Virginia: Pearisburg to Waynesboro
May 17, 2004
The clouds of yesterday had faded and the pale light of early morning in southern Appalachia heralded the start of the day. I was up early eating doughnuts and waiting for the postoffice to open. I had to retrieve my bounce bucket and get some new maps for the run up to Waynesboro. Time clicked by and I waited impatiently, wanting to be out hiking in the beautiful morning air rather than sitting in the motel room watching news and eating doughnuts. Finally the time came and I walked out to the PO, where Batch, Little Tree, and EZ-DOES-It were milling about, also waiting for the PO to open. 8:30 finally came and the workers started processing hikers. No, no mail for you, was the response. Ugh. I filled out a missing parcel form and gave a forwarding address for Troutville, a few days walk north, and walked back to the motel, a little dejected. I didn't really need the maps, but they would have been nice.
I checked out and headed out of town, crossing the New River and beginning the big climb out of Pearisburg toward Pearis Mountain. Despite the cool air, the sweat was starting to flow well when I ran in EZ-DOES-IT taking a break by the side of the trail. I stopped to talk for a while and then we set off together to finish the last bit of the climb. This was his first thruhike with an ultralight set up and he was loving it. Not only were the days easier, but his body was feeling stronger than it ever had, without the normal knee problems experienced by many thruhikers.
We topped out near Rice Field shelter and started the gorgeous, open ridge walk with constant, 360 degree views of the surrounding land. This was almost PCT like! At a small spring we ran into another hiker named White Lightning. White Lightning took a look at EZ-DOES-IT and erupted. They had hiked together last year before White Lightning hopped off the trail due to a lack of funds and their meeting here was a matter of pure, happy coincidence. The three of us set off together as clouds started to form along the ridgeline, threatening us with occasional drops of rain.
An inviting oak tree with a little fire ring, a choice campsite, invited us for lunch and so we stopped to eat what would normally be considered a terrible lunch. For distance hikers, it was standard. I made Nutella burritos. EZ-DOES-IT opened a tin of deviled ham spread and ate it with crackers, followed by spoonfuls of Nutella. White Lightning doubled up on peanut butter spread on granola bars. High calories, high fat, minimal weight.
I set off alone, leaving the two others at the oak tree and meandered along the ridge, which unfortunately disappeared when the trail dropped down toward the valley below. White Lightning caught up to me a little later and we strolled along talking about what we do in the off-season, and the best ways to stay active while still having to work a job. How to finance the summer activities and the like. It doesn't cost much, in terms of dollars, to thruhike. It does cost time, and that is hard to come by for a lot of people.
We rolled into Pine Swamp branch shelter around 5:30, where Yoda and the Mad Scientist were laying in their sleeping bags, a dog with them. We chatted a bit while I cooked dinner and White Lightning set up his tent. He and EZ-DOES-IT were staying here for the night, while I was going to push on a little further in the cool of early evening. EZ showed up about a half hour later, forming a veritable hiker conventiion at the small shelter. After gulping down my dose of ramen for the day and resting a bit, I set off with a message from Yoda for some friends of his that were about two weeks ahead on the trail, never to see EZ or White Lightning again. And I was the poorer for it.
Although passing through pleasant forest, with plenty of flowering shrubs, the trail bounced up and down and I was quickly soaked in sweat. I was aiming for Bailey Gap shelter, but when I reached it, after a 10 minute detour downhill for water, I found it packed full. Not just the shelter, but also all the flat ground around it. Perhaps 14 people were jammed in, which didn't really fit in with my ideas of a nice place to spend the night. So, dejectedly, I headed back out on to the trail, hoping that I would reach a bit of flat ground on which to camp soon. I was losing light and needed to find something soon. While I passed a fair amount of flat, cleared areas, there were rocks strewn throughout, forcing me to continue my march on into the night. Finally, with the last bit of light (around 8:40), I reached a stream and followed it up hill to an old road, by which I pitched my tarp. On rocks. Lathered in sweat and sleeping on hard, uneven ground, I was not exactly happy with my choice of sleeping quarters for the night. Lesson learned. Yet again, the AT is not the PCT. I need to find a spot well before nightfall. Otherwise, I'll have to sleep on rocks. It finally dawned on me why hammocks are so popular on the AT.
I was rolling early in the morning, partly because I wanted to hike, but also because of the discomfort of my bedroom for the night. I was glad to see the rocky land continuing, as the worst thing you can see after choosing a bad campsite is a nice one just down the road the next morning. Early morning was rapidly becoming my favorite time on the AT, as the trail was quiet and empty and the light would cascade softly through the canopy of trees that formed much of the AT.
Near Wind Rock the trail began to lose its rocky nature and I ran into my first hikers of the day, just breaking camp at a perfect spot. I lost myself in the morning hiking, forgetting where I was at the time and just was. It was the first real time on the AT that I had managed this, and when I rolled into Laurel Creek shelter for lunch it was with a rather pleasant feeling inside. The spell was broken by the fun company at the shelter, consisting of Huff and Puff (section hikers), Tree Frog (a thruhiker), and Strider (another thruhiker). We sat around and chatted for a while before I set off with a big climb ahead and the hottest part of the day looming. As if to taunt me, the trail wound through woods for a while, then delayed the climb further by traversing through hot, open pastures, though thankfully devoid of cows at the moment. Finally, I got to the climb and took the usual AT beating of a steep trail sans switchbacks. But, there was a reward at the top in the form of a nice long ridge walk with minimal elevation gain. I sat down to rest, tired and sweaty, and only when I got up did I realized that I had collapsed in a patch of poison ivy. Marvelous.
The trail ran the ridge and, about half way through, took to a set of rocky cliffs that formed a sort of knife-edge an some of the best trail of the summer. Exactly the kind I like: Open and expansive views, interesting footing, and flowers. I was starting to tire, and getting hungry, when the knife edge eded and the trail started to drop down toward Niday shelter, my nominal home for the night. I didn't want another rocky spot, and shelters always have some cleared areas where I could throw up my tarp. I was glad to reach the shelter at 6:15 and find plenty of space, unlike the previous night. Spot, from Pearisburg, was there, along with Choo-Choo, Ruth, and another woman thruhiker. I plopped down on the stairs of the shelter and fixed dinner in silence, just wanting some calories. When I broke out my jar of nutella and started spreading it on some big cookies, I got the attention of Ruth and the other woman, who thought this rather grand. Conversation started immediately, and it was as if we had known each other for more than the hour we actually had. Although it was only 7:15, and I had been entertaining thoughts of putting up a 30 mile day today, I decided that the company was good enough and I was tired enough to warrant staying the night. Ruth and I hunted around a bit and found a nice sheltered spot for my tarp, complete with soft, clear ground. After pitching the tarp I returned to shelter to chat with the other hikers, and it eventually came out that I had hiked the PCT last summer. Spot, Ruth, and the other woman stayed up with me until hiker midnight (9 pm) talking about various trail things and the differences between the AT and PCT. But, mostly we just enjoyed each others company for the small time we had been allotted together. This is an aspect of the AT that isn't present on the PCT. Every night I get new company, some good, some bad. But, always new and always with shared, common experiences. People that can understand me, that I do not have to explain the why to.
Spot beat me out of the shelter this morning, passing me as I washed out my socks in a small stream near the shelter. Easy and pleasant hiking greeted me, but I wasn't happy. The contentedness of the evening had vanished with the rising sun and there was nothing that I could do to recover it. I stopped for a while at a monument to Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, to try to recover mentally. A hiker showed up and sat down on the bench next to me. We sat in silence. I just couldn't get my mind right, and the presence of another wasn't helping. I ate a granola bar hoping for a miracle through its oats, and then set off again, trying to focus on the end of the day. I had something nice in mind. If I hiked strong, I could reach MacAfee Knob, a famous viewpoint, in time for sunset. Plus, the Dragon's Tooth, another viewpoint was ahead and I had a road crossing with a store on it to look forward to. I passed up Spot, but another thruhiker, with some hard to pronounce Navajo name, ran me down and eventually passed me on a downhill run to Trout Creek, where I picked up some water for the haul up to Dragon's Tooth.
I worked hard to gain elevation, and Ruth and Spot passed me on the uphill climb. I was tiring physically, which didn't help my weak mental state. One foot in front of the other, I kept telling myself. I hate hiking this way. I passed Ruth on a break and, despite moving hard, reached Dragon's Tooth about a half hour later than expected. While there was a nice view, the pillar of rock that gave the place its name was rather uninspiring. I've seem more interesting rocks in rest areas in Utah.
After a thirty minute break, I started the rocky, scrambling descent down from the Dragon's Tooth. Hot and thirsty, I was decidedly unhappy. The awkward footing and the hot afternoon added to my poor mindset. Thirst set in, which didn't help either. The 2.5 mile descent took me 90 minutes to complete, and I reached the road not knowing what I wanted to do. A hostel was close and I could easily call it a day here, using the afternoon to refocus. Out of water, I decided to go to the store and get something to drink there.
I walked the road, being passed by a few cars, and reached the store to find five hikers hanging about. They recommended a hot sandwich, which turned out to be fairly good. Washed down with copious amounts of iced tea, it really helped alot. I sat around and talked to the Rat Pack, for that is what they called themselves, for a while, but they left before I was ready to face the trail again. I sat on the concrete and tried to pull myself together. I drank down a liter of grapefruit juice and decided to skip the hostel in favor of MacAfee Knob.
Although still thirsty and tired, I was beginning to feel better mentally and the various ups and downs on the way to Catawba shelter started to feel minor, rather than hard. I had started the day strong physically but weak mentally. Now, my mind was getting stronger, as I approached the Knob, but my body was now quite weak. At the shelter I found the Rat Pack and Ruth, who had avoided the store, along with the family with the cute daughter that I had last seen before Pearisburg. The daughter had gotten hurt so they had skipped around a bit and were rather surprised to see me again. I sat and cooked dinner, trying to gather my strength for the short climb up to MacAfee Knob. The Rat Pack and Ruth started formulating plans to hit the Knob at sunrise, which I thought rather poor: It is very, very hard for a thruhiker to wake up before sunrise, pack, and hike, just to make a sunrise at a pretty place. After all, the trail is long. There will be another one. Or, so the reasoning goes.
Well fed and rested, I said my goodbyes, knowing that I would not see them in the morning, and set off with a thunder toward the Knob. Gentle trail helped, as did the fact that I was starting to race the sun. Legs pumping and heart beating strong, I powered up the trail for the Knob, which I found empty of people and with twenty minutes to go before sunset. Perfect timing, perfect weather. The heat of the afternoon had passed and it was now cool, with a pleasant breeze on the outcropping of rock that forms MacAfee Knob.
Perfect light on the cliffs, with long views out into the valley. I almost proclaimed it the equal of Mount Cammerer, in the Smokys, until I had a sit to look further out. Everywhere there was some bit of development. Not just farms, but towns, places, roads, things man made. The view from Mount Cammerer does take in an interstate, but nothing else of note (until nightfall comes and you can see the lights of various towns. The view bothered me as I sat on the cliffs, cooling off. Here, on one of the most famed lookouts on the AT, one could see the complete and utter lack of wilderness that the AT moves through. Certainly a pretty view, but one in which the eye is drawn to the hand of man rather than the hand of God. I stayed on the rock thinking until near darkness, then shouldered my pack and raced for Cambell shelter, just a little distance down the trail. I had thought about camping illegally, right on the rock (how can putting on a sleeping bag on a rock face be considered anything but No Trace?), but decided against it. If Ruth and the Rat Pack somehow got up early enough, I didn't want them to find me sleeping on their reward.
At the shelter was a woman hiker named Mouse and two Brits, who were in a tent nearby. I said my hellos and spent a few minutes stretching out before retiring to my sleeping bag. I felt strong and powerful now, and if there was day light around I could have rumbled another six miles or so. But, then I would miss another famous view from the Tinker Cliffs, not far in the future. And that was something I did not want to do.
Mouse snored heavily most of the night, which meant my ears were aching (from the earplugs) in the morning, which in turn helped me get an early start and a shot at the early morning light at Tinker Cliffs. Cool air, good sky, and an easy trail made the 6 am start painless. But, I was pushing hard for the cliffs and, when I reached them an hour later I was fully lathered. I should be used to it by now, this constant dampness on the AT. While the cliffs were nice, I had missed the sunrise and the views were about the same as from MacAfee Knob: Farms, roads, developments. Not wilderness. I sat for ten minutes on a cliff edge before beginning the run down to Troutville.
The AT began to bounce alot, needlessly, bringing back the lather that had abated during my brief sojourn at Tinker Cliffs. Rather than contouring around the side of viewless hills, the trail builders had decided to route it up an over each of them. I didn't quite understand the reasoning behind this. Perhaps they were worried about erosion and a trail up and over is more durable than a trail around the side. Or, perhaps it is simply cheaper and easier to build the vertical trail. For whatever reason, I was glad to finally reach the descent-proper to Tinker Creek, where Annie Dillard wrote her famous book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Just past Tinker Creek the AT ran into the I-81 interchange, where a convenience store sat. I bought a 32 oz. grapefruit juice and walked back to the trail to have a sit and a drink. A few locals passed me, commuting on the trail, it seems, to the convenience store, as they re-passed me a few minutes later.
After my rest, I continued on the AT to where it struck yet another road, which I carefully walked along to get into Troutville. Of course, rain came and I was deluged for the 20 minute walk to the postoffice, with cars splashing me as I moved along the shoulder. I didn't even try to hitch. As expected, the bounce bucket was not at the PO, so I filled out a mail forwarding form for Waynesboro and went to the small grocery store to resupply. One of the clerks sympathized with me greatly: She had seen me walking in the rain as she was driving into work and felt rather sorry for me. I was feeling sorry for myself anyways, and this didn't help much. There were no restaurants anywhere close to Troutville (except back on the interchange), so I bought a box of Velveeta Shells and Cheese and a tin of canned Spam spread to add to it. What a marvelous lunch I cooked for myself in the parking lot (next to a fine ice cooler) as I repackaged the supplies that would get me to Waynesboro. I really tried not to be down on the AT, but it was hard in the parking lot not to do so. One row of the Double Stuft Oreos that I bought wouldn't fit in my ziplock bag, forcing me to eat them down (that helped).
Fed and ready, I felt better about hiking and, instead of taking the road back, I jumped onto the railroad tracks and took them back to where I had left the AT for Troutville. Far, far more pleasant than the road walk. The rain had long since passed and it was actually pleasant out, even with my heavy pack, as the humidity had been washed from the air. Again the AT quickly brought forth a strong lather and by the time I reached the first shelter out from the road I was as wet as I had been when I rolled into the postoffice. Pablo and Laura, two thruhikers were there and made fun chatting companions for the forty five minutes I spent resting. With plenty of daylight left, I was not about to stop for the day now that I was feeling strong.
I put my spare socks on my hands, like mittens, to try to get them to dry a little faster and set off down the trail. Pleasant (that word again) views and easy walking before the AT resumed its bouncy character at a small creek. I was enjoying myself enough that I passed up a good campsite and headed to Wilson Creek shelter. Despite the title of the place and the assurance of the Companion that water was to be found in front of the shelter, the actual source was a steep 200 feet down a side trail before the shelter. Grumbling about the work, I rolled into the shelter to find Sweaty Pig, Ranger Jim, and another thruhiker sitting around and chatting about how bad of a snorer Ranger Jim is. I took the clue and set up my tarp away from the shelter and then sat down to chat with the other hikers over Oreos. I was trying to be friendly, though we never really got past the unimportant topics of gear, distances, and resupplying.
Another 6 am start for me this morning, but not with the strength of the previous day. My funk (mental, not olfactoral) had returned and I struggled with hiking. The AT was wearing me down, not so much physically as mentally. The general lack of wilderness combined with the increasingly difficult trail, without rewards, to bring about something bordering on depression. Ennui would be a better term, I suppose. I was forcing the trail, rather than flowing with it, and that frustrated me to no end. However, when I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, deserted at this early hour, I began to feel better. I rested at one of the scenic overlooks, with no one around, and tried to get it together.
Feeling good, I set off and lost myself in the simple act of walking and nearly stepped on a large black snake that was resting in the middle of the trail. I backed up a few steps and stamped my feet, trying to make sure that it knew that I was there. It partially coiled and elevated its head in a defensive stance, and our Mexican standoff began. A minute went by and it finally saw the wisdom in moving off the trail. Or, perhaps, it simply got bored with me. Whatever the reason, my path was clear and I continued to roll down the trail in a good mood, whistling and singing occasionally. The mood swings have been rather strong this summer, I thought.
Shortly after the snake I ran into a creek near the BRP where four hikers were sitting around enjoying some sodas left by a well-wisher. Two section hikers, and two thruhikers, Alobar and Chef. Litefoot, NRChi, and Over-Under showed up shortly after and we had a veritable traffic jam on the AT. Certainly more congested than the nearby BRP. We shared a few stories and then I pushed on, wanting to make a swimming hole at Jenkins creek at the apex of the afternoon heat. The walking was easy, though I was coated in sweat from the humid air and I plunged into Jenkins Creek with some delight. While not terribly deep, it was enough to get clean and refreshed, and was also a good spot to chat with other hikers. Swimming holes attract AT hikers almost as much as a cookout.
Clouds began to mount and, after airdrying, I started the hump up to Bryant Creek shelter, wanting to avoid being rained on. I reached the shelter around 3 and found quite a few hikers there done for the day. It seems they had been there since about noon and, since the shelter was so nice, decided to stay. Hikers who put up more than 12 miles a day on the AT are frequently accused of never "stopping to smell the roses". But, how could I smell the roses if I sat at a shelter almost all day long? I'd rather be hiking. The sitters were nice to talk to, however, and I passed a pleasant 30 minutes with them before getting ready to set out for the 2,200 foot climb up to the top of Floyd Mountain. Just before leaving the shelter, the heavens opened up. Not a minor rain, but a full on squall. High winds, heavy rain, thunder, lightning, the works. A person, on the AT, once told me: "A thruhiker can hike through rain, but only a great fool leaves a dry place." Not being a great fool, or at least not liking to hike in the rain, I unpacked my pack and started water for cooking dinner, with the hope that the squall would blow itself out before sunset. Everyone in the shelter got a good laugh at the tent-site selection of one of our fellow shelter dwellers who had put up there tent in a depression, with a big run-out hill above it: Within seconds of the coming of the squall, a veritable river was running down to their tent and slowly filling the depression.
As these things do, the squall passed after some time and at 5 pm I was pounding up the hill, with NRChi, Litefoot, and Over-Under not far behind. Although it was no longer raining, and the air was cool, I was quickly wet once again as I pushed through the overhanging vegetation that litters much of the Appalachian Trail. The sweet smell that can come only from a dense forest after a rain hung in the air, providing a nice change of pace from ordinary visual stimulation. It is as if the violence of the rain breaks through the accumulated crude on things alive and releases their scent across the land. Whatever the reason, the hour directly following a spring storm is a great time to be hiking in southern Appalachia.
Homeboy, Toe Break, and Mabliber were sitting around the shelter when I rolled up with plenthy of daylight left to hike. The PCT hiker in me urged me to keep going for another hour or two, as I felt great, especially after the swimming hole and the long rest at Bryant Creek. The AT hiker told me to try to be sociable and get to know my fellow hikers, even if I wouldn't see them again. I stayed, and spent some time scouting good places to put a tarp. Nothing was really acceptable for a tarp (yet another reason why hammocks are popular here), which forced me inside the shelter for the evening. NRChi, Litefoot, and Over-Under showed up, though in a staggered order. I'm hoping the good attitude that had for most of today continues through tomorrow. Later than that is too far in the future to consider.
I finally broke the 6 am start time this morning, although only by five minutes. Not unexpectedly, the trail was empty of people and I had the quiet of the morning all to myself. The rain from the day before was a long gone memory and I had nothing but sun and puffy clouds, and the cool air to revel in. The trail climbed up to Apple Orchard mountain, which was a real gem, despite the air traffic radar station on top of it. Cruising, I was in my element. No worries, no doubts, no depression. Just me and the woods and no one else. I passed by Thunderhill shelter around 8, expecting to take a break, but found it filled with sleeping hikers, no doubt smelling the roses in their sleep. It didn't matter, as I wasn't tired and was really enjoying the hiking. The trail would run back and forth, crossing roads occasionally, some with reasonable look outs. But mostly I was just happy to be out and moving, even if there was nothing that really qualified as pretty or stunning. It was just pleasant.
All good things must come to an end, and in today's case it ended with the onset of the heat. The AT made the big drop down into the James river valley, crossing the water on a long bridge which apparently cuts off a couple of miles from an older AT route. The heat and humidity was on in force at this low elevation and I began to start to stagger. I paused on the bridge for a while watching teen agers jump off of it into the waiting river below. They seemed to be extraordinarily responsible, as one would wait in the water (well clear of the splash down point) to help the next jumper if they got in trouble. On the other side of the bridge was a gaggle of thruhikers hanging out in a parking lot where a local was handing out sodas to thirsty hikers. And not just a 12 oz Sams club soda, but 22 oz. plastic bottles of name brand stuff. Rarely has root beer tasted so good. I sat and talked for a while, not wanting to face the big climb in front of me, but eventually my patience wore out and after an hour I set off for the climb.
Within seconds sweat was rolling freely, and it was only twenty minutes before I declared that I was wiped out. The heat and humidity were very oppressive and it was only my stubbornness that kept me going up hill. After all, my ego said, I was a tough thruhiker and this was just the AT. It couldn't challenge me! I was all powerful! The reality of the situation was decidedly different than what my ego kept spouting, but I continued up hill anyways. I topped out and had just enough strength to find a little view point on some cool rock and collapse. I didn't move much for ten minutes. Physically or mentally. I summoned the strength to eat and drink some water, but still I didn't move mentally. The soles of feet were hurting with an irritation that I get periodically, usually from overly damp or dirty socks. My legs were tired from the grunt up. Despite the nice view, I spent the better part of thirty minutes looking at the rock below me. Another half hour passed and I had finally recovered enough to push on, not quite sure where I was going to end today. Punchbowl shelter wasn't far and it had water, but I was hoping to come across an unlisted spring or rivlet before then.
Alas, around 6:15 I found myself sitting at Punchbowl shelter amidst a throng of hikers, too tired to push on to a more secluded spot. I fetched water and ate dinner before saying a word to any of the others, who turned out to be quite nice people indeed. Not having the strength to pitch my tarp, I set up in the shelter and hoped for the best. Most people were camping anyways. I closed my eyes at nine, but just then the hikers from the James rolled up, excited and talkative. Various musical instruments were taken out and there was a big sing along, complete with high pitched wailing that, through my earplugs, seemed to be a rendition of "American Pie." It didn't help that the jam session was taking place on the picnic table in front of the shelter. This is the danger of staying in shelters. The musicians were doing nothing out of the ordinary and even if I didn't like it, I just couldn't bring myself to stop or hinder their good time. Good times are rare enough.
I got up in a funk and was hiking in a funk at 6 am. I started thinking about where I should get off the AT and transition over to the GDT. This was a bad sign, as I was only a few weeks into my hike. I was supposed to be out here enjoying myself, but the latter half of yesterday was anything but enjoyable. Every time I tried to rally my spirits, a horse fly or two or three would begin circling my head and I would lose any momentum I had gained. I became adept at killing them, although sometimes I would have to break into a run to escape their attentions. It was hot already, and I was miserable. And then I faced a 2,000 foot climb, that I assumed would be just as bad as the climb out of the James. I took a rest by the side of the road before the climb and had some food and water for cheer. Surprisingly, I did feel better.
The climb up went smoothly and at the pace I normally climb, despite the steepness. My feet felt fine and the flies were gone, and with the increase in elevation the heat started to abate. By the time I reached the top of Cold Mountain, I was feeling positively wonderful. To make matters even better, Cold Mountain turned out to be the scenic highlight of the trip thus far. A "bald", its top was clear of most vegeation, providing three hundred sixty degree views along its length. I had no idea it was coming and I nearly broke out into song as I strolled along the top of it. Grass waving in the cool breeze, views everywhere with little sign development, and an openness that was uplifting to that thing inside me that springs neither from the physical nor mental. I found a choice clump of bushes just big enough for shade and had a sit, intending to go nowhere for a while.
I sat and sat and sat some more, happy to be where I was. A few hours later, I was thinking of Greyhound stations, but now I was as content as I had ever been. The trail was calling, I was reborn. Past Cold Mountain the trail dropped and then climbed up onto Tar Jacket ridge, which was almost as stunning as Cold Mountain and kept my mood soaring. I didn't want to stop for anything at this point. I wanted it all, and I wanted it right now. Eventually even this passes, and I found myself sitting in a dense forest a few miles before Seely-Woodworth shelter. Blue skies and puffy clouds disappeared and were replaced with thunderheads, and eventually a heavy rain. Not for long, but long enough to soak me completely and make me something of sight when I rolled into the shelter to cook dinner at
Ten thruhikers were sitting about in various states of napping and chatting, apparently all old friends. Or, perhaps, they had just been at the shelter for a few hours and gotten to know each other well as they smelled the roses. I ate my double portion of Liptons and exchanged a few words with them before peering through the shelter register. Yet another message downing Flyin' Brian and Silver Girl for breaking the 25 mile mark in a day. I had noticed similar entries in other registers, where people who were out to hike, rather than sit at shelters or in towns, were made fun of or insulted, even if in small ways. I no longer told people how far I hiked in a day and instead would simply tell them where I camped the night before. They rarely figured the distance out. This way, they would not feel awkward with me around when they had something nasty to say about people who didn't know to stop and smell the roses. It always seems to be about the damn roses. The thruhikers at the shelter were friendly enough, but I had no intention of staying now that the energy levels were up and there were still lots of time left to hike. Plus, one of the best times of the day was coming up when the heat was gone and the light was perfect and the trail deserted.
I marched off to Spy Rock, where I found another 3 hikers camped, though nowhere near the rock overlook. I wanted to camp alone and so pushed on for another hour or so, going over Main Top mountain (devoid of views) and Cash Hollow rock, which had a nice vista from which I could look down into a deep valley colored a pale orange from the setting sun. That meant I needed to find a campsite for the night, and soon. Fortunately, after contouring a bit, the trail came away from the sheer side of the mountain and I was able to scramble up to a small, wooded knoll that made the perfect campsite: A big enough clearing, soft leaves to sleep on, and no one around. For kicks I threw a bear line before settling under my tarp for the evening. From such a terrible beginning, the day had turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, of the summer and was exactly what I came to the AT for. No wailing singers, no drums, no guitars. Just the soft noises of the forest and the soothing hum of bugs and crickets, complete with a soft breeze to put me to sleep
I slept so well on the soft ground, without the attendant sounds of shelters, that I awoke in the perfect mindset, carried over from the day before. I found that the rear arch pole of my tarp had broken near the apex. Not good. I did not want to be shelter bound. The break wasn't bad and I could still set up my tarp, if I was careful, but I needed a new pole, and this would take some time. That meant shelters. My mood darkened. The wind was up with the morning sun, blowing harder than is usual and presenting a nice, different aspect to trail life. One actually notices these things after living for a while in the out-of-doors. Small changes can make the world seem completely different.
I breezed up to the top of the Priest, but didn't find it as much to my liking as Cold Mountain and left after a short break of sunning myself on an exposed rock. Then things started to go downhill. The trail dropped, but so did my mood. I kept thinking about my tarp and all the nights I would have to spend in shelters. Long distance hiking is all about freedom, and not having the tarp severely curtained my freedom of choice when it came to bedchambers. The trial went up, and my mood kept going down. Sweating and in a foul mindset, I reached a junction with the Mau-Har trail and took a rest. The Companion indicated that the Mau-Har trail connected again with the AT and went past a bunch of prime swimming holes and pretty waterfalls. That, and in an attempt to exercise some freedom of choice, I left the AT for the Mau-Har. It dropped steeply along a rough, rocky tread, then climbed precipitously, then plummeted down to a cascading river and plenty of swimming pools. And there was no one to be seen. Could I have been wrong about the attractive powers of swimming holes and AT hikers? Or, perhaps because it wasn't on the AT the puritanical nature of many AT hikers (pure when it comes to staying only on the AT and never missing a white blaze) kept them from it. That was fine with me. But swimming wasn't. There was some sort of odd temperature effect at work, because the the chasm down which the river flowed (and up which the trail went) was as cold as any air conditioned grocery store. Frigid, almost, and all my desire to swim vanished, along with my sweat.
I rested for a while before starting the long, steep climb up and out of the chasm, passing a hiker along the way, a non-puritan amongst the pilgrims. I was pretty tired by the time I reached Maulin shelter and the connection with the AT once again. My mood had improved after my exercise in freedom, though I was still fairly low and hoped that food would once again rescue me. It did not. I began to enumerate the various other things I could be doing right now. The CDT? The Himalaya? Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest? A year ago I was in absolute heaven in the San Gabriel mountains on the PCT. Now, I was cursing the AT and thinking only the worst thoughts as I kicked rocks down the trail. But, I kept moving, with hope that things would improve.
And, as always seems to happen, Providence was there for me with a kicked up wind and beautiful, open viewpoint atop some rocks high on Humpback mountain, a couple of hours down the trail. I took off my sweat soaked shirt and sat in the wind and sun on the rocks, calming myself and trying to let the negative thoughts blow out of my head. It worked, and I left the rocks feeling recharged and fresh. I was ready to face the shelter tonight. The miles crept by and, despite feeling good, I was dreading the up coming night at Paul C. Wolfe shelter, as the memories of Punchbowl filter back through time. Again, Providence: No one was at the shelter, despite being a real peach.
I ran through the standard routine of cooking and eating dinner, reading through the shelter register and leaving a note for others. The bugs didn't even bother to come out to bother me. Apparently there was a big cook out here for trail workers and hikers a day or two ago. I was glad that it wasn't tonight.
With Waynesboro only 5 miles away, I didn't have to get an early start, but 5:30 rolled around and the world began to light up, softly, which meant I had to get up. No choice in the matter. I was moving at 6, enjoying the cool air and the deserted trail. The miles flew by and I found myself at Rockfish Gap and the road to Waynesboro at a little after 8. No rush for the hitch, so I sat against a stone wall to rest for a while before sticking out my thumb. Thirty seconds later, a large van pulled up about twenty feet from me and a couple of hikers got out. Then it honked at me. I ignored the van, but it honked again. Looking closer, I seemed to recognize it. From somewhere, some other place, some other time. Two more people got out. Then I placed it. The PCT Express. Happy Trails. Walt and Pat. Friends from the summer before, Walt had hiked the PCT, which we shared together, on and off for a few hundred miles in northern California. Walt and Pat had made several other attempts on the PCT in previous years, but had had to get off for various reasons. Last summer, with Pat recovering from surgery, Walt had hiked and Pat had driven support in the van, known as the PCT Express. Together they were Happy Trails.
I had run into Pat in Tuolumne Meadows, in Yosemite, after Walt had already left and gotten to know her. In South Lake Tahoe I ran into Pat again, this time with Walt around. Walt left South Lake Tahoe a few hours before me, but I tracked him down just before Sierra City. We then hiked on and off together until Belden, a hundred miles later. I wouldn't see Walt again, but would run into Pat again in Old Station and Dunsmuir. They had moved to Waynesboro this year and were building a house near the Blue Ridge Parkway. In their spare time, they were shuttling hikers around town and back and forth to the trailhead. I hopped in the PCT Express and off we sped to breakfast, recounting old times and relating new experiences.
We stopped at Weasies, an all-you-can-eat pancake joint, where I polished off six pancakes and four links of sausage, with plenty of coffee, before making the rounds in town to see if there were any hikers that needed transit. They invited me to stay with them for the night, which I just had to accept: Hot shower, laundry, good food, tv, and friends with common experiences.
After a shower and getting laundry going, we returned to the field where AT hikers can camp and collected Chigger and Rock Steady, two thruhikers, on our way to the outfitters. Thruhikers in an outfitters are like kids in a candy store. So much bright, shiny, new gear to look over and ponder. But, in the end I bought a copy of Wingfoot's guidebook and a new sleeping pad, and left the shiny gear for others to paw over. Town days roll by surprisingly rapidly, as there are always a ton of logistics to take care of: Replace gear, visit the post office (no bounce bucket), resupply at Walmart, call Henry Shires to get a new tarp pole, call home, etc, etc. And make sure to eat. Doughnuts, chocolate milk, doughnuts, some more pastries.
Late in the afternoon we visited the partially-built house, set on a beautiful lot with a view of the valley and a lot of privacy before returning to the temporary house and settling in for dinner. Just the kind of place that I'd like to end up some day. Except that I was moving out to the Pacific Northwest soon. All town stops are more or less like this. Do logistics, make sure to eat, be as lazy as possible. But, this one was special. I had shared time with Walt and Pat, and that was something different, unusual, appreciated. Pat cooked up a big dinner and we talked until far past hiker midnight, when I retired, a little buzzed from the Coors that I had drunk down, pleased by the strange turn of events that had lined up my getting to Rockfish Gap at just the moment Walt and Pat had. Providence always provides.