Pastureland & The Virginia Triple Crown

The Honeymoon is Over 

After living outside in the mountains for over a month, as with anything, new habits begin to form and what you’re engrained in becomes your new normal. Once fueled on the pent-up energy of starting our hike and enjoying the novelty of everything we were experiencing, this fuel source eventually ran out. More and more I’ve found myself turning toward audiobooks, podcasts, music, and even Pokemon Go to keep my mind occupied. While these strategies work well to make the miles melt by, I know they are also distractions.
I’ve started to incorporate morning mindful miles into my daily routine. Every day for the first 5 miles I restrict myself from engaging with my phone and attempt to limit my mind from wandering off. I direct my attention to whatever sensations are occurring in the present; the feeling of my feet stepping over rocks, the sound of birds singing, and the rhythm of my breath. When the mind wanders off, I gently redirect attention back to these sensations. This is all easier said than done. The mind can be a truly chaotic place.

Adventures with Wilderness Bob 

As two introverts, me and Hotdog need to be mindful of not suffocating each other, so I began the day by hiking alone. Later in the day, I’d meet an older thru-hiker and triple crowner named Wilderness Bob, who is originally from the Catskills region of upstate New York. With a big white beard, hiking boots, cargo shorts, and a button-up shirt, he’s the classic image of a backpacker before the boom of ultralight hiking took off. We hiked and took breaks with Wilderness Bob throughout the day. Sitting on 3 stumps looking over Rye Valley, Wilderness Bob passed along his philosophy of living a simple life, stories of fording rivers on the CDT and watching desert sunsets on the PCT, and a load of practical hiking tips. He’s the type of guy you could expect to see with books like, “Wilderness Bob’s Guide to Long Distance Hiking” or “Stories and Lessons from A Life of Hiking” in the outdoor section of a Barnes & Noble.
When me and Hotdog reunited around mid-day we decided to push a 23-mile day to finish at Partnership Shelter. In our guide, the shelter was noted as having a sink and hot shower, but the real draw was the rumor of a landline phone and a pizza place willing to deliver straight to the trail. We told Wilderness Bob the news and all 3 of us put some pep in our step to reach the shelter before sundown. Thankfully the rumors were true and we enjoyed eating fresh pizza while sitting on the stoop of the pit toilet. A true thru-hiker luxury.

Avoiding the Burn in Marion

We took the public shuttle to the town of Marion the next day. With a controlled burn scheduled at the next section of the trail, we had nothing but time to kill for the first half of the day. After resupplying at Walmart we headed downtown and I enjoyed an Açaí bowl because eating something fresh feels like heaven after living in processed food hell for a few days, and we drank enough coffee to give us the jitters. We visited the local outfitters, Marion Outdoors, and I noticed a sticker with a picture of a cat that said “Mr. Pickles”. I asked if this was their shop cat, and they told me that Mr. Pickles, who had passed away in December, was the real mayor of Marion, known for walking up and down the streets of the town and checking in on the shops. It’s a shame that this cat empire is no more, all utopias fail eventually, but Mr.Pickles now lives on in spirit on my water bottle.
We got back on the trail late in the afternoon and hiked onward to the burn area. When we got there we found fellow hikers Ghost, Last Mile, and Peanut Butter, as well as a few other new faces. The burn was still going on; flames and the Cherokee Hotshots could be seen in the woods from the trailhead we were stopped at. A very nice and sociable forest ranger named Jake was chatting with us and very kindly promised to escort us onward once the burn was wrapped up. We essentially ended up with a guided nature walk, stopping here and there to learn about the purpose of these controlled burns. Jake also turned out to be an ultrarunner, so we enjoyed chatting about our shared passion for the sport.

A Late Night Surprise 

Catching ourselves behind in miles for the day, we decided to hike on into the night. In the middle of the darkness, we came out to the glowing neon sign of a Sunoco gas station, hypnotizing us with its lights, but mostly with its promise of high-calorie food and cold drinks. We sat outside the store, located directly off the interstate, eating ice cream and Gatorade. Finding joy and euphoria in simple things is part of the beauty of thru-hiking. We continued under the interstate and through rolling pastures. We saved our headlamp batteries thanks to the full moon beaming brightly in the clear sky, bright enough for us to see our shadows a couple of hours past sunset. Hiking in the dark on a full moon has become a tradition for us. We set up camp briefly after stepping out of a pasture.

Smoky Mountain Reunion 

We arose to some light rain and tired legs, but nothing that an afternoon Fika break and an encounter with our good friend Quick on the Draw couldn’t solve. We crossed the sign indicating we had hiked 1/4 of the trail, which was simultaneously exciting and disheartening. We were making real progress, but it also felt like we had seen so much and put in so much effort to have only made it a quarter of the way. It was a humbling moment and a reminder to bring our focus back to the next step ahead.
We walked through beautiful farmland and mountaintop meadows with panoramic views. The day culminated at Chestnut Knob Shelter, where we linked up with Quick on the Draw. The area had a fantastic view of Burke’s Garden (also called God’s Thumbprint), a bowl-like valley 8.5 miles long. It looked like a large crater created by an asteroid, but with my Midwest brain, all I could think about was the Hidden Valley ranch bottle.

Refuge in a Mountain Hut 

It was just me, Hotdog, and Quick on the Draw for the night. Treating this as a reunion of our shared suffering in the Smokies several hundred miles ago, we all decided to stay in the shelter for the night, despite my mouse anxiety. Chestnut Knob shelter is a unique, fully enclosed shelter that was once a Fire warden’s cabin. High on top of the knob with bunks inside, the shelter reminded me more of a mountain hut in the Swiss Alps or the Himalayas. This image immediately dissipates, however, when the echos of mooing cows travel up from the valley below.

A Lush Tunnel of Green 

In the last week of April Spring began to bloom. When you walk with Spring you notice how quickly the forest changes, with all the trees acting in unison. Sugar maples and beech trees unfurled their bright green leaves, and we even came across the occasional bright pink bloom of a Rhododendron. The green tunnel was forming, but it was a nice change of pace to feel embraced by life all around us.

Luck of the Irish 

Early in our day after leaving Chestnut Knob, we met Shamrock, a recently retired Marine and the first hiker we have seen who has started after us. Aiming to finish in 110 days or less, he’s set a high bar for himself. We shared several miles, talking about the military, Ultrarunning, and our shared philosophy of pushing ourselves hard in the backcountry. Shamrock left us with good luck on the day as we experienced fine weather, good spirits, and strong legs to close out a marathon. I even crossed paths with the parents of the hiker, Jolly, who created the shirt I was wearing.

Hostel Triple Crown 

Weary Feet & A Restful Night 

The next day was a short 14 miler to Weary Feet Hostel, a large white historic house in the middle of Virginia farmland. With a thin crowd, it was a calm stay and a nice change of pace compared to our prior hostel stays. We met a hiker named Plan B who thru-hiked the prior year, and an older section hiker who got the name Rocky since she’s a retired geology professor. The hostel owner Julie cooked us a huge home-cooked meal of spaghetti, which I stuffed myself with until I was sick. I joked with Hotdog that I might be the first person in AT history to gain weight on the trail.
We slept well, and in the morning we talked to Robert, who made us pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast. With camo suspenders, blue jeans, a handlebar mustache, a southern accent, and a lip full of dip, Robert regaled us with stories of all the past thru-hikers who have passed through. The most notable story was of a hiker who had gotten nipped in the butt by a bear when coming out of a privy. Owning or working at a hostel seems like a way to meet all kinds of interesting people.

Peace & Cheese at Woods Hole 

We hiked out of Weary Feet with full bellies and loads of energy. Early on we stopped at Dismal Creek Falls and took our first dip in the water, something we would do often back home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Feeling refreshed we walked on towards Wood Hole hostel. We weren’t planning to stay there, but Plan B had told us they serve fresh bread and Amish cheese, so we thought we’d stop in.
Woods Hole was better than I could have imagined. We enjoyed an entire block of Munster cheese with fresh bread and apple butter. When we arrived, the hostel owner was leading hikers through an afternoon yoga routine. The hostel was located In a beautiful log cabin built in 1880. With an organic garden, 2 cats, vegetarian meals, and a beautiful porch, it was hard not to sink into a deep feeling of peace and contentment. My only regret on the AT so far is not staying the night at Woods Hole. We said goodbye to two temporary workers and past thru-hikers, Trickle and Daytripper, who were soon moving on to work at a hostel in Maine. I told them that we’d see them again in a couple of months. We moved up the trail to camp at Angel’s Rest, a prominent outlook just outside of Pearisburg.

An Angel at Holy Family 

We woke up early and descended from Angel’s Rest to get a ride into Pearisburg for Hotdog to attend Sunday Mass and for both of us to resupply. Hotdog had arranged a shuttle from the Holy Family Hostel, a long-standing hostel run by the Catholic Church since 1974. I figured we were waiting for a large church van adorned with the church name driven by a clean-cut man with a colorful button-down shirt tucked into his khakis. When a man with long hair wearing a camo hat and smoking a Marlboro showed up in a beat-up green Ford Ranger pickup and called our names, I thought there had been a glitch In the system. He introduced himself as Twig, and he turned out to be one of the coolest people we have met on the trail yet.
Twig has no affiliation with Catholicism. When Hotdog asked if he’d see him at Mass, he replied, “Nah, I don’t believe in nothing”. He found himself at the hostel during the pandemic and the church just put the place in his hands. He puts his heart and soul into taking care of this humble little hostel and helping hikers in any way he can. He talks about planting a garden with all kinds of vegetables ready to pick by the time SOBOs arrive later in the year, he offered us a ride around town wherever and whenever we needed, and seeing Hotdog’s shoes falling apart, he even offered him one of his personal pairs as a replacement. He is a happy and optimistic person with faith in humanity. It’s a refreshing view in a world that often seems to be dominated by negativity and gloom. Twig goes on playing his small role in life, but does it with care and compassion, leaving an impact on the people that come across his little hostel nestled peacefully within the trees. What more could you ask for?
We left Pearisburg feeling physically and spiritually recharged and headed upward to Peter’s Mountain. It was a clear and beautiful sunny day out. Weighed down by a brand-new resupply, and with big mileage ambitions for the next day, we decided to call it a short day.

Going Ultra Mode 

The idea of a 30-mile day had been resting in our minds since we started the trail. We’d say things to each other like “Once we get our trail legs we’ll start pushing 30s” or “We’ll be ready to hit 30s once we hit Virginia”. Here we were, feeling strong as ever, and nearly 200 miles into Virginia; the time had come to go after our white whale. We knocked out our first 10 miles of the day quickly and easily, and then the challenges began to bog us down. The sun pulled the sweat out of us on our hottest day on the trail to date, the trekking pole strap that snapped in half, the full slip and fall in the mud, and the seemingly endless amount of awkwardly placed rocks to navigate around. It felt like everything was working against us, but in reality, we just fell into the waves of the negativity mindset. We had to remind ourselves to embrace the challenges of the trail and flow around them like water instead of being rigid like a rock and cracking under each new problem we hit. We gritted our teeth and pushed on, determined to hit our goal. When we reached our site we celebrated with some noodles and a fist bump, and completely exhausted we promptly went to bed.

Trail Birthday 

I woke up on my birthday without realizing it was my birthday. In the morning I feel more connected to my ancient ancestors. Walking 30 miles and then waking up for another long day sounds absurd in my normal life, but I feel strong and at peace with it out here. I feel as if I’m living closer to what we evolved to do. No birthdays, no days of the week, and no time of day; instead there is just each moment, the next section of the trail ahead, the cycle of the sun, and the presence that comes with it all.
We started the morning walking along beautiful cow pastures and quickly came across a huge oak tree called Keffer Oak. Estimated to be about 300 years old, the tree has been around longer than the country it’s located in. As we climbed up and along a rocky ridge line we were treated to views of the surrounding mountains extending far off into the distance. The shadows created from the foliage-filled ridges extending into the valley made it look as if one giant rumpled blanket were covering the whole range.
Large black rat snakes ruined our mid-afternoon coffee break, but my birthday was made in the evening with a can of Sprite from a trail angel named Jason and a Little Debbie cookie topped with Nutella, Swedish fish, and a stick candle, a masterpiece that Hotdog had crafted up for me. It’s the small bits of fun and thoughtfulness that make a difference in life. Once we zipped ourselves into our tents for the night a whip-poor-will whistled us to sleep.

The Virginia Triple Crown 

Dragon’s Tooth 

We were excited to wake up early from our camp at Pickle Branch because we had the famous Virginia Triple Crown ahead of us. Dragom’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs make up the triple crown and offer some of the most interesting terrain and beautiful views in the entire state of Virginia. We came across Dragon’s Tooth 5 miles into our day and gazed upward at the huge rocky monolith. We climbed toward the top of the tooth to take in the views, but I found looking at the outcropping itself to be the most interesting characteristic of the area.
The descent from Dragon’s Tooth was among the most technical and difficult hiking we’d experienced yet. After we had escaped the grasp of the dragon, however, we were rewarded with the treasure that is a roadside convenience store. We sat outside the store eating with a trio of new hikers we had met the previous day, Primo, Astro, and Curtis. They were a great group of guys to joke around with. After you’ve all hiked 700 miles in one go, it’s pretty easy to find common ground among one another. We got back on the trail after buying a short resupply and were motivated to crush some miles by McAfee Knob, arguably the most photographic part of the entire trail, being directly ahead of us.

McAfee Knob 

We followed Primo up toward the knob. It was a beautiful bluebird day, although it was a tad hot for my Nordic genes. Primo is a short cheery guy from Queens. Surprised by his quick pace, he told us the Metallica blaring in his headphones pushed him up the hill. Technology has its advantages. We were blessed to be up at McAfee Knob on a Wednesday, getting the view all to ourselves. We took turns snapping majestic pictures of each other on the thin rocky overhang. Caught up in the excitement of this huge milestone I did something completely uncharacteristic of myself and dangled my feet off the edge. Sometimes you’ve just got to man up and do it for the Gram.

Tinker Cliffs 

From McAfee Knob we looked out into the distance at Tinker Cliffs, our next stop 5 miles ahead and the last piece of the Triple Crown. We were hoping to make it in time for sunset. We pushed hard to get there and made it just in time. We cooked dinner and stared off at McAfee Knob. We could see the entire 5-mile ridge line that we had just traversed, as well as the field of lights that make up Roanoke. We wrapped up well after sunset and headed down to camp by way of our headlamps.

Trust the Trail 

We woke up 10 miles from Daleville, a bigger town and our next resupply point. For some reason, I woke up with a sense of anger and sadness underlying my mind that I just couldn’t shake or understand. I struggled out of my quilt and felt too ashamed to look my hiking partner in the eye, but I pulled myself to the trail and started walking. Reminding myself of the impermanence of everything, emotions included, I looked ahead with tears rolling down my cheeks. The trail amplifies both the good times and the bad. I walked on, trusting that my tune would change with a little time and some good town food.

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