Its said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you’ve spent much time following along here you’ll know that after each hike I promise to myself and the world that I will be physically prepared for the next season. Those promises are rarely fulfilled and the results are…well…painful. Very, very painful. Despite being six years my senior, Deep Woods remains fairly active year-round. He has no problem stepping on the trail once a year and knocking off a hundred miles. Generally speaking, my active life-style boils down to coming home from work, parking my butt in the recliner, drinking a liter of Coke and eating a bowl of ice cream…while watching other people hike on YouTube! I will then go do the same hundred miles, “death mark” style, and make more promises once I collapse at the finish line. Rinse and repeat, year after year. If that’s not insane (or just plain stupid), I don’t know what is.
Besides my lack of initiative with respect to getting into shape leading up to our 80 mile trek from VA 42 to Pearisburg VA, I made three crucial errors. One: looking over the elevation profile for the hike led me to believe that it would be no more daunting than what I had previously conquered. Less so in fact. Get out of the recliner, put on the pack and start walking. Simple as that. Sure, there would be some pain along the way but I’ve gotten through it before, right? Good plan! It was far more daunting than I anticipated. Two: in the 10-1/2 hours it took us to drive to Pearisburg, I had exactly 1/2 cup of coffee and 1 large Coke. No water, no Gatorade, nothing else. I was as parched as the Sahara and I don’t think I ever fully recovered. Three: we left straight from work, around 4:30 PM and drove nearly straight through. We caught just a couple of hours of sleep at a rest stop before continuing on. How Deep Woods does that and then immediately starts hiking is a mystery to me. I can’t wrap my brain around it. He’s not human. I generally don’t sleep well when riding in a car anyway so by the time our shuttle dropped us off at the trail head, I believe I could have called it a day right there.
Besides the fact that I’m not getting any younger, there are a couple of other health-related factors that may have played into the difficulties I experienced this hike but there’s no denying that I’m overweight and out of shape. And I made a huge mistake not staying well hydrated just prior to setting off. Time, I suppose, for more promises. And if I can put down the Coke and get out of the recliner, some real action. But first, the tale of the trail.
Despite everything I mentioned above, it was a fun hike. Well, it had many fun moments. There were some interesting things to see along the way and no crowds to fight. We enjoyed a lot of solitude for most of the trip. Early September isn’t exactly an ideal time for a hike in the Appalachians but it was the only time we could squeeze it in. It was warm, humid and buggy a good portion of the time. We got a good soaking when rain moved in on us for an hour or so one afternoon and some light rain one evening. Otherwise, it was another dry trek. We both agreed that it wasn’t our favorite section thus far but it was great to be putting some miles under our feet all the same. Considering the times, it was a blessing just to be out!
Enough blathering on. Let’s get on with it…
Day One: VA 42 -O’Lystery Pavilion to Campsite at Lick Creek (5.4 mi)
One of the folks from Angel’s Rest Hostel shuttled us down to the O’Lystery Pavilion and we hit the trail just after 10 AM. We were welcomed back with a short but stiff climb up Brushy Mountain right out of the gate. The effects of my lack of preparation hit home quickly and I was already cramping up by the time we hit the top, just a mile in for the day. Crazy! Some cursing on my part ensued but we pressed on, trending down a mile to Knot Maul Branch Shelter. We took a break here to eat lunch and have a look around before moving on once more.
A bit more than a mile more downhill brought us to Lynn Camp Creek. The original plan had been to call it a day here. The shuttle had been scheduled for noon and I figured that after the long drive, we would stop here and get a good night’s rest before tackling the two climbs that stood between here and Chestnut Knob. Now that we were two hours ahead of schedule, we decided to get the first of those two climbs out of the way this day. That would leave just six miles, albeit nearly all uphill, for the next day. The climb in front of us now was 600 ft over the course of one mile to the top of Lynn Camp Mountain. Nothing I hadn’t done many times before but on this day I thought my legs were going to explode! The cramps were bad enough that I would have to stop often to work them out. It didn’t help that it was now warm and humid as can be. The cursing continued. In the meantime, Deep Woods moved steadily up, dropped his pack and retreated back down, offering to carry my pack to the top. I must have looked at him like his head was screwed on backwards. No one was going to be carrying my pack for me! It might take me a while but I would get to the top…carrying my own pack, thank you…if I had to claw my way there! Just knowing he was willing to do that for me was comforting but my current predicament was of my own making and I needed to overcome it.
I finally joined back up with Deep Woods at the top and we moved on a bit more than a mile down to Lick Creek. The footbridge over the creek had been washed out some time ago but it was an easy ford to the other side. Four section hikers were there but they filtered water and moved on. We had a nice spot next to the creek all to ourselves. Camp chores out of the way, I stripped down to my underwear and plopped my sorry self in the creek for a good, cold soak. Once back on shore, I joined Deep Woods for dinner, followed by a small fire. A nice end to a very short but trying day.
Day Two: Cowboy camp at Chestnut Knob Shelter (6.0 mi)
We (or more correctly, I) slept in a bit and didn’t start walking until a bit after 10 AM. A VERY short ascent right off the bat was enough to convince me that my struggles from the day before were going to be with me for at least another day. No cramping but I lacked the strength and lungs to muscle my way up any sort of climb. I would have to be content with dropping into “Mountain Slug Gear” and inch my way up for much of the trip.
After crossing VA 625, we began the 4-1/2 mile, 2000 feet climb up to Chestnut Knob. Halfway up, the grade let up a bit and we broke free from the cover of the forest. Nearly all of the remaining trek to the top offered spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Beautiful! With the lack of cover and the sun beating down, it was an extremely warm walk but a gentle breeze and, more importantly for me at this point, gentle grade made it enjoyable all the same.
Shortly after hitting the clearing and beginning the final leg of the climb to top of the ridge, we pulled off at a sketchy-looking pond. A reliable spring is situated nearby and we tanked up on enough water to see us through until the end of the following day. Considering how much water I was now consuming in my futile effort to re-hydrate, this meant carrying a TON of water the remaining 1.8 miles for the day. This would be a common theme throughout much of the trip. Dried up water sources and hauling ridiculous amounts of water to get to the next reliable source.
We arrived at the shelter to find no one there. The forecast called for a beautiful night so we opted to cowboy camp on the clearing in front of the shelter, facing east, in the hopes of catching an equally beautiful sunrise. Just as we began to get ourselves situated, a day hiker showed up. He talked on and on but we knew he would be moving on soon. Then a large group of section hikers started filing in, one or two at a time. Deep Woods and I had already staked out our spots in the clearing but unfortunately a number of the group decided to pitch their tents within mere feet of us. I’m talking like three or four feet! Rather than moving, we chose to wait it out to see what kind of vibes we picked up from the group. By and large they were cool and we actually enjoyed talking with them. Several did stay up talking way past dark…again, just a few feet away…which was a bit annoying but it could have been much worse.
The night was indeed beautiful, though the wind picked up and every time I rolled over my quilt would blow off. (No, I haven’t put those pad straps on yet! Thanks for asking!) Had it not been for the fact that I had cinched up the end to form a foot box, it would have been blown clear off the mountain. I resorted to putting on my puffy and tucking the quilt under my torso as best I could.
Day Three: Jenkins Shelter (10.7 mi)
We all woke abruptly to the sound of my phone alarm. I had neglected to disable the alarm I use to get up for work and while the time corresponded to when we were looking to get up to catch the sunrise, the volume was set at max. I apologized profusely to all but I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t help but think that it was the perfect way of getting back at them for pitching their tents so close to me. We got the pretty sunrise we were after though. The shelter on Chestnut Ridge overlooks Burke’s Garden, also known as “God’s Thumbprint”. Burke’s is a beautiful valley completely surrounded by Garden Mountain and is occupied by an Amish community. Low clouds hung over the valley as the sun came up and no picture that either Deep Woods or I would take could do justice to the scene. Spectacular!
The wind had not completely let up yet and when I stepped away for a bit it picked up my sleeping pad and set it off on a course for the valley. Fortunately, Deep Woods was standing a short distance away and was caught by surprise when it hit him upside the head. If it wasn’t for that, some Amish dude would have been enjoying a comfortable night’s rest that evening.
With my sleeping pad safely tucked away, we got the rest of our crap together and hit the trail. A 1.4 mile descent brought us to Walker Gap. The south-bound section hikers we spent the previous night with informed us that we would find a large bear pelt draped over a log at the gap. Sure enough, there it was and it appeared to have been there for some time.
Moving on, we made our way up a short, “manageable” ascent to a rock outcropping on Garden Mountain, passing over and through some interesting rock formations on the way. A partial (and that’s being generous) view over Burke’s Garden was a good excuse for a pack-off break. Moving on, we down-shifted to a “mozy” pace. The easy grade gave me a chance to regain some composure and chug lots of water. We rode a 4,000 ft ridge above Burke’s Garden, though there were few views to be had. All the same, it was a nice walk. The cover of the forest kept the sun at bay but the humidity certainly hadn’t backed off any.
We passed on the old Davis Farm campsite, moving on North towards Jenkins Shelter. A long 3+ mile descent brought us to said shelter and we dropped the packs for a break and to contemplate our next move. Seeing as how we had the place to ourselves and content with my day of recovery, I voted to call it a day right there and Deep Woods felt the same. For me it was a matter of living to fight another day, and a challenging day was ahead of us tomorrow.
We settled in for the night, opting to stay in the shelter since we had it to ourselves. This would also enable us to get an earlier start the next day in an attempt to put as many miles behind us before yous truly succumbed to heat exhaustion. Two other hikers showed up long after dark, headlamps on high white beam, waking both of us. Fortunately, they chose to pitch their tent and left the shelter to Deep Woods and I.
Day Four: Campsite near Helveys Mill Shelter(13.5 mi)
13.5 miles and a few short stiff climbs were on tap for the day if we were to make it to our desired destination, Helveys Mill Shelter. The heat and humidity that characterized the previous two days weren’t going anywhere so we set off just after 7 AM. 600 ft of seemingly straight up right after leaving the shelter left me gasping and cursing once more. Thankfully, the trail leveled off for a bit before dropping down to an impressive footbridge over the even more impressive Laurel Creek. At this point the obvious choice was to drop the packs and wade on in and that’s exactly what we did.
Resuming our walk, we reclaimed the 600 feet of elevation lost getting down to Laurel Creek. This time the grade was more manageable. Deep Woods made it to the top quickly and parked his butt at the junction of the Trail Boss Trail to wait for me to inch my way up. I eventually made it, maintaining a steady pace for the first time this trip. Slow, mind you, but steady! Progress. The next two miles consisted of a gentle roller coaster ride, passing through a Rhododendron tunnel and up to a fantastic view over a valley and the adjacent mountains. Having already knocked off better than eight miles for the day, we chose this spot for lunch and to relax before biting off anymore.
We did eventually get moving again and thank goodness for that! It had really warmed up by this point and once again the humidity was stifling. It seemed as though my clothes never thoroughly dried out the entire trip. I was soaked in sweat the whole time. The bugs were becoming an issue as well. The pesky little no-see-ums that constantly hover in your eyes and ears. My headnet became mandatory apparel anytime we stopped.
A mile of down brought us to a power line cut that, with the exception of the towers and lines themselves, offered a nice view. Another 1.5 miles more under the canopy of the trees brought us to a gravel road and the beginning of a 1.4 mile road walk. The gravel ended at US 52, approximately 0.6 mi in. Brushy Mountain Outpost, a popular stop for hungry hikers, when it’s actually open, sits right where gravel meets pavement. We arrived at 3:00 PM on the button but unfortunately a sign on the door said they closed at two. We hadn’t come across any water since leaving Laurel Creek early on in the day. The only source available between here and Helveys Mill Shelter was a stream at the end of our road walk. Collecting from that was strongly discouraged due to deer carcasses being dumped in the vicinity. Go figure. To make matters worse, Helveys Mill was 0.3 mi off the AT and the water source for it was an additional 0.3 mi further downhill. Neither of us relished the thought of having to expend the effort of making that trek at the end of a long, hot day. What to do? I told Deep Woods we could bail and catch a shuttle to Bland and spend the night there, the idea being to catch a ride back to the trail in the morning. I wasn’t clear about that last part, “catching a ride back to the trail in the morning” and I think he interpreted my idea as to bail on the rest of the trip altogether. He admitted later that he was really disappointed and I totally understand why.
In the meantime, Deep Woods checked the perimeter of the store to see if there was a water spigot available. Nothing. That’s when fate stepped in. It came in the form of a young man from Texas out on an extended road trip. He had been sitting in his Land Cruiser in the parking lot looking over his navigation. I called over and asked he if knew where we might find some water. He says “I can take care of that” and hops out of the truck to retrieve a 5 gallon container from his personal stash. We graciously accepted the offer and collected enough to get us all the way to Jenny Knob Shelter the next day. They say the trail provides and it certainly did this day.
Moving on now, we completed the road walk, crossing over I-77 via VA 612 in the process. We re-entered the forest at Kimberling Creek (“Deer Carcass Creek”). It looked fine but we were happy to be able to pass on it. This did mean we had to lug 10 lbs of water each up a steep 1.4 mi to the shelter. I was counting my blessings for the bounty of water but with all of the additional weight we had taken on, it was an exhausting climb at the end of a long day.
We arrived at the shelter to find no one there and this time there would be no late night visitors. Just the two of us. That being the case, we chose once more to stay in the shelter and get another early start the next morning. With dinner out of the way, much energy was expended trying to get our food hung. Finding a suitable tree took some time and we finally settled on one with a limb that must have been 30 feet above our heads. Heaving Deep Woods’ meat cleaver sized carabiner over proved futile. Resorting to my much smaller biner and rock sack was a success but not before having to pick a massive birds nest out of the cord. You would think that we had never been through this exercise before. Ridiculous. Its amazing how being exhausted makes even the most simple task so difficult.
We eventually made it to bed, at which point Super Man Deep Woods, apparently not even winded from the days trek, talked on and on long after dark while I lay there in a delirious stupor, mumbling back in response.
I’ll wrap it up in the next post.
More to come…