September 30 ~ Waynesboro, VA at milepoint 1324.9 south, 110 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data: Day 108 AT miles hiked: 20 People seen on the Trail: 25 or 30 weekend hikers People we camped with: 2 British cyclists
The first project this morning was getting our food bags down from the steel bear pole. Every shelter in Shenandoah National Park is equipped with one of these poles, which stand about 12 feet tall. They have four arms at the top, slanting up and out from the main pole. The trick is to use another steel pole connected with a chain to the whole contraption, to lift your food bag by the drawstring up and onto one of the protruding arms. Bears evidently haven’t figured out how to deal with these poles and, until recently, neither had I.
There is abundant evidence of bears on the Trail. The answer to the age-old rhetorical question (Do bears sh—- in the woods?) may not be so obvious after all. They seem to prefer the beaten path we are walking on.
One bear evidently had a good time with the food some hikers hung from a tree. The hikers told us that they were tenting in an area with no bear poles. The tree wasn’t as strong as the bear, who apparently tried to climb it, then knocked it down, and made off with all the food. I would love to see how a bear goes about eating a Snickers bar – do they bother to unwrap it?
Today the Trail changed dramatically as Jake and I moved south from Shenandoah National Park. The beautifully graded path turned rocky, twisting over boulder fields and occasionally winding through tall grass that was trying hard to swallow the path. In short, the Trail returned to normal.
Jake and I were both exhausted by the time we reached Rockfish Gap, where the Blue Ridge drops into a saddle that connects Charlottesville to the east with Waynesboro to the west. Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, is the quintessential college town, filled with refinements and amenities. Waynesboro is about as different from Charlottesville as any town could be – gritty, dominated by factories, wearing its poverty prominently in the vacant store fronts on Main Street.
Waynesboro is closer to the Trail and the town of choice for thru-hikers to get their mail drops. Why? In part because the local YMCA allows hikers to tent in a nearby park and offers free showers. Then there’s Weasie’s, a blue-collar diner that offers an all-you-can-eat pancake special ($3.50) that’s written up in the thru-hiker manuals. The record for men is 22 and for women 16.
Jake and I stuck out our thumbs when the Trail reached Rockfish Gap and made a bee-line for Weasie’s. It was Saturday night and the place was packed. Jake gave up after 8 or 9 pancakes; I gave up after 3.
The folks at Weasie’s looked at us like they had never seen hikers before and weren’t too thrilled about it. Of course, Jake and I hadn’t showered at that point. In spite of the cold stares from the customers, there was a welcome sign, addressed to hikers, listing ten people who are willing to provide transportation for hikers when they come through town. We jotted down the phone numbers, and then walked to the YMCA. The tenting area is bounded by a swamp on one side and the South River on the other. Along the banks of the River there are factories – DuPont, General Electric, and a few others – that light up the night sky with an orange glow and provide a constant low thrumming. However, for two weary hikers, with sore feet from their third consecutive 20-mile day, the factory sounds were no obstacle to sleep.
What a terrific day! The sun was shining and the trail was easy. I felt very tired in the morning, but by lunchtime I was cruising. We met a lot of day hikers, it being Saturday and all. In fact, a couple that we ran into on the trail gave us a hitch into town later. We left the Shenandoah National Park behind today, without seeing a single bear despite the supposed presence of many of them. There were, however, a couple of large cleared areas which were very pleasant and sunny, until I noticed the numerous truncated stems rising from the ground. Evidently those large areas were cleared by the PATC for reasons unknown. I also saw something rather amusing on an electrical building near some radio towers we passed – there was a sign saying “Warning: Radio Frequency Radiation Hazard. Authorized Personnel only.” Now, I might be wrong, but radio-frequency radiation is not dangerous, correct? Oh, well.
When we got to town we had dinner at Weasie’s, and I was hoping to challenge the record for their AYCE pancake special of 22 pancakes. When the waitress brought out the first set of 3 eight-inch pancakes, though, I knew I was doomed. By the 8.1th pancake I felt on the verge of reverse peristalsis. A pretty meager performance compared to the record. I couldn’t even have been a contender.
We’re camped for the night near the YMCA, along with a couple of British guys doing a cycling tour from Toronto to San Francisco, then some riding in Australia and New Zealand, and maybe India and China if they can manage the logistics.
October 1 ~ Waynesboro, VA at milepoint 1324.9 south, 111 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 109 AT miles hiked: 0 People we camped with: 2 British cyclists; Craig
Jake and I decided that today would be a day of rest. We really had no choice because it is Sunday and we can’t get our mail drop until tomorrow. We did our errands (grocery store, hardware store, outfitter), showered at the YMCA, and then turned to the important task of the day: finding the AYCE (all you can eat) Chinese restaurant. Jake and I were told by northbounders as far back as Vermont that we simply must stop there. Waynesboro, VA is not the sort of place where you would expect to find a first-rate Chinese restaurant, and we didn’t. But the one we did find was good enough.
The most enjoyable part of the day was just hanging out and reading. I had been carrying a hard-cover book, “On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage,” and I enjoyed finishing it. (This is, by the way, the best book about thru-hiking that I have seen – much truer to the Trail than Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”) The author, Robert Rubin, offers many insights about the Trail and its pilgrims. One that struck me with some force was his comment about how good it felt to return to the woods after a sojourn into town. I felt at “home on the Trail,” he writes. This is how I’m beginning to feel as weeks of hiking turn into months. The woods are no longer terra incognita. I feel like I know how to survive there. I am beginning to feel as comfortable pitching a tent as sleeping in more conventional arrangements. I enjoy the cricket sounds and other night-time noises of the woods.
Here in Waynesboro, tenting in the park, the night sounds are mostly from the factories and cars, but we can also hear a few geese. And the same stars are just over head.
October 2 ~ Charlottesville, VA at milepoint 1324.9 south, 112 days since start of hike, averaging 11.8 miles per day
Trail data – Day 110 AT miles hiked: 0 People we stayed with: Bob and Faith
Today I developed an affection for Waynesboro, VA. Jake and I stopped by the Post Office and learned that we would have to wait for a package expected later in the day. Later in the morning, a postal clerk came out in the lobby to look for us because the package had just arrived. This hardly ever happens at Post Offices in Boston.
Meanwhile, the Post Office lobby was a bee-hive of hiker activity. Mother Goose, Rabbit, and Ripshin arrived, amid hugs and warm greetings. Likewise Banjo Bill, Blue Light, and 5th Wheel. A southbounder I had never met – Nimblewill Nomad – introduced himself; he’s just published a book (“Ten Million Steps”) about his 1998 hike of the AT.
Several people getting their mail stopped to introduce themselves, ask about our hike, and, in some cases, offer assistance with rides. My backpack and much of my gear was spread on a bench next to the front door – it felt very safe. Then I looked up and saw that a herd of children had gathered round the bench and swallowed up my equipment. When I came out to rescue it, I was greeted with questions from this 3rd grade class, which had come to the Post Office for a field trip. “Have you seen snakes? Bears?” They raised their hands, and I felt like a guest lecturer.
Amidst all the chaos of thru-hikers and third graders, I was opening several packages that moved me to tears. One was a 20th anniversary card from my wife. The others were cassette tapes recorded for me by two friends: David Berney (whom I’ve known since elementary school) and Michael Bogdanow (sending me a sequel to his previous tape). It’s hard to find a private spot in the Post Office.
Jake and I also found helpful people at the town library. Jon Krog (one of the volunteers on the list at Weasie’s) spotted Jake and me with our packs and offered to drive us around town or back to the Trail. Waynesboro is quite spread out, and so I accepted his offer. Jon was a great help.
He was going to take Jake and me back to the Trail in the afternoon, but I called my mother and learned that she was not feeling well. Jake and I postponed our departure and later got a ride from my sister-in-law, Faith, to her house near Charlottesville, so that we could make some calls and get a little more data about my mother’s health.
It’s hard being so far away, and as Jake and I go to sleep tonight, we don’t know whether we’re heading for Boston or the Trail tomorrow.
We had a nice leisurely zero day on Sunday waiting for the P.O. to reopen on Monday. It was another beautiful sunny day and we spent much of it lounging around the beautiful mowed campground. We got some errands done, but probably not as many as we should have. We went to the Chinese restaurant that we’ve been hearing about for so long. It was really very good considering it was an All You Can Eat buffet. Considered without that ameliorating merit, it still would have been on the good side of decent. That evening I found myself in the grips of a deep state of ennui. I felt like doing something, but there wasn’t much to do. I didn’t even have a book to read. Finally I borrowed Dad’s Walkman and that lifted my spirits immeasurably. It’s amazing how gratifying music can be, especially when you’ve been deprived of it for a while. I listened to this great college station that was playing some acoustic music from obscure local groups. There was one song that particularly struck me, about making “The Great Escape.” It was a story about a man who obeyed all the rules and lived a Formica life, and finally cracked and stole his neighbor’s Harley and went riding. The Great Escape is really a pretty common theme in American culture, and it occurred to me that I’m actually living “The Great Escape” – sort of. Even the trail has it’s routines and traditions and taboos and so on. I feel like even as transitory and variable as trail life is, I’ve fallen into another path which I’m just following. I guess The Great Escape is really only a momentary thing you experience when you peel your old life away – or, in my case, set it aside temporarily and the feeling cannot be maintained.
This morning we got up early and were all gung-ho about getting our errands done quickly but we slowed down when we discovered that the package with Dad’s boots might not arrive till 3 o’clock. Fortunately they arrived sooner than that but we wound up taking a while to finish up in town. I got some information about arrangements for returning to Cornell in the spring and researched Esbit a little on the library computers, then Xeroxed my journals to mail in. Just as we were close to being ready to leave, Dad called his mother and found that she was a little bit out of it, so he didn’t feel comfortable heading back into the woods just yet. We decided to spend another night, although that wasn’t difficult because it was nearly four-thirty by then. We called Faith, and she graciously said we could stay at her house again tonight. She had a meeting to go to, though, so we went out on our own for pizza at Brick Oven, the pizzeria recommended by Stephanie, the woman who gave us a ride in South Mountain. Much to our surprise, when we arrived, we found her eating there! It was cool to see her again, and she seemed happy to see us. Since she was on a date we didn’t have much chance to talk, although they stopped by to chat on their way out.
October 3 ~ Rusty's Hard Time Hollow, VA at milepoint 1338.5 south, 113 days since start of hike, averaging 11.8 miles per day
Trail data – Day 111 AT miles hiked: 13.6 People we stayed with: Acorn, Gepetto, Rusty People seen on the Trail: 0 Critters: black snake
The news this morning from Boston was somewhat encouraging. My mother was headed to the doctor’s office with my brother, and so Jake and I will resume our hike and keep checking in. By day’s end, I knew that she would be in the hospital for tests and observation. This leaves me feeling very ambivalent about continuing with the hike, but I know she is in very good hands.
Our hike today was uneventful, except for battles with the cell phone, trying to get reception so that I could call Boston. Our relatives Bob and Faith got us launched with breakfast and a ride back to Rockfish Gap.
The Trail was quiet and matched my mood: somber. I couldn’t build up any speed all day. As twilight moved in, Jake and I found ourselves with less than 14 of our planned 20 miles completed. We were at a juncture with the Blue Ridge Parkway and stuck out our thumbs, looking for a ride to a nearby hiker haven called Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow.
Jake and I had been seeing business cards for the Hollow ever since Maine. Recent register entries describe the Hollow as a place that simply must be experienced.
When we arrived at the dirt road leading through the woods to the Hollow, a few miles from the Trail, we were greeted by signs warning us to stay away if we weren’t hikers. Members of the press are particularly unwelcome, according to another sign. Trespassers will be shot, said yet another sign; survivors will be shot again.
Headlights came around the bend behind us. It was Rusty returning home with two hikers who had helped him pick up a load of firewood. He stepped out of his pick-up, and greeted us. “You can throw your packs in the back of the truck,” he said. “But all first-time guests have to walk down the road and read all the signs.”
Rusty looks like a country version of Santa Claus, only a little thinner, and his beard is in the Mennonite style, sans mustache. His accent is pure Virginia hill country, but the twinkle in his eye is pure North Pole. He has been inviting long-distance AT hikers to his 19-acre farm for almost 20 years and to date 12,000 have accepted his invitation. He survives on the crops he grows (mostly potatoes) and the donations he receives from hikers. He lives here by himself, but he never seems to be short on company.
Jake and I were asked to sign the log book, and Rusty showed us where we could sleep. One of the hikers prepared a stew of lentils and potatoes. “Help yourself to anything you see here in the kitchen,” Rusty said. “Treat this place like your home.”
The Hollow consists of a main building, a rustic combination of stone, brick, and frame, and several out-buildings: a shop, a springhouse, a small barn, a privy, and sheds for chickens, guinea hens, and a turkey. Rusty also has a pen with goats. There’s no electricity; he uses propane to cook and kerosene lamps for light. Everywhere in the house there are snapshots of past visitors stapled to the walls – maybe a thousand or so. He’s not embarrassed about describing himself as a hillbilly.
I felt more than a little foolish when he mentioned that there was a phone in the privy. “Really?” I said. “Yup,” said Rusty, “go see for yourself.” I wanted to call my mother; the cell phone was hopelessly out of range in the Hollow. Besides, one of the hundred or so signs festooned on the various buildings warned that cell phones, laptop computers, TV’s, etc. would not be tolerated on this property.
I opened the door of the privy – sure enough, there was a wall phone. But it was an old rotary dial phone – how would I make a credit card call? I even went so far as to pick up the receiver and click the holder a few times before I realized that I had been scammed. There is no phone connection down here in the Hollow.
“I ran up quite a tab on your phone.” I said to Rusty when I came back into the house. “That’s all right,” he said with a twinkle.
Rusty is a little discouraged these days. Many of the hikers have been rowdy, or less than generous with donations. Some expect a lot and give little. But he still puts the following cryptic reference on his business card: “Heb.13.2.” I looked it up – here’s a modern translation of this verse from Hebrews in the Bible:
“Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it.”
October 4 ~ Tye River, VA at milepoint 1353.8 south, 114 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 112 AT miles hiked: 15.3 People we stayed with: Gepetto, Acorn, Dan, Rusty People seen on the Trail: 1 day hiker Critters: box turtle; several beautiful blue/violet butterflies
The roosters here at Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow announced the new day at about 5: 30 a.m. from their quarters about four feet from the bunk room where Jake and I were sleeping. Even so, we both have found the Hollow remarkably relaxing, and I managed to get a little more sleep between the cockadoodle-doos.
Rusty shuttled us out to the Trailhead for a day of slackpacking. He dropped us off at the spot where we left the Trail yesterday, and we agreed on a spot where he would pick us up at 5 p.m. He does this for hikers throughout the year, asking only for gas money.
My first project after getting on the Trail was cranking up the cell phone to find out how my mother is doing. I reached her at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she is getting a series of tests. She urged me not to leave the Trail – she said she would be out of the hospital soon and that my brother Mark has the situation under control. After speaking with Mark, I decided that staying on the Trail was OK for the time being.
Jake and I covered about 15 miles of Trail today, with beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were a little hazy in the distance, but those near the path glowed with the first strong show of fall foliage colors we’ve seen.
It felt liberating to carry such a light pack, containing only the day’s essential items (e.g. toilet paper, granola bars, water and a few bandaids). This was my first slackpacking experience since Mt. Moosilauke in NH; I would do it more often but the logistics are complicated. Also, it forces us to adhere to a particular schedule – in this case, our 5 p.m. pick-up at Tye River. Time became a factor by the end of the day, as we descended 3,000 feet from the summit of Three-Ridges Mountain, over rocky terrain. I kept fighting guilty feelings (“what if we keep Rusty waiting?”) to focus on my footing (“it’ s not worth breaking a leg to save five minutes”).
Jake and I reached the River at 5, and Rusty arrived in his pickup truck just a few minutes later. No guilt, no broken bones.
Jake and I were very grateful for the ride, even as we bounced along over dusty dirt roads in the back of the pick-up, which eventually turned down the even rockier driveway to the Hollow. From the main house, I watched deer feeding on the small potatoes that were left behind in the lower field after Rusty harvested this year’s crop.
I spent a few minutes before dinner reading the hikers’ register which contains extravagant praise for Rusty and his pilgrim’s paradise in the woods. One hiker, heading north on his second thru-hike, wrote that he only became a real thru-hiker, “an enlightened hiker who lived and breathed as part of the Trail, when I came to Rusty’s.” Here, he said, he learned how to carry the experiences of the Trail with him, even when he was off the Trail. After his first thru-hike he found that “going back to civilization I lost that (feeling) bit by bit. A little of ME, the Trail me, the laid-back me, the happy me – slowly civilization’s hustle and bustle eroded that away.” Other hikers described their visit here as a “hike-changing, life-changing experience.” All expressed enormous gratitude for Rusty’s opening his home and heart to so many hikers.
For dinner Jake and I were going to cook some Lipton’s noodles. But Gepetto (a 1999 thru-hiker who returned here for a two-week visit) was boiling up a batch of potatoes and cabbage grown here in the Hollow. There was more than enough for everyone, and so we all sat around with Rusty in his living room – hikers and Hollow dwellers alike – contentedly feasting on a very simple meal.
P.S. A big thanks to Petunia, a trail angel who left a small cooler with cans of soda (marked “For Thru-Hikers”), sitting by the Trail today near a road crossing – a very welcome surprise.
I forgot to mention on Monday how fantastic the pizza at Brick Oven was. I’d say it was a close tie with Sweet Tomatoes. It would be grossly irresponsible to declare either the best without a side-by-side comparison. Anyways, we got back on the trail early Tuesday and planned to do 20 and visit Rusty. We wound up managing 13 or so before it got dark, but we managed to hitch a ride to Rusty’s. Just as we started walking down the driveway, Rusty pulled up in a pickup truck full of wood. He greeted us and offered to put our packs in the back and drive them down, but we had to walk down and read the ubiquitous signs. The signs were great, and when we arrived Rusty made us feel immediately and completely at home. A couple fellows named Gepetto and Acorn were there too. Rusty’s home is off the power and telephone grids, basically a set of shacks nestled amidst the National Forest. All over the walls of the porches and everything are stapled photos of past hikers. We hung around and chatted a while, and they stretched the potatoes and lentils they were cooking for dinner so we could have some. It was a very welcoming environment. In the morning Rusty drove us back to where we got off and we slackpacked 16 miles and came back. Tonight Dan showed up and Rusty took our pictures. Dan was trying to come up with a good trail name so Rusty suggested “10-4” because that was today’s date and because it was the double meaning of “OK.” We had a dinner of potatoes and cabbage and hung out.
October 5 ~ Seely-Woodworth Shelter, VA at milepoint 1365.5 south, 115 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 113 AT miles hiked: 11.7 People we camped with: just us People we saw: - 3 thru-hikers (The Three Moosekateers) - 1 jogger Critters: rabbit (deceased), mouse (hyperactive), 2 deer (friendly)
Breakfast at Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow is a big event. If all the left-over pancakes are gone, Rusty fires up his wood-stove, heats up a huge 20” cast iron skillet, and makes pancakes the size of small frisbees. He piles them in round pots on top of the stove until the last pancake is made, and then everyone eats at a picnic table on the back porch, where there are about a dozen bottles of syrup, ranging from empty to quite full. Rusty then cooked up what was left of last night’s dinner, with some onions and green pepper, and we all had a second course. Rusty, who has hosted 12,000 hikers over the years, obviously knows that their appetites are as enormous as his frying pan.
Rusty dropped us off at about noon at the Tye River, where we left the Trail yesterday. Before we got there, however, he obligingly made a stop at a country store where I could use the pay phone and check in on my mother’s progress at the hospital. She’s doing well, and my family (my mother included) is encouraging me to stay on the Trail. It’s hard.
Also hard was the trail from the Tye River to the top of the next mountain, called the Priest. At 4,063 feet, it’s one of the tallest mountains in Virginia. The climb – 3,000 feet of switchbacks turning from smooth trail to difficult rocks as we ascended – was a tough workout. Unlike the mountains in New England, however, there is not always a view from the top. Many of these southern mountains (including The Priest) are tree covered, even at their summits. But not far from the summit, Jake and I took a side trail to Spy Rock – an enormous boulder, easily 100 feet tall and twice as wide – which gave us a big view of the mountains, decked out in their fall finery. Civil War soldiers used this rock to monitor troop movements.
I stopped on the path for about 20 minutes this afternoon to watch two deer – a doe and a fawn – as they munched on acorns. They mined the forest floor in an arc about 20-25 feet from me. Mom seemed quite comfortable having company while she did this, but her off-spring was more skittish and danced away a few feet if I made the slightest move. These deer are not protected by National Park. They’ll be hunted soon – at least Mom will. I was surprised that they let me sit so close by them.
The Trail was quite beautiful today, with sunlight streaming through yellow and orange leaves overhead. In the years before this hike, fall was usually the season when Jake and I would take to the woods because of the autumn light. Today we walked on a carpet of leaves that glowed and crunched under foot. Soon they’ll be brown and wet and lose their charm. But for the next few days, or maybe a couple of weeks, we will be walking through an enchanted forest.
October 6 ~ Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, VA at milepoint 1381.3 south, 116 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 114 AT miles hiked: 15.8 People we camped with: The Kid People we saw on the Trail: 2 day hikers 4 thru-hikers (southbound) 1 section-hiker (northbound)
With continued dry weather, the leaves on the Trail announce our passage with a loud crunch. There are bears in these woods – a number of hikers have seen them – but they are very timid and can probably hear us a mile away. The carpet of leaves makes the footing more hazardous, especially for someone like me with wobbly ankles. Where the leaves are deep it is sometimes difficult to find the beaten path at all.
I’ve been thinking about my footing a lot recently. When Jake and I were in Waynesboro we learned that a northbounder named Jean had broken her foot in NH and had to end her hike. At Rusty’s we learned that a southbounder broke his leg and had to leave the Trail. (We also learned that Mr. Clean, heading south, had developed a rare form of Lyme Disease, which attacked his heart and he was in the ICU at a hospital.) Every rock, under every leaf, fell under greater scrutiny as I walked along.
One of the treats today was hiking through the remnants of ancient apple orchards. The trees have gotten all tangled and overgrown, but they still produce. With an overgrowth of branches, the apples have shrunk but there’s a ton of them. Some of the varieties are a little tart, and most look pretty bad – mottled and afflicted with a variety of pests. But when I spot a good one, I reach up into the tree with my hiking pole, wrap the wrist strap around it, and give the pole a yank. Sometimes this brings me just the apple I want, and sometimes it brings a bushel of apples showering down on my head.
Another big treat today was crossing a series of balds, the northernmost balds on the AT. I had never seen one before. A bald is a grass-topped mountain, and the views today from Cold Mountain, the tallest of the balds we crossed, were dramatic: rolling, forested dark green hills, speckled with yellow, red, gold, and rust.
Just past the summit of one of the balds, Jake found a great place for lunch – a sunny overlook where we kept our eye on several hawks while we rolled our PB& J into small tortillas. Inertia took over after lunch, and we lazed in the sun reading for an hour or so. More industrious thru-hikers – Rabbit and Ripshin, and later Fairweather and Crazy Joe – stopped by, chatted for a bit, and moved on. When I learned that Fairweather and Crazy Joe were planning to hitch hike to Buena Vista, a nearby town, to resupply, I decided to go there too. Jake and I have plenty of supplies but I needed to make some calls to find out how my mother was doing. My cell phone batteries were running down, and I wanted to recharge them.
When we got to US-60, the next major crossroad, we found Fairweather and Crazy Joe looking more than a little disgruntled. They had been waiting for 30 minutes with their thumbs out. The Thru-Hikers Handbook describes the hitch into Buena Vista as very difficult, but I couldn’t see why. There was an easy place to pull over and lots of traffic. But the cars just whizzed by.
Jake and I decided to walk for a while – the map showed a motel, store and restaurant two miles down the road. We walked with our thumbs out but with no real hope of a ride. One mile down the road, we came to Hamm’s Store, a genuine ma and pa grocery, with ma at the cash register and pa sipping coffee in the room next to the store. Mrs. Hamm let me use her phone to call my mother. When I asked her if I could plug in my cell phone recharger, and offered to pay for the electricity, she looked at me a little skeptically but said OK. Jake and I bought some candy bars and several varieties of “Little Debbie” snacks – the most cost-effective, calorie-packed treats we’ve found anywhere. The Swiss Rolls are particularly good, but Jake and I are still sampling the various Little Debbie’s when we can. This is a huge project, since there are approx. 25-30 varieties of them.
It was starting to get dark, and one of the local folks at the store said she would take us back to the trailhead. I needed to use my flashlight to find the Trail, while Jake somehow managed to find his way with night vision. Fortunately, the two miles from the highway to the shelter were mostly down hill, following Brown Mountain Creek on a winding path that felt a bit spooky. I was glad we had company at the shelter tonight.
Yesterday morning Rusty took us to the general store and post office so Dad could make some phone calls and we could mail our film. Rusty dropped us off at the trailhead and we said our goodbyes all around. Right away we started going up The Priest, the first 4000 foot mountain since VT. It was a very long steady climb, but not too tough. We ran into the Moose-kateers again. Towards the end of the day we made a short side trip to a place called Spy Rock, which evidently was used by Confederate spies to observe the movements of Union soldiers. It was quite a good view.
We had a very nice day today. I slept in a little, and the weather was great: cool crisp air and sunny skies, with a decent wind. It felt just like Fall should be. We crossed our first two balds today, and they were great. It was like having a great big meadow on top of a mountain. We stopped in the first one for lunch, then laid down for a good long rest. I didn’t quite fall asleep, but I fell into a state of pretty serious daydreaming. It felt positively delicious to just lay on the grass and feel the sun on my face and do nothing. It was probably made all the more wonderful by the fact that I might not have the chance to lie in the sun again on this trip. The temperature is supposed to drop dramatically over the next few days. While we lazed about, the Moose-kateers passed us, as well as Crazy Joe and Fairweather. We later ran into CJ and FW again on Rt. 60, trying to hitch into Buena Vista with very little luck. We had actually decided to go into Buena Vista also so Dad could make some calls regarding Grandma Paule’s health. The traffic was so light, though, we decided instead to try and walk a mile or so to a general store. They had no payphone, but Dad managed to convince the owner to let him use the phone. I bought a bunch of candy bars and Little Debbie products, and we sat around for a while while Dad’s cell phone charged. We really lucked out on getting a ride back – we asked on woman as she left the store whether she was headed in our direction, and she wasn’t but offered to run us down to the trailhead anyways, as it was only a mile or so. We hiked most of the remaining 1.8 mi in the dark, but it wasn’t bad. I was on a big sugar rush so it went fast. “The Kid” was at the shelter when I arrived. It was nice to have some company.
October 7 ~ Johns Hollow Shelter at milepoint 1398.9 south, 117 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 115 AT miles hiked: 17.6 People we camped with: The Kid and a scout group People we saw on the Trail: 2 thru-hikers (Rabbit, Ripshin) 1 section hiker (Mt. Goat Man) 2 day hikers
At dawn this morning I got a look at Brown Mountain Creek campsite for the first time. Having arrived after dark, I had seen only a small cone of reality ahead of me, and not very far ahead of me at that. (I’m still using the same dim-bulb Photon.)
The shelter at Brown Mountain Creek is nestled between the high banks of the stream. The trees growing next to the shelter – tall oaks, poplars, and pine – have to soar to get any light. One of the trees was so tall, with a crest so near the top, that I couldn’t make out the leaves at all and therefore couldn’t identify it.
The shelter has a picnic table, which I tried to use for writing. But even with the sun up, it was only 45 degrees and my hands were too cold to operate a pen. I tried it with gloves – the results were illegible. The weather forecast says this is just the beginning of a very cold spell. Snow is predicted for two days from now.
Today was the beginning of bow hunting season in this part of Virginia. When I saw a line of pick-up trucks parked near the Trail, I pulled my orange baseball cap out of my pack (I had been putting this off as long as possible) and put it on. It’s a ridiculous looking hat, with an orange hue so loud that it must glow in the dark. It doesn’t fit my head – it’s lumpy and misshapen on top, but in a different way than my head. But I’d rather take the risk of dying of embarrassment than with an arrow stuck through me.
At lunch time Jake and I found a sunny spot and tried to get warm. I had to keep moving my foam sleeping pad to follow the sun, while we read. Just then Rabbit and Ripshin hiked by, once again catching us lazing in the sun while they pounded out the miles. The difference between their hiking rhythm and ours is that they start early and get to camp early. Jake and I do the opposite.
As we neared Johns Hollow Shelter this evening, I saw two fires glowing. A group of scouts had built a roaring fire, and our shelter mate, The Kid, was trying to coax a small pile of sticks to ignite over a tab of solid fuel – a white tablet that looks like a miniature hockey puck and supplies enough heat to boil a cup of water. (Jake and I are going to be switching to this fuel soon, because it’s lighter than carrying a fuel tank and conventional stove.)
I gathered up an armload of wood on the approach trail to the Shelter. I didn’t want to arrive empty-handed. The Kid loves to build campfires – he says he’s built about 100 of them on his hike so far. The weather tonight is just right for a fire and the three of us stood around it trying to get warm. A campfire is a riveting presence on a cold night, and becomes the center of everyone’s attention. It looks like we’ll be building fires for several nights to come.
October 8 ~ Thunder Hill Shelter, VA at milepoint 1416.2 south, 118 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 116 AT miles hiked: 17.3 (Jake); 12.6 (David) People we camped with: The Kid; 2 section hikers from Indiana People we saw on the Trail: - 2 thru-hikers (Rabbit, Ripshin) - 2 day hikers Critters: grouse, mole (deceased); screech owl (heard but not seen)
I had two goals for today. One was to hitch hike into a nearby town to use the phone and re-connect with my family. The other was to reach camp by 6 p.m., so that Jake and I could have a big meal before sundown, when the observance of Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement, during which we fast for 24 hours) begins.
All of this involved getting up early and having some luck with my thumb. Waking up early was no problem. With overnight temperatures on the 30’s, I was waking up every couple of hours. I know that this is supposed to be “good sleeping weather,” but when the thermometer plunges below freezing, and I’m sleeping in a three-sided lean-to, I’m awake every time my nose or a limb wanders outside the sleeping bag. The challenge, then, is not waking up – instead, it’s finding the courage to get out of the sleeping bag.
I had read in the Trail register at the shelter that a good Sunday brunch was served at a motel in Glasgow, VA, the nearest town. And so, quietly cursing the cold blast of air that greeted me as I emerged from my cocoon, I put on pretty much every piece of clothing in my pack and hiked the two miles to the highway.
At 6:45 a.m. there is seldom anyone else on the Trail. Therefore when I heard a loud crunch of leaves on the Trail just ahead of me, my first thought was: it’s a bear! For a moment I was excited about it. I haven’t seen one yet, out here in the woods. By all accounts the black bears are timid and not a cause for alarm. But this loud leaf crunching was coming toward me fast. Whatever it was, it sounded big. Panic set in; my heart pounded. There was just enough light to see something black coming around a sharp bend in the Trail, moving fast. My heart skipped a beat, and then I saw it was a jogger, a fairly big guy, dressed for some unknown reason in black. I wanted to tell him about bow-hunting season and how much he might look like a bear to some sleep-deprived or beer-addled hunter. But he was gone before my own barely functioning brain could turn the thought into words.
When I got to the road, it was 7:30 a.m., and I began to realize that the Sunday morning traffic flow was about three cars per hour. I was going to need extraordinary luck. The first couple of cars drove by, their drivers giving me icy stares. It seemed like I was going to be there for a while, so I decided to use a technique that seldom fails: I reach into my pack for a book to read, and just when I have my gear spread out in a disorganized mess that will take a while to reassemble, a car pulls over, with a driver impatiently looking over his shoulder as I thrash around trying not to lose anything as I shove my belongings into the back seat.
“You’re reading Harry Potter?” the driver asked me. “Yes,” I said, “my daughter got me interested in the series.” It turned out that he was neither surprised nor disdainful about my reading a children’s book – he was enjoying the series with his own daughter. He gave me the low-down on Glasgow – where I could make my calls, get some food, etc.
I pretty nearly wore out my welcome at the motel restaurant, even though I was one of their few customers. It took three hours for the batteries in my cell phone – my connection with the world while I’m on the Trail – to recharge, while I ate a little of this and a little of that from their AYCE breakfast bar. With my mother still in the hospital, I needed the phone more than ever. It took me another hour or so to buy a few provisions, call home, and get back on the road where – despite busy Sunday afternoon traffic – I waited for an hour and a half. I should have taken out my book right away. But when I finally did, a car pulled right over.
The driver was a 1998 thru-hiker (“Trail Dog”) and I enjoyed hearing about his hike. He was trying to set the record for fastest AT thru-hike, and he got from Georgia to Vermont in 39 days. That’s an “average” of 43 miles per day! He had some friends serving as support crew and therefore only had to carry water. Each night he would meet his friends, eat some huge quantity of food, sleep for a few hours, and take off again. Trail Dog said that, because of El Nino, there was rain on 20 of those 39 days, and the Trail conditions were so bad that he stopped in Vermont. His body was exhausted and the record was going to be just beyond his reach. In 1999 another hiker, with dry conditions, finished the Trail in 48 days, and Trail Dog told me he’s going to try and beat that record in 2001. As he described the physical pain he fought through to hike the Trail so quickly, I realized this is a guy looking for a different kind of experience than the one I am seeking. I have more than enough foot pain and other maladies, thank you, just muddling along with our 15-20 mile days.
When I got back on the Trail, I hiked about 10 miles and realized I had a choice: I could hike the last 5 miles and get to camp just after sundown, or jump ahead with a ride and have a big 6:30 dinner with Jake. I chose the latter – it felt like a better way to start our fast than eating the granola bars and Snickers in my pack for dinner. I can make up the 5 miles after Yom Kippur.
Jake had already started cooking dinner when I arrived, because sundown was approaching. We ate fast, said a couple of prayers, and welcomed Yom Kippur into our shelter.
I can’t remember much of yesterday. I guess that’s why I should write everyday. I do remember we spent the night with “The Kid” for the second time, and he and Dad built a nice fire, which was especially pleasant because it was a very cold night. Before I got into my sleeping bag for the night I grabbed a few warm rocks from the firepit to keep nearby. I even put one at the bottom of my sleeping bag, as my feet are often cold. It helped a little, but got cold too quickly. By the time I woke up in the middle of the night having to pee it had lost almost all of its heat.
This morning Dad got up very early to go into Glasgow and make some calls. I slept in, much later than I had intended to. When I got up I had to keep going at a pretty good clip to get to the shelter before sunset, as tonight is Yom Kippur and I wanted to get something to eat before sunset. I made it with a bit of time to spare. We had another fire tonight, and instead of taking rocks I boiled water to put in my Nalgenes. It seems to be working pretty well. Of course it also helps that I am wearing 3 layers of socks.
October 9 ~ Thunder Hill Shelter, VA at milepoint 1416.2 south, 119 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 117 AT miles hiked: 4.7 (David); 0 (Jake) People we camped with: Rabbit, Ripshin, Mother Goose, Frog, and Merlin
Brrrr! It was 30 degrees this morning as Jake and I looked out from our sleeping bags and wondered what it could be like to spend Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and reflection – in a very cold shelter. We had decided that Yom Kippur should be a “zero” day for our hike, but I needed to move around to stay warm. I tried to find a sunny spot outdoors, but the sun, dodging in and out of the clouds, was no match for the cold air.
Jake looked at me like I was nuts when I told him I was going to take a hike – the 5 miles of Trail I missed yesterday – without food or water. I often go on a walk on Yom Kippur – usually not 5 miles though. But today’s walk was very rewarding. I had the woods mostly to myself. I carried nothing, and I had plenty of time – all day, in fact – to cover a short distance. And the walking warmed me up enough so that I could focus my attention on something other than how cold I was. Yom Kippur is not a joyous holiday – it’s serious business – and the solitude that the woods provide is a good setting for such work.
I returned to camp by walking up the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the sun occasionally warmed me and the views were inspirational. (Like the Skyline Drive north of here, the BRP displaced parts of the AT and as a result got the better views and look-outs.)
At camp, various hikers arrived and ate their suppers. Jake and I tried not to stare at what they were eating. Sundown would eventually get here, we thought, and in the meantime, we built a fire and tried to stay warm. The temperatures will near 30 degrees again tonight.
At 7 p.m., we broke our fast. In addition to eating two dinners, Jake and I had two special treats that I bought in Glasgow yesterday: “Little Debbie” brand cup cakes and a can of soda for each of us. Ah! Hiker decadence.
One of our fellow hikers asked us what Yom Kippur was all about. I think he was wondering what role the Little Debbie’s play in our religious observance. I gave him a fairly inept explanation of the holiday, but he was kind enough to nod and say “I see…very interesting.”
Hikers are a uniquely tolerant bunch, or at least that’s been our experience so far. I don’t think we’ve met any other Jewish thru-hikers, but I’m sure there are a few out here besides Jake and me. No one has objected to our lighting candles and saying prayers. And just this morning, when a hiker from Indiana was leaving the shelter, he looked back, waved good-bye to me, and said “Shalom ” (peace).
October 11 ~ Troutsville, VA at milepoint 1457.6 south, 121 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 119 AT miles hiked: 41.4 People we stayed with: Eric Pappas & Angelea Pappas in Blacksburg, VA
This is a two-day entry because Jake and I decided to try hiking all day and through the night. At midnight we were still in transit from the Thunder Hill Shelter (where we took a “zero” day because of Yom Kippur) to Troutville, VA, our next resupply point.
Why did we decide to hike 41 miles? Because the moon was full, and the full moon makes people do crazy things. Jake and I had been wanting for some time to hike by moonlight but whenever then moon was full we had cloudy skies. Last night the weather was perfect.
Well, let’s say almost perfect. The sky was cloudless, but a very cold wind was blowing through the trees all night. The day started out brutally cold as well. With 30 degree temperatures, even the simplest tasks can be a challenge. For example, using the privy – the one at our shelter had a metal seat. That will wake you up in a hurry. My toothpaste was so cold that it didn’t want to come out of the tube. And when it was time for me to wash the previous night’s dishes, with hands already frozen to the bone, it was sheer torture to take off my gloves and plunge my hands into spring-cold water.
By sundown, Jake and I had hiked 17 miles to the Cove Mountain Shelter, where we made dinner. The day had been warm enough – topping out in the 60’s – but the cold night air moved in quickly. One of the reasons for our plan to hike through the night was to keep warm. But by 8 p.m., with dinner done, I still needed to rest my sore feet.
We agreed to meet in Troutville – 24 miles to the South – at the Waffle House, and Jake headed out. I tucked my feet into a very warm flannel sleeping bag that some hiker had left behind, lit a candle, read for a while, and then tried to find the motivation to get back on the Trail.
I’m glad I did, even though I got slightly lost a couple of times and icy cold winds gusted up to 15-20 mph. The moon was brilliant. I know it sounds like a cliche to say that it bathed the trees and the hillsides in an ethereal light, but that’s exactly what it did. The moonlight was bright enough to hike without a flashlight in places.
By 3 a.m., however, I still had 10 miles to go and I needed to stop. My body was crying out for rest, and I was getting concerned about turning an ankle on the rocky sections of the Trail. The moon was sinking, and I decided I had had enough moon-hiking for one night.
When I stopped at the Wilson Creek Shelter for a few hours of sleep, I saw one sleeping bag on the shelter floor. I tried to walk quietly on the dry leaves around the shelter, but as I drew near, I heard a familiar voice in the dark: “ That sounds like Pilgrim,” the voice said. “Yes,” I said, astonished, “Who’s there?” It was Nimblewill Nomad, a 61-year-old southbounder who is doing his second thru-hike. Nomad is a retired optometrist from Georgia, with slightly wild, long gray hair and matching beard. (His picture appears on the web site about his hike: www.nimblewillnomad.)
“You’ve got good ears, Nomad,” I said, still trying to figure out how he knew who I was from the sound of my footsteps. “Your son was here a few minutes ago – he’s about 5 minutes ahead of you – so I knew you were coming,” he said.
I felt a pang of indecision. With a little sprinting, I could catch Jake and we ’d have breakfast together. But I had also wanted to get to know Nomad a little better. My feet voted and tipped the balance in favor of staying.
“I’m really sorry I woke you,” I said as I rolled out my sleeping bag. “Not a problem,” said Nomad and we made plans to leave at 8 a.m.
The four hours that I spent on the Trail hiking into Troutville with Nomad the next morning were among the most interesting hours I’ve spent on the Trail. Nomad recently published a book about his first hike, and he had just returned from The Gathering (the annual meeting of the ALDHA, the American Long Distance Hikers Association) where he gave a presentation.
I asked Nomad about his presentation and he gave me the capsule summary. Some of his ideas can be found at his web site, but the essence of it is this: we thru-hikers are on three journeys – physical, mental, and spiritual. Most successful thru-hikers master the physical challenges within a few weeks (sore feet, sore knees, etc.). The mental challenges have to be conquered as well: the mind continually asks “why am I out here,” and if good answers are not forthcoming every day, the hike ends.
The spiritual journey, according to Nomad, is entirely optional and not everyone takes it. The journey begins, he says, with a recognition of all the nagging self-doubt and self-criticism that we carry around with us like the heavy packs on our backs. “Some people,” he said, “don’t face their demons when they are out on the Trail. They distract themselves in various ways.” (I immediately felt guilty about the Walkman on my hip.) “But you have plenty of time,” said Nomad, “for thinking out here.” The beautiful setting of the Trail continually reminds him of God’s love, and if God can love us, surely we can find it in out hearts to forgive ourselves for our failings. Inner peace, said Nomad, begins with that process of self-forgiveness.
“Look in my face,” said Nomad. “Do you see the face of someone who has found peace?” I looked and I saw it.
“The evidence is there – you see it in the face of young children,” he said, “ and sometimes in the face of the very old.”
It was a joy to share the time with Nomad, and he was very patient with my many questions about his mental and spiritual journeys. We talked about our families and some of the challenges each of us faces. At a couple of points along the way, Nomad stopped and recited poems that he had written. Nomad is a gifted speaker and he delivered these poems with dramatic flair.
“That was a lovely poem,” I said.
“Yes, isn’t it!” he said with a big smile, devoid of any pride. “That poem came out of my pen, and it came through my head, but I didn’t ‘write’ it. You can’t create stuff like that – it comes from outside us.” And he looked up.
Nomad and I parted company in Troutville with a big hug and agreed to stay in touch.
I found Jake near the Waffle House, and he joined me while I ate. He had been in town for about 3 hours. We did some errands. We read. We even made plane reservations for our flight back from Georgia. We’re going to continue hiking together, adding six days to our original schedule, and returning to Boston (if all goes according to plan) on November 29.
At 4 p.m. we got picked up by my good friend Eric Pappas, who lives in Blacksburg, VA, about an hour from Troutville. It was great seeing Eric, who emerged from a Honda Accord with his customary bare feet and blue jeans. Eric is a professor at Virginia Tech University – an occupation that has kept him young.
Jake and I enjoyed the hospitality at Eric’s house and enjoyed seeing his kids, Angelea and Jesse – hardly kids anymore at age 17 and 24 respectively.
I’m learning that one of the greatest pleasures of the Trail is the people we meet and re-connect with along the way. I hadn’t seen Eric or his kids since 1995. I probably would never have met Nimblewill Nomad anywhere but on the Trail – if I had seen him on the streets of Boston, I might have looked at his wild gray hair and assumed that I had little in common with him. I’m glad I’m out here and looking at things differently.
Yom Kippur went nicely. It was too cold to read or write, so I spent some time gathering firewood. Fairweather, Crazy Joe, and Nimblewill Nomad passed by while I was at the shelter, and the Moose-kateers and Frog and Merlin stayed with us the second night. I was surprised to find myself feeling no hungrier than I usually do on Yom Kippur. It was cool seeing Frog again, since it had been quite a while, and I was wondering where he was. It was very cold again that night, and I slept poorly despite wearing all my clothes. In the morning we decided to try some night hiking. We would stop at Cove Mtn. Shelter to make dinner, then go on 24 more miles to Troutville. The day started off very nicely and I made good time. There had been a frost the night before so there were still ice crystals on some of the ground debris. There were also little clusters of curved icy stalks that looked somewhat like fiddle head ferns. My guess is that water collects in narrow holes in the ground and is forced up & out when it expands during freezing. What makes the holes and why the ice-stalks curl is beyond me, though. Anyways, they’re very pretty and reminded me of one of the early hikes Dad and I did, right around this time of year. There had been a frost, and we saw these same ice stalks. This was in the White Mountains, and if I remember correctly we were hiking to Zealand Falls Hut.
There was a good wind going yesterday morning, and as I walked along it shook loose a fair-sized twig with perfect timing, such that it struck me smack dab in the center of my forehead. It seemed like a remarkable coincidence. Shortly thereafter the trail passed through a remarkable rock formation called The Guillotine, where a small boulder is wedged in midair between two large boulders. It didn’t look like it was about to blow loose though, so I had no qualms about walking underneath it. We stopped for lunch at Bryant Ridge Shelter, a remarkable double-decker structure. When we got to Cove Mtn. Shelter for dinner, I was still feeling full of vim and vinegar, so I pushed on in spite of the growing cold and dark. One of the reasons we wanted to night hike last night was that the moon was nearly full and the sky was clear, so we would be able to hike by moonlight. I tried this for a while, but discovered it was much less stressful and more efficient to use my flashlight, so I did that most of the way. It was viciously cold out, and the wind was howling. It wasn’t too bad except when I was up on top of the ridge, esp. when the trail went onto the Parkway for a while. I had to keep moving to stay warm. Eventually I decided I really needed a long break so I took out my fleece and sat down. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. I didn’t intend to, but it helped my energy a lot. I woke up a little later and kept moving. Later on I took another of these “ sitting naps.”
October 12 ~ Lamberts Meadow Shelter, VA at milepoint 1467.0 south, 122 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 120 AT miles hiked: 9.4 People we camped with: just us People seen on the Trail: 2 day hikers Critters: rabbit, cardinal, and tons of katydids (heard but not seen)
Blacksburg, VA, where Jake and I spent last night with my friend Eric, is a bustling college town, the home of Virginia Tech. Jake and I did a few errands in the morning while we waited for an 11 a.m. conference call with my mother, her doctors, and a large group of family members to plan her discharge from B.U. Medical Center. The call went well, and it looks like I will be able to stay on the Trail for now.
While Jake and I were at the college bookstore, I wandered down an aisle where course books were stacked, an interesting combination of engineering texts and the latest political thinking. On one shelf I saw: “Successful Sawmill Management,” “Race, Class and Gender,” and an unusual combination of the technical and the political – “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.” Things have definitely changed a lot since the time I went to college.
Jake and I were treated to breakfast at a cafe by a colleague of Eric’s named Jessamyn, who wanted to hear about our hike. One of the questions she asked was how we manage the transition between life on the Trail and our brief excursions into towns. I told her it was hard at first – I can remember in Maine having to regain my “trail legs” after Monson. I also remember going into a huge supermarket in Gorham, NH, and feeling overwhelmed by the quantity of food & the number of choices that our prosperous consumer-driven economy places before us. It reminded me a bit of an experiment that the U.S. Army did in World War II with a group of conscientious objectors. They were deprived of food for long periods to see how much deprivation soldiers can stand. The test subjects became anorexic. When the experiment was ended, the Army treated them to a Thanksgiving-like feast with vast quantities of food. Many of the men could not eat, and several became psychotic. Well, Jake and I are not going to become mentally ill from going in a grocery store, but I still feel intense sensory overload when he and I resupply at a town with a huge supermarket.
The transition between our very simple life and simple diet on the Trail and the complexities of town is getting easier, however, and it is good preparation for our not-so-distant re-entry into civilian life. Our stop in Troutville and Blacksburg marks the 2/3 point on our hike and thoughts of re-entry have begun to overlap with our thoughts about how to get the most out of our remaining six weeks on the Trail.
Because of the mid-day conference call, Jake and I did not get back on the Trail until 4:30 p.m. But we both wanted to get in 10 miles of hiking for the day, which meant a little night hiking.
Jake loves to hike at night, but for me a second evening of night hiking was like what Samuel Johnson called second marriages: the triumph of hope over experience.
Tonight was in fact different, however, and much better than battling the cold winds of two nights ago. The air was a satiny, warm 65 degrees & the skies were completely clear. After a long climb from the busy traffic of Troutville to the top of Tinker Mountain, I sat on a rock outcropping looking at a gorgeous sunset. Each tree along the opposite ridge-line was silhouetted in pink and orange, like stubby bristles on the back of some gigantic beast. Below the ridge, still water on a long crescent-shaped reservoir, sandwiched between two mountain ridges, reflected the warm glow of the sunset. Behind me, on the other side of Tinker Mountain, the full moon rose over the valley of commerce I had just left.
From these heights, however, the valley seemed quaint rather than overwhelming. Long lines of tractor-trailer trucks, behemoths that had scared the daylights out of me when I tried to cross the highway down below, looked like the tiniest of Tinker Toys from up here.
As I walked along the ridge of Tinker Mountain, with the last glow of sunset to my left and the roundest, brightest full moon I have ever seen to my right, I decided that night-hiking is not so bad after all, if your timing is right. I took my time hiking along the ridge, and stopped frequently at the rock ledges where the views were best. The air was so still that Jake and I were able to hear the sounds of a high school football game coming from an illuminated stadium far below us in the valley. The players looked like brightly-clad ants fanning out over a striped garden plot.
Further down the ridge, the night air became very quiet. I sat looking at the moon through the illuminated needles of a stunted pine and thought to myself: this is what contentment feels like. It’s not that I haven’t felt it before; I have, on occasion. But this was a different sort of contentment – on my own, with time slowing, and the warm night air cradling me in its bosom. At moments like this, I have no doubts about why I am on the Trail – the only question is how I will feel about leaving it.
By 10 p.m. I was getting close to the shelter. I stumbled through a campsite just before the shelter, waking up half a dozen campers when someone’s friendly black Labrador loudly announced my arrival. Jake was already asleep when I finally found the shelter.
After climbing in my sleeping bag, I began reading the shelter register, and my eyes grew wider after each page. Apparently there are rats who frequent the shelter. One hiker packed up in the middle of the night and set up a tent; another slept on the picnic table. I looked over at Jake, who was snoozing contentedly. I started hearing rodent noises under the floor of the shelter. These were definitely not mice, who are so small and quiet that we are scarcely aware of them at night. I was hearing animals big enough to make the dry leaves crunch.
Outside the shelter, in the brilliant moonlight, I could hear more than the usual array of animal sounds. There were larger creatures crunching the leaves and moving around the shelter. Feeling just a little panicky, I lit all but one of candles in my pack – I held one in reserve – and decided I might need to stay awake all night. By 1:30 a.m., however, I could no longer keep my eyes open. I curled up as tightly as I could in my sleeping bag, pulled the top of it over my head, and decided to take what comes. Even rats, I thought, have their place in the universe; some people keep them as pets. They have a right to live, just so long as they stay away from me. Meanwhile I kept my eye on the picnic table, my refuge in the night if my situation, and my fright, become unbearable.
So it goes on the Trail, from epiphanies on mountain ridges to being terrorized by rats.
I fell asleep on the couch while writing the previous entry but Dad & Eric came and woke me up and told me to go to bed. There’s no arguing with logic. Anyways, I totaled about an hour of sleep between two naps. Towards the end of the night it became difficult to keep going, because I was both tired and cold. When I got to the last shelter I was going to pass, though, and went by without stopping, I suddenly found a new store of energy since I knew I wouldn’t give up somewhere along the way and go to sleep. It also helped that soon afterwards I started going downhill and the wind died a little. What really got me going was when the sky became light enough I could turn off my flashlight. Something about the coming dawn just strips away exhaustion. The last stretch of trail went through some farmland and there was one spot where it went across the top of a grassy hill so I dropped my pack and sat down and had a wonderful moment staring around at all the farmland below in the early-morning light. The sun had just risen above one of the nearby hills and illuminated everything from a very oblique angle. The air was still cold, but I enjoyed basking in the sun for a while and warming up.
Finally, as I approached US220, close enough to hear the cars whizzing by, I had the most bizarre wildlife sighting of the trail. Walking calmly towards me was six-foot-tall ostrich. When it saw me, it ran off a short way into the woods, but not so far it was out of sight, then came back onto the trail behind me. I was snapping a lot of pictures and figured it would run away at the flash, but amazingly it just started walking towards me again! At that point I became a little worried. After all, an ostrich is a big bird – this one was as tall as I am – and if it were mad at you, could do a fair amount of damage. Happily, it turned away. I was really very close to the road, though, and really wondered where this bird could have come from. I had a vision of an ostrich truck overturned on the road, flightless birds spilling out all over the place and wandering into the woods. I enquired at a gas station and found out there was a farm nearby that raised llamas and other unusual animals, and probably had ostriches. This one must have escaped.
I wandered around a little, trying to find the Waffle House and trying not to be hit by a car, since the restaurants and so on in Troutville are all around the intersection of several major highways.
October 13 ~ Catawba, VA at milepoint 1477.2 south, 123 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 121 AT miles hiked: 10.2 People we saw on the Trail: 30 or so day hikers
I woke this morning filled with anticipation. Beth is scheduled to arrive for our weekend celebration of our 20th anniversary. We’ll go to a bed and breakfast near Roanoke, and I felt excited, like it was our first date.
Meanwhile, Jake woke up to discover that the resident rodents had hauled away one of his socks, and he had only one pair in reserve. I surveyed my belongings, which seemed to be all there – I’m glad I wore my socks to bed.
The hiking today was glorious. Yet another day of mild weather with clear skies and stunning views. Today we hiked along Tinker Cliffs, which overlook the Catawba Valley and several distant ridges of mountains. At McAfee Knob, the highpoint of the hike (both literally and figuratively), there were views in almost every direction as we made our way around the mountain. We could see Roanoke and the airport where Beth would arrive in an hour. We could see the entire winding spine of mountains we had crossed to get here from Troutville. It was hard to leave.
Day hikers came steaming up to McAfee’s Knob as I hiked down toward my rendezvous with Beth. I picked some asters along the way. I felt a little guilty about doing this – the watchword of the Trail is “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” But I said to myself – pure rationalization – that the woods would not be decimated if every hiker harvested a few flowers on his or her 20th anniversary.
Beth and I met at Catawba and had dinner with Jake at The Homeplace, an enormously popular family-style restaurant. The waitress looked a little flummoxed when we told her that she didn’t need to bring us the plates of fried chicken, country-style ham, and roast beef. We wanted to see what this place was like because the Thru-Hikers Handbook said that The Homeplace is “ considered by many thru-hikers to serve the best food on the Trail.” Those thru-hikers probably weren’t vegetarians.
The three of us had a fine meal, however, just being together. Jake decided to spend the night in Catawba, and to continue hiking through the weekend. Beth and I found our way to the B&B, a charming Victorian house tucked into a quiet street in Rocky Mount, VA, a good spot for a 20th anniversary.
Got interrupted again. Anyways, I stayed at Waffle House for a while, enjoying the free refills on Coke, but Dad still didn’t show, so I left to do a little shopping at Winn-Dixie and get a little post-breakfast snack at Taco Bell. Dad eventually showed up, and we called his friend Eric, who picked us up and took us to the Post Office and then his house in Blacksburg.
While at the Post Office Dad took care of picking up our packages while I packaged stuff to mail – I had to mail a register back to its owner because it was full and I replaced it, and I was mailing home our stove and fuel bottle because we had ordered an Esbit stove and fuel sent to that P.O. Not until everything was mailed and we were getting in the car did I think to ask Dad, “ so did the Esbit package arrive OK?” Of course it hadn’t. The supplier had mailed it UPS. I gave them a call from Eric’s and left a message. We’ll see how it works out.
The stay at Eric’s was really nice. He made us feel right at home. We went out for dinner with him and his daughter Angelia. He’s a really cool guy and his daughter is very intelligent and sophisticated and very beautiful. It was great to spend time with them. Both were very interested in our hike.
In the morning we had a great breakfast at a place called Gillie’s, Dad used the phone for a while, we did some shopping (got a few Esbit tabs to cook until we get the package sorted out) and got back to the trail very late with 10 miles to do. We wound up doing a lot of night hiking, but that was fine because it was a beautiful clear night, the air was calm, and it was warm. I came to an east-facing overlook just after the moon had risen, a huge orange disc with its edge still kissing the hills. It was quite a sight and I stood watching for some time.
Shortly before I reached the shelter I passed a campsite where a dog barked loudly at me for a long time and awoke its owners. I apologized for waking them up, but I later realized I didn’t actually feel very sorry. It was their dog that woke them up, and if they bring a dog with them that barks at everyone, they probably WANT to hear about every stranger who walks past in the night.
I got to the shelter late at night and didn’t feel like cooking dinner, so went straight to sleep. In the morning I discovered a rat had stolen one of my Smartwool socks.
Frog and Merlin caught up with us again, having slept at the campsite last night, and we hiked with them all day, taking it very easy over Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob, both absolutely gorgeous views. Dad rushed ahead from McAfee Knob to leave a message for Mom when she landed in Roanoke. I hung around to eat lunch. When I got close to the road, I saw Mom just starting to walk up the trail. At first I didn’t realize it was her, being somewhat lost in thought, and greeted her as I would any hiker. After about one second, though, my hiking trance snapped and I shouted “Mom!” and ran to give her a big hug. Dad returned shortly after from giving Frog and Merlin a ride to the Homeplace, and we went there also. We were a little hesitant when we heard how meat-centric their food was, but decided to go for it anyways, and actually had a great dinner of the non-meat components of what they were serving that night. Mom & Dad left to go to a bed & breakfast and I hung around with Frog and Merlin and am going to sleep in one of the gazebos at the Homeplace tonight.
October 14 ~ Catawba, VA at milepoint 1477.2 south, 124 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data: Day 122 AT miles hiked: 0 Main activity: fun
Today was a planned “zero” day of anniversary celebration with Beth. While Jake continued hiking out on the Trail, Beth and I did some sightseeing on the Blue Ridge Parkway and at a new historical park in Roanoke (“Explore Park”) where you can visit settlements and talk with residents from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as well as pre-European Indian settlements. Beth and I also explored Roanoke’s old market district, recently gentrified, but still operating as a farmer’s market on the weekend. The folks at the B&B recommended Carlo’s, a Brazilian restaurant (excellent) and gave us our choice of videos from their collection (Beth chose “An Affair to Remember,” with Gary Grant and Deborah Kerr). A great film and a great day.
Frog and Merlin and I had good luck hitching back to the trail and wound up hiking most of the day together. It was a beautiful day for hiking, clear and sunny. It was a little hot but not unbearably so. As we got closer to an overlook called Dragon’s Tooth we saw more and more people, until it got to the point where the trail was one big traffic jam. Everyone was out to enjoy the sunny Saturday up on Dragon’s Tooth. The scene at the top was pretty much the same, but it was still a nice view. I hung around for a while soaking in the view since I had plenty of time. I met a whole bunch of students from VATech, one of whom was planning a Southbound thru-hike next Spring when she graduates from Vet School.
Much to my surprise Frog and Merlin told me they were getting off the trail today. They’d been talking about it, but I didn’t think they were going to do it so soon. Both are planning to get back on – Frog in Spring, where he got off, and Merlin in a week or two in Damascus.
I stayed around the Tooth a while longer, intending to catch the sunset. I met a couple of section hikers who convinced me to camp up here rather than night-hiking to the shelter after sunset. They gave me some water for dinner, and later on gave me their leftover rice. They were very nice guys.
The sunset was gorgeous, and the moon was very nice too. Neither were particularly quiet, as there are a bunch of noisy frat boys also camping up here, but that’s ok. It’s still a nice place.
I cooked dinner with Esbit for the first time today, using tentstakes to support my pot. I had a little trouble because the post kept slipping off the stake, but I managed to cook a very nice dinner in the end. I’m quite impressed by the Esbit technology.
October 15 ~ Campsite near Sandstone Ridge, VA at milepoint 1482.2 south, 125 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 123 AT miles hiked: 5.0 Biggest challenge: dodging cowpies
Beth’s plane from Roanoke to Boston was scheduled for an early evening departure. That left us a good deal of time to spend together before I returned to the Trail. The plan that Jake and I had worked out was that he would hike approximately 10 miles on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, while I would do 10 on Sunday and 20 on Monday. Our goal was to camp together at a shelter on Monday night.
The only problem was that I was having such a good time hanging out with Beth that I didn’t get on the Trail until 5 p.m. She and I drove to Floyd, VA, a rural town that has become an artist’s colony, to visit two close friends: one is a potter (Beth’s former occupation) and the other a woodworker (my former occupation). We took the backroads and saw a slice of Virginia that could have been used for the movie “Deliverance.” On one winding mountain road – still used for running moonshine – the shoulders are lined with rotting hulks of abandoned cars from the 1940’s and ’50’s.
Toward the end of the day, Beth drove me to the Trailhead at Catawba, we walked a few yards together on the AT, and said farewell. It will be six weeks – if all goes according to plan – before I see Beth again.
Returning to the Trail at 5 p.m. made my planned 10-mile day a challenge. The Trail crossed several pastures, and there are two major problems crossing pastures after darkness sets in. First, the cowpies are much harder to dodge, and I inadvertently stepped in more than one. Second, the Trail markers are few and far between; occasionally a post with a white blaze appears in the middle of the field, but mostly I had to follow the subtle lines etched in the grass by marching feet. The Trail shows up as a slight depression – a long, very shallow trough in the soil – but then so do the paths taken by the cows and farm equipment. It takes some luck and intuition to make it from one blazed fence post to the next one on the far side of a large pasture.
So, after 5 miles of hiking, I was relieved to see a camp fire in a grove of trees near the Trail. Two southbound thru-hikers – Fairweather and Crazy Joe – were huddled around the fire, chewing tobacco and listening to National Public Radio on a tiny receiver. They invited me to join them for the evening. They were planning to “cowboy camp” at this site – i.e., sleeping bags but no tents.
Even though 5 miles was an awfully short day, I accepted the invitation. I like both of them – Jake and I have seen them before – and Fairweather and I have two things in common. We both have a background in woodworking and we both were in Ph.D. programs in American Studies. (Both of us left the programs ABD – all but dissertation.)
The camaraderie of the Trail continues to be one of the major, albeit unexpected, blessings I’ve found out here. I’ll manage to hike extra miles tomorrow.
P.S. Most interesting sight of the day: grown-up calves, approximately as high as their mothers, nursing. The cows continue standing while their offspring crane their heads underneath to reach the udder.
The frat boys were up more or less all night partying. I still slept ok though. Woke up early and watched the sunrise, then went back to sleep.
I saw a big black snake lying across the trail today. Feeling quite safe, I poked it gently with my stick to suggest that it vacate the trail. In response it puffed up to look big and twitched its tail rapidly, making a rattling in the leaves. I could see it didn’t have a rattle, but its behaviour made me wonder just how confident in my identification I was. I went off the trail to go around it. I saw a few people on the trail today, but not many. It was a beautiful fall day, with leaves falling occasionally at random. When the wind blew it seemed almost to be snowing leaves.
There’s no one at the shelter tonight. I believe this is the first night I’ve spent alone on the AT. It’s pretty lonely. There seem to be rats or mice in this shelter. I do not like that. They’d better not take any more socks.
We had some extra tortillas so I tried making some of my curried rice into a rice burrito. It was really good but a little messy.
October 16 ~ Laurel Creek Shelter, VA at milepoint 1511.3 south, 126 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 124 AT miles hiked: 29.1 Additional AT miles hiked because I was slightly lost: 2.0 Most alarming sight: anti-Semitic graffiti on the front of Niday Shelter
Today I paid for my delightfully short 5-mile day yesterday. To catch up with Jake meant hiking 29 miles, including 3 fairly steep climbs of 1,200, 1,500, and 2,000 feet. The foliage has been beautiful, however, and the weather mild. With no rain for the last couple of weeks, and no strong winds during most of that time, the trees have retained much of their fall color. Jake and I are walking through glowing woods, and looking out from the ridges at undulating hillsides of beautiful foliage which seems to be peaking this week.
I set out this morning at 6 a.m., hoping to see the sun rise from the first mountain of the day, known as Dragon Tooth because of the jutting boulders. I made it to Raven Claw, a similar but smaller formation just before the Tooth, and watched as the sun’s pink glow lit up the hillsides.
With the steep climbs, I found myself slowing to a 2 mph pace. I took breaks, I tried some high-energy music on my Walkman; my pace remained the same. I resigned myself to some unavoidable night-hiking, because I wanted to reconnect with Jake. This led me to be crossing a few pastures again at night – probably even more disconcerting for the cows, who mooed a lot, than for me.
At one point the trail led me into a thicket of tall grass and some weed that grabbed my legs as I walked by. The Trail seemed to disappear. I thrashed around, getting myself quite lost. Despair set in and then suddenly there was a post with a white blaze on it. A small miracle!
I had no such luck at the end of the evening. At 9:45 p.m. I reached a sign that seemed to promise that the Laurel Creek Shelter was only 2/10’s of a mile further. But I stomped up and down the next half mile of Trail twice and never found it. So I decided to camp out on the Trail – cowboy style, sans tent – until the morning light would lead me to the shelter and Jake.
I tried to stay awake – fearing that bears or deer using the Trail would stumble over me. I was also concerned that bears would steal my food, because there were no trees suitable for hanging it out of their reach. I must have been an amusing sight, with my gear spread out on the Trail, my candle perched on an upside-down cooking pot, sipping tea and dozing between chapters of a book I managed to finish just before dawn. But, with my raggedy clothes and gear, I’m an amusing sight these days anyway, even when I’m not in disorganized surroundings that look like a teenager’s room without the walls.
P.S. Two interesting critter experiences today: a huge brown spider – hairy, horrible, and nearly the size of the spiders used for science fiction movies – that I discovered sitting next to my hand, as I was drawing water from a stream; and a sound that could only have been a bear, lumbering its way through the dry leaves this morning at about 6:45 a.m. – I could hear it but it was too dark to see into the woods.
Two other miscellaneous items: - We crossed the 1,500-mile mark today. That felt like a big milestone! - We passed a huge oak tree – the Keffer Oak – estimated to be more than 300 years old. It’s 18 feet around, and may be the stoutest tree on the AT.
Slept late this morning even though I didn’t feel tired. I was lazy and didn’t get water before setting out – I had a liter already, and the map showed that the trail crossed a stream soon. Of course the stream never materialized. So I was fairly thirsty today.
I met three goats on top of Sinking Creek Mtn. It wasn’t a surprise because all of the NoBos in the previous register talked about them, but I was still taken aback by their brazenness. These goats have taken up the habit of licking the legs, hands, and clothes of passing hikers – basically anything they can find with salt on it. The moment they saw me, the two goats nearest me left their leaf-eating and walked over to lick my leg without the slightest hesitation, as if it were their God-given right! After a few moments of this I decided I wanted no more of it and walked around them and on down the trail. They turned and followed me, as if they were going to chase me down for my precious salt. I ran a little bit then turned around and stared them in the eye, trying to express in goatish terms “This salt-licking will no longer be tolerated, do you hear me?” I guess it worked, because they lost interest in licking me and wandered off to eat more leaves. There was also a third goat who more or less ignored me. I liked him.
Supposedly near the trail today was the Keefer Oak, an especially large (18 foot around, by one account) oak tree. Unfortunately I must have walked right by without noticing it. Bummer.
I did see an old abandoned cabin on the way to the shelter, though. It was pretty neat and looked like it had been abandoned for a while – the second floor had caved in in one part, and the first floor was broken in some places. It didn’t look safe to go into.
Dad was supposed to catch up to me at this shelter, but it’s dark and he’s still not here. Hope he gets here soon.
October 17 ~ Bailey Gap Shelter, VA at milepoint 1525.6 south, 127 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data: Day 125 AT miles hiked: 14.3 Camped with: Hatman (section hiker)
I think both Jake and I felt a little demoralized when we realized we needed to stop here – completing only 14 miles of our planned 18-mile day. But we had good reasons to stop – or were they good rationalizations? Jake’s feet were red, a little raw-looking actually. It was also getting dark. We had been slowed down by three miles of gruesome rocks, as bad as anything we had encountered in Pennsylvania.
It was demoralizing because we have scheduled ourselves to do an average of 16 miles per day through the South. So the macho instinct in us bridled at pulling up short, at 14.3 miles. We’ll make it up tomorrow, and then some. We just need an early start. The changing seasons mean that it gets light two hours later, and dark two hours earlier, than when we started in Maine. The seasons are also making our path more difficult - much more difficult – by covering it with leaves. It was already hard enough to find our footing without them. I fell today for the first time in a month, because of the leaves. The irony is that the hazardous rocks lie buried under a carpet of mesmerisingly beautiful color.
The color, in the canopy above the Trail and lying on the ground all around us, envelops Jake and me and bathes us throughout the day in a glow that ranges from gold in the morning to tangerine in the slanted rays of late afternoon.
I was thankful today for the brilliant foliage show because otherwise the Trail was buried in the woods. We had one opportunity for a view and much of that was obscured by haze.
As the day progressed, with several steep uphill climbs that drew all of the spring out of my legs, I reminded myself how lucky we are to be out here at all. Hatman, a 50-year-old section-hiker from Pennsylvania who’s covered 1,100 miles of the AT to date, reminded me too: his face lit up when he learned that he was sharing the shelter for the evening with a father-son hiking duo. “I think that’s great, “ he said. “Really, a wonderful thing to be doing together. ” I agree
Dad never showed up last night. I didn’t sleep well, partly out of worry and partly out of concern about the scurrying noises I heard all night. There were also many rustling noises out amongst the leaves which I’m sure sounded like a larger creature than it actually was. Around 8 in the morning Dad showed up having camped on the trail last night. We had a dinner for breakfast since I hadn’t bothered cooking dinner the night before.
The going was slow but not too steep at first. It never got too steep, actually, but my feet gave me a lot of grief. Ever since that damned rat stole my sock, I’ve bee having abrasion difficulties on the back of my ankles. I think it’s because my old Wigwam socks, which I’m using now, are falling apart, and the individual strands of wool are rubbing my feet in an odd way. Today was the worst of it. I tried putting some Vaseline on it and we’ll see how it feels in the morning. Other than that the day was largely unremarkable. We passed a nice overlook called Wind Rock.
Last modified Thursday July 25, 2002