October 18 ~ Pearisburg, VA at milepoint 1548.6 south, 128 days since start of hike, averaging 12.1 miles per day
Trail data – Day 126 AT miles hiked: 23.0 People we saw on the Trail: 0 People we stayed with: Eric & Angelea Pappas (in Blacksburg)
Jake and I had to search hard for motivation this morning. The sky was a blanket of dark gray, with occasional drizzle dampening our spirits. We dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags at 7 when it was just barely light enough to see what we were doing. By 8 we were on the Trail and found ourselves cursing the steepest chunks of uphill climbing that we’ve done since NH. These nasty, brutally steep slopes are too short to show up on our profile chart. “If the chart for the rest of the day is this inaccurate,” said Jake, “we’re doomed.”
Fortunately, the rest of the Trail today returned to its ordinary (i.e., manageable) rigors. To be sure, the Trail is tougher now than a few weeks ago because its contours are obscured by fallen leaves. But as soon as the sun came out this afternoon, the spring returned to my step.
Two things were scarce today: good drinking water and fellow hikers. We saw no one on the Trail all day. Yesterday I saw only 2 and the same on the day before. After hiking 23 miles, it feels a little odd to be so alone out here. Jake and I hiked in close proximity to each other throughout the afternoon.
We had been warned about the water shortage by our shelter-mate, Hatman, who told us that we would find no water during our last 19 miles before Pearisburg except at a barely marked spring. We could find it, he said, by looking for a small, handwritten note hanging in a zip-lock bag in a tree. And sure enough the bag and spring were right where Hatman said they would be. But the water looked a little sketchy; it was a shallow spring with leaves and other debris floating in it. Even so, it was an improvement over the last water I had drawn, and treated with iodine, from a stream called Dismal Branch 12 miles before the spring.
Jake and I reached our destination, Pearisburg, just as night was closing in on us. The Trail crosses the New River on the outskirts of Pearisburg, and left is conveniently situated at a small supermarket. There we proved the adage that one shouldn’t shop for groceries on an empty stomach and we came out of the supermarket with the candy bars and Little Debbie’s to show for it.
We managed to get a ride into Pearisburg with some rather abject begging for a ride among the supermarket patrons out in the parking lot. A young man waiting for his girlfriend to finish her shift at the supermarket drove us to a Mexican restaurant.
While we were eating, a rumpled-looking patron wearing a camouflage jacket asked if he could sit down and join us. I said OK, but Jake and I had our doubts about this guy. He told us about his background in law enforcement and as a Vietnam vet. He claimed to be retired from the State Police, but his shaky, uneasy demeanor gave me the feeling that his “retirement” may not have been entirely voluntary. He told us about his current work as a free-lance bounty hunter and his “covert ops” work in Vietnam – secret missions where his assignment was to cross into North Vietnam and “take out as many buildings and people as we could.” His orders, he claimed, came directly from General Westmoreland. Nowadays, he said, he has “fewer restrictions on what I do than the police. I can kick doors down without a warrant,” he said, “because I don’t work for the government.”
The most disturbing aspect of our conversation with this guy (Dennis was his name) was his insistence that Jake and I should be carrying guns on the Trail. He told us about a double homicide that occurred at the Wapiti Shelter, which we will come to in a couple of days. “What are you carrying for protection?” he asked. I pulled out my orange plastic emergency whistle, and he laughed. “That won’t do you much good,” he said. “You should each be carrying a .38.”
Jake and I were glad to see our friend Eric, who drove to the restaurant to take us to his house in Blacksburg. We had spent quite enough time with Dennis. Meeting people like him, however, was worthwhile. It provides a sobering reminder of how – outside our comfortable world of well-educated, responsible and peace-loving friends and neighbors – there exists a large number, perhaps an even greater number, of people who do not share these values.
Woke up early this morning to a light rain and very little light around 6:50. The first few miles of the day were pretty rough walking next to a river – the trail kept going steeply up and down for very short distances. After that it got much easier and we had a pretty nice day of hiking. Once we got up onto the ridge, it was more or less downhill the rest of the day. I saw a really interesting thing on the trail – near a road access there was an electric eye monitoring the trail. Evidently someone wanted to keep a count of trail users. We passed a nice shelter just outside a cow pasture. It seemed like it would have been a nice place to stay, with great views and access to the stars. There was even a resident Frisbee, although why anyone would want to play Frisbee in a cow pasture is beyond me. We arrived in Pearisburg just before dark and hung around the supermarket for a while, then went to a Mexican restaurant attached to a motel. The food left a lot to be desired, but the company was pretty interesting. Soon after we sat down a fellow named Dennis (the only other person there) came over to talk with us. He was quite a character, and claimed to have a Ph.D. in Chemistry, have served 2 tours on Covert Ops in ‘Nam, be a retired state trooper and currently a bounty hunter. He seemed sincere enough, but I couldn’t tell whether he was having us on. There was also a fellow who came in later and seemed to be a few bricks short of a wheelbarrow. He was always talking too loudly and out of turn, and asking questions which he’d already asked and had answered. That was fun for a while, but Eric showed up just in time to pick us up, before I could become sick of this unusual company. We went back to his house and are now clean and feeling great. It’s very nice to be back here again so soon.
October 19 ~ Doc's Knob Shelter, VA at milepoint 1558.0 south, 129 days since start of hike, averaging 12.1 miles per day
Trail data – Day 127 AT miles hiked: 9.4 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: 4 day hikers Critters: deer, 4 goats wearing bells around their necks.
Jake and I had a wonderful surprise today when we picked up our mail in Pearisburg. A number of people from my office had put together a CARE package with extra-good dehydrated hikers’ dinners (the fancy kind that only weekend hikers carry), hiking socks, iodine tablets, firestarters, 2 space blankets, Hershey Kisses, and other useful stuff. Along with these items was a card shape like banner: “David & Jacob – Keep on Hiking.” It was signed with various inscriptions and words of encouragement by 70 people in my office. It was heart-warming to receive such enthusiastic support from my colleagues.
The timing was perfect. When my friend Eric dropped us off at the Post Office, Jake and I were beginning our final six weeks on the Trail, during which we will not be seeing any family members or friends. We’ll be going into the coldest season of our hike, in a section of country that is new to us. We were beginning to dread this long home-stretch, and that’s why the CARE package and card were so well timed. Thank you, friends at Hill & Barlow, for your generosity and moral support.
Late in the afternoon, with all our errands done, we returned to the Trail, which rises steeply 2,000 feet until we could see all of Pearisburg and its environs. A set of boulders called Angel’s Rest gave us our first big view just before sun down, but there were other rock ledges along the way. We could see tufts of still-vibrant foliage lit up by the low-slanting yellow-gold light. The color range has shifted a bit in the last few days: reds have become more like dark crimson, orange more like rust, and yellow a dark burnished gold. Up on top of the ridge where we were hiking this evening, the cold night air has accelerated the process and most of the leaves on the highest trees have dropped.
It had been an intensely beautiful, extended fall as we have hiked south. Even with the now-fallen leaves, we are bathed in autumn colors.
Our campsite for the evening is in a glen of huge rhododendrons. I never realized that they could grow so tall – almost 20 feet in places. Spring must be an intense, and fragrant, experience in this neck of the woods, where the northbound thru-hikers arrive in April and May.
As we ended our hike today, we parted company with West Virginia, whose border we straddled before coming into Pearisburg. We have ten more days of Virginia ahead of us before we cross into Tennessee. One of the south-bounders ahead of us, Jojo, reminds us, in all of her register entries, to “savor the moments,” and that seems like particularly appropriate advice as the end of our hike hoves into view.
October 20 ~ Jenny Knob Shelter, VA at milepoint 1580.0 south, 130 days since start of hike, averaging 12.2 miles per day
Trail data – Day 128 AT miles hiked: 22.0 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: no one
Loneliness clobbered Jake and me today. It slowed us down. It made our feet feel like lead. Seeing no one on the Trail all day is no longer unusual, but it still has a corrosive effect on our mood. Hiking from one shelter to another, shared with no other hikers, compounds the loneliness.
I try to combat the feeling on the Trail by thinking about the thousands of hikers who have passed this way over the years. Some of them I’ve met; some are legends on the Trail. Most are just average folks, like Jake and me, who enjoy hiking. Their spirit animates the Trail, and I reach for that spirit at times like this.
But I am also keenly aware of the “charge” I get from contact with flesh-and-blood people. I’ve felt it in the handful of road races I’ve run, where people shouting encouragement from the sidelines make all the difference.
Out here on the Trail, I summon to mind our well-wishers back home. At lunch-time, I fought back the tide of loneliness by re-reading the banner of good wishes that Jake and I received from the folks in my office.
Sometimes, however, I let my mind drift through the loneliness, trying not to fight it but instead learning from it. Like a stone washed clean by flowing water, I feel the loneliness strip away my defenses and distractions. I am rubbed raw and learning from what’s exposed.
Today’s 22 miles of hiking – mostly along the ridge of Brushy Mountain – gave me plenty of time to think about loneliness and to follow each strand of thought. That’s one of the gifts of the Trail – not only the opportunity for introspection but also a chance to examine introspection itself – to see where one’s thoughts lead, without interruption.
Jake and I have also been enjoying our immersion in the culture of southern Appalachia. When we have contact with local folks, we don’t always understand what they’re saying, but we’re trying. It’s a bit like visiting a foreign country. Today we crossed Lickskillet Hollow. We drew our water from Dismal Creek, just above Dismal Falls. We crossed Big Horse Gap and Nobusiness Creek. Who comes up with these names?
The long, slow hike today left Jake and me feeling drained. By the time I reached the shelter it had been dark for an hour and a half. We had no energy for cooking dinner, so we ate cheese and crackers. We kept our loneliness to ourselves, but I made a promise to talk with Jake about it tomorrow. It will be easier in the morning light.
October 21 ~ Campsite near Bland, VA at milepoint 1594.0 south, 131 days since start of hike, averaging 12.2 miles per day
Trail data – Day 129 AT miles hiked: 14 People we camped with: just us People seen on the Trail: no one
Two thoughts occupied Jake and me this morning as we tried to get organized: water and feeling lonely. He and I are glad to be hiking together; it would be even lonelier to do it alone – but we both miss the other people in our lives. It was good to talk about it in the quiet of a shelter we had to ourselves. We also talked about who would walk the half mile or so to the spring where, with luck, we would find the water we’d need to get us through the first 11 miles of dry mountain ridge.
You might think that after walking nearly 1,600 miles, a half-mile side path to a water source would be no problem. But these side-paths are usually steep. And they aren’t AT miles. The accumulated fatigue of 1,600 miles is starting to get to us. There’s also the risk that the water hole will be dry and the climb for naught. After discussing all of this, we flipped a coin, and Jake (God bless him) went off to find water.
Meanwhile, I took a good, hard look at my toe-nails. I have been fearing for a week or so that the new nails on my big toe are growing in all wrong. The original nails turned black and came out many weeks ago as a result of the battering my feet received during the first week of the hike. I decided to visit a doctor, if I could find one on a Saturday afternoon, in Bland, VA, the next town along the Trail. I wanted to find out that my toes were OK, or to have them fixed before they got worse.
It took most of the day for Jake and me to hike the 12 miles to US-52, where we hitched into Bland. We passed an AT sign at the road crossing that had been blasted to smithereens by hunters’ rifles. We climbed into the back of a pick-up truck loaded with high-tech bow hunting equipment. The driver and his two buddies were wearing camouflage clothing, head to toe. I tried to act like a regular guy but I felt like I had the words “vegetarian” and “pacifist” written on my forehead. I felt out of place.
In Bland I learned that the town’s two doctors were unavailable. The nearest doctor was 22 miles away. I decided my toes could wait a few more days, until the Trail crosses a highway near a hospital.
In the meantime, however, Jake and I had a grand time chilling at the gas station/country store in Bland, where we called home and did our part for the local economy. A picnic table beside the store gave us a place to hang out, write a few post-cards, make our plans, and sample a few Little Debbie products we had never tried before.
When we finally got organized enough to hitch back to the Trail, we caught a ride with a quiet, burly guy who looked like he could barely fit in his Japanese-made pick-up truck. We climbed in back, wedging ourselves among the junk that had accumulated there: anti-freeze jugs, tools, and car parts. When he dropped us off, we chatted briefly.
“I live right next to the Trail,” he said. “Just six miles north of here.” He invited us to come and stay with him if we passed that way again. A kind face shone through his dark beard and grizzled features. He warned us about snakes on the Trail. “You’ll see a lot of rattlers south of here, but you’ll hear ‘em first – they’ll give you a warning,” he said. Copperheads, however, don’t warn you, and you have to be careful, he said, because “they’ll crawl right into your sleeping bag with you.” Yikes! He recommended putting a circle of rope on the ground. “The copperheads won’t cross it for some reason,” he said, “or so they say.”
We thanked him for the advice and the invitation and headed south. Before we had walked 100 feet, however, I realized that we had a dirty cook pot that needed washing. Jake and I ducked into the local church and asked permission to use their bathroom. Eight local folks, sitting in the tiny sanctuary with their minister, welcomed us and asked us to join their Saturday evening service.
As we got back on the Trail, Jake and I both lamented our decision not to attend the service. The parishioners were engaging, and the minister struck both of us as a man of real spirit. But we know, from our experience with Evangelical Christians at Bear Mountain Park, that we would be asked whether we had accepted Jesus as our personal savior. Our answer would be “no,” and thus would begin an effort to save our Jewish souls by converting us to Christianity. We felt more comfortable on the Trail.
At a small leaf-covered clearing overlooking the town of Bastian, Jake and I pitched our tents and counted our blessings. We both felt revived by our sojourn into town and an hour or so of chilling. “I feel good about hiking for the first time in a couple of days,” said Jake.
I’m feeling the same. In the warm night air, a slight breeze brought a flurry of leaves down upon us. We cooked up one of the high-class instant dinners we received from my friends at work. A few crickets climbed into my nylon shelter, but so far no copperheads. We can hear dogs barking at each other in the town far below. But up here on the Trail, peace prevails.
October 22 ~ Chestnut Knob Shelter, VA at milepoint 1613.9 south, 132 days since start of hike, averaging 12.2 miles per day
(Transcriber’s note: I have not received entries for October 22, 23 and 24 as of yet. Some packets have taken quite awhile to reach me, so they are probably caught up somewhere in the U.S. Postal Service system. P.S. They arrived 11/16!)
Note from David: “There’s an error in our maildrop schedule. Instead of Neel’s Gap, GA, our last mail pick-up will be at the following address:
c/o Walasi-Yi Center 9710 Gainesville Hwy. Blairsville, GA 30512
Trail data – Day 130 AT miles hiked: 19.9 People we camped with: Rocks People seen on the Trail: Half-Pint and Sassafras (both section hikers)
Water continues to be scarce on the Trail. Today I drew water from a small spring where, after clearing away the fallen leaves, I saw a salamander swim by. A few days ago, at an even smaller spring, a 2 – 3” crawfish was patrolling the shallow bottom. Other hikers say the water critters are a good sign – the water’s clean enough to support life. So instead of worrying about toxins, I’m worrying about pathogens and wondering if my iodine will get them all.
The scarcity of water is the price we are paying for delightfully dry weather. Jake and I have not been rained on since our first week in Virginia. The beautiful fall foliage has stayed longer on the trees, but now most of it is on the ground. The grown-up in me looks out and sees a vast and beautiful Seurat canvas of fall colors – points of warm-hued light. The 5-year-old in me is having a blast kicking through the piles of leaves that accumulate on t he Trail.
The loneliness of the Trail was broken today by a conversation with two section hikers – Half-Pint (from Texas) and Sassafras (from Colorado) – two young women who met on the Trail and are now hiking partners. At the end of the day we met a “flip-flop” thru-hiker named Rocks. A flip-flop hike begins somewhere in the middle of the Trail – in Rocks’ case, in Harpers Ferry, heading north to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and then riding to Georgia, where he resumed his hike north to Harpers Ferry.
Our meeting with Rocks was a little scary at first. Jake and I were cooking our dinner at this shelter, which sits exposed, atop a grassy knob. We saw a light across the valley on the far hillside. “Could be a campfire,” said Jake. “I don ’t think so,” I said. “It’s moving.” As the light drew nearer, we both agreed it must be a hiker. “Hello, there – howya doin’,” Jake and I called out. No response from the approaching light. We could hear the click of hiking poles. Again we called out: “Hi there.” No response. Is this some bad hombre? Most hikers would have responded already.
Adrenaline started flowing and then we could see the long-hair and genial features of someone who was clearly identifiable as one of us. Rocks is Jake’s age (19) and lives near Harper’s Ferry. He sat down with us and we traded Trail stories while he made some dinner.
The shelter is a handsome stone structure with four walls, a few high windows, and bunks. However, the shelter register warns of brazen mice who come out in force at night. That was enough to convince me to set up my tent in the field outside the shelter – more work but fewer rodents. And possibly a front-row seat for the sunrise.
October 23 ~ Atkins, VA at milepoint 1637.2 south, 133 days since start of hike, averaging 12.3 miles per day
Trail data – Day 181 AT miles hiked: 23.3 People seen on the Trail: no one Critters: owl, grouse, cows
Even with a hazy sky, the sunrise was a joy to watch this morning. For one thing, the sun has been rising at a much more civilized hour of late – some time around 7:30 or so. Also, standing on top of the grassy bald (Chestnut Knob), Jake and I could see an idyllic-looking valley of farms with fog setting into the lowest spots. It looked like a dreamscape, with all the features pale and indistinct.
Jake and I had a chance to talk a little more with Rocks this morning. He commented several times about how impressed he was that we are doing the Trail together. “Have you had arguments?” he asked. “A few,” we said. Rocks has done some long-distance sailing with his father, but no hiking. “Sailing together was not such a great idea,” he said. “We’re too different.”
As we began our hike today, the Trail was wide enough for Jake and me to walk side-by-side – a rare occurrence. We reviewed our arguments on the hike: cell phone or no cell phone; add protein bars to our maildrops or not; should Jake carry a watch; when should we plan on returning; should we read each other’s journal entries before we send them in. I experienced these issues as discussions, Jake as arguments. But either way, we both felt we were getting along well as hiking partners, and enjoying ourselves to boot.
The big event of the day was reaching the ¾ point on the Trail: mile 1625.4. I wish I could say that this milestone is a scenic hillside with an inspiring view. According to my calculations, the ¾ point was the muddy corner of a pasture where a stream makes the footing – already tricky because of the cows’ activities – challenging. In addition to the cows, there was also a bull who scowled and never took his eyes off me. I don’t know whether he considered me a predator, a potential interloper, or just another smelly hiker. I decided to keep moving. There were some wonderful views today of beautiful rolling pastures but this wasn’t one of them. (P.S. Some thing look better from a distance than close-up; generally speaking, cow pastures fit that description.)
My plan for the day was to hike all the way into Atkins, VA – past the shelter where Jake would be staying. My goal was to get my feet to a hospital emergency room where I would ask a doctor about some problems they were giving me. I had my heart set on staying at the one motel in Atkins, a town of a few hundred people. I thought I could shower and then hitch hike to the hospital the next morning, looking and smelling a lot better than I do on the Trail.
But, alas, the motel was full. The very friendly owner/manager offered me a spot on the lawn behind the motel, and I accepted. He’s used to hikers because the Trail crossed the road next to the motel, but allowing me to tent seemed very generous. Maybe he took one look at me and decided that here is a guy who is clearly in need of a favor. And I was.
October 24 ~ Partnership Shelter, VA at milepoint 1648.8 south, 134 days since start of hike, averaging 12.3 miles per day
Trail data – Day 132 AT miles hiked: 11.6 People we camped with: Escargot, Cloud, and a father-son team who are section-hiking the Trail. People seen on the Trail: 2 week-end hikers
Dread filled my mind this morning, as I woke on the wet grass situated between the quiet Village Motel and the roaring 18-wheelers on Interstate 81. I was dreading the visit I would pay later in the morning to a doctor concerning my feet.
The AT can be pretty hard on a hiker’s feet. Many of us lose toenails along the way because of “black toe” – essentially a bruised toe that causes the nail to fall out. It takes several weeks for the process to unfold, and all the while a new toe-nail is forming and beginning to grow. In my case, the nails on my big toes turned black after my first day of hiking. The new toe nails are coming along but they look more than a little strange – and slightly in-grown. I’ve seen other hikers forced off the Trail by in-grown toe-nails and I decided that I did not want to join them. I was willing to take the risk of being laughed out of the Emergency Room by the medical staff just to make sure I was OK – or at least OK enough to keep hiking for the next five weeks.
I was also dreading the possibility that the doctors would decide to do something drastic; such as operate on my toes and thus force me off the Trail. So, with these thoughts swirling in my head, it was hard to sleep but also hard to get out of my sleeping bag and make my way to the hospital in Marion, VA, nine miles north of the motel.
The hitching was not too hard. When I got frustrated or impatient I opened up my backpack, reached for a book, and then BAM – a car pulled over. This technique has yet to fail me.
My second ride, who took me to the ER, was a little scary. He was extremely uncommunicative. I tend to be the opposite, so we were a bad match for five miles that began to seem like fifty. I couldn’t get any reading on this guy’s affect meter. He had a kind face, bearded, rugged looking – he could have passed for a cousin of Kris Kristopherson. But when someone passes on every opportunity to make a conversation bilateral, I start getting nervous. When he turned down a side road (which I later realized was a short-cut to the hospital), I thought I was about to become another rural crime statistic.
At the ER, the doctor didn’t laugh at me. He actually thought I had some problems – with my feet, that is. He called a nearby podiatrist, who agreed to see me right away. As I walked out of the ER, there were a dozen or so people milling around. One of the nurses told me there was a death this morning in the ER. In the parking area I saw a man sitting on the curb looking glum. “I heard someone died?” I said with a question in my voice. “It was my dad,” he said. “He had a massive heart attack.” “I am so sorry,” I said, and reached out to put my hand on his shoulder. He was burly, blue collar by the look of his clothes, and plainly unaccustomed to same-sex physical contact with a stranger. But after shrinking from me a millimeter or two, he accepted my hand on his shoulder and we both got a little teary. “I am really sorry to hear about your dad,” I repeated. He said thanks, and I walked across the parking lot with a very different perspective on my troublesome feet.
Dr. Johnson, the podiatrist, put my mind to rest about the hike. He did some trimming and cutting of the tissue around my new toe-nails, but said I would be fine – at least for the next few weeks. He looked at some painful spots on the souls of my feet – the ER doctor thought they were warts and needed to be removed. “These are keratomas,” said Dr. Johnson, “extra growths of skin growing inward in response to the pounding you’re giving your feet.” I asked about anesthesia, as I saw him reach for some sharp-looking tools. “This won’t hurt a bit,” he said. I thought to myself: I’ve heard that before; in fact, isn ’t that what doctors always say just before administering some painful injection?
I am a complete wimp about pain, but Dr. Johnson was right. He trimmed away at the bottom of my feet and I felt nothing. I began to feel like a horse getting my hooves clipped just before the new shoes are nailed on.
I stepped out of Dr. Johnson’s office with a sigh of relief and a renewed bounce in my gait. The dread was gone – I could finish the hike (God willing and the creek don’t rise). My feet felt terrific.
I got a ride back to the Trailhead with a woman in a Jeep, who did a big U-turn on 4-lane US-11 when she saw my “Appalachian Trail” sign. “Are you hiking the Trail?” she called out her window. “Yes,” is said and climbed in. She had hiked the Trail for two memorable weeks and loved it; her Trail name was “Big Red” – evidently because of her height and because she’s a red head. “My girl friend and I hiked with a dog – we called her Little Red,’ she said. “Was that for security or companionship or both?” I asked. “Well, both, I guess, but I always carry a gun,” and she patted her waist-band. “I have ever since I was 18.”
Ok, I thought: I’m not in Massachusetts any more. Everyone in this part of Virginia, it seems, is packing heat. No wonder Al Gore is hardly even campaigning in Virginia; everyone down here knows that George W. is more likely to le them keep their guns.
I thanked Big Red for the ride and began a long slow climb. Within two hours I looked back and could see the 10-wheelers on I-81 – tiny, smaller than toys, inching their way north and south. It’s astonishing to me – still – how far I can get, just by putting one foot in front of the other.
Jake and I reconnected at this shelter, one of the best on the AT. It’s only 1/ 10 mile from a Forest Service Visitor Center, and therefore has two conveniences found almost nowhere else on the Trail: a sink with running water and a shower! The latter is cold water only most of the time, and I decided I could wait a few more days for a shower.
Jake and I were also pleasantly surprised by the presence of other hikers. One of them – Cloud – emigrated from China 9 years ago, when he was 19 years old. It was fascinating to hear about his life as a student in China and then suddenly in the U.S.
Feeling an immediate connection with Cloud and his friend Escargot (who is Korean) brought to mind a quote from an article about the Trail that Beth gave me. In the article, a thru-hiker named Dick Christian, age 61, comments: “People out on the Trail form a unique and strong community. The only other time I felt this kind of camaraderie was when I was in the army. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do for a living – when you are out on the Appalachian Trail, we all live the same way.”
We sat up talking until 11:30 p.m., late for hikers. I went to bed feeling great, and feeling the contrast between my dread when I woke up this morning under a damp tarp all alone to the camaraderie of this beautifully constructed log shelter.
October 25 ~ Hurricane Campground, VA at milepoint 1665.5 south, 135 days since start of hike, averaging 12.3 miles per day
Trail data – Day 133 AT miles hiked: 16.7 People we camped with: just us
Haze has dominated the skies for a least three days now. Our views are restricted to the woods we are walking through, but they are plenty. Leaves lie everywhere, blanketing the Trail. Their hues have shifted from the vibrant colors of fall foliage to subtler shades. Many of the leaves are simply brown, but it is a deeply burnished brown, a beautiful, rich brown.
As I sat looking closely at these leaves this afternoon, I was reminded of a poem by a mystic named Kabir, who rejected the idea that encounters with transcendent beauty require long journeys or commanding vistas.
“Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers. My friend, don’t bother with that excursion Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals. That will do for a place to sit. Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty Inside the body and out of it, Before gardens and after gardens.”
So much for Deep Thoughts. What actually happened on the Trail today?
Jake and I spent the morning kibbitzing with section-hikers Cloud and Escargot, who are leaving the Trail today and shmying around the nearby Mt. Rogers Visitor Center, where a startlingly realistic, life-size stuffed bear is on display.
Jake hit the Trail sooner than I did, and so, as I began hiking, I was rushing to catch up. And for no good reason, except that I didn’t want to keep him waiting at our lunch rendezvous. Ever since Maine, I have been going down gentle slopes at a slow jog when the footing is good enough. But today, as I charged down what seemed like a smooth enough path, a stone hidden beneath the leaves caught my foot and sent me sprawling head first. My hands, elbows, and knees caught the full brunt of the fall. I was sledding down the hill, face down, and moving fast over the rocks and stones, but with no sled under me. When I finally slid to a stop, I made a promise to myself: no more jogging on the downhills. Period. No matter how effortless it seems. I surveyed the damage – nothing major, a few scrapes and bruises. Most of the damage was mental: scorching self-criticism.
We are camping tonight half a mile off the Trail, just outside a Park Service campground. Jake’s tent and my tarp are pitched in a grove of trees, on a soft bed of pine needles, leaves, and forest peat. The peacefulness is punctuated by the occasional pick-up truck driving by. Before calling it a night, I made a visit to a nearby tree and looked back at the two tents, glowing gently with reading candles inside – tiny sanctuaries in the woods.
October 26 ~ Thomas Knob Shelter, VA at milepoint 1684.5 south, 136 days since start of hike, averaging 12.4 miles per day
Trail data – 134 AT miles hiked: 19.1 Miles left to go: 482.6 People we camped with: JoJo and 2 weekend hikers from Kentucky Critters seen: 2 deer; 8 or 9 ponies
The big milestone today was crossing the 500-mile mark – i.e., Jake and I now have less than 500 miles of Trail between us and Springer Mountain in Georgia. It is with a mixture of relief and regret that we begin counting down those miles.
Our hike today brought us up and over some of the prettiest scenery we’ve seen in a while. Known as the Mt. Rogers “high country.” The terrain looks a bit like Maine and NH, except instead of tree-less, rock-strewn summits, we are crossing mountains and ridges covered with wild grasses and a few stunted trees.
In one section, ponies roam a large expanse of hills. The Forest Service uses the ponies, and occasionally grazing cattle or controlled fires, to prevent these meadows from returning to forest. The rock outcroppings gave us a few twisting boulder paths to climb, including one narrow passage called “Fatman Squeeze Tunnel.” The Trail also dove through a stand of balsam fir, giving us the pungent aroma of northern New England.
At one shelter we passed there were 20 or 25 college students hiking this region for a week as part of a college course. Their excitement about the free-roaming ponies and the big views was contagious. I told them that back in the 19th century, when I went to college, we never had such courses or trips. They, like Jake and I, are very lucky to be out here.
This evening, at Thomas Knob Shelter, we met JoJo, who is completing her second thru-hike in as many years. She recently retired from the Navy, and it was a pleasure to meet her because we’ve been reading her shelter register entries all through Virginia. She always ends them with the words “Savor the moments” – which we are trying more than ever to do, now that there are less than 500 miles of them left.
October 27 ~ Saunders Shelter at milepoint 1703.1 south, 137 days since start of hike, averaging 12.4 miles per day
Trail data – Day 135 AT miles hiked: 18.6 Miles left to go: 464 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: -2 section hikers (twins, in the 60’s) -8 weekend hikers -1 day hiker -1 deer hunter in camo
Presidential politics reared its ugly head on the Trail today. At a shelter that Jake and I passed this afternoon, discussion in the shelter register focused on voting. One young woman announced, almost as of she was coming out of the closet, that she is a Republican. Another hiker professed (tongue in cheek?) that he was a Commie and proud of it. Yet another urged his fellow hikers to “vote Green.” I think one or two entries indicated support for Gore.
Ordinarily, I am not one to shrink from political debate. But partisan politics on the Trail sounds to me like the unwelcome voice of someone who talks too loudly in a library. We don’t want to prohibit talking in libraries; we just want people to keep it to themselves.
And for good reason. There’s a contemplative mood on the Trail that’s disturbed when the world’s woes are put on the table. Most hikers have come to get away from all that. In discussions at the shelters, politics (like religion) are rarely discussed, and even a discussion of current events finds few takers.
But it’s more than the contemplative mood that’s broken when hikers start debating about the candidates. The feeling of community begins to unravel a bit whenever there is too much casual discussion if ideologies. If you take politics seriously (as many of us do), it’s hard to ignore the feelings that arise when someone announces their obviously misguided support for the mutton-headed candidate that you oppose. Out here on the Trail the norm is that we know very little about each other, except as it relates to hiking – I believe this is one of the reasons that Trail names are so popular among thru-hikers. We are looking for ways to heighten the feeling that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. That felling gets lost, it seems to me, when the presidential campaigns hit the Trail.
Having broached the subject of politics, I may as well say a word about religion as well. I’ve been listening to the radio occasionally as I hike, and the number of evangelical stations here in the South is extraordinary. I have heard some truly inspired preaching. Good sermons are like good stories – it’s hard to stop listening. I’ve also heard some ham-handed preaching, such as the exhortation to put small religious tracts in the Halloween baskets of trick-or-treaters. One of the surprises for me was to hear the “full service” religious stations that offer their own news broadcasts from Christian news networks with Washington bureaus and all the other trappings of news organizations. I had naively thought that evangelicals, like the rest of us, are exposed to secular views about the world’s events, but perhaps that’s not so.
So much for religion and politics. Jake and I spent most of our day well insulated from all that. The Trail brought us near the summit of Mt. Rogers, Virginia’s tallest mountain at 5,729 feet. We did not take the side trail to the summit because the wooded peak affords no views. The Trail cruises at about 5,500 feet in this section near Mt. Rogers and gave us plenty of climbing. It would have given us big views as well, but for the fifth straight day the skies were hazy.
We even got rained on briefly – an annoyance but a welcome one. It’s been quite dry, and there’s concern about the water supply and the vulnerability of the woods to fire.
We had a brief fire scare around 11 a.m., when Jake and I were sitting with a group of hikers near a road crossing. A car pulled over and the driver asked if any of us had a cell phone. “There’s a car on fire just down the road,” he exclaimed. It is a source of great annoyance to Jake (and probably some embarrassment as well) that his father carries a cell phone on the Trail. I never leave it turned on, so it never rings – it’s just for emergencies. And here was an emergency. After all the hikers looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders, I sheepishly volunteered and called 911. A deputy sheriff dispatched the fire department, and we all felt somewhat relieved that an exploding car was not going to ignite the woods along these narrow roads. I’ve yet to ask Jake how he felt about our role in all this – bit I will.
P.S. There are some new rolls of film posted at the web site that Jake created before our hike (www.newview.org/JacobAndDavid). Jake’s been taking all the pictures since Delaware Water Gap.
October 28 ~ Damascus, VA at milepoint 1712.5 south, 138 days since start of hike, averaging 12.4 miles per day
Trail data – Day 136 AT miles hiked: 9.4 Miles left to go: 454.6
I hit the road to Damascus, VA, very early this morning. My main concern – this being a Saturday – was getting to the Post Office before it closed at 11 a.m. Jake and I had made arrangements by phone for the local outfitter’s shop to get our mail drop, but I wanted to make sure. Waiting in Damascus until Monday would cut deeply into our hiking schedule, and I want to save our “zero” days for bad weather.
We continue to be blessed with an unusually mild autumn. Even at 4:30 a.m., when I set out on the 9-mile journey to the Post Office, I wore only a light fleece hiking shirt. But Jake and I are bracing ourselves. Other hikers have told us of the snow they marched through on the Trail sections just ahead of us.
It was a bit of a challenge this morning climbing up and over the 1,000 feet of mountain that stood between me and Damascus. As usual, the downhills were the tricky part. Descending in the dark, over leaf-covered rocks, gave me a couple of exciting moments. Piles of dry leaves can be as slippery as snow. But as the sky brightened, the Trail began rolling gently into Damascus, known as one of the most hiker-friendly towns on the Trail.
The white blazes lead down the center of the main street in this small country town. Vacant store fronts, consignment shops, and unkempt auto shops are interspersed with neatly trimmed lawns and handsome churches. The outfitter’s shop was open early, and he handed me our mail. Everything had worked according to plan.
Next stop was The Place, an 8-room house that the local Methodist Church maintains as a hostel for hikers. It’s not fancy: there’s no stove or refrigerator and no heat. But there are bathrooms with a shower, a microwave oven, a kitchen sink, and wooden platform bunk beds (w/o mattresses). The church requests a $3/night donation and some help keeping the place tidy – very modest requests.
As I unpacked my mail drop from home, I began meeting the folks staying at The Place. I knew three of them – Fluffhead, Shaker, and Rolling Stone – from the Trail registers. We’ve been just a few days behind them through Virginia, and I enjoyed meeting them. But there were three other folks there who seemed like potentially bad hombres. I had not seen their names in Trail registers. It made me nervous to leave my pack in the house while I explored the town, so I didn’ t.
I stopped at the town library to use their computer, and apologized for the aroma of my pack. (I was hoping that having taken a shower and put on my “town clothes,” I didn’t smell too bad myself, but there’s no telling.) The librarian smiled: “Oh we get a lot of hikers in here – we’re used to it.”
Back at The Place I met one more hiker, Chayan, who did a thru-hike in 1997. To commemorate the experience he commissioned a tattoo on his back showing the entire Trail from right shoulder blade to his derriere, and showing all the state boundaries. It was quite an impressive sight.
Jake showed up in mid-afternoon, which meant it was time to get some pizza. Hiker memorabilia and newspaper clippings about various thru-hikers comprise the decor at Quincy’s, the local pizzeria.
Damascus got its start as a stop-over for outdoorsy types many years ago because it’s on the Transcontinental Bike Trail. With the AT passing through, and the Virginia Creeper (a dedicated bike path), the town now had two bike shops and a well-stocked outfitter. The essentially rural nature of the town comes through clearly, though, at the laundromat where I spent a good chunk of the afternoon. Unlike the Williamstown, MA, laundromat, with its scholarly journals and high-brow magazines, Damascus’ laundromat has booklets with Bible interpretation and the Thrifty Nickel Want Ad tabloid (free) with its ads for Elvis Collector Albums and Collector plates. Talking with the other laundromat customers, I realize how far from home I am. (A humorous book on the local dialect recommends practicing the following sentence: “I ain’t had no tom to change the awl in my Shiverlay.”)
Like many of the small towns we’ve passed through, there’s no bookstore or movie theatre, but several places to get your hair styled. My hair is a mess, but tonight I’m feeling more in the need of a movie.
Last modified Thursday July 25, 2002