Then The Hail Came
Chapter 7 - Then The Hail Came
Damascus, Virginia to Pearisburg, Virginia
WEDNESDAY, 6/8/83, MILE 453.2 — I had a reasonably good sleep on a mattress in the hostel, although the hellish snoring of one of my roommates detracted somewhat from the charm of the experience. The walls rattled all night, plaster fell from the ceiling, and an amorous bull elephant showed up looking for some slap and tickle (boy, was he pissed). The next town I hit with a hotel or motel, I am going to get a room all to myself for some peace and quiet and guilt-free marathon showers.
Not that I have any complaints about Damascus or the hostel. The people of that town really know how to make hikers feel welcome. A friendly mutual respect has developed between them and us over the years. Business owners are helpful and courteous even beyond the bounds of fabled small-town southern hospitality. Their church trusts the hikers and bicyclists staying in the hostel to behave themselves; they do not have a caretaker in residence. Payment for the stay is by donation, with $1.50 being the suggested amount. I left more — my two showers each probably consumed more than $1.50 worth of hot water.
After awakening respectably early for a trail town morning, about 7:00, I spent the next couple of hours loading my backpack and filling my package for home with items I had decided were unnecessary, such as a lightweight, buttoned shirt I have carried since Georgia and never worn. I hike in my tee shirt. If it is chilly, I wear a chamois. If you do not use an item, get rid of it. Almost reluctantly, I also gave up my wool sweater, which takes up a lot of pack room and is rather heavy. It would become more of a very occasional convenience than a necessity in Virginia. I’ll be needing it again in northern New England — if I make it that far.
It was a typically cluttered trail town morning. I carried the package over to the Post Office and mailed it, stopping at the hardware store for fuel and the drug store for a large can of anti-fungal foot powder. I figured my feet were owed a treat — payback for all the abuse they have endured. I also picked up a birthday card for my grandmother. I wanted to replace the two useless lumps of sodden lint which I’ve been using for innersoles ever since the Great Smokies deluge, but the drug store carried them only up to size 11. My feet are size 13. 1 had been trying to replace them ever since Hot Springs, with the same results each time.
A cobbler’s shop on my way back to the hostel did have insoles in my size. Oh, no! I’m getting happy feet! I dropped off my purchases back at the hostel, strolled over to the Dairy King to partake in another gargantuan lunch, and visited the Post Office one final time to mail the card.
Returning to the hostel, I took a steaming hot shower, using a bar of soap I had bought last night just for the occasion and shampoo another hiker had left behind. When I emerged an hour later, I left what remained of the soap for those who followed. It was the least I could have done, because I sure did not leave them any hot water. Remember, I have said that I am becoming sort of a nice guy — I never said I have become one.
I left the hostel at 3:00 p.m., just as a new batch of backpackers was rolling in. On my way through town, I stopped at the grocery store and picked up some frosted Pop-Tarts, which I had almost tragically forgotten. Being a real man, I might have managed to suck it up and deal with life on the Appalachian Trail without them. Fortunately, I will not have to.
Leaving Damascus was a rather depressing experience. Its small luxuries and good people were a great tonic for one slightly-used backpacker. I dulled the pain by stopping at the Dairy King one last time and picking up a large chocolate ice cream cone — something with which to occupy myself as I trod the lonely road out of town.
My pack weighed a ton, as it always does fresh out of a supply town with a full load of food and fuel. Other than that, hiking was not unpleasant. The path was excellently graded and maintained. Mountain laurel along the trail were just beginning to bloom. Although my heart was not in the effort, I managed to grind out seven miles before coming upon a lovely site in the gorge of Whitetop Laurel Creek which I simply could not pass by.
I accomplished my two modest objectives today: dragging myself away from Damascus and placing myself well within range of the next shelter, now about twenty miles away. I pitched my tent in a quiet little pine grove alongside the gravel bank of the creek and lay back beside the rushing waters. Damascus slowly faded to a pleasant memory, and the Appalachian Trail again became my sole reality. All in all, this is not a bad way to live, and Pearisburg, Virginia is only 155 AT miles away.
THURSDAY, 6/9/83, MILE 472.8 — Perhaps the most interesting hike to date of the entire adventure began this morning at 7:45 — a relatively early start for the night owl of the thru-hiker set.
The Appalachian Trail climbed away from Whitetop Laurel Creek, wandered the long, wooded crest of Straights Mountain for a bit, and returned to the valley. The ridge walk detour seemed rather pointless, as the gorge had been much more scenic, but it did provide two memorable incidents. As I approached the ridgeline, two large whitetail deer crashed out of the woods less than one hundred feet in front of me. On the way back down, I was viciously assaulted by a crazed mother grouse.
I was strolling along, minding my own business, when a loud hiss abruptly broke the forest calm. Startled, I looked up to see an angry mass of puffed-up feathers charging down the trail towards me. After a moment of confusion, I identified my assailant, laughed, and kept walking. She then changed her tactics, employing an old ruse. She ran off into the woods, whimpering and holding a wing as if broken, trying to lure the suspected predator into chasing an apparent easy meal while drawing him away from her children. When I continued to ignore her, she hissed once more with terrible fury and charged me from behind.
I was relieved to leave that nest behind before that poor girl suffered a stroke. Apparently, she had built her nest directly adjacent to the trail, and the strain of constant intrusions was making her crazy. I don’t mind saying that her initial surprise attack was a bit of a strain for me, also. I hope she makes it through the summer without losing her mind. She was one feisty little lady.
Back in the gorge, the Appalachian Trail joined an old railroad grade known as the Virginia Creeper and followed the creek through masses of flowering rhododendron. I had heard rumors in Damascus that the AT is going to be relocated off Straights Mountain in order to follow the Creeper for a greater length, and I have to say that this would be a definite scenic improvement. The mountain was okay, but the gorge was a little jewel.
A thru-hike is, for the most part, a peaceful experience, but the calm can at any time dissolve into moments of dire peril. Shortly after crossing Virginia Highway 859 and beginning an ascent of a ridge named Lost Mountain, I stopped to rest in the gentle murmur of a lonesome forest grove beside a small brook. I was removing my pack, blissfully unaware of the imminence of my own mortality, when suddenly a nearby stand of rhododendron began to rattle and shake as if torn by some violent tempest. That got my attention. I spun around to meet my fate head-on, brandishing my backpack as a weapon. My worst fears were realized when there erupted from the bushes the black, hairy form of the most dreaded and dangerous predator in the southern Appalachians — the little black puppy.
Okay, go ahead and laugh at me, but this is bear country, and in that one instant as that unidentified black shape burst forth from those bushes in that secluded thicket, my body’s adrenaline production skyrocketed. My assailant had medium-length jet-black fur with patches of white on his paws, muzzle, and belly; pointed ears, large, ungainly puppy feet and legs, and a face with which a lonely backpacker could easily fall in love. When I sat down, he walked over and pressed himself firmly against my leg, demanding to be petted. Against my better judgment, I did. He rolled over on his back to have his chest scratched.
Inevitably, he followed when I left. I did not look back once, and walked for a long time without stopping, hoping he would give up and go home. Nevertheless, he was all over me a few miles later when I finally had to sit down. When I set out again, he continued to pursue me doggedly (of course), even though his tender young paws appeared to be getting sore.
We walked a few more miles without passing any water, so I stopped at the stream we crossed just before US Route 58 in order to ensure that he would stop and get a good drink. The trail descended five wooden steps to a footbridge, crossed the stream, and ascended five more steps to the top of the opposite bank. I sat down on one of the bottom steps, and he soon grasped the concept. He walked underneath and took a long drink. When he had finished, I gave the poor little guy one of my precious granola bars and nearly a couple of my fingertips. He was ravenous. He even ate a deerfly right out of the air.
His uncoordinated puppy antics kept me laughing. Small fish were swimming past under the water, and he began jumping from the steps down to the stream and back up again, obviously fascinated by the fish. No doubt, he was also wondering how they would taste. For some reason, on his last trip from the stream to the steps, he tried ineffectually to drag himself back up rather than to jump. He slid off helplessly into the water while I roared with laughter. He dragged himself out, shook off several gallons of water, slunk over to where I was sitting, and jammed his body beneath my legs for protection from the cold, wet world. He remained in that position for several minutes while recovering from his trauma.
Even as I laughed, I was becoming more and more concerned with what I was to do with the little fellow. I had absolutely nothing in my pack with which to feed a dog, and the next trail town was days away. No way could I care for him and keep my dream of Katahdin alive, yet I was responsible for him now. He had made me his mother.
We had been together for a few hours when the Appalachian Trail passed through a farmyard and climbed a stile over a wire fence. As I was perched up top, a door opened, and two large dogs came bounding out of the farmhouse in a frenzy of barking. They were all over my new friend in a second, but I could tell by their wagging tails it was merely play. When a lady’s voice called out from the doorway, the dogs moved back a little and gave me enough room to come down without stepping on them. I walked around to the front of the house.
I asked the nice lady at the door if she knew anyone in the area who had lost a puppy. She told me people were always abandoning puppies in these woods, and that her own two dogs were trail strays. She also told me that all captured strays in that area were arbitrarily shot, just as in North Carolina. As we talked, I began to realize I had stumbled across an extremely rare commodity in these parts — a dog nut like myself.
I told her the stories of our first meeting and of those fishes and that footbridge. We had a nice talk, becoming almost friends in a very brief time, thanks to our shared interest in animals. I told her that I was already starting to love him, but could not keep him, and asked if she could possibly find him a good home.
Although worried about springing another trail stray on her exasperated, but understanding, husband, she agreed. She even turned down the twenty dollars I offered from my dwindling finances to help her feed and care for him while looking for a home. She went into the house and came back with a leash and a collar, which she placed on his neck while he playfully tried to nip her fingers. I had set my backpack down flat on the ground a short distance away. When I walked over to pick it up, he climbed on top and started roiling around on his back, chewing on the leash. The lady laughed and told me that it looked like he wasn’t going to let me leave him. I smiled.
I eased him off my pack and lifted it onto my shoulders. The Appalachian Trail crossed Virginia Highway 601, a narrow, rural road, and went through an open field for a short distance before disappearing into the trees. I said good-bye to my two new friends and turned away, crossing the road and the field without looking back. I hiked for a long time before stopping to rest.
The trail soon began a long climb up Whitetop, the second-tallest mountain in Virginia. Extensive meadows covered the crest near the summit. I trod wide-open rocky grasslands beneath a hazy, whitewashed sky and felt my flagging spirits revive a little. It was a great place for me to be at that moment.
The gap between Whitetop Mountain and Mount Rogers was home to another large meadow, filled with more bluets than I had seen in one place since southern North Carolina. Scattered scrubby shrub vegetation, occasional stands of trees and plenty of gray rocks broke up the rolling green blanket of grasses.
I had the first rattlesnake encounter of my hike while walking down into that gap from Whitetop. Ordinarily, that would be an exciting event for an Appalachian Trail hiker, but on this eventful day it barely left an imprint on my memory. I almost forgot to write it down. I was about six feet away before I noticed him. When he saw me, he took off like a bat out of hell. I made a bigger impression on him than he made on me.
I am staying tonight in Deep Gap Shelter on a forested slope of Virginia’s highest peak: Mount Rogers. I have the place all to myself, which gives me plenty of time to miss friends both old and new. I have grown accustomed to being alone since Dave and I parted back in Hot Springs. In fact, I have enjoyed many aspects of that solitude. However, the taste of companionship and affection I enjoyed for a few hours today has left me feeling somewhat empty inside now that it has been removed. I am 935 AT miles from Connecticut, as I lay here tonight in southwestern Virginia.
FRIDAY, 6/10/83, MILE 485.8 — When I awoke this morning, most of the loneliness had passed. I still missed that puppy, but that feeling was tempered with relief. What were the odds that the first person I would meet after finding an abandoned puppy would be a fellow dog lover who would agree to find him a good home? Another happy ending on the AT. I hope I can manage to make it through the summer to my own happy ending, but the moment is so far away right now it is best not to dwell upon it.
I spent the day today wandering a high green country of forest and rocky pastures encompassing Mount Rogers and its surroundings. I hiked a mere thirteen book miles of the Appalachian Trail, but that does not tell the whole story. I was all over the place on side trails exploring the magnificent Virginia Highlands. These are among the last truly spectacular mountains over which the AT passes before reaching New England. The predominant features of these landscapes were emerald green spring grasses and medium to light gray boulders and rock outcrops, but these elements created a constantly changing and surprisingly varied countryside of rolling hills and rocky ridges. Mixed in were brushy areas of shrubs and stunted trees, scrubby overgrown fields and groves of fir, spruce, pines and northern hardwoods. I would not be seeing many of these trees again until Vermont.
After a characteristically “early” start, 9:30, I ascended Mount Rogers. My first side trip of the day began less than a mile from the shelter. The Appalachian Trail began following a long, rustic post and wire fence line, on the other side of which a sprawling, grassy field slanted far down the mountainside. Despite the presence of the fence, the field was also on National Forest land. The United States Forest Service allows farmers to graze cattle in these fields in the summertime in order to prevent them from becoming overgrown as so many open areas in the Smokies have become since that area was made a National Park. The fences prevent these cattle from wandering off. I spent the best part of an hour wandering that field taking photographs and enjoying the views. Green farming valleys carved an intricate web through mountains and foothills stretching out into the distance with Whitetop, Mount Rogers, Wilburne Ridge, and all the surrounding peaks rising in the foreground.
A little while later, I took a one-mile round trip from the AT simply to stand upon the summit of the highest mountain in Virginia and experience its dusky and beautiful spruce and fir forest. The peak had no views, but I spent ten minutes savoring the sights and sweet aroma of a very New England-like woodland and feeling just a little bit homesick.
My next side trip was a climb to the top of a rocky outcrop in Rhododendron Gap, a mile-and-a-quarter later. I finished off the roll of film in my camera and put a new one in before moving on. I decided to tackle the Wilburne Ridge Trail from that point rather than staying on the Appalachian Trail. This path was longer and considerably more difficult than the AT, but much more scenic. It followed the ridge crest over several rocky, grassy summits which the AT merely skirted. I was about a mile down that trail when I realized that my exposed roll of film was still sitting on that outcrop in Rhododendron Gap. The trip back and forth to retrieve it added two more unofficial miles to my day.
Later, as I descended along the ridge, I encountered a herd of about fifteen wild horses grazing a grassy saddle between two rocky knobs. I took a couple of long-range shots with my camera as I advanced carefully towards them. Just as I was coming into position for some good close-ups, a group of riders on horseback lumbered by and chased them off. They were a good distance from the nearest legal horseback trail, a fact which did not exactly endear them to me.
The Wilburne Ridge Trail merged back into the AT, which soon crossed a lofty grassland plateau in Grayson Highlands State Park. There again, I came upon the wild horses. One more time, I moved in for close-ups, but that same group of riders again showed up at the critical moment and chased them off. This time, they were on the designated horse trail, but another type of person might have waited a moment when they saw me trying to frame photographs. With the sincere desire never to have to see those people again, I sat down for five minutes in order to let them get far ahead. Checking my watch and guidebook, I discovered that my miles of side trips had caused me to travel less than five book miles of the Appalachian Trail in five hours. That was okay, because no more excursions were planned for today.
Stopping was a good move, because my horses returned to me almost as soon as the riders disappeared over the horizon. I approached to within fifty feet and obtained my close-ups while they stared at me calmly and munched grass. They seemed to harbor no apprehensions about a man on foot. Nevertheless, I quickly moved on. I felt they had been disturbed enough for one day, particularly since several young foals were with the herd.
The Appalachian Trail wandered an incredibly circuitous course from Rhododendron Gap, where I left my film, to Pine Mountain. The old AT, now a blue-blazed side trail, once connected the two points with two easy miles of level ridge walk. Then the state decided to build a skyline drive over that route. The current trail meandered a leisurely eight miles, drifting across a green and constantly changing landscape. [Note: I have since heard that the proposed road project has never been completed, but the AT still follows the new route.]
From that highland plateau where I finally walked among the horses, the Appalachian Trail headed eastward, clawing up a cliff face to a rocky outcrop. It then descended westward along those same cliffs towards the base of Wilburne Ridge in a lonely valley encircled by mountains and filled with sunny meadows and cool, dark woodlands. Beyond the valley was a long climb up Stone Mountain, at the top of which the trail emerged onto another high, grassy plateau. There, in the fading afternoon light, I came upon an enchanting scene, among the most memorable of this entire hike: another small herd of wild horses, grazing peacefully in a setting of apparent remote timelessness.
No fences or other works of man were visible. The mountain panorama encircling that plateau and the uncertain light both contributed a dreamlike quality to the scene. Little imagination was required to project that tableau back into a shadowy time and place where a man walking along such lonely ridges could come upon a herd of actual wild horses, reveling in the freedom which they have come to symbolize to us today.
The horses stood all around the trail, grazing on either side as I strode towards them. A foal scampered across the path, almost brushing my arm as I took several pictures at very close range. Although these gentle animals were obviously very accustomed to people, I detected a certain nervousness on their parts, again undoubtedly due to the presence of several young foals with the herd. I did not wish to bother such graceful and lovely (not to mention, big) animals with my passing, so I sang to them as I walked among them. “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones seemed an appropriate selection. The horses obviously agreed, because they all moved closer, saying, “This dude can sing!” (They did move closer. They looked friendly enough. This is my story, and I can tell it any way I want).
I soon left this setting behind as I topped another ridge. In the gap beyond, the Appalachian Trail passed through a large, empty corral rudely constructed of unfinished, weather-beaten planks. No other structures were in sight, and I could see for a considerable distance in all directions. Since leaving the valley below, I seemed to have drifted into a murky landscape of dreams and longings.
On the far side of the corral, the AT reentered the woods and climbed Pine Mountain, rejoining the main ridge crest for some final great views from its flat, rocky, grassy summit before the endless descent. I was leaving the Blue Ridge’s western fork behind me for the last time. The next time I see the Blue Ridge, up in central Virginia, the two forks will have joined into a single range. After another couple of miles, at 6:20, I arrived at Old Orchard Shelter, located on the flank of Pine Mountain. I had buckled down, somewhat, since my stop on Wilburne Ridge, covering the last eight-and-a-half miles in less than four hours.
Old Orchard is a well-built shelter with a picnic table out in front for your dining pleasure. It even has an outhouse — so rare in these southern mountains. Unfortunately, somebody is very late digging a new latrine. If necessary, I will use the woods. True to its name, the shelter sits in a long-abandoned, overgrown apple orchard. Gnarled old titans are scattered amongst the dense growth of younger trees reclaiming the place for the forest. It seems an excellent spot to reflect upon the trail ahead.
The character of this hike will be changing now. The ridges between here and New England will, for the most part, lack the height and spectacle of the misty giants I have been traversing. That should mean less climbing, somewhat gentler terrain, and a chance to make up the time I lost while whipping myself into shape early on. Road crossings and supply points will also be more frequent.
On the other hand, I will be losing the frequent rewards of panoramic vistas and will have to find something inside myself to replace the bursts of adrenaline they provided, which so often kept me going when I was wearing down. My hike will become a more introverted experience. It is June 10, and summer is advancing inexorably upon these mountains. There should be many more travails and obstacles to challenge my dream over the long, hot summer to come.
As I said, I hiked thirteen book miles of the AT today. I had intended for this to be an easy day as I savored these last giants and prepared myself for the upcoming big mileage push. However, having hiked so many extra miles off the Appalachian Trail while roaming the highlands, I am exhausted. I am going to make tomorrow my rest day. I will hike fourteen miles of allegedly very easy trail and just take it easy. Then, it will be time for the LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINE to crank it up. 1653.3 miles to go.
SATURDAY, 6/11/83, MILE 500.0 — Today, I had my first taste of the long, placid center of the Appalachian Trail. There were no monster climbs or killer rock scrambles. I hiked the fourteen miles from Old Orchard to Trimpi Shelter, following the flat crests of long ridges through a pleasant variety of forests teeming with rhododendron and azalea blossoms in full bloom and mountain laurel just beginning to bud. The day was basically a peaceful stroll through the woods — an interesting contrast to the more rugged and visually spectacular country to the south; a quiet interlude and a chance to recharge my batteries.
The trail I trod was so easy and well-tended that it was a pleasure to walk despite a marked lack of viewpoints. My one side trip was up a steep, uncleared quarter-mile spur trail to a summit called High Point from which the guidebook said there would be limited views. Through a peephole in the forest canopy, I enjoyed the day’s one vista — a final good-bye look at the beautiful Virginia Highlands.
Trimpi Shelter is perhaps the most esthetically pleasing of any I have yet seen. It has nicely mortared stone walls, a built-in brick fireplace, and a high wooden ceiling. The only minus is a floor of bare earth covered with gravel. A bird is building a nest in the rafters above the door. I hope she doesn’t shit on me.
Although I did not leave Old Orchard Shelter this morning until 8:30, I arrived here before 3:00. It is nice that this distance can now be thought of as a Sunday stroll, considering that a fourteen-mile-per day pace over the course of my AT hike is all I require to reach Katahdin in early October, before the snows. I am averaging 14.85 miles per day thus far in June, bringing my overall daily average up from 11.7 miles at the end of May to 12.6 in less than two weeks. That is still below my required pace, but I am catching up fast. From what I have been told about the rest of Virginia, I should be on track in no time. I have now walked five hundred miles from Springer Mountain. For the first time, I feel that I am, in fact, a thru-hiker.
This evening, I am going to eat dinner early and go to bed with the sun. I want a legitimately early start tomorrow. A motel twenty-one miles from here, directly upon an Appalachian Trail roadwalk, has a restaurant with a salad bar and is located right along the road on which I must hitch a ride to Atkins, Virginia in order to pick up the rest of the supplies I will need to reach Pearisburg. I have been craving a soft bed and a shower all my own, and it would be convenient to leave my backpack in a motel room when I make that trip.
After so many recent long days, it feels great to have arrived at a shelter so early. I am going to write some long-postponed letters. I may even have time to compose another dubious entry for the shelter register.
The Return of the Backpacker with No Name
(Ms. found in small southern town)
They lived hard, loved hard, and seldom got enough roughage. They were the backpackers. They would limp into town, worn by the rigors and the loneliness of long-distance hiking. They would clean up, party up, and bravely set forth to face new challenges. They were young. They were daring. They were as horny as hell. They were the backpackers.
One day, a backpacker, different from the rest, strode into town. He hitched up his hiking shorts, set down his backpack, and stretched his tired muscles. He struck a match and proceeded to light the short, bedraggled stump of a cigar. Pulling his worn serape around his shoulders, he walked into a motel.
“Give me a room with a bath,” he told the dirty, weasel-faced motel owner.
The man glared defiantly back at him. “I suppose that you’re here to use up all our hot water and defile all our women,” he snapped.
“No,” the backpacker calmly replied. “I’m here to defile all your women and then use up all your hot water. First things first.”
I noticed that the owner’s lips didn’t exactly move in sync with his voice as he barked, “You’re a filthy, disgusting pig! I don’t rent rooms to backpackers! Get out!”
The backpacker’s glare was cold steel. “Give me a room,” he repeated.
“No! Get out!”
The backpacker moved like lightning. In a split second, the motel owner was dangling by his drawers in the most vicious wedgie I have ever seen. He picked up the register and held it out.
“Sign here, please,” he squeaked.
Needless to say, our women were never the same, and hot water and Pop- Tarts were in short supply for some time. As the backpacker strode out of town, he warned all of the motel owners that he would be back, so they had better be nice to other hikers. I ran up to him.
“Who are you, stranger?” I asked.
He smiled, flipped me a package of instant oatmeal, and headed up the next ridge.
SUNDAY, 6/12/83, MILE 510.4 — 12:35 P.M. — I somehow got off to an early start this morning! Before 6:30, as the first faint blue twilight tinged the blackness, I was gone. The woods were at their prettiest in those fleeting moments before sunrise; I promised myself that I would try to get early starts more often.
Shortly after dawn, while a scattering of brighter stars still contested the waxing daylight, I passed through a grove of old trees whose trunks stood like tall pillars of obsidian, straight and black, silhouetted against a silver early morning mist. At that moment, the rising sun peeked over the horizon, painting the scene with a rich, golden backlighting which brought out my inner teenage J.R.R. Tolkien nerd. In the blending of the gold and silver light. I saw the mingling of the light of the Two Trees of Valinor in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It touched me to discover that this light has not forsaken the world completely with their demise.
The trail departed the grove and emerged into a high pasture touched by that same mythical luminosity. A small herd of cattle was grazing far to my right, floating dimly in silver-gold mists which clung to the slopes and contours of the field, concealing the ground below and washing out the horizon. It was an unearthly sight. It looked like cow heaven.
The morning became ordinary as the sun rose higher and the magic faded. The woods and the footpath were pleasant, except for one lousy, buggy section of second-growth forest through which I passed on a steep and rocky climb up Brushy Mountain. That stretch only lasted for about a mile before the AT entered a more mature, less claustrophobic woodland and began to follow the level crest of the mountain.
I have been at the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Visitor Center since about noon. Located directly upon the Appalachian Trail, it features a bulletin board crammed with information specifically concerning the AT, including the locations of three new lean-to’s filling in a huge gap which had existed in the shelter system due to a relocation several years ago removing the AT from the long ridge crest of Big Walker Mountain. It also gives the location of a church offering shelter to hikers.
An outside tap at the Visitor Center provides water for hikers, and a picnic table stands a few yards away in a small clearing. I am writing this entry at that table, having just completed a sumptuous Tang and peanut butter cracker lunch. In five minutes, it will be 1:00 and I will be out of here. I covered just over ten miles this morning, and eleven miles remain to the motel.
9:00 P.M., MILE 521.3 — After the Visitor Center, the Appalachian Trail was very rough and poorly-blazed compared to the usual standard of trail in Virginia. The crest of Brushy Mountain blazed with the most awesome displays of azalea and rhododendron I had yet seen. Long rows of rhododendron trees, all about fifteen feet high and bursting with pink-violet blossoms, lined either side of the AT. Combined with the deep, startling oranges of the azalea, this made for some rather colorful hiking.
I traversed two other mountains this afternoon, featuring mature forests carpeted with moss and ferns and sporting occasional explosions of rhododendron blossoms. The one viewpoint of the entire day was a spot named the Glade Mountain Overlook, where a log bench in a small, sunny clearing provided a vista of small farms and wooded hills framed at the bottom by blossoming rhododendron. Fat bumblebees droned in the torpid summery air. Although not spectacular, it made for a pleasant interlude.
The humidity had been steadily increasing over the past several days, and the temperature rose to around ninety degrees this afternoon. I was fairly spent when I reached the Glade Mountain Shelter at 4:30 after seventeen steamy miles. Nevertheless, I was determined to tackle the four remaining miles to the motel. The thought of a long shower and restaurant food was just what I needed to keep plugging away.
I left the shelter at 5:30. An abundance of sharp rocks along the trail this afternoon had left my feet in sad shape. The final two miles to the motel trod paved rural roads. That allowed me to fly along but the hard surface completed the destruction of my poor feet.
Despite aches and fatigue, I enjoyed that roadwalk. I met a few nice local people, and the even surface allowed me to put my legs on automatic pilot, lose myself in thought, and savor the sights of quiet farms and forests. I reached US 11 and the motel at 7:00.
The next few hours were fantastic. It seemed almost decadent having that bathroom all to myself, but I got over it. I cannot describe how wonderful a shower felt after twenty-one miles of sweat bath. When I was done, I shaved for the first time since Fontana Dam, put on my second set of clothes (which I always attempt to hold back clean and unworn in my pack for just such an occasion), and headed over to the restaurant.
I wolfed down a T-bone, hot rolls with butter, a generous helping from the salad bar, some strawberry pie, and several cold cokes. I notice that many of these restaurants down south give you free refills on soda as well as coffee. I like that.
The grocery in Atkins is three or four miles down the road from here. I hope to purchase my food and be back on the Appalachian Trail by noon in order to hike at least ten miles tomorrow. Then, it will be on to Pearisburg.
By the way, I am staying tonight at the Village Motel, located near the junction of US 11 and I-81 in the village of Groseclose, in the town of Rural Retreat, Virginia. There was no reason for me to mention that, except that I like the sound of those names. Maybe I’ll stroll on over to Hooterville later.
MONDAY, 6/13/83, MILE 533.6 — Wanting to be at that grocery store in Atkins just as it opened at 7:00, I went to bed last night at 9:00, immediately after dinner. Things did not quite work out the way I had planned.
The bed was so comfortable I did not wake up until 7:00. I guess I must have needed the sleep. Not getting enough may be the main reason I have been feeling so run-down lately and may help to explain much of my recent depression. I know that I spend long hours on the trail for a hiker thus far only averaging less than thirteen miles per day, mostly due to painstaking photography and frequent side trips. Since I also spend hours at night on lengthy, detailed journal entries, all of this cuts cruelly into my sleeping and relaxation time. Nevertheless, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even should I ever again decide to hike the Appalachian Trail, that trip will not have the same significance as this quest. I want to see and experience all that I have the desire for, and to remember as much of it as possible in the years to come. I am not willing to sacrifice these objectives merely to make my task easier. As long as I am trying to reverse a lifetime of taking the easy way out in one summer, I may as well take it to the hilt. No mercy.
I left my room at 7:30. My hitch into Atkins was a miserable experience. The store was about three-and-a-half miles from my motel. Many cars passed but none even slowed down as I walked the first three miles. When I finally got a ride, the fellow who picked me up seemed to know even less about the town than I; he eventually dropped me off a mile past the store. Thus, I was actually in worse shape after the ride. It was 8:45 when I finally reached the store. The morning was slipping away without anything being accomplished.
Although small, the store stocked all the everyday items I use as substitutes for expensive prepackaged backpacking foods. My one disappointment, but truly a cruel one, was that they did not carry frosted Pop-Tarts, so I had to get the plain ones. I handled that disappointment like a man, though. I only sulked for about an hour.
I bought my supplies and stood outside the store, determined to ride all the way back to the motel. Five minutes later, two guys in a pickup pulled over for me. They probably did not get invited to many Chambers of Commerce picnics and such. A rifle lay between them in the front seat, and they were each guzzling from quart bottles of beer at 9:15 in the morning, but they went out of their way to drop me off right in front of my room when all those solid citizens had just blown right by me this morning.
I was back in my room at 9:30. I spent about a half-hour loading my pack, and then walked over to partake in another large restaurant meal. I kicked back in my room until check-out time and left the motel at 11:00 a.m.
A gas station with a small convenience store was a short distance down the AT roadwalk from the motel. I had not even known it was there when I hitched all the way to Atkins for groceries. The limited stock did not include everything I needed, so the trip to town was not a total waste. I was able, however, to pick up salt and peanuts: two items I had forgotten in Atkins. They also carried frosted Pop-Tarts, but it was too late — I already had the other ones. No frosted Pop-Tarts, now, until Pearisburg. I wish I were dead.
On but a slightly less tragic note, the thermometer once again flirted with the ninety-degree mark today, and there I was hitting the trail at 11:30 — just as the hottest hours of the day were beginning. It is hard enough to get going again with a full load of supplies after a night of living in the lap of luxury. I did not need the extra handicap. At the outset, I limped pathetically along, unable to maintain even a sluggish pace for long without stopping. It took me four miles and two very long rest stops before the mileage machine finally started to kick in.
The Appalachian Trail was a varied and interesting experience this afternoon. The first mile followed paved state roads through the remainder of the broad farming valley bisected by the Interstate. It was a nice roadwalk. I passed scores of cows, several horses, a few pigs, and acres of pasture. The second mile was on private dirt roads through a very large farm. I passed numerous outbuildings, goats, more cows, fields of hay, and an extremely pretty lady in shorts and a halter top hanging clothes. You probably can deduce which of these was my scenic highlight for this section.
The farm roads were picturesque, but the blazing marking the route was terrible. There were many side roads not mentioned in the guidebook, and the turns were poorly marked. The final turn was not marked at all, and I walked about a half-mile out of my way before I turned back and found the correct road.
The owners of that farm must be great folks. Not only do they allow the Appalachian Trail to pass right through their property, but they fixed up a tin shed with a mattress, a stove and a picnic table for hikers to use as a shelter. One hiker left a notebook there for a shelter register, and I read entry after entry written by hikers who stayed there and were paid a visit by the owners late at night, given much beer and a memorable good time. Had I not covered only about two miles to that point, I would have been tempted to spend the night. Things have been just a little quiet since Dave and I parted.
Shortly after passing the shelter, the AT left that dirt road and entered the woods. It climbed over a ridge called Brushy Mountain (the second of that name I had encountered in the past two days), descended very steeply, and ascended very steeply to the crest of Gullion Mountain. The crests of both mountains were massive rhododendron gardens.
From Gullion, the Appalachian Trail descended (steeply again) along a spur ridge into Crawfish Valley: a wilderness of impenetrable rhododendron thickets surrounding a large stream. Then, it climbed Big Walker Mountain on a well-graded trail. Up until three years ago, the AT had turned right and followed the crest of Big Walker for many miles, but barely a trace of the old crestline trail was visible. Today, the AT reaches the top and descends immediately along the opposite slope into the next valley. The Forest Service apparently had bought a narrow corridor for the AT coming off the mountain. For a half-mile, the trail passed between two fence lines running only about fifty feet apart. Farm fields lay beyond the fences on either side.
Next came some more road walking, which is not unpleasant in southern Virginia. You see many attractive little farms, and the locals are very friendly. Motorists all wave to you, and people you meet pass the time of day. Being from the northeast, my right middle finger still starts an automatic salute when a passing motorist honks, but then I remember where I am and turn the gesture into a friendly wave. I had a nice talk with an elderly farmer who was sitting on his porch. He told me that the weather is going to remain hot and sunny all week. I said hello to one lady who spent the next fifteen minutes telling me about her brother, whom she had just buried. I could think of nothing to say that would comfort her, but I sensed that she just needed me to listen. This sort of thing is beginning to happen to me more and more lately. People look into my eyes and see something there that makes them want to pour out amazingly personal stuff to a total stranger. Damn, I must be turning into a nice guy. How did that happen?
The downside of roadwalks is that pavement can be hard on your feet at the end of a long day and these shadeless farm roads can become quite hot. I felt pretty used-up by the time I followed state road 42 past the O’Lystery Community Picnic Shelter: a large pavilion with a roof, open sides, and several picnic tables inside. The local people graciously welcome hikers to stay here, which I decided to do after hiking 12.3 miles this afternoon. A shelter lies just two miles up the AT, but I can reach the one at which I plan to stay tomorrow night just as easily from here. Hell, maybe I’m just wimping out again, but at least it is only a small wimp-out.
The notice on the bulletin board at the Mount Rogers Visitor Center advised hikers not to use the water from the adjacent stream here, which is just basic common sense in farming country. It said that Mr. Bruce, the landowner next to the shelter, provides water to hikers. Putting on my clean pants and shirt, I walked over with my water bottles.
In front of the house, I met a lean man with a pleasant face who looked to be in his fifties. I asked him if this was the place where hikers could get water. He replied that it sure was, brought me around the side of the house to a faucet, and told me to fill up. He said he has been meaning to put up a sign in front of his house for hikers.
I felt a little self-conscious about imposing upon him, but he was a kindly, easy-going man who soon put me at ease. I talked with him for a long while. Among other things, he informed me that he was the landowner who had sold the corridor down Big Walker Mountain to the United States Forest Service. He said he had told them of a dependable spring near the ridge crest, but they had managed not to run the trail anywhere near it. Some hiker friends of his are going to blaze a side trail to the spring when he shows them its location.
His wife came out of the house, and he talked with her quietly for a moment. She went back inside and came out with a huge slab of fruit cake, which they gave to me. It was delicious and allowed me to conserve my munchy food for later on. The people I have met in southern Virginia have touched my heart. I have never encountered so many good people in such a short time. They make a lonely wanderer’s burden a whole lot lighter. I think that a large part of my strange metamorphosis into somewhat of a nice guy is due to a need I feel to make myself worthy of the kindness they have shown to me. I thank them for that, too.
TUESDAY, 6/14/83, MILE 555.7 —
I woke up several times last night to the strains of rock-a-billy music on the car stereo of some local kids who apparently use the parking area for the picnic shelter as a party spot. The first time I was awoken was around 11:00. The music kept me awake for about a half-hour, until a good song which I wanted to hear came on. Then they drove off down the road, tires squealing. This happened repeatedly all night, until I finally just slept through their visits.
I read in the shelter register last night countless entries by hikers thanking the Bruces for all kinds of goodies. I left my own thank-you just before I hit the trail at 6:30, bleary-eyed and fatigued. The path was rough and ungraded for most of the distance to Jenkins Shelter, but I was not about to allow myself to wimp out two days in a row and get back into those old habits, so I walked on all through the day in order to hike those twenty-two miles.
Knot Mole Branch Shelter was two miles up the trail from the picnic shelter. Four guys were having breakfast when I stopped there to browse the register. One was a thru-hiker from Montreal named Peter. Two of the others were also thru-hikers, a couple of preppies from Massachusetts named Tim and Maynard. The other guy was the brother of one of the preppies. He was just visiting. I talked to them for a couple of minutes before heading back out.
After seven miles of trudging up and down short, steep climbs, occasionally crossing hollows with sluggish brown creeks, I had a long, steep climb up to and along Chestnut Ridge to Chestnut Knob. Both were nice. A long swathe of grassy, flowering meadow ran along the ridge crest up to and past the knob. It made a nice change of pace from all of the wooded summits over which I have been hiking lately. A small, spring-fed pond in the heart of the meadow was veiled by swirls of intense haze. The whole world was green and white. Chestnut Knob had an excellent view through the steam into a large, scenic, bowl-shaped valley known as Burkes Garden. It also had an old, stone shepherd’s hut which had been provided with a new roof and a picnic table and renovated as a shelter for Appalachian Trail hikers. I had lunch there.
The next few miles of trail were terrible. The AT followed the crest of Garden Mountain, constantly climbing and descending along heavily-wooded rock “cliffs.” The guidebook mentioned that there were few views in the summer from those “cliffs.” There were actually none.
At 7:00 p.m., I was still more than three miles from Jenkins Shelter, having covered less than nineteen miles in twelve-and-a-half hours of hiking. I started hearing thunder in the distance, so I jogged much of the rest of the way. I arrived at the shelter at 7:40, managing to beat the bulk of the rain.
My boots are about shot. Today, I finally managed to pull out of the inside of the left one a narrow metal plate which had been working its way up out of the sole and jabbing into the ball of my foot with every step I took for the past two weeks. My foot felt like heaven when I put my shoe back on. Both shoes are separated from their soles along the edges in several places. Stick a fork in them, they’re done.
I am now only fifty-three miles from Pearisburg. I would like to arrive Friday afternoon before the Post Office closes at 5:00. I almost have to. I do not know if they are open on Saturdays, and I know they are closed on Sundays. If I do not hike well these next three days, it could cost me a long layover waiting for the post office to open just when I am beginning to get on track.
I passed the one-quarter point of the Appalachian Trail today.
WEDNESDAY, 6/15/83, MILE 569.4 — I left a somewhat snotty entry in the register at Jenkins Shelter this morning, pointing out that the mention of those “cliffs” in my guidebook must have been a mistake, as that particular bit of trail description had obviously been intended for the Braille version. I also whined about the condition of yesterday’s trail. That is the way thru- hikers are. Engaged in an extremely difficult undertaking, we pout and sulk every time the trail is not to our liking. I am as bad as any, but I like to think I at least pout a little bit more wittily than most.
The four backpackers I met yesterday morning at Knot Mole Branch Shelter showed up at Jenkins Shelter last night (I noticed that one of the preppies hikes in a polo shirt with an alligator on the chest. One does not often have the opportunity to meet a walking cliche). I was too exhausted from the long hike I had made and the sleepless night preceding it to talk to them much, but I did have the privilege of lying there in my sleeping bag listening to the preppies drone on about such fascinating subjects as wine and how eggs are “really bogus” without cheese. At least their conversation helped me to get the sleep I needed. I slept until 7:30 this morning and did not get out on the trail until 9:00.
It was very hot again today, and the air was even more sodden than yesterday's as the sun drew the moisture from the ground left behind by last night’s thundershowers. Fortunately, the trail has improved quite a bit since Garden Mountain. Most of the hike followed the long, low, level crest of Brushy Mountain through woods on a well-graded trail. It was uneventful.
Towards the end of this short day, the Appalachian Trail descended into a low gap on Brushy Mountain, where I-77 and US Routes 21 and 52 all cut across the ridge. From there, you can follow US 21 and 52 steeply down the south slope of the ridge for about a mile to the town of Bland, Virginia and find groceries, meals, and lodging. The other four hikers all went down into Bland, and I was very tempted to join them. They were not bad guys, and it is difficult to pass up such amenities when one is a week past his last trail town. I did not go, however. I felt the need to watch myself today. Weary and depressed, I am on the verge of chucking this whole adventure. I knew that if I went down into Bland I would get a room there tonight, and I was not sure I could make myself return to the AT tomorrow.
A new shelter called Helveys Mill is about a mile past the gap, and that is where I am staying tonight after a big 13.7-mile day. Mother Nature rewarded my valiant decision to pass up Bland by conjuring up a heavy thundershower out of nowhere and drenching me to the bone on that last mile. I got into my rain gear very quickly. I have had lots of practice. I trotted out a few well- worn curses and my equanimity was somewhat restored. I quickly covered that soggy mile to the shelter and arrived just as the rain was stopping — naturally. There have been a couple of sprinkles since I arrived, but that has been it. It does seem to have turned a bit cooler in the wake of that thundershower. I can live with that.
The walk from the shelter to its water supply was brutal. The trail was 350 yards, all straight down a precipitous hill. I filled both of my water bottles and my largest pan so that I need not make that trek again tomorrow morning. The spring was excellent, but I staggered like a drunk on the tortuous climb back up. I ate a huge dinner. I have not been that hungry outside of a restaurant since Damascus. I can feel the proximity of another trail town. I am beginning to once more hear the siren song of cheeseburgers.
It is 7:30, and I am going to turn in soon. I have a big day planned for tomorrow. I will have to hike eleven miles to reach the next water and another twelve miles past that to the next shelter. The preppies told me that after dinner and some grocery shopping in Bland they would be joining me at this shelter, but it appears they decided to stay in town. They turned out to be decent guys, but I am not in the mood tonight to hear about French cuisine or Muffy’s trip to Europe, anyway.
Someone created a fantastic ink sketch on the back of the shelter register notebook: a beautifully intricate evergreen forest with a pretty girl in a bikini standing in the foreground, her arms outstretched in a gesture of welcoming. The trees extend far into the distance to the base of a massive monolith. Hovering above the peak is the single letter “K.” The caption reads, “Maine awaits you.” I feel that the artist truly captured the poetry of the thru-hiker’s quest. It touched me deeply.
Sometimes I feel that my recognition of the poetry in my own endeavor is the only thing that keeps me going. I find something deeply moving in the concept of a weak man who has finally come to know and hate what he is on a desperate quest for redemption and a mythical mountain where he hopes to meet a man with a strong fighting spirit — a man who exists now only in his imagination. He must be insane to dream this absurdity. He knows that. He also knows deep in his heart that his stupid quest must fail, because he has always failed in every undertaking that ever truly mattered. How can he change the person that he is?
Yet he trudges the weary miles, and every once in a while picks up the fragments of his crumbling soul and scotch-tapes them back together. How long will the tape job hold this time? How many times will he have to perform this operation before a new man can stand, strong and confident, in those north Maine woods, savoring the sight of his dream mountain? How many times can a weak man pick his guts up off the ground and continue striving towards a vision that he does not really believe he will ever see be made real?
Now I’m babbling. I’m going to bed. Maine awaits me. 1569.1 more miles to go.
THURSDAY, 6/16/83, MILE 592.5 — It rained lightly, off and on, throughout the night. The typical southern summer weather pattern seems to have settled in: hot, steamy days with a watery apricot sun struggling to pierce the haze, thunderous cloudbursts every afternoon, and light showers at night. Morning sunlight glistens off millions of tiny beads of water as the sodden forest greets the new day. The hot sun draws all that moisture up into the air. Humidity soars until the atmosphere begins to cool slightly in the evenings and is unable to retain all that moisture. The rains come again. This kind of self-sustaining cycle can go on for days... weeks... months...
I left the shelter this morning at 6:00 — a manfully early start for a change. As a matter of fact, it was my earliest start of the trip, which was good, because I was trying for my biggest day yet: twenty-three miles. The air was still cool, and walking was pleasant. The only drawback was the grass was still soaked from last night’s rains, and the Appalachian Trail trod grassy old woods roads all morning. I had to stop several times in the first few hours just to wring brown water out of my socks and insoles. My boots are now waterproof only in my dreams.
After about ten miles, the AT descended off Brushy Mountain and followed a country road for one-and-a-half miles before turning off into the woods for a half-mile of level footpath. Then, it got sick for a short stretch, the only piece of bad trail I ran into all day. Of course, I inevitably hit this portion just as the sun triumphed over the morning mists and the day became tropical.
For a half-mile, the trail shot straight up the precipitous north flank of Brushy Mountain, all the way up to the wooded crest. By the time I made it to the top I had broken all the old sweating records I had established on this hike. I was more soaked from my own perspiration than I have been in all but the heaviest rainstorms. At that moment, I would cheerfully have shot the man who laid out that trail.
The AT, upon reaching the crest, immediately plunged down the steep, southern flank of the mountain to a road. It followed that road for a while before following another road through a gap in the mountain back to the same damned side of the mountain I had been on when all of this started. I plodded along, shaking my head and muttering to myself.
Luckily, a small general store was located like a gift from heaven about a quarter-mile past the point where the Appalachian Trail once again left that road to re-enter the woods on the north side of Brushy Mountain. I bought two cokes and a pint of chocolate ice cream for some emergency attitude adjustment surgery. I also bought some spice cakes and a box of frosted blueberry Pop-Tarts for the trail. Any real man will tell you the world always seems a little less gray with frosted Pop-Tarts in the backpack. Finally, I picked up a new copper pot scrubber to replace one I had forgotten at a shelter.
The pretty lady running the store told me there was a picnic table outside under an enormous shade tree, and I was welcome to use it. I sat down, ate the ice cream and guzzled the coke, and my inner core temperature seemed to drop a degree. I felt reborn. A cute little short-haired tan mongrel made friends with me during this long and necessary rest.
I started to lose that good feeling during the climb up through the woods from the road, but I had shrewdly stashed the other coke in my backpack for just such a moment. I chugged it down and blew away the remainder of that climb.
The final five miles of the day were the nicest and most scenic portion of the Appalachian Trail since the Virginia Highlands. In the slanting sunlight of a soft June evening, the trail wandered through a place called the Dismal Creek Valley. It was nothing like its name. I trod beautiful old, grassy woods roads that were gentle on my feet, bruised and battered from all the miles I had already walked, through an incredible variety of forests in that secluded valley. One moment, I would be in a grove of giant white pines; the next, a dense, tangled jungle of rhododendron; and the next, a quiet hardwood forest carpeted with ferns. I saw six white-tailed deer along the trail and heard many more of them crashing through the surrounding woods. The path returned to the banks of the broad, meandering creek again and again.
I arrived at the Wapiti II Shelter at 6:30, having completed twenty-three miles in twelve-and-a-half hours, including my long, pleasant interlude at the store. It appears Virginia is going to be as good for my daily mileage totals as I had hoped it would. I am having a good time at this shelter tonight. The surroundings are wondrous, and I also have some good company: a man from Pennsylvania named Tom who is slowly making his way up from Springer Mountain to his home state and a fellow from North Carolina who is hiking with two dogs. Tom is a character. I enjoyed his entry in the Helveys Mill register which began, “Another grueling 2 1/ 2-mile day...” One of the dogs is the large, black male mutt who fought Sonny in Hot Springs. The other is a tiny female Pomeranian. She is very friendly for a small dog. She likes to make herself right at home on top of my sleeping bag every time I get up. The male is an expert beggar, an art he practiced continually throughout my meal.
Their owner had some friends drive him up from Erwin, where I briefly met him, to Pearisburg. Now, he is hiking back down to Erwin. Some thru-hikers do that frequently; we call it a flip-flop. He says that he will probably flip- flop up to Katahdin once the black fly season ends in Maine and hike back south. It appears I am not the only backpacker growing weary of southwestern Virginia.
This shelter has an aura of infamy. Last year, two backpackers were robbed and murdered here by local people. I can see why they picked this spot. It is way out in the middle of nowhere. Things must have gotten gory; the shelter now sports a new floor.
I am exactly sixteen miles from the road into Pearisburg. I still have a chance to make the Post Office tomorrow afternoon by 5:00 if I can get any kind of an early start in the morning. Never say die.
FRIDAY, 6/17/83, MILE 608.5 — PEARISBURG, VIRGINIA — I stayed up very late last night, laughing and joking with my shelter companions. I especially liked Tom. He has that warped and twisted sense of humor to which I can relate. Too bad he is just crawling along the trail. Hiking with him could be interesting.
I woke up late and started late this morning, considering what I needed to do in order to make the Post Office. It was 7:15 by the time I left the shelter. I put a warped, twisted entry of my own in the register as I was leaving. I wrote, “On to Pearisburg, where wild women run naked in the streets raping backpackers, and the mayor drives around handing out free drugs.” I do not imagine that I made any friends in the local Chamber of Commerce.
I just could never seem to get it going after that long day yesterday. My legs were wobbly, and my feet ached all day; I kept putting myself in a deeper and deeper hole as the hours ticked past. I was sluggish on the long climb up Sugar Run Mountain from the valley, and I was not all that hot even on the level ridge crest.
I passed the 600-mile point of the Appalachian Trail about a mile before Doc’s Knob Shelter. I took forty-five minutes there, partaking in a lunch of peanut butter crackers and Tang. Tom and some other hikers who I had overtaken were there. They had decided to stay the night, as a big thunderstorm seemed to be brewing and it was foolish to risk life and limb along that high ridge crest merely to make Pearisburg tonight.
I am nothing if not foolish. I set off again at 12:45. I had already used up five-and-a-half hours on the first eight miles and had four hours and fifteen minutes remaining to hike the last eight miles and make my way to the Post Office in town. Hey, what is one more lost cause on an adventure such as this?
I pushed myself hard over those final miles. There were many steep descents, and I flew over them much too fast. Soon, I had developed the worst case of shin splints I have ever experienced. My right shin felt broken. Despite that, I chugged doggedly up the sharp climb to the ridge crest of Pearis Mountain. My shins did not hurt nearly as much on the climbs as on the descents.
No sooner had I begun the three miles of ridge walking on Pearis Mountain, than the sky, which had been darkening all day, turned truly ominous. Thunder boomed in the distance. I quickly threw my rain cover over my backpack just before the sky opened up. I have never seen rain like that in my life. It was like a waterfall. I could hardly breathe and was drenched to the skin in the few seconds it took to put on my rain suit. I released my pent-up frustration with a primal scream and started to make tracks.
Soon, tremendous bursts of thunder were exploding all around me. For a time, I could almost hear the thunder before I saw the lightning. I was on ground zero on the top of a mountain with a metal pack frame projecting up over my head. The only sensible thing for me to do was stop and find shelter.
So, I kept going. Hey, if I was sensible, would I even be on this stupid quest? For the better part of an hour, I struggled through a universe that had suddenly become mostly water. I could hardly breathe. The ground quickly became a quagmire. Within moments, three or four inches of standing water covered the trail and stayed there as the slow minutes dragged past. The ground was a shallow lake in the flat stretches and a raging river everywhere else. My feet were just swimming around in my socks and what was left of my boots. In many places, the clay earth beneath my feet had become a soft, sticky slurry of water and soil particles, creating an amorphous shifting boundary between the land and the water flooding it.
Daytime had become dim twilight. Every time I thought I would never again see it rain so hard as long as I lived, lightning would crackle all around me and rain would pour down even harder. I was shaking with cold even though I was hiking flat out. It was a race between lightning and hypothermia to see which would drop me first. I thought to myself, “If I can just get through this, I’ll be all right. This is the worst moment I will ever experience in my entire life.”
Then the hail came. Marble-sized pellets of ice pelting off me by the hundreds. They stung like cold fire — especially the ones which caught skin on my hands and face. I tried another primal scream to release frustration, but this one did not do me a damned bit of good.
The truly severe rains lasted for little more than an hour. The rest of the trek was merely in a downpour. Flying down two miles of semiliquid Virginia clay in the rain with those crippling shin splints during the final descent was an incredible bitch. The only positive aspect was that I started to become overheated, and the sweat pouring off me indicated I had shaken off a dangerous case of hypothermia. Time and again, I was well on my way to a nasty fall when I miraculously caught myself. On one occasion, my feet shot out sideways and I was plummeting to the ground below, but I managed to grab onto a tree and hold myself up while spinning around it five or six times.
The last twenty feet down to the road were on a vertical mud slope with no trees where I finally took the back flip I had been avoiding all the way down the mountain. I got up soaking wet and covered with mud. Looking like that, I was not optimistic about my chances of procuring a ride with my thumb, so I set out towards town at a fast walk, gritting my teeth against the stabbing pains in my shins.
A couple of blocks before the Post Office, I came to a street corner where a lady driving a car was waiting at a stop sign. I saw her staring at me with an expression of concern, but also the look of someone trying hard not to laugh. So, I laughed, and we both had a good laugh on me. I needed that. I hobbled into the Post Office at 4:55, having met and conquered every challenge of the grim afternoon. Once again, Good triumphs over Evil. Or something like that.
There are now exactly 1530 more miles to go.