When do I get to the flatlands?

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Answer: never

Virginia is beautiful, but NOT flat.
Virginia is beautiful, but NOT flat.

I was told over and over when I started hiking the AT that Virginia was flat with no rocks. “Sure, it’s hard here in Georgia/North Carolina/Tennessee, but just wait until we hit Virginia. Then we can really make up the miles.”
I feel lied to.
I’ve hiked almost 100 miles in this state so far and it’s been mountains and some of the worst rocks yet. If this is easy, I fear Pennsylvania (aka Rocksylvania) and the White Mountains. Yikes.
I’m currently in Marion, VA to resupply and avoid a night of thunderstorms. It’s continued to be quite an adventure hiking the footpath known as the Appalachian Trail. So far I’ve got 530 miles behind me. That’s 24% of the trail in ‘only’ 60 days.

Gypsy Dave says I'm doomed to be drawn back to the Damascus Vortex...maybe forever. There are worse places to be!
Gypsy Dave says I’m doomed to be drawn back to the Damascus Vortex…maybe forever. There are worse places to be!

DAILY LOG
Saturday April 26 VA600/Elk Garden 491.1 to Thomas Knob Shelter 495.4 (with an overnight in Damascus)

After a comfortable overnight at Crazy Larry’s hostel in Damascus (one of my favorite hostel stays so far), new shoes from the Mt Rogers Outfitters, I went back to the trail. Gypsy Dave and his Great Pyrenees, Django, picked me up at the hostel at 1p. But first he had a little detour, a special surprise for me. We stopped at the Laurel Valley Community church, built in 1945 from chestnut logs. The two-hole outhouse is still around back. Farther still (now on private property) is a cave with a spring. Where once was the minister’s house now stands a modern home, but on the other side is the old school house. The church was open and we went for a look. The smell of old wood inside is simply heavenly. The pews are all split logs, polished by decades of parishioner’s bottoms. Dave says there are occasional services here still, and he and his bride of 41 years usually go for Christmas services. There is no electricity or heat and even the propane heaters are not enough. Everyone bundles up and the service is done by candlelight. It was such a treat for him to share this with me.
It was hard to say goodbye to Damascus. I can understand the pull it has on people, especially hikers.

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Inside the church
Inside the church
The woods were beginning to wake up after the previous days rain. More rain on the way ...
The woods were beginning to wake up after the previous days rain. More rain on the way …
Dutchman's Breeches
Dutchman’s Breeches

But it was time to hoist my pack and go north, crossing the road to hike up an open field. It’s a 1,000 foot climb and just over 4 miles to Thomas Knob shelter, where I had planned to stay the night before. Climbs are always tough, but this one was also rocky, a good test for my new shoes. There were several views of Mt Rogers, the highest point in Virginia at 5,700+. There are also wild ponies. I’ve not seen them yet, but expect I will tomorrow.
The shelter is very nice, two stories. I met two lovely women who were preparing for a 100 mile hike from Pearisburg to Marion later this year to celebrate one’s 60ith birthday. They warned me of the rocks to come. Ran into Raffiki (who seems to have ditched Honey Bear. Good job!) SnorLax (who had just missed Red Beard) and Flat. The water at this shelter is about .2 miles over a bolder strewn path to a piped spring. Ouch, my feet don’t need anymore rocks!

Trout lily.
Trout lily.

Highlights I’m looking forward to for tomorrow: completing 500 miles and entering Grayson Highlands.

Thomas Knob Shelter 495.4 to Old Orchard Shelter 506.4
The mileage for the day may not look like much, but this was seriously difficult terrain. Even the 20-something boys with the long legs said they were tired.
I said goodbye to the 2 lovely women I met at the shelter last night. Becky and Stacy both live in Marion, a town I’ll be in later this week. They each gave me their phone numbers for an emergency contact. While I hope I won’t need it, it’s nice to have. (I later ran into Stacy at the Marion Walmart and she made me a scrumptious home cooked meal! Am I a lucky hiker or what?!)

Horrible photo of two lovely ladies, Stacy and Becky.
Horrible photo of two lovely ladies, Stacy and Becky.

I stopped at the first campsite north, just .3 miles, to thank the three men for the trail magic they had offered the night before. I was too tired to go, but others took advantage of a full Mexican spread, including beer. One had a hammock I’m now coveting, from Jacks R Better. Just what I need, more gear!
Everyone has talked about the beauty of Grayson Highlands State Park and it truly is spectacular. It is also a rocky mess. When a long distance hiker tells you “You’re gonna LOVE that section of the trail,” what you should hear is “You are about to have your butt kicked by a footpath. Again.” I boulder hopped and rock climbed through the entire park. The trail does not miss a single hill or rock outcropping. There’s even a rock tunnel called Fatman Squeeze. But I survived it all, even if my progress was painful and slow.

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They could not keep their hands off the "wild" ponies.
They could not keep their hands off the “wild” ponies.

The park has several trails that cross the AT and I was thankful that none of the horse riding paths shared a trail with AT hikers. I was raised riding horses and am glad for a beautiful horse trail, but it’s hard to hike behind a horse.
The park is also known for the wild ponies, though they clearly aren’t very wild. Signs everywhere asked people to “look but not touch,” but hardly anyone (except me!) could keep their hands off them. Many had their manes braided and were given treats.

Entrance to Grayson Highlands has a stile to keep the ponies in.
Entrance to Grayson Highlands has a stile to keep the ponies in.

I ran into John the Ridge Runner and we had a pleasant chat. He confirmed the cases of stomach bug have started along the AT. In most cases, it’s not bad water, but poor hygiene that causes the problem. So many of the young men are not careful with food or clothing so I doubt they wash their hands. Heck, a few of them seem oddly proud of how long they go between showers and laundry. John also asked if I knew Honey Bear (the young man in a skirt who seems to have a fire fixation). I said I did and related the incident with the fire and that he was wearing a coat taken from Kincora hostel. John said he’d heard about the fires and that hikers had reported attempted theft. So I’m not the only one who dislikes him.

I was too busy climbing rocks to notice when I reached the 500 mile mark.
I was too busy climbing rocks to notice when I reached the 500 mile mark.

And somewhere in the middle of the park is the 500 mile mark of the trail. Somehow that seems like an accomplishment, though it is less than 23% of the total distance. Still, more than 50% of hikers who started at Springer Mt with the intent to finish, ever even get to the Virginia state line.

Wise shelter where I dreamed of rocks. Some nap!
Wise shelter where I dreamed of rocks. Some nap!

On the way to the next shelter, I met Ma & Pa, who hiked the trail in 2003. They have section hiked the last few years and seem to be enjoying revisiting the trail. They have also done some trail maintenance, including Bob Peoples’ HardCore trail maintenance work, which focuses on big jobs that make major trail improvements.
By Wise Shelter, 500.5, I was exhausted. I cameled-up on water (drank all the liquid my belly would hold) and lay down for a nap in the shelter for half an hour. And what did I dream about? Rocks! Even though I took off my shoes and socks and elevated my feet on my pack, they were still sore and my energy was flagging. But I’d only gone 5 miles and could not stop for the day. So I hoisted my pack and moved north. Shortly, I was out of The Highlands.

This is another way to keep the ponies in while letting hikers out of the park.
This is another way to keep the ponies in while letting hikers out of the park.

This section of the trail is mostly grasslands, punctuated with scrub and trees. When the first pioneers entered this area it was thick, virgin forest with the occasional bald on top. Soon, most of the timber was logged. After, farmers moved in and the area was used for grazing livestock, mostly cattle. The AT goes right through the middle of the corral once used to round up and weigh cattle before sale. The area is still known as The Scales. In the late 1960’s the Forest Service bought this land for the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The Ponies were introduced to graze the high country and keep the land open without mowing and with minimal burning. Though the ponies are hardy enough to survive the winter, they are fed during extremely heavy snowfalls. They are also rounded up each year and checked for health.
I seriously considered pitching my tent in the corral, but the next shelter was just 3 miles ahead, and only the first mile was uphill. It was very slow walking on tired, sore feet. Just at the last mile I ran into John the Ridge Runner for the third time. He’d told me earlier in the day that he was headed home tonight. It was almost 7p and if he was here that had to mean something was wrong. Sitting beside him was a man who looked pale and a little embarrassed. I asked if they needed food or water, but John said help was on the way. I passed the Troutdale Emergency crew on their way up. I didn’t envy their job of carrying a grown man down this rocky trail so late in the day. At the shelter I set up my tent and was making dinner when more emergency personnel arrived. I told them what I knew, pointed them in the right direction and confirmed that this was the first flat land and a good area to assess him condition. They shared that the man seemed to have low blood pressure and an erratic heartbeat. He was on medication for heart trouble and they had additional meds with them.

The Scales
The Scales

 

Another view of The Scales.
Another view of The Scales.

By the time they got him to the shelter it was dusk and they were still 2 miles from the road. The initial plan had been to airlift him out with a helicopter, but the light was gone and this was only a tiny cleared area to land in–too small a space for a helicopter to negotiate in the dark. The Paramedic decided to shock the heart to get a better rhythm, then carry the man out 2 miles to the road where there was a flay, open horse camp. The helicopter would have a better shot operating there. It must have hurt the man terribly when his heart was shocked because he yelled in pain. I winced for him. But the trick worked and his heart beat was stable. I heard later that they got him out safely, but it was midnight before he was airlifted to the hospital.

BTW, when I got water for the evening, I took a bandana bath at the spring. Some of my “tan” turned out to be just dirt. Oophs.

It was well past hiker midnight before they were out of the area and I could sleep. I seldom take any painkillers but took one ibuprofen and an Excedrin PM to stop the throbbing in my feet and get to sleep.

I'm sure the rain helped the flowers, like this painted trillium.
I’m sure the rain helped the flowers, like this painted trillium.

Monday, April 28 Old Orchard Shelter 506.4 to Dickey Gap 516.6
There are few photos from today because of rain. It started in the middle of the night, broke long enough for me to break camp, then started up again after I’d been hiking a couple miles. Though there were a few thunderstorms, there was less than 30 seconds of tiny hail and the temperature was too warm to wear rain gear. It was head down, hard walking all the way with little to see. A good day for neoprene socks! By the time I got to Dickey Gap where the AT crosses VA 650, I looked like a drowned rat. I easily got a ride from a man in a pick up who said he’d been working in Christmas trees all day (a popular cash crop in this area) until the rain got to be too much and he quit.
He dropped me off at the bottom of the hill, next to the Troutdale Baptist Church hostel. It’s a clean, but spartan bunkhouse with showers behind the church and a porta potty. I washed out a few things in the sink and hung them on the clothesline to dry. I purchased a couple things from their tiny “store” for dinner and added a donation. Clean, laundry done, fed and dry for the night!
Or so I thought.

Did I mention the rocks?
Did I mention the rocks?

And who should show up but Honey Bear! I just can’t shake that guy. He was at the shelter I stayed at last night and one of the EMTs had reprimanded him for the over sized fire and the fact that his backpack was so close to the flames. He has two others with him (he doesn’t seem to stay with anyone long). Of his entourage I know Flat, from Carbondale, IL, who seems like a good guy. Even by hiker standards, Honey Bear looks rough and needs to clean up. The other two were trying to convince him that he needed a shower and to do laundry. He didn’t seem interested. They seem to be off to a small grocery store four miles away to resupply.

Ramps are a member of the onion family.
Ramps are a member of the onion family.

<Sigh>. New plan. The boys came back from shopping. A driver picked them up, took them to the grocery and brought them back so it only took 25 minutes. They had tobacco and alcohol (two items not allowed at the hostel). They implied they had other substances. And guess what’s the next thing they decided to do? Shower? Laundry? No! Build a fire! Why am I not surprised? There’s no fire ring, no firewood and no reason to think a fire is acceptable. Honey Bear said he needed a fire to cook with. The hostel has a microwave and a coffee maker, but no actual kitchen. But at least one of the three (Flat) has a backpacking stove (I would hope all of them do). I asked them not to build a fire since obviously there weren’t supposed to be fires here. They ignored me and Honey Bear suggested building a fire on the porch, since it was likely to rain. The WOODEN porch. Brilliant. At least Flat was adamantly against burning the porch.
I told them if they started a fire, I’d have to leave. So I packed up and put on the clothes I’d washed out, still damp. And I called the hostel contact number on my way out and left a message about why I was leaving and that if they got this message they should probably go check the hostel and make sure it wasn’t in flames.
Rain was on its way in and I didn’t have much time to lose if I wanted to get a tent up before it hit. At the road, the very first truck that passed said he was going right past the Mt Rogers Visitor Center, which is on the trail. I’d planned to hike there tomorrow anyway. From here I should be able to get a bus into Marion in the morning to resupply. In the meantime, I’m camped just off the trail nearby. There is a terrific thunderstorm going on as I type, but my tent is holding and I’m dry. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain and Mexico. I'm exploring the world.

6 thoughts on “When do I get to the flatlands?”

  1. WILD PONIES?!?!?!? NOBODY TOLD ME THERE WERE PONIES!!!!!! That settles it. I’m quitting my job to hike the AT so I can play with wild ponies. Sounds like it will only be a matter of time until Honey Boo Boo gets himself arrested, beaten up, or killed. Idiot.

  2. Oh, I wish you’d had a photo of “Fatman’s Squeeze”! I will have to do an image search because the thought of a tunnel like that terrifies me!

    I hope you don’t have to keep dealing with Poopy Bear. I refuse to call him “honey” anything!

    1. LOL I’ll use Poopybear too. The ponies! Are the rocks natural? If there are horse trails in the area are they also rocky? I can’t imagine the rocks being safe for horseback riders. I’m wondering if the rocks are there on purpose to discourage horses?

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