Day 43: Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

This trail. Some days it leaves me grinning ear to ear. Other days it sees me grinning and kicks me in the teeth. Today, I’ve got a bloody grin, my head’s spinning, my eyes are crossed, and I can’t wait to get out there again. Thank you, sir, may I please have another?

Boondocking With the Feds

The mileage to Nick’s Creek Road made for a good stopping point, but offered no trailhead parking. So, after we returned from delivering Slapshot and Birdsong to Marion, we boondocked in the far corner of the Mt. Rogers NRAHQ. Wheels caught up and invited us for pizza delivery at the Partnership Shelter around the other side of the HQ, but her text didn’t come through until after midnight.

I woke early, drove the mile over to Nick’s Creek Road, and was hiking by 6:30 am, mostly so we’d be gone by the time the USFS staff showed up for work. I planned to hike 11 miles to US11 and eat a second breakfast at one of the two restaurants there. After a tasty meal, I’d decide whether I wanted to hike another 10 miles to VA 610 or stop early.

Coming Home

The hike over to US11 went great. I had the trail all to myself again. Well, me and the spider webs. Catabwa Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel, now in full bloom, added bright colors to what was mostly a long green tunnel. A few moderate climbs and some rocky sections slowed my pace compared to the last few days, but I also got to walk along a little brook on a soft carpet of last season’s oak leaves.

As I descended out of the hills into the US11/I-81 corridor, the trail ran through open meadows bordered by thin lines of flowering trees. Growing up, we called those meadow bordering trees “the woods.” We built tree houses in them, fought the Germans with stick guns, and spied on our friends and neighbors from their deep cover.

The AT’s path through the meadows had been recently mowed, just like my neighbor mowed paths for us to play on in Grandpa Russell’s fallow pastures. Even the wildflowers reminded me of home – dandelions, cow parsley, and white clover. Coincidentally, I grew up on US11, although our home was three states north in Lafayette, New York.

Full of happy memories and warm fuzzies, I could hear the US11 crossing in the distance, and imagined my delicious second breakfast just up the road. What a perfect day.

Cue the AT’s Evil Twin

I texted Northstar to invite her to join me for brunch. She replied that the van wouldn’t start. Again. She’d had the same problem yesterday, but we thought changing the fob battery had fixed it. Nope. She’d tried everything she’d found on the internet, but nothing worked. While reading her texts and replying, I missed a turn and ended up in a featureless wood a quarter mile off the trail.

I Guess That Counts as Second Breakfast

FarOut got me back on the AT and down to US11, but when I walked up to the highly recommended Sweetwater Venue, it was closed. Despite the “OPEN. Come on in” sign out front. No problem. The El Burrito Loco right across the highway offered tempting breakfast burritos. Just not on Mondays.

So, I settled on the Exxon station convenience market where I made a meal of hot tea, Gatorade, M&M’s (“sharing” size, but I didn’t), and Pringles. I’m pretty sure I got all four basic food groups: salt, sugar, caffeine, and crunch. Yum.

Paid For Words

While I sat and munched, Pay-it-Forward (PiF), an ultralighter who since 2018 has done the PCT (3), CDT (1), and AT (2) walked up and sat down across the table. PiF operates at a higher level of intensity than most humans. He radiates energy. He left Springer Mountain on May 1st, walks 4 mph for 8-10 hours a day, and routinely knocks out 30- to 40-mile days.

We had a great conversation, though it was a bit like drinking out of a firehose. Here’s a sampling:

  • “You’ve got a very small pack. Are you thru-hiking?” We all know where that conversation is going. And it did, mostly.
  • “Have you done any other long-distance hikes?” I started to describe our Camino de Santiago and English Coast Path hikes, but he interrupted saying, “No, I mean REAL hikes. Not those walks where you stay in those hostels and eat in restaurants.” I laughed and told him about the van.
  • “You look like Bryon Cranston’s Walter White character from Breaking Bad.” Yes, the soulless, meth-dealing, old man, dying of pancreatic cancer. Thank you. Actually, a former Pastor of ours told me the same thing many times.

But we found common ground over our disdain of shelters, the 20-something partier crowd, and Trail Days, and how solo hiking allows you time to work out your problems. He also passed along this nugget: When your feet start to hurt in the afternoon, it’s time to think about swapping out your shoes. When they hurt in the morning, swap them out immediately. Lately, my feet hurt in the late afternoon, and I’ve got about 400 miles on my current pair of Altras, so he’s spot on. Time to swamp them out.

Need Company?

Just as we’d both finished our Exxon delicacies, Northstar pulled in, having figured out how to get the van going somehow. Something about cell phone interference with the keyless fob. Brilliant! She passed off Gus, who’d spent the entire morning sitting on the passenger seat and crying for me.

Northstar agreed to pick me up at VA610 around 3:30, saying she planned to spend the afternoon trying to verify her solution to the key fob problem. Gus and I headed off through the deep grass paths through the meadows below the next climb into the forests.

Anyone Know an Honest Mechanic?

Cell phone interference was not the problem. It’s a known manufacturer’s defect with the RAM ProMaster’s radio frequency hub module. “Known,” as in known to dealers, not as in known to people who drive them and depend on them to facilitate their AT hikes. If we don’t replace it, she risks getting stranded in one of the remote places we camp.

This is the short version. If I tell you the long version, one of you will be driving out here to take her away from all this. I’m leaving out all the dealers she called who couldn’t/wouldn’t do the work or told her “Darlin’, y’all ain’t from around here” type stories. I’m also omitting the details of her tour of southern Virginia chasing down false leads.

She finally found a dealer in Christiansburg who can do the factory replacement, 1.5 hours away. But not until next week, though they agreed to let us drop it off tomorrow morning. Enterprise would provide a free rental car. Yeah, right. But they would rent us one, but not until tomorrow afternoon.

She’s a saint.

Zero Day, Anyone?

When she met me at VA610 she’d about had it. So, we packed up and headed for Christiansburg and an unplanned zero day. We might be without our van for some time, as it’s possible that the hub thingee is on international back order. Welcome to vanlife.

And Now for the Rest of the Story

We settled into a motel, took a shower, and did our best to eat all the perishibles in the van’s mini fridge before leaving it at the dealer tomorrow. Thinking about what to eat next, I scratched my scalp, and felt a little lump. A little moving lump. A tick. Gross. Then, just after falling asleep, I felt something crawling on my leg. Another tick. What the what?

I looked at Gus. He was busy scratching and biting his fur. He’d picked up some passengers on his walk from US11 to VA610. So, we have another task for our unplanned zero day: finding a groomer and getting the dog shaved. He’s got great hair, but it’s a perfect place for ticks to hide, even though his tick treatment seems to be working. The AT has not been kind to our dogs.

Notes:  I did not see Ms. Squawk and her little dog today, leaving my agenda item unchecked. Also, I hiked past the “¼ GA-ME” marker. Hard to believe I’ve come that far already.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Nick’s Creek Road (Mile 535)
  • End: VA Route 610 (Mile 555.8)
  • Weather: Blue skies and cool.
  • Earworm: Come Out Virginia (Billy Joel)…on a steep climb, I muttered, “Come on, Virginia” …
  • Meditation: Gal 5:13
  • Plant of the Day: Meadows
  • Best Thing: ¼ done (Mile 549.6)
  • Worst Thing: Van problems, ticks, closed restaurants, foot pain

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Comments 8

  • Hammer : May 23rd

    Hi Jon
    I am enjoying reading your blog. We had the good fortune to meet Kate and Gus in Haiawassee. We are a little up the trail and so it is nice to see your thoughts on areas we have recently passed through.
    We will also get a copy of your book on the Gila River which we crossed many times on our hike through that area.
    Keep enjoying the walk in the woods and keep the posts coming. Hammer and Corky

    • Jon : May 24th

      Hey, Hammer & Corky! Kate showed me your cool blog and pics. Enjoy your hike!

  • thetentman : May 24th

    Sounds like you need to eat an extra Snickers every day to counter the spider webs. The Snickers will also alleviate the van pain somewhat.

    Good luck.

    • Jon : May 24th

      Snickers & beer. Got it!

  • Jamie Compos : May 24th

    I like your description of Pay-it-Forward, how conversation was like drinking from a fire hose. I too have found the fastest thru-hikers to be super energetic in camp, ready to talk your ear off with enthusiasm about anything and everything after hiking all those miles. And then you never see them again. Unreal. Hope you get the van sorted without much more fuss.

    • Jon : May 24th

      Hey, Jamie. He also was down on tramilies. Today I was thinking that might because he was always moving on. Interesting guy though. Glad I met him.

  • Wanda Hale : Jun 1st

    Was the dealership Motor Mile?

    • Jon : Jun 1st

      Uh oh. Do you work there? Notice I didn’t say yes. Or no. 🙂


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