Day 12, May 9, 16.1 miles: The rather melancholy tune of the Wood Thrush wakes me just before six. Shelter mate Mack rises, and so do I. Today will be a long one. Might as well get to it. Back on the ridge line of Sinking Creek Mountain, the trail, according to maps, goes straight as an arrow. The reality is bit more complex. The ridge narrows appreciably and becomes quite rocky. Massive boulders are dead ahead, and an apparent trail to the left can trick the unsuspecting. Stay straight. There will be a blaze somewhere in that jumble and a path through it.
Stepping past these boulders, the real fun begins. The ridge line comes to a rocky point, and the A.T. sidles over the slanted slabs which approach a 45-degree angle. The rock is mostly dry and boots can grip the surface. There are pockets of dirt and grass, or gouges giving more secure footing. Each step brings the possibility of a slip though, so I take my time. Slipping is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ “Pfeiffer” catches up just as I reach this part. She strikes out, and I take a picture to show what it’s like. As I trip the shutter, she goes down. The picture definitely shows what it’s like!
Falling up here isn’t really harmful. Disaster isn’t likely — no plunging off the mountain. The worst would be rolling into a bush. Given the angle, a falling body is already halfway down. It’s a simple little plunk. The hard part is standing up again with a full pack on sloping ground. Hikers share how many times they slipped. “Trucker” slipped twice. I slipped once. “Pfeiffer” slipped at least once. I’ve got proof.
The path across Sinking Creek’s ridge is anything but smooth, yet this challenge, unlike the deadening drudge of Garden Mountain, adds a bit of spice to the journey. Areas of slanting rock or boulder scrambles are brief and interspersed with more ‘normal’ trail sections. It doesn’t have an opportunity to grate on nerves. However, these statements would not apply had I crossed this area one or two days ago. Rain would have complicated this passage immensely.
The most delightful little plant is tucked into rock crevices up here. It’s Corydalis sempervirens, inaccurately and unimaginatively called Pale Corydalis in many field guides, and most appropriately dubbed Rock Harlequin in others. The colorful flowers have a bright, clear rose body with a sunshiny, lemon yellow tip. The plant is biennial, producing a rosette of foliage the first year and flowers the second. After setting seed, it dies.
Before the descent to Craig Creek Valley, a sign denotes the Eastern Continental Divide. Water flowing west will travel 1,920 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Water flowing east will reach the Atlantic Ocean in 405 miles. The trail descends eastward, still rocky with many running springs adding another challenge. I finally see fresh Dwarf Iris untrammeled by raindrops. Azaleas are beginning to flower. Piedmont Azalea (Rhododendron canescens) has big clusters of pink flowers with red, hairy tubes and long arching stamens and pistils.
I reach Niday Shelter, six miles from Sarver Hollow, in four hours. Not the best time, but no reason to panic. The valley is full of creeks, bridges and mucky trail sections. Brush Mountain is the next in a series of challenges today. It is a steep 1500-foot climb in less than two miles, and I am wary. It proves to be surprisingly easy. The trail surface is smooth and the grade up switchbacks does not become taxing until the final approach. The ridge is a very wide, open grassy road with an occasional bench. This rather unusual accommodation must be for visitors to the Audie Murphy Monument a mile down the ridge. A large inscribed stone is set on a small knob visible from the A.T. A pole bears the U.S. and Texas state flags.
Mr. Murphy died in a plane crash near this site at the age of 46. The most decorated veteran of World War II, he served in the infantry and earned 24 decorations including the Medal of Honor, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Service Cross, and three Purple Hearts. People have left trinkets, flags, military patches, and crosses at the monument. Thousands of small rocks have been piled to either side. I add another.
Brush Mountain’s northern end trails off gradually for 3.7 miles dropping 1450 feet to VA 620. Cheerful clumps of Wild Pink (Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica) are just beginning to open. The trail is smooth, but I’m slowing down.
I find a log to sit for a very late lunch. The day is warm and sunny with a pleasant breeze. We’re due!! I rest for quite a while, enjoying the afternoon. Tiger Swallowtails are flying around a tangle of vines and low trees. Three males seem to be chasing each other, protecting something, and I wonder if it is worth their efforts. It reminds me of hummingbirds fighting at a feeder. So much energy is expended to defend what could be shared with little sacrifice.
After crossing Trout Creek and the road, there is a 1.3-mile climb of 450 feet to Pickle Branch Shelter. My pace is such that turtles can pass me now. The trail is narrow and winding. Along the way, distinctive Turkey Beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) is sending up flowering stalks. The arching mound of thin, wiry foliage is eye-catching and the asparagus-like flowering stem is studded with long, thin bracts forming a cone around an elongated cluster of densely packed flower buds. The stem can grow five feet tall and produces a robust, showy head of starry white flowers.
A male Fence Lizard remains motionless on a log in the sun as I pass. After days of chilling rain, he’s not going to let a hiker interfere with the day’s last warm rays.
Pickle Branch Shelter is 0.3 mile off the A.T. Its water source is another 0.2 mile down a steep trail. However, there are tent sites just off the A.T. on the shelter trail. To avoid extra walking (I’ve had quite enough today), I stop at a good spring on trail to fill my pack bladder for tomorrow and filter extra water for dinner and breakfast.
It is 7:00 when I arrive, and there are four others here. The tenting area is an open meadow. There’s plenty of space but not many good tent spots. The ground is sloping, and the meadow has been bush-hogged to clear woody plants leaving a mine field of stubs to trip over and poke holes in tent floors. It takes me a while to find the least disagreeable site. By that time, the sun is setting and it is getting cool, too late to air and dry anything from the last three days. I still drape clothes and gear over nearby brush, but it is a wasted effort. It’s almost dark when I finish dinner. Another Wood Thrush is singing, this time putting me to sleep.
Day 13, May 10, 12.6 miles: The elevation profile for today’s hike is a jagged line that gradually works its way over Cove Mountain then up and along Sawtooth Ridge of Catawba Mountain. Though nothing appears at all intimidating about it, my notes mention rock outcrops, rock rims, narrow rock slopes, knife edges, and other unsettling descriptors. The trail goes past a formation called “Dragon’s Tooth.” Sounds interesting, but my main concern is reaching Catawba on VA 311 before the post office closes at 5:00 p.m. I mailed a small resupply that will cover two days until my next town overnight in Daleville. If I’m late, it will result in a major inconvenience of lost time and doubled miles. Plus, I’m eating dinner at The Homeplace in Catawba, an all-you-can-eat southern cooking restaurant that gets rave reviews. With my full belly and mini resupply, I’ll finish the day at Catawba Mountain Shelter 14.6 miles away, two miles past the road…at least that is the plan.
Things go wrong from the start. I had hoped my tent would finally dry out after three nights and four days in a stuff sack. The damp landscape and cool temps produced a heavy dewfall in the meadow overnight. Combined with heavy condensation inside, my tent is far wetter. I’m the last one to leave this morning — 8:35 much later than intended.
The elevation profile up Cove Mountain looks so tame on paper. On the ground it is a nonstop series of rocky knobs to surmount. It takes me three hours to cover 4.2 miles to the top. Terrain and slow pace aren’t the only frustrations. A new plague has struck…flies. The buggers are about three-sixteenths of an inch long, love to fly on sunny days, are attracted to facial sweat, head straight for the eyes, nose, and mouth, and bite! They drive me totally mad. Long before I reach the summit of Cove Mountain, I’m flailing my arms and screeching the foulest insults at these infernal flies. Of course, I’m also near tears, a reaction so predictable now, it’s practically standard hiking procedure. Though it is a bit odd this early in the day…not a good omen.
I drape my large bandana over my head half covering my face. It deters the worst fly attacks, but enough get past the flopping material to continue the torment. At the crest of Cove Mountain, a 0.1-mile trail on the right goes down to the Dragon’s Tooth. It is a pointed slab of sandstone jutting straight up at least 30 feet. Trying to get photos of the rock and view is another exercise in frustration. I must shoot numerous images to get one that isn’t peppered with blurred black blobs from these darned flies!
For the last couple of days, I’ve heard hikers talk of Dragon’s Tooth and rock climbing. Some have scaled the tooth, and there are other less life-threatening slabs to climb for sweeping views of the valley. I have no intention of doing either due to time and fear.
Returning to the trail, I expect a rocky but unexceptional descent. HA! At this point, I must vent anger at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The ATC’s guide for Central Virginia simply says, “Cross rock slope on narrow ledge. Proceed with caution. Northbound hikers descend steeply through rocks for 100 yards — four metal rungs have been placed in the steepest spots.” Miller’s guide says nothing at all.
There is a 20 to 25-foot sheer drop where the only way to continue is slowly slipping down near vertical rock to a series of shallow ledges the width of a hiking boot carrying a bulky 35-pound backpack and two trekking poles. These ledges are several feet apart. The only way to do it is sideways, clutching these little ledges with a death grip. I am scared witless. Feel free to substitute “sh” for the “w.” The slightest error — a little slip, a caught boot sole, a shift of the pack…anything that would alter balance in the least — would mean a fall resulting in serious injury, if not death. Now, imagine doing that in heavy rain, or high wind, or God forbid, a thunderstorm.
Twenty-five feet doesn’t sound like much, but perched on the edge of that precipice, it looks like the Grand Canyon. Those four metal rungs are placed elsewhere and serve to assist southbound hikers climbing up more than northbounders climbing down. Despite the brief distance, the ATC should state more bluntly the nature of this section. If nothing else, they should caution hikers to tighten their packs and minimize exterior gear. Some people’s packs are studded with everything from wide rolls of closed foam sleeping pads to shoes and frying pans! A better understanding of this terrain gives hikers an opportunity to carefully consider weather as well.
Hundreds of people hike Dragon’s Tooth each year and manage fine. If many were getting hurt, authorities would make changes. Most A.T. hikers thrive on this kind of thrill, love the challenge, the relief from a simple path in the woods. I understand and agree. However, a heads up for those of us over 25 and more in tune with the reality of danger and death would be most appreciated. OK, I’m done wagging my finger.
The rocks continue much further than 100 yards, and there are other places requiring mini scrambles. It takes two hours to cover two miles. I don’t sweat as much on downhills, so the flies aren’t as bothersome. There is a very pleasant gap with a trail junction leading left to a parking area for Dragon’s Tooth visitors. I plop here for a rest and lunch. Once my forehead dries, the flies leave me alone. It’s another pleasant day with a cooling breeze, and I wish I could stay here for a while. The window for making VA 311 in time to reach the post office is closing fast.
I shoulder my pack and start walking but don’t get far. Up on Cove Mountain as I was contorting my body down those sheer rocks, something shifted in my pack and pressed very painfully against my spine. Bending in a certain way hurts like crazy. Thinking my cook pot might be responsible, I repack my gear making sure it is oriented away from my body. It’s a wasted effort. Over the day, I discover the plastic board that stiffens the pack has buckled. This weak point now jabs me in the back every time I bend. Great.
Cove Mountain is finally behind me, and I’m walking through farm fields in Catawba Valley. Up on the mountain, Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Bird’s-foot Violet, Early Saxifrage, and Wild Pink are in flower. In the fields, Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium sp.) arrests the eye in a sea of green.
It’s a short but steep haul up Catawba Mountain, where the trail rides along Sawtooth Ridge all the way to VA 311. The rockiness and elevation jags make for very slow going. Time passes faster than the miles, and it becomes apparent that I cannot reach the post office before closing. With no dinner in my pack and a real desire to eat at The Homeplace, walking into Catawba is unavoidable. Maybe I’ll find a place to set up my tent there overnight. If not, I must get back on the trail, hike to Johns Spring Shelter, a mile beyond the road and return to town the next morning. The little post office is open a few hours on Saturdays.
My knees are aching and my feet are killing me as I start down VA 311 around 5:10. It’s a two-lane mountain road with a 55 mph speed limit. The one-mile stretch to the post office is all downhill. Cars are flying past me. I put out my thumb as they whiz by. Honestly, anyone would be a fool to stop on such a road, so I abandon the effort and plod on. About half way, a white truck slows beside me. In back is another hiker. I climb in as quickly as I can, and let the driver know I’m bound for The Homeplace too. Dark clouds have gathered in the late afternoon, and it begins to sprinkle as we streak and bounce down the highway.
The young man driving is wearing hospital scrubs. There is a kayak in the truck’s bed. The other hiker hops out when we arrive. I’m stiff and slow. The driver gives me a hand and asks if I’m OK. I’d love to sob on his shoulder but smile and say yes.
The Homeplace is a gorgeous old house with a wraparound porch full of people anticipating some southern cooking. I go inside to give them my name and ask the other hiker if he’d like to join me. We are soon seated at a table for two. My companion is “Jungle Juice” (OH). He’s left Ohio State University with one semester remaining, disillusioned that a college education will help him in his career path. His passion is wild edible plants, and we spend the rest of the evening swapping botanical Latin.
Out of three choices we get two meats (fried chicken and country ham) plus several vegetable sides, biscuits, drinks, and an incredible hot cobbler with ice cream for desert. During dinner, a thunderstorm develops with torrential rain blowing sideways. I have no idea where I could set up a tent for the night, and the thought of trudging up wet 311 in the drizzling dusk to reach a soggy trail shelter is a nonstarter. There is a small hostel nearby – Four Pines. The owner allows hikers to stay in his three-car garage for donations. He also provides free shuttles. Hikers are attracted to this low-cost option.
I have no phone service, but the restaurant owner knows Joe at Four Pines and calls on our behalf. Joe shows up about 50 minutes later. It’s a nice garage, but definitely a garage, smelling of motor oil and full of tools and old furniture — a couple of couches, a recliner, an old kitchen table, a twin bed, stained army cots, and vinyl strap outdoor lounge chairs. There is a wood burning stove, a refrigerator, two microwaves (one at least 30 years old) and a walled-off, dimly lit bathroom with a deep laundry sink, toilet, and dark shower. A padlocked box marked “Donations” sits on a cluttered desk.
Six hikers are staying the night. Besides “Jungle Juice” and myself, there is one of the young women from Pine Swamp “Little Seed” (CA, the one so appreciative of “Trucker’s” fire), “Powder Puff,” “Housebroken” (TN, a double flip flopper who is almost finished), and an older man starting a short section hike. Joe’s teenaged son is entertaining two friends and is quite full of himself. Joe does a load of laundry for the two girls and sits in the garage drinking and talking with the hikers and arguing with his son.
I’ll say it now. I do not care for Joe. He harangued “Jungle Juice” and me over our last minute decision to stay, asking why we didn’t plan a night at Four Pines from the start. He was laughing, but I’ve experienced this attitude before, playing big man to the hikers. He readily admits he doesn’t charge anything because he’d have to abide by state regulations for a hostel. We get a donation speech, leaving it up to us to decide what it’s worth, knowing some folks won’t leave anything, trusting our fairness, etc. The worst part is his creepy manner with the girls, making inappropriate jokes in front of his son.
Other than a dirty cot, the toilet, a little water, and two rides, I use no other amenities and drop $20 in his locked box. The short rides and a dry place to sleep are worth it. Most of his guests probably get a big kick out of Joe. I can’t wait to get away.
Day 14, May 11, 10.7 miles: Joe has a rooster that can’t tell time. Stupid thing is crowing in the middle of the night. “Jungle Juice” and I are ready to leave early. Joe has to take his son to court, the kid is under house arrest. There’s a shock. We leave shortly after 8:00, stop by the post office, and head to the trail. I’m very happy to be back in the woods.
The delay in Catawba removed two miles from my planned hike yesterday and adds them to today. Even so, Lambert Meadows Shelter, my stop tonight, is just 10.4 miles away. Two shelters are located within the first two miles from VA 311, Johns Spring and Catawba Mountain. Past the second, the trail starts up.
Today’s hike makes two graceful arcs from 2,000 to 3,000 feet and down again. The first crests McAfee Knob, the second Tinker Cliffs, featuring a half mile walk along the cliff. On paper, these climbs appear far more strenuous than yesterday with just as many jagged dips. My notes mention “rocks” or “rocky” six times for this section. I fully expect another trying day and can only hope the lower mileage will mitigate the difficulties.
The trip up McAfee is, to quote my notes, “easy enough.” The trail is smooth traveling, even though I’m still traveling slow. On top, the overhanging sandstone ledge provides excellent views. Mountain Fetterbush (Pieris floribunda) is in flower, thickly lining and squeezing the trail among big boulders on the way down. Pig Farm Campsite, complete with a picnic table, is 1.5 miles past the knob. I eat lunch here. A tenth mile further is Campbell Shelter.
The trough between McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs is the low ridge line of Tinker Mountain. There are awe-inspiring rock formations, massive boulders thrust upward, broken, stacked, weathered, and cracked. The trail weaves among them, sometimes going over, but mostly around them. It slips between two monster rocks called “Snack Bar Rock” and under a large overhang dubbed “Rock Haven.” All the stones are covered in large curled lichens such as Rock Tripe. Some support lush stands of Appalachian Rockcap Fern (Polypodium appalachianum). Here too the trail is quite smooth overall. I’m grateful for the physical break. It gives me a chance to enjoy the raw wonder of the geology rather than curse it.
Patches of Moss Pink (Phlox subulata) are tucked here and there, and large swathes of Appalachian Phacelia (Phacelia dubia) look like blue-tinted snow blanketing the ground. Flies are buzzing today, but the bandana covering maintains my sanity. They are still ruining my photos!
The climb to Tinker Cliffs is terraced, rising in stair step fashion, and the final section climbs steeply toward more huge boulders. I fear what lies ahead. Thus far the day has been very pleasant. Surely I’m about to pay for it. Walking through and around these massive rocks, I step into a landscape that elicits an audible gasp. For a moment, I feel like Dorothy in Oz. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. Forget Cove Mountain and Dragon’s Tooth. This is how the Appalachian Trail is supposed to be. Here I find “fellowship with the wilderness.”
A woodland of young trees slopes gently away from the flat rim of rock edging the cliffs. The woodland floor is a soft carpet of grass green sedges. A smooth rock path leads to the cliffs’ rim. From here is an unimpeded view of sparsely populated Catawba Valley and low Gravelly Ridge fronting North Mountain. The slabs of sandstone have weathered into shelves and benches. Blueberries and huckleberries have found toeholds in the cracks. Pitch Pines cling to the cliff face, and their battles with wind have sculpted branches into shapes worthy of a Japanese garden. In the woodland, Serviceberries are forming fruit.
Below the cliffs, Ravens are nesting in the tree canopy. One parent patrols the cliffs murmuring reassuring calls to its brood. Hawks rise on thermals. If they get too close, the Raven chases them off. An Eastern Wood-Pewee is calling in the distance. I am entranced. What an incredibly serene place.
I take off my pack, sit down on the rock, and stay two hours. Weakened from the March section and recent illnesses, the physical stress and loneliness of the past two weeks have taken a tremendous toll on me. Deep down I have wondered if I should quit. I desperately needed Tinker Cliffs. The beauty of this place and its soothing effect calms my mind and my heart. I might have been able to continue without Tinker Cliffs. With it, I know I can.
This is now the standard of beauty. For the remainder of my time on the Appalachian Trail these next three years, the best places will be compared to Tinker Cliffs. It rivals my beloved Great Smoky Mountains. Its woodlands remind me of Spence Field* and the sea of sedges growing there. The cliffs, however, are unique. Rather than raw and imposing, they are subdued and approachable. There is a simplicity here, caught midway between mountain and valley — the perfect middle ground, both open and intimate.
It is 5:00 p.m. Lamberts Meadow Shelter is a mile away. Very reluctantly, I gather myself and my pack. It’s hard to leave, but Tinker Cliffs has revived my spirit, and I leave with a glad heart. At the cliffs’ far end, the powerful fragrance of cloves stops me. Roseshell Azalea is beginning to flower. My nose will detect this shrub long before my eyes these next two weeks.
All the way down, there is a relaxed smile on my face. The shelter has several people staying there, so I continue another 0.3 mile to the Lambert’s Meadow Campsite and set up my wet tent. Before I can finish filtering water, a nearby late afternoon thundershower drops light rain. It doesn’t last long and doesn’t dampen my mood. Tinker Cliffs has been a godsend.
* (See AT Day Two, Mollies Ridge Shelter to Spence Field, May 17, 2012, posted June 17, 2012)
Day 15, May 12, 9.4 miles: Despite the evening rain, my tent is drier this morning than it has been all week. Another young hiker joined me here last night, setting up quickly before the rain. He tied a line to a tree, draped a tarp over it, and placed a groundcloth underneath. I can plainly see him curled in his sleeping bag like a big caterpillar. I’m up well before he is and working quickly to get on trail. It is very breezy and cool this morning, and I’m anticipating a warm hotel room in Daleville. The caterpillar stirs, and within minutes, he has struck camp, packed, and is on his way. Part of me envies his spartan efficiency, but I cannot see trading all comfort for convenience. Every time I hoist my load however, I’m tempted to revisit that debate.
Tinker Mountain has a mind of its own and can’t quite decide which direction to go, so it goes in several. McAfee Knob marks the southwestern end and its highest point. The mountain curves around Catawba Valley and heads due north to its second highest point at Tinker Cliffs. From there, it doubles back as Tinker Ridge trending southeastward before concluding as Tinker Mountain again at I-81 between Daleville and Cloverdale. Carvins Cove Natural Reserve and Carvins Cove Reservoir lie within the mountain’s lopsided arc. The reserve is the second largest municipal park in the U.S., and the reservoir supplies water to Roanoke. The A.T. follows this arc and served as part of the impetus (along with watershed concerns) to preserve the area.
I will walk 9.4 miles to US 220 at Daleville, undulating along Tinker Ridge just above and below 2,000 feet until the final descent into town. Parts of the trail are smooth, and parts require a bit of rock scrambling but nothing too hard. The ridge line comes to a sharp point, and the trail snakes first to one side then the other among some interesting rock formations. There are more Pink Lady’s Slippers and Yellow Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta). A big gray American Toad leaps out of my way only to tumble ungraciously down the bank. Righting itself, it quickly regains a dignified pose…“I meant to do that.”
I meet a couple on the ridge. Karen is recently retired and really wants to hike the A.T. Her husband has a few more years of work. She asks me all sorts of questions. I share what I can and encourage them.
Outside Tinker Mountain’s arc, Tinker Creek follows the ridge’s southeastern course, passing Daleville and Cloverdale on its way to Roanoke River. I cross it about a half mile from the highway. It doesn’t look like much, just a muddy stretch of water, but I photograph it as a nod to Annie Dillard. Her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a classic and one of my favorites, an inspiration to my writing.
The day is still very cool and breezy, but sunny. It is Mother’s Day, and the trail near Daleville is full of day hikers, including whole families. I’ve planned a ‘zero day’ tomorrow to eat and rest and am more than ready for it. I check into Howard Johnson’s which is on the right at US 220, get my big resupply, take a shower, and go across the street to Rancho Viejo, a Mexican restaurant. There is a bucket of red roses at the Hostess stand. It’s well past lunch, and the service is spotty. The food is rather tasteless too. I walk next door and order a pizza at Pizza Hut for dinner so I won’t have to go back out later. They mess up my order. I stop at a mini mart across the street for Oreos. They don’t have any. Well, crap…what else could go wrong?
How about the room’s air system not working? How about a laundry room with no detergent? How about scuzzy neighbors that play loud music past midnight? How about missing free breakfast the next morning? How about requesting a new room that has no hot water?
A few good things do happen. Three Little Pigs BBQ sandwiches are awesome and so is their banana pudding, free to thru-hikers. I stop at Outdoor Trails, a small but well-stocked outdoor recreation store. John works on my pack, bending metal stays to give more support to the compromised plastic board and offering good advice on strap adjustments. I buy a billed cap with a detachable sun skirt. Regardless of the fly menace, I need to protect my ears from the sun. Instead of poison ivy rash in March, my left ear was sunburned, and that condition is threatening a repeat. The cap is also vented and cooler. Next to the outfitter is Kroger, where I finally get Oreos, some fruit, and olive oil.
Glitches aside, my day and a half in Daleville not only allows me to resupply and clean gear, I can put down that pack, get off my feet, and rest in reasonable comfort. Just as my spirits needed Tinker Cliffs, my body needed Daleville.