….and I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more……

Tuesday, June 24 – Saturday, June 28 VA664, US522, Front Royal – Turners Gap US Alt 40 (Hagerstown (Mile 1037.0 since Springer Mountain and only 1148.3 miles to Katahdin)

With Shenandoah behind me, the first day out of Front Royal had something of an anticlimactic feel about it, yet it was nothing more nor less than a gorgeous walk through a mainly green tunnel, sparingly interspersed with the odd ray of sunshine. Indeed, after about three or four miles, I found myself in a meadow and found that rarest of things on the AT – a bench. I love to get that unexpected moment, so I took the opportunity to video my surroundings. While it is great looking around oneself on the trail, it is immeasurably better to do it sitting down.

No sooner had I sat there, unpacking my early lunch, than I was joined by a local guy with a small backpack. He uses the bench most days to eat his lunch and clearly wanted me to move, but I was having none of it and retained my squatter’s rights! He didn’t seem inclined to share it with me, so I let him eat standing up and bouncing about like a five year old in need of the toilet.

We spoke about the trail and he said that the only hiking he ever does is to come to this bench and eat his lunch. Eventually, I finished and packed away and, as I got up to move on, he homed in on HIS spot; it really was bizarre how possessive he became. Spooky.

I have become aware of how much this is becoming a rather lonely endeavor, so I was pleased to pitch up at Dick’s Dome Shelter after a 15 mile day, and meet up with a couple of new interesting characters I’d met briefly before, Daddy Long Legs and Rudy. Rudy is doing the trail in memory of his grandmother, who passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, while his old college buddy, DLL, is documenting his journey on film and in a journal. They have been burying a small piece of one of her dresses at various spots on the trail and plan to bury the last piece at Katahdin. Rudy opened up to me about her and I was struck once more how hiking with somebody, or talking in camp with a fellow hiker, tends to reveal more than one would normally expose in “regular” conversation. I was moved by his story and his obvious devotion to his grandmother.

It was an early night, however, and I found myself on my air bed , inside my tent at 5.55, intending to read for a couple of hours. The next thing I knew, it was 8pm and, after a desultory effort to read at that time, I passed out once more until the morning. Marvelous.

The next day was something of a test for all hikers at this point. If we were to make any real progress, it was going to be an 18 or 20 mile day, or it would only be an easy 9 or 10. The problem was the roller coaster, a dreadful section that contains endless ups and downs over rocky terrain and that come after a relatively benign beginning 9 or 10 miles. I decided to push on through, as the goal was the Bears Den Hostel, with the “hiker special” of $30 for a bunk, laundry, a shower, breakfast and, crucially, a pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. By the time I entered the roller coaster, I had committed myself, so pushed on, with the thought of the Ben & Jerry’s uppermost in my mind. The fact that, with about three miles to go, I could have stopped at a shelter, with thunder threatening to ruin my day, shows that the ice cream was definitely having an impact.

I got to the hostel about five minutes before the heavens opened and enjoyed my hiker special with an additional relish that always comes when you are able to poke one in the eye of the weather. This was a rare victory on my part, I should point out.

The day had really taken it out of me, as it had others, and my ambition the next day was very limited, only intending to go about 11 miles to a shelter within about 9 or 10 miles of Harpers Ferry, the town traditionally regarded as halfway through the trail. However, when I got to the shelter, Daddy Long legs and Rudy were there and I decided to hike on a further 3 miles with them to Keys Gap, where I discovered that more food was to be had about 400 yards off the trail.

Food has become something of a cause for me, as the infamous hiker’s hunger seems to have permeated my every thought and I am taking huge advantage of every opportunity to stuff my face as full as possible in a frenzy of guilt-free eating.

The 3 miles went quickly, chatting with and learning more about Rudy so that, by the time we arrived, another 14 mile day was under the belt. Another burger was ferociously dispatched, along with several candies and sodas.

A real landmark had been passed earlier in the day, as we passed the 1000 mile point in our adventure, so I got my camera out to record what I believed to be “the moment.”

Feeling fairly pleased with myself, I then proceeded to pass a further two 1000 markers within the next 500 yards, so I really don’t know when I actually passed that mark. I posted all three markers, with me in the picture, on my Facebook page “My Appalachian Trial”, along with several other pictures I’ve taken over the trip. This seems to be an easier vehicle for photos than WordPress, so I’ve rather abandoned the photos and videos page on this site in favor of Facebook. Please “like” the page if you want to see more pics.

Having gorged myself again, camping seemed to be restricted to the side of a busy road, so the three of us set up within 20 feet of this blaring highway, only to all sleep like babies and remark upon the fact in the morning. Extraordinary.

I knew that yet another highlight was coming the following morning, as I was about to leave Virginia, after 550 miles in the state. As a consequence, I was ready to snap another border crossing, only to find that no such marker exists. I couldn’t believe it. The state had been part of my life for nearly two months but let me go without so much as a nod. You can see my confusion as I sat down for a quick farewell in this video.

Harpers Ferry was a place I’d been looking forward to for several days but, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy aside, I was terribly disappointed in this disjointed little tourist trap. The ATC was a neat little place, with the chance to get water, sodas and pictures recording our journey and checking in at the conservancy as a sort of record. I was number 856 to have passed through and I took a look in the book at the friends I’d met who were now ahead of me due to my cellulitis. It reinforced some of the loneliness of the trip but strengthened my determination to continue my quest.

After a BBQ lunch at Hannah’s in the old village, I headed out and settled at Ed Garvey Shelter, some 6 miles out of town. There is a walk along the towpath next to the Potomac that was absolutely sweltering, with a gentle incline for about three miles, or so it seemed. Several people had taken the day to spend time on the fast flowing river in boats and rubber rings. Indeed, I saw my old friend Billy Goat, who called to me from one such boat as I crossed the bridge. He must have recognized my slow, lumbering trudge!

I had another excellent sleep at the campsite I chose and woke this morning with another limited agenda, as I had to go into Hagerstown to attend to some business. This was a very easy hike of 11 miles through Maryland, with a lot of the terrain flat and wide, even though there were a couple of climbs that brought rocks into play. I’m sure the rocks are there to soften us up for the next state, Pennsylvania, often called Rocksylvania by hikers.

I passed through Gathland State Park, a wonderful little area full of Civil War history and I was lucky enough to run into a woman who seemed charmed by the British accent once more and allowed me to charge my rapidly depleting phone battery in her museum. I was drawn into the displays however and spent a happy hour learning about this area from the very informative lady and the part it had played in the Civil War.

Diane had been particularly eager to know where I was going to spend the night over the past few days and I soon discovered why. Having hitched a lift with a couple of young lads all the way into Hagerstown, I settled into my room, only to have a visitor at reception. Who could it be? As I walked down the hall, a couple of things fell in place and I soon discovered that it was my old mate, Ian Gilland, who was visiting New York with his partner and had driven nearly 250 miles that day, in collusion with Diane, to visit me. THAT is a friend. I was delighted and we quickly went out and devoured about 40 chicken wings, chocolate fudge cake, ice cream and a couple of Buds. Gilbo then returned me to my motel and headed back to New York. What a guy.

It is things like this that remind me how much I must mean to some people and I am extremely gratified to have made so many great friends over the years. Diane has now met quite a few of my old mates and discovered how special they are to me and I am to them. From time to time, when we have so much time on our hands, it is incredibly satisfying to think about those we have touched and those who have touched us.

Gilbo may not know it, but his visit meant more to me than he could ever have thought.

Here’s to the next 1000 miles!!

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Bear Necessities

Monday, June 16 – Monday, June 23, VA664, Reid’s Gap, Waynesboro – US522, Front Royal (Mile 965.6 since Springer Mountain and only 1219.7 miles to Katahdin)

It’s been about a week since my last post and it’s been a week dominated by the Shenandoah National Park. I’ll return to the park later, as I had to re-trace some ground after my stop in Waynesboro and actually hike from Reid’s Gap to the normal stopping off point for Waynesboro, which is Rockfish Gap. Billy Goat, with his mom and his aunt, had kindly dropped me off and I’d had a lazy Sunday in Waynesboro, gorging myself, before returning to Reid’s Gap last Monday morning.

I’d arranged a price with a cab company the previous evening for the trip and had various quotes of between $35 and $75. When the young guy came to pick me up that Monday, 20 minutes late, he started on about the cost per mile and I stopped him right there and told him it was $35. He thought about it for ten seconds and said “ok” but didn’t speak to me again for the entire journey. I wish I could use that trick on London cabbies.

The day started well, with a delicious bottle of Powerade left in a cooler by a Trail Angel at the start of the Trail, so I knew I was in for a good day. This improved when I ran into Rip Van Winkel, a nice guy (chemistry teacher) I’d met previously at another shelter. Being of roughly the same vintage, we hiked moderately well together at a fairly similar pace and fell into a chatty day.

Before I bumped into RVW, I found a lovely overlook and shot this video.

I’d planned to do about 15 miles, stopping about 5 miles short of Rockfish Gap, at the Paul C Wolfe Shelter. However, as RVW and I were coming down the steep descent from Humpback Mountain, we both heard voices below. More disconcertingly, these voices were many, loud and predominately female. Arriving at the shelter, the entire place had been overrun by a group from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, with three adults and 27 girls between about 13 and 15.

To be fair to the leader of the group, he had told the girls to leave the shelter free but there wasn’t a single tent site to be had. As far as I’m concerned, getting youngsters out on the Trail at a young age is a terrific thing to do, though leaders should consider the impact upon others and limit their numbers accordingly. Consequently, RVW and I moved on, now accompanied by Aussie, a young guy who had already walked 22 miles and was nearly out for the count.

We made Rockfish Gap, where RVW was being picked up by an old friend! while Aussie merely moaned and groaned in the rear. Having already spent a few nights in Waynesboro, I really wanted somewhere cheap and easy to stay the night, as camping in the vicinity wasn’t available. I spotted the Inn at Afton on the top of a hill and RVW’s friend kindly dropped me off. It was dreadful! There was no wifi, no laundry, the wallpaper was literally peeling off and the furniture had some clear and current termite activity. After sitting there for ten minutes, I found an alternative nearby and got a refund. A kindly local guy saw me walking and stopped and asked if I needed a lift. When I told him where, he said “that’s even worse than where you’ve just come from.” Fortunately, there was wifi and laundry, so, for me, it was almost the Ritz compared to the other place, so I stuck with it. However, it’d you ever find yourself at Rockfish Gap, don’t sleep local – go into Waynesboro!!

The following day, I was really looking forward to hitting Shenandoah National Park, though you can see from my first video in the park that I was really underwhelmed by my immediate first impression. It was so darn scruffy and unkempt and very disappointing.

You can see that it was a very hot day and we spent quite a bit of this day in the sunshine, leading to something over an over-reaction of my sweat glands, as I became completely drenched within thirty minutes. Not nice at all. It was also my second consecutive 20 mile day that ended with a lung bursting climb into Blackrock Hut. Indeed, I was anxious to start seeing some of the famed Shenandoah bears and thought one was chasing me up the hill, as I heard a pounding going on nearby. Imagine my disappointment, not least also my concern, when I realized that the pounding was my own heart, beating rapidly and noisily.

The following morning, I headed out from the shelter (referred to as huts in SNP) and up to Blackrock itself for an early climb. This was a gorgeous lookout that allowed me to pause and eat more food, a new and increasing habit of mine, while I shot another little video.

Young Amber, who you saw briefly in that clip, is married to a military man who was deployed seven times to Iraq and Afghanistan. When I asked here if he had got through it all ok, she said that he’d been shot several times but nothing too serious!! The fortitude with which our military families, both in the US and the UK, take their responsibilities, is nothing short of astounding.

My plan for the day was to get to Pinefield Hut, only about 15 miles away, as I’d read of the various waysides that exist in the park. These are basically places where the general public can eat like normal human beings, while hikers can fill their boots with abandon to assuage their ravenous hiker hunger. To reach the Loft Mountain Wayside necessitated a one mile detour (half there, half back), yet I felt it was worth it, along with Amber and a young guy called Gator. It certainly was worth it, so much so that I slept for about an hour after my blow out on the grass outside. Marvelous!

I still hadn’t seen a bear and I was hearing reports of them as if there were a hundred bears to every person in the park; it was starting to get a little embarrassing. Indeed, that morning, after Black Rock, I had stopped for a break when Amber caught up with me and commented that I must attract animals as I pass through. She said, “Did you see the two piles of bear” and here she hesitated, “excrement?” back there, she continued, having decided upon the mot juste and certainly the first, and only time I’d heard it referred to in this way. “A bear was right next to the first pile, only ten feet into the bushes. I’d missed it again, as I did later in camp, when somebody called out that a bear was on the hillside overlooking our camp. I was already in my sleeping bag and simply shrugged. If it wasn’t meant to be, then that was ok.

The following day was just an eleven mile day, as I had to get into Elkton to pick up a food delivery from Diane. On the hike, I stopped to record my second, revised impressions of Shenandoah and broached the subject of yellow blazing, the practice of taking short cuts on the trail and not sticking entirely to the proscribed trail.

I’ve had a chance to re-think this position, as I’ve spoken with a number of the lads and lasses out here and they are all here for the adventure. They may not necessarily be hiking “every flippin’ inch” like yours truly, but they are certainly hiking their own hike, many of them with issues that they need to resolve. While it wouldn’t work for me, I can see that they don’t stop overnight in motels as much as I do, so they are likely having it even tougher than I am. So my revised view of the Shenandoah’s remains, but I’m revising my view of yellow blazers. Just hike your own hike and don’t pay attention to what others want to do. After all, it is the journey and not the destination that counts.

In Elkton, I also hoped to be able to catch the England v Uruguay World Cup game, though had no idea how I could achieve this latter objective. Luckily, I hitched a ride from a friendly truck driver and he dropped me right by a Mexican restaurant, which is a big fave with hikers. Filling my face with fajitas, guacamole, tacos, nachos, all washed down with a couple of beers, I got into a conversation with a young waiter who liked football (soccer) and told him that I had an iPad and could watch the game on it if I could have access to wifi somewhere. He asked his boss and I was set up, with a complimentary beer, with more nachos and salsa, to watch the game. Even with this kind gesture, England still lost and exited the World Cup.  Again!!

It was now too late to return to the trail, so I found a cheap little motel and left my return till morning.

The motel owner shuttled me back to the trailhead the following morning at 7am, along with a couple of section hikers. It was a gorgeous, crisp day and I hadn’t been hiking for more than about 30 minutes when I saw and heard a disturbance off to the right in the trees. I could see a bear, about twenty five feet up in the tree and starting to move down. I quickly got my camera out and took a lousy still picture, then turned the video on. Imagine my delight when not one, but four bears jumped out of the tree in quick succession and ran further into the undergrowth.

You’ll notice that old big-mouth here doesn’t say anything at all on this particular video; I was an exhilarating combination of mesmerized and scared at the same time. This turned out to be quite the morning, as about twenty minutes later, I ran into a deer on the trail (below), then, when filling my water bottle at a stream, another bear, a big beast, simply emerged from the bushes only twenty yards ahead of me on the trail, didn’t notice me and waddled off down the trail before turning off. This was my clearest encounter and I couldn’t get to my camera, as my hands were wet.

I was having a terrific time and decided to stop and have a peaceful lunch at Bearfence Hut, only to be joined by a very friendly deer who had no objection to being filmed. There is good and bad about this as deers are carriers of deer ticks, possibly the most dangerous animal on the entire Appalachian Trail. These little ticks embed themselves in your skin and can transmit Lyme disease unless you remove them within about a day. Regularly checking yourself for these little blighters (ticks, not deer) is one of my new daily tasks, having found about four or five in Shenandoah.

You can tell I was happy about the day’ event, as I even stopped in front of another view to talk about it later in the day.

I had decided to camp at Big Meadows Campsite and turned up there as several of my new hiking buddies, Nobody, Lumberjack, Doctor, Tomahawk and a few others were leaving the campsite after a shower and laundry. I luckily ran into the camp host, Eileen, and her husband and she seemed to take a liking to the British accent, offering me a free camp spot on her own site. Perfect! The next morning, she came out of the huge RV that they share and offered me coffee, a banana and even some Off, to keep the ticks at bay. Being a Brit in the states is such a bonus sometimes!

I planned a 19 mile day on Saturday, ignoring Luray, a regular stopping point, and hiking on to Pass Mountain Hut. Leaving the campground, however, we got the first sign that we were in for a change of weather, with cloud drifting into the valley below us. It was a lovely sight, though I knew that the day was going to get a little more difficult.

I had yet another restaurant in mind, Skyland, and I was put in the corner when I arrived there. Nobody really wants to sit near us when we are hiking and I’m similarly happy with the arrangement. After all, who wants to be the source of a bit of nose sniffing halfway through a meal? We smell and we know it; why subject others to it if we can be tucked away? Mind you, once seated, they certainly didn’t mind taking my money and I woofed down some chowder, a huge burger and their specialty, a baked ice cream pie. This must have come in at about 2500 calories, which pretty much allowed me to breeze through the afternoon with my new found power. It really is a case of calories in and calories out and Shenandoah is certainly helping out with the calories in.

Bear number six became apparent when I caught up with Lumberjack, who was hanging out on the trail with no particular plan to move forward. He’d seen a bear in his path and the bear, similarly, had no particular plan to get out of Lumberjack’s way. Of course, I pulled out the camera to record this stand off.

At this point, the rain that had threatened had started and I was soaked to the skin, though there was no real alternative to simply putting in the miles until camp. Fortunately, the rain had subsided quite a bit when I got to camp and I was able to set up, albeit in rather damp conditions. The dampness pervades everything and it can be a miserable task to try to warm up and find something dry to wear. So far, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky with the weather. Quite what people do with, say ten days of consecutive rain, I really can’t imagine.

I knew that I’d like to dry off in Front Royal but that I couldn’t attempt to do it in one day, as it was 26 miles ahead and, with the way in which the huts are set up, two thirteen mile days beckoned. The first took me, as well as the little group I mentioned earlier, to yet another wayside, though I shot this great view while on a stop with Nobody. The wind was up and it would rain later, but it was a gorgeous morning.

At the wayside, we all charged our phones and basically hung out and were going in and out of the shop grazing, with burgers, candy bars, milkshakes (I had two) and fries. The camaraderie between the hikers is wonderfully friendly and, even though we all look like we need a wash, and we always do, all the visitors and bikers would stop and chat and were genuinely interested in our adventure.

Leaving the others behind, as I wanted to get to the shelter before the threatened rain, I ran into yet another bear, my seventh, up a tree. I filmed it but you can hardly see him, so it’s not included here.

Another soggy night and yet another bad choice by me for a site to pitch my tent, left me with a fairly sleepless night and I got up this morning very pleased with my choice to spend the night out of the woods. It was an easy 13 miles today, though I saw yet another bear shoot out of the undergrowth and simply cross the path in front of me.

It has been a joy to see these bears and my initial fears have been entirely removed by the clear indication that they are even more frightened of me than I am of them. Whatever I may have written previously, when I may have seemed a bit blasé, I have been bloody desperate to see a bear and now my count is eight in four days. They are stupendous creatures and I feel honored to have had the chance to see them on their turf, and not mine.

So the Shenandoah’s are now behind me and my last impression was that it was great to see the bears, but that the green tunnel was too prevalent and the best views to be had are often on Skyline Drive. It is certainly a magnificent park and one that I’m glad I’ve walked, though you can see in the video that I nearly got lost.

It’s a Kind of Magic

Friday, June 13 – Sunday, June 15, US60, Buena Vista – VA664, Reid’s Gap, Waynesboro (Mile 838.7 since Springer Mountain and only 1346.6 miles to Katahdin)

Buena Vista was a great stop, with plenty of food and a couple of beers to raise my energy level and recalibrate my enthusiasm.

I’ve slipped into a friendship with Billy Goat, as we seem to be walking at pretty much a similar pace and have ended in the same place for a couple of evenings. He is a quiet, modest guy who is actually a real life hero, despite his protestations, as an ER doctor in San Francisco. He was due to meet his mother and aunt at Reid’s Gap on Saturday afternoon at about 4pm and that tied well into my plan to get into Waynesboro that evening for the England v Italy World Cup game, as he offered to give me a lift.

Consequently, when we left Buena Vista that morning, we had decided to try to get to Priests Shelter, a daunting day of over 20 miles, especially as we could only get a shuttle back to the trailhead at 10am, so our day’s hiking couldn’t begin until 10.30. We knew that we’d likely be hiking nearly until dark.

This day turned out to be my best hiking day thus far, not least because we encountered three examples of trail magic.

The first happened over breakfast in the hostel/cafe we’d been staying in, The Blue Dog Art Cafe, the previous evening. We were having our fill of breakfast with a couple of lady hikers when the owner of the cafe brought in a basket that had been donated by a group of local women. In the basket, there were items for hikers and we were told to help ourselves. I chose a pack of hand wipes, always handy, so to speak, on this bacteria overload of a trip.

At the Trailhead, there was another large group of hikers, along with a lovely gent who was handing out all sorts of goodies to us. I opted for the baked beans and frankfurters, and took an apple for dessert. Two bits of trail magic prior to taking a step was a great omen for the day.

You may remember from my previous post that I cut short my day the night before to get some food inside me. It was also because I knew that there was a bloody great hill coming up and it was this hill that I was facing this morning. In that last post, I forgot to mention that I had just been thinking that the week back from my infection had been excellent, with good mileage and not a single fall. Within seconds of this daft thought I was on my backside again, for the eleventh time, only 200 yards from the road and the end of the day!

The hill I had been fearing was certainly tough, though significantly less so because it was the first, as opposed to the last, climb of the day. The beans and breakfast may have had something to do with it as well.

Once at the top, I relaxed and strode out confidently and was rewarded when a small deer burst out of the undergrowth in front of me, crossed my trail and settled in the less dense bushes on the other side, only about 30 yards in front of me. I pulled out my phone and shot this small video of young Bambi.

This set the scene for a joyous day that next led me through a couple of balds which are, as you doubtless now know, my favorite feature out here. I managed to FaceTime Diane and thought I may as well get yet another (two) shots of these wonderful features. The second was shot because a short walk through the first led to an unexpected extension through a little gap to the more expansive second. I know I’m a little boyishly enthusiastic about these things, but you really need to see how magnificent they are and I never tire of seeing them; I hope you feel the same.

Unfortunately, the only bad part of this terrific hiking day was the fact that we were constantly expecting rain, yet it never came and the Trail spent a lot of time either on balds or in direct sunlight on the edge of the forest. As a result, I missed the best opportunity yet to get my solar charger charged up, as it was packed away, under the raincover on my backpack. As we learned in a previous post, I’d never make it as a weather forecaster.

The third, and most spectacular trail magic came about 10 miles into the day. I had been running low on water and needed to get into my pack to get a few more protein bars, when I ran into Billy Goat and Mookie, another hiker who had shared the hostel with us the previous evening. They were looking rather pleased with themselves, next to two coolers. This often happens, as Trail Angels leave coolers regularly, though they are often empty by the time I arrive. Not this time! There was a regular cornucopia of treasures to be had, including Gatorade and REAL coke, as well as Snickers (the hiker’s favorite candy bar) and other tempting morsels. I confess that I really took advantage of the find, yet left tons of stuff for those who were following. Thanks Goman, a 2012 thru-hiker. These gestures are never taken for granted and appreciated far more than you might expect.

I eventually got to Priests Shelter at about 7.45 that evening, well satisfied with both the mileage and the day.

The following morning, yesterday, Billy Goat and I set out separately, though within about 20 minutes of each other, to hike to Reid’s Gap to meet his mom. The hike down from The Priest is a rocky, yet spectacular descent from over 4,000 feet to less than 1,000 feet. Every now and then, there are breaks in the trees to give expansive views of the valley below, as shown here.

To be honest, glorious though these views were, the descent and following climb, back up over 4,000, were tortuously hard work and I found the hike a little joyless, which is unusual for me. That said, there is a considerable feeling of achievement once you have “conquered” this challenge, particularly because of the preponderance of rocks in your path along the way.

I treated myself to lunch near the top of the mountain, mainly for the gorgeous view that I had in front of me. How bad is that?image

Despite this challenging hike, Billy Goat and I met up with his mom and his aunt and they got me to the game on time!! Sadly, England lost, but I managed to consume enormous quantities of chicken wings and a few beers, so not an entirely wasted day!

Today, in line with my plan, I am staying in Waynesboro for a zero day and luxuriating in a lie in, a breakfast of champions in Waffle House, followed by several coffees in Starbucks and expect to get on the outside of many wings again later in the same sports bar as I watch the culmination of the US Open Golf Championship. Not a mountain in sight for today, but looking forward to tons of them tomorrow.

Listening to my body and my body says pizza

Sunday, June 8 – Thursday, June 12. Daleville, VA – US60, Buena Vista (Mile 802.6 since Springer Mountain and only 1382.7 miles to Katahdin)

My break in Daleville really put me back into the right frame of mind and I was ready for a bigger day on Sunday. I was heading for the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we come quite close to the road most of the time and cross it every now and then. I was heading up one of the tracks when I came across a mother and baby deer just ahead of me on the Trail. They would normally bolt straight into the bushes, but they simply headed further on up the Trail, looking back as they went. Because I hadn’t expected them to behave in this way, I didn’t pull the camera out and they played peek-a-boo with me for about 5 minutes before diving into the undergrowth. It was delightful.

Soon after, another black snake decided to show me who was in charge by setting up camp in the middle of my path for a couple of minutes before slithering on. I think he wanted his picture taken so I obliged him.A posing black snake

I got to Bobblets Gap Shelter to complete an 18.5 mile day and felt good about being back on track. There was an interesting crowd in the shelter, all of whom had some relationship with chemistry, making me the dumbass of the group. A couple heading south on a section hike were chemical engineers, while Rip Van Winkel was a chemistry teacher. Even Yak, who turned up later, majored in chemistry at college. Funnily enough, we had a good chat and stayed well away from chemistry. I tented, as usual and had the fun of dealing with a rainy night, though kept dry myself.

The following morning, the rain had gone and I hoped to put in another long day. The sun was forcing its way through the trees and I took a lovely shot that looks a bit like the beam that teleports Spock and Kirk in Star Trek.Beam me up, Scotty

I made pretty good progress for the rest of the morning, intending to visit yet another water hole at Jennings Creek and stay for lunch. I had a great swim, though it was darn cold again. This time I didn’t film it, as there are only so many ways to show a big bloke flouncing around in water and I think we’ve been there, done that. I dried off and had lunch, then totally lost my momentum. The rest of the afternoon took me on a few more miles to the wonderfully built Bryant’s Ridge Shelter. On the way, I saw another deer, though this one stuck with the normal script and bolted out of my sight in a flash.

I also had the benefit of a lovely bit of Trail Magic. I was struggling uphill in my normal fashion when I saw a woman and her four young children hiking down. While the young mother dealt with a recalcitrant child who was trying to rearrange the rocks on the Trail, a gorgeous 8 or 9 year old girl asked if I wanted an apple, while her brother rummaged in his bag for this fruit. Very nice and always appreciated.

I got to the shelter by 3.30 and simply stayed, while Yak and Naturally Hob came through only to move on. Eventually Rip Van Winkel staggered in, followed later by Smoke and Smacky, a couple of quiet Austrians. With so few people there and rain threatening, both RVW and I set up our tents under cover of the shelter, so at least I got a flat spot for the night!

Another couple from California stopped in for about 30 minutes and I gave them some of my own Trail Magic, as they were out of gas for their stove and I had a spare for emergencies, so I handed over the one I was using and started on my reserve. I hope that generosity doesn’t come back to bit me in the ass.

In the morning, I decided to experiment by adding my coffee to my normal oatmeal and protein mix. This is not to be recommended and turned the normal gelatinous goo into a nasty brown sludge. Of course, I still gulped it all down.

My new filter system is really working out and I now get much more to drink, which is getting increasingly necessary as the days become more muggy. That said, I was able to hike my first 20 mile day, reaching Matts Creek Shelter after 22.6 miles. To celebrate, I had a dip in Matts Creek, only to get out refreshed and have a snake pointed out to me on the log I’d been sitting on five minutes before.

That night, I was outside in my tent again when, at about 1.15am, I heard a faint thunder clap that was a precursor for increasingly closer thunder and lightning until it was right above me. The flashes of lightning were the most ferocious I’d ever seen and the accompanying rain, when it came, precluded me from racing to the shelter. As a consequence, I simply had to wait it out and spent the following 45 minutes checking with my night light to see if the tent had been breached in any way. Fortunately, apart from a few splashes, everything stayed fairly dry. This video gives a more relaxed description the following morning.

Yesterday, Wednesday, I hurried the couple of miles to the road, over a long, beautiful wooden footbridge, then hitched a lift into Glasgow, where I had a mail drop from Diane waiting for me. This came just in time, as my new regime of eating like a demented man had pretty much exhausted my supplies. With a full pack, I decided to treat myself to a burger and fries at 10.30 in the morning and wash my disgusting laundry once more. Consequently, I didn’t leave Glasgow and return to the Trail until about 1.30.

I was headed for Punchbowl Shelter, about a further 11 miles away and I knew that there were going to be some early uphills. However, prior to the pain and anguish that these hills inflict upon you, there was a lovely opportunity to film myself hiking along an idyllic spot by the river that was mercifully flat and fairly tree root free.

This gorgeous walk turned out to be the last comfortable part of the day, as I worked my way up the mountain, only to start hearing thunder in the distance once more. When I got to the top, I identified a spot where I waited for a while in case I needed to pitch my tent and get out of harm’s way (quite how I’m getting out of harm’s way is something of a mystery, as there is the ever present opportunity of getting clunked on the head by falling trees!!). You can see from the film that the storm was well away from me, so I decided to move on.

This decision proved to be faulty, to say the least, as I was suddenly set upon by high winds and increasing thunder. There was nowhere to pitch the tent, given the dense undergrowth all around, so I did the only thing I could think of, which was to put it up right on the Trail. This must be an egregious breach of hiker etiquette, but I’m afraid I just wanted to be inside. Happily nobody came along and, very soon, the sun was out again and I felt something of an idiot. Packing the tent once more, I headed on, only to have exactly the same thing happen again. Again, I set up the tent where I was and, again, the sun came out. Each time, the storm skirted where I was and wreaked havoc further up the trail.

I reached the lovely Punchbowl Shelter and set up tent for the third time that day, pausing to film how gorgeous it all was.

Yet again, the rain wouldn’t leave us alone and this morning, I was getting a bit miffed about the air of dampness that was on me. I started out with an ambitious target but my heart wasn’t really in it, despite passing the 800 mile marker after about eight or nine miles.800 miles

I was hiking near Billy Goat, whom I’d met the previous evening at Punchbowl, and he told me about a cheap hostel in Buena Vista (pronounced Boona Vista). He needed to say nothing more and I joined him and have now showered, done laundry and shoveled down a pizza and two beers.

I guess that the antibiotics may still be in my system, yet I’ve done over 100 miles since my return a week ago. I’ve had two tough days but the rest have been great. I know I have to listen to what my body tells me and tonight it told me pizza and rest. I’m happy I paid attention!

A sputtering restart

Friday, June 6 – Saturday, June 7. VA624 North Mtn Trail – US220, Daleville, VA (Mile 724.0 since Springer Mountain and only 1461.3 miles to Katahdin)

I certainly didn’t expect to be posting so early, but things didn’t go quite as planned, so here I am. Having had 11 zero days back home and been pampered by my lovely wife, I knew that returning to live as a hobo would be something of a challenge. I also knew that leaving Diane again would be difficult and both those things came to be.

The return flight to Roanoke was for Thursday, which was the last day of my antibiotics. These were pretty powerful, so I had left the wine and beer alone and was glad to get to the end of the course. My initial plan was to hike four or five miles, them set up camp short of McAfee Knob. However, once I was on the way, I decided to ease back into the trip, leaving my first hike until Friday morning. In this way, I was able to return to Joe and Donna’s hostel at Four Pines, Catawba and take in the Homeplace (for the third time), then sleep the night in my tent in their field.

They were surprised to see me and, after explanations and introductions, I met my new fellow hikers. Most people seem to be really friendly on the Trail and these were no exception, so we all headed out to the restaurant as a band of brothers and sisters.

Returning from another substantial meal of fried chicken, BBQ pork and all the trimmings, I decided not to go straight to bed and took my shot at a game of cornhole, a terrific little game that involves lobbing a set of beanbags onto a board, some thirty feet distant. Priding myself on my competitive nature, I was confident I’d soon be teaching these southern boys and girls a thing or two about the game, so I lobbed a few bags and was ready to take on allcomers.

Bama, a young, ex military girl from Alabama said she had played a bit, so I smiled and got ready for the slaughter of the innocent. Unfortunately, the innocent turned out to be me, as this five feet nothing girl wiped the floor with me, 21-0, 21-4. The fact that she was then convincingly beaten by a young guy straight after, confirmed to me that, perhaps, cornhole isn’t my game, so I resumed my position as spectator.

The next morning, after a fairly decent night’s sleep, I set my alarm for 5.30am to really get to grips with my slightly increased mileage “requirement” of 13.3 miles a day. It still took me two hours to get myself sorted out and on the road, though I was heading down the road, back to the trailhead, by 7.30.

I was distinctly nervous about this return and my legs were a little shaky at first, though I made steady progress for the first couple of hours. There was a delightful walk through another meadow and I started to feel comfortable once more, until I encountered this little fellow. He, not unreasonably, didn’t feel inclined to let me pass, so I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and gave him a wide berth to get past. Black snake soon after Catawba.jpg He may well have been harmless, but it is always a jarring moment when you see one of these little fellows.

Welcome back to the Trail!

Shortly after, I passed the 700 mile marker and felt that another accomplishment was under my belt. I’d left the Trail at 698.3, so this was an important milestone to me. I did fairly well and covered about 5 miles in about 2 hours and was just congratulating myself that I was well and truly back when I got lost (again).

I’m not terribly sure how it happened, but I was suddenly going down a wide road that didn’t seem very AT-like. After about a third of a mile, I spotted an information board ahead of me, with a map that showed that I was plugging away down a fire road and that the AT was running parallel but a few hundred yards away in the woods. The two roads were due to intersect about two miles ahead, though it didn’t seem right just to walk on until I got back on track, so I simply turned round and retraced my steps.

This turned out to be fortuitous, as I ran into a really nice guy, Tim, who was out for a day hike up to McAfee Knob, the most photographed landmark on the Trail. Hiking the AT is a very solitary endeavor and, though you get together with people most evenings, you are often entirely by yourself for pretty much most of the day. As a consequence, when you do happen to run into somebody with whom you can have a decent conversation, it is nice to team up, if only for the short time that you spend together. Tim was very easy going and we chatted back and forth all the way up to McAfee Knob. For me, it actually made the hike easier, which is another advantage of teaming up from time to time.

The view at the top is another great example of what this country has to offer in scenery. There were several others there, but I managed to grab a pic in that iconic spot and felt great that I’d been afforded the opportunity to give this whole thing another go.

The iconic McAfee Knob shot.jpg I also shot a video that gives more of a view of the place. Beautiful!!

Tim was heading back down the way we’d come, so I moved on to try to complete my intended 16 miles for the day, though not before I ran into a guy who was out maintaining the Trail. He was lopping off branches just to make my day easier. Think about that. Some people, in many cases, many people, see it as their duty to maintain this gorgeous trail for others and simply get up there and get on with it. I thanked him for the work he was doing and continued on my way, only to hear a huge commotion in the trees just ahead of me. I can’t imagine anything other than a bear that makes so much noise, though I was unable to see anything, yet again.

I had an extra treat a few miles further on, as Tinker Cliffs give you a wonderful opportunity of not just a spectacular view, but also a spectacular walk, taking the Trail all the way along the top of the cliffs for about ten minutes, sometimes deliciously and perilously close to the edge. If McAfee Knob gets all the attention, then Tinker Cliffs is the unacknowledged gem.

I was getting a little tired now and would probably accept that I’d overdone it a bit for this first day back. However, I eventually reached Lambert Meadow Shelter and spent the evening chatting with a group of weekend hikers as we sat around eating, before I set up my tent across the river near a very quiet young man, Bilbo. Apparently, he has hairy feet and is fairly short, hence the name.

This morning, I kept up my 5.30 alarm call, intending to reach 20 miles for the day. I had hardly slept, so the alarm was more a courtesy than anything else. Once more, I was first up but one of the last to leave, this time by 8am and I really got stuck in to the miles. Indeed, after about five miles, I was merrily munching on a Snickers without a care in the world.

As I sat there, my legs slowly “set” and, once I got going again, I was a different hiker, sluggish, with no real pep anymore. I’ve since spoken to Diane about it and she reminded me that the antibiotics were strong and likely still in my system. The blood work had also shown that I was a little anemic, so that may be another reason for the sudden weakness. Also, maybe the 11 day break had taken more of a toll than I thought. Whatever it was, I didn’t feel good and I decided to take a short break at Daleville once I met Bama again and she told me that there were restaurants a short walk from the Trail. The thought of pizza drove me forward and, sure enough, like a mirage, Pizza Hut appeared mysteriously through the trees as I emerged onto the road.

A large meat lovers pizza and two Buds later, I was hoping that I’d be revived and ready for another half a dozen miles at least. It was then that I saw a cheap motel next door and a snooze became more of an attraction! So, checked in, showered and laundered, I think that I may have taken on a little too much for these first few days. Indeed, I’ve just gulped down nearly two liters of water, so I may have been a little dehydrated as well.

My plan had been to get back up to twenty mile days straight away, but I think a more realistic target is going to be 15 milers for a few days at least. I’ve heard of the Virginia Blues and maybe I’m going through them. Whatever it is, however, I feel I’m starting to get back on track and looking forward to the next challenges that come my way.

Leavin’ on a jet plane (part 2)

I couldn’t tell you if it was the prayers or the crossed fingers, but the result of the blood culture came back today and I’ve been given the all clear to return to the Trail tomorrow.

To be frank, the longer the waiting went on, the more concerned I was that something was going on. I guess I just need to be a little more patient to allow nature to work its course.

I’ve used the days at home to reconsider my pack and have dropped several items that I either didn’t use or chose not to use. I’ve also left out my winter clothes and bought a new water filtering system, as well as two new shirts that will be more appropriate for the summer. Given that hiking and camping were entirely new to me, most of my choices have worked out fairly well but, as with any venture, those choices can be improved and I hope that my pack will now be a little lighter and less crammed with unnecessary items.

Food is going to be an ongoing issue and I will be incorporating more pasta and rice into my diet, as well as more snacks in between meals. The weight loss has been a little startling, even to me, while I have had the opportunity to see my ribs for the first time in about 30 years, so that was nice.

When I was on the Trail, I told several people that I didn’t think I could come back if I spent several days back in “civilization,” yet I am ready to go back and complete what I started. The motivation hasn’t gone away and, when I came home last week, I was strongly aware that I’d always regret it if I didn’t at least try to complete the hike. This feeling has grown throughout my convalescence and I’m ready to resume my adventure. There will be a new set of characters and a new set of challenges, but I’d always be wondering what they might have been had I quit.

Thanks again to all who encouraged me and all who were concerned about me. It has been a privilege to be the recipient of so much love, prayers and affection, as well as innumerable crossed fingers.

Lastly, thanks as ever to my extraordinary wife, Diane, for her stoic response to everything that has happened on the hike. She remains as committed as I am to the ultimate success of this challenge and is the reason that I am able to return in such high spirits.

I’ve had my intermission, now let’s get on to the main feature!!

Bloody tests!!

I promised I wouldn’t give you a daily bulletin, but thought I should at least let everybody know where I am with the tests that I had done last week, particularly as I was expecting the final results yesterday.

The MRI revealed that the shin didn’t have a stress fracture, nor was there any damage to the surrounding tissue, other than a little fluid. This was good news, as I believe that the doctor suspected a stress fracture.

Despite assuring me that the cellulitis was being correctly treated by the foul-smelling antibiotics I’ve been taking, she also sent me for several blood tests, most of which have come back with excellent results. The only outstanding result is the blood culture, which determines whether or not the infection has entered the blood stream. As you’d imagine, this is something of a game-changer and, as I say, I had expected that the result would be with me on Monday. As a consequence, the fact that I still don’t have the result is a little concerning, as I can’t fully commit to my return on Thursday until that comes through as positively as the others.

I feel fine and went for a two mile walk yesterday to loosen my leg muscles a little; sitting on the couch, icing my leg for three days was starting to get a bit old, so I’m glad I was able to move at last.

As soon as I get the final result, I’ll be posting again, so please keep me in your prayers or, if you’re not that way inclined, please keep your fingers crossed for me.