When I awoke, I knew that it would be a zero day. Avocado had told me as much the day before. It was a beautiful, clear day, and there were a lot of thru-hikers hanging out on the stoop of the vacation house two doors down from ours. The whole Tribe was there, Candy Pants, Headstand (who was now wearing a tie-dyed, two-piece dress), Two Pack, Goat Man, Animal and Scarecrow. It seemed every time I walked by the stoop, there was someone new sitting on it. The Tribe’s house was located right where the trail emptied out into Damascus, so hikers where easily lured off the trail with the promise of PBR and conversation.
I had a few goals for the day: get resupplied, call Merrell customer service to see if I could score some free replacement Moab shoes, and to attempt to eat as many pancakes as I could. Beetlejuice, Obie, Rocket and I headed to the Blue Blaze Café to tackle their pancake challenge. The winner would have their name on the bottom of the menu until someone beat their record. Rocket and I could only stomach six of the huge pancakes, Obie downed nine, and Beetlejuice beat the record with ten pancakes.
Later on that day, everyone gathered at the Tribe’s house to prepare a massive dinner. I learned that Obie is a professional chef, and I became excited to see what the meal had in store. Everyone from our two houses was there, plus a few who had just been hanging out at the right time. The spread was glorious! There was chicken, baked beans, some sort of kale dish, watermelon, and potatoes. Afterward, we all sat down to a game of Kings, as seems to be the tradition.
I took my sweet time packing up and leaving town. Molly had made doughnuts with her leftover ingredients from the night before, and we all helped clean the vacation home. While asking everyone else’s plans, I learned that Avocado would have to wait another couple of days in town to receive a new pair of shoes from REI, and that Lady was going to wait with him. Rocket wasn’t leaving today either, and Obie and Beetlejuice said they were leaving, but I had a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t. It looked as if I would be leaving town by myself once more.
I packed up and walked down the trail along the street. I stopped and talked to Twigs and Guru on the way out, got a Subway sandwich, and said, “Goodbye” to Damascus, VA. The first few miles out of town were uphill, and I was discouraged to be winded doing them. The trail wound around mountains, and there was one point where water was rushing out of the side of a rock face. Eventually I descended onto the VA Creeper Trail, which is a bike trail that used to be rail road tracks. There was a man sitting on a bench there who greeted me, so I decided to stop and talk to him. His trail name was Crash, and he was a very talkative but friendly section hiker.
After Crash and I spoke for a while, we got up and headed down the Creeper Trail together. Eventually we fell out of pace, but we were both headed for the next shelter. Once I got there, I saw some of the faces I saw in Damascus, but I also saw Red Knees! I didn’t recognize him at all at first, since he had shaved his beard he had been nurturing since I met him at Hawk Mountain shelter. The rest of the night we all just hung out around the fire, as usual.
One of the first things I noticed about this day was that it seemed to be on the brink of rain. The day would threaten rain all morning, which I didn’t care for. I would be entering the Grayson Highlands today, and I didn’t want this weather! Slightly disgruntled, I packed up and headed out after most everyone else.
The first major obstacle for the day was White Top Mountain, which I had hiked once before during the Appalachian Trail Institute. I figured I wouldn’t get any views, so I didn’t really get excited as I climbed up the switchbacks of the mountain. As I reached the top, I noticed that the peak was inside a cloud; awesome. What I didn’t count on was it being windy up there, again. Luckily, I had already put on my rain jacket, because I doubt I would have stopped to put it on otherwise. I emerged from the trees onto the bald where I was almost immediately punched with a fist of wind. It was a struggle to keep upright, and since it was so foggy, I couldn’t see how far I had to go. It got so cold that I had to pull my buff over my face. When I finally reached the opposite tree line, I looked down and noticed that I was soaked! The wind had just blown the cloud right into me. On the other end I saw Crash fiddling with his phone, soaking wet. He said he was going to check in with his daughter, and this was one of the few places he had found service to get a call out.
I headed down the mountain, and the weather had not improved at all. It was still cloudy and looked to be on the verge of rain. I just pressed on, starting to accept the fact that my Grayson Highlands experience was just going to be crappy. I got into a rhythm, and soon I found myself at a parking lot in the fog. I recognized the lot, but I wasn’t sure how I had gotten there. I had done this section before, but this lot came after some other scenery I must have missed during the day. It was windy once again, and I decided to sit down on a nearby rock to eat lunch. The wind tried hard to scatter my lunch everywhere as I munched on peanut butter and honey tortillas and snickers bars.
I arose and walked across the road to rejoin the trail. I knew my next stop would be the Mt. Rogers summit, and it seemed like I just wouldn’t have any luck today with the weather. I walked through the fog until I came to Thomas Knob shelter, where I saw Otto and Hangman sitting inside. They were calling it a short day at the two-story shelter because Hangman had a mail drop he was early for. I stopped and talked with them for a while before pressing on.
As I left the Mt. Rogers summit area, I noticed some brown spots in the distance, a little ways off the trail. Ponies! Finally, something good was happening. I walked off the trail and got in these ponies’ faces with my camera, while they munched away on grass and weeds. They didn’t seem to care one bit that I was there, so I took full advantage of snapping pictures and filming them.
I knew my next obstacle would be the Grayson Highlands balds, and when I arrived at them I was still inside of a cloud. The terrain here made it even worse, as there were so many rocks to walk over. The fog was now so dense that I couldn’t see but 60 yards in front of me, but I was still able to make out the white blazes on the rocks. I crossed paths with a few day hikers and section hikers as I made my way north across the highlands. I also got to see some more ponies, which were grazing right on the trail.
By the time I was in the woods once more, I was in a pretty foul mood. I had spent the whole day getting blown around, dodging mud, and rock hopping; I was exhausted. I pulled into Wise shelter expecting a crowd, but instead there was just one section hiker there named “Tick Spit.” He had attempted a thru-hike the year before and didn’t make it all the way. Talking to Tick Spit bordered on depressing and discouraging. He had quit because he found himself in between hiker bubbles too often, and getting lonely. That actually described how I felt about my current situation, and I could feel myself starting to doubt. I decided that loneliness was the newest challenge to overcome in Virginia, when other hikers start dropping out, one by one. I was finally getting some insight into why the Virginia Blues exists. Luckily, Two Sticks showed up a bit later and lightened the mood a bit.
Even though it was a day full of crappy weather and small annoyances, I felt pride in the face that Wise shelter marked 500 miles exactly. I victoriously played the chorus to “I Would Walk 500 Miles” by The Proclaimers in my head.
The next day was a nicer one. It was kind of chilly when it started out, but soon the sun was out for the final leg of my Grayson Highlands experience. I was finally able to see one bald, and I was grateful for it. I descended out of Grayson into the woods, and on the way down to the next shelter I met a trail maintainer. I spoke to him for a bit, and he told me he was building some drainage into the trail. I always hated it when the trail became a soupy mess, so I thanked him for his work and moved on.
When I came to Old Orchard shelter, I had already come six miles. I planned on doing another 14 before calling it a day. I spent most of it by myself, and I tried to get into a rhythm for the day so that the miles didn’t creep by. I walked past Hurricane Mountain shelter, beside streams, all while wearing my headphones. I was either going to make it to a random campsite, or to Trimpi shelter before the day was over. I crossed the road at Dickey Gap and started uphill. I saw Dreamer on his phone at the top, and he told me that there were several others headed for Trimpi shelter. I decided to book it there, hoping I would get a spot inside.
As it turned out, there was plenty of space. The guidebook told me there was no camping, but there were plenty of camping spots. Dreamer and Couch set up their tents, so there were empty spaces inside the shelter for Pig Pen, Sonny, and me. While we were all talking, I learned that Sonny had started ridiculously early and had a lot of trouble along the way. He had too much weight, and he had gotten hypothermia. He is an older, retired man, and since then he had learned his lesson. He returned to the trail with armed with experience, and is having a much better time of it now.
I awoke knowing I would probably only make it ten miles that day. I was very close to Marion, and one of the most famous shelters on the AT was coming up. Partnership shelter was a multi-level shelter with showers, but the best part was that you could order pizza to it from the nearby Mt. Rogers Visitor Center. Of course, I had to go ten miles to get there.
Along the way, I stopped and talked to Couch from the previous shelter. He had hiked last year, but left off around 600 miles in. It always makes me uneasy to hear people talk about why they left the trail. I haven’t had any serious thoughts about quitting, but I can’t be sure how my mindset will change as I go further north. Clearly people who quit enjoyed their journey at one point, but then the magic was gone for one reason or another. It’s so very important to have good reasons to be out here. It can’t be just about the social experience, because sometimes you’re alone. It can’t be about solitude, because sometimes you need people around you. It can’t just be about hiking itself, because that becomes a routine very similar to the one you had at work. It can’t be just about the freedom of not having a schedule, because then you don’t finish. My journey so far has been about personal growth. It was a cool realization when I looked back at the trip and saw that I was overcoming various challenges without really thinking about it. I definitely have many more to go.
Anyway, after ten miles I arrived at Partnership shelter. Backtrack was there, along with a lot of other hikers I hadn’t met before. Barbarosa, Buffalo, Tex, and Splash were a few. I needed to get resupplied in Marion, so I decided to see if I could hitch into town. I walked down to the visitor’s center and I saw Awpa and Danno! They were heading back into town to avoid the rain after spending a night there. They had called a cab to meet them, and offered me a ride and a spot in their hotel room. Of course, I accepted. The rest of the day was spent charging my phone and typing up a blog post at McDonald’s, and hanging out with Awpa, Danno, Otto and Hangman.
I took a zero the next day because of rain, and because Twigs, Guru and Red Knees showed up in town. I resupplied, watched tv, and ate stuff. It was also Cinco de Mayo, all the hikers in the vicinity went down to the local Mexican restaurant that evening. It was a fun time, and afterward, more Kings was played in Twigs and Guru’s hotel room.
I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to get out of Marion, even though it was raining again. I figured I just couldn’t escape the rain, and I just have to deal with it sometimes. I hopped a ride on the 50 cent bus back to the visitor’s center. On the bus I met Six7 (who is 6’ 7’’), White Russian, and Mooch, who were also bound for the visitor’s center. At the first break in the rain, I was back on the trail.
The terrain was fairly standard, and wasn’t too hard. The hard part came when I needed to cross little streams. I say little, but what I really meant was that they were miniature versions of raging rivers that I actually needed to ford. The first one I came to I studied for a while, trying to discern the best way to cross without getting my feet wet. I judged that the stream was more easily managed up from the trail, but I would need to crouch a bit and toss my poles across the stream. I threw the first one but it caught some branches and plummeted straight into the current. I watched in horror as my pole swiftly drifted downstream, cursing myself for thinking this was a good idea. Luckily, it caught on the fording rocks (which were basically underwater, don’t judge me for not using them) and stayed. After breathing a sigh of relief, I tossed the other more successfully and tried to step across with my pack on. I did make it across without getting wet at least, and I went to retrieve my pole from the rocks. While bending down to grab it, my foot slipped and was submerged anyway. Frustrated, I decided that I would never work that hard to cross a stream again, and just walk through.
I had many more opportunities to test my new policy on the way to Chetfield shelter. Once there, I was greeted by Barbarosa and Splash, who I met at Partnership shelter. They were zeroing out of the rain in the shelter, because it was cheaper. I took off my shoes and socks to try to let them dry, and before long Six7, White Russian and Mooch joined us at the shelter. They were heading further, past Atkins, but first they were stopping in town to eat at a restaurant that was practically on the trail. I decided to join them and hiked out soon after.
The three of them were fast hikers. I had trouble keeping up. We walked through lots of soggy trail and raging streams. I had a very prominent “squish” sound every time I took a step by the time I reached Atkins, VA. We emerged from the trail, and walked up the street to The Barn Restaurant, which held the promise of a 16oz burger. I decided to go with an 8oz instead, but later I regretted it. I could have easily downed a pound of beef. While we were there, we charged our phones and checked the weather. We had planned on doing some night hiking, and it was meant to thunderstorm up on the mountains something fierce. After much deliberation, we decided to get a room at the Relax Inn down the street.
Once at the hotel, we got a room for the four of us that was probably meant for two people. There was about two feet of space between the beds and the dresser, and the tv was up on the wall on a swivel like in a hospital room. All was not lost, because the tv worked and we found Cartoon Network.
We packed out early, and set out to hike 23 miles to Chestnut Knob shelter. We had to cross the interstate, under an overpass, and into another pasture. The ground was still so wet from the rain, and my feet continued to be soggy forever. However, the pasture was beautiful, so it all balanced out. The sky threatened to dump on us for most of the day, but it wasn’t till I was reflecting on how pleasant of a day it had been did it decide to actually unleash a thunderstorm.
The storm lasted only a little while, but I was pretty wet at the end of it all. That was okay; I can handle thunderstorms, because they don’t last a long time. By the end of the day, I had one last bit of hard work to do, but I didn’t realize it was coming. I had a five mile uphill to tackle, and it was definitely a battle this time. I caught Mooch having a snack on a log about halfway up, so I stopped and chatted with him. I discovered that he was a graphic designer back in Germany, which actually didn’t surprise me that much. Mooch had sleeve tattoos on his arms, symmetrical Sonic the Hedgehog tattoos, and gauge piercings in his ears and nose. Basically, he had the look. We related a bit on website development, and headed on our way. We talked the rest of the way to the shelter, and it was a fun conversation. We crested the hill, and had some great views on the bald all the way to Chestnut Knob.
When we reached Chestnut Knob, I saw that it was a pretty awesome shelter. It was basically a stone cabin, with bunks inside and a door. It also had a spectacular view outside. It didn’t rain any more the rest of the night, and it was a very pleasant evening.
I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof. I was not in the mood. I woke, and took my time leaving. I was meant to go another 20+ day, and the prospect of walking in the rain did not move me. I was basically the last out of the shelter, and I left very reluctantly. I seriously considered taking a zero or nearo at the shelter, and I really should have. But I was trying to meet family in Pearisburg in a few days, and so I stepped out into the rain.
The next ten miles made me… upset. I walked several hours in a steady rain. I passed Mooch along the way, who seemed to be fairly indifferent to the rain. I decided not to stop ever until I reached the next shelter, where I would take a long break. When I finally arrived, I took off all of my wet things, put on dry things, and set up my sleeping pad and bag. I ate lunch, got out my kindle and lost myself in the world of Westeros while sipping some coffee. I decided that I would not move any more for the rest of the day. Mooch showed up, ate his marshmallow, Nutella, candy bar in a tortilla concoction and moved on.
The rest of the day I was content to stay in my sleeping bag and read. Eventually some other people stopped in, but there were only two of us in the shelter. Dreamer tented outside, and Rosy Eagle shared the shelter with me. He was an older man, well past the age of retirement. I asked him when he became interested in the trail, and he said it was back in the 50’s. He said he remembered sending off to the ATC for information on the trail, back when the southern terminus was at Mt. Ogelthorpe instead of Springer. He had also southbounded once before starting his northbound trip. It reminded me that the trail is a piece of American history, and I remember how proud I was to take part in it.
The next day was finally clear, beautiful and warm; a perfect hiking day. While hiking uphill, I reevaluated my plan to meet family in Pearisburg on the weekend. I was already behind, and Mother’s Day was coming up soon. I decided to call home and ask for a pickup in Bland, VA instead. Mom and I decided to rendezvous in Bland, and the rest of the day I looked forward to a reprieve from the trail on the weekend.
When I descended into a campsite by a parking lot, I saw a sign for trail magic! I hadn’t had much of that in a while, so I was eager to find it. I came off the trail into a parking lot where Dreamer sat in a folding chair with the two trail angels. They were from Pennsylvania, and gave trail magic in honor of a former thru-hiker and son-in-law who died of cancer at an early age. They had researched and judged that this would be a good spot, and they were right because the shelters and towns were rather awkwardly spaced in this section. The day just kept getting better and better.
I finally emerged onto a gravel road, which fed into US 52. The trail followed the road for several miles in that section, and you could get into Bland and Bastian, VA from 52. As I came out onto the road, I needed to figure out how to get into Bland, and I wasn’t even sure what direction it was. I was about to knock on some doors there at the trail head, when a Land Rover pulled up right beside me. The window slid down and a cool, British voice called out, “hello, my name is TruBrit, perhaps you’ve heard of me?” His house, named Fort Bastian, was described in the book as a place you could camp for free, so I had definitely heard of him. I replied that I had, and that I needed a ride into Bland. He happened to be going that way so I hopped in. He drove me into town and I unloaded my pack from his trunk. He went to shake my hand and I went for the “hiker-handshake” fist bump which I thought was universally known among the hiker community. Of course, to my dismay, we each decided to adjust to the other’s action. I was left with an open hand and TruBrit’s hand was in a fist. We finally worked it out, and I put the awkward situation behind me.
I now had a long wait ahead of me. Mom couldn’t make it until after 4:00, so I sat around for a few hours reading Game of Thrones and eating copious calories. I was sitting in a Dairy Queen attached to a gas station when I turned around to see the blue Honda CR-V that dropped me off two months ago sitting in the parking lot. Mom was on her way inside, waving excitedly. We each gave each other a tight hug with a big smile, and we hop in the car and head home. When I got there, I got to see my dad, sister, brother-in-law, and my little niece.
Days 50, 51, and 52
The next day I hung out with my friends and fellow thru-hikers Bottle Cap and Fun Size for most of the day. It was great to see them, since I hadn’t gotten to meet them on the trail at all. We related over our respective trail stories, and realized that we knew some of the same hikers. Over the weekend, I picked up my new pair of Moabs from the post office in Pearisburg, and then went shopping for a new backpack. I settled on a Deuter ACT 50 + 15, which had just the right amount of space I wanted, but was about 1lb lighter than my Gregory pack. Most important of all, it fit me better than my Gregory. The weight was distributed over my hips where it needed to be, instead of on my shoulders. I could hardly wait to try it out.
Mom appreciated me being home for Mother’s Day. I appreciated being home as well. It was nice to be off the trail and back in the old life for a bit.
The Trail Days festival would be in Damascus the following weekend, so I planned to go back into the woods for a little while before then and finish the hike up to Pearisburg. Mom drove me back to Bland, and I hopped right back on the trail where TruBrit picked me up. I was super-excited to put the new pack through its paces, and so far it was holding up great. I had gotten my pack weight down a little, but the weight rode totally on my hips and not on my shoulders ever.
I decided to hike two shelters down to Jenny Knob. Not a very big day, but that was alright. Along the way I met Son Driven, Peaches and Emperor. I stopped at Jenny Knob and saw Sonny again, but I didn’t stay there. I had mind to push on much further, but settled on a small campsite along a very convenient stream. Bluegrass was there with his dog Bella and his dad, and so was Salsa. Not long after I showed up, Peaches and Emperor settled in, and then Splash and Buffalo came rolling in after them.
I awoke and broke camp. My first stop was Trent’s Grocery on my way to Woods Hole Hostel 20 miles away. When I came out onto the road, I saw Emperor there looking discouraged. He had gotten bad shin splints, and was looking for a way to get to Pearisburg. I suggested walking to Trent’s Grocery together, and maybe he could call out or get a ride from there. We walked to the small convenience store/restaurant, and we both got a plate of incredibly greasy pork bbq, and a milkshake. When I was done, I said bye to Emperor and wished him the best with his injury.
The rest of the day was pretty long, because I was really looking forward to Woods Hole. I had read about it in blogs and in the guidebook, and it seemed like one of the most awesome places I would ever visit. Of course, I had another 15 miles between me and it. Fortunately, a lot of the terrain was easy and quick. There was a nine mile section of flat ground with a cushion of pine needles that ran parallel to a large stream. Toward the end of the day, I was getting pretty exhausted. There was a nice view when I climbed to the highest elevation for the day, but then I had to clamber over some rocks which made my feet hurt. By the end of the day, I was walking through a section that looked like it had been burned recently. The scorched earth made the landscape feel alien and ominous.
I stepped out onto the gravel road that led a half-mile down to Woods Hole, and I knew I needed to stop soon. My feet hurt, and I was exhausted. I limped down the road and walked up the driveway to the house. It was a converted 1800’s cabin, with a bunkhouse off to the side and campground up the hill. There were animals everywhere: pigs and goats were fenced in, but chickens, a dog and cats roamed free. There lots of other hikers there as well. I walked up to the circle of people around the fire, and I got such strange looks. The entire Tribe was seated there, and they were looking at me like I was a Bear in an argyle sweater, pondering advanced physics. “Waffles?” Two Pack half-asked, half-greeted. Apparently, they had all thought I was way ahead of them.
Once that bit of awkward was over, we all hung out and waited for dinner to start. I had arrived at about 6:00, so I was worried I would miss it. Fortunately, I was just in time for a massive pasta dinner. All the meals at Woods Hole were served community style, and there was soooooo muuuuuch foooooood. Before dinner, we held hands and told everyone our trail name, where we were from, and something we were thankful for. Evidently this only happens when there are more than 40 people staying at the hostel at a time. Woods Hole was definitely the awesome place I thought it would be.
The next day I woke up early to make sure I got breakfast. Most everyone else was up similarly early and milling about. I took the opportunity to explore the house a little bit. I spent some time with Candy Pants, Monk, and Coach looking over various coffee table books. One of the books was a collection of artistic photography that was all trail related. It was awesome to look through the book and be able to name places, and get a snapshot of the life I’m living.
Breakfast started in a similar fashion to dinner. No one was in a hurry to leave afterward. The Tribe was getting picked up and taken to Roanoke before Trail Days, and everyone else seemed to be staying for a zero day. I had made plans to leave and meet my sister and bro-in-law for dinner that night, so I had ten miles to go to reach Pearisburg and get picked up.
I settle up with the hostel, and head back up the trail. It was an easy ten miles, and by the afternoon I had made it pretty close to Pearisburg. I passed a powerline and got a pretty good view on top of the mountain. Just past that, I ran into Two Sticks and we talked for a little while as I ate a little lunch. Just a little ways past, I came to another spectacular view. I sat there with Two Sticks for a little while, talking further. I could see the whole valley, and I just watched the birds glide around. Just a little ways past that spot was Angel’s Rest, which afforded a good view of Pearisburg below.
It was a steep descent into Pearisburg. I wondered how much it sucked for southbounders to make the climb up from Pearisburg. When Two Sticks and I reached the bottom, we almost immediately got a ride from a local man. It was a little awkward at first. He pulled up to us, but since he didn’t have power windows in his truck he just sat there looking at us expectantly. Two Sticks finally walked over to the car and opened the door, and the fellow said, “goin’ ter Pearisburg?” We said yeah, and he said, “well you better git in.” He drove us to the Food Lion where we could get resupplied.
Once we arrived at the Food Lion, we noticed there was a Goodwill right next door. We browsed and settled on new shorts. I found a pair of what I assume was some kid’s gym shorts, which were blue and shiny. Once we were done, Two Sticks immediately donated the shorts he wore that day.
Once Brian (my bro-in-law) showed up, he drove Two Sticks back to the trail, and me back to Christiansburg for dinner.