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Appalachian Trail: Riff Raff to Nick Grindstaff Memorial

Day twenty-seven, 17 miles

The partying goes on and on…and on. 

It’s not like a constant din of music and voices, rather explosions of whoops and laughter plus the piercing tones of men trying to outdo each other. 

My ear plugs are in so deep, they’re hitting brain matter. 

It’s damp and a bit miserable out, so I don’t get up and join in. Besides, it’s not really my scene. Loud boisterous voices often make me anxious. I feel like there’s no escape and I’m trapped with inconsiderate people. 

Moxie offers me a sleeping pill and I wrap my balaclava around my ears for one more layer of protection. 

Perhaps it’s the fact that the majority of hikers have turned in and are controlled by the minority. Why don’t the Riff Raff folks institute some parameters on behavior? With no limits, this is how things go. 

Oh no, one of them has a guitar. 

And he isn’t any good. 

Around midnight, they finally simmer down. Maybe they ran out of beer. Only to be replaced by a group at the covered pavilion. They’re talking at first in a continuous murmur, and so I start to fall asleep. 

That’s until someone turns on music. 

It blasts out briefly and jolts me up. They must think better of it, so turn it off to return to talking. This time, however, a woman with a cutting, nasally, slightly whining voice joins in. 

“…I mean why would someone complain about us? They complained…”

Quite right, that person. 

On and on and on until – I kid you not – 4 am. By that time I’ve already made up my mind to walk on. Forget the cooked meals and the covered pavilions and the ride up the trail for slackpacking. I am finished with this silliness. 

At that, I doze for a few hours.

There is a decent breakfast of cereal and milk, egg burritos, coffee and juice. It’s drizzling and cold, and I pack it all up to toddle forth on the trail. 

I offer Moxie an out since she was set on slackpacking. But she too is exhausted by the noise and is willing to hike and find another sweet stealth spot just for two. 

She tells me that this is our quest together and we need to stick together. That makes me feel really good. I really don’t want to continue alone. It’s better together. 

Before we go, I finish my coffee and talk with Jay. He served three tours of duty in Iraq and is setting his house in order on trail. 

We met him two days ago when Addy brought us food. At the road, a family had built a small memorial to their “Pop.” The tree next to it is deeply scarred and I imagine Pop hit it with his car and was killed. 

The memorial is made up of plastic flowers and painted rocks as well as gifts to the spirit in the form of bottles of beer. As we sat across from it waiting for Addy, we watched the reactions. 

One hiker complained about the garbage, oblivious to its meaning. Two others were stunned by what must have been a violent death. When Jay walked by, he read the rocks, then crossed himself. I was deeply touched by his reverent gesture. This is a place of deep meaning to a family that lost someone they loved – even if one of the rocks read “Miss you, you old fucker.” 

At the Riff Raff camp, Jay asks about my wedding ring and then shows me the crucifix he wears. When I share with him how I feel the spirit buoying us on trail, he smiles and tells me he really likes hearing that. 

Not everyone at this place is a loud, inconsiderate jerk. There are people like Jay handing his life to God and just trying to live it the best he can. 

As we prepare to leave, one of the Riff Raff members named Superman offers to drive us up the dangerous road. I am so grateful since it begins to rain really hard. One time on that shoulder is plenty. 

Superman leaves us at the Shook Branch Recreation Area to begin our walk next to Lake Watauga. We thank him and truly are grateful for their efforts. I imagine in time they’ll have to set up some quiet hours. Who knows! 

There are some good views of the lake in mist, but we have hoods on and move quickly in the dark forest. The trail rises up to meet the dam and we follow a steep road up to meet another trail. This one will get us, in time, on the ridge. 

Superman tells us once on it, we’ll have smooth sailing for about 35 miles to Virginia. He calls it the ‘Tennessee Thruway.’ This is what made slackpacking so sweet: they would be coming down this and without loaded packs. 

We, on the other hand, have a nine-mile climb that will put us 2,500 feet above the lake. There is something ‘pure’ in hiking the right direction carrying a backpack and having to choose where to sleep tonight. We’re totally self-sufficient this way, and not taking away the challenge. 

Because challenge is what it’s all about today. The forest is a lush green and most of the ephemeral flowers are gone. There are very few views, and even those are obscured by trees. 

I don’t say it, knowing full well the reason I planned only one month on trail. But Moxie says it. “This really is boring hiking.”

It’s muddy, then overgrown with a grass that itches our skin. The trail goes steeply up, then down on repeat and all you can do is keep walking and tick off the miles. 

We reach Vandeventer shelter and stop to eat. One hiker has her sleep system set up and is cozied into her bag with a book. ‘Cinderella’ tells us her tent was flooded last night so she plans to take a zero day right here in the shelter. 

When I introduce myself as Blissful, a hiker from London tells me she’s Grumpy. We were bound to meet at some point! 

On and on the trail goes with wee glimpses of the lake below, the rain stopped now and fog clearing. 

At ten miles in, twenty hikers pass us in quick succession, all on their slackpack. They seem happy enough it’s dry at the moment and they’re moving briskly. No one asks why we kept hiking, so I assume they figure it out the cost is high, essentially no sleep whatsoever.

The memorial to Nick Grindstaff, a local hermit who settled on Iron Mountain in the late 1800’s in a cabin built of local logs.
“Trippin Turtle” happily slackpacking on a rainy day.
“Cinderella” takes a Zero in the shelter after being flooded out of her tent.

A stream crosses the trail and I gather water with a little over a mile to a site I have in mind. There are only two people at the shelter, but I want one more private night on trail before I go home. 

We pass a memorial to a local hermit named Nick and his dog, Panther. Then find our tiny site right at the edge of the ridge and close to trail. We hear thunder claps even as the sun shines and set quickly before it begins to rain. 

Our English Grumpy passes, then another hiker who tells us the nearby water source is dry. I’m so glad I collected water where I could see it. 

Raindrops patter my tent, then the wind builds and the drops come down no longer out of the sky, but from the wet treetops. The sun appears for only a shy minute and thunder crackles in the distance before rain comes down in buckets.

Never has nature’s sounds been so delicious.

6 Responses

  1. Hi, I seldom steyed in
    shelters, after the Smokies. They are not clean. I would stop and chat a bit, then find a good spot, to set up camp. I really enjoyed your photos, goo7d eye !

  2. I am SO SORRY we were loud. I try so hard to make our people be quiet, but it’s so difficult. To me it’s all about the trail magic, to a lot of them it’s a party. And they haven’t seen each other in a year. I should be more clear to hikers before they come to our place that it can be loud late into the night. I will try to be better.

    It was very nice meeting you ladies, what a surprise you were from St Paul and Grand Rapids! Hope the rest of your trail goes well!


    1. aw, Superman! Thanks so much for writing! I am extremely grateful for all Riff Raff did for me and my hiker friends – feeding us, giving us a safe place to stay (out of the rain!), offering the slackpacking, etc etc. You are the classiest of Trail Magicians.

      I wonder if maybe a small parameter on noise might be within reach – like ‘we can be as loud and partying and wild as we want til 1:00 am, but then let’s have a period of tranquility so we can all rest up for the mountains ahead.’ That may be totally anathema to what Riff Raff is all about and I respect that for sure.

      Both Moxie and I enjoyed the stay and the good energy of everyone, but I couldn’t sleep so had to push on. That’s just me though and I wish for all good things for you and my Riff Raff friends. Are you still in MN? Let’s hike Afton sometime!


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