May 25 – June 4, 2017
Our journey into Tennessee began well. The first morning, we walked the road to Mountain Harbor Hostel, as we heard a food truck was there that served amazing burgers. Unfortunately, the truck didn’t open until eleven, and we had arrived just around ten. With meager persuasion, we decided to wait and perused the hostel in the meanwhile, which was on the converted top floor of a barn. The hiker box was relatively empty, but Markus did manage to score a new pair of flip flops to replace the ones lost in the Nolichucky River.
The shop had a limited supply, but was full of hiker favorites, including mine: pepperoni and cheese. Markus stocked us up before we indulged ourselves at the newly open truck.
The food was incredible. Grease dripped down my chin as I tucked into the thick, juicy burger. Insatiable hiker hunger was in full force, but I still believe this was probably the best burger I have ever had.
We hiked to Mountaineer Falls that evening, joining Lakes and a pair of brothers, Boromir and Faramir, at the three-tiered shelter. The graffiti-riddled hut was perched near the top of the falls, and the stream was cool and clear as it poured over the cliff into the valley below. As we prepared to leave the next morning, Markus wasn’t feeling well again. I was frustrated, as this was the third time in a week we had been delayed due to illness. I did my best not to blame him and tried to make the most of the day. I strung up our gear in the empty shelter in an attempt to air dry it, before tucking into a big lunch of pepperoni and cheese on tortillas.
We were able to press on the following day and pass along the popular trail to Laurel Fork Falls. The 55-foot waterfall thundered into the churning river below and we sat at the bank to eat lunch before pressing forward to Laurel Fork Shelter. A hiker was coming down the side trail toward us when we arrived.
“Don’t bother, it’s full,” he said gloomily, before departing.
I pulled out our guidebook and reviewed our options. We had already gone 18 miles that day and the next campsite was another 4 miles ahead at the summit of a hill. With dejected determination, we plodded onward to climb up the 1,700 feet to Pond Flats. At the summit, we unexpectedly met Black Mamba, Island Time, and a few other hikers. We talked with them for a while, before setting up our own tents and retreating into them at dusk.
We were running low on food, so we stopped at Boots Off Hostel in the morning, which was just off trail. The options at the hostel store were rather limited, but we bought a few things since they opened it early for us. On our short road walk to connect back to trail, we managed to get a hitch to the local Dollar General. The driver even graciously offered to wait for us while we shopped to take us back to the trailhead. We quickly grabbed supplies and returned to Watauga Lake trailhead with grocery bags full of food. As we discarded unnecessary packaging to cram the food into our bear bags, I watched a little boy, no older than three, eyeing a family of geese mischievously. He was edging closer, raising a water cannon to point straight at them. One of the geese was watching the child with misgivings and drawing itself up for a fight. Before the boy could provoke the goose further, I left my bench to step in. The family of geese took to the water at my approach, and I scolded the boy for provoking them.
“Geese are mean,” I told him. “They bite really hard, don’t mess with them.”
His family, who had been preoccupied putting together a picnic and not paying attention, turned then and called the boy over.
After filling our food bags, we hiked around Watauga Lake, which was closed due to recent bear activity (Markus kept the bear spray at the ready just in case) and crossed the dam, eager to finish our journey through Tennessee.
At the end of May, we crossed the border and arrived in Virginia, the longest state on the Appalachian Trail. We had 541 miles ahead of us of farmlands and rolling Virginia hills. The constant reward of entering a new territory is lost in this stretch, which infamously arouses the “Virginia Blues” in the hearts of hikers. At this point, nothing but excitement filled my heart as we neared the quarter way point. To top it off, we were going to be visited by Markus’s brothers in Marion. We both were eager to see them, but we still had a ways to go.
Damascus, home of the famous Appalachian Trail Days, was just a few miles north of the border, and we stopped in town to charge phones and get a bite to eat. Leaving later than we should have, we hoped to find a spot just outside of town to pitch our tents. As we hiked along, we soon found this was impossible. The trail was narrow as it climbed up to Cuckoo Knob, with a steep slope on either side leaving nowhere to pitch a tent. Five miles in the dark, we finally found an opening just large enough for us to squeeze our tents in side-by-side.
The following day, we had the option to hike along the AT or follow the smooth flat Virginia Creeper Trail, popular with cyclists and families. We decided to hike the AT, although the trail did merge with the Virginia Creeper in sections, which was a welcome respite from the constant PUDs. We even met a familiar face, Pirate, who we had last seen in the Smokies, as we crossed one of the trail’s many trestle bridges.
We were approaching the Grayson Highlands, a popular section along the trail due to its population of wild ponies who lived in the grasslands. We knew we had arrived when we passed Thomas Knob Shelter, which had a sign instructing hikers to keep their gear well out of reach, as the ponies enjoyed chewing salty backpack straps. We hiked down from Roan Mountain, and clambered over a few gates that kept the ponies at bay, to at last enter the highlands. I have not yet been to Scotland, but I imagine it would look similar to what I saw here. The hills were nearly treeless, rather filled with spiky grasses surrounding slabs of pale grey stone. There were a few trees that were able to root in the rocky ground, and those that did, managed to grow strong and tall without the competition.
Without shade, the walk through the highlands soon grew hot and my mouth became dry in the dusty heat. At the top of a hill, we could see a group of ponies clustered around a lone tree in the distance. A group of day hikers surrounded them taking pictures. I hurried onward, hoping for our own opportunity to see them. As we got closer, however, we watched the ponies venture off and the hikers retreat back to the parking lot. Anxious, we approached the spot where the ponies had been, but it was deserted. I was disappointed when we turned into the rhododendron tunnels. Believing we had missed our opportunity, I trudged forward despondently before turning a corner and… there they were! A small group of them, including a stallion, two mares, and a few month old foal. They were happy to ignore us as we took pictures and we tried to stay out of their way on the narrow path. The foal kept approaching me, looking for a handout and trying to nibble at my pack. He was cute, but I wasn’t keen on arousing the stallion, who was keeping a close eye on our encounter.
Satisfied with our own private pony experience, we continued along through the dusty landscape before ending the day in a cool patch of trees at Old Orchard Shelter. A church group with families and children occupied the surrounding campground, so we took residence in the shelter with a few other thru hikers: Lt Dan, Goat, and Faramir, without his brother, Boromir. His brother had gotten off trail for a while, and ultimately didn’t end up finishing his thru hike, ironically playing into his given trail name (RIP Boromir). Markus and I indulged in a faux turkey dinner (instant mash, boxed stuffing, cranberries, gravy packet, and canned chicken), before inviting the others to partake in a movie night with us.
Due to his love of movies, Markus would download them on his iPad so we could watch them on trail. Faramir offered up his speaker to the party, and we all settled in on the shelter steps to watch Life of Pets. It wasn’t long before the children in the campground singled out the source of the noise and invited themselves to our private showing. They were cute, this little boy and his younger brother; they asked politely and sat quietly. As the movie progressed, though, the younger one kept creeping closer and closer toward the screen, despite his brother whispering at him to sit back. As if being sucked into the story, he didn’t stop until his face was mere inches from the iPad.
I laughed as Lt Dan leaned toward him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Back it up there, bub.”
The little boy settled back quickly, but his eyes were still glued on the screen.
We set out before the church group had truly woken and ate breakfast on the go. When we came to a boundary fence, we stumbled upon another small group of ponies, including a mare with a tiny foal, no older than a few weeks. Upon our approach, the stallion whisked them away into the rhododendrons, but not before I managed to get a video of the encounter. As I watched them leave, I pulled a protein bar from my pack. When I peeled back the wrapper, the bushes ahead of me began to shake. Bursting forth, a pony bee-lined toward me, stopping inches from my face. Startled, I took a few steps back.
“Uh, no. Not happening,” I told him, withholding my bar. “This is my food.”
Our excitement mounted as we drew nearer to the arrival of our first visitors. The afternoon before we would meet them, we crossed a small stream to Chatfield Shelter, leaving a nero day in the morning. There were a few hikers staying in the shelter as well, including two older men, and a young thru hiker, who offered for us to join him for a card game. With the excitement of our impending visitors lifting our moods, we chatted with them eagerly into the evening, as the stream bubbled pleasantly in the background.
Dew still clung to the grass when we set out the following morning. Our feet stepped lightly as we hurried down the trail to where we were scheduled to meet them. Along the way, we stopped briefly at the old Lindamood Schoolhouse that was left unlocked for hikers to use. There was a group of hikers camped out on the benches inside, and they showed us a storage box full of hiker goodies. We grabbed a coke or two, before continuing along down the trail.
We reached VA Route 683 mid-morning. Across the road was a motel and a gas station that offered minimal shade, so we sat a bit at the trailhead, waiting for their call. As we munched on some food, one of the older hikers we had stayed at Chatfield with came down the trail toward us. We greeted him warmly and he stopped to chat a bit.
He told us about his reasons for hiking. He was a college professor, who had been talking up the AT to his students for years, and finally had an opportunity to hike a section of it himself. He was so excited to be a part of the community of hikers, but his expectations were far different than the reality.
“I came to the trail to be a part of this great hiker family, but it has been so far from what I expected,” he told us, his eyes downcast. “Some of these hikers…” he trailed off, shaking his head.
I felt ashamed. Here was someone who had spent years praising and supporting hikers, and we as a collective community had let him down. Markus was apologizing for them.
“Hey man, I’m sorry, that’s disappointing…”
“I have a room at the motel here. I was planning on going a bit further, but I think I’m just going to end it here.”
“The quarter way point is just up the trail!” I told him, having recently reviewed the map. “You’re nearly there! Why not at least make it there and then you can say you did a quarter of the trail?”
“No,” he said, smiling sadly. “I think I’m good. I hope you have a good time with family!”
He ventured out into the hot Virginia sun, leaving us crestfallen.
“That really sucks,” Markus said softly.
I agreed glumly, watching him cross the road to the motel.
We got the call, saying Markus’s brothers Zack, Ethan, and their friend Keith, who had thru hiked the trail himself a few years back, were nearly there. We crossed the road to the gas station and stretched out in the sun to wait for their arrival. The light was blinding compared to the forest, and I could feel the heat burning my skin. We weren’t there long when we heard footsteps coming up behind us. We turned to see the hiker from earlier approaching us.
“You changed my mind,” he said, a small day pack on his back and trekking poles in hand, with a smile on his face. “I’m going to make it to the quarter way point.”
“Hey! That’s awesome!” Markus smiled and I grinned with him.
“Happy trails!” I called to him as he waved goodbye before setting off up the road to the next trailhead.
I was thrilled we were able to encourage him to not give up despite the negative experiences he had. Sending future goodwill his way, our spirits were renewed when a large white pick-up pulled into the lot and Markus’s brothers sprang out to greet us.
That evening was the best we had in a few hundred miles. We hosed down our packs at a self-service car wash, power washing the sweat and dirt from the padding. Markus received a new pair of shoes, as his first pair were so blown out that the soles were starting to peel off. We both took long, hot showers, scrubbing the filth off our skin, before we went out and got a good meal and some beers at 27 Lions in downtown Marion.
The next morning we found out another group of hikers was staying in town at the motel next door. Bubba and Daisy, Goat, Lt Dan, Island Time, Gains, and (if I remember correctly) Ice T were seeking a ride back to the trailhead. So we loaded them up in the back of the pick-up and dropped them off at Partnership Shelter, before heading back up I-81 to the Village Truck Stop gas station. Zack, Ethan, and Keith hiked with us for a few miles, living vicariously through us by wearing our packs and imagining what it would be like to be the ones on trail.
It was sad to see them go, but their enthusiasm filled me with contentment in our journey. When we arrived ourselves at the quarter way point a few miles down, I wondered what the college professor had felt when he arrived the day before. For me, a milestone was accomplished and I was eager to earn the next one.