There's a point when you're hiking long distances that your mind clears and your body gets into a rhythm. This is especially true on the longer uphill sections that are steep enough to require noticeably more effort, but not so steep as to make you wish you were dead. The brain is reduced to left foot-right pole, right foot-left pole, repeat. The eyes focus on the ground a few feet ahead of you searching out the roots and rocks that will break your flow if struck unnoticed, flickering up on occasion to check for the trail blazes and get a glance at the scenery. Miles go by like this. You take in as much as possible, but you've got a destination to hit by nightfall.
Today, Monday, was the first day off the loop hike I'm doing with a couple of friends. The loop is based on an about 17-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina from Deep Gap to Glassmine Gap connected by a few other trails that turned it into a large loop. We started at Standing Indian Campground and took a trail from there into Deep Gap to pick up the AT. The day started off nice enough, but as we descended into Deep Gap, we were walking in a thick gray fog. The forecast had called for mostly cloudy in the area today, but the fact that we may have had to actually walk through those clouds hadn't crossed my mind.
The next section of the trail is what had originally worried me. It was an at least two-mile stretch entirely uphill and the elevation map didn't make it look like a very gentle uphill either. What it turned out to be was actually pretty nice. The grade made the hike challenging enough that it came with a sense of accomplishment when finished, but not so hard as to cause any real distress or discomfort. Standing Indian is the tallest mountain on the AT south of the Smokies at 5,499 feet, but the climb is pretty easy. When we left the trail for the maybe 50-yard trek up to the summit (an unmarked trail across from the sign pointing toward water), we found that the view from the top was amazing. We had left the fog far below the summit and from the top we had clear skies and a perfect view of of a sea of clouds with only a few islands of neighboring peaks breaking through. It was breathtaking.
We also found that someone else had already set up camp on the bald spot at the top of the mountain. Chris, the other hiker, had been there for most of the day. He had planned to move on, but had been taken by the scenery and thought that the westerly view would make for a great view of the sunset. He invited us to set up camp around him and we ended up staying the night there as well. The sunset was amazing, although I missed the chance to take a photo of it while making supper.
Tomorrow, we set off down the mountain for what will be our longest day of the hike. Photos from the hike will have to wait until Friday's post when I can finally get my computer online instead of having to use the one at my in-laws' house.