Toe Licking TVA Riff Raff

Getting into Big Laurel I was flooded with memories of a younger man and a thinner mustache.

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Waking up in Pond Mountain Wilderness and knowing I was walking to Big Laurel felt as familiar and warm as waking up in my home growing up. Both were locations I had previously solo hiked but big laurel was 17 miles of the AT that I’d had the pleasure of gracing 4 times. I could picture two great hammock hangs at the shelter I’d be staying at that night (Patch took my first choice but I can’t blame him) before I took my morning constitutional. Re-hiking trail is like walking down your old neighborhood except the suburbs are alive. 

Atlas, Jack Attack, Caboose, Rocky, Snugz, Tesla, Chewy, Patch, Sambo, Rambo, and I (thru tang rolling deep) charged through the morning to get to a swimming hole sponsored by TVA.

Like any body of water bigger then a puddle, it was a bathtub for hikers.

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Tennessee Valley Authority is an organization getting thrust into our focus more and more. The Smokey’s commercial infrastructure seems mostly TVA controlled, the surrounding lands are frequently TVA, and now we have to circumnavigate Watagua Lake, a former settlement and forest that was created by TVA.

Like any body of water bigger then a puddle, it was a bathtub for hikers. Twenty-five thru hikers were on the beach when I got there at noon. I immediately disrobed for a public bathing (with children around. No Swiss Family Robinson though, thank the heavens) and enjoyed the warmish lake. Games and challenges were passed around until it was time to move North. Jack was hiking with Peach who had her car nearby. She just got back on trail and was seeing how she felt with the car for a bit. Jack left Atlas with their packs while he ran off with peach on a McDonald’s run. I hate McDonald’s but I put in for a formal sampler platter from the dollar menu. “Thru hiker hunger” is a disease that controls you. Atlas settled on 8 double cheese burgers but his French tummy couldn’t hang with 3000 calories of processed patriotism so he had to stop 8 miles short of the group. 

Atlas settled on 8 double cheese burgers but his French tummy couldn’t hang with 3000 calories of processed patriotism so he had to stop 8 miles short of the group.

The rest of us carried on a stiff climb from the lake to the ridge. On the way is a large land bridge from the construction of the lake/dam. Truly humbling to see what man and machine can do.

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Getting into Big Laurel I was flooded with memories of a younger man and a thinner mustache. This stretch was the first I worked on with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, “SAWS” and where I trained wilderness rangers the next year. Now I’m just another civilian statistic on a ranger pad. Finally a user and not a uniform. I missed the uniform and the pride that comes with an axe in your palm. Large focused energy with the charismatic effects of a chopping tool is satisfying. Even better when it’s for the benefit of the people around you. I would later go out of my way to clean the trail the best I could, tool-less.

I missed the uniform and the pride that comes with an axe in your palm. Large focused energy with the charismatic effects of a chopping tool is satisfying.

The climb up to Vandeventer was stiff but rewards you with an iconic view of the lake we had just enjoyed. The shelter and surrounding camping was popular that night with over 25 hikers. It was more than I ever imagined during my previous stays.

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The next day was full of old lunch spots and memories. Stopping by the Nick Grindstaff grave put the quote in my head Bill of SAWS would frequently share, “He liked his mornings brisk and his neighbors distant.” His headstone read “Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.” The poor chap might not have led the jolliest life.

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“He liked his mornings brisk and his neighbors distant.” His headstone read “Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.”

I stopped to marvel at an old saw cut Aaron Sanford and I man handled with a stunning 7 ft. perforated lance tooth crosscut saw (Still out of the trail I’ll note).

On my way down a nice fella named Superman slapped a cold Gatorade in my palm and hiked away fast, Sobo. A half mile later the hiking turned from forest to farmland. Big open hiking with no one at all around. I was shocked to see a monster camp right when I crested the hill. A hiking group was putting on a special trail magic but not the local Baptist church like normal, but a group called Riff Raff.

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Riff Raff was a thru hiking group that for all intents and purposes is a fraternity. For the past few years they set up trail magic in a big way with beer and food. The chosen few are tapped in and asked to join during trail days in Damascus the following weekend. Not surprising they single out mostly females to join and welcome them to hang around.

Right after I crossed the threshold I was greeted with a beer and someone helping me with my pack. Over 30 thru hikers were scattered around and 20 more of Riff Raff. I mingled for a bit and sat with my Thru Tang-ers under the only tree in the field. We enjoyed a few PBRs while passing the time speaking on existentialism and challenging one another to lick their own toes. I wasn’t quite flexible enough but luckily theyr’es no saying where my tongue stops and my foot begins.

We enjoyed a few PBRs while passing the time speaking on existentialism and challenging one another to lick their own toes. I wasn’t quite flexible enough but luckily theyr’es no saying where my tongue stops and my foot begins.

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Rockman also managed to catch up with Ziplock, a girl he had been speaking of fondly for the past few weeks, AKA his trail crush. Rambo would later tell me when he first met Ziplock he asked where she was from. She said most recently Colorado. Rockman heard his most recent state and promptly shouldered Rambo out of the conversation. Rambo said after 10 seconds Rock was standing with his full back to him like they where in a line.

Quickly our planned 22 mile day was on the rocks. Caboose and a few others pushed on 11 more miles while I decided to finish a third Pabst. Rockman had decided to stay (big shock since zippy had been camped out for 3 nights already and was planning a 4th) and they were trying to loop me in. Not letting them or the Blue Ribbon special beat me, I decided to run. The riff raff guys didn’t want my kind around anyway. Only reason I got additional brews was because Ziplock grabbed ‘em. 

I stumbled through the cow pastures and a solid climb to arrive at Abingdon Gap Shelter, another popular campsite with over 40 residents for the night. Ten miles out of Damascus and the Trail Days festival starts tomorrow. Almost to the first major milestone and my previous exit. 

Goodbye Tennessee hello Commonwealth.

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