We almost met our start target of 7:30 today, but wound up leaving at 8 because Beast tried to dry his shoes in the dryers at the camp laundry. This wound up not working because the dryer doors didn't lock shut, so after a few minutes of running, the door popped open from the weight of supporting the shoes (so they didn't flop around the dryer).
Shortly before our first break at Hawksbill Gap, just after passing through the above pictured rocks, I ran into Ioana, a friend of a friend, who is planning on thru-hiking the AT next year. We chatted for a bit, and then I left to catch up with Beast, who blew past us before I could introduce him. (In a hurry to get to a break, sure, but that's because if he stops and stands around, the sweat starts running down his legs and into his socks and shoes.)
At our second break, at the Little Stony Man parking area, while I was waiting for Beast, an elderly couple, Jim and Ellen, pulled up. I waved and said hi, and after a bit, he came over and said, "you look like a man who knows how to handle a treat". I replied that I could, and he gave me an apple. (It was quite delicious.) We chatted for a little while, and I mentioned that I was waiting for Beast. As if on cue, from a short switchback up from the parking area, he called out, "I'm coming, I'm coming!". Jim didn't have any more apples, but he did give Beast some peanut M&Ms (one of his favorite snacks).
Our next break, intended to be a short one, was only 2.5 miles further, at the Pinnacles Picnic Area, so that we could get more water. We wound up staying there a lot longer than planned (partially because Beast was slow to arrive). While we were there, a group of foreign tourists gave the three of us (Beast, me, and another hiker) sitting at our picnic table under the pavilion a large chunk of watermelon. It also was delicious.
I also called the Terrapin Station hostel in Front Royal and made reservations for Beast and myself. Showers, laundry, and a bed tomorrow, and maybe even some slackpacking the day after.
Getting a little antsy about getting to our planned shelter (still about six miles out) before it filled up, I left the picnic area shortly before Beast did. I only went ahead because Beast was confident he'd be able to make it; he was just going slower than usual because his trail legs (endurance) was down considerably after almost a week off the trail.
About two miles later was the Byrds Nest #3 Hut. I planned on waiting for Beast there, but as I got to the shelter, I saw a bear hanging around the otherwise apparently deserted shelter. Banging my poles together and making some noise, I convinced the bear to go back into the woods, but I wasn't about to stick around with a bear in the area, so I kept on going.
After that shelter, the downhill to the next gap was an awful, rugged, rocky mess, quite a contrast to the way the trail had been most of the day. Eventually, though, I made it to the gap, and the next mountain over had a fairly nice (if slightly steep) climb up to Pass Mountain Hut. I almost missed a turn, where the AT stopped following a fire road, but fortunately, I saw the blaze and made a hard turn almost too late, but before Great P, who had been shadowing me since we left the picnic area, had to tell me.
I got there around 5:30, and was very pleased that, for the first time in six days, I didn't have to set up my tent. There was space in the shelter!
Over the next two hours, I did my evening chores, and wrote a poem in the log book I had written a month ago, but now seemed the appropriate time to actually print it. Each time someone new entered camp, I asked if they had seen Beast. Each time, the answer was no. This was worrisome. What could have happened that Beast wasn't here, and that no one on the trail had seen him?
As it got later and later, I pondered my options, but decided that there really wasn't anything I could do. If no one had seen him on the trail, I sure wasn't going to find him, especially now with it getting dark. If he made a wrong turn, he'd know how to get himself unlost (signage in Shenandoah is generally very good). Naturally, there was no cell reception at the shelter, so I couldn't contact him to get an update.
Assuming Beast didn't stumble into camp late at night, my plan was much what it would have been if he were there: get up early for a planned 23 mile day to the Terrapin Station Hostel (accessed from a side trail just inside Shenandoah's northern boundary on the AT), get to the top of a hill, get cell reception, and hope Beast has sent a message, or that his dad knows something.