Trail Days 2010 (Part 1)

Post-Trail Report

Monday, May 17, 2010

I am spending the day inside my house with incessant rain reminding me of my time on the Appalachian Trail last year. It is turning into a day of reflection because I have just returned from a week devoted to Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia. Actually, a lot more than just Trail Days was involved.

Fellow 2009 thru hiker Cruiser, who I met in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, approached me a month or so ago about spending almost four days and three nights hiking the Appalachian Trail, south this time, into Trail Days. I had definitely planned on going to Trail Days, but had not considered hiking in. The hiking would be a fitting mode of travel and would put us in the mood for the three-day festival. Last Monday, May 10, we met in Damascus and drove his truck to a Trail crossing near Troutdale, VA. Before hitting the Trail, we stopped at Jerry’s Grocery for supper. A friendly waitress served us the daily special of grilled chicken on pasta with a marinara sauce. You see, we only had to think about getting on the Trail, and our thoughts immediately turned to food.

We were on the Trail at 5:30, heading to the Old Orchard Shelter, only 1.7 miles away. My pack weight seemed manageable at 35 pounds, but I was unsure of my backpacking competence since I had not done any of this since my climb down Mt. Katahdin at the end of my thru hike the middle of last September. I had another concern, though. Three days before this reunion hike, I had a fairly severe accident in my backyard. I had been polyurethaning the floors in my house, and to escape the fumes, I had erected a big cabin tent in the yard for a place for my dog Millie and me to sleep. It was dark, and I was carrying a load of supplies to my new domicile. I had forgotten that I had rearranged my backyard for this new living arrangement. I walked right into a large wooden Adirondack chair. Why wasn’t I wearing my headlamp like a veteran hiker?! It was no mere grazing encounter. I practically threw myself onto and over the chair, landing hard on the ground with camping gear thrown in all directions. There was a stabbing pain in my left shin. I lay there for a minute cradling my leg. I limped back to the house and found a 10 inch gash in my leg. It was more of a bad scrape, but the bruise to my shin was significant. I cleaned myself up, applied some Neosporin, and returned to my tent, this time with headlamp illuminating the way.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. My leg was throbbing, and I couldn’t find a comfortable sleeping position. Over the next few days, I nursed the wound on my leg the best I could.

Now, on the Trail, many of my steps were painful. I did earlier show my wound to Cruiser. There was some reddening and a slight degree of swelling going on. Cruiser said, “It looks like it’s trying to get infected!” Infected! This was the last thing I needed! But I thought back to Maine where, last year, I had come down with blisters on the bottoms of my feet with only forty miles remaining in my 2,200 mile hike up the East Coast. Then, I had remembered a saying that some of my American Indian friends use about “walking in moccasin tracks.” This saying was a metaphysical way of stating that we should live our lives in tune with our ancestors, existing gently on our Mother the Earth. This saying had become my mantra as I said it over and over again and placed my footsteps carefully on the Trail. “Walk in moccasin tracks,” I thought over and over to myself now as Cruiser and I made our way up the Trail.

By 6:15 we made it to the shelter. From a distance, we could see there was already a crowd there. One figure was immediately recognizable. It was Bunyan! Bunyan was a thru hiker from last year who lived in New Jersey. He got his trail name from the fact that he is a lumberjack. Bunyan is an older hiker like Cruiser and me, but he has us beat by being about ten years younger. He is in his 50′s while Cruiser and I have crossed over into our 60′s. It was a grand reunion! We shouted out each other’s names and exchanged strong hugs. The other hikers present were likely surprised by our enthusiasm. We learned from Bunyan that he wasn’t just hiking four days into Trail Days like we were. He had started out the first week of March from his home in New Jersey. He was hiking 800 miles into Trail Days!

Cruiser and I set up our tents in the meadow in front of the shelter and then returned to the shelter to socialize and brew up a cup of tea. We sat with Bunyan and shared stories of how we had all faired since the end of the Trail. We relived some of our fondest memories of our times together. Cruiser and I returned to our tents and were in our sleeping bags around 8:30. Before going to bed I carefully applied a dose of Neosporin to my leg.

I slept fairly well that night. When I climbed out of my tent at 6:30 AM, I was surprised to find my tent fly soaking wet. It wasn’t raining, but we were shrouded in clouds. It was fairly cool, maybe 40 degrees, but a stiff wind made it seem colder. This was quite a shift from the 80 degrees we experienced the day before. Cruiser and I returned to the shelter to prepare our breakfasts and were joined by Bunyan. I had my typical Trail breakfast of hot oatmeal, cold pop tarts, and coffee. It was great!

We packed up our wet tents and were on the Trail at 8:30. Again, Cruiser let me take the lead. My left shin was doing OK, but I had to avoid sudden movements and concentrate on putting my boots gently on the ground. Any jarring impact sent sharp pains up my left leg. Cruiser and I had over 1000 feet of elevation to gain as we approached the Grayson Highlands section of the Trail that surrounded Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia. This area is famous for its bald meadows and the wild ponies that live there.

When we came to the first bald, we realized that we were going to have a similar experience to what we had last year in this area. We were hiking in the clouds. We hiked through the place called Scales where cattle and horses were rounded up in a giant corral many years ago. The corral is still there. My thoughts raced back to my first time here eleven years ago when my daughter and I had camped at this spot during a torrential rain storm. I almost cried as the memories came flooding back. Just out of Scales, we saw our first wild pony which was larger than the feral ponies typical to this area. He wandered off into the clouds and gave several high pitched whinnies. He became a ghost pony. We were in his territory!

As we hiked on, we started meeting northbound thru hikers. I was a little apprehensive about how Cruiser and I would be received by this year’s crop of hikers. After all, Cruiser and I were now section hikers now. I remembered some of the things I had unfairly thought and said about section hikers at the beginning of my hike last year. Then, I felt that thru hikers owned the Trail. Section hikers were loud, smelled better than we did, sometimes left trash, and just plain got in the way. It wasn’t until Central Virginia until I realized that section hikers could be interesting, nice people with just as much sensitivity to the Trail as many thru hikers. But, here on the balds, I found that everyone was friendly. We exchanged trail names, hometowns, information about the Trail, and comments about the weather. I was particularly impressed with a beautiful young woman thru hiker by the name of Montana and her trail dog, a Husky, named Nika.

Cruiser and I crossed several streams in this area which were tributaries of Little Wilson and Wilson Creeks. We made the 5.9 miles to the Wise Shelter by 11:00 and decided to stop for an early lunch. Bunyan soon joined us. I had my typical trail lunch of a split bagel with each half generously slathered with peanut butter and honey. I left off the cheddar cheese of last year because my doctor back home was threatening to put me on statin drugs if I didn’t get my cholesterol down.

Cruiser and I hiked on and officially entered Grayson Highlands near a spur trail that led to Massie Gap. There, we passed the skeleton of a wild pony. We had heard that the Highlands had had a particularly severe winter this past season with deep snows and extremely cold temperatures. It had been hard on the ponies. The pony skeleton must have addled us because we took the wrong trail up the mountain at this point. We soon met a father-son thru hiking team coming toward us. This was Dragon Tail and his seventeen-year-old son Sherpa. I jokingly asked if Sherpa could carry heavy loads. Dragon Tail assured me that his son was indeed carrying the most weight. We assured these hikers that they were on the Appalachian Trail (because at that time Cruiser and I did not know we were lost!) and continued on our way. It wasn’t long before Cruiser and I saw an orange blaze on this trail, not the white blaze of the AT, and we turned around and backtracked. We soon met a pair of sisters coming up the trail and convinced them that they were as lost as we were. We all headed back to the pony skeleton where a post in the distance displayed a white blaze. As we resumed our course on the Trail, Cruiser and I found that we were in the company of Art Gypsy and her younger sister. Art Gypsy was a professional wildlife and wilderness photographer and was out here to hopefully get some shots of the wild ponies. She told us that she was planning a thru hike for next year. We talked shutterspeeds, f-stops, and lenses as we made our way to Rhododendron Gap.

We climbed to the famous “Fat Man Squeeze” where tumbled boulders have made a tight cave through which the Appalachian Trail passes. Cruiser and I stopped for a couple of pictures. When we reached the top of Wilburn Ridge, we ran into a section hiker coming north. He told us to be on the look out for his friend coming behind him whose name was Blue Meanie who was from Greenville, South Carolina just like Cruiser. Cruiser and I decided that we would play with Blue Meanie’s mind when we met him, telling him that we could divine his name and hometown. But when we met Blue Meanie coming down the Trail, he and Cruiser recognized each other, but the connection was foggy at first. With a little more exchange of information, they figured out that Cruiser had actually had Blue Meanie over to his house in Greenville several years ago to seek his advice as an experienced AT hiker on what he needed to do to get ready for the Trail. Small world! We all shook hands, and Cruiser and Blue Meanie promised to get together again. Cruiser and I continued on with less than one mile to go before we reached our final destination of the day, the Thomas Knob Shelter.

Because of the foggy, drizzly weather, the shelter was beginning to fill up when Cruiser and I arrived at 4:00. We had come 11 miles that day. We rolled out our sleeping pads in the loft portion of the shelter and prepared ourselves for a crowded night. Cruiser got us water from a spring in back of the shelter that was fenced in with a split rail fence to keep the ponies out. We prepared our suppers. I fired up my alcohol stove and fixed a two-person serving of dehydrated Thai Noodles with Peanut Sauce. I would have no problem eating a meal designed for two hikers, I was starving! From the social center of the picnic table, Cruiser and I met quite a few thru hikers and section hikers that evening. There was Bear Blaze, Uncas and his brother, The Katahdin Kid and his wife, Radar, HD Mama (HD short for Harley Davidson), and UCOC (Short for University of Connecticut Outdoors Club). I noticed that UCOC noticeably blushed every time he introduced himself to a woman. A late arrival was Cantaloupe (who I had met in Maine last year) and her friend Amy. By the time everyone packed in the shelter for an 8:00 bedtime, we were like sardines. There must have been at least 18 of us jammed in there. Earplugs were a necessity! I slept pretty well, but my leg was still bothering me. I felt fragile, like it wouldn’t take much to do me in.

Cruiser and I were on the Trail the next morning at 8:30. In no time we met a man hiking vigorously up the incline toward us with a heavy looking external frame pack and no shirt. Beings how it was quite cold, Cruiser asked if he also jumped into glacial lakes. Phil from Maine answered that yes, indeed, he did every chance he got. That led to a discussion on external versus internal frame packs. Just about all hikers today have shifted from the old external frames to internal ones. Except for Phil. He told us, “I think the external frame pack is coming back!” Phil from Maine is an “old school” hiker. We learned that he was an officer in the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and was a Trail maintainer near the Kennebec River. We thanked him for his service to the Trail and to us.

Cruiser and I made our way to the road crossing at Elk Garden. The sun was making an effort to come out. The meadow before the road was beautiful with yellow flowers and clumps of tiny bluettes. We stopped for a Snickers break at the road and then continued on to Buzzard Rock. Rain hit us off and on. We stopped at a gusher of a spring and filled our water containers. We had our lunch a short time later under a tree with some crudely-made benches. As we continued another two miles to the Lost Mountain Shelter, we rounded a turn and came upon the largest colony of lady’s slipper flowers that I have ever seen. There must have been thirty of them growing together under a canopy of trees. Cruiser had never seen this unusual flower, and we took the time to take some pictures. When we arrived at the shelter, it was already full and a tent city had already started to form. It was clear we were getting close to Damascus, and the hikers were converging. We socialized a bit before deciding to press on. It was another 16 miles to Damascus. If we could just add a couple more miles to our day, tomorrow on the Trail would be that much easier.

As we hiked out of Lost Mountain at 4:15, the sun came out. It was beautiful and put a zip in my step. I did not want to overdo it with my sore leg, but I was feeling that energy that comes to hikers when they get close to a Trail town. Cruiser gave me the lead, and I started philosophizing as we hiked. I told him that I was surprised how good it made me feel to see the white blazes of the AT showing us the way. I had not anticipated how much I had missed seeing the blazes since I had finished the Trail back in September. I remarked at how comforting it was to know you were on the right path when you saw the white blaze, and the Trail gave you that comforting feeling time and time again every day as you hiked. I told Cruiser that, in life beyond the Trail, it was more confusing. There were no blazes to tell you that you were on the right path. It was harder to see the signs. The Trail, to me, seemed to offer more security. I was surprised to hear myself talking like this.

I had in mind stopping by 6:00 and making camp, but we ran into more thru hikers and stopped to talk with everyone of them. We met one hiker named Seven D, short for the Seven Dwarfs. He said that right now he was Happy, and tonight he would be Sleepy. We joked that Cruiser and I were ambassadors for Trail Days. We tried to talk Seven D into joining the celebration, but he said he was heading home to Maine and hiking was the only way he was going to get there. I have never seen a more determined hiker and one in such good shape. It seemed that he was made for the Trail.

We passed some beautiful campsites by White Top Laurel Creek and the Virginia Creeper bicycle trail, but Cruiser seemed to want to keep moving. It was now 6:00, I had been hiking for close to eight hours, I was pushing my endurance. My leg was hurting, and I needed to stop, but we were mostly hiking on the sides of mountains, and there were no flat places! I pointed out some less than ideal camping spots, hoping Cruiser would agree to stopping. He told me not to worry. “The Trail will provide,” he said rather mystically. He didn’t have to explain. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Generally, we all tend to worry too much. The Trail taught us all last year that we need to let go of our worries, our pessimism, and believe that it will all work out We found that if you open yourself up to this kind of thinking, you will be provided for.

At 7:00, after 16.3 miles of hiking, we rounded a bend, and there it was: the beautiful little pond I had camped at last year on my thru hike! We could see that Radar, the thru hiker we met back at Thomas Knob, had already set up camp here. I remembered from last year that the camping spots at this site were few and far between. We shouted our greetings to Radar and said we were hiking on, but the Trail led us around the pond to the exact spot I had used last year. I couldn’t believe our luck. There was just enough room for Cruiser and me to set up our tents. If I could have mustered the energy, I would have leapt for joy! We made camp and prepared our suppers. It was Spaghetti with Meat Sauce for me. We were soon joined by Radar and new arrivals Uncas and his brother who wanted to use the log seats at our campsite to aid them in their supper preparations. We welcomed them enthusiastically and made room. We cooked, ate, and talked about many of our hiking adventures. Uncas, his brother, and I discovered that we shared the common passion of flyfishing for trout. We talked about the beautiful streams we had seen that day and lamented that we were not able to delicately cast a dry caddis fly into some of the deep holes below the waterfalls. Cruiser excused himself and headed to his tent. While the others ate, I serenaded them with my Hikers’ Song. I told them that this song came to me as I was hiking up out of the James River region last year and that I was planning on performing it during the talent show at Trail Days. They seemed to enjoy the music.

The frogs around the pond were almost deafening that night. There were high pitched tree frogs and deep bass bull frogs. It was strange how one of them would start singing and the rest would join in. Then, at some mysterious signal, they would all fall silent. A few minutes later, they would start the process all over again. We all called it a night and headed to our tents. Thank goodness for earplugs, they kept the singing of the frogs to a tolerable volume that led me to sleep, a very deep sleep.

Continued in Part 2

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