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Wild Hydrangea

Wild Hydrangea

Returning to day two of my trip, I’ve completed Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and the northeast section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. After a quick lunch at the gap, I head down the northwest side of the ridge on Swallow Fork Trail. Swallow Fork descends 2,200 feet in four miles from Pretty Hollow Gap to Big Creek Trail in Walnut Bottom.

Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, the victim of a swing blade

Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, the victim of a swing blade

The trail’s lower part follows an old logging railroad bed, and the CCC’s construction to the gap in the mid-30s continued that pitch with little variation. The smooth surface has few impediments and no evidence of horse use, much less abuse. Walking up Swallow Fork would still provide serious exercise, but walking down is the proverbial ‘stroll in the park,’ a marvelous change from this morning’s trails.

Shrubs Wild Hydrangea and Rosebay Rhododendron are still in flower near the gap. A flower of Indian Pipe is turning its face toward the sky. This action indicates it has been pollinated and is preparing to set seed. The flower still looks fresh.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Further down are attractive rosettes of Rattlesnake-plantain. For some reason, I can never recall the exact difference between the two species Downy R-p (Goodyera pubescens) and Dwarf R-p (G. repens). The first is common in low to mid-elevations often seen in decent-sized patches. It is taller (6 to 20 inches) with a large white stripe running along the center vein of each leaf and a network of thin white veins patterning the rest of the leaf tissue. Dwarf R-p occurs infrequently in scattered locales at mid to high elevations. This species is smaller (4-8 inches) with no central white stripe and fainter overall veining pattern.

Powdery Amanita

Powdery Amanita

These distinctions blur and blend in my mind leaving me frustratingly confused every time I see a plant following a long absence. Today is no exception. Tingling with excitement, I am convinced I’ve finally found the smaller species. Wrong.

Someone must have been clearing the trail this morning, running a swing blade through and decapitating the flower stalks. I place a still fresh stalk of buds next to the foliage to photograph. I wish a couple of those buds were open! The flat circle of leaves and tall upright stalk make this plant a challenge to photograph intact and keep everything in focus and plainly visible.

Coker's or Carrot-foot Amanita?

Coker’s or Carrot-foot Amanita?

Several beautiful mushrooms are on display. There are three different species of Amanita. Two are easy to identify through their field characters. Yellow Patches (Amanita flavaconia) has a bright yellow-orange cap with thick yellow warts (the remains of its universal veil), a yellow stem, and a skirt. Powdery Amanita (Amanita farinosa) is gray with a coating of fine granular powder, also the remains of its universal veil, and a striate margin on the cap.

I think this is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus.

I think this is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus.

The third species is most likely Coker’s Amanita (Amanita cokeri), a white to ivory mushroom with conical warts on the cap, a skirt, and a swollen base. The two young fruiting bodies haven’t developed enough just yet to clearly show the first two characteristics. It is possible, given the wart coloration and enlarged base, that these could be Carrot-foot Amanitas (Amanita daucipes). All of these Amanitas are mycorrhizal, forming mutually beneficial relationships with trees through their roots and the fungi’s underground hyphae.

Could be a Tylopilus sp. with a very thick and tall stalk

Could be a Tylopilus sp. with a very thick and tall stalk

I have frequently seen a thick-fleshed, purplish brown bolete while hiking in the Smokies. Thanks to my field trips with the Cumberland Mycological Society, I believe I’ve been seeing Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus and am pleased to find some excellent specimens on Swallow Fork. I run across two massive mushrooms of purplish coloration, both victims of the trail-clearing swing blade. Their stalks are huge, over an inch in diameter, and are several inches tall. The caps are poorly developed, and I cannot identify them but suspect they may be a species of Tylopilus too. I photograph them with my boot and hiking stick in the pictures for scale.

Imitator Salamander

Imitator Salamander

While intent on mushrooms and mistaken Goodyera, I’m caught off guard by the swift movement of a large salamander. The dark amphibian snuggles against a large stick in the trail and pauses there long enough for me get a few photos. None are great. I can’t get that head in focus. It has distinctive red cheeks, and my first thought is Jordan’s Salamander. I did get his back half in focus and the larger hind legs suggest an Imitator Salamander (Desmognathus imitator) when researching it at home.

Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtails plus a Comma

Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtails plus a Comma

I meet a family of four hiking up Swallow Fork to camp at Mt. Sterling I suppose. The teenager in front asks wearily how much further to the top. I’m terrible at estimating distances, a task made more difficult by the amount of time I’ve spent photographing. “You’re at least half way,” I say with a smile. He grimaces.

Recently pollinated Indian Pipe flower

Recently pollinated Indian Pipe flower

Even though I’m going downhill, the lower half drags out for me too. There are four big stream crossings, and only one of them is bridged, the stream for which the trail is named. Two of the three rock hops are fairly substantial. Swallow Fork wanders around a flat area and finally drops to Big Creek Trail. Campsite #37 is 0.1 mile to the left just past a bridged crossing of Big Creek. Butterflies are puddling nearby.

Several sites are scattered to either side of the trail. I take what appears to be the only empty spot nestled at the base of a steep rise and next to a wet, swampy area that drains into Big Creek. The fire ring is full of half burned trash left by previous campers, and there is an unmistakable odor of human waste. There are no easy toilet locations without a long trek down the trail, thus people foul their own sleeping area. It is a damp and rather undesirable location, but I’m stuck here two nights.

Darn rodents.

Darn rodents.

After setting up my tent, I repair my chewed food stuff stack with Tenacious Tape and the plastic bag with duct tape, eat dinner, and prepare for tomorrow’s day hike. The sun sets behind the steep rise at the back of my site simulating twilight long before it arrives. Dampness from the swampy area induces a chill. With no comfortable place to sit, I retire to my tent early to write in my journal.

Sign, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, July 31, 2013This is a tale of two trails on two separate days. The second day of my backpacking trip, July 29 – a beautiful day, I hike the remainder of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail to the gap, turn right and cover 1.4 miles of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail to the Mount Sterling junction and back. On the final day (Jul. 31, a rainy cool day), I walk Mt. Sterling Ridge from Balsam Mountain to the gap and hike Pretty Hollow in reverse to my car. Each day has memorable wildlife encounters, birds to bears.

Sweet Joe Pye-weed

Sweet Joe Pye-weed

Both of these trails are in horrible shape — severe erosion, sticky mud, soupy mire, deep ruts, exposed roots, jumbles of loose rocks filling those ruts that run like brown creeks in the rain. They are obstacle courses, often with no clear way over, through, or around. In midsummer, overgrown plants add another complication.

Despite all this, my first day’s experience with these trails goes fairly well, after I finally get up. Daylight matters little following a sleep-deprived night. My eyes just don’t want to stay open, and there are no other campers to disturb me. Once up, I discover a hole chewed into the side of my food bag. It was hanging 12 feet above the ground on the campsite’s cables. The metal disks designed to deter rodents are there, yet somehow a very acrobatic squirrel (I suppose), hanging by a death grip with his back toenails manages to chew a one-inch hole halfway down the side of a slippery, siliconized nylon stuff sack. No mouse could have reached that far. It didn’t get any food, just damaged the stuff sack, odor proof plastic bag, and ziplock garbage bag. Guess those back toes started cramping, the little turd.

Black Trumpet mushroom

Black Trumpet mushroom

I get started at 8:50. From Campsite #39, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail climbs 2,100 feet in 3.8 miles to Pretty Hollow Gap and a junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and Swallow Fork Trail. It climbs through the valley of Pretty Hollow Creek and is not particularly steep until the last 1.5 miles, when the trail begins its ascent of Mount Sterling Ridge.

Umbrella Leaf fruit

Umbrella Leaf fruit

To the right of the trail is Indian Ridge, a long and steep finger ridge off MSR that includes Indian Knob (5,137 feet). The side of the ridge is smooth with only one creek noted on the map. The landscape to the left of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail is deeply carved with numerous feeder streams draining MSR and another long finger ridge called Butt Mountain.

The trail weaves its way up the valley, crossing Pretty Hollow Creek three times. All three crossings were bridged, however, the third bridge is now gone. The lack of evidence here and on Palmer Creek yesterday, leads me to believe that the park service either deliberately removed them or made the decision not to replace them once damaged. Normally, this crossing would be an easy rock hop, and even with the summer’s higher water flow, I still manage a dicey yet dry crossing.

Hot Lips mushrooms start out looking like Fireballs in glass

Hot Lips mushrooms start out looking like Fireballs in glass

A few parts of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail are in good shape and offer pleasant walking, but the further it goes, the worse its condition becomes, particularly the final section. Recent ‘work’ has been done up there that consists of grubbing wide tracks of bare dirt out of the mountain. No effort was made to smooth the soil, and it has hardened into a rough, stumbling mass of churned mud. A horse might not care that much, but it is obvious that no thought whatsoever was given to hikers’ concerns.

White Bergamot

White Bergamot

Nor was the work done in an ecologically sound manner. An excessively wide swath of dirt was disturbed for a long distance, which is now poised to wash into Pretty Hollow Creek, then Palmer Creek and Cataloochee Creek on down the line at the first heavy rain.

Maybe the work is ongoing, and I caught it in the middle. I’d like to believe any trail work would be done with consideration to all users and the preservation of mountain soil and stream quality. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling miffed at the apparent self-centeredness and lack of environmental stewardship.

Rugel's Ragwort

Rugel’s Ragwort

The stalwart plants of summer are in flower along Pretty Hollow — Bee Balm, Cut-leaf or Green-headed Coneflower, Sweet Joe Pye-weed, White Bergamot (Monarda clinopodia), and White Wood Aster. Near Mount Sterling Ridge, Rugel’s Ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis) in large patches are in their understated prime. Bright blue fruit of Umbrella Leaf and bright red fruit of Painted Trillium catch the eye.

Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax) mushrooms are near the campsite, and emerging Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) resemble Fireballs (the candy) encased in thick glass.

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail: It is 11:30 when I reach the gap and after a quick snack start up Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Pretty Hollow Gap marks the trail’s low point (5,179’) and divides MSRT into two sections, each with its own personality. Moving northeast toward Mt. Sterling, a 1.4-mile section climbs to 5,700 feet closely following the ridge line most of the way.

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail

This part of the trail is a clinking cobble path of dusty rocks set to run like a river in rain. Erosion around plant roots creates deep steps up (or down). Miry muck several inches thick requires wide perimeter swings to circumnavigate.

Heading west, southwest from the gap, the trail climbs moderately to 5,500 feet in the first mile and rides this elevation flat as pancake along the southern flank of the ridge and well below the crest of Big Cataloochee Mountain and its two companions Big Butt to the east and Balsam Corner to the west. This section is 3.9 miles long and ends at a junction with Balsam Mountain Trail not far from Laurel Gap Shelter.

Sign 02, Mount Sterling Ridge Trail, July 31, 2013July 29, I hike the northeast section rising through Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. High elevation forests are remarkable for their deep silence, and sounds such as birdsong seem uniquely tuned in this rarified atmosphere — meditative, soulful — descriptions particularly fitting for the Hermit Thrush.

Not a common summer resident, the Hermit Thrush usually nests further north. Today one male is singing, and every other creature, including me, stops to listen. His clear, flutelike notes are soft and melancholy. Each melodic phrase is different, and he unspools mesmerizing lines of improvisation. I am entranced.

Unknown fungi on MSRT

Unknown fungi on MSRT

July 31, rain and cool temperatures persuade me to forego my final night in the mountains at Laurel Gap Shelter and hike 9.7 miles down to my car. I tackle the second section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail in mid-afternoon with determination. Starting from the Balsam Mountain Trail, MSRT’s level run of nearly three miles is a huge plus. However, since this section runs along the side of the mountain and ridge, it is narrow. The rain leaves puddles that are hard to sidestep particularly in places overgrown with grasses and forbs. When the trail begins its descent to the gap, erosion creates a minefield of gaping steps, rocks, and roots. On the ridge line, rain has made those wide mucky areas almost impossible to avoid no matter how far off trail I veer.

It is cold at this elevation on a wet, drippy day. The mountains are cloaked in clouds. Once I make the decision to leave, I move with speed. No dawdling, no photography. There isn’t much to photograph anyway. Reaching the ridge line, I hear a crashing noise behind me. Two Black Bears gallop across the ridge and are quickly swallowed in the veil of clouds. A moment later a third dark shape disappears into the mist.

Russula sp. mushroom

Russula sp. mushroom

Pretty Hollow Gap Trail again: The weather improves late in the afternoon as I head down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail. The rain hasn’t been hard enough to carry away the mud, but it is a sticky mess to walk through. I’m not as lucky today at the unbridged crossing of Pretty Hollow Creek. At least I can wash some of that mud off my boots. Just 0.2 mile from my car, I hear a door slam drawing my attention the horse camp bathrooms. A bear cub and mother appear to have just come out of the ladies room! The cub scampers playfully into the woods with mom ambling quietly behind.

Palmer Creek trailhead at Balsam Mountain Road

Palmer Creek trailhead at Balsam Mountain Road

It takes 90 minutes to drive from Mary’s house to Cataloochee Valley’s Pretty Hollow trailhead. The early morning sky is dark and cloudy, but the sun is breaking through when I arrive. It feels wonderful to be back in the Great Smoky Mountains, my home away from home.

The first order of business is hike to Campsite #39 1.8 miles up Pretty Hollow and remove tent, food, sleeping gear, etc., from my pack. The trail is a wide, smooth road past the horse camp, nearly flat to Little Cataloochee Trail junction, and gradually adopting a rougher, more trail-like dirt and rock surface by Palmer Creek Trail. The campsite is 0.2 mile beyond this last junction.

Beech Creek Crossing

Beech Creek Crossing

I stake out my tent and hang the food before returning to Palmer Creek with a much lighter pack. The trail immediately crosses Pretty Hollow Creek to begin a 3.3 mile climb to Balsam Mountain Road on Trail Ridge. It follows Palmer Creek and crosses two of its feeder creeks, Lost Bottom and Beech, along the gently rising first half (500-foot gain). Past Beech Creek, the trail continues west working its way 1,000 feet up the southern side of Trail Ridge above another feeder stream, Falling Rock Creek.

Thunderhead Sandstone with quartz seam in Lost Bottom Creek

Thunderhead Sandstone with quartz seam in Lost Bottom Creek

Lost Bottom Creek has large slabs of Thunderhead Sandstone in and around it. A thick quartz seam makes a long, milky-white slash across the creek bed. There is a good footlog to cross here, but at Beech Creek, the footbridge mentioned in the Little Brown Book is gone and apparently has been for a while. No signs of a bridge are visible.  Breech Creek is a shallow, smooth run of water with no real rock hop options, and the water is just deep enough to overtop boots. I shed my shoes and cross barefoot.

Large Tickseed

Large Tickseed

I fully expected the trails in this area to be churned wrecks from overuse by horses, but Palmer Creek is in fairly good shape. There are very few miry areas. Two downed trees form a likely barrier to horse traffic, but a hiker can squiggle through with little difficulty. It is hard to say how long the trees have been there, but perhaps their presence gives the trail a chance to rest.

Yellow Fringed Orchid

Yellow Fringed Orchid

Both below and above the two creek crossings, a few springs splash across the trail, where Green-headed Coneflower and Bee Balm meet me eye to eye. There are some dry, exposed areas too, where Large Tickseed (Coreopsis major) is at home. A stalk of flame colored Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) just has a few flowers, yet screams like a traffic cone in a shaft of sunlight.

Blusher

Blusher

Thanks to all the rain, mushrooms are plentiful and beautiful. Warty, pinkish-tinged Blusher (Amanita rubescens) is a mycorrhizal mushroom growing in a symbiotic relationship with forest trees, particularly oaks and pines. Jelly Tongue (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum), a super cool, toothed mushroom, is growing on a rotting log, as is a species of Crepidotus, probably C. malachius due to the tufts of hairs at the crest of the fruiting body where it’s attached to the log. There are perfect specimens of Grisette (Amanita vaginata complex) and Tylopilus sp., the bolete that looks like a fat pancake.

Jelly Tongue

Jelly Tongue

There are many snails on the trail today, another side effect to all the rain. I try to keep an eye out, but periodically there will be a loud “pop,” “crunch,” and “Oh, no.” On the way up, I see a snail clutching a thin green stalk securely with its long foot, head pointed down, shell hovering in the air two feet above the ground. On my way back, it’s still there…just hanging out.  I also find a dead baby bird on the trail, a reminder that summer has other casualties. I think it is one of the flycatchers.

unfortunate baby bird

unfortunate baby bird

A long Rhododendron tunnel precedes the upper terminus. The trail levels at Trail Ridge and rides a flat grassy path to Balsam Mountain Road. Due to the sequester, this road has been closed all year. A marvelously flat rock of perfect height sits at the trailhead. I arrive at 1:00 sharp and sit down to enjoy a leisurely lunch while jotting journal notes. It is very quiet and shady. A butterfly, maybe a Pearl Crescent, dances in the flecks of sun. It is so pleasant here, I have to make myself get up and start down.

Grisette

Grisette

On this flat ridge just off the trail, the park has fenced a large white pipe with a tiny solar panel attached. It is likely a monitoring device, but I do not know its purpose. Near the bottom I meet two horsemen. They ask about the trail, and I tell them of the downed trees. They are willing to move ahead and see what happens, so I wish them luck.

Crepidotus malachius perhaps

Crepidotus malachius perhaps

I’m the only person at Campsite #39 tonight. It is a Sunday night, but it is also the middle of summer at one of the supposedly busier campsites. The camp is nearly devoid of vegetation under the pines, Eastern Hemlocks, Tulip Poplars, and Red Maples, with an occasional sprig of Pipsissewa, Christmas Fern, or Partridgeberry and one straggling stem of Heart’s-a-bustin’ poking through leaf litter. There are some stands of Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) bleached buff yellow, and bees are buzzing the flowers.

Pinesap

Pinesap

Chores go quickly, and I’m in my light sleeping bag well before the sun goes down. I doze a bit, unfortunately, and when the sun does set, I’m awake. It also gets unexpectedly cool. I had been fine at much higher elevations on the A.T. the previous two nights, but the rain storms must have brought lower temperatures. The Smokies are downright chilly.

Rock stairs signal the start

Rock stairs signal the start

Since my return home in May, I’ve been resting, eating, writing, taking art classes, studying fungi, and enjoying the wonderfully mild summer in Middle Tennessee. Nothing makes you appreciate the little things in life quite like hiking 300 miles in the mountains and living out of a pack on your back for a month. Other than aching feet, my body held up well on trail…until about three days after I got home, and my knees went nuts. I have treated them with tender care — no running, hiking, extra weight, unnecessary squats or lunges. My feet benefited from this pampering too. It was mid July before my knees settled down and felt somewhat normal, just in time to hit the trail again!

Once I made the decisions to abandon plans for a long northern section on the A.T. this year and not redo the trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it made sense to pick up those 33.9 miles I missed from Interstate 40 near Davenport Gap to Hot Springs, NC, due to winter storm Virgil last March. I plan an eight-day trip to cover that short stretch of the A.T and do a backpacking loop on six new trails in the Smokies.

Standing Bear Farm bunkhouse

Standing Bear Farm bunkhouse

Day 1, July 25, 7.7 miles: Friend and always dependable hiking partner Mary McCord agrees to join me for the A.T. and invites me to spend Wednesday evening at her house. This morning she and her husband follow me to Hot Springs where I leave my car, then Mike drops us at the Waterville Exit on I-40 to begin our hike.

Standing Bear Farm

Standing Bear Farm

The A.T. follows Green Corner Road, a gravel road on the north side of the interstate, for a few yards before turning into the woods and climbing a long, steep set of rock stairs. The trail, though out of sight, parallels the road for the first 0.8 mile then intersects it a short distance south of Standing Bear Farm, a popular hiker hostel.

Kitchen

Kitchen

Mary and I walk up the road for a quick visit. Midsummer and winter are the slow seasons here. Northbounders keep the place hopping in spring, and southbounders pass through in the fall. Today there are no guests, and owner Curtis is busy with chores. We say hello. He invites us to look around. Two cabins flank the drive entrance. One is a bunkhouse that accommodates several people. It is charming and rustic on the outside, plain on the inside. Old hiking boots planted with red impatiens flank the entrance. The other cabin, termed the “Presidential Suite,” is furnished with beds and a sleeping loft. It straddles a small stream and the front porch railing’s design incorporates the A.T. logo.

Dining area

Dining area

Behind the bunkhouse is a water well and pump, a fire ring with ample seating, the kitchen/dining/laundry building, and a small booth for phone and internet use. The kitchen features a microwave, gas stovetop, toaster, small refrigerator, sink, mini oven, pots, pans, utensils, mugs, spices, etc., almost everything a cook could want. Shelves of books line the dining area and bunkhouse back porch. For laundry, there is a top loading machine and a washtub with wringer. Standing Bear will take mail drops and carries a selection of food and fuel for purchase. It’s a cool place.

Starry Campion

Starry Campion

From the interstate, the trail climbs 2,763 feet to the top of Snowbird Mountain (4,263) in 5.2 miles. It is not a difficult climb. After Virginia, I’m amazed at the smooth nature of the trail, hardly any rocks! This time of year there are a few slightly overgrown areas, though nothing of significance. We relax and take our time.

Flowering Spurge

Flowering Spurge

Midsummer plants in flower along the trail are Tick Trefoil, Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Sweet Joe Pye-weed, Starry Campion (Silene stellata), Large Tickseed, Tall Phlox, and Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum). Sourwood trees are still dropping their flowers. Indian Pipes are in all stages — flowers, fresh fruit, and dried stems.

Hot Lips fungi emerge encased in a clear, gelatinous coating.

Hot Lips fungi emerge encased in a clear, gelatinous coating.

This has been a wet year thus far, and the fungi are loving it. We see the weird — Hot Lips stalked puffball (Calostoma cinnabarina), the colorful — Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), the tiny — Pinwheel Marasmius (Marasmius rotula), the deadly — Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera), the toothed — (Hydnellum sp.), and the gelatinous — Jelly Babies (Leotia lubrica) along with various corals, fiber fans, boletes, and many others. Mushrooms are very humbling, every outing shows how much I don’t know!

Jelly Babies

Jelly Babies

Mary and I have a blast walking over Snowbird Mountain. In late March, it would have been a desolate winter landscape, but in July it is lush and alive with flowers, butterflies, and lizards. Large Tickseed (Coreopsis major) is beautiful up here among young oaks, fiercely thorned Black Locust shoots, Goldenrod in bud, and Mountain Mint. Blackberry and Blueberry fruits are ripening. Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) threads among the riot of shrubs and saplings.

Yellow Wild Indigo or Horseflyweed

Yellow Wild Indigo or Horseflyweed

Past the fire ring, where we see a young fence lizard, the soil changes to a lichen covered crust, and the plants become sparse. One species stands out in this area, Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) also known by the unflattering common name Horseflyweed. Its distribution is mainly northern but slips south in the Appalachian Highlands. A member of the Pea Family, Horseflyweed fixes nitrogen in the soil allowing it to grow successfully in poor areas too lean for most plants.

Radar on Snowbird Mountain

Radar on Snowbird Mountain

There is a radar facility on Snowbird Mountain, looking nothing like the one on Apple Orchard Mountain in Virginia. It is tiny in comparison and shaped like the capsule of an Apollo space rocket rather than a giant soccer ball. We can hear it humming.

Groundhog Creek Shelter is 2.5 miles down from Snowbird. Mary and I are relieved to have the climbing behind us. Neither of us has done much in recent weeks, and even though the trail up is not hard, the effort has tired us.

Spotted or Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Spotted or Viscid Violet Cortinarius

We are the only hikers at the shelter, a stone structure with an extended roof. The sleeping platform is warped and uneven, the grounds are dirty, and the privy is rather foul. The spring is a good one, though, down a trail to the left. We eat dinner and prepare for bed. I work in my journal while Mary reads the shelter log. The long roof overhang makes the interior quite dim. One person noted, “You could develop film in this shelter, it’s so dark.”

As with most shelters, mice rule the night. They are very noisy this evening and roust both of us in the wee hours chewing heartily on something. We grab headlamps to make sure it isn’t our packs!

Turk's Cap Lily

Turk’s Cap Lily

Day 2, July 26, 13.1 miles: Thanks to the rodents, I awake more tired than when I went to sleep. Mary is snoozing peacefully, and I do not want to get up yet. We’ve got a long day ahead even if nothing appears too taxing. More rest will do us good, or so I tell myself…repeatedly…over the next two hours. At 8:30, I can’t put it off any longer and wake Mary. We aren’t ready to leave until 9:40, a delay I will pay for later.

Blueberries on Snowbird

Blueberries on Snowbird

Our first task is a gradual, 900-foot climb (tough in a few places) followed by a short descent over 2.9 miles to Brown Gap. We rest a few minutes on logs at the junction with a gravel forest service road and eat a snack before starting the next section — a steep climb to a relatively level ridge line leading to Max Patch.

The trail along the ridge is lined with plants chest to head high. We see Summer Phlox, Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana), Black Cohosh, Pale Jewelweed, a species of Agrimony, and Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens). Bees are busily working the flowers. Many plants are setting fruit too. Nodding Mandarin, Speckled Wood Lily, Indian Cucumber-root, and Blue Cohosh fruits are still green and unripe. Huckleberry, Solomon’s Plume, and Painted Trillium fruits are brightly colored and ready to do their job.

Tall Bellflower with a friend

Tall Bellflower with a friend

At the end of the ridge, we cross Max Patch Road SR 1182 and rest for lunch before our climb to the summit. I drop my peanut butter tortilla face down in the dirt and wind up consuming quite a bit of grit. We meet other summer hikers enjoying a mountain vacation.

Butter & Eggs on Max Patch

Butter & Eggs on Max Patch

The forest opens and the trail steepens as we near the top. Max Patch is a grassy bald with mown strips for the A.T. and a short approach trail from a parking area near the road. The views are spectacular. At the crest, a geodetic marker is set in a small concrete square in the center of the trail. Mary and I meet a friendly couple out for the day at the crest, and the lady offers to take our picture.

Max Patch isn’t as interesting botanically as Snowbird Mountain. The first plants to greet us are Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and the nonnatives Butter & Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) and Queen Anne’s Lace. The last is Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium).

View from Max Patch

View from Max Patch

A short distance from the summit, the trail reenters the woods. Here, my normally keen sense of the trail fails, and I lead us past a campsite for several minutes, before the rough surroundings raise enough flags to make me turn back. At the campsite, I can see an obvious path that makes a sharp right turn the instant the trail leaves the bald and hits the woods. In my defense, the wide campsite path continues straight ahead, and the trail blazes are not well placed to avoid confusion.

Mary & I on Max Patch

Mary & I, Max Patch

The dirt sandwich I ate for lunch is expanding uncomfortably in my tummy. A foot is giving me some trouble, and my right hip is hurting. I’m hot and sweaty. These physical woes combined with the wrong turn, extra steps, and wasted time darken my mood dramatically. The afternoon does what it often did in Virginia, slow to a miserable crawl. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon with me today, a hiking partner. Mary’s mood rarely shifts from upbeat and happy. She stays close and talks me down. The rest of the day is still very hard, just not as emotional and upsetting. The miles, the weight, and the terrain take their usual toll, but with a companion to talk to, it is easier to bear. We stop briefly at Roaring Fork Shelter for a snack.

Amanita onusta mushroom

Amanita onusta mushroom

From Max Patch to Lemon Gap the trail descends gradually 1100 feet over 5.4 miles. We roll into the gap at 5:30. A van is parked there, and the name painted on the side suggests a group of teenagers on a wilderness weekend. The shelter is 1.3 miles up Walnut Mountain. We have not brought tents with us, and fear of a crowded shelter ignites what little energy we have left to tackle the final climb.

On the way up, it begins to thunder uncomfortably close. I pull out all the stops to reach the shelter and claim two spots for us. Walnut Mountain has a small open summit. Amid black clouds and loud thunder, I bolt across without looking at a thing. Once the trail reenters the woods, the shelter is visible a short distance down.

Skeletonized leaf

Skeletonized leaf

There are no teenagers, just two young men hiking the A.T. for a month and another young man hiking with his mother for the weekend. The mother and son are in a tent. The two guys move to one side of the shelter, giving Mary and me the other side. I drop my gear and race to filter water before the rain.

The spring is located at the end of a long trail to the left of the shelter. Two-thirds of the way down, the path slices through a gauntlet of weeds and brambles towering overhead  snagging skin and clothing. The spring is a meager trickle of water into a pool barely big enough to dip cupped hands. There is a length of pipe there, but no water flows through it. Without the aid of the pipe, I cannot get water in the “dirty” bladder of my Platypus GravityWorks filter system.

Painted Trillium fruit

Painted Trillium fruit

I spend many precious minutes positioning the pipe for flowing water. Once in place, the bag’s angle is so flat, I can’t even get a liter before it overflows. The process is painstakingly slow. It begins to rain. The rain is light, and I’m sheltered under a dense canopy of trees. Knowing Mary will need water too, I keep filtering to fill my pack bladder and the clean water bag (4 L). The weather worsens, and I’m forced to leave with just two liters of clean water. It will at least get us through dinner. As I plunge into the weeds, the rain falls in buckets! I struggle uphill and arrive drenched.

A lousy spring is not Walnut Mountain’s worst feature. The shelter is a dilapidated dump. It is small, cramped, dark, and dirty. The sleeping platform is missing several planks allowing gear to fall down and various critters to crawl up. The roof leaks in three places. During the hour-long torrential rain, we set out cookware to catch what water we can. The privy is so full of s**t, users must lean forward and hold their butts in the air. Three of the four food cables are broken. Walnut Mountain is a prime candidate for replacement or arson.

Summit of Bluff Mountain

Summit of Bluff Mountain

Day 3, July 27, 13.1 miles: Despite the misery of the weather and shelter, I sleep fairly well. Exhaustion pays. Mary and I rise at 6:30 to the sound of thunder. Rain delays our start until 7:50. While packing this morning, the pains in my foot and hip resurface. I suck it up and hope movement will work them out.

The trail descends Walnut Mountain less than a mile to Kale Gap then climbs nearly 1,000 feet to the summit of Bluff Mountain in 1.7 miles. These are not difficult sections unless a hip flexor muscle starts screaming. I barely manage a slow pace downhill, and any step up with my right leg proves excruciating. At Kale Gap, I ask Mary to pull my first aid kit from my pack and take an Aleve. Every forward swing of my leg is torturous until the medication takes effect. By the time we hit Bluff Mountain at 9:40, I’m feeling much better physically, which is also a tremendous relief mentally.

Painted Bolete mushroom

Painted Bolete mushroom

From Bluff Mountain, it is an elevation drop of 3,300 feet to Hot Springs, NC. It takes us a little over two hours to reach Garenflo Gap (four miles), nearly two-thirds of that drop, at the mountain’s base. We lunch at a small footbridge in Taylor Hollow Gap.

There are more cool mushrooms in the forest. Painted Bolete (Suillus pictus) has fibrous reddish scales on its cap. Numerous attempts to capture a sharp Green-headed Jelly Club (Leotia viscosa) in pixels fails. A baby Yellow Patches (Amanita flavoconia), minus its yellow patches, sits brightly among pine needles.

Green-headed Jelly Club

Green-headed Jelly Club

The final six miles continue the downward trend but include some short uphills giving a bit of a roller coaster look to the profile. The morning has been cool and cloudy. Sunshine breaks through in the afternoon, and coupled with lower elevation, the temperature begins to rise. The young men from Walnut Mountain Shelter pass us, looking forward to the simple pleasure of a long soak in a hot spring while sipping a cold beer.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Three miles from the end, Mary and I eat a snack at the side trail junction to Deer Park Mountain Shelter. The young man and his mother catch up to us here. Mom and son high five her achievement for the day. They are staying at the shelter tonight and will enjoy an easy afternoon.

We face a final short climb of Deer Park Mountain followed by a steady descent into town. Hot Springs is audible and visible long before we reach the parking lot on Serpentine Road. At 4:20 I unlock my car, remove my pack, and change shoes. It’s wonderful to sit in plush car seats.

Boot brush sign

Boot brush sign

There is a sign at the trailhead telling hikers about the spread of nonnative invasive plant species like Japanese Stiltgrass, Garlic Mustard, Chinese Silvergrass, Kudzu, Oriental Bittersweet, and Japanese Spiraea. Sponsored and built by the Southern Appalachian Cooperative Weed Management Partnership, the signs have a boot brush installed at the base, so hikers can scrape mud and debris, often containing weed seeds, from their boots before entering the trail. It’s a great education tool, and one small, easy way to slow the spread of these pest plants.

On the drive to Cosby, TN, we run into a thunderstorm. The original plan was to take Mary home, pick up some gear left there, and drive to Cataloochee Campground for the night. The storms, body aches, and fatigue combined with the lateness of the day, prompt me to seek another overnight invitation at Mary’s. She’s more than willing and such a great hostess. It is far preferable to bathe, methodically prepare my gear for the park loop, and sleep soundly (through more storms overnight) in a cool, dry bed.

Carolina Mountain Club sign in Hot Springs, NC

Carolina Mountain Club sign in Hot Springs, NC

A.T. Postscript: My Appalachian Trail hiking for this year is at an end. For 2014, I’m leaning toward 300 miles through Shenandoah to Duncannon, PA, in late spring with the possibility of New Hampshire in midsummer, provided all goes well and there isn’t something else I’d rather do. My rigid approach to hiking the A.T. has relaxed considerably after 589 miles. I’ll do what feels good when it feels right. Meanwhile, I’ve still got a third of the Smokies’ trails calling my name. It’s time to get back to the place I love.

Young Eastern Ratsnake

Young Eastern Ratsnake

Day 25, May 22, 15.8 miles: This is the last week of my trip. The daily hikes scheduled involve long miles and jagged, steep terrain. I figured I would be trail hardened and ready for this final push. In some respects I am.  After the spirit salve of Tinker Cliffs and body rest in Daleville, week three proved more stable and enjoyable all the way around. I even notched a 17-mile, personal-best day. Perhaps I’m over the hump. Physically, I am quite capable of what lies ahead. Can I say the same about my mental and emotional states? We’ll see.

Chokecherry

Chokecherry

The day begins easy enough with a gentle climb out of the Brown Mountain Creek area to U.S. 60. A small Eastern Ratsnake darts across my path. Its bright pattern makes me think it is a Northern Pinesnake, whose spotty distribution includes the mountains of Central Virginia. However, this little guy doesn’t have four prefrontal scales, and further research reveals juvenile ratsnake patterning that fits to a T.

Past the road, the trail becomes fairly steep on its way to Bald Knob at 4,000 feet, but moderates at the halfway point. Bald Knob isn’t really bald. Its top, a scattered maze of large granite boulders dotting the rounded summit, creates a perfect opportunity to play “Are We There Yet?” At times like this, it is best to stop thinking and simply walk, look, listen, and sniff.

Wild Strawberry

Wild Strawberry

The Virginia mountains are often clothed in twiggy shrubs that resemble black cherries. These are Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) with fragrant racemes of white flowers. Allegheny Stonecrop or Live-for-ever (Hylotelephium telephioides) won’t flower until late summer but large clusters of the fleshy leaves are tucked among the boulders. Wild Geranium, Appalachian Phacelia, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis) , Large White (Pink) Trillium, and Big-fruit Hawthorn are flowering. Various birds whistle their greetings: Veery, Eastern Towhee, and Eastern Wood-Pewee.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain

From Bald Knob, the trail drops to a side trail leading to Cow Camp Gap Shelter more than a half mile off the A.T. I doubt many thru-hikers stay there. The trail climbs again to 4,000 feet and the top of Cold Mountain, crossing the broad summit through open meadows. The landscape and views are very lovely here. A wooden sign expressly forbids camping or campfires in the open and mown areas, a few paces later, I come upon a smoldering campfire. Such selfish jerks, I’m surprised they didn’t use the sign for fuel!

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain

It’s a gentle walk down to Hog Camp Gap and a gravel US Forest Service road. The gap features a wonderful meadow with several campsites. I had planned to stay here tonight, but my recent tick experiences have caused me to change plans. This meadow is so green and cool and pleasant, I am sorely tempted to stay anyway. The afternoon is sunny with big sailing clouds and a cooling breeze — nearly perfect. I’ve already gone 8.1 miles, and it would be wonderful to laze away the afternoon. There is a couple doing just that under the shade of a distant tree. I eat lunch, debate some more, and finally decide to push on. Afternoon storms are in the forecast, and I will need to travel 7.7 additional miles to reach Seeley-Woodworth Shelter.

Hog Camp Gap

Hog Camp Gap

Elevation change is modest through this section, and in many places the trail is quite smooth. Those darned rocky patches always manage to show up, however, with uncanny timing. It’s Appalachian Trail Truism #8 — Just When You Note the Smooth and Easy Trail, Here Come the Rocks. No matter how long or short the interval, the instant I remark to myself, “The trail is great,” the surface turns into a rocky jumble. On a gentle descent, trail like silk, excellent opportunity to make good time…the very moment I observe this, its character changes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

As the afternoon drags by, my mood darkens and emotions rise. The sight of pink trilliums and the Veery’s song help somewhat, but my feet are killing me. No matter how easy the hiking conditions may be, I’m more than ready to stop. The sky is now clouded. Off in the distance is thunder. Two campsites are noted on “AWOL’s” profile within two miles of the shelter. One along the Piney River is damp and occupied. The second one doesn’t exist.

Wood Betony

Wood Betony

Near exhaustion and breakdown, I arrive at the shelter after 10.75 hours on trail. The thunder is getting much closer, requiring an immediate run for water. Two guys set up their tents, and “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” roll in just before the rain hits. The lightning is wicked, and it begins to hail. It’s a full-blown, hard-core, torrential thunderstorm. As it weakens into an ordinary rainstorm, two couples (one from Germany) wash up drenched to the bone. They pour water out of their boots, and wring out sopping wet clothes that stand no chance of drying overnight.

Juvenal's Duskying on Wood Betony

Juvenal’s Duskying on Wood Betony

Both couples are in good moods, taking the wet in stride. They are anticipating Waynesboro in a few days. The movie Star Trek Into Darkness is on one man’s agenda.   Thanks to smart phones and iPads, technology is never far from trail. Many hikers time their town stops to download the latest episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones and discuss the new plot twists. Hiking the A.T. ain’t what it used to be!

Lovely pink form of Large White Trillium

Lovely pink form of Large White Trillium

You learn a lot listening to hikers’ experiences. As a section hiker, I opted to arrange my own resupplies rather than scrounge whatever is available in towns. Those who do shop at each stop have learned that Dollar General stores are far superior to Family Dollar in the quantity and quality of resupply items. I’ve also heard horror stories on some of the motels along the way. Relax Inn at the Groseclose, VA, I-81 exit where I started nearly four weeks ago is a dirty dive, stinking of stale cigarette smoke with walls coated in grime and nicotine. A couple complained that a motel in Pearisburg was so dirty, they refused to take a shower!! Imagine how bad that must have been for a thru-hiker to forego a bath! One of the German couple’s trekking poles broke. Rather than buy an expensive replacement, they opted for a cheap one at Walmart. When I cautioned they might regret not having spent more money on better quality, the man says, “I’ve got the receipt. When it breaks, I’ll get a free replacement at the next Walmart…and the next…and the next…until I finish.” That is one way to get your money’s worth.

The storm has cooled things down quite a bit. It’s windy too. Everyone dons warm clothes, eats warm food, and curls inside warm sleeping bags. While disappointed in my emotional reactions on trail this afternoon, I’m pleased to have made it this far and look forward to a shorter day tomorrow.

Spy Rock - the shadowy lump behind the trees

Spy Rock – the shadowy lump behind the trees

Day 26, May 23, 14.2 miles: The Priest Shelter, on top of The Priest Mountain (4,063 feet), is the intended destination 6.6 miles along an undulating trail that never strays lower than 3200 feet. The plan is to arrive for lunch and have a quiet, relaxing afternoon. However, looking ahead to the next day, the elevation change is so dramatic (7,000 feet including Three Ridges Mountain), I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t try to reach Harpers Creek 7.6 miles further and take my low-mileage day tomorrow. It’s impossible to know what is best. You just make a decision and live with the consequences good or bad.

All morning I’m ‘taking my temperature’ to see if I can pull off 14.2 miles after yesterday’s 15.8. Two miles into the day is a short but steep rocky road to Spy Rock, a massive chunk of rock to the right of the trail past a level campsite. All I see is the back side of this hunkering rock. There is a path through crevices to climb to the other side where the views would be, but the morning is cool and cloudy. The view wouldn’t be worth the time or effort.

Crevice through Spy Rock

Crevice through Spy Rock

There is one more steep climb on rock steps before the trail taps into a gently graded road easing up The Priest. The sun is trying to come out. I sit down at 11:30 on the approach trail to the shelter to make the final determination. If I’m going to continue, I need to get going. More afternoon storms are predicted. This is a tough and wrenching decision. I really am worn out and don’t want to push my luck with rain, yet I also know tomorrow will be an absolute bear if I go no further. I’m looking at a 3100-foot descent of The Priest over five miles and nearly three more miles to the shelter including an 1100-foot climb. I cowboy up and take the plunge.

The Priest Shelter is just shy of the summit. The remaining climb and trek over the top goes quickly. Then comes the descent. As relatively easy as the approach from the south is, the trail heading north is a horrible rocky beast. It is exceptionally steep, rough, and very slow going nearly half the way down. While eating lunch, the sky turns dark. I put on rain gear just in time. Fortunately, the trail smooths out as light rain turns into a thundershower.

Spy Rock again

Spy Rock again

The rain lasts over an hour. At the base of The Priest is VA 56 and a parking area. Across the road is the Tye River. “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” are huddled under a kiosk roof with “Caboose,” one of the tent campers last night. “Sweet Pea” is holding a large plastic container full of cookies. Just a few minutes ago, “Steamer” was here with his wife celebrating his completion of the A.T. I’m sorry I missed it, though I do enjoy a chocolate chip cookie in his honor. Poor “Sweet Pea” is stuck holding this large plastic plate and lid “Steamer” left behind. She and “Oaks” are too conscientious to leave it on the ground or next to a parked car and will cram it into their packs until they find a trash can.

It is still raining lightly as I cross the road and river to climb 1.7 miles. It is after 3:00 p.m., and I’m hitting the wall. It takes 1.5 agonizing hours to make the climb. Once I reach the top, there is still 1.1 miles to go amid tears, aching feet, and fatigue. Two-tenths mile before the shelter there is a rock hop of Harpers Creek. The water is high, and it is tricky to negotiate. When I reach the shelter, it is located on the opposite side of the creek, necessitating another tricky crossing. There are campsites just before the shelter and stream, but they are muddy, and I want to get out of the damp. I make it over the creek both times without getting any wetter.

Hairy-joint Meadow Parsnip

Hairy-joint Meadow Parsnip

“Caboose” is already there. He passed me on the way up. “Sweet Pea” and “Oaks” arrive in a short while. The noisy creek is in front of the shelter down a short bank, the privy is uphill to the left. My shelter mates string line for wet clothes to at least air if not dry. “Oaks” sleeping pad has a leak, and duct tape isn’t sticking. I let him use my tenacious tape which appears to hold.

“Oaks” is a self-taught musician on several stringed instruments and carries a travel mandolin that looks more like a small dulcimer. He curls in the corner and plays for a while. He is quite good. “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” have been married three years. They are the same age as my son, 24, and live in North Carolina. After their Maine Coon cat, Milo, suddenly died, they decided the time was right to hike the A.T. With their gear, a book of Wendell Berry poems, the mandolin, and each other, they have all they need to walk to Maine.

"Oaks" and "Sweet Pea"

“Oaks” and “Sweet Pea”

I enjoy their company and conversation. “Sweet Pea” hears me express a craving for Oreos and offers me a few of theirs. I assure her I’m packing as many as I can carry…enough to get me to Rockfish Gap!

Shelter journals can offer some interesting observations. One guy wrote that an A.T. hiker from years ago said the trail wasn’t nearly as rough with so much mountain climbing when he did it. He blamed trail clubs trying to outdo each other and make their segment harder than anyone else’s. The writer noted, “Sounds like a small penis issue to me.” We all get a good laugh out of that comment.

Two more guys saunter in for the night, and we have another thunderstorm at dusk, though the brunt of it skirts past us.

The rocky A.T. on Three Ridges Mountain...I'm not making this up!

The rocky A.T. on Three Ridges Mountain…proof I’m not exaggerating!

Day 27, May 24, 6.2 miles: Today really will be a short day. All I have to do is climb over Three Ridges Mountain, 3300 feet total elevation change. I won’t even need a Snickers bar! However, all those storms were associated with the passage of a cold front. Behind it are clearing skies, howling wind, and winter-like temperatures. Whee!

I sleep in a bit and take my time, leaving at 9:00. Within a few feet of the shelter, I slip crossing Harpers Creek and plunge my right foot deep in the water. Whoopee! What a way to start the day.

Like the upper reaches of The Priest’s north side, the southern approach to Three Ridges is a steep, rocky beast. It takes an hour and 15 minutes to go 1.5 miles. The next section is even steeper. Trekking poles drag as my hands are needed as much as my feet to scramble up some parts. Factor in the fierce wind, and it is tough going this morning. Despite the terrain, I’m glad to be going uphill, generating internal heat. It is downright cold up here.

More rocky trail on Three Ridges

More rocky trail on Three Ridges

It’s rocky all the way up. Going uphill with this type of trail condition sure beats going down. Sometimes the trail is just a boulder field, an indecipherable mess of rocks to negotiate. It’s a matter of foot management, coordinating eyes and brain to think through the best placement. Soon it becomes second nature. With an eye scoping the ground a few feet ahead, you can intuit the best spot to set each foot. On less rocky sections, it’s possible to step around them — dancing with the trail. It requires effort and is tiring but not as demoralizing as Garden Mountain, where it was nearly impossible to find a rockless spot that did not require focus and diligence.

Unlike the flat, five-mile drudge of Garden Mountain, Three Ridges also presents the easily conquered challenges of an occasional scramble. Not death defying like Cove Mountain, these scrambles serve mainly to break up the monotony and add spark and life to the hike. I’ve complained so much about the rocks in Central Virginia and called such attention to my emotional reaction to long, hard days, I want to state for the record that I’m not someone who expects or even wants smooth flat trails through idyllic forests, at least not all the time. I appreciate the extra kick required on parts of this trail and have taken pride in rising to the occasion.

Hanging Rock Overlook

Hanging Rock Overlook

I’ve successfully made it through every inch of the trail covered thus far like every other hiker, proving I can do this, tears or no tears. I’ve been able to physically handle the tough parts even if I don’t always handle them well emotionally. Many of the hardest sections I’ve genuinely enjoyed, and if I wasn’t carrying 35 pounds on my back, I’d enjoy them even more!

I pause at the top for that Snickers bar I didn’t think I’d need and keep going. It has taken two hours and 40 minutes to go 3.3 miles. Maupin Field Shelter is another 2.9 miles from Three Ridges summit. The hike down is much easier. Still rocky, but less so and not nearly as steep.

Rock Harlequin

Rock Harlequin

Hanging Rock Overlook is a wide, flat ledge above a sheer cliff about a third of the way down. The little annual Corydalis sp., Rock Harlequin, is beautiful on the ledge. There are more Allegheny Stonecrop and Staghorn Sumac too. It’s a pretty view from the overlook, but there are so many “pretty” views, they begin to run together. It’s not quite an Appalachian Trail Truism because there will always be notable exceptions, but for the most part, if you’ve seen one standard scenic mountain view, you’ve seen them all.

I get to Maupin Field Shelter at 1:30. “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” have stopped for lunch. As I fix my meal and eat, we chat about my kids. They want to know what my children think of my hiking. Kate, Sam, and I are close, and they are very supportive as long as they know I’m OK. Sam has told his friends and coworkers about my trip with the observation, “My mom’s a badass.”

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

I’m staying here tonight, but “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” are hiking as far as they can today to reach Waynesboro tomorrow. I won’t see them again. They are such a wonderful couple, and I wish them the best of luck with the trail and the rest of their lives. With a wave and smile, they’re off.

A few minutes later, they return. I joke, “That was fast. How was Waynesboro?” “Oaks” wants to ask me a question and tells me I can say no if it makes me uncomfortable. He and “Sweet Pea” wonder if they could pray with me. I am touched. We put our arms around each other as “Oaks” thanks God for bringing “G-Sprout” into their lives and asks him to watch over me. I now have a legitimate reason for tears. We hug each other, and “Sweet Pea” says, “You are an inspiration to us. We think you are bold.” “Yeah,” says “Oaks.” “You’re a badass!”

The area around Maupin Field is flat with many campsites, a decent privy, and a very good spring behind the shelter. Another shelter-loving Phoebe family built a nest off to the side where hiker activity will cause less disruption. The Mau-Har Trail ties into the A.T. here and three miles away below the Harpers Creek Shelter, following Campbell Creek to a 40-foot waterfall about halfway between the junctions. It’s Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and a few recreational hikers are out despite the chilly weather walking this loop.

Rock formation on Three Ridges

Rock formation on Three Ridges

The sun is bright, and I set out wet clothes, boots, and gear which the wind threatens to blow away. I’d love to sit in the sun, but the wind is too brutal. In the shelter out of the wind, it is plain cold. I’m wearing a long sleeve shirt, two coats, and gloves. Just my luck…a sunny afternoon to explore or simply sit at the picnic table and write is ruined by high wind and cold. All I can do is hunker. It must be Blackberry Winter.

There are only two days left of my trip, and I am glad. My feet hurt. I’m tired of carrying this weight. I’m tired of uphills and downhills and rocks. I’m tired of dreary shelters. I’m tired of my tent, which now feels more like a siliconized nylon coffin. I’m tired of being dirty. I’m tired of being wet. I’m tired of hiking alone. I’m tired of eating peanut butter and dehydrated dinners. Each night I’ve been bribing myself with Oreos. If I eat the entire meal, I can have five cookies for dessert. That has been the highlight every day this past week. When the most enjoyable moment on trail is eating an Oreo, it’s time to go home.

Three hikers join me in the shelter, and a few others are scattered in tents. Tonight will be the coldest since March.

Well-crafted rock steps on a switchback

Well-crafted rock steps on a switchback

Day 28, May 25, 15.8 miles: My pack thermometer reads 35 degrees this morning. It’s the last full day of hiking, and I’m on trail at 7:40 a.m. The first two miles are smooth walking and bring me back in contact with the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has been meandering far to the west since Punchbowl Shelter. The trail and BRP brush next to each other at Reeds Gap and cross at Three Ridges Overlook.

Fringe Tree

Fringe Tree

The five miles between Reeds Gap and the second BRP crossing at Dripping Rock is mostly flat, but in Central Virginia never assume that means easy. When the trail has traveled close to the parkway before, the footpath has been relatively smooth through rich forests. I was expecting this condition to continue. It doesn’t. In many long stretches, the trail is nothing but a continuous, churned jumble of small boulders requiring careful and dextrous foot placement.

Cedar Cliffs

Cedar Cliffs

These boulder fields are immensely wearing, but I’m handling things quite well this morning. It’s a sunny day, not as cold or windy as yesterday, but cool enough to keep moving. In a few areas where the elevation does change a bit, there are often rock steps, particularly at switchbacks. Sometimes these are just appropriately placed big rocks stuck in dirt as fitting a wilderness setting. In a few instances, they are well-crafted stairs looking more like an expensive landscape element in a private garden — wide and solid with side walls curving through the switchback.

Dwarf Dandelion and the foliage of Appalachian Fameflower upper right

Dwarf Dandelion and the foliage of Appalachian Fameflower upper right

The trail runs straight northeast and parallels BRP along a nameless ridge to Cedar Cliffs. By no measure equivalent to Tinker Cliffs, Cedar Cliffs does have one breathtaking claim — Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) in spectacular flower. Scattered across the flat rocky ledge and tucked among Eastern Red Cedars, the Fringe Trees are dripping with bright, feathery flowers. The flowers, each featuring long, thin, creamy white petals, are clustered in large, drooping panicles on every branch for an incredible show.

Natural garden with Appalachian Stonecrop and Marginal Woodfern

Natural garden with Appalachian Stonecrop and Marginal Woodfern

There is an interesting mix of plants on and near the cliffs. Solomon’s Seal is in flower in the shade, and in the sun, Appalachian Fameflower (Phermeranthus teretifolius [Talinum teretifolium]) and Dwarf Dandelion (Krigia virginica) are scattered in pockets of thin soil and moss mats. Just past the cliffs where the trail reenters the forest, a grouping of Marginal Woodfern and Appalachian Stonecrop interspersed with wispy blue flowers of Appalachian Phacelia and outlined in stone looks like a designed garden.

Wild Sarsaparilla

Wild Sarsaparilla

There are many people visiting Cedar Cliffs. It must be a popular destination. This area is fragile ecologically, and camping is not permitted. So of course there is a fire ring right in the middle of the cliffs. The sense of entitlement some people display is astounding.

Green Violet

Green Violet

Just past the Dripping Spring crossing of BRP, I stop for lunch. I’ve gone 6.5 miles and have another 9.3 to go. Like so many of the forest sections adjacent to BRP, this area is quite rich botanically. Appalachian Gooseberry (Ribes rotundifolium) is setting fruit. Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is in flower. Its large compound leaf shades clusters of tiny greenish white flowers on a short separate stalk at the base. There are several Green Violets (Hybanthus concolor). Not recognizable as a violet at all, these unassuming plants with tiny green flowers are easily overlooked. Finally, there is Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum). I am surprised at how late they are flowering this year.

Solomon's Plume

Solomon’s Plume

After Laurel Spring Gap, the ATC book says the trail begins a steep ascent on boulders. This is false. There are no boulders at all. The trail is terraced into a long series of shallow steps with landscaping timbers. It is quite easy to climb.

The terraced section signals the ascent of Humpback Mountain. At the top, the trail skirts the narrow ledge of a steep cliff. Hikers hug the shrubs on the left to tip toe past the plunging edge. Black Chokeberry and Chokecherry are in flower. I’ve now gone 9.3 miles with 6.5 to go.

A long rock wall parallels the A.T. for a bit, and parts of the trail follow old rocky roadbeds on the descent. Walking down Humpback, I have two wildlife encounters. A deer bounds across the trail behind me, and I flush two enormous Turkey Vultures from their roost, their wrinkled red heads shining in the sun.

Narrow cliff edge at the summit of Humpback Mountain

Narrow cliff edge at the summit of Humpback Mountain

The afternoon slows down, and so do I. Various side trails (Humpback Gap, Humpback Visitor Center, Albright Loop) should appear soon. Around each bend, I anticipate one only to be disappointed. The last three miles are smoother and easier walking, but the distance, time, and weight have taken their toll. I’m a teary mess yet again.

Paul C. Wolfe Shelter sits on a hillside across and above Mill Creek. There are already several tents between the creek and shelter. These are mostly weekend hikers. The shelter has a covered porch with picnic table and windows. A waterfall and swimming hole are downstream 100 yards. The privy is perched on a steep hillside to the left of the shelter. It’s the dirtiest and most decrepit I’ve seen in Virginia.

I sleep one final night in my tent and finish my Oreos.

Appalachian Gooseberry

Appalachian Gooseberry

Day 29, May 26, 5.2 miles: I’m up early and ready to go before 8:00. Last night, two hikers set their sleeping bags under the stars near my tent, and I step past them, still snuggled deep, as quietly as possible. Very little stands between me and the end — a short trek up Elk Mountain, cruise along the ridge, brief descent, and quick climb to Rockfish Gap.

Mayo Cabin

Mayo Cabin

A mile from the shelter a tiny, overgrown cemetery lies to the right of the trail on a side path. The few headstones are flat rocks bearing faintly etched names and dates now nearly indiscernible. A half mile further are the remains of the Mayo Cabin right on the trail. Perhaps this belonged to an ancestor of Smokies hiking buddy Clarence.

Yellow Pimpernel (Taenidia intergerrima) is in flower this morning as is Rue Anemone. The very first wildflower I saw in March was a tiny Rue Anemone braving the late winter in Nantahala Gorge near NOC. It is fitting, I suppose, that one should be present to bid me farewell for the year.

After a few stream crossings, I hear traffic noise…too much for BRP alone. For the first time, I have reached a destination much more quickly than I thought. I’ve arrived at Rockfish Gap and the convergence of Interstate 64, US 250, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive. It’s 10:30.

Yellow Pimpernel

Yellow Pimpernel

The Sweetsers are driving up BRP, camping a night or two, to meet me here at noon. The Afton Mountain Visitor Center, near the Inn at Afton, is our rendezvous point. Across the parkway on US 250, there are several dilapidated buildings including what remains of an old motel. Surely this isn’t the Inn at Afton! Another abandoned building is next to it with a food truck parked in front. Big Momma’s Kettle Corn is open for business.

The owner sees me wandering around looking lost and asks if he can help. He points to a steep road and tells me the visitor center is up there. The road makes a wide loop, passes a small prefabricated building, and continues to the Inn at Afton, a nice multistory hotel. The visitor center is in the little prefab building.

Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone

Inside is a very knowledgeable and helpful man, volunteering at the center. His trail name is “Yellow Truck.” He shuttles hikers around the area and knows all the good places to visit, eat, hike, whatever diversion you’re looking for. He welcomes me and invites me to sit, which I most gladly do. I also change from boots to camp shoes.  As I do, he and I talk about the A.T. and my plans. When I’m ready to hike Shenandoah, I can leave my car at the center, hike to Duncannon, PA, take a train to Charlottesville, VA, and “Yellow Truck” will pick me up and bring me back to the car!

Shenandoah National Park sign is in the background.

Shenandoah National Park sign is in the background.

In a few minutes I see Susan Sweeter’s face at the door and rush to give her a hug. Allen and their dog Lacie are walking outside. I gather my gear, and we drive into Waynesboro for Sunday buffet at Ming Garden. Hikers have been salivating over the prospects of Ming Garden for days. It is THE place to eat in Waynesboro. The restaurant is spacious and attractive inside. There is a grill to order custom meals, a sushi bar, a salad bar, a dessert bar, ice cream, and several steam tables of seafood, chicken, beef, pork, vegetables…just about every food item you could want. The price, under $11 per person, cannot be beat. We stuff ourselves.

It’s now time for the long ride home. It will take over five hours to reach the Sweetser’s house outside Knoxville and another three for me to get home. The boys, Pickles and Tucker (my cats), are asleep when I arrive. It takes them a minute to comprehend that their mom is really home. I relax with a lapful of purring kitties and after a shower, crawl into the most comfortable bed on earth to sleep soundly.

Bristly Locust

Bristly Locust

Day 21, May 18, 9.4 miles: I’m not sure how much it rained after the storms overnight, but it is raining this morning. I wait until it slackens to begin my day. Most campsite areas are little more than bare dirt. My tent and its fly are heavily splashed with mud and debris, requiring much cleaning before I can stow it.

It’s cool and still quite foggy when I leave. This will be a lower mileage day and fairly easy as most of the elevation change involves relatively gentle descent. Roseshell Azaleas’ clove perfume is pervasive and heady. The finely textured foliage of Threadleaf Tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata) appears scattered along the trail. It won’t flower for another few weeks. Down the trail, the airy sprays of rosy azaleas give way to red-purple pompons of Catawba Rhododendron. Deep rosy-pink blossoms of Bristly Locust (Robinia hispida) are nearly hidden in the underbrush.

Catawba Rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron

Anyone who left after me this morning, soon passes me. It’s downright lonely on the trail these days. Many who began with high hopes in March have dropped out. Thru-hikers still bound for Katahdin have spread out. I might see some for a day or two at shelters or towns, but they soon outpace me with no chance of meeting again. From time to time, I cross paths with a southbounder and share a brief conversation. I find more section hikers on trail and those just out for a few days with no timetable or intent to hike the entire trail. Days get lost in a blur out here, but weekends always mean extra foot traffic especially near towns.

It is particularly quiet right now. Many hikers have taken a break this weekend to attend Trail Days in Damascus, VA, an annual celebration of the A.T. They hitch a ride from Daleville down I-81 to eat and drink with 20,000 past and current hikers. Not everyone goes. Those who stay behind look forward to less crowded shelters and campsites and putting some distance between themselves and the big bubble of hikers that will return in a few days.

James River Foot Bridge

James River Foot Bridge

This section of the trail descends along Grassy Island Ridge and goes through James River Face Wilderness, one of the first designated wilderness areas in the East and touted for its plant diversity. At the base of the ridge is Matts Creek Shelter, where the A.T., Matts Creek, and Matts Creek Trail intersect. I eat lunch here and photograph flowering Maple-leaved Viburnum. It is mostly cloudy, threatening rain, but the sun peaks out a bit at noon.

“Steamer” was at Marble Spring last night and left before me this morning. He is finishing his lunch at the shelter and tells me of his misfortune. He broke his glasses overnight and will have to leave the trail for repair or replacement. I may not see him again and wish him luck completing the trail. He has less than 50 miles to go.

Wild Bleeding Heart

Wild Bleeding Heart

The A.T. follows Matts Creek toward the James River, where it turns alongside the river, its floodplain, and a rocky bluff for one mile. Views of the river are mostly obscured by trees. The trail is level, and the rock bluffs looming overhead are covered in grape vines, Fire Pink, Bowman’s Root, and Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia). The bridge across the river is the “longest foot-use-only bridge” on the A.T.

It’s quite appropriately called the James River Foot Bridge, dedicated to the memory of William T. Foot, an A.T. thru-hiker and past president of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. This bridge was a project he championed. Bill and his wife Laurie were known as “The Happy Feet,” and were the first to complete the American Discovery Trail coast to coast.  He was still a young man, early 50s, when he died.

Across the bridge, the trail snakes up an easy-to-miss side trail to the right of the parking lot and returns to the woods, heading toward mountains Little Rocky Row and Big Rocky Row following Rocky Row Run (a pretty creek) for the first mile. Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is beginning to flower. Johns Hollow Shelter, my stop, is at the base of the Rocky Rows, next to another small stream.

Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel

Several young hikers stop shortly after me for a break, and one strange man arrives. He’s got a weird pack that droops below his butt and bounces off the back of his legs. He smokes (a disturbing number of hikers smoke) and is missing a few too many teeth. To my dismay, the young hikers leave and he stays.

I’ve been around many people during my six weeks on trail, and I’ve been all alone. Not once have I felt uneasy…until now. It is just 4:00 p.m. I’m certain others will come, but I’m not staying in the shelter with this guy. I pull out my tent and scout a spot in back, where there is quite a bit of open space.

Many more people do arrive including the couple, Ryan and Colleen, I met two weeks ago. Just as I get everything set up, I notice the strange man is gone. “Did he leave?” I ask. “Yes,” says Colleen. “Thank goodness, he was creepy,” I opine. “Thank you,” she says. Apparently, she got the same gut impression I did.

During dinner I see an all too familiar outline on the side of my tent. It’s a large tick. Yuck! I despise ticks. I pick it off, squish it between two rocks, and spend the rest of the night in paranoia.

Heartleaf Alexanders

Heartleaf Alexanders

Day 22, May 19, 8.8 miles: It rained much of the night and is still raining lightly when birds wake me at 6:00 with their hearty singing. I don’t have far to go today either, but the chance of rain is very high. The earlier I start, the drier I’ll likely be, and there is another tick silhouette on my tent — squish!

It’s damp, drippy, dark, foggy, and cool. As long as rain holds off, these conditions provide pleasant hiking weather — less sweat, less bugs — particularly on steep uphills, and there are three significant climbs ahead. On paper, the first climb to Little Rocky Row looks easiest. The reverse is true. It’s a typical uphill until the top, when it morphs into huge boulders on a very steep grade requiring hands and feet to climb. This part is short but treacherous since the left side of the trail drops precipitously.

American Lily of the Valley

American Lily of the Valley

The trail descends and levels somewhat before a half-mile, 640-foot climb to Big Rocky Row. If Little Rocky Row was that demanding, I’m dreading the big one. A southbound day hiker appears through the fog and assures me I’ve tackled the hardest part. I show him the profile, but he sticks with his story. He’s right. Big Rocky Row is rocky, more so off trail than on (for a refreshing change), and though the climb is indeed steep, the area is wide with no difficult scrambling or scary drops.

Instead there are many colorful wildflowers digging the dampness – Spiderwort, Moss Phlox, a larger meadow rue species, Heartleaf Alexanders (Zizia aptera), Wild Geranium, and American Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis var. montana [C. montana, C. majuscula, C. pseudomajalis]). I’ve seen the foliage quite a bit on Virginia’s mountains thus far, but few have been in flower until today. European Lily of the Valley (C. majalis var. majalis) is remarkably similar and has naturalized in the eastern U.S. Telling the two apart can be tricky, and I can never remember which characteristics apply to which species. However, from my photos, the length of the leaves, the height of the flowering stalks, and the size of the lowest flower bract, all point decisively to American Lily of the Valley. A quick check of Virginia’s flora shows the native species to be common in the southern and central mountains. The European species occurs infrequently around home sites.

Rock Fields on Big Rocky Row

Rock Fields on Big Rocky Row

Past Big Rocky Row’s summit, the trail eases down 400 feet in 1.5 miles and bumps along at 2600 feet elevation for another mile. During this flat stretch it begins to rain. There is a stiff wind from the east/southeast streaming fog and rain through Saddle Gap. Slipping behind Silas Knob offers temporary relief from the wind. When I reach Saltlog Gap at the base of Bluff Mountain, the rain has stopped, but the wind, streaming fog, and dripping trees, makes the trek up and over unpleasant. Stepping behind a ridge line out of the wind makes such a difference. Every part of my body relaxes appreciably. It is amazing how much physical exertion the wind commands!

perhaps Big-fruit Hawthorn

perhaps Big-fruit Hawthorn

On top of Bluff Mountain are Wild Pink, American Lily of the Valley, and a flowering hawthorn tree. There are so many closely related hawthorn species, botanists have a tough time sorting one from another. This one has typical triangular lobed and toothed leaves, clusters of white flowers, and vicious looking thorns nearly two inches long. It only has five stamens though, and after perusing photos and distribution maps of all hawthorns listed on the Virginia flora online, a suitable match is Crataegus macrosperma, Big-fruit Hawthorn, which is common and widespread in the mountains. Further along is a beautiful grouping of five Pink Lady’s Slippers.

Phoebe parent waits for the right moment...

Phoebe parent waits for the right moment…

The concrete footings of a fire tower sit at the summit, and just prior is a small monument to Ottie Cline Powell telling a very sad story. The little boy not yet five, wandered off from school on a cold November day in 1891. Despite immediate intensive searches, it was five months later when his body was discovered on Bluff Mountain still wearing his hat seven miles from school. The monument, put there by a well-intentioned local resident, has a few errors. The child’s name was Emmet not Ottie, and the year listed for his recovery is the year he disappeared.

Given the weather, I rely on quick snacks and wait until I reach Punchbowl Shelter, my destination, to eat lunch. It slowly appears out of the gloomy mist on a side trail. I am grateful to pull off wet gear and snuggle down for rest of this rainy day. Another couple eating lunch are “Gypsy” and “Hancock” who I met in North Carolina. I only saw them once or twice, but they remember me. Ryan and Colleen arrive and plan to stay. Hiking wet isn’t their thing. They spent three days in Pearisburg to avoid the deluge through which I trudged nearly 40 miles.

Lunch!!

Lunch!!

Shelters along the A.T. provide lodging for other critters besides hikers — mice, bees, chipmunks, and Eastern Phoebes. In two shelters, phoebes have constructed their mossy nests on top of the center pole at the front edge. Their young are protected from the elements, and near constant hiker activity wards off predators, but it also plays havoc with a regular feeding schedule!

There is a nest of three babies at Punchbowl. Parents fly through the rain and return with a juicy insect in beak. They perch on tree limbs a few yards away, then move to the picnic table or the handle of trekking poles leaning nearby, waiting for a calm opening to swoop in, deposit the goods in gaping, squawking mouths, and swoop out again. Ryan, Colleen, “Gypsy,” “Hancock,” and I move toward the back wall and sit still. The parents do their job, finding insects even in this sloppy weather.

Red Eft

Red Eft

Yesterday and today, I see several Red Efts on trail. Each time, I’ve played traffic cop, herding it to one side or the other out of harm’s way. It’s been perfect weather for them. Most people think they are salamanders. They are in the Salamander family but are Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens). To be exact, a Red Eft is the juvenile terrestrial life stage (the second of three stages) of the Newt, which starts life in the water as a larva and returns to an aquatic environment as a mature adult to breed. In between, this brightly colored, toxic Red Eft roams the woodlands for two or three years. It may be distinguished from red salamanders by its rough skin, lack of vertical groves on its sides, and two rows of bright orange-red spots outlined in black on its back.

There is a good reason why I’ve seen so many. Punchbowl Shelter sits beside a small pond. When the rain stops, I walk out to investigate and find it swimming with adult newts. They are olive-green (but look more gray in the water) with those bright orange-red back spots. One photo captures the black toe pads adult males get on their hind feet. Frogs, including Spring Peeper, are singing, too.

Punchbowl Pond

Punchbowl Pond

As evening comes, more people arrive and the shelter fills. Several set up tents in back. Once all the shelter people have eaten and are settled, the Phoebes show up, bugs in beaks, to serve their brood’s evening meal. Before they can deliver the first course, three older men camped out back and hiking for a few days come to the picnic table to fix their meals. I’ve been ‘narrating’ the birds’ actions in a faux Australian accent, a la the late Steve Erwin, for my shelter mates. One of the men hears me and says, “Wow, someone traveled a long way.” “Nashville,” I reply in my real voice. He wasn’t too amused. He hiked the A.T. long ago and pontificates to everyone in the shelter.

Adult Newt

Adult Newt

Rather than give the birds some room, he blames them for being stupid. “They have the entire forest and build their nest here?” “We built this shelter in their backyard,” I said, giving him a dirty look. The men drink coffee fortified with some stronger stuff, hanging around interminably, as the poor Phoebes perch nearby, beaks loaded with tender morsels for the softly clucking babies. When the men depart, two other campers walk up to fix their dinner, eating slowly and smoking cigarettes afterwards. When they finally leave, it is almost dark. The parent birds have given up.

Beside me is “Freeway,” a young man training for a long hike this fall. He wants to get in shape. He’s got a ways to go. A rather portly fellow, he flops around like a whale getting settled and is the poster child for Appalachian Trail Truism #7 — The shelter snorer will sleep right next to you. Ear plugs are essential on the A.T. Some folks sound like chain saws, and even more restrained snorers on the other side of the shelter can rumble vibrations through the floor boards that become more intrusive when outside noises are dampened. Holding the cacophony to a dull roar gives my exhaustion a chance to work its magic. Once asleep, I’m usually OK…as long as the snorer stays asleep too.

My escorts

My escorts

Day 23, May 20, 0.7 mile: “Freeway” is having congestion problems and needs to get up at 4:45 a.m. His headlamp shines in everyone’s faces. He rustles through his gear, munching on granola. Sleep is impossible. At first light, I get up too. Today I’m going into Buena Vista, VA, for my final resupply. The sooner I start, the sooner I can shower and relax at the Bluedogart Cafe’s hostel.

On trail at 7:20, I cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and arrive at VA 607 in 25 minutes. There are two routes into Buena Vista. VA 607 is a lightly traveled gravel road 6.3 miles from the heart of town. Ten and a half miles further up the A.T. is US 60, 9.3 miles from town. I choose the lesser traveled road because I know I can walk it if necessary. “Lesser traveled” is a polite way of putting it. This road, stuck in the middle of the sticks, attracts nobody on a weekday. I immediately resign myself to a 6.3 mile hike.

Eastern Gray Beard-tongue on the road

Eastern Gray Beard-tongue on the road

The road is not marked at the A.T. junction and intersects another gravel road to the right with a sign FR 311 Reservoir. Trusting my maps, I turn left off the trail and begin an uphill climb. After a few tenths of a mile, it levels then turns downhill the rest of the way.

I’m in the boonies with just two indications of humans so far — 607 slips under a bridge of the Blue Ridge Parkway and a tractor trailer truck bed stacked with tree trunks sits just off the road. Periodically, other gravel roads branch off. Still no road signs. I stick to what appears to be the ‘main’ road and try to retain my confidence and spirit. I finally pass a house on the right. Is anyone home? I could at least verify I’m headed to Buena Vista. Two hound dogs asleep on the porch get a whiff of me and start baying. No people respond, but the dogs need the excitement and take off after me.

Bowman's Root on the road

Bowman’s Root on the road

They bark and prance, and I shoo them away. A few minutes later one of them is trotting along beside me. I look around, and there is the other one trotting behind. I stop, they stop. The white and black one likes me and wants a pet, jumping on me when given the chance. The brown and black one is a recent mother and keeps her distance. Sometimes they get ahead, and peer back to make sure I’m still coming. They run off into the woods for a minute and come back out, moving down the road with me step for step.

They are my escorts and have brightened my spirits considerably. A U.S. Forest Service truck approaches from town, and I confirm I’m on the right road. Later, a massive 18-wheeler grinds up the road, and I have to scramble to get my escorts out of the way. At last a car is going in my direction. The driver waves and speeds past. As I get closer to town, my canine friends veer into the woods and disappear. I’m sure they know their way home. I plod into Buena Vista. Two ladies sitting on their front porch offer me a drink of water. I thank them for their friendly welcome.

Bluedogart Cafe in Buena Vista, VA

Bluedogart Cafe in Buena Vista, VA

Buena Vista is a small town. The main strip is not a classic Main Street scene yet still has some charm. There are many empty storefronts though. Bluedogart Cafe sits off the main drag on a side street, and it takes me a few minutes to find it. It’s an adorable small cafe and bakery with a tiny ice cream stand. The women running it are very nice. One of the waitresses offers to wash my laundry for $5.00, about what it would cost at the laundromat down the street.

The hostel is upstairs to the left of the cafe. There is a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom with a double bed, living room with two large couches, and dining room with two twin mattresses on the floor. Last night, the place was full, and it looks like National Lampoon’s Animal House this morning. The owners apologize for the mess and introduce me to one of the guests who is staying another night, “Caveman” and his German Shepherd dog Jesse.

The hostel

The hostel

I stake out a vacated dining room mattress then shower, hand over my laundry, eat lunch, and get my resupply. As I’m finishing my meal, the waitress asks me if I’m OK with “Caveman.” Something in her anxious face makes me answer with the question, “Why?” “Oh, nothing, he’s a nice person, it’s just that we’re a little concerned over the amount of alcohol he’s consuming. We’re trying to get someone else to stay the night too. If you get scared, you can come to my apartment. I live across the street. But everything will probably be just fine.” Geez. I thank her and take my resupply upstairs.

I’ve got bigger fish to fry than a drunk hiker. I need a ride back to the trail. Bluedogart shuttles to US 60 but not VA 607. They give me two people to call. The first guy obviously has no idea where 607 is. I hear him flipping maps, guestimating mileages, pulling numbers out of his butt, and plugging them into a calculator….$30. “I’ll get back to you.” The second man, Gary Serra, knows 607 (also called Robinson Gap Road) and charges $10. He’ll pick me up at 9:00 tomorrow morning. Yes!

The sun is shining in the window by my mattress. My boots are placed here to dry thoroughly. I air my sleeping bag, dry my tent, and load my food bag. My pack has not given me trouble since John at Outdoor Trails adjusted the stays in Daleville. All I need now is dinner and a package of Oreos. I’m jonesing for a cookie or two or five.

Jesse

Jesse

I ask “Caveman” if he’d like me to get him something. He wants pretzels. The little market down the street has neither. The next market much further down has neither. There is one more market at the very end of the street, about a mile from the hostel. Bingo! It has both, plus a quart of milk. On the way back, I stop at Todd’s BBQ for a chicken sandwich to go. The sky is nearly black outside, and it is thundering. Goodies in hand, I book it to the hostel just in time and relax with my Oreos.

“Caveman” is a sad sort. He puts on this big guy act, trying to impress hikers with the weight of his pack and how much food he eats. They indulge him. He loves to talk things up, but I get the impression very little comes of it. He tells me a lot about himself while I’m getting my gear ready, even admitting a past drinking problem. He holds up one of several beer cans he’ll drain saying he’s binging on carbs for the trail. I nod and smile. He moves back to his couch in the living room. His dog Jesse is sweet but overpowering, knocking me down. He lies next to my mattress for a while.

Another couple stays the night. They are both covered in tattoos and hide out in the bedroom. I think they are smoking marijuana. It’s fairly common on the trail. At lights out, I’ve got two high, one drunk, and a big dog trying to climb in my bed.

A zen American Toad

A zen American Toad

Day 24, May 21, 8.8 miles: Thank God for the window air conditioner and oscillating fan. Their combined white noise covers “Caveman’s” snoring, which sounds more like retching. At dawn, he takes Jesse outside. When they return, Jesse tries to get in my bed again. He’s wet and leaves a tick behind.

The hostel cost is $20 per night and includes a complementary breakfast at the cafe. I order the A.T. Omelet with bacon, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, and cheese, plus wheat toast and milk. It is delicious!

Gary arrives on time and drives me to the trail. As we roll up that gravel road, I’m so thankful I don’t have to walk it!! We pass the house with the dogs, and they are both snoozing on the porch. At 9:30, I begin the last leg of my hike.

Pedlar River Suspension Bridge

Pedlar River Suspension Bridge

The trail bounces up and down the ridge line of Rice Mountain for two miles then descends to gravel Reservoir Road leading to Pedlar Dam. The day is sunny and warm.  At the road, I meet the three men who had stayed at Punchbowl Shelter, and they look whipped. They are probably my age, maybe a bit older. One red-faced, sweating man says, “We’re not in shape for this,” and heads dejectedly up the road toward the dam. Wimps.

A little later I meet four women who are at least 10 or 15 years older than I am, and they are moving south with smiles and a spring in their steps. The men were full of bravado at Punchbowl and are now skulking down the road with their tails between their legs. The women are quietly rolling on. There are two ‘take aways’ in this. My gender is well represented out here, and humility bests hubris.

The trail skirts around the dam and moves along the reservoir’s eastern side. A young couple passes me — “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea.” We chat for a bit, and they tell me about the terrible accident at Trail Days. During the parade, an older man suffering from a suspected heart attack drove his car into the crowd injuring several people. “Sweet Pea’s” mother had called to make sure they were all right. They didn’t go to Damascus, preferring to enjoy a quieter trail. In a bit, I see them off the trail near the water. They’ve stopped for lunch and ask me to join them. I’ve already eaten, offer my thanks, and keep going. I’ll see more of them in the next few days.

Pedlar Dam and Reservoir

Pedlar Dam and Reservoir

The trail crosses a suspension bridge over the Pedlar River, several other streams, and another gravel road in a low area spanning five miles between Rice and Brown Mountains. It follows the course of Brown Mountain Creek, and Brown Mountain Shelter near the mountain’s base. The area is a historic site, marking a freed slave community in the early 1900s. Few traces are visible at this time of year. The trail follows old roads, and I see an occasional rock wall. Tomorrow I’ll find a beautiful rock chimney with the smoothest, straightest lines I’ve ever seen.

An informational kiosk at the start of this area explains the significance of the site. Earlier today, I passed a large, carved wooden sign explaining the value of studying virgin forest areas. Including the collier pit sign a few days ago, I am surprised at the educational efforts placed along the trail. Virtually all the A.T. in southern and central Virginia passes through George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, but it is still rather odd to come upon these markers in the middle of nowhere.

The shelter is in a cove above the creek. There are campsites at the creek, and the shelter is perched on sloping ground a short distance beyond. The camp is empty and the creek is very noisy, so I push on to the shelter. I’ve been watching for Jesse and his owner “Caveman.” They are traveling south from U.S. 60 today. I should have passed them long ago. He’s sitting in the shelter, and Jesse is asleep in the dirt underneath. They walked less than two miles today. “Caveman” reminds me of “Packman” from my A.T. hike in the Smokies — all show and no go — just looking for a receptive audience.

Random sign on the trail

Random sign on the trail

The shelter surroundings offer no good tent sites, and I choose a spot least likely to have me rolling downhill overnight. Once I’ve got things set up, it is still early, about 3:00. I don’t want to join “Caveman.” Exploring a bit, I step in a pile of Jesse’s poop. I sit down to write notes on the day’s hike. The one thing I truly miss on trail is a chair with a back!! I sit on the ground and lean against a tree. A tick crawls on my arm.

More people arrive. “Caveman” has his audience. The sweaty young hikers splash in the adjacent stream to cool off, get too cold, and build a fire. I’m tired and fall asleep before dark. I wake up at 1:30 needing to pee. In the dark, I feel something on my leg. Grabbing my headlamp, it’s a damn tick. Using my knife’s tweezers, I pull it off, take it outside, and beat it to death with two rocks.

Black Locust

Black Locust

Day 17, May 14, 11.2 miles: Outside Daleville, the A.T. and the Blue Ridge Parkway begin a dance of sorts, running parallel or crossing at various intervals, for the next 140 miles to Rockfish Gap outside Shenandoah National Park. I won’t see BRP until tomorrow but will come well within a mile of it on my way to Wilson Creek Shelter.

The trail runs beside I-81 for the first 1.2 miles before crossing under it and then over US 11. Vegetation in areas like this is distinct. Plants signal civilization as much as paved roads and restaurants. The understory is thick, brushy, and weedy, often dominated by large stands of nonnative invasive plants. At VA 311, showy Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) demonstrates its appeal to gardeners. Around Tinker Creek, Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maacki) and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) are in flower and prevalent. Their fruits attract birds in late summer and are spread far and wide.

Dame's Rocket

Dame’s Rocket

Near the interstate, Multiflora Rose and Japanese Honeysuckle Vine grow in impenetrable tangles. I find Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) too. It’s raspberry-like fruit is tasty, but the plant looks vicious with stems covered in long, blood-red bristly hairs.

Some native plants are common in these places too. Often they are early successional species known as ‘pioneers,’ the first to come in after a major disturbance. Among the early trees are Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). Poison Ivy is a native vine, but as is the way for many plants, particularly vines, it takes advantage of the extra light associated with roads, fields, and development to do what all plants must do — photosynthesize food to grow and reproduce. Humans hate the skin rash it causes, but birds love its white fruit.

Wineberry's wicked red bristles

Wineberry’s wicked red bristles

Fullhardt Knob Shelter is five miles from Daleville. It is a 1200-foot climb over three miles to its location at the summit. Rather than walk a short side trail to the shelter, I take advantage of the sunny, pleasant weather and stop for lunch a little further along the A.T. The trail down from the knob follows an old fire road with an easy grade, then descends more steeply to Curry Creek.

Wilson Creek Shelter is 2.5 miles away from the creek, and there are two short but steep sections to climb. They will tax my strength. My pack has never been heavier, containing enough food to reach Buena Vista, VA, in seven days, including a fresh jar of peanut butter and eight ounces of olive oil.

A half mile from the shelter, is a small kiosk with a handwritten historical account of the colliers pit that was on this site 200 years ago. Not a pit at all, it was just a 50-foot round, flat area with no rocks or roots, downhill from plentiful timber, where trees could be burned into charcoal to fuel nearby iron furnaces. It’s an odd sign…written in architect’s lettering, now faded, stuck in the middle of nowhere.

"Steamer"

“Steamer”

During the final climb, I come upon an older man who appears to be struggling. He stops every few steps and leans far to his left side. As I pass I ask if he’s OK. He smiles and says yes. He’ll be stopping at Wilson Creek too. “It’s 175 paces ahead,” he announces. “That’s very specific,” I say, and start to count. He’s off by 100 paces; I arrive in 72.

This gentleman is “Steamer,” retired from the FBI. He and his brother began section hiking the A.T. in the 1990s. Their final outing brought them south to the Tye River 95.6 miles from here. His brother began feeling poorly and could go no further. He was diagnosed with cancer and died. Later, “Steamer’s” wife was diagnosed with cancer. He cared for her throughout her illness and lost her too. He’s remarried now and is headed to the Tye, where he will complete the A.T., spreading bits of his brother’s ashes as he goes.

“Steamer” sleeps in the shelter. The surrounding area is quite level with several good tent sites — my preference. One other man, a southbounder, arrives and sets up his tent. He tells us of a good stream a “quarter” mile up the mostly flat trail. It’s more like a half mile, and I cannot say that it is any easier to reach than the 0.3-mile water trail located downhill from the shelter.

Crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway

Crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway

Day 18, May 15, 17 miles: When planning this section, I scheduled a stop at Cove Mountain Shelter (different Cove Mountain) 13.8 miles away despite its lack of a reasonably close water source. The ATC book mentions possible water down a steep, unmarked, 0.5 mile trail — not very helpful. If the day goes smoothly, I will continue another 3.2 miles to campsites at Jennings Creek. If not, I’ll need to have plenty of water in my pack.

Spiderwort

Spiderwort

I’m on trail by 7:25 and pass the next shelter, Bobblet’s Gap, 7.3 miles away in 3.5 hours. Elevation gain is gradual, and the trail surface is fairly smooth. For eight miles, five before this shelter and three after, the A.T. and Blue Ridge Parkway dance so close to each other, they merge on maps. At Blackhorse Gap, the parkway is visible to the right. The first crossing is Taylors Mountain Overlook, followed by a close brush at Montvale Overlook and a second crossing at Great Valley Overlook.

Spiderwort

Spiderwort

The forest along the BRP is rich with flowering plants and singing birds. Wild Pink, Wild Columbine, Roseshell Azalea, Shuttleworth’s Ginger, Spiderwort, Bear Corn, Black Chokeberry, and Rocktwist are colorful. Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) is in its prime, ranging from deep blue-purple to bright red-purple with sunny yellow anthers atop fuzzy stamens. Rocktwist (Draba ramosissima) forms small dense mats of snow white flowers gleaming in the sun. The common name refers to its habitat among rocky outcrops in the Southern Appalachians and spirally twisted fruit.

It’s the middle of May and the middle of the week. Traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway is very light. An occasional car or motorcycle passes. I lunch just off the road in a flat stretch of woods, where I am serenaded by the squeaky wheel of a Black-and-white Warbler. It is sunny and warm but not too warm with cooling breezes, a darn near perfect day.

Rocktwist

Rocktwist

The trail and road cross twice more at the Peaks of Otter Overlook and Mills Gap Overlook. Sharp Top Mountain is prominent on the horizon at Peaks of Otter. Thomas Jefferson climbed this mountain. Less obvious is Flat Top Mountain to the left. The information sign calling attention to the peaks doesn’t make it easy to identify with maps oriented in a different direction and photos taken from vastly different viewpoints.

Sharp Top Mountain

Sharp Top Mountain

The BRP and A.T. part company past Bearwallow Gap, the trail proceeding northeast as the road turns southeast. These two pathways will form something of a box. At Jennings Creek, the A.T. will curve east to Bryant Ridge Shelter then southeast. The BRP makes a sharp turn northeast at Harkening Hill. They meet at Cornelius Creek Shelter to run northeast in tandem once more.

Up next is Cove Mountain, thankfully not the same one from a few days ago, but challenging in its own way. It is steep, and there is little forest cover. Exposed to the sun, the climb is hot and the habitat dry. My notes are full of “rocky” warnings, and there are plenty of rocks, however, several stretches with few rocks provide much appreciated relief.

Female Fence Lizard

Female Fence Lizard

“Steamer” is resting beside the trail. This is a surprise. I’ve been ahead of him all day and he has not passed me. His water bladder leaked leaving him dry, so he got a ride into town on the parkway. On his return, he was dropped off at the wrong crossing putting him in front.

Azaleas are stunning along the rather flat top of Cove Mountain. So are Tiger Swallowtails. A female Fence Lizard plays hide and seek around a tree but lets me take her picture. At the junction with Little Cove Mountain Trail on the right, the A.T. starts down and begins a series of “knobs and sags” over the next four miles. Sag is the local term for gap, I suppose. This side of Cove Mountain is also severely exposed. Many dead snags poke gray fingers out of the dense shrub cover. Perhaps there was a devastating fire.

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

I arrive at Cove Mountain Shelter at 3:00 and eat a snack. One young girl is sprawled on the shelter floor and barely moves the whole time I’m there. Despite the afternoon heat, climbs, and terrain, the day has gone remarkably well. This last climb was tiring, yet I’ve long been thinking my true destination will be Jennings Creek. The additional 3.2 miles are flat at first then downhill with those “knobs and sags.” There is nothing compelling about this shelter to warrant stopping here, and I need water. I’ll consume 3.5 liters by day’s end.

I reach Jennings Creek in 90 minutes. The knobs and sags are fairly gentle. There are rocky spots on the descent, but it is mostly easy going. At gravel road VA 614, the trail crosses a bridge over the wide, shallow creek. To the left is a gravel parking area and level campsites are behind it, past a gauntlet of poison ivy. “Steamer” shows up fairly soon, as do two other couples and a man who arrives at midnight, setting up his tent in the swinging beam of his headlamp.

I’m very proud of my efforts today. Seventeen miles is a personal best done in 9.5 hours. The most impressive part is my mood. Not once did I shed a tear or even feel downcast. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this.

Turkey Beard flowers

Turkey Beard flowers

Day 19, May 16, 8.7 miles: Today will have fewer miles but much more elevation gain. The trail goes over Fork Mountain then up Bryant Ridge and Floyd Mountain. Cornelius Creek Shelter is a half mile past the summit. I leave just before 8:00.

Turkey Beard flowers are beginning to open. Rattlesnake Hawkweed, Deerberry, and Wild Comfrey are opening too. There is more Shuttleworth’s Ginger. A Black Rat Snake nearly as long as I am tall, glides across the trail and poses for photos.

Deerberry, with a little red spider in the upper right corner!

Deerberry, with a little red spider in the upper right corner!

At 10:00, I reach Bryant Ridge Shelter (3.8 miles) tucked on the hillside of a small cove. It is located to the left of the trail across a small creek and up a short, steep bank of stairs. Well-designed, it has many benches, plenty of pegs, a generous covered porch on two sides, windows, and an upstairs sleeping loft. Two hikers I would meet later weren’t very pleased with the loft — it proved too hot to stay in a sleeping bag and too buggy not to! On a chilly, breezy night, it might be cozy. It has a good fire ring with sturdy log benches, though there are only a couple of possible tent sites.

Wild Comfrey

Wild Comfrey

Climbing Bryant Ridge, I meet “Tip Toe” (CT). She is an older lady hiking southbound. She’s completed nearly half the trail in sections and is stopping in Daleville. This is her first time out since a recent ankle fracture, and she is doing well. She is interested in learning wildflowers, especially Bloodroot. A park ranger told her the leaf looks like Batman. “It really does!” she says. [I looked at every Bloodroot leaf between here and Rockfish Gap -- right side up, upside down, sideways -- and could not see Batman in a single one of them!]

Floyd Mountain rises in stages too. I lunch at a level stretch. Walking to the second stage, I see skinks and Fire Pinks. There are the smaller lined skinks with blue tails and a large male Broad-headed Skink, with olive brown body and reddish cheeks. He is very camera shy. The Fire Pink is not.

Round-lobed Liverleaf

Round-lobed Liverleaf

Four-leaved Milkweed is in bud, and there is a small patch of Round-lobed Liverleaf (Hepatica americana, now Anemone americana). Most rich, cove forests contain Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, (H. acutiloba, A. acutiloba), whose white, pink, blue, or lavender flowers grace the woodland floor in spring. Round-lobed Liverleaf likes more acidic soil and is a special find. As the common names suggest, rather than three pointed lobes on each leaf, the lobes are gently rounded.

Shuttleworth's Ginger

Shuttleworth’s Ginger

The final stage of the climb goes through an incredibly rich assemblage of herbaceous plants. This may be due to geology. On the other side of Floyd Mountain is Black Rock Overlook, so named for its dark gray color due to the presence of diorite containing hornblende, a rock associated with mafic soils (closer to neutral pH). These soils support plant species not found in typical acidic mountain soils. The most obvious indicator of a more neutral soil is Wild Ginger, the deciduous cousin of Heartleaf and Shuttleworth’s Ginger, both of which prefer more acidic soil. Great Merrybells is associated with higher soil pH too. In addition to these two plants, I also see numbers of Large White Trillium, Wild Geranium, Early Meadow Rue, Jewelweed, Broad Beech Fern, Bloodroot, Cow Parsnip, and Interrupted Fern.

Early Meadow Rue, staminate (male) flowers

Early Meadow Rue, staminate (male) flowers

The ATC guide mentions a rare white-flowered form of Jewelweed (Impatiens sp.) found here. It’s far too early to see any flowers, but Jewelweed seedlings are thick among the other plants. Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum) flowers are unisexual and a plant either has female flowers or male flowers (dioecious). Male plants are showy with dangling clusters of stamens.

Interrupted Fern fertile leaflet

Interrupted Fern fertile leaflet

Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is in the same family as Cinnamon Fern and Royal Fern. (I’ll see stands of Cinnamon Fern in the next few days.) Interrupted Fern’s spore-bearing mechanism is rather unique. One or more leaflets (pinna) in the upper middle section of fronds replace green plant tissue with hundreds of tiny sporangia. These smaller, darker ‘leaflets’ appear malformed at first glance. They develop on the emerging fronds and mature quickly. Once the spore has been released, these leaflets wither leaving a gap in the middle of the frond — interrupted.

Interrupted Fern

Interrupted Fern

Cow Parsnip flowers in summer, but there are vast areas of its massive foliage rosettes with coarse trifoliate leaves, pinnately lobed leaflets, and thick, hairy stems. The flowering stems can tower head high or taller.

Cornelius Creek Shelter is on the back side of Floyd Mountain 0.1-0.2 mile off the A.T. on a narrow side path. The water source is first, a fine little spring to the left, and the shelter is further up on the right. No one is there, and I find a decent tent site in back. Just south, the Blue Ridge Parkway sidles beside the trail again, and occasional traffic noise can be heard.

Fire Pink

Fire Pink

While my water is filtering at the spring, I sit on a log to rest and observe the surroundings. There are Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) leaves on the ground. Some are beginning to flower. A small black bird with bright orange and yellow blotches on his side and tail, perches less than five feet away and squeaks a two-note song at me. My camera, of course, is in my tent. It is an American Redstart. I see a Junco and hear a Tufted Titmouse, Pileated Woodpecker, Barred Owl, Crow, the haunting song of the Veery, and my favorite singer, the Wood Thrush.

“Steamer” and another man with an Australian accent from San Diego arrive and stay in the shelter. Crawling in my tent at dusk, there is thunder in the distance, and it rains lightly.

Starflower

Starflower

Day 20, May 17, 12.2 miles: The bird chorus this morning is delightful — the best way to wake up on trail. Not so delightful is shouting through a weak phone signal to confirm an overnight reservation with Blue Dog Art Cafe in Buena Vista, VA, my next resupply point in three days. Also not delightful is a leaking water bladder.

Apple Orchard Falls

Apple Orchard Falls

Each night, I slip my backpack into a trash compacter bag and stand it upright in my tent vestibule to protect it from any showers overnight. My pack is standing in water inside the bag. Close examination of the bladder reveals two possible sources. The tube connection has a slight leak that can be stopped by reinserting it. This is intermittent and can be checked. However, there is also a tiny pinhole at the base of the bladder just above the seam. I have no idea how or when this happened. Flipping it upside down and drying it off, I cut a strip of Tenacious Tape to cover the hole. It works, and I can fill my bladder. To be safe, I wedge the base of the bladder into a quart freezer bag. Perhaps this will be sufficient to catch any stray drips. I dry my pack as well as I can.  My departure is delayed to 8:30.

Along the shelter’s trail, there are Starflowers (Trientalis borealis) open. I notice a few more on the A.T. within the next hour but nowhere else.

FAA radar facility

FAA radar facility

The trail climbs to Black Rock Overlook and intersects two local trails — Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard Falls. The 200-foot waterfall is 1.1 miles off the A.T. and is a recommended stop, particularly when the water is high. It will be a lengthy side journey, resulting in a 14.4 mile day, but why else am I here if not to see such sights? The falls trail is not hard and walks beside a stream that feeds the falls and joins North Creek. Near the bottom, the trail crosses the stream on a bridge and descends very steeply to the falls on well-constructed wooden steps. Another bridge crosses the base of the falls to a bench. I sit here for a snack and enjoy the waterfall.

This side trip takes two hours. Combined with my late departure, it is now noon, and I’ve got 9.6 miles to go, including a 1000-foot climb of Apple Orchard Mountain and a steep 600 foot climb over Highcock Knob. The day is sunny and warm with big puffy clouds.

The Guillotine

The Guillotine

Many of the same plants on Floyd Mountain are found on Apple Orchard. Cinnamon Fern puts in an appearance here. Near the peak is Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), a shrub whose leaves and flowers closely resemble Black Cherry.

Many of the mountain peaks look far more pointy on paper than in reality. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not you’ve reached the top, and gives rise to Appalachian Trail Truism #3 — You have not reached the top until you are going downhill more than you are going uphill. You can turn this truism into a tedious guessing game called “Are We There Yet?” Nothing will make you want to pull your hair out faster than the seemly endless series of negative answers.

Pink form of Large White Trillium

Pink form of Large White Trillium

The top of Apple Orchard Mountain is one of the few that undoubtedly proclaims your arrival. A Federal Aviation Administration radar facility sits in an open meadow at the summit. It looks like a big white soccer ball studded with lightning rods. In 0.3 mile, the trail passes between two massive boulders with a smaller rock wedged in between — The Guillotine is one of the coolest natural formations I’ve seen. The Blue Ridge Parkway has stayed to the south thus far, and finally intersects the trail before Thunder Hill Shelter and again at Thunder Hill Overlook on Thunder Ridge.

The soils on these mountains as noted in yesterday’s account are very fertile and associated with the Pedlar Formation of granite-like igneous rock. The lush plant growth found in this 50-mile section is attributable to this exceptional soil. There aren’t just a handful of plants, there are thousands — whole hillsides, and the best is yet to come.

Trillium grandiflorum forma roseum, group, A.T., Central Virginia, May 17, 2013

dozens…

I saw a few Large White Trillium — both the white and pink forms — coming into Pearisburg, but there were hundreds, mostly pink, on Floyd Mountain. Big swathes appear on Apple Orchard Mountain. On Thunder Ridge, there are hillsides with thousands of them, all pink and all beautiful. It is breathtaking.

According to Fred Case, Trillium grandiflorum forma roseum may occasionally be found throughout the white species’ range, which spreads up and out in a funnel shape from the Southern Appalachians to eastern Minnesota and western New Hampshire. However, he notes the pink form is considered “locally frequent along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” No kidding. Wow! Between the beauty of the trilliums and the intoxicating clove scent of Roseshell Azaleas, I’ve been in heaven.

thousands....

thousands….

Harrison Ground Spring with campsites is on the descent. I briefly consider stopping here but decide to push on. The trail and BRP begin to diverge at Petites Gap, with BRP dropping to the southeast. Past Petites Gap is Highcock Knob. It’s short but steep and sometimes rocky. I must stop looking at plants and concentrate on moving forward. My feet are really hurting, and I can hear thunder in the distance.

At the top of the knob, the trail hangs a left and descends just as steeply to Marble Spring, a wide saddle with several good tent sites. I arrive at 6:00, set up my tent, and filter water. The spring is lovely. Within 30 minutes it starts to rain but doesn’t last long. I’m able to finish my chores, including dinner, without getting wet. There are four individuals and two couples camping here tonight.

Roseshell Azalea

Roseshell Azalea

At 8:00 the Whippoorwills crank up. Hank Williams was obviously employing poetic license when he wrote about the “lonesome whippoorwill” who “sounds too blue to fly.” Those suckers shout a loud, flat, mechanical “whip-poor-will” repeatedly, like some über-annoying coo-coo-clock that won’t quit.

There are two of them squaring off over territory. Neither is willing to let the other have the last “whip.” Sometimes they overlap, and the first bird stutters to a halt, as though his rhythm has been thrown off, then starts up again louder and faster. One bird starts yelling “whip-poor-will” so fast I’m surprised he doesn’t hyperventilate. He sounds so ludicrous, I can’t help laughing out loud. Their pissing contest goes on for two hours. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever longed for a gun.

A couple of hours after the Whippoorwills finally go to bed, Mother Nature unleashes a horrible thunderstorm. Fortunately, it is not very windy, but the lightning and thunder are ferocious.

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