We're 1,000 milers now...

This sounds extremely accomplished, until you consider that the AT is 2,174 miles long.

Only 1,174 miles to go.

But seriously, we walked to Maryland from GEORGIA. That's far. We also hit another milestone, when we made it into West Virginia. We had hiked a whopping 550 miles in Virginia, and, although we enjoyed the extraordinary beauty of the state, we were beginning to feel we may never get out. There's actually some trail slang referring to this - they call it the "Virginia blues". Lots of people drop out in Virginia - we're not sure how many started a thru-hike this year (usually it's a few thousand), but we were numbers 146 and 147 to reach Harper's Ferry. While in town, we visited the ATC, where they took our photo for the 2007 scrapbook and generally made enough of a fuss over us that we felt pretty darn good for a few minutes. Then we walked to Harper's Ferry National Historical Park and met M's aunt, who came over from Rockville, MD to pick us up and bring us to her house. Tomorrow M's mother will join us down here. We are looking forward to a relaxing weekend with family, and plan to head back to the trail on Sunday. Our next goal is to meet friend, Stan, by next weekend, just north of Boiling Springs, PA.

For now, we rest.


Thank you, Aunt Mary!

K's Aunt Mary picked us up from the trail (two weekends in a row) and then came out to Big Meadows Lodge for dinner on Wednesday. We had a great time with Mary and her friend, Newby, who also came up for dinner. There is something very elegant about dining at an old lodge, like the one at Big Meadows. The dining room looks out over the Shenandoah Valley and the service was outstanding.

We are getting out of "C-ville" range, but will never forget our off-the-trail experiences this month.


Oh, Shenandoah

Well, it finally happened. My first undeniable, close encounter with a bear. Actually, 3 bears. It was no surprise...you can only spend so much time in the great forests of the east before coming into contact with Ursus Americanus. Sure, M and I had seen a couple of bears retreating quickly over a ridge or into the brush - and this is probably the most common encounter that hikers have with bears. But there is nothing...

...like being stared down by one of these creatures. It happened several days into our hike in the Shenandoah National Park. This is one of the most-visited parks in the country - it's close proximity to Washington, DC brings in crowds, especially at this time of the year. The park sits on a relatively narrow piece of land along the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail runs along the ridge (of course), frequently crossing the famous Skyline Drive.

We stopped after a 20 mile day at a shelter called, of all things, Bearfence Shelter. And no, there is no fence. A section hiker, nervously stoking a fire, was the only person there. He seemed extremely glad to see us, since he had heard a great deal of crashing about in the brush. Now, deer, chipmunks, squirrels and lizards make a fair amount of noise, especially when frightened, but there is something unmistakeable about the deliberate slow snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves that a bear makes...it's almost human.

Relieved to be done with walking for the day, we unstrapped our packs and went about the usual business of the evening - cooking dinner, washing up, laying out sleeping bags, etc. M went down to the spring to wash off his feet. I was deep in conversation when I heard the rustling sound a few yards from the shelter. That's when I looked up and saw the inky black face of a black bear staring me down. Bears are supposed to be afraid of humans, right? "They're more afraid of you than you are of them," is a frequently uttered phrase in the outdoors. This one just looked mean. I saw two more black shapes moving about behind it. Hmmm, were the bears getting ready to stage an attack? The other hikers tried clapping and making noise to scare them off, but the one in front wasn't budging. Then we realized that the two shapes in the background were cubs, going cheerfully about the business of eating and playing, while Mama stood guard, sending the clear message that we should NOT mess with her family. I tried to get a picture, but it was twilight and simply too dark in the forest to get a clear shot.

I woke up several times during the night to lots of rustling - apparently the spring was popular among the animals, as well as hikers. I'm starting to realize that even though the forest is full of creatures, it is unlikely that they will drag me from my sleeping bag and devour me. I just wish they would be a little more quiet as they go about their business.
[Read the full post]


Happy Birthday, Cocoa

Some of you may be wondering how my birthday was. My request was that we spend it in the woods, which we did. M carried decorations and ingredients for a birthday cake into the Shenandoah National Park. On Monday, we stopped at the Pinefield Hut after an easy 13 mile day. Stay tuned for the photos. The idea was that we would hike as usual, and then have the birthday party with whoever happened to stop at the same shelter as us. We stopped early in the day and M got to work decorating, complete with balloons, a birthday sign and streamers. The guests began to arrive, and included several section hikers, Bad Influence Groundhog and his dog Paige, and Jason, as well as Aquaman and Farenheit - a special surprise since they had started from Springer Mountain the same day as us and we hadn't seen them in a while.

Then the assembly of the birthday cake began. This was an elaborate affair, which took several hours and included building a fire, and baking three layers of chocolate cake, in our little titanium frying pan. Between each layer, M spread cherry jelly and cocount, and iced the whole thing with cherry icing. It really looked like a cake when we was done. Everyone sang happy birthday and posed for a picture. Some people even gave me presents - chocolate and blow pops! It was truly an event to remember.


The Valley of Indecision / Waynesboro at Last

spy rock The last leg of our journey has been plagued by the worst kind of indecision, and a healthy touch of the Virginia blues... but somehow the sun still manages to poke its head out in the most unusual ways.

Coming back on trail after a weekend in Charlottesville with Mom & Dad B. and Aunt Mary was a welcome return. We had a great time with everyone, and just the right amount of time off to rest the legs without getting soft. What we did not have enough of, however, was sleep. After saying our goodbyes and tromping up Bald Knob (which is incidentally neither bald nor a knob) on a hot afternoon, K and I were at each others' throats.

broke toe Not in any terrible way, mind you, we were just really tired and out of sorts from having been around people for such a time (after having been in the woods for two months you get used to a degree of solitude). Neither of us wanted to hike, and we had planned a 14 miler - short for a normal day, but somehow it seemed like eternity that day. We argued about anything and everything you could think of. During the excitement, I in my sandals was not paying attention and jammed my little toe on a rock, either breaking or severely bruising it. Not much to do for a broken little toe, 'cept keep walking and try to keep the pressure off it. Another issue with the mileage: Dutch Haus offers a free lunch to hikers, and it was about 16 from where we got on... do we try to go or not?

hog camp gapThen lo and behold, we came down off the mountain and ran into a bunch of old friends camped in a field at Hog Camp Gap. There were tree-swings, box wine, wiffle balls, and the makings for a large fire. We had expected everyone to be long gone ahead of us after our time off, but pleasantly suprised, we threw down our packs at 3 in the afternoon and joined the fun.

Of course we missed the Dutch Haus' free lunch after hiking the 10 in the next day, but we stayed there and ate dinner and breakfast, and were rushed off in the morning back to the bottom of Fish Hatchery Road. Again, not feeling like hiking on a full stomach on a hot day, we struggled up Spy Rock (awesome view!) and the Priest, and lingered for an extended extended lunch at the shelter there, before descending toward the Tye River and stopping again and again and again on the way down. The topic of discussion: what to do in September after the trail. How silly. We have 1300 more miles before we even need to think about that, and planned it that way intentionally. Of course it's hard not to have it in the back of our minds, but no need to decide it now.

So we stayed at Harper's Creek, though we'd intended to go to Maupin... but there we met Comeback Shane, with whom we had a great conversation, and later re-met Stone Age and Triple Deuce. The following day, though, we'd have to make up the miles with a 22. Hrm.

So Thursday, our 22 miler, began well. The trip up the Three Ridges was excellent. However, the weather report called for strong winds and severe thunderstorms later in the afternoon, and we had a long way to go... We stopped for water at Maupin, and met some former thruhikers at the first Blue Ridge Parkway crossing who gave us cold sodas. Here we stopped to talk for awhile, and the skies began to darken. Here also our indecision began to take hold... should we continue with our original plan, plan to camp elsewhere, or try to get a ride into town and slackpack the missed miles tomorrow? Rather than discuss this at the crossing where we may have actually got a ride, we hiked on to Dripping Rock, and as we walked the rain began. As did thunder. 9 miles to go, up and over Humpback mountain, in a thunderstorm.

At this point hiking didn't seem a great idea, so we waited at the road for someone to stop. Nobody did. Eventually a gentleman in a Honda Insight did stop, but he walked across the street into the woods. We later met him as we ate our late lunch, his name was Phillip, and he was a local Botanist who knew a lot about the flora and geology of the area. We talked for a bit, and though the thunderstorms still loomed overhead, he urged us to go back into the woods. Eventually we did, as it became apparrent that we would not get a ride at that particular crossing, but we were still not convinced that going up and over Humpback was a great idea either. At the first blue-blazed side trail, we got off, and ended up in a 'picnic loop' with running water spigots, two bathhouses, and a lot of little asphalt pull-ins with picnic tables. As the sky broke open, we took shelter under the bathhouse awning, and wondered what we were doing.

At this point we'd spent countless hours on a day we knew would be a long hike lounging at shelters, conversing with people we'd run into, and standing around in the rain waiting for a ride (hitching is illegal on the BRP, so you can't thumb. just standing there looking wet works about as well as you'd think). If we walked the road, it was still 9.6 miles to Rockfish Gap, and another 4 or so to Waynesboro from there, with no guarantee we'd have a place to sleep. We could stay at the picnic area and wait out the storm, then look for a tarp-camping spot, but it was supposed to be kind of cold and sleeping in heavy wind on wet ground without a tent is not that appealing. Or we could go back to the plan and hike to the shelter, which at this point even walking quickly we weould not reach until 9:30 or so, well after dark. What to do, what to do. Well, we ended up doing what we usually do - walking. Over the mountain (where we met More Sunshine camped atop the very ridge we avoided climbing. At this point the rain had more or less stopped and the thunder rumbled off into the distance, and he'd been camped there since 2 or 3 hours efore without incident) we hiked. Up and down the rocks, and on down the descent, wet and in a bad mood, not looking forward to the prospect of a soggy night hike.

Then we saw them: the elusive Yellow Lady's Slippers.

yellow lady's slipper
Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus)

This about made my day. We'd seen plenty of pink ones, a more common species, but they didn't compare in beauty and excitement to these (isn't it silly to get so excited about flowers?). Suddenly, we were focused on the hike again, and enjoyed running into a not-very-shy deer, a large red toad, many orange salamanders, and more importantly, we were having fun walking again. We played A.T. alphabet game(A is for AT, B is for Blaze, C is for Campfire, etc.)to make noise and avoid startling nighttime critters, but upon realizing that 2/3 of the letters were foods, we later entertained ourselves by naming a food we would eat in town for each letter of the alphabet. We stopped to cook dinner on a wet rock. And we reached the shelter as expected, around 9:30, finally completing our 22 miles. Just like the plan.

I guess the moral of the story is to make plan and stick to it. Wait, no... It's to be flexible and make up your mind as you go. Really the point is just to stay positive, and remember that we're not stuck in traffic or juggling appointments and we don't have to go to work tomorrow. Being wet and cold occasionally is still way better than rush hour. And even when it doesn't go exactly your way, Nature's a brilliant and tricky lady, and always seems to keep a little beauty tucked up her sleeve, as long as you're willing to look. [Read the full post]


Who is Reading?

We were curious about who is keeping up with our adventures. If you have a minute, leave a comment on this post, letting us know who you are and how you heard about our blog. I don't believe you need to have a google account - just click on OTHER or ANONYMOUS on the comment page.

Sights and Smells

If I were making a movie of an AT Thru-hike, the opening sequence would show the first, tender footsteps of the morning, after awkwardly wiggling out of a sleeping bag. Once the pack is strapped on, the steps transform into long and confident strides...the hiker is ready for the day. The film would have to include rocky outcroppings overlooking farms in a valley and shady valley streams with waterfalls. I see the luminescent green of the early spring growth and the bright orange of an MSR tent pitched in a clearing.

If I had to describe the distinguishing smells of a thru-hike, it would include sweat (how could it not?), but also the moist, earthy scent that oozes out from underneath giant boulders on the ridge, and the aroma of starchy noodles cooking on a half dozen tiny stoves around a shelter at dusk.

If I close my eyes and listen for the sounds of a thru-hike, I hear the rush of water moving over rocks and moss in a mountain spring; the heart-stopping crashing of a large, but unseen, animal through nearby brush; the crackling and popping of wet wood on a campfire. I hear the swish of synthetic fabric as restless hikers roll over on their sleeping pads.

If I think about the taste sensations of a thru-hike, I immediately think of M's phenomenal cooking, the stews and chilis that are revived with boiling water each night, filling our bellies and lulling us into a deeply relaxed state. I also taste thirst and the salty deposits on my lips, as I climb a steep mountain. I remember the crunchy, oily taste of french fries purchased and eaten on the way into town.

If I wanted to tell you what a thru-hike feels like, I think first of the bruised and aching balls of my feet, the almost ecstatic feeling of stretching out my legs and lying down at night, the juxtaposition of the deep fatigue of some days and the incredible strength and buoyancy of others. I remember the bitter cold air that brushed up against my nose in the early spring, as I lay cozy in my tent next to M. I can feel the creepy-crawly sensation of a thousand species of insects all around me.

848.1 Miles Down, 1326.5 To Come

Virginia is a really big state, especially from our perspective, as we try to walk from end to end, at the very widest part.

Over a quarter of the Appalachian Trail is located in this state, and we've been here a month, with a couple hundred miles still left to go. After hiking over 800 miles, we have a sort of healthy glow, exuding the confidence of people who have been living without most of the creature comforts of modern American life, and found it to be not that bad. We've come this far without serious injury, and having survived some of the most rugged and difficult parts of the trail, are confident that we can do this. We can finish this thru-hike. If only we....

...can get out of Virginia. Yesterday, we hiked into Waynesboro - which is one of the friendliest towns we have encountered so far. When we got to the Rockfish Gap visitor center, the staff called a volunteer who picked us up and drove us the five miles into town. We wanted to stay for the weekend, but unfortunately, the graduation ceremonies for several local universities had filled up all the motels in Nelson and Albemarle Counties (read, everywhere we could possibily get to by cab or kind-hearted trail angel). Luckily, we were only 20 miles from Charlottesville, and my Aunt Mary offered to come and pick us up and bring us back to her house. So, we're going to spend another couple of days off trail, resting our legs and eating lots of fresh vegetables. Sadie, the absolutely adorable puppy that Aunt Mary adopted a few months ago, seemed pretty excited to see us again, and we can stretch our legs by taking her on a walk.

M is planning to write in more detail about some of the exciting things from the trail during the past couple of days...but I will let you know that it includes the sighting of an uncommon wildflower, among other things.
[Read the full post]


Dutch Haus B&B, Montebello, VA

We didn't quite make it for the advertised free lunch at the Dutch Haus. Every shelter for the past 50 miles has had a little flyer with directions. With full intentions of making it far enough yesterday in order to get here by 11 am, we set off from the Route 60 crossing. Well, we actually set off with my parents, and my mother, despite it being Mother's Day, carried MY pack halfway up the first mountain. I think she would have gone even farther, but they had a long drive back to Pittsburgh. Please stay tuned for photos - I have full confidence that we can get her out on a bona fide backpacking experience, now that I have seen her scramble up switchbacks with a 30 pound pack. Anyway, we said goodbye to my parents and continued up Bald Knob (not a knob, nor bald), towards yet another Cold Mountain. As we approached a clearing, we saw a group of people camped - it looked like a family with small children, I thought at first, since I could see them playing wiffle ball. As we got closer, we realized it was Flick, Golden Boy, Bushwacker, CB, Eulah - whom we had met before, and Ninja and the Goats, who we had only read about in the shelter registers. It was a really glorious day, and the field was so picturesque, that they decided to hang out, instead of hike. Some of them were actually spending their second day in this field. There were even a couple of wooden swings hanging from the trees. We had only gone 7 miles, but it was too lovely to go any further. We spent a great night hanging out around a large fire, courtesy of Bushwacker, and camped under a starry sky. Unfortunately, this left about 12 miles to go before 11 am the next day, which is not exactly a pace we like. We took a leisurely morning up and over some balds and through the woods, finding, among other things some little pitcher plants (carniverous plants really blow my mind). By midafternoon, we decided that the Dutch Haus was a worthy stop, even if we missed the free lunch, so we walked down. Now we are getting ready to sit down with a VERY full house, full of hikers and other travelers, and I am in my glory looking out at the large bird population eating at the feeders. Life is good.

Many thanks to my parents for driving down this weekend, and my Aunt Mary, for hosting us.


The Ghost of Little Ottie

In the late 1890s, a group of children left school to gather firewood for the schoolhouse. When they returned, one of their party, four year old, Ottie, was not with them. He remained missing for five months, until his body was found at the top of Bluff Mountain, seven miles away, with his cap still on his head. This is the extent of available information about Little Ottie's demise. We wondered, how did he die? Did animals get to his body? How did he get so far from the school house?

Then, we ended up at Punchbowl Mountain Shelter, which Ottie reportedly haunts. It was set next to a picturesque pond in a little clearing, a few miles from Bluff Mountain. The mosquitos were swarming, so M built a fire and we prepared dinner. It seemed nice enough, until dark fell.

Shortly after sunset, the frogs around the pond began their cheeping. The noise was so deafening, we found it difficult to talk...then our ears began to ring. Usually, we read a chapter from a book before going to bed, but being unable to hear each other speak, we just went straight to bed. About one AM, I woke up to hear a different type of frog noise, this time resembling a fax modem. They finally stopped around two, at least until I got up to go to the bathroom and made the mistake of turning my headlamp on. I must have woken a couple of 'em up, though, because they sounded the alarm and the whole lot of them started cheeping again. I finally drifted off to sleep, but woke up suddenly to the sound of silence, broken by a noise that sounded like a small hatchet hitting a log. "Little Ottie!," I thought, and tried to wake up M, before he came any closer to the shelter. M has an incredible ability to sleep through all kinds of cacophony, including supernatural events, and wasn't having it. A few minutes later, though, he let out a child-like giggle, which had me convinced that Ottie was now IN the shelter, possessing my dearly beloved. I lay paralyzed with fear until just before dawn...twenty minutes later M woke up, refreshed and excited because it was the day that my Aunt Mary was picking us up. He cooked double breakfast and spent an hour searching for newts around the pond, while I groggily packed up my things and cursed those who find it amusing to put ghost stories in the trail guides.


Behold, Virginia!

M and I have enjoyed good weather on this trip. I mean, we have had ridiculously good weather, especially for starting in early March. I can count on one hand the number of days that we've spent trudging through rain, but it's bound to happen sometimes.

Just north of Sarver Hollow Shelter, we passed a tree that had been struck by lightening during the previous day's storm. Given that it had been raining most of the night, it was rather disturbing that the tree was STILL on fire. I won't be hanging out on the ridgeline during a thunderstorm anytime soon. The fog that we woke up to didn't lift all day. The leaves have come out, so the forest was a muted version of the brilliant green of spring.

Along the ridgeline, we scrambled across a lot of wet, exposed rock face, barely keeping our footing. The views would have been spectacular, if not for the thick and persistent fog. Our rain gear became soaked from the inside out and the outside in. As the day progressed, the rain continued, and it didn't seem like it was going to stop any time soon. My shoes were soaked all the way through, so that every step I took made a little squishing sound. We were planning to make it to the Pickle Branch Shelter, and despite the weather, were doing ok with pacing, making the shelter long before dark. However, when we got there, we found the shelter already full of hikers, who had been holed up all day waiting out the rain.

From under one of the sleeping bags, we heard, "There you are, Cocoa and Monkey..."

It was Flick! We had finally caught up with our long-lost hiking partner, who we had been separated from for the past several weeks. He had linked up with some very cool people and they all quickly moved over to let us in the shelter, even though there was hardly any room left. That night we slept with Jake, Golden Boy, Caboose, Pegasus, Bushwacker, CB and Flick in a 6 person shelter. It rained persistently through the night, but by morning it had stopped, with most of the moisture coming down from the soggy tree leaves. Bushwacker spent two hours cultivating a fire using wet wood and a little bit of dryer lint, and eventually had a fire going hot enough to nearly melt his shoes and enough to partially dry out our clothing. We set off for the Dragon's Tooth with Pegasus and Flick about ten o'clock in the morning. It was a real shame to hear that Pegasus and Caboose were getting off the trail to go to a wedding and then to return to the world of paid employment - among other things, their packs contained the travel version of Settlers of Catan. We wish Pegasus the best of luck as he embarks on his new teaching assignment in South America.

Again, the views from Dragon's Tooth are reportedly spectacular, but we could see nothing but a big white cloud. The rock formation was impressive though and Pegasus' voice rang through the valley as he scrambled to the top and shouted, "Behold! Virginia!" - which has become something of a catch phrase for M and I. We started down the mountain, and after a brief detour as I mistakenly went down into a ravine, instead of the trail, we made it to the road crossing at Catawba. We walked about a mile into town to the Homeplace Restaurant, where we met Wirenut and his wife, who was visiting him on the trail. They offered a ride into the next town that had a motel. Since my feet were so wet that three of my (already damaged) toenails had fallen off, our clothes soaking wet, our sleeping bags damp, we jumped at the chance, and in a blink of an eye, were speeding down I81 to Daleville, VA with Wirenut, Mrs. Wirenut and Johnny Mudd. God bless the Econolodge and their hiker rates.

So does this mean that M and I skipped a portion of the trail? Well, at that moment, yes. But the next day, Johnny Mudd made it possible for us to go back to Catawba and hike properly into Daleville, so we can still claim to be authentic thru-hikers, although we have to admit that we are a little weak in the face of temptation, when it comes to rainy weather and motels.

Charlottesville, VA

We've arrived in Charlottesville, VA, having met up with one of my most favorite relatives, Aunt Mary, who has done so much for me over the years, including driving down to the AT crossing near Buena Vista to pick us up today. I've neglected this blog over the past couple of weeks, but don't you worry, I shall catch you up on all of our adventures including, but not limited to....

1. Tick removal
2. "Behold, Virginia!" - Mountains with Views in Southern VA
3. Wildflowers and Wildlife Encounters
4. Sleeping with Little Ollie, the ghost of Punchbowl Mountain
5. Ranger and the Seventh Attempt
6. Johnny Mudd and other Trail Magic

Also...Happy Birthday, Spike, who is 25 and congratulations to M's sister and my mother on their recent graduations.


Falling Down

I worry sometimes that I write more about towns than the trail itself and that you are getting the impression that this hike is not very rugged. Well, truthfully, the AT is not that far removed from the general society you are familiar with. While walking the ridgelines, we can see farms and towns nestled in the valleys below. For the past few days, the distant roar of trucks on the interstate has been omnipresent and will continue as long as we follow the I-81 corridor through Virginia. We’ve been stopping in a lot more towns because they are there, within easy reach. While hiking is certainly the biggest part of the AT experience, meeting people along the way is a close second. But, this post is not about the Konorock Crew Trail leader or the church ladies of Bland, VA, or the anonymous guy in a pickup truck who gave us a ride without saying a word – for that stay tuned.

No… this post is a reminder that we are in the woods, doing outdoors-y things, lest you think we are getting soft. We crouch on the ground to cook and eat our meals. We pray for a privy, but often don’t find one at convenient intervals, therefore forcing us to dig a cathole (following the Leave No Trace principles, of course.) And we hike. All day. Up steep grades. Across streams. Over rocks and roots. It’s pretty strenuous exercise to be undertaking for ten or twelve hours a day. Sometimes our feet get tired, and we have a little trouble getting over the obstacles in the trail. And then we fall.

I’ve had a couple of doozies. There should be a photo of one of them posted soon. Don’t worry, M asked if I was ok before taking the picture. Last week, I was trotting down relatively clear and well-graded trail when something, probably a root, caught my foot. I hit the ground so fast, I even realize I fell until my face was already on the ground into the leaves. I think I got whiplash from it and also suffered from a stigmata-like wound in my right palm. A few days later, I was holding our little AM/FM radio in one hand while I attempted to tune in this station where a guy reads from this book called "Dear John." It’s not the most interesting story, but I’ve been listening to it on and off since Tennessee. Many automobile accidents occur when somebody momentarily takes their eyes off the road to change the radio station, and I learned that a similar danger occurs when hiking. I stepped off the trail, down into a ravine and got caught up in some brambles (a jagger bush, for all you yinzers). The picture of my fall was taken a few days ago. Once again, I was trying to go a little faster than my reflexes can handle, and I did a dramatic little hop-skip-jump-crash down the trail, which at the time, was following an old and very rocky forest service road. My pack was extremely heavy that day and I found myself unable to lift up my body. While I considered my options, M asked me if I was ok, then snapped a picture before hauling me to my feet. When we got to the bottom of the hill, I assessed the damage. A skinned knee, dirt covering my legs and arms, and some injured pride were all I suffered. But, as M said, I am starting to look a little "rough."