'Is this trip cursed?' was a thought that entered my mind on more than a few occasions during the lead up to and while on the hike. This stretch of trail, covering some of the most gorgeous miles of the AT in Virginia, has quickly elevated itself to one of my favorite locations in the state. With a wide diversity in the terrain and views, coupled with some truly remarkable overlooks, this would be the third time I had visited the area. Yet, each trip prior to this one ended short for me, either due to injury or weather, and I was never able to take in the view from Dragon's Tooth. But seeing as my birthday fell on a Saturday this year, I was determined to ring in my new year with finally completing this gem of a hike.
The rumblings of misfortune started with the weather. In a month of glorious temperatures and clear skies, a storm had decided to brew right on the 21st. Then, the group was hit with a last minute flurry of cancellations; of the 7 people originally signed up to accompany me, by Thursday night, it had dropped to 2. Would this trip end before it even began? Gary and John answered the call, however, and on Friday, we began the long trek down to Roanoke.
When we first reached the trailhead, we ran into a few trail angels who had left water by a kiosk for thru-hikers. They told us just how dry the trail in front of us was, yet for whatever reason, I didn't think to fill my bottles before hiking to the Catawba shelter. After an easy two miles, we discovered that not only had Boy Scouts taken the shelter for themselves, but that the nearby spring was bone dry. John began the 2 mile trek back to the kiosk to get water, and, after taking stock of my own supplies, I quickly hurried after him. When my headlamp died (with new batteries, no less), halfway to the water jugs, I realized the foolishness of leaving my pack behind, and only bringing my empty water bottles with me. Sweden this was not, and with cloud and tree cover obscuring the moon (and a fog rolling in), I would have been stranded on the path if not for John's steady light and (luckily, once I remembered) the LED on my cellphone. We filled up, made it back to camp by 1 AM, and collapsed for a few hours of shut-eye before an early 5:30 start.
Saturday dawned leaden and grey, and though we quickly reached the summit of McAfee Knob, there was no view to speak of. In fact, I'm not even sure I brought Gary and John out onto the 'official' overlook, since it was too fogged in to really get a bearing. But we continued on through the morning, passing several hikers near Tinker Cliffs, including a thru-hiker veteran visiting from GA. We all handled the miles well, although I was definitely feeling out of shape after a two month hiatus from hiking. When we reached Catawba Creek, we stopped for lunch and to restock on water (although, for the record, there is water along the ascent of North Mountain). The bridge had been washed away, so we had to ford the creek ourselves, but a few easy hops brought us across.
The lowing of cows became louder as we reached the other side of the creek, and, for the first time on the trail, I saw a herd of cows in the way. While most of them 'moo-ved' out of the way when we approached, I had to stare down one blocking our way across another bridge before we were able to pass. No bulls, thankfully, but we definitely had to navigate the trail more carefully to avoid the patties! In an eerie homage to my February hike, it started raining (it was snow then, though) around the exact same time, and as we summited North Mountain, it only got more intense.
Michael's guide to this hike cites just how much more wild the North Mountain trail is, and I can fully corroborate that fact. Not only did we see deer, but there were turkey vultures in the trees, and I even saw a bobcat (or some type of mountain cat) bounding away as we approached. The rain was bad, though not the worst storm I had ever been in. Gary and John actually welcomed the rain as a way to test their gear (I was decidedly in an 'Eeyore' mood during the worst of it), and we reached Singed Socks campsite just as the elements were warmed up to a good soaking. I thought that we might have to spend an evening sequestered in each of our tents, but at about 6PM, a miracle occurred. The rain stopped, the clouds broke, and the sun burst out on the western horizon. I broke out some cake, John passed around the Fireball whiskey, and we enjoyed a pleasant evening at a truly beautiful campsite.
By Sunday morning, I was ready to finish off the trail, and we were treated to an absolutely glorious and clear day for the entirety of the day. I had never gotten past the trailhead for Dragon's Tooth in my previous hikes, and thoroughly enjoyed the hike up to the summit, complete with some demanding scrambles, and some major elevation gain. We soaked in the sunshine from the overlook, and shared the views with a few day hikers (including one who found our abandoned packs and thought someone had jumped to their deaths!). The hike back to the car was also very pleasant, with open fields and more ridge walking giving additional looks to enjoy. We celebrated our accomplishment with a great meal at the Home Place Restaurant (we did have to wait, as there was a party of 50 in front of us...), and then headed home.
A big thanks to Gary and John for joining me on this one; Gary, especially, got welcomed into the DC UL community on his first hike with two very demanding days, and I hope to see him on the trail again soon! And John, if you're reading this, you still owe me a Bear Grylls impression :). This trail may be to me what the AFT has become for Brian, so be on the lookout for a repeat journey in the not too distant future!