Southern Virginia, Part 1: The Mountains Make Their Own Rules

So far, Virginia has definitely tested me – mainly with rainy, long days and by absolutely, positively, Not Being Flat. This state just not flat y’all. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is.

But, after this many miles, I felt well up to the challenge that Virginia presented me. And though she is not flat, she is absolutely beautiful – and I haven’t even made it to Shenandoah National Park yet!

Days 50-53

Day 50 was a well-earned, but still hectic, zero. I started off with an awesome breakfast courtesy of Lady Di at her hostel in Damascus, cleaned and laid out my gear to dry, then walked (and biked) all over town to knock out all my tasks. Showering, eating real food, laundry, resupply, and gear replacements (my bear bag line was a goner so I replaced it and the carabiner) take up the majority of a zero, which is why double zeroes are so tempting.

Where’s the time for rest when you’re biking down the Virginia Creeper Trail to the Food Lion, hiking miles through Damascus mailing off letters and visiting outfitters, pausing by the hostel every once in a while to shift slowly drying gear into a new patch of sunlight as the sun creeps further behind trees and below house ridgelines?

But with a planned week-long hiatus from the trail looming at the end of the month, I didn’t have time for a double zero – I wanted to get miles behind me.

So on day 51, I ate breakfast, said bye to Lady Di and co., then hiked out of Damascus. The golden-light morning sun was a welcome sight after so much rain, and despite the heavy resupply on my back, I climbed quickly out of town, putting away about 16 miles (good for me the day after a zero) with plans to do at least 20 through the Grayson Highlands the next day.

The next day, I planned an ambitious 23 miles, but had to cut my day short at 20 miles because I spent way too much time taking pictures of ponies! After hiking most of the day without seeing any, towards the end of the afternoon, I was seeing them around every bend in the trail.

On day 53, I hiked 17 miles slowly, after a very late 10 a.m. start (I blamed condensation on my tent: but I think the convenience of a pit toilet and garbage can nearby, plus the presence of even more ponies and cattle, is really what kept me.)

Days 54-55:

Day 54 started out pretty well, but after a town lunch, I moved much slower than I did in the morning. I did 10 miles before 10am, then took the shuttle into Marion, grabbed a small resupply, some Mexican food, and shuttled back to trail to hike to the next shelter before the rain started again.

With sporadic service, my partner told me that he had decided to drive out to me for the weekend. Spooked by the rain and the way it had affected me mentally the previous week, I quickly agreed and planned to hike to a gas station the next day, where I could grab the town shuttle again.

Between the town shuttle and my partner’s visit, I ate at this Mexican restaurant no less than 3 times in two days!

On day 55, I hiked a 5-mile nero to the gas station, technically hitched a ride with a lady who worked as a shuttle driver but took pity on me when she saw me waiting for the town shuttle that may-or-may-not be coming to fetch me, then loitered in the Red Roof in Marion for a large part of the day. While there, I met up with a couple hikers I’d been leapfrogging with the past few days – one a thru-hiker, the other a section hiker.

As the section hiker and I waited for her shuttle driver to take her to the airport, we had a great conversation. She was a flight attendant, and we started talking a bit about what career path I had planned after the hike.

But… What Happens After?

As I’d walked the trail thus far, I’d considered all the usual post-thru-hiking suspects – contract work in the parks system, van life, giving freelancing another go. I’d also been considering going to grad school for a Master’s in social work, to become a licensed therapist. Or, since I was already good at it, just finding another marketing agency to write for. My new friend gave the flight attendant path rave reviews, and I filed it away as yet another possibility for post-trail life. After all, I can’t stay out here forever… right?

For now, though, knowing “what I’m going to do” has never been less important.

Before this hike, I’d made acquiring the accoutrements of a “successful” life – the marriage, the job, the house, the car – my absolute top priority.

But even then, I’d been unhappy… scrolling endlessly on Instagram to see how much “better” the outdoor influencers were doing life since the picket-fence life I had was not the one I wanted. I ogled the expensive rooftop campers. The six-figure van builds.

Even as these social media icons masqueraded as minimalist, outdoorsy, priorities-in-order people… to me, and to much of their audience, they just represented another version of keeping up with the Joneses. I would scroll through comment sections and see the same envy I felt coiling itself in the pit of my stomach: “I wish I had your life,” “How do you get sponsors?” “You’re living the dream!”

The reality is that we can never know whether or not a stranger on the internet is actually “living the dream,” since it’s impossible to know exactly what their dreams actually are. Maybe they would give anything, yes, even their six-figure Sprinter van build, for indoor plumbing and a fenced yard. Maybe they are truly happy doing donuts on a beach in Baja.

Ultimately though, I think that’s irrelevant:

The only dreams we’re responsible for are our own. The more we long for what we imagine other peoples’ dreams are… the more discontent we’ll feel within our own lives. At least, that’s what I’ve learned over the years, watching myself watch other people’s perfect, outdoorsy Instagram lives. Wishing my life could look more like theirs. Missing out on the joy and beauty of everything I already had.

So when I decided to do this thru-hike, I also decided to try to not think so much about what happened after the hike… since it was apparent that I needed practice living fully in the moment.

Days 56-58:

On day 56, my partner and I enjoyed a zero together – visiting a brewery, driving up to the Grayson Highlands so he could see the ponies too (they didn’t show up, though we saw two bears!) and going on a scenic drive. We also took our dog for a 1-mile hike, and afterward, he fully embraced the “zero day couch potato” thru-hiking tradition:

“Active recovery”

My partner had my 20-degree quilt (which is a summer quilt for me, with how cold-natured I am,) so I went through my gear and swapped out a few cold-weather things and offloaded my baselayer bottoms, gloves, and beanie.

On day 57, my partner dropped me off where I’d left the trail on a hitch – by an Exxon next to an interstate off-ramp. By far the sketchiest “trailhead” he’s ever dropped me off at.

That being said, this photo was taken less than 1/4 of a mile from that Exxon. It was one of the most idyllic scenes I’ve seen so far, even with traffic rumbling along right behind me. These tucked-away scenes – so close to civilization, hidden in plain sight – are some of my favorites along the trail.

I only did 14 miles that day, having left late and carrying a heavy resupply. But good views of pastures over the next couple days kept me in good spirits; I’m learning that I enjoy open panoramic views and the Green Tunnel does feel a little claustrophobic at times – especially when it’s drizzly and wet.

On day 58, I picked up the pace and knocked out 20 miles, during which I had to ford my first creek. It was a pretty drizzly, miserable morning, but clear skies in the afternoon and trail magic helped me knock out the mileage!

Days 59-61:

On day 59, I made it to a spot I’d been hearing about for the past few days: Brushy Mountain outpost. There were burgers. There was ice cream. And after a hot, sunny day, it was exactly what I needed. Did it slow me down so that I did only 13.5 miles? Yes. Was it still worth it? Absolutely. Are there pictures? Sadly, no. The food disappeared too quickly.

On day 60, I PR’d and hiked 24.2 miles, not including a blue blaze to Dismal Falls. I hit 600 miles that day, and it came as a surprise – it was the first time I’d lost count of the miles; I hadn’t noticed I was that close to 600 until I nearly walked past the marker without seeing it.

On day 61, I hiked a shorter day to the Pearis Ledges, and after checking the weather and seeing no storms on the horizon, decided to camp on the ridge at a designated campsite near a marked stream.

A Thunderstorm on the Ridgeline

I cooked a leisurely dinner and watched the muted sunset, overlooking the town I was planning on zeroing in the next day.

But then… darkness fell, and thunder grumbled close by – too close. I scrambled for my phone and watched the warnings roll through on my dimly lit screen.

Severe thunderstorm warning. Possible hail. Definite cloud-to-ground lightning.

I felt a cold pit of dread settle in my stomach and started doing survival calculus.

“Descend as quickly as possible” is the rule of thumb when encountering a thunderstorm on a ridge, but I wasn’t sure it was the safest option for me. I weighed scrambling down from the Pearis Ledges in the rain and the dark against staying in my tent. It was getting chilly, and my left Achilles had been giving me issues for the previous two days, causing me to limp. I would get rained on if I left, and drench all my layers.

With my Achilles issues, I felt it was still more likely that I would slip and seriously injure myself than get struck by lightning, despite my perch on a ridgeline. At least it wasn’t a completely exposed ridgeline.

So I stayed awake, feeling true fear for the first time on trail, trembling under my trekking-poles-turned-lightning-rods and counting seconds between lightning flashes and the thunderclaps. The storm got within a mile of me, battering my tent with wind and rain, but thankfully no hail, and then moved into the valley without incident. I didn’t fall asleep until well after midnight, long after the thunder had receded to a muted rumble far off in the distance.

It was the first time I’d felt that small in nature. I was always tangentially aware that I was tiny in comparison to the vastness of the Trail, the woods, the weather… but had never felt it so keenly till that moment.

The next morning, as I descended into Pearisburg through downed limbs, with fresh spring leaves torn from their branches underfoot, I hiked quietly, without music, without distraction, taking in the destruction around me with a reserved sort of appreciation.

We all came to this hike knowing that it was dangerous to some degree. It’s why we carry first aid kits, hang our food, keep our puffy jackets and baselayers dry at all costs. But it never really sinks in until you see yourself as a little speck on a ridgeline, completely at the mercy of the elements.

Looking back, I knew I’d been as careful as I could, and likely made the correct decision for my particular circumstances. However, that experience gave me a good wake-up call in respecting how finicky weather can be. How fast conditions can change. How the mountains don’t care about your weather apps and predictions – they make their own rules.

It’s a lesson I’ll carry with me all the way to Maine.

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Comments 6

  • pearwood : Jun 13th

    Beautiful words and photographs, Mary.
    Steve / pearwood

    • Mary Leavines : Jun 14th

      Thank ya!


  • GruntGal : Jun 13th

    Take er easy.
    Too much focus on how much mileage you do each day.

    Life after the trail will be about hurry,scurry and how much one can pack into a 16 hour day.

    Don’t make the hike like that…it’s not a job or semester big college classes

    • Mary Leavines : Jun 14th

      Hi there! I feel you’ve misunderstood the point of including mileage. As I prepared for the trail, running across bloggers who shared daily or weekly mileage helped me get a feel for what I could expect, how my fitness would increase, and (especially in the earlier portions of my hike) what my resupply schedule could look like. I’m sharing my mileage now so that future thru-hikers can benefit from the type of content and information I was looking for when I was planning my hike.

      I’m enjoying taking my dear sweet time out here with my camera, journal, and having plenty of time leftover at the end of each day to write these posts. At this point, even 20 mile days often take me less than 10 hours to complete.

      Happy hiking! (If you’re on trail 🙂 )


  • Doug : Jun 19th

    When you come through Roanoke, try to visit McAfee Knob. True beauty that God perfected. If you need anything here, let me know. Good luck and I enjoyed reading. Btw keep going east and the beautiful mountains will end.


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