It’s About the Smiles and the 500 Miles – Marion, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV: Part 1
Our plan was to shuttle into Marion to resupply and then get back out to continue hiking. But first, we needed a refuel at the Pizza Hut buffet table. We were sitting there eating and I was making notes in my guidebook to plan out my resupply when Snuggles said she wanted to stay the night in Marion. And if Snuggles stayed, Darwin would stay. Roub decided he would feel better if he stayed the night, too. Then Supermoon finally admitted that she needed to stay the night and recuperate.
Oh man. I wasn’t planning on staying in Marion and I really didn’t want to. I felt like we were just in Damascus a few days ago – I didn’t feel all that dirty and I wanted to avoid spending more money than necessary. Plus, I was having a really good hiking day. We already did 10 miles that morning and I wanted to get back out to do more.
I had to keep moving, even if I had to continue on by myself. That made me a little nervous – I had been on the trail just under two months, but I was always with my family. We planned everything from where we were going to camp each night to how much we resupplied in town. If I left my family, this would be the first time I would continue alone on the trail.
I had to make a decision. The shuttle back to the trailhead would leave in two hours, and I still had to get to Wal-Mart to resupply if I wanted to get back on the trail that day. But leaving my family wasn’t something I really wanted to do, either.
“I’m going to Wal-Mart,” I told them as I started to pack my things at the table. “I have to leave now if I want to catch the shuttle.”
I told them goodbye and knew that it was likely I would see them back out on the trail in a few days. I felt like I was maybe a little abrupt at the time, but I was frazzled with still so many things left to do and so little time to do them. One thing was for sure – I did NOT want to hitchhike alone. I had to make that shuttle.
I walked to the nearest Wal-Mart and was shopping for five days of food when I ran into some familiar faces. Translator, Obi-Wan, Tree Arm, Yellow, Doc, Coco and Magnus were all shopping for resupply, too. I met them in Damascus and we’ve been on the same hiking schedule since then. Plus, they were taking the same shuttle back to the trail. Maybe I didn’t have to be alone.
The shuttle came to the Wal-Mart to pick us up and drove us back to the Visitor Center next to the trail. I decided I would camp wherever they ended up for the night, and so we walked on the trail until we found a good, flat place to camp.
We found the most ideal spot. It was just down the side of a hill, which meant it blocked any wind coming in through the mountains. It was a huge flat area where as many as 20 people could camp if they needed to. And it was obvious nobody had ever camped there before. All the fallen trees were rotting into the ground, and there were layers of decomposing leaves. We moved some of the fallen limbs to create a clearing, and Tree Arm and Obi-Wan worked on creating a fire pit.
By the time we all got our tents setup, it was only 5:00 in the late afternoon. Hiker midnight isn’t until 9:00. It’s one of my favorite times on the trail when I get to a campsite with other people, my hiking is done for the day, and we have the rest of the evening to hangout. I also bought some patches from the Visitor Center that morning that I wanted to sew onto my backpack. Sooo much time for activities.
For the rest of the night, we sat around the fire, played mini card games, had a sewing party going for awhile as Translator and Obi-Wan had some sewing to do, too, talked to other hikers as they passed by our campsite, and settled on the name Firebone as the name of our discovered campsite. How we got to that name is a story on its own, but we have full plans to let AWOL know for his 2017 guidebook that Firebone is a legitimate campsite that future generations of thru-hikers can use for years to come.
The next morning I got up and packed up my things in my usual routine: coffee and a poptart for breakfast inside my tent, changed into my hiking clothes, rolled and stuffed my sleeping bag and pad, and used the empty tent space for stretching. I then packed up my tent and was ready to go.
“Where are you guys camping tonight?” I asked Translator. He showed me on the map a campsite about 15 miles away.
“Are you going to camp with your family?” asked Yellow.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure where they are planning on camping tonight.” I then realized that if Snuggles, Darwin, Roub, and Supermoon took the shuttle from Marion this morning, they would probably pass by Firebone in an hour or so. “If you see them, could you let them know I was here and where I’m going?” Obi-Wan said he would let them know.
Everybody else was still enjoying their morning, so I took off on my own. It was a gorgeous hiking day. The sun was shining, yet it wasn’t hot out, and the terrain was smooth with only a few ascents for the day. I was in a really good mood. I had a lot of fun last night.
A few hours later, I came across this sign that said there was trail magic in the school house. At this point, the rest of the Firebone crew had caught up with me, and we all walked up to an old one-room schoolhouse built in the mid-1800s. I could barely contain myself when I saw what was inside the schoolhouse. There were bins and coolers full of food, snacks, and pop, and even a hiker box full of new toothbrushes, scarves, and postcards with stamps on them. I still can’t get over how much people go out of their way to do magic for hikers on the trail.
I ravenously grabbed a honeybun, tuna and crackers, skittles, and a root beer and sat down at one of the old desks lined inside the school. There was a poster hanging on the wall that described how many lashes the teacher would give a student depending on what the student did wrong.
“If a boy plays with a girl… 5 lashes. If a student shows up late to school… 4 lashes. If students play card games in school… 10 lashes.”
And the list went on. It was a pretty hysterical list. Although I think the card game punishment was a little excessive.
There was a Settler’s Museum right down the road just .1 from the trail that I wanted to check out, so after practically inhaling all my food in a matter of minutes, I walked over there with Coco, Magnus, Obi-Wan, Yellow and Tree Arm not too far behind. The museum used to be an old farm house with one of the rooms transformed into an informative gallery about settlers arriving to America since the 1600s. The room walked us through their heritage, what they grew and harvested, conflicts between settled towns and the oncoming flow of emigrants (funny, how that’s still a controversial topic today), and the routes settlers rode as they moved farther south. As I walked through the small museum, I realized how much history there is everywhere around us. Sure, we have the lessons we were taught in school and those heavy history books we lugged from class to class, but learning about this specific area in Virginia and how it was home to so many Scottish emigrants only a few hundred years ago made the history so much more real in my mind. Not only was I learning about the people who once lived here, I was walking it. While the writings in this gallery may never reach a U.S. history book, it seemed just as important to me as anything other chapter I might read. I was walking through a similar landscape that so many others have witnessed before me, and that made the connection between the present and the past seem much more alive.
It was already midday and we still had 10 miles to go, so it was time to keep moving along the trail again. I pocketed a brochure from the museum to send home later, swung my backpack over my shoulders and hips and continued across the Virginia landscape. The rest of that day was just as beautiful as the first half: we crossed through farmlands and were able to see cows and other livestock from a distance. This was one of the first times on the trail I remember walking through something other than ridgelines and an endless forest of trees. It was a welcoming break to see the trail taking us through an open field.
We camped at a designated campsite later than night and grew into a large group when a few other fellow thru-hikers Sugar Magnolia, TR, and Wookie joined us for the night, to. It was another fun night as we all sat in a big circle eating dinner around our tents and staying up close to hiker midnight talking and sharing stories. By the end of the night, I began thinking about my other family. Should I be camping with them? Am I still hiking with them?
The next day, I passed the 1/4 mark of the Appalachian Trail. It was absolutely surreal that I was already a quarter of the way done with the trail, but, at the same time, also a bit overwhelming that I was only a quarter of the way done with the trail. A river of memories since I started the trail flooded my mind and I thought back to how much I experienced through 550 miles of Appalachian terrain. Even though I walked practically every inch of this trail, it was still incredibly difficult to grasp the fact that my own two legs and whatever is on my back carried me 500 miles.
I decided it was too complex to think about and continued walking through the day. When I got to mile 2,189, that would be a good time to think about what it means to walk through my life.
I ran into Snuggles, Darwin, Roub and Supermoon only a few short times over the next following days, and I missed hiking with them. I was hiking more miles in fewer days, and it felt really good to push my body further each day. I knew that the more miles I hiked, the less I would see them as the distance would increase between us. I had to keep reminding myself that this was my hike and I had to keep moving at the pace I wanted.
I was having the most fun I ever had on the trail. I saw the most beautiful sunset atop Chestnut Knob shelter as we had almost a 360 degree view of the rolling valleys beneath us. A few days later, we had pizza delivered to us from Pizza Plus outside Bland, VA on the side of the highway. Why go into town to get pizza when you can have the pizza delivered right to you on the trail? The following day, what was supposed to be a 17 mile day turned into a short 7 mile day as we visited Dismal Falls and got sucked into it’s waterfall scenery. There were places to camp right next to the falls and it was an easy hitch into Trent’s Grocery to pick up food and beer for the night. So, we stopped our hike short, setup camp, and spent the rest of the day drinking by the falls and staying up way past hiker midnight (which equals to a startling 9:45pm bedtime). I had a lot of fun that night and drank quite a few beers, but waking up the next morning was a different story. It’s one thing to wake up hung-over in your comfy bed, walk a few feet to the kitchen sink to fill a glass of water, and then walk back to your bed and hide underneath the covers. It’s another thing entirely to wake up with a pounding headache, pack up your entire home, realize you have no water left and that you must go through the process of filtering it before you can drink it, not drink as nearly as much water as you should because that means more filtering, and somehow manage to stand on two feet to hike 12 miles with a 1,500 foot climb thrown into the day for good measure.
To say the least, that was not my best hiking day. Those 12 miles felt just as hard as my first 8 miles on the first day on the trail. But the good thing was we were walking to a hostel that day, and then the day after that we would be walking into Pearisburg, VA. So, at least I had some good motivators.
Woodshole and Pearisburg
We stayed at Woodshole Hostel, which is my favorite hostel on the trail so far. Woodshole is a cabin and farmhouse just a half-mile off the trail owned by a woman named Neville. Yellow, Tree Arm, Coco, Magnus, Translator, Doc and I tented in the back, but the bunkhouse was a cabin as well. The whole place had a very organic and welcoming ambiance to it, with fresh, lively gardens growing on the side of the property and outdoor showers and toilets that were built with wood and tile. They had an extremely comfortable hammock that I had a hard time getting out of it was so dreamy, and a book exchange, which was perfect because I had just finished reading my novel a few days before. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention their homemade fruit smoothies. It was paradise just sipping on those while reading a book on their front lawn . That night, Neville and a few of her helpers made breakfast for dinner and it was nothing short of amazing. There were at least 20 people staying for the night, and we all sat around tables in her dining room. The dinner was done family-style, and before we ate, Neville had us go around the room and talk about what we were thankful for. It’s moments like these that I hope to remember and share forever – a room full of people that might have started off as strangers, but by the end of the night, are close friends.
The next morning, Neville usually holds a yoga session, but since Coco is a yoga teacher back home, she asked if she could do it for Neville instead. Coco is so wonderful at teaching yoga! After hiking with Coco for the past few weeks, it was so nice to see her lead a group of us muscle-sore hikers and help us into the stretches as best as we can. She ended our session on a meditative note and I felt refreshed and revitalized for the day ahead.
The hike into Pearisburg was a relatively easy one, and I was looking forward to the zero day we were going to spend there. First things first, however: Chinese Buffet! We checked into our rooms and then headed across the street into what would be my second venture into Chinese buffets along the Appalachian Trail.
That night, we relaxed with beer, playing the mustache game on TV, and staying up talking as I shared stories with my family and got to know them a little bit better. The next morning, I walked across the street to resupply, and Tree Arm, Doc and I cruised around downtown Pearisburg into random shops to pass the time and eat some food. We walked into this tiny office supply shop that was being run by an older lady wearing a thick layer of makeup and blonde hair. At my feet, I watched as a tiny dog yipped on the ground on the other side of the door. She asked us if we were thru-hikers and asked the same string of questions that we thru-hikers so normally get asked. We gave our responses and then she turned to ask me if I was scared to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“No, not really,” I said. I knew exactly where this was going.
“So, you aren’t scared hiking by yourself?”
“Well, I’m not really hiking by myself. I make friends along the way. And even if I was hiking by myself, no, I wouldn’t really be scared,” I said. Conversations like these really annoy me.
“Well, you’re braver than me. I would be too scared. You just never know what could happen out there and who is out there.”
And you will never understand until you actually hike it, I wanted to say. I have so much respect for the trail, it bothers me when people question it. We said goodbye and continued walking around the town.
There were still a few things left I wanted to do before the day was over, including sewing the rest of my patches onto my backpack. Tree Arm was sewing up his shoes in the hiker lounge, so I joined him as we had our own little sewing party. It was also Cinco de Mayo, so for dinner, we walked to the nearest Mexican restaurant and ate our fill in $1 tacos and tasty margaritas. For the rest of the night, we continued sewing, drank a lot of beer, and stayed up way past hiker midnight watching movies. Knowing that I should probably get some sleep before our 21 mile day the next morning, I headed to bed.
Zip Lines, Dragons, and Cowboys
That 21 mile day took us to The Captain’s, a free place to tent outside a previous thru-hiker’s home. What is unique about The Captain’s was that we had to zip line across the creek to get to the camping on the other side. I was a little nervous about somehow falling into the creek, but with Doc and Tree Arm’s advice about pushing off from the ground to gather enough force to get to the other side, I miraculously made it scratch-free. It was getting late as hiking 21 miles took a long time for me that day, so I barely had enough time to cook dinner before it got dark, and then I crawled into my tent to rest up for the next day.
The next morning, I had to zip line back across the creek to get the trail. I watched Doc as she safely made it over to the other side, and felt totally confident with this whole zip lining thing. I got this. I did it once before, I could do it again, no problem. Noooo problem. I hooked my backpack onto the line and sat on the rope seat, preparing myself for the push-off. I kicked my feet off the ground… and oh, oops. I forgot that one very important part about holding onto the rope swing. Three seconds later and about ten feet from the edge of the creek, my butt fell from the seat and my feet splashed into the water. I was holding myself up with all the strength I had, but my lack of upper-body strength leaves a lot to be desired. I struggled to lift myself back onto the seat, but I just couldn’t do it. My shoes and socks were already wet, so what choice did I have?
“Ah, efff it.” I rolled up my shorts as high as I could and let myself drop into the creek. Like a puppy who just peed on the carpet when he knows he’s not supposed to, I drooped my head in shame and forged the creek to the other side, carrying the zip line with my backpack the rest of the way. Doc was laughing and I’m glad she was – it made me feel a little bit better about my embarrassing predicament. But it still sucked. And now I had to walk all day in wet shoes and socks. Oh well. It’s not any worse than walking in the rain.
“I’m going to leave now,” I told Doc. “And pretend like that never happened.”
Nobody else had crossed the creek yet besides Doc and me, so I decided to get ahead of the group and think about how much of a mess my life is and really contemplate how I could have handled that better. But mostly, I just wanted dry socks. And the only way to get dry socks and shoes was to hike in them until my body heat worked it’s magic.
Over the next few days, the weather warmed up to sunny skies and 80 degree temperatures with high humidity. It was the hottest hiking I had encountered yet on the trail. My body was sweating worse than a high school student taking a test in a crowded auditorium with only 5 minutes left to complete 10 math questions.
I could barely drink enough water to keep up with how much I was sweating. But even worse than that was…
I can hike with sore feet, even if they feel like a hammer is pounding into my heels with every step. I can hike on three hours of sleep, even if every step makes me want to plop over onto the ground. I can hike through the most annoying gnats and flies in the world, even if I want to curse and murder every single last one of them.
But I cannot, with all my mighty willpower, hike with chafing. The pain becomes so awful, so unbearable, it comes up through my throat and makes me want to vomit. And even worse than the chafing was where it was occurring: right on my butt.
I wanted to cry with every step. Because with every step, I knew I was making it worse. But there was nothing I could do. I stupidly sent home my Gold Bond hundreds of miles ago, thinking I would never need it. And the nearest town to get Body Glide was in Daleville, which was still over 50 miles away. The best I could do was to take breaks often to let my sweaty body dry off, but really that didn’t do anything. Yellow was so nice to let me borrow her Gold Bond one day, which helped, but only for a few minutes at a time. Gold Bond is great at relieving the chafed skin that is already there, but it doesn’t prevent chafing, and I was sweating enough to wash away any positive effects of the powder in 15 minutes.
With the combination of walking slowly, taking lots of breaks, and reapplying Gold Bond every 30 minutes, I was able to continue my awkward wobble of a hike each day. I could not wait to get into Daleville.
But first we had to get to Daleville. Along the way, we hit Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee’s Knob, milestones I was looking forward to seeing since the beginning of my hike. Tree Arm and I reached Dragon’s Tooth together, and hiked up the monolith as high as we could go. I am terribly afraid of heights, so I didn’t make it too far. But it was fun trying. On the way down from Dragon’s Tooth is a steep two-mile climb littered with rocky terrain. It was the most difficult descent we’ve had on the trail. I was so glad Yellow and Tree Arm were hiking with me at that point, because it would’ve been extremely difficult to do alone with my backpack on. We helped each other as we handed off trekking poles and figured out the best placement for our feet as we balanced our way off rocks. It was a long climb, but one of the most memorable.
Later that day, when my butt chafing was attacking me with full force, I finally made it up to McAfee’s Knob. And of course, we got there on a Saturday. Day hikers… EVERYWHERE. I have nothing against day hikers (except when they don’t respect trail etiquette), but the last thing I want after a long 17-mile hike to get up to the top of a mountain or a very photogenic rock is to be surrounded by day hikers who only had to hike 3 miles on a very smooth, rock-free path to get to the same spot I did. Not only that, but the day hikers become so amazed by thru-hikers that they bombard us with the same questions every other day hiker I have walked by on the Appalachian Trail has asked me. Normally, I try to be as patient as I can. But after a long 17-mile hike where my butt cheeks have been rubbed raw and I just want to sit down on the most photographed rock on the Appalachian Trail and watch the sunset in peace, I really didn’t feel like talking to anybody.
I got up to McAfee’s just after 6:00pm, which meant that most day hikers were leaving and I sighed in relief. I still had a few more hours until the sunset, and sat down next to Translator, Yellow, and Tree Arm as we talked about our day. While we were sitting up there, enjoying the view and watching the day hikers leave one by one, Yellow had the brilliant idea of camping at the Knob. It clearly states on multiple spots along the Knob “NO CAMPING.” Our original plan was to stay at the shelter a mile north of the Knob for the night, but we really wanted to watch the sunrise from the Knob the next morning too. And we figured… if we just cowboy camped on the rocks, and didn’t set up our tents, we wouldn’t be disturbing any vegetation surrounding the area.
So, it didn’t take long to convince ourselves that this was definitely something we needed to do. Right before sunset, Yellow and I rolled out our sleeping bags across the flat rocks that make up McAfee’s Knob, giving ourselves a safe distance from the edge, so you know, we wouldn’t roll off and fall 3,000 feet to our deaths or whatever. The rest of the group found other similar spots along the rock to sleep for the night.
That night was my favorite night on the trail. We had McAfee’s Knob to ourselves, and it was the perfect night to cowboy camp. The sky was crystal clear, allowing a full view of the glowing stars. I lied down on the rocks, staring at the stars for hours, and watched as several satellites spun through the sky. We stayed up late talking, and it was a night I never wanted to end. I couldn’t imagine anything better than lying on those rocks, studying what very few constellations I knew about the night sky that was painted so brightly before me.
The next morning was still the weekend, so we had some day hikers and sorority girls join us in the morning hours before a foggy sunrise. I couldn’t complain as the night before was so beautiful, but the hikers that did not stay the night before were a little bummed the sunrise was so foggy the valleys weren’t even visible down below.
I packed up my things, prepared for another day of hiking and the next stop: Daleville. It would be a 16-mile day into town, the longest hike we would have into a town since being out on the trail. Our concept of a “Nero Day” has been severely skewed.
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