Over the night, it poured buckets and in the morning, it was still raining. So we didn't even go a 48 hour stretch without rain. We decided to stay bunkered down in our tent until the rain stopped. Once it did we packed up the soggy tent in our mats, and started our 21 mile day.
When we got to the little road crossing before Watauga Lake, we saw some familiar faces slackpacking up the road. Haand Solo, Seth Rogan, Pots, and Right Side were all slackpacking over Pond Mountain. A smart move. Haand Solo, the cheeky bugger, had a Dunkin Donuts coffee from a stopover in Hampton and Seth Rogan had a box of 25 munchkins. We wished them luck over Pond Mountain and went our separate ways.
Before fully committing to the trail though, Tyler headed to Boots Off Hostel to grab some snacks while Emily headed to the sweet real plumbing bathroom at Watauga Lake to fill up water. Boots Off Hostel is a really neat new hostel, but having some legal issues with the town so they can currently only offer tenting space. Tyler grabbed some Little Debbie's cosmic brownies, cliff bars, and pop tarts and off we went at the not so early time of 10:45. Well we left a little later because we stopped to admire the lake. It was absolutely gorgeous. Again, pictures rather than awkward words will provide a better description.
Luckily, the terrain around the lake was flat and soft (pine needles coating the treadway are the best). It truly would have been a wonderful place to camp if it wasn't for the bear closure. We flew down the 4 ish miles to Watauga Dam, the second dam of the journey. From examining the elevation profiles, the terrain looked pretty flat for the next two days, which contributed to us thinking 21 followed by 21 wouldn't be so bad. However, the road followed by a fairly steep uphill climb turned out to be more significant than we expected, especially in the 99% humidity of the day. It seemed that all the rain from the night and morning was just hanging in the air. So swimming uphill was difficult. Our sweat had nowhere to go and we were drenched and thirsty. We stopped by a stream a mile and a half from a shelter. There we refilled our water, ate lunch, and chatted with Stick in the Woods (or just Stick). He's had a 40 year dream to hike the AT and said he's been loving every minute of it. He's the one person so far that we 100% believe when they claim they love every minute of the trail. Even those rainy days. He's also a super train nerd. He's got an extensive model train in his house, that takes 7 people to run, of the train from the Doe River area back near Roan Mountain. In fact, he's getting picked up for a day off the trail to go give a talk at an upcoming train convention in the area.
He headed off down the trail a bit before us, and, in hindsight, we should have left with him. The sun had been shining, but we looked up and suddenly thick thunder and horrible dark clouds were quickly moving towards us. Obi showed up, slightly bleary after his beach party from the day before, and asked if we thought we'd make the shelter before the rain. We weren't sure but we were going to try. But we weren't quick enough. The rain came fast and hard. The trail continued uphill, it was still humid, so wearing raingear mostly met personal saunas. We wrapped our bags, Tyler wore his poncho, some choice words were screamed futily, and, fairly saturated we made it to Vandeventer Shelter. Shaggy, Stick, and a section hiker (who planned on spending the night there and slugging out 34 miles the next day to Damascus) were already there waiting out the rain. A soggy Obi showed up soon after. We sat around chatting about the beach party, upcoming "easy" parts of the trail, and judgmental thru hikers who like to choose arbitrary details about one's backpacking items that determine that one will "never make it." E.g. "You carry THREE pairs of socks. You'll never make it." Yup, there's a lot of that around. Luckily, we care less and less every day.
Finally, the rain let up a bit, and, despite the fact that we were again in a cloud eerily reminiscent of the Smokies, we headed out. We made it about a mile before the heavens opened up. We tried to remain optimistic and hid under some thick rhododendrons, vainly hoping that the thunder and lightning would pass by and the rain would let up. We waited there counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. It seemed that we were really boxed in and we only really succeeded in making sure that our shoes were properly saturated.
We were only about 12 miles into our 21 mile day, it was 4 pm, we were soaking wet, and the rain showed no sign of stopping. The trail seemed to go infinitely uphill and soon became a slippery, muddy creek, and we were almost out of water to drink. One would think all the rain would easily remedy our situation, but by this point it had been raining so hard and so long that all the water sources were polluted with runoff sediment, that trying to filter the sources would almost certainly clog our Sawyer water filter.
Emily started leading the way as Tyler became cold and downright demoralized. She charged up the flooded trail and said we would not be stopped from reaching Damascus on time. After infinite miserable time, Emily's brave charge led us to Iron Mountain Shelter. It seemed that most people stayed off the mountain today, the shelter was pretty quiet. Stick, a section hiker named Angela we recognized from Pond Mountain the day before, and two new thru hiker faces Monty (a young dude with luxurious curly blond hair from Montreal who refuses to speak French with Tyler, who speaks horrible french) and Jose (a hilarious high spirited guy of Mexican descent who's real name is Eric, Jose is his trail name...).
We arrived, pelled off our wet socks, and focused as best we could at figuring out what to make for warm food to bring us back to life. It was about 7 pm still raining, but we still felt like we should push a few more miles or else we would have to hike 26 the following day. Angela, who puts the Angel in Angela (man, hella lame, but she was seriously too nice to us thru hikers) said she made too much quinoa and offered us the rest of her kettle full. Tyler refused at first, but she insisted again. We devoured it with some of her nutritional yeast. Tyler ate it so fast he almost threw up. This is not hyperbole. She also gave us carrots and mint dark chocolate, maybe because we looked especially pathetic. Angela works for the National Parks (in a capacity we never fully learned) in West Virginia. Sadly, she was only going as far as Damascus, but wherever she goes in the future, we hope that somehow karma rewards her for saving our demoralized selves. We cooked some rice and mixed in olive oil and weird canned barbecue chicken as well (which was not very good and we won't be buying again).
We could not have been with a better group that night after the day we had. We decided to stay, even though the rain had lessened. The jokes from Monty and Jose, Angela's kindness and banter, and Sticks positivity actually made us forget the cold and wet. We hunkered down next to our new acquaintances in the shelter, and tried to visualize pounding 26 miles the next day to make it to Damascus by May 13th. It looked like the terrain would actually truly be "easy" tomorrow. We asked around to see if the rain was going to stop. Stick said he heard that it was supposed to be sunny tomorrow night.