On The Trail: Week 6 and 7 (part 1)
Wednesday, April 6th
Overmountain Shelter to Vango Abby Memorial Hostel
We wake up and I can immediately see my breath. It’s hard finding the courage to get out of my sleeping bag, but eventually do when nature calls. I notice Skibo has already left this morning, and the fire is still going leftover from his breakfast. I use the opportunity to start boiling water for a hot breakfast. The sooner we eat the sooner we can get moving and warm. Everyone else has the same mindset, and it isn’t long before the barn is empty. It’s a race to Hampton before the cold snap that’s on its way. We hope to finish with an 18 mile day and a 16 mile day. It’s so windy as we come up over the balds that we barely get a chance to enjoy the views. As we begin the descents for the day, we discuss possible alternatives to our mileage. We make it to the gap for lunch and look at the AWOL guide as we eat. It’s 2:30, and getting to the shelter would only be another 8 miles. But there’s a hostel not more than a half mile off trail in 13 miles, which would make for a 22+ mile total for the day. We decide to go for it, and call to reserve a room with the owner Scotty, aka Trekkie, before hauling ass to get there. Just before passing the shelter, we meet back up with Ron Jon and let him know our plan to get closer to Hampton for tomorrow. Never missing the opportunity to do large miles, he decides to follow. We all make it past the shelter and onto the blue blazed trail that leads to Vango Abby Memorial Hostel. Unfortunately upon arriving, our expectations immediately turn to disappointment. The bunkhouse had filled up, and he had given away the room we reserved. To make up for the trouble, Trekkie offers us his Winebago for the evening – not exactly a sight for sore eyes. It’s filled with junk, and furnished with a dusty mattress in the loft above the front seats. We decide to stay in it, if for nothing more than being able to say that we slept in the Vango Winebago. He says that we can stay for free too, a token of goodwill for giving away our reservation. He also tells us that the wifi is down, which means no PayPal. Ron Jon spots us for frozen pizza, and while it cooks I call the Black Bear Resort in Hampton from the house phone. I reserve two nights in the cabins for a proper zero. We finish our pizza and say our goodnights after agreeing to meet at the cabins the next day. The musty smell of the Winebago keeps me up, but I eventually fall asleep.
Thursday, April 7th
Vango Abby Memorial Hostel to Black Bear Resort
Tenderfoot and I start the day irritated by the weather, and by our poor nights sleep. I’m eager to be up and out of there, even with the lingering rain and cold. We finally pack and start the remaining 12 miles to the cabin. The morning is damp and windy, and there’s a chill in the air that makes layering impossible. We silently chug through the morning, not even stopping to have a snack as we make our way down the ridgeline. The road comes into sight, and we see the sign for the Black Bear Resort a half mile down. It comes into sight within minutes, and we head to the desk to check in. Thankfully our reservations are upheld this time around, and we’re relieved to see the clean and organized facility. The cabins are cozy and warm, the showers are hot, the common room has a computer and tv with endless movies, and a full selection of food and beverages. Essentially it’s a hiker’s paradise. The caretakers are helpful and kind, and we immediately make ourselves comfortable. Ron Jon, Disco, Scuba, Gadget, and Three Jack all stoll in soon after we arrive, and we all congregate in The Bear’s Den common room to watch Space Balls. Everyone takes turns doing laundry and sharing the computer, until the shuttle is ready to take us all into town. The road to Hampton is winding, and I do everything in my power not to get car sick. We pick up a few items for our zero day and a resupply at Dollar General. After losing my appetite from the car ride, I order a meek meal at McDonalds that I save until after we make the treacherous drive back. I sprint for the cabin when we get back to the resort, and spend the next two hours with my stomach in knots. When I finally get up, it’s dark outside. Now with a ravenous appetite, I eat my bag of fast food before settling back into bed for the evening. The beds have fresh linens and thick comforters, and I sleep like a baby as the temperature drops into the teens.
Friday, April 8th and Saturday, April 9th
Double Zero at Black Bear Resort
We spend the next two days making ourselves at home. I wake up on Friday feeling refreshed after an abundant amount of sleep. My stomach feels much better, so I eat cereal with real milk, that kept cold outside all night, for the first time since we started. This is only our second full zero on the trail, and I soak up the feeling of having nothing to do for the day. I take my time eating breakfast after sleeping in. When we finally do get out of bed, we join our trail-mates in The Bear Den where everyone is discussing the weather forecast for the next two evenings. Apparently it’s supposed to snow this evening, and be in and below the 20’s the majority of the next 48 hours. After a group discussion, we all agree that although we have adequate gear, it’s not quite enough to prepare us for those kind of lows with wind chill. Staying the next two nights is the most sensible option, and it can never hurt to give our bodies another day of rest. We settle in, and the two days are filled with hot showers, more McDonalds, naps, alcoholic beverages, and good movies. Everyone smiles and laughs as we tell stories of our home states and get to know each other in a setting outside of the normal hike and camp routine. By day two, I feel like we’ve been tennants forever. After our first day of relaxation, our bodies already feel like they’ve had a lifetime to heal – a relief from the constant ache of being a thru-hiker. It feels like home here, especially with all the cold, and I find myself missing the comforts back in Maine. Being away has certainly given me an appreciation for home. It starts to hail and sleet on night two of three, and we’re all glad we made the decision to stay when we wake up to a freezing cold blanket of snow.
As nice as it feels to kick back, we finally pack up and get ready to leave on Sunday morning. Next stop is Virginia, and there’s warm weather on the horizon.
Sunday, April 10th
Black Bear Resort to Vanderventer Shelter
We wake up just as Ron Jon is leaving for the day, which has become the typical routine. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll ever be early risers out here. We take one last shower and eat a quick breakfast before saying our thank yous for their excellent hospitality and checking out. We have a bit of a climb around Laurel Creek before wrapping around Watauga Lake and making our ascent onto the final ridgeline of Tennessee. The day goes by quickly, and it feels amazing to have the sun out and the weather warmer again. We’re feeling good until around mile 16 when we start to tire following two and a half days of inactivity. A few of our companions have pushed on to the next shelter, but there are still some familiar faces that stop at Vanderventer. We set up the Echo II for the first time in days, and it feels good to be in our home away from home again. We make dinner by the fire, and it’s nice to not be shivering. I can’t believe how much I missed eating trail burritos, and we make our way to the tent well fed. Tomorrow will be a long but easy day across the ridgeline. I missed being rolled up in my Feathered Friends sleeping bag and my Thermarest sleeping pad. The night is calm and beautiful, and I fall asleep instantly.
Monday, April 11th
Vanderventer Shelter to Abingdon Gap Shelter
We wake up early, but take our time as usual getting out of the tent. Having a comfortable sleep system is a double edged sword. You can either sleep comfortably and never want to get out of bed, or you can sleep like crap and have no desire to lay around in the morning. We pack up and enjoy the gorgeous weather while starting the day off with music. It’s midday in no time, and the day passes by quickly with views overlooking the last of Tennessee. The terrain and the elevation is forgiving, and we arrive at the shelter around 6:00pm after a 22+ mile day. We don’t see Ron Jon, and estimate he did back to back marathon days in order to make it into Damascus – an achievement that I know we won’t live down for not having followed. We opt to sleep in the shelter for the evening in order to force us out of bed earlier. We’re only 10 miles away from Damascus, and this will be our last night in Tennessee. I fall asleep as it starts to rain.
Tuesday, April 12th
Abingdon Gap Shelter to Woodchuck Hostel
It’s still sprinkling when we wake up, and it’s easy packing up quickly and getting a move on. I’m comforted by the thought that my water resistant gear is performing as expected, not having had the opportunity to test it that often with the extremely dry weather we’ve had this year. After the first few hours of hiking, we reach the Tennessee/Virginia border. We stop for a moment to reflect on what’s now behind us, and try to imagine what’s still left ahead of us. After taking it all in, we cross our third state line, and waste no time on the downhill into Damascus. We emerge among a rural neighborhood, and walk along the river until the turnoff that goes through the center of town. On the walk there, we discuss our options for the evening, and decide to check in at Woodchuck Hostel since we have a package there anyway. When we arrive, The Mayo Boys are there and they immediately tell us how great the hostel is, and I’m sold when Ass Captain mentions unlimited waffles in the morning. It only gets better when we meet Woodchuck himself. He’s a silver haired, relaxed guy who tells us the house rules and tells us to make ourselves at home before letting us know what he has available. We hear him mention we can sleep in the teepee in his back yard, and immediately decide we can’t pass that up. The teepee is huge, and it’s easy spreading our gear across the Indian rugs that line the floor.
Woodchuck also tells us that there are hot showers with a full stock of shampoo and body wash, which I am so thankful for even after only two days since Hampton. Once we get clean, we put in a load of laundry before heading to Pizza Plus to stuff our faces at the buffet. We eat our fill, and then head into the center of town to resupply at Dollar General and stop into Mount Rogers Outfitters to update our gear. We end up getting a few bags of Mountain House including the Fire Roasted Vegetable Medly and, my new favorite breakfast meal, Apple Crisp. We also pick up two Platypus Hosers with caps to replace our Camelbak bladder and SmartWater bottle system, along with a 64oz Sawyer bag. We head back to unload everything in the teepee, and on our way back we bump into Ron Jon. Smug about getting to town before us, he uses the term “slackers” when describing our speed getting there. We all decide to meet up later for a Mexican dinner at Hey Joe’s. When we get there. It’s a good old reunion with the bubble when we get there, and we push a few tables together in true thru-hiker fashion. We feast on greasy Mexican fare before retiring for the evening. The teepee keeps the heat in well, and we pack everything so that we’re ready to hit the old dusty trail after a big breakfast in the morning.
Wednesday, April 13th
Woodchuck Hostel to Lost Mountain Shelter
We wake up and make a break for the dining room, where Woodchuck is cooking away at what smells like an incredible morning feast. We sit down and start in on unlimited coffee and cereal, while also admiring the spread on the table that includes three different kinds of syrup, fruit, almond milk, regular milk, orange juice, butter, whipped cream, and ketchup. Woodchuck brings out a stack of hot blueberry waffles, hash browns, boiled eggs, and fresh cut fruit. It’s one of the best breakfasts I think I’ve ever had. I just put down three servings of waffles before tapping out. We each get one last shower in before saying a sad farewell and thanking Woodchuck for everything. Our packs are heavy with food, and we do a few errands around town before making our way out. As we get to the edge of town, we spot The Hiker Yearbook traveling school bus parked in the Moe Joes parking lot.
We stop in and meet Odie, the creator of the yearbook, and I run into Moejoe’s to get a Trail Magic Frappe. Finally, at 11:00pm, we say goodbye to Damascus. The sun is out, and it’s a gorgeous day with blue skies. It’s 15 miles to the shelter, and other than the first climb coming out of town the terrain is fairly moderate following th Creeper Trail. We make it to camp in no time, and share the space with Ron Jon, Three Jack, Old Fox, The Rock, Gadget, Scuba, and Disco. Everyone sits around the fire after dinner, excitedly discussing going through the renound Grayson Highlands tomorrow. I’ve never seen so many grown men giddy to see ponies. A few are planning to do a 24 mile day followed by a 23 mile day in order to make it to Partnership Shelter, aka The Pizza Shelter, where you can have pizza delivered within a tenth of a mile. We decide that it’s an opportunity we can’t pass up, and hit the hay early for the big days ahead.
Thursday, April 14th
Lost Mountain Shelter to Old Orchard Shelter
We beat the sun waking up this morning, and I quickly get up to grab the bear bag so we get breakfast in us before packing down the tent. This is the earliest we’ve been up in a while, and we have our packs on in record time, only minutes behind Ron Jon for a change. We make our first big ascent over the base of Whitetop Mountain and onto the bald and brushy ridgeline. Late in the morning we stop for a quick snack that gets washed down with a caffeinated juice mix. It’s just into the afternoon when we see our first signs of the ponies. There’s two grazing in the brush only a few yards from the trail as we come upon Thomas Knob Shelter. We take another quick break before rushing into the Grayson Highlands, excitedly looking for more ponies. The rocky and grassy landscape is vast and magnificent as we make our way through. It isn’t long before we come across another group of wild ponies grazing – this time I count over a dozen. Two walk right up to us on the trail, and I’m overwhelmed with the surreal feeling of finally being here.
After a lot of photos, we set our eyes to camp, still quite a distance from camp. With music on, perfect weather, and clear evening skies, we hike until the sun just begins to set behind the highlands that we had been on only hours earlier. We arrive at camp exhausted and sore, glad to see the other had made it too. Being late ourselves, and with no sign of Ron Jon, we expect to be the last arriving for the night. But sure enough, within an hour of arriving and in the middle of cooking dinner, we see Ron Jon stroll into camp. We suspect the taunting comment, that included the term “slacker”, we had left in the log book a few miles back may have been a factor in his arrival. After making pizza rice burritos and spending a few sleepy moments by the fire, we make our way to the tent. We give each other a quick foot rub before falling into a deep and well deserved sleep
Friday, April 15th
Old Orchard Shelter to Partnership Shelter
It’s incredibly late by the time we wake up. Most of the people in the shelter are packed or gone already, a discouraging thought when our ambition to move is so low. Everything hurts from the day before, and we each take some vitamin-I before even considering packing up. It’s 10:00am when we finally do make it out of camp, a discouraging notion when you still have 23 miles in the day. We silently make our way up and over the day’s PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs), not sure if we’ll make it to Partnership Shelter after all. At Dickey Gap, we spot Walnut and his grandmother doing Trail Magic, complete with burgers, hot dogs, chips, soda, and snacks. It’s exactly what I want, and well fed we decide to only make it a few more miles to a tent site just after the next shelter. However when we pass a sign indicating it’s 7.8 to the shelter at 6:00pm, we change our minds and decide to haul ass – if not for the pizza then to not give Ron Jon the satisfaction of calling us slackers again. We’re almost running for two hours, only stopping to call within the last two miles for our delivery. It’s dark for the remaining forty minutes, but we arrive just around 8:30pm to cheers from the group that’s already there. The pizza arrives only moments after – a well deserved treat for our persistance today. My body is sore after I sit down for a few minutes, and we throw our sleep gear in the upstairs loft since there isn’t camping allowed around the shelter. I’m asleep almost instantly when my head hits the pillow.
Saturday, April 16th
Partnership Shelter to Davis Hollow
I can feel the strain on my body as soon as I wake up, and it keeps me from sleeping in too late. Tenderfoot is still sound asleep, and I let him rest while I gather the bear bag and pack everything up. There’s a shower at the shelter, although the water is still cold until the visitor’s center turns the water heater on for the season. I decide to take a cold shower anyway, knowing it will make me feel at least slightly refreshed for our day ahead. By the time I’m done, Tenderfoot is awake and ready to eat breakfast before heading out. We discuss possible mileage as we scarf down honey buns, setting our expectations low knowing we should take it a slow today with everything so sore. We pass through the small town of Atkins which is only ten miles away, so we aim to make it just outside of town for the night. The weather is a perfect 75 degrees and breezy again, a forecast that looks predicted into the beginning of next week. We’ve been spoiled with our good weather fortune since hitting Virginia. As we pass the old Lindamood Schoolhouse, we see a note indicating Trail Magic inside. There are bins of snacks, cold soda, and a little of everything for resupply needs thanks to the West End United Methodist Church. It isn’t long after stopping that we reach Atkins. The Barn Restaurant is right up the street from the trail, and we stop in for a late lunch so that we don’t have to cook dinner later. I have myself a true southern meal, complete with sweet tea, pulled pork, cole slaw, and potato salad. For a small and quiet place, the food is surprisingly good. Although my perception on food taste now is most likely tainted from all the Ramen noodles we’ve eaten out here. On our way out of town we grab a few quick snacks to tide us over until Pearisburg before making the 2 miles out to Davis Hollow. The tenting is perfect, and we meet back up with Scuba, Gadget, Disco, and The Rock spending the night there as well. Thankfully everyone ate in town, so we all sit around the fire talking about how unreal Virgina has been so far. We go to bed long before hiker midnight, still tired from the day before.
Sunday, April 17th
Davis Hollow to Lick Creek
We wake up early again this morning, unsure what we’ll do for mileage yet. After eating a hot breakfast we figure we’ll just go as far as we can until we’re tired and stop somewhere around water. It’s not long before we pack up and leave, and the morning passes quickly. We arrive upon the AT ¼ of the way marker around lunch, and stop to enjoy our accomplishment with some snacks. The day is filled with PUDs, and we’re both tempted to get off for a Nero at a nearby hostel before telling ourselves no and continuing. We have full intention to make it to the next shelter, but stop short at Lick Creek when we see a perfect little campsite to the side of the footbridge. The day has been warm, and we each take a moment to soak our feet in the river before setting up for the night. I get to work on cooking while Tenderfoot sets up the tent. We leave the beak off tonight to allow for optimal air flow, and it works like a charm now that the evenings are warmer. After a quick night dip in the creek, we both dry off and get in bed for a sound sleep.
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Not sure if you and/or Tyson remember me. I’m TJ Hesler Phys. Ed/Helath Teacher /track/XC Coach at Massabesic. I have become somewhat of an AT groupie!! I read Appalachia Trials most days, just checking out different blogs. I had seen yours and recognized the name. Then today your mom was substituting in the gym and talking about your adventure and how she joined you so we chatted a bit and she told me I should post on your blog here.
I am in awe and envious of you thru hikers. What you do is so impressive. It is a pipe dream of mine for when I retire. I don;t even backpack yet,just big day hikes including a few one day Presidential traverses and other big days up in Baxter or else where.
Anyway just though I’d let you know that someone else from your home state is following your journey. I hope to be on various parts of the trail this summer and will continue to follow you guys and be rooting for you. If I was ever near where you guys were later in the summer I’d love to offer rides, food or whatever trail magic would help you. I know its a long shot but I’ll follow your progress through Appalachian trials. Keep up the great work.