Thursday, May 24, 2007

After another very long stretch...

Hello to everyone. I apologize for having been disreputably slow to update lately, but there have not been many good times to do so. As I recall, when last I posted I was in Roanoke a good 13 days ago. That is obviously a lot of time so I will be attempting to condense a few things in order to control the enormity of this post. So here we go...

Leaving Roanoke was hard in that I had a very nice stay and Mary Ellen's grandparents made it very apparent that I was welcome for as long as I wished to stay. I think if I had taken them up on that offer I might very well have stayed for a month. I managed to dredge up a little will power however, and Mary Ellen dropped me off at the trail around 10:40. Even though it was tough leaving, it was wonderful to be hiking again. My legs felt really strong and my feet were very light. It felt like I practically flew to the first shelter, about 6 miles out. I hadn't planned on stopping for lunch that early, but it started to rain a bit, so I thought I would sit it out and eat a bit. As a result I had a nice chat with Diamond who was also rolling through that day. Honestly, most of that day's hiking was a bit of a blur (possibly because it was now 12 days ago), but I do remember the weather being very pleasant and the scenery being quite nice. I stopped again at the next shelter expecting to just take a brief break, but for the second time I was held up by some threatening weather. There was rather suddenly some very dark clouds, and very loud thunder rather nearby. After my last encounter with this kind of hold up (as some of you may remember it didn't really do anything that time) I was very inclined to ignore the signs and move on. I didn't, and although it never rained where I was, I later discovered it pored where I would have been if I had continued on right away. I did eventually leave that shelter and had a nice walk paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway. The sunset through the clouds was fantastic and I disturbed a few deer along the way. While trying to keep me in view one of them did this odd, side to side, head wiggle that reminded me heavily of when people try to do the "Egyptian" head bob. Odd thoughts. Anyway I was at the shelter shortly thereafter, where I joined Beat Box for the evening. When I left the next morning I immediatly discovered that there was a rock in my shoe. I thought this was odd since there hadn't been one there when I went to sleep the night before. It wasn't a rock. It was a millipede that had crawled in during the night and curled up when I put my foot it (shudder). At least it wasn't a spider. I always check my boots now incidentally. Anyway that kind of set the tone for the rest of the day I felt like I was walking through mud the whole time. I did have a very pleasant lunch reading by a river, but I actually stayed a bit too long and as a result had quite a climb to do very late in the day. Mistake. That night I was once again with Yorkie, Beat Box, and Magellan. I had a lazy morning in camp the next day (I had picked up the last installment of Stephen King's Dark Tower series in Roanoke, and I find it difficult to do just about anything when there is a story needing to be finished). Not much sticks out about that morning, but that days lunch certainly does. I was sitting by the side of a forest road when a pick-up suddenly pulls up rolls down its window and the driver immediatly and without preamble begins asking me if I've seen any bears, excuse me, b'ars. Upon hearing my negative he began expressing his amazement at this, considering the number he himself had killed in the area. He then began discussing the prevelance of B'ar in several other areas of Virginia before saying good bye and heading on his way. I assume he was just being friendly, but it was still a very odd experience. I booked it out of lunch (not related to the guy in the truck I just felt like moving quickly) and made the remaining eight miles in remarkably good time. That was also just some really pretty walking with regular views of surrounding mountains and towards the end, several good views of the James River. At the shelter, Beat Box and I were expecting to find Yorkie waiting for us. Instead we found a note telling us that he would be waiting for us at a camp site .8 up the trail. We were less than thrilled to learn we had more to walk that day. However, I was slightly mollified by the dark chocolate bar I found with the shelter register. It was quite tasty.
Next morning we walked across the James River footbridge which according to my map is the longest pedestrian only footbridge that you cross while on the trail. I find this to be a sort of amusing stat considering the fact that it seems to have been built specifically for the trail. Anyway, we caught a quick hitch into Glasgow, took care of business and tried to catch a quick hitch out. Instead we hitched for about 40 minutes before getting one of the more hair raising rides of my entire life in the back of a yard care truck. Attempt to end my own life prematurely number four accomplished. Actually I exaggerate, it wasn't that bad, I just felt more precariously perched than I actually was. After getting back to the trail we did a tired 10 miles in the heat to Punch Bowl Shelter which is supposedly haunted by the spirit of a boy named Ollie who died up on the mountain. We didn't hear any spirits but there were more than plenty of frogs lulling us to sleep. The next day was immensely lazy. We did something like 8 miles before stopping. In truth we were just killing time before trail days because we couldn't go any more than another mile before getting off anyway. As a result of the short day, we did manage to avoid a pretty good sized rainstorm, which was quite nice.
The next section of my story is about trail days. There was entirely too much going on to effectively write about here. Thus I am going to do a brief list of things:
-hitching long distances is an interesting experience and I got very lucky
-lots of hikers in one area causes one raucous party, tent city was madness
-I danced around a big fire one night for probably an hour with a bunch of others, it was rather primal
-the mysterious and amazing gear deals that supposedly existed there were not forthcoming, at least not to me
-the hiker parade was awesome, but I need to remember a costume and water ammo for next year

that is barely scraping the tip of the iceberg on the overall experience, but it would take much to long to go over it all.
After trail days I spent the night in Amherst, VA with my roommate Ben and his folks. It was a really nice rest after my "restful" weekend. Ben and I set out the next morning to do 21 miles to The Priest. It was a rather embarrasing first climb. I seemed to have lost a bit of my trail legs because I got rather quesy around the top of the first hill. Fortunately, that particular problem did not arise again. I don't remember much about the walking of that day. I was too engrossed in actually having someone from off the trail to talk to. It was a really nice change. A little taste of the old without having to give up my trail time. The next day was much shorter, only 13.9 miles. Once again we had good conversation, but on that day it actually sparked a bit of reflection on my part. Ben asked me how I view my existance out here. He wanted to know if I saw it more as a battle of me against nature or of me getting in touch with nature. After thinking about this I don't believe either one is totally correct. I certainly don't look at this as a battle. Nothing I am doing is remotely warlike. However, I am not so arrogant as to think that I am really getting truly in touch with nature out here either. There are too many roads and I have too many trappings of civilization around me, even the shelters are a bit of a break away. I guess I think of myself as more of a close and somewhat protected observer, kind of like a man in a cage watching the sharks. Even that analogy seems a bit over violent and dangerous though. At the shelter that night we met a very nice girl named Asheley who was a recent graduate of UVA. She made very good company and the three of us had a very nice, long evening cooking dinner and talking and whatnot. Anyway, I'm not quite caught up, but that is where I'm going to leave it for now. I'm sorry if this hasn't been the best entry. I'll try and do better next time.

Until then,
The Breadless Horseman

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Lonely Post

Lonely, I'm so lonely....well not really. However, I did have quite a bit of time for personal reflection upon leaving Pearisberg. I don't know if it was the kind of crappy weather or just a general malaise, but for some reason more or less everyone who I had been hiking near decided that an extra day in Pearisberg was called for. As a result my first two days out from town I did not see a soul. The only thru-hiker I saw during those days was Magellan slack-packing North to South, and other than her the only people I saw were a couple of folks when I was crossing the road and such. I was completely isolated. It was very different from anything I have experienced thus far, especially not having anyone to converse with in camp in the evenings. The first night was a little freaky because, as those of you who read last week's post will know, I'm not always the most comfortable alone in the woods at night. However, it turned out not to be too bad, and was in some ways pretty great. I didn't have to worry about disturbing anyone else with the hours I kept or moving around in the night, and I didn't have to worry about them disturbing me either. Hooray for no snoring!

That first day out of town was really foggy and was rainy for a while, but the real rain didn't last long at all. I actually really like the woods in wet weather. Everything just has a very different aspect to it, everything looks kind of mysterious in low light with mist rolling through it. Its easier to imagine that I am really a long way from civilizatioon. Anyway, it was a nice walk that first day, and that night I stayed at the rather damaged Swamp Creek Shelter (a tree had fallen on it at some point, so only about half the shelter was usable.

I rose the next morning feeling pretty good after a surprisingly refreshing nights sleep and got moving, thinking maybe I would actually see someone that day. Obviously, that didn't happen. I had to do a stint of road walking that morning for about 1.5 miles because there was a bridge out on the trail. It was a weird change but anything different like that can be kind of cool. It was a new way of appreciating the area, and the road did at least follow the river very closely and it was quite pretty. I ate lunch at Wind Rock that day, and spoke with a couple of the few people I saw those first couple of days. There was a very panoramic view from up there, and it was a very nice day so I actually had a rather hard time pulling myself away to start hiking again. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, although there were some really pretty woods that were appropriatly sun-dappled in the afternoon light, and as I recall there was a nice breeze blowing. It was just a very pleasant walk. Also, there was a really nice view from Kelly's Knob late in the day. I would have taken a picture, but I was facing straight into the sun. I was alone that night at Laurel Creek Shelter and I built a big fire (maybe too big, though nothing bad happened). Unfortunately, the fire was too far from the shelter to keep me warm. It got wicked cold that night for some reason. Even with a liner in my bag I was still kind of chilly, I was wishing I hadn't traded out my 25 degree bag for my 40 degree. It was also the first night since probably the smokies that I slept in my hat. It was a really weird cold snap.

I didn't get going the next morning until after ten, something I haven't done since very early on. Maybe it was because I hadn't slept all that well, but I just felt really sluggish all that morning. As a result the fairly steep climb up the only mountain that morning, was actually kind of brutal. Fortunately, I was only going twelve miles that day. I discovered at lunch that day that I was out of water treatment ( I knew I had been low, but thought I had at least enough for a couple more liters). This would normally not have been a problem as I would just have begged off of someone else, but as I was by myself. I got rather thirsty that afternoon. As a result I spent the first few hours in camp that evening boiling water on a wood fire (I wasn't using my stove because I was also kind of low on alcohol). This works in theory, but my water definitely came out tasting kind of ashy. Fortunately, Magellan showed up that night (hooray company) and I was able to borrow some iodine tabs from her. I know it sounds like I went out really unprepared, and I suppose I had, but if there had been people like normal there would have been no problems. In truth I would have been OK even if Magellan hadn't shown up, I would have just had to have moved a bit slower so I could boil water. Anyway, you live you learn. I will always now make sure that I have some emergency water treatment, just in case.

The next day was kind of standard, but I felt really good. There was a really great uphill section early that day. It wasn't super steep, but it was nice and long, and it really got the blood pumping. Its exactly the kind I like. It was actually quite invigorating. That afternoon, in rather sweltering weather, I crossed up over Dragon's Tooth, which has a very nice view. However, I think the most notable thing about that particular site is the climb down the other side. Going up wasn't bad at all. I was following a ridge so I would go up a ways and then walk flat for a whiel, all the way to the top. Going down the other side however, was something roughly akin to rock climbing. I mean that literally. There were several sections when I was crawling down a rock face on ridges in the rock. I think I may have gotten a little taste of what New Hampshire through Maine is going to be like. Magellan and I camped by a little stream about a mile past that descent for the evening, and we more or less ate and went to bed.

The next day was very short. I only did like eight miles (I couldn't move any faster because there was no reason to get Daleville before Thursday afternoon, as I was to meet a friend to come into Roanoke, which is where I am right now.) It was a very nice little walk though and in the afternoon after picking up a mail drop in Catawba I spent most of the afternoon hanging out on McAfee's knob, which boasts one of the best views I have seen thus far. I also took the required cliche pictures of myself sitting on the knob. It is apparently the most photographed spot on the trail. That night at the shelter, after several short days, were finally caught up by Stretch, Yorkie, Beat Box, and The Trail Dogs (Pooch and Tom Doolie); though these last two kept moving that evening. It was good to be back in the fold.

The next morning I got up around 5:45 (sorry about the alarm guys), and went back up to the Knob to watch the sunrise. It wasn't quite as good as the one I saw on Blood Mountain back in Georgia, but it wasn't exactly a slouch either. I took a few more cliched pictures and then returned to the shelter to pack up and start my day. The first six miles or so flew by. It was really pleasant hiking, but what really set them off was the fact that I SAW A BEAR. Actually I saw a bear and a cub. I only noticed them when they started running away from me up a hill. Even though it meant I only got to see them for a few moments, I'm glad they ran that way instead of towards me. I think what struck me the most was how small the cub was. I mean it was really tiny. From where I was it looked like a rabbit following this mama bear up the hill. I had no idea they were ever really that little.

The rest of the day was taken up by being really hot and feeling a bit overfull from eating too much lunch and drinking too much water as a result of the heat. Nonetheless, Beat Box and I made some rather blazing time and I got to Daleville around 3:30, where I hung out for a few hours until Mary Ellen and her grandfather came to pick me up and take me into Roanoke. It has been an immensley pleasant stay thus far. ME's grandmother served me a delicious late dinner when I got in and they have continued to be immensely hospitable hosts. I would like to say an enormous thank you to them.

On the subject of thank you's, I must say I have been remiss in not yet thanking Lee Tobin yet. For those of you who don't know Lee does the Gluten-Free baking for Whole Foods, and I have not tasted anything of his that wasn't phenomenol. Anyway, he has been kind enough to donate a large number of cookies and other such items to my hike, and I must say I am always looking forward to the next mail drop to see which item I'm going to get this time (right now its Chocolate Chip Cookies and Orange Cranberry Scones). If you haven't tried his stuff you really need to go to a Whole Foods and get some. Its all great stuff. Anyway, thats all for today. This week I think I will leave pictures of myself on McAfee's Knob at sunrise, and the broken down shelter that I stayed in. Enjoy.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A Long Stretch

Hello all,

It has been quite a while since Damascus, in fact I think this may have been the longest time I have gone without spending at least a night in town. I was out from the 25th of April until yesterday, the 3rd of May. I was more than a little dirty by the time I arrived. Anway, it was a rather eventful week I think. The first day out of Damascus I tried to make a decision to no longer care about time or distance. That is I will try not to care how far I have gone in how much time. If I don't get into camp until late, it shouldn't matter. It's not like I have an appointment. This sounds really easy and obvious, but is in actuality rather difficult. Its hard to break through that element of time that is built into all our lives. However, I think I am getting better at it, and its a good thing because I think if I had continued that way, it would have really started to damage my enjoyment of the trip. On a slightly less serious note, I also made a decision to no longer carry Snickers bars in my top pocket when its 75+ degrees as they tend to liquify rather quickly. That first day out of Damascus was about 16 miles and just breezed by, I had a really nice walk. A lot of it was riverside, which made everything seem very lush. I made my first of at least two attempts to end my own life that night however, when I some how managed to leave my lighter in my cookpot and then proceeded to boil my meal. Fortunately, the lighter did not explode, nor was the plastic of the lighter breached. Go me. I spent that night with Larry, Yorkie, Owl, Beat Box, and Loner Boner (his last name is actually Boner, so don't get any ideas). The next day we headed into the Grayson Highlands. Buzzard Rock afforded some very nice views. Unfortunatley, just as I was about to head up Mount Rogers, where things were supposed to get really pretty, it started to look like a storm. That storm started as I headed up the Mountain, and as a result there was mist all over the highlands when I got up there. This is the first time that I have really been kind of bummed out by weather. I have heard that the highlands were really pretty and I wanted to see them. Granted mist provides a certain attractive quality all its own, but in this case I just wasn't satisfied. The mist did break open later. One of the other things people always talk about the Highlands is the ponies. Most people saw a bunch. I saw one that afternoon and it seemed pretty skittish. Even just that one was pretty cool though. Its a kind of odd experience to suddenly round a bend and be faced with a wild horse. Even a small one. They are pretty impressive animals. Anyway, the mist broke enough for me to get a couple of good views later that day and I ended up spending the night at Wise Shelter with Yorkie, Larry, Signage, Pearls & Starvin Marvin, and Yorkie's friend Jesse Jackson who had come out to walk for a couple of days. This is incidentally his real name, not a trail appellation. The next day started off very nicely, the weather continued to look kind of threatening, but it at least wasn't too misty. As a result I got several uninterupted miles of highland vies. Honestly, they reminded me a great deal of the Scottish Moors I had seen when visiting that country a number of years ago. Granted my memory could be a bit faulty, but Yorkie (who is from England) agreed that there were definitely some similarities. Basically, they just look really wild, brown grass, scrub, and rock as far as the eye can see. I think the wind and dark sky added to the similarity as well. It doesn't sound particularly beautiful but it is. Startlingly so in fact. I had to go into Troutdale that day to pick up a package and the people at Jerry's Store there, particularly Jerry himself were immensley helpful. They made it possible for me to get in and out of town in relatively short order and on to the next shelter well before dark, so I would very much like to thank them for all their kindness and hard work. That shelter that I pushed to was one called Trimpi (a very weird name I thought) where I camped with Yorkie, Jesse Jackson, Triple A, Larry, Bonnie Carolyn and many others whose names I did not obtain. The next day was kind of a mixed bag. The day broke bright and sunny and we did a nice bit of walking through pastureland early which afforded some nice views of the surrounding mountains. However, shortly thereafter my ankle really started to throb and it didn't really stop all day. It can really mess up a day when that happens. We took an immensley long lunch at the Partnership Shelter. We took a long lunch here because there is an Italian Restaurant that will deliver to the shelter. Most people got pizza and I got a chicken salad, which while not pizza, was still pretty good. The Partnership Shelter itself was very plush as well. It even had a shower (its located very near to the Mount Rogers visitors center). Yep, its pretty hard out here on the AT, but we tough it out somehow. Around 3 I left to do the remaining 7 miles to the Chatfield Memorial Shelter where I spent the night with Yorkie, Jesse Jackson, Mountain Mike, and Beat Box (freakin psycho did 27 miles to catch up to me and Yorkie). The next day constitutes the reason that I am out here. It was beautiful. Maybe it was just my state of mind, maybe it was the fact that the weather was flawless, but whatever it was, everything seemed exceptional. The first few miles were largely different from what I am used to. They were over a lot of fields and low hills. It was a nice change. The fourth mile is all within view of what I think was I-81. Now, at first this seems like it would be a real downer. The idea of the trail is to get out in the woods and the intrusion of such a man-made monstrosity seems like it would be awful. Quite the contrary however. I found myself thinking about how when I drive on the interstate I often think about what it would be like to be walking around the surrounding countryside, and here I was doing exactly that. I was experiecing that same part of the country in a way that all of the people on that road probably never would. It was actually kind of comforting. I also saw what I think was a red-winged blackbird around that time. I have never seen one of these before. They are remarkably pretty birds. That flash of color against the dark is very striking. That afternoon I experimented with shirtless hiking as it was rather hot. I expected it to be uncomfortable but actually found it to be rather pleasant. I passed through a lot of farm country which provided some really great views that were a nice change from woodlands. The next day was extremely long so I'm going to try and distill it down to some key events. I did ten miles to Chestnut Knob Shelter for lunch and hung out for far too long. It was just too nice a spot, bright sun, good view, good company. I think I could have hung out there all day. I did a hard ten miles over flat but difficult terrain from there to Jenkins shelter. There were a bunch of people there. It was here that I made my second attempt at snuffing out my own life. I was re-lighting my stove to make hot chocolate and for some reason the alcohol basically exploded out of the stove. I don't think I did anything different, but it scared the living crap out of me. It also burned off some of my arm hair and set my pants on fire briefly. Don't play with fire kids. Beat Box and I had decided we were going to try a little night hiking that night, and oddly so had everyone else at the shelter. So just as the last light was leaving the sky Box and I left the shelter. Now I saw all light left the sky. That isn't really true, the moon was so bright we walked almost the entire way to our campsite by moonlight. We only turned on our headlamps during a kind of sketchy roadwalk where it was difficult to find blazes. We cowboy camped (read no tent or shelter) in a group of about 10 with at least 10 others tented nearby. It was where hikers go to die apparently. I can't say I'm going to turn nocturnal, but night hiking was an interesting change. Honestly, the next day was mostly monopolized in my mind by the trip I had to make into Bland (which is very deserving of its name) to get a mail drop. As for the rest of the day all I can really think of is a really long ridge walk with very little water. Probably not the most fun 10 miles I have done, but you do have to take the good with the bad. At Jenny Knob Shelter that night I was with Beat Box, Diamond, Stretch, Stubble, and I met Bucket, Old Yeller, and Singe (who I discovered also eats Turkey Spaghetti from lip-smackin backpackin', though hers isn't Gluten free). The next day was crazy. I got going early and really hammered out some miles, both my ankles felt good and I was at the suspension bridge that marked six miles in no time. It was a cool bridge by the way. From there it was only 1.6 to Dismal Creek Falls which was supposed to be something that was not to be missed. The falls itself turned out to be kind of mediocre, but I was very glad I went anyway. There was quite a party of hikers hanging out there including Numbtoe and Shadow, who are friends of my friends Burt and Carol Smith. There was also a big pool at the base of the falls, which I decided to go swimming in though it wasn't really all that hot and the water was clearly very cold. This produced the interesting scenario of me hanging out by a fire in a public park, soaking wet, in my underwear. Never a dull moment. I got to the next shelter after that by about 2:30, took a long break for lunch and was about half a mile up the mountain when some very serious thunder started. I didn't fancy walking a ridge for 7 miles in a lightning storm so I returned to the shelter to see what would happen. What happened is the storm blew away, but it took two and a half hours to do so. As a result I was leaving for my destination around 6:40 and I ended up walking the last three miles or so in the dark. Alone. I am now going to put a disclaimer up, in the next few sentances I'm going to sound like a big whimp, however unless you have done this you don't understand and if you have and disagree with me...well I would ask you to kindly shut up. I was very nervous. Hell, I was scared. The woods is a big empty place in the day time. It is a huge, empty, dark space when it is night and you are alone. I don't think I've ever walked quite that fast without really being able to see where I'm putting my feet, and incidentally navigating boulder fields in the dark is a pain in the butt. The fear was starting wear off during the last mile or so into the shelter, but it is not an experience I am dying to have again. On the other hand I am glad I did it on some levels. I arrived at the shelter around 10 and went to sleep as quietly as possible. I woke to rain and it only got worse as the day moved on. Fortunately I only had 7 miles to go to Pearisburg, which is where I currently reside, taking it easy and preparing to head back out tomorrow. Walking in the rain is never as pleasant as when you know you don't have to stay wet. The pictures I am leaving you this week are of the Grayson Highlands and myself in Dismal Creek. Take it easy.
-The Breadless Horseman