Today’s total: ~10.5 mi from camp on mile ~73 to Natural Bridge Road and Miguel’s Pizza
It’s the last day on the Trace: bittersweet. I’m sticky and hungry and covered in bug bites that have become angry welts. I want pizza and a hot tub, both of which are waiting at the end. But I also don’t want to leave the trail now that it is beautiful. I will miss the creeks and the chanterelles and the conifers unraveling into mossy rhododendron forest.
I wake up grudgingly; I didn’t sleep well again last night. It’s been a rough trail on the sleep front. But I feel a lot better than I did late in the day yesterday, and after another slow breakfast we start walking. It’s a beautiful morning and there are no other hikers out yet. We take a side trail up to a rock formation called Cloud Splitter, which entails scrambling of a similar caliber to Indian Staircase, although this time there is a rope installed for assistance. The view from the top is sweeping, green and glowing in the morning light.
The Trace continues an easy meander through leafy valleys and up around caves and rock faces. Soon, we come to a road crossing and a massive suspension bridge spanning the Red River. On the hill on the opposite side we start finding more chanterelles, which we pick to take to the cabin we will be staying in for the next few days with my family. The trail turns downhill again, walks through a tall patch of grass, crosses a few creeks, and goes straight up. By now I am uncomfortably sweaty.
We find a lunch spot on a large slabby rock surrounded by short pine trees. I inhale deeply, yet again taken back to the Ponderosas of northern Arizona. I’ve been thinking about Flagstaff a lot on this trip, which is odd, because in general the climate couldn’t be more different. But up here on the rocky coniferous hilltops I could just as easily be on Mt. Elden as in the Red River Gorge. I can close my eyes and remember the wide western sunsets and the cawing of crows. I hadn’t realized until now how much I missed that place.
After lunch we have about five miles left. We climb a few more hills, cross a road, and start going down a leafy set of switchbacks into a valley following Whittleton Creek. We find ourselves in that state of delirium induced by a combination of heat and being near to the end of a long walk, and though by this point we have maybe a mile left, it seems like an eternity. A few rounds of 20 Questions and several moments of complaining later, the trail empties out onto a paved road at Whittleton Campground, and onto Natural Bridge Road.
“We made it!” Wiggs says, delighted. “We did it.”
We cross to the Hemlock Lodge road, take a right, cross back over the creek, and find ourselves approaching the Katahdin of our section hike: Miguel’s Pizza. Legendary among rock climbers, the distinctive yellow building sits like a beacon right at the side of Natural Bridge Road. We walk magnetically towards it, ready for a feast.
The last time I was here it was also July, but in 2016. I came for a quick weekend climbing trip with my then-partner. There were hardly any people here, and it rained nearly the whole time, and there was still only one small room in the restaurant itself. Now, we can see the jam-packed parking lot and hordes of people as we round the bend in the road and come closer, the expanded section now added to the back. There are picnic tables scattered around the property under a stand of hemlocks, new indoor seating, and a long line of customers out front, spaced apart and masked.
We order a large pizza with chicken and green peppers and devour it in one sitting. We drink cold Ale-8s and pints of Rhinegeist Truth, because why not. My parents and our dog Emma come to meet us, and later we retreat to a cabin deep in the woods and down an wild gravel road (I use the word “road” generously). Showers, hot tub, more beer, and air conditioning. Hours before I had been sweaty and melting in the woods, dreaming of only this, and now I find myself miraculously comfortable.
It’s weird to stop hiking after only eight days. Though this is a fairly long time for any reasonable person, after a six-month thru-hike anything but weeks on end of hiking feels insufficient. I know that it’s the only thing that’s really possible or responsible for us right now, given the pandemic and work schedules, but it still seems short.
Though the Trace was hot, at times scarily scant on water, and full of biting insects, it felt good to get back into that rhythm. It felt natural to sleep in a tent and wake up with the sun. If anything, this little hike refreshed my desire to hike other long trails and put me back in a place where I feel completely myself. It gave us chanterelles and destroying angels and boletes; it gave us darters and crayfish and a sense that, despite discomfort, walking is a gift. The woods are always home, sweaty though they may be.