AT Section Hike: Daleville, VA to Sunset Field, Blue Ridge Parkway
“A hiker that can’t eat is a hiker who can’t hike,” said Ken Wallace, the trail shuttle driver who’d come and fetched me off the Appalachian Trail just below Apple Orchard Mountain. After a two days of a stomach bug, I was getting off the trail to take a zero and get better.
My appetite hadn’t been very good since I got on the trail in Daleville, Virginia, just outside of Roanoke, and I was getting more and more nauseous every day. It was time to get off the trail after 40 miles and go into town to recuperate before I resumed my section hike where I’d left off.
I was disappointed but you have to roll with the punches that the trail throws at you. I figure I’d caught this illness from my wife, who had it just before I left Boston to come hike in Northern Virginia. I thought I’d dodged the bullet, but I reckon the strain of hiking the AT with a pack full of food and a head-full of hay fever (it is spring down south) pushed my immune system over the edge. I decided I’d rather be sick in town than on the trail and called Ken up when I got back into cell phone range. He’s listed in AWOL’s guide.
Between the weather and my worsening illness, the hike from Daleville had been a lot harder than I’d expected. While I was hiking at about 2 miles an hour, which my normal 3 season pace, I could only sustain it for 12-13 miles a day. I wrote it off to a lack of conditioning, since we’d had such a long hard winter, and some of that is definitely true. I’d hoped to take some training trips before heading down south but there was still too much snow up north to hike with three season gear. So I was heading out on my first trip of the season and planning to get in shape during the first week or two.
Anybody who says that Virginia is flat is just plain wrong, at least between Daleville and Waynesboro. All you do, like everywhere else on the AT, is climb up one hill after another and down into the gaps in between. Up and down, up and down – it’s relentless, except in Virginia, they throw in switchbacks, so you have to hike farther to climb each hill, some of which are large enough to qualify as actual mountains. If they were to eliminate the switchbacks in Virginia it would probably reduce the length of the AT by 20%.
These switchbacks are cut into the side of steep hills and each section between the turns climbs 100-200 feet of elevation at a time. If there’s a hiker ahead of you or one behind, they look like the walkers in an M.C. Escher drawing, hiking on different tiers and in different directions inside a big building.
But the switchbacks themselves aren’t flat. Most are somewhat titled, for better drainage no doubt, but at an angle that strains your muscles and flesh in a weird way if you’re used to walking on trails without switchbacks (switchbacks are very rare on New England trails, which is why they are so frightfully steep.)
I think the blister I got on my inner heel, below my ankle, was caused by walking on these tilted trails. I reckon it came from walking along on the tilt rubbing the inside of my shoe in a funny way. I rarely get blisters, but then again my feet aren’t as hard as they are a few more months into the season. I popped the blister and dried it out overnight, and covered it with Leukotape, and it hasn’t come back.
Northern Virginia (I’m just south of the Shenandoah National Park) is just lovely this time of year. The trees haven’t leafed out yet so you can see the mountains and valleys that run along the AT ridge crest through the trees. That is at least, when the weather is clear. I spent my first 2 days hiking in thick mist with only about 25-50 yards of visibility. Not heavy rain but brief scattered showers from passing clouds, and lots of fog. It was kind of spooky, like a scene out of Smokey Hollow.
There are people out on the trails. I’ve spent a few nights at shelters with thru-hikers and other section hikers. Elmer and Bridges, two thru-hikers from New Hampshire (Conway and Jackson) stayed with me and a section hiker named Star at the Wilson Creek Shelter on my first night out.
Elmer and Bridges started at Springer Mountain in Georgia on February 25th and they are moving at a pretty blistering pace, hoping to finish the trail in 4 months. Both were very nice guys, taking time out from college to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“So you can hike a section of trail any time of year? Do you have to start where you left off or go north all the time?”, asked Bridges, after Elmer had recounted their freezing cold adventure in Georgia, waking up each day with frozen boots after spending 14 hours a night in sleeping bags to stay warm. “Nope,” I replied. “I can cherry pick the best seasons to hike a section and hike whichever direction is convenient.” Bridges looked dazed upon hearing that. It is one of the advantages of section hiking.
Star (Don) had also started his section hike in Georgia and has been hiking north since 2008. He’s retired from both the Navy and the TVA, and in his late 60’s. From Tennessee, he starts where he last left off and hikes until he’s tired before getting a ride home.
I liked the sound of that. Hike until you’re ready to get off without having a fixed destination. I’m thinking of adopting that attitude, at least on my multi-week section hikes because the trail has a way of unmaking the best laid plans.
Take my stomach bug, for instance. It trashed my daily mileage and time estimates. From here on, I’m going to hike until I feel like stopping each day and try to stop pushing so hard. I’m not a thru-hiker and I don’t have to hike the trail as fast as one, even a slow one. It’s a compulsion I have, but not necessarily a good one.
Don and me spent a second night together at another shelter down the trail to duck out some thunderstorms. I hadn’t planned on sleeping in shelters much on this trip, but it’s nice not having to pack up a wet shelter in the morning. Plus the campsites near the shelters so far have been pretty bad…dished out or on a slope.
But I hadn’t brought a bivy sack or piece of Tyvek with me to protect the underside of my pad from nail heads in the shelter floor. Instead, I’ve been using the inner nest of my tarp, since it’s not sewn in and can be pitched inside the shelter without taking up more room than a bivy sack. Handy that. It also means that mice don’t run over my forehead at night since it’s covered with netting.
While I haven’t seen any ticks firsthand, I’ve heard people complain about them already. There are lots of bugs, especially gnats, moths, and butterflies, but no Mosquitos.
In the last shelter I slept in (with Star), we had several resident carpenter bees who tolerated our presences but still dive bombed us periodically. These are big bees, the size of your high school ring, bigger than a normal bumble bee, that eat wood. They’d bored out cylindrical nests into the beams and walls of the shelter. We watched two mating in the air in front of us, coupled together while still flying. Amazing.
I know I look like a dork sleeping in a shelter with an inner nest over me, but I was happy for the netting that night.
The next night, I finally pitched my tarp and slept outdoors. That was at the Cornelius Creek Shelter, just below Apple Orchard Mountain. I didn’t realize that I was so close to the Blue Ridge Parkway until I’d pitched up, but by then it was not worth moving on. It was a Saturday night and there was no telling who would show up at the shelter to shatter the night with a big bonfire and drinking.
Shortly before dark a thru-hiker from Wisconsin, named Twisted, stopped in for the night. He’d started at Springer mountain on February 1st. Why so early? He said it was to avoid hiking in a mob and because he was eager to get started, He showed me pictures of the snowdrifts he had to posthole through in Georgia, alone.
That day, my third on the trail, had been really hot and sunny and the trail had climbed about 4000 feet of elevation on top of the 12 miles I’d hiked. Without any leaves, the trees didn’t shield me from the sun, although I was well covered up with a big wide hat to prevent sunburn. I hadn’t been expecting temperatures to be so warm – 70 degrees in the day and 50 at night.
I was feeling low, especially after dinner when all I could get down was a cup of plain white rice. I couldn’t get cell service, so I emailed my wife and told her I’d decided to try to get a shuttle ride out to town. She’s so supportive of me. I’m a section hiker because of love. I can’t stand being away from my wife for too long and the life we share.
It was the same story at breakfast, where I couldn’t get any solid food down.
I packed up and hiked up the hill a ways until I got cell service and started calling the shuttle drivers in AWOL’s AT Guide. There are only two listed in the area and it was no sure thing that they’d be able to pick me up quickly.
I left voice mails for both and Ken called me back first, being the only driver available that day. We agreed to meet in an hour, which would give me time to hike to the road crossing and him time to drive the 30 miles to fetch me.
Approaching 80, Ken says his section hiking days are through. He also started on Springer Mountain and had hiked up to the NY border taking three weeks each spring and autumn to hike the trail.
A former Trail Angel, Ken used to hand out cold drinks at the James River Bridge (longest foot bridge on the AT) which I hope to cross in a few days. He started giving rides to hikers then and eventually switched to driving full-time.
By his account, the life of a trail shuttle driver is very busy, especially as the trail has gotten more popular. But his business includes all kinds of hikers since his patch includes the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park, which are both heavily visited areas.
Ken drove me down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Buena Vista, where I’d booked a room in the Budget Inn. The views on that drive were really incredible, and not ones that I’d gotten to see after days of hiking in mist or occluded by trees. There are many bell-shaped mountains that parallel the AT and verdant green valleys below them. It’s my first time in this part of Virginia and I can see why the outdoors are so popular here.
The Budget Inn is nothing to write home about and it’s really basic (maybe a 1 star). It’s clean but shabby, and located next door to a Family Dollar (food/drugs), a Subway, and a Hardees. Don’t bother walking up to the Food Lion: it’s a terrible hitch and a dangerous road walk, and the food selection is so-so. If you’re a hiker, the Family Dollar has everything you need.
Cell phone reception is good in town, but the wireless at the hotel is worthless. Too weak to get reception in your room and the air conditioner in my room didn’t work. But the Budget does have a onsite laundry, which makes it worth the stay.
Funny how town is so different from sleeping on the trail. You have noises from the traffic (in the hills you can only hear the trains), and people watching TV in adjacent rooms. You even go to sleep at different times: 10 pm in town and sunset in the hills.
After my Nero and a Zero, I’m ready to get back on the trail again and called Ken last night for an early morning shuttle to where I left off. I’m not feeling 100% but I’m going to take it easy and only do 3 days before another town resupply stop.
Until next time….hike on.