Date: Friday, 11th May
Location: Near Marion, Virginia
Miles walked: 530
Precipitation studies, fat Rattlesnakes and working . . .
I get ample thinking time out here. Once the legs are warmed up the mind starts to drift. The physical side takes care of itself and leaves the mind free to wander. I think about what I am doing, how lucky I am to be experiencing it, when I will eat next and whether I will be camping that night or sleeping in a shelter. Or, I get the chance to spend time studying everyday things like the rain.
It’s not that I get bored, far from it. When life is simplified like this, the grey matter can spend valuable time exploring subjects that we don’t normally bother with because we think they are not important, like the rain. And boy, when it rains out here, it really rains.
Rarely do we get a light shower, more often than not it’s a torrential downpour. We have been lucky, the first 2 weeks were amazing weather, a couple of nights a storm passed over but during the day I have only been rained on about 4 times. Thing is, those 4 times were all in the last week.
A smile that only 6 months in the wild can bring on
Because I am enclosed by the forest for most of the time, it’s difficult even to see the sky for a clue as to what maybe coming. Occasionally I glimpse a dark cloud, or just overcast skies so relying on other senses comes into play. The wind picking up is often a sure sign that there may be a storm blowing in, if the temperature drops this backs up the assumption. There’s another sense which I can’t put my finger on, it’s not a smell or taste, more of a sensation that rain is imminent, this I refer to as the ‘Alert Stage’, or put more simply, ‘Oh shit, here we go again.’
During the alert stage I may look up and see a large break in the foliage, I check on the clouds again and then a few tiny droplets brush past my cheek, this puts me on ‘Red Alert Stage’. I stop and listen, sound is the biggest clue to what nature intends. If I hear the rustling of water as it hits the leaves and undergrowth then I have to make a decision. Do I stop, put on my waterproof trousers, don my poncho and have umbrella at the ready? Or do I (often foolishly) kid myself into thinking it will stop and I don’t need to bother? The pattern in similar every time, the droplets become heavier, increase in frequency and then, reluctantly, I stop and prepare. During this procedure of wrapping up is usually when all hell breaks loose. The thunder roars, fierce winds whip through my surroundings bending over tree limbs and it’s a race to weatherproof myself. During a famous Appalachian storm the roar of water cascading down through the canopy onto the forest floor is deafening, a conversation with a fellow hiker is nigh on impossible. The path is soon transformed into a torrent, cascading down the trail as if it owned it.
Wild pony and foal in the Grayson Highlands
After fifteen minutes, maybe an hour, the deluge abates and for another half hour I keep the umbrella up to see off the last of the droplets. Then, the amazing experience is the birds; they start singing to signal it’s all over. Quiet one second then and then a two winged orchestra strikes up, filling my whole environment.
If I’m not trying to catch a glimpse of the skies, then my focus is usually fixed about 6 feet in front of me on the trail. Tree roots, rocks, boulders and other obstacles demand constant attention. I am learning to use my peripheral vision more, looking around me but catching the ground in the corner of my eye. This allows me to see what’s going on, and to check for snakes. Not that I have seen many, perhaps 8 or so, but I have to be aware.
A few days ago I was sitting at the Pond Spring refilling my water supply and chatting to Deep, a hiker from Germany, and Fuurther (purposely spelt with 2 ‘u’s). Deep walked off to carry on his hike and promptly came back 10 seconds later.
“There’s a very big snake in the trail.”
Further and I got up to go look and there lay the biggest Rattlesnake I have ever seen in my life.
“Dang, god dam biggest snake I ever saw,” commented Fuurther, and he lives in the area.
The rattler was sitting just off trail and digesting a recent meal by the look of the bulge in its stomach. Even beyond the bulge the girth of this beast was huge. I think I could have wrapped both hands around it and they would have just about met up. It rattled a little when we got to close so we kept our distance but I don’t mind Rattlers. I consider them ‘kind’ snakes because they let you know they are there. Get too close and they let out a warning shake of their tail.
Early evening homing in on a shelter
I am currently just up the road from a small town called Marion. I reached the Partnership shelter where Dinosaur, a Pacific Crest Trail veteran I met on my thru-hike is working as trail crew at the Konnarock Base Camp. She is one of a few paid employers who carry out trail maintenance on the AT, usually dealing with worn out trail sections that need repair or re-routing. In exchange for a day’s work which I was intending to do at some point, I have been fed twice a day some of the best food I have eaten out here courtesy of David, the head man out here. Today I am taking a zero, relaxing and catching up with the inevitable computer tasks.
530 miles in, perhaps a touch behind target, but feeling fully confident. My only real concern on the AT was the precipitation but having experienced it, the mind and body deals with it as it would any other obstacle. In fact, dare I say at times I enjoy a good downpour. The forest is spring cleaned, the air is fresher and it’s an amazing event to experience.
The trail, and logistics are kinder than the PCT. Often we need walk no further than 3 days before we reach a town, or road crossing where we can re-supply, eat, and get cleaned up. This means far less weight to carry, and my pack weight is way less than previous hikes. When there’s less to carry, I need not work as hard and the experience is even more enjoyable. Blisters are non-existent thanks to my original plan. This essentially meant walking no more than 10 miles a day for the first 2 weeks, then 15 miles a day for the next 2 weeks after that. It has worked and my soles are in fine fettle. Now, 20 mile days are easily achievable and the second half of Virginia is not far, renowned for easier walking and bigger miles so I can eat into the distance deficit. I’m allowing 6 months for this one but if I come in under then even better. I am in no hurry, I feel no need to rush and am loving another opportunity to spend several months in an environment that makes me feel at peace with myself, and everyone around me. As I have seen in a couple of hostals written on signs:
‘If you’re lucky enough to live in the mountains, then you’re lucky enough’.
Doing my bit for trail maintenance with me old mate Dinosaur from the PCT
Very true words. The other hikers are a great bunch of people and we relish to be where we are, not just on the trail, but at this particular point in our lives. The people who provide us hospitality, hostal owners, restaurant staff and shop owners are all kind and genuinely interested in what we do.
We rise when our bodies, and the sun, tell us to, around 06.30. A quick brew of coffee as I pack up my gear, a few mouthfuls of granola, a look at the guide book and off we go. Taking the first hour easy to iron out any twinges and get warmed up slowly, we walk for another hour or so, or maybe when we reach a shelter, and stop for a break. Checking the register in the shelter we can keep up with who is ahead of and leave our messages for those behind who may want to catch up. We carry phones out here but rarely use them, preferring to rely on the romanticism of the written word.
If I have a higher mileage day than normal, or I want to reach a town for breakfast then I may do a 3 hour stint to rake in some miles but normally 2 is good. Lunch comprises some canned fish, mainly because I am trying to increase my protein consumption out here, coupled with some crackers, maybe some dried fruit or a candy bar. We drink water, that’s all there is but I have no complaints. Another brief rest in the afternoon and around 4 to 6pm we pull up at either a chosen shelter or camp spot. I have only slept for about 3 nights in the shelters, preferring to pitch tent nearby and have a little peace and privacy should I wish, but it is nice to have others nearby to cook with and hang out. I update my diary, maybe read a little, and usually hit my sleeping bag between 9 and 10.
Next update on the blog in around 2 weeks and I hope to have some more video for you too.
Swinging is Fun!
It’s true, I am now a swinger! Having frowned upon this activity in the past I have only recently discovered the real pleasures behind it. Some nights I swing with one other hiker, other times there may be as many as 8 of us, all swinging and having fun. I am a complete convert.
I’m talking about hammocks of course (what did you think I was talking about?) During my trip to Trail Days I was introduced to Tom Hennessy, owner of Hennessy Hammocks, one of the most well respected outdoor gear companies in the States. Convinced by his sales patter, and to be honest the model in question, a Hyperlite, he tried to sell me one at a discount. When he realized I wasn’t budging, eventually he gave up and just handed it to me, asking at least I give him some exposure, as if he needs it.
Evening camp and looking forward to that hammock
I have stayed away from hammocks in the past for 2 reasons; they are too heavy and I didn’t think I would have a good sleeps. Wrong, very, very wrong on both counts. The Hyperlite weighs in at a measly 750 grs. Daffy Duck and Lazagne were the first 2 hikers who started to extoll the virtues of swinging and having listened to them for days on end telling me to get a hammock I can now clearly see why. It is the best nights sleep I have ever had in the woods. You can, contrary to belief, sleep on your side. Not that I ever get there, I am usually snoring like a baby on my back after just a few minutes. I am off the ground, away from ground water and critters and suspended in a haze of comfort. If it’s raining, I just sit underneath the canopy on a groundsheet and watch the water drip around me.
If you’re not into swinging, you best go and try it.
I am currently at mile 722.5 in an uninspiring freeway intersection otherwise known as Daleville, Virginia. Nestled between roads 81 and 220 it’s not the prettiest of settlements but does offer all amenities to a thru-hiker. The supermarket, post office, outfitter and several food establishments are all within walking distance. If you can dodge the kamikaze cicadas and oncoming traffic it’s bearable. The Howard Johnson Inn is awash with AT hikers, taking full advantage of the included breakfast and outdoor swimming pool, there’s even somewhere to do laundry. We stroll about our waterproofs waiting for clothes to wash and dry, our Gore Tex is the only thing we have to wear during laundry day.
Knorr Rice side with added peas, salami and garlic – the dinner of champions!
If I’m not aware which rooms my friends are staying in I need only look around. Sleeping bags drape over make shift washing lines outside the doors, boots lie on the ground airing out, tired of delving into backpacks to find something, kit is strewn over rooms.
Numbers appeared to have dwindled this last week. The shelters seem to have more space available (even though I rarely sleep in them) and I am bumping into fewer of my fellow travellers. Perhaps the 40% who drop out in the first month, coupled with a few stragglers still in Damascus is starting to make the trail less crowded. Daffy Duck the Slacker and Phill (now called Lazagne) have taken 5 days off with family. I had become used to their company and enjoyed our experience, couple of top guys to hang out with, catch up chaps.
Virginia is a great State and I am thoroughly enjoying her company. More often than not we are still enclosed by wood and forest for most of the time and I think back to a conversation I had with Daffy in the second week. We were discussing how the tops of the mountains are the last to bloom and turn green as Spring moves up to the higher elevations.
“You wait Fozzie,” he said. “In another month or so it will be like a jungle in here.”
And he was right. Whilst the peaks are just turning green, the lower elevations are awash with a thousand shades of green. Plants encroach onto the trail, the moisture wetting our clothing and slowly the path narrows as the season wears on. We dodge round Poison Ivy, duck under branches and weave our way along. He was right, it is a jungle.
Sometimes I see fields through the foliage and perhaps a farm building, an occasional dog barks or a cow moos. I may reach a meadow and these open expanses are treasured. Making a change, albeit brief, to the woods we have become used to, I scramble for my sunglasses as I emerge, squinting. A flat stretch of grass meanders through, flowers peek over the green and grasshoppers sing. My shoes darken in colour as the lingering dew dampens them and I run my hand along the grass tips.
The woods have become our friends. Sometimes the cloud lingers in the morning and fights a losing battle against the sun which splices through the trees sending shafts of light shooting around me like spotlights. Despite spending most of the time in their shaded and damp confines, we have come to realize that they are protecting us. The trees shelter us from the suns rays, we are cooler, the winds are tempered and the rain, if brief, sometimes doesn’t even reach us. We are provided with water, crystal clear and chilled to perfection from creeks and springs. Pines brace my hammock at night and their needles soften my foot fall. We are given fuel for fires at night, keeping down the increasing insect population, illuminating our surroundings and fending off the occasional chill. I feel protected there, as though everything I could ever need is available. I love the woods.
Continuing to feast on Ramps (wild onions), there is also wild lettuce, stinging nettles and other species I’m sure will make themselves available. When we dip down lower I see scarlet coloured jewels lurking around my feet and bend down to pick handfuls of wild strawberries. Smaller than our cultivated versions but tasty none the less.
I stop to make camp anytime between 5pm and 7pm or when I think I have pulled in enough mileage. Maybe I make a beeline for one of the shelters. I am not keen on sleeping in them because of the resident mice population or confines of sleeping with other hikers but they are handy if a storm is forecast. Usually I sleep near them to have the company of others and convince myself that if the bears decide to come and investigate, hopefully they investigate someone else first. I catch up with a few others and get the news as to where everyone is, discuss the weather forecast and what terrain lies in store for tomorrow. I pick a spot away from the shelter and fire and string up my hammock between two trees that appear spaced just right. I boil some water, make a cup of Earl Grey tea (an Englishman must have his tea), and rehydrate whatever culinary delight my food bag offers up. I have been adding salami, dried peas and a parmesan sprinkling to my meals. Garlic also has a place in my supplies as I try to fend off the increasing mosquito population, this member of the onion family has a reputation for being an impressive insect repellant. I write my journal, taking notes from my Dictaphone which I have recorded notes into over the course of the day. Eventually retiring around 10pm, I lay on my back and listen to the sounds of the woods, twitching occasionally as a twig breaks.
And tomorrow I will set out and experience it all again.