Day 47: Continental Divides
On Monday morning, I left Pearisburg and crossed the New River in the dawn light. The town had been a bit of a disappointment for me, though I loved the hostel. Nothing was open on Sunday, the Mexican restaurant wasn’t as good as they said, and the town square was full of Jim-Crow-era monuments that rubbed me the wrong way. I spent my zero cooking food from the grocery and planning the next stretch.
1. Wild, Wonderful West Virginia
By the time the sun was up, I was climbing up through a leafy forest towards Peters Mountain. After a few miles the trail came out onto a sunny bald with spectacular views to the North. I was on the West Virginia state line, and the rolling farmland stretching away to the distance was in a different part of the mountains. Northwest of here lies the Appalachian plateau, where the ridges melt away into the landscape and the valleys are steeper than the mountaintops. Peters Mountain is the only place you come close to these western mountains on the trail, looking down at them from a meadow at 4,000 feet.
After ten miles on this high boundary ridge, the Appalachian Trail dives back down into Virginia, but the Allegheny Trail keeps going to the north. This is West Virginia’s thru-hiking route, and part of the planned route for the Great Eastern Trail, a westerly alternative to the AT. I’m looking forward to seeing this trail complete. It’ll be wilder and less obsessed with ridgetops than the Appalachian Trail, and it should help fix crowding on the trail. With the bubble getting bigger every year, the AT is under serious strain, and things just can’t go on like they are now! I’m lucky to have gotten ahead of the bubble, but there’s a whole crowd coming up behind me and the shelters still sleep six.
Speaking of losing the bubble, I had a shelter to myself on Monday night. The only thru-hikers I’d met all day were slackpacking back towards Pearisburg, and I felt alone in my journey for the first time on the trail. Even when I kept to myself, it had always felt like ‘we’ were walking to Maine before. Now, more and more, it’s just ‘me’ that’s doing this thing. If I meet another backpacker on the trail, they’re probably doing a section or a weekend loop. They ask me when I started and I say ‘March 14,’ and their eyes get wide.
2. Third Time’s the Charm
I called this post ‘Continental Divides’, but of course there’s only one Eastern Divide. On the west side the water goes to the Gulf, and on the east it goes down to the Atlantic. But the trail crosses over this divide three times between Peters Mountain and the Triple Crown. And this triple crossing is not just a technicality — you go from the bottom of the valley to the top of a ridge each time.
I reached the first divide on Tuesday morning, after my solitary night at the Bailey Gap shelter. Salt Pond Mountain separates Little Stony Creek, which flows into the New River and from there to the Gulf, from Johns Creek, which flows into the James River and from there to the Atlantic. Since water’s what wears down the mountains, these dividing ridges are some of the highest and steepest around. Descending towards Johns Creek felt like walking off the edge of a cliff. And once I crossed the babbling brook, I had to go right back up again.
Back on the ridgetop, out of breath, I peered down into another valley. Johns Creek valley had been steep and wooded — this one was broad and studded with pastures. Sinking Creek, which flows through it, goes down to the New, so this was the Eastern Divide again. I was crossing back down to the ‘western’ side, though the trail kept going southeast the whole way. The long valleys zigzag back and forth depending on which direction the stream there happens to go.
I’ve mentioned the difference between shale and limestone valleys before, and Sinking Creek was definitely in a limestone valley. The land was rolling and fertile, and some of the pastures sagged into huge sinkholes. The leaves were out on the trees, vines and herbs pushing up everywhere. I heard a meadowlark sing among the flowering dogwoods. And at the edge of the valley, just before the climb back up, stood a huge spreading oak. It’s so big it has a name, the Keffer Oak. It felt like a guardian watching over the land, stretching its arms over the green pastures. It’s also one of the largest trees along the trail.
And then I had another climb from 2,000 to nearly 4,000 feet. After Johns Creek pushing west, and Sinking Creek pushing east, I was finally on the last limb of the divide. I camped on the ridge, and the next morning I saw a sign tacked to a tree: ‘Eastern Continental Divide.’ It was all downhill from here.
This traverse of the zigzagging dividing range was fun, but it was also an ordeal. At times like this I wonder what the trail builders were thinking when they routed it the way they did. We could have skirted the Sinking Creek valley along Johns Creek, or walked the full zigzag along the ridge. Instead the trail makes three brutal climbs and steep descents, shaving off a few miles at the expense of hikers’ knees.
Then again, if it was easier it wouldn’t be a challenge, right?
3. Old Trail, New Trail
After saying goodbye to the Eastern Divide, I crossed another valley and climbed another ridge. At the Trout Creek gap, I joined up with two hikers named Sligo and Cruiser, and walked with them along Cove Mountain to the Dragon’s Tooth. From here, the ridges twist and bend in crazy angles, an intricate geometry of sharp rock that forms the backdrop to Virginia’s ‘triple crown.’ Dragon’s Tooth is the first of the triple crown overlooks for northbounders, a jagged monolith reaching upwards towards the sky. I climbed the ‘tooth’ as carefully as I could and was treated to a dizzying view in all directions.
The two miles from there to Four Pines Hostel were the most difficult I’ve seen so far, more of a climb than a walk. The trail takes ten-foot drops down cliffs and slabs of rock, using iron rungs in one place. I enjoy this kind of trail, but it’s treacherous with a pack. Best to think of it as practice for New Hampshire.
At the road, I caught a ride the quarter mile to Four Pines with Heartbreaker, a trail angel who happened to be passing by. She’s making a circuit of the hostels on the trail, and Four Pines is a classic stop along the way. This hostel is an establishment of the ‘Old AT,’ with a chaotic atmosphere that reminded me of Standing Bear. It’s managed by a eccentric guy named Sprocket who’s very dedicated to his work. He shuttles hikers around the area all day, including runs between the hostel and the gas station store about a mile away.
I had a chance to chat with Sprocket about his perspective on the trail, and that’s what got me thinking about this old/new thing. Some hostels have a tough love, DIY attitude towards their guests; others roll out the red carpet and are decked out with hip amenities. The latter kind tend to be newer, and more popular with the younger crowd. What’s going on here?
Maybe we could blame it on Bill Bryson. After he published his book, and especially when the movie version came out in 2015 — which was eight years ago now — the Appalachian Trail surged in popularity. The ever-growing, ever more diverse crowd of thru-hikers can be traced back to around that time, and conveniences started sprouted up along the way. I’ve heard some people call this the ‘commercialization of the AT.’
Before then, walking to Maine was a very weird and arduous thing to do. From what I’ve gathered so far from veteran hikers, deciding to hike the AT was like signing up to be a hobo for six months. Hostels were bare bones and work-for-stay, and you could hardly count on a store to have the supplies you’d like. Maybe you’d have to work odd jobs to save up for a leg of your hike. Maybe you’d spend the night in a barn, or a converted prison. And now we have hostels with private rooms advertising themselves as ‘zerolicious?’ What has the world come to (they might say)?
Well, for better or for worse, the trail has changed. The ‘New AT’ is a place with a huge support system, and you only have to rough it when you’re in the woods (barely even that, if you slackpack enough). First-time hikers like me see this commercial support system as, at the least, an important resource, and some use it as a cushion to bring true comfort to the trail.
I think this is where the hackneyed ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ slogan becomes really valuable. It’s easy to judge others for not seeing the AT the way you do, but it doesn’t help. My personal AT isn’t quite the ‘Old AT’ or the ‘New AT,’ and that’s what felt so odd to me when I was exposed to both in Georgia. My AT winds through the woods from rock to tree to brook, sometimes passing shelters and towns along the way. Because I’m only human, I have to stop at these places sometimes, but the trail for me is not of them. My goal is to move continuously along this thread from the southern peaks of Georgia to the northern peaks of Maine, experiencing every little shift in the natural world along the way. I also enjoy challenging myself to cover a lot of ground. This approach may baffle people of both the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ persuasion, but you know what? HYOH.
4. Triple Crown
After Four Pines, I decided to do the 26 miles to Daleville all in one day. This section winds along a single ridge that completes the triple crown. First comes McAfee Knob, the most popular of the three overlooks. The views there are expansive to the east, north, and west, with only a section of the southern sky obscured by trees. Next, after a sharp bend in the mountain, is Tinker Cliffs, which juts out to the north at a corner of the mountain. From there you can see the ridges behind you converging towards the horizon, carpeted in the lime green of new leaves. The last nine miles down to Daleville continue along this narrow ridge, cliffs jutting out at crazy angles like the backbone of some giant beast.
Despite your height above the valley and the excellent views, Tinker Ridge is the lowest mountaintop of the trail so far, topping out at barely 2200 feet. The rivers east of the Divide have a shorter path to the sea, so the water’s carved the land much lower into the rock. In Pearisburg, the mighty New River stood at 1600 feet; here, little Tinker Creek lies just 1100 feet above sea level.
I’m out of the Ohio Country, and back in the East.
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