Day 66: Blue Blazing and More Van-Shenanigans
Things That Go Crunch in the Night
I woke at 3:45 a.m. to the sound of wheels on gravel in the Tye River trailhead parking area. Gus sat up and listened too, not in full alert mode, but definitely aware of the sound. I peeked out and saw a large sedan with its lights off idling near the entry.
I needed to visit the bushes anyway, so I climbed out of bed, turned on the lights, opened the door, and gave them the silhouette of a large man to think about. Fortunately, they immediately backed out and drove off, turning their lights on after driving down the road far enough that I couldn’t see their license plates. Gus wisely stayed in bed, not wanting to escalate the situation.
An Early Start
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep after that, which put me on track for an early start on today’s long climb. Once I crossed the highway, I found that we weren’t camping alone after all. I counted five tents along the river, and another guy cowboy camping in the bushes by the parking lot. I bumped into that guy while looking for a quiet spot for my morning constitutional and accidentally walked in on his.
The trail crossed the Tye River on yet another bouncy, wooden suspension bridge, one of many in Virginia. Kudos to the ATC or the USFS for building such interesting structures to keep our feet dry. After the bridge, the trail headed up the ridge, gaining back all 3,200 feet of elevation it lost descending The Priest yesterday afternoon. Overall, I had 5,200 feet of climbing ahead of me… unless…
Unless I took the Blue Blaze option. Yesterday, Smokestack had asked if I planned to Blue Blaze to the Maupin Shelter, but I had no idea what he was talking about. He said something about following a route along a creek with small waterfalls and sweet swimming holes. The route also cut off a weird horseshoe-shaped loop the AT makes along a tree-covered ridge with limited views.
My feelings about Blue Blazing have evolved over the last two months. At Springer Mountain, the thought of a Blue Blaze shortcut would set my teeth on edge. Now, I’ll consider my options, even though I almost always stick with the “official” trail, especially if the white blazes go past one of the AT’s well-known landmarks or vistas. I won’t Blue Blaze just to cut off miles or skip a steep climb.
But I will take a Blue Blaze Trail if it takes me someplace more interesting than the white blazes. And if going someplace interesting happens to lop off a few miles or shorten a climb, so much the better.
An Easy Choice
Today’s decision was obvious. I’ve seen plenty of tree-covered viewless ridges, but I rarely get to walk along noisy, cascading streams with deep pools. Plus, Gus weighed in that we both needed a bath. And when your dog starts thinking you stink, you know you really must be getting foul. That said, when I reached the bifurcation, I was climbing so well I almost decided to take the high route just for the joy of climbing.
FarOut app comments about the Blue Blaze option described the trail as a knee-busting, hard-to-follow, poorly signed, death march. Or an easy stroll in the woods. Typical internet. In fact, the trail was as well marked as the AT, and as well-maintained. The quarter-mile section along Campbell Creek was steppy and required some effort, but the sights and sounds of walking creekside were worth the effort. The route reminded me of some of the rugged trails I backpack in Arizona.
Hey ATC, Here’s a Thought
I arrived at back at the AT two hours after leaving the van, having covered nine AT miles along the five-mile Blue Blaze route. In my opinion, the ATC should adopt the Mal Har trail as the official path. The AT could use a little more variety. I suspect that the original AT route planners were peak-baggers, intent on climbing as many summits as possible, regardless of whether the peak had views that made the climb worth the effort.
But the Appalachians offer a lot more than peaks, and the AT tends to miss much of that. I’d love to walk through more of the small mountain communities, see more streams, marshes, ponds, and lakes, and explore some of the deep valleys. I love what I have been seeing along the ridges, but I suspect there’s much more to see that the AT misses.
Fun With Smokestack
I saw Smokestack walking out of the Maupin Shelter just when I reached the clearing, but I stopped for a break so Gus could eat my lunch. Lately, I pour out his kibble and he just looks at me expectantly, knowing that I’ll soon give in. He yogis my cheese first, then hints around that some tuna would go nicely with more cheese. I’ve tried mixing it in with his kibble, but he just sniffs at it, and then sits and stares at me while I work on my share of my lunch. Oddly, when we get back to the van, he’ll wolf down all the kibble I put in his bowl. His yogi routine is strictly a trail thing.
We caught Smokestack on the next climb. I thanked him for tipping me off to the Blue Blaze option and asked him about his hike. Since he couldn’t get away, and I refused to go ahead, I could pepper him with questions until he reluctantly gave in to conversing with this old geezer. It was work. Not only was he an unenthusiastic conversationalist, he really needed a shower. Hanging around close enough to talk was punishing.
Just as our conversation began to gain some momentum, a pair of older women (that is, people my age) approached from the other direction and stopped to chat. As I said hi, out of the corner of my eye I could see Smokestack assessing the situation. As soon as I started answering their first question, he gave me a look of gratitude and jetted off faster than I’d ever seen him move, smiling over his shoulder as he escaped.
Not So Fast, Smoky
The ladies and I had a nice chat about how much we loved the AT in Virginia and the myth of the Virginia Blues. They lived near the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and were day hiking one of their favorites. When I said something about how well maintained the trail was today and how it was easy on the feet, I thought I caught a look between them, but didn’t follow up with a question. I should have asked.
I caught Smokestack on the descent into Reid’s Gap, where the AT intersects the BRP. But this time, I just waved and passed. He’s a decent guy, but I have no need to talk with anyone that would rather not talk with me. He did ask my name as I passed. And now I see I have someone named Smokestack commenting on my blog, though I think they’re just teasing me. I don’t think anyone under 30 reads old geezer blogs.
Black Dog Meets Gus Dog
Or so Black Dog implied when I ran into him along the next leg of the trail. I’d met Black Dog in the Smoky’s, but I hadn’t seen him since the climb out of Hot Springs. Today, I rounded a bend and saw a phone set atop a tripod with its recording video on, but no one in sight. I stopped and looked around, then saw a guy hiking down the trail towards the camera. He was apparently getting the classic “walking past” shot for a vlog.
We chatted briefly about vlogging. I originally set up a YouTube channel with the intention of posting some trail videos but found that blogging occupies enough of my limited spare time. I enjoy writing. Editing videos is work. As I spoke, I could see Black Dog looking at me with the skeptical eyes of the young. Video is their medium. Writing is for the aged.
In fact, when I mentioned that I blog for The Trek, he said “Yeah, there’s another old guy who blogs, and I guess he gets a lot of reads.” Another old guy. I guess. The implication was that I’m old and that it is somewhat shocking that some people still read. That’s hilarious but correct. And a little bit agist.
The AT Gets Mean
The five miles of trail between Three Ridges Overlook and Humpback Ridge Picnic Area is punishing. I’m pretty sure the two ladies I met earlier knew it, but we’re kind enough to let me find out for myself when I mentioned how nice the trail had been this morning. It’s as rocky as any section of the AT so far. I think I walked a quarter mile in places without stepping on any dirt. My feet were pounded by the time I crossed paths with Black Dog.
Many of the rocks that comprised the trail were loose, with gaps that caught my poles, stopping me cold and yanking my arm back. In places, trail crews had made elaborate steps from slabs of rock. The rock work was impressive, but the too-high steps were difficult to ascend and their spacing prevented me from establishing a consistent pace. I come from a land of rocky trails, and this section matched the worst of those.
Since there were no views in this rocky mess and the trail was buried in the deep woods, I had only the gusting wind to keep me entertained. The treetops were shaking like wild long-haired women at a rave, making the tree trunks creak and moan like, well, like my knees and hips. The only time I’d take my eyes off my foot placement was when I heard a branch creak like it was giving way. Then I’d scan the canopy to find likely candidates and decide whether to duck, run, or pray.
A branch cracked suddenly above me. I heard the snap and the sound of a branch cartwheeling down through the leaves, but before I had a chance to react, it hit the ground, landing on the edge of the trail 20 feet in front of me. It wasn’t big enough to kill me but it would have definitely left a mark.
Home is Where the Van Is
Despite slow walking over the rocky last few miles, I hiked into the Humpback Ridge Picnic Area around 12:30, in time for a late (second) lunch. Northstar was craving Starbucks and frustrated with the cell coverage and convinced me to wait until we drove into Waynesboro.
Mr. The Incident may have been a little hangry by the time we got off the mountain, and possibly had a slight tantrum when Siri had us make three U-turns in a row to get to the Starbucks. Fortunately, Northstar is a veteran of my moods, and came out of the Chipotle across the parking lot with a huge barbacoa burrito that started to fill the void.
The goal for the afternoon was to find a body shop in Baltimore that could fix the damage done by the gas station posts that had entrapped Northstar. Progressive put us through the inquisition, trying desperately to understand what city we were in and where we would be a week from now, and never quite getting it. But they finally gave the okay, warning us that we might have a hard time scheduling the work.
In fact, no shop in Baltimore would even take a look at our van before late July. Northstar tried a local shop in Waynesboro, who graciously offered to try to squeeze us in, but said it would take two weeks to get the parts and at least that long to do the work. How long would we be in Waynesboro?
So, we’ll be living in a dented van until we get back to Arizona. Bring on the duct tape, magic marker, and super glue.
The rest of the afternoon we tried to figure out the next few weeks’ itinerary. This weekend, we’re flying out to San Diego for my oldest son’s graduation from his medical residency (anesthesia). Next weekend is my brother’s memorial service in Indianapolis. The day after that, we’re meeting my college roommate and his wife in Harpers Ferry for a few days of hiking. Somewhere in all that, we’re trying to keep our AT momentum alive.
Northstar started to feel overwhelmed by all these moving pieces, so we retreated back the BRP and found an empty overlook with stunning views and three bars of Verizon LTE. We didn’t make any decisions, but we had a lot to look at while we pondered. After a colorful sunset, we drove down the road to a legal boondocking site at Reid’s Gap and set up for the night. We’d considered trying to sneak a boondock at the Humpback Ridge Picnic Area, but neither of us wanted to risk the midnight knock from a ranger.
Is There a Next?
Just before we called it a day, Northstar said her hips and shoulders ached and that she had a sharp headache. We’ve been watching her closely since we pulled the tick out of her scalp last week. But she doesn’t have the rash or other Lyme’s disease symptoms. Plus, we think we got the tick within hours of when it latched on, making it very unlikely the tick transmitted anything evil. More likely, those symptoms mean another Shingles flair up. We’ll follow up with a family doctor this weekend.
There are some dark moments along the AT, when it all seems to be falling apart. This was one of them. I’d like to say the hike has been all rainbows and pixie dust, but that’s just not true. I went to sleep wondering if this was the end of it.
- Start: Tye River/VA56 (Mile 834.4)
- End: Humpback Rocks Picnic Area (Mile 851.3)
- Weather: Cloudy, windy
- Earworm: Somebody’s Gonna Hurt Someone (came to me while walking the rocks)
- Meditation: Job 42:5-6
- Plant of the Day: Touch-Me-Not
- Best Thing: Sunset from the BRP
- Worst Thing: Rocks
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