I told you while I was staying in Pearisburg, VA, that I would try to find out something about the town to tell you. My first stop on this learning mission was the Dairy Queen where I asked the lady behind the counter, “What is Pearisburg known for?” She looked at me with puzzled eyes and responded, “Absolutely Nothing!” I did not let this discourage me. Locals often put down their locale. At the library, I learned that the town was originally founded as Giles Courthouse, the county seat for Giles County. In 1811, the name was changed to Pearisburg to honor the man who had given the land for the county seat, Captain George Pearis. Captain Pearis, of Civil War Fame, ran a ferry service down on the New River on the edge of town. The river became the life blood of this area. A tannery was established as one of the first businesses. It specialized in make the soles for shoes. Then came a blacksmith shop, taverns, a doctor, churches, private schools, and in 1871, the first public school. A railroad yard was established down by the river with four different train companies using it. A famous “high speed” rail service, The Powhatan Arrow, was established with service from Norfolk to Cincinnati.
I ran into one oldtimer who told me that back in the 1950′s a group of boys playing baseball in a field down by the river discovered an injured Golden Eagle. This magnificent bird had a body that was four feet long from head to tail, a wingspan of close to 8 feet, and his clawed feet when spread measured 8 inches across. Unfortunately the eagle died. A local taxidermist stepped up, and the eagle was displayed in the uptown drug store for years.
I moved my accommodations from the Holiday Motel to the Rendezvous. Two things led me to do this. First, the Rendezvous was right by the Appalachian Trail, making getting back on for my northward journey an easy affair. Second, the owner, Brenda, told me she would give me her car! I had heard of Trail Magic, but this offer was amazing. I used Brenda’s car to go to the library, the grocery store, and the pizza place. I also gave rides to thru hikers I ran into.
Brenda had a helper at the Rendezvous named Skeeter. Skeeter is an accomplished guitar player. I played a little bit for him on my harmonica. He invited me to come back to Pearisburg anytime and he would get me together with some of the local musicians. He said there were some really great fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dobro, and guitar players in the surrounding mountains and valleys. He promised me a great time.
But I also found Skeeter to be a fountain of local history. He told me that the highway right in front of the motel, Highway 100, was built on top of the old road used by General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as they traveled south battling the army of Ulysses Grant the whole way. It was a running battle that went through Pearisburg, Dublin, Radford, Christiansburg, Salem, Roanoke, Lexington, and ended at Appomattox where Lee surrendered and signaled the end of the Civil War. Skeeter told me that escaped soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy fled to the surrounding mountains and hid out in caves in the rock outcroppings. He said these troops used the same trail as the Appalachian Trail to move around. He showed me one of these caves near the motel and told me about another one in the center of Pearisburg near the historic county court house.
Skeeter told me something about Stonewall Jackson that I had never heard. Stonewall vowed that, if he was killed in battle, he wanted to be buried right where he fell. He was with his men as they moved from Pearisburg to nearby Dublin. In Dublin, he drew his sword in battle, was shot right at that moment. He fell from his horse. His men buried him on that spot.
My last morning in Pearisburg, Sunday, May 10, I hiked up Highway 100 at 6:15 for breakfast and was soon on the Trail heading out of town. As I approached the New River, I was surprised to find a graveyard. I took a look around and found the grave of Captain George Pearis overlooking the spot on the river where he ran his ferry.
I hiked past the Rice Field Shelter and stopped for the day at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter after 19 miles. I stayed there with two section hikers from Pennsylvania, a thru hiker from Scotland named David, and another thru hiker Work/Stay who was working his way up the trail at many of the hostels. The next morning, I was discouraged when it started raining just as I started cooking breakfast. I cooked in the rain, ate in the shelter, put on all my rain gear, and hoofed it up the Trail. I breezed by two shelters and stopped after 18 miles at Laurel Creek Shelter.
That night, a grand reunion of my old thru hiker friends happened. O. G. (for Old Gear), Hellbender, and Leon with his dog Halifax all showed up. I had not seen these guys in about a month. We had a great time catching up on our latest adventures.
The next day was meaningful to me for several reasons. First, early in the day, Hellbender pointed out to me a really amazing wildflower, a Lady’s Slipper. This orchid-like flower is an amazing creation. I must have taken a dozen pictures of it.
The day turned into a beautiful one. I hiked 19.5 miles to the top of Audie Murphy Mountain. Audie Murphy was know as “The Singing Cowboy” in old western movies. Audie Murphy was also one of the most decorated fighter pilots for the United States during World War II. After the war he was killed in a plane crash on the mountain near where I was hiking. There was a memorial stone for him at the top. A faded US flag was hanging from a tree. I hiked on for a couple more miles and decided to camp solo. It turned out to be a beautiful experience. I watched the sunset from the ridge as I ate my supper. I have gotten pretty good at hanging my bearbag and doing all the things necessary for camping away from shelters. It was one of the most peaceful nights I have ever had. I have lost my fear of being alone in the wilderness.
The next day, Wednesday, May 13, a peak experience for me was hiking up to Dragon’s Tooth. This is a high rock thrust up from the end of a ridge overlooking the community of Catawba, VA. Descending from Dragon’s Tooth was very tricky. I had to scrambled down cliffs and boulders in the most dangerous climbing I have done yet on the Trail. As I descended I was amazed by blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. I sense that I am going to see much of this in the near future, but these first blooms really impressed me.
I stopped that night at a deserted Catawba Creek Shelter. I was all set for having the place for myself when my friends O. G., Hellbender, and Leon showed up. We were later joined by Sam Wise and Colonel Mustard. I knew a classic photo taking place was coming up, McAfee Knob. This high rock is often chosen by hikers for a classic Appalachian Trail photo because it juts out over the valley, a thousand feet below. I suggested that we all get there together in the morning and take turns photographing each other. The other guys added to my plan. Why not get up at 4:30 AM, pack up, hit the trail by 5:00, hike the 1 1/2 miles to the top, and be there by sunrise. This sounded extreme to me, but I decided to go along with the enthusiasm of the crowd.
The next morning came soon enough. I wolfed down a power bar while I stuffed my sleeping bag in its bag and packed my pack. Colonel Mustard had the reputation of being a fast hiker, and he took the lead. It was pitch dark, so we all had on our headlamps. I knew I would likely be the slowest because I was the age of these guy’s fathers. I took the rear. It was a sprint to the top. I have never hiked faster. I was amazed that I never stumbled on rocks or roots. We reached the top at 5:45 before the sunrise, but we could now tell it was going to be cloudy. We waited around thirty minutes listening to a thousand birds wake up in the valley below. Their songs to greet the new morning came together to make a confused, yet beautiful, symphony of different melodies. With increasing light, we decided to start taking pictures. I served as the photographer lining up each hiker wearing their backpack on the rock outcropping and guiding them in how to turn, which direction to took. Sam Wise took my picture. These pictures turned out to be silhouettes because of the lighting conditions, but they were still classic.
I let the others take off on their descent of the knob. I had had a must too fast start to this day, and I wanted to take my time from here on out. I hiked alone and stopped in about a mile for a proper breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. I stopped again at 11:00 and had a hot lunch of Chicken a la King. I stocked up on water and headed toward the town of Daleville, VA. It was a long afternoon of hiking with threatening thunderstorms forcing me to pick up my pace on a high ridge overlooking the town. I lost the trail temporarily at a power line crossing, but finally made it into town at 4:15.
I had been pushing my mileage recently, putting in several 19 plus mile days. I had a motive that I barely admitted to myself. A huge festival, Appalachian Trail Days, was going to take place this weekend in Damascus, VA. Now, I had already been through Damascus back in late April, but deep down inside I wanted to go back and experience a celebration I had heard others rave about. There would be bands, food, outdoor gear vendors, tent cities, socializing, a parade of thru hikers, and educational presentations about the Trail. There would also be a talent show, and I had been fantasizing about playing my harmonica and singing my Thru Hikers National Anthem.
It was now the afternoon of Thursday, May 15. The big days of the Trail Days would be Friday and Saturday. But how would I get there? When I crossed the highway into Daleville, the Super 8 Motel came immediately into view. I had a re-supply package waiting for me there. There, spread out all over the grass lawn in front of the motel, was a large group of thru hikers. I recognized most of them. When I joined them, they told me they were waiting on Long Haul, an injured hiker who had gotten off the trail. Long Haul was doing some Trail Magic. He was using his SUV to transport hikers to Trail Days. There was only one problem, the vehicle was going to be jam packed full. There was no room for me.
I waited with the others. Long Haul finally showed up at 8:00. When he found out that I wanted to go to Trail Days, he generously volunteered to come back the next morning and pick me up. This was a generous offer because, in the past two weeks since I had left Damascus, I had covered 255.6 miles. This required a substantial road trip on Interstate 81. Two other hikers were excited to be included in Long Haul’s offer, Mississippi from Tupelo, and Recess from Durham. Durham! Yep, Recess was a senior at Carolina Friends School and had arranged to start his Appalachian Trail hike as a special senior project at the school. Small world once more. Yes, Recess will return to Carolina Friends School for his graduation in a few weeks. I asked him how he got his name. They still have recess at Carolina Friends School!
The three of us were picked up by Long Haul at 8:00 the next morning. The ride down the interstate highway seemed surreal with the landscape flying by. When we arrived in Damascus there were hikers everywhere. Long Haul dropped us off at The Place, a hostel run by the Methodist Church. There were still tenting spots left in back of the church. I set up my tent under the shade of a big tree. Once I knew I had my place set for the weekend, I decided to walk over to the Hiker’s Inn to say hello to Suzanne. I had stayed at Suzanne’s bunk house when I had previously come through. Suzanne recognized me and informed me of an opportunity. She had a hiker upstairs in a room with two twin beds. This hiker was interested in finding someone to take the other twin bed and share the costs of the room. Would I be interested? Heck yeah. This arrangement would come with an all you can eat breakfast, an uncrowded bathroom situation, the famous front porch of the house, and a lot more creature comforts. Then she told me the hiker’s name: Floater, from New Orleans. Floater! I had hiked with him back on the Georgia, North Carolina line. I hadn’t seen him in a month and a half. I wasn’t even sure he was still on the Trail.
We found Floater next door at the Baptist Church at a health screen clinic set up for hikers. Floater was ecstatic to see me and happy to have me share his room. Trail Days was getting better and better for me. I retrieved my tent from The Place.
The next two days were fabulous. I ate much food, saw many hiker friends, listened to lots of music, and yes, participated in the Talent Show. There were about twenty hikers with various acts in the show: juggling, singing, keyboards, unicycle riding, guitar playing, rapping, poetry, and more. I worked up my nerve and performed “Wildwood Flower” on harmonica and sang my Thru Hikers’ National Anthem. There were several hundred spectators and a panel of judges. My act was received well. Quite a few people stood as I sang the anthem. I added a final verse from the time I performed it down at the open mike night in Hot Springs (Trail Report – April 8):
The way to find ourselves
Is from Georgia to Maine.
I placed eighth in the competition and was rewarded with a Big Agnes, 2 1/2 thick, inflatable air mattress.
That night, at a bluegrass music jam session I was approached by a man from the Appalachian Trail Museum. He wanted to know if I would come to the annual gathering of the Museum next summer in Gettysburg, PA and sing my Thru Hikers’ Anthem. I immediately agreed. Wow.
Later that night, I went with Floater to Tent City. We wanted to experience what the other hikers were experiencing, the hikers who didn’t have the money to stay in places as nice as ours. The Tent City was a mile outside of town. There was a strong police presence at the entrance. The police were there to keep any troublemakers out and to supervise behavior in the camp to make sure nothing got out of hand. As soon as Floater and I made our way past the police, we were enthusiastically greeted by several hikers. I found that Floater was somewhat of a celebrity there. At 66 years old, he is one of the older hikers on the Trail. Plus, Floater has such an accepting way about him, he had obviously made a lot of friends. There was a drum circle, a bonfire, dancing around the bonfire, and fire breathing. Yes, you heard me right. Fire breathing. Guys with torches would blow huge fire balls from their mouths.
Now, I am not advocating debauchery. I am not encouraging you to take up fire breathing yourself. I am only telling you what I experienced. And I will add that I saw nothing out of control. I witnessed a celebration unlike any I had ever seen. I saw people treating each other with respect, love, and generosity. No one got hurt. Floater and I walked back to a very quiet Damascus at midnight.
Today, Sunday, May 17, yet another miracle happened for me. Staying at the Hiker’s Inn along with Floater and me were a couple from Maine. Paul and Jaime (Old Man and Navigator, respectively) run the Appalachian Lodge Inn in Millinocket, Maine. This is at the very end of the Appalachian Trail. I am intending to stay at this Inn when I complete my summit of Mount Katahdin. I had enjoyed getting to know Old Man and Navigator over the last two days. I took it as a sign that I was meeting the people who would take care of me at the end of my hoped for six month journey up the Trail, a sign that I was actually going to make it. Old Man and Navigator were leaving in their king cab, modified truck this morning for Maine. They were heading up Interstate 81. They offered to give me a ride back to Daleville, VA, so I could continue on my hike.
Trail Magic from Long Haul got me down to Trail Days. Trail Magic from Old Man and Navigator would get me back! We had a great time visiting on the three hour ride. I treated them to lunch at the Cracker Barrel in Daleville. I had a meal I had been dreaming about on the Trail: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, fried apples, corn bread, and sweet tea. Yes, life is good!
I am back at the Super 8, same one as last Thursday night, sending you this email. I will head out first thing tomorrow morning for the longest yet segment of my hike without major resupplying. I’ll be hiking 133.3 miles in eight or nine days to Rockfish Gap in Waynesboro, VA. I will be approaching the Shenandoa Mountains, another milestone for me on the Trail. Right now, I am roughly at the one third mark of the Appalachian Trail. I am still having a good time. I hope that is obvious.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles