Iran into lots of stiles and the accompanying cows today. These stiles can be quite a challenge for Micah. Usually I can find an alternate route for him under the barbed wire fencing, but not always. Micah's very agile and very patient. If he can't figure a way through on his own he just sits back and waits for me to solve the problem. Once I take his pack off he can scramble over or through just about anything I can, but I'm just waiting for the day when I'm going to have to actually lift him over a fence or something.
The cows are another obstacle at times. It can be extremely nerve-wrecking to have to walk through the middle of a huge field and feel all these eyes on you. The worst part is when they start to follow. They definitely don't like Micah and I keep him close at my side whenever we run into cows. Luckily, we haven't had to deal with any adult bulls yet, and I hope we never do. I hear that they can be extremely aggressive towards dogs. I think that if we were ever confronted with an angry bull, my game plan would be to try and remove Micah's pack as quickly as possible and then let Micah off leash to fend for himself. I'm very confident he could out-run the bull without his pack on.
Lots of flowers blooming on this section, including the first Columbine that I've seen this year. I also saw Mountain Bellworts, lots of Beaked Violets, Fringed Polygala, Wild Stonecreep, Squawroot, and even some Yellow Mandarin.
The shelter is pretty packed tonight. Chops, Gypsy, Tew-Ton, Roo, Yard Dog, and I are tenting while Stringer, Peter Pan, Al, Grey Bear, Long Pig, and Meant 2 Be are having it out with the mice in the shelter. I still love my tent!
As I started the 4 mile climb up to Chestnut Knob, I ran into a southbound hiker named Low Rider. He was from Britain, he'd thru-hiked in '95 under the trail name Sule, and he was now hiking south to Damascus for Trail Days. A very nice guy.
Chestnut Knob was gorgeous and the view into Burkes Garden was breathtaking. There's a large Amish farming community in this vallye and their farms are quite picturesque. The Burkes Garden Valley is shaped like a bowl and its nickname is "The Thumbpring fo the Lord." They say that Vanderbilt had a hard time choosing between this site and Asheville for his home, which is now called the Biltmore House.
I took a long lunch here - about an hour and a half. I wanted to rest my feet some before tackling the remaining 10 miles. Everybody else soon showed up and it was quite a festive little lunch break, but alas, there were many miles left to do.
I wanted to wait for Gypsy and at least do some of the afternoon's miles together. I knew this would be a tough day for her too. We left the shelter at around 1 and the next 5 hours were really rough. The trail after Walker Gap becomes quite a rocky little ridge walk with lots of little ups and downs. After a few miles of this, your feet are just throbbing and feel all battered and bruised.
Gypsy was in the lead since I wanted to go at her pace. There was one point where I heard the buzzing of bees or yellow jackets and looked up to see Gypsy just about to step into a cloud of little black buzzing bodies. I yelled out her name and got no response until I finally just screamed out "STOP!" That got her. It looked like an old tree had just recently split and toppled over right next to the trail and there must have been a hive in there. There was no way past them on the trail, so we had to bushwck up the hillside through dense undergrowth and brambles. It wasn't fun, but I'll take some scratches over strings any day.
12 at the shelter again tonight. This time it included smoe thru-hikers who'd gotten rides up north a ways and were now hiking south into Damascus for Trail Days.
Despite feeling so sluggish and slow, I must have been making pretty decent time somehow. I managed to hit the road into town by 12:15. Not a bad hike - 12 miles in 4.5 hours on 2 PopTarts. I got a ride into town from an older woman named Katherine who had completed her section hiking of the entire AT in 1995. She and her husband had hiked much of it together, but he died with 600 miles left to go. She said completing the trail was a type of catharsis for her after his death. They were known as the Tortise and the Turtle and his ashes were cast into the wind at Charlie's Bunion in the Smokies.
Wapiti was also at the PO in Bastian waiting for it to open after the lunch break. Katherine was kind enough to wait around for us and then she drove us another 5 miles into Bland so we could get a hot lunch.
Wapiti and I both hung out at the little food place for several hours going through our mail. I got letters from my aunt Nettie, Dad, Sandy Downs, my step-mother Maria, Brent, Valerie "Blister Sister", and Doug Gibbons. It was really great to get so much mail and it always cheers me up.
I didn't get back on the trail until after 4. I had no problem at all getting a ride for Micah and me in the back of a pickup. It was only 2.5 more miles to the shelter and getting some food and being off my feet for a while had really made me feel better. About a mile shy of the shelter, I caught up to Gypsy and Smoky. She looked beat and said she now had heel blisters too. Just having some company for the last mile seemed to cheer her up, but I think she was even happier when I told her that I had brought some goodies - including a fresh-baked cinnamon roll.
Only Gypsy, Tew-Ton, Meant 2 Be, and I are here. Everybody else opted for the hotel in Bland - what a bunch of wimps! :-)
Tew-Ton and I were the first to arrive at Trent's Grocery. We got some cheeseburgers, paid our $2 to camp in the adjacent meadow, and set up our tents. There were three horses in a corral right next to our tents and they were fascinated by Micah and Tew-Ton's donation of a PowerBar to their dinner assured us that we'd have their nearby company throughout our stay.
People kept straggling in as it got later and later. Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, Fox on the Run, Goat, Al, Gypsy, Long Pig and Grey Bear added their tents to our growing tent city. We had all pretty much settled in for the night when Wapiti and Stringer were the last two to straggle in just as night fell. It had been a long hard day for all of us.
Grey Bear looked like the walking dead this morning as she hobbled across the field to go to the bath house. There must have been eight of us that stared at her obviously painful progress. She looked more like a 90 year old in desperate need of a cane than like what you might expect of a "healthy" hiker in her 30's. Of course, we've all come to accept these shuffling, limping, painful gaits in one another as pretty much the norm lately and they hardly get more attention than a brief chuckle, but Grey Bear looked exceptionally painful and definitely had all our sypmathy.
Breakfast was a pretty long, drawn out affair. It took me an hour to get a single egg and bacon biscuit. I don't mind the slowness of service at a lot of the stops along the trail. To me it's part of the trail experience and a part of the different town cultures I'm passing through. Some of the other hikers have very different views and expect the same level of service that they used to get back home. They're usually quite disappointed more often than not and carry their gripes with them on the trail. I think that every store and business along the trail is a blessing in its own right. You always have the choice of just hiking on and not patronizing them if they're not up to your standards. For me, they ease some of the pain of my trip by offering little comforts, like a shower or a meal.
Puget Pounder arrived at Trent's just as Gypsy and I were preparing to leave. It was good to see him again and he had done some pretty heavy miles to catch up with us so that we could all go down to Damascus for Trail Days together.
The miles came extremely slow today. There was a new relo off of VA606 that must have added a mile to the trail. We didn't leave Trent's until about 10:30 and I was really dragging after just the first 4 miles. We finally made it to Wapiti Shelter by around 2, which left us 6 more miles to the hostel. I really didn't think I could make it today. I felt nauseous and feverish and weak when we finally got to the shelter. It began to rain as well and I decided I would stay right there. I tried to encourage Gypsy to go on, but I don't think she was feeling too well either. I decided I was going to stay in the shelter and I pulled out my sleeping bag and crawled in.
Wapiti pulled in to the shelter soon after. This was the Wapiti Shelter after all and he couldn't miss his namesake shelter. I heard him and Gypsy talking and he informed her that everybody else (Chops, Stringer, Peter Pan, Grey Bear, Long Pig, Puget Pounder) had taken a blue-blazed side trail that used to be the AT a long time ago so that they could cut out a 4.6 mile section of today's hike! I was pretty shocked. Most of these people fell into more of a purist category than anything and I was a little amazed that they had all cut a section of the trail. I think it's more a measure of how tired we all are.
The weather cleared a little and I was feeling a little better. Gypsy and I decided to try and continue on with Wapiti and we left the shelter at 4:30 with 6 miles to go. Neither of us wanted to have to do a 16 miler the next day in order to make it to Pearisburg before the PO closed. Gypsy is not a late day hiker. Her best miles are done before lunch and I knew that starting another 6 this late in the day was really going to be tough for her.
We all tried to more or less stick together. Wapiti led, and Gypsy and I brought up the rear. Gypsy was really having a tough time the last few miles, but she does manage to keep going and we were sure to stop and wait for her every mile or so. As we finally hit the road leading to the hostel, the skies opened up once again. We did the 1/2 mile road walk as quickly as we could and the sight of the lit front porch and hulking form of the barn of Wood's Hole was a welcome sight. There were over 20 hikers there already and it made my day to see that Fireball was among them. He had done 100 miles in 4 days so he could catch up!
The loft sleeping quarters were already full, so about 10 of us slept on the floor downstairs. Gypsy, Peter Pan, Fireball, the two dogs and I ended up on the floor of the kitchen area. It was a great night to be warm and dry under a roof and among friends.
Gypsy and I finally hit the trail at around 8:30. The going was slow and Gypsy has been having to deal with a lot of discomfort from her pack lately. Wapiti, who had worked at a gear outfitter selling Dana packs, had spent a great deal of time with her over the last few days trying to adjust her pack, but it just wasn't working for her. We were having to take breaks every mile or two and were barely making 2 mph.
By the time we started the descent to Pearisburg, the weather had turned cold and it was raining. I was feeling the lowest I had felt on the trail so far. My feet were battered and bruised from all the rocks, my legs were covered with cuts from overgrown briars, and I really think I was just purely physically exhausted.
As I hit the last two miles of the trail a wonderful thing happened. On either side of the trail a profusion of wildflowers sprung up as I descended to the lower elevations. It was one of the prettiest displays I had seen so far. Thousands of star chickweed covered the forest floor accented here and there by the huge single blossoms of White Trillium. Further back from the trail were large groups of large Flowered Bellwort. The large waxy white blossoms on the May-Apples were finally opening, and there were gropusing of Wild Stone crop hugging the ground in patches here and there. I could also pick out some Solomon's Seal and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Aove all of this were several blooming Dogwoods that stood out among all of the new spring foliage and provided a graceful white canopy that arched over the trail. Every day on the trail is a blessing in some way, you just have to open your eyes to it.
This is the first time that thru-hikers I am personally close to left the trail, and it's a horrible emotional loss. You feel as if you are losing a member of your family. Our goodbyes were filled with tears and embraces. I don't know if it might have been easier on them if they'd been able to leave without everybody knowing, but I knew I was glad for the chance to tell them both how much they'd be missing.
So our band of hikers will continue on two less in number. I look around at those of us still here and I can't help but think we will all make it to Katahdin barring any unforseen accidents.
Long Pig and Grey Bear, we love you and wish you happy trails.