“I don’t think we’re going to make it to Sunset Field,” I said, to Ken, my trail shuttle driver. The mist on the Blue Ridge Parkway was so thick there was no way we’d make it over Apple Orchard Mountain. “Let me at least take you to a place where the trail crosses the road,” he said, pulling down a gated side road and leaving me at Petite Gap, about 7.5 miles north of the point where he’d picked me up two days earlier.
I was disappointed to miss those 7.5 miles of the AT, but I’m not a purist and I couldn’t sit around for a day or more for the mist to clear. Circumstances sometimes make it necessary to skip miles, and this was one of those times. That’s why the certificate awarded by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to people who finish hiking the AT is called the 2000 miler award, in recognition that you’ll probably have to skip a few miles along the way due to unforseen circumstances.
It’s funny how you long for town, a shower, normal food, and four walls when you’re on the trail, but how town is such a let down compared to a few days in the wilderness with the good fellowship of other hikers. So many small towns along the trail have turned into hubs of fast food restaurants, gas station convenience stores, and Walmarts, that you have to question whether our collective economic “progress” is really as cracked up as it’s made out to be.
Starting 7.5 miles farther along than expected was a blessing in a way, because I missed a big climb that I’d been dreading for the past two days, to the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain, which has a big FAA transmitter on top. I could catch up on some of my “lost” time (really distance) in town and hike a little farther north than I had expected to reach that day.
It also meant that most of my day’s walk would be downhill, dropping from a maximum elevation of 3000 feet, down to 678 ft at the James River Foot Bridge, (named after William Foot) which is also the longest foot bridge on the Appalachian Trail.
While it was drizzling, the temperature was warm enough that I only needed a rain jacket to hike, but no mid-layer insulation, which I often wear in spring or autumn to prevent from getting chilled when my “waterproof, breathable” jacket invariably wets out
I held out on putting on my rain pants for as long as possible (since I sweat so much when I wear them), but the rain eventually started to come down heavily and I was forced to put them on. It would continue to pour until about 6 pm.
I made good time, coming to Matts Creek Shelter, where I met an Israeli thru-hiker named Stretch. He was sitting in the shelter chowing down on a huge lunch of hot cocoa, with cheese, pepperoni, and tortillas. I joined him and ate a few Nutella tortillas of my own.
While we were eating, he took a mouse trap out of his pack and put it in the shelter, baiting it with a piece of cheese. He’s been doing this all along the trail, which may explain the notable absence of mice I’ve experienced in the shelters en route. I was to hear many funny stories about Stretch’s mouse bedtime routine (where he surrounds his sleeping areas with traps) from other thru-hikers I met.
Stretch asked me in excellent, but heavily accented English, “Vat is the difference between a National Forest and a National Park? I like the Forests so much better because there are fewer rules than in the Parks, where you can only camp at certain spots and have to get a permit.”
I proceeded to try to make sense of the difference between The US Forest Service which manages National Forests, and the US Park Service which manages our National Parks.
I explained that the Forest Service and the Park Service belong to two different organizations in our government, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior. The mission of the Forest Service is to support multi-use recreation in the National Forests (hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, hunting, etc) while allowing some commercial activity within them such as selective lumber harvesting.
The role of the Park Service is to preserve designated areas of great natural beauty or historical significance in their original form, forever, without changing them…which you can imagine is a daunting task in the face of acid rain, global warming, species extinction, and increased usage due to population and visitor growth.
“That’s the difference in what each does”, I explained,” but “I can’t tell you why we have two separate branches of government that have so much overlap when it comes to overseeing wilderness areas.”
Try explaining this to a foreigner yourself sometime and ask yourself if the distinction between these two branches of government makes any sense
Stretch finished his meal and packed up and I followed shortly, hiking the final stretch to the James River Foot Bridge which is a landmark for northbound hikers, since it’s close to 1/3 the distance between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mt Katahdin in Maine.
No photo, I’m afraid. It was chucking down rain when I crossed over the river.
There was another shelter in about 2 miles, and I decided to head for it for the night and call it an early day, arriving close to 3pm. I was soaked (my rain gear had wetted out by this point) and figured I’d grab a spot at the shelter early before it filled up with other people.
When I arrived Stretch was there talking to a Section Hiker whose trail name is “Ache-in”. From South Carolina and retired, he gets on the trail for a month or two each year and slowly works his way north, shelter by shelter.
I hung up all my wet gear and clothes on the hooks in the shelter and we spent the next few hours chatting and getting to know one another.
Two thru-hikers, Merry and Pippin, arrived by around 5 pm, also soaked, and moved into the shelter with us for the night.
In contrast to me and Ache-in, these were two ultramarathon types who’ve been flying up the AT, putting in 20-25 mile days, in order to finish the trail in 4 months.
Merry and Pippin were a marvel to watch, since they’ve organized themselves as a team, rather than just hiking partners. By that I mean, they have a well choreographed routine and division of labor when they get to camp, sharing the tasks of fetching and filtering water for the night and the next day, cooking, cleaning, and record keeping. They have a single cook system that they share and they eat the same food, which they cooked and dehydrated all last winter before their hike.
Ache-in and I sat there dumbfounded watching these guys eat, not one, but two heaping dinners worth of food followed by a Nutella desert. It was an astounding feet of gluttony for two short skinny runner types.
Great guys, too. Both are from Wisconsin. Pippin is about to head off to grad school in Environmental Science and Merry plans to either go to grad school or get a job in Biomedical Engineering.
As usual, we all crashed as soon as the sun went down. By then, it had thankfully stopped raining.
The next morning, Merry and Pippin were up early, leaving the shelter by 6 am with plans for a long day, while Ache-in and I ambled out around 7:30. Ache-in planned to hike to the next shelter, about 9 mile north, but I wanted to go father, either camping about 13 miles north or continuing all the way to the next shelter, 18 miles away. I was feeling a lot better by this point, and starting to eat real food again. Back to my old self.
I soon passed Ache-in on the climb and then I was passed by two thru-hikers, Yo-Yo and Tweet. We ended up spending the night together in that shelter 18 miles away.
The weather was cool and overcast as I climbed up to the summit of Bluff Mountain (3372′) but I finally got some decent views of the southern mountains and ridges I’d climbed since getting on the trail in Daleville. These Blue Ridge Mountains are really beautiful when it’s not raining and you can get decent views.
After the climb up to Bluff Mountain, the day’s route was mostly downhill or level so I was able to crank up my speed. I reached Punchbowl Shelter by 1:15, just as Yo-Yo and Tweet were heading out. PunchBowl is named for the big spring-fed pond in front of the shelter.
I wolfed down some food, got two liters of water from the spring, and decided to head for the next shelter, another 9 miles north for the night.
It took me a little under 4 hours to make it to the Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, which is situated on a beautiful stream, just a few miles from the road into Buena Vista. I planned to pick up a mail drop in town the next day and wanted to be close to the road, so I could get an easy hitch from the morning “rush-hour” traffic into town.
Along the way I met a half-dozen other Section Hikers, all headed south. I think I’ve met more section hikers on this trip than thru-hikers.
Yo-Yo and Tweet were at the shelter already, along with another hiker named Pack Mule. Given the threat of more overnight rain, I moved into the shelter and proceeded to fetch water and cook dinner. I was tired but exhilarated from my long walk that day (almost 20 miles) and feeling like I’d finally found my trail legs again.
Yo-Yo and Tweet are from Kansas City, Missouri and partnered up before they started the trail. Being that Kansas City is not a hotbed of backpacking, they did a lot of research online about what gear to buy for their hike. In the ensuing discussion, Yo-Yo asked me about my occupation and it came out that I was the author of Section Hiker, “The” Section Hiker, as they called me. They were a little surprised to meet me over dinner!
Pack Mule had an interesting story too. He’d hiked south along the AT from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Gap area to Virgina, to explore the area and ended up staying and working in the area for 5 years. He’s now slowly working his way up north and home, along the AT.
When I first met Pack Mule, I thought he looked pretty sketchy, like a guy who’s basically living on the trail. For all I know he may be doing exactly that. But he is a real hiker and he’s got real, if not dated gear. He’s also a kind soul and was good company in the shelter.
He’s called Pack Mule because he carries a lot of extra food and only resupplies occasionally, but he also gives extra food to hikers who need it.
When you look at it, there’s not too much difference between Pack Mule and Ache-in when it comes right down to it. They’re both living on the trail, even though Pack Mule is doing it more from economic necessity rather than fun.
The next morning Yo-Yo and Tweet headed out early, but not after I told them to drop me an email when they get to New Hampshire. I offered to put them up at my group ski house and shuttle them for a resupply when they reach Crawford Notch.
I headed up to Route 60 to hitch into town, but gave up after an hour. It’s a terrible windy mountain road, mainly used by logging trucks, but few cars. I called up the motel I planed to stay at in Buena Vista, this time at the Buena Vista Motel instead of the Budget Inn, and they sent a driver to come fetch me for a $15 shuttle fee to town.
Gary, the shuttle driver, and a section hiker, picked me up and even drove me to the post office to pick up my mail drop.z to walk about three miles to do my laundry and get some food. No big deal.
The next morning I headed back to the trail, headed toward Waynesboro, VA, at the foot of the Shenandoah National Park.
To be continued….