Week 5: Throwing away the plan

Catawba Mountain Shelter > Jenkins Shelter

Days 29-35

Week 5 AT miles: 132.1

Total AT miles: 458.7

Update: I’ve decided to toss out my plans for a Calendar-Year Triple Crown and just see where the trail takes me.

The CYTC is what captured my imagination and got me started, but now that I’m out here, I find that I no longer need the motivation of a formal goal to keep me going. In fact, I started to worry that having that potential achievement hanging over things might give me tunnel vision and keep me from fully experiencing all the trail has to offer. I also realized I just don’t want to be burdened with any time pressure during this period of blissful unemployment.

I’m postponing any firm decisions about next steps until I cross into Georgia, so I suppose the CDT is still a possibility, but for now, that’s the trail I’m thinking of removing from this year’s itinerary. If and when I ever hike it, I want to have the time freedom for lots of fun side adventures. I think I’d also like to start south from Katahdin earlier in autumn, rather than pushing it as late as possible.

So, if you’ve been following these posts specifically for a CYTC attempt, now is the time to sign off. If, however, you’re up for a much less clearly defined thru-hiking adventure, you’re in the right place and I’m glad to have you along for the ride!

Trail through misty woods

It’s the trees that are at an angle, not the photo

Day 29: Catawba Mountain Shelter > Niday Shelter

24.7 AT miles

I had read that the area around McAfee Knob was popular, and that turned out to be true even on January weekdays. Within the first few minutes of hiking this morning, I met a hiker who had spent the night at the next shelter — I was glad I hadn’t pressed on when I found someone already at Catawba last night. Someone had also been camped at the shelter immediately prior to McAfee Knob, so that was three consecutive shelters occupied, compared to zero so far my entire way from Harpers Ferry.

I also passed several dayhikers, as well was my first current AT thru-hiker! He’s hiking northbound but had flipped up to Virginia temporarily for some appointments at home.

I used the phrase “climbed up” for yesterday’s hike up and over Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob but realized too late that I should have saved it for today. I’d fortunately been warned by the hiker at Catawba last night that the last half mile or so up to Dragon’s Tooth would be a rock scramble, so I wasn’t too alarmed by the warning sign at the base of the climb. But seeing the next white blaze just painted on a rock 20 feet overhead still gave me a moment’s pause. Time to stow the trekking poles to free up both hands!

Steep rocks with white blazes on them near the top

One of the scrambles up to Dragon’s Tooth

Day 30: Niday Shelter > War Spur Shelter

18.4 AT miles

I can’t believe I’ve been on trail for a month! Though I guess that most of that first week I was home with the flu, so I haven’t really hiked 30 days yet. Even so, I’m amazed how quickly the time has passed.

I had grand ambitions of a 27-mile day today, but these were pretty quickly put into question as I ascended from the shelter and soon hit snow. I also hit a stretch of trail that consisted of giant diagonal slabs of rock. I imagine these would be pretty easy to walk across when dry, since they did have some texture, but wet and covered in snow they were very slow going.

Later in the day, just as I was picking up speed, I hit a creek I couldn’t find a dry way across. Fortunately the wet crossing was right before a shelter, so I took a lunch break to air out my feet and remove trail debris from my boots.

Despite the late hour (3pm), I was still considering night-hiking to 27 miles as I left my lunch stop, but I soon tweaked my knee and finally got the message that today wasn’t going to be a big day.

Snowy trail through the woods

Back up to the snow

Day 31: War Spur Shelter > Rice Field Shelter

25.2 AT miles

War Spur Shelter was low enough that the precipitation falling overnight was rain, but I soon ascended back into some snow. Although I again had to carefully navigate snow-covered rocks, the new twist today was that the trail was very overgrown and all the vegetation was covered in snow. And because most of that vegetation was briars, I didn’t want to put on my raingear and poke it full of holes. The result was being covered head to toe in snow for a couple of hours.

I guess there’s no reason why pricker bushes and snow would be mutually exclusive, but it still seemed somehow wrong to be dealing with both simultaneously. I didn’t realize how cranky I’d gotten about being constantly grabbed by the flora and whacked with snow until the sun came out. Suddenly I was walking in a winter wonderland, one that gradually melted away as I descended over the course of the afternoon.

Snowy, rocky trail

Yes, those rocks are the trail but there’s sunshine!

Day 32: Rice Field Shelter > Pearisburg

8.2 AT miles

Part of my motivation for a long day yesterday was to have a short hike into town this morning, known as a “nero” (near zero). This would give me plenty of time for errands and chores today so I could rest and get caught up on the Week 3 and 4 blog posts tomorrow. I’d also planned to get an early start but instead woke to daylight around 7:30 and packed up slowly. Sometimes my nero or zero laziness kicks in a little prematurely.

The hike from Rice Field Shelter to town was nearly all downhill so merged nicely into my wind-down to zero. The AT is mostly beautiful but also sometimes passes less appealing views. This morning I passed both a landfill and a factory, along with signs very logically advising hikers not to collect water from the streams in this area. Since I wasn’t inspired to photography today, I’m including a photo of the approach to Rice Field last night.

Sunset behind a field bordered by trees

On my way to Rice Field Shelter

Day 33: Zero in Pearisburg

0 AT miles

I spent a restorative and productive day at Angels Rest Hiker’s Haven, eating lots of fresh food, petting sweet pups, and getting somewhat caught up on blog posts. I’m still not sure whether I’ve been remarkably lucky or the AT disproportionately attracts wonderful people, but here again I encountered a group of kind and interesting individuals I was very glad to have met.

Day 34: Pearisburg > Campsite 2 miles past VA 606

28.2 AT miles

My longest day of hiking on the official AT (as opposed to Skyline Drive)! The long day was a combination of smooth trail and camping logistics.

The trail was walkable all day, with none of the super slow spots where I’m covering less than a mile an hour as I try to pick my way over loose, slippery rocks without breaking a leg. It wasn’t a day of big views either, but I enjoyed the peaceful, modestly lovely forest and the shady rhododendron tunnels.

The shelters were more widely spaced in this section. If I wanted to stay in one, I had a choice between stopping early in the afternoon at a shelter with a tragic, violent history, or hiking over 30 miles.

So the decision to set up my tent for only the second time so far was the obvious one. The tent sites around 18-24 miles, however, were alongside a creek and I didn’t want to deal with a wet tent in the morning, which I’d then have to find time to dry out. I figured I could instead spend that time today, hiking up to the top of the next ridge, where my tent would likely remain dry.

I’ll probably be in my tent again tomorrow night unless I want to follow up a 28-mile day with 27 miles.

Trail through bare trees

Nice smooth trail

Day 35: Campsite 2 miles past VA 606 > Jenkins Shelter

27.4 AT miles

Well today was another day of smooth trail and nice weather, so I ended up hiking the 27 miles to Jenkins Shelter after all. (This made me extra glad to have kept my tent dry last night, meaning that I could safely leave it packed away without it getting funky.) I’m pretty sure I’ve never hiked 55 miles in two days before — I must be getting my trail legs.

Regarding my comfy new boots, I should maybe clarify that my feet definitely hurt by the end of a long day. They just hurt in a reasonable, expected way instead of an “I hope I’m not doing permanent damage” way.

I also realized that I forgot to mention last week that the big boot mistake was actually a blessing in disguise. Those painful boots were the ones I thought I’d use for the Sierra Nevada on the PCT, so a section of the AT paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway with an outfitter nearby was definitely the more convenient location to discover my error. I thought of this silver lining pretty much immediately but wasn’t in the mood to really appreciate it until the pain had subsided.

Trail along a slope

More nice smooth trail!

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Comments 2

  • Nature Boy : Feb 12th

    Wow, you’re definitely rolling along, Gwen! And though it might not seem so at the time, quite cool to get to hike some of the Virginia AT in snow – certainly doesn’t happen in April! I live just south of Shenandoah NP and the AT is up in areas where I can go ice climbing if we get a good cold snap – you passed right over top one of my spots. Look forward to more of your posts – tell us some of the things that make a winter’s hike through Virginia cool for you!

  • Griff : Feb 12th

    Great postS Somewhere! You seem to be hitting your stride. I don’t think I’ll ever get to 55 miles in two day no matter how ‘easy’ the trail is. You have done great in really cold icy conditions, which I am hoping to avoid by starting in April. I look forward to tracking your progress and to starting my adventure around April 1.


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