Day 56: A Clustercuss

A Shaky Start

We had a rough night. Northstar ate something funky and couldn’t get to sleep. Then, a semi pulled in right next to us and parked overnight with its engine running, blasting its exhaust our direction. At 3:00 am, Northstar still hadn’t slept. Such are the vagaries of vanlife.

I finally gave up around 5:00 am and crawled out of bed with sore knees and a belly tart of my own. I downed my breakfast and some Vitamin I and headed out under an overcast sky that threatened rain. At least I’d get a break from the heat.

The Plan

Uncertain about boondocking options along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), we decided to meet at Black Horse Gap for lunch. The AT first crosses the BRP at Black Horse Gap, after a long, gradual, 13.8-mile climb out of Daleville. Once there, I’d make the call whether I wanted to hike further that afternoon to try to log my target mileage or camp there and have a short day. If I went on, I’d leave Gus with Northstar.

Part of our uncertainty came from conflicting information about whether boondocking is allowed along the BRP. Some websites said yes, but others noted that potential parking spots exist or that the chances of getting noticed by anyone who’d care are low. I figured we’d look for ourselves before making the call. If we had to, we’d head to one of the Park Service or private campgrounds located just off the BRP.

Climbing to the BRP

I spent most of the morning’s walk pondering our plan, as well as Machina/Chopstick’s comment about the Virginia Blues being more of a fatigue factor than a function of geography. The trail was pleasant enough, with nice meadows and creeks in the lowlands around Daleville and Troutville, and a smooth, soft path once the trail began to climb into the woods.

I thought I heard a bear in the dense underbrush just before the Interstate 81 crossing but couldn’t get a glimpse of whatever it was. Then we crossed US11, where Gus and I stopped to watch the Half-Ironman bicyclists zoom by. Apparently, the event was today, not yesterday, as I’d been told. We cheered as they pedaled by, but only got a smile out of one of them. Serious business, I guess.

We passed the “1/3 of the way to Katahdin” marker next, a laminated piece of paper stapled to a telephone pole. Its location is off by a mile due to changes in the AT’s length this year, but who’s really counting? I texted a picture of the marker to my family, and inadvertently included a missing cat poster mounted just below it. Which inspired a string of AT/cat puns, like “maybe it’s not lost, it’s just Cat-Hidin’.”

I walked steadily, but slower than usual to nurse my knees, all the time expecting Chopsticks, Wheels, Shamrock, and Navigator to catch up and provide a little diversion and entertainment. But they never appeared, so as always, I had the early morning trail to myself.

The Allure of Wild Camping

At one point I passed one of many nice tent sites along the trail and found myself thinking about the “real” thru hiker’s comments yesterday. In many ways, he was right that I am missing out on some typical elements of thru hiking. I’d love to stop at one of those tent sites I’d just passed, watch the sunset and the stars come out, and listen to the night sounds in the woods. I enjoy the routine of making my breakfast tea on the trail, packing up, and heading out at first light.

Then again, I see a lot of the “real” thru hikers heading for motels or hostels, especially when the weather turns bad. I normally spend about two months a year in a tent, between work and river trips, so I’ve had my share of both good and Type II camping fun. I’m okay with missing some of that during this hike.

Eventually, I climbed into the low clouds and walked in a wet mist for the rest of the day. Near the summit, just before stopping to get Gus a drink at the Fullhardt Knob Shelter, I saw a large bear (#5) run across the trail, its distinctive gait silhouetted in the thick fog.

The Virginia Blues

About three miles out from Black Horse Gap, I passed a couple filtering water at Wilson Creek. When I stopped to chat, they mentioned that they were slackpacking out to the Peaks of Otter wayside, “an easy 19 miles from Daleville.” They also said that this was the last water stop for a long way, but I declined since I still had almost two liters and would be meeting Northstar in about an hour.

Oddly, they brought up the “Virginia Blues,” that I’d been talking about with Chopsticks yesterday afternoon and thinking about all morning. The Virginia Blues attributes high thru-hiker dropout rates in Virginia to being in one state for 521 miles.

The couple, like me, had decided that geography has little to do with it, but cumulative fatigue does. After all, the trail doesn’t look that much different in Virginia than it does in Georgia, North Carolina, and “Tennessee.” State lines are nice progress points, but they don’t change the trail much. But at this point, most hikers have been walking for at least two months, which puts a lot of stress on the body and mind.

Back to the Plan

I spent the rest of the morning thinking about my upcoming itinerary, which has a lot of 20-mile days. My plan included finishing Virginia by the end of June and included three consecutive 20-milers so I’d reach the James River in three days. But why? If Alaska cuts me loose, I’ll have an extra two weeks, so I have no need to rush. On the other hand, I seem to be able to hike 20 miles in a day.

As I wrestled with the itinerary in my head, I realized that Fleetwood Mac was whispering “You Can Go Your Own Way” in my ear. My subconscious earworm to the rescue.

I walked into Black Horse Gap having decided to stop for the day. I’d spend the afternoon writing, hanging out with Northstar, and resting my weary bones.

And that’s when everything fell apart.

Bring on the Clustercuss

Just as I reached the BRP, I got a text from Northstar saying the BRP was closed. She’d tried several routes and they were all blocked off. Lines of cars and trucks were backed up. The truck drivers had no idea why. No cops were around to explain. She’d looked online and found nothing but a months-old article about a landslide closing the BRP.

Her original route, the one given by the FarOut app, had taken her to a horse trail that was obviously closed to traffic unless she wanted to hike four miles. What the heck? And then she’d clipped another concrete post at a gas station, taking off another chuck of the van’s trim. Needless to say, Northstar was reaching her limit.

Choose Your Poison

As we were talking, the couple from the water stop walked up, along with a father/daughter who came up a side trail. All of us were counting on a ride, none of us had brought camping gear, and the weather had turned colder and wetter. And I was down to my last liter of water. The only things we could do were hunker down here and hope the road opened eventually or hike on to the nearest side road and try to catch a ride off the mountain. If the side roads were open.

The father/daughter chose to stay put. The couple and I decided to hike on. About an hour later, the couple got through to their shuttle driver, who’d discovered that the road was closed for the Half Ironman competition. Remember all those bikes I’d seen on US11? I guess the route included this section of the BRP. Surprise!

Sure enough, around 2:00 pm, we started seeing cars on the BRP again. But by then, I’d lost cell service with Northstar, so I was committed to meeting her at the VA695/BRP intersection, an 8-mile walk from our original meetup point. My restful 13.6-mile day just morphed into an epic 21.6-mile day.

But Wait, There’s More!

We had our usual no-cell-service meetup problems but eventually found each other around 4:30 pm. By then, I was wet, cold, and worn out. We headed down to the NPS’ Peaks of Otter campground for the night, but got distracted by the resort’s restaurant, and decided we’d both earned a nice dinner.

Halfway through dinner, my teeth started chattering, even though I was inside with dry clothes and a jacket on. So, Northstar booked a room at the resort, put the shower on extra hot, and put me to bed with all the blankets she could find. Although she did make me get up to help de-tick Gus, who’d managed to adopt a dozen or so friends during his long day.

I didn’t fully warm up until about 2:30 in the morning, when I woke up and realized I didn’t need my hat and sweatshirt anymore.

Tomorrow can be nothing but better, right? At the very least, I deserve a late start, a hot breakfast, and a leisurely cup of piping hot tea.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Daleville VA (Mile 730.3)
  • End: Bearwallow Gap (Mile 751.9)
  • Weather: Fog, drizzle and chilly.
  • Earworm: You Can Go Your Own Way
  • Meditation: Mt. 5:38-42
  • Plant of the Day: Virginia Spiderwort
  • Best Thing: 21.9 Miles
  • Worst Thing: Things. Plural. One of which was 21.9 miles.

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Comments 15

  • SunnyD : Jun 5th

    Keep your chin up Jon! I’ve really enjoyed reading about your journey and hope to do the trail with my own family in two years. What an amazing blessing to have Northstar there with you through it. Her support doesn’t take away from your story, it makes it more personal and an accomplishment you can both take pride in! God bless and trail on!

    • Jon : Jun 6th

      Thanks, SunnyD! You’re so right.

  • Scott Layman : Jun 5th

    I’m really enjoying your writings. I’m not a hiker but the thought of a thru hike has some appeal. The last time I backpacked was after h.s. graduation in 1981. 4 days in the White mountains. Currently my adventures are on two wheels. Often in your current local. Anyway, thanks for taking us along.

    • Jon : Jun 6th

      My pleasure. Thanks Scott.

  • Charlotte : Jun 5th

    Sending prayers. I am sorry that other thru hikers plant seeds…don’t fertilize or water. You, Northstar, and Gus have overcome a lot of obstacles both on and off trail. Hike your own hike!

    • Jon : Jun 6th

      Thanks, Charlotte!

  • Julie : Jun 6th

    I look forward to reading your posts about your, Northstar’s and Gus’s adventures. I too have hit one of those sneaky posts at the gas station….ok, I’ve done it twice… you’re my favorite AT writer this year. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

    • Jon : Jun 6th

      Haha! Northstar got a good laugh at that.

  • Greg Rodzenko : Jun 6th

    Hey Jon, fellow fluvial geomorphologist here, Greg R. Careful on those stream crossings!

    This is a terrific project. Stay the course.

    • Jon : Jun 6th

      Hey Greg! It’s been too long. Glad you’re coming along on this adventure!

  • thetentman : Jun 6th

    Stick with it. You can do it. However, you might consider a day or 2 off. It might recharge your enthusiasm. And if you quit I am not sure how I will live vicariously through you and your very good essays. OK, that was a bit selfish but true.

    Also, tents are overrated. As a guy who sold thousands of them and even designed a tent I never use them anymore. Tarps or hammocks are my jam now.

    In any case, thx for the post.

    Good luck.

    • Jon : Jun 6th

      Lol. Wait, the tentman doesn’t tent?

      • thetentman : Jun 7th

        I do not.

  • GearNerd : Jun 7th

    Hey Jon–fellow freshly-retired geologist here on the Long Trail with a buddy and two large dogs. I’ve read the Trek for a long time but gotta tell you that nowadays your posts are by far the best! Agree with the suggestion for time off (and the pups are a double paws up for that!). We’re intrigued by your vanlife method–it’s opening up some possibilities for us or longer trails (always the goal!).
    Best wishes to Northstar and Gus!!

    • Jon : Jun 7th

      Thx! Really loving the van on the AT.


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