll have to hike more miles than I’ve done in total so far just to get out of this state. That thought depresses a lot of hikers (they call it the Virginia Blues), but I’m thrilled to be here. There are parts of the trail ahead that I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while, and I have a very difficult time imagining myself getting bored out here.

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Two last notes:

Spring is definitely on the way. There are more and more flowers around the trail, especially at lower elevations, the warm days are beginning to outnumber the cold days, and the trees are ever so slightly starting to come to life. Watching it change is still a highlight of this whole experience.

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And lastly, there’s another shift taking place. Early on, when people would ask if we are thru-hiking, everybody’s answers were tentative, like “I hope so,” or “That’s the plan.” Within just the last week or so, there’s a new kind of confidence when we hear that question. Nothing major changed all of a sudden, just a gradual shift that most of the hikers I’ve seen lately seem to be experiencing at the same time. Yes. We are thru-hikers.

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