July 1-5, 1999
My dear friends Molly and Tom (aka Trisquit and Peaches) are hiking the AT. They started on May 3rd at Springer and are working their way north as far as possible. Unable to spare the time for the entire trip, I managed to take off a long weekend and join them for a fifty-odd mile section.
Day 1 After leaving Baltimore at some ungodly hour in the morning, I rolled into the sleepy burg of Buena Vista, VA, at 10 and met up with my comrades at the post office. They were in town for a resupply mission and to check mail. Given that it is ten miles between trail and town, I shuttled them and another hiker named Renfield back to the trailhead where I left my car. But not before having quite a lot of food at a local diner.
AT hikers are famous for being bottomless pits when it comes to food. Tom and Renfield, both rake thin, put away two orders of pancakes and then two icecream sundays. Each. Little did I know that this was to become something of an omen.
Soon enough we were on the trail where the AT crosses US60. The weather was hot and oppressive and we had gotten anything but a late start. After 2.5 miles of steep, sweaty climb up the poorly named Bald Knob and another mile in the drenching downpour to Cow Camp Gap, we elected to call it a day and set up camp early.
Day 2 – Hoping for a nice day, we set out early from Cow Camp Gap and climbed the gorgeous Cold Mountain and Tar Jacket Ridge. Little did we know that the dense morning fog and a stunning array of wildflowers would make these few miles by far the best part of the hike… Soon the weather became oppressive and sunny. The trail in this section is at least as difficult Shenandoah (which is to say of moderate roughness) and we humped along talking about our various third-world experiences in Togo and Nepal and Philadelphia.
After lunch, imbued with a strange sense of purpose, Tom and I climbed the half mile and 500 feet of elevation up to Spy Rock in ten minutes of determined striding. Excellant views and a neat bit of scrambling to get up to the rocky dome. Had a break and a snack while talking with a local pair out for a hike. In the waning day, with the daily threating thunder, we hiked up the last incline to the 4000′ Priest Shelter, grateful to be rid of packs and ingesting some dinner. But we were not alone. Soon after we arrived, we met Grendel and Tolemackus followed at dusk by the indomitable Bubbles. It was a merry night indeed.
Day 3 – Grendel had mentioned that the weather report called for several consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures and hot sun. Molly doesn’t do downhill very quickly and we had three thousand feet of elevation to lose in a few miles first thing in the morning, so we got a pre-dawn start. Breakfast was cooked atop the lovely Priest overlook with great views of the hellish red sunrise. We could tell already it was going to be a scorcher.
By the time we reached the Tye River down in the valley, the temperatures had risen, but with only downhill work so far, everyone was feeling pretty good. Snacks were had and everyone geared up for the climb up the other side. We were presented with two choices: seven miles of trail would bring us over the Three Ridges with dramatic views and a 3000′ climb or we could blueblaze on the Mau-Har Trail passing a waterfall and swimming hole.
Given the heat we opted for the Mau-Har Trail though the wisdom of this would be long-debated. The swimming hole was indeed lovely and bone-chilling though the mile and a half of trail to get there was extremely rough and not at all level. Furthermore, after having washed the sweat out, we regained just as much and more in the thousand foot climb back to the AT. I was in a particularly foul mood when we finally reached Maupin Field Shelter. Those who took the other route also were swearing and kvetching by the time they finished, however, so it looked like a no-win situation.
At this point, visions of funnel cake and gatorade floats filled my heart with longing. We elected to, despite the heat, push on that day and make it a shorter hike in to Waynesboro on the Fourth where there would presumably be carnivals and many delectable, cool treats to be had. So browsed blackberries along the trail for a mile or two and then set out for the four miles of nasty slabbing across rough, poison ivy-clad tallus just down-slope from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Uggg! I have no love for that road pushing us off the ridge-top.
I particularly was not doing well by the time we finally arrived at Cedar Cliff and decreed that this was Tuttle Lake and we would camp here. We had been siphoning down water at a rate that would make an gas-guzzling SUV weap and there was no ready source of running water. Still, there were cavities in the rock which held stagnant, brackish water which we suctioned up with the filter and made do with. Tom and Molly pitched there very stylin’ tarp and I battened down my gear. The temparture had dropped to the merely hot and a huge thunderstorm could be seen approaching across the western valley spread out before us.
A much needed dinner was delayed as we waited for the deluge, but after half an hour it became apparent the the storm was stalled in front of us and was loosing its wrath upon the valley below. Bubbles arrived and pitched her ‘Mid nearby. Dinner was had and Shaft, Ickulus and Meatloaf (a dog) arrived complaining of barking salamanders.
As it grew dark, we started to see fireworks from the farm immediately below us and also from the towns farther out. I set up my bivy out on the rock to minimize impact in an already pretty disturbed area and watched the show. Different towns on the horizon held their shows but all the time the farm below us kept the explosions coming. Very spooky. I was reminded of the last time I’d bivied up in these mountains with a similar view. There were stars above and city lights below. Incredible. Only this time it was about 80 degrees warmer. Average the two experiences and it would be just about right on. The noseeums arrived at about ten and made my sleep puctuated at best.
Day 4 – Again we rose and got an early start. Despite the clogged filter, we managed to pump up three liters each from a stream we found before breakfast and climb, enjoying the wind, the rocky pinacle of Humpback Mountain. Impressive views and fun climbing about. A highly social late breakfast was had with the whole crew from the night before on what we though were Humpback Rocks, but turned out to be part of Brigadoon since the map makes absolutely no mention of them or any of the several miles of trail nearby.
The middle part of the day featured another dramatic downhill bit with some highly annoying switchbacks down to the very posh Paul Wolfe Shelter. My feet were smoking from the gently sloped, well groomed trail that was unrelentingly downhill. Why can’t they learn to install some big boulders and waterbars every now and then to break up the monotony. Upon arriving at the shelter I found all the old crew plus Salamander encamped eating up the rest of their food. “Everything Must Go!” Tom proclaimed and we gnoshed and gnoshed with as much gusto as could be mustered in the heat.
Five miles to go, the first mile of which was steeply up. I stripped to the waist and headed out determined to make it to Waynesboro and the planned Gatorade and Vanilla Float with Funnelcake on the side by sheer pain if neccessary. In an agonized fuge state, I tramped through the woods sloping gently downhill for what seemed like about 28 miles. Much to my surprise (and downright joy), I suddenly appeared at a road intersection I hadn’t seen since March and then only deserted, snow-covered and at night. Well, this time it was very different and marked the end of the trip, not the beginning.
Everyone else arrived and we made our way variously by hitchhiking and taxi down to the YMCA where there were showers and pools to be had. Waynesboro was even hotter than it had been on the trail and completely deserted. No festivities despite the national holiday. No funnelcakes or icecream floats. Furthermore, the YMCA was closed for the weekend as was the fire station. In tremendous pain and on our last legs, we wandered aimlessly across town and rented rooms at the mercifully air-conditioned Comfort Inn (with outdoor, unheated pool!). Icky, Bubbles, Trisquit, Peaches and I all crammed into one room while Shaft and Meatloaf took another. Grendel and Tolemackus were there along with Ascher Wolf (his real name; with a name like that, who needs a trail name?), Salamander, Renfield and Walkabout. It was very odd dealing with people on the trail and then dealing with them in their alternate personae as real people. Very strange to hear Icky (Ty) talking on the phone to his relatives. Different worlds.
After showers, a prolonged soak in the pool and some phone calls, we all made our way to a wonderful all-you-can-eat Chinese place across town. As I had seen before, all-you-can-eat takes on a whole new dimension when you’ve been burning 8000 calories a day and sweating something like a gallon and a half. I learned that the secret to gorging oneself involves taking it slow and put away seven plates of food from jello to sushi to fruit to some really excellant crab legs and muscles on the half shell. More seasoned hikers, skilled in the ways of the “seafood slowdown” managed over a dozen and still professed an empty spot or two for desert. In the still-amazing nighttime heat, we sat on the curb and watched the few private fireworks burst in the humid, creaking air before waddling back to the hotel for beers and bed.
Day 5 – Realizing that I wouldn’t have to hike today, I awoke cheery and refreshed. Everyone had planned a day of laying in supplies and laying about so after laying waste to the continental breakfast thoughtfully supplied by the unknowing proprietors of the Comfort Inn, we hitched out to the outfitters. No shuttle services were available, but Richard, a most excellant human being offered to drive me down to my car and refused to take more than $5 for the gas. We had a most interesting chat on the way and I gratefully collapsed into the driver’s seat and winged my way home.
All in all, a miserable trip hiking-wise but a very interesting time socially. I climb well in the heat so perhaps I will relegate summer to climbing and watersports while the “off” season will be for hiking. Time will tell. Who knows when I’ll get that hiking bug next…
Total milage (trails) 50 miles plus a couple staggering around in town.