NEWSPAPER HEADLINE: “AT Hiker, Braid, Cures Southeastern United States from Drought!” Yes folks, you heard it here first: It seems that I am personally responsible for putting to rest one of the most severe droughts to hit the right coast in many years. How? By hiking the Appalachian Trail, of course. When I started hiking in Georgia, back in March, I only had about four days of good weather before the rains hit. And the rain has followed me north. No joke. For every one day I have had of clear weather, I have had four days of rain. I have learned to hike in the rain, cook in the rain, set my tent up in the rain, sleep in the rain, take my tent down in the rain, and even sing in the rain! The creeks and rivers where I am now in Virginia are swollen to the tops of their banks. The New River which flows through my present location of Pearisburg, has not been this full in years.
Has all this rain got me down? Nope, I’m still going strong!
I left you last at the Happy Hiker Hollow in Atkins, VA. I forgot to tell you that the farm where this hostel is located was once owned by the AT famous personality Warren Doyle. Warren has thru hiked the Trail 14 times, and he’s still going strong. I’ll be ecstatic if I succeed just once.
When I departed the Happy Hiker on May 4, I had to hike under Interstate 81 and then headed into the woods. I crossed over the North Fork of the flooded Holston River on a small concrete bridge that was barely above the water. I made it 14 miles to the Knot Maul Shelter. At this point I turned up my throttle, got up at first light the next morning, stopped in at the Chesnut Knob Shelter after nine miles in the pouring rain for my favorite lunch of a peanut butter and cheese burrito. I continued another ten miles in the rain to the Jenkins Shelter. At my 7:00 arrival time, this shelter was jam packed with soaked thru hikers, so I set up my tent in the rain, and actually had a comfortable night. Comfortable, that is, until 5:00 the next morning. It was then when I heard a large animal walk up beside my tent. There were some sniffing noises and some rummaging around in the leaves. I decided I had to do something. So, first of all, I breathed. Then, I turned on my headlamp thinking that, surely, the light would scare this animal away. No such luck. Then I carefully and forcefully and with much courage brought my hand down on my sleeping pad with all the force I could muster. It made a loud THWACK! The animal ran away. These were not the delicate footsteps of a raccoon. These were big, lumbering footsteps, with weight behind them. I was tempted to go outside with my headlamp and get a glimpse of this creature and also ascertain the security of my food bag which was suspended from a high tree limb. But I decded the best thing to do was to wait until the light of dawn to boldly step outside. When I did, I found that the leaves around my tent had been pawed through and my bear bag was still hanging. No tracks. We will never know for sure, but my imagination tells me this animal was a 600 pound black bear, looking for grub worms and other such delicacies.I am glad that this formidable beast did not think my tent was a burrito with the meat inside being me!
I leftthe Jenkins Shelter before any other hiker, breaking my past tradition of being last to leave. I made it in the rain 11.7 miles to Bland, VA, where I did not go into town but found out two things about Bland from a local guy in a church parking lot: Bland is proud of the fact that it has a large pharmaceutical plant and not so proud that the town of Bland, in fact the entire County of Bland, has not one stoplight, a distinction held by no other county in Virginia.
I used a bridge to hike over a busy Interstate 77, and again, headed into the woods. By 3:00 that afternoon I was at the Helveys Mill Shelter, but I felt it was too early to stop for the day. I knew I was not capable of making it to the next shelter, Jenny Knob, because that would make today’s hike 24 miles. I decided to do something bold. For the second time on my hike, I decided to camp solo in the wilderness. I loaded up on water from a stream that added another mile to my day and headed out. A hiker in the shelter called out to me as I was leaving, “Be careful out there, I heard in Bland today, that there was a Severe Weather Alert for tonight.” I wish I he hadn’t told me this. The sky was clear for a change. I knew this would not be the only time I would face the possibility ofdangerous weather on the Trail. I hiked on with a quickness to my step and looked frequently right and left along the ridgeline for approaching storms. Two hours later, I saw it coming, dark clouds in the east. the wind started picking up. At 5:30, I found a flat place in a cove, sheltered from the wind and away from any streams or terrain that might flash flood. I pitched my tent in a hurry, using all the guy lines I had, hammering down the pegs tight. I strung my line for a bear bag. I cooked a supper of dehydrated Jamaican BBQ chicken and retreated to my tent as the first rain arrived. It poured! But I was dry inside and enjoyed my supper. Oh, I forgot to mention that my favorite mealtime beverage is hot cocoa made with cold spring water. It is basically chocolate milk, and the powder does dissolve, and it gives me another 110 calories. In a break in the rain, I got all traces of food out of my tent, hung my bear bag, and made a journal entry by the light of my headlamp in my tent.
That night, the rain came in waves. Torrents would come and then die down. I actually slept through most of it until 4:00 AM when I had to go outside to answer the call of nature. I saw flashes of light on the horizon. Uh oh, lightning. With my luck it would be coming my way. the first storm hit at 4:30 with thunder, lightning, and more bucketsfull of rain. The storm passed and I breathed easier. I was going to make it through the night afterall! No such luck. Two more separate electrical storms hit before 6:00 AM. In one of the lulls between storms, I retrieved my bear bag and brought it into the tent with me. At 6:15, with rain still pelting my tent’s fly, I ate a breakfast of granola and milk (powdered milk with water added) and my new thru hiker discovery: Pop Tarts. Two Pop Tarts give you 400 calories, imagine that! The rain stopped, and I crawled timidly outside. I was astounded. I could see blue in the sky. The sun was actually rising in the east. I had made it!
I hurriedly packed my pack and hit the northbound trail at 8:30. In five milesI had lunch at the Jenny Knob Shelter. But here was the intimidating thing, I had 14 miles to go before my intended stop of the night, the infamous Wapiti Shelter. I figured that if I kept up a good pace, I could make it there by 7:00. And hike I did. It started raining at 3:00 and kept it up until 5:00. I hiked by a raging creek, Dismal Creek. I hiked and hiked. I got into breathing patterns. I made hiking cadences with my breath, my steps, and my hiking poles. But by 7:00, no shelter. My guide book said the shelter was one tenth of a mile past a footbridge crossing of Dismal Creek. Problem was, I had crossed a dozen footbridges over Dismal Creek. I was starting to give up and planned on finding a flat piece of high ground to pitch my tent. Then I saw it. A shelter never looked so good. I was disappointed to find it crammed with hikers and found a place to pitch my tent once more. Just as I unfurled my tent, a little damp from the night before, it started to rain. Luckily, one of the guys in the shelter, a thru hiker by the name of Goggle, came out to help me. I got the fly on top of the tent just in time. I did use the cover of the shelter to cook my supper, Chicken a la King with Noodles, but retreated to my tent after ravishing it. No one was in the mood for socializing. but we did talk about why the Wapiti Shelter has a bad reputation. Tragically, two hikers were murdered there some time back. I don’t have the time to research this to give you the particulars, but I do know the murderer went by the name of Bad Bob. It was a weird feeling to know that something so horrible had happened right there. I shuddered as I bedded down for the night.
The next morning, yesterday, May 8, I was up at 6:00 and had a breakfast of oatmeal, Pop Tarts, and coffee. A thru hiker speciality is adding boiling water to the paper/plastic package of instant oatmeal, stirring it with breaking the bag, and enjoying the warmth of the bag in your cold hands as you scoop out the delicious concoction. A thru hiker goal is to have no dishes to wash. I hit the Trail at 8:30 with one thing on my mind. 16 miles to Pearisburg, VA.Motel room, something other than dehydrated food, laundry, and a drying out my wet things.
I made it to town at 4:30. My motel of choice, The Rendezvous (don’t laugh), was full. I picked up my supply box there and a special delivery package from REI containing new hiking boots. Yes, after 624 miles, I have turned my first pair of boots into shreds of rubber, fabric, and leather. I found lodging in a disreputable looking place called the Holiday Motel with “Welcome Hikers” on the sign out front.
Next time, I’ll tell you how my sojourn in Pearisburg worked out.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles
PS. If you are wondering how I am able to end you such a long email from the Pearisburg Public Library on a Saturday morning, it is because I was able to compose it in advance while soaking my feet in the tub of my room at the Holiday in a bath of Epsom Salts. What are Epsom Salts, you ask, and what do they do to your feet? I do not know the answer to either of these questions. I just found a box of these salts at the Food Lion across the street. All I know is, my grandmother said you should soak your tired feet in Epsom Salts. She said this assured good foot health. And I need a lot of that!