April 27 – May 3, 2001
The Short Version
It seems that a longish, solo backpacking trip is becoming an annual spring ritual. Gives me a chance to blow the residual cabin fever out and prepare for various summer activities. The weather is usually nice, not too hot, and not too cold. This time around, while it tended to be hotter than not, I got in a good hike and returned to the “real world” rested and ready for everything.
Friday, April 27 — At long last I’m on the trail and away from all the humdrum frantics of 21st century life; more or less. Leaving work in the mid-afternoon, I drove down to central VA revelling in the gorgeous weather. Rufus was parked at the Long Mountain Wayside area where I started my hike with Molly and Tom in July, 1999, and by 7:30 I had set out down the trail. Uncharted territory! Beautiful, lush evening forest repleat with birds and a very spring forest smell. Apparently, there used to be an old sharecropper’s settlement here a hundredish years ago. There are still rock walls and foundations visible. I crossed the Brown Mountain Creek a few times and, just as it was getting good and dark, arrived at the shelter of the same name.
Five other folks, all young, northbound thru-hikers share the small shelter with me and seem like very pleasent company. The woman sleeping next to me has clearly been hiking for a while and has some rather pungent feet. But I’m sure that in a few days, I won’t mind it nearly so much.
Saturday, April 28 — Ah, the first full day on the trail. Surprisingly, I was actually the first person up and out from the shelter. Most of the morning was spent continuing down through the valley and past the Lynchburg reservoir which is very nice. A large sign proclaims that it won the “Best Dam in Virginia (1993)” award for which they are very proud. Beautiful weather bordering on hot. Towards lunch time, I ascended several miles of trail up toward Bluff Mountain and Punchbowl Shelter.
A mile shy of the summit, the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway for the first time in this section. What to my wondering eyes should appear, but a Trail Angel named Ken with a cooler full of ice and cold sodas! Wow! Eight other young north-bounders were also in residence soaking up the trail magic and it made for a merry lunch… until I got overly enthusiastic while cutting the summer sausage and sliced deeply into my left index finger. Blood spurted everywhere and one of the other hikers helped me butterfly and bandage the wound. Damn! Great start to the trip. Hopefully it will remain uninfected for a while as I would hate to cut this trip short.
Midafternoon lethargy hit as I was nearing the top of Bluff Mountain. After a short trailside nap I attained the summit and saw the very nice view. There’s a plaque to a four year old kid there who wandered off and died back in 1883. By five or so I had descended to the ridge and pushed on to the ridge of Rocky Row past some very impressive rocks. Nice, though dry, ridgewalking. I still had most of two liters of water and thus decided to dry camp.
Now I’m bivied here on a bluff looking southeast at the lights from Big Island. The James River can be seen as well as thousands of lights further to the east. A fat crescent moon hangs directly over camp. The bear bag is hung from a scraggly tree just beginning to think about leafing out. Dinner was rice cooked over the solid fuel stove. Turns out those trioxane fuel tablets are not what I thought they were. They’re purple and don’t burn terribly hotly. I augmented the fire with short sticks but still went through most of a fuel bar. I’ll have to conserve carefully on this trip.
Sunday, April 29 — My half-birthday went very well. The night was exceedingly windy up on my ledge, but I got a beautiful sunrise and a cold start. Temperatures quickly climbed as I trotted over Rocky Row (essentially the same view I had from camp) and Little Rocky Row (nice views of the James River Gorge and all the altitude I would have to hike down). There followed three miles of continuous descent very reminiscent of The Priest, though not quite as hot. I stopped at the Johns Hollow shelter in mid-morning to put in the contacts, tank up with water and take a brief rest.
This is the southern end of VA Map #5 and I have not brought (or even found) Map #4. So from now on, I’m conducting and experiment in maplessness. It was very liberating to leave Map #5 (which I found lying in a stream two years ago) sitting for someone to use in the shelter.
Two and a half miles of very pleasent walking along two different creeks on an old road bed out to US501 and the James River. I’d been hearing about the new footbridge the ATC constructed over the river, but was not prepared for the huge steel and concrete construction spanning the quite-wide river! It’s not often that the AT crosses major rivers, so it was quite a treat. The south shore of the river is quite steep with black, dripping cliffs and a trail that skirts the shore. I side-tracked over to see the dam and had a bit of lunch, this time without injuring myself over deli meats.
But the day was getting hot again and I was suffering a weird lethargy. The trail started a gradual ascent through the James River Face Wilderness and I stopped to dip my feet in Matts Creek. No sooner had I put my shoes on and hiked a hundred feet did I find the shelter of the same name occupied by Tangent, Red and and another fellow. The time was only 3pm so I continued up the trail aiming for the Marble Springs campsite (site of a former shelter) five miles away. Unfortunately, it started out with three miles of unrelenting uphill and eleven switchbacks. But the views of the Gorge were excellant and I remained in fairly high spirits.
At length, after a lot of peak-skirting, I arrived at the Marble Springs site and set up camp. Boots off, first priority! I’m increasingly of the opinion that I need some lighter weight hiking boots for this kind of thing. Other denizens of the camp included Fender, a northbound “nickle and dime” section hiker, Still Learning, and the indomitable, hyperactive Huff-n-Puff. A mediocre feast of Mac-n-Cheese with salami was produced and a moderately social time was had. Three ultralight, high-speed hikers appear about dusk, made dinner, chatted and then saddled up for the five mile nighthike down to the next shelter. Better them than me!
For the past couple days, I’ve been hearing about this wonderful Bryant Ridge Shelter from north-bound hikers and as I get closer to it, the stories grow more and more fabulous. It started out as a three-story shelter which sleeps 25 and has grown now into some multi-building, 14 story shelter with air conditioning, a pool and a squadron of Geishas to rub your feet and serve you peeled grapes. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll make a long day of it and push the 17 miles to this paragon of trailside homeyness.
Monday, April 30 — Setting out purposefully, I humped up and over High Cock Knob, named for a pair of roosters which used to fly high into the pine trees. Very steep, but I was fresh and feeling good. Being currently mapless, I had no idea what to expect, but Walks Alone, whom I met in passing, mentioned that it was all level from here on. Lying bastard! After Petite’s Gap, the trail immediately began to climb for about three miles inexorably in the hot, dry morning. Just as I set out, I heard a roaring and looked up to see the top side of an F-14 jet going by about 300′ overhead. I wonder if we might be at war or something? Would anyone tell us?
At the top of Thunder Ridge, there is a small lookout and I paused to converse with Splinter and Freebird, two amiable north-bound section hikers. Very nice fellows. Perhaps a half mile later I spotted a deer and saw a large barred owl sitting in a tree. The former is hardly scarce around here, but the latter is somewhat more unusual, particularly in the daytime. I rolled into Thunder Hill Shelter for lunch and immediately took off my boots.
For a while now, I’ve been approaching this giant golf ball perched on top of Apple Orchard Mountain, the height of land on this section of trail. If this actually was a golf ball, to scale a par 3 course might put the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, as the hole. Big sucker and pretty impressive! Turns out it’s an FAA radar antenna and the last remaining evidence of a USAF base that was on the mountain a few decades back. As advertised, there were also a number of apple trees which did little to provide shade.
There followed a long bit of gradual descent and eventually Cornelius Creek Shelter. I stopped in briefly and chatted with Mitoman and Chestnut. They urged me to keep heading for Bryant Ridge. It was 5pm and it was five miles, mostly down hill. Catching some sort of weird second (or third or fourth) wind, I chugged up the brief Floyd Mountain and then down four miles of interminable descent to the waiting shelter below. The forest went from mostly bare to fully leafed and the temperature dropped with the sun.
Just when I thought I couldn’t hike another step, the shelter hove into view. It’s only two floors and there are no serving wenches, but it’s still pretty nice; definitely makes my top five list of shelters. Much-needed beans and rice and hydration! Six folks share the shelter with me tonight. Old Buffalo is in his sixties and thru-hiking. Four young guys, also thruhiking–Silver, Brokedown Palace, Ghost Dawg and Raven (Mortimer). Finally, Elijah is an older section hiker like me. A lovely, mellow time was had by all. Definitely a nice shelter to push toward.
Tuesday, May 1 — Having done a long day yesterday, I resolved to hang out at the shelter and get a leisurely start on the day. Just as I was preparing to head out, two south-bound flip-floppers arrived having spent the night at Cornelius Creek. Named Lucky Ted and Nature Girl, I ended up hiking with them for much of the day and am camped with them now. He is in corporate finance and she is an ornithologist from Vermont. Lovely people who look a lot younger than they really are.
Clearly today was going to be another sweltering day. After a steep three miles up and over a small mountain, we stopped at Jenkins Creek where a lovely swimming hole invited washing and lunch. Hoards of tiger swallowtails darted about above and fingerling fish below. Saw a crayfish as well which is something, as a northerner, I’m not used to. Unfortunately, the frigid swimming holes are usually at the bottom of the mountains and by the ridge-top, you just as sweaty and dirty as before. This one was no exception and I had fond thoughts of cold water during my midday funk.
After an hour or two at an extremely un-appealing shelter, I finished the uphill part and regained the Blue Ridge Parkway. There was then another three or so miles of more or less level walking to the peaceful Bobblet’s Gap Shelter and some extremely welcome terriyaki (boring) with pepper jack cheese added (much better). Just before the shelter, I encountered a woman hiking alone who looked very familiar. Sure enough, it was Bookworm (the talkative) who I had met last fall in the Mahoosucs at Page Pond. Small trail!
Sharing the site tonight are Lucky Ted and Nature Girl, who have pitched a tent leaving the shelter to the bachelors: Free Spirit (a section hiker from PA), Night Train (a Marxist thru-hiker who supposedly picked up his name by some championship snoring), Mr. Pat (who used to manage one of my favorite outdoor stores in Lexington) and Spur (who is on his third thru-hike and is getting married in a week or two). The temperature has finally dropped a bit and the black flies have gone elsewhere. Ah! Another easy day tomorrow. I’m really dying for vitamin C here and am regretting not bringing some sort of drink mix.
Wednesday, May 2 — Easy enough I guess. Somewhere in the night, Mr. Pat’s hiking poles fell on my head and I woke up with a blood-curdling yell. Mice were getting into a bag of cereal someone had thoughtfully put next to my head as well. All of these problems were solved by pitching the offending items as far out of the shelter as I could manage. Then everyone decided to get up and off early (like before daybreak). I was left rubbing my eyes and stretching sore muscles talking with the personable Night Train.
By the time I hit the trail, I was already flagging. As advertised, it was mostly level walking parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway going up and down little bits here and there. The day was hot and hazy and views were somewhat limitted. Furthermore, I was working on a pair of championship blisters–the big boots have GOT to go! A few miles in, I passed Corndog as he headed north. We got to chatting and I mentioned how I was looking forward to town and citrus fruit. “No problem,” says he, and produces an assortment of delectable jelly beans from a belt pack. OOOH BABY! The peach-flavored ones were pure heaven and I developed religion on the spot.
Passed out of the Natural Bridge section of trail and into the Roanoke ATC part. With this transition, came a startling difference in trail style–less open trail, more flowers hemming in the path. The trail also dropped away from the road which was nice. Soon I came to Wilson Creek shelter where I lunched with Lucky and Nature Girl. Today is Nature Girl’s 50th birthday and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if she looks a day over 35!
The last water of the day was attained at Wilson Creek 0.7 miles below the shelter. I tanked up fully and then started up the steep climb toward Fullhardt Knob. Only it turned out to not be that way at all; I soon descended and crossed another creek. OK, now the steep ascent. Nope, more descent and another creek. This was starting to get a bit old. I soaked my hat in the stream, stripped to the waist and headed up the third hill. As luck would have it, the first rain in weeks started up with a few fitful drops; just enough to make the leaves wet and the air even more humid. By the time I reached the bone-fide top (marked by a sign and road crossing), I was still just as sweaty and hot as before the rain.
There followed a very subjectively long 2.8 miles to Fullhardt Knob shelter, all gradually uphill, all blazingly hot. I was in a foul mood when the shelter finally hove into view and immediately collapsed into its shady depths. At length, dinner was prepared and the three of us shared a pleasent evening together. The others have retired now leaving the shelter to me and the setting sun. “Early to bed…” and all that.
It’s been a good trip. Physically strenuous and hot, but a welcome break from the rigors of
academic life. I feel much more prepared to face reality again and much more certain that I am not a thru-hiker at heart. One week of trail at a time is enough for me. Though section hiking bears the disadvantage of having to get in shape each and every time, I get to hike adjacent sections at different times of year. Perhaps some time I’ll try thru-hiking something, but not the AT. Perhaps the PCT or something more obscure. Someday when I have lots of time.
Thursday, May 3 — Whee what a day! As planned Lucky Ted and Nature Girl got me up before dawn and we spead down the trail towards town to break our fast at the Shoney’s All-You-Can-Eat. In the cool morning, everything was very pleasent and Nature Girl–true to her monicker–spent a lot of time indentifying birdcalls and interesting plants. The rising sun was the color of blood and suggested much heat to come.
Descent into the valley was glorious. Beautiful trees and farm fields still wet with dew with the Trail wandering on narrow rights of way and over numerous styles. At length we crossed US11 and passed under I81. After six days in the woods, the hum of rushing semis came as a bit of a shock. Finally, we emerged into Daleville/Cloverdale and headed for breakfast. All I could eat turned out to be limited to three plates of eggs, sausage, hash browns, biscuits and gravy and fruit plus about two liters of orange juice.
Thence started the most uncertain part of the trip, the great hitch back to the car. I bid adieu to my traveling companions and started thumbing. The first couple rides were easy as thru-hikers are common in town and I rode pretty easily as far as Buchanon. Unfortunately, a little north of there, US11 merged into the superhighway and I was left stranded at a tiny exit. After two hours of standing around looking for a ride, I started walking along the seven miles of frontage road to the place where the roads split again and I might find a ride.
The day was blisteringly hot and the under-trafficked road was coated in crawling and recently-flattened gypsy moth caterpillars. By blisters, despite their duct-tape coverings, had grown painful and I limped along perhaps a mile and a half. All of a sudden, a small red car going the other direction stopped and an toothless, elderly gentleman offered me a lift. He took me considerably out of his way; as far as Glasgow which was not on the original plan, but turned out to actually be a great help. US501 proved to be excellent hitching territory as I was soon picked up by two ladies headed north. “I don’t usually pick up people. Miss Edna here thought it was a bad idea, but you have a good face,” said the driver. We proceeded to have a long conversation about bears. I LOVE this stuff!!!
From Buena Vista, I quickly caught a ride up a couple miles into the mountains from a local steel-worker. Half a mile of walking up the steep grade of US60 netted me a ride in the back of a nice pick-up driven by a pretty girl and an older woman. Sharing the truck bed with me was a box full of gorp and other trail goodies. Turns out they were returning from Erwin, TN, after visitting a pair of thru-hikers, one of which the young woman was dating. What luck! We zoomed up the very exciting road and I was dropped at the trailhead. And thus ends another eventful trip! Ah life…
Total mileage: 80 miles.