An Appalachian Trail Series – Virginia, PART ONE

Part one in this two-part post covers the Appalachian Trail north from the Tennessee/Virginia border to Daleville, VA:

259.3 miles from the TN/VA border to Daleville, VA

  •   536.8 miles total in VA (not including the 15 miles +/- that hug the Virginia/West Virginia border)

30 Days from the TN/VA border to Daleville, VA

  •   53 total days spent in VA

Highest elevation: Roan Mountain – 5,729 feet (the A.T. actually skirts the summit by a half mile – follow a blue blaze trail to take you to the top)

Wildlife seen: Deer, snails, a variety of snakes, WILD PONIES, many birds, many dirty thru-hikers

Virginia

The morning after completing our first marathon was rough – more so for me than my Chuck Norris-esque husband. My stomach was in knots all morning and energy levels were so far off the radar that you could compare them to Sarah Palin’s election odds (hopefully you interpret that as “zero”).

On the other side of the radar, Rob and a couple other hikers decided to indulge in a bike trip on the Virginia Creeper Trail. Not quite as creepy as it sounds, the Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34 mile recreation trail from Abingdon, VA to Whitetop Station, VA with Damascus almost smack dab in the middle. Formerly a train route until 1977, the converted rail-to-trail path can be used for multiple activities with its most popular being biking. Their group was shuttled to the top of Whitetop Station and rode the 17 miles back to Damascus, almost all downhill. They booked through Adventure Damascus which receives plenty of good reviews. It started to rain halfway through their ride so Rob looked like a wet koala once he came back to the hostel:

Rob was still pretty cute, though. Shhh, don’t tell him that – he HATES to be called “cute”. Rather, he was “handsome”.

We stayed at “The Place” for the first couple of nights. At $6 per bunk per night, it was a good deal for a converted house to hostel with showers and a kitchen. Wanting a bit more privacy though, we opted to stay at Dancing Bear Bed & Breakfast on the third night. We really loved our stay here. The room was very nice and clean (not to mention private!) and we were able to use the outdoor patio and grill (which we used to cook as many vegetables as we could get our hands on).

Damascus is a unique stop on the trail. Famed for hosting “Trail Days”, Damascus has earned the reputation as one of the friendliest trail towns on the A.T. It is for these reasons that many hikers are eager to arrive in Damascus and end up spending a few days here, planned or unplanned. We planned  on spending one night here. We ended up spending three. The town sucks you in.

We were in need of a break though so I didn’t feel too bad about it. The main hangout in town is the bar/pizza place, Quincy’s. With good food, a nice sized bar, and karaoke, what’s not to like? Maybe some of the singing was a bit off-key but that’s beside the point – “Bohemian Rhapsody” is great regardless of who is singing.

As always, it was tough leaving town. Once we managed to escape the city limits, we threw our bear bag up for the night and got it stuck in a tree. Yup, we were off to a great start! Our friend Double Back, who should seriously consider competing in the International Tree Climbing Competition (yes, that is a real thing), saved our asses by climbing to the top of a LIMBLESS tree to retrieve it. Boy, did we pick the right person to camp with that night or what?!

Appalachian Trail 426

By and large, one of our most memorable experiences during the entire 2,184 mile hike was the walk through the Grayson Highlands.

WE SAW WILD PONIES.

         WE PETTED WILD PONIES.

                  WE FROLICKED AMONGST WILD PONIES.

                             WE STOPPED A WILD PONY FROM FROLICKING ROB.

Greyson Highlands

I would leave it at that but just thinking about the WILD PONIES bubbles up all these feelings of excitement (I must look like a total goon in this coffee shop grinning from ear-to-ear). To get to the Highlands, one must first climb Mt. Roger’s (Virginia’s highest peak). It was a rainy day so we stopped at the shelter immediately before the highlands to rest up out of the rain. The shelter was especially exciting that morning being that it was nearly burned down after someone knocked over their homemade alcohol stove.

On the year of our thru, there was a large amount of people that reverted to using alcohol stoves. Commonly made with tuna cans, cat food cans, beer cans, or pop cans, they offer a lightweight and cheap alternative to canister or liquid-fuel stoves.

Pros:

Lightweight

Cheap materials

Cheap fuel (it burns denatured alcohol – most hikers buy this in the form of HEET gas-line antifreeze available in most  gas stations)

Simple to make

Cons:

No on-off switch (it will burn until the fuel is burned up)

No temperature regulation

More affected by windy conditions

May not be able to hold larger pots (depending on the design)

Oh, and they burn shelters down.

            ^^^ Okay, not really. Most hikers are responsible with them. Most.

We carried the Optimus Crux canister stove and were happy with our decision. While it is a heavier set-up and pricier than the alcohol stove, it was more efficient and reliable when cooking for two. We never had a problem finding places that carried the canisters and the Optimus Crux itself weighs only 2.92 ounces anyways. Besides, we got into the habit of cooking over a fire when possible to save money on fuel.

Cooking

…………..

I digress.

WILD PONIES.

We hiked through the Grayson Highlands in the early part of May. We quickly learned that this was a good time to go as many baby ponies had been born what seemed like days prior to our arrival. The Highlands were blanketed with a thick mist only increasing the magical ambiance of the park. The “wild” ponies were brought to the area in the 1970’s to help keep the vegetation at bay. You see, the “bald” mountains on which they reside weren’t always “bald”. Back in the day, the mountaintops were heavily forested. But, as our nation grew, so did our need for lumber – of which much of the highlands were depleted of. Cattle then grazed here for many years until they left making room for the ponies to saunter in. They continue to earn their “wild” status as they have to source their own food and shelter. Naturally, they remain one of the biggest attractions of the park and the endless supply of gawkers has habituated them to humans.

I, for one, am not habituated to wild ponies. My excitement was of a 90’s teenager about to see N’ SYNC in concert for the first (or tenth) time. Drop what you are doing and go. Go to the Grayson Highlands. Right now. You won’t regret it.

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Appalachian Trail 436

Appalachian Trail 435

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Unfortunately, all good things must pass as it was when we left the park. I wanted to be akin to Kevin Richardson, the man who lives amongst lions, and establish myself in the pony herd. All plans of pony life were thwarted, though, when I remembered our proximity to the Partnership Shelter and its promise of pizza in my mouth. Moving on…

The Partnership Shelter is a beautiful, newly constructed, two-story shelter with running water and other amenities offered at the nearby Mt. Rogers Recreation Area Visitor Center. A Pizza Hut in Marion, VA offers delivery straight to the park making this shelter a hiker favorite. Nearly everybody there that night ordered pizza bringing our bill to an astonishing $190 (at Pizza Hut nonetheless!). With the tip everyone left, the driver ended the night with an extra $75 in his pocket. The look on his face was worth the extra cash.

With full bellies, we took to our nightly tradition of reading the shelter log. Things were too good to be true for the group staying here just a few nights prior. On the A.T., big shelters can oftentimes mean big parties. This group had a lot to drink and one particular hiker let it get the best of him as he ended up peeing the bed. The situation took a turn for the worse as he was sleeping on the SECOND floor. His warm piss leaked through and flooded the unfortunate girl sleeping on the first floor directly underneath him. He felt so bad the next day that he bought her all new gear – a good end for a tragic mishap. I can’t imagine how traumatized this girl must have been! It brings a whole new meaning to wet dreams…

Partnership Shelter

Partnership Shelter

The next day brought us into Atkins, VA – one of our least favorite towns on the trail. That may be because of the trashy Relax Inn that literally had trash scattered across the parking lot, front lawn, and entryway (trail word was that it would be cleaner to sleep in the woods than at this hotel) or it may have been the hotel neighbor that hung a Neo-Nazi flag on his front porch. Either way, the area wasn’t very inviting.

The Barn restaurant had really amazing 1 lb. burgers, though.

Appalachian Trail 469

We ended up catching a ride to the Comfort Inn a couple of miles down the road. THIS place was great. The value for sleeping two people with a complimentary breakfast made our stay cost not much more than it would have been at the Relax Inn.

This was the point in our journey in which Rob was picked up to go to his brother-in-law, Mark’s bachelor party. They went whitewater rafting down the New River Gorge through ACE Adventures. He wouldn’t stop raving about the amazing time they had so I would take that for a good review.

I spent my time in Wytheville, VA. Ever hear of it? Yeah, us neither. There was a cute downtown but I don’t think many tourists make Wytheville a vacation destination. The visitor center was in a state of shock when I asked about their walking tour through town. I learned that Woodrow Wilson’s wife was born here and the polio epidemic tragically ravished the area in the 1950’s. It is also home to the “Skeeter-Dog” which is a yummy hotdog covered in chili, mustard, coleslaw and onions. Now you know some Wytheville trivia. Hope it comes in handy.

The first night back on the trail after our 3 day hiatus was filled with the fear one has after re-acquainting themselves with sleeping in the woods. We were quite bear-anoid and filled our sleepness night with thoughts of the imminent flash floods about to sweep through camp. Of course, nothing happened and we simply provoked a sleepy walk the next day. Fortunately, we had fun cow pastures to walk through and friendly deer that trotted right up to us to keep us awake. That would sure make hunting a lot easier in Michigan, huh?

Appalachian Trail 485

We were back-and-forth on deciding whether we should go back to Damascus for Trail Days or not. On one side of the coin, we just came off a few days vacation and had spent a good amount of time in Damascus already. Wanting to put some miles behind us, Trail Days would have just halted us completely for the three days we would spend there. On the other hand, what is this hike if we don’t indulge in as many different experiences as possible? Yes, hiking is important and we need to make ground but meeting new people and seeing a community come together to celebrate this trail is just as, if not more, important. We had a different answer each day of the week leading up to the event. When it came down to it, we finally decided that we would see what happens. If we could catch a hitch and if everything else fell into place, then we would go. If it was a challenge, we wouldn’t push it.

It turns out, a Trail days celebration was in the cards for us. We caught a hitch pretty easily to Bland, VA where we had a slightly harder time catching a hitch for the final installment to Damascus. If you look at a map of where Bland is in comparison to Damascus, it isn’t exactly a straight shot:

Bland to Damascus

We contacted Rock Ocean, an interesting fella who provided a hiker shuttle service along the A.T. that year, to see if he was in the area. “I’ll be swinging through that area around 2 pm. I can give you a lift.”, he said. “Lucky us”, we exclaimed. And the rest is history… off to Damascus we would go!

Tents, tents everywhere

Tents, tents everywhere

Trail Days is a festival celebrating all things that make up the Appalachian Trail. Thousands upon thousands of hikers and visitors come to Damascus each year to take part in the hiker workshops, services, gear sales, and entertainment. The annual hiker parade brings together folks from different hiking years to celebrate their accomplishments… and get a little wet (there is a town-wide water fight that occurs during the parade). A little pointer: Don’t bring anything you wouldn’t want to get wet to the parade, even if you are just a spectator. We witnessed a fight between a visitor whose very nice and very expensive camera got wet and the hiker who he deemed was the culprit (it could have been any one of us that threw the water balloon but he we sure that he found his guy).

The beginnings of the hiker parade

The beginnings of the hiker parade

We tented on the lawn of “Between the Trails” vacation rental after a hiker advised us that they were much more relaxed than “The Place”. The breakfast cooked up for us and the chill environment deemed it a good decision. The First Baptist Church provided free showers and haircuts, both of which we partook in. Rob had been pretty tick-anoid so he decided to buzz his hair right down to his scalp. It was strange to see my husband without his beautiful locks (he was still handsome, of course). The Baptist church also provided free foot massages. Wait, I need to emphasize this more.

FREE FOOT MASSAGES… FREE FOOT MASSAGES… FREE FOOT MASSAGES… FREE FOOT MASSAGES… FREE FOOT MASSAGES… FREE FOOT MASSAGES…

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We indulged in these a few (ten) times. Our feet were numb with happiness.

Walking through the vendor booths was fun. They had anything and everything you could possible need. We entered as many raffles as we could hoping to win some free gear. After finishing our thru-hike in October, I read an email from Kammok dating back to May that I had WON A HAMMOCK! I didn’t see the email for FIVE WHOLE MONTHS but that was alright. It was a nice reward after a long journey. The “Roo” hammock is extremely comfortable and pretty lightweight. For those familiar with backpacking hammocks, they are pretty comparable to ENO hammocks. If I were a single backpacker, I would probably make the switch from tenting to hammocking for the comfortable night’s sleep alone. Check them out here: http://kammok.com/

When you visit Trail Days, it is an unofficial rule to at least check out Tent City. This is the area where some vendor booths are held but, more importantly, where a lot of the visitors camp (read: party central). There are a bunch of unique camps set-up here as well as a huge bonfire with various performers. Entertainment is not lacking, that much is sure.

Tent City Bonfire

Tent City Bonfire

After an eventful few days, the First Baptist Church pulled through for us again and shuttled us back to Bland. I was the luckiest person on earth this day as a man who was thru-hiking with his bulldog sat next to me. I played with him (the bulldog) the entire trip back. I asked how he held up while hiking, thinking about his stubby legs and the potential for difficult breathing, but he said that the dog did great. The owner mentioned that he had to be aware of when the dog needed breaks but, most of the time, the dog had more energy than him. I thought that was so cool!

The "Cool Bus" provided by the First Baptist Church

The “Cool Bus” provided by the First Baptist Church

The trail leading up to Pearisburg was uneventful. The most interesting part was the shelter in which a couple of hikers were murdered at random some years back. Needless to say, I had a rough time falling to sleep. Here’s a snapshot from the following day:

05.22.2012 – Day 69 (Candice)

 I had a hard time sleeping last night with the constant thought that Jason would tear down our tent at any second. I heard a good amount of noises all night (they were probably the two deer we saw earlier) but I woke Rob up numerous times thinking that might be the last time I would see his handsome face.

 We woke up later than we wanted and were almost immediately faced with a big climb once we hit the trail. We got to a spot and rested and realized that we only hiked 2 miles so far. That’s when we knew it was going to be a long day!

 The trail was pretty rocky for the duration of the day. When we arrived at the next shelter to eat lunch, we realized we were only 8 miles into the day. Ugh. As soon as we packed up to leave, it started to downpour and lightning pretty intensely. It sounded really close. Not wanting to die by lightning today, we decided to wait it out for a bit in the shelter.

 It didn’t stop, however. The previously dry streambeds were quickly raging. We decided to just stay here tonight, wake up early, and hike into Pearisburg first thing in the AM. We lounged around for awhile which was well needed for our aching muscles and feet from the long 24 mile day yesterday. We’ll FINALLY make it into Pearisburg tomorrow!

 There is an interesting guy here tonight that may or may not be the shelter killer discussed last night. Here’s to hoping I’ll live to write another journal entry tomorrow!

We survived but not without struggle sleeping. He ended up talking in his sleep all night. Another hiker in the shelter woke up around the same time as us and we all exchanged looks and sighs. Occasionally he would yell at the adversary in his dreams and would freak us all out thinking that he would start sleep-walking and murder us. It had been an intense couple of days! We ended up listening to our iPod all night trying to drown him out. I assure you, it is NOT always like this.

Once we arrived in Pearisburg, we decided to check out the “Holy Family Hostel”. I have to say, this one of our greatest hostel stays on the trail. Not necessarily for the sleeping quarters or the amenities (which did include a shower and running water), but for the views and memorable Father who oversaw the place. When we arrived, he warmly welcomed us, talked our ear off, and then invited us to lunch the following day. Clearly an interesting man, we couldn’t possibly turn him down.

Holy Family Hostel

Holy Family Hostel

Father John brought us to a Chinese lunch buffet that was incredibly good (again, thru-hiker food reviews are basically worthless). The Father talked a lot and told stories the whole time. He exaggerates everything he says by adding “Oh my goodness, sweet baby Jesus” or “Lordy, Lordy, Lordy” or “Oh my God, Hallelujah”. He sounded more like and Evangelist than a Catholic Priest. He also swore much more frequently than a priest probably should. Perhaps it was because he is Roman Catholic and Italian… kind of like the Soprano’s. It made for quite an interesting lunch. He also paid for us which made it even more worth it. We would have been happy to go anyways, even if he hadn’t though. He was one of those characters that you know you will only meet once in your life for his genuine heart and exuberant personality. Sadly enough, I learned just now that Father John passed away in October of that same year. Life is short; I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to meet such an impressive man. If he was so memorable for us than I can’t imagine his impact on those closer to him.  RIP Father John.

On a lighter note, Rob fell in love. Not with me… but with a fanny pack.

He is forever changed.

He is forever changed.

The next section of trail through Virginia is utterly gorgeous. Pasture lands, fruit trees, and green, tree-covered mountains filling the horizon provided an unforgettable landscape. You’ll hear people talk about the “Virginia Blues” as its 536 miles can make you feel like you aren’t getting any closer to Katahdin (am I ever going to finish this state?!). This is also the point in the trail where one can start to feel homesick. You have made it through three states, all was exciting and new, and then you get into the grind of your new lifestyle – camping, hiking, camping, hiking, camping, hiking. This is where it is absolutely vital to pick your head up and admire the beauty around you – not just in the scenery but in the amazing community that you have come to surround yourself with. Walking is walking, whether it’s in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine. But happiness … happiness can be found anywhere. Keep on keepin’ on. You’ll find it again.

Rob's looking for his happiness...

Rob’s looking for his happiness…

This trail between Pearisburg and Daleville will take you past some pretty amazing places:

1)  The Keffer Oak Tree. This is the largest oak tree in the south with a base exceeding 18” in diameter. It is over 300 years old so please respect your elders.

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Appalachian Trail 527

2)  Dragon’s Tooth. This rock monolith was a fun playground of sorts that overlooked the valley’s below. Be careful descending the mountain. It can be tricky in spots.

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3)  McAfee Knob. This rock overhang is the most photographed spot along the entire Appalachian Trail. Once you get here, it is easy to see why. If you dare, dangle your legs over the ledge for a memorable photo-op. We had an intense storm roll in while taking pictures here and had to literally run to the next shelter to avoid some of the rain (we got drenched anyways). We felt like Jedi’s as it seemed like we were dodging lightning crashing all around us.

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The scary storm rolling in.

The scary storm rolling in.

4)  Tinker Cliffs. Our views were blocked with the same intense fog that is seen in the picture below. Even with the fog, you can tell that this is a remarkable place worth a visit.

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After an exciting few days, we headed into Daleville intending to stay the night and eat a gallon of ice cream (mission accomplished). We arrived at the Howard Johnson’s just in the nick of time as yet another big storm rolled in. With the lobby TV alerting us of a tornado watch, my thoughts still remained focused on Mint Chocolate Chip.

NEXT UP: Virginia, Part Two

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