Virginia (Southwest) on the Appalachian Trail
Virginia – Part 1 (South-West)
Once in Damascus, we took a room at a bed and breakfast run by Atlanta-native Miss Suzy. She was an extremely friendly and hospitable lady and she and Billy chatted about some peculiarly Atlanta things such as ‘the Big Chicken’ which would mean nothing to me until I went to stay with Billy and saw the thing for myself. I thought I was on more familiar ground when the topic of conversation turned to Bar-B-Q. How wrong I was. It seems that my notions of what this referred to were far removed from what is meant in the Southern USA. Soon we had bundled into Miss Suzy’s vehicle and were on our way to a local bar-b-q place. We bought bags of white rolls, tubs of mysterious meat in sauce, baked beans packed with pork and plenty of ‘slaw. We got back and I received my education. There are many variations, but typically southern bar-b-q is meat cooked for hours at low temperature in a moist smoky environment until is is tender enough to be pulled apart and mixed with sauce. This is eaten in the rolls, possibly with some slaw thrown in for good measure. It is obscenely good and I’ve been evangelising about it ever since.
We enjoyed Damascus – ‘friendliest town on the trail’ – and got all of our usual town chores done as well as making a particularly fruitful trip to the outfitter. Here, I finally got brave enough to make the big decision to change my trusty Mountainsmith backpack for a much smaller, frameless Golite model. The salesman in the shop urged me to rethink my choice – such packs are ‘just for people trying to show off how strong they are’ apparently. I couldn’t quite figure that one out myself, but all my gear now fitted inside comfortably and the pack felt good. I certainly wasn’t inspired on by some misguided sense of machismo. It’s proved to be one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Billy was likewise taken with it and picked up the same model a few weeks later.
We had a small problem to consider around this time. Billy had plans to go to Florida with his family and friend Nicky, for a vacation and to support Nicky in a triathlon. We didn’t want to break up our partnership that had been working so well, so we came up with a plan: I would take a ride back to Atlanta with Billy, before heading over for my own vacation in Savannah with good friend Will who was conveniently living there at the time. The plan sounded like a winner and all that was left to do was to make the necessary arrangements with Nicky to get picked up in a few days time.
Those few days were spent negotiating some moderate terrain and taking in some nice scenery - less dramatic than what had gone before, but nice nonetheless. The weather was pretty changeable and our hitch into Troutdale for what was planned to be our final food stop before we got off-trail the next day was spent shivering by the side of the road for 45 minutes in pouring rain as construction traffic roared by, dumping spray on us. Hitching in the rain is extra hard. Not only is it less pleasant waiting for a ride, but the number of people willing to pick you up is also reduced dramatically. Who would want two soaking wet hikers in their vehicle? We finally got a ride, but not before our morale had been undermined. We ensconced ourselves in Troutdale’s only diner/grocery store and set about putting away colossal breakfasts. It suddenly seemed an extremely good idea to persuade Nicky to come and get us as soon as possible. Billy put in the call and we waited out the time between the diner and the pavilion of the local church. It was a very good feeling when Nicky pulled up in a shining black Honda ready to take us back to civilisation.
After a convoluted but pleasant (and for me interesting) journey, we made it back to Atlanta. From there we went our separate ways – I took the bus to Savannah and met up with Will to drink PBR, eat Krispy Kremes, and, for reasons still beyond me, volunteer as marshals at the Highland Games. Billy headed down to Florida with the family and Nicky to support the triathlon bid and scout the beaches for bikini-clad talent. We joined forces again in Atlanta where Billy showed me the sights and we continued to work on our equipment for the hike. All too soon it seemed our R&R had to come to an end…
Virginia – Part 1 (South-West) – continued…
Resuming hiking after time in town is difficult. Two weeks of contented idleness turned it into an ordeal. We waved Nicky and our life of leisure goodbye and wondered what we were doing.
The gloom was lifted by the discovery of a cooler of beer yards from the road. Though no use to Billy, it took the edge off my first mile. An hour later, we stopped and erected the new tarp. The vast green expanse of fluttering nylon was a confidence-inspiring thing of beauty - so far, so good.
The next morning, we passed one of the Trail’s ‘highlight’ shelters. Situated a hundred yards from a ranger station, the two-storey Partnership Shelter boasts hot and cold running water and a brick privy that would shame the facilities in at least one place I have called home. Real-life flush lavatories are available at the station, but it’s debateable whether it‘s a worthwhile upgrade. For those with the time and appetite, a phone at the station provides a lifeline to Pizza Hut. We had appetite, but were trying to make-up for lost time. We settled for buying handfuls of chocolate bars in the gift shop and pushed on.
We weren’t to miss out entirely on fine American cuisine. A few miles before our planned stopping point, we passed I81 and its myriad services. We settled on Dairy Queen for (an unnecessary) dinner. My ‘hot buffalo wings’ platter proved to be a disgusting and costly mistake that was subsequently compounded by the impulsive purchase of an oversized ice-cream flavour sundae. Loaded with indigestible, fatty poisons, the remaining miles proved traumatic, especially for Billy, whose body was in the process of rejecting all he had just forced into it. We stopped in the pitch black, a mile short of the shelter, rather than inflict more misery upon ourselves.
The next day saw an early start to push on for more big miles. We had made grand progress by lunchtime and felt confident we’d be able to knock off early. We took our lunch at the base of the day’s biggest climb. Complacent and sleepy, we gave in to the temptation of a nap. We unpacked sleeping bags and lay down on a grassy slope for an hour of shuteye…
It was three hours later that we awoke, groggy and lethargic; lunch sitting uneasily. In silence we packed up and began a trudge up the mountain. The extra delay had put us behind schedule and the nap had dented our enthusiasm. We crested the hill, still two miles short of the shelter, and stopped in a large clearing with long soft grass, water nearby and a tremendous view. We would still be able to reach town the next day without problem.
A clearing is camping heaven for tentists, but without access to at least one tree we were going to have problems raising our tarp. Our solution was to seek out some stout sticks to rig up as supports. Pitching a tarp in this manner is common practice and it works just fine so long as you selected some good solid supports and secured them properly with stakes. Herein lay the makings of a problem. We were armed with just four stakes, more than enough for pitching between trees, but too few for this job. Furthermore, a thorough scouring of the area yielded just two crooked and thoroughly rotten tree limbs to accept the responsibility of supporting for the night. In response to our peg shortage, we gathered a few insubstantial shards of wood to make up the missing stakes and went to work on producing a bomb-proof shelter.
The fruit of our labours inspired us with neither pride nor confidence. The ground was soft and our metal stakes struggled for purchase. The hastily fashioned wooden pegs were woefully out of their league. No sooner than the shelter was successfully staked down, an anchorage point would fail and the whole sorry thing would collapse. When we eventually got it standing, ‘bomb-proof’ was not an obvious adjective for our dubious erection of rotten wood, thin cord, lightweight nylon and optimism. What little integrity it had, it owed to balance and providence. Even the light evening breeze seemed a threat to its continued existence. Still, night was rapidly approaching and we weren’t worried enough to go about improving the situation. Rain seemed unlikely and, if anything were to go wrong during the night, we could surely just hike on.
Shortly after midnight, I was awoken by the sound of rain. At two, I was awoken again, this time by the touch of damp nylon against my face. The shelter had collapsed. Half-asleep and none too happy we got up to try and rectify the problem. It was raining pretty hard now. Billy was up first, gamely attempting to secure the stakes. I groped ineffectually amongst my rapidly dampening possessions, unable to find my glasses. Finally having located them in the wet grass, I fought my way out from under the tarp to help. I was soaked in seconds. The umbrella was now my sole protection and I needed both hands free to wrestle with the rigging. Water had been pooling on the roof of the tarp and the weight of it had been too much for our house of cards. As we set about re-tensioning the anchor points on one side of the tent, there was a loud ‘twang’ and a flash of silver from the other. A metal stake had lost purchase and been hurled into the darkness by the tension in the line. We saw no funny side as we spent five minutes on hands and knees combing the sodden grass for the missing peg. Finally, we got everything back up and retreated under cover. Miserable, I crawled into my damp sleeping bag. The rain didn’t let up and now it leaked through the unsealed ridge-line of the tarp. For three more hours I slept badly, waking often to move from under the ever shifting drips from above. Our fix proved to be temporary. Six o’clock saw the shelter collapsing again. This time, we should have cut our losses, packed up and walked on. I had barely slept all night and had lost what little power of reason I possess. All I could think of was more sleep. We shored up again and tried to rest. Cold, soaked and dejected, we didn’t break camp until midday. We were going to be a very long way behind schedule. To add insult to misery, we reached the shelter after rather less than thirty minutes easy walking - it had taken longer to erect the tarp the night before. Worse still, it was not just any shelter - this was a fully enclosed stone bunkhouse - very cosy, and, studying the register, probably empty the previous evening. I seethed at our error of judgement as we set about breakfasting in comfort. Opening my food bag, I discovered that a container of parmesan cheese had exploded during the course of the night’s antics. The bag and its contents were covered in damp, pungent cheese. The effect was similar to searching through a sack that someone had vomited into. It was about this happy time that I realised that one of the nose-pieces of my glasses had broken off in my nocturnal fumblings. A jagged metal spike was set to dig into my nose for the next month.
We made our way unenthusiastically through steady drizzle for another five hours. We knew we weren’t going to reach Bland in time to re-supply and we hadn’t got enough food for the extra dinner we would now want.
The trail crossed a single stream no less than twelve times within a two mile section. Each crossing was progressively more challenging than the last. We negotiated increasingly tricky sets of stepping stones and came close to taking the plunge on several occasions. I have no idea how less agile travellers fared through this section. I can only assume that most people just get wet.
Despite the prospect of a night with empty bellies, our moods slowly improved and so did the weather. By six, the rain had stopped and our grimaces had eased. We stumbled across a cooler of ice-cold apple juice left by the same kindly soul who had left the beer I had enjoyed so much (thanks Turtle!). It proved a remarkable moral boost. As we happily drank down our juice, the sun began to shine. We walked on with the trials of the last twenty-four hours largely forgotten.
We camped three miles from the Bland road. A stream listed in the guide book proved to be another object of fiction, so we were now to spend the evening without water or food. In clear defiance of whichever deity had seen fit to make our previous night a disaster, we lay down to sleep without cover.
Things were looking up the next morning. It took just seven minutes to get a hitch - our driver on his way to work in Bland. His dog was perched on the passenger seat, so we clambered into the back of the pick up. We pulled up at the salvage yard where our man worked and all disembarked. Upon its release, the dog hurtled around to where we were stood at the back of the vehicle. It gave a couple of warning barks before sinking its teeth into my rear. It hurt, tore the seat out of my shorts, but thankfully failed to break the skin. The driver finally restrained his hound and we made our way to the Dairy Queen.
A few days uneventful hiking brought us to Pearisburg and the Plaza Motel. It was unbearably hot, but the owner had disabled the AC to save money. It took complaints from a number of guests for them to switch it back on. The ropey shower proved too slippery for me and I fell hard onto the side of the bath – knocking the wind out of me and badly bruising my ribs. A good run of TV and a trip to Wal-Mart took the edge off of the continuing run of poor luck.
Continue on the Appalachian Trail: Virginia (Central)