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Sunday, November 20, 2016
I had seven miles to walk to Compton Overlook to meet Martha. I was sore and tired, but it felt good to be finishing the hike. It was still blowing very hard when we got up, and it was cold. The water bottles weren’t frozen, but they had ice in them. Nick was nice enough to boil me some water for coffee. We didn’t know if Kelly got the messages through the InReach, so we didn’t know if Nick’s girlfriend or Martha would be on the way to pick us up. I figured at worst I would walk or hitch to Front Royal and get a room.
I set out at 7:30 not knowing what kind of hike I had, but I knew by now that 7 miles is a 5-hour morning for me on this trail. I had a lot of layers on as I started up the steep hill form Gravel Springs Hut figuring I would take some off when I got to the top, but I didn’t. It was cold and that wind was really blowing. The first part was pretty level and the whole day was relatively easy with a couple of mountains to go over. I flushed a couple of grouse at the top of one. That was nice to see. I haven’t seen grouse in Virginia in a long time. Trying to take pictures at the top of the first mountain, the howling wind about knocked me over. It was dangerous, so I moved on, trying to stick to the business at hand – getting to the pick-up spot in reasonable time. I stopped for a breather at one point and a tree limb fell right in front of me. All it would take is for one of these trees to give up in this fierce wind and fall on you. Thank God that didn’t happen.
The last mountain, Compton, wasn’t so big, but by the ninth day, everything was difficult. I knew it was the last one, so that helped a lot. I was surprised to see hikers at the top. It as Sunday, so I knew people would be out, but it was also cold and nasty with that wind. More hikers passed me on the way down the other side. Someone was bringing a group of community kids up the mountain for a hike, one having a Superman backpack. I shook his hand, congratulating him for hiking up this mountain. Cute kid!
It was difficult to control my pace as I got closer. I wanted to go faster, but you always know that one bad step and there goes a knee or an ankle of a pulled muscle. Every day I felt something sore. Of course the feet are always sore, one way or another, and I had plenty of blisters. Today I felt like I could pull a muscle behind my left knee, the top of the calf muscle.
I got to the parking lot just after 12:00, but Martha wasn’t there. I had 3 bars on my phone, but couldn’t make a phone call. I could see that she got my message to pick me up, and she replied at 10:15 that she would soon be on the way. I knew that would take about three hours to get here. It was cold standing there in that wind. I drank more icy water in wind that kept wanting to blow my hat into Never Never Land. I took out my rain jacket and put it on for another layer. I didn’t want to take out my long john pants and put them on in the parking lot. People were coming and going, and there were probably 10 cars in the parking lot. I was impressed there were so many out on a tough day like this. It was 29 degrees and blowing gale-force winds. I didn’t see Nick anywhere, and hoped he had gotten through to his girlfriend.
I walked down the side of the road a couple of hundred yards to keep moving and try to stay warm and also see if I could get cell reception, but that was no use. Even if I got through on mine, what were the odds that hers would have reception? I figured 1:30 was a good target, so I kept walking, once considering getting the sleeping bag out. It might look foolish, but it would be warm! Sure enough at 1:30 I saw that beautiful truck round the bend! It was so good to see Martha! She had a big thermos of hot tea that really hit the spot!
I requested lunch at Skyland for lunch, although I wasn’t really hungry. I had eaten an energy bar while I waited, but I wanted to drink a lot of something and I wanted that split pea soup! I drank half of the tea on the way. Never having seen this part of the parkway, we enjoyed spectacular views. It was interesting to drive back past all the places I had walked. It seemed like a long time ago as we went back. Nine days. It’s pretty amazing how far you can walk in nine days!
When we got to Skyland, it was 28 degrees with a fierce wind. Martha scurried across the parking lot into the building. I didn’t have any scurry in me. No split pea soup so we ordered chicken and rice, which was the best ever, with big chunks of chicken. It was almost like a chicken pot pie without the shell, a meal all in itself. Martha ordered a wedge salad, which was great, and I had the fish and chips, stuffing myself. It’s worth the trip up here just for the soups!
Driving back along the parkway, I wound back the clock, seeing all the places I had crossed days before. It was a lot of mountains to slog over. I think Mary’s Rock was the most difficult, both going up and coming back down. It’s steep with a lot of rocks. On the other hand, I had met a couple from Culpeper who love this hike and come regularly.
I’m glad I did it. I was sure tired and worn out. No doubt it would be a lot easier for a young person. 10 miles a day is an all-day job for me. I learned a lot, and saw places I have never seen. I feel more comfortable in the woods alone. I know more about how to get water and appreciate it a lot more. There are places I want to come back to with Martha, and I’d like to camp at the campgrounds. I have huge respect for through hikers who spend months on the trail. I can’t even comprehend spending four months hiking the whole thing! Then again, if I were 25 years old, I’d be very tempted. We have a great national park in our back yard. It needs our help. They are understaffed and underfunded, and it is tremendously porous. You can fish any stream with a fishing license on hundreds of miles of trout streams. You can hike hundreds of trails from the bottom and not pay a dime. The only way they get a fee is if you drive the parkway, and you can get a lifetime senior pass to ALL the national parks for $10. You can stay in these shelters for free! Canada would not let you get away with this, and therefore their parks are in much better shape.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
It wasn’t as hard as some other days, but it was long – 13 miles. Sweating all morning, by the time I rested at the top of Hogback Mountain, a front was coming through. Nick had taken a long break at Elkwallow Wayside, and he caught up with me at the top. Neither of us liked the front coming, although people had told him it was just going to be wind. We met again at a spring, and you could feel the cold air coming over the top of the ridge, so we pressed on. Nick left me in the dust. By the time I got to Gravel Springs Hut, I was whupped again. It was a 13-mile day and I felt it. Two guys were getting water from the spring as I passed, but they said there was good water flow. As I got to the hut, two guys were sitting on the roof enjoying the sunset. Nick was building the fire and welcomed me to camp. “Well big time at Gravel Springs on Saturday night”, I said.
The two guys, Matt and Phil were in their fourth year at the Naval Academy. Matt was from Maine and Phil was from Kentucky. They had just come for the weekend, hiking in about seven miles. Matt has hiked through the park a couple of times and likes to come back to this hut when he can. He asked us where we were getting picked up. Nick and I both thought we had one more day and a half, but Matt said we would be out of the park in seven miles, and then the trail went through boring private property from there. Otherwise, you walk the parkway to Front Royal. The wind was blowing up a gale now, and it was cold. I put on my long johns and ate some Thai chicken for dinner. Freezing, I crawled into my sleeping bag to keep warm and stretch out.
Nice guys, Matt and Phil told stories of how the Academy sent them to some very interesting places during their summers. Matt was going to go on nuclear submarine duty after graduation, while Phil was going to be a marine. They were set up to sleep in Hennessy Hammocks, which they swore by. I am going to have to check that out. Thank God for guys like these to do tough jobs for our country. It was fun spending an evening with them. It was also very fun to think tomorrow would be our last day. The wind was howling and it was very cold. So much for the perfect weather week.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Mostly, it was a beautiful hike today. I ate an early lunch at Pinnacles Picnic Area. It’s a luxury to sit at a picnic table and eat. A couple of hours later, I stopped at Bird’s Nest 3, a day-use shelter. Just as I was getting ready to go, a truck drove up and a young ranger got out. A nice young man named Andrew with a quick smile, he had come to clean the shelter and the privy. He is from Chicago and seemed quite happy with his job and living in quarters by the horse barn. The park is lucky to have such a nice young man. I packed up, wished him well and headed down the trail. I didn’t go far before seeing a post saying there was a spring 500 yards to the right….straight down the mountain on the road Andrew had driven up. Now appreciating the value of every drop of water, I headed down the grassy road. It was a nice spring with great water flow. As I finished filling the bottles, Andrew drove past with a wave. Getting back up to the trail was steep, and I was sweating by the time I got there, but you just have to do it!
Another hour and I started the climb up Mary’s Rock, which is a very technical and difficult trail, mostly because of the steepness and all the rocks. You had to pick every step going up and going down. It was Friday and there were a lot of people on the trail all of a sudden. Weekend! I wasn’t really prepared, or even thinking about it. I passed a few people at the top. Then coming down, there was a group of older women, who were tired and taking a rest. With tennis shoes, no backpacks, not enough water and no food, they were spent. I encouraged them as I passed, cautioning them to take it slowly. Then I cautioned myself. One bad step and game over! I slowed and shortened my stride, choosing ever step. It takes discipline and a bit of fear. I could make it home now. I could see the finish line ahead. The only thing that could stop me was an injury. Slowly, methodically, I made my way down Mary’s Rock. Close to the bottom, a couple was heading up at 2:30 with some kind of terrier dog that didn’t really want to go. He asked how far it is to the top. I told him a long way, and it’s difficult. Don’t get caught in the dark. They had nothing. No pack. No light. No food and no water. I don’t know why there aren’t more problems.
As I got to Pass Mountain Hut, a couple was coming out. They had never come this way, but wanted to see the shelter. From Culpeper, they love this hike up Mary’s Rock,and do it quite often to see the sun set, especially on a Friday night. This time, they went the other direction to the hut, a more gentle hike. I was tired standing there with my pack on, but they were very nice and I enjoyed the conversation. After a bit, we said our goodbyes and they headed back. I unloaded my pack and built a fire. I was startled by something coming down the trail. It was a young man named Nick. He was tired and soon put his pad against the front wall of the hut and sat on it. After exchanging pleasantries, he said he had left his map a mile back where he crossed the road. I let him look at mine, but soon enough he said he was going to run back and get his! “It’s only a mile. I’ll be back in an hour”, he said. I settled in, made my bed, filled the water bottles right behind the hut, and got something to eat. I hung my food up and put my pack in the locker. By then Nick returned, a bit tired and stressed. There had been bears along the way, and it was dark. I watched him fix his dinner with a gas stove. Cutting up garlic, onions, carrots and sautéing them, he added some spices from a small bottle. Then he added rice and dried chicken. It smelled divine. He is a plumber in northern Virginia, but also knows carpentry and other handy trades. He loves to climb, and would love to do some outdoor climbing. It’s his first trip on the trail, and he started Sunday where I started. He said we must be traveling the same speed. Well, I don’t think so, but we’re ending up at the same place at the end of the day.
After some nice conversation, I climbed into bed to stretch out while he cleaned the dishes and put his stuff away. Then he settled into the upper left side. I was soon asleep, but was awakened by a strange thumping on the wall. I tried to imagine what could cause such a sound. Trees? No, Bears? No. Then Nick got up and walked around the hut. I thought he was looking for what caused such a noise, but he was looking for campsites. The next morning I would find out the mice drove him out. He said they were running all around the wall, and he saw big spiders as well, so he felt he would sleep better in his tent, and he did. He camped at a site along the creek fed by the spring. All night he heard footsteps in the leaves as animals came to the creek to get water. Bears, deer or both, and then maybe others, but that was OK. Didn’t bother him at all.
We had a nice talk in the morning as I got ready. I told him to come right past me and don’t feel like you have to wait for me or walk with me. I’m too slow. He agreed, saying he would relax a bit before he got started. Nice guy, Nick. Rather like my Godson, Hunter. They would surely make good friends.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
It’s not far to Skyland, and it really wasn’t a hard hike, but I was worn down. It took me all morning. As I approached, a lovely voice said, “Stay the night!” Huh? “Stay the night. Get some rest.” Great idea! I’m in! I walked down to the lodge and went into the restaurant building, not knowing where to go. I asked a nice-looking young man where I check into a room. He just looked at me, with a big pack on my back, unshaven for six days, older than dirt and exhausted. He didn’t say a word, but motioned to follow him, taking me back out the door, up the steps and across to the Administrative room, opening the door for me. I patted him on the arm that felt like a lineman for the Packers, and said thank you. He just nodded and went on. I wanted to hug him!
Ever wonder how it possibly takes so long at the airport when you check in? What can they possible be typing? This was the case with the lady checking me in. A large man waited patiently beside her. After what seemed like 20 minutes, she gave me a key. I had asked for the cheapest room, and it was a hike to get there. Fortunately it was all down hill, across from the Conference Center and playground. I never knew this was here. I sat down, barely able to function and called Martha. Fortunately she picked up. I told her I had a room at Skyland, and she could come if she wanted, but I knew she had other things to do. She asked me what I needed, and I gave her a long list. She told me to take a nap and she would be up later.
Since there was no laundry, I put all my dirty clothes in the bathtub and put Dawn soap and water in it. Then I took a shower, stomping the dirty laundry like I was smashing grapes to make wine. I shaved, put on my second set of clothes and hung the wet clothes all over the deck. Surely the neighbors would love this! Now I had to wind my way back up the path to the dining room and get some lunch.
I can’t remember her name. Maybe it was Rita, but she was the best! She could see I was tired and hungry. I ordered a Pepsi, split pea soup and the Everything Omelet. Rita filled my Pepsi glass every time I drank it dry. It really settled my stomach, but I’ve gotta tell you, the split pea soup saved my life! I couldn’t eat the whole omlet – only half, and there was a fruit cup that I took with me. I thanked Rita and headed back down the hill. I laid down, but couldn’t sleep. I heard footsteps in the leaves below. Sure it was a bear, I had to get up and check. It was a lady walking slowly along the edge of the grass and leaves.
Martha got there about 5:30 with two bags. Long johns, pink gloves, a hat, and a complete restock of food. Too wonderful! I could never have made it without her doing this. There was nothing useful in the store – just tourist stuff. Someone later told me they usually have it, but since the season was over, they didn’t restock.
We drove up to the restaurant for dinner. Another very nice lady waited on us. More split pea soup please, and I’ll try the blackberry lemonade. Both were wonderful. Martha had shrimp, and I ordered trout with rice and something else. Same deal. I kept guzzling that blackberry lemonade, and she kept bringing it. Surely I was dehydrated. I managed to eat the excellent trout and a little rice, but couldn’t manage anything else, but that was more than I had eaten in the last four days combined.
I was stuffed and tired and fell asleep soon after getting in bed. They have great beds and quilts, so I left the door cracked for some fresh air. The heat system is a bit antiquated, but far better than a hut! At 5:00 in the morning there was a loud growl and Martha screaming about something in the room! Turning on the light, I fully expected to see a bear, but nothing was there. I quickly shut the door. She said it was in her bed, so we tore back the sheets. She said, “there it is!” A baby mouse ran along the wall, scared to death. I reopened the door, and he was quite happy to get the hell out of there. Laughing and relieved, we laid back down.
She had to go play tennis, and I knew I had to hit the trail. I thought it would be an easy day, but when I looked at the map, it wasn’t. Driving me to where I had gotten off the trail, I thanked her profusely for coming all this way. I could not have made if she hadn’t. I had no way to restock my supplies. I thanked he profusely! She said something about go get ‘em. Finish it! I was happy for the encouragement, the support and the love.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
I felt like I was getting somewhere now. I had crossed Rt. 33 and was headed to Big Meadows, a place I was familiar with. I climbed up Bearfence Mountain that had a great overlook. There was a loop trail there, but I wasn’t sure where it led, and I didn’t want to climb anything unnecessary today. At the bottom of this great rock formation, I took a few pictures and thought I should keep moving. A scream broke the total silence, “YAHOO!!!!!” I stopped and looked all around, but didn’t see anything until the second yell, “YIPPEE!!!!” Then I saw the tall hiker on top of the rock with his through-pack on his back. I asked how the view was, and he said, “Magnificent! It’s a bit of a tricky climb, but so worth it!” “Well enjoy your beautiful day” I said, and he replied “How can you not?” His great enthusiasm brought a smile to my face and gave me some energy. So cool! I think the picture is the signature picture of the trip, and I will remember his enthusiasm forever.
I was still slogging along, pitiful as it was, but the trail was very pretty today, especially around Big Meadows, which is certainly one of my favorite parts of the trail. I saw a lot of deer and was in my mode when a young lady passed me like she was in a Mercedes, walking sticks in each hand. She wasn’t wearing a big pack, but something smaller. We exchanged pleasantries as she passed. Sheez! I caught up to her at a spring where she was eating some lunch. As I filled my bottles, I told her how I couldn’t eat much. Katy was her name, and she is day-hiking this part of the trail to complete the entire AT. She had started at Harper’s Ferry and gone the distance through Maine. Later she had done the southern part, and now this section. She took on part time jobs on farms to pay the way and support herself, and now she was thinking about the Pacific Coast Trail. She said it is normal that you can’t eat the first week. Then the second week, you are ravenous and your legs get stronger. I don’t think I was going to find out, but at least I knew it was normal. Katy said she would park her car and hike the day, hitching a ride back to her car. She said she never had a problem hitching a ride. They are going your direction anyway. On her giant hike, she would hike into towns to restock her food and get a good meal, then hitch back. I thought I was brave, out here all by myself in the woods for nine days. I was awed by the mental courage as well as physical strength she had to have.
I set off ahead, stopping shortly to hear something I have never heard before. An old buck growled at a doe in front of him, apparently getting the best of the acorns. He was telling her to move on. Katie went by as it all unfolded. I slogged on, looking up to see her looking at something in the woods. I hurried ahead as quietly as I could. A pretty black bear was eating his way through the woods. He could not have cared less that we were 60 yards away watching. After a time, we went on, Katie at an entirely different pace. It was a pleasure meeting her, and I appreciated her reassurance and encouragement.
As I walked around the back of Big Meadows, it was quiet, closed for the season, but one man was cleaning up. Behind the campground, another man was taking notes, probably of things that needed to be done for next season. I made it to Rock Springs Hut just as the sun set. Again I had the place to myself, and I loved it. The spring was running well, so I refilled my water bottles and started a fire. There was a bear locker at the last hut and this one, which is nice. You don’t worry so much about something getting into your bag looking for a crumb. I took a quick look at the map, seeing that I would pass Skyland tomorrow. It was very encouraging to feel like I was making progress. I was on the back side of the map, and I might make it. I knew I was tired though, and wearing down. Should I take a shower at Skyland, get a good meal, wash clothes? Could I take that much time? I was getting low on food and needed to restock, and had a list of things I needed. The first night camping with the bear family, I had lost my headlight, a ball cap and a pair of gloves. My best flashlight was now dead, but I had a backup.
Cell phone coverage was getting worse. It was more difficult to let Martha know where I was. I was using the InReach by Garmin, but it didn’t always get a satellite signal either. Most of these huts are down in a hollow where there is a spring. I recharged my phone with a battery/flashlight I bought at Batteries Plus, but now this was my only flashlight, so I didn’t want to use it all up, so I used it sparingly.
There was a PATC (Potomac Appalachian Trail Club) cabin close to the hut, so I checked it out. I have looked at a couple of others, and they are very cool. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club owns these and manages them. They maintain the AT, and I’m sure use these as they are working. Others can rent them as available, so I am going to check that out. It doesn’t have full hookups, so it might not be Martha’s cup of tea, but who knows. Maybe just one night?
Am I going to have these huts to myself the rest of the way? Probably not, but I did like it. I crawled into my sleeping bag on the upper right side and felt right at home. I wasn’t cold, so why were my legs jumping? Thankfully they weren’t cramping, although sometimes when I stretched, they would cramp up for a minute. Put mustard on the list. Maybe a whole bottle. One spoonful of mustard will instantly put my leg cramps at rest, a tip I got from my great assistant, Pam. Top foods with high potassium that are not easily portable on a trip like this: avacado, sweet potato, coconut water, yogurt and acorn squash. Top portable foods high in potassium: apricots, mushrooms and white beans. I don’t know what you do with white beans, but apricots might be good. They have lots of sugar, which you also need on this kind of hike.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
I woke up early feeling pretty good, but it was so nice just to lie there for a while in the quiet. Sure there were noises in the night. Mice scrambled around the hut. Squirrels combed the gutters for nuts, and something walked around outside. The big full moon was great because you could see just like it was daylight. I had my bear spray beside me and a flashlight, but I never had to use the light. You could see fine – just open one eye and peek out to see if a bear was there or not. Didn’t see anything. I also kept a pot beside the bed. If a bear came, I could bang it on the wooden floor and scare anything within a mile to death.
I tore myself out of bed and got ready, but it was 9:00 before I was ready to get going – late! Maybe I was overconfident that I had made this hut in good time. Turns out, it was a shorter trip.
On this day I was struck by tree tumors looking like beehives in the middle of trees. I also was struck by graveyards of beautiful Chestnut trees. I quote from https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/nature/diseases.htm:
American Chestnut Blight
The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) once dominated the eastern forests from Maine to Alabama and comprised 50% of the mountain forests of this country. It is estimated that if all the chestnut trees alive at that time had been in one pure stand, there would have been a forest of nearly 9 million acres. In size they were the “redwoods of the east” growing to a height of over 100 feet and a diameter of nearly 10 feet. Renowned for their weather resistant wood and dependable crop of nuts, chestnut was of great value to man and wildlife.
These giants are now absent from the landscape: a tragic loss that has been said to be one of the worst natural calamities ever experienced by this nation. In the early 1900’s a fungus (Endothia parasitica) was accidentally introduced into New York City from trees imported from Asia. The blight quickly spread on its new host, the American chestnut, destroying it throughout its range.
Today, chestnuts can only be found in the understory, as shoots from the blight resistant roots. By the time they reach 20 feet in height the blight attacks and kills them.
All you can tell from the trees lying on the forrest floor is they were magnificent. I’m no good at telling which trees are which, especially when they lie dead, but I was struck by the beauty of so many of these big trees. What troubles man has caused!
I finally made Bearfence Mountain Hut at 6:00. Again no one was there. Oh happy days! Still couldn’t eat, still queasy and losing weight. The spring was good. There was ample firewood. I was tired, but in one piece.