June 5 – July 7, 2017
The night after crossing the quarter way point, it rained. Despite being under the cover of trees, I had mistakenly placed my tent in a low-point at the campsite, and I woke with the sensation of being on a water mattress. Thankfully the bathtub of my secondhand tent held up for the most part and kept my sleeping bag from becoming entirely saturated.
We packed in the rain, and made our way a few miles north to a hostel where Markus’s mother had mailed him a care package. The owner of the hostel wasn’t in, but one of the hikers staying there found his box and we opened it in the shelter of the covered porch.
Neither of us had perfected our hiking clothes get-up yet, but Markus had some ideas. He had been suffering from horrible poison ivy blisters since as early as North Carolina. Not being allergic to the plant myself, I was amazed how reactive he was to it. Every few days it seemed a new outbreak of itchy red boils were spreading across his exposed shins. As the shorts he started trail with were slowly pulling apart to a skirt, he asked his mom to send him a new pair… with some special requirements. The hope was with this new gear, he could solve his near constant poison ivy problem. What came out of that box on the side porch of the Quarter Way Inn, however, nearly killed me.
He had requested basketball shorts, the long kind that nearly passes your knees. I’m not sure where she had purchased them, but his mom had managed to find a pair in woodsy camouflage. As if the shorts didn’t look ridiculous enough, Markus had another request. Out of the box, he excitedly pulled a pair of knee-high pantyhose, which he insisted would prevent both the poison ivy and serve as a deterrent to mosquitoes.
In the end, they accomplished neither objective, but did serve as a good laugh while they lasted.
We made good time over the next few days, as the trail became relatively flat after Chestnut Knob, and our spirits were high. With the hiking becoming easier, I was able to enjoy the journey more readily and wasn’t too exhausted for side adventures. We took a break on June 7th and stopped for ice cream and burgers at Brushy Mountain Outpost. The next day, we took a side trip with a large group, including Bubba & Daisy, Goat, Lt Dan, and Gains, to Dismal Creek Falls after stocking up on hot dogs and drinks at Trent’s Grocery in Bland, VA. I was most excited though because, after over 500 miles, I was at long last getting new shoes to replace the pair I had defaced in the Smokies. I hadn’t given up on my Salomons yet, so my mom ordered me a pair of men’s wides that she shipped to the post office in Pearisburg, VA with our resupply. I was counting down the days.
The morning we were due to arrive, I left before Markus, who frequently slept in later than me since he had no problem catching up. Consequently, I arrived in town well before him. I picked up the package from the attendant at the post office and went outside to dig out my new shoes. I wiggled my toes within them and were happy to find there was plenty of room in the toe box. Satisfied with the replacement, I dug into the rest of the resupply.
My mom had also shipped me a new pair of pants, identical to the pair I started in, but smaller. I hadn’t realized quite how much weight I had lost until I pulled off my baggy convertible hiking pants and slipped on the new pair underneath my hiking dress outside the post office. I had held my first pair up with the waist belt of my pack for the past few hundred miles, so I was definitely due for a downsize. I jumped up and down to test the new pair and was happy they didn’t slip off my hips. I crammed what food I could into my pack, and carried the rest in the box slowly through town back to the trailhead.
Markus was just arriving down from the summit of Angel’s Rest as I neared it, mildly out of breath.
“I just ran down a baby deer,” he announced, catching his breath.
He launched eagerly into the tale… the following is an excerpt from Markus’s retelling of the story.
“The first thing this was all a simply misunderstanding. I was not trying to harm the baby deer or his mother. I was, however, very excited to get to town and was literally flying down the trail. Ah, the days of youth. This part of the trail happen to be a switch back, going from side to side down the mountain, which allowed the deer to escape down hill from me only to gain comfort when reaching another section of the trail. It wasn’t long before I would catch back up like slender man, and strike fear into the hearts of the deer, making them charge down hill yet again. But what was I to do? They kept heading down the trail, just straight down, from switch back clearing to switch back clearing. This went on like a rinse and repeat cycle, until momma deer went downhill, and baby deer went uphill. I passed between both of them. I watch the mom just standing still as I ran by thinking, ‘Sweet she looks chill and this whole thing is over.’ Now that I took the time to write this story, I realize she was probably pooping her figurative pants and totally afraid I was between her and her kid. Still, I ran past and blissfully thought that was the end of it until I heard hooves… some loud, heavy, and fast coming hooves. While I was watching the mom and thinking the whole thing was over, the baby deer decided it was a good time to use the high ground he seized and line up his target: ME. His head was straight down, the bald of it aimed right at me, about center of mass. All I could think was, keep running. I did and it didn’t really help. If I thought I was in youth on the trail, this fawn’s cup overflowed. He gained on me. At this point I wasn’t really scared, more shocked that this experience had gone on for this long, but also feeling like I had to prepare to take a stand. I had no feelings of hurting the deer and understood it was probably just afraid because some big, stinky, hairy beast man had been chasing him and the only thing he loves, his mom, for at least an annoying amount of time. I also understood I wasn’t going to leave myself completely defenseless against an on-coming charge and get clapped by a deer. So I turned around just slightly to see the deer, and as I did I made eye contact with the deer, and home boy wasn’t having it. He peaced out and ran back to his mom.”
“You’re lucky the mom didn’t go after you,” I told him as we walked to Angel’s Rest Hostel.
“He figured it out,” Markus finished, taking a bite of one of our new protein bars.
We did a work-for-stay at Angel’s Rest Hostel that evening and, when we finished helping out, we watched Rambo on an old VHS tape with a group of the other hikers who were staying there. It was at Angel’s Rest when we first learned of the Appalachian Trail Hiker Yearbooks. They had a stack of them from the past few years on the living room table, and I spent some time looking through them. The next day on our hike out of town, we took pictures to send off to Odie, the yearbooks’ creator, and I pre-ordered a copy for myself.
We were nearing central Virginia and another visit from family, this time Markus’s parents were meeting us in Daleville. The Virginia blues were still far from my mind as we climbed out of Pearisburg, but Markus was experiencing the mental fatigue. Since the visit from his brothers, his thoughts were turning frequently homeward and he was beginning to lose his motivation to stay on trail. He began to do certain rituals every few days to help distract him or change his attitude. One of the most memorable was when he asked to carry my pack 1,500 feet up to Audie Murphy Monument.
“Of course you can,” I agreed without a moment’s hesitation.
To speak to his abilities, he still beat me up that mountain, but he was happy to hand me back my pack at the summit. Moods momentarily elevated, we ate lunch at Trout Creek before climbing up to Cove Mountain. The climb up was easy and, once we leveled out on the ridge, I called my mom to check in. The wind began to pick up as we hiked along, blowing towards a small group of dark storm clouds in the distance. We kept an eye on them, but were satisfied with the direction they seemed to be headed. It wasn’t until we were nearing the 500-foot climb to the summit, that we realized instead of growing smaller, they were actually drawing closer.
“Mom, I’m going to have to call you back. We’re going to get rained on in a moment…”
I hung up just as the first wave of thunder rumbled through the mountain. My instinctual reaction was to quicken our pace and rush down the trail, as if we could outrun the storm. The thunder was so loud it shook the ground we were standing on. I remember having a brief thought that maybe we should leave the trail and head down the mountain, but as soon as that thought came to mind, the rain started. Earsplitting lightning cracked directly overhead, cancelling out all other noise in the shattering boom.
The brief survival notes I had taken before trail came to mind and I drew Markus from the path. My notes had been extensive enough to tell me to crouch low and for us to keep away from each other, but not enough so to tell me crouching near to a boulder at the top of a mountain wasn’t a good idea. When the lightning struck the rock, my very bones felt like they were electric. The sensation started in my head and shot out through my feet before I could even register what happened. My head felt as if I had cracked it against the rock despite being nearly a foot away from it. Markus and I looked at each other, eyes wide. Out of shock, we started laughing.
The storm passed nearly as quickly as it came, leaving behind a light drizzle of rain and a pair of trembling hikers. We knew we had been incredibly lucky and I made a mental note to immediately descend the next time we encountered a storm.
My previous elation quieted after being struck by lightning. By the time we crawled from the woods to Dragon’s Tooth, all I wanted was to get off the mountain. The climb down started off treacherous. On a sunny day, the rock hopping and bare stone slabs would’ve been an exciting obstacle, but as the stones were slick with rain, I edged forward with exceptional caution. Markus was content with stopping once we made it back to the treeline, but I was determined to finish our descen. What had started as a pleasant morning was ending in a miserable day and my only desire was to be out of elevation and deep in the trees.
It was after dark when we arrived at Newport Road to set up camp near the drainage ditch on the other side. Markus offered to visit Catawba Grocery just a tenth of a mile down the street and returned annoyed a little later after realizing I had directed him the wrong way. Eventually, he came back with two big bags of salt and vinegar chips and a pair of Sprites.
“Markus,” I began, accepting my bag of chips. “I appreciate you getting this, but have you eaten an entire bag of salt and vinegar chips in one sitting before?”
“No…?” he said, confused.
“We are not in for a good time,” I told him, opening my bag.
We fell asleep that night to the sensation of hairline fissures coating the inside of our mouths, but I was grateful the rain had passed overnight. We were due to arrive in Daleville the next day and tried to set ourselves up for an easy hike into town. At one of the first shelters we passed, we met a pair of hikers lounging in the clearing. Sprinkles was rolling herself a cigarette when we approached and Dirtbag greeted us friendly as we sat down at the picnic table. They were a cheery pair, who had started hiking together after continuously running into each other. We talked with them a while and we all started to make our way to McAfee Knob. With the threat of rain on the horizon, we climbed steadily up to the knob, passing day hikers as they descended back to the safety of their cars.
We took a brief respite at the summit and snapped some pictures as the storm clouds began to roll in. The four of us raced the rain over Tinker Cliffs before settling early at Lamberts Meadow Shelter just before the sky opened up. In the morning, we left together, with Markus and the highly competitive Sprinkles taking off in a race into town. I followed behind the faster hikers more slowly, not even attempting to keep pace. We were supposed to hike along the Tinker Ridge into Daleville, but when I got to that point on the map, I was a little confused. Looking up the cliff to the ridgeline above, I had assumed we would be walking on the top of the ridge, not the bottom. It was interesting down here though and there were a few shallow caves that you could dip into. I continued walking along, thinking the trail would eventually lead back up to the ridge, when it abruptly stopped.
Looking around, I swore loudly. This wasn’t the trail. I searched around for a few minutes, trying to find a path that would lead beyond the pile of rocks and bramble in front of me, but there was nothing to be found.
“Oh come on man…” I moaned, turning back around.
I prided myself on my navigational skills, the one natural talent I had on this entire trail, but I had managed to get myself turned around. As I hiked bitterly back along the trail, I thought I knew exactly where I had gone wrong. There was an intersection a mile or so back that I had continued straight through.
“I should’ve went right…” I muttered to myself as I plodded along.
I found the intersection easily and took extra time to ensure I was taking the correct trail. A while later, I caught up with Markus, Dirtbag, and Sprinkles, who had taken refuge under a cliff with a few other hikers to avoid the rain that had started. I sloshed into the natural shelter shivering.
“I was wondering where you were,” Markus said, a little concerned. “Are you okay?”
“Took the wrong way,” I told him, wiping the water from my face.
“Did you go straight?” he laughed, knowing exactly where I went astray.
My teeth chattered noisily as I nodded.
When the rain relented a bit, we pushed forward through the drizzle the rest of the way to Daleville. Markus was ecstatic to see his parents when they arrived a few hours later. We spent the evening with them, eating as much food as we could and relaxing. They left the next day, but offered for us to stay an extra night at the hotel to rest up before we continued onward. Unwilling to buy food, we took stacks of muffins from the continental buffet and spent the day lounging in our beds watching TV.
True to our post-zero-day trend, we made it about eleven miles to Wilson Creek Shelter before calling it a day. Well rested, we were able to easily cruise over the Blue Ridge Parkway the next morning, ending at Jennings Creek where we pitched our tents near a father and son, who had an elaborate tent set-up prepared for a summer of camping. The next afternoon, we met up with Bubba & Daisy, Gaines, Goat, and Lt Dan before the James River Foot Bridge, the longest foot-use-only bridge on the AT. They were heading to Glasgow, since there was a free Hiker’s Shelter that offered easy access to resupplies and hot showers. We were easily persuaded to join them on their hitch to the rural mountain town. We did some laundry and stocked up on some snacks at the Dollar General before lounging around a campfire in the lazy evening.
We were due for our third visit from family, this time from my mom, my neighbor Marty, and her friend. Over the next few days, we cruised over the Virginia landscape and rolled into Waynesboro, eager for our final scheduled visit from family.
Waynesboro is a large, hiker-friendly town, and the Waynesboro Parks and Recreation allows for hikers to pitch their tents in a field near the South River. When we arrived, we found Sprinkles and Dirtbag relaxing among the general rabble. Our visitors were due to arrive the next day, so Markus and I went to check out the local YMCA, which offers free showers to hikers, before heading up the road to Ming Garden for the hands-down BEST All-You-Can-Eat Chinese buffet I have ever had in my life. From the classics, to fresh shrimp and muscles on ice, and to a sushi bar, we weren’t even turned off when they put us in the back section with the other hiker trash, far away from their respectable customers.
My neighbor had booked us rooms at the beautiful Mimslyn Inn in Luray, VA, which Markus and I were a little worried they weren’t going to let us in. Had they seen the state of our room once we had turned out two thru hiker backpacks, I’m sure they would’ve kicked us out. My mom and Marty also came bearing gifts, including: luxury snacks, my first-ever paid massage, and a brand new backpack for me.
The Jansport pack I had purchased for this trip was too big when I started the trail and, by this point, it was sitting on my hips, a good 6 inches below where it was supposed to rest. They had bought me a green Deuter ACT Lite, and I loved that backpack. Compared to my Jansport, it was incredibly comfortable and I spent the rest of the trail praising Deuter.
My mom joined Markus and I for a day of slack-packing in Shenandoahs, while Marty and her friend went for an easy hike to a waterfall. We started off strong and encountered a bear immediately upon entering the woods. My mom still loves telling the story of how we heard a rustle in the brush–Is that a squirrel?–and then the head of a black bear popped out of the ferns. We looked at it and it looked at us, not 10 feet away.
“Get out of here bear!” I said sternly before it ran away from us, stopping much too soon to watch us go past.
My mom at this point in the retelling dies from laughter: “All I was thinking was ‘Where’s my camera’, which is not the thing I should’ve been thinking, and the next thing I know you just took off! Nearly running away from it!”
“It was way too friendly with people,” I always defend myself, “made me nervous.”
We ended our hike a little early though, as when we started climbing up Blackrock, my back started spasming. I’ve had back spasms since my freshman year of college, but they typically only occur when I either sit or stand without proper support for too long. The entire time I was on trail, I had never had any back pain (although the pain had re-centered itself elsewhere), and this sudden resurgence was crippling. I could barely stand straight as we climbed up the hill to the mound of boulders at the peak. The pain went away nearly as quickly as it came once I was able to ease myself into the hotel hot tub.
We had heard of the opportunity to aqua blaze through the Shenandoahs along the Shenandoah River. It’s not the purist approach to hiking the AT, but we were eager to create our own adventure on trail. As a parting gift, our visitors dropped us off at Shenandoah River Adventures and we spent the next three days putting our teamwork skills to the test. With our packs secured to the bottom of a canoe, we rode the rapids, made some new friends, and took in the sights as we glided down the river. The lack of support in the canoe did little for my back, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
The shuttle dropped us back off in Luray, and we were able to find a place to crash for the night with one of the employees at the local outfitters. We got a ride back to the trail in the morning and spent the next few days wrapping up our time in Virginia. We met up with Dirtbag and Sprinkles again at Rod Hollow Shelter, where they had pitched their hammocks inside the dining pavilion out of the rain. We spent the evening hanging out with them, and crossed the 1,000 mile mark in the morning.
Despite what everyone says about Virginia, the state passed rather easily for me. With our ample visitors and the diversity of sights to see, there was rarely a dull moment. We soon learned, however, the real challenge was yet to come.