Saturday, July 5, 2014

Pearisburg, VA through West Virginia

Pearisburg, VA to Waynesboro, VA May 6- May 12

We arrived in Pearisburg in the very early morning hours of May 6 with heavy hearts from our sudden separation from Minty and resolve to catch up with our friends Harry and Fran. We set up camp in a parking lot by the trail and waited for morning.

Getting back on the trail was a true shock to the system. Firstly, we chose to get back on the trail in the most industrial section of trail. The trail pass right through the parking lot of the Celanese Viscose factory, then past the entrance to the Celanese Viscose captive waste pool, and finally through a construction site for a new gas pipeline. We hiked for hours zig-zagging our way back up to the ridge line with the din of heavy machinery. Additionally, we had hoped that by getting back on 90 miles ahead we would land back in the vicinity of hikers we had seen before getting off trail but for the first few hours we didn't see any other hikers. 

Once we made it to the ridge and out of range of the sights and sounds of industry the trail started to improve. We enjoyed our first truly flat ridge which was dotted with apple orchards and vistas to parallel ridge lines covered in new foliage. While we were away, spring arrived like a freight train, transforming the trail into a green tunnel. Around sunset, I saw my first bear of the trip, about 50 yards off trail. We made eye contact for a few seconds while I fumbled for my camera and managed to get a great picture of the bear's behind as it sprinted down the ridge away from me.


We walked another mile and set up camp at an orchard overlooking a valley to the west just as the sun began to set. The apple orchard was one of our top 5 most scenic campsites but that night the spring train brought us a new gift, ticks, so many ticks. In the morning, we hid in our tent pinging at least 20 blood-thirsty ticks from the thin mesh of the tent.


The next few days we spent following the flat ridges of Virginia interspersed with tick-filled fields in the valleys between. On one ridge, known to locals as cannonball ridge due to piles of stones that the confederate army used during the civil war, we stayed in the Sarver Hallow Shelter. We were apprehensive about staying because of the distance of shelter from the trail but were rewarded with a beautiful and pristine shelter that gets very little use... by humans. The shelter was inhabited by a nesting pair of eastern phoebes and, as we would later hear from other hikers, a ghost named George who walks through the shelter at night. The water source at this shelter was located about 30 feet down a side trail which led to remnants of the Sarver house and consisted of a set of stairs leading into the earth to an underground spring, earning Sarver Hallow the title of creepiest shelter.















A few days later, we met a trio of hikers named Stumbles, Cool Hand, and Mr. Jingles who, despite hiking at the same pace as us, hike 20-30 miles a day (we hike 15-19 most days). We hiked with them for a few days, inspired to try bigger mile days despite challenging terrain. We hiked to the Dragon's Tooth, a line of huge, jagged boulders jutting into the sky like teeth. We began the descent in a light rain as the trail turned into a series of increasingly steep rock faces with rebar rungs sticking out of the rock made useless, even dangerous by the rain. As we navigated carefully over the slick rocks, a day-hiker clad in a fanny-pack and tee-shirt reading "I'm that freak" decided to announce to me that I was putting too much weight on my trekking poles. At which point, I made a perfectly-executed comeback, something that has happened only a handful of times in my life. I made eye contact and said casually, "well they've taken me 700 miles so far so I guess I'll trust them to get me down this small hill." The day hiker was speechless.


That evening we hiked to McAfee Knob, the most photographed location on the AT, at sunset. McAfee Knob is a rock outcropping where the mountain drop abruptly under your feet, revealing a beautiful panoramic view from which you can watch the sun both set and rise. Cool Hand, Stumbles, and Mr. Jingles stayed behind to catch the sunrise at McAfee Knob the next day.



The next day we hiked along the Tinker Cliffs which overlook Roanoke and finished the day descending from the ridge to Daleville, VA. During this descent, I developed a sharp and tearing pain in my shin. We checked into a hotel for the night to get some rest and later hobbled across the street to get some pizza. Our timing was perfect. We did a double take as our friends, Harry and Fran, who we assumed were leagues ahead by now, walked in. We spent the evening sharing stories and beer and planned to depart together in the morning. However, by morning my leg wasn't feeling better so we chose to zero, not hike any miles, and stay another night at the hotel.

At the continental breakfast, we ran into Stumbles and Cool Hand who told us that Mr. Jingles had accidentally had unfiltered water and was suffering from giardia. While we were sorry to hear that Mr. Jingles was suffering, we were glad that we would see the trio again in the future. Later, we had our third serendipitous run-in with a friend. While we were at the local outfitter (purveyor of outdoor goods), we ran into Blue Jay, who started the same day as us and whom we had not seen since leaving the trail with Minty.

Daleville, VA to Waynesboro, VA May 13- May 21

We departed Daleville anxious to hear news about Minty since his surgery was scheduled for the 15th. We hiked a leisurely pace back up to the ridge where we met Heartwood for the first time. She taught to identify some of the plants that are common along the trail including wild blueberry plants. We spent the afternoon beside a creek watching the largest crawfish I have ever seen scuttling around the creek bed and rolled into the shelter close to dark as a barred owl asked the age-old question, "who cooks for you? Who, WHO?" The answer was Chris, because he cooks most nights.


The next day we were shocked when Mr. Jingles, Cool Hands, and Stumbles caught up to us by lunch time... In 1.5 days they had gained 18 miles on us, having done a total of 33 miles the previous day, while Jingles was recovering from giardia. 

That night we set up came along a meandering creek, perfect for swimming but unfortunately next to a road- the campsites were totally trashed. Not the usually, carelessly discarded trash in the fire pit/privy. The ground of the campsite was covered in unused water balloons and wrappers, empty vodka bottles were foisted upon branches, and Chris was lucky enough to site a dirty diaper flung onto a nearby bush. We were too tired to hike on to the next shelter which we assumed was full anyways and rain was imminent so we found an area with a relatively small amount of trash and set up camp.

The next day we set off after an early morning rain storm had subsided and made it to the first shelter and quickly realized that not pushing on was a huge mistake! The shelter extraordinarily clean and consisted of a lower bunk and larger upper bunk that extended into to overhang which protected a picnic table from the elements. We had a leisurely breakfast in the massive and empty shelter and departed into a light rain.

Soon after, the skies opened and drenched us through our rain gear. We quickened our pace looking forward to lunch at the next shelter where we hoped to get out of the rain. When we arrived at the shelter around noon, it was already full. We were greeted by a row of hikers, dry and fully encased in their sleeping bags. We ate our lunch in the rain and headed to the next shelter before a chill could set in. The storm lasted all night an doused the area in 3 inches of rain.


The next morning we took our time getting ready and departed for what would become our longest day. By lunch time we had hiked 10 miles and had our first run-in with a copperhead. I was sitting on a ledge while we sterilized some water. Chris was about to sit next to me when his eyes met those of the copperhead coiled into a defensive position right next to me.


At lunch were happy to see the trio sitting at Matt's Creek shelter, named for creek next to which it was built. As we approached, Stumbles was trying to shout over the loud roar of the creek. We walked closer straining to hear but soon realized what the message was without hearing. We would need to ford the creek. Stumbles and Cool Hand were pointing upstream past where the blazes indicate a crossing. The crossing point, which would have been a rock hop any other day was a violent waterfall.
 
We bush-whacked upstream to a point that looked reasonable to cross and slowly forded our first creek (good prep for Maine). The real challenge awaited on the other side where the creek abutted a steep embankment that we scaled to go back downstream to the shelter. At the end of lunch, a giant snake, ID'd by coolhands as a cottonmouth, careened down the creek and launched itself onto the bank 20 feet from where we sat. We packed up quickly and set off toward the James River. We found a note 50 feet down trail warning that a rattlesnake had been spotted there earlier in the day, completing the day's snake sightings with the 3rd of 3 species of poisonous snakes.



We hiked across the James river on the longest pedestrian footbridge on the AT, which was dedicated to Bill Foot, a hiker who advocated for the bridge. At 6pm, we departed the next shelter to begin the 6 mile journey up Bluff mountain to the Ottie Cline Powell monument. By the time we reached the monument we were hiking in total darkness surrounded by the distant lights of the towns lining the valleys. We made it to the trail to punchbowl shelter around 11:30pm and switched to the red lights on our headlamps which are less likely to wake sleeping hikers. However, as we approached the shelter, we discovered 30 bright lights shining in every direction, attached to 30 boisterous boy scouts setting up camp. The upside was that we could setup camp without worrying about waking anyone up.

The next day we departed early to get to Buena Vista, VA early. The people of Buena Vista were some of the nicest we have met on the trail. As we approached the gap that leads to town, a trail angel offered to give us a ride to town and gave us sodas. At the grocery store, Pat, who was in line behind us in line offered to give us a ride back to the trail which turned into a ride to the Lexington outfitter to get fuel for our stove while telling us about the history of Buena Vista. Buddy, an employee at the outfitter, drove us back to the trail. In Buena Vista, we charged our phone and found out that Minty had recovered and no longer needed surgery.




Over the next few days we climbed the last major peaks on the trail until New Hampshire. First, we passed over the the Priest where we wrote confessions in the log book at the Priest shelter, as is a custom among hikers who stop at that shelter.





Next up, we took a side trail over to spy rock, a massive, 50-foot high boulder atop a mountain from which you can see 360° to all of the surrounding mountains. Strangely, hundreds of tadpoles were swimming around in a puddle atop spy rock.




Finally, we climbed up three ridges, the final 4,000 footer before weaving along the blue ridge parkway to Waynesboro , VA.

Waynesboro, VA to Front Royal May 22- May 29

We set off from Waynesboro into Shenandoah Nationality Park and were quickly immersed in the green tunnel. I wish I could say the Shenandoahs were one of the best sections of the trail because they are the mountains where I developed a love for hiking. In truth they were a huge disappointment. The AT was routed through the Shenandoahs in the least scenic way possible. Most of the overlooks were on skyline drive which was always within ear-shot of the trail. The proximity of the road meant the trail was often crowded, especially on Memorial Day weekend. We were glad when the day came for my Dad to pick us up for a day off.






We set off on Saturday with enough time to get to the meeting spot with an hour to spare which was good because we ran into the best trail magic ever. We meet Just Sue and Mama Goat, two trail angels who were inspired to do trail magic because their daughter is hiking the pacific crest trail, a much nicer, albeit longer trail on the west coast. They had all the good stuff: soda, beer, fresh fruit, guacamole, lawn chairs, soda. So we ended up spending a long time hanging out, while our time to get to the meeting point ticked away.

It finally got to the point that we had only 90 minutes to hike the 4.5 miles to the meeting point. We considered calling my Dad to pick us up there instead but resolved to finish our hike that day because the whole point of trail magic is to help us get to where we're going... And soda. So after saying goodbyes to our new friends, we departed with resolve to make it to there on time. And by golly we did -- we broke the speed barrier (3mph)!

After a glorious day off of rest, resupply, and delicious home cooked meals, we returned to the trail.

The first night back on the trail, we encountered our first "bubble." A bubble refers to a phenomenon when the trail becomes congested with through hikers who have all ended up in the same area due to differing paces. When we arrived at the shelter that night, every spot in the shelter and every tent site was taken. So, we walked around considering our options, by that I mean our one option. We decided to camp at the for rent cabin that was located down hill from the shelter. The cabin was covered NO TENTING signs. We didn't tent. We set up our sleeping pads and sleeping bags right on the front porch of the cabin and went to sleep. 


In the midst of a very deep sleep, I was awoken by a strange sensation on my face. Something was running its legs, many legs through my eyelashes. Jarred into sudden action, I battled first my mummy sleeping bag, then the critter, brushing it off my face and promptly dropping like a log back to sleep. My enemy gave me only a few minutes of respite before once again clambering up to my eye ball to launch a final attack. I awoke to the villain combing my eyelashes and once again, I worked my hand free, swiping at my face. This time, however, I fought the draws of sleep. I grabbed my headlamp and identified my foe, now huddled under my pillow. It was a millipede. Having flung the millipede a few feet away this time. I laid back down to resume my sleep but I began to notice a terrible, acrid smell in the air, the smell of rubbing alcohol that had somehow spoiled. My eye was also burning and watering prompting me to wipe it with my hand. Then, suddenly overcome with sleep, I was out. 

In the morning, I woke up and looked at my hand, noticing a series of maroon marks. My hand looked as if I had slammed it repeatedly in door. Suddenly, I remembered the commotion the night before, and that 2 different hikers had warned us that these millipedes were poisonous! After a brief phone search, I found that the millipedes are toxic, not poisonous, and as long as I did not attempt to eat the millipede, I was in the clear. The millipede had simply sprayed my hand (miraculously, not my eye) with a defensive liquid that stains skin and irritates eyes. After about a week, the faux-bruising resolved.

Millipedes, taunting me
What the Shenandoahs lack in scenery, they made up for with wildlife. We saw a total of 10 bears in the Shenandoahs, a peregrine falcon sanctuary (though not the birds), and many snakes including a 5 foot black snake that climbed the wall of a shelter, terrorizing the mice who lived there. We also learned, thanks to a handy sign, that a bird we had affectionately name "cellphone bird" was a veery. We left the Shenandoahs on a rainy afternoon and hitched down to Front Royal in a mere 3 minutes even though we were hitching on a high-speed road.









Front Royal, VA to Harper's Ferry, VA May 30 - June 3
We hiked only a few days from Front Royal to Harper's Ferry through a particularly grueling section. The first day we took a leisurely stroll through the woods to George's Geodesic shelter where we delightedly found a note from our friend Arrow with whom we hiked for a few days back in Georgia and who had completed that section only a few days before. We contacted Arrow who offered to take us in once we got to Harper's Ferry.




So, we ambitiously set off on the roller coaster, an awful 13 mile bit of trail named for the rocky, steep, and pointless up and downs that make it hellish, at the end of the day. We ended up finishing the roller coaster the next morning en route to the Blackburn AT center where trail magic was planned. Unfortunately when we arrived the food wasn't ready so we lingered for an hour, snacking on strawberries until we needed to depart to meet my sister on time.


We hurried to Harper's Ferry with relatively empty stomachs since we spent our lunch time at the Blackburn ATC. We crossed into West Virginia where we ran into a couple of friends, Cornwall and Cowboy, waiting at the state line for midnight to start the 4 state challenge (when a hiker hikes from Virginia to Pennsylvania, through West Virginia and Maryland, in one day). We were running late getting into Harper's Ferry but luckily my sister spotted us on the bridge across the Potomac and picked us up there.


We spent the evening and next day boring my sister with trail stories before heading over to Arrow's house for some really great food and story telling. Arrow's whole family hikes so there were lots of stories! In the morning Arrow's mom, Zigzag, brought us back to Harper's Ferry. We spent a few hours lingering at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters, getting food, and petting a cat in town before heading back to the trail.


A pair of house finches

The cat spots the house finches

Oh No! The cat is headed for the house finches

But wait! Something else has caught the cat's eye

It's Chris!

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