Might as well be walking on the sun!

When we left the Big Walker Motel in Bland, it was just beginning to heat up. The terrain was nothing new, rocks and trees and mountains, but this week there was a buzz on the trail because someone important was making his way north. Scott Jurek, ultramarathon champion/author/chef/all things ΓΌber healthy is currently attempting to break the speed record for finishing the Appalachian Trail, which currently stands at just over 46 days (by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011). He once ran 165.7 miles in 24 hours, and on another occasion ran 100 miles in 15 hours and 36 minutes, not to mention winning about a bajillion long distance races all over the world, just to give you an idea of what kind of an athlete he is. So it came as no surprise when, on our 74th day on the trail, Scott passed us on his 8th. 

We came upon a road crossing where several groups of people were waiting for him to arrive. He’s sponsored by Clif, and has a photographer to document his progress. When he and the photographer finally emerged from the trees, I was surprised to see that he had a fan base of followers jogging behind him like Forrest Gump, many of whom had traveled from states away just to say they ran a mile with Scott Jurek. He stopped for a break then while we continued on, so I actually had the opportunity to be passed by him twice. The second time, I heard him approaching behind me and quickly scrambled up onto the steep side of the trail to let him pass me. I kept up with him for about 30 seconds before he disappeared down the path in front of me, but during that time he was very nice and asked me questions about my hike. I did not tell him I’d already been on the trail for nearly twice as long as he planned to take to finish the entire thing! He’s certainly an impressive and inspiring individual, though I could never imagine taking on this challenge in such a short amount of time- there are so many things you would miss!

A few days later, we came upon Woods Hole Hostel, about which we had heard great things from other hikers. Neville and Michael run the 1800s log cabin as a sort of subsistence farm and sustainable living model, complete with a rainwater catchment system, composting toilet, and wood heat for the cabin and the hostel barn. It’s very well organized, with designated spaces for small vegetable patches around the house, as well as integrated pens for goats, pigs, and cows free to roam the woods nearby.

 

The Woods Hole cabin

 
We arrived after 7:00, so we thought we had missed dinner, but we were in luck because just as we approached everyone was gathering in the yard for a big communal meal. We had salad freshly picked from the garden and pasta with an assortment of homemade sauces and pestos Neville makes herself. Everyone formed an assembly line to prepare plates, then chose a place to sit either around the massive sunken fire pit, on the wraparound porch with swings, or just in a sunny patch in the yard to enjoy their meals. Between the animals, gardens, flowers, views of the countryside, and abundant artwork of hikers splashed everywhere, there was much to look at and discuss.

 

Salads that haven’t been picked yet

  

The bunkhouse

  

The bunkhouse view!

 

The next morning, we shared another communal meal, consisting of sweet cardamom rice with Neville’s canned peaches and strawberries, watermelon, an egg scramble with sausage and veggies, and homemade bread with apple butter. It was easily one of the best meals we’ve had on the trail thus far. 

  
We enjoyed Woods Hole very much, but alas had to get back to the trail. Anthony, however, was a bit weary from hiking and enjoyed Woods Hole so much that he decided to stay behind and work there in exchange for stay for awhile, and eventually go back home to Ohio. So, here we are, back down to the three amigos.

 

Goodbye, Anthony!

 
It was a short 12 miles from Woods Hole into the town of Pearisburg, where we stayed for a few days to heal blisters and sore legs. During our time there we got to go to our first farmer’s market so far, which I had been missing from home. It was nice to be able to buy some fresh produce, especially after having gotten a taste of it at Woods Hole.
Leaving Pearisburg was when the weather really began to become unbearable, and for the last week we’ve done our lowest miles since we first started the trail, despite getting early starts to try to beat the heat. We just become exhausted so quickly that the miles have been taking much longer than usual. We have still been encountering dry water sources, so it has been a struggle to stay hydrated in these long hot spells.
The rocky trail coupled with the high temperatures and humidity have really been slowing us down. It’s already over 80 degrees by 9:00am, and when the sun gets high it becomes hard to breathe in the sticky air. Sweat runs down your chin, your neck, and into your shirt already heavy with moisture. Your back sticks your pack and your fingers struggle to keep a grip on your trekking poles. Your socks become wet and your feet blistery, slipping in your boots with each sweaty step. You ration your water supply, taking only sips when you could easily guzzle liters, because you can’t be positive if the next stream will be dried up or gloriously flowing. Basically, you feel like jumping off of the cliffs rather than climbing over them.
One day, my two liter water bladder sprung a leak, so I was left with only one water bottle until we could get into town again. I tried to drink as much as I could before we left camp, but several miles in I was already parched and out of water. The next two springs listed in the guidebook were bone dry and I was getting worried. I approached a gravel road, where there happened to be a couple who had pulled over to look at the trail, and they asked me how I was.

“Actually,” I said. “Not very well.”

Fortunately, they had bottles of water in their car and gave me two of them, which I immediately emptied. They also offered me an apple, which I took.

“I’m sorry the water isn’t cold,” the man said.

I told him I would’ve filtered the water out of mud puddle if there had been one, so he didn’t need to apologize! I was just glad I had happened upon them when I did, or else I would’ve really been in sorry shape by the time I made it to the next water source, which was still another six miles away. Plus, then I had the empty bottles to use to carry additional water until we made it back into town. Once again, I was saved by the kindness of strangers, without whom I’d probably be shriveled up like a raisin on the side of a gravel road somewhere in the backcountry of Virginia.

We ended up having to shuttle into Four Pines Hostel a day earlier than planned, because Shane twisted an already-strained ankle on a long section of slanted ridge line rocks. He iced it, wrapped it, and kept it elevated, and the next day he insisted we could hike. We decided to slack pack (hike without our packs) for the first time to try to ease the pain for him, plus we had heard that the upcoming stretch was a brutal climb of steep rock faces which could be dangerous with our packs. We left our packs at the hostel and got shuttled back to where we left off, planning to hike back there by evening.

It was exhilarating to hike without a pack, but just with a small bag of food and water for the day. We zipped over the mountains, feeling weightless and naked without our turtle shells to slow us down. We had done ten miles before noon, and we weren’t even winded! I was especially grateful to be without it when we descended from Dragon’s Tooth, which had areas so steep that there were rebar rungs drilled into the rocks to use like a ladder, over distances of more than ten or fifteen feet sometimes. Even without my pack I was nervous, checking and rechecking my footing to make sure I didn’t send myself pitching over the mountainside and into the trees far below. It was easily the most treacherous section we’ve done so far, and I’m very glad we didn’t try to push onward on the day that Shane twisted his ankle.

We were planning to slack pack again from the hostel into Daleville, where Shane’s mom would be meeting us soon, but after the rock climbing at Dragon’s Tooth, Shane’s feet were sore again and Travis’s blisters had worsened, so we decided to zero another day at Four Pines Hostel, and continue onward after our visit with her was over.
She picked us up at the hostel and we took a trip to the REI in Richmond to replace our broken gear and get a few new things… It feels so nice to have pants that fit again, rather than my ‘clown pants’ -as Shane called them- that have barely been held up by a belt for the last several weeks! And we all traded in our worn-out boots for lighter trail runners. 

It was lovely to be able spend time with someone from home, even if it was just for a short time. Shane’s mom said goodbye to us and dropped us off back at the trail so we could slack pack our second day. We finally hiked a twenty mile day for the first time! We made it to McAfee Knob, the most photographed spot on the trail. It was scary climbing out onto the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley, but it was a beautiful view and a great photo op. We took our time and even stopped to pick and eat wild blueberries and black raspberries growing right beside the trail.

 

There I am!

    

Wild blueberries

 

It’s hard to see us way out there, but that’s Shane and me out on the ledge.

 

Here are some other fun pictures from the last couple of weeks:

 

We camped near this suspension bridge that swung when you walked on it!

  

Not a very private privy… I was standing on the trail when i took this picture!

  

Keffer Oak, the largest tree on the southern part of the AT, over 300 years old and with a circumference of over 18 feet!

    

Selfie! Shane let me put flowers in his beard because we’re big hippies.

  

And another…

    

🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌

  

Look how strong I’ve gotten!

 
 

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Ponies, and cattle, and bears, oh my!

Everyone who told us Virginia is flat was a big fat liar. So far it’s been mountainous and rocky, and my knees are not happy about it. Upon leaving Damascus, Anthony, Shane, and I took a little detour by hiking about five miles on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a popular Rails-to-Trails bike path which runs parallel to the Whitetop Laurel River in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It was an easier and more scenic alternative to the AT in this section, although trail “purists” (cough, cough, Travis) won’t stray from the white blazes and continue over the few small mountains on the trail instead. We met back up with him at Lost Mountain shelter that evening, along with a Sprite from the Creeper Trail Cafe, where we had stopped for lunch along the way. Travis’ biggest craving out here is Sprite, and it has become a running joke to point out the frequent Pepsi logos at places we stop to eat. 

Creeping on the Creeper Trail

 

A few days later, we skirted Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet, and continued on towards Grayson Highlands, where we had been looking forward to seeing the wild ponies for weeks. We were surprised when we came upon a group of them before we even reached the park, just outside of Thomas Knob shelter. There were twelve ponies, including two foals, grazing in a clear, sunny patch between the surrounding forests. They were smaller than I had imagined, only standing at my shoulder height. Some shied away from us to continue  nibbling on the grass, but most of them approached us with curiosity. They surrounded us and began licking our arms, extracting the salty sweat from our skin. We laughed at their tickly tongues and shooed them away from our packs, where some were munching on the straps and hip belts. The babies laid in the grass on their sides, soaking up the sun. We didn’t try to pet them, since their mothers were standing protectively nearby. Of course, we took lots of pictures! 

This was one photogenic pony.

  

  

Bad pony! Don’t eat our packs!

  

So little!

 

   

Just takin’ a nap in the sun

   

The next day we continued into Grayson Highlands State Park, which had beautiful views from the rocky cliffs of flowering orange and pink bushes descending into the valleys of the Highlands. Later we passed a migrating herd of longhorn steer, and read that the original purpose of clearing the Highlands was for logging long ago, and then eventually to graze cattle. In the 1960s, the park service introduced the ponies as a land management tactic, so that they would eat the low brush and help keep the land cleared on the balds. Here their descendants remain, save for the ones that have escaped through downed fences to live in secluded, truly wild tribes, like the ones we first met.
Though we did our usual number of miles through Grayson Highlands, we were exhausted and sore by the end of the day due to the extremely rocky terrain, which taxed our feet and knees. As the sun began to set, I hobbled up the final mountain of day, drained. I wasn’t even paying attention to a crashing sound in the woods when a small black bear darted onto the trail in front of me, ran down the trail for a bit, and back into the trees, scared by my presence. He was so fast that the only part of him I really saw was his fluffy behind as he scampered away from me. I laughed and turned back toward Anthony and Shane, who had just missed him. Seeing my first bear took my mind off of my screaming feet for the rest of the evening, and I was relieved that it had not been a more intimidating encounter.
Two days later we made it to the much- anticipated Partnership shelter, which is near the Mount Rogers Visitor’s Center. This shelter is highly discussed among hikers because the visitor’s center is on a main road…and that means pizza delivery!! I am ashamed to say we each ate 3/4 of a large pizza, and donated the leftovers to some other hikers. It turns out that eating mass quantities of food is not as fun when you still have to hike eight more miles that day. We rested a bit by checking out the little museum inside the center, and even learned from a student display what equipment a thru hiker needs to complete the trail! Then we reluctantly hit the trail again, with too-full bellies and groaning on the uphills that we would never eat again.
The next day we hiked into Atkins and had a lunch buffet at a restaurant called The Barn before stopping for the evening at a motel. We had also passed a restored schoolhouse that morning called the Lindamood School, where several church groups routinely leave trail magic for hikers. We had snacks, resupplied small toiletry items, and admired the antique desks where hikers sometimes sleep during storms. On the way out of Atkins, we took a detour to the Davis Valley Winery, which was only a mile out of the way and perched atop a hill with views of the valley. We did the wine tasting and decided to stick around to wait it out when it started pouring down rain. The rain lasted for awhile, and it would’ve been rude to loiter without purchasing anything, so… We bought a few bottles of wine and made an afternoon of it.
The next few days were slow-going over lots of small mountains and one large one, Chestnut Knob, climbing over two thousand feet in elevation in just a few miles. We took Bubba’s shuttle into the aptly named Bland, Virginia, where we’re currently staying at the Big Walker Motel. No laundromat, so we had to improvise:
 

Look at that water! ‘Clean’ is a relative term out here.

 
Looking ahead at the AWOL guide, the terrain seems to be relatively flat for the next seventy miles, so maybe we have some easier trekking to look forward to, providing the trail isn’t as rocky as it was in the Highlands. At any rate…