Harpers Ferry: Halfway to the Danger Zone

Day 88

Mile 1024.8

It has been a lot of stops and starts from Front Royal. The heat and humidity have done what previous perils could not: made me just want to up and stop. Mentally anyway. Other than sweating forever times, it hasn’t any ill effects. It takes a real toll on the old brain meats though. I didn’t want to quit, but a nice vacation from my vacation is what we needed.

Coming out of Front Royal was a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute that had in parts some serious Jurassic Park and Stranger Things vibes going on.

Went through Sky Meadows which was quite nice.

And then the Rollercoaster started. It’s 14 miles of brutal climbs and knee crunching descents. Not a switch back in sight. The maintainers of this trail think it is funny and put up a sign. I was not as amused. It is during this sadistic hike that I passed the 1000 mile mark.

Got into Harpers Ferry which is the “mental halfway point” with the actual mile halfway point being a little over 100 miles past the town. Is a cute little historic town that sits on the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. It also played a starring role in the Civil War with John Brown.

I stopped by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to get my photo taken. I’m NOBO hiker #1509 to register at the center.

Tiger’s wife Lyda picked us up for a quick break in Berkeley Springs WV. I sat in AC, met some kittens, and ate a bunch of good food. The star of the show was the pupper Zinger though. See below.

And now it’s back onto the trail.

The heat is on

Day 82

Mile 970.8

Sorry for the delay in updates. We’ve had some technical issues at Compass Blog World Headquarters. I dropped my phone and broke the screen. I know you were all anxious about my progress. Well you can settle down now and continue on. This is is long one. Buckle in.

I’m going get to let you in on a little secret. The Appalachian trail gets boring. It’s at this point that a lot of hikers quit because they’re tired of walking 20 miles a day in a green tunnel. I’m not sure why some hikers are so driven to “bust out the miles” unless that is some sort of fun for them. I personally don’t see the point or fun in staring at your feet and dreading every minute.

Me and Tiger haven’t really had this problem. Mostly because we don’t do 20 mile days and we stop whenever we want. We’ve had problems to be sure. Intestinal distress, blistering heat, and cracked phones have dogged us. Tiger even broke his tooth and had to have it pulled.

After leaving Pearisburg, rain dampened my gear and spirits. It was somehow both raining and humid at the same time. Topping this off was some pretty tough trail. Mercifully the rain was short lived as we made our way to the lovely hamlet of Catawba where the much famed Homeplace is located.

It’s a homestyle restaurant that I’d heard about at the beginning of the trail for having the best food and in large quantities. It did not disappoint. I didn’t take any pictures because the food didn’t stick around long enough… and also I was hungry. Omigod the food was soooooo good. The chicken was perfectly seasoned, the green beans and corn tasted fresh, and they kept all the foods coming as long as you could eat it. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Tiger cracked his tooth “on some chicken” here. I’m still not convinced it was the chicken. Sure something was probably stuck in his gums but I’m pretty certain sticking a corkscrew in one’s mouth to get it out is what breaks one’s tooth. So he went ahead onto Daleville to see a dentist about a tooth.

I would have gone with him, but the next day was McAffes knob. It’s the most popular picture people take on the trail. If you Google this location you’ll find pics of people doing handstands and hanging off the cliff. I merely sat at the edge. The hype was true though. It is a truly awesome view.

I met a fellow Georgian at the hostel the night before who I walked with that day. Savage Butterfly and I made our way to Tinker Cliffs to watch the sunset and camp. It was another awe inspiring view. It was a slow day and we took it easy. I’m not sure if all those fast hikers even took the time to appreciate the views. The trail can be crushingly boring for days on end. You’ve got to really soak in the beautiful days when they happen.

I got to Daleville where I met up with Tiger, sans one tooth. When left there I realized I’d left my water bottles in the fridge at the hotel and had to hitch back into Troutville to get some more. I’m glad I did because that days climb was brutal. We went up to a gap that wasn’t a gap in 500% humidity. It was a 1000 feet elevation climb in less than a mile with no switchbacks. There was a shelter that we stopped at for lunch where a fighter jet buzzed the mountain. It literally sounded like a plane was crashing on top of us. I looked at Tiger and was all “bye bruh”. The adrenaline buzz left me shaken for awhile. I thought of all the patients to who I administered epinephrine drips and was glad at least they were on fentanyl and propofol as well.

After getting into Waynesboro we stayed at the best hostel on the trail so far. Stanimals boasted cold AC and clean accommodations. It’s the little things. Then we started the Shenandoah national park. It has Skyline Drive which parallels the AT. The first two days were blasting hot and humid. Any tiny incline resulted in budget loads of sweat. I probably lost and gained 5 lbs of water weight in an hour depending on my consumption.

The lovely Skyline

The second night we were plagued by a whippoorwill. They should have put up a warning sign like they do for bears. Warning! Whippoorwills are active in this area! They can and will keep you awake all night. Should you encounter an aggressive whippoorwill, too bad.

The third day, the aformentioned phone catastrophe happened and we had to go back to Waynesboro. It’s funny how attached to your phone you get. No maps, no camera, no cell service. Got that fixed, Stanimal was happy to see us again.

Where phone catastrophe struck

Made it to Big Meadows lodge that reminded me of FDR state park. Probably because it was built in the 30s. I spent the 4th walking to Byrds Nest #3 but only because Tiger liked saying “Boids Nest”. Mary’s rock was the next big view and the best one in the Shenny in my opinion.

We went into Luray (pronounced Loo-ray in case you’re wondering) to see the caverns, cause why not. My favorite part was the stalagtite organ. It used these plunger thingies to peck the stalagmites to produce a sound routed through to speakers. Overall very worth the side trip.

That’s a reflection on bottom

When we got back on the trail the heat decided to back off and it was actually pleasant. I finally saw some bears which is weird cause most people see 3-5 a day. The park is so narrow your chances of running into them are higher. They don’t bother you. Just kinda of stare and wonder off. They’re more interested in delicious berries.

Classy shenny drank
This is how you pack out blackberry wine.

Finally it was my last day in the Shenny and the weather was obliging. We decided to take advantage of the Skyline’s decidedly more gentle grade and better views while we could.

Then we left the national park and it was back onto crappy rocky trail. You could tell an immediate difference. And now I’m in Front Royal near the end of Virginia. Whew!

Virginia is for adventures

Day 63

Mile 635.5

Before Damascus I melted the soles of my shoes trying to dry them off by a campfire (womp womp). The outfitters in Damascus didn’t have the same Hokas that I’d been enjoying so I got some Obos. They turned my feet into bruised stumps of pain so I ordered those Hokas online. It meant however, waiting in the resplendent metropolis of Marion VA until they showed up. Tiger kindly sacrificed putting in the miles to stay with me.

After I got my sweet new kicks with intact soles we set off for a pretty interesting day. Starting from Mt Roger’s HQ we walked through loamy hills blanketed in ferns. The foggy chillness of the morning burned off into a pleasant sunny afternoon walking through tunnels of Rhododendron by a creek. Near the end of our day there was an old schoolhouse that a church set up trail magic for hikers.

The theme of today’s snack: orange

We ended our day at the Long Neck Lair, an alpaca farm that lets hikers camp on their lawn. Right next to the alpacas! I’m sure Tiger was relieved to finally be there because I wouldn’t shut up about it. WE HAVE TO CAMP AT THE ALPACA FARM! They also had a pretty sweet shower and hot tub.

I made it to the fourth way point. It just blows my mind that I’ve walked over 500 miles.

Inexplicably the next few days I was feeling pretty lethargic and meh. I fell behind and lost Tiger for a couple of days as he nimbly trudged on. I don’t if it was the heat or lack of sleep or what but I couldn’t muster the energy or mental fortitude to keep up.

These things are everywhere and require gymnastics to get over

It didn’t help that I found what seemed to be an abandoned fawn on the trail one morning. I could hear loud noise that I thought was a raven. As I turned a corner this little fawn came ambling up to me crying its little head off. From what I could remember of wildlife rescue was that I shouldn’t touch it and keep moving with the hopes that mama deer would come back. But it kept following me down the trail crying. Eventually I had to jog a bit knowing the fawn couldn’t keep up. Other hikers up ahead told me the fawn had been there since the night before. I spent the next couple of miles bawling my eyes out and unsuccessfully dodging rocks and roots. I made myself feel better about it by pretending the Mama Deer came back and the little fawn is living it’s best life.

I came to Chestnut Knob Shelter which provided a beautiful view of the valley below. It was a bit of soul balm.

I finally caught up with Tiger, mostly because he decided to stop for the day rather than my own hiking prowess. We hiked towards Bland VA where the promise of a cold beverage awaited. It’s been hot and a lot of the trail around Bland is scarred by fire. It seems to make everything hotter when you are walking through burnt trees.

Dismal Falls is a local hangout and I’m glad we didn’t go there on a Saturday. As it turns out we took a zero there and brought some PBR from the gas station nearby. It was a fine day sitting in a creek and sipping beer.

Yes that’s a shopping bag full of PBR sitting in the creek. I keeps it classy.

Woods Hole Hostel is an AT staple. It’s one of the first hostels opened for thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail and occupies an idyllic cabin. Still family run, they serve food they grow themselves. It was a little too crunchy granola for my tastes but I sure did enjoy befriending all the cats. And it was actually a peaceful place to stay.

From Woods Hole it was a quick walk into Pearisburg. By quick I mean that whenever you get near town the feet move a little eaiser…despite the heat. Dreams of fresh food and cold drinks dance through your head. I should have done a little less daydreaming because I got stung by a vicious evil hornet! It came out of nowhere with its electric fire death poison and hit the thumb web of my left hand. It slowed me down only using one hiking pole and a hand full of fire. But I eventually made it to the Pearisburg Food Lion and downed a Peach Nehi. So all is right with the world.

Credits

Staff Blog Photographer Intern: Tiger

Cows and Bears and Ponies, oh my!

Day 53

Mile 533.7

So far the southern part of Virginia has been a return to better weather. Sunny days and cool winds ushered us through the Creeper Trail out of Damascus. Instead of schlepping through the hills, Tiger and I strolled the relatively flat walk by a creek for 10 miles which joined up with the AT later on. Technically this is called Blue Blazing (or cheating by the purists) because the AT which is marked by White blazes followed the same direction but is considered harder. I don’t really care though. I didn’t start this journey to walk every single mile of the AT but more to have adventures where I find them. If I hadn’t gone on the Creeper Trail them I would have missed one of the most bucolic parts of the trip so far.

After all that rain illustrated how poorly my tent protects against water I decided to have my hammock sent me and sent that bothersome tent back home. I am now a tree dweller, swinging in the breeze. I’m sure it will present it’s own issues but it sure is easier to set up!

Such sweet sleep to be had
In the pines

We stayed at a shelter that had been beset by food stealing bears. They even put an electrified fence around a bear box (where you store tour food overnight). I didn’t see any bears though and my food remained unmolested in the morning.

One of the highlights of the AT so far has been the hike through the Grayson Highlands. There a feral ponies everywhere that the park keeps to eat all the negative vegetation and maintain the balds. They run right up to you and start licking the sweat off your skin. I have a suspicion that it might have been some enterprising ponies that may have added to the bear’s bad reputation.

You also walk through pastures with cows idly munching grass. They don’t appreciate when you moo at them. That or I might have said something rude. My Cow is very rudimentary.

Such a fashionable pose

What did you say? Say that to my face!

Emo pony

Look at that fuzzy butt!

The walk through Grayson was a nice change in scenery as well. Most of the AT is a green tunnel where the things just seem the same mile after mile. It’s always a treat to come upon a view and in this case be out in the open. It was a gorgeous sunny day walking through blooming Rhododendrons and grassy fields. There was a rock tunnel you had to pass through called the Fatman Squeeze and I reached the 500 mile mark. All in all, this portion of the trail refueled my determination to continue the journey.

*photos of me taken by Tiger. There you go. There’s your credit.

I can’t stand the rain…on my thru hike

Apologies to Ann Peebles for the poor word play.

Day 48

Mile 470

The hike out of Roan Mountain TN was beset with gobs of rain and mud. I wasn’t too happy with the wet feet situation, again. But I signed up for this and the problems only heighten the more gracious moments. Moments that only happen in the trail after days and days of wondering why I am even doing this. I planned on doing an in more depth post about emotions, but for now it is suffice to say that the weather can directly affect how you feel about everything that day.

Pretty picture, but my feet didn’t like it.

The never-ending rain actually made the delicate scents more prominent. I’d been smelling roses for awhile but didn’t see anything. I began to wonder if I was having some sort of smell hallucination, perhaps yearning for cleaner drier times? Then I came over a hill and the entire field was laid out with what looked like wild Cherokee roses decimated by the weather. Their powerful scent still permeated the air. Laid underneath the rose smell was the earthy base of wet dirt and clay. Occasional notes of something bright, perhaps citronella, would enter the mix. All of these smells formed a perfume that you only get when you are wet and betrodden in the forest and I’m glad I was there to experience it.

The roses in question

Never ending fog and rain. Thanks Alberto!
Spooky trees
Mountaineer falls
Guardian bear

Just before Hampton TN it was a beautiful sunny day and the hike went by Laurel Falls and the river. The trail would been impassable the day before with all the rain. We went to a hostel to get dried and cleaned up. They only had tenting so I got that set up. That evening a huge thunderstorm came rolling through and got everything wet again. Womp womp.

That’s the Appalachian trail right there
Action shot!

The trail around Watauga lake was flooded so we were rerouted to the road for awhile. To honest I was fine with it because I didn’t bring my kayak. The day was mostly sunny with the afternoon bringing more thunderstorms. This time though I made it to the shelter just in time and stayed dry…mostly. A rainbow formed as the sun flickered through the clouds. It was quite the spectacle. Everyone came out of the shelter to look at it and that rainbow was probably the most admired for miles around.

Another dam walk
Me enjoying a nature show
The rainbow

The next day was an epic thunderstorm that flooded the trail again. I don’t know why I bother trying to keep my feet dry. I stopped by this monument to a hermit.

Uncle Nick Grindstaff
“Lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone”
Everything looks like a Dagobah swamp

Made it into Damascus out of the rain and I got a care package from my friends from roller derby. They sent me a card with words of encouragement that really lifted the spirits and Twizzlers! I stayed at a nice little B&B called the Lazy Fox inn which was appropriate because my roller derby name was Foxfire. Now I’m dry, clean, rested and ready to head out into Virginia.

Thanks ladies!!
Not a lazy fox. But close.

Make it rain on dem hikers

Day 41

Mile 394.8

It was oddly hard to get back into my mental hiking groove after leaving Uncle Johnnys hostel in Erwin TN. I suppose it was had something to do with my pack being weighed down with 20 pounds of food. I went a little nuts at Wal-Mart.

Even in the woods trains slow you down!

After so long you’d think it would be easier to jump back on the trail. I’ve noticed it usually takes me about half a day to return to Hiker mode. This stretch seemed different and I came up against my first real mental wall. I’ve joked on bad days that I was “this close to quitting” but I never really meant it. I fought through my little mental hissy fit and trudged on, but something hasn’t sat right with me since.

Just waiting for the perfect opportunity to trip me

Then Unaka Mountain happened. I camped just before it so I was fresh on my climb up. The top was covered with thick spruce firs making it seem like evening rather than daytime and a mist curled through the trunks. Occasionally spikes of sunlight would shoot down from the treetops. It was soothing and I guess I found something there. Im not sure what, but it was easier going after that.

Rain has been threatening my hike for the past few days because of the tropical storm. It finally hit when I was going up to Roan Mountain. I’m sure it would have been a beautiful walk but I was too concerned with getting somewhere dry.

This “rain jacket” did very little protecting, just kept the sweat in.

At some point on the balds after Roan my feet were so wet it was ridiculous to try and walk around the water so I started plowing through the mud. Even with that I fell twice and bonked my head on a fallen tree limb. I suppose I looked like a turtle trying to get up with my water logged pack.

On top of a bald
Looking back on Roan Mountian

Finally I got to Overmountain Shelter which is a repurposed barn. Predictably it was packed with hikers. When I took off my shoes my feet were wrecked. But luckily I found a dry spot to hunker down for the night.

The last day before going into town was actually quite nice. It started out cloudy but by the time I got to Hump mountain the weather had cleared up and it was a beautiful climb.

This rabbit stayed on the trail for awhile and let me take a picture.

And so finally I got to 19E where my little group went to a hostel with craft beer. Also I’m finally done with North Carolina.

Good riddance

Now I get to go deal with this finger of mine. I think I got a splinter in my fingernail and it’s created an abscess. It’s funny because one guy said I should go to a doctor about it. I think I can handle it. Just have to get all wilderness first aid and boil my knife. What I wouldn’t give for a scalpel and a suture removal kit right now!

You see all that pus just waiting to be expressed?

I took a zero here in Roan Mountain TN, and honestly Tiger didn’t have to work too hard to convince me. I’ve found I really don’t like walking up mountains in mud rivers. But I suppose I’ll have to be doing more of that soon. Onward to Damascus.

Interlude: All your questions answered

Some of y’all are asking questions so I thought I’d put them all in one spot.

Why?

Short answer, because it’s there.

How long will it take?

Usually about six months. I have to get to Mt Katahdin before they close the state park in mid October.

Where do you sleep?

In my tent or a shelter, whichever one is easiest at the time. In town, hotels and hostels.

My tent

A shelter

What do you eat?

Thru hiker nutrition is interesting in that you have to balance calories an weight. Also you can eat like a campground raccoon and not suffer the usual consequences. Most thru hikers burn about 4000 calories a day so you look for food that is easy to carry and high in calories.

I usually carry hard cheese, summer sausage, peanut butter crackers…just a whole bunch of snacks basically. I try to eat every two hours or so and have a larger meal when I stop. In the morning I like to make my “Go Juice” which consists of:

1 packet Carnation Instant Breakfast

1 packet instant coffee

Handful of Chia seeds

All mixed up and washing down my vitamin pill. This isn’t a new invention, I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere. But it really does get me going.

I noticed a difference in my hiking day when I go for the sugary junk food option over something a little more healthy.

Where do you get food?

At the store like everyone else. I’m not foraging for nuts and berries or anything like that. I usually carry 3-5 days worth of food and then resupply at the next town.

How do you cook your food?

I have a little stove that attaches to a bottle of fuel. I can boil a cup of water in about 2 minutes.

Where do you get water?

At the water store.

No, there are creeks and a springs all along the trail. Some enterprising individuals even piped some of the springs for easy fill up. Most people filter or chemically treat the water. I use Aqua Mira (Chlorine Dioxide) which kills everything bad, but I still end up with little bits of moss in my water. Good fiber?

Best tasting water

When do you shower?

In town, and it is glorious. You just start to own your stink, because it just doesn’t go away. And everyone else stinks too.

Where do you pee and poop?

In the woods.

How far do you walk in a day?

From start I was only doing 7 or 8 miles because I didn’t want to injure myself. Now I try to do at least 10 to 15 depending on the terrain and weather. In Virginia when it gets easier you can start doing 20 mile days.

How did you train?

I went on a few shake down hikes, but otherwise I didnt really. I was working too much to really get free time to do a bunch of long backpacking hikes. Essentially the trail gets you in shape. Now that’s not to say that fit people don’t habe a it better, it’s just not really something you can specifically train for.

Who do you hike with?

I hike by myself during the day (everyone does) and meet up with people at shelters and campsites. I had a trail family but everyone split up. Two had to quit and two moved on up the trail. That leaves old Tiger as my hiking companion, with whom I make plans to share stopping points.

I think those are the most common ones. Any questions you dearly need answered, just let me know!