We reluctantly left Damascus, walking passed all the businesses offering goodies and feeling the pressure of our recently filled food packs on our shoulders, knees, and feet. I left Claudia outside a gas station for a second while I went in to fill up on cash, and I came out to find she had drawn a small crowd. Salty trail veterans were surrounding her, eager to trade stories, and one even bought us some taters. Girls are a precious commodity on the trail, and seem to be the best at hitching rides, and perking up the old timers.
We could only spurn so many restaurants before we caved at Mojo’s Cafe. Just a drink, we told ourselves. The place was full of hikers, and couches, and frappes. It was a great stop, but we didn’t get back on the trail until noon-ish. It was a slow start, but the beginning of a sweet first week hiking through Virginia.
We were both awake at 3:30 the next morning. Lightning flashing through the tent. Thunder following behind. We were right outside a mostly empty shelter and could have easily taken down our tent and retreated inside. Sleepy, we just got up to pee, and got back into our safe, warm sleeping bags. Of course it down poured, and sprayed up under our rain fly, getting all of our stuff at least moist.
That day would prove challenging. An unexpected morning rain dampened our spirits and slowed our pace. I had thought, when the rain started to fall, to leave the rain jacket in my pack. I was in t-shirt and would just get hot and sweat under the dense GoreTex. Instead, I got really wet and cold, and started to whine. Claudia told me to get out my jacket. All my stuff would get wet in the process, I complained. I whined some more, and Claudia took out a plastic contractor bag and shoved it over my head to silence me once and for all I presumed. She poked a hole for my head, making me a quick rain jacket. It did something, but I was still freezing. I finally resolved to get out my jacket when the rain stopped. Claudia was waiting for me out of the woods at the entrance of the Greyson Highlands when I came out of the woods bundled up in my fleece and rain jacket, not a drop of rain in the air. I’m still learning how to hike, I told her sheepishly.
A pony greeted us soon after that. It was not at all scared of us, but smart enough to smell that our extended fists were empty and not full of treats. We made it up to a shelter and took a break. The animals were being very bold, trying get our falling cracker crumbs. A mouse was dancing around Claudia’s legs, and a little song bird flew past us into the shelter, grabbing what it could before it lost it’s nerve and flew out again. A pony had been there just before us, we were told, and apparently hadn’t made it far from the shelter. We ran into this fearless guy just north of the shelter. It came over and we hardly even made our introductions before it started licking my naked legs with abandon. We laughed until I got too uncomfortable and scrambled away, legs cleaned.
We ended that day early, assuming (correctly) that the next shelter was full and worrying (incorrectly) that it was going to rain that night. I was happy to stop and pull my wrinkled, pale blue feet from my shoes. They looked like something a necromancer dredged up. I even walked like the undead, as I limped to get water in my flip flops. We agreed that night to wake up at 5am, and do a ‘secret’ 30 mile day. It was a beautiful day for it, and it was hard (especially the last 5 miles), but we made it to the big Partnership Shelter between 7 and 8, 30 miles from where we started. The Partnership Shelter is one of those coveted shelters a hiker can get pizza delivered to. I felt great admiration for my fellow hikers as one after another easily downed a large pizza by themselves. I managed to get a few bites by looking pathetic, but that was it, as we made mac-n-cheese instead. Another cool thing I discovered about that shelter was the bats. I found eight to ten bats squeaking and huddled together in a crack between some wood. It was the closest I had been to bats that weren’t actively attacking me.
The next day was rainy. We had hoped to get in 26 miles or so, but with the rain and the restaurant with the 1 pound ‘hiker burger’ on the way, we found ourselves camping at a really nice spot called Crawfish Creek. I remember when we woke up there, the air feeling moist and crisp like an autumn day. The sun came out, and we took some time to let our gear dry before we packed it and went on. When we got to Knot Maul Shelter that morning, the weather was perfect for drying our gear. Claudia volunteered to set up the tent while I fed myself. As I also toured the privy behind the shelter, Claudia witnessed the wind picked up our empty tent and send it rolling down the hill like tumble weed.
We came up with a plan for that day. We knew Fresh Ground was waiting for us just south of Bland but we couldn’t reach him that day. Since we were excited to get our fill at his moving buffet, we decided to hike into the night to get to Jenkins Shelter, which would bring us just a 5 mile ‘jaunt’ from all you can eat food. We ate dinner at Chestnut Knob Shelter around 7pm. The view was gorgeous, overlooking a valley filled loosely with farms. I felt like the valley probably hadn’t looked much different in the past 300 years. The wind was cold and bitter, and it gave us extra incentive to get to Jenkins Shelter at a lower elevation. Not far from Chestnut Knob, we ran into a pair of day hikers who urged us with the power of their ‘2000 miles of experience’ to camp soon and not hike the 7 more miles. We did our best to be polite and rush away, happy to be hiking by the light of the moon.
We got up early the next day. We hadn’t gotten enough sleep after getting in at 11 and dealing with a very cold night. It was a tough 5 miles to Fresh Ground. As usual, it was worth the excitement. He was irritated when we got there, having dealt with entitled section hikers on little sleep. After he pushed them away and saw that he had his ‘regulars’ there, he was his typical gregarious self. Always such a pleasure. The man is turning into a legend.
We hiked a leisurely nine miles to the next shelter, fueled by more trail magic from a generous couple who offered us ginger ale, apples, and cracker jacks from their car. We got to Helvey’s Mill Shelter just before dusk and spent a pleasant night around a healthy fire. The next day we had a relaxing 24 mile hike that had more trail magic waiting for us. A hiker who had gone through last year set up an all you can eat pile of food down by Dismal Falls. It was a double treat, because we had planned on skipping the .3 mile trail down to the falls, but his cardboard sign promising treats persuaded us to make the hike. This was the last of a series of trail magic we had found between there and Damascus that allowed us to make it a whole week without having to resupply. All the support out here is amazing and we are very grateful.
We finished our 8 day push theough southwestern Virginia today, and it lead us through a prescribed burn by the forest service. We were the first northbounders to walk to the area, and the workers on hand almost let us walk right through the burn sight. Just before we were out of view they started calling to us, and told us not to go on. We got detoured down the service road that parallels the trail, and walked past all the workers burning the brush. Most of them were lined up facing the other direction from the burn, not too unlike bouncers who have to face away from the show to the area of concern. In this case, that area was the other side of the road. I found them to be a sullen bunch, not laughing at any of my jokes or paying us any mind at all.
At last, we got to Wood’s Hole Hostel, a beautiful old farm run by a sweet young couple that feels very homely. We’re resting our legs, fighting the calorie deficiency, and planning for our next push to Catawaba, about 4 days away. The weather is looking up, and we still are happy to be hiking.