The trail town inferiority

April 26

11.3 miles, 468 overall (B&B outside Damascus)
The rain seems to have held off overnight. When I wake up I don’t hear the characteristic drops falling off of trees onto my tent. However I know from the weather forecast that this may not last long. I consider waiting in my tent until the afternoon to hike into Damascus. I know Christy won’t be arriving until later anyway. But I would still have to get out of the tent to get my food bag, and I don’t know how I would pass 4-6 hours in my tent. I force myself to get up and get moving, although I wait until 7:30 to do it.

When I do finally get out of my tent I find that the tent is mostly dry. A simple wipe with my pack towel gets rid of the last bits of moisture and I’m able to pack it away mostly dry. As I’m packing up people are leaving the shelter, anxious for a town day. Even Secrets and Shenanigans, who have been behind me ever since Black Bear Resort, got up at 4:30 to start hiking to Damascus and pass us as I’m eating breakfast. Nokey (so named because he has no keys – he sold his house and car before coming to the trail) is considering running the 10 miles to Damascus. I have seen the weather radar and am resigned to the fact that I am going to get wet no matter how fast I hike. I again consider staying in the shelter for a few hours until the worst has passed, but can’t bring myself to do it.

Around 8:30 I finally get moving. It is cloudy and the rain is imminent. I can feel the storm moving in as the wind picks up. When I finally start to hear thunder and see the lightning I get a little worried. The wind is incredibly strong and I know this is a fast-moving storm. I look for a place to hunker down while the violent initial bands of the storm pass. The trail skirts a ridge and seems to provide some good shelter from the wind so I put my pack and poles down and walk back 30 yards with my snacks and water to wait. Several hikers pass me while I’m waiting and wonder what I’m doing. Typically we keep hiking through rain. I simply have a bad feeling about this storm and want to wait for it to pass.

Twenty minutes later the rain continues but the lightning strikes are mostly gone. I put my pack back on and continue. I know the TN/VA border is close so I keep my head up to make sure I don’t miss it. The wind and rain have kicked up a notch and I curse Tennessee a bit for the less-than-pleasant send-off while I contemplate the video I could make at the border showing off the trail conditions. When I finally reach the border I realize my heightened awareness was unnecessary – the border is incredibly well marked, from the signs marking the crossing from one national forest to another to the rocks that hikers have laid across the trail to denote the border. Incredibly as I arrive the wind and rain suddenly stop and the sun begins to poke through the clouds, as if Virginia is welcoming me home. I won’t be rained on for the rest of the day. I had been hoping to find others at the sign so I could have them take a picture, but nobody has lingered here and I don’t want to wait to see if someone is close behind me. I snap a couple pictures, thankful for the front camera on my phone that lets me see the photo I’m about to take, and move on.

A few miles more and I get my first glimpse of Damascus. The first sighting of town is always fun. For one thing, most of us have never been to the towns we are entering so we don’t know what to expect. Once we lay eyes on it we can begin to size it up. How big is it? Are the houses older or newer? Is it spread out or is everything close together? It also gives a tangible feel to the town that until now has simply been a goal. Before we see it the town is simply a milestone on the way to Maine. Now that we can see it, everything that comes with it becomes more real as well including showers, food, and laundry. It always puts a little bounce in our step, and the last few miles into town often pass quickly.

The trail into town seems inviting at first, with an archway and a stroll through a park. However I quickly realize that this isn’t Hot Springs. The first indication is the trail markings. Instead of AT symbols permanently ensconced in the sidewalk as in Hot Springs, Damascus has simply put white blazes on the power line poles. Second, as I walk through town nobody waves or says hi as they did in Hot Springs. The town completely lacks a welcoming feel. Perhaps Damascus is just too acclimated to having hikers come through. It is after all the site of Trail Days, a weekend-long hiker festival that takes place every May that hikers from all parts of the trail catch rides to and hikers from previous years return for. One hiker passing through on his way to Maine is probably not very impressive when compared to Trail Days.

I make my way through town, noting the locations of the places to eat, the outfitter, and some of the lodgings I had heard about. It is 12:30 and Christy won’t be in town until closer to 4:00, so I want to take care of the trail through the town. I hike to the other side and stop when the trail enters the woods again. On my way I text TW to find out what is going on for lunch. She answers immediately that lunch would be good, so after covering the miles I return to find her at one of the lodgings in town. Her husband is here already. Apparently she made it a few more miles last night and then decided to camp. TP caught up to her and camped too, and they both made the last few miles to Damascus this morning. TW has already eaten breakfast (twice) but is ready for lunch so we head to Cowboy’s to get some greasy diner food. I get a cheeseburger with potato wedges, cheese sticks and a soda. When TW’s husband can’t finish his fried chicken and potato wedges I eat his as well.

After lunch we make a trip to the outfitter. I don’t really need anything except a new tent pole. I call MSR and they inform me they can send a replacement pole section to any place on the trail. I don’t have the data book with me so I will have to call them back with the address where I want it sent. After the outfitter I simply waste time until Christy arrives. The owner of the place TW is staying allows me to change into dry clothes in the bunkroom out back.

When Christy gets in we go check in at the B&B. It’s wonderful to see her again. The B&B is about 15 minutes out of Damascus. I get a shower and change into regular clothes that Christy brought with her. It is the first time in non-hiking clothes in over a month. We return to Damascus for dinner and meet up with Nokey, Snagglefoot, and others at Quincey’s. It is karaoke night. With hikers who have just gotten to town and are drinking beers it turns out not to be good karaoke. We laugh at several of them who are particularly interesting. One keeps signing up but can’t even read the words off of the screen. Another sits on stage to sing because he can’t stand.

It gets late and though the party will continue, I need my sleep. We return to the B&B and get to bed early. Although I’m not hiking tomorrow, I still have lots of stuff to get caught up on in my trip along the Appalachian Trail.

Categories: TN, VA | 4 Comments

The cowpatty conglomeration

April 25

18.9 miles, 456.7 overall (Abingdon Gap shelter)
The morning is wet. It isn’t raining hard, but it has rained through the night and there seems to be an ongoing light sprinkle. I have to force myself to get up and start packing. I don’t relish the idea of packing a wet tent. By the time I get out of my tent I am almost the last to get up. Miles, having very little to pack, is almost ready to go. TP is up and out of his tent already, most likely due to sleeping in a tent with Miles rather than some sort of abnormal motivation on his part. TW is of course up and moving. It seems like Biscuits is taking his time this morning. I grab my food and start on breakfast before taking the tent down.

Once I leave the only person left is Biscuits and he isn’t far behind me. We leapfrog a bit for the morning until we reach a spring a few miles in. The campsite last night didn’t have the best water source so I have planned to fill up here. I am glad I did as it is a much nicer spring. TP is just finishing with his fill-up when I arrive and Biscuits also stops for water. We all meet again in a quarter mile when we reach the next shelter, where Long Skirt is packing up her stuff to get moving. I already snacked when I got water so I simply sign the register and move on.

We pass the Nick Grindstaff monument, dedicated to a famous hermit from the area. We appreciate the irony. The monument itself looks more like a grave than a monument and we wonder if he is buried here.

The rest of the trail is actually rather boring. In the absence of big climbs, big descents, and no views due to the morning fog we are all left with our thoughts for the morning. When I’m left to my thoughts I tend to have weird ones. One day, for now apparent reason, I started thinking about the movie The Rock. For an hour I walked along the trail reciting the line, “I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you boy” to myself over and over. I did take care not to say it out loud when passing other hikers. Today I don’t have any thoughts that are as memorable.

Just before a road crossing Biscuits and I are hiking together and we come across a large metal box. Trail magic! The local church has installed this metal box on the trail and stocks it, it appears daily, with snacks and sodas. By the time Biscuits and I arrive there is only one snack cake left so we split it. We keep a piece for TP knowing he isn’t far behind, but aren’t able to keep it out of our mouths until he arrives. When he does arrive we tell him there were no snacks left rather than explaining that he took too long to get there. The church also left a register for us to sign and a disposable camera to take pictures with so we all strike poses with our sodas to spice up their album.

We leave the trail magic, but less than a quarter mile away is the road crossing where we come across more trail magic! Sipsey is a hiker who is a few days ahead of us and has already reached Damascus. He and his wife and grandson are out today with snacks, sodas, and the like for other hikers. This is fortuitous since the snacks had run out in the church’s box, so TP is able to get snacks and Biscuits and I are able to get more snacks. I check with Sipsey whether TW stopped here and she did. I won’t get to rub this one in either.

Stocked up on snacks and not needing lunch for the day, I leave the road crossing and walk the trail as it winds through some fields. It actually crosses a fence and takes us through a cow pasture where we have to dodge cow patties that pepper the trail. This doesn’t last long though, and soon we are back in the woods hiking up a ridge to the next shelter. This shelter isn’t much to see, but we stop for some food and to sign the register. Biscuits is trying to offload some of his food. He did a full resupply at Kincora, but with the trail magic by the pond yesterday and Sipsey’s trail magic today he hasn’t had to eat any of his lunches. He offers us pepperoni and swiss and I accept. I’ve been thinking about adding some pepperoni to my food supply and this lets me test it out. I decide I like it and plan to grab some in Damascus.

At this point we have done about 11 miles, but we still have 8 left. The trail magics slowed us down and I want to make sure I get into camp early enough to take my time setting up my tent and eating dinner. I don’t like being rushed in the evening and I am behind on blog entries so I could use a little extra time. Luckily today the terrain is easy so I can do a 3 mph pace pretty easily. The miles go quickly with nothing special to see. I am enjoying this new trail that follows the contours of the land rather than feeling the need to take us up and over every mountain. I do see how it can get boring though, and wonder whether this is part of the reason hikers get the “Virginia blues.”

Once I reach the shelter I am the only one there. TW and Miles have obviously pushed on. When I check the shelter register TW I see that TW signed in at 3:45 saying she was pushing on toward Damascus. I assume that means she is going to try to make it to town tonight. It is 5:00 and I have no desire to move on. I consider hiking another mile or so before setting up my tent but determine that it would be pointless. I would still be camping tonight, and with reservations with Christy at a B&B I don’t need to get into town early. I hike down the hill to get some water and then find a good spot and set up my tent. TP arrives with me and also needs water. He hasn’t been drinking enough and feels the beginnings of heat exhaustion. Still, after taking a long break and rehydrating he decides to move on and tent somewhere along the trail tonight.

By bedtime several other hikers have joined me. Biscuits stopped here, as well as Dog Whisperer (so named because he was bit by a dog), Snagglefoot and Nokey. We wind up with a full shelter and a few tents nearby. A downpour around 8:30 pushes everyone into bed early. We all plan to enter Damascus tomorrow on our way up the Appalachian Trail.

Categories: TN | 4 Comments

The ultralight undoing

April 24

21.5 miles, 437.8 overall (Campsite past Vandeventer shelter)
TW and I are both early risers. I am up minutes before her but we are both ready and hike out together around 8:45. The first few miles she takes it slow to test her hamstring so we hike together. The trail is incredibly neat as it passes between huge rock formations and follows Laurel Branch. It crosses the river a few times on large footbridges before we eventually climb away from the river. However we don’t stray for long as the trail descends to reveal Laurel Falls, perhaps the most impressive waterfall yet on the AT.

A few miles in the trail turns away from Hampton and I am lucky we are hiking together because I nearly take the side trail to town. We stop for a snack and I test the cell service. When I find a good signal I pause to upload pictures and blog entries. TW takes advantage of my break just before a big climb to get a head start on me. I end up giving her a 30 minute head start, practically guaranteeing that I won’t catch her until much later.

This climb stands out for 2 reasons. First, it is a huge climb up the mountain followed immediately by a huge descent down the mountain on the other side. This is what hikers like to call a PUD, a pointless up-down. The south is full of them, where the trail seems to want to take us to every measly summit for no apparent reason. The second reason it stands out is because it is the first of 2 climbs today, after which the trail will be almost flat to Damascus. It seems that the heavenly trails of Virginia actually start just south of the border.

The climb up is long, taking a little over 2 trail miles. The descent is just as long. At no point is it revealed to us why the mountain is called Pond Mountain. There was no pond at either the top or the bottom, although at the end of the descent the trail does meet Watauga Lake. On the way down I run into Granbob who is slack packing today back to Black Bear. His knee has been giving him trouble so he wants to try it out with less gear. He informs me that there is trail magic being set up at the bottom. I wonder if Trophy Wife will miss it again.

At the bottom there is a road crossing followed by a recreational area on the lake that is an ideal place for some trail magic. Castor thru-hiked in 2010 and this is his first time back to the trail. He has brought 2 friends to help him administer his magic: donuts, cookies, chicken and meat grilled with BBQ sauce, ham, and other goodies. TW is still there when I arrive although she quickly moves on. Brett (who now goes by Biscuits) is also there and has been eating for almost an hour. I partake in a couple donuts, some meat, and a bit of ham but I don’t want to stay too long. I move on with Biscuits and we hike the next few miles together as they wind around the lake.

At the end of the lake I cross Watauga Dam, but it is hardly impressive after Fontana. In fact this dam is more just a pile of rubble than an actual dam. As I am walking along the road to the dam I see TW crossing it. She looks like she is having some difficulty and it isn’t until I start to cross that I realize what it is. There is some bad weather moving in and the wind has picked up. Once I leave the shelter of the trees and the mountainside I am buffeted from the side as I walk across the dam. On the other side TW has stopped to put her pack cover on, but I continue on hoping the weather will pass us by.

The second big climb of the day comes on the other side of the dam. As I start up I can see the rain clouds to the west and feel the wind pushing them in my direction. I keep an eye on them but halfway up the mountain I come to a west-facing overlook and when I stop to take in the view all I can see is the oncoming haze of rain. I duck back behind the ridge and throw on my jacket and pack cover. Just as I finish I begin to feel the rain as the wind blows it in horizontally. I start hiking but the downpour never starts and my rain jacket is hot. I’m forced to take it off again and as I do TW catches me. We hike together as the rain passes through, never getting strong enough to make me want my jacket again. When we reach a spring we stop for water since the next shelter is lacking.

Miles catches us at the spring. He is one of the hikers that stayed at Black Bear with us. He is what is called an ultralighter, someone who has an incredibly light backpack. In fact Miles’ base weight (weight without food and water) is somewhere around 8 pounds and his total pack weight (with food and water) is about 13 pounds. He accomplishes this in part by buying lightweight gear, partly by carrying fewer things than other people, and finally by eating hardly anything. His food bag has only Nature’s Valley granola bars, pop tarts, Snickers bars, and Jolly Ranchers. Miles is the antithesis of Animal, the hiker who bought a month’s worth of food at a time, but is yet another example of hiking your own hike.

Miles moves on and gets to the next shelter before we do. When we arrive he tries to convince us to stay there for the night. However we (myself, TW, and Biscuits) have our eyes set on a campsite almost 4 miles further. We convince Miles to pack up all his gear and follow us.

Now, apparently somewhere in convincing Miles to follow us TW said Miles could sleep in her tent. One of the ways Miles is saving weight is by sleeping in shelters and thus not carrying a tent. When we get to the campsite TW realizes Miles wasn’t kidding about sharing the tent. However we all have 1-person tents which would make sharing quite cozy. With rain on the way though Miles needs a place to sleep. Just when we have decided that Miles will share Biscuits’ tent TP arrives. TP had gotten to Kincora yesterday in the snow, stayed the night there, and has caught up to us today. He has a 1.5 person tent (we joke about what the 0.5 person could mean) and Miles ends up sleeping there. It all works out in the end, with TP and Miles both saying in the morning that they got a great night’s sleep.

Tomorrow we plan another long day but it will be over very easy terrain, setting up a short day into Damascus the day after. Then we all plan on taking zeroes on the Appalachian Trail.

Categories: TN | 5 Comments

My unplanned zero

April 23

0 miles, 416.3 overall (Black Bear Resort, Hampton)
When I wake up it is warm, but I am in a cabin with a heater. When I venture outside it is very cold. By the time I venture over to the lounge it is snowing. I am afraid we might zero today. I don’t especially like the idea. For one thing, it throws off our plans. For another, it means spending more money. I head to the lounge where I can pick up the wifi signal and get a weather report. It is supposed to clear up some in the afternoon and only be windy. I mention this to the other hikers, suggesting that we could nero out after it warms up. They have already made up their minds. TW also seems like her mind is made up, which surprises me considering she is typically one who likes to get more miles in. Her hamstring must really be worrying her.

I prepare for a zero, still holding out hope we could leave this afternoon. I eat my 2 Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches and watch Hancock with the other hikers. At 11:30 there is supposed to be a shuttle into town for lunch and resupply so, partly out of need for food and partly out of boredom, I sign up to be on it. We leave at 11:30 with 7 hikers and a dog.

First stop is an animal shelter. The hostel owners have been taking care of a stray dog but need to get rid of it. They have found a no-kill shelter and all of the hikers are glad because the dog, other than constantly peeing on things, really seems to be well-behaved. Second stop is the Chinese AYCE buffet where I get 2 full plates of food as well as dessert and ice cream. Finally we hit Walmart for resupply. I haven’t been in a Walmart for several years and am not excited to be back, but I’m able to find what I need and get out quickly, including dinner and breakfast to save some money rather than buying them in the camp store.

This should be all the stops for a typical shuttle. However today we have a hiker who has requested a few more. First he has us stop at a Subway so he can get dinner. Second is the post office to mail some postcards. Finally he needs to go to the clinic. Apparently he is convinced that he has contracted some sort of parasite. He suggests we leave him there but it is a 5 mile walk uphill back to the hostel and the driver isn’t willing to leave him. Instead we have to wait. For almost 30 minutes we wait in the van while he is in the clinic. We pass the time by making jokes about him. We think of trail names for the parasite and consider walking to Dollar General to get him a congratulations banner for when he gets it taken care of. By the time he returns with a prescription we have named his parasite Subway because we figure one of the two foot-long subs he got must be for the parasite.

Since he has a prescription now we need to go to the pharmacy. Luckily it is only across the street, but we find out that the pharmacy no longer carries whatever it is that he has been prescribed. Back to the clinic. After a minute he returns and mentions that a pharmacy in the next town has the prescription. Not going to happen. Back into the clinic. When he returns he says the doctor told him a shot or two of Jack Daniels might work too.

The shuttle ends up taking most of the afternoon, so even if we had thoughts of returning to the trail today it is probably too late to make it any meaningful distance. TW has also decided that her hamstring needs the rest and I can’t disagree. We spend the evening packing up our resupply and then eating dinner in the lounge with other hikers while first “watching” Young Guns (the movie plays but nobody is actually watching) and then actually watching Eurotrip. I leave early to head to bed, no longer able to stay up much past 8:00.

Tomorrow we will see how things go. If TW’s hamstring feels better we can do big miles to set ourselves up for an easy 2 days to Damascus. If not we will have to do 3 medium days instead. Either way we will be there on the third day to meet our spouses and take some time off from the Appalachian Trail.

Categories: TN | 4 Comments

My change of plans

April 22

15.6 miles, 416.3 overall (Black Bear Resort, Hampton)
It rains throughout the night, meaning there is little hope of us staying dry today. I get ready quickly and am out of the shelter with the first few hikers but quickly pass them to lead the pack. Everyone seems to be heading to the hostel and I want to assure myself of a spot there. We have 16 miles to go and there is a small shelter between here and there so we may be cutting it close if many stayed there last night.

The hostel we are planning to stay at is called Kincora. It is another icon of the trail. It is run by Bob Peoples who is known as a great guy and who himself helps maintain parts of the trail. Last year apparently hikers took to creating Chuck Norris-type sayings for Bob, such as “Bob Peoples doesn’t maintain trails, if the trails know what’s good for them they maintain themselves.”

It is indeed wet this morning but the water seems to be falling off the trees more so than from the sky. The data book promises views from several spots but they are unlikely with the dense fog we are hiking through. It is sprinkling lightly enough that I take off my rain jacket and hike in only a short sleeve shirt for the first 10 miles until I reach the next shelter. When I get there the temperature seems to have dropped and I pull on both my warm shirt and my jacket to stay warm while I eat.

TW is the first to catch up to me but she is hiking slowly because of her hamstring. This actually makes her pace more comparable to mine. We eat quickly and move on, knowing that the hostel is only 6 mostly downhill miles away.

I only stop once for a quick snack and the occasional picture. On the way down the trail follows a stream again, criss-crossing several times. At one point it crosses and there is no longer any water. It takes a minute to register in my head. I go back to check and the water is gone. Downstream 20 yards though the water is gushing from a spring. I look more closely. I have seen this occur before in the Appalachians where the stream will dig a path underground and then re-emerge above ground downstream. As far as I can tell that isn’t what is going on here though. The water is actually percolating back into the ground and becoming groundwater again: a losing reach of stream! I never thought I would see this in the Appalachians as it is more common in desert soils. Typically streams in the Appalachians are gaining reaches, meaning they gain water as they move downstream. They are often so predictable that they are characterized by doubling lengths (the length of stream required to double the discharge). Without the proper tools I can’t say for sure whether this stream reach is losing or if I simply missed the spot where it had dug itself underground, but I take a picture to document the occasion anyway. I’m disappointed there are no stream ecologists or hydrologists around to geek out with me over this.

At the road there are competing signs for hostels: one for Kincora and one for a new place in the opposite direction that just opened this year. I hang a left to get to Kincora and walk the quarter mile. I can tell I have found it when I find hikers playing frisbee in the road. They tell me I should find a spot quickly because it is getting full. When I get inside I run into a bunch of hikers I haven’t seen in a long time and some I never thought I’d see again. Jay is here – he stayed with us in Hiawassee but goes by Slugger now. Brett, who now goes by Biscuits, is still with him. Gumpy and Peeper are both here as well. I haven’t seen them since the NOC and I almost don’t recognize Gumpy with all the weight he has lost. I mention it to him and he is clearly concerned about it, telling me he’s having trouble getting himself to stop losing weight.

When I look around the hostel the only bed that is open is in a shed out back. Although this would work for me it wouldn’t leave anywhere for TW and I don’t want to leave her stranded, especially when staying here was my idea. The other hikers offer floor space, but that is unappealing. Bob is gone on a shuttle run to pick up some hikers, so there is potential for the situation to become even more crowded. When TW catches up I relate to her the situation. She informs me that her leg is worse now – on the way downhill she felt a pop in the hamstring. There is no cell service so we aren’t able to get a call out to the other hostel to check if they have any availability, but we decide to roll the dice. We hike back out to the road and go the quarter mile back as well as a bit over a quarter mile the other direction to find Black Bear Resort.

We immediately like the look of the place. The log cabins seem inviting and they have dogs running around. As we walk in we are met by a younger man who runs the place with his wife and her parents. They apparently bought the place last year as a way to get out of Florida and into the mountains. They know of the reputation of Kincora and are trying to make a name for themselves as well. They offer a bunk room and cabin. We decide to go with the cabin, not knowing who will show up here and not wanting to risk the all-too-common bunkhouse shenanigans. While we get rung up for the cabin I buy a honey bun and a soda. TW buys us each a beer. In Erwin somehow the topic of drinking beer in the shower came up during dinner. I am a staunch advocate, having learned how great it can be in grad school after long days of field work. We make plans to drink these in the shower.

After a quick orientation we make ourselves at home in the cabin. I am the first to go for the shower. The water is incredibly hot and wonderful after the cold rainy day, and the beer makes the shower that much more enjoyable. When I return TW leaves for her shower. When she returns she informs me that shower beer is as great as I had claimed. We return to the office to buy microwave pizzas for dinner and pass the rest of the night in the resort lounge watching tv with other hikers. The lounge is small, only about 10′ by 10′, but is warm and has chairs, a tv and DVD player, and a microwave and fridge – all the things hikers need.

I turn in early so I can get some writing done and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. TW stays up socializing and drinking with the other hikers. It looks like tomorrow is supposed to be cold, and there is even a chance of snow. If it is too cold we may end up zeroing to both avoid the cold and to give TW’s leg a chance to mend. We’ll make a decision tomorrow when we find out what the weather is supposed to be like on the Appalachian Trail.







Categories: TN | 1 Comment

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