Try a little tenderness

Everybody has been so kind and encouraging regarding my current inactivity that I thought I’d post a further quick update following my appointment with my doctor this morning. Don’t worry, I won’t be handing out daily bulletins!

As to the cellulitis, she believes that the skin has been correctly treated by the strong antibiotics I was given in Virginia, yet she is concerned that the pain persists, as the swelling and redness have disappeared, which should have alleviated much of the pain.

As a consequence, particularly with the knowledge that I am planning to return to Virginia next Thursday, she ordered several blood tests to determine if the infection has totally gone or if it has spread to the blood or even the bones. I’ve already had the blood taken and some of the results will be ready this afternoon, while the blood culture will be ready on Monday.

The other possibility she wants to eliminate is a stress fracture, as that may not have shown up on the X-ray taken last Monday. To that end, I have an MRI scheduled at 2.15pm today.

She wants me to rest over the next three or four days, icing both the shin and the knee every couple of hours, then start walking more extensively from Monday.

If everything comes back well from these tests, she is confident I’ll be ok to resume next Thursday.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness and concern shown from not only friends and family, but also complete strangers who have been following me online. This has truly been a year when the kindness of others has far outweighed the meanness many of us experience in our daily lives and for that I am humbly grateful.

Leavin’ on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again

This is just a quick update of where I am with my darn leg.

I woke this morning, Wednesday, and realized that the pain had, if anything, worsened overnight. This was a major disappointment and I started to think about a sensible way forward. I’ve read more about cellulitis and am now concerned that a diagnosis from a doctor in an urgent care center isn’t quite what I need for such a potentially cataclysmic infection. As a consequence, I have decided to fly back home today (currently at Charlotte Airport) and have an appointment with my own doctor tomorrow morning. She will doubtless expedite blood work and diagnose me soon after that, giving me a plan of recovery.

When I considered a ticket home, I decided to buy a return for next Thursday, 5th June, in order to give myself time to properly resolve the issue or simply abandon my adventure.

I have been very touched by the kind responses to my disappointing news and will always appreciate the encouragement you have given me along the way.

That said, I remain committed to completing this hike as planned and have already calculated that, should I be able to resume where I left off on Sunday evening, my average mileage per day would need to increase by less than a mile a day.

A fully fit Mighty Blue will wipe that extra out every day by getting up 30 minutes earlier.

Easy peasy!!

“This could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don’t know. Oh no.”

Wednesday, May 21 – Monday May 26. VA634, Pearisburg – VA624, Blacksburg, VA (Mile 698.3 since Springer Mountain and only 1487 miles to Katahdin)

This has been an epic week for a number of reasons, though it has ended on a potentially disastrous note for me. That said, there have been great things through the week as well, so I’m keeping my positive attitude. I’ll explain everything as it unfolded.

Pearisburg wasn’t a particularly attractive town though, for a hiker, it had everything you could need. The motel was a little grim, but I was able to shower, sleep and do my laundry, so I was good to go. The fact that there was an all you can eat Chinese buffet just across the road, along with a Mexican restaurant that served cheap beer, then all boxes were checked.

I had a package to pick up from Diane and, once I’d sorted that out and had a substantial breakfast, I headed out of town by about noon.

The climb out of Pearisburg was probably the messiest part of the Trail thus far, with a number of switchbacks that seemed just to be leading you up, then down, then almost back to the beginning. I heard later that the AT was being re-routed a few days after we passed by this spot, so I suppose not too much care was lavished upon this “old” part of the Trail. That said, the path was very overgrown in parts and fairly uninspiring.

My first incident of the week was something that has never, ever happened to me in my life. I came across an older guy (about the same age as me, in other words) who was having a little break and snack with his dog after a tough climb. As I approached, I hailed him in a cheery voice and his bloody dog leapt up and bit me on my pant leg, around my shin area. I was horrified but, thankfully, it looked like the darn animal hadn’t broken any skin. The poor owner was mortified, muttering that this was the first time the dog had bitten anybody. He clearly wasn’t sufficiently mortified to offer to pay for a new pair of pants, so I left him and haven’t seen him since.

It really shook me up, for some reason, but it spurred me on to really walk hard and I really covered some ground, considering that I hadn’t started until noon. However, I kept moving on, looking for somewhere nice to stay and, with the light starting to fade, and after nearly 13 miles, I ran into two guys I’d been seeing quite a bit of, Shellback and Trigger. Trigger was a Brit and had to explain every time somebody asked him if his name came from Roy Rogers’ horse that it was from a great character in a British sitcom. Most were none the wiser after this explanation. I guess they were happy with the horse.

So, we were simply camping in the forest, by the side of the Trail, and spent an enjoyable evening by a camp fire. I had been running low on water and, even though the two guys shared some water with me, I decided to forgo a hot dinner and munched down another wrap. This proved to be an error the very next day.

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It rained overnight and, with my concoction of oatmeal and protein powder swilling around in my stomach, I set off with Shellback and Trigger with hopes of another good day. They are faster hikers than me, but I wanted to keep up with them to make sure that I gained a few more miles to keep up, or ahead of my self-imposed schedule.

We had only been moving for about 15 minutes when I put my foot on a wet rock, covered in moss and slipped immediately for my tenth fall of the trip. I landed on the rock itself, cushioned by my now less than ample backside, though my head was only about three inches from a jagged rock. This was a lucky escape and I told the guys to go on without me. I had proved to myself, for about the 20th time that the correct pace for me is MY pace and that hiking alone is to my benefit.

The lack of any real substance to my previous night’s meal was now starting to impact me and I felt my strength waning quite dramatically. So much so that I got to Bailey Gap Shelter after only about 10 miles and called it a day as early as 3pm. The video below shows me at the shelter and I’m clearly under the weather. This may have been a precursor of what was to come.

I felt much revived the following morning, after a good night’s sleep and set off to recapture some of my momentum. The hiking had been pretty uninspiring for those first few days outside Pearisburg, yet this day dawned bright and clear, with the forest teeming with rodents of all sorts. At one point, I walked through an area in which there must have been 20 different animals, mice, squirrels and chipmunks all vying for my attention. Indeed, right in my path, something stuck its head out of the undergrowth only to immediately withdraw it; it could have been a snake or a rat, so fast did it move.

All this new life, along with news from other hikers that they had started to see bears the previous day, reverted me to my early days of hiking, when every tree stump and burned tree looked like a potential bear and every tree root up ahead on the Trail had to be examined as to whether or not it was a snake. None of these ever were, of course, but it was certainly in my mind. As time had gone on, I had ceased to think about such things, but this focus was right back and I spent the day hiking purposefully but warily. I eventually settled for the night, after about 15 miles, at Laurel Creek Shelter, where there were about a dozen of us, either in the shelter or set up in tents. It made for a pleasant evening and I went to bed in much better spirits.

As I said previously, the hike out of Pearisburg hadn’t been a lot of fun, so I was delighted to suddenly emerge from the dense forest into this lovely sight early on Saturday morning. These surprises are never taken for granted and always appreciated, particularly if one has been in the forest for quite a time.

Rocks have become more a part of the Trail in Virginia and they are proving not only to be hard on the boots (and feet), but also hard to keep track of quite where the Trail is. This video was shot only after I worked out which way I was supposed to be going, yet it shows how confusing it can sometimes be when you leave a relatively well-kept path and emerge in a mess of rocks.

I’ve often had a great supply of food to sustain me on this trip but, with people’s concern over my dramatic weight loss, I have been squeezing more food down my gullet and suddenly realized the day before yesterday that I had run out of breakfast food and was down to my last two protein bars. This was more than concerning, as I wasn’t due to resupply for a few more days and hadn’t let Diane know what I might need. Looking at my guidebook, I found that if I could get to VA621, Craig Creek Valley, I might be able to persuade the owner of the Four Pines Hostel, Joe Mitchell, to come and pick me up from there and take me ahead on the Trail to his hostel, where a grocery nearby would allow me to get more calories on board. I was also aware that he shuttles his guests to the Homeplace, an amazing all you can eat restaurant serving real southern cooking family style. Joe was great and we arranged to meet at the crossing at 3pm, which I thought would be eminently doable.

However, the rocks were becoming more pervasive at this time, so I started scrambling a bit to make sure I could meet this deadline. At around midday, I ran into a young guy, trail name of Noah, who was hiking the Trail barefoot (crazy man!!) and his friend, Player. We had a brief chat and I was just about to head off, having taken my first couple of steps forward, when I heard the unmistakeable rattle of a pissed off snake. It was indeed a rattler and, in the absence of any intention on the snake’s part to clear the path for us, I took the opportunity to pull out my camera and catch the little tinker in action. I tried to get a little closer to really show it off, but I’m afraid the coward in me won out and I only trusted the camera for 13 seconds.

Happily, I got to the meeting point with about 10 minutes to spare, when Joe’s girlfriend, the delightful Debbie, showed up and offered me a beer. She took me to the hostel, which is a huge converted garage that smells of sweat and many other bodily fluids, so I decided to set up my tent in Joe’s field, along with about 6 or 7 others. I got showered then we all headed to the AYCE restaurant and filled our boots on fried chicken, country ham, beef, mash, green beans, baked beans, biscuits and gravy and coleslaw. All five of us at our table filled our plates three times and we all wobbled back to the van that Joe had let us use.

Playing cornhole with Joe is to be avoided at all costs, because he is so great at it and kicked all comers into touch. Joe supplies water, soft drinks and even beer, yet only charges for specific shuttles, telling us all that a donation, entirely secret and at your own discretion, is all he’d like you to consider. This was a great place and, with my pack now replenished, I looked forward to the following day, which was Sunday. This was to prove my worst day on the trip thus far.

Given that I had been picked up so far south of Joe’s place, I asked to be dropped back and left the vast majority of my pack in Joe’s field sampling yet another delight of the AT, which is slack-packing. This involves only a small day pack, which Joe lent me, with water and snacks, plus my water filter. I set off like a train and really enjoyed the freedom to move up the mountain. In fact, I got to the top of the first mountain in very quickly time, only to find Trail Magic, in the form of the delightful Sprout, a 2012 thru-hiker, at the top. There is a hidden road approach and she had brought breakfast burritos and coke. Marvelous.

Buoyed by this great start, I headed off to the Audie Murphy monument, which I explain in this video. It was after this video that my day went dramatically downhill.

I often take my glasses off during strenuous climbs, as they mist over a little the more over-heated I become, and I recall that I saw my specs on the bench next to my pack at the monument. However, I set off and was really putting some speed on when I decided to cool down by removing my hat and my sweat band. I’m not quite sure what happened but, as I pulled off both, I noticed that my specs weren’t there. I quickly checked to see if they were in my pocket or in the immediate vicinity, then remembered seeing them next to my pack back at the monument.

Stupidly, I turned round and quickly marched back about three quarters of a mile to the monument, only to find that they were nowhere to be seen. I then knew that they must have been on my head when I pulled off the rest of the stuff and that I was unlikely to see them again……and so it proved. They are prescription, progressive lenses and I can’t tell you quite how debilitating it is to suddenly be without glasses when you wear them the whole time. However, nothing was to be done, so I called Diane to let her know, but was determined not to let this ruin the day for me.

As an aside, and I swear I’m not making this up, about 10 miles after the monument, I passed through the somewhat aptly named Lost Spectacles Gap. I let out an appropriate curse, I can tell you.

I mentioned the other day that I had bought a brace for my knee, but that I didn’t wear it for more than about 20 minutes before deciding to rely upon Ibuprofen as an alternative. For some reason, I had decided to put the brace on that morning and the knee felt fine. What was suddenly much more alarming, however, was a very sharp pain in my shin, soon after I had given up the ghost on my glasses. This pain came every step and I was suddenly in a lot of trouble, as it steadily got worse. Even though I was carrying a light pack, the hike became progressively more difficult as I headed towards the infamous Dragon’s Tooth, scrambling over rock after rock and really putting my left leg through it. To add insult to injury, or in this case, to add injury to injury, I smashed my head into an overhanging branch during this miserable climb. Another visceral curse alleviated the immediate pain.

Dragon’s Tooth is a huge, forty feet high rock at the top of a mountain that provides superb views over the entire valley. The real difficulty of this feature, however, isn’t the tooth itself; it is the dreadful climb down the mountain after the Tooth, with the need to climb, using your hands at times, down these treacherous rocks. It was awful, as I came to realize that my adventure could well be over, my leg dragging more and more as the descent continued.

On a side note, I mentioned the wild flowers of the forest the other day and, 45 degree incline notwithstanding, I thought this was a gorgeous sight and wanted to film it, if only to brighten my dreadful day, so please enjoy these pretty rhododendron.

I eventually staggered out onto the road at the bottom and made my way back to Joe’s hostel. Not wishing to miss out on the chance of another AYCE extravaganza, I gathered a few hikers together and headed over to the restaurant, gorging myself once more, thinking this could be one of my last chances at some guilt-free eating. Some things never change, and my appetite is one of them!

This morning I woke to find that the leg was even worse and, after my breakfast of oatmeal and protein powder (resembling cat vomit more every day), I tried to walk the short third of a mile back to the trailhead but, for one of the first times in my life, I listened to what my body was telling me and considered the alternatives. I could try to hike for two days to Daleville, some 25.7 miles away through an unforgiving wilderness, or I could try to hitch a lift there and rest up and maybe seek some medical help to see if what I had was shin splits or something more serious.

There was really only one answer and I stuck out my thumb. As things transpired, I may well have put my life in danger if I’d tried to brave it out.

A guy quickly pulled up, with two hikers already on board, and he was taking them to the Dragon’s Tooth. I asked him to take me to a more hiker-friendly road in order to thumb a lift into Daleville. Once he’d dropped the other guys off, learning that what I needed was a hotel, he offered to take me to Blacksburg, VA, as there are hotels aplenty there.

As a result, I checked into the Comfort Inn Suites late this morning, did some emergency washing (I stank!), then headed over to the Urgent Care Facility in the town. The doctor examined my leg, eliminated shin splints (hooray), eliminated a blood clot (gulp!) and told me that I had cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection. I thought it was the orange peel effect on the top of women’s legs, but that is apparently cellulite.

My leg had swollen by now and was visibly red and spreading. The doctor told me that this was a potentially life-threatening illness and that, had I proceeded to Daleville, I may well not have made it (gulp again!!). A nurse gave me an immediate antibiotic injection in the butt and I was prescribed a 10 day course of pills. With a bit of luck, and two days bed rest, I’ll be good to go on Thursday.

This has been a traumatic couple of days for me and I apologize if the post seems a bit low key. Frankly, while I’d be delighted to see my gorgeous wife again, I’d be devastated to have to quit when 700 miles into my wonderful, crazy adventure. I’ve learned a lot about myself on the trip, not least how bad I smell after five days in the woods, but my goal has remained the same and is now more important to me than ever. It’s funny how important something can become when you are in danger of losing it. Now THAT is a life lesson we could all take on.

Hopefully, this isn’t the last post and I’ll be on the road again this Thursday though, as with everything on the AT, you just never know.

Jurassic Park

Thursday, May 15 – Tuesday, May 20. Marion, VA – VA634, Pearisburg (Mile 630.8 since Springer Mountain and only 1554.5 miles to Katahdin)

It has been nearly a week since I posted and, disgusting clothes aside, I have at last arrived in Pearisburg to take a short but welcome break overnight. I’m at last putting in some relatively big days and you can see that I’ve done nearly 90 miles in that six days. I also chose to avoid Trail Days back in Damascus, mainly to keep my momentum going, but also because I knew it was likely to end up being a three day booze fest and, with the best will in the world, 61 year old drunks aren’t the most appetizing of creatures, I think you’ll agree.

The week started dreadfully as I left Marion and I headed into what looked to be a rainy day and so it proved to be. However, around lunchtime, the rain stopped and I entertained hopes of a drying afternoon. I had a quick lunch, after which I packed away my gear and continued towards my goal of Knot Maul Branch Shelter. This was going to give me a 14 or 15 mile start to the week and really set me up for a week of big miles.

Unfortunately, this was when the heavens opened and the rain became a deluge. Two things to say about waterproof gear are, one, they are dreadfully uncomfortable when they are assaulted by liquid from both directions and, two, they aren’t really waterproof at all.

That first point is about walking uphill in the rain, sweating profusely, while the rain pounds the outside. The second point is just the plain fact that heavy rain will get in, somewhere at first, then everywhere. This all produces a cold, wet feeling that starts at your neck and slowly, but surely, spreads all down your legs and into your boots; it is very grim.

I eventually got to the shelter, only to find it full, as several hikers had seen the weather and simply hung out there all day. This is really not very good etiquette in the hikers’ honor system, though there is nothing you can really do about it. To add insult to injury, one couple had a huge dog with them, taking up space meant for a human, or at least me!

I sat forlornly on the edge of the shelter, trying to look as pathetic as possible, which was eminently doable in my case, yet nobody offered to squeeze me in, so I eventually trudged off, soaked to the skin and no idea of where to spend the night. Only about two tenths of a mile later, I saw a small campsite, with one completely drenched tent shivering by itself in the woods. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to do, so I just hovered in the trees to try to escape the watery onslaught and, after about 10 minutes of standing motionless like a wet Boo Radley behind the door, with my temperature spiraling down dramatically, I ventured out from under the inadequate branches and set up my tent in, for me, record time. I heaved in my sleeping pad, bag and liner, along with my few extras and left the pack outside under the waterproof cover.

It was the best thing I could do, as I was suddenly back in my cocoon, wrapped in my sleeping bag and warming by the second. There was little to do but read and then sleep, both of which I did, though I think I may have dropped off by about 6pm.

I was dreading the following morning, as all the clothes I had worn the previous day were still drenched and, though the rain eventually stopped at about 3am, there was little alternative to simply shoving them in a plastic bag and hiking on. It was something of a low point, as I looked ridiculous in my black long johns and vest with my swimming trunks over the top.

It was also a day that gave me long, arduous climbs, culminating in a gorgeous ridge across meadows before arriving at Chestnut Knob Shelter, only 9 miles away.

This is a very exposed shelter with a spectacular view into the valley below. The valley is called Burkes Garden, though it is better known as “God’s Thumbprint,” with a dramatic curve to the valley, leading up to a horseshoe ridge that encircles about 70% of the “thumbprint.” Once again, the video show very little, though you can hear my frustration from the previous night.

The weather was still fairly threatening, so I eventually decided to call it a day, even though it was only about 2 or 3 pm. However, I thought I’d take advantage of the intermittent sun and copious amounts of wind and try to dry my soggy belongings, so I set up a clothes line and, not having any pegs, I threaded the sleeves of shirts and the legs of pants onto the line to encourage them to stay put. The socks had to just perch on the line and, with every big gust, I had to field the flying socks like a dog chasing a stick. It was bloody exhausting; I don’t know how dogs do it. I also set up my tent to dry it out as well.

All this worked pretty well, other than my socks and underpants so, in the middle of the very cold night, I reached out for them and slowly, grimacing, put them on to dry out in my body heat. Ugh!! However, this worked so well that I fell asleep and awoke in dry socks and underpants. Happy Days.

So, with everything dry once more, I headed out in the morning with my spirits restored and a spring in my step. I knew I’d be camping at a campsite rather than a shelter, as the alternative shelters were either 10 miles away (too near) or 24 miles away (too far). I settled, along with about ten others, on a little site just past the gushing Laurel Creek, near VA615 for a 15 mile day.

These little tent sites, when there are sufficient people, can be just as much fun as shelters, though with the obvious omission of a privy from my perspective. So it proved, with several new friends to meet. One couple I met was By Pass and his wife, Songbird. She is so named for her habit of suddenly breaking into song on the trail, while his name comes from the fact that he had a triple by pass only three months prior to getting on the Trail. They were great to spend time with and very companionable. They were also avid nature spotters, drawing everybody’s attention to a porcupine as it scampered away from our camp the following morning.

I happened to hike out of camp behind them the next morning, and Songbird took it upon herself to brush up my non-existent flower spotting skills. We are currently wandering for much of the day through what is known as “The Green Tunnel,” with few flowers, though many are starting to bloom sporadically. Songbird showed me Mountain Laurel, with the upturned white flower in the shape of a bowl, several rhododendron with their lovely purple and pink flowers, along with several others. However, when she spotted and pointed out a Lady’s Slipper, below, I simply didn’t see it.

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I don’t know if a Lady’s Slipper is what you can see, but all I see is the striking similarity to the aftermath of that very male experience, when a doctor surgically removes your ability to make more babies. Lady’s Slipper may well be the botanist’s choice and is clearly a prettier name, but I will only ever see this lovely flower going forward as “Vasectomy Surprise.”

The botany lesson apart, it was another day of ridge walking, which tends to be easier, and I was able to cover nearly 20 miles into Jenny Knob Shelter before setting up my beautifully dry tent. There was a short interlude where a bunch of us took a wrong turn and I filmed the odd spot, as it was quite unlike anywhere we had seen thus far.

To compound this minor error, I headed off across I-77 and totally convinced myself that the path led almost vertically to the left, up a deserted road. Not seeing a white blaze for about a third of a mile, I realized that I’d taken the wrong route and retraced my steps, cursing loudly and fulsomely at my error before getting back on track. When you’ve got nearly 2200 miles to do, extra, unnecessary miles are really annoying though, in the context of the whole adventure, irrationally so.

At the shelter, I was now within 30 miles of Pearisburg, where Diane has sent me another food bonanza, so I planned to do that 30 miles in two days…..but not before allowing my 14 year old self take over once more and have another dip in a water hole, this time at the wonderfully named Dismal Falls, halfway through my hike to Wapiti Shelter. I was now hiking with a great young guy, Beans, and he filmed this crazy Brit from the top of the falls. Once more, it was absolutely freezing, though worth the opportunity to have something other than layers of sweat and grime on my skin, albeit for a few short seconds. I love water holes.

Prior to the swimming break, a bunch of us took another diversion of about half a mile at VA606 to visit Trent’s Grocery, where you can basically stock up, do laundry, tent for the night or, as we all wanted to do, eat like a glutton. While in real life I’d never order this, a double cheeseburger, chilli cheese fries and a chocolate milkshake really hit the spot, giving me the fat and calories that everybody is urging me to get.

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While I recognize my rapidly diminishing self to be shedding weight at a ferocious pace, I continue to eat relentlessly during the day, with yet another video as proof. Please don’t worry for me; as long as I can get up the hills, I’ll keep piling grub into my face at regular intervals and my metabolism will eventually stabilize.

From Wapiti Shelter, there were about 17 miles to cover to VA634, Pearisburg and I really enjoyed the hike, knowing that I’d be getting cleaned up, be able to post a blog, restock with food and go to the “all you can eat” Chinese buffet across from my motel. Two liters of beer in the Mexican restaurant nearby helped wash everything down.

On the hike, I passed through Big Horse Gap, which is a forest road. I was walking through some very tall ferns, with a few chipmunks chittering away nearby, when I heard all sorts of noise in the undergrowth. I’m probably exaggerating, but it felt to me like the T-Rex bit in Jurassic Park, when you can hear him thundering about before you see him. Bracing myself, armed with my whistle and trekking poles (not exactly armed to the teeth, I think you’ll agree), I waited and listened, then nothing. I don’t know what it was, but it was something big; I’m only glad that it decided to stay in the ferns and not challenge me to whistle it to death.

Of course, there was another stunning view to take in and share with you. I was still hiking with Beans, so at least there is someone else to see rather than my ugly mug!

After such a rocky beginning and all that rain, it has been a terrific week and I feel that I can at last refer to myself as a hiker without an embarrassed smile on my face. This is so much harder than I thought it would be but, looking at the map, I’m actually moving through these forests and mountains and still heading for Maine.

I can see for miles and miles and miles

Friday, May 9 – Wednesday, May 14. Damascus, VA – Marion, VA (Mile 542.7 since Springer Mountain and only 1642.6 miles to Katahdin)

I haven’t posted for a while, as this is my first visit to a town since Damascus and, as you can see from the mileage, I’m certainly upping the pace.

Damascus was very hiker-friendly and, as you wandered through, in the only clothes that you weren’t washing, you got used to some rather bizarre sights. For me, town gear when washing clothes involves a rather natty combination of my water shoes, my swimming shorts and a tee shirt I got from Hot Springs. Normally, I wouldn’t be seen dead on the streets of a town in this gear, but it just seems ok here. One German guy insists upon wearing the tightest Speedos around town and, even if you have the world’s greatest body, Speedos just never work, do they?

I was hoping to put in another 15 or 16 mile day on the Friday I left Damascus, even though we were threatened rain by the weather men. However, my plans went somewhat awry when the promised rain started after about 5 hours and I leapt into action in the time-honored fashion. I pulled off my pack and reached for my waterproof pack cover, only to find that it was no longer there. Hmmm, not exactly what I was hoping for and a few minutes later, I was hoping for it even less, as the rain assumed complete downpour proportions. Fortunately for me, this discovery happened right by a road, so I stuck out my thumb in the hope of cadging a lift back into Damascus. Quite how appealing I must have looked at this point, with water cascading from every part of my body, I can’t quite imagine, yet the number of cars that stopped was a predictable zero. Happily, after about 15 minutes of grinning like a demented prison escapee, slanting my thumb jauntily to one and all, a young couple, with whom I’d exchanged pleasantries earlier, emerged from the woods and immediately offered me a ride when they made the error of asking me what I was doing there.

So, about three hours after I’d left Damascus, I was back, shelling out $40 for another waterproof cover that was, to be fair, far better than my previous one had been. Another $15 to take me back to resume my hike and I was on my way again, dryer but poorer.

This limited me to Saunders Shelter, making it only a 9.4 mile day, and I was the only one at the shelter for quite a while. Indeed, with the rain and the prospect of more later on, I thought that, if I was going to be by myself, I might as well set up my tent IN the shelter to stay dry and at least have a shot of avoiding the attentions of the cute, little, furry occupants of this and all other shelters.

Suddenly, there was a rush for the shelter and, while several people set up outside, I felt increasingly uncomfortable, and a bit daft, having a tent in the shelter. Still, nobody insisted I act like an adult, so I spent the night both dry and inside my tent, with no interaction with rodents of any kind.

In the morning, I got away fairly quickly, for me, and set off determined to get the average back up a bit. It might have helped if I’d taken the correct turning out of the shelter as, about twenty minutes later, I heard the voices of my shelter compatriots only about 50 yards away. I’d walked a loop and was back within spitting distance of the shelter. Another waste of a mile!!

I was heading for VA 600, Elk Garden, as I intended to stay at what looked like a nice Bed & Breakfast, Coolgreen, in Konnarock. The hiking was gorgeous and, even though rain had once again been forecast, I avoided it all day.

The B&B was a revelation, with the very homely Phyllis and the very funny Ron my hosts for the night. I decided to take advantage of their great facility because I wanted to hear the commentary of my Mighty Blues in their playoff game with Burton Albion early the following morning.

Phyllis is a terrific cook and, even though I had no expectation of dinner, she included me in the dinner that they shared; indeed, I ate at least half of the lovely meal on display, AT NO CHARGE!!!!! Ron kindly took my dirty washing and returned it to me the following morning, while I managed to polish off another hearty breakfast at half time in my game. Ron was hilarious and constantly threw out one liners, often aimed harmlessly in Phyliss’ direction, as he gently teased her about pretty much everything. He had also picked me up and kindly dropped me off in the same spot the following morning. As I say, it was a revelation and I think the best stay I’ve had anywhere thus far.

That Sunday morning was pretty foggy to start with, but it soon burned off and made for a gorgeous day once more. Early on, I was hiking behind a family of three and the first mile or so of hiking took us up and through some lovely meadows. I was about 40 yards behind them when we all heard the sound of an unhappy bull. When we’d entered the field, there was no sign of any animals but, as I heard the bull, I looked up on the low ridge just above us and saw it move menacingly towards the family. Additionally, just off to the right of the trail, in the woods, were a bunch of cattle by themselves. The bull clearly didn’t want anybody between him and his harem, so he put down his head and charged. Now, I didn’t expect that!The woman had the presence of mind to blow her whistle and the bull veered away at the last moment, but it was a close call. He then proceeded to do whatever it is that bulls do in the woods with their cows………..which is, apparently, to use the trail as their own personal bathroom, depositing copious amounts of BS all over the path, necessitating several wide detours at regular intervals.

I eventually left the family behind and continued my climb to near the top of Mt Rogers, encountering increasingly rugged terrain that, once again, gave me sights to remember. One such is captured in the video and I even give a shout out to Phyllis and Ron once more. Wow, I was even more impressed than I’d thought!!

The next, and much anticipated, area was Grayson Highlands, a spectacular combination of rugged mountain and enchanting meadow combining to give the hiker a challenge while feasting the eye. Greeting me on my entry, were some cute wild ponies, always worthy of a film to maximize the cuteness factor, though I suspect their greeting was more about getting any scraps from us as we all entered the park. They clearly don’t know that hikers don’t give away food, so they lucked out, with me at least.

I knew that there had to be a terrific lunch spot amid these great vistas and I think you’ll agree that I found a pretty good one at which to try out hot sauce on my lunchtime wrap. It’s still burning!

This great day’s hiking came to an end some 15 miles away at Old Orchard Shelter, where a bunch of us created our own little tented village in a beautifully sunny clearing and sat around the fire preparing food or, in my case, boiling a pot of water and lobbing in four portions of dried potatoes that really come out well. Add a few bacon bits and you’ve got a meal fit for a King or, in my case, for a greedy hog. I should point out that, despite my best efforts to eat my body weight every day, I’ve continued to lose weight and now tip the scales at a scrawny 210lbs. At this rate, I am scheduled to completely disappear on August 12th!!

I knew that the Sunday had been a highlight, so I was prepared for a relatively unspectacular day on Monday and concentrated on putting in the miles to keep my average up. To that end, Trimpi Shelter proved to be my stopping point, at just over 14 miles, as I was absolutely exhausted after another hot day in the sun. I think I’d made the daft error of using my bandana to cover my head and had not put cream on. My neck took the brunt of the sun and I got to camp at about 3pm, the only one there, and set up my tent and chair and simply read for an hour or so before others started to trickle in.

Suddenly there was a rush and we had created another tented city, with about a dozen tents in close proximity to one another. This would have been fine, if only I hadn’t been situated next to a German guy and his wife. I was deeply asleep when, at 4am, his alarm woke me and several of my neighbors. I was really miffed at his lack of camp etiquette and, when I mentioned it later to another German guy, he said, somewhat enigmatically, I thought, “He is East German”, as if that explained everything. Maybe the Berlin Wall coming down didn’t unite Germany quite as much as we all thought!

Tuesday turned out to be my longest day thus far, with an early start, thanks to my EAST German neighbor. It was a gorgeous early morning and I emerged early from the trees to this lovely spot.

I was heading for Chatfield Shelter, which was nearly 18 miles away, yet wanted to stop at the fabled Partnership Shelter where, apparently, you could order pizza AND get a shower, both of which I intended to treat myself to. Indeed, my eagerness to get there was such that I knocked out the 10.6 miles to Partnership in just over 4 hours. That’s when things slowed down. Stripping off my clothes, I took a shower and let the sweaty clothes dry in the sun (classy, eh?), then sauntered down to the visitors center to order the pizza. It took one hour to be delivered but, when you are waiting for a 16″ deluxe pizza, nothing is going to stop you from waiting. I managed all but three small slices so, after three hours at the shelter, I set off with a full tummy and a lot of renewed energy to get to my destination.

I was there by about 7pm, though a guy called out that he was sick and that I shouldn’t come in. He said people had passed by and were going to camp somewhere ahead. I asked if I could call anybody, but he simply said that he’d either live or he’d die, which pretty much seemed to cover all the options, so I moved on.

I saw one small group but couldn’t find any room for me, so I almost literally galloped to avoid losing all light. I eventually finished my day at 7.50, having covered 19.5 miles in the day and camped outside the Settlers Museum, by the side of VA615, a very quiet road. The Settlers Museum doubled as a school and the door was open to hikers, revealing bottled water to this thirsty hiker, as well as a privy for the kids, and me. Happy Days!

This morning was a short two or three miles to a road, then a cab into Marion to pick up a package laden with food from Diane. I’m staying the night so catching up with laundry and the blog at my leisure. I intend to put a hurtin’ on the local Mexican restaurant tonight and wash it all down with a couple of beers before resuming bright and early tomorrow morning.

I should probably give you a wildlife update at this point, as I’ve been a little lax in recording the wondrous things I’ve seen.

My squirrel record remains, almost unbelievably, on 6, the last of which was over 300 miles ago. Extraordinary! Several mice, mainly at shelters, two deer, no bears, two black snakes, along with the charging bull and several cattle and the ponies. However, I was lucky enough to see this prehistoric beast, as I quickly pulled out my camera to record the moment. With the speed for which I’m well known, I took the shot as it sped past me, looking for all the world as if a three year old had been given license with a paintbrush and a bucket of yellow paint. Nice, isn’t it?

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That is the full extent of my wildlife encounters and, frankly, I’m good with that. No bears and no dangerous snakes work for me right now, so I’ll live with that.

Indiana Jones, I ain’t!!

Beautiful, awesome, marvelous and wonderful

Tuesday, May 6 – Thursday, May 8. Hampton, TN – Damascus, VA (Mile 467.4 since Springer Mountain and only 1717.9 miles to Katahdin)

I’ve been reviewing a few of the videos that I’ve posted and, frankly, I’m a little shocked at how many times I use the words in the title of this post. The problem with superlatives is that once they’ve been used, they start to become a little meaningless, or perhaps devalued, when used again and again. Unfortunately, I shoot these videos on the fly and certainly don’t “script” them (as must be apparent), yet these words come to me every time. All I can really say is that if beautiful is what occurs to me at the time, then I hope it relays to you quite how gorgeous this country truly is to my enraptured eye. The other videos, like the one with this jackass trying to walk barefoot into the falls, really need no words. Sometimes, dumb actions obviate the need for commentary.

The last three days of hiking have been marked by glorious weather in the high 80’s in towns, which still equates to late 70’s, early 80’s in the mountains. This has led to something of a sweat fest on my part and the need to drink about 7 to 10 liters of water a day. I’ve also developed something of a weakness in my left knee on inclines which I hope to be able to resolve with a knee brace over the coming days; I certainly hope it doesn’t threaten the whole thing.

Leaving Hampton on Tuesday gave us all the opportunity to wander by the glorious lake as we slowly climbed and circled Lake Watauga, leading us to cross the dam and head further up the mountains. All the way, through the trees, there were either glimpses or full-on views of the lake, often facilitated by rocks to sit on, eat a quick bite and take in the panorama.

I had calculated in Hampton that I needed to average 12.3 miles every day from now until September 25th in order to finish two days before Diane’s birthday; something I certainly don’t want to miss. A fellow hiker told me that a good way to keep track of this is to record the miles every day, giving yourself mileage credits if you exceed the average and debits if you don’t reach it. In this way, you can build some credits and take the odd day or two off. I’ve been putting in quite a few 15 milers recently and I’m hoping for a number of 20 mile days (maybe more) in Virginia, so we’ll see how that works.

The target on this day was Iron Mountain Shelter, 15.7 miles from Hampton and, with my normal slow, or late, start, as well as my constant need to fill up with water, I got there at about 6pm. There was a very convivial atmosphere at the shelter, with many new faces for me to meet. I’ve noticed that the relationships you build in this hike are often very temporary, yet can be fairly quickly established, as everybody understands the temporal nature of these interactions. The best way for most of us to instigate conversation is to ask about trail names. This often leads to a back and forth that shifts easily into regular conversation.

I also think that the shelter is a wonderfully equalizing place, as we all know that we’ve all hiked the same distance, so we all know the pains and difficulties we’ve been through to have reached this far. A mutual respect is thus earned and people are comfortable to interact as equals in this environment.

The next day, heading for Abingdon Gap Shelter, some 16.9 miles away (building more mileage credit!), I had one of my best days of hiking thus far and certainly wound up at my favorite spot of the Trail to this point. I had crossed a road, Tenn 91, and had to climb a stile to get into a meadow. There are apparently horses or cows here normally, though none were there when I came through. It was, to my eye, very English in nature, which may be why I was so drawn to the spot. It was also from an England of my past, possibly with my parents and brothers when we were younger. Whatever it was, the place was magical and I failed, as normal, in giving it new words to describe it. Watch the video and you’ll also hear of a disappointment I had just gone through before entering the field.

At Abingdon Gap Shelter that night, I foolishly got into a conversation about gun control that I should have avoided. There was a very nice old guy, aged 72, who was giving us all the benefit of the Fox News playbook on the issue and, when he stated that the Colorado movie shooting could have been immediately stopped by a shooter in the cinema audience, I’d had enough. I don’t care where you stand on the issue, but it was clear that all of us at the shelter were a little left of center on this, so I felt that a counter-view was necessary. I shouldn’t have done it and it got a little heated, particularly when I remembered that he’d got on the Trail to work out some anger issues. I’m afraid I got a bit English on him and bitterly regretted it all the next day, on my walk into Damascus. Fortunately, we spoke when we saw each other in town and seem to have resumed as friends.

Note to self: when somebody is talking like a jerk, go and find somebody else to listen to.

So here I am, comfortably in Damascus after a very quick hike that took only three and a half hours to do the ten or so miles. I also left behind the wonderful Tennessee and marked the event with a video. We are now in the state that takes up about 25% of the AT and, when we leave, we’ll be nearly half way.

One last thing. I am constantly surprised how easy some people find it to get an early start to the day. For me, I seem always to start later, finish later and spend more time wondering what I should be doing next in camp. So, yesterday morning, prior to my run for the border, I decided to set my alarm for 5.45am and really get going. The alarm woke me gently, on time. I deflated my sleeping pad to ensure I wouldn’t get back to sleep and, to my entirely unreasonable irritation, I heard activity already going on outside. Once I’d wrestled with my pack and stuffed what I could into it, I emerged to find that three or four people had already left and that others were about to follow. I couldn’t believe it, but still felt that I had a shot at not being last. A coffee, along with a dreadful mix of oatmeal, protein powder, baby fruit and hot water made do as breakfast and I noticed a few others emerging from their tents. I don’t know what happened, but, quite suddenly, I was alone, wishing “Happy Trails” to the second-from-last person to be on their way. I eventually left, two hours after my alarm and I couldn’t tell you what I did in that two hours apart from pack and have breakfast!

Maybe I’ll get up at 4am tomorrow.

The 14 year old out-argues the 61 year old

Friday, May 2 – Monday, May 5. Carvers Gap – Hampton, TN (Mile 425.6 since Springer Mountain and only 1759.7 miles to Katahdin)

I spent a great couple of days with Diane in Boone, NC and our parting was as sad as we’d expected it to be, though she declined to drive back up to Carvers Gap where we had played out the debacle of a few days earlier. As a lucky consequence, she dropped me at the Mountain Harbour B&B and Hiker Hostel. I’d already heard about the legendary breakfast served here, so I took ample advantage of it prior to my shuttle back to Carvers Gap. They serve sufficient calories to hike 100 miles!! OMG, to use the vernacular of today. It was the best $12 I’ve spent so far, though the $40 to get back to Carvers Gap seemed a bit stiff in comparison.

I should mention that, in my rush to get a line to speak to Diane a few days earlier, I pulled my pack out of the back of the car owned by a young woman who had kindly driven me down from Carvers Gap and stupidly left my hiking poles behind. When I realized, they were gone and I understood the importance of looking after all that we have on the Trail, as everything that we carry plays an integral role in our lives out here. The poles were especially important, particularly given my penchant for falling at regular intervals. I couldn’t justify paying out another 140 bucks, so went to Walmart and got their 20 buck version.

Anyway, this was supposed to be one of the loveliest parts of the hike here in the south, so I planned to hike about 15 miles. Unhappily, the poles collapsed on me three times and I lost confidence in them extremely quickly. I suppose that $20 poles from Walmart should have been a clue. Fortunately, the hike itself was absolutely gorgeous, though we were re-routed past a couple of the balds, my new favorite feature. However, Little Hump and Hump Mountain, were particularly spectacular, shown here, with both before and after videos of Hump Mountain, or Big Hump, as I called it.

As luck would have it, the 15 miles took me to within 2/10ths of a mile of Mountain Harbour B&B once more so, with the calories beckoning, I headed back again and tented in their back field. Another calorie fest the following morning left me bloated and I hung about on the porch listening to my Mighty Blues commentary on their last game of the season. We won and we’re in the playoffs. Happy Days!!

With only half of the day left to hike, I set my target at Mountaineer Falls Shelter, only 8.8 miles away, yet the place was eerily empty when I arrived there and, having never camped by myself before, I headed on to see if there was an occupied tent site just ahead. You can tell from my video that I’m more than a touch nervous about the prospect of spending my night in the woods alone, yet I did just that and lived to tell the tale.

I did hear a couple arrive later on, though they tented a little further up the hill. However, at about midnight, I was awakened by some frantic screams that sounded as if they were for fun; at least that was how I interpreted them as I burrowed further down in my sleeping bag! Still, the morning came and another barrier was down. I’m amazed at how comfortable I feel when zipped into my tent and I MUCH prefer the tent to actually sleeping in the mouse-infested shelters. Somebody told me the other day that they actually saw a mouse launch himself from the rafters straight onto his sleeping bag a few nights ago. Leave me out of that party.

I should also report that the failed Walmart poles were left behind when I found that a hiker back at Mountain Harbour B&B was cutting short his hike due to injury and I sneakily checked out his poles to find that they were almost identical to my lost ones. I paid him $50 and we were both happy with the deal; I immediately felt more comfortable with “my” old poles and he was 50 bucks to the good and unable to hike. It also meant that the stick pic was back in action, so I tried to shoot myself cooling my feet in the river on the way. Gorgeous when your feet are burning up.

Yesterday, Sunday, I planned to get to Laurel Fork Shelter, yet found myself a couple of miles short of that and gave in to the temptation to go and see the charming Bob Peoples at the “rustic” Kincora Hiking Hostel. Bob suggests a $5 donation and runs a very relaxed shelter, with available bunk room, well water (so much better than tap water), a kitchen, showers and real toilets. I chose to tent again and had a great night’s sleep, though not before spending the evening chatting with Bob and his lugubrious helper, Lumpy, along with several new faces, Walkabout, Hard Hat and Vista. I also met Chuck, as yet otherwise unnamed, who quit his job yesterday and decided to hike the Trail, WITHOUT telling his girlfriend of 14 years. He was hideously unprepared and, at 340lbs and 7 feet tall, he is certain to stand out on the Trail, particularly if he gets to use the gun he is carrying! He even had a porta-potty, intending to pack out his waste. I really can’t see that catching on. Let’s hope he adapts a little and makes a great success.

With my Nalgene bottle and water bladder full of delicious well water, and $10 paid to Bob for his warm welcome, I set out for Hampton this morning, thinking to myself that I’d consider a swim at the bottom of Laurel Fork Falls if I could work up the nerve to brave the temperature and the current. The previous day, when I’d dangled my feet, the water had been darn freezing, so I didn’t anticipate much of a dip. However, more seriously, a father and his son had died in 2012 in the undertow, so I was a little cautious. This video shows the final result.

I must say, the 61 year old me had a debate with the 14 year old me and the14 year old won the debate quite handily. Young Steve used the very reasonable argument that “you’ll never be coming here again,” and, of course, he was quite right. However, in another debate, he also prevailed to show you my first attempt to get into the water, with no rubber shoes. Bloody fiasco!!

After lounging about by the beautiful falls for about an hour, I took on the 1800ft climb and descent of Pond Flats, to reach the road that leads to Hampton. Sadly, I hadn’t realized that there was a further 3 mile trek into Hampton, so I stuck out a thumb and, within ten minutes, a really nice young guy stopped for me and yet another barrier was down.

On a more serious note, I had been thinking this morning that I hadn’t fallen for a couple of weeks, with seven falls as my total, and I was seriously hoping that perhaps my falls were over. Much like the commentator’s curse, I immediately fell on my backside when I lost balance trying to negotiate a particularly tricky tree root. This was OK, though worse was to come. On the way down, with a very gentle descent in front of me, I simply lost my footing, fell forward and, with the weight of my pack pushing me further forward, I fell fully flat on my face. I now have something of a small bruise on my cheek and several cuts and abrasions to my hands and leg. Of more importance, to me, it punctured the confidence I had built and I will head out tomorrow with a new wariness of the difficulties of this challenge.

It ain’t easy out there.