Friday, November 7, 2014
This past weekend I decided to take a trip down the AT as the fall colors were at their peak. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to get away for a weekend, doing something I truly enjoy, allowing me to clear my mind and get away from it all.
I left Thursday afternoon from work with the intent of arriving before dark at a Hostel I had found in AWOL's AT Guide in Pearisburg, VA. Although the hostel was not close to the trail I didn't mind as I had arranged a shuttle to meet me there, direct me to a parking area (where I would hike back to at the conclusion of my trek), and take me to the trail head in Newport where I would start my adventure. From what the shuttle driver had told me during our phone conversations while arranging the shuttle the hostel would be closed, but I would be able to camp outside without any issue.
When I did arrive at the Holy Family Hostel I was greeted by the owner's daughter and boyfriend (strange situation as I was getting changed in the back of my van in the parking lot). The informed me that the hostel was unlocked and I was welcome to stay inside if I wanted. I did venture in to the hostel and explored what it had to offer. As I did so Gypsy (the boyfriend) came out to speak with me for a bit. We spoke about how he ended up at the hostel on a work for stay and how his section hike from PA southbound had come to an unexpected end when he meet his new girlfriend. We shared stories of our hiking adventures and what it was like to be so attached to the AT. Before he left me for the night he informed me of numerous LARGE blacksnakes that had made the hostel their home. He even pointed out some snake skins that were in the cracks of the walls. He left shortly after and I decided to look through the hostel registry which confirmed such sightings. I quickly decided that my original plan of camping on the lawn next to the cemetary was the better option.
After a good nights rest (not sleep) I awoke early to pack things up and get ready for my driver to arrive. I tore down my tent, loaded my pack and used the hostel to do my morning chores before making my way to the parking area to wait for my shuttle driver.
Don arrived right on time as scheduled and I followed him to the parking area where I would drop off my car. Once there I switched my gear to his vehicle and we were off. He gave me the low down on trail conditions that were definitely beneficial such as water sources (more importantly where they were lacking) and a reroute that had been made since I came through a few years back. He was a real nice guy who is more than willing to help out hikers in need "any time and any place" as he mentioned several times.
We arrived at the trail head in Newport on VA42 just before 8:00 am. I was greeted by a friendly donkey who came rushing to the fence as we pulled off the side of the road. I picked a few of the burrs off its face, patted it on the head and let it lick my hand while Don and I spoke of his encounters with the lovely critter when he dropped other hikers off here. Don wished me luck and we were both on our separate ways - me on a 40 mile trek southbound and he off to a good and hearty breakfast.
After performing the final arrangements to my gear in the dewy high grass of meadow I headed down the trail. The sun was just coming up over the ridge and the sky was filled with hues of pink, orange and blues. I knew right off that this was going to be a great weekend!
The first couple miles of hiking were a gradual uphill. I passed through meadows and farmland before making my way into the woods. I occasionally stopped to take in the scenery, remove layers as I heated up and to just take in what nature had to offer. It had been too long since my last outing and I just got lost my surroundings. The final push to the top was a little steep, but I was rewarded by some amazing views at Kelly Knob.
So many times when I am out hiking I tend to pass the little side trails that lead to picture spots or scenic overlooks. When I am out and about with others we seem to try and get to where we are going and hike at different speeds to get there. Today being alone I was free to hike at my own pace and had no real plan as to where I would stay for the evening. This afforded me the opportunity to stop and take as much time as I wanted for breaks. I decided to take the side trail to Kelly Knob and rest for a bit which I was so glad that I did.
The overlook is an outcropping of rock with deep fissures plunging into the hillside below. I had to jump across a few of them to get to my resting spot, but the views were more than worth the risk. I sat there for about 30 minutes eating a pouch of tuna and a small snack back of chocolate trail mix enjoying the panoramic view. The colors were in full transition with some of the trees already shedding their leaves. It was so quiet with the absence of human activity obvious and welcomed. I finally had to pull myself away as I did need to put at least a few miles on the odometer for the day.
The descent down into the valley was not too strenuous allowing more of an opportunity to keep my eyes on my surrounding and not down on the ground watching for roots, rocks and ruts. At the bottom of the hill was a well flowing stream where I decided to camel up on water and fill up my water bladder for the next 2000' climb that I was about to tackle.
I had opted to take my Sawyer Squeeze on this trip rather than the Sawyer Mini or any of the other pump filters that I have accumulated over the years. I found an adapter trick online that uses a "Tornado Tube" (a child's experiment/toy that is used between two 2 liter bottles to create a simulated tornado) which can be attached between the filter and Platy bags or bottles. I did have to cut about 1/4" off of one end so it would tightly fit onto the filter before leaving, but I am glad I decided to try this out. The flow rate was by far superior to the Sawyer Mini (with the adapter I had created out of an old hydration bite valve tube) and a lot easier to use. It does weigh about an ounce more, but I found it to be worth it for my particular situation.
Fully hydrated and packed up I started my ascent to the top of the next ridge. The climb wasn't all that bad, but did meander all over the hillside and valley making me think that some drunk trail engineer just couldn't make up their mind as to where to put it. This is where I finally ran into my first set of hikers. A couple of old gents in their 70's with packs that were as old school as they were (external frames packs - which I still have one myself, with all sorts of things strapped to the outside). Just goes to show that one doesn't need all the latest and greatest gear to get out and enjoy the simple things in life. We stood and chatted for a bit on the side of the hill before they continued down the mountain and I continued trudging up hill.
When I finally made it to the top I was more than ready to take a nice long lunch break. As I reached the apex I immediately saw the perfect rock to plop down upon and rest my tired body. Just as I was about to I noticed two oddly placed game cameras on both sides of the trail strapped to the base of trees. For a split second I contemplated moving on and finding another spot to enjoy lunch, but that was only for a second. I decided that whoever had set these up would just have to suffer wading through a few pictures of my enjoying my well earned lunch. I sat down, took out my cook kit to boil some water for my Ramen Noodles, removed my shoes and socks and enjoyed a nice package of beef jerky. It felt so good to sit for a bit and get some calories in my belly. I rested for about 45 minutes before deciding it was time to pack up and head down the trail.
Looking at my map and elevation profile it did not look like the trail would be too difficult as I made my way to Bailey Gap Shelter. I couldn't have been more wrong. The last time I headed through this section of trail I was heading North bound and was on a mission to catch up with my hiking partner who had gotten about a day ahead of me (2012 Thru Hike attempt). That was a 35 mile day and I was in such a zone that I really wasn't paying much attention to the trail at that point. Today was much different as I was not in as good of shape as then and not going nearly as far or fast.
The three miles before the shelter were nothing but rocks covered by a layer of leaves. I couldn't begin to count the numbers of times that I tripped or rolled my ankles while traversing this section of trail. I had let out countless obscenities during and hoped that the soft dirt would return soon. Reading over the ledger at the shelter when I arrived confirmed that I was not the only one who felt this way. The entries from Southbound Thru Hikers who had come by only a day earlier had left comments cursing the rocks in that section as well.
I did arrive at the shelter just before 6pm and decided that this would be the place I stopped for the evening. I sat alone for a while just enjoying the quiet, read the shelter ledger for a while and finally just enjoyed the sun setting over the distant ridge painting the sky with beautiful colors before allowing natures lights to go out in preparation for a starry sky. I climbed into my tent and settled in for a nice long rest.
Unfortunately a deep sleep eluded me over the course of the night. I got plenty of rest and felt extremely relaxed with the sounds of nature surrounding me, but could not get completely comfortable with the pain in my left foot constantly reminding me of the miles of rocks before camp.
I decided to get a good start on the day and crawled out of the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag before the sun showed its presence. Being a little chilly in the morning usually makes me move a little faster from the point where I unzip my bag to then conclusion of breaking down my tent. It was still dark by the time I was starting my breakfast so I just took my time and waited until it was light enough to start down the trail without killing myself on hidden obstacles.
At 7:30 it was time to get moving. The first few miles were downhill and the soreness in my left foot was pretty noxious. Fortunately the rocks had diminished to normal trail conditions and with a steady supply of Vitamin I the pain became tolerable.
I made it to the bottom of the mountain just as the sun was making it's way over the ridge. The Captain's Place in just off the trail in this area and would make a good resting point for a weary thru hiker, but I had miles to get under my belt and could only stop to take a quick picture and video.
I had stopped at the Pine Swamp Shelter for a quick snack and to fill up my water bags before heading up my one big climb of the day. There is a stretch (heading SOBO) of approximately 11 miles where there isn't any water listed. One could probably hold off for a mile or so past the shelter as a stream follows the trail, but I wasn't taking any chances. I drank 1 liter straight away and filled my Platypus with 2 liters just to make sure. Fueled and hydrated I made my way up the winding path to the top of the ridge.
Once at the top it was pretty much putting it in gear and cruising. The trail was pretty flat (as flat as a mountain could be) and made for a comfortable 2.5 mph pace.
I rested for a bit around noon and ate my lunch on a large fallen tree trunk. As I was packing up two hikers heading my direction strolled upon me. We exchanged hello's and were on our way. The first people I had seen in 24 hours, but I quickly left them behind when they decided to stop for lunch themselves.
Just after passing Symm's Gap the scenery became very appealing. I passed through meadows and pastureland which offered spectacular views of the valley below. With the fall colors painting the mountain sides I couldn't help but to continuously stop and just soak in the views.
I arrived at the Rice Field Shelter a little earlier than expected (3pm). It is a perfect spot to stop with views on both sides of the mountain and plenty of spots to pitch a tent. After mulling it over for a short while I decided to press on the final 6ish miles rather than stay especially since it was still so early in the day, I had not seen anyone else out hiking and the remainder of my hike was all downhill.
The final descent into Pearisburg is a newly opened reroute. I was having a hard time remembering what the trail was coming NOBO when I came through in 2012 as I was trying to put in some big mile days to catch up to the group I had been hiking with, but the grade was definitely a lot more gradual and very wide. The miles seemed to melt by and since the terrain wasn't difficult to navigate I was able to keep my eyes on the surrounding rather than on the ground. I saturated my soul with the fast changing fall colors and smell of fall in the air. I knew it had been too long since I had been out last and this just reaffirmed my need to get out more often.
I made it to my car a little before 6pm and was on my way. A burger was calling my name and it wasn't long before my belly was full and the calories I had burned on this 22+ mile day were replenished.
NOW......onto the next adventure!!!!!!