In each of the past five or six years, I have hiked for a week or so on the Appalachian Trail, progressing from its southern tip at Springer Mountain, Georgia to Damascus, Virginia, just a few miles from the TN-VA border. Here I report on more or less objective aspects of this year’s hike. Other observations and reflections are reserved for later posts.
Section hiked: Damascus to Glasgow, Virginia. Virginia is the state with the longest section of the AT. Hiking at a good pace for nearly three weeks, I covered just a little more than half of Virginia’s part of the trail.
Time: April 23—May 12
Distance: 314 miles. This averages about 17 miles a day, including one rest day of no miles on the trail. The two longest days were about 24 miles each.
Getting to Damascus: Greyhound to “the home of country music” Bristol, TN, where the Carter family and Jimmie Rogers first recorded. A few steps from the bus station, I was across State Street and in Bristol, KY. As in the hitch-hiking days of my youth, I had a small sign with my destination written in magic marker. Within five minutes, I had the first of two rides that got me to Damascus about as quickly as if I had hired a taxi or shuttle. The first ride was from a guy in his twenties who had, as he put it, excommunicated himself from his nearby Appalachian community of woodsmen, where to get F’s was honorable and to leave the area for a better job, let alone higher education, was disrespect for one’s family (“You think you’re better than us?”). He was getting straight A’s with hopes of work in the medical field. The second ride was from an older couple from the area, well accustomed to seeing hikers hitching to or away from the trailhead.
Weather varied from cold to warm and rainy to sunny. I was in a hostel during the night of one of the most severe thunderstorms and took a “zero day” in Pearisburg while others were hiking through hail. A cold rain that turned to snow got me along with several others to hole up in our sleeping bags after just a few miles of hiking down from a ridge to Pine Swamp Branch shelter.
Terrain: Virginia has plenty of climbs and descents but its long ridges and frequent stretches through farmland offer a pleasant contrast to earlier sections of the trail. There are of course also many wonderful panoramic views.
Flora: A great time to observe the trees progress from leafless to bright green in the higher elevations and the flowers from bud to surpassing Solomon in all his glory.
Fauna: the occasional trio of deer, wild ponies on Mt. Rogers, constant song and calls of birds (Carolina Chickadees never staying still for a photo, tanagers’ scarlet luminescent in the morning sun, wood thrush’s evening and early morning fluting, whippoorwills’ 4-syllable hoots in the dark, a grouse/partridge appearing calm in this photo but then harassing myself and, I would later hear, other hikers on the first ridge north of Woods Hole Hostel), Monarch butterflies, a yearling bear edging along a meadow, a mother bear & cub at the top of a ridge between McAffee Knob & Dragon’s tooth (the same who climbed a tree to knock down and ravage the food bags of those staying at Laurel Creek shelter the night before?).
Things I carried. With food for five days and two full quart-size water bottles, my backpack weighed about 35 pounds, a common weight (expensive ultralight equipment enables reducing by 10-20 pounds). Well worth the slight addition to weight is the practice of bagging most of the material within the backpack:
--in a plastic grocery bag: food to be eaten during the day while hiking. This was kept in the most easily accessible pocket of the backpack.
--in a waterproof bag: health-related materials (toothbrush, bandaids, etc.) in a zip-lock and the rest of my food. At night, this bag was hung over a branch to keep it out of reach of raccoons and bear (ideally, the branch would be too small for bear to venture out on, the rope would hang 6’ away from the trunk, and the bag would be a few feet down from the branch and at least 10’ above ground).
--in a light cloth tote bag: clothing.
--a stuff sack each for the hammock, the sleeping bag, and the waterproof backpack cover; these items come with the appropriately sized stuff sack when purchased.
Yes, in the picture below, the tree my backpack is leaning against is a big one--the second largest oak on the AT, with a circumference of about 19'.)
Food. I don’t carry a stove or dishware. Food is for the calories to sustain and enjoy the hike: a variety of high-calorie granola bars (favorites: Quaker Oat Chocolate-Covered Granola Bars, Cliff Protein bar, Sunbelt Sweet & Salty Granola Bars—made in Tennessee!), bagels or rolls of about 250-calories each, olive oil (120 calories per tbsp.; kept in a separate ziplock in case of leakage), homemade jerky (about a pound, made from 3 pounds of round steak, in four separate vacuum-packed bags: compact, light, well complemented the carbs and lasted the whole trip). In the past I have carried an energy powder but don’t think it is worth the weight; for longer hikes, multi-vitamins would probably serve the body better and be lighter than energy powder.
Water. If the source is a high-elevation spring, I take the water straight into the bottle without filter or other treatment: refreshing, delicious, and has never caused me sickness or significant discomfort. When the flow is not strong, a rhododendron leaf can be used as a spout. There were many springs along the way; the Guide indicated where water would be scarce. Filters should of course be used in streams that go through developed land or pastures; I avoid water from these sources as much as possible. A recent innovation in filtering that most of the young hikers are using is the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter. It is much lighter and quicker than my MSR (“a dinosaur,” according to a fellow hiker seeing me use it) and just as effective. Most hikers attach the filter to a water bottle, rather than the pouch that comes with it, so that they can immediately squirt water into their mouth. The Katadyn Hiker Pro is also lighter and quicker than the MSR.
Camping: rightfully limited to shelters, areas around the shelters, and occasional campsites. Many attempting to do the whole trail start out in early March and have reached Virginia by late April. So the shelters were often full, with several tents pitched around them. This was the first section I had been in where almost every shelter had a privy. The shelters are usually about 8-12 miles apart.
Hammock. With a hammock, one need not worry about soggy ground surface and, especially nice for hikers, can sleep with the legs elevated to facilitate blood circulation throughout the night. I bought a Hennessy Hammock years ago, its mediocre, small “asymmetric” fly marketed as a great innovation. I later bought a larger asymmetric fly and usually stay dry through rainy nights by 1) wrapping the end of each suspending rope around the fly end so that rain cannot enter by dripping down the rope or being blown in at the ends (if there’s not enough rope, a short length of cord or a dirty sock can be used), 2) keeping the fly taut by looping the end of the suspending rope through the cord that attaches the fly to the rope and, pulling the rope end back toward the tree, using a slip knot to secure it to itself, 3) tying the fly sides down at a sharp angle to a rock or log big enough to resist strong wind, rather than having them stretch out wide as for starry, warm nights, and 4) camping at lower elevations, less exposed to the wind and with a leafy canopy diminishing the rain. I see Hennessy now sells a much larger, symmetrical fly that weighs only a pound more and can, for a bit extra, be substituted for the small asymmetric one.
If the gear does get wet, there are usually strong breezes in the higher elevations that with just a few minutes of sun—or at least lack of rain—can dry it out.
Trail Guide. The price of David Miller’s The A.T. Guide Northbound 2016 seemed too low and the size too small to serve as well as the official AT Guides that I have used in the past but I got it after reading many positive reviews. It was indeed highly satisfactory. I missed the historical and cultural information on trail sections given in the official guides but could find this in places such as Marion’s Visitor Center (Mrs. Greear recalling in her memoir Sherwood Anderson’s coming to Troutdale) or in Pearisburg’s library with friendly, helpful staff. To reduce weight, I removed and carried only the pages covering the maximal miles I could expect to hike.
Resupply. I thought VA had more frequent and easier access to resupply towns and to hostels than earlier sections of the trail but others did not see a significant difference. I resupplied after four nights out (Marion), five nights (Pearisburg), and six nights (Daleville).
Thanks to a free, invigorating—that is, c-o-l-d—shower at the shelter next to the Mt. Rogers Visitors Center and shuttle from the Center six miles to downtown Marion and back, one can get clean, do the laundry, resupply, and eat well in a half-day and continue hiking; Marion’s Food City is just a few-minutes walk from the laundromat and has a good deli and comfortable dining area. The shuttle is 50-cents (!!!) each way and will pick you up just about anywhere in town if you call them by 1 p.m.
Trail angels/magic. A Boy Scout troop from Ohio, a couple who hikes little but first met AT hikers while vacationing in the Gatlinburg area, and a local race director with leftovers from the event earlier in the day each on a different day were “trail angels,” waiting where the trail crossed a small road to offer hikers “trail magic”—usually food, carbonated drinks, and bottled water and sometimes supplies such as baggies or Ibuprofen. My longest days distance-wise were when I had the trail magic. The friendly, generous spirits of the angels energized the spirit as their food did the body. This is related to a set of reflections and ideas that I would like to write about in a later post.
The ol’ body. From the 20’s to 60’s, the age distribution of those hiking for more than a few days on the AT is a inverse bell curve: many—without small children and work responsibilities—on each end of that range and relatively few between. Hikers intending to do the whole trail have likely dropped out or have gotten into good shape by the time they reach Virginia. Section hikers such as myself rough the legs and feet up then leave the trail just as the body is adjusting to it—or reaching a peak of blisters and tingling toes.
My running a few miles a few times a week probably helps me adjust to hiking but the muscle and foot movement is quite different from that of walking with a loaded backpack and heel-to-toe movement. Many hikers have trail shoes closer to running shoes than to boots and are happy with them. I like my Asolo boots especially for their excellent ankle support, protection from stubbed toes, and traction in mud and on wet rocks.
On my 4th day out, crawling under a tree with my backpack on, I felt a snap and rush of pain as my left foot was pushing me ahead. On the 13th day out, my right foot caught between two rocks and I fell to the side, the backpack weight pushing me to the ground. Both times, as I pushed myself back up with the help of my walking sticks and hobbled forward, I wondered how much further I could go. I would have to at least make it to a road where I could hitch into town, but by the time I did so, the pain had diminished and I was limping no worse than immediately after the incident. So I decided to push on. The recovery was similar for each: pain subsiding over several hours except for when the foot-strike angle varied from the norm, uphill less painful than downhill; second day—soreness but not so much pain, less limping and longer hiking stride; third day—occasional twinges but approaching normal, with a 19 or 20-mile day. With a similar injury at home, I would probably have stayed on the couch a few days in respect of the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) advice for runners with a lower leg injury; but the continued movement of the injured part, perhaps stimulating healing circulation more than Rest + Elevation, seemed to work just as well. I may later try to develop the parable this suggests.
Trails we follow,