Damascus Trail Days
Thank you Damascus!
For those unfamiliar with the madness that descends upon this little town in Virginia every May, I can’t describe it, you really have to be there. The AT runs straight through the main street and I actually walked through a couple of weeks ago but returned with Lazagne last weekend by way of a couple of hitches. There’s so much going on it’s hard to know where to start.
The renowned event is the hiker parade where all previous thru-hikers walk down the street and get soaked by those armed with some dangerous looking H2O assault rifles. Some dispense with the frivolities and just throw a bucket of water. Food stands (many serving free grub to hikers), outdoor gear manufacturers, free health checks, talks and movie shows. It is really is too much to cram into one weekend. I saw hikers I met at the start that were still behind and conversely, those who are ahead of me. I even bumped into Wiffle Chicken and Stanimal who I befriended on the Pacific Crest Trail and had no idea would even be there. Squatch, you were on fine form as usual, great to see you and make sure I’m in the second installment of the movie.
Deep from Germany, Lazagne, Daffy (occupied with eating as usual) and me at Trail Days
A big thank you to the churches as well. Those that know me well enough are aware that my religious beliefs are non-existent but I appreciated all the assistance, often free, that they laid on. Foot washing, massage, free health checks, coffee and cake, it was all most welcome.
Difficult – but getting easier
Most of us awake around 6am when the rising sun makes inroads into our tents or wherever we bedded down. Many get up at this time, brew some coffee, eat some breakfast and start walking eager to put in some miles. A few linger, the tired ones, that went to bed late for whatever reason. I’m usually on my way by 8am but lately 7am starts have been common. This is because the more time I have to walk, the further I can go without trying to complete the same distance in less time. As opposed to my previous hikes, I am walking a little slower because of the terrain but for longer to pull in the miles.
Peanut Butter Trail Magic!
I thought my AT hike would run the same as the PCT but it isn’t. 25 mile days were normal on the PCT, although elevations were higher, the gradients were kinder, albeit longer. The AT kicks you in the arse. When they first cut this 2 feet wide trail into the Appalachian Hills many years ago they seemed to pick the direct route up and over anything, instead of contouring around a mountain, they said to hell with it and just picked the steepest and roughest route possible. I think they were having a few beers at the time and thought they would have a good laugh at our expense. 20 miles day out here are good going but they take 12 hours, most of the time 2 miles per hour is accepted as normal. To knock out a 25 miler and finish by 7pm, I have to start at 7am.
Take the Dragons Tooth for example, this innocuous little ridge 3000 feet up looked completely innocent on the elevation graph in my data book. A pleasant little bump mid-way through a hot day but nothing too tough, until I got up on the beast and walked along all of its molars that is. I should have guessed by the name I suppose but it was typical AT, lulls you into a false sense of security, eases you in and then beats the crap out of you. Each time I crested a summit I assumed it would be the last one and many, many times I was wrong. I was a wreck by the time I got to the top and then the real battering started as I tried to work my way down slippery rocks and preserve whatever part of my knees didn’t hurt.
Virginia is supposed to be flat! The amount of times I have heard this over the last 2 weeks is too numerous to mention. Once we hit the Shenadoah National Park, I am assured, the going gets easier and there are more places to re-supply so we can get away with carrying less food, which means less weight, which means easier miles. Hopefully.
For the past couple of days, probably because of a temperature increase, the AT has been noisy. Usually walking surrounded by a peaceful calm interrupted only by the birds, there has been an abundance of cicadas and when they calm down, the lower elevations come alive with a billion frogs. The cicadas reach a crescendo midafternoon where it becomes difficult even to have a conversation with a fellow hiker.
Lazagne works his way through a welcome meadow
They’re also cheeky little critters. Yesterday I was innocently strolling along when I heard one clicking behind me. I turned around to see it flying behind me in an apparent attempt to get past, it even gave out several little warning sounds, sort of like a toy car horn. I ignored it at first but it persisted. When I eventually stopped and stepped to one side it maneuvered around me and overtook, I swore it even glanced back at me when it was past to check all was OK to pull in again.
I saw my first bear sighting last night. Under the impression that the AT was full of our furry friends I’m surprised this was the first. Having just set up my camp, I heard some twigs snapping down the ridge a little and sure enough as I glanced over, a big fellow was tip toing through the undergrowth. I watched out of curiosity for a minute or so and then then whistled, watching it quickly scamper off.
Date: Friday, May 25th
Location: Daleville, VA
Miles walked: 702.5
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Date: Wednesday, May 30th
Location: Glasgow, Virginia
Miles walked: 779
See these two? I passed them coming into town yesterday. They didn’t say much, in fact they said nothing at all. They were very still as well, static almost so I guess they were just into some sort of pre hike meditation and focus. They are dressed in black because rumour has it that this colour heats quicker and produces less drag. Then I got to looking at their packs, look how small they are, they must be as light as a down glove. And, no strapping visible, no hip belt. Is this some sort of new backpack we don’t know about? Maybe a secret government thru-hiking cell is out testing shit?
To save weight also they have appeared to have chopped their feet off. This seems a bit radical to me. These hikers aren’t the lightweights, not even the hyperlights, they are known as the One Ouncers. I have seen only these two but they looked impressive. I couldn’t even squeeze my lunch into those packs.
Date: 12th June
Location: Harpers Ferry
Miles walked: 1017.3
Miles left: 1166.9
Bears, walking with snakes, raw garlic, Harpers Ferry saves the day and the magic of the meadows
It’s been a good week for racking up some miles. Juggles, Bush Goggle and I have walked 135.7 miles in 5 days, an average of 27 per day including 3 straight 30 mile days. It was a good decision, we all wanted to get to Harpers Ferry to experience the legend, the weather had cooled making for comfortable walking and the terrain eased somewhat through the Shenandoah National Park. The mountain rain held off for us and numerous cafes on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway kept us fueled.
Not a horror move audition but the net result of a mouse chewing throug my neck buff
The Shenandoah is also home to a large bear population and I have seen 6 so far, although they seem to stay away from camp at night. Occasionally a meditative walk is interrupted by a crashing through the undergrowth and I look over to see a startled male sprinting off. A hiker named Hot Shot described how one mother bluff charged him as warning to stay away from her cubs.
The temperatures increased coming into Harpers Ferry and the mercury started tickling 90 degrees. The snakes come out when it warms up and the usual culprit is the Rat Snake, a black species that grows long. Meandering through a flattened trail in a flower splattered meadow the other day I stopped abruptly to see one of these snakes stretched out along the trail sucking up a little mid-day sun. I jumped up and down a couple of times and slowly it started slithering up the trail in front of me. It reminded me being in rush hour traffic, foiled by some idiot driving slowly and not checking the rear view mirror. Frustrated I pulled out and started to overtake on the wrong side, stretching my neck to check where it was on the trail and realized not only had it disappeared, but had pulled off and was sliding through the grass directly towards me. This was one of a few times I have broken out into a sprint on the AT.
Follow the white blazes . . .
The trail is still beautiful and inspiring. The AT is famous for following a route through woods for much of its course so we know what to expect. It drives some hikers wild being enclosed like this but I’m not tiring of it. The woods look after us, they shelter us from the fierce sun and a canopy disperses any brief rain. Wood provides fuel for our fires in the evening, numerous creeks and rivers hydrate us and we can find food occasionally. That said, when we break out of the trees into a meadow it’s such a relief. A worn, flattened trail leads through the grass and we walk through, glancing skyward to check on the weather as we see little sky back in the woods.
Occasionally we reach a road crossing and the anticipation of Trail Magic grows. More often than not we are disappointed but we have been rewarded with everything from a humble cold soda to tables groaning with food. Only today, in Harpers Ferry, we were treated to a good feed with decent coffee at the AT Conservancy by a hiker called Allballs.
Juggles and I trying to register on the speed camera (Shenandoah National Park)
During my overnight stay at the Rod Hollow Shelter with Bush Goggles, Onespeed and Medic, Goggles and I figured a 26 mile day would get us within 6 miles of Harpers Ferry, where we would camp and leave a quick 2 hours to town in the morning. A brief, customary glance at the terrain grades in our guide book (the excellent AT Guide by David ‘Awol’ Miller) showed up nothing of any concern.
Bumping into Chez11 and the Walking Man I was asked how I was feeling about the impending Roller Coaster. ‘”Fine,” I replied, not actually knowing what they were referring to. The Roller Coaster is a 13.5 mile section with 10 brutal hills and it knocked most of us back. Lungs heaving and muscles burning we defeated the section just before lunch and were rewarded with a relatively flat and easy afternoon section.
Crystal clear water and views
Sometimes I think when the AT was originally conceived and constructed they would sit around a campfire in the evening and discuss how they could ‘have a laugh’. They do seem to have built a direct route over most mountains and obstacles which is fine, albeit heavy going but the Roller Coaster seemed like a pre-planned joke. Instead of running the route along the ridge, it essentially hugs the contours of the hill side, sort of like walking over your fingers if you can imagine them covered in trees and a few thousand feet bigger.
“Tell you what people,” the foreman said one evening to his workers all those years ago. “We’re a few miles short of Harpers Ferry, the half-way point and a must stop for thru-hikers. Let’s play around with this a little, give them a morning of hell, and then as suitable reward we’ll give them an easy section in the afternoon and a kind downhill to town.”
As for pushing out a good distance in a short space of time it did, unfortunately have repercussions. My left shin, just above my ankle, started hurting and by the time Medic had taken a look at camp, it was also swollen.
“You’ve got what looks like a shin splint. Take Ibuprofen and find keep your ankle in cold water, ice if you’re in town, for a few times a day. Do calf stretches and if your shoes are worn out, a new pair would help.”
Shin splints can end a thru-hike, I’ve seen it happen. Fortunately, after a 15 minute session with spring water running over it and some ibuprofen, the pain stopped and by morning so had the swelling. It seems fine now but I will be keeping an eye on it, taking 2 days rest and watching the mileage for a few days.
Harpers Ferry is one, good reason why I like walking through the eastern United States. The history is richer, people have been here longer and occasionally I stumble across a gem of a town such as this. Nestled between the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry is all that I had expected having first heard about it, and the AT some 12 years ago. It had some reputation to live up to, considered the half way trail town, although the half way trail point is some 3 days away but we have reason to celebrate, and what a great place to do it.
Robert Harper settled here in 1747 and started the ferry, the Civil War also made its mark. It’s a little spread out over undulating terrain which makes walking to the amenities more the hoped for but it more than makes up for it in charm. Sitting in the Town Inn over breakfast yesterday I felt as if I were some other place. Rolling hills peered over roofs, cute buildings made from slate and stone and painted wooden windows reminded me of Wales. Detached homes with red brick fronts and lead roofs cling onto slopes either side of the roads. Stairs lead me down to lower streets where typical tourist shops battle to lure in tourists with promises of ice cream, cheap t-shirts and overpriced burgers but it’s all in very good taste.
Only second pair of boots I’ve owned to reach 1000 miles
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What’s next? I am looking forward to experiencing what we see on the terrain map, much flatter and with less elevation loss and gain. It should be a good section to take advantage and put in some good miles for a quick start to the second half of my AT hike. The warm up is finished, the legs are strong, and the mind is settled and relaxed. Hopefully the shin splint is OK and I’m keen to put in a good time for the second half. I originally aimed to finish at the start of September, based on a 6 month allowance, but now mid-August is looking more likely. Maybe home in time to get in some more walking in my beloved Sussex.
Or maybe elsewhere . . . ?