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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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”
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…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
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.