Eisenhower, Monroe & Washington beyond laid themselves out before me like a promise. And, the 360 degree, 100+ mile visibility of the surrounding Valleys allowed me to see just how far I’d come in my quest to make that promise a reality. The trail stretched out across the ridge like only Able Crawford could have imagined. With some 12 miles to go, and countless views to devour, “before I sleep” I hopped, skipped & jumped back onto the trail and made my way to my next destination - Lake of the Clouds.
|Lake of the Clouds|
Despite the incredible views in every direction it’s always a bit of a let down to make it to the peak of Washington only to see it over-run with people – most of whom didn’t get there under their own power! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the Cog Railway or the Auto Road. Heck, the first time I came up to the top was on the Cog as a kid. But, now that I’ve actually climbed the mountain, I’m always a little disappointed to see the Disneyland like atmosphere at the summit. Imagine hiking Everest and finding a McDonald’s at the top. It’s kind of like that!
|The Presidential Ridge|
Anyway, I did my obligatory touch of the summit sign and quickly retreated to comfort of the trail - away from the throng of wide-eyed tourists. I said farewell to Crawford’s Path and made my own across the earthly moonscape of the Presidential Ridge. I hopped from rock to lime-green rock. I zigzagged from cairn to blessed cairn. And, I carefully picked my way over each boulder and along the edge of each sheer precipice - soaking the entire heavenly panorama in.
As I made my way along the Gulfside Trail I felt something I had never felt before at this high elevation. Hot! I’d been on the Presi Ridge many, many times but this was the first time I’d ever had the good fortune of such a clear and wind-less day. But, with this climatic anomaly came the burden of soaring temperatures and glaring sun. And I was starting to feel its draining effects. By the time I reached Sphinx Col it felt like I was crossing the Sahara itself!
It was during this stretch that I took a tumble coming off of Jefferson. Fortunately I wasn’t going too fast and was able to catch myself before I smashed my head against a rock. But my knee, and hands were scraped up pretty good, I was bleeding and a little shaken. It was the first real “digger” I had taken all trip and certainly brought me back down to earth in a hurry. I tended to my wounds and tentatively continued along the trail to my next stop – Madison Hut.
I reached Madison around 4:30pm. I was so tired at that point that I didn’t even attempt to summit the last two 4000 footers. I reached the front steps of the hut, dropped to the ground and slumped over my pack. I was at a crossroads – literally & figuratively. Do I head South to the Osgood tentsite and the Wildcat Ridge beyond as originally planned? Or, do I continue North down to Appalachia and an “early” exit from the AT? I had hiked 69 miles in 3 days and I wasn’t sure I could go another step.
|Madison Spring Hut|
The decision to cut my trip short was a sound one and paid dividends immediately. Without the weight of 1 more day (and 24 miles) looming over my head, I felt happy and free to enjoy my last few moments above tree-line. I explored the new, improved and, dare I say, luxurious Madison Spring Hut. I chatted with other hikers about their AT experiences. And spoke to yet another thru-hiker who exclaimed, “This place is like heaven on earth and there’s no place else I’d rather be!” And, while I couldn’t completely agree with what he said, I sure as heck understood the sentiment!
|Home Sweet Home|
I sat on a large rock next to my rustic encampment and ate a bran muffin that I’d purchased earlier at the hut. I called my wife (who was in Canada visiting her family) for the first time since I’d begun my journey. But, when I started to tell her about all that had transpired, I could sense she was worlds away. I asked her to give the kids a kiss for me and crawled off to bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I contemplated the sheer magnitude of a 2,184 mile, AT thru-hike. The 72 miles I’d just done had taken a huge toll on me and I couldn’t fathom doing it 30 more times!
|Made it! Sort of.|
I was disappointed not to have completed the full 96 mile G2G. But I knew that another day on the trail would have ended badly. The sleepless night on the ridge had taken a bit of the wind out of my sails and I couldn't quite recover from it. In the end I knew that I had given it everything I had (and then some) but came up a day (and 24 miles) short. This fact was highlighted once more by the 2 hour trek (in the rain) back to my car with my beat-up, one-geared, no-brake, mountain bike which left me completely exhausted once again!
I arrived home a few hours later to find the house completely empty. At first I was disappointed there was no one around to share my experience. But, it was probably for the best as I was too tired to go through it all immediately anyway. I felt blessed to have spent spend 3 glorious days on the trail, but now, all I wanted to do was rest. Too pooped to unpack and too lazy to fix dinner I collapsed in a heap on my bed. I slept all night but it was a restless, uneasy sleep of a semi-defeated man. Tossing and turning. Half awake and half asleep - drifting in and out of Appalachian Dreams.