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.
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.