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Bristly Locust

Bristly Locust

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

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

Catawba Rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron

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

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

James River Foot Bridge

James River Foot Bridge

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

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

Wild Bleeding Heart

Wild Bleeding Heart

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

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

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

Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel

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

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

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

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

Heartleaf Alexanders

Heartleaf Alexanders

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

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

American Lily of the Valley

American Lily of the Valley

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

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

Rock Fields on Big Rocky Row

Rock Fields on Big Rocky Row

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

perhaps Big-fruit Hawthorn

perhaps Big-fruit Hawthorn

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

Phoebe parent waits for the right moment...

Phoebe parent waits for the right moment…

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

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

Lunch!!

Lunch!!

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

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

Red Eft

Red Eft

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

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

Punchbowl Pond

Punchbowl Pond

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

Adult Newt

Adult Newt

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

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

My escorts

My escorts

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

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

Eastern Gray Beard-tongue on the road

Eastern Gray Beard-tongue on the road

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

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

Bowman's Root on the road

Bowman’s Root on the road

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

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

Bluedogart Cafe in Buena Vista, VA

Bluedogart Cafe in Buena Vista, VA

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

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

The hostel

The hostel

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

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

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

Jesse

Jesse

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

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

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

A zen American Toad

A zen American Toad

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

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

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

Pedlar River Suspension Bridge

Pedlar River Suspension Bridge

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

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

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

Pedlar Dam and Reservoir

Pedlar Dam and Reservoir

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

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

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

Random sign on the trail

Random sign on the trail

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

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

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Black Locust

Black Locust

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

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

Dame's Rocket

Dame’s Rocket

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

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

Wineberry's wicked red bristles

Wineberry’s wicked red bristles

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

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

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

"Steamer"

“Steamer”

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

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

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

Crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway

Crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway

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

Spiderwort

Spiderwort

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

Spiderwort

Spiderwort

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

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

Rocktwist

Rocktwist

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

Sharp Top Mountain

Sharp Top Mountain

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

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

Female Fence Lizard

Female Fence Lizard

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

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

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

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

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

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

Turkey Beard flowers

Turkey Beard flowers

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Comfrey

Wild Comfrey

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

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

Round-lobed Liverleaf

Round-lobed Liverleaf

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

Shuttleworth's Ginger

Shuttleworth’s Ginger

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

Early Meadow Rue, staminate (male) flowers

Early Meadow Rue, staminate (male) flowers

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

Interrupted Fern fertile leaflet

Interrupted Fern fertile leaflet

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

Interrupted Fern

Interrupted Fern

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

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

Fire Pink

Fire Pink

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

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

Starflower

Starflower

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

Apple Orchard Falls

Apple Orchard Falls

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

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

FAA radar facility

FAA radar facility

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

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

The Guillotine

The Guillotine

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

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

Pink form of Large White Trillium

Pink form of Large White Trillium

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

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

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

dozens…

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

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

thousands....

thousands….

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

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

Roseshell Azalea

Roseshell Azalea

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

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

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

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The slanted trail across Sinking Creek Mountain

The slanted trail across Sinking Creek Mountain

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.

Rock Harlequin

Rock Harlequin

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.

Eastern Continental Divide, A.T., Central Virginia,May 09, 2013The 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.

Piedmont Azalea

Piedmont Azalea

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.

Dwarf Iris

Dwarf Iris

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.

Audie Murphy Monument

Audie Murphy Monument

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.

Wild Pink

Wild Pink

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.

Male Fence Lizard

Male Fence Lizard

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.

Turkey Beard

Turkey Beard

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.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady’s Slipper

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.

Three black blobs are those pesky flies.

Three black blobs are those pesky flies.

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.

Dragon's Tooth

Dragon’s Tooth

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.

Sheer descent from the top

Sheer descent from the top

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.

Sheer descent from the bottom

Sheer descent from the bottom

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.

Cove Mountain

Cove Mountain

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.

Blue-eyed Grass

Blue-eyed Grass

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.

Woodland Stonecrop

Woodland Stonecrop

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.

The Homeplace, Catawba, VA

The Homeplace, Catawba, VA

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.

Mountain Fetterbush

Mountain Fetterbush

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.

Moss Pink

Moss Pink

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.

Mass of Appalachian Phacelia

Mass of Appalachian Phacelia

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.

Snack Bar Rock

Snack Bar Rock

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.

Rock Formations

Rock Formations

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!

Tinker Cliffs woodland

Tinker Cliffs woodland

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.”

Tinker Cliffs

Tinker Cliffs

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.

Tinker Cliffs

Tinker Cliffs

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.

Tinker Cliffs

View from Tinker Cliffs

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.

Catawba Valley from Tinker Cliffs

Catawba Valley from Tinker Cliffs

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.

Appalachian Rockcap Fern

Appalachian Rockcap Fern

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)

Yellow Star Grass

Yellow Star Grass

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.

Carvins Cove Reserve and Reservoir

Carvins Cove Reserve and Reservoir

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.

Grumpy American Toad

Grumpy American Toad

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.

Rock formations

Rock formations

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?

Tinker Creek

Tinker Creek

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.

A.T. survey marker

A.T. survey marker

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.

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View of Pearisburg from Angel's Rest

View of Pearisburg from Angel’s Rest

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.

Boulders near Angel's Rest

Boulders near Angel’s Rest

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.

Great Merrybells

Great Merrybells

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.

Star Chickweed

Star Chickweed

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.

Wild Blue Phlox

Wild Blue Phlox

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.

Jack-in-the-pulpit

Jack-in-the-pulpit

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.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

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.

White Campion, also known as Evening Lychnis

White Campion, also known as Evening Lychnis

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.

View from Peters Mountain at Rice Field

View from Peters Mountain at Rice Field

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.

Yellow Fumewort

Yellow Fumewort

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.

Fields of Mayapple

Fields of Mayapple

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.

Shooting Star buds and Cutleaf Toothwort

Shooting Star buds and Cutleaf Toothwort

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?

Crabapple

Crabapple

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.”

Allegheny Trail

Allegheny Trail

“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.”

Rain swollen creek

Rain swollen creek

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.

The Captain's Place

The Captain’s Place

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.

Duplex outlet in a shelter!?

Duplex outlet in a shelter!?

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.

Lung Lichen

Lung Lichen

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.

Crossed Laurel Creek on the downed log

Crossed Laurel Creek on the downed log

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.

Blackhaw viburnum

Blackhaw viburnum

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.

Sinking Creek Valley

Sinking Creek Valley

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.

Flowering Dogwood

Flowering Dogwood

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.

Cedar Apple Rust

Cedar Apple Rust

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.

Barn in Sinking Creek Valley

Barn in Sinking Creek Valley

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.

Keiffer Oak

Keiffer Oak

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?

'Stonehenge' benches at Sarver Hollow campsite (through a foggy camera lens)

‘Stonehenge’ benches at Sarver Hollow campsite (through a foggy camera lens)

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.

Sarver Hollow

Sarver Hollow

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.

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"Big Red" (me) and Dale Ditmanson, Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

“Big Red” (me) and Dale Ditmanson, Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

During the four weeks between the snowy end of section one at Fontana, NC, and the rainy beginning of section three near Atkins, VA, I come down with two significant colds. The first one knocks me out for nearly a week in early April, and the second one hits like a ton of bricks the night before I am to drive to Gatlinburg, TN, for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. It seizes my sinuses and throat. Arriving a day late with a pounding head, stopped ears, and no voice, I manage to whisper and squeak my way through four wildflower hikes and a very fun, two hour stint dressed as “Big Red,” a black-chinned red salamander.

Everybody loves a salamander!

Everybody loves a salamander!

The mascot-type suit is hot, hard to see through, and difficult to walk in, but I can act goofy with impunity since no one knows it is me in there — very liberating! People smile at me, want their picture with me, hug me, dance with me, and even ‘dip’ me! The object is to invite Pilgrims to attend the Salamander Ball fundraiser for Discover Life in America. This aspect is not very successful, but I have a great time!

Day One, Apr. 28, 6.3 miles: Since my second illness has come on so suddenly, I wonder if antibiotics are needed and secure a prescription. It’s a reasonable thought but bad idea. By the end of the Pilgrimage, I am suffering from a common ‘side effect’ of the drug and seek additional medical advice to counter it as I’m driving up I-81 in the rain to start hiking 29 days on the A.T.

Allen, Mary, and Susan before the Salamander Ball

Allen, Mary, and Susan before the Salamander Ball

Susan and Allen Sweetser are with me. They will drive my car back to their house and pick me up at the end of my hike at Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, VA. We eat Sunday buffet at The Barn Restaurant, home of a 16 oz. hiker burger that gets good reviews in their hiker registry. The Barn is visible off the interstate at the Groseclose exit, where the A.T. crosses US Hwy 11 and goes under the freeway. Clad in full rain gear, I start at the highway at 1:00 p.m. It is raining lightly, and all indications are the afternoon could be very wet. Past the interstate, the trail turns from the road into an open field. I walk north as the Sweetsers drive south.

The first part of the trail goes through fenced fields and pastures. Stiles straddle the fences for easier crossing. The typical stile is three flat 2×6 boards nailed across either side of an X-shaped support. Sometimes the boards are widely spaced presenting a bit of a challenge to us shorter hikers, and all of them are worn smooth on the top edge. Today they are also wet. I take great care not to slip. The consequences would definitely be bad, just a question of how bad.

Fence stiles

Fence stiles

On this cloudy, cool afternoon, the low groan of interstate trucks follows me for a long time. Rain comes in very light showers that taper off and on, picking up a bit in mid-afternoon and ending by late in the day. My goal is Crawfish Valley campsite at 6.3 miles. This small section of the trail is flat at the start with moderate overall elevation change…an easy day to work back into the A.T. routine. I have food for six days to reach my first resupply at Woods Hole Hostel Saturday.

Unlike the Smokies’ green lower elevations, the trees here are still leafless with buds just beginning to open. Unlike the bare winter landscape in Georgia and North Carolina a few weeks ago, the forest floor here is bursting with emerging wildflowers and ferns. It’s a good thing I’m only going a few miles. I’m stopping every five minutes to take a picture. Finally, I get to experience spring on the A.T.

Long-spurred violet

Long-spurred Violet

Rue Anemone, Cutleaf Toothwort, Wild Oats, Wood Anemone, Pussytoes, Spring Beauty, and several violet species are flowering along with seedpods from earlier plants — Bloodroot, Trout Lily, and Liverleaf — and the foliage of wildflowers yet to open — Solomon’s Seal, Mayapple, Wild Comfrey, and Rattlesnake Weed. To my surprise and delight, Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) are in flower all along the trail. Dogwood and Serviceberry trees are just beginning to flower too. Another treat is the rich and heady fragrance of Redtwig Doghobble’s (Eubotrys recurva, Leucothoe recurva) drooping racemes of white, urn-shaped flowers.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

This time of year is prime for enjoying the beautiful variety of migratory songbirds. Most passerines have arrived from their winter homes and are nesting. Their territorial tunes are nearly constant throughout the day, peaking at dawn and late afternoon. A White-eyed Vireo sits in a shrub at eye level singing his song while I get a photo. I recognize Hooded Warblers and Worm-eating Warblers among the musical serenades. Grouse are thrumming, Woodpeckers are drumming, and overnight a Whippoorwill adds his two cents.

I reach the foot of Little Brushy Mountain about 4:15. There are suitable tent sites just before and just after a large fire ring that sits next to the trail. The A.T. takes a hard left here, and the best sites are further up at the Crawfish Trail junction, a fact I do not discover until the next morning. I set up shop in a small flat space between Rhododendrons close to the creek. Three young hikers, “Dude” (NY), “Fidget” (Great Britain), and “18” (CA), are taking a snack break here. They know “Maine-iac,” “Jean Genie,” and “Duffle Miner,” who are just a couple of days ahead!

Fragrant Redtwig Doghobble

Fragrant Redtwig Doghobble

They tell me horror stories about the snowy Smokies, removing all doubt that my decision to go home was a very good one. Drifts were chest high in places, parts of the trail were packed ice, temperatures were subfreezing, and as many as 29 people piled into shelters designed for 12. They also tell me horror stories about the norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal infection with nasty symptoms, that swept through the hiker community in upper East Tennessee, particularly around Erwin. I’m very glad I missed that too!

No one joins me at the fire ring, and I spend my first night on the trail alone, which is probably a good thing. My clogged sinuses drain when I lie down prompting much coughing. I’d have only annoyed others. It does not rain, and I otherwise sleep very well.

Virginia's bucolic countryside

Virginia’s bucolic countryside

Day 2, Apr. 29, 11.1 miles: Today’s hike will take me over Walker Mountain, the Holston River, Brushy Mountain, and Lynn Camp Mountain totaling more than 5,000 feet in elevation change. It is cloudy and cool — great hiking weather. Long, lazy switchbacks take me up Walker Mountain, but the trip down is steep and rocky.

Cows on the A.T.

Cows on the A.T.

Farm fields are at the bottom, and a series of fence stiles have me walking amid a small group of cows and calfs. They aren’t exactly spooked by me, but they maintain their distance, keeping a wary eye on me and trotting ahead when I get too close. Problem is they are trotting ahead on the trail, so I continually get too close. Finally, they break off to one side, and I can pass without causing further stress. The open valleys are so lovely and a welcome break from the woods. I see Red-winged Blackbirds.

North Fork Holston River and Tilson's Mill

North Fork Holston River and Tilson’s Mill

At the top end of the meadow, the trail goes back into the forest where two local men are searching for Morel mushrooms. We exchange pleasantries while I have a snack break. The trail descends to the narrow, meandering Holston River’s North Fork and crosses a low bridge near picturesquely weathered Tilson’s Mill. When the river is high, a detour on state roads is necessary, and a five-foot flood measure on the bank underscores that necessity. The river is quite tame today as suits its bucolic surroundings.

Purple and white Spring Larkspur

Purple and white Spring Larkspur

Just past the river, the A.T. traverses a small wooded hillside clad in a stunning variety of spring wildflowers including Wild Ginger, Spring Larkspur, Twinleaf, Bloodroot, Maidenhair Fern, Solomon’s Seal, Ramp, Golden Ragwort, Blue Cohosh, and Wild Columbine. The Spring or Dwarf Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) is lovely with solid purple and purple/white bicolor variations. How appropriate to find Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) named for Virginia’s most famous son and amateur botanist, naturalist, horticulturist, architect, U.S. president, Declaration of Independence writer, Thomas Jefferson.

Twinleaf, named for Thomas Jefferson

Twinleaf, named for Thomas Jefferson

I cross one more wide farm field on my way to Brushy Mountain where cows are grazing in the distance. You would expect them to be quite inured to hikers, but each one lifts its head to stare at me as I pass. It’s rather humorous.

Red Trillium

Red Trillium

In these first two days, I’ve seen nearly every species of wildflower one might expect for this time of year except trilliums.  At the base of Brushy Mountain, however, there is a small population of Trillium erectum, Red Trillium, in flower along Lynn Camp Creek. I am curious as to this genus’ general absence. At home, I check distribution patterns in Fred Case’s book Trilliums. Five species have a significant presence in Virginia. Two, T. luteum, Yellow Trillium, and T. sulcatum, Barksdale Trillium, are found in the extreme southwestern corner. I may see those when I do my ‘Section Two’ of the A.T. in the future. Four other species appear common along the Blue Ridge through the state — T. erectum, T. grandiflorum (Great White Trillium), T. sessile (Toadshade), and T. undulatum (Painted Trillium). I will not see any Toadshade this trip, and the distribution maps indicate a stronger presence around Shenandoah, so perhaps on a future hike. This Lynn Camp population of Red Trillium is the only one I will see, I’ll spot one Painted Trillium, and as for Great White Trillium…well, I’ll talk about that later.

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine

Brushy Mountain is steep on the up side and descends gradually past Knot Maul Branch Shelter to Lynn Camp Creek. David “AWOL” Miller notes a campsite here, but I do not see one. ATC maps and books do not mention a campsite in this location either. They do note one at Lick Creek 2.3 miles north on the other side of Lynn Camp Mountain. The mountain is steep, and the trail slants downslope, such a tiresome condition. I’m ready to stop for the night when I reach the campsite, which is right on Lick Creek at the foot of a well-constructed wooden bridge spanning the wide, shallow stream.

A dozen hikers pass today, but after my 5:00 p.m. arrival, no one else appears. The sky has cleared, and it is quite chilly next to the water. I waste no time completing evening chores to snuggle in my sleeping bag. I awake once in the night thinking I hear someone or something walking through the water. Whether man, beast, or imagination, nothing happens and sleep returns.

Open meadows on Chestnut Ridge

Open meadows on Chestnut Ridge

Day 3, Apr. 30, 15.4 miles: Pitching a tent near a creek on a cold night is not a good idea. The underside of the rainfly is dripping with condensation requiring precious morning time to wipe it down. Today will be a long day and my planned early start is delayed to 8:00 a.m.

A mile into the day, the trail begins a 4.5-mile, 2,100-foot climb along Chestnut Ridge. The first part of the climb goes through forest where Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) is a prolific groundcover. Birds are active on this sunny day. A Pileated Woodpecker flies right past me.

Pond on Chestnut Ridge

Pond on Chestnut Ridge

The second half of the climb moderates substantially and passes through mown meadows and tree-lined grassy allées that are maintained as migratory bird habitat. There are birds singing and flitting around, but I’m unable to recognize them. Without binoculars or a field guide, it would be fruitless to spend much time studying them. Part of the trail follows an old road. One section has eroded to slabs of bedrock and cobble. It would be a running river in the rain.

Chestnut Knob Shelter interior

Chestnut Knob Shelter interior

The trail goes past a small pond, which is considered the best water source for Chestnut Knob Shelter nearly two miles north. The shelter is prominently exposed at the crest of the ridge. It is a fully enclosed, large rock building with side and gable windows, a door, sturdy roof, and concrete floor. Interior walls are painted white to reflect light. A picnic table and raised wooden sleeping platforms arranged like bunk beds accommodate eight. There is a privy in back.

Burke's Garden from Chestnut Knob

Burke’s Garden from Chestnut Knob

The top of Chestnut Ridge is the best view into Burke’s Garden, a lush valley with several nicknames — “God’s Thumbprint,” “Tranquility Bowl,” and “Haven from Hubbub” — cradled on three sides by Garden Mountain. Miller’s guide and the ATC books will tell you about views into Burke’s Garden from the trail on Garden Mountain’s southern ridge line. I did not see any. If you want an unobstructed photo of the valley, take it here. Trees, despite being leafless, will block all but small peeks into the valley beyond Chestnut Knob.

Garden Mountain

Garden Mountain

After the shelter, the trail reenters the woods and descends rather steeply to Walker Gap. There aren’t many switchbacks per se, but it traces a serpentine course that feels a bit like downhill skiing. I eat lunch in the gap at noon before the short climb to Garden Mountain. I’ve gone seven miles in four hours and am projecting arrival at Jenkins Shelter around 5:00 p.m. Garden Mountain is virtually flat for more than five miles, one of the reasons I felt comfortable setting a 15-mile day, and the trail goes downhill after that.

It’s a mile to the top of Garden Mountain. A couple of short sections are steep and large rocks begin to appear, but I make it to the ridge with little difficulty and look forward to the easy cruise. As you may sense, the afternoon does not go as anticipated. “God’s Thumbprint” below may be aptly named, but Garden Mountain is not. It is “Satan’s Revenge,” a rocky hell-scape of small to medium boulders with pockets of dirt all hidden beneath a deep layer of leaves and massive deadfall…five miles of it!! If a white blaze is not visible, just follow the cleanest line of rocks.

Walking the cliffs of Garden Mountain

Walking the cliffs of Garden Mountain

The ridge is a long cliff, and the drop on the left toward Burke’s Garden is probably not much more than 30 to 50 feet in most places. Near the end, the trail dips over the edge and continues along the cliff base. The journey across that damned cliff is slow, painful, mind deadening, and spirit killing. It should be one of Dante’s Inferno circles. At one point, a Black Vulture swoops onto an overhead branch and stares at me. “I’m not dead yet,” I yell, shooing it away.

I am, however, a dejected mess praying for the appearance of VA 623, the indication that I only have four more miles to go! I had originally thought I might get there around 2:30, then 3:00, then 3:30. It is after 4:00 when I cross that road like a whipped puppy. The trail’s punishing terrain morphs into long boulder slides on the way down and doesn’t smooth until about a mile or so before the shelter. By then, I’m too exhausted to appreciate the break.

Mountain Bellwort

Mountain Bellwort

One bright spot is Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula) appearing in large clumps among the rocks. At the base of the cliffs, I see the first stands of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a noxious, nonnative, invasive pest plant that will become depressingly all to familiar over the next three and a half weeks. As the afternoon wanes, even Dutchman’s Breeches and colorful patches of Gaywings cannot perk me up.

Dutchman's Breeches

Dutchman’s Breeches

Plodding down toward the shelter fighting back tears, I step aside to let a hiker pass. It is “Pain,” the handsome nurse I met in Hiawassee. He now goes by the trail name “Grim,” short for “Grim Reaper,” both referencing his feet blisters. He should not share his trail names with patients when he returns to work. Can you image your nurse coming in and telling you his A.T. name was “Pain” or “Grim Reaper”?

It is nice to see a familiar face…especially his! He’ll be at Jenkins Shelter too, assuming I make it, and I do…finally…at 7:15 p.m. after eleven hours and fifteen minutes on trail. I’m so dog tired I can barely set up my tent, filter water, and fix dinner before falling asleep. As I’m dozing off, I hear one hiker who had arrived after me (several do) remark, “On days like today, I don’t know whether to cry or throw up.” I hear you, sister. My go-to response is tears — not as messy or smelly. Then I close my eyes, pass out and, appropriately enough, sleep like a rock.

Wood Vetch

Wood Vetch

Day 4, May 1, 14 miles: The privy at Jenkins Shelter is a commode attached to a raised wooden platform sitting out in the open a short distance behind the shelter. A slow and cautious approach is advised to avoid seeing far more of a hapless hiker than you’d like. I rise before anyone else to hedge my bets in that department. In addition, there are tasks I did not complete last night, leaving more than the usual amount of chores this morning.

For the next three days, I will be back on Brushy Mountain, following a more easterly course. The first two days hover at 3,000 feet on or near the ridge line. Today is another high mileage day, but the elevation changes on Brushy are small and well graded. Trail surface is now the dreaded question. Will it be another rocky beast? Thankfully, the short answer is no.

Laurel Creek

Laurel Creek

Despite the misery of yesterday, a good night’s sleep has given me a new lease this morning. I buzz through five miles in two hours, featuring a 700-foot climb of Brushy Mountain, an easy ridge stroll along a smooth, old roadbed, and a 600-foot descent to Laurel Creek at VA 615. Both the creek and the bridge spanning it are beautiful. A comfortable campsite is located just north of the road, perfect for a snack break.

White Pines abound on Brushy Mountain, the feathery clusters of silver green needles on young trees softening the understory, with Wood Vetch, more Gaywings, and carpets of Teaberry below. The weather is cloudy and cool with light breezes. I got sunburned yesterday, though one would expect to be red after such a nightmarish trip through Hell.

Laurel Creek Bridge

Laurel Creek Bridge

Late morning I meet a southbound hiker named “Tonto,” who waxes poetic about the ease and comfort of the trail all the way to Jenny Knob, my destination tomorrow night.  This is music to my ears. Unfortunately, I must tell him that the joy ride is about over. Garden Mountain lurks in his immediate future.

In between well-spaced towns, the trail follows mountains overlooking the incredibly beautiful countryside in central Virginia. Homes and farms are few. Most sounds are natural — birds, wind, an occasional insect buzz. Today, the trail takes a sharp turn around a finger ridge on the side of Brushy Mountain presenting a pleasant view and timely lunch spot. Somewhere below someone is running a large gasoline powered engine, one of the few times the outside world pollutes the trail experience. The noise doesn’t stop until I shoulder my pack to resume hiking…talk about timing!

Bottled water 'trail magic'

Bottled water ‘trail magic’

The clouds part and allow sun to warm the day. It is shining on something bright and sparkly in the middle of the trail — a case of bottled water, a random and thoughtful bit of Trail Magic.

The trail leaves woods and fields and follows roads for 1.5 miles. At gravel road FR 282, it turns left and heads downhill over a half mile to US Highway 52. Here it is easy to hitch a ride left to Bastian, VA, or right to Bland. Bland has better resupply options. Otherwise, turn left and follow 52’s downward curves a short distance to VA 612 and turn right. This road takes hikers over Interstate 77. The road splits at this junction and I found it difficult to discern if I should turn right or left. I finally spot a tiny blaze on the steep rocky bank to the right. This road curves downhill too, and when it turns from asphalt to gravel, there is a parking area and campsite on the right.

A.T. road walking

A.T. road walking

The A.T. slips back into the woods here and begins a steep climb on a narrow trail where a large tree has fallen requiring a hard scramble up the slippery bank and down again to pass. I’m starting to wonder if “Tonto” was pulling my leg about the great condition of the trail. These difficulties only last one mile, but it would have to be the last mile of the day.

This leads me to a new segment I call “Appalachian Trail Truisms.” I’ve hiked enough A.T. miles now to begin to see certain trends and recurring phenomena. Today is a good example of A.T. Truism #5 “The Last Mile is Often the Worst.” The luck of the draw and the law of averages will ensure this happens on occasion; however, it seems to occur with disturbing frequency on the A.T. It may be terrain or weather or gear related. Near the end of the day’s hike, when you are most tired and ready to be finished, the trail turns steep, rocky, or slippery, rain drenches you, a pack strap breaks. At these times, you fight the urge to cry (or throw up) while hurling curses at Fate, which just tossed A.T. Truism #5 in your face.

Sassafras flowers

Sassafras flowers

When I reach the side trail to Helveys Mill Shelter at 4:00, “Grim” and his three hiking companions are just finishing a break there. They will push another 10 miles to Jenny Knob. I ask him about a few hikers from GA and NC.  Ned, the guy from Wales, is still hiking, “Gare Bear” and “Bear Snack” too. “Lady Gray” is going strong and well ahead. No word on “Fulsom” or “Son-Driven.” “Grim” is hiking with “Whistle,” “Dump Truck,” and “Clever Girl.” I am so excited to finally meet “Clever Girl.”

She is a very attractive woman with a bit of pink color in her hair and is married to “Dump Truck.” I had seen her shelter journal entries, which peaked my curiosity. My second night in Georgia, someone was reading the journal aloud at Gooch Mountain and when her trail name was mentioned, another hiker reached for the journal yelling, “Did she draw one, did she draw one? She drew one!!” Her name comes from an iconic line in the movie Jurassic Park just before a man is eaten by a Velociraptor. “Clever Girl” includes a very good sketch of the smart dinosaur with each journal entry. I also think she’s the one who couldn’t decide between tears or vomit after Garden Mountain. I really like this woman! She’s a fast hiker though, and I won’t see her again.

Wild Indigo Duskywing

Wild Indigo Duskywing

Helveys Mill Shelter sits 0.3 mile off the main trail, and the side trail is mostly flat. The first sign I am getting close is a clear view of the backside of the open privy, which of course means a clear view of any occupant’s backside too. Two large panels screen the privy from the shelter side, but apparently no one considered ‘exposure’ from the approach trail. The water source is down a long, switchbacked trail in front of the shelter.

I prefer my tent and find a level spot with plenty of suitable branches for airing gear. The afternoon sun shines warmly on my campsite as I empty my pack. I carry half a Thermarest closed foam sit pad, which I used at lunch. It isn’t in its usual spot. Uh, oh. Apparently, I failed to secure it adequately, and it fell off. A couple arrives, and I ask if they saw it. They did, quite a ways back. Boo! In a few minutes another hiker arrives, and it’s strapped to the top of his pack. I thank him profusely on behalf of my grateful butt.

By evening the sky is cloudy again, and the wind has picked up bringing a chill with it. The wind has a high pitched sound like passing cars on an interstate. Earplugs dull that impression.

A.T. super highway

A.T. super highway

Day 5, May 2, 10.8 miles: I’m pleased to report “Tonto” was right. The first 6.5 miles are nearly level on an old road with a smooth, soft surface — a hiker’s ‘super highway.’ It is easy to establish a rhythm, build speed, and go on autopilot. In this state, I nearly collide with a deer…well, not really, but I do come within five feet before I see him. The young buck and I stop cold for a moment staring at each other. He trots a few feet away and begins to graze while I take pictures.

Young Buck

Young Buck

A short time later, again moving with ease and speed, I’m startled by the sudden slither of a Garter Snake across the trail. It slows down enough for me to get a picture too. At a snack break, three Ovenbirds are loudly squaring off in defense of their territories. I meet southbound section hiker “Coach” (PA). He’s friendly and chats a while.

Garter Snake

Garter Snake

The ridge is fairly dry, supporting plants that can handle low soil moisture. Large blue flowers of Bird’s-foot Violet are open. A Sassafras sucker waist high is crowned with a round pompon of yellow flowers. Pussy Toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) are in their prime. This plant has tiny white flowers, in little clusters, grouped into a small head that somewhat resembles a kitten’s furry paw. It is also dioecious, male and female flowers appear on separate plants.

Birds-foot Violet

Birds-foot Violet

Jenny Knob is only 9.8 miles from Helveys Mill. Thanks to the easy trail, I’m there at 1:00 p.m. for lunch. A thru-hiking couple, Ryan and Colette, who still have no trail names yet, are eating too.

Birds are active around the shelter. My eye is drawn to a bright flash of red too bright for a Cardinal, it must be a Scarlet Tanager. The sun has been out a good part of the morning, and butterflies are active too. Wild Indigo Duskywings have been playing tag with me on trail all day. Several are puddling nearby.

Pussytoes male flowers

Pussytoes male flowers

My plan was to stay here tonight, but my early arrival has me checking the trail guide for more options. There is a campsite one mile further. Tomorrow, I want to eat lunch at Trent’s Grocery located 6.5 trail miles plus a half mile west on VA 606. The closer I get today, the earlier I can eat tomorrow, and if I add another 1.2 miles to tomorrow’s hike reaching Wapiti Shelter, I’ll have an easy 7.2 miles to Wood’s Hole and a shower Saturday. I like this idea and set out for the campsite exactly 600 miles from Springer Mountain.

Pussytoes female flowers

Pussytoes female flowers

The camp is located in a narrow stream valley bordered on the right by the trail and a steep bank and on the left by a dry stream bed and steep bank. There are a couple of fire rings, a picnic table, and several possible tent sites. Water is flowing on the far right end of the dry stream, where it apparently goes underground for many yards before resurfacing a short distance past the campsite.

I have quite a bit of afternoon left here too and check out the plants including Virginia Heartleaf (Hexastylis virginica) and its unique little flower. Lying on the ground and often covered by leaf litter, it doesn’t attract showy pollinators like bees and butterflies. Instead, it depends on wasps, flies, and other insects to move pollen. Ants help disperse the seed.

Virginia Heartleaf flower

Virginia Heartleaf flower

As I’m exploring the campsite, many hikers pass by in both directions. Most wave and say hello. Many hikers travel with earphones firmly in place listening to music or audio books. If you say more than hi, they have to unstopper an ear and ask you to repeat yourself. One girl in a southbound group has her music playing out loud, singing along. Three hikers ask me to take their photo in front of a handmade rock sign “600 mi” propped against the steep bank. No one stops though, and I anticipate another solo night. Once I’ve eaten and all other chores are done, I’m ready for bed even though it is only 6:00 p.m.

Close to dusk I hear a man arrive followed soon after by a woman. They settle in quickly. A few critters scratch around near my tent overnight, but otherwise it’s a good, quiet night.

Campsite is 600 miles from Springer Mountain.

Campsite is 600 miles from Springer Mountain.

Day 6, May 3, 13.2 miles: Several different birds serve as my alarm clock this sunny, cool morning — Worm-eating Warbler, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Vireo, and White-breasted Nuthatch, helping me get on the trail early. The 5.5 mile section to VA 606 makes a brief descent to Lickskillet Hollow, climbs gradually 800 feet and descends more gradually 900 feet to Kimberling Creek and VA 606.

Near the creek, both camp mates catch up with me. First is “Trucker” (TX), a very handsome young man with incredible blue eyes. He sees me photographing plants and asks if I could point out Poison Ivy to him. Since we are near a major road, there are plenty of specimens to show him a few characteristics that distinguish this itchy threat from more benign three-leaved plants. We are both headed to Trent’s, so he slows down to chat with me.

Suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek

Suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek

While we are admiring Bluets, the cool suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek, and a cold soft drink (Trail Magic), “Dumbledore,” the other camper, arrives. She’s going to Trent’s too. These suspension bridges (there will be more) are marvelous designs and wooden works of art. They have just enough give to them to sense their movement as you walk across. When two or more people cross at the same time, this sensation is heightened, imparting a slight stumbling, almost drunken gait. It makes me laugh.

At the road we turn left for a half mile walk. “Dumbledore” is now ahead of us since “Trucker” and I took time to photograph the bridge. A hiker approaches us headed back to the trail. It’s “Techie” from March. He knows “Trucker” but doesn’t recognize me at first. He gives Trent’s a thumbs up, and I’m ready to eat even though it is not yet 11:00 a.m.

"Trucker" and our trail angel Bob at Trent's Grocery

“Trucker” and our trail angel Bob at Trent’s Grocery

When I began this section of the A.T., I had a couple of snack packs of Oreos from Pilgrimage lunches. They were so good, and I’ve been craving more for days. My first order of business is to buy a large package. I’ve got plenty of room now that my food supply is low. Imagine my disappointment to find they don’t have Oreos. They have a large package of Chips Ahoy!, which will have to do…such sacrifice in the wilderness.

I order a double cheeseburger and curly fries with a quart of whole milk and cookies for desert. “Trucker” orders a salad and grilled cheese sandwich. “You’re a vegetarian,” I say. “How did you know?” Not exactly a Sherlock Holmes’ observation…no meat eater hiking the A.T. would pass up the opportunity for fresh beef! “Dumbledore” orders a salad too. So many of the thru-hikers gravitate to greens and fresh fruit when given a chance. I head straight for meat, fats, and dairy. I’d take a hot dog over a banana every time. Maybe it’s because I’m just not on the trail long enough to ‘miss’ these things, or perhaps my rather puny body understands quite well what is most critical to carry the weight and cover the miles.

Trail Register

Trail Register

Several local retired men congregate at Trent’s to talk and pass time. They are curious about us and ask questions. When they hear I’m from Nashville, they immediately talk about George Jones’ three-hour televised funeral yesterday. I didn’t even know he’d died. “Trucker” is unfamiliar with Jones’ music. Everyone should hear George Jones at least once. I look to see if I have his records on my iPhone (no), and tell him several classics he should listen to as soon as he has the chance — “Grand Tour,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Race Is On,” “White Lightnin’,” “Why Baby Why,” “Love Bug,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

One of the men, Bob, a retired teacher, borrows his friend’s truck to drive the three of us back to the trail. We are grateful for every step we don’t have to take. Bob enjoys any opportunity to talk to A.T. hikers and get a sense of what drives us to walk over 2,000 miles. The half mile trip just takes a minute or two, and he wishes us well as we disappear into the woods.

Dismal Falls

Dismal Falls

Lunch and a long break behind us, the business of hiking takes priority now, and both companions soon leave me behind. There is a trail register a short distance in — a wooden box with a hinged door that drops down to create a desk. Humphrey (yes, he’s with me always) and I sign it.

For the next 7.7 miles to Wapiti Shelter, the terrain is essentially flat, and the trail winds through bottomlands associated with Dismal Creek, crossing many streams on footbridges. At 1.8 miles, a side trail (0.3 mi) goes to Dismal Falls. Dismal Creek is a shallow run of water over wide steps of flat rock. The falls, more cascade than true waterfall, spill over a 10 to 12-foot drop of short steps into a pool perfect for swimming on hot summer days. There are campsites on the side trail near the creek, making this a great place to overnight.

Teaberry fruit

Teaberry fruit

I am not used to seeing such extensive colonies of Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) spread over the forest floor as are found in this stretch of the Blue Ridge. The plant is not flowering now, but occasionally I spot a bright red fruit from last year. The leaves are aromatic and wintergreen oil was derived from the minty fruit before a synthetic method was developed. I’ve also seen vast expanses of Ground Cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum). In a few places, the two groundcovers battle for supremacy.

Ground Cedar

Ground Cedar

Each day I’ve seen two different forms of Wood Anemone — one larger with narrower unlobed leaves, the other smaller with lobed and toothed foliage. These are two different species despite their strong resemblance. I am most familiar with Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) since it is widespread in East Tennessee and the Smokies. It is a smaller plant, just a couple of inches tall with a whorl of three trifoliate leaves beneath the white flower. The leaflets are widest at or above the middle and are toothed or lobed above this wide point. The other species, Lanceleaf Anemone (A. lancifolia), sometimes listed as Mountain Thimbleweed, has a similar overall look but is at least twice as tall and large with narrow leaflets widest at or below the middle, unlobed, and toothed below the widest point. I’ve seen both species with quite a bit of maroon or purple in the leaves and flower. Both are flowering today.

Macabre humor on trail

Macabre humor on trail

Little things, including messages, can be found along the trail. Dropped hats and gloves will be propped on limbs in hopes their owners return. Messages are scribbled to buddies behind on scraps of paper held down by small rocks on a boulder. Sometimes natural items are used to evoke a smile, like the small quartz rock with the embedded smily face I found in Georgia. Today someone with a more macabre sense of humor left a large animal skull positioned on a bed of rhododendron leaves in the trail. Okey dokey!

Given the flat, easy terrain, I expect to make great time this afternoon. However, two things work against me. First, that double cheeseburger remains a powerful reminder of eyes bigger than stomach for quite some time. I don’t feel like going fast. Second, Appalachian Trail Truism #2 comes into play — The Last Miles of the Day Are Longer Than the First. Five miles may take 2 hours in the morning, but they will always take at least 2.5 if not three hours in the afternoon. Hurting feet guarantee the latter. Flat terrain can only help so much when A.T. Truism #2 kicks in, and my feet are really hurting.

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

I finally reach the shelter, positioned up a short spur trail just past a bridged stream crossing, which is the water source. The privy is fully enclosed in a small dark wooden rectangle with an old screen door hook for a latch. No one is here, and I set out shoes and socks to dry in the fading sun. Clouds are moving in, and it is becoming quite breezy and cool.

Several older guys, section hiking for the weekend, camp in a field not too far away. I can barely see them, and with the wind, cannot hear them. No one stays at the shelter tonight. One lithe young man, “Shadow” (MN) with a Maine license plate attached to his huge backpack (he carries lots of food), stops long enough to eat dinner. He’s already hiked 25 miles and even though it is now 6:30, he plans to hike another 17 miles into Pearisburg tonight, using his headlamp when it becomes too dark to see. (I find out later he made it by midnight — 42 miles in 15 hours!) Many of the hikers “night hike.” I have trouble enough stumbling over rocks and sticks and roots in the middle of the day. You won’t find me tripping up the trail in the tiny beam of my Petzl headlamp.

Lanceleaf Anemone

Lanceleaf Anemone

I set my sleeping gear in the corner near a pile of cracked acorn bits. This should have been a clue. Before long I have to move away from the mouse’s kitchen…it was here first after all. There is plenty of room to spread out and give both of us space and I am not bothered further. It gets downright cold tonight. Humphrey and I snuggle tight to stay warm.

Day 7, May 4, 7.2 miles: The temperature this morning is in the low 40s. It is blustery and cloudy, providing additional motivation to move quickly, though the promise of a hot shower, real food, and soft bed is more than sufficient. Dogwoods have begun to flower, so this must be Dogwood Winter.

Forest Service controlled burn on Sugar Run Mountain

Forest Service controlled burn on Sugar Run Mountain

The trail climbs 1,400 feet up Sugar Run Mountain in a little over two miles and follows several old road grades. Thus far, the central Virginia trail has been trending east/northeast follow the crests of the Blue Ridge. Sugar Run Mountain is an exception. It’s spine runs almost due west for three miles before cutting back at Big Horse Gap to resume a northeast course. There are rocky patches along the crest.

A couple pass me on Sugar Run. It’s “Onyx” and “Dragonfly.” They tell me their Smokies snow stories, just as horrific as everyone else’s. There is a phone tower up here. Figuring this is my best chance at getting an AT&T signal, I call my son Sam and Wood’s Hole Hostel to confirm my imminent arrival. I have to get moving again quickly, though, it is windy and cold at 4,000 feet.

Wood's Hole Hostel 04, A.T. Central VA, May 05, 2013The trail descends very gradually to Big Horse Gap and a US Forest Service road. Across the gravel road the entire landscape is blackened from a very recent fire. The bases of trees are scorched and lower leaves on Mountain Laurels and young White Pines are brown, killed in the blaze. I walk through more than a mile of this. Not until I get close to Sugar Run Gap, does green return. I will learn at Wood’s Hole that the Forest Service did a controlled burn last week to reduce fuel loads in the national forest.

Gravel Sugar Run Road passes through the gap, and Wood’s Hole is a half mile down the road to the right. Almost immediately the road forks. Sugar Run is the left fork. Some of the farm buildings are visible through trees as I get close. Walking up the drive, there is a wide log building straight ahead called “The Bunkhouse,” for hikers at $10 a night. To the right is the main house, and shared or private rooms are available here for $25 or $50 respectively. I’ve requested a private room. Tonight there are only five guests. Last night there were 20!

The Bunkhouse (left) and main house

The Bunkhouse (left) and main house

Wood’s Hole is owned and operated by Neville and Michael. Neville’s grandparents started the hostel. Now she and Michael are expanding its reach into the local community with farm-raised cows, pigs, chickens, goats, guinea hens, bee hives, and a bathtub full of baby ducks. It is a beautiful, comfortable home nestled in a near idyllic country setting. Neville directs the preparation of all meals with vegetables fresh from her garden and some meats from their array of animals. Both owners are trained masseuses, and Neville leads meditation sessions. Laundry service and a computer are available.

My room upstairs in the main house

My room upstairs in the main house

I have a big resupply box here, and take it up to my room to fill my food bag, check gear, take a shower, and prepare my laundry. Settling in bed with the covers to my chin and watching treetops dance in the cold wind, I don’t doze off, but I do thoroughly enjoy the quiet, cozy, lazy afternoon. I finished my antibiotics today. Whatever crud I have is still hanging on, though my ears are finally starting to pop open, and I cough less at night.

Meals at Wood’s Hole are communal. I go down at 5:30 to help prepare dinner. Neville is fixing beef burritos with a salad and slices of leftover pizza from yesterday. Helping her is “Rainbow Braid,” a young thru-hiker who needed a break to rest her knees. Neville needed an extra pair of hands around the house and invited her to stay a while in exchange for room and board. “Rainbow Braid’s” face brightens when she hears my trail name. For most of Tennessee, North Carolina and southern Virginia, she hiked with “Maine-iac,” “Duffle Miner,” and “Jean Genie.” Apparently, they all said nice things about me.

Looking out my window

Looking out my window

She tells me that poor “Maine-iac” got hit hard by the norovirus. He couldn’t get out of his tent in time and threw up all over his Feathered Friends sleeping bag. It was two days before he could get to a town to wash it. The group decided to have a big 500-mile party just outside Damascus and each brought some fresh food for a feast. “Duffle Miner” made a phenomenal alfredo sauce. “Rainbow Braid” was sorry to see her friends leave, but the respite has been good. Her mother is coming to visit in a few days, then she will resume the trail.

At 8:00 p.m., it is past my bedtime. I can’t wait to slip under the covers, stretch out across the mattress, and shut my eyes. Tomorrow will be another very long day.

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The start at US 11 and I-81 in Groseclose, VA, April 28, 2013.

The start at US 11 and I-81 in Groseclose, VA, April 28, 2013.

No matter how meticulous my A.T. plans, they are only as good as their alignment with actual conditions. Sixteen days on trail in March taught me a few things, and 29 days in May have revealed even more. It’s time for another adjustment.

Thank heaven I’m not thru-hiking, because I have neither the physical stamina nor mental toughness to stay the course for six months. My sincere admiration goes to those who do. It is possible my section hiking plan makes it easier to fall victim to such thinking, but I am honestly grateful I don’t have to find out.

Many days the miles became so arduous it was a real struggle to stay on schedule, though I did reach or surpass my planned stops each day. The mind games and their emotional residue made for some difficult afternoons on trail…but only on trail. Once the day’s walking was finished, the evening/morning camp chores and night’s rest went smoothly without angst or whimper.

I don’t think the hiking itself is the problem as much as carrying the weight. The associated physical drag and exhaustion take a tremendous toll day to day. I must continue to trim my pack weight without sacrificing essential comfort items for sleeping or eating. I carried a lighter sleeping pad and bag but more food including a small jar of peanut butter, eight ounces of olive oil, and more energy snacks. I still lost some weight this time, though nothing like March. Milder temperatures helped.

Drudgery

Drudgery

Terrain is the wild card. More than simple elevation change, the trail’s surface condition plays a significant role. In central Virginia, the dreaded surface is rock-strewn boulder fields and not just brief sections. There are miles and miles of it, flat, uphill, downhill. Every step is a rock — rounded, large, huge, small, tiny, flat, wobbly, sharp, jutting, rolling, embedded, slanted, slick, rough, steep, sloping, crawling up hands and feet, sliding down (once straight down) backsides. I may have reacted more emotionally to the unforgiving terrain, but even hardcore thru-hikers with ultralight packs were griping loudly.

Solitude cuts both ways. Part of the A.T.’s allure is the wilderness escape from modern life. Yet the work of hiking and camping each day often leaves little opportunity to relax or energy to evaluate and reflect. On the other hand, having no one for conversation or commiseration makes those long afternoon miles even longer. In camp, all chores (and gear) are borne alone. I missed both companionship and the luxury of quiet time for reflection.

Thinking back over my six weeks on trail this year, the happy times were seeing spring wildflowers, spotting a snake or toad or Red Eft, lying back in meadow grass, watching clouds sail by, observing parent birds feed their young, listening to Wood Thrushes, discovering unique or picturesque natural areas, and eating Oreos. Hauling 35 pounds up a steep incline, slowly picking my way across an endless maze of rocks, and slipping precariously down sheer rock face never made it to the ‘happy’ list. I know I can’t have one without the other; however, I must increase the proportion of happy times to counter the drudgery. It will require more down time to adequately experience and process what the trail’s surroundings have to offer. A ‘forced march’ feeling is no fun.

Happy times...Gaywings.

Happy times…Gaywings.

What adjustments will I make? First of all, I’m finished for the year. There will be no six-week northern section this summer. I’m worn out, and the turnaround time is too short to recover or prepare sufficiently. Next, since I hiked through the Smokies to I-40 last year, I will not repeat that section. Later this summer, I’ll do some trails in the park and hike the 34 miles from I-40 to Hot Springs, NC, (my intended destination in March) with hiking buddy Mary. Once this is done, I will have completed 589.2 A.T. miles (515.3 this year), more than 25%, plus the 8.8-mile approach trail…not shabby. I can be justifiably proud of this.

Finally, I will return to my initial idea of hiking two different sections totaling approximately 25% of the trail each year for the next three years. Each section will not be any longer than four weeks with more flexibility on daily mileages, plus they will be scheduled further apart for adequate time to rest and prepare. I have found that I am section hiking like a thru-hiker, complete with demands, constraints, and pacing I do not need to meet and cannot sustain. I must learn what it means to “hike my own hike” so I can enjoy it.

Despite this rather negative assessment, there are many fun moments and a satisfying sense of accomplishment on trail — people, places, and experiences I will find nowhere else. I truly am looking forward to exploring more of these and sharing them here. Over the next few weeks, I will post details and photos of my A.T. hike in central Virginia.

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Hearty breakfast for the trail

Hearty breakfast for the trail

Day 8, Mar. 16, 11.8 miles  The shuttle back to Dicks Creek Gap leaves at 9:00 giving me time for a delicious breakfast at nearby South Side Cafe and a visit to Three Eagles Outfitter, a Franklin, NC, company with a small satellite store on The Budget Inn’s property. I need a fuel canister and want to send home a few redundant items I won’t need. They have flat rate USPS boxes on site.

The shuttle is crowded. Twelve hikers and their gear turn the van into a clown car. Ned, the guy from Wales, is one of them. His knee is better. “Maine-iac” is here too, and “Pain,” a stunningly handsome nurse who took two zero days for bad blisters. I’ll be lucky enough to see him the first couple of days as he eases back into the trail. Another passenger is “Son-Driven.” He’s had a few personal setbacks in life and decided the A.T. might be a good opportunity for a fresh start. He’s different, and everyone becomes familiar with him quickly. Despite his inexperience, he is holding his own quite well, maintaining a decent pace and the all-important positive attitude.

Plumorchard Shelter

Plumorchard Shelter

Today, I finish the trail in Georgia and cross into North Carolina. My pack is loaded with five days of food. I figured the hike would be hard, but it is tougher than I’d imagined. The day is sunny and warm which means sweaty. The trail is a roller coaster of knobs and gaps, some ridiculously steep, especially near the end.

About five miles in, I stop at the last Georgia shelter, Plumorchard Gap, for lunch. It’s 0.2 mile off the A.T. down a blue blazed trail to the water source and beyond on a small circuitous path across tiny streams with little footbridges through a rhododendron forest. I expect sprites and gnomes to greet me. This shelter is a triple decker. Two ladders lead from the bottom platform to an upper deck on the right and a loft over the porch and meal prep area on the left. There are windows on either end of the third level for light. The Army 5th Ranger Training Battalion helped build the shelter in 1992. A plaque shows a large helicopter airlifting the basic structure into place. That would have been fun to watch!

Plumorchard a third sleeping loft over the picnic table.

Plumorchard a third sleeping loft over the picnic table.

When we were dropped at the gap this morning, a Georgia Forest Service ranger warned us, “You’ll be able to tell from the trail and the shelters that you’ve left Georgia.” He is right. I often groused about Georgia’s lack of switchbacks, but the trails were in good shape and navigable. In North Carolina I encounter many downed trees. The trail is often little more than a grubbed slash across the flanks of mountains — narrow, slanted, rooty, muddy, eroded, and slippery — as if walking 2000 miles with a 35-pound pack isn’t challenging enough.

Just past the GA/NC border is Bly Gap and a beautifully twisted old tree standing alone along the trail just begging for people to sit a spell and take pictures. I let Humphrey indulge his bearly aptitude for climbing and get a photo. Past Bly Gap, the trail climbs Courthouse Bald in two very steep sections. In the middle of the first section, I take a snack break.

One state down, 13 to go.

One state down, 13 to go.

My feet are starting to ache, and I dread hoisting that pack again. The sun is warm, the sky is blue, and a few white, puffy clouds are floating by. I stretch out on the ground, lean against my pack, and relax for a change. Each day I’ve treated this trip like a job, head down, shoulder to the grindstone. It is amazing to simply stop and let my senses absorb the place. I watch one cloud change shape from a dragon to a griffin then a race horse and finally a lioness. I close my eyes and listen to the quiet for a bit. I vow to do this more often. Hiking the A.T. should be as relaxing and fun as it is tiring and hard.

I need to get moving. Once I painstakingly drag my butt up Courthouse Bald I still have to descend to Sassafras Gap (there seems to be at least one in every state) and climb some more to reach Muskrat Creek Shelter. The shelter is small, dingy, and pockmarked with carved initials and messages. There is no journal. “Welcome to North Carolina,” says Blue Deer, a hiker very familiar with the trail in the southern states.

Bly Gap tree

Bly Gap tree

I’ve already been converted to a tent-over-shelter devotee. There is room in the shelter, but I’m not interested at all. I walk the grounds looking for a good spot and find one close to the trail. Tonight will offer the heights of what Appalachian Trail life can be. I’ve got a level spot bordered by shrubs. There are ample branches within reach for draping sweaty socks and stubs for hanging gear like the clean water bag. I’ve got a log to lean my pack against and sit on for dinner. There is a privy in decent shape and a good water source close by. The sky is clear, the temperature is mild, and the wind is light.

There are numerous suitable tent and hammock sites around Muskrat and within a couple of hours they are all occupied. After dinner, Ned and I are chatting. Blue Deer walks by and says, “Wanna see the sunset?” Off we go…without my camera (darn it). “Maine-iac” and “Pain” come along too.

The shelter is located just downslope from Ravenrock Ridge. A few yards before the shelter is a sign “Ravenrock Trail” that works its way north along the ridge line about 0.3 mile to several rock outcroppings. About two-thirds of the way, the crumpled debris of a Cessna plane crash in the 1970s is scattered on the ground. Much of the tail is still intact. From here, the trail bears left through rhododendron leading to the rock outcrops.

Plane wreckage on Ravenrock Ridge

Plane wreckage on Ravenrock Ridge

The ridge faces southwest with an open 180-degree sight line to smaller summits in the Southern Appalachians southeast to northwest. Following a small opening through the rocks and shrub cover, you can reach a rocky crag jutting over the valley. The four guys step out there. It looks a bit small for so many people so I perch on another rock nearby. “Pain” uses his phone camera to take photos of us and one of the most subtly beautiful sunsets I’ve witnessed. A revolving palette of soft corals, pinks, and lavenders tint the yellow glow on the horizon.

“Maine-iac” is barefoot and “Pain” and I do not have our headlamps, so we return to camp before dark. A quarter moon rises and shines through the shrubs, casting shadows on my tent fly. Despite the number of campers, it is remarkably quiet. To the delight of my toes, I don’t need socks in my sleeping bag. This is one of the most comfortable and enjoyable nights I will spend on the A.T.

 

Sunrise, Ravenrock Ridge

Sunrise, Ravenrock Ridge

Day 9, Mar. 17, 12.5 miles  I get up at first light and take Humphrey, my camera, and breakfast out to Ravenrock Ridge for sunrise. It is peaceful and lovely, but cannot compare to last night’s sunset. When I return, everyone is up at the shelter. Several of the guys are standing around and one calls my trail name. “Hey ‘G-Spout.’” “Blue Deer” turns around and says, “I’ve heard of you.” The Trail Magic guys “Panda” and “Fish Hook” told people of my enthusiastic chicken scarfing. I smile and warn them not to stand between me and bucket of fried chicken!

Today will be one of the easiest days thus far. Despite the distance, there are no steep sections. The main feature is Standing Indian Mountain (5,500 ft), and the trail is gently graded and easy on the feet. Another notable aspect is the junction with popular Chunky Gal Trail, likely corrupted from the Cherokee ‘chucky’ often used in place names.

Bald on Standing Indian Mountain

Bald on Standing Indian Mountain

The summit of Standing Indian is a small rocky and grassy bald. I eat lunch up there and rest a bit. The day is partly sunny, but clouds are gathering. Rain is predicted. A cell signal allows me to check the weather. Wednesday night is still set for a bone-chilling 19 degrees in Bryson City, 3,000 feet lower in elevation from where I’ll be. Temperature drops 3.5 degrees for every 1,000-foot gain when it is cloudy and 5.4 degrees when it’s clear. I could be looking at low single digits!! That is still a few days away, and I’m hopeful things will moderate.

Carter Gap Shelter appears to be everyone’s destination tonight. Again, the shelter itself is small, drab, and dark. Even though there may be showers tonight, I opt for my tent, setting up among large rhododendrons with many other hikers. The tiny spring is a distance away, and I’ve been warned to take a cup. (Smack myself in the forehead.) Of course! A cup is the best way to quickly and easily fill the ‘dirty’ bag. Hands can stay dry this way plus it really speeds the process. Eureka and Hooray!

Tent City

Tent City

There is another pretty sunset visible from the campfire. Ned, “Pain,” “Blue Deer,” “Maine-iac,” Scott, Josh (now called “Duffle Miner” for cribbing some spices from a duffle bag found under Blue Mountain Shelter), “Gutsty,” “Odometer,” and new acquaintances “Techie,” “Toast,” “Rusty,” “Lady Gray,” “Twisted,” “Marine,” “Logan,” “Fulsom” (Fulton for Now, I’d met him at Gooch my second night), and “Whiteout.” “Fulsom” is creating fictional hikers and encourages us to help promote the character “Cincinnati Spooner,” a hiker who spoons strangers in shelters at night.

Some of the crew...Scott, "Pain," Ned, and "Maine-iac" brushing his teeth.

Some of the crew…(from left) Scott, “Pain,” and  Ned, plus “Maine-iac” brushing his teeth.

It is another mild evening but not as quiet. There are snorers, and one person screams out about 11:00 p.m. It sounds like someone in the throes of night terrors calling for his mom, but I learn later it is a German hiker who sneezed!!  Later, I hear the patter of rain on the tent. Light showers come and go throughout the night.

Day 10, Mar. 18, 12.1 miles  It rains heavier toward morning and continues lightly as we get up and pack. I’ve gotten quite good at getting my gear ready the night before. Within the confines of my tent and its vestibule, I can load my backpack with everything but the tent and groundcloth, which are wet and go on the outside anyway. I’m ready with rain jacket, pants, and pack cover. The day is cool, foggy, and breezy, but not uncomfortably so. There is little rain, mostly just dripping trees. I put my camera in my pack due to the weather and upcoming adventure.

Albert Mountain Tower in the fog

Albert Mountain Tower in the fog

The highlight today is a 0.3 mile, near-vertical, boulder scramble to the top of Albert Mountain. Honestly, it is fun and beautiful. I have not faced this type of terrain before. “Blue Deer” said to put away trekking poles, but I shorten mine to their lowest level and find them very helpful. It is a slow zigzag up and over huge boulders past twisted trees and shrubs with lichens and rockcap ferns all shrouded in fog that one hiker likened to a tropical cloud forest. There is a locked fire tower at the summit but no view. It’s cold, wet, and very windy. I get out my camera to take a photo just to prove I hiked the trail (rather than take the 0.4 mile bypass trail). The wind knocks my pack off the concrete footing and dumps Humphrey into a rain puddle.

The trail going down is an old road. It isn’t steep, but it is rough. I stop at the newest shelter, Long Branch, which opened this year, for a late lunch. Shelter beams have already been scarred with various carvings. Rumor has it that rain is due to hit by late afternoon. I’m going to continue to Rock Gap Shelter 3.5 miles away. The profile looks easy, though it proves wet and mucky in places.

"Lady Gray," "infinity," "Fulsom," and "Techie" (with "Maine-iac" hiding in the corner at Rock Gap Shelter

“Lady Gray,” “Infinity,” “Fulsom,” and “Techie” (with “Maine-iac” hiding in the corner at Rock Gap Shelter

I keep my trail profile in my camera bag, which is normally on my pack hip belt for quick access. Today it is in my covered pack. In my mind Rock Gap Shelter is at Rock Gap, but it is just before the gap. Even though it is clearly visible from the trail. I don’t see it and walk past it into the gap. The signage there is confusing, and I assume a small trail leading down from the gap goes to the shelter. I follow a steep, narrow, slanted, slippery trail with downed trees for several tenths of a mile before pulling off my pack in exasperation to see just where this darn shelter is. I nearly cry when I realize I have to walk back up this sucker and retrace another tenth mile of the A.T. to get there. The good news — I arrive with one space left in the shelter just moments before the rain starts. It rains hard and even hails (pea-size) until dusk. My Go-Lite umbrella comes in handy for sloshing to the privy.

Many others are here. Scott and “Duffle Miner” set up their respective hammock and tent. “Twisted” and “Marine” are soaked but get their tent up and dry out inside. “Son-Driven” sops two cups of water out of his hammock. “Techie,” “Lady Gray,” “Infinity,” “Fulsom,” “Maine-iac,” and I are in the shelter.  We snuggle in our bags and watch the rain and hail and crack bad jokes as wet hikers slip and slide down the steep shelter trail directly in front of us. It’s like watching TV. “Fulsom” compares it to car racing. We’re waiting for the wreck!

I make a disparaging comment on the weather, and “Maine-iac” delivers this pearl of wisdom from the depths of his Feathered Friends sleeping bag, “You have to embrace the suck.” That is the philosophy necessary to successfully hike the Appalachian Trail.  Yes, indeed…you have to embrace the suck!

 

Camping on Siler Bald

Camping on Siler Bald

Day 11, Mar. 19, 8.4 miles  The cold weather lurking behind yesterday’s rain has everyone spooked. The rush is on to get to Franklin, NC, and gear up or hunker down. My original plan was to hike 14.8 miles to Wayah Bald, but I’ve been struggling at the end of 12-mile days and don’t want to risk getting caught short at 5,000 feet. I briefly consider staying in Franklin. However, there is a third alternative. Siler Bald Shelter is eight miles away. It adds a day to my schedule and requires extra food, but it makes the most sense. I decide to hike four miles to Winding Stair Gap and catch an 11:00 shuttle into town. If I can acquire a sleeping bag liner and more food, I could return to the gap and hike to Siler Bald.

Everything goes without a hitch. The shuttle is at the gap when I arrive at 10:00. A worker at Three Eagles Outfitter picks me up in town and drives me to the store. They have a bag liner and food. I also buy a windproof pair of gloves to go over my current pair. Next door is Sonic. Across the street is Bojangles. I have three pieces of chicken and biscuit for lunch and buy a cheeseburger to take up to Siler Bald. The outfitter has a list of hiking club members willing to shuttle thru-hikers. I call Howard, a retired professor who now bakes bagels for area stores including Three Eagles and drives a rafting bus for NOC in season. He gives me a ride back to Winding Stair. At 1:15, I’m 4.6 miles from a cheeseburger dinner!

Right at the start is a pretty little waterfall. “Twister” and “Marine” are there headed for Siler Bald too. The day is sunny and cool. Everything is great…until I run out of water…just past the last spring…still tasting salty fried chicken. My mouth becomes a desert. It’s hard to explain the toll this takes. Four miles isn’t that much, and the climb is continuous but not too steep. Nonetheless, I’m spitting cotton and dying for a cool drink.

View of Siler Bald the next day from Wayah Bald

View of Siler Bald the next day from Wayah Bald

Siler Bald Shelter sits on a loop trail that hooks into the A.T. at two locations a half mile apart. The best approach is to hike to the upper junction and then down to the shelter. The three of us reach the grassy meadow over which the A.T. crosses, but it is not clear where the shelter is. We head down a blue-blazed trail. It is a steep old road, rutted and rocky. We come to another open area with no sign of the shelter. The blue trail continues to descend steeply to a great spring, and we stop for water. The shelter is supposed to be 0.3 mile in, yet it is not in sight, and we feel we’ve hiked nearly 0.5. “Marine” decides to climb back to the meadow and camp there.

I fill my water bladder with three liters and my clean water bag with four. Camping in the meadow sounds good to me too, but now I’ve got to climb about a half mile carrying 15 pounds of water and my pack. At least I can take long draughts of cold spring water on the way.

Once I get to the bald though, it is worth the trouble. The meadow is wide and open with low green and tan mounds of last year’s grass rumpled across the ground. The area to the right of the trail is relatively flat and there is a small fire ring near the tree line. This is where we make camp. To the left of the trail, the meadow slopes sharply uphill, then curves right continuing to the summit of Siler Bald, about 0.2 mile up. “Marine” sees some people up there.

The sun is still high enough in the sky to provide warmth and a wonderful opportunity to dry and air gear. I get out my wet tent and ground tarp from two days ago, unfold my sleeping pad, and turn my bag inside out. Shoes and socks and jackets and anything else that might be at all damp or stale are lined up in the sun. Then I lie back in soft mounds of grass, extend my arms, and lift my legs straight up in the air, spreading my toes in the breeze. A small gust of wind swirls audibly overhead. Tree branches dance against the blue sky. In this simple act of joy, there is a moment of clarity when the world and I are in perfect synch.

I wish I had time to just loll in the grass, but the sun is dipping lower, and there are chores to do. I get my tent up and pull out that cheeseburger. It’s cold but oh so awesome. “Marine” and “Twisted” offer me some of their stuffing dinner. It’s warm and tasty. I feel bad (but not too bad) that I don’t share my cheeseburger. They understand. “Marine” is hiking the trail in small bits as work and vacation time allow. His wife “Twisted” joined him for the week’s trip. She’s proven a hardy hiker easily covering 10 to 12 miles a day. I’ve seen them the past two days, but we’ll have a chance to become friends during the next two.

The really cold night is still 24 hours away, but at 5,000 feet a clear night could bring temps to 20 degrees or lower. “Marine” gathers wood and kindling with swift precision. I try to help. Sticks are broken into uniform lengths and segregated by diameter into four piles. He places a fluffy mound of dry grass in the center of the fire ring then creates a teepee of sticks encircling the grass, beginning with the smallest diameter, working out to the largest, and leaving a small hole to insert a lighter. This sturdy structure will warm us in the morning.

A half moon shines brightly illuminating the inside of my tent. I hear a coyote yipping in the distance. The night does get very chilly, but thanks to my bag liner, I’m quite cosy.  It’s another great night on the A.T. with one exception, I’ve got a small case of poison ivy. A few days ago, I was visiting the “ladies room” and started to fall forward. I stuck out my hands to steady myself on a tree and realized in horror it was covered with two large vines of poison ivy. I diverted them quickly and barely brushed one vine with my left pinkie knuckle. It is now blistered and itching, but this isn’t my problem. I must have tucked my hair behind my left ear shortly after hitting the vine and rubbed urushiol on top of my ear. It’s not itchy so much as red, irritated, and very sore. If anything touches it, it hurts. Sleeping on my left side requires awkward positioning to protect it. Other than that, it really is a great night.

 

Stone tower on Wayah Bald

Stone tower on Wayah Bald

Day 12, Mar. 20, 11.4 miles  It’s a cold, cold morning. I hear “Marine” walk to the fire ring, and within minutes there’s a bright orange glow visible through my tent wall. Just hearing the crackling of the fire warms me. “Twisted” and I roast ourselves near it as we eat breakfast, while “Marine” methodically packs their gear. I’m still a long way from being ready when they start for the day. We are both planning on Cold Spring Shelter tonight.

I take my time to insure the fire won’t be a hazard in the breezy conditions. Since my trail notes say the top of Siler Bald is worth a visit, I leave my pack near the fire and walk up with my camera and Humphrey. Just over the first rise is a tent where “Marine” had seen people last night. The occupants must still be asleep. The summit does offer spectacular views, nearly 360 degrees. Trees to the east impinge slightly on that aspect. The fire is virtually out when I retrieve my pack and descend the trail to Wayah Gap.

In a mile or so, I hear people talking and see a sign “Trail Majic” (sic) taped to a tree. Something is going on in a small clearing several yards off the trail. I pass four smiling trail maintenance workers. In the clearing is a large white tent over a picnic table loaded with food. Another hiker is there, at least one dog, and “Fresh Ground,” a talkative friend of A.T. thru-hikers. He sets up these lavish stations for several days at a time and moves up the trail each week. Last week he was in Georgia; next week he’ll be at I-40 past the Smokies. This week, he’s at Wayah Gap. He’s got hot coffee, hot chocolate, hot chicken soup, hotdogs, salad, fruit, candy bars, chips…it’s almost too much to take in. He has a scale to weigh packs, a trail register book, and a full length mirror. He’s pushing everything at me, and it takes me a moment to sort through the big spread. I select a hot dog and hot chocolate. He’s got ketchup, mustard and onions to put on the hotdog. I use all three and eat some chips too. I could easily eat a second dog and should have. He cheerfully tells us about his visitors including a weight lifting couple that came through yesterday. The man ate 10 hot dogs!! “Fresh Ground” doesn’t require payment but accepts donations. I give him two dollars and hope I’ll get to see him again near the Pigeon River!

The day is cool and sunny. It’s five more miles, mostly up, to Wayah Bald (“Wayah” means wolf), and the trail is fairly smooth and easy to walk. At the summit, the trail follows a wide paved road to the stone John B. Byrne Memorial tower. Named for a Nantahala Forest Supervisor who died at a young age of lung problems from his exposure to poisonous gas in World War I, the current tower is a truncated version of the taller fire tower built by the CCC in 1935 and used until 1945. The Smokies are clearly visible on the horizon. A view of the open meadows on Siler Bald shows how far I’ve walked this morning.

"Marine," "Twisted," "Duffle Miner," and "Jean Genie" at Cold Spring Shelter.

“Marine,” “Twisted,” “Duffle Miner,” and “Jean Genie” at Cold Spring Shelter.

Yellow-blazed Bartram Trail, a multi-state trail tracing the path of 18th century botanical explorer William Bartram, merges with the A.T. for 2.5 miles crossing the summit of Wayah Bald, and these junctures provide opportunities for mistakes. I nearly head in the wrong direction at the first junction two miles before the tower, and learn later “Marine” and “Twisted” hiked a half mile down Bartram just past the tower before realizing their error.

The remaining five-plus miles are as smooth as the first, following easy grades. Cold Spring Shelter sits right on the trail at 5,000 feet. It has received some upgrades. Workers have enclosed the foundation, sealing what must have been a very breezy and chilly sleeping platform. I’m quite pleased (and relieved) to see this. Tonight is to be very frigid. I’m the only person here. “Marine” and “Twisted” must have kept going. I sweep out the shelter and survey the site.

The chinked-log shelter sits just below a ridge line on one side and above a small, steeply sloping valley on the other. It features a shallow overhang, mini picnic table, and fire ring. A small spring flows across the trail a few feet in front. The privy is downslope in the back.There are no campsites next to the shelter, but several are located a short walk further up the trail.

A couple of hikers stop by but elect to continue, including “JP” who tells me “Twisted” has hurt her hip and “Marine” has tied her pack onto the back of his. The three of them had taken that wrong turn on the Bartram Trail. That’s when I must have passed them. “JP” thinks they will make it to Cold Spring.

Tarp and rainfly keep the wind at bay on a snowy, single-digit night at aptly-named Cold Spring.

Tarp and rainfly keep the wind at bay on a snowy, single-digit night at aptly-named Cold Spring.

In the meantime, Scott and Josh “Duffle Miner” show up and stake out their corner of the shelter. Scott has a trail name now. Contrary to all wisdom, he hikes in blue jeans. Forest Service personnel have warned him, “you’ll die,” but he’s managed to stay dry wearing waterproof pants in inclement weather. “Fulsom” called him “Jean Genie,” because he keeps “popping up in those jeans.”

“Marine” and “Twisted” arrive, and he is nearly bent double balancing two packs on his back. Her hip began to hurt on downhills, an overuse-type injury. Rest and Advil (Vitamin I) will help. We eat dinner, and “Marine” builds another incredible fire. It is getting very cold. No one else comes, and the guys use a tent fly and tarp to cover the shelter’s entrance. Thus far the wind has been light, but as the sun sets that beast starts to moan. I am so thankful for the enclosed foundation, tarp curtain, bag liner, and four warm, friendly people to get me through this night.

Around 11:00 p.m., I awaken to a crinkling sound. I think it is the tarps blowing in the wind, until something falls on me near my face and scares me senseless. I frantically grab my headlamp and find an old greasy food wrapper. It must have come from the shelf above me. Did it blow down or did something knock it down?  Now that I’m awake I have to pee. I put it off as long as I can, then get up quietly and slip out between the tarps. I place a hand on the picnic table for support. Surprise! It’s covered with snow! There’s a half inch of snow on the ground. This is not what I had expected for the first day of spring!

Tucked back in my sleeping bag, I wonder if I should put the food wrapper outside. I don’t. Big mistake. I’m awakened again, this time a large gray mouse is right by my head going after that wrapper. I shove the wrapper deep into a crevice. Minutes later, it’s “crinkle, crinkle” as the mouse tries to pull it out. This time I come out of my sleeping bag to put that darn wrapper outside in the snow.  All night I think I hear scurrying and worry that the little guy is getting revenge chewing everything in my pack.

 

Snowy morning at Cold Spring

Snowy morning at Cold Spring

Day 13, Mar. 21, 11.7 miles  Like Blue Mountain the week before, this morning is brutal and painful. My pack thermometer, which has been sitting inside the protected shelter says 12 degrees. Mostly likely it’s single digits, and the windchill is definitely subzero. Hot oatmeal sounds heavenly for breakfast. I light my stove successfully only to have it run out of fuel. I pull out the new canister but cannot get my thumb to make a sharp enough snap of the lighter to create a second spark. “Marine’s” hand holding a lighter with orange flame suddenly appears. A few minutes later, I’m struggling to open the ziplock pouch and eat. “Marine’s” hands pop in and snap it open — they have become for me the ‘hands of God.’

After much fumbling, I get packed and start walking. I’m wearing my heavy capilene sleeping clothes under two tops and pants, a Buff skull cap and ball cap, two pairs of gloves, two jackets, two pairs of socks, boots, and long gaiters. I do not overheat all day. My hands are hurting so badly, I have to slip them in my pockets and let the trekking poles drag. The sky is clear, sunshine is glaring off the snow, and breezes are cold, particularly in the shade.

Snow on Mountain Laurel

Snow on Mountain Laurel

I start out with a small set of cleats called “Slide Stoppers.” Each has a big four-pronged cleat that sits under the instep. It feels like a big rock is stuck to the bottom of each boot. They collect packed snow, leaves, and other debris then slip sideways, rolling ineffectively to the side of my boots. After a while, I take them off in disgust.

The trail after Cold Spring Shelter remains at 5,000 feet undulating over Copper Ridge Bald and Rocky Bald before descending steeply 1,200 feet to Tellico Gap. This is where “Marine” and “Twisted” will finish their hike. From here the trail climbs 800 feet to Wesser Bald, which has an open observation platform with a good view of snow covered Clingman’s Dome.

I blew out my water bladder drinking tube last night as a precaution, but the bite valve still froze and has been inoperable all morning. It does not thaw until noon when I set it in the sun on top of Wesser Bald. Finally, I can take a long drink. A short time later I try to take another drink and find that the bite valve and tube are both frozen solid from the air temperatures and wind at this elevation! It does not thaw until I’m below 2500 feet — another three hours.

Trail along Wesser Bald

Trail along Wesser Bald

Climbing Wesser Bald from the south is easy, descending Wesser Bald to the north is a bear! I cannot imagine going up what I am going down. Parts of it are reminiscent of Albert Mountain in reverse, just a lot longer. One section is fairly level traversing a narrow ridge. The upper portion is extremely rocky, and ridiculously steep in places, but the trail (again reminiscent of Albert Mountain) is also very picturesque — narrowly snaking among lichen encrusted boulders and gnarled, corkscrewed shrubs. It feels like an adventure, looking for treasure, Tolkienian. One reward is The Jumpoff, where the trail switchbacks at a cluster of rocks jutting off the ridge line with a spectacular view.

Wesser’s descent is also very tiring and trying on the knees. I cannot wait to reach Nantahala Outdoor Center in the gorge where I hope to rent a room for the night, pick up a small resupply, and eat pizza at River’s End restaurant. At 3:30, I walk through the doors of the outfitter nearly numb with fatigue. The first people I see are “Twisted” and “Marine.” They are clean and fresh from their hotel in Franklin. “Twisted” has two Snickers bars for me!! They are going to the restaurant, and I will meet them there once I’ve secured a room.

The Jumpoff, Wesser Bald

The Jumpoff, Wesser Bald

The process of getting a room at NOC is rather convoluted. You must check in at the market across the street first. The man there determines that there is a bunkhouse room available and sends me to a small house on the backside of their campus across the river to register and pay. Then I walk to my bunkhouse up the hill to drop off my pack and return across the river to the restaurant for pizza. I’ve just added another mile to my total for the day!

“Jean Genie,” “Duffle Miner,” “Twisted,”and “Marine” are finishing their meals. I order a large pizza, and manage to eat only three pieces. Two hikers come in — “Gare Bear” (for Garrett) and his girlfriend “Bear Snack.” They are amateur weight lifters. He’s the guy who ate 10 hotdogs from “Fresh Ground!” Today is “Bear Snack’s” birthday. I offer them two pieces of pizza and let “Marine” and “Twisted” take the rest. I just want to shower and go to bed. That stupid mouse kept me up nearly all night.

I’m sharing a room with Anita (“Turtle”) from Florida. She’s tired of being cold and is going home. She loves day hiking in Colorado and is no slouch on the trail. The A.T. was her first effort at backpacking, and she faced a fear of the dark to do it. This hike didn’t work out, but she is looking forward to trying her new backpacking skills in Colorado.

My knees don’t hurt, but they are achy. I take two ibuprofen before bed — my first and only for this section — and nod off immediately. It is incredibly wonderful to stretch out and sleep uninterrupted.

 

The first spring wildflowers I've seen, Rue Anemone

The first spring wildflowers I’ve seen, Rue Anemone

Day 14, Mar. 22, 10.3 miles  For a distance hiker, your backpack is your home. Everything you need to survive must go in it. I experimented with several gear arrangements before I began the A.T. to find one that utilized the space well and balanced the weight. I wanted a simple scheme that I could reproduce daily. Ha! My previous backpacking experiences have not been long enough for me to fully appreciate just how volatile packs can be. They have their own personalities and moods, cooperative and friendly one day, crabby and mean the next. Gear that fit easily yesterday, simply will not go in today. Packs with five days of food are often slimmer than packs ready for a resupply. It’s maddening.

The last few days my pack has often bothered me physically, hurting my shoulders or hips at various times. When it feels comfortable, I hesitate taking it off for fear it will hurt when I put it back on. I decide to consult with NOC staff to see if there is something I’m doing wrong. Steve measures me, checks the fit, and makes a length adjustment. It seems a bit better.

It’s a six-mile climb out of the Nantahala Gorge to Swim Bald and two more miles to Cheoah Bald. A decent night’s rest helps me hike stronger today despite the 3,300-foot elevation gain. I’m feeling more energetic which positively effects my mood. There are a few steep, rocky sections, but nothing compared to the descent from Wesser yesterday.

Marsh Marigold in Georgia

Marsh Marigold in Georgia

Shortly after leaving NOC, I spot the first spring wildflower of this trip, a tiny Rue Anemone. The whole point of leapfrogging up the trail over two years is to follow the trail through the seasons. Well, I can definitely check winter off the list. However, I’m now worried that I won’t get to experience spring! Monotone browns of leaf litter and pockets of evergreens (Galax, Ground Cedar, Shining Club Moss, Appalachian Rockcap Fern, Mountain Fetterbush, etc.) are all I’ve seen. Winter is still in full control along the trail. The only interesting ‘new’ plant is what I believe to be Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) in and around the streams near Low Gap Shelter in Georgia. The little Rue Anemone is encouraging, but once I get above 2,000 feet, it’s back to the same old bare winter blahs.

I’ve been hiking alone every day, but today I hike for a while with “JP” from Philly. It’s pleasant to chat with someone on trail for a change. I also meet “Roman” and his sweet black lab Carly. Some hikers complain “Roman” is not taking good care of her. She is thin, and he left her tied outside NOC in the cold while he drank beer in the restaurant. He’s having ankle problems and is looking to leave the trail for a week or two to recover. It might be a good break for both of them.

Rock cleft with icicles on steep but beautiful Wesser Bald

Rock cleft with icicles on steep but beautiful Wesser Bald

I got a late start due to my pack adjustment and arrive at Locust Cove Gap campsite around 4:00. I still have energy, but not enough to cover 4.5 miles including the infamously steep Jacob’s Ladder to reach Brown Fork Gap Shelter. It’s been cloudy, breezy, and chilly all day. There is a good chance of rain tonight.

One other couple, “Dragonfly” and “Onyx” are here. I set up my tent a short distance behind theirs. The spring is down a short, steep trail on the opposite side. A length of garden hose runs from a shallow pool upstream over a rock to create an effective outlet for collecting water. What a great idea; it is quite convenient.

More hikers arrive, and the gap is soon home to seven tents. At dusk, little snow pellets begin to fall making a “pic, pic” sound on the rainfly. One couple has a weather radio, the forecast is not encouraging with more rain and temperatures well below average. Snow is expected in the Smokies. Where is spring?!?

Day 15, Mar. 23, 11.6 miles  It rains overnight but stops by 7 a.m. The morning is foggy and chilly; clouds hang around all day. I’m on the trail at 8:30 for a difficult day bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. The trail often follows ridge lines up and over small knobs. At most points, the ‘end’ of the climb is in sight until I crest the knob and find another short climb in front of me. Around the seventh crest, I’m ready to scream if there is no downhill relief.

Mountain Fetterbush engulfed in lichens at the top of "Jacob's Ladder"

Mountain Fetterbush engulfed in lichens at the top of “Jacob’s Ladder”

At Stecoah Gap, I see “Organic” (we talked briefly yesterday) and his friend “Tree Trunk” who is trying finish the A.T. this year, plugging two section ‘holes’ including the Smokies from his 2012 thru-hike attempt. He had his mother’s dog with him and did not want to kennel her while he hiked the park. I stop to eat one of “Twisted’s” Snickers. “Organic” offers me a fresh organic banana and even disposes of the peel for me.

I’m moving much slower today and become cranky. My pack is hurting me again, pulling down hard on my shoulders. I see no other hikers. Long sections of the trail have no blaze, making me wonder if I’ve erred. Other sections cross big boulder fields. Then there is “Jacob’s Ladder.” This part of the trail rises 600 feet in 0.6 mile. Since it has a cool name, I imagine rocks and boulders to scramble, something like Albert Mountain, hard but interesting. No. It’s just a regular leaf-covered trail, slogging one agonizingly tedious footstep after another up an incredibly steep slope.

Trout Lily leaves

Trout Lily leaves

It levels out on top along a narrow, bouldery ridge full of Mountain Fetterbush (Pieris floribunda). Many of the shrubs are so cloaked in lichens, just tufts of green leaves on branch tips are visible.

Despite the drudgery and damp chill, I find a few interesting things to photograph. An old Hygrometer Earthstar still spews spores into the air when tapped. A leaf caught in branches is bleached white, its tissue thin and nearly translucent patterned with netted veins. Shiny maroon Galax leaves complement apple green Fern Moss. Trout Lily leaves hold beads of rain and remind me that spring is still coming…at some point!

"Gare Bear" and "Bear Snack" at Cable Gap Shelter

“Gare Bear” and “Bear Snack” at Cable Gap Shelter

After 7.5 long hours, I make it to Cable Gap Shelter next to the trail in an open valley. All amenities — stream and privy — are close by. “Dragonfly” and “Onyx” are here. It is supposed to rain again tonight, and I opt to sleep in the shelter. I do spread out my tent. It nearly dries by evening. “Gare Bear” and “Bear Snack” stop here (and join us in the shelter) as do several others in tents and hammocks. It is chilly but not cold. It does, however, rain most of the night.

Day 16, Mar. 24, 6.9 miles  For all the bad weather these past two weeks, I can hardly believe the luck I’ve had with rain. Not once have I been caught in anything more than sprinkles and dripping trees. It has rained mostly at night and stopped just after light. This is exactly what happens today. Rain ends by 7 a.m. I’m up at 7:15 and ready to go by 8:00. It’s a short day with The Hike Inn in Fontana at the end. I’m more than ready for a break.

I have no legitimate breakfast to eat this morning and wolf down my second Snickers bar from “Twisted” on the trail. There is a one mile climb out of the gap, but most of the profile for today trends downward, or at least that is the way it appears. Exasperating little uphills insinuate themselves continually. It is all I can do to drag myself up them.

Toadshade

Toadshade

My first view of fog-choked Fontana Lake is heartening, and I am nearly giddy with delight when I see my first Trillium. There are a number of them near the bottom of Bee Cove Lead. Most are still shut tight, but a few are open enough to reveal both Toadshade (Trillium cuneatum) and Yellow Trillium (T. luteum).

These happy moments are very short lived. To be honest, I’m a bit rattled by the fragility of my mental and emotional state. A pair of short climbs after crossing Fontana 28 with less than two miles to go, sends me into a tailspin. During one of these near breakdowns, a young hiker comes up behind me, scaring me half to death. When I reach the dam, I look for the public phone Nancy Hoch (The Hike Inn) told me to use since cell service is not reliable. I don’t see it and check my notes. In utter despair, I realize the phone was two miles back at Highway 28. Powering up my cell, I alternately pray for a signal and hurl such profanities at AT&T (“Searching…”) that I drive off two dam visitors. I manage to piece together enough bits of three phone calls to let Nancy know I’m here.

“Dragonfly,” “Onyx,” and the young hiker who passed me are also going to The Hike Inn. Ensconced in my room, I can relax and empty my pack to prepare for laundry and a shower. That’s when I get a good look at myself in the mirror. Suddenly, many things start to make sense. I haven’t looked this thin since the aftermath of my husband’s death. There is not an ounce of body fat on me. Collarbones, ribs, and hip bones are prominent. It wasn’t my pack’s fit that was off, it was my flesh! Struggles to meet daily mileages, slowing pace, excruciating uphills, fragile mental state — the reason is now clear. I am quite literally exhausted, depleted, there is nothing left in the tank. I’m lucky I had enough fumes to get me here!

Hygrometer Earthstar

Hygrometer Earthstar

What to do next becomes an important question. The weather forecast predicts snow the next two days with low temperatures hovering around 30 degrees. It doesn’t look like a big deal here, though the Weather Channel is frothing at the mouth over Winter Storm Virgil. More snow and colder conditions are likely in the Smokies. I’ve already added one day and had reconsidered my earlier plan for the Smokies adding another day there. I’ve got a pad of at least two more days. Taking a zero day to rest and eat here would be wise.

About 4 p.m. there is a knock at the door. It is Susan Sweetser! She, Allen, Allen’s father Clark, and their new dog, Lacy, have come to take me to dinner and brought me two drumsticks, two thighs, and two biscuits from Bojangles! I eat three pieces of chicken and a biscuit as an appetizer. Less than two hours later, we’re sitting in the Mexican restaurant in Robbinsville. I manage to down over half my dinner and two large glasses of milk. The rest of my dinner, a Bojangles thigh, and biscuit, plus a quart of milk and two Snickers bars from the store will be my lunch tomorrow.

The next day (March 25) I wait till midmorning to request my food. It snowed overnight, and The Hike Inn’s phone has been ringing nonstop. Nancy’s husband Jeff just returned from shuttling some hikers and has three breakfast biscuits with bacon, egg and cheese from Bojangles. He offers me one. It smells so good and warm, I cannot resist and sit down to eat with them. Later in the day, Nancy warms my lunch on a plate. It flurries throughout the afternoon, though there is little accumulation.

Weathered leaf

Weathered leaf

The following day’s weather forecast has worsened a bit. It is soon clear that a second zero day will be needed to get on the back side of this snow. Jeff takes me to town that afternoon, and I buy a Wendy’s quarter-pound cheeseburger and medium fries for dinner and two more cheeseburgers for lunch tomorrow, plus a half gallon of whole milk, cheese sticks, beef jerky, two cinnamon buns, bananas, and six Snickers bars at the store. It snows more this evening and overnight. This morning, (March 25) it is snowing heavily and accumulating 4 to 6 inches. When I pick up my burgers from Nancy’s refrigerator, the three of us decide that it might be best for me call the Sweetsers and go home. The snow in the mountains is probably deep. This would surely slow me down if it didn’t stop me altogether. I call Susan, and she takes on the Dragon’s Tail (the roads are fairly clear despite the snow) to pick me up.

I spend the night at the Sweetsers sitting around a vintage wood-burning stove with good friends. The next morning (March 26), I have a flat tire (picked up a screw) and a few frustrating moments when the car wouldn’t start but finally get on the road.

Driving home, I can’t help but feel disappointed and wonder if I’d given up too soon. The Smokies are like my second home. I was looking forward to a comparison of what I’d just completed with the park’s trail. From my A.T. hike in the park last May, I recall a trail in much better condition, both surface and grade, than what I’d been struggling on this last week. Was it just because the weather was warm and I was rested and hiking shorter days or might the park’s A.T. really be better? Was North Carolina really that bad or was I just exhausted with no energy for even a simple uphill? I had been hoping I’d get my old form back in the Smokies, a very unlikely outcome. I probably would have found myself struggling just as much or more given the snow.

When I get home, I learn there was 18” of snow measured on Mt. LeConte and 15” at Newfound Gap. Deeper drifts, particularly on the North Carolina side, were quite likely. Mary told me later that park rangers had to assist several hikers who fell or got bogged down up there. Regardless of my physical condition, I made the right call, and given that condition, there is no question I did not belong in the snow-covered Smokies.

Sunset at Carter Gap

Sunset at Carter Gap

Looking back over the entire event, though, I can say without hesitation that I can hike the Appalachian Trail. There wasn’t a trail condition that I could not handle. My hikes in the park prepared me completely for the A.T. Physically, my body was well prepared too. Feet, knees, hips, and shoulders all performed admirably day in and day out. My pack was heavier than I’d wanted (upper 30s depending on food quantity, water, and wet gear), but that weight posed no problems on the trail. Endurance and stamina in general were not issues either.

There was only one notable weakness — flagging energy from depleted fat stores and deficient caloric intake. The severely cold weather really worked against me here. Precious resources were diverted to simply staying warm. I was in great shape the first week, meeting my daily schedule and hiking stronger than most around me. That changed after the first cold snap. Week two, I tired more easily and became irritated with the trail by mid-afternoon, needing an additional day. By the time I reached Fontana, the toll was complete.

It has taken nearly two weeks of very hearty consumption of high fat and calorie foods — fried chicken, 2% milk, cookies, steak & baked potatoes, ice cream, pastas, and bread — to relieve my craving for fats and finally feel ‘full.’ I plan to continue, with a bit of moderation, to prepare for the next section in a few weeks.

Fontana Lake - the closest I get to the Smokies.

Fontana Lake – the closest I get to the Smokies.

While the cold weather was a significant factor, it probably doesn’t account for everything. Regardless of temperatures, I will need more fat and calories to sustain daily mileages on the A.T. If I expect to reach my trail goals for the year, I cannot risk depleting myself again and am reworking my food plan accordingly. Grit and tenacity alone won’t cut it. More peanut butter, olive oil, and yes, more Snickers should help. I also plan more town stops to “grease up” on all the bad (now good) things I would normally shun.

Finally, I love all parts of the Appalachian Trail experience from the morning and evening ‘chores’ to the slow, steady progression of miles. I enjoy the simplicity of the routine and the satisfaction it brings each day. I wonder how the hikers I met in Georgia and North Carolina are faring and if I might find some of them in Virginia or further north later this summer. Each is hiking individually for his or her own reason, going it alone. Collectively, however, we are a community, and I miss that heartening sense of solidarity — the understanding that a complete stranger is my partner now and forever. I wish my partners well and look forward to seeing them on the trail very soon.

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