Day 77- Sunday, 5/27- Middle Creek Campground, VA- (0) (750.8 total)
My first zero day in about 15 days or so. Felt really nice to have a full day to just rest and relax. The day started off pretty slowly- just had breakfast at the restaurant here and then lay on the couch in the lounge until about noon updating my usual blog, photos, and videos online. Wandered up to my tent in the early afternoon, just expecting to relax in my tent or sit and chat with the people I met yesterday. Ran into my old friend Edward Shitter Hands from way back in Georgia, camping with some other hikers nearby my tent. I hadn’t seen Eddie in a long time, but have seen her name in registers along the way and knew she was only a day or two ahead of me. Was good to catch up with her again. She had been hiking recently with the Wounded Warrior group of military vets who come out here and hike to help cure their PTSD issues, etc. These guys get support along the trail from various volunteers who bring them food and anything else they might need. Today, one of the guy’s family members was here at the campsite with some other of his friends, and they were driving into Roanoak city to go watch the new Star Wars movie- the Han Solo one. Eddie checked and at first there was no room for me to go, but then her and another guy backed out to chill at camp and take a nap instead. So I hopped in. Took about an hour to drive there, but was really nice to get out of the woods and be in a city for a bit. The movie was excellent! I actually didn’t even know it was coming out until today, but I thought they did a great job with it. Took me away to a galaxy far far away from the AT, which is exactly what I needed. When we got back, the friends had cooked up this huge dinner and invited all us hikers to join. Hot dogs, sausages, baked beans, potato salad, all kinds of good stuff. I’m going to bed tonight full and happy!
Day 78- Monday, 5/28- Bryant Ridge Shelter- (10.4 miles) (761.2 total)
Well, today was the big day. My buddy Ira arrived at Middle Creek Campground this morning around 9:30am. He flew out from Hawaii and has been spending time with his parents for the past 3 days in Tennessee- the same kind people who picked me up and took me to their home when I was at Fontana Dam all those weeks ago. They drove Ira up here and dropped us both off at the trailhead, and will be back in 5 days to pick Ira up.
It was a good day of hiking and a nice change of pace for me. Good to have someone to hike with all day and have some conversation instead of my own thoughts or podcasts. Something about camping and hiking in the woods somehow always seems to bring out that deeper conversation, plus there is so much time tell longer stories or dig deeper into stuff. Very enjoyable day. I let Ira lead and set the pace so that I wasn’t pushing him to hike faster than he was comfortable with or ready for. So we hiked a solid, steady pace all day but weren’t pushing it too crazy. It was a good pace with breaks here and there that allowed us to really enjoy the day and talk story.
It was forecast to rain all day, but the rain held off until just recently, after we were all set up at camp. We just finished up having dinner with a few other hikers in the shelter and socializing with them a bit. It’s fun having Ira out here as it reminds me of myself when I just started, and makes me realize how far I’ve come and how much of a learning curve I’ve been through in the last 2.5 months. I see him starting to figure out his systems for doing things, asking questions, observing myself and other hikers to see how we are doing things. And I’m picking up some things from him as well. Today I learned to recognize poison ivy along the trail. I knew it had 3 leaves- Ira’s Mom had sent me pictures of it. But it’s different when you have someone along the trail with you to point it out. There is a ton out here. Hopefully I’ll keep avoiding it. Anyway, good to have him out here and I’m looking forward to the next few days with him.
Day 79- Tuesday, 5/29- Thunder Hill Shelter, VA- (10.2 miles) (771.4 total)
Wow, Ira sure picked a heck of a section to join me on! Today was pretty intense. From the moment we left camp we immediately started up an all day 3000 foot climb. It was relentless. All day we just kept heading up and up and up. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for Ira to join on a nice mellow section of the trail, but I guess at least now he knows the full deal out here. We did find an amazing spot for lunch today to break it up. There was a sign for a view only 200 feet away at 11:30am, and there were some nice big rocks to relax on overlooking a spectacular view when we got there. That was a spirit-booster. We just finished dinner and Ira was being uncharacteristically quiet. I asked him if he was ok, and he just said he is totally bushed. I have a feeling he will sleep well tonight. Lol!
We have been pretty lucky to get small trail magic both days I’ve been with Ira so far. Yesterday as we were crossing a road and about to head down to a river to collect water, a local guy in a pickup told us he had some jugs of water we could refill from. Faster and no need to purify or filter that way. A simple but important gesture for us hikers. Today we were debating whether to stop and collect water at one point. We didn’t have too far to go, but decided to err on the side of caution and just fill up, so we headed down to a small spring we could see down a side trail. While we were there filling up, a guy and his son came by and offered us Gatorades. They had hiked on a different trail to see a waterfall and were almost back to their car, so they didn’t need them anymore. Those electrolytes and that sugar really helped us with our final push. We did see the signs on the AT right there talking about the waterfall. It sounded like it might be nice, but at 1.1 miles 1-way, neither of us felt like we wanted to see the waterfall badly enough to add 2 more miles to our day.
I just checked my Guthook app and thankfully for Ira tomorrow doesn’t look too bad. Mostly downhill actually. So hopefully his legs will get some rest. We will see what the weather brings. The tropical storm is heading up the Mississippi valley instead of towards us, but Ira (a former weatherman) said we could still get some moisture from the tail. We will keep an eye on it.
Day 80- Wednesday, 5/30- Matt’s Creek Shelter, VA- (12.4 miles) (783.8 total)
We had a pretty wet night last night. It rained some and then the mist rolled in. I was fine in my tent, but Ira was in his hammock and the mist got in and made everything damp. He wasn’t too thrilled upon waking up all damp. My tent was soaked on the outside from the rain. I stayed dry on the inside, but the wet tent weighs more and is heavier to carry in my pack. Fortunately the terrain was easier today- a lot of downhill- so a bit easier on Ira. He has blisters on both heels from walking up hill all day yesterday. I can see that this whole thing is challenging him quite a bit. That’s very understandable, considering he has started the trail with 10, 10, and 12 miles. I started doing 7 or 8 miles a day, so I feel for him. He’s soldiering tho. We are now 3/5 of the way through his trip already. Time flies.
It rained a good portion of the day today as we were hiking. We were up quite high after the climb yesterday, so we were in a cloud all morning with the moisture. The views were socked in too. But once we came to our first big downhill, we descended out of the cloud and the weather cleared up some. We were lucky enough to get to camp just a few minutes before the skies really opened up and poured. We dove into the shelter and waited out the rain. Some other hikers who came a few minutes later were not as lucky. They got really soaked. Both Ira and I decided we should sleep in the shelter instead of setting up our tent/hammock. The only problem was that since Ira sleeps in a hammock, he doesn’t carry a sleeping pad. He tried laying on the hard wooden floor of the shelter on top of the under-quilt for his hammock, but it was still pretty uncomfortable. I offered to share my sleeping pad, so each of us would use it for half the night. After dinner tho, the weather cleared up a lot, and Ira decided to go hang his hammock. He did discover tho that he left his headlamp at the last shelter. At the end of a long day of hiking, that kind of thing can be pretty deflating and Ira didn’t look happy. There’s a certain rhythm to this grind out here that we thru-hikers have all developed to some degree. Just a mentality or a mindset that comes over time. Tough hiking days, uphill, downhill, rain, heat, cold, etc. Just get some hot food in you and get to bed. Sleep it off and get back on the grind tomorrow. But this mentality or rhythm has taken some time to develop. This is Day 80 for me. Poor Ira is trying to adjust and develop all of this over only 5 days. Not nearly enough time. But he is definitely getting a full taste of what this trail life is like. He asked me yesterday if he should get a trail name for his short time out here. I said sure, it’s part of the AT experience. He thought about it and decided to call himself “Cameo,” since he is just making a short cameo appearance out here. Good name.
Day 81- Thursday, 5/31- Reservoir Road Campsite- (17.3 miles) (801.1 total)
Well, I passed the 800 mile mark today. Unfortunately, I passed it in the the late afternoon in the pouring rain during a thunderstorm and saw no signs marking its location. There probably was one, but the forest was thick and the skies were grey and there was very little light coming in. Plus I was more concerned with getting down the mountainside and out of the heavy rain than in finding the marker. So no picture of this one.
Also, I unexpectedly passed the 800 mile mark alone. No Ira with me. As I mentioned yesterday, Ira was feeling pretty beat and discouraged after yesterday’s hike. We talked about it a bit last night and Ira did mention that he had the thought of getting off at Glasgow, 2 miles into today’s hike. I didn’t take it too seriously last night. I just figured he was tired and hitting a wall, and would feel much better in the morning. I’ve certainly had those same moments and always felt better about things the next morning. But when I saw Ira first thing this morning, the look in his eyes told me he’d been up at least part of the night with the wheels turning in his head. He told me a bit later that he had definitely decided to get off the trail today at Glasgow. He said he had been up a lot last night wrestling with the decision, but had ultimately decided to listen to his body. He had blisters on the backs of his heels, he was sore, he is still jet lagged and hasn’t slept well on this trip, and we were facing a huge climb of around 3000 feet in today’s hike. He also had a heart attack a year ago and didn’t want to overdo it. I was surprised and I wasn’t. I knew it had been tough on him. I didn’t feel like I should try to talk him out of it or pressure him into continuing. I could see that he had made up his mind and was comfortable with his decision. Still, I could tell it was a tough decision and he was a little torn. We did put a lot of energy into planning the trip, figuring out dates, locations, distances, etc. And in that sense, it is a shame we couldn’t finish the 5 days together. But I understand. It’s not easy to come out here and jump into 10-12 mile hiking days like he did. He does bootcamp and did some practice backpacking trips at home before he came out here, but the actual trail is a different animal, and the section he just happened to join me on has been a very tough section. The toughest section in Virginia so far. Tons of uphill climbs. So that part was just bad luck. For my part, once we figured out the general section we were going to hike together, I sent Ira the relevant pages from the guidebook and let him plan the daily milage. I didn’t want to push him past anything he was comfortable doing and told him we could do 7-8 mile days if he wanted. I told him I was willing to slow way down. I do think he felt guilty about slowing me down some, even tho I told him it was ok, so that may have played a role in him choosing 10-12 mile days, but the shelters were also around that far apart. I also let Ira lead the hike each day, and I walked behind him at his pace and took breaks with him when he needed a breather, to make sure I wasn’t pushing his pace too fast. But in the end, this tough section just proved to be too much and he decided to get off.
We had to reconfigure the plan this morning after he gave me the news. We eventually decided that I should hike on after he got off and meet up tomorrow in Buena Vista. He got to the road and hitchhiked in to Glasgow. He texted me later to say that he had gotten a really quick ride and was staying at the hiker hostel in town. I decided to push a 17 mile day rather than the original 12 we had planned. This way tomorrow I only have a 6.5 mile day into Buena Vista where I will meet Ira and his parents. His parents will drive up tomorrow morning and pick him up in Glasgow. We will all have lunch in Buena Vista and then they will take me one town over to Lexington to the nearest outfitter so I can resupply some things. Will be nice to do it that way rather than just saying goodbye today on the trail. Will be nice to see his parents again and get to finish things properly.
After saying goodbye to Ira after crossing the longest foot bridge on the AT across the James River, I soon started the big crazy climb of the day. It was broken into 3 different sections, but was still 3000 feet over 10 miles. I gotta say it was pretty brutal and it kicked my butt. If Ira was feeling beat up, it’s a good thing he didn’t force himself through this day. Also, there was a 9 mile stretch without water, so I had to fill up at the last shelter, camel up, and then just make my 2 liters last. It was super muggy today and I sweat more than I think I ever have. It didn’t rain for most of the day, but my clothes were completely soaked, just as if it had rained. I was able to refill my water at the next shelter and then had to descend the 2400 feet down the other side of the mountain. This is when the thunderstorms came rolling in and drenched me. All in all, it was a pretty long 10.5 hour day. I’m camping tonight along the banks of a river, right in front of a suspension bridge. The book listed this as a campsite, but there is barely room for a tent here. Some areas are puddles after the rain, and others had some poison ivy. I finally sorted out a site and am set up here. No other campers tonight tho. I think everyone else pushed on to the next shelter. I’m looking forward to getting into town tomorrow. I did call ahead today and reserved a motel room. The place I wanted to stay, which has laundry, said they don’t open until 3pm tomorrow. The place I booked has no laundry, so I need to get a mile into town somehow to the laundromat. There are comments on the app about this place saying it has bedbugs, but that was from 2 years ago so hopefully they have taken care of it by now. The road I come out on is 9 miles from the town, is a pretty quiet road apparently, and has spotty cell service if any. I’m hoping to get some cell service between here and there so I can call for a shuttle. Otherwise it will just be hoping for some traffic so I can hitch a ride. We will see. As with this morning, you never know the twists and turns of tomorrow.
Day 82- Friday, 6/1- Buena Vista, VA- (6.8 miles) (807.8 total)
Got up at early this morning to get a head start and get into town as soon as possible. I had no phone reception at camp last night, but I was lucky to get some at the top of the hill a mile or so after I left and so was able to book a taxi into town. I told them I’d be there by 9:45am as I was only doing 6.8 miles. I was a bit worried in case it somehow took me longer, so I pushed pretty hard all morning to make good time. Along the way I met up with Shorts, a guy from upstate New York who I have leapfrogged many times along the trail recently. He’s a nice guy and we talk when I see him, but he seems pretty content to keep to himself on the hike. He never camps by any shelters. One time I shared a shuttle with him to a motel and asked him if he wanted to share a room to save cost, but he declined and took his own room. I always pass his camp a mile or two beyond the shelter and he is always alone. He’s hiking his own hike. Later, I passed Jukebox who was about to leave camp. Eventually the 3 of us ended up hiking together for a stretch. Along the way, we came to a sign that explained the history of the area we were passing by. In the early 1900s, it had been inhabited by a group of freed slaves who farmed and created a small community. As we walked along, we could see some rock walls and foundations left over if we looked carefully. It was fascinating to know the history and to try to imagine their lives and what it had been like back then. That’s something I think about often on the trail. I am walking through so many areas that have such a rich and long history and most of the time I have no idea at all what I am passing through. It’s a shame really.
We got to the road at 9:15, 30 minutes before they were to arrive, but I called and she sent the taxi right away. Jukebox and Shorts decided to share the taxi with me into town. There was another guy sitting there and we asked him if he wanted to join, but he said he was going to walk to town. It was 9 miles! The taxi came and when we passed that guy walking we told him just $6 if he wanted to get in, cheaper than what the rest of us were paying. He said he didn’t have an extra $6- guess he is on a very tight budget, so we just told him to jump in for free. Can’t let anyone be walking 9 extra miles after all those miles on the trail.
Got my motel room here and it’s fine. No bedbugs. It’s just an older place. No laundry tho, so after I showered I got a taxi into town to the laundromat. Ira and his parents were coming to pick me up at 1pm and go have lunch, but I was so starving around noon that while my clothes were washing I went next door to get a burger. They picked me up after my laundry finished and we drove to the next town, Lexington. We had planned to eat at a Jamaican restaurant here in Buena Vista but it was closed, so we found a Thai place in Lexington instead. The food was fantastic!!! We met the owner who is from Thailand. Her and her family all work in the restaurant and they do a fantastic job. After lunch, we walked to the outfitter where I was able to get some supplies and then they drove me back to my motel before setting off back to Tennessee. It was so nice to get to see Ira’s parents Gwen and Dennis again and get a chance to all be together again after the big adventure. They have been to great to me on this journey, letting me stay in their home several weeks ago and being part of this recent trip with Ira. I am forever indebted. I’ll miss having Ira out here with me. I did enjoy his company for those days. Glad we got to end the trip properly today.
Met up with Jukebox at the local Mexican restaurant for dinner last night and then came back to my motel for an early night. I’m feeling exhausted and am considering taking a zero tomorrow just to rest up.
Day 83- Saturday, 6/2- Buena Vista, VA- (0) (807.8 total)
I am taking that zero today. Just feel tired in my bones and need some rest. Talked to Ira this morning when I woke up. He was supposed to lend me his Ursac when he left but we both forgot, so we arranged for him to mail it to me at the next town. An Ursac is a bear proof bag that you put your food in and then tie the sack to a tree just a few feet off the ground. It is made of a tough material that bears cannot tear through. They also recommend putting all your food into the scent proof bags that I already have, so it lowers the chances of bears or other critters finding your food bag. This way you don’t have to go through the hassle of hanging a bear bag all the time. I have actually never hung a bear bag since I’ve been out here. I’ve kept my food in the scent proof bags in a dry bag and clipped it to a tree far away from camp. I’ve never had a problem at all, not even with mice finding or chewing my food bag. But there is always that little worry if they someday do. So I’m gonna go with the Ursac method and see how that works. It’s a bit heavier than my dry sack, but worth it I think.
Another piece of gear that I may be changing is my sleeping pad. It’s comfortable and works well, but it already bubbled once and I had to change it, and there is always the chance of it popping. But the real pain with it is how long it takes to blow up and de-inflate daily. It takes about 25 full breaths to fill every evening, and then it deflates so slowly in the mornings and I need to get every bit of air out before I pack it. It just takes forever. 2 days ago I was talking to Shadow at a shelter and saw him setting up. He has just the Thermarest Z Lite pad, a thin egg carton shaped pad that you don’t inflate. It’s probably a fraction lighter than mine, and much bulkier, but takes 2 seconds to fold up or lay out. Such a time saver. It will have to be strapped to the outside of my pack, but I want to try it. Not sure if it will be too thin and uncomfortable on the ground or what. So I will bring both pads these next few days and experiment.
This morning I went out for breakfast. This motel is a bit far from town and I have to walk everywhere. I was walking down the road and met a lady walking her dog. We talked a bit and I told her that I was probably just going to eat at Hardy’s, since it was closest and I didn’t want to walk super far on my day off. But then I remembered a small Mom and Pop store I’d seen yesterday, not too far away, with a sign outside that said “Pinto Beans and Corn Bread.” That sounded awesome for dinner last night, but they were closed. The lady didn’t think they did breakfast, but said I should try just in case. I walked down there and they were open. I went in and the owner said they only did lunch since everyone in town seemed to like the convenience of the fast food drive thrus for breakfast. But then he said if I didn’t mind waiting for 20 minutes that he’d cook me breakfast. He ended up making me a nice egg scramble with cheese and veges, plus a couple of biscuits with jam and a cup of coffee. Super nice man. I sat and talked with him and his wife for a long time over breakfast. When I wanted to pay and asked how much, he said $1. I had told him a bit about my charity hike and he said the breakfast was towards the cause. I still gave him $5 since the breakfast was so good, but it was such a kind offer, especially since they don’t even serve breakfast there!!! Very touching. The kindness of strangers.
The rest of the day has just been the usual chores. Grocery shopped, then had lunch in town before walking back to my motel. Ran into JukeBox at the lunch place and ate with him before he headed back out on the trail. It is also time for me to re-spray all my clothes and pack with the tick spray. We need to do that every 6 weeks. Just getting errands run and trying to rest up before tomorrow.
I had an interesting conversation with Ira while we were hiking together. He had found some girl’s blog from last year or so who was also thru hiking the AT. She had written a post on what she called the “AT Olympics” where she was listing all the different ways in which people on the AT got caught up in competing with each other. She said she had set out to hike her own hike, but found herself not really doing that and instead getting caught up in these competitions. She listed things like how many miles you hike a day, how fast you hike, how many zeros you take, how fast you get ready in the morning, how heavy your pack is, etc, etc. And she is 100% right. These competitions definitely go on, and mostly not overtly. Mostly it’s just a subtle undercurrent that is always present. People rarely brag openly or challenge people openly, but they still subtly mention all these things and I can really feel it on everyone’s mind. We all say hike your own hike, it doesn’t matter as long as you finish, and all those kinds of things, but I think all this stuff still really affects all of us out here. I know it’s in my mind and kind of drives me nuts sometimes. I try very hard not to get caught up in it, but when it’s all around you, it’s tough. I think it all stems from the fact that we are all undertaking such a huge challenge. It’s 2200 miles, for Christ’s sake! And no one knows if they can finish. No one is assured of anything. We might not finish. We might be too slow. We might get injured. We might not be able to handle it mentally. So everyone has these same fears on some level and they play on everyone’s mind. I think that’s what leads to all the competition bullshit and insecurity. It’s all fear. So when they say that the challenge of this trail is a lot more mental than it is physical, this also has to be included. I’m learning what that mental challenge is on a deeper level the longer I am out here. We don’t only have to persevere through all the challenges and just keep walking and not give up. We also have to navigate all these fears and insecurities, our own and other peoples’, and overcome all those mind games in our own heads. It’s a lot sometimes. I keep trying to stay centered, hike my own hike, and detach from all that nonsense, but trust me, it’s much easier said than done.