Virginia Is For Hikers
My desire to finally hit Virginia was getting unmanageable.
The shelters in Tennessee didn’t have privies, so we saw no point in pushing to them most nights. I had been so spoiled by the abundance of toilet seats in the south, and could hardly wait to experience that luxury again in Virginia. Plus, I was anxious to hit some of the state’s famous spots along the trail.
Our first day out of Erwin was drab. A constant drizzle hit us until the early afternoon, when we finally felt a reprieve from the unwanted precipitation. The group had collectively decided to hit a campsite about 15 miles out from town, but we realized a few miles into the hike that our plans would have to change. The campsite we had been scoping out had no nearby water source, and the closest water was a mile and a half beforehand at the bottom of a steep climb.
The desire to lug 6 lbs of water up a sizable climb was lacking. Cookie and I were in the lead as far as our hiking group, so we scoped out a spot near a water source at the edge of a forest service road. We set up there hoping the others in our group would spy our tents and stop. Coyote, Radio, Grateful, and River found us and camped with us that night.
The sites were uncomfortably close to a gravel road, and a couple of cars crept past us as we wolfed down ramen packets and junk food. At one point, a local shuttle driver came past and gave us some trail magic. None of us were able to turn down free pop tarts, as we all were experiencing insane levels of hunger at that point.
Enter: Body Pain
That next day was rough for me. I woke up with a bit of stiffness in my lower back that gradually got worse as the day went on. We had 20 miles planned, and needed to stay on schedule. We had booked a stay in Damascus already so as to ensure enough room for the whole group. The miles were grueling, and anytime we stopped for a break I struggled to load my pack back onto my shoulders. My lower back pain slowed me down and made even camp chores difficult that night. I told my friends that if it didn’t improve by Damascus, it would be the end of my hike.
The next day we entered the Roan Highlands. This is an area notorious for beautiful views on top of a series of balds. Honestly, I thought it was overhyped–day hikers and section hikers alike had been telling me for miles about this stunning section of trail. The hiking itself wasn’t too strenuous, but I was more overjoyed by the pit toilet in the parking lot than the views from atop the balds. At one point, the morning cloud cover cleared and the Sun began to cook the skin on the back of my neck. Needless to say, I was elated to get back below tree line that day.
We decided partway through the Roan Highlands section to stop at the Station on 19E for dinner. What better way to motivate hungry hikers than with the promise of a hot, greasy plate of fries? We bolted down to the road crossing and got picked up by one of the guys who ran the hostel. He happily drove us half a mile up the road, and we each ordered dinner at least two separate times while we hung out there. We also did a small resupply, and ended the day happy and full.
I Hike Better After Eating French Fries
We pushed the next day as close to Pond Mountain as we could manage, and braced ourselves for a rough day past Watauga Lake. At this point, we had 54 miles between our camping spot and the town of Damascus, and 3 days to get there. We had grown accustomed to making the hike into a town short enough that it almost felt like a zero, so we were aiming to do 44 of those 54 miles in a 2 day span. But those 22 miles past Laurel Falls, over Pond Mountain, and up onto the ridge after the dam was brutal. We even stopped at Boots Off Hostel for some Hot Pockets and Doritos midway through the day to try to motivate our bodies.
Cookie and I got to camp last that day, with sore feet and weary minds. We ate dinner behind the shelter, and both ended up cooking a second dinner that night. Our bodies were scolding us for the high mileage days we had been pushing, but the promise of spending a night off trail always seemed to allow some extra “go.”
Pulling Back to Back 20s Sucks
The next morning, it was very obvious our batteries were still drained. We set off early, with the intention of covering 23 miles by nightfall. Typically Cookie and I were able to pace faster in the mornings, but that morning we were both really struggling. At some point it began to rain, which wiped away even the promise of a trail side break on a log. I was intermittently complaining about the miles ahead, the gnawing hunger in my stomach, and the torturous pain in my feet. Cookie countered my negativity with the promise of a hot lunch if we pushed on to the next closest shelter, 6 miles away.
We made it to the shelter in time to see our friends packing up their lunches. We waved goodbye, and told them we’d see them at camp that evening. I took my shoes off and massaged my aching feet for a while. Then Cookie and I stuffed our faces with mashed potatoes and rice. It was one of my favorite moments—it’s easy to feel good about pushing miles, but taking the time to care for my body for a while was so necessary.
After the hour long break we took that day, we were able to hike much more efficiently. Time was no longer on our side, though, and after a few more miles of hiking we both agreed to stop a little short of our destination. About 2.5 miles before the shelter, we spied a less than ideal water source and a few soft looking tent sites. We did our best to scoop water from this cold, scummy pool off the side of the trail, set up our tents, and collapsed for the night.
And Now, Virginia
Even though we had an extra 2.5 miles into Damascus, the 13 mile push flew by. We crossed into the state of Virginia before noon, and only had a few miles from there to town. We had booked an Airbnb house to share with the group, and the cost split between 6 people was incredibly reasonable—about the same as a bunkhouse would have been. We all planned on buying steaks and cooking them on the grill. Over a month was far too long to go without a home cooked meal. Every step I took my brain flitted between wondering how many miles we had left and dreaming about biting into a juicy, rare cut of beef.
Once in town, we went straight to the Damascus diner, packs still on our backs and mud still on our shoes. Coyote, Radio, and Grateful were already there, waiting on their food. Cookie and I each ordered an egg sandwich, and I also ordered a meatloaf sub and onion rings. I was nervous that I may not be able to finish all of my food, but found myself curiously still hungry after polishing both my plates clean. The waitress informed us that the cook knew we were hikers, “because only hikers order two meals around here.”
After the diner, it was time to purchase a new pair of shoes. I started the AT with Altras and planned to finish the AT with Altras. It was definitely time to ditch the mids though—they looked like a low-cut hiking boot, and had a Gortex lining on the inside. I purchased them in the event that I would encounter snow in the Smokies, but never really did. The Gortex turned out to be my enemy, trapping moisture and terrible odor inside the shoe. Anytime it rained my feet got wet and stayed wet. I was excited to purchase a normal pair of Lone Peaks. This way, my feet would get wet but would dry quicker and air out better inside the shoe. I went up a half size, landing in a 10.5 in men’s. The men’s shoes ran wider, which my toes thanked me for during long days.
Once we checked into our place, we all showered and did laundry, then resupplied. I did most of my resupply at the Dollar General in town, which had much better options than the one in Hot Springs. Cookie’s parents took him to Walmart to do his shopping, and Radio’s sister took Radio, Coyote, and Grateful to Food City. Radio returned with steak, asparagus, and potatoes for us to feast on that night. It was absolutely the most delicious meal I had since beginning my hike.
My head hit the soft pillow that night and I fell asleep straight away. I was content, full, resupplied, and hopeful that the new shoes would chase away the foot pain I had been dealing with. With almost 500 miles under my belt, I felt like a strong, capable hiker. I was ready for all that the state of Virginia had to offer.
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