Highs and Lows in Northern Virginia

I’m sitting barefoot on the curb of a strip mall outside the Japanese restaurant where I just ate a delicious bowl of spicy miso ramen. I apply moleskin and leukotape to the majority of skin on the bottom of my feet without an ounce of self-consciousness. My feet have had tones of red and a raw feeling for a few days; each of the 50,000 steps I take a day has become a little less comfortable. I don’t know what I’m doing with all these tapes and patches, but I figure it’s gotta be better than what I’ve been dealing with.

We got stuck floating around Daleville for 7 hours. Neither of us wanted to muster up some bravery and be the first to acknowledge the idea of leaving town, so we just ended up being the smelly guys with noticeably dirty shirts lingering in coffee shops and restaurants well past our welcome. On the bright side, we gave our bodies and minds time to recover, or at least time to forget.

Goodbye Daleville 

Eventually, we strolled out of town, forced out by lack of daylight, and night-hiked a few miles before setting up camp. The truly creepy bugs have started to come out in the darkness with the warmer weather. After staring at a spider cricket crawling around on my backpack just outside my tent, I shut my eyes and went to sleep, or at least tried to.

Hiking Along the Blue Ridge Parkway 

We woke up with a big 28-mile day planned. I hadn’t looked too far ahead in my guide, so I was surprised when we came upon a road littered with turnoffs to stunning views all around us. We had come to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Cars, motorcycles, and cyclists came zipping by on the roads, and for the first time on the hike, I felt some envy to get behind the wheel.

The heat drenched our shirts with sweat, but the increase in blooming forest flowers provided a welcomed distraction. The beautiful pinks of the Rhododendron and Azaleas were the real show stoppers, but low to the ground I saw little white bells elegantly drooping beneath green leaves. It was Lily of the Valley, my romantic partner Chey’s favorite flower. In that moment I could feel that she was here with me, wishing me well on the hike, and telling me to hurry up and get my butt to Maine so I can come home.

Hard Times for Hotdog 

We passed a few slackpackers, and a few nice retired section hikers, but otherwise it was a relatively quiet day. We ground onward, and eventually, Hotdog went quiet. We arrived at a gap with a river crossing, one more big climb ahead of us and I could see the suffering in Hotdog’s eyes. It was something I was well acquainted with from my time in ultra running; you push your body to its limits until it reaches complete exhaustion and then your mind follows suit. It goes to a dark place, and in an effort of self-preservation it makes you question what you’re doing, trying its best to make you quit, yet the fire within that fuels you forward remains. It may temporarily be reduced to a candlelight, but it’s still there nonetheless. We made it to camp and I felt proud of Hotdog. No one could question the toughness of this duo.

The next morning we woke up with a set timeline to get to the James River Bridge 25 miles away by 6 pm to get a ride to Stanimals Hostel in Glasgow, VA. It was a dark and foggy day, and we were careful not to step on the cute orange Eastern Newts that traveled across the trail. Eventually, the fog invited in the rain and as we hiked on I could tell that Hotdog’s body was still dealing with the exhaustion from the day before. The greatest advantage of hiking with a partner is the ability to balance out your energy during rough patches. When one person is down the other is there to offer some positivity, or at the very least a steady pace to keep up with. Hotdog had done this for me, and now it was my turn to do it for him. It’s the Yin Yang of Tomcat & Hotdog.

Fresh Ground Saves the Day 

The big shift in our day came at mile 15, when, in the middle of the pouring rain we came across a sticker-bombed van set up with a long canopy aside it. It was Fresh Ground’s Leapfrog Cafe, an AT legend and someone we had long dreamt about coming across on the trail. Once we were 100% certain what we were seeing wasn’t a mirage, we approached closer and Fresh Ground, with his extremely charming and welcoming Carolinian personality, welcomed us to sit down. While passing along quick-witted jokes and banter he whipped me up two of the best grilled cheeses I’ve ever had on large gourmet slices of bread and we enjoyed fresh potatoes, fruit, and hot coffee. While we were there we also met Wendy, a 78-year-old woman still working as a nurse in West Virginia and just beaming with an aura of light and happiness. She was there as a supporter of the Leap Frog Cafe and was just happy to meet all the hikers.

Trail magic is always appreciated, but when you’re soaking wet, morale is low, and you just want to be done with the day, a well-timed bout of trail magic can feel life-changing. Fresh Ground was a fantastic cook and entertainer, but best of all, he knew exactly where hikers needed him most. With 10 miles left on the day, we hiked on with full bellies, but even fuller spirits.

Stanimal’s in Glasgow 

My feet were white and pruned from the rain, and the sopping wetness of my socks pulled my blister tape off. It’s funny how quickly circumstances can change. Each step brought a teeth-clenching sting to the bottom of my feet, but with a town stop ahead and trail magic behind us, I couldn’t be bothered by a little pain. We kept moving until we hopped into a Prius with our shuttle driver Spotter and braced ourselves on the winding mountain roads to Glasgow.

In Glasgow, we indulged in Pizza and beer at the local diner and watched Star Wars and Ghibli movies with other hikers at the hostel. I sat down in the massage chair, taking it all in as my freshly washed clothes were in the final stages of the dryer. It had been a week since we last took a shower and washed our clothes. My light green shirt had started to look more like a light brown. It was nice to sink into the feeling of cleanliness.

 

Sleepless in Town 

Me and Hotdog crowded into the small 10-foot x 10-foot bunk room with 4 other hikers. I lay in my top bunk, sweating from the heat and listening to the snoring of other hikers permeating through the room. Hours went by as I stared at the ceiling unable to sleep. Hotdog was sharing in the feeling with me. He grabbed his sleeping bag and pad and set up outside on the porch. I followed suit. We’d reached the point of being more comfortable sleeping in the fresh open air outside than we were within the confines of 4 walls. However, shortly after moving out, the hostel workers had already begun preparing for the morning, and I got myself ready for the day without a lick of sleep.

Eating blueberry pancakes in the morning while in the liminal space between human and zombie, I chatted with other hikers nearby. Pitstop and Natural Causes were an energetic dad and daughter duo from Boston and Rolodex was a man originally from Kuwait who went to school in my home state of Michigan. Everyone eventually cleared out, but given our rough stretch of prior days, me and Hotdog decided to take the morning to chill and recharge. As Will Ferrell comedies and Thrasher Skate videos played in the background we enjoyed chatting with Chug, an older man in the army and the only remaining hiker within the hostel, and Jim, a funny and happy-go-lucky guy who happened to be running the hostel.  We got back on the trail in the mid-afternoon as tired as can be and with a big climb ahead of us. We figured we’d hike a few miles to empty what little we had left in the tank and finally be forced to crash for a good night’s rest.

A Turn of Fate 

We camped by a pond at Punchbowl Shelter and listened to a symphony of frogs croaking all night long. I woke up after 9 hours of sleep feeling ready to go. Shortly after setting back out, we came across the 800-mile marker; these 100-mile milestones seem to come by quicker and quicker as we make our way further down the trail. The day as a whole wound up being a relatively uneventful 25-miler. There were long punchy climbs, humidity that left our shirts soaking wet, and intermittent rain that took care of soaking the rest of our gear. A pretty standard day on the AT. We set up camp at Seeley-Woodworth shelter.

 

We’d found ourselves doing miles consistent with a nice 4-person Tramily who we had been leapfrogging for a few days. Their names were Milwaukee, Strider, Polo, and 6ft. We had been ending up in the same camping area as them at the end of each day and starting to chat them up. It was nice to have a consistent set of characters in our hike once again.

After moving on from Seeley-Woodworth shelter we took it easy. The sun was out, so we made use of the weather to lay our wet gear out to dry. After a long descent, we crossed the Tye River and began a 3,500-foot climb back up to 4,000 feet at Three Ridges Peak. The terrain was rough with large rock scrambles, whoever told us that the trail smoothed out in Virginia was a liar, but it was no match for the Walmart caffeine packets I strategically gulped down.

 

Take it Easy 

We had planned to hike another 25-mile day, but when we came across Maupin Field Shelter, a large space with a bear pole, gravel tent pads, and grated fire rings, 20 miles into our day, we decided to call it early. For a couple of guys with a knack for obsessive planning and control, this felt like a good step away from rigidity and into a more natural, spontaneous flow. We loosened our grip and allowed ourselves to enjoy a few simple luxuries for the night.

The Road to Waynesboro 

We woke up early and started ticking the miles off to Waynesboro, VA. Our early stop the prior night was already paying off as we caught some trail magic in the form of French toast and fresh produce from a New Yorker named Matt only a mile into our hike. We found our Tramily friends there as well as two new hikers around our age, one named Old Man and the other named Harmonica, an Aussie who was hiking from Key West, Florida. We all made quick time on the smooth trail down to Waynesboro. A barred owl eventually swooped down on a branch directly in front of us. Every time we’d catch up, the owl would glide further down the trail on a new branch and wait for us as if it were our tour guide.

 

Stay Calm, Don’t Die 

5 miles out from town we stopped dead in our tracks. A copperhead, a snake belonging to a family of venomous pit vipers, was hanging out directly in the middle of the trail. Given its camouflage skin blending in with the dead leaves and dirt of the trail, we were happy to have caught it before getting too close. We patiently waited for it to make its way across the trail and continued. 5 minutes later we nearly had a heart attack when a loud rattling sound reached our ears. A few feet in front of us was a large coiled-up Timber Rattlesnake that didn’t appreciate our presence. We were just thankful for the warning. After taking a moment to recompose ourselves, we took a detour around the snake and got back on the trail. Me, Hotdog, Milwaukee, and Oldman all set off one by one with our eyes and ears glued in front of us scanning for more signs of snakes.

 

Wandering in Waynesboro 

We came off the trail to Rockfish Gap and found a popcorn and hotdog stand directly in front of us. We drank coke and ate cheese fries as we waited for a trail angel, Ping, to pick us up and drop us off in town.  When Ping arrived she asked us where we wanted to go. She laughed when I told her to drop us at the all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet. It sounded like she got that request often.

The hostess at New Ming Garden seemed to sit us as far away from the food and other patrons as possible. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to witness what we were about to do to this buffet either. We ate plate after plate until we were too sick to eat anymore. We walked on an indoor bridge over a pond filled with way too many Koi fish and walked out the door feeling satisfied. A shower at the YMCA, a resupply at Kroger, and a place to set up camp at the local park closed out a successful evening in town. The next day we were set to hit Shenandoah National Park, which we heard was filled with easy miles, numerous waysides, and legendary blackberry milkshakes. It would be an easy day to get back on the trail.

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Comments 1

  • Xine : May 13th

    You are a good storyteller. Thanks for noticing the little things (lillies of the valley, newts) and big things (having empathy for your hiking pal) and sharing them with us. I don’t know why The Trek didn’t highlight you as one of the hikers to follow in 2024 but you are one of the three quality writers/diarists on this blog. Cheers and safe travels!

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