My day began behind the wheel of Warren Doyle’s back-up automobile, an older model, faded red, Ford Escort station-wagon, with a stick shift. The odometer is frozen at 316,370 miles. So at just after daylight I followed the taillights on Warren’s other compact into Damascus. Our stop was Cowboy’s, a local eating establishment often frequented by hikers. At the early hour no 2013 thru hikers were there. The hiker that was there, however, was Warren Doyle, the man who is to the Appalachian Trail what Jack Nicklaus is to the PGA, a major record holder. For the duration of our meal I had the honor and privilege of conversing with a legend.
Warren has thru hiked the entire AT a record 16 times. He is currently planning his next AT group expedition for 2015. Thirty-eight would be hikers will soon be attending an orientation session at Warren’s Appalachian Folk School. Only between 20 and 25% of those who attempt an Appalachian Trail thru hike are successful. About 75% of those who attend Doyle’s school succeed, which makes his AT Institute very popular among the novice and experienced alike.
Today Warren was headed to Hot Springs to meet friends for a day hike, so his idea was to place the Escort at Low Gap, where I would finish today’s 22.6 mile jaunt. After we made that stop, Warren shuttled me over to Wilbur Dam Rd., where I ended yesterday. Even though he planned to stay in Hot Springs tonight, Warren graciously offered to allow me to drive his car back to the Folk School and to stay the night as well. People don’t get much kinder than Warren.
With another light pack, I started today’s walk at 8:35. Even though the trail climbed over the first four miles, numerous switchbacks made for comfortable hiking. Early today I passed a German couple who seemed to be near my age, Turtle and Snail. A few minutes later I passed another thru hiker that I had not met before, Triple Step. Then when I reached the Vandeventer Shelter I came across Navigator, another hiker from Washington state that is only the second hiker I have met who started after I did. Navigator pointed out a rather large black snake that was resting in the rafters of the shelter. Made me glad I wasn’t staying there tonight.
Throughout the morning I walked a ridge line with views of the Watauga River and rich farm land. Even though the trail was predominately in the woods, views on both aides were interspersed all day. When I stopped for water at a spring a couple of miles before the next shelter, I met two more thru hikers, husband and wife, Outfitter and In Progress. Hiking on I took a brief break at the Nick Grindstaff Monument, the final resting place for someone’s uncle. A small bench had been placed in front of the marker.
By the time I reached Iron Mountain Shelter, I needed a second lunch. Again Navigator was seated in the shelter. While I rested who should appear but Salad Days, the young man who is hiking in the same trail runners I’m wearing, Brooks Cascadias. He stopped to cook up a hot lunch. Before I moved on Risk It also arrived for a break. I bid goodbye for now to all, needing to hike on at a quicker pace.
The trail continued to be gently rolling for several miles. As I approached TN 91, which leads to Shady Valley, TN, I was thinking that trail magic of a cold soft drink would be nice. Only minutes later I came across a cooler filled with cold drinks. I took a Pepsi and silently thanked the members of the church group who had provided not only the beverage but prayers to go along with it. When I reached the road about one hundred yards later, I enjoyed the Pepsi with the last half of a large ham and cheese sandwich on a Kaiser roll.
Just across the road the AT crosses a cow pasture. This won’t be the last. As I climbed a stile and shot some photos, the cows ate the grass indifferently. They did let out a chorus of moos when the rain commenced just about the time I exited their confines. At first it was a cold, blowing rain and then just a steady drizzle, but I still continued to make good time. When I reached the final shelter of the day, I ducked underneath to gulp down a pack of peanuts. Six hikers were already in the shelter for the night. I introduced myself to more folks that I had not seen before. Starman 28 and Titan also has started after me and were flying up the trail.
After the brief respite I hiked on hurriedly due to the cold rain. I covered the final 3.5 miles in what seemed like record speed for me. The trail continued to be forgiving except for some minor patches of mud. Just after six I reached Low Gap, US 421, where the reliable Escort was waiting. After changing into a dry shirt, I navigated my way down the winding highway like a pro. I never once came close to running over the side of a mountain.
I reached the home of Warren Doyle a little over half an hour later. After a shower and starting my laundry, I drove into Iron Mountain for supper and a little shopping for food for tomorrow’s hike. I can’t say enough about how special the past two days have been. The people I have met continue to amaze and inspire me. Thank you, Warren Doyle. It has been truly an honor and a privilege to spend time in your company and your home. Tomorrow the northward walk continues as I hike into Virginia, the fourth state along the Appalachian Trail.