Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mountains! Well ... Appalachian sized ones

Three days of unfocused effort to put all those mundane affairs on hold -- bills paid,  gift sent to my mother-in-law for Mothers Day, bathroom swamped out, &c -- trail food mixed, the Atmos checked and packed, gear checked.  Added preps for this trip have filled the Ion with four tubs and a duffel to (hopefully) extend my ability to keep rolling out these five day segments. 

On the road again! The trucks, motorcycles, and SUVs on Interstate 81 seemed less intent than usual at terrifying us all as they twisted their way past slow-moving RVs and subcompacts. There was even time for quick glances at the ridgeline to my left when I saw an exit to a familiar town or attraction -- yep, I've been up there, and there, too.

Coming in to Roanoke, though, the shadowed heights on the southwestern skyline made it clear that I ain't seen nuthin' yet. It's going to be a long hard hike from Catawba to Bland.

I worked my way through the Roanoke-Salem "traffic corridor", took the exit for Pearisburg and scooted down a nearly deserted four-lane highway toward the mountains. It cut back to two lanes before I turned onto a side road.  The rough pavement had no centerline and gradually shrunk to one and a half lanes, then into hard packed gravel, and then to rutted dirt as it climbed steadily into the hills.

And there, waiting for me, Wood Hole Hostel, my staging camp for the next two weeks.

Woods Hole Hostel
Talk about stereotypes! A dog ran out and barked at my car until I found a place to park, then quietly waited for me to step out and greet her. Dozens of starry eyed thru hikers milled about, playing guitars, doing group yoga, waiting for dinner, and mostly trying to ignore the twelve mile snail section hiker. The owners showed up an hour later, they were out negotiating the sale of their prize sow.

I left the Ion in Neville and Michael's care, accepted the offer of a natural health smoothie, and loaded my hiking gear into the owner's SUV for the shuttle back to Roanoke. Motel 6, Waffle House down the street. I've been here a few times.

Tomorrow will be a zero day hanging around the lodge. Rain, thunderstorm, wind gusts up to 29 mph have delayed my plan. Tuesday's weather looks better for escorting Barbara Cook up to get the ritual photo taken of her on the overhanging point at McAfee Knob.

Then, on toward Woods Hole Hostel on my own, following those white blazes.

The trail is calling

Apologies for the delay in posting photos. The new Google security model appears to have "welded the safe door shut" on me, ensuring that no images of questionable security status are displayed and therefore completely preventing me from doing so while I am posting from my Android tablet.

Until I resolve the issue, please enjoy browsing the photo files here .

Thanks for reading -- comments are always welcome!

Sunday, April 16, 2017


McAfee Knob -- Easter sunrise
  Alleluia, alleluia,
Come, greet the dawn!
Alleluia, alleluia,
The Lord comes forth in glory.

- Chinese Christian hymn, Psalm 112

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Going off trail for Easter Week

Early wakeup this morning for a limited water breakfast, then onto the trail planning a four hour hike to Bearwallow Gap, where the shuttle will meet me at 11. Thighs protested all the way, and the shoulders and ankles filed amicus curae briefs.

At the one hour point, I met a young trio who told me that they had left VA 43 at 4 am -- so, let's see, they have been hiking for four hours? Uh, oh, I only have three hours left before the shuttle arrives ... can't be right, they must be including a long breakfast stop. Hopefully.

At 8:30, I was very relieved to pass by a sign pointing toward Bearwallow Gap, only two miles ahead. Arrived at 9:30 am, plenty of time to spare. Good thing, I need a break from the trail.

Shuttle driver and I exchanged trail talk on the way back to pick up my Ion at the Troutville trailhead. He mentioned hiking in the Smokies and looking forward to some great scenery, but he and his buddy ran into fog. Got lost a couple of times, too.

That sounds like fun! Mental note, check dew point forecast before heading into that challenging mountain area next year.

While I was waiting at the Bearwallow Gap trailhead, a couple of kindergartners came down the road with their mother in the rear. We greeted each other, and she explained that they were going to walk a few yards on the Trail, just to say they had been on it in Virginia ...

That's what parents and teachers should do, I think. Lead our charges out to the trailheads, make sure they get as much useful advice as we can offer them, and wave good-bye.

Troutville trailhead

Next planned post is on Sunday, April 16.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cove Mountain once again

The twelve young women from South Carolina elected to sleep on the cabin porch rather than piling their sleeping bags side by side  on the big platforms within, thru hiker style. I didn't think we smelled that bad ... well, maybe.

One of the other three section hikers was headed south like me in the morning. We needed an early start to get down to Jennings Gap 800 feet below and back up 900 feet to Bryant Ridge, so we tiptoed through the forest of huddled sleepers to make breakfast, gather our gear, and say farewll to the couple headed up the steep slopes we had just descended.

Our walk was not as long as their climb, and the weather turned warm enough that we both stripped down to summer hiking gear at the summit of Fork Mountain.  At Jennings Creek, we purified extra water to get across some 9 miles without water sources. Oh joy, more weight to carry uphill ... and the climb was in my least favorite conditions, clear sunny day beating down on an east-facing slope.

Yes, I realize I was grousing about hail a few days ago. It's a Shenandoah thing -- if you don't like the weather, wait a bit, there'll be something worse.

By the time I reached Cove Mountain Shelter, most of my body was screaming for an end to all this going up and down all day in unseasonable weather. It was good to see the turn and limp down the slope once again, seeing the comfy place where I pitched my tent last year, the tree where I hung my bear bag perfectly with a single throw.

Cove Mountain sunset
Cove Mountain moonrise

The shelter is not one of the best maintained and does not have a water source, but -- given complaints from various muscles and joints, I updated my travel plan and inventoried my food supplies to see if I could spare another NOBO day.

Unfortunately, the counting showed that I was already over budget foodwise, without enough to reach Daleville! I had cut back to bare minimums as a weight saving strategy for the Thunder Ridge climbs, and then lost most of my contingency options when I forgot my tuna packs. Argh. Time to get off trail....

Fortunately, there is cell service off one cliff edge near Cove Mountain, so I had no problem arranging a shuttle for tomorrow. I plan to stay in Roanoke for Easter week, and then keep moving south toward Damascus, deep in the moutain fastness of southwest-est Virginia.

With extra food.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fellow travelers

After retiring very early again to get out of the cold, I was startled out of my sleep by the sound of an animal very close to the tent -- a yelp? Definitely doglike. The animal followed up with a series of modulated calls, almost like a sentence (don't worry, it's just one of those human lairs?) In any case, the next thing I heard several minutes later was the sound of several of them howling in the distance.

It did occur to me that I would have to defend myself alone if the animal took offense, and I did a quick review. Yes, all food and smelly stuff hung up. No, knife not within reach. Correct that next time.

That led me to thinking about how much I have learned about backpacking over the past year. What I need to carry, how to set up and strike camp, how to plan and do safely, and how to keep going when I'm tired and uncomfortable.

Like now, for example, my third cold night in a row. That's okay, though, I cleared Apple Orchard Mountain and should finish this entire wilderness area by the day after tomorrow. Others may do the same in a day or two summiting the mere 3000 to 4000 foot climbs with ease, but for me it is a reassurance that I can climb out of the shadows where I had fallen.

I am still alive. Not dead yet, either.

A couple of groups of northbound hikers crawling up the slopes to Mount Orchard were talking plans to get over Apple Orchard and down the other side. I was polite.

Not able to spring back too quickly myself, though. Thighs cramped up in the first few miles, so I dropped plans to cross the next mountain (there's always a next mountain) and stopped short at Bryant Creek, the second two story shelter I have seen ... with trail angel beer waiting! (Mich Lite, but the price was okay).

No tent space, so this is going to be my first night sleeping in an AT shelter.  With three other  grayhairs and twelve girls? I've got my earplugs.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A high point

Thermometer read 25F at 6:30 this morning, before wind chill. Back into the bag for an hour ... full breakfast, got onto the trail way too late, a little after 10.

Two hours of steady climbing later -- finally -- Apple Orchard Mountain and the FCC radar dome.  Very remarkable place! The usual notes about not bringing horses or motor vehicles up the trail included a warning not to bring hang gliders. Given the likely microwave power output of those radars, I can understand why? Still, unfriendly.

Some locals on a hiking weekend were resting in a nearby stand of pine trees that -- based on AWOL's mileage notes -- called Hickory Glen.  No hickories, though. Sigh.

Burnout set in on the way down, though, aggravated by two departures from the White Blaze Way. The first was intentional, trying unsuccessfully to reach Apple Orchard Falls -- but the second was unintentional, making a missed turn where a well used side trail to the parking lot on the Blue Ridge Parkway split off from the AT.

Both were a long climbs, and a difficult problem to work out where the white blazes I wanted had gone. Yes, as my father would say if Mom wasn't in earshot, where in the blazes was I? (Heh, heh.)

I aimed for Bryant Creek, but had to stop four miles short at Cornelius Creek. Thighs were giving out.

Looking ahead at the map more carefully, I see one more uphill gradient tomorrow, rising 500 feet to Floyd Mountain. More climbing in the way before I escape the Thunder Ridge wilderness area?

Cornelius Creek is a very, very quiet sunny place surrounded by mountain laurel. Good place to refresh! If I could get a network connection to get these notes posted, I would think about taking two days here.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Twelve Mile Snail

Morning arrived with a fine crust of ice on the tent, so I took time to consider my options and sort out the minimum amount of gear for my half mile walk downhill to the little brook I skipped, since AWOL's guide assured me of water ahead at the campsite. Uh-huh.

Shivery sleep last night, drifting awake to pull layers back over cold spots and listening to the rattle of hail on the tent above me. And, yes -- cathole, me, hail. Unforgettable 3 am experience.

A half dozen hikers passed by as I was filtering water. Any bear activity at Thunder Hill shelter? No. Water? Plenty, little brick catchpool. Four miles -- definitely going to be a NERO for me today, a near zero miles hiking day.

One young red-bearded hiker -- Honeybum, with a PCT badge on his pack and several others -- stopped to chat, made me feel better about the day -- said the wind chill bothered him, and he grew up in Wisconsin. I asked him about the trouble I had dealing with dry spots on the trail, given my slow pace and burnout past 12 miles? He smiled and said, "Hey, you have to respect your own limits. If you're a twelve mile snail, then that's what you hike, right?"

So, at least on the AT, I have a new name. I'm the Twelve Mile Snail.

Hearing about my southbound plan, Honeybum interjected praise of the beautiful views of some cliffs just south of Dalesville -- "Tinker Cliffs?" I asked. That was the name, he said, awe inpiring. I suggested he get a copy of Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek, one of those tales written well by Annie Dillard, one of those who have the gift. Wikipedia has a synopsis here:

I haven't made it through the whole book, but have concluded that the year she spent looking for God in birds, insects, and muskrats, was likely a better choice than the decades I have burned staring in awe at great towers of stone like the Cliffs here.

Well. I am hiking my own hike.

Four hours later, I arrived at Thunder Hill shelter, set up camp, filtered water, ate dinner, and curled up in my tent by 5, listening to the winds roar through the trees.

Three miles out, 600 feet up. Back on track.

Tell me what a cold night feels like
This is what a cold night feels like!
Tell me what a cold night feels like
This is what a cold night feels like!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

What, the hail? I say.

Early wakeup, pack up, and down to the Waffle House for a gut-lining breakfast and the best coffee served in any American restaurant ... and served by real people, too, words spun out like a train goin' byyyyeee ....

Parked the Ion, met shuttle driver Steve. Fount of knowledge, as all these fellows are ... best way to buy stuff at Damascus Trail Days is to wait until the dealers are packing up, Thunder Ridge, Three Ridges and The Priest are at the same level as the northern and southern parts of the trail, and there's a mama bear terrorizing Thunder Hill Shelter.  Seems she taught her kids to shinny up the trees and knock down the bear bags, and was able to knock over the first bear safe they installed.

 Got it. Replanning to drop Thunder Hill.

 The James River Foot Bridge was there for me. According to a sign at the south end,  the bridge honors one Mr. Foot who was active in the ATC, and who hiked the  cross country discovery trail with his wife one year before he moved  on.  Makes me think of Woody Guthrie's "Rambling Man" song.

 Light rain tapered off before I started, so I ignored the wind-torn clouds and left the poncho in my backpack. The weather shifted as I climbed, though, and started to bombard me with grain-sized ice pellets. Quick, the poncho and the pack cover! While I was getting wrapped, of course, the weather changed back to a brisk sunny day ... the same thing happened about 4 pm.

 I managed to stump right past the turn for the shelter where I planned to spend the night and over the first of the mountains that grace this section of the trail. When I realized my mistake, the choice of going back over the mountain did not appeal -- and happily, AWOL's guide listed a campsite with a reliable water supply just two miles ahead!

 Uphill, of course. And the "reliable supply" has become a muddy swamp. So, another night on restricted water rations, then back down the hill to that overflowing creek a mile back.

 Still, there was a small hand-carved cross marked with the AT emblem near a reasonably flat and safe - if muddy - space. I must be on the right trail.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A dark and stormy evening

Tedious drive down my favorite Interstate, dancing with 18 wheelers. Very few hokie birds on the road, at least.  On arrival, I found the AWOL's guide-suggested campsite in Troutville uninspiring, and -- faced with the beginnings of a Shenandoah style horizontal rain, I chose to get a motel room. Better to start the hike dry.

These next few days will have a few stiff climbs, which led me to skip this part on my way south last year. Summiting during the third day at Apple Orchard Mountain, 3300 feet above my starting point at the James River Bridge, the trail also has a couple of PUDs (pointless ups and downs) in between. I took time this evening to double check and strip out any excess weight in my pack.

While doing so, I discovered that I had left my foil tuna packs in Round Hill. That will hurt.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April! Time to get outdoors

Headed south tomorrow for Daleville, Virginia. I will leave the Ion there, ride a hired shuttle north for two hours to the AT's James River Bridge, and take a week to walk back. Ah, the irony ... the wilderness area is dominated by Apple Orchard Mountain at 4190 feet, starting from 900 feet. It will be enough.

Easter week will find me in the Roanoke area, where I plan to observe the Triduum at a historically black Roman Catholic church. It's in the Diocese of Richmond, which is a little more accommodating for evolving followers of the renegade Rabbi like me.

Then, back across I-81, west and south around the arc of Tinker Ridge, a 150 million year old sandstone outcrop overlooking Tinker Creek.  Two days later, the iconic McAfee Knob to make a third try at seeing the sun rise there; then down and back to Round Hill in time to prepare for the March for Science on April 22.

It's going to be a busy year.