Monday, January 30, 2012

The mythos of Zero days


No, this is not a post about internet hackers and cyber-security threats. Long before the web even existed, a "zero day" was Appalachian Trail thru-hiker jargon for 'a day when I hiked zero miles or made no significant progress'.

So this is a post about not hiking when you're hiking: taking a zero day.

I hate zeros!

I don't need zeros, I don't want them, I resent them! But I gotta take them once in a while to take care of business in the outside world - maintaining those lingering vestiges of my (former and potential future) life beyond the trail.

But I heartily resist being forced away from the trail. The trail has become my de-facto home - much more so than I had ever anticipated. And I don't do transitions well, thanks to my sub-clinical Asperger's Syndrome.

When I was planning my year-long adventure on the AT, I had expected that I'd want to spend at least a night a week in a motel and would welcome such breaks, including the breaks back 'home'. I had read many accounts about how much thru-hikers look forward to their time in trail towns. It seemed to be a universal truth - hikers need a zero day now and then.

But as *my* hike went from theory to reality, I found a different truth: I didn't want my evening and morning routines complicated by a move into and out of a motel, or even a restaurant. And as time stretched to 26 consecutive AT hiking days, it turned out that I only ate three restaurant meals, and the only over-nights I spent in a building of any kind were the two consecutive nights at Woods Hole Hostel when my daughter came to visit and hike with me. I just preferred the simplicity of getting up before sunrise and going, getting back at sunset and stopping. Copy, paste, repeat.

Don't I miss showers? I thought I would, but my answer is no. I slap on some underarm deodorant most mornings, use some hand sanitizer to 'de-cheese' my smelly feet at the end of those hiking days spent in four-day-old socks, and I'll 'spruce up' with a pre-packaged moist towelette each time I switch to clean underwear (which I do "once a week whether I need it or not"). And that's it - that's all the hygiene I seem to need.

My stock answer regarding modern civilization and all its trappings is: humans did just fine in a 'natural state' for 100,000 years and more. What up? We're more adapted to life without smart phones and sporks and body-gel than with them.

I'll make one concession, however: It's great to be able to do laundry in an automatic washing machine rather than using a rock beside a cold stream as a washboard.

OK - I'll make one more (theoretical) concession. If the weather ever got bad enough - like a blizzard - I would take zero days to avoid it. But so far that hasn't happened. So as I approached a month of continuous hiking, I had to select a time to get off the trail and take care of business when the weather was 'hike-able', but worse than average. So I picked this weekend (Starting Friday 1/27) when two waves of gusty 'widow-maker' winds and icy temperatures were pushing through southwest Virginia.

It was a flash tour - pick up mail, pay bills, water plants, do laundry, and (just because it was available) take a shower. It was a strange feeling heading to the beach not because I wanted to but because I had to. And yet the intoxicating allure of warm ocean breeze, soft sand, and soothing surf quickly sank talons into me and threatened to sweep me off my trail feet.

Yes, I do hate transitions - both ways. Zero days are bad. Double bad. Bad to start, bad to finish. Bad to the bone!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Vaught Branch paradise


Vaught Branch is a tributary to the Middle Fork of the Holston River. It comes down off Glade Mountain, tumbling like a gymnast over mossy boulders. The AT follows it gleefully for more than a mile. In the first volume of my distant future trilogy, The Ice King, I describe such streams in terms of their playful living spirits:

"Their path took them through a stretch of primeval forest new to Adam. As with most of Willam’s trails, it followed a skipping run, pure and innocent as a child’s laugh. The little brook gurgled and darted like a mischievous sprite among the boles of lordly hemlocks. It tugged on mossy beards of cranky root, tickled toes of scowling boulders, played tag with ghostly crumbling skeletons of the forest’s severest fallen monarchs; then it dashed away and hid under mounds of leaf and litter, only to spring forth and join the teasing game again."


Vaught Branch starts here - spilling vigorously out of the ground literally right on the AT at 3500 foot elevation with its pure cool goodness. And down it tumbles, with all the energy that a thousand foot of elevation change can provide. The AT crosses it seven times, one of which is right beside the Chatfield Memorial Shelter, shown above.

In more than 500 miles of the AT that I've hiked, this is the shelter with the most delightful ambience - nestled among Rhododendrons and within sight and sound of the cascading stream. It's where I want to live!


OK, to put this in some perspective, I started the day at the very pretty (but closed) Settler's Museum, where there is a huge parking area that explicitly welcomes AT hikers. I hiked north to the vicinity of I-81 and its rampant civilization:


On the way I passed plenty of varied and interesting terrain in a convoluted 2.7 miles of AT hiking that takes only a mile by the (not straight) road.

Then, after returning to Settlers museum I hiked south, quickly taking up the idyllic ramble along Vaught's Branch. The trail finally tops 4100 foot Glade Mountain with a wonderful vista of the Great Valley (the domain of I-81 for hundreds of miles):


Then there's the spooky 'Enchanted Forest' along the ridge of Glade Mountain. This photo almost grosses me out. I call it "Say 'ahhh'". It's a cherry tree that has somehow sent a root *into* the gaping maw of an adjacent tree. How this could have happened escapes me.


What's more spooky is that this root looks like a hand sinking its fingers greedily into its neighbor's mouth:


Then there's this example of a bewitched tree - just one of many, many distorted, contorted, tortured, and twisted specimens.


And the enchantment seems to spill down the mountain as well. I later found this 'Howling Apple Tree' while returning to town on the mile of road between US 11 and the Settler's Museum:


Apple trees are notorious for refusing to die even in the face of unspeakable torture. I've seen other examples over a lifetime of observing and admiring what trees manage to do.

And finally, back to Glade Mountain - on the upper slopes, in the shadow of the Enchanted Forest, and right on the footpath of the AT, I found this ... this ... uh ... WHAT IS IT? It appears to be a fungus or mushroom, ... which takes on the appearance of a flower. Does this fungus require some sort of 'pollination'?


In all, a stupendously interesting day, and unseasonably mild as well - temperatures in the 60's all day. And it was another day of human isolation - no one else shared the trail with me.

Of course there's always the evenings back in town. Back in Marion, I checked Macado's in the old Historic District - pretty place, very upscale restaurant, and they confirmed that 'Rambunny' worked there, but she wasn't there at the moment ... and they refused to tell me when she was working. That was the end of that, excuse me for asking! And then ... AYCE at the KFC buffet! I can't believe how much I can pack in -- and they gave me the Senior Discount! Life's good :-D

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Thirty Six photos along the 15 miles hike today, all available as they are located along the GPS track. For details click below:

AT Day 26 - Great Valley and Glade Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Are Trekking Poles just a fad?


... or nothing more than a hiker chichi fashion statement?

This is a surprising question, coming from one who has sworn by and defended trekking poles ever since I bought mine four years ago. I find they help with balance when you slip or trip, and they can keep you dry on a dodgy stream crossing. But do you really want to drag them for all those miles just to help help you get through a few precarious moments? The answer, I suddenly realized today, is a definitive *NO*!

So why have I sworn by trekking poles all these years. The one constant they provide me is a set of 'front legs'. I actively use my poles to support my weight and help 'pull me up' when ascending. And sometimes I use them as 'brakes' on steep descents. I'd estimate that with poles I do about ten to fifteen percent of my climbing with my arms. It makes hiking a bit of an 'upper body workout', and I like that.

But when my right arm went 'lame' a few days ago (actually a pulled or strained muscle in my back, just below the shoulder blade), I found that the use of the trekking pole to support my weight only aggravated the injury. So suddenly I found myself just dragging that pole along most of the time, or carrying it like a drum major's baton, except when I needed it for balance, which was very seldom.

Yesterday afternoon I left my poles behind and didn't miss them. Today, out of habit, I brought them along, using them as I always have until my back muscle started reminding me that it wanted more rest. So after a mile and a half of a seven-out and seven-back leg, I decided to stash the poles, to be picked up on the way back.

Instantly I felt a significant sense of relief - suddenly I didn't have to drag those useless poles around any more. Suddenly I realized what a burden they are - keeping your hands tied up, making it tougher to do micro-adjustments to clothing to regulate temperature, or just to grab a bite to eat without stopping. Suddenly I felt liberated, and shocked that I felt so!

Had I been deluding myself all these years? Had I simply assumed that poles were 'the thing' because all the serious hikers used them? Were all those 'serious' hikers really not? Were they 'posers', interjecting themselves into the realm of the 'serious' by spending a hundred bucks for this fab piece of gear? Well, I don't have the answer to those questions. But what I do know is that until my 'lame' right arm gets back into business, I'll be hiking with one pole or none, and the better for it.

The internet is full of trekking pole pro-and-con discussions. Here's the one that popped up first in my Google search.

OK, now to today's sixteen miles. I don't have any more 'knock-you-out' photos to show, though the hike held my interest as I traversed varied terrain, ending with a road walk under I-81 at Groseclose/Adkins. Most of the day was in woods, but the vista from the pasture provided the best scenery.

Today's section of trail, as described from north to south, began at the top of Tilson Gap on Walker Mountain. The actual low point of the gap is a quarter mile from where the AT crosses the ridge, in order to connect with its narrow public corridor on the western flank. On the way down the east side the trail first follows the old deeply eroded Tilson Pass Road/Strawberry Road. About a third of the way down the 900 foot descent the trail designers decided this road wasn't good enough for them, so despite the fact that the trail closely parallels the road all the way to the Reed Creek campsite and trail junction at the bottom, it never again makes use of the road bed.


From the valley campsite the AT begins a pleasant 700 foot ascent up Gullion Mountain through varied wooded terrain. 'Gullion' means 'person of little worth' or 'stomach ache' depending on who you ask. Yet I found the mountain to be entirely worthwhile and free of stomach pain. As you reach the summit, you pass between two tall old white oaks, then traverse the summit ridge on several sections of 'straight path', to borrow a phrase from Islam.

As you descend off Gullion Mountain you find a short steep section of 54 log steps; and then for the next mile and a half you follow the arc-shaped feeder ridge over half a dozen knobs each with its short but strenuous climb and descent. The trail only finally gives up this knob-hopping in order to wend its way down past the former Davis Path Shelter, which was demolished in 2009 'due to misuse'. What remains is the platform on its foundation, the picnic table, and the composting privy. You ascend briefly and then follow a spur downward through unremarkable open woodland all the way to the pasture shown at the beginning of this entry. Beyond, you cross Davis Valley Road (VA 617) and cross overgrown meadows, a wetland and stream called Dry Run, and then emerge at the I-81 underpass on VA 683.

There I checked out The Barn restaurant where three-time thru-hiker and former hostel owner 'Rambunny' worked until recently. But the boss informed me that she's moved on. She now works at Macado's (pronounced MACK-a-doo's), a franchise restaurant in downtown Marion, which, I'm sure, rarely sees an AT hiker. Near the interstate I met one short-distance day hiker in shorts and t-shirt out enjoying the balmy 60 plus degree afternoon.

Having crossed I-81, I've completed 180 miles of trail (measured one way), and the entire Virginia section of the AT that lies west of this interstate. That was my original goal for January. I finished way-early because the weather has done me right. I expected some zero days because of snow.

And I hike on. Everything else I accomplish this month, with or without trekking poles, is pure 'gravy'.

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For full detail, photos, and data from my step-by-step GPS track, click below:

AT Day 25 - Walker Mountain to Interstate 81 at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Just about the perfectest day


When you get the bestest weather that mid-winter can muster, when you spend the entire day out in it, when you get to wander over hill and dale through some of the remotest parts of southwest Virginia, then you've got the formula for the perfectest day ever.

Yesterday I passed through Poor Valley and it was raining when I got there. Today I passed through Rich Valley and ... well you can see how the day ended there. The above was not taken from the Appalachian Trail, but from nearby, on the crest of the same ridge where I ended today's hike--Walker Mountain.

There was so much varied terrain and scenery today that I couldn't possibly get bored, even if the weather was dowdy and frumpy. But the wall-to-wall sunshine made everything seem even specialer.

Working backwards: the ascent of Walker Mountain featured some amazing stone steps fashioned by energetic trail builders in some bygone time. It also features a tortured route that made those steps necessary. The trail corridor is about 100 feet wide up the west side of this mountain, so the trail designers had to make do with what they were given. There were some switch backs up impossibly steep slope, and a section that followed an old deteriorating fence line with ominous 'Posted' signs on the other side.


The approach to Walker Mountain (background in this photo) passes through pasture land on either side of VA 610 - as peaceful a country setting as you could hope to find.

Turn around and face the other direction from this view and there's a wooded walk over a hill. When you get to the bottom of this, passing curious cows along the way, you walk on railroad ties alongside the North Fork of the Holston River (Upper Tennessee Valley Watershed already!) Crossing the Holston on a low-water concrete culvert, you go through a bit more woods overlooking the river then there's more pasture before you cross little Possum Jaw Creek and reach the nice roomy USFS parking area on VA 42.

North of VA 42 the trail has another brush with Brushy Mountain (and there will be at least two more before we finally say good bye to this ubiquitousest of Appalachian ranges). The trail takes you over a south knob and then a north knob on top of Brushy Mountain before it descends to Knot Maul Shelter, which practically blocks the trail, it is so *not* set back in the woods.


Now you get into the various collection of stream-side walks and crossings. Below Knot Maul the first such is the pretty little fall that the AT crosses. You follow this noisy tributary all the way down to Lynn Camp Creek where you are treated to a crossing on a rustic old bridge with moss covered railings:


Next you climb steeply up Lynn Camp Mountain on the dry sunny south side accompanied by crackly footing beneath pines and oaks, then you descend just as steeply on the cool shady north side in often soggy footing accompanied by rhododendrons and Carolina hemlocks.

Finally the flood plain and foot bridge of Lick Creek marked the northern end of today's sojourn for me. It was seventeen miles in all, out and back, and every step a pleasure.

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Complete detailed GPS track with 31 embedded photos available by clicking below:

AT Day 24 - Lick Creek to Walker Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Monday, January 23, 2012

Beautiful Chestnut Ridge



High meadows, windswept vistas on a mild day. It was too good to be true, especially after morning rain kept me off the trail until 11AM. Much later and I wouldn't have been able to make the out-and-back trek over 4400 foot Chestnut Knob. But the weather cleared - one last shower got me wet as I started out, and fog on the ridge obscured all the vistas on the way up, but that's the beauty of hiking the trail twice - a second chance at seeing the sights. After dropping down 900 feet to Walker Gap where I ended yesterday, the fog had lifted, and on my return leg, Chestnut Ridge presented me with all the glory of its grand vistas:


And at the very top, standing defiantly before the rasping mountain winds, is Chestnut Knob Shelter - a true mountaintop refuge. This is one of the few shelters that is entirely enclosed and has windows and a door. And it's built like a bomb shelter--with stone walls that must be two feet thick. It used to have a big inside fireplace, but they've filled that in and closed off the chimney.

Finally, even at 4400 feet, the hale species Quercus Alba (White Oak) thrives -- here's a huge spreading, squat old specimen just off the trail:


Highlights of the 2100 foot climb/descent off the ridge include a quarter mile stretch of trail with 120 log steps (yes, I counted them), and this creative yet functional trail art:


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I got in 13 1/2 miles despite the late start - that meant a late finish too. I was hiking until just after sunset, and once again I was alone on the trail all day. Too bad, because Chestnut Ridge was unusually welcoming for a mid-winter day. Climatologically this is the coldest week of the year, and yet the temperature was up over 60 degrees this afternoon.


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Below is a plot of my detailed GPS track, and the EveryTrail page also links that track to photos at every point marked with a little red 'pin':

AT Day 23 - Chestnut Ridge at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Sunday, January 22, 2012

With apologies to Carl Sandburg





Mountain fog comes
On lion claws bared
Raking with the wind
Over tree and vine
And restless, roaring
It moves on.



And Mountain Fog graces the land with haunting beauty.

But there was a view behind all that mist and rime ice. I missed the view.

It was foggy almost all day today as I hiked sixteen miles along Garden Mountain from Jenkins Shelter to Walker Gap in two out-and-back sections.

The morning section started at 3900 feet at the VA 623 crossing. It takes half an hour to get there from civilization - 7.4 miles of hairpin switchbacks on one lane gravel road up from VA 42 - but it's worth it. The wind-driven fog made for a cold 1.5 mile hike along the ridge of Garden Mountain; then I began the descent, dropping into calm conditions, passing an excellent spring at 3200 feet, and then descending out of the fog below 3000 feet.


The afternoon section began with a steep rocky ascent to over 4000 feet and then more than a mile of rocky, tortured ups and downs. But it was beautiful. How do Virginia's rhododendrons survive, even flourish, on mountain-ridge bedrock?

And Mirabile Dictu - I met a hiker! First one in a week. A local out for a Sunday day-hike with his dog parked his Subaru where I parked while I was on my northward leg, and I met him as I headed south. For a few minutes we chatted about the fog, the ice, and the remaining distance for me to reach Walker Gap.

The trail gradually mellowed as I continued south, and finally after about 3 miles, I passed the last of the rocky sections and began a peculiar set of knob-climbs and knob-desents. These are what some hikers call PUD's (Pointless ups and downs). It would be easy to just go around these knobs on level trail - easy, that is, if the land was publicly owned. The trail corridor along this last mile of Garden Mountain where it descends to Walker Gap is very narrow.


Walker Gap is where I turned around, and it was where the fog briefly lifted, affording me a nice view or two of the west end of Burke's Garden. I drove through Burke's Garden back in 1978, and secretly have wanted to live in "God's Thumbprint" ever since. But if the locals wouldn't sell land to Vanderbilt (his first choice for the Biltmore Estate was in Burke's Garden), then they surely wouldn't sell to little ol' me. It is an amazingly isolated, amazingly serene patch of earth.

The icy mountain fog returned as I traversed the rocky ridge line on my return leg, and the day ended much as it began, at an empty, dreary ridge-top parking lot:


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For the complete detailed GPS track of today's hike, complete with embedded photos, click below:

AT Day 22 - Garden Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rain Delay

It started gently early yesterday evening - just a nice pattering rain that came and went. By dawn it was raining buckets, and it wasn't going to magically stop when the sun came up. So much for Camelot.

Well, by 10AM it seemed to be letting up - just misting a bit - so off I went to get in some hiking. Unfortunately Mother Nature wasn't quite finished. Another shower drenched me for the next hour. Fortunately my rain-friendly clothing dries quickly, so the shower didn't slow me down. I had a relatively short day planned - about 11 miles, so despite the 3 hour rain delay, I got it all in.



The rain had one big advantage - it swelled the pretty rapids and falls on Laurel Creek, over which the new AT-dedicated footbridge passes. The rest of the day the trail presented interesting variations on familiar themes. It was foggy much of the time, so any potential views weren't happening.

The day was mild and calm - none of the ice and snow that hit the upper mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Here the temperature lingered in the low 40's from before dawn to well after dusk.

And once again today - I think it's now six consecutive days - I did not meet another person on the trail. I stopped at another shelter today - Jenkins Shelter - and the log book once again had no sign of the snow-loving long distance hiker I met (Peter). I'm now quite sure he got off the trail at Pearisburg. Hope he's OK.

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The GPS detailed track of today's Day 21 adventure is shown below, complete with embedded photos:

AT Day 21 - More of Brushy Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day 20: Side-hill walking


Saying good-bye to Ellen was tough. And leaving Woods Hole Hostel behind added to the melancholy that began today. But there was trail to conquer, and new vistas of earth and soul to experience. It was, in the end, good to get back on the trail.

Because of the late start, I only got in about eleven miles today. The first three were all road walking - the longest stretch of AT road walking I've experienced (1.4 linear trail miles continuously on road according to my GPS). This includes passing over I-77. But then it was back into the woods.


The rest of the day I hiked the west side slope of Brushy Mountain with some nice views of Hunting Camp Creek Valley all along the way.

Back on January 10th you may recall me complaining about the tortuous rocky side-hill walking that the trail forced on me because it had to avoid a ridge-hogging public road. Well, I expected the same today. Wyrick Trail (FR 282) claims the ridge top of Brushy Mountain for nearly four miles here, so the trail is left to seek its sense of seclusion, and its own identity, on the side slope.

Well, as contrived and underwhelming as the January 10th experience was, today's side-hill walk was not only a pleasant surprise, it was one of the prettier sections of trail I've walked in many days.

This section (maintained by the Piedmont AT hikers - PATH) oozes a comfortable, mossy personality, kind of like an old leather glove. The trail often follows century-old logging roads that have settled into the hillside almost as if they naturally belong there, and the treadway is everywhere smooth and inviting. The winter views of the valley below are generous, and the trail does not, in fact, just scrape along peevishly, as if resenting the road, always just a few steps under the ridge-line. Rather, it sometimes drifts halfway down to the valley to find its muse.

I ended today's leg back near the ridge, though - at a place where one can access the AT from a small camp site and parking area on Wyrick Trail. It is exactly half-way (3.4 miles road distance, not AT trail distance) between where the AT enters the woods [leaves FR 282] and where FR 282 intersects with VA 615 in the Laurel Creek valley. This turn-out is not marked with a sign on the road side, but there is a well-trodden trail that follows an old woods road from the ridge-top camping area to the AT, intersecting it at a very oblique angle. And at that intersection is a post which once held a sign. (In recent days I've seen many signs that have been similarly obliterated - wondering if someone in this area has a vendetta or holds a grudge against the trail.)

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed today's trail experience. It's entirely possible that the serene weather helped leave a positive impression - it was almost spring-like, with calm wind and temperature nearly up to 50 degrees up on Brushy Mountain. It got cloudy by mid-afternoon, and for the third time in the last week, a significant rain held off until I was finished my day's hiking.

Sort of reminds you of 'Camelot', where it only rains at night.

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Here's the detailed GPS track for today, with a bunch of embedded photos:

AT Day 20 - Brushy Mountain above Hunting Camp Creek at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Day 19: A Day to Savor


Finally, some company on the trail! And delightful company it was - in the form of daughter Ellen, who came for a two night visit before she has to head back to school for spring semester. We stayed here, at the iconic Woods Hole Hostel outside Pearisburg, and I got my first shower of 2012.

Ellen arrived last night. I went out to Dublin, VA on I-81 to meet her. We had a nice dinner at FatZ (a mound of cheese fries so big that it got the better of my trail appetite). Then we were greeted at Woods Hole by Michael and his friendly menagerie: three dogs and three cats. Unfortunately we did not have the pleasure of meeting Neville - she was away for a couple weeks in Georgia. As Ellen describes it, Woods Hole is 'rustic' - the attention to detail and the loving care Michael and Neville have woven into their mountain retreat is visible in every nook and cranny. It's an Appalachian Trail experience not to be missed.

After a wonderful night's sleep in the spacious Garden View Room, Michael prepared a breakfast feast including their own preserves on home-made bread and an omelet of eggs from a neighbor just down the road (Michael and Neville plan to have their own chickens when they can get the fencing in place).

After helping with kitchen clean-up, Ellen and I headed out for a short jaunt on the Appalachian Trail - her first trail hike. We went just three miles (out and back) from a parking area off VA 612 near the I-77 overpass, north to Helvey's Mill Shelter and back. The day started out frosty and 20 degrees, but under a bright sun it warmed up to above freezing by the time we were finished at noon.

Then the afternoon was free for more visiting. We inhaled the famous mac-and-cheese at Panera Bread in Blacksburg for lunch, then took a driving tour of the spacious Virginia Tech campus before going to nearby Christiansburg to watch 'War Horse', Steven Spielberg's latest effort. Finally it was dinner at Red Lobster and then back to Woods Hole to collapse into our warm, comfortable beds.

It was so great to have some 'quality time' with Ellen. What a wonderful break from the routine - a chance to refill the empty tanks with food for both body and soul.

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Here's the GPS track of the HIKING portion of the day's activities with a couple of photos attached:

AT Day 19 - Another Brushy Mountain summit at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Remarkably Nondescript

I've been searching for the quintessential White Blaze. It can't be too perfect. A simple 2x6 inch white rectangle on a post just doesn't cut it. The ideal AT white blaze has to have a dual character. It has to meld the essence of nature's uncompromising wildness with man's gently purposed imprint - both personalities must be in balance.

I found a good candidate today because I had the time to study the white blazes as I passed them. The trail presented little else to entertain me. I hiked a short day, just 13 miles, and all of it was on the ridge of Brushy Mountain with only a few hundred feet of elevation variation, virtually no rocks or steep sections, no viewpoints except glances through the trees, and amazingly dull weather - cold and cloudy with enough snow falling to cast a haze on the adjacent mountain ranges, but not enough to present any challenge.

I turned around at Helvey's Mill Shelter - an altogether ordinary shelter - and signed the log, which contained no entry from Peter - haven't 'heard' from him since north of Pearisburg, and am beginning to worry that he may have gone off the trail. But otherwise today's hike was remarkably nondescript. I hope I don't have many more days when I can say this.

To accentuate the positive: There was a brief moment at sunrise when a golden shaft of light painted a small patch of the upper Kimberling Creek valley:


There were plenty of grizzled old trees; but I covered that subject yesterday and will surely revisit it again in the future. And, of course, the trail is always good for the archetypical 'wending one's way through the woods' shot:


So today I was left to create my own story - to prepare some remarks, as writers are prone to do, regarding what might be considered unremarkable. I was called upon to describe what one might characterize as nondescript. And I found that I indeed had something to say. And it is this:

In the long run, a well-conceived journey takes you some place remarkable - but occasionally, along the way, you may have to take it to a place worthy of remark.

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Here is the detailed GPS track with a few more photos embedded:

AT Day 18 - Brushy Mountain above upper Kimberling Creek at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Tree


Trees tell their stories like an open book. They are dealt a place in nature's realm, and there they live out their destiny. The venerable old mountain-top trees have so much to tell - they fascinate me.

We humans are good at hiding our stories, even from ourselves. We manipulate nature so thoroughly that we forget our intimate connection with it, and how it fundamentally shaped us.

When you return to co-exist with the wild unmanipulated places, you suddenly remember: you were designed by nature to cope with what nature deals out. And you begin to identify with the trees, standing there naked before the wind.

This old specimen of a Rock Oak (formally Chestnut Oak) stands near the high point on Brushy Mountain between Lickskillet Hollow and VA 611. It greeted me with all the silent majesty of a king holding court, right there on the Appalachian Trail.

Trees seemed to be the highlight for me today - there was only one viewpoint along a power line clearing. For the fourth day in a row I met no living being as I hiked. And the weather was benign enough, even warm. My way took me along the ridge of Brushy Mountain all day. I popped back down to Kimberling Creek at the north end, where the water posed for this portrait from the middle of the suspension bridge.



But otherwise it was the trees. This one, a red oak of gargantuan girth, speaks with outstretched arm: "This way, young lad. Let me show you the path."

And I listened. Because this national public path knows that its place is among such kind. Even its logo, the 'A over T', resembles A Tree.

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As usual, here is the GPS track detailing every step of my journey this Day 17, and there are sixteen photos along the way, marked by the little red 'pins':

AT Day 17 - Brushy Mountain either side of Lickskillet Hollow at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Monday, January 16, 2012

A day in the valley (for a change)

Most of the Appalachian Trail seeks out mountain ridges and peaks. It gravitates to them because of their scenic vistas, their rugged remoteness, and their outright hiking challenge.

Sections of trail that follow stream valleys are much more rare, but they always delight me because I love the sound of water (as in babbling brooks, cascading falls, and (yes) rolling surf on the beach). The problem here in the east is that most stream valleys are productive, private lands.

The Dismal Creek valley is an exception to that. Because of its black shale substrate, the soil is very acidic and poor for farming, so this seven mile stretch of scenic valley is unpopulated. The designers of the AT pounced on the opportunity.

I'll feature three highlights of the varied terrain on today's fifteen miles of hiking. The first was right at my starting point for the day: the impressive AT-dedicated footbridge at Kimberling Creek - a cable-suspension bridge:



Second is Dismal Falls - a quarter mile side trip from the AT. For my tastes, Dismal Falls rates a 'meh'. It was worth the side trip on an otherwise relatively routine stretch of wooded trail if you're not in any particular hurry. It's really little more of a cascade than the thing called 'McKeldin Rapids' in Patapsco State Park back where I lived in Maryland. I was following two sets of footprints going my way this morning (no return prints), and they did not bother to stop at Dismal Falls. (I did not see anyone in person on the trail again today - third straight day - but these footprints provided a little 'company' and entertainment - I'm easily amused).

Finally, after spending some enjoyable time following close beside Dismal Creek, the trail took a 'walkabout' and passed through some stately groves of mature white pine with their cathedral-like canopies and complete lack of understory. Here's a typical view. I like to feature nice trail views that include white blazes, so as to be able to demonstrate that the shot was taken right on the AT. In this image, if you look closely, you can identify five white blazes:

The weather gave me a break today. It got above freezing for the first time in three or four days, and a line of showers held off until I was done hiking.

Day sixteen is in the books. I've completed more than 1/20th of the trail now, and looking forward to the other 95%.

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Here's the day's GPS track with photos along the track (red 'pins') uploaded to EveryTrail. CLick to look at them.

AT Day 16 - Dismal Creek Valley at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Sunday, January 15, 2012

You hike eighteen miles and what do you get?

Another day older and a little bit wet.

When you hike in snow, you either need snow boots (which are brutally heavy), or you hike in less-than-waterproof shoes that let your body heat melt the snow, then let that meltwater percolate ever so perniciously into your socks.

That happened to me yesterday hiking in half an inch of snow wearing my light weight trail running shoes. Today there was another half inch of snow on top of yesterday's.

Let's talk about that snow briefly first. I had worried last night that it would foil my plans for today. But in the end it didn't. I made it up to Sugar Run Gap at 3500 feet with only a little wheel spinning, so today's hike was a 'go'.

But a 'go' in the snow. With an inch of snow now accumulated, I considered my footwear options and came up with a low-tech solution that I have used in the past, all the way back to when I was a kid playing in the snow. I lined my shoes with plastic bags, specifically two draw-string kitchen garbage bags (originally purchased as cheap stuff sacks to keep ... stuff ... dry in my backpack), here used as an outer 'sock', over my regular socks and inside my trail running shoes.

The plan worked. It kept my feet as dry as my sweaty feet ever can be after a long hike ... until ... along came Dismal Creek. But we'll get to that in due course.

Again today, I could neatly divide my 18 miles of hiking into compartments--sections of distinct character. It's something that's easier to do when you hike a section both ways - you get to really understand what you're passing through the way a 'once and done' thru hiker can't hope to do.


First was the morning two miles from Sugar Run Gap parking area to Doc's Knob Shelter and back--weather was cloudy/foggy, spitting snow and accumulating hoar frost on every twig and needle, easy grade and smooth trail and one vista at which the clouds parted enough to give me a view. I won't bore you with the hazy view. At right is the ambiance shot.

Then the weather began to clear as I hiked a ragged 1.5 miles from Sugar Run Gap to Big Horse Gap. Lots of little niggling ups and downs, bits of very rocky footing, and two nasty scrambles made treacherous by the snow.

Now ... I need to vent here ... at Big Horse Gap the former AT, now called the Ribble Trail, blue blazed according to the guide book, splits off and provides a serious short-cut for the non-purist. It took me nearly half an hour to find any sign of that side trail. It is notably NOT MARKED along the AT, which is either a gross oversight or a deliberate, puckish attempt to keep the non-purist, non-local hikers from finding it.

I finally found a sign that was posted well out of sight of the current AT where an unmarked crossing that simply looks like another fire road intersects with the main forest service road at Big Horse Gap. Furthermore, I could find NO blue blazes anywhere along the stretch of the Ribble Trail from Big Horse Gap past where the current AT crosses it - NONE (and I really looked) despite the protestations in the official guide book that it is blue blazed.

To further beat the dead (Big) Horse, this seems a deliberate attempt to hide, conceal or obscure the presence of the Ribble Trail shortcut. And the presumed pettiness or incompetence of the trail stewards of the Roanoke club became the focus of my flaming ire. Rather than serving the trail users, they seem to be deliberately withholding information from them. The guide book and latest map edition are vague and inadequate in describing the crossing ... and it NEEDS TO BE MARKED. ... Okay, enough ranting (big sigh).

From Big Horse Gap to a broad ridge topped by communication towers (barely visible through the trees in winter), the trail is gently sloped and winding. Then it picks up an old road grade and follows it for 1.8 miles. That road grade just ends in the middle of nowhere. The trail doesn't veer off the road. It reaches a cul-de-sac and *has to* decide where to go on its own. It decides to ascend to the well defined spine of Sugar Run Mountain where there's an excellent viewpoint, with a broad panoramic view of Pearis Mountain, the Wilburn Valley, and far off to the south east to Walker Mountain (the original location of the AT *very* long ago) and beyond (shown at left).

Finally Sugar Run Mountain comes to an end and the trail begins a fairly steep 1500 foot descent to the Wapiti Shelter in the Dismal Creek Valley.

Ahhhhhh ... Dismal Creek. Here comes the punch line.

Dismal Creek is a big stream, even this far up the seven-mile-long section of AT that follows it. You have to cross it before you get to Wapiti Shelter. Correction ... you have to FORD it. The 'stepping stones' are under water. There's no way to stay dry this time of year with the creek as high as it is.

My shoes, of course, got thoroughly soaked. I had high hopes that my plastic socks would save the day. But then I stepped on a loose rock. It teetered and rolled over and in I went, right up to the dangling draw strings of my Kroger kitchen garbage bags.

Important tip for day hikers - carry a set of dry socks. Fortunately I had been clued into that tip, so my feet were dry and toasty for the return trip.

All in all a long, wearying, but memorable day. I hiked eighteen miles and what did I get? A little bit stronger with my daily goal met.

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Here is today's detailed GPS track with a dozen embedded and geo-located photos (taken where the red 'pins' mark the route).

AT Day 15 - Sugar Run Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Where Angels Rest


It's a tiny rock, really ... Angel's Rest. It's no bigger than a compact car. But the view standing on that rock is panoramic. I wish I could share a larger size of the above photo with you. The New River Valley from the Celanese Plant to Pearisburg and beyond is laid out before you like a many-course buffet. (Ahhh ... the buffet ... more on that later).

Nearly Sixteen miles of hiking today (8 miles out and back) can be clearly divided into three distinct sections. First comes the 1700 foot ascent in two miles to Angels Rest. Then there are three miles of amazingly flat, level, easy walking along the broad ridge of Pearis Mountain, culminating in good vistas both east and west from a Power Line clearing. Here's a telephoto shot looking west into West Virginia. The New River is visible here as it passes into the Mountain State just beyond the town of Narrows.


And then, finally, there's "Rhodo-road" - an amazing three mile stretch of old road bed that leads you almost continuously through a tunnel of Rhododendron.


Because of the frigid weather, the Rhododendron leaves have gone into their unique adaptive strategy to avoid dessication: their leaves curl up and droop to avoid being freeze-dried by the sun. They stay that way because when it's below freezing their stems can't re-supply the leaves with water.

At the end of the 8 mile hike was Doc's Knob shelter, a convenient turn-around spot for a hike of ideal length. Back to civilization I had time to scope out tomorrow's trail access parking area and starting point and then headed back to Pearisburg to the "Lucky Star" Chinese Buffet - High quality food compared with many of these ubiquitous Chinese buffets that haunt my past. Their sushi was limited to four types, but was well made, perfectly fresh, and delicious. I found myself with two other cravings: I went back half a dozen times for Lo-mein noodles - mmmmmmmmmmm, carbs. And, of course, I had three servings of ice cream!

Late breaking news, though ... I may not make it back to the mountain ridge parking area at Sugar Run Gap as planned tomorrow morning because it's snowing and the roads look treacherous. Hunkered down in Pearisburg for now. Stay tuned.

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Here's the GPS track of today's hike with ten photos embedded along it (located at the red 'pins'). There's also an option to look at the travel speed and elevation profile.

AT Day 14 - Angels Rest and Pearis Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

Friday, January 13, 2012

A walk in the Rice Fields


Who grows rice in Virginia?
... on top of a mountain?
Oh ... it's not that kind of rice field?


I never tire of walking these rolling mountaintop pastures. Even on a day when the wind seems to eat through every layer of clothing you've mustered against it, even when the sky looms gray and pallid, laden with snow, there's just something idyllic about following a gently meandering trail that you can see spread out before you.

The official Appalachian Trail guide is silent on how the Rice Fields got their name. I couldn't find anything on the internet either. So I'm left to speculate that the land was once owned by a farmer named Rice.

In 1996 the US Forest Service, in conjunction with the Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech built a shelter there:

And in that shelter was their log book. There I was delighted to find that the last two entries were from the two long distance hikers I've met in the last several days, and the only two human beings I've met on the trail since Sunday. I met Peter on the first rainy day of two this week. And I was sad to see Peter write that his 'expensive' rain gear had failed him, so he was going into Pearisburg to buy some 'plastic'. Hope all worked out well. Thor's entry was dated 1/??/12. He's that kind of guy - I'm sure he really didn't know what day it was, because it really doesn't matter. He's been hiking the AT since he was 8, and according to his count, he's now 51.

And yes, for the second day in a row I hiked (seventeen miles today) without seeing another human being ... until ... near the end of the day when I hiked through the little hamlet of Bluff City (a 'suburb' of Pearisburg - if sleepy little mountain towns are permitted to have suburbs) I greeted a young fellow crossing the street on one of three short road-walks along this bit of trail. His comment: 'sure got cold' pretty much summed it up.

Beside walking that residential neighborhood, your AT experience in Pearisburg includes emerging from the woods to see the huge Celanese industrial complex, walking the company's private underpass of whizzing US 460, climbing a substantial AT-exclusive staircase, and crossing the New River on a dedicated walkway.



So the day ended far from the idyllic Rice Fields, but the variety made it an entertaining day despite the bleak weather. It's all good. Tomorrow I get to tread where ...


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For a look at the detailed GPS track I laid down today, complete with 20 photos (located by the little red 'pins', EveryTrail is the place to go:
AT Day 13 - Peters Mountain and Pearisburg at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia