Mile 587.1 Bland, VA

Looks like it has been 10 days since I last posted. I hoped to post earlier but did not find a computer to do so.
The trail has smoothed out a bit compared to the Georgia and North Carolina sections. Either that, or I’m just far improved on my hiking abilities. After Hampton TN I did my first 30 mile day. (Technically it was 29.9 trail miles between the two places I camped. But, I also had to do a .4 mile round trip at the shelter in the evening to get water) Near the end of the day I ran into Banyan who I had previoulsy known from Elmer’s hostel in Hot Springs. Banyan had eaten some bad wild ramps and was throwing up on the side of the road. When I made it to the shelter a couple miles further I found that Shrockets was also throwing up. I mentioned to WhyNot that Banyan was in the same condition and they quickly figured out it was all because of ramps. WhyNot had been cooking them and about to eat them when I came by. She quickly threw them out. (Note: WhyNot is attempting the last leg of a triple crown – she has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail and is now doing the AT.)
It was on this 29.9 hike that my downhill running finally caught up to me. I fell 3 times, so I certainly should have learned my lesson and wisened up. But, I’m stubborn. So the third fall got me pretty good. It was also the least expected. I saw nothing on the trail; no roots, no rocks, nothing. But something caught my toe and I went down quickly. The hiking poles did nothing to save me. I went facefirst and most of the fall landed on my right wrist and arm. Fortunately my arm landed in mud which softened the blow. The only bad cuts were on my right leg and knee, but I managed to have some cuts on each of the body’s limbs. I used my remaining purified drinking water to clean the mud off so I could tend to the wounds. I used up all of the triple antibiotic I had and realized that none of the bandages I had were big enough to do anything so I left the wounds uncovered.
The next day was just a 12 mile hike down to Damascus. This section is known as the Damascathon because it is relatively easy and so people put in big miles to make it to town. Damascus is THE trail town. There are 3 outfitters and the city only has a 1,000 population. It hosts the biggest festival of the year – Traildays.
In Damascus I sat down at about quarter to 10 AM at the BlueBlaze cafe. I don’t generally like breakfast food so I ordered a pizza. They informed me that they don’t turn on the pizza oven until 11. Not to be detered I ordered French Toast for breakfast and preemptively ordered an 11 AM large Pepperoni and Pineapple for myself. Come 11:30 I’m told the pizza oven isn’t working properly and it would be some time. At 12:30 they bring me a free peach cobbler with ice cream. I took leave of the cafe for a bit and visit the outfitter. When I came back the pizza was finally done. I think this was 1:30 or so. I ended up getting the whole order for free. Many starving hikers were jealous upon hearing the story.
Also in Damascus I got a couple packages at the post office. One from my friend Jesse who’s big into hiking herself. She sent me a lot of homebaked goods which were fantastic. My sister also sent me a package which included bandages actually large enough for my cuts even though she didn’t know I had such injuries! It also had a single package of laundry detergent which was perfect timing as I next headed to the laundromat. (While at the laundromat, despite my massive food experience at the cafe, I managed to down a chocolate shake from Dairy King.) That’s right, not Dairy Queen but Dairy King. Anyways, the package from my sister was a bit of a surprise, but she’s really become way more awesome now that she’s had Emily. I guess motherhood makes you think about other people more, and her experience hiking Europe probably informed her on what type of stuff I might need.
The next day hiking out of Damascus I saw more wild flowers than every day of my life combined. As soon as I find a library that doesn’t restrict file uploads I will be sure to post all of these.
I came up to Whitetop Bald in a serious wind storm. Wind estimates I’ve heard of 40-70 mph. Plus it was raining and below 50 F. I took a couple videos of the wind with my camera and felt like I was a weatherman covering a hurricane. At one point I came to a road that had a solid stone building bathroom, not a wood privy like most places on the trail. I warmed up for about 30 minutes with 5 others in this small unisex bathroom and then decided to make a run across the bald. Scout (a middle-aged businesswoman from Maine and previous hiker of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain) braved the storm with me. We made it across the bald in the cold wind and finally made it to a treeline where the wind died down. Immediately the first wild pony came out of the woods to visit us and look for a food handout. There are many tourists in the Grayson Highlands so the ponies are quite used to getting food. The elevation over the bald is around 5000 ft and I figured it would get worse as I got higher into the Grayson Highlands, but Whitetop turned out to be the worst of the wind. I had hiked much of it half-crouched down to reduced my wind signature. I had to stand on an angle with my right shoulder into the wind to counteract the force and keep balance. Scout and I walked most of the rest of the day together and saw 6 or 7 other ponies on the other side of the highlands where the storm had subsided.
The weather on the Grayson Highlands was a surprise. I hiked through the area on a Saturday and was previously told that the rain wasn’t coming until Sunday. I had hiked somewhat aggressively to get to the Highlands on a nice day but to no avail. This was the start of the spring rains which really haven’t ceased even until now, a week later. I’m not a fan of walking in the rain so I’ve had to do some work to avoid the worst of it.
Knowing the rain was coming in on Sunday I made a short 5 mile (+ 2.5 mile road walk) to Troutdale VA where there is a Baptist Church Hostel. I made it to the hostel by 9 AM, showered, and got to the 10 AM Bible Study and 11 AM church service. 8 out of the 9 of us staying at the hostel went to the church service! The one guy who did not go already had the trailname “Sinner” and claimed not to have been to church in 7 years. I let him know that the rest of us down at the church certainly were sinners as well. The church itself was incredibly small and the congregation was only twice as numerous as the visiting hikers. The pastor, as I found out, also works as a farmer some 45 miles away. Although a Baptist, he graduated from the Presbyterian Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia back in the 80’s. He and his wife brought a great dinner to us hikers on Sunday night and ran the hostel as a donation-based ministry. As Troutdale has no services of any type I managed to get a ride after church to Marion VA where there are stores for resupply. The man who drove me, Ron, brought me to the Mexican restaurant (on Cinco de Mayo) and paid for my meal. He then drove me to the grocery store and to McDonalds where I picked up burgers for Sinner back at the hostel. Ron even brought me back to the hostel, having spent over an hour and a half helping me out! We had a great conversation in the car and restaurant about theology and I found out he was even knowledgeable about my favored theologian, Gordon Clark.
Knowing that it was going to rain again on Monday I stayed at the Baptist hostel for a second night. However, I did not want to make 0 miles down the trail, so I got a ride from the pastor’s wife 15 miles down the trail and walked southbound with a slackpack of only a few emergency items back to the hostel. I got rained on almost the whole time for over 5 hours, but most of my gear was safe and dry back at the church hostel.
Finding a morning break in the weather the next day I resumed my northbound direction with a full pack for 12 miles and made it to Atkins VA just before a big storm rolled in. In this stretch there were 5 or 6 flooded stream crossings which necessitated getting my feet entirely soaked. There was no way to jump over the streams safely and thus it was best just to walk in them. I later heard that another hiker named Headbones slipped a few times into the stream in these crossings. Atkins seems like a promising place with a hotel, gas station, and restaurant. However, the hotel was run-down and the restaurant was cafeteria style. Exhausted and waiting out the storms I stayed for a 0-day in Atkins and ate at the restaurant multiple times. About 30 other hikers also stayed at the hotel, usually 5 or 6 to a room to save cash. I knew many of these hikers and it almost seems like a reunion of sorts to all hang out on the motel porch for the evening.
On my third and final visit to the “Barn” restaurant I had one of the more awkward experiences in life. A 50-something year old local man came up to our table and broke into our conversation with his own conversation. He wasn’t drunk or mentally retarded so I wasn’t sure at first what he was up to. He told inappropriate jokes and ruined our evening for about 10 minutes. When he finally told a joke with a Michael Jackson-styled crotch grab I realized he was some sort of pervert. I got up from my chair to assert that it was time for him to leave. I first made sure he didn’t have any weapons and then I realized I was quite a bit taller and bigger than him. I repeated my request for him to leave and turned him in the direction of the door. He got the message and went to pay at the counter. The waitress who wrung him up later told me that he asked her to go home with him. My table was glad that I got him to leave as they were also uncomfortable with his presence. Another 15 or so hikers were at other tables and one asked me “did something just happen.” It managed not to cause much of a scene but just a brief distraction.
Having had more than enough of Atkins and knowing there would be a possible 2-day window without rain I made 23 and 22 miles in consecutive days. The first night I made it to the Chestnut Knob Shelter which is the first fully-enclosed shelter with a door that I’ve seen on the trail. Apparently it was built to house people working at a fire tower which is no longer existent. I met a Amish family (a dad and 4 kids) who had hiked up 2 miles from there farm just for the view. I talked him for a while about farming (I found out the yellow fields in the valley were of Alfalfa and mustard seed) and learned he was of the Old Order Amish and just 1 of 3 families who recently moved to the valley. All 4 of the kids (from ages about 6 to 12) smiled a lot but let their dad do all of the talking. They must have been tough kids as they did their whole hike without any water bottles of any kind.
Yesterday I made it to Bland VA which is well, you guessed it, Bland. I met up with Stumbles, Temp, and Newton and got a room at the Big Walker motel just before a storm including hail came in. The mountains seem to produce more frequent storms than elsewhere in the country.
The miles have been tough and so I’m talking a short day of maybe 10-12 miles today after some business here in Bland. Most of the ultralight gear is not designed to be robust and little things are slowly breaking – shoe laces, pack latches, socks, hiking poles, etc. It is getting warmer and more humid outside so the sweat and bugs are starting to appear. My ultralight backpack has no frame and thus rests along my whole back and both my shirt and pack get covered in sweat. I often reverse the shirt 3 or 4 times a day to reduce the possibility of “pack rash” on my back. I thinking of switching to a more traditional internal frame pack for the summer months. Also in the next few weeks I’ll likely switch to a summer sleeping bag and reduce some weight in clothes I no longer need. I’m quite a bit in front of the pace I was expecting and thus am hiking in the front group with many fast hikers. This can be frustrating trying to keep up with them. Many of them are marathon runner or experienced hikers from past years or other trails. I’m doing my best to “hike my own hike” and make my own decisions but sometimes I’m tempted to do big miles when persuaded by another hiker’s plans.
I met a girl named WarCry who happened to have gone to Wake Forest University the same time I was there. She graduated from the undergrad accounting school the same year I graduated from the MBA school. We knew some of the same teachers and talked about how the two schools have since merged.
Some of the uphills still make me question if it’s all worth it. The nice sections, great experiences, and towns sometimes seem not to outweigh the pain and discomfort of the difficult parts of the hike. It often becomes a job to get many miles and then you miss out entirely on the scenery or experience. I think most of this doubt was on a particularly rough section yesterday and after having hiked many miles the day before. Certainly if we get some more sun and less rain our spirits will improve.
I guess it also happened between the last post and this one that my brother Mike got a job. He’ll be teaching history in the Fall as an Associate Professor at James Madison University. This looks to be a pretty good school and after many years of studying, writing, publishing, and working it is great to see that it has finally paid off for him. Plus, with me no longer working its good to see somebody in the family has a job.
I don’t really have any plans coming up. I’m just going to keep moving down the trail. Plans never work out on the trail. I’m a couple days from what looks like the best hostel on the trail and also close to Pearisburg where I’ll get another mail drop. I hope the rain stops soon as well as the muddy conditions and overflowing streams have really slowed down progress on the trail.