“Big Red” (me) and Dale Ditmanson, Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
During the four weeks between the snowy end of section one at Fontana, NC, and the rainy beginning of section three near Atkins, VA, I come down with two significant colds. The first one knocks me out for nearly a week in early April, and the second one hits like a ton of bricks the night before I am to drive to Gatlinburg, TN, for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. It seizes my sinuses and throat. Arriving a day late with a pounding head, stopped ears, and no voice, I manage to whisper and squeak my way through four wildflower hikes and a very fun, two hour stint dressed as “Big Red,” a black-chinned red salamander.
Everybody loves a salamander!
The mascot-type suit is hot, hard to see through, and difficult to walk in, but I can act goofy with impunity since no one knows it is me in there — very liberating! People smile at me, want their picture with me, hug me, dance with me, and even ‘dip’ me! The object is to invite Pilgrims to attend the Salamander Ball fundraiser for Discover Life in America. This aspect is not very successful, but I have a great time!
Day One, Apr. 28, 6.3 miles: Since my second illness has come on so suddenly, I wonder if antibiotics are needed and secure a prescription. It’s a reasonable thought but bad idea. By the end of the Pilgrimage, I am suffering from a common ‘side effect’ of the drug and seek additional medical advice to counter it as I’m driving up I-81 in the rain to start hiking 29 days on the A.T.
Allen, Mary, and Susan before the Salamander Ball
Susan and Allen Sweetser are with me. They will drive my car back to their house and pick me up at the end of my hike at Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, VA. We eat Sunday buffet at The Barn Restaurant, home of a 16 oz. hiker burger that gets good reviews in their hiker registry. The Barn is visible off the interstate at the Groseclose exit, where the A.T. crosses US Hwy 11 and goes under the freeway. Clad in full rain gear, I start at the highway at 1:00 p.m. It is raining lightly, and all indications are the afternoon could be very wet. Past the interstate, the trail turns from the road into an open field. I walk north as the Sweetsers drive south.
The first part of the trail goes through fenced fields and pastures. Stiles straddle the fences for easier crossing. The typical stile is three flat 2×6 boards nailed across either side of an X-shaped support. Sometimes the boards are widely spaced presenting a bit of a challenge to us shorter hikers, and all of them are worn smooth on the top edge. Today they are also wet. I take great care not to slip. The consequences would definitely be bad, just a question of how bad.
On this cloudy, cool afternoon, the low groan of interstate trucks follows me for a long time. Rain comes in very light showers that taper off and on, picking up a bit in mid-afternoon and ending by late in the day. My goal is Crawfish Valley campsite at 6.3 miles. This small section of the trail is flat at the start with moderate overall elevation change…an easy day to work back into the A.T. routine. I have food for six days to reach my first resupply at Woods Hole Hostel Saturday.
Unlike the Smokies’ green lower elevations, the trees here are still leafless with buds just beginning to open. Unlike the bare winter landscape in Georgia and North Carolina a few weeks ago, the forest floor here is bursting with emerging wildflowers and ferns. It’s a good thing I’m only going a few miles. I’m stopping every five minutes to take a picture. Finally, I get to experience spring on the A.T.
Rue Anemone, Cutleaf Toothwort, Wild Oats, Wood Anemone, Pussytoes, Spring Beauty, and several violet species are flowering along with seedpods from earlier plants — Bloodroot, Trout Lily, and Liverleaf — and the foliage of wildflowers yet to open — Solomon’s Seal, Mayapple, Wild Comfrey, and Rattlesnake Weed. To my surprise and delight, Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) are in flower all along the trail. Dogwood and Serviceberry trees are just beginning to flower too. Another treat is the rich and heady fragrance of Redtwig Doghobble’s (Eubotrys recurva, Leucothoe recurva) drooping racemes of white, urn-shaped flowers.
This time of year is prime for enjoying the beautiful variety of migratory songbirds. Most passerines have arrived from their winter homes and are nesting. Their territorial tunes are nearly constant throughout the day, peaking at dawn and late afternoon. A White-eyed Vireo sits in a shrub at eye level singing his song while I get a photo. I recognize Hooded Warblers and Worm-eating Warblers among the musical serenades. Grouse are thrumming, Woodpeckers are drumming, and overnight a Whippoorwill adds his two cents.
I reach the foot of Little Brushy Mountain about 4:15. There are suitable tent sites just before and just after a large fire ring that sits next to the trail. The A.T. takes a hard left here, and the best sites are further up at the Crawfish Trail junction, a fact I do not discover until the next morning. I set up shop in a small flat space between Rhododendrons close to the creek. Three young hikers, “Dude” (NY), “Fidget” (Great Britain), and “18” (CA), are taking a snack break here. They know “Maine-iac,” “Jean Genie,” and “Duffle Miner,” who are just a couple of days ahead!
Fragrant Redtwig Doghobble
They tell me horror stories about the snowy Smokies, removing all doubt that my decision to go home was a very good one. Drifts were chest high in places, parts of the trail were packed ice, temperatures were subfreezing, and as many as 29 people piled into shelters designed for 12. They also tell me horror stories about the norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal infection with nasty symptoms, that swept through the hiker community in upper East Tennessee, particularly around Erwin. I’m very glad I missed that too!
No one joins me at the fire ring, and I spend my first night on the trail alone, which is probably a good thing. My clogged sinuses drain when I lie down prompting much coughing. I’d have only annoyed others. It does not rain, and I otherwise sleep very well.
Virginia’s bucolic countryside
Day 2, Apr. 29, 11.1 miles: Today’s hike will take me over Walker Mountain, the Holston River, Brushy Mountain, and Lynn Camp Mountain totaling more than 5,000 feet in elevation change. It is cloudy and cool — great hiking weather. Long, lazy switchbacks take me up Walker Mountain, but the trip down is steep and rocky.
Cows on the A.T.
Farm fields are at the bottom, and a series of fence stiles have me walking amid a small group of cows and calfs. They aren’t exactly spooked by me, but they maintain their distance, keeping a wary eye on me and trotting ahead when I get too close. Problem is they are trotting ahead on the trail, so I continually get too close. Finally, they break off to one side, and I can pass without causing further stress. The open valleys are so lovely and a welcome break from the woods. I see Red-winged Blackbirds.
North Fork Holston River and Tilson’s Mill
At the top end of the meadow, the trail goes back into the forest where two local men are searching for Morel mushrooms. We exchange pleasantries while I have a snack break. The trail descends to the narrow, meandering Holston River’s North Fork and crosses a low bridge near picturesquely weathered Tilson’s Mill. When the river is high, a detour on state roads is necessary, and a five-foot flood measure on the bank underscores that necessity. The river is quite tame today as suits its bucolic surroundings.
Purple and white Spring Larkspur
Just past the river, the A.T. traverses a small wooded hillside clad in a stunning variety of spring wildflowers including Wild Ginger, Spring Larkspur, Twinleaf, Bloodroot, Maidenhair Fern, Solomon’s Seal, Ramp, Golden Ragwort, Blue Cohosh, and Wild Columbine. The Spring or Dwarf Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) is lovely with solid purple and purple/white bicolor variations. How appropriate to find Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) named for Virginia’s most famous son and amateur botanist, naturalist, horticulturist, architect, U.S. president, Declaration of Independence writer, Thomas Jefferson.
Twinleaf, named for Thomas Jefferson
I cross one more wide farm field on my way to Brushy Mountain where cows are grazing in the distance. You would expect them to be quite inured to hikers, but each one lifts its head to stare at me as I pass. It’s rather humorous.
In these first two days, I’ve seen nearly every species of wildflower one might expect for this time of year except trilliums. At the base of Brushy Mountain, however, there is a small population of Trillium erectum, Red Trillium, in flower along Lynn Camp Creek. I am curious as to this genus’ general absence. At home, I check distribution patterns in Fred Case’s book Trilliums. Five species have a significant presence in Virginia. Two, T. luteum, Yellow Trillium, and T. sulcatum, Barksdale Trillium, are found in the extreme southwestern corner. I may see those when I do my ‘Section Two’ of the A.T. in the future. Four other species appear common along the Blue Ridge through the state — T. erectum, T. grandiflorum (Great White Trillium), T. sessile (Toadshade), and T. undulatum (Painted Trillium). I will not see any Toadshade this trip, and the distribution maps indicate a stronger presence around Shenandoah, so perhaps on a future hike. This Lynn Camp population of Red Trillium is the only one I will see, I’ll spot one Painted Trillium, and as for Great White Trillium…well, I’ll talk about that later.
Brushy Mountain is steep on the up side and descends gradually past Knot Maul Branch Shelter to Lynn Camp Creek. David “AWOL” Miller notes a campsite here, but I do not see one. ATC maps and books do not mention a campsite in this location either. They do note one at Lick Creek 2.3 miles north on the other side of Lynn Camp Mountain. The mountain is steep, and the trail slants downslope, such a tiresome condition. I’m ready to stop for the night when I reach the campsite, which is right on Lick Creek at the foot of a well-constructed wooden bridge spanning the wide, shallow stream.
A dozen hikers pass today, but after my 5:00 p.m. arrival, no one else appears. The sky has cleared, and it is quite chilly next to the water. I waste no time completing evening chores to snuggle in my sleeping bag. I awake once in the night thinking I hear someone or something walking through the water. Whether man, beast, or imagination, nothing happens and sleep returns.
Open meadows on Chestnut Ridge
Day 3, Apr. 30, 15.4 miles: Pitching a tent near a creek on a cold night is not a good idea. The underside of the rainfly is dripping with condensation requiring precious morning time to wipe it down. Today will be a long day and my planned early start is delayed to 8:00 a.m.
A mile into the day, the trail begins a 4.5-mile, 2,100-foot climb along Chestnut Ridge. The first part of the climb goes through forest where Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) is a prolific groundcover. Birds are active on this sunny day. A Pileated Woodpecker flies right past me.
Pond on Chestnut Ridge
The second half of the climb moderates substantially and passes through mown meadows and tree-lined grassy allées that are maintained as migratory bird habitat. There are birds singing and flitting around, but I’m unable to recognize them. Without binoculars or a field guide, it would be fruitless to spend much time studying them. Part of the trail follows an old road. One section has eroded to slabs of bedrock and cobble. It would be a running river in the rain.
Chestnut Knob Shelter interior
The trail goes past a small pond, which is considered the best water source for Chestnut Knob Shelter nearly two miles north. The shelter is prominently exposed at the crest of the ridge. It is a fully enclosed, large rock building with side and gable windows, a door, sturdy roof, and concrete floor. Interior walls are painted white to reflect light. A picnic table and raised wooden sleeping platforms arranged like bunk beds accommodate eight. There is a privy in back.
Burke’s Garden from Chestnut Knob
The top of Chestnut Ridge is the best view into Burke’s Garden, a lush valley with several nicknames — “God’s Thumbprint,” “Tranquility Bowl,” and “Haven from Hubbub” — cradled on three sides by Garden Mountain. Miller’s guide and the ATC books will tell you about views into Burke’s Garden from the trail on Garden Mountain’s southern ridge line. I did not see any. If you want an unobstructed photo of the valley, take it here. Trees, despite being leafless, will block all but small peeks into the valley beyond Chestnut Knob.
After the shelter, the trail reenters the woods and descends rather steeply to Walker Gap. There aren’t many switchbacks per se, but it traces a serpentine course that feels a bit like downhill skiing. I eat lunch in the gap at noon before the short climb to Garden Mountain. I’ve gone seven miles in four hours and am projecting arrival at Jenkins Shelter around 5:00 p.m. Garden Mountain is virtually flat for more than five miles, one of the reasons I felt comfortable setting a 15-mile day, and the trail goes downhill after that.
It’s a mile to the top of Garden Mountain. A couple of short sections are steep and large rocks begin to appear, but I make it to the ridge with little difficulty and look forward to the easy cruise. As you may sense, the afternoon does not go as anticipated. “God’s Thumbprint” below may be aptly named, but Garden Mountain is not. It is “Satan’s Revenge,” a rocky hell-scape of small to medium boulders with pockets of dirt all hidden beneath a deep layer of leaves and massive deadfall…five miles of it!! If a white blaze is not visible, just follow the cleanest line of rocks.
Walking the cliffs of Garden Mountain
The ridge is a long cliff, and the drop on the left toward Burke’s Garden is probably not much more than 30 to 50 feet in most places. Near the end, the trail dips over the edge and continues along the cliff base. The journey across that damned cliff is slow, painful, mind deadening, and spirit killing. It should be one of Dante’s Inferno circles. At one point, a Black Vulture swoops onto an overhead branch and stares at me. “I’m not dead yet,” I yell, shooing it away.
I am, however, a dejected mess praying for the appearance of VA 623, the indication that I only have four more miles to go! I had originally thought I might get there around 2:30, then 3:00, then 3:30. It is after 4:00 when I cross that road like a whipped puppy. The trail’s punishing terrain morphs into long boulder slides on the way down and doesn’t smooth until about a mile or so before the shelter. By then, I’m too exhausted to appreciate the break.
One bright spot is Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula) appearing in large clumps among the rocks. At the base of the cliffs, I see the first stands of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a noxious, nonnative, invasive pest plant that will become depressingly all to familiar over the next three and a half weeks. As the afternoon wanes, even Dutchman’s Breeches and colorful patches of Gaywings cannot perk me up.
Plodding down toward the shelter fighting back tears, I step aside to let a hiker pass. It is “Pain,” the handsome nurse I met in Hiawassee. He now goes by the trail name “Grim,” short for “Grim Reaper,” both referencing his feet blisters. He should not share his trail names with patients when he returns to work. Can you image your nurse coming in and telling you his A.T. name was “Pain” or “Grim Reaper”?
It is nice to see a familiar face…especially his! He’ll be at Jenkins Shelter too, assuming I make it, and I do…finally…at 7:15 p.m. after eleven hours and fifteen minutes on trail. I’m so dog tired I can barely set up my tent, filter water, and fix dinner before falling asleep. As I’m dozing off, I hear one hiker who had arrived after me (several do) remark, “On days like today, I don’t know whether to cry or throw up.” I hear you, sister. My go-to response is tears — not as messy or smelly. Then I close my eyes, pass out and, appropriately enough, sleep like a rock.
Day 4, May 1, 14 miles: The privy at Jenkins Shelter is a commode attached to a raised wooden platform sitting out in the open a short distance behind the shelter. A slow and cautious approach is advised to avoid seeing far more of a hapless hiker than you’d like. I rise before anyone else to hedge my bets in that department. In addition, there are tasks I did not complete last night, leaving more than the usual amount of chores this morning.
For the next three days, I will be back on Brushy Mountain, following a more easterly course. The first two days hover at 3,000 feet on or near the ridge line. Today is another high mileage day, but the elevation changes on Brushy are small and well graded. Trail surface is now the dreaded question. Will it be another rocky beast? Thankfully, the short answer is no.
Despite the misery of yesterday, a good night’s sleep has given me a new lease this morning. I buzz through five miles in two hours, featuring a 700-foot climb of Brushy Mountain, an easy ridge stroll along a smooth, old roadbed, and a 600-foot descent to Laurel Creek at VA 615. Both the creek and the bridge spanning it are beautiful. A comfortable campsite is located just north of the road, perfect for a snack break.
White Pines abound on Brushy Mountain, the feathery clusters of silver green needles on young trees softening the understory, with Wood Vetch, more Gaywings, and carpets of Teaberry below. The weather is cloudy and cool with light breezes. I got sunburned yesterday, though one would expect to be red after such a nightmarish trip through Hell.
Laurel Creek Bridge
Late morning I meet a southbound hiker named “Tonto,” who waxes poetic about the ease and comfort of the trail all the way to Jenny Knob, my destination tomorrow night. This is music to my ears. Unfortunately, I must tell him that the joy ride is about over. Garden Mountain lurks in his immediate future.
In between well-spaced towns, the trail follows mountains overlooking the incredibly beautiful countryside in central Virginia. Homes and farms are few. Most sounds are natural — birds, wind, an occasional insect buzz. Today, the trail takes a sharp turn around a finger ridge on the side of Brushy Mountain presenting a pleasant view and timely lunch spot. Somewhere below someone is running a large gasoline powered engine, one of the few times the outside world pollutes the trail experience. The noise doesn’t stop until I shoulder my pack to resume hiking…talk about timing!
Bottled water ‘trail magic’
The clouds part and allow sun to warm the day. It is shining on something bright and sparkly in the middle of the trail — a case of bottled water, a random and thoughtful bit of Trail Magic.
The trail leaves woods and fields and follows roads for 1.5 miles. At gravel road FR 282, it turns left and heads downhill over a half mile to US Highway 52. Here it is easy to hitch a ride left to Bastian, VA, or right to Bland. Bland has better resupply options. Otherwise, turn left and follow 52’s downward curves a short distance to VA 612 and turn right. This road takes hikers over Interstate 77. The road splits at this junction and I found it difficult to discern if I should turn right or left. I finally spot a tiny blaze on the steep rocky bank to the right. This road curves downhill too, and when it turns from asphalt to gravel, there is a parking area and campsite on the right.
A.T. road walking
The A.T. slips back into the woods here and begins a steep climb on a narrow trail where a large tree has fallen requiring a hard scramble up the slippery bank and down again to pass. I’m starting to wonder if “Tonto” was pulling my leg about the great condition of the trail. These difficulties only last one mile, but it would have to be the last mile of the day.
This leads me to a new segment I call “Appalachian Trail Truisms.” I’ve hiked enough A.T. miles now to begin to see certain trends and recurring phenomena. Today is a good example of A.T. Truism #5 “The Last Mile is Often the Worst.” The luck of the draw and the law of averages will ensure this happens on occasion; however, it seems to occur with disturbing frequency on the A.T. It may be terrain or weather or gear related. Near the end of the day’s hike, when you are most tired and ready to be finished, the trail turns steep, rocky, or slippery, rain drenches you, a pack strap breaks. At these times, you fight the urge to cry (or throw up) while hurling curses at Fate, which just tossed A.T. Truism #5 in your face.
When I reach the side trail to Helveys Mill Shelter at 4:00, “Grim” and his three hiking companions are just finishing a break there. They will push another 10 miles to Jenny Knob. I ask him about a few hikers from GA and NC. Ned, the guy from Wales, is still hiking, “Gare Bear” and “Bear Snack” too. “Lady Gray” is going strong and well ahead. No word on “Fulsom” or “Son-Driven.” “Grim” is hiking with “Whistle,” “Dump Truck,” and “Clever Girl.” I am so excited to finally meet “Clever Girl.”
She is a very attractive woman with a bit of pink color in her hair and is married to “Dump Truck.” I had seen her shelter journal entries, which peaked my curiosity. My second night in Georgia, someone was reading the journal aloud at Gooch Mountain and when her trail name was mentioned, another hiker reached for the journal yelling, “Did she draw one, did she draw one? She drew one!!” Her name comes from an iconic line in the movie Jurassic Park just before a man is eaten by a Velociraptor. “Clever Girl” includes a very good sketch of the smart dinosaur with each journal entry. I also think she’s the one who couldn’t decide between tears or vomit after Garden Mountain. I really like this woman! She’s a fast hiker though, and I won’t see her again.
Wild Indigo Duskywing
Helveys Mill Shelter sits 0.3 mile off the main trail, and the side trail is mostly flat. The first sign I am getting close is a clear view of the backside of the open privy, which of course means a clear view of any occupant’s backside too. Two large panels screen the privy from the shelter side, but apparently no one considered ‘exposure’ from the approach trail. The water source is down a long, switchbacked trail in front of the shelter.
I prefer my tent and find a level spot with plenty of suitable branches for airing gear. The afternoon sun shines warmly on my campsite as I empty my pack. I carry half a Thermarest closed foam sit pad, which I used at lunch. It isn’t in its usual spot. Uh, oh. Apparently, I failed to secure it adequately, and it fell off. A couple arrives, and I ask if they saw it. They did, quite a ways back. Boo! In a few minutes another hiker arrives, and it’s strapped to the top of his pack. I thank him profusely on behalf of my grateful butt.
By evening the sky is cloudy again, and the wind has picked up bringing a chill with it. The wind has a high pitched sound like passing cars on an interstate. Earplugs dull that impression.
A.T. super highway
Day 5, May 2, 10.8 miles: I’m pleased to report “Tonto” was right. The first 6.5 miles are nearly level on an old road with a smooth, soft surface — a hiker’s ‘super highway.’ It is easy to establish a rhythm, build speed, and go on autopilot. In this state, I nearly collide with a deer…well, not really, but I do come within five feet before I see him. The young buck and I stop cold for a moment staring at each other. He trots a few feet away and begins to graze while I take pictures.
A short time later, again moving with ease and speed, I’m startled by the sudden slither of a Garter Snake across the trail. It slows down enough for me to get a picture too. At a snack break, three Ovenbirds are loudly squaring off in defense of their territories. I meet southbound section hiker “Coach” (PA). He’s friendly and chats a while.
The ridge is fairly dry, supporting plants that can handle low soil moisture. Large blue flowers of Bird’s-foot Violet are open. A Sassafras sucker waist high is crowned with a round pompon of yellow flowers. Pussy Toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) are in their prime. This plant has tiny white flowers, in little clusters, grouped into a small head that somewhat resembles a kitten’s furry paw. It is also dioecious, male and female flowers appear on separate plants.
Jenny Knob is only 9.8 miles from Helveys Mill. Thanks to the easy trail, I’m there at 1:00 p.m. for lunch. A thru-hiking couple, Ryan and Colette, who still have no trail names yet, are eating too.
Birds are active around the shelter. My eye is drawn to a bright flash of red too bright for a Cardinal, it must be a Scarlet Tanager. The sun has been out a good part of the morning, and butterflies are active too. Wild Indigo Duskywings have been playing tag with me on trail all day. Several are puddling nearby.
Pussytoes male flowers
My plan was to stay here tonight, but my early arrival has me checking the trail guide for more options. There is a campsite one mile further. Tomorrow, I want to eat lunch at Trent’s Grocery located 6.5 trail miles plus a half mile west on VA 606. The closer I get today, the earlier I can eat tomorrow, and if I add another 1.2 miles to tomorrow’s hike reaching Wapiti Shelter, I’ll have an easy 7.2 miles to Wood’s Hole and a shower Saturday. I like this idea and set out for the campsite exactly 600 miles from Springer Mountain.
Pussytoes female flowers
The camp is located in a narrow stream valley bordered on the right by the trail and a steep bank and on the left by a dry stream bed and steep bank. There are a couple of fire rings, a picnic table, and several possible tent sites. Water is flowing on the far right end of the dry stream, where it apparently goes underground for many yards before resurfacing a short distance past the campsite.
I have quite a bit of afternoon left here too and check out the plants including Virginia Heartleaf (Hexastylis virginica) and its unique little flower. Lying on the ground and often covered by leaf litter, it doesn’t attract showy pollinators like bees and butterflies. Instead, it depends on wasps, flies, and other insects to move pollen. Ants help disperse the seed.
Virginia Heartleaf flower
As I’m exploring the campsite, many hikers pass by in both directions. Most wave and say hello. Many hikers travel with earphones firmly in place listening to music or audio books. If you say more than hi, they have to unstopper an ear and ask you to repeat yourself. One girl in a southbound group has her music playing out loud, singing along. Three hikers ask me to take their photo in front of a handmade rock sign “600 mi” propped against the steep bank. No one stops though, and I anticipate another solo night. Once I’ve eaten and all other chores are done, I’m ready for bed even though it is only 6:00 p.m.
Close to dusk I hear a man arrive followed soon after by a woman. They settle in quickly. A few critters scratch around near my tent overnight, but otherwise it’s a good, quiet night.
Campsite is 600 miles from Springer Mountain.
Day 6, May 3, 13.2 miles: Several different birds serve as my alarm clock this sunny, cool morning — Worm-eating Warbler, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Vireo, and White-breasted Nuthatch, helping me get on the trail early. The 5.5 mile section to VA 606 makes a brief descent to Lickskillet Hollow, climbs gradually 800 feet and descends more gradually 900 feet to Kimberling Creek and VA 606.
Near the creek, both camp mates catch up with me. First is “Trucker” (TX), a very handsome young man with incredible blue eyes. He sees me photographing plants and asks if I could point out Poison Ivy to him. Since we are near a major road, there are plenty of specimens to show him a few characteristics that distinguish this itchy threat from more benign three-leaved plants. We are both headed to Trent’s, so he slows down to chat with me.
Suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek
While we are admiring Bluets, the cool suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek, and a cold soft drink (Trail Magic), “Dumbledore,” the other camper, arrives. She’s going to Trent’s too. These suspension bridges (there will be more) are marvelous designs and wooden works of art. They have just enough give to them to sense their movement as you walk across. When two or more people cross at the same time, this sensation is heightened, imparting a slight stumbling, almost drunken gait. It makes me laugh.
At the road we turn left for a half mile walk. “Dumbledore” is now ahead of us since “Trucker” and I took time to photograph the bridge. A hiker approaches us headed back to the trail. It’s “Techie” from March. He knows “Trucker” but doesn’t recognize me at first. He gives Trent’s a thumbs up, and I’m ready to eat even though it is not yet 11:00 a.m.
“Trucker” and our trail angel Bob at Trent’s Grocery
When I began this section of the A.T., I had a couple of snack packs of Oreos from Pilgrimage lunches. They were so good, and I’ve been craving more for days. My first order of business is to buy a large package. I’ve got plenty of room now that my food supply is low. Imagine my disappointment to find they don’t have Oreos. They have a large package of Chips Ahoy!, which will have to do…such sacrifice in the wilderness.
I order a double cheeseburger and curly fries with a quart of whole milk and cookies for desert. “Trucker” orders a salad and grilled cheese sandwich. “You’re a vegetarian,” I say. “How did you know?” Not exactly a Sherlock Holmes’ observation…no meat eater hiking the A.T. would pass up the opportunity for fresh beef! “Dumbledore” orders a salad too. So many of the thru-hikers gravitate to greens and fresh fruit when given a chance. I head straight for meat, fats, and dairy. I’d take a hot dog over a banana every time. Maybe it’s because I’m just not on the trail long enough to ‘miss’ these things, or perhaps my rather puny body understands quite well what is most critical to carry the weight and cover the miles.
Several local retired men congregate at Trent’s to talk and pass time. They are curious about us and ask questions. When they hear I’m from Nashville, they immediately talk about George Jones’ three-hour televised funeral yesterday. I didn’t even know he’d died. “Trucker” is unfamiliar with Jones’ music. Everyone should hear George Jones at least once. I look to see if I have his records on my iPhone (no), and tell him several classics he should listen to as soon as he has the chance — “Grand Tour,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Race Is On,” “White Lightnin’,” “Why Baby Why,” “Love Bug,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
One of the men, Bob, a retired teacher, borrows his friend’s truck to drive the three of us back to the trail. We are grateful for every step we don’t have to take. Bob enjoys any opportunity to talk to A.T. hikers and get a sense of what drives us to walk over 2,000 miles. The half mile trip just takes a minute or two, and he wishes us well as we disappear into the woods.
Lunch and a long break behind us, the business of hiking takes priority now, and both companions soon leave me behind. There is a trail register a short distance in — a wooden box with a hinged door that drops down to create a desk. Humphrey (yes, he’s with me always) and I sign it.
For the next 7.7 miles to Wapiti Shelter, the terrain is essentially flat, and the trail winds through bottomlands associated with Dismal Creek, crossing many streams on footbridges. At 1.8 miles, a side trail (0.3 mi) goes to Dismal Falls. Dismal Creek is a shallow run of water over wide steps of flat rock. The falls, more cascade than true waterfall, spill over a 10 to 12-foot drop of short steps into a pool perfect for swimming on hot summer days. There are campsites on the side trail near the creek, making this a great place to overnight.
I am not used to seeing such extensive colonies of Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) spread over the forest floor as are found in this stretch of the Blue Ridge. The plant is not flowering now, but occasionally I spot a bright red fruit from last year. The leaves are aromatic and wintergreen oil was derived from the minty fruit before a synthetic method was developed. I’ve also seen vast expanses of Ground Cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum). In a few places, the two groundcovers battle for supremacy.
Each day I’ve seen two different forms of Wood Anemone — one larger with narrower unlobed leaves, the other smaller with lobed and toothed foliage. These are two different species despite their strong resemblance. I am most familiar with Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) since it is widespread in East Tennessee and the Smokies. It is a smaller plant, just a couple of inches tall with a whorl of three trifoliate leaves beneath the white flower. The leaflets are widest at or above the middle and are toothed or lobed above this wide point. The other species, Lanceleaf Anemone (A. lancifolia), sometimes listed as Mountain Thimbleweed, has a similar overall look but is at least twice as tall and large with narrow leaflets widest at or below the middle, unlobed, and toothed below the widest point. I’ve seen both species with quite a bit of maroon or purple in the leaves and flower. Both are flowering today.
Macabre humor on trail
Little things, including messages, can be found along the trail. Dropped hats and gloves will be propped on limbs in hopes their owners return. Messages are scribbled to buddies behind on scraps of paper held down by small rocks on a boulder. Sometimes natural items are used to evoke a smile, like the small quartz rock with the embedded smily face I found in Georgia. Today someone with a more macabre sense of humor left a large animal skull positioned on a bed of rhododendron leaves in the trail. Okey dokey!
Given the flat, easy terrain, I expect to make great time this afternoon. However, two things work against me. First, that double cheeseburger remains a powerful reminder of eyes bigger than stomach for quite some time. I don’t feel like going fast. Second, Appalachian Trail Truism #2 comes into play — The Last Miles of the Day Are Longer Than the First. Five miles may take 2 hours in the morning, but they will always take at least 2.5 if not three hours in the afternoon. Hurting feet guarantee the latter. Flat terrain can only help so much when A.T. Truism #2 kicks in, and my feet are really hurting.
I finally reach the shelter, positioned up a short spur trail just past a bridged stream crossing, which is the water source. The privy is fully enclosed in a small dark wooden rectangle with an old screen door hook for a latch. No one is here, and I set out shoes and socks to dry in the fading sun. Clouds are moving in, and it is becoming quite breezy and cool.
Several older guys, section hiking for the weekend, camp in a field not too far away. I can barely see them, and with the wind, cannot hear them. No one stays at the shelter tonight. One lithe young man, “Shadow” (MN) with a Maine license plate attached to his huge backpack (he carries lots of food), stops long enough to eat dinner. He’s already hiked 25 miles and even though it is now 6:30, he plans to hike another 17 miles into Pearisburg tonight, using his headlamp when it becomes too dark to see. (I find out later he made it by midnight — 42 miles in 15 hours!) Many of the hikers “night hike.” I have trouble enough stumbling over rocks and sticks and roots in the middle of the day. You won’t find me tripping up the trail in the tiny beam of my Petzl headlamp.
I set my sleeping gear in the corner near a pile of cracked acorn bits. This should have been a clue. Before long I have to move away from the mouse’s kitchen…it was here first after all. There is plenty of room to spread out and give both of us space and I am not bothered further. It gets downright cold tonight. Humphrey and I snuggle tight to stay warm.
Day 7, May 4, 7.2 miles: The temperature this morning is in the low 40s. It is blustery and cloudy, providing additional motivation to move quickly, though the promise of a hot shower, real food, and soft bed is more than sufficient. Dogwoods have begun to flower, so this must be Dogwood Winter.
Forest Service controlled burn on Sugar Run Mountain
The trail climbs 1,400 feet up Sugar Run Mountain in a little over two miles and follows several old road grades. Thus far, the central Virginia trail has been trending east/northeast follow the crests of the Blue Ridge. Sugar Run Mountain is an exception. It’s spine runs almost due west for three miles before cutting back at Big Horse Gap to resume a northeast course. There are rocky patches along the crest.
A couple pass me on Sugar Run. It’s “Onyx” and “Dragonfly.” They tell me their Smokies snow stories, just as horrific as everyone else’s. There is a phone tower up here. Figuring this is my best chance at getting an AT&T signal, I call my son Sam and Wood’s Hole Hostel to confirm my imminent arrival. I have to get moving again quickly, though, it is windy and cold at 4,000 feet.
The trail descends very gradually to Big Horse Gap and a US Forest Service road. Across the gravel road the entire landscape is blackened from a very recent fire. The bases of trees are scorched and lower leaves on Mountain Laurels and young White Pines are brown, killed in the blaze. I walk through more than a mile of this. Not until I get close to Sugar Run Gap, does green return. I will learn at Wood’s Hole that the Forest Service did a controlled burn last week to reduce fuel loads in the national forest.
Gravel Sugar Run Road passes through the gap, and Wood’s Hole is a half mile down the road to the right. Almost immediately the road forks. Sugar Run is the left fork. Some of the farm buildings are visible through trees as I get close. Walking up the drive, there is a wide log building straight ahead called “The Bunkhouse,” for hikers at $10 a night. To the right is the main house, and shared or private rooms are available here for $25 or $50 respectively. I’ve requested a private room. Tonight there are only five guests. Last night there were 20!
The Bunkhouse (left) and main house
Wood’s Hole is owned and operated by Neville and Michael. Neville’s grandparents started the hostel. Now she and Michael are expanding its reach into the local community with farm-raised cows, pigs, chickens, goats, guinea hens, bee hives, and a bathtub full of baby ducks. It is a beautiful, comfortable home nestled in a near idyllic country setting. Neville directs the preparation of all meals with vegetables fresh from her garden and some meats from their array of animals. Both owners are trained masseuses, and Neville leads meditation sessions. Laundry service and a computer are available.
My room upstairs in the main house
I have a big resupply box here, and take it up to my room to fill my food bag, check gear, take a shower, and prepare my laundry. Settling in bed with the covers to my chin and watching treetops dance in the cold wind, I don’t doze off, but I do thoroughly enjoy the quiet, cozy, lazy afternoon. I finished my antibiotics today. Whatever crud I have is still hanging on, though my ears are finally starting to pop open, and I cough less at night.
Meals at Wood’s Hole are communal. I go down at 5:30 to help prepare dinner. Neville is fixing beef burritos with a salad and slices of leftover pizza from yesterday. Helping her is “Rainbow Braid,” a young thru-hiker who needed a break to rest her knees. Neville needed an extra pair of hands around the house and invited her to stay a while in exchange for room and board. “Rainbow Braid’s” face brightens when she hears my trail name. For most of Tennessee, North Carolina and southern Virginia, she hiked with “Maine-iac,” “Duffle Miner,” and “Jean Genie.” Apparently, they all said nice things about me.
Looking out my window
She tells me that poor “Maine-iac” got hit hard by the norovirus. He couldn’t get out of his tent in time and threw up all over his Feathered Friends sleeping bag. It was two days before he could get to a town to wash it. The group decided to have a big 500-mile party just outside Damascus and each brought some fresh food for a feast. “Duffle Miner” made a phenomenal alfredo sauce. “Rainbow Braid” was sorry to see her friends leave, but the respite has been good. Her mother is coming to visit in a few days, then she will resume the trail.
At 8:00 p.m., it is past my bedtime. I can’t wait to slip under the covers, stretch out across the mattress, and shut my eyes. Tomorrow will be another very long day.