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.
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.
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.