Week 8: Days 50-54; Pearisburg to Buena Vista

Day 50

I took a quick shower this morning and sadly had to change out of my loaner town clothes. I grabbed all my food and headed to the trailer to prepare my food bag for the trek ahead. It was still early enough for me to be able to spread it out on the kitchen table without getting in the way. Five days of food takes up the entire thing, and it saddens me, and my back, to be carrying so much again.

Partway through packing, I realized if I was quick about getting ready this morning, I could hit the 8 a.m. shuttle over the 9:30 I was scheduled for. I packed frantically, hoping I wouldn’t forget anything. Rain is scheduled to hit us around noon and last the majority of the afternoon, so the farther I can walk now the better. I managed to jump in the van just in time. I met a forest ranger on my hike who was very adamant I stay on the trail. I assured him that was my intention. There is a pipeline protest in the area, and they are trying to keep people away from the protesters, as they have now made it illegal to help them in any way.

I stopped for lunch at Rice Field Shelter just as the rain started. The rain thankfully only lasted a few minutes, allowing my friends to make it relatively dry. Minnesota, 19, Rocket Man, Jackrabbit, and Napoleon all joined for lunch. There are signs at this shelter stating that Pine Swamp Shelter, our evening destination, is closed to overnight use due to falling tree hazards. This issue has been ongoing since last year and is caused by the invasive moth species infecting and killing the trees in the area.

Following lunch, the hike was a little harder, and my feet started to get sore. I finally got to see a Red Eft on the trail, which is a brightly colored newt. They are pretty adorable!

The rain came in short bursts throughout the afternoon but nothing overly heavy, so I dry quickly. A mile prior to reaching the shelter, we hit a stream that was now a minimum of knee deep and moving at a decent pace. The recent rains of the last weekend have caused it to swell immensely passed its traditional borders. Unfortunately, it’s now about 15′ across, and there are no rocks for me to jump on, leaving me one option. I pulled off my shoes and slipped on my camp sandals and waded through.

The water is a balmy 35 degrees at best but only takes me a moment to cross. I decided to keep my sandals on for the last mile since it was so close, and the trail is now often a stream itself. About 100 yards later, I found Minnesota and Jackrabbit staring at yet another even larger and faster stream crossing. This one is easily 30′ wide. They have boots on still and have somehow managed to cross the prior stream without getting wet. I say hello and walk right past them and straight in and through the stream. They quickly remove their shoes and follow.

When I arrived at Pine Swamp, I could see the affected trees have been cut down. The remaining trees appear healthy or of a variety unaffected by the infestation. Napoleon, Swimmer, and Champ are already here. I decide to spend the night here even though it’s closed, and many more of my group join me.

Today we walked 20.3 miles, now totaling 663.5/2199.7.

Day 51

Despite the shelter being closed due to impending death, we all survived the night unscathed. I got off to a later start around 7:45 and seemed to move sluggishly all day. The trail was rife with stream/pond crossings. I managed to cross them all without changing out of my trail runners and without getting wet! I even survived one precarious jump from a downhill slippery rock about 8′ to the next rock. I utilized a rhododendron plant by grabbing a stiff branch, bending it behind me and my pack, and then using it to launch me across. Thank you, physics! Who says science isn’t useful in everyday life?

The trail today is riddled with jagged and loose rocks. I came to a stream crossing where Franklinstein was quickly gathering water and asked me if I had anything filtered. I said I had about a half-liter and he could have it if he liked. He then told me Flyballz had fallen and gashed her leg up ahead. I gave him my water and said I’d get more and meet him in a minute. I filled my water bladder with 4 liters and ran ahead.

Flyballz was sitting on the side of the trail with a 2″ gash in her shin bleeding. As ultralight hikers, many don’t carry much in the ways of first aid, so I opened up my kit and helped as best as I could. She poured liter after liter of cold water on it to flush it out, which clearly hurt and was also shockingly cold. She nearly threw up/passed out each time. I offered to clean and super glue the wound for her. After working in a hospital cleaning surgical equipment, I no longer have any sort of issues with blood and wounds. The flushing seemed to get it clean, though, so we were able to bandage it and get her up and moving again. The girl is a tough one–I’ll give her that.

The terrain for the day wasn’t tough by any standards, but we all seemed to move sluggishly and fell short of our goal of 23 miles. We stopped at Laurel Creek Shelter after 19.6, bringing us to 683.1/2199.7

Day 52

Sherlock is having some bad shin splint type pain so is staying here or doing a small day to the next shelter. I’m hoping he feels better soon. About 200 yards down the trail from the shelter, I came to yet another swollen stream crossing. The rock I jumped from was a steep downhill slide to cross a 6′ gap to a high ore but wet rock. I looked them over prior to jumping, knowing full well the landing rock would be slippery and I would most assuredly fall. I was correct.

I hit the other rock and fell back onto the rock, scraping up my arm, knees, and shin. I thankfully didn’t fall into the water! This would be my second major total fall on the trail. Today the trail has some steady climbs in store totaling around 8,000′ up and down. We are planning to stop at the Pickle Branch Shelter around 23 miles away.

On my walk, I came across the Keffer Oak Tree. The tree is old Appalachian forest prior to the industrial revolution where everything was clear-cut in the area. The tree itself is older than our country, easily hitting 350+ years. It’s weird to think this is the oldest mountain range in the world, but it has one of the youngest forests thanks to human activity. Capitalism in our country sadly always will take a front seat to environmentalism.

Each large climb today yielded an excellent view of the valley below. This area has a large canyon/mountain spine layout, and each tendril of mountains reaches off into the flatland below for miles. Another bonus is that spring is really in full gear in the forest now. Leaves are quickly pulling the tree canopy and many plants are flowering like the rhododendrons.

I even found a pink Lady slipper (the MN state flower).

I ate lunch at Niday Shelter, and Minnesota joined after about 30 minutes. We decided to push farther today and hit Dragon’s Tooth tonight. I hiked ahead and stopped at the Audie Murphy veteran memorial up on the ridge line. Murphy was the most decorated soldier in WWII and died in a plane crash near the site of the monument.

Minnesota caught me at the monument, and we hiked together for the rest of the evening to Dragon’s Tooth. We ran into four college students section hiking near the river and chatted for a bit. One of the girls in the group is planning to move to South Dakota in the fall to teach on one of the reservations. I couldn’t help but let her know how “wonderful” the weather is. We ran into them again at Pickle Branch Shelter when we stopped for supper. I shared my supper with them. I made stuffing and gravy, and it was far too large a meal for even a hiker. It turns out the name “stuffing” is well chosen.

We pressed on in hopes to beat the sunset to Dragon’s Tooth but only managed to catch the end of the show. Dragon’s Tooth is a massive set of stone spires on top of a ridge line, and it’s a very interesting place to visit.

I climbed to the top of the spire in the center of the picture above to catch what was left of the sunset pictured below.

Sleep eluded me until midnight as a barred owl was in the tree above my tent and was hooting to his friends in half of Virginia. Eventually, two more joined overhead, and believe you me they are NOT quiet conversationalists.

We hiked 26.7 miles today, totaling 709.8/2199.7.

Day 53

I was woken up a few minutes early to the sound of dozens of footsteps. About 25 high school kids decided to make the climb up Dragon’s Tooth for the sunrise. I climbed back up on top of the monolith for my seat and snapped a few shots.

The climb down the backside of Dragon’s Tooth is perilous at best. There are sections where rebar has been hammered into the rock to assist in a climb. EMTs are called to pull fallen hikers off this portion dozens of times each year. Minnesota and I tried to walk to the store about a half a mile away but realized we had gone the wrong way after about a mile. We turned around and a van pulled up next to us asking if we wanted a ride in.

The van driver is the owner of 4-pines Hostel right next to the trail, and he loves the company of hikers. Thankful for the ride, we hopped in. It was only 8:30 in the morning, but we ordered burgers and pizza, chatted with locals, and grabbed a bunch of snacks to hold us over until Daleville.

Back on the trail, we started the section for McAfee’s Knob, which is heavily visited and is one of the most iconic shots on the AT for hikers. The climb up is about 4 miles and is relatively easy due to the difficulty being lowered to accommodate day hikers. Despite them labeling the trail “Moderate to Strenuous,” it was mild to modest at best. It does show a stark contrast to the difficulty of real hiking in the woods and quick day trips most people consider to be hiking up gentle slopes like this.

I’m thankful this section is open again after the wildfire last week. There is fire damage down one side of the trail most of the way. The view of the knob was incredibly worth it, and we stuck around for about two hours enjoying it and some snacks.

Our campsite is only a mile down the back side of the mountain, so we headed down around 1 and set up. Minnesota and I waited for other hikers, but none ever came! We waited around until 6 for anyone we recognized, but nobody ever came. Thinking they would be waiting on the knob for sunset as we had planned, we walked back up. There was a large group of hikers but none from ours. We soon found out they stopped at the 4-Pines Hostel after a very short 8-mile day for a break. A few hours later and the sunset hit the valley.

19 managed to join us about 10 minutes prior to sunset. The three of us returned to camp after the show, intending to climb back up one last time for the sunrise in the morning.

Today was a short day of 12.7 miles, now totaling 722.5 miles.

Day 54

I got sick during the night and battled nausea well into the day. I attempted to climb back up for the sunrise as planned but made it halfway and decided it wasn’t a good idea. 19 was pretty slow to get up this morning, so Minnesota and I set out again to climb Tinker Cliffs and head into town. It was another beautiful day to hike, warm but with a nice breeze to keep us cool and semi-dry. We stopped for awhile on the various ledges of Tinker Cliffs to take pictures and snack.

This would complete our Virginia Triple Crown. They are pictured above starting with Tinker Cliffs (foreground), McAfee Knob (the green peak in the middle), and Dragon’s Tooth (the silhouetted peak just right of McAfee Knob). Admittedly, the other two look pretty lackluster and tiny from here!

The views all day were pretty great. This ridge cuts between Roanoke and Daleville, and we walked it most of the way prior to descending into Daleville and Northward.

Unfortunately, these views are often ruined by power lines (or more pressingly now the pipelines) cutting through the area. Thankfully there is always beauty in the world for those willing to find it. In the case below it was someone like myself willing to climb a massive rock face to get above the tree line.

We stepped out of the woods and almost immediately into the four-lane highway in Daleville. We managed to get a hotel room for the night at Super 8. Graduation for Virginia Tech is this weekend, and most places are fully booked for the weekend. Thankfully we arrived on a Thursday!

We headed to the 3 Lil’ Pigs BBQ for lunch around 3. Hikers get a free banana pudding when they eat here. I can’t say I was upset about it.

19 joined us as we finished eating, and we walked next door to Kroger to do our resupply for the week. We ran into Rocket Man again outside the store, and he handed us a bag of food he no longer could fit. None of us needed it, but I was still feeling sick, so I planned to take it on the trail tomorrow and dole it out to hikers as trail magic.

We hit Pizza Hut for supper and called it a night after getting our food bags in order. Today we walked 15.5 miles, totaling 738/2199.7.

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