Unconventional Routes: Damascus to Daleville
The last few weeks have been anything but conventional. I left off in Damascus (not) looking forward to a 21 mile slackpack the next day. That actually went really well. I hiked 21+ miles in 8 hours and followed up with drinks with friends at the Damascus brewery. What has transpired since, however, has been a bit odd and a lot unexpected.
Leaving Damascus is hard.
We didn’t plan to take a zero the next day. Truth be told we rarely plan to take zero days but sometimes, it just happens. But THIS ended up being one of my favorite days on the trail so far. The whole crew from Woodchuck hostel was headed down to the river. We had an awesome day full of cliff jumping and swimming and ugly ducks and tasty drinks. It was a magical day and everyone was in high spirits. I’ve said it over and over, but it’s the people that make the adventure.
The next day we had decided to hike out of Damascus, as hard as that is to do. After breakfast at Cavalier Cafe, the whole group met up and headed out on the Creeper Trail. For those that don’t know, the Creeper Trail is part of Virginia’s Rails to Trails project and was once a railroad. It runs beside a river and is a popular biking trail. The AT leaves Damascus on the Creeper trail then rejoins it about 10 miles down. We decided to stay on the Creeper trail for a change of pace. BEST. DECISION. EVER. If you’re going to blue blaze (walk a trail other than the AT and skip part of the AT) do it here. The Creeper Trail has a gentle grade, lots of water to enjoy, and is wide and smooth, AND there is a cafe about 5 miles in.
The Walking Dead
Miss Janet dubbed our group the walking dead due to our assortment of injuries. Winston has a fractured foot and Hero hurt himself playing football in Damascus. When we left the campsite the next morning and left the Creeper Trail behind for the ups and downs, rocks and roots of the AT once again, the crew was feeling it. We walked about 5 miles to a road crossing and the boys were hell bent on getting to a store for cigarettes. So we hitched to a store about 6 miles away. The kind fellas that picked us up also offered to bring us back to the trail. I grabbed a pizza and soda and we headed out. Back at the trail head, no one was very motivated to continue hiking and the injured guys were in a good deal of pain. We decided to hitch a few miles up the trail to the next trailhead. We again got a hitch and went back to the same store to grab some beers and snacks. Our ride drove us up to the road crossing at VA 600, right before amount Rogers. We set up camp and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.
The next morning started out badly. I woke up with a sore throat and felt like death. Carver was hitching to the store for cigarettes so I went with him to buy cold meds. DayQuil didn’t help but I wanted to climb Mount Rogers.
A year ago I had hiked up from the same parking lot on my first hike on the AT, my first overnight backpacking trip, and my first time ever camping. We’d hoped to see ponies but it was raining and cold. I spent a cold, miserable, wet and sleepless night in my hammock that night, and didn’t see any ponies, but it was still the time of my life.
Today was different. The sun was shining and I was sure there would be ponies. Fate wouldn’t have it though and the further I walked the worse I felt. I was having cold sweats and felt dizzy and lightheaded. My throat was on fire and I was having trouble catching my breath. Two and a half miles up I couldn’t go any further. I was walking with Hero and Haulin Ash and we all decided to hike back down to the road. I got in touch with an angel from the Appalachian Trail Women’s Group on Facebook who drove over an hour to come get us off the trail and brought us burgers and Gatorade.
She took us to Marion where I could get to an urgent care facility. I was diagnosed with a severe upper respiratory infection and a Staph infection. Meds in hand and a hotel room booked, I spent the next 4 days holed up in the hotel trying to feel better and wait on the rest of my hiking group to arrive.
The day the rest of the crew rolled in was Goldilocks’ birthday. We all went out to the drive in theater to see Jurassic World to celebrate. Of course, we don’t have cars so we walked into the theater and sat on the grass to watch the movie. It was a blast and remains one of my favorite moments on the trail.
The following day we had planned to head out early. However, severe thunderstorms had been forecast for early afternoon and we wanted to sleep in, so we planned to hit the trail late afternoon and night hike for a few hours. Well, as we tend to do, our plans changed and we ended up hanging around town and hitting up the local Mexican restaurant for cheap margaritas instead. We did make it down to Partnership shelter that night eventually and camped there to head out the following morning.
The next day I felt much better so we headed out for a planned 14 mile day. About 5 or 6 miles in I was in a lot of pain but kept pushing through. I decided I needed new shoes, since my Cascadia 8’s now had over 700 miles on them and vowed to call Outdoor 76 for a new pair as soon as I could. We walked into Atkins, VA late in the evening. Hobbled is a more appropriate word for my gait. I was in excruciating pain and told Hero, who I’d been hiking with all day, that I couldn’t go any further without stopping to rest, so we camped out in the gas station Mexican restaurant for a couple hours trying to decide what to do. We had decided to stop for the night as soon as we came to a campsite, cutting our intended 14 mile day down to 11. Apparently the rest of our hiking group had similar thoughts and called to tell me they were camped about a mile from Atkins. Hero and I donned our headlamps and headed out across a cow field in the dark to find them.
The next morning the group made a collective decision to walk back to Atkins and get a shuttle up a few shelters. We don’t like yellow blazing but we had heard of severe water shortages along this stretch of the trail and it was brutally hot. Hiccup and Pinecone had decided to walk on, and we ended up picking them up 8 miles further down the trail because they were both overheated, dehydrated, and completely out of water. We skipped up a few miles and then walked 4 miles in to the shelter. I had called O76 from Atkins and ordered new shoes to be send to Pearisburg.
The struggle is very real
Over the next couple days, I really struggled with my feet. We went into Bland one day and I had to skip another 6 mile section of the trail to get there, I was so completely exhausted and my feet hurt so badly. I hitched to town while the rest of my group walked. We met up at the library and waited out a thunderstorm while eating popcorn and watching the Lion King. We all had packages at the PO and ended up having to spend the night in Bland to wait on them. None of us wanted to spend money in a hotel room, but luck was on our side and two sweet old ladies offered to let us camp in their yard that night. The next day we headed out again.
Within a mile of getting back on the trail, I heard a loud crashing off to the right. Startled, I looked around and saw a tiny baby bear. He fell out of a tree right next to the trail. I froze, knowing that if he got scared and started crying his mom wouldn’t be too happy with me. He shook off, got his bearings, and sauntered up the hill to find his mom. We’d planned another 15 mile day today and I was worried I wouldn’t make it. We only had two climbs that day, with about 8 miles of flattish ridge walking and a short descent between them. We all stopped at the shelter at the top of the first climb for a snack. I left out ahead of Hero, who was just finishing packing and would catch up to me. Well, I walked for about an hour and still no sign of him. I stopped and called my mom and talked to her for 30 minutes; still no Hero. I got up and walked for another hour, still not a sign of him. I stopped for lunch and called my best friend back at home, Katelyn, and talked to her for a while. He still hadn’t caught me. I had about 3 miles to go to a road crossing and vowed to stop and wait for him there, no matter how long it took. I started walking and about 30 minutes later heard someone behind me. I turned around and it was a girl who we’d passed many times slack packing, with Hero trudging along looking very sullen behind her. He had gone the wrong way out of the shelter and back down that long, steep mountain. So he had to turn around and climb it again! He was not in good spirits and wanted to stop and rest for a while at the road.
When we arrived at the road, the girls dads, who goes by Tail Dragger, was waiting at the road. He gave Hero a beer to try and boost his spirits. I turned on my phone and had a message from Carver that he’d made it to Bland and was going to Wytheville for the night. He had decided to get off the trail and Hero and I both wanted to see him before we left so we hitched a ride down to the interstate with Tail Dragger and hitched a ride down the interstate. We spent a much needed night indoors, eating awesome food and soaking in a hot tub.
Back to the trail the next day we had to try to catch up with the rest of the group. Unfortunately Hero had come down with a virus and was not feeling well at all, so we ended up hitching to Woods Hole Hostel for him to rest and recover. Now, I don’t care if you at thru hiking or section hiking, if you are near Pearisburg you need to stay at Woods Hole. They grow their own produce and pork, and the meals are absolutely divine. Neville, one of the owners, is a saint and really cook to talk to.
We got into Pearisburg the next day. I didn’t want to pay for a room, but Mushroom, who we’d hung out with at Woods Hole, offered to let us sleep on the floor of their hotel room. Hero and I decided to go to the town festival that was going on that night, but there wasn’t much to it. We crashed and the rest of the crew showed up the next day. They decided to stay the night and we went out exploring town and did a tour of the local museum/old plantation home which was pretty cool. Exploring the towns is a pivotal part of this experience to me, and I’d encourage everyone to go out and see the towns, learn about their history, and meet the locals if you haven’t been doing that.
The next day we headed out, me in shiny new shoes. Next stop was to be the Captain’s place. It was only about 12 miles but I was completely exhausted and again in a ton of foot pain by the time we got there. Balto and I decided to try to hitch to town for food to grill out and managed to score a ride with a neighbor down the street. Later we cooked out and ate and drank. One of my favorite on-trail nights to date.
The next morning Goldilocks awoke to an email that she needed to do a conference call for her business and we had to figure out how to get her to town. A section hiker who was also at the Captain’s offered to call Days Inn in Blacksburg, where he used to work, and get us a discounted room there. We took him up on that offer, and scored an awesome deal on the room for the night. Now the dilemma of getting there. Hero had talked to some of the neighbors the night before so we walked down to see if they would be willing to drive us, and thankfully they were totally up for it! We headed into Blacksburg for the evening.
I have to say, I was super grateful to be back in a college town. Oh how I’ve missed happy hours and endless food options and froyo. We met up with a grad student, Rahbi, who showed us all the cool spots and took us on a tour of the campus the following day, including seeing a dinosaur skeleton at the geosciences museum. We spent two days in Blacksburg before heading back to the trail.
When we decided to head back to the trail, I called Lost Camper, who is a hiker who’s offering slack packing services to thru hikers. I’d started having more serious pain in my left foot and decided I should take it easy for a few days, so we made plans to slack pack to Daleville. I did ok the first day, and we ended up getting an offer for a place to crash once we reached highway 42. We stayed in the basement of this cool family’s home and enjoyed being indoors out if the thunderstorm. The next day I could barely walk, so I got in the car with Lost Camper while the rest of the crew walked on. We stopped at a campsite and I set up my hammock and slept away most of the afternoon with my foot elevated to try and relieve the swelling.
The following morning I had a complete emotional breakdown. I didn’t want to hike and I was mad at myself for not wanting to hike. I was upset with how much of the trail I’d missed because of my foot pain, and angry that my foot seemed to be injured and was not getting better. I decided with much encouragement from Lost Camper to try to make it 8 miles to the next road where he’d pick me up and take me to Four Pines hostel. Note to readers: this is a place where you should definitely also plan to stay. Super cool folks, super nice owners, and a shirt car ride from the Homeplace which is not to be missed (another note: they have very limited vegetarian options).
I did a lot of thinking that day walking in the rain, crying my eyeballs out. Ultimately I knew what I needed to do: this was the end of my thru hike attempt this year. I was in too much pain, and running through too much money, to stay on the trail. I decided to hike up to McAffe Knob with my trail family the next day and then hitch a ride to Daleville, where I’d try to arrange a ride back to NC.
What 700 miles on the Appalachian Trail taught me:
I hope I can get back on the trail around mid-August. If my foot heals and I can save enough money to get back on, I’ll have to skip 600 miles or more to still make Katahdin by October 15. My chances of being able to do that, then turn around and make up everything that I skipped and still finish before winter hits aren’t looking good, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may not complete a thru-hike this year. I also know that I WILL finish the Appalachian Trail, and it doesn’t necessarily matter if I don’t do it all in one year. Maybe it’s actually a good thing that I’ll get to come back and do this again next year, and maybe the year after. Here’s what I’ve learned over the last 300 miles:
- It is definitely not the miles that matter. The experience is so much more than miles walked.
- Make sure you slow down and enjoy the towns and the people you meet.
- You can’t just walk through a serious injury.
- People are almost always super willing to help. Just ask them!
- Hiking is hard. Hiking every day is exhausting. And it can get boring. If you’re not enjoying it anymore, you may want to reevaluate your situation.
- Sometimes I just really want to do something that isn’t hiking for the day. And sometimes I need to. There’s no shame in zero days.
- It isn’t the end of the world if I’m not a “thru hiker”. I’m a baddass hiker and that’s what matters.
Stay tuned. Either I’ll be back on the trail in a month, or I’ll be setting up trail magic for SOBO thrus near Franklin, NC this fall and planning next year’s hiking schedule.
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