Day 8, May 5, 15 miles: Last night, the hikers staying at Woods Hole Hostel agreed to a 7:30 breakfast. Neville fixes scrambled eggs, crepes, and link sausage from their own slaughtered pig. Homemade yogurt is a welcome treat for me, having finished my round of antibiotics. I’ve already put fresh sheets on my bed, assembled my pack, and am ready to leave after eating. There is no ride to the trail half mile up the road. It’s 15 trail miles to my evening destination, and I plan to take a side trip into Pearisburg, VA, for lunch adding another mile. Sixteen and a half miles — I cannot waste any time.
Bits of blue sky and sunshine visible very early this morning disappear behind persistent clouds by breakfast and don’t return. It is still breezy and very cool. The hike up Sugar Run Gap Road to the trail warms me. From the gap, the A.T. begins a gentle climb of Pearis Mountain’s southwestern end. The southern side of the mountain descends steeply to Wilburn Valley. The northern side grades lightly down to Mill Creek. The trail keeps mainly to the northern side for the first five miles, dipping down the easy flank to Doc’s Knob Shelter and returning to the ridge briefly before cruising below the crest. At a powerline, the trail hits the ridge line again and follows it straight to Angel’s Rest, a rock outcrop overlooking Pearisburg.
The ridge line is somewhat rocky, but nothing compared to Garden Mountain, now the yardstick with which all misery is measured. Two potential tragedies strike while hiking this section. First, my camera balks and won’t fire. I examine every setting trying to find some rational cause, but nothing works. I turn it off and on — nothing. It was working fine a few moments ago! For me, this is terrible. My photos are a key part of this trip, one of the highlights. I’m trying hard not to overreact.
Walking the ridge thinking through possible strategies to address this crisis, I trip over a rock (naturally) and cannot recover my balance in time. As trips go, it is not too bad; I wind up on hands and knees, fortunately avoiding landing on any other rocks which could have had devastating consequences. The one complicating factor is my pack. The momentum of the fall is absorbed and augmented by a fully resupplied load. Try as I may to stop it with the strength in my arms, I can only slow it down and watch in amazement as my face approaches the ground and gets rubbed ungraciously in the dirt. At the same time, I’m aware of the shifting weight on my back and realize that it is now pulling me forward. I may roll completely over and wind up on my back like a pathetic turtle. I manage to hang on and regain control but not before ending upside down on my head. Nothing is hurt, and the scare takes my mind off my camera.
At the east end of Pearis Mountain’s ridge is Angel’s Rest, a scenic overlook. Tucked among a collection of massive boulders, a 0.1 mile side trail winds to the outcrop. I decide to take a moment here and examine my camera again. I remove the lens and brush the contacts with a cloth. This does the trick. With a glad heart, I shoot photos of a leaden sky hanging dully over the town.
My joy isn’t over yet. Not only am I unhurt with a working camera, I descend Pearis Mountain along a hillside brilliant with colorful wildflowers — Great Merrybells, Canada Violet, Bloodroot, Star Chickweed, Dutchman’s Breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Blue Cohosh, Wild Blue Phlox, Wild Ginger, and white and pink forms of Large White Trillium. All but the Bloodroot are flowering profusely. Evil Garlic Mustard is sprinkled throughout and threatens this lovely place.
Thick clumps of Great Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora) are breathtaking. During my Virginia hike thus far, I’ve definitely seen Mountain Bellwort (U. puberula), and I believe Wild Oats (U. sessilifolia), a similar but smaller and more sparse plant, among the first wildflowers. On my way to Trent’s Grocery, I found a patch of Perfoliate Bellwort or Merrybells (U. perfoliata), characterized by leaf bases encircling the stem giving a pierced impression and a bumpy texture to the interior side of the flower petals. These four are the only species found in this part of the U.S. Great Merrybells also has leaves ‘pierced’ by the stem. This plant is taller however, with more stems, larger flowers, and long, twisty petals smooth on both sides.
The trail down is easy, but it takes me quite a while as I ooh, ahh, and snap my way to town. When I finally hit VA 634 around 2:00, I turn right and head into Pearisburg. About a half mile away is Dairy Queen and all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, Lucky Star. I opt for a Chinese lunch and buy a DQ cheeseburger and onion rings for dinner. It’s after 3:30 when I resume the trail.
In Pearisburg, the A.T. follows a convoluted path through weed-choked woods, residential neighborhood streets, empty lots, and busy thoroughfares. The latter takes me over New River to the big Celanese plant, a major employer and manufacturer of synthetic fibers used in cigarette filters. Today is Sunday, but the plant appears to be operating, emitting an earsplitting sound that calls to mind a giant vacuum cleaner. I long for the quiet of the mountains.
The trail skirts the base of Hemlock Ridge before climbing the side of Peters Mountain. I find a bright patch of red Indian Pink, White Campion (Silene latifolia, a nonnative with fragrant flowers open in the evening), and an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit. It is a 1500-foot climb to the ridge of Peters Mountain, but I plan to stop 300 feet short at a campsite with a piped spring. The trail is rather steep but otherwise comfortable.
I can’t help but feel quite pleased with my efforts today. Despite the fall, my mood has been good, I’ve hiked strong, and I’m nearing the end of a personal best day mileage-wise with nary a tear. Not far from the campsite, I pass a strong spring. A scribbled sign says to get water here…“the next spring sucks.” I debate the merit of taking time now to filter water for my bladder and camp needs and carrying it an unknown distance, but finally decide to do it. I’m so glad I did. The “piped” spring is little more than a scooped out swampy depression with a bowl to collect water.
It has been threatening rain all day and light showers begin as I’m setting up camp at 7:00. The weather forecast for the next two days is grim. Thanks to DQ I don’t have to cook, but grease from the onion rings got on my lunch stuff sack and my pack. I wipe them down hoping they don’t attract animals until I can wash them in a week, and now I have that greasy trash to carry. I didn’t this through very well.
The campsite is flat and empty. One shirtless young man stops briefly to don more clothes against the evening chill. The Celanese plant continues to roar, though more dimly across the distance, until dusk. Trains roll through town all night. I can’t wait to get away from noisy Pearisburg.
Day 9, May 6, 14.7 miles: There are just light sprinkles overnight and no rain this morning. It is, however, very windy. Once on Peters Mountain ridge line, the trail shoots straight northeast for 12 miles and is mostly level for eight of them. Near the start is Rice Field, an open meadow with a similarly named shelter on the left at the edge of the woods. There is a long, open view toward Peterstown, VA, on the right. Fence stiles bordering the meadow have slats positioned flat, like stair steps.
In the woods past the meadow are dainty tufts of Yellow Fumewort (Corydalis flavula) and large drifts of John’s Cabbage or Virginia Waterleaf foliage. There are scattered plants of Shooting Star in bud. Along the ridge, the trail slips through more open areas, some with very large colonies of Mayapple. Either old apple or crabapple trees are here too, loaded with pink buds and white flowers. The trail follows a cleared power line for a while, and wind whistles high-pitched notes through the towers.
The hike along Peters Mountain is relatively smooth, and I cover nine miles in four hours. In truth, there is little reason to dawdle. The wind repeatedly blows light bands of rain over the mountain. Pauses in the bluster and wet are welcome but short-lived. Despite a full suit of rain gear, stopping, even for a minute, induces a chill. Lunch is downright unpleasant.
The last three miles on the ridge are rockier with steeper elevation changes. The final 2.5 miles are downhill to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter. I hope to get there in the next two hours before the rain hits.
The Allegheny Trail, a 330-mile trail through West Virginia, sits midway between lunch and the shelter, and I look for this as a gauge of my progress. Quite a bit of time passes without any sign, literal or figurative, of this side trail. It’s begun to rain in earnest now, and I wonder if I missed the junction. This happens a lot — not missing a landmark, just thinking I might have missed a landmark. Turns out I never do, thanks to Appalachian Trail Truism #6 — You Are Never Further Than You Think. This truism is particularly bedeviling. I know I haven’t passed the junction, yet when I finally do reach it, I’m in despair for not being further down the trail. Why react to something I’ve known all along? It’s a wicked sleight of hand from A.T. Truism #6.
In the heavy rain, the afternoon slows to a crawl. The switchbacked trail gets sloppy and slick. Hands get pruny. Clothes get wet regardless of rain gear. Photography is impossible. Flowers close and droop to protect valuable pollen…all but Dwarf Iris (Iris verna). On this (normally) drier, south-facing hillside, Dwarf Iris flowers face straight up, fragile petals and falls fully exposed and vulnerable. The rain beats them without pity. Bedraggled clumps of these rich purple flowers mirror my own condition.
I thought I’d proven myself during yesterday’s 16.5 miles, gotten past the early scourge of Garden Mountain, and settled down. Yet here I am once more mired in emotional trauma, fighting tears. What’s the deal? Am I that big a baby? I’ve hiked in the rain many times in the Smokies without all this fuss. Why am I so easily broken here?
Pine Branch Swamp Shelter finally appears and none too soon. It’s taken the same amount of time (four hours) to cover five miles as it did to cover nine. There are three others in the shelter, two young women and an older guy “Z Man.” I have to sit down for several minutes and collect myself before beginning any chores or even removing wet clothes. I wish I could wiggle my nose and be dry, warm, and fed.
My hands are too pruny and chilled to operate the tube connections on my water filter, so I ask “Z Man” for help. He’s more intent on talking to the pretty young women. Once I get water, I can get out of my wet clothes. The water trail here is where I see the Painted Trillium.
This shelter is the only one I’ve seen outside the Smokies with a fireplace. Sleeping platforms are to either side of the stone hearth which faces the open front. The lower decks can accommodate two people lengthwise with ease. It’s possible to sleep sideways, but only comfortably for short people. Each side has an overhead bunk wide enough for one person, but no rail to prevent rolling off, and there are wide gaps all around where gear can fall on the person below. I’m in the bunk over “Z Man.”
“Trucker” arrives and another couple. We are all wet and cold. “Trucker” eyes the fireplace and expresses his wish for a fire. Soon he’s scouring the grounds looking for any wood with some promise. “Z Man” likes “Trucker” and joins in the task even though he continually expresses doubt of its success. The kindling won’t burn long enough to ignite anything else. I offer them two pieces of firestarter. It is enough to get the ball rolling. “Trucker” has a small saw on his knife and works hard cutting branches to fit the firebox. By dark, we have a roaring fire, steaming clothes, and much improved spirits.
One young women repeatedly compliments “Trucker” on the fire. She’s lost in those blue eyes! After each compliment, “Z Man” says, “If she hadn’t given us the firestarter…” He never looks at me, never asks my trail name (though he knows everyone else’s), and never acknowledges my presence. His statements are not so much a nod to my contribution as an explanation for his being wrong about the fire’s prospects. Much later in the evening, around the fifteenth time the young woman compliments “Trucker’s” fire and “Z Man” credits “she,” he finally says to me, “Thanks for the firestarter.” “You’re welcome.”
Day 10, May 7, 12.7 miles: It is a chilly morning, and the sky is mostly clear when I crawl down from my bunk. By the time I leave at 8:00, clouds are moving in, and within 30 minutes on trail, it is raining again, steady and constant. Damn.
Many hikers stopped for the night at The Captain’s Place, a small blue house with a screened porch and picnic tables about a mile past Pine Swamp. The owner welcomes any hiker to camp there. It sits on the opposite side of Stony Creek, which is now a raging river. “The Captain” strung a zip line across the creek which is sufficient most times, but not after this much rain. There is an alternate route along roads. I can see a couple of people in the back yard.
The trail crosses mostly flat Stony Creek Valley and climbs Big Mountain along a grade described as “strenuous.” It is indeed steep. I can handle these things better in the morning, even in steady rain. At the base of Big Mountain, ATC books warn of confusing paths and caution hikers to follow the blazes carefully. I’ve been paying attention and feel confident until I see “Trucker” coming toward me. Did I mess up? Did he leave something important at Pine Swamp? No, distracted by the book on tape playing in his ears, he took one of those side trails. Realizing his error, he got back to the A.T., but turned south rather than north.
I stop for a snack break at Bailey Gap Shelter to get out of the rain. Several others are here too. The trail in this area is maintained by a Virginia Tech club. Demonstrating a wry sense of humor, they installed electrical duplex outlets in the shelters. I wonder how many hikers unthinkingly plug in their phone for a charge?
The remainder of the climb to Big Mountain’s ridge is less daunting, and on top it is somewhat rocky with occasional bouldery sections but not bad. It is also level in two decent stretches including one through a swampy area. After two days of rain, it is impossible to tell the swamp from the rest of the trail, everything looks more like a pond. I take advantage of the flat terrain and hike as fast as I can, avoiding the biggest puddles, but recognizing that my boots cannot get much wetter, there is no need to tread lightly. I do not stop for lunch. It is just too rainy and cold.
Flowering Dogwood trees are beautiful, especially the one behind The Captain’s Place, crisp white against the dull wet grays. Growing on tree bark is a healthy Lung Lichen, vivid green in the moisture. Dense stands of Cinnamon Fern are happy; they love wet feet. I don’t, and mine are soaked.
Big Mountain fades into Potts Mountain, and at this point, the trail descends toward Johns Creek Valley, rather steeply in the beginning but moderating by the second half. War Spur Shelter is one mile before the valley. I arrive at 3:00, and it appears full. Everyone claims there is room, but no one moves to give me space. I spend a lot of time literally cooling my heels trying to figure out what to do besides stand there, then begin to work my way in slowly. The rain stops after a while, and two people decide to hike to the next shelter giving me more room.
It is hard to adequately describe the awkward inconvenience of seven people crammed into a shelter trying to change clothes, cook meals, spread sleeping bags, and hang dripping gear. I still find it hard to assert myself and stake my ground. Often sparse nails or pegs on shelter walls and beams are at a premium. The front edge of the floor is wet and muddy. The ground below is usually a deep soupy puddle from roof runoff. It’s just an awful mess. However, most people are friendly and willing to accommodate if asked. They just don’t always offer…no matter how long I stand there looking pathetic. The transition from wet hiker carrying a pack to dry hiker snug in a sleeping bag can be torturous. Once I’m there though, it feels SO GOOD.
Late afternoon the sun comes out. Too little, too late, but we are all encouraged for tomorrow.
I meet some new folks this evening. “Powder Puff” (MI) was supposed to be hiking with her twin sister, but sis fell in love and PP is going it alone. She’s giggly but sweet. “Spacey” and “Truck Surfer” are high school friends from Los Angeles with that distinctive southern California vibe. “Spacey” stays up a long time writing in his journal. Seems he’s already filled several and sent them back home. Two older brothers are enjoying a week together on the A.T. They are southbound. “Shadow” shows up — the one who hiked 42 miles one day to Pearisburg. Each night he rolls a tennis ball over his muscles, swearing he’s never been sore or injured as a result. As everyone is settling to sleep, I hear him tell “Powder Puff” that his name comes from his dog’s collar tags attached to his pack. She was a dark golden retriever who lived a long and happy life, dying four days before his birthday last year. The next morning I offer my condolences on his loss. He gets an odd look on his face and glances at his watch. It’s his birthday in four days. Today is the anniversary of Shadow’s death.
Day 11, May 8, 12.2 miles: Clouds have returned, and so has the rain. Clothes, socks, and boots are just as wet this morning as when they were removed yesterday. Pulling cold wet socks over warm dry feet is horrible, but slipping clean dry socks into soaking wet boots is unthinkable. I just grit my teeth and bear it. The rain is not as heavy as the previous two days, but remains steady throughout the morning.
Past Johns Creek Valley the A.T. climbs 1700 feet over Johns Creek Mountain then descends 1500 feet to Sinking Creek Valley. Head down for the long slog up, I see nothing for the first six miles beyond drenched foliage and saturated soil. On top, there are high elevation bogs a short distance off the trail on an unmarked side trail. I had noted this on the profile as a reminder to visit and look for unique plants. However, finding the side trail in these conditions, even if I still wanted to, would be nearly impossible. I don’t want to. I can’t imagine circumstances more uncongenial to exploration.
I stop at Laurel Creek Shelter for lunch. “Trucker” is there in a heavy sweatshirt half in his sleeping bag eating. The two hikers who left War Spur yesterday afternoon (to get away from the California kids!), “Lentil” and “Pheifer,” are here too, also in their sleeping bags. They did not bother to get up today, taking a ‘zero day’ to stay warm and dry. I perch on the edge of the shelter floor, to get my body out of the rain and my feet out of the puddles. I’m wet to my underwear and shivering. The difference between me and those three is stark. “Pfeiffer” has just finished a hot bowl of oatmeal with a generous lump of butter. She pats the open space next to her as an invitation. Oh, I want to so badly, but I cannot make up the lost miles as easily as they can. “Trucker” will hike two 25-mile days to get to Daleville. It will take me the rest of this day and four more to get there. I choke down a tortilla filled with peanut butter and keep going.
A short distance from the shelter is Laurel Creek. It is unbridged, and barring extreme weather is easily crossed on big rocks. Three days of rain qualify as extreme, and the creek is raging. I can see no certain way to cross at the trail without a high risk of plunging into the very swift water. There is, however, a large downed tree across the creek just upstream. Fighting through rhododendron to reach the mossy bole, I straddle it and scoot across.
Another smaller raging creek presents a similar dilemma, and I solve it the same way, side stepping along a small log while clutching low arching rhododendron branches for balance. For some reason, conquering these little challenges gives me new life. I feel like letting out a Tarzan yell. I needed the adrenaline rush.
About an hour after leaving Laurel Creek, the rain slackens and finally stops. I’ve reached Sinking Creek Valley to cross rolling farm fields, VA 42, and VA 630. The fields are a lush, rich green. Cows dot the distant hillsides. Dogwoods brighten the hedgerows. The scene is so beautiful and very calming. I can finally pull the hood back on my rain jacket.
Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), a tall shrub or small tree, is in its glory with showy, flat clusters of little white flowers. Eastern Red Cedars sport bright orange balls of Cedar Apple Rust fungus like Christmas ornaments. Small brooks and ditches in the fields are running full of beige water nearly swamping the footbridges. The ground around one fence stile is flooded, and there is no option but stepping into a pool up to mid-calf. I feel the cold water pour into my boot. So it is possible to get wetter! I don’t care, at least the rain has stopped.
Four-tenths of a mile beyond the last road is the Keiffer Oak, a 300+ year old White Oak tree, more than 18 feet in circumference. It is the largest oak tree on the Appalachian Trail in the South. The Dover Oak on the A.T. in New York is slightly larger. Having grown in the open, it developed a spreading symmetrical form of grace and strength.
It is only about 800 feet to the ridge of Sinking Creek Mountain, but the trail is steep, the day is old, and the hiker is tired. Reaching the flat ridge line is a great relief. The sun comes out too. Farmers grew crops on the wide ridge as apple trees and piles of rocks attest. Most rock piles are just that, jumbled heaps, but one is quite carefully stacked in comparison.
Most hikers want to avoid Sarver Hollow Shelter. It is 0.4 mile off the ridge down a steep side trail. When planning this trip, I tried and tried to plot a way around it and couldn’t make it work. The trail down is switchbacked and not difficult. As I get close, the smell of wood smoke fills the air, and I can see the shelter roof below.
I still have quite a bit of Virginia to hike, but this could well be the nicest shelter in the state, perhaps even the A.T. It’s built for six but is roomy with a high ceiling, skylight, and lots of hooks, pegs, and nails. The large gable roof covers a generous, raised deck two steps down from the sleeping area. The deck accommodates a full-sized picnic table with enough space left for a second one if desired. It is very clean and surprisingly free of carvings and graffiti.
There is one hiker here, Mack from Alabama. That’s his real name. Most people assume it’s a trail name, so he’s never been given one. Mack’s got a fire going just off the deck, lined his shoes and socks along the edge, and strung his clothes on a line between posts. He took a ‘zero’ too, staying here all day. I will come to find out that many hikers do this, hold up in a shelter or town when it is rainy. A couple reached Pearisburg just before the rain and stayed in a motel three days rather than hike in it. When Mack hears that I’ve walked nearly 40 miles in this weather, he says, “You’re tougher than I am.” Tougher or dumber?
The water source, a lusty little stream, is a short distance past the shelter. The remains of a cabin (chimney), a small building like a corn crib, and a walled spring are between the shelter and stream. The walled spring could be a water source, but it looked low and still, rather unusual given the flood conditions.
The privy is up a short trail in front of the shelter. It is enclosed, but the door is missing. Perched above a steep wooded slope facing east, visitors have a marvelous view across the valley and mountain beyond…a great place to be at sunrise. A campsite near the privy has blocky stones arranged into low benches that resemble a miniature Stonehenge.
I take advantage of the relative privacy and spacious digs to bathe and change to fresh, dry clothes. Tomorrow really is supposed to be sunny and dry! It is very peaceful here, and the evening song of the Wood Thrush is incredibly lovely. Just as Mack and I are about to fall asleep, an older lady, “Roof Walker,” arrives. She is section hiking the A.T., and gets practice walking up and down “hills” on her house roof in very flat Florida. She’s something of a talker, but settles in fairly soon. Her sleeping pad makes an awful racket when she moves. It sounds like a bunch of children’s squeaky fingers on rubber balloons. It also has a slow leak, and I hear her in the darkness blowing it up.