I have a small decision to make. Well, rather a choice to extract from three possible options that will ultimately dictate the outcome of this particular trip. The first choice is to quietly sob in the face of my own stupidity for hiking nearly three miles in the complete wrong direction. The second, is to simply accept my circumstances, make camp somewhere in the general vicinity, and hope that I can salvage some type of photographic opportunity yet fall short of my original goal of imaging the Highlands in their full winter shag. Then there is door number three...I can turn around, go back the way I came despite a looming sunset, and hope I can make the five mile hike to Grassy Ridge before night brings on the single digit temperatures so colorfully referenced in part one. The first two options are fine scenarios..."safe bets" as the fellar says, and they are fit for those who want to blissfully make the "best" of an unfortunate situation. That third choice, however, is one for those who blow past gas stations on empty tanks with their middle fingers waved high...the types who possess the can-do attitude of George By God Washington and cross frozen rivers just to murder you in your bed on Christmas morning. A bold choice fit for men of true grit...and I am chocked full of that, man.
So, at a pace that would make Forrest Gump weep into his sixteenth Dr. Pepper, I set off back down the trail. I glance at my watch and see that I have about two and half hours until the 5:37PM sunset. I know that I will be cutting it close to get there without having to set up my tent in the dark. I put this thought out of my mind and start thinking about good things...you know...cheese, The Big Lebowski, Sam Adams, and this song by Massive Attack that I mistakenly listed to on the drive in that morning. In any case I am thundering down the trail. I mentally acknowledged that I am probably going a little too fast for this heavy of a pack on this much ice. With every step I expect the Earth to betray me and send both me and my gear crashing to the ground in a cloud of snow and overt profanity. Boldly enough, I maintain.
I'm back at the parking area before I know it and take the opportunity to top off my small water bottle at one of the springs there.
Then I find myself back on the AT, going the correct way this time where I should have been four hours prior. Admittedly, I am slightly tired. Which was expected considering the near jog but nonetheless unwelcomed. I begin climbing the first bald which is called Round Top.
It's not long before I enter the patch of evergreen forest described by previous hikers of the trail. It's absolutely gorgeous but I can't stop. I punch out of the tree line. Ahead of me is a winding climb up to Round Top. Jane Bald will be next, and Grassy Ridge after that. I am not entirely looking forward to the trek. The land is ruggedly beautiful with lots of breathing room. This lightens my heart as I descend towards Jane.
Looking back from the apex of Round Top, I can see just how high I had climbed in error before realizing my mistake.
I take a quick breather before starting up the trail to the summit. I'm in the bottom of the draw here and out of the wind which has already began to pick up ahead of the coming snow. I start up the trail and it's not long before I hit the ice. This makes the going slow...too slow.
I'm beginning to wonder if Grassy Ridge bald will even be possible before sundown. It's already around 4:45PM. I lumber up to the peak at Jane and see the trail dip down and then continue to creep up to the next bald which is my target, Grassy Ridge. Upon seeing the way so tortuously laid before me, crew morale hits a brief and unfortunate low.
I hike as fast as I can though admittedly fatigue was settling into my legs. The wind seemed to be pushing my back down the mountain with each step. As I top out on Grassy, I look west to behold one of the more impressive sunset's which I never photographed. There's simply no time. So I just take a quick snapshot as I push towards the top.
Along here I encounter one of the rare humans I see during the trip. We converse for a few minutes and he tells me that he is there for the night also but staying a little further down than I intend to make camp. The approaching weather is obviously the subject of conversation. I couldn't help but notice the general look of "are you fucking crazy?" when I tell him of my plans to remain on the ridge the following night as well. And that's cool...that's cool.
I'm in a rush now. Rushing goes against my inherent nature but this time I have no choice. The wind has completely numbed my hands and all that remains of the sun is a soft yellow glow beneath the mist a few thousand feet below. I seek out a relatively level spot and shuck off my pack.
I'm glad to discover that the ground is, well...grassy, and will offer a lot of cushion for my large person to rest easy inside my tent. I set myself to literally throwing up my shelter. My fingers are just phantom appendages now and I fumble everything. The wind makes this situation a little complicated and I resort to throwing my pack inside the tent and then erecting the walls around it in order to keep the damn thing on the ground. First the mesh, now the fly, then the stakes. With the whole structure relatively secure, I dive in and zip down. I'm instantly warmer. It's virtually dark inside so I source my headlamp and then my heavy gloves. It's hard to describe how much relief washed over me then, knowing that I had reached my objective and was relatively comfortable after such a king hell bastard of a mistake made earlier in the day.
First night's chow is bacon macaroni stewed in my ever famous jerky water(hehe jerky water) sopped with tortillas.
I damn near slip into a coma. "Not yet" myself says to me. I stick my taboggan-clad head outside the tent and notice the mist from the hike in is still hanging heavy in the valley below. My body screams for sleep but after all, I'm here to do this whole picture "thing", and now is a good a time as any. I wrestle on some clothes and ooze out of my shelter. I make a few exposures of the scene before me and then of my camp itself. The skies above the mist and behind me are still crystal clear. The stars are bright and countless. Every now and then the wind stops leaving me in complete silence. A genuine kind of silence that's only found when you have quite literally risen above all else and find yourself alone. The air is fresh and cold. Right there, regardless of all else that might happen, I understood that I was completely right to come here.
I slide back into the sleeping bag and tie down for a long snooze. I have been awake for twenty-nine hours. It's not much past 9PM when I hear the slow yet steady peck of sleet on the side of the vinyl. It marks the beginning of the forecast winter precipitation scheduled for that evening. It's a welcomed sound because this is why I have come here after all. I'm ready.
For now I'm warm and content. The weather outside is about to transform the land. It's going to get bad...real bad.