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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.