21.8 miles, 505.9 overall (Old Orchard shelter)
Hungus and Pace were right about being late risers. I am on my way out of camp while they are eating breakfast, their hammocks still hanging on the trees. I have a long day ahead of me to try to set myself up to get to Partnership shelter tomorrow where I can order pizza!
I immediately start with an uphill today. Whitetop mountain is the second highest in Virginia and comes just before Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. The trail doesn’t actually take us to either peak, instead skirting the peaks and providing side trails to the top. The climb up Whitetop itself isn’t bad. As most Virginia trails are, it is well-graded and has switchbacks. Near the top is Buzzard Rock. I stop for a snack and take some pictures of the excellent views. It is several minutes before I realize Spirit is already here, laying on the hill several feet from the trail. She looks like she is enjoying the quiet time in the sun so I don’t disturb her, instead moving along up the trail.
Almost immediately after moving on I run into Spools and another hiker who I have met but whose name I can’t remember. They are slack packing today, aided by the unnamed hiker’s mother who lives nearby. There have been a lot of slack packers recently, especially since Damascus. For many it is a chance to cover the miles with less weight. For me it still feels like cheating. If you don’t want to carry the weight perhaps you should carry less. Perhaps my standards will change as I move further up the trail, but for now I can’t bring myself to do it.
Pretty soon I am on my way up Mount Rogers. Again the climb is nothing special. I do pass some section hikers on the way up but I don’t stop to visit with them. Near the top though I see my first wild ponies! The highlands, which I am now in, are famous for the wild ponies which are actually quite tame and accustomed to humans. I snap a few pictures and they watch me, but none of them move much. They remind me of an episode of Psych where Sean wants to break into a park to ride a dolphin. I tell the ponies “Pa does not love Faw!” and then push on.
Just past the side trail to the top of Mount Rogers (which I don’t take because it is 0.5 miles for no view) is Thomas Knob shelter. The shelter appears to be newer and has two levels. I stop here for lunch. Wolfe, Wall-E, Brownie, and Krispy Kreme are all there eating too. The 3 other than Wolfe started several days after I did at Springer but did high miles from the start. I first met them at Max Patch, and since then we have been leapfrogging. Now we are doing approximately the same miles per day. They leave while I am getting some water and the section hikers I passed on the way up the mountain catch up. It turns out one of them thru-hiked last year (Grasshopper) and he has brought snacks for trail magic. Although I already have enough food I still take a snack and thank him.
The trail winds from here through the highlands. Where Hump Mountain reminded me of the Scottish highlands, this area reminds me of the highlands at Christmas time because of the similar views and the constant smell of the firs. The views are amazing, and every few miles I see a new group of ponies. Some are friendlier than others, but none seem to be worried about hikers. I enter Grayson Highlands State Park, but the park doesn’t hold much prestige in my opinion since I’ve already seen the wild ponies. I’m pushing the miles now after dawdling this morning, trying to get some more in to make the distance to Partnership tomorrow shorter. When I arrive at Wise shelter on the northern edge of the park it is 4:00 and there are 6 miles left to get to the next shelter which I had designated as a stretch goal for myself today. After a snack and use of the privy I estimate I should be able to make it there by 6:30, a respectable time to stop hiking for the day. While I am snacking Wall-E, Krispy Kreme, and Brownie catch up. They also plan to head to the next shelter. I’m glad. They hike fast and I can use them to keep my pace up. I leave a bit before they do to get a head start.
Shortly up the trail I take a wrong turn. I recognize it quickly but by the time I get back on track Wall-E and Brownie have caught up. I let them go ahead and set the pace. Krispy Kreme must be somewhere behind. For a few miles we hike quickly, but rain clouds have been threatening all day and around 5:00 they finally let loose on us. We throw pack covers on and they decide to don rain jackets. I think the storm will pass quickly so I forgo the rain jacket and hike ahead of them. I turn out to be right – it only lasts about 15 minutes and afterward the wet shirt and hat feel nice.
More miles pass and I’m still in front, but when we have only 2 miles left to the shelter I hear thunder again and start to worry about another storm moving in. I hike faster. From here it is all downhill, but I tend to be slower on downhills than other hikers. About a quarter mile from the shelter they pass me. Brownie mentions that she just wants to make it to the shelter in time to beat the rain. I agree. However not more than 2 minutes later the skies open up on us. At first it is rain, but almost immediately I begin seeing very large pieces of hail. I think to myself “That’s ok, I can probably deal with it if there are only a few big pieces.” Immediately the storm switches to only large chunks of hail. It only takes one hitting my head for me to start looking for cover. All I can find is the trunk of a not-very-protective tree. I huddle close to it, hoping it will at least stop some of the pieces from hitting me. It doesn’t seem to be working. I try covering my head with my arms, but my arms are getting pelted and some pieces are still getting through to my head. I brainstorm things I can use to cover my head. My pack cover! I have a cover that is larger than is necessary. It turns out I can pull it up and over my head while still covering my pack. This turns out to work well as long as I keep it held high enough that the pack cover is not touching my head. My arms still get a few good pelts and my hands take a beating where they are pulling the cover tight, but my head stays largely safe. I think about whether this is punishment for not stopping when the first thunderstorm rolled through earlier. I also wonder if Wall-E and Brownie made it to the shelter in time.
The storm only lasts 10 minutes, tops. After it is over I take pictures for proof. There are several golf ball sized pieces but the average piece seems to be the size of my eye. The forest is littered with little white balls of ice. I practically run the remaining 0.2 miles or so to the shelter before the weather has a chance to turn on me again.
It turns out Wall-E and Brownie did not make it to the shelter in time. This is extra sad because Brownie has a dog hiking with her. Brownie apparently used herself to cover the dog during the storm and took a beating from the hail. She lets us all feel a bump on the back of her head where one of them got her. Although she seems to be ok, we joke about needing to wake her up hourly tonight to make sure she isn’t concussed.
Now that the storm has passed the weather is perfect. The sun is out and there are no more storm clouds in sight. I decide to tent tonight since there are several great spots near the shelter. In the shelter is Slow-and-Sexy. He is a flip-flopper. He started his hike in Harper’s Ferry about a month ago and is hiking south to Springer. Once he gets there he will travel north to complete the section from Harper’s Ferry to Katahdin. He hasn’t decided yet in which direction he will complete that section. Over dinner we discuss upcoming resupply points. He tells us about the towns, hostels, and hikers ahead of us and we do the same for him. We are all about 500 miles into our hikes now, us having passed the 500 mile mark today and him having passed it recently. He says we are some of the friendliest hikers he has met yet. Apparently until now he has been meeting all of the fast hikers who mostly care about how many miles they do each day.
Tomorrow if I want pizza for dinner I will have to hike 24.7 miles by dinner time. We will see how I feel in the morning, but already pizza for lunch in 2 days instead sounds like it could be a pretty nice treat on the Appalachian Trail!