Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chapter 2 - The Good the Bad: Virginia

Things on the Trail sometimes take days to catch up to you. I was pushing hard and making good miles. I also wasn't eating enough calories, my appetite hadn't kicked into high gear yet, and the foods I had were occasionally disgusting me. I had bags and bags of almonds that I had stopped eating. Honey Stinger protein bars I had to choke down. Clif bars were lumps of re-processed bear poo in my mind.
I did some big days over massive mountains, over Unaka Mountain one day, the next over Roan, Little Hump, and Hump. The day after my energy waned quickly, over easier terrain I made it to a hostel that I hadn't planned on staying at, but the lure of rest and 'real' food was enchanting. I skipped most of my lunch that day and when I got to the hostel I bought a pizza cooked it and then couldn't eat that either, I just had absolutely no appetite for it. I put it in bags and took it with me the next day. What I was able to eat, however, was a pint of Ben and Jerry's. I knew I had to eat something, between the listlessness and lower miles, I was in need of the energy. That night at 3am I got up to a roiling stomach, I ran to the privy and lost the ice cream in a matter of seconds. Not only had I now skipped a meal or two I couldn't keep food down!
I still had the specter of making it to Damascus in a few days to meet Dan. I had tried to build in an extra day for myself to get there and take a half day off before he got there, but to do that I had been pushing pushing pushing everyday. The day after I got sick I was only able to make 11 miles, figuring if I felt better I could make up the lost time. I came to a road crossing at Dennis Cove Rd, I could turn right and get a private room or left and go to Kincora hostel; I was hiking with a guy that was going to Kincora and decided to follow him there. I made a mistake! I was able to eat, get a ride to a grocery store for some town food, but the place was very crowded, it had rained during the day so many hikers were showing up for a roof as well. I went to bed early feeling very run down and in need of a good sleep, which I couldn't get. First one extremely self-inflating girl wouldn't shut up about her awesome exploits, most of which were about how she had no money and went from town to town to play her instrument to get some spending cash to go up the Trail to the next town. Then Tree Piper showed up. This guy had already made a name for himself at Uncle Johnny's when he stayed up all night playing (extremely poorly, I should add) a recorder. A recorder, like the one almost every 1st grader is forced to play for a year. High-pitched and shrill, he whistled his recorder into the night directly below the bunk room despite numerous pleadings by people and Baltimore Jake to stop. On top of this the hostel was overrun by cats, which would be fine if any of them had been treated with Frontline; they hadn't been and were covered in fleas. I didn't sleep deeply or well and was out as early as I could be. My energy sucked even worse, and it was raining and I was now behind schedule with no hope of a day off and doubt whether I could even make it to Damascus in time. On top of all that, looking at a map I noticed the Trail went up 2000 feet and down 2000 feet in a matter of 6 miles over Pond Mountain with no views, or a road walk of 2 miles to skip that entire pointless mountain. Frustrated I decided to walked to Hampton, TN and got a shuttle to Damascus and to take a zero. I felt very bad that I was even contemplating a Yellow Blaze, but the more I thought about how little fun I was having and how much I was really hurting myself to the point of possibly having to quit the more I can to terms with the necessity of jumping to Damascus. I missed 46 miles of TN. I missed the border of VA. I have every intention of going back a couple days before Trail Days next year and hiking in to complete that gap!

Right before Pond Mountain, a mt I have not climbed
I rented a room at a house downtown, and I was the only one staying there, so the entire house was mine! I was able to relax and walk the small town to get food and look in the outfitters for a new tent. Sundog had a Black Diamond Ultra Lite tarp tent that could easily fit both Dan and myself and was only a pound. I bought it and packaged the old heavy tent to send home with Dan's wife. Because the tarp was floorless I bought a piece of Tyvek to lay on the ground to sleep on top of and keep clean.
Dan arrived at around noon a day later. He was very excited to begin his first backpacking trip. I was excited to be doing smaller days, and to be hanging out with a good friend! This was what my body needed, a nice easy pace and realistic goals.

Dan took to hiking like a duck takes to water. He soon found himself a laurel branch to use as a hiking staff, and he really enjoyed the woods around him. We stopped often that first day to enjoy the warm sun, and look at whatever there was to look at. The Trail side slabbed a mountain before descending back to a bike trail and following that for a bit over an old railroad bridge. The trees in the area are big and old and our first campsite lay beneath a pine stand, the soft needles making for a great bed with the new tent.
The next week was lots of fun. Woodteeth (as became Dan's Trail name) and I had good conversation, and fun adventures. On Grayson Highlands we were transported to Scotland. The blowing wind and mist, around the low scrub brush, and the ponies visiting out of the mist was other-worldly.
Despite having rain for a couple days, or spirits were high and the miles rolled easily. Here we stood on the highest mountain in Virginia, and we had hardly gotten winded getting there. We came over balds and through wind swept scrub pine forest on some of Virginia's most interesting terrain. We were meeting cool people and seeing them almost daily, another thing that hadn't happened often during the first 500 miles of this trip. There was a sense of excitement in the air. Trail Days was approaching the following weekend, and many hikers were hiking south to get there, or planning on getting shuttles or hitches from Marion, VA. We saw more people this week than I had seen for weeks previously. The woods were alive with spring and festival excitement.

Towards the end of the week I presented Dan with an option to do a 20 mile day to get to Partnership Shelter, a famous shelter that has a shower, is two stories, and most importantly can get pizza delivered to it. He was game and we woke early and rolled through those miles. We made awesome time and were at the shelter by early afternoon, that was the quickest most comfortable 20 miles I'd done yet! We had plenty of time to get a good tent spot under some pine trees, order a pizza, get soda from the vending machine, and mingle with a bunch of hikers. I was taking the same amount of time off that most of these hikers were also taking off, I expected I would see them on the other side of the weekend. When I came back from Cara's birthday weekend and they came back from Trail Days. I, however, didn't see them again. Nor did I ever hear about most of them ever again. One kid I saw again doing a day hike in Connecticut after quitting. The rest I either out-paced or never got back on after Trail Days. I would be stuck in a hiker-free bubble after my time with Dan, always a day ahead or a day behind a bunch of people I could never seem to sync up with. But that is a story for later!

 Dan and I enjoyed fantastic weather the last couple days, walking though fields and lowlands as we came down out of the highlands of VA. We approached Atkins not wanting our hiking time to be over, but as inevitably happens, time grows short and life must resume.
I had a rental car come pick us up at a gas station in Atkins and we drove back towards Richmond where I would drop Dan off and continue on home to spend a long weekend with Cara for her birthday. We went to Southeast PA and went hot air ballooning, from 3000 feet up in the basket I could see the mountains I would be hiking on in a few weeks. I wondered if I could see the balloon from those mountains?

The answer was 'maybe' - I did see a balloon way off in the distance, just barely visible to the eye, I could tell it was red, but there was no way to know if that was ours. But I'd like to think that it was!

After that wonderful weekend, I began eating even more. I went to the grocery store with Cara and she pointed out some things I should add. I now was carrying bagels and wraps, protein powder and cream cheese. I was determined to start eating better. Here I was 40 days in and 20 pounds lighter! I looked sickly, my face hollow. Cara was concerned for my health, as was I. If I lost any more weight I would probably have to quit, I was on the brink of starving myself!
Thus armed with caloric goodness I arrived back in Atkins late in the afternoon and began hiking north once more, the whirlwind weekend of nice restaurants, floating weightlessly in the sky, and sleeping in my bed after a nice trip to a winery passed in a snap, a dream come and gone too quickly. I did have the promise of seeing Cara again in a few short weeks near Roanoke or somewhere around there, before or after. I was determined not to set a hard date and place as I had previously!
I hiked through a spring that was quickly heating towards summer, Southern VA passes over dozens of stiles, having a right of way through pastures.
The Trail would ascend a ridgeline and follow a ridgeline for many miles before going down through the pastureland again. The Trail was so easy, however there were very rarely any views, and the heat and humidity were making for stinky sticky nights. The bugs were beginning to come out more, sleeping in a floorless tent made for some interesting visitors. I wonder what crawled over me while I slept?
I was occasionally having bouts of doubt about continuing. I became very lonely and bored with the terrain. I think I would have loved this section had I had a partner to hike with. As it was I was fighting the Trail again. I was frustrated at the lack of views, I was wanting harder terrain just to occupy my mind. I would be exuberant on a cool beautiful morning, with a campsite alone and a view to die for.

Then I would start hiking and get frustrated all over again. This elusive bubble of hikers I kept hearing about from section hikers heading south, "There's 10 hikers just a day ahead". So I did big miles again, and with the addition of more food I was physically able to push through and not get weak. I was running into my mental barriers now, I was fighting loneliness and an urge to be done with the Trail.
A hike of this length puts a person through all these trials. Here I was at close to 700 miles and I was still just getting my head wrapped around it. My body was just getting adjusted to the trek, my mind wasn't there yet! Virginia just seemed to keep on going with very little change in scenery. The rolling hills, the pasture land, and the long seemingly boring ridge walks. The green tunnel, as it is so aptly called.
Smiley on one of the many pasture walks
I went to Woods Hole Hostel and loved it there, I took a blue blaze to get to a store and see Dismal Falls, I stayed in Pearisburg and was depressed at what a shithole the place turned out to be. I did some good days, and was generally happy, but lonely. I pushed and got to McAfee Knob one evening, only 2 other people were up there. I know that place can be a mad-house so I was glad about the timing, also glad there was someone there to take my picture on the most photographed spot on the Trail!
Dragons Tooth and McAfee Knob in one day, followed by Tinker Cliffs and getting into town to meet up with Cara the next. This part of Virginia became really exciting! After all that time of boredom I was making progress, moving through Virginia. I had even hiked the next section before. I had hiked the part following the Blue Ridge Parkway up to Thunder Ridge shelter with my brother in 2005.
I spent a good weekend with Cara, visiting the first annual Trail Days in Troutville, VA, finding a fun winery, and just riding around enjoying ourselves.
Back on the Trail after a nice weekend I got to James Face Wilderness area, and was back into new territory again heading down to the James River. I thought after the spectacular sights of Tinker Cliffs that maybe the Trail would spice up again, but I quickly sank back into my 'green-tunnel-funk' the days passing much like the one before. The pastures and ridge-walks not all that different. I started doing even bigger miles, I could feel the halfway point just ahead, I felt like I was in my back yard, connecting different sections I had hiked before, like the Three Ridges Wilderness area, and having driven down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I pushed and pushed and the scenery didn't change much, I did several marathon+ days, just because I could. This part of Virginia felt like running in water at the time though. I would do a bunch of really big days, feel great, look on the map and see I still had a LOT of Virginia left!
I finally made it to Shenandoah and pushed to get through there as fast as I could. I was still alone every day and night, the campsites were no good, I would wake up frequently from bugs and the thought of bugs. My mental state was quickly deteriorating. I was passing views, just a few tenths off the Trail, but I had this desire to make this big miles so I wouldn't stop. I had mile fever and wouldn't pull up to go and look at what the Trail had to offer.
Anthony and Liz came and visited after my first and only 29 mile day, I slept illegally in a picnic area close to Big Meadows where we met the following day. I ate a lot and we rock scrambled and hiked down to a waterfalls. It was a good day to see some of the sights I had been missing.

After they left the weather turned and the campsites got worse, I pushed and found myself on the front of PATC cabin in the mist and rain. The next day was worse, blowing mist and rain, but still way too hot for rain gear. I was frustrated and determined to get out of Shenandoah. I hiked along the Skyline some and some on the Trail, as they were so close as to be indistinguishable. A guy stopped and offered me a ride, and Cara later called and determined that she was coming to get me that afternoon, there must have been a note in my voice that gave me away. I spent the day in a hotel in Front Royal watching the rain fall outside. Cara got me we drove home.

I wasn't sure if I was coming back. Part of me wanted to call it right then and not see any more of the Trail, to get a good night sleep in a bed, to eat good food, and be with the one I love...

Part 3