The morning started surprisingly warm--perfect for thunderstorms, I assume--and the trail seemed it had something to prove. It wasn't a clear morning--the sun was nowhere to be seen, even by the time I got on the trail at 8:00.
Within minutes, the trail climbed steeply to a ridge line. It was an agonizing climb, seeming to gain more elevation than the last three months of hiking combined. I knew I'd be going into mountains over 2,000 feet high, but I had hoped for a gradual assent to break me in. I was now using muscles I hadn't used since my AT thru-hike of 2003.
Even the descents were demanding, over loose rocks covered with leaves. I had to walk carefully to insure I didn't sprain an ankle or loose my footing and plummet too fast downhill.
I finished drinking a liter of water within the first hour, and wondered if 5.5 liters would be enough. I probably could have gotten by, but fortunately, there were multiple springs along the way and I was able to fill up at a couple of them. They weren't gushers, to be sure, and some of them would have required serious work and patience to get a useable amount of water, but the complete darth of water over the next 30 miles turned out to be an exaggeration. Perhaps the springs dried out in the summer, but they were there now, for me, and that's what counted. =)
The trail rose and dropped multiple times, down to Clairmont Gap then Adams Gap.
In the Cheaha Wilderness, the trail climbed and climbed, seemingly without end, and I'd throw myself out on a rock, exhausted and sopping wet from sweat, cussing out the trail maintainers who chose such a strenuous route.
The views from the top, however, were magnificent! I could see for what seemed like a hundred miles in every direction.
But the pain. On the road walks, I had grown used to hiking speeds of as much as 3.5 MPH. On the Pinhoti, I'd often average half that amount. I had wanted to do 25 miles to the first shelter on the Pinhoti Trail, but I soon realized I wouldn't make it. It would be dark by the time I arrived. At best, I shouldn't expect more than 20 miles with this terrain.
The Cheaha Wilderness I had some concerns about, since my data book warned that the USFS had decided that a true wilderness experience meant no blazes or signage of any kind, but they must have had a change of heart (or perhaps too many lost hikers?) because the trail was well blazed and signs marked trail intersections the entire route.
Near the end of the day, I was torn. Should I walk into Cheaha State Park and try to find lodging? A restaurant and shower would have felt good after such a long day. But what if the lodging was full or more expensive than I wanted to pay?
Even with less than two hours of daylight remaining, I kept flip-flopping. Yes, I'd go. No, I wouldn't. Yes. No.
A mile or two before the park, however, I passed a small spring and a primitive campsite with a view that extended seemingly forever, and that settled it for me. Even if there was a room available, even if it was cheap, it would never have a view anywhere near as nice as this campsite.
I set up the tarp--it never did rain during the day, and the sun even made a brief appearance--but scattered thunderstorms were still in the forecast for the next day and I didn't want to take any chances.
I ultimately settled on a spot very close to a new plaque that had been installed proclaiming that the Pinhoti Trail, linking to the Appalachian Trail via the Benton McKaye Trail was officially done in 2008.
Which really got my attention. It was completed THIS year? I looked at the date of the dedication cermony--March 16, 2008. Amanda's birthday, and the day before I crossed the state line into Alabama. This plaque was only two weeks old!
Which was good, and bad. Good, that I knew there was an official FOOTpath between here and Springer Mountain, the whole distance.
Bad, because my data book was years out of date, and there had obviously been some reroutes and changes on the trail that I wouldn't know about until I got there. I don't like surprises, and I knew there would be some ahead.
I've started a countdown of my days left on the trail. As I type this, from my wonderful camp overlooking miles of countryside (and now that it's getting dark, I can see a city off in the distance towards the west, but I have no idea what the town is), I have 19 days left to April 16th. Just 19 more nights on the trail, and 19 more days of hiking.
Which means I must hike about 18 miles per day to make my date with Springer on time. It's doable, but I hope the terrain becomes easier because 18 miles like today will be VERY tough to do. I still need to go into town to resupply occasionally. Today I pulled off 21 miles, but it was completely exhausting and left no time for sightseeing.
But then, I am camped just a couple of miles from the highest point in Alabama, so hopefully today was the toughest section I'll have to face. (At least in Alabama.)