VA to GA

I’ve been lazy about writing (and mostly tired all the time).
En route to Damascus, I passed through the Grayson Highlands – of which I had no memory of from 2003 for some reason. It’s a beautiful area; full of wild ponies and great views. I can only assume it was foggy when we passed through before.

A few miles out from Damascus I finally crossed out of Virginia and in to Tennessee. TN impressed with some charming pastoral scenes, but lost points for the absence of privies at its shelters. My recent change to porridge and prunes for breakfast could have been timed better.

I got off trail at Hampton to start a four day vacation from hiking, much of which seemed to be spent driving up and down parallel to the trail on I-81. I got to celebrate two birthdays during my trailcation – meeting up with the gang for a surprise party for Woody and with Monica, who was over visiting a friend in DC. I took Monica on a birthday hike up McAfee’s Knob and then for dinner at the Homeplace restaurant to give her a sense of the Virginia AT experience. 

Up at McAfee we bumped into the mythical SOBO bubble (~10 of them in a group, including a bunch of people I hadn’t seen since New England). We ended up slackpacking them a whole four miles to the restaurant. The smell of eight well-seasoned thruhiker packs crammed into a small car is not easily forgotten.

Back on trail, it turned out to be a very warm and dry autumn down through TN and NC, with temperatures around 30C in town and a little less up in the mountains. This made for sweaty work on the climbs. The highlight of this excellent section for me was the Roan Mountain area – somewhere that I remembered well from ’03. I went through on a weekend and was amazed by just how many people were out on the trails.

The Smokies were also beautiful, but the (largely understandable) level of regulation in the park makes the experience somewhat less enjoyable for someone used to the freedom of camping at will. Billy rode up from Atlanta to hike the first half of the Smokies with me, and it was great to have the old team back together – even if it was only for 24 hours. We hadn’t sorted out a permit for Billy’s one night in the park and we got into a little trouble with a ranger on our way out. We were happy to make good on the $4 fee we’d missed, but could probably have done without the rather heavy-handed Leave No Trace lecture. 

When we finally made it to Newfound Gap, Billy generously treated me to a stay in Gatlinburg and all the food I could eat. The town itself is a heaving tourist trap and a huge culture shock to someone who’s been on trail for months. Next morning I rode pillion for the 15 miles of switchbacks back to the trail. This was a nervy trip for me, but also a beautiful one – with the dawn breaking over the Smokies.

Since then I’ve been all on my lonesome, which has been fine, though I am rapidly running out of listening matter. The miles to Springer have been running down rapidly, but actually finishing is still an odd idea.

I’m currently in Hiawasse, my last town stop of the hike and less than 70 miles from the end. I’m planning to take this last section (relatively) slowly and try to savour the last of the trail. This would be a little easier to do if it wasn’t set to rain on me for the remainder of the trip. Still, given how lucky I’ve been with the weather so far, I hardly feel I can complain

In less than a week’s time I’ll be home and getting ready to return to the office. If that isn’t incentive enough to enjoy trail life then I don’t know what is.

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Windy up top

We made it to Pearisburg and celebrated the end of BFG’s journey with Mexican food and beer. The logistics of him getting home with all his possessions didn’t work out too smoothly, but I think he’s now safely back in Bremen.

For the rest of the trip I’ll mostly be traveling solo. I still come across flip floppers and section hikers, but they’re generally traveling more slowly. I’ll be taking a couple of days off for R&R when I reach Tennessee, so there’s a chance that I’ll at least see a few familiar faces again when I get back on trail. Hiking alone is generally ok and I’m pretty used to it after a number of solo trips in the past. I miss the conversation in the evenings, but I’m mostly so tired that I fall asleep as soon as I’ve eaten.

Autumn is definitely coming to Virginia. Leaves are turning and there’s a nip in the air. The conditions have mostly been perfect for hiking, clear and bright, but cool enough not to overheat on the uphills. The trails are well graded and even the big climbs feel easy.

Upping the miles since Harper’s Ferry has had me struggling to keep my weight up. Last year I weighed 15.5 stone. The training I did before the trail got this down to 14.5. In recent weeks I’ve dropped to 13.5 stone – my fighting weight when I was 17 years old…

We were lucky with hurricane Irma’s path – she stayed further west than was originally expected. We just got a tiny fraction of what was experienced further south, but it was enough for hikers to seek out safe refuge while it passed. I spent the night at the stone shelter on Chestnut Knob. It’s one of the sturdiest shelters on the trail, but perched at an exposed spot up at 4,400 feet. The storm rolled in just after I made it in – a great band of cloud moving across the lowlands. It was a very windy night, with gusts up to 45mph, but the next day just had some light showers and the odd blown down tree to contend with.

I met Gringo on trail yesterday – he’s doing some complicated flipping around again and hiking north back towards Pearisburg. He’d packed beer out in anticipation and it was great to see him again and catch up on news from the gang. All are apparently well, though they do seem to have become rather soft in my absence.

Currently in a truck stop off the interstate, where I ate (decent) gas station Mexican food and stayed the night in a cheap motel. In case you’re curious, this is what a gas station resupply looks like (the beer and fruit are just for my second breakfast now):


I broke through the 3/4 way barrier yesterday. Next stop Damascus.

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Virginia blues

I lost my group a couple of days out from Harpers Ferry. It was strange to be alone again and there’s a lot to miss about having the gang to hang out with in the evenings. Still, I had to make miles and there’s not much slack in my schedule. 

BFG was a little ahead – driven by his own goal of reaching 2,500kms before his 90 visa expires.  I set my sights on catching up to him so I’d have company again. We met up again in the Shenandoahs after he took a long lazy lunch break and I route-marched all day without stopping. After a typically emotional Anglo-German reunion, we pressed on to get beer at one of the park’s many camp stores. 

Hiking in the Shenandoah was luxury: Smooth trails, easy-grades, trailside stores (with craft beer), and empty shelters. The miles came easily and all was good until the last day in the park when the rain came.

My rain jacket had failed back in Vermont and I’d been trying to find a new one ever since and failing. The final twenty miles were cold and wet ones, and I was glad when ‘Stanimal’ (AT04) arrived at the trail head to shuttle us back to his (very good) hostel in Waynesboro.

We used our time in town productively. I bought new rain gear and a lightweight fleece pullover, in anticipation of colder days ahead. 

I also upgraded my dinky little headlamp for a beefier model that’s better suited to night-hiking – the days are getting shorter, but my hiking hours aren’t. 

We also made up some calorific shortfall with a trip to the (trail)-famous Ming’s Oriental Buffet and with BFG’s first experience of the gastronomic sensation that is Taco Bell. Most importantly I took the opportunity to wash my sleeping bag for the first time in a decade. I don’t have the vocabulary necessary to do justice to the smell it had acquired and that is probably for the best.
A couple of very tough days  – long miles, big climbs, and rain – from Waynesboro have got us to Glasgow, where I’m writing from the relative comfort of a hiker pavilion provided by the town. 

It’s pretty impressive in that it sports not only hot showers and electricity, but even a microwave oven, lamps, and an electric fan. Thank you Glasgow! BFG and I have enjoyed a microwave pulled pork dinner and are washing it down with an ‘Adventure’ 12-pack from the Devil’s Backbone brewery.
Tomorrow we continue the push on towards Pearisburg, which marks the end of BFG’s adventure. Hopefully the weather should be improve, for the next couple of days at least, and our legs will continue to be a match for the mountains.

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Harper’s shmarpers

We crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, leaving Pennsylvania and entering The South. Maryland didn’t put up much resistance and we soon arrived in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
Harper’s is supposedly the ‘psychological’ halfway point of the trail. More concretely, it’s home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy visitor centre, which is a good place to visit and where hikers traditionally get their photos taken for the records.
We’ve taken a day off here to see our former comrade Tea-Time, who has driven up from Florida to grace us with his presence and show off his rad cornhole skills.
Pennsylvania was pleasant enough and mostly very easy hiking, especially the flat farmland still across the Cumberland Valley, but I’m looking forward to getting back into the mountains. I’m worried that we’ve become overly soft in the mid-Atlantic, after reaching our gnarly mountain-crushing peak way back in New Hampshire. 
Virginia is eventually going to have us climbing again, with a few 3000ft ups to keep us honest. We’ll have a gentle introduction though, with the scenic, but people-filled Shenandoahs only a few days away.

I’m going to be on a fairly tight schedule for the remainder of the trip. Accounting for planned stops along the way, I’ll need to average 23 miles a day from now on to make my flight home ready to start work again. The pressing need to make miles may mean that I lose contact with some of the group that I’ve been hiking with for much of the last two months. We’re towards the front of the pack of southbound hikers and getting even a half day ahead can mean seeing no one except a handful of dog walkers for days at a time. 
Fingers crossed I have some company for the next thousand miles, otherwise I may find myself desperate enough to plough on with the interminable tedium of my audiobook of The Stand. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
More successful entertainment options out here have been a mass of excellent podcasts – mostly produced by NPR. One highlight was an episode of Planet Money that finally explained the ending of Trading Places.

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Pennsatucky

We finally entered Pennsylvania a week ago, crossing over the Delaware River. The bridge is shared with I-80, so it’s not a relaxing place to celebrate the milestone.

PA is not the most scenic state and doesn’t offer particularly interesting or challenging hiking, but its towns have their charms.

First up was Delaware Water Gap, which immediately impressed with the Village Bakery’s $3 hot dog and pie deal.

The real winner though was the hospitality of the Church of the Mountain. They have a hiker hostel in their basement, which is nice in itself, but even better was that we had arrived on pot luck hiker dinner night. The parishioners descended with a vast array of food and we had a very pleasant time chatting with them while we gorged.

Port Clinton’s biggest draw proved to be the Fire Station’s members’ club, which we were permitted to enter as guests. It was grimy, slightly surreal, and quite enjoyable – about as far from preppy Connecticut as could be.

Next day we took a day off to visit the Yuengling brewery (America’s oldest) in nearby Pottsville. We followed this up with a shockingly poor Chinese buffet before bundling five of us into the hotel room Long John and his visiting sister had taken in Hamburg – the resulting aroma was powerful, if far from pleasant.

We’re spending a night in Duncannon – though only Long John has elected to have the full experience of a traditional night at the Doyle hotel (I did my time back in ’03). The Doyle’s accommodations are uniquely terrifying, but I can vouch that the food at least is good.

And that’s all I can face writing right now. Hiking is a full-time job – it’s late and my eyes are closing. I’ll have a go at posting something a little less dry in a few days once we’ve made it to the halfway point.

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Middling Atlantic

In the last week, we’ve crossed three more state lines: finishing off Massachusetts, passing through Connecticut and New York, and, on Sunday, crossing into New Jersey – state 7 of 14. New England is officially complete and we’ve made good progress on the Mid Atlantic section.

We hiked through Connecticut in stinking hot, humid weather, which turned the moderate climbs into sweaty slogs. I had to don my hot weather look of sweatband and unbuttoned shirt for the two days it took to knock off the 52 miles to NY. My biggest problem was maintaining visibility through misty sweat-covered glasses when all the fabric I had on me was totally sodden. 

CT was otherwise pleasantly scenic and seemed welcoming to hikers, though my only town interaction was a quick detour to pick up a breakfast tallboy of Foster’s.

Our crossing into NY was marked with a big thunderstorm, which failed to make me any wetter but did herald the start of some slightly cooler weather. The hiking in New York was enjoyable, with some fun scrambling over rocks and good views over of the NYC skyline.

Proximity to the city means that this section is surrounded by civilisation, which is jarring at times. The trail crosses a lot of roads, including some dangerously busy parkways. It also took us over the Hudson River, into the Trailside Museum and Zoo, and through a busy state park full of families fleeing the city for the weekend.

An upside of all this civilisation was no need for town stops – we could get all the food we needed from the many roadside delis, park concessions, abundant trail magic, and by ordering pizza to our shelter.

We’re now in New Jersey – a place many assume to be terrible, but which is home to a pretty nice stretch of trail. Yesterday the weather conspired with a need to finally resupply to push us into the town of Vernon and then into Appalachian Motel. You’re better off never witnessing the aroma of a small, poorly ventilated, motel room that’s occupied by four filthy hikers.

Weather should be improved for the rest of the week and we’ve got some gentle miles to the Pennsylvania border. We’ve seen the number of northbound hikers tail off in recent days and we can expect a lot less crowding in towns and shelters over the coming weeks. I’m looking forward to Pennsylvania – the allure of the Port Clinton speakeasy and $1.25 beers, currently outweighs the downside of hiking over the northern PA rocks.

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Mass Casualty

The best thing about hiking south is that it feels easy once you’ve got Maine and the Whites under your belt. The last 150 miles have been a (relative) breeze, with just a little heat and humidity to contend with. The scenery’s been tame, but charming enough, and the novelty of frequent town stops hasn’t quite worn off yet.

Highlights since Rutland have included: 

Trail magic at a shelter near Manchester Center – two former hikers carried up beer and wine and cooked bacon cheeseburgers for all comers. An excellent end to a tiring 28 mile day.

A stop in Bennington where I escaped the rain, ate Mexican food, drank my weight in over-strength beer, and swapped out my knackered old shoes for shiny new ones.

A short detour to a Papa John’s run by a past thruhiker, offering hikers: half price pizza, a hiker box, charging station and WiFi. I spent six hours sat on a bench outside, enjoying the combined charms of the pizza place and the neighbouring grocery and liquor stores.

A sweaty, but rewarding hike up Mount Greylock, where my new sweatband was pushed to (and far beyond) its limits. 

A team reunion in Great Barrington. Long John’s parents have come out to visit him and wanted to meet his hiker friends. They seemed surprisingly happy with their son’s choice of companions – even after meeting Shredder.
We’re already close to the Connecticut border and we’ll be through there in a flash. Looking forward to New York in a few days and the promise of endless Boar’s Head delis.

Edit: the punny title makes more sense if I remember to mention that we have our first Lyme Disease casualty. Gringo has come down with a dose despite only rolling around in a few grassy meadows in his underwear. They’ve given him drugs and it doesn’t seem to have dampened his Alamo spirit.

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