Journal notes from a recent hike

Ninth Section Hike – Damascus, Virginia to Whitetop, Virginia/Elk Garden/Va. 600

Sunday May 23rd to Wednesday May 25th 2017


Day 1

Sunday May 21st, Drive from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Pearisburg, Virginia


Morning coffee with my love. He made a quick batch of strawberry banana cookies. Very good. Pretty uneventful drive. Stopped for gas once at $2.05 a gallon! Neville from Woods Hole Hostel called late morning to see when I’d be in and if I wanted to meet her and the other hikers for dinner in town.  We ate at a Mexican place. My people skills are horrible. Maybe it’s just becoming the same kind of people out here, getting crowded. Long shuttle to Damascus tomorrow at 6:30am. Missing my boys already.


Day 2

Monday May 23rd, Damascus, Virginia to Lost Mtn. Shelter, 15.8 miles


Sometimes the hardest part is forcing conversation with the shuttle driver. Michael, who runs Woods Hole Hostel with his wife, Neville, drove me the 2 hours to Damascus. Talked the trail and politics. The hike out of Damascus was brutal, straight up.  Hard first day. I was a bit lost as to where I was most of the day.  I hit a road crossing and met a crew of college kids followed by two “Cowboy Christians” on horses. They gave us Tootsie Pops and small wooden cross necklaces. The trail intersected with the Virginia Creeper Trail which is a Rails-to-Trails route.  I went to hook in to the AT when it broke off that path but there was a sign that said “Detour.”  I assumed a bridge was out and walked several miles on the rail trail until it hooked back up with the AT. Apparently this wasn’t necessary and I passed the Saunders Shelter that I was aiming for. I somehow ended up at the next shelter 6 more miles down the trail!  Nice surprise. I forced a Knorr side down my throat. I’m more thirsty than hungry but I know I needed the fuel.  Nice crew here in the shelter and tenting around it.  Big crowd coming from Trail Days.  I was questioning myself when I kept thinking I was only doing 9 miles and really hurting.  Thought I was done for already.  Now my planned 19 mile day tomorrow is only 12! And of course, everyone is talking about food.


Day 3

Tuesday May 24th, Lost Mtn. Shelter to Whitetop/Elk Garden/Va 600, 8 miles


Not a bad start to a day that would turn almost dangerous. Had some crazy dreams in the shelter last evening and woke up twice in the motion of punching someone. It had finished raining overnight when I got out of the shelter. The breeze was just blowing the water down that was sitting on the leaves.  I made myself eat a how bowl of oatmeal.  Some of it came up back up. My stomach hasn’t been right since that stomach flu a few weeks ago. Got my pack on with the rain cover and my gaiters to knock out the 13 miles for the day. A couple miles in, it starts raining. Then it got heaver, and heavier. I finally stopped to put on my poncho. Again, it was mostly uphill to start…on and on and on. I got to clearing where the wind began hit us and my poncho was useless. My boots and socks sloshing with each step on the muddy trail.  I slipped on a rock and fell in slow motion, hitting my head on a rock only gaining a mall bruise. The shelter was still miles away. I came to a road crossing at Elk Garden in Whitetop at Rte. 600. I noticed a restroom building that the park service maintained, essentially a nice port-a-potty. I had to laugh when I saw three other hikers taking shelter under the roof. One left and I took his spot to dig for a Pop-Tart. The one hiker, Redwood, was shivering in his soaked clothes and I wasn’t doing much better. Soon, Rapunzel joined us to got Redwood to go inside the bathroom out of the windy to get a little warmer. Redwood had mentioned that he’d gladly take a ride to town. I stood outside the door under the roof to ponder the idea. It was going to be closing to freezing up on the mountain that night and almost certainly the shelter would be full. I wondered if I’d every get warm or even dry. I went inside the bathroom and told the other two, “I’ll take that ride with you.” None of had cell phone service. Redwood failed to get lady to give us a ride. Then, Kickflip joined us. We all stood there shivering. Soon they were amazing because my lips were turning blue. Either I move or I get to hotel or hostel. A young man knocked on the door. He actually needed to use the toilet, ha! Redwood quickly asked him if he’d shuttle us. He felt sorry that he had other plans and couldn’t. The few vehicles that drove by didn’t even look our way. Then the kid came back and said he’d give us a ride. We were all elated. His girlfriend was in the front passenger side. We got our dirty, wet packs in and then crowded our dirty, wet selves in. The other three squeezed in the seats and sat on Kickflip’s lap. The kid ended up dropping us back in Damascus where we bought a shuttle to Abindgon. Rapunzel was going to stay in town and wait for a ride home since her hike was ending soon anyway and she didn’t love too far away. We found a place called the Empire Inn. About $60 a night for two beds. We each chipped in $20. That shower felt great. Only afterwards did I see that my blisters on my feet were oozing yellow pus, meaning infection. We ordered Domino’s, ate, and passed out. Redwood and I each had a bed and Kickflilp chose to sleep on the floor.  I was so tired as I checked the forecast. It called for rain almost every day I’d be out here. I thought maybe I couldn’t wait this one out and should go home.


Day 4

Wednesday May 25th, Abindgon, Virginia to Pearisburg, Virginia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania


Ten years ago, I may have felt strong enough to hike through the cold and rain, but I didn’t want to get stuck in a spot fighting off hypothermia. The elevations have unforgiving weather. I called a number of shuttle drivers and finally found Bubba who was the cheapest of all and almost half the price of most of them. The boys got a ride back to Elk Garden to continue their thru-hike. I waited for Bubba. By the time he came, it was getting cold in Abingdon. What a character and very kind man. Late 50’s with a very hick look to him. Just like home. He told me about his daughter and the kinds of weather he’s seen people get stuck in. He said I made the right choice. He also told me he shuttled Bismarck for about 4 and half years. Bismarck is the man who embezzled millions from Pepsi and hid on the AT for 6 years. Bubba has his theories about Bismarck and how he hid the money. Great story teller. “My wife says I don’t work.  I just sit on my ass all day. Bullshit, I bring money home, don’t I?”

He dropped me at my car at Woods Hole Hostel and I got home by 9pm. Stopping for more cheap gas on the way. The trail is the only anti-depressant that has been effective for me. I’m really bummed this trip was so short. The dosage was too small and I’m going to need more. I’ll go back as soon as I can. There are studies and science behind the idea that being in nature is good for a person’s mental health. It puts everything in perspective. Suddenly, those little things you thought were big problems at work aren’t so huge after all. There is beauty in the mountains that no man can craft, though he has tried. You realize you are a very small part of something much bigger than you.


Tenth Section Hike – Whitetop, Virginia/Elk Garden/Va. 600 to Atkins, Virginia

Friday June 16th to Wednesday June 21st 2017


Day 1

Friday June 16th, Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Atkins, Virginia

Stopped to snuggle the cats after work before hitting the road. Not a bad drive until the heavy rain came in Virginia. Some slow spots but got to the hotel by 7pm. Exactly what I thought the Relax Inn would be. Barely acceptable to most but a great respite for a thru hiker.  The Exxon had a small Mexican dive attached to it. Grabbed a vegetarian plate and tall boy of shit beer. Not hungry but I gotta get something in me.  My shuttle is not until 9am so I can move slow tomorrow. I should be able to get 9 miles easily tomorrow. I hope I ain’t jinxing myself.



Day 2

June 17th, Whitetop/Rte. 600/Elk Garden to Wise Shelter, 9.3 miles


Got dropped at Rte. 600 by the young Indian man who runs the Relax Inn with his family.  Nice guy but I think he’s ready for a new spot, new gig.  The parking lot at Elk Garden was busy with other folks, day hikers and Boy Scout troops. Quite a hike to the top but a nice view.  Several Boy Scout troops. Passed a group of older ladies hiking.  They immediately asked questions and gave me suggestions without my asking. Ha! About 3.5 miles in, I came to a clearing where one troop was lingering between light spots of rain.  There were about 5 wild horses from the Greyson Highlands that wandered over to the boys.  One was licking a boy’s arm to get the salt from his sweat.  It licked me, too.  Soon the rain came.  It began to come down heavier about .5 miles before the Thomas Knob Shelter.  It was full of hikers getting out of the rain.  I was in there maybe 30 minutes before the rain slowed enough to feel ok hiking.  Put on my rain jacket and went. Soon it completely ceased raining but I was still hiking through a river of the trail.  Soaked feet, socks, shoes. It warmed up enough to lose the jacket and the bottom of my pant legs. The fucking rocks! Everywhere. WET rocks. Some nice views that I stopped to stare at but no pictures. Two eyes on them were perfect. The true Greyson Highlands were gorgeous. I was frozen watching a white wild horse begin galloping through the field, throwing its head back. Define that as freedom. Coming to Wise Shelter, I found two girls with a father out for a section hike. The water source was horrible.  Walked .25 miles to the creek with brown water crashing down the rocks. All the rain was washing the mud into the water. I took it anyway and treated it. Ramen with peanut butter. Barely got a spot in the shelter. We are all trying to dry our socks.

The “P” on my hat stands for Pittsburgh Pirates!



Day 3

Sunday June 18th, Wise Shelter to Hurricane Mt. Shelter, 11 miles


I don’t know much about horses but the wild ones here are beautiful and very stinky. Covered a few quick miles in the morning. I eventually landed on top of an open field, sunny and breezy, I could feel my hat drying. Under a few trees were several horses and two young ones.  I sat down and watched them for several minutes.  This is the benefit of scaling down my daily mileage. I don’t have to be in a rush to make my goal. I can stop and enjoy. It didn’t take long for me to get to Old Orchard shelter about 6 miles in. I stopped there with a number of other hikers. Crispy was there with his dog, “Aspen.” She’s a combo of black lab and pitbull.  She is well trained and tags along very well. The girls and older guy from last night were not far behind me. We ended up at Hurricane Mt. Shelter. Another hiker, Kat, showed up. I think the other 3 might leave the trail tomorrow as the rain looks to soak us all day. My stomach hasn’t been great but I was hungry for the Knorr side I shoved down. Took a muscle relaxer so I’m hoping that hits me soon. The rain downpoured around 2pm, about 2 miles before this shelter. I got soaked, again. “Walkie Talkie” stopped in and had no juice on his phone. I gave him my power stick which he wanted so badly to repay me for, somehow. Nah, he gave me a flavored drink tablet though. My legs are so sore but I’m happy.



Day 4

Monday June 19th, Hurricane Mt. Shelter to Trimpi Shelter, 9.5 miles


There was 100% chance of rain today but it is 3:21pm and it still hasn’t rained. I’m not complaining. I got to the shelter around 2pm. So damn early but I didn’t think I could do another 10 miles to the next shelter. Another hiker stopped for a break and 2 more south bounders came. They are tenting here for the night. I’m just going to use the shelter again. So far, it’s just me in there. It was a pretty pensive hike today.  A young woman and I played leapfrog in the morning.  We kept passing each other. I was glad to get lost in my thoughts. Not too hard terrain today. I came to the Sugar Grove road crossing and was happy to sit down for lunch. Luna bar and pop-tart. Another hiker came afterwards and said he was going to hitch a ride to Marion. A mouse had gotten into his food sack and eaten everything but his graham crackers and peanut butter. I was wishing for a random soda machine to pop up in the crossing. Soon a van came by and slowed down. An older man jumped out and asked us if we wanted a Dr. Pepper. Fuck yes! Inside the van were Greg, Ally, and Kelsey who decided to get off the trail early. The man then offered a ride to the other hiker. The trail provides. I sat for a good long time before heading out for the last 4 miles to the shelter. Nice to be a bit leisurely.

A letter to my oldest niece, 6 years old, 2017

Dear Kathryn,

There are no mirrors out here. The tweezers are used for splinters and ticks, not eyebrows. Your eyelashes are use to sweep the sweat, bugs, and dirt away from your eyes. Leg hair goes unshaven for days. You will smell…just like the boys. Out here, the societal pressures only revolve around taking care of the trail for others to enjoy. You are YOU. I am ME. But if you like your outward appearance to fit the face you want see in the mirror, do it if it brings you joy. Express yourself in any way that makes you feel like YOU. Just remember that underneath all of things we are all the same. The first time I held you, I knew you were special. The more you grow, the more I am assured of this. You know how to let your heart lead while keeping a smart head on your shoulders. There will come a day when you find that dandelions are not pretty yellow flowers in the yard, but weeds that make the landowner frustrated. Remember that those pretty weeds can also feed our bodies, heal our skin, serve a purpose. Love it all, including the weeds.

Love, Auntie H



Day 5

Tuesday June 20th, Trimpi Shelter to Partnership Shelter, 10.5 miles


I don’t know that I’ve ever smelled quite this badly. Being soaked in sweat is one thing but persistent dampness in the air amplifies it. Luckily, today is showing some sun and warmth.  The handles of my trekking poles have retained all of the stench and I can smell them as my hands move in motion while hiking. Pretty good day of hiking. Slept decently last evening in Trimpi Shelter. I opened my eyes at one point to see a small flash of light. It took me a moment to realize that it was a lightning bug. The 3 south bounders left around 8:30am. Double Barrel left shortly after them. I headed out around 9am and covered 6 miles fairly quickly before noon. I stopped for lunch and sat with a hiker name Disciple. He has his 10 year old dog, Cole, with him and played some Native American flute. We had pretty good conversation about how the trail gives you perspective. It’s important to take time to soak it in, something I’ve learned on this trip. Life is short, live where you want, do what drives you….It was another quick 4 miles to Partnership Shelter. I got here a bit before 2pm. I could get in some more miles but this is a great spot to rest. My old wet clothes are drying in the sun. My shoes may finally dry, too. Mt. Rogers headquarters is a tenth of a mile near the shelter. You can have pizza delivered there. As I get off the trail tomorrow, I’ll probably pass. There is a COLD shower which I’ll pass on, too. Stinky girls rule. I am totally down for a Knorr sides dinner. No cell phone service as always. Can’t wait to be home with my fuzzy boys. Chocolate milk, soda, and beer, please. I could watch the birds here all day. I moved to the picnic table with Poseidon as he drew and kept reading my magazine. Two ladies came in from the park headquarters with a box of ice cream sandwiches. We each had two. Another hiker came along and had one. We tried to keep them cool in the bag she gave us. Soon the table was all the myself and a meowing black and white cat came out of the brush. He came right up to me but seemed skittish. He was definitely feral. I had nothing he would want to eat, so I opened an ice cream sandwich and removed the top chocolate cookie side to let him eat up the vanilla ice cream inside. He went through it so fast and begged for another. So I obliged. He would run away anytime another person came by. I called him “Partner.” More folks returned from town and shelter is fuller. Got a big fire burning.



Day 6

Wednesday June 21st, Partnership Shelter to Atkins, Virginia, 11.6 miles


Yesterday, the other hikers returned from town (Marion) early evening with a shitload of food that they confirmed was burdensome to their food cash weight. Two Trails complained about his Little Caesar’s pizza. It did look pretty underwhelming, even for a hungry hiker. The “Von Trapp” family was there, a father and two grown children, son and daughter. The son carried a Martin Backpacker like I used to have. I ate my Knorr side in pride while others chowed down on town food or ordered pizza. Two Trails is such a bullshitting asshole like me, so we got along well. A dark skinned Chicago kid. Such a family atmosphere. Partner, the cat, came to beg for food from the rest of us. They don’t appreciate felines like me, but they were kind. I can tell Mt. Rogers headquarters are used to hikers taking advantage of their resources. It’s to be expected. I talked to a woman in her 70’s who is thru hiking but got a foot infection due to constant rain. She was supportive of everything I told her but seemed apologetic about her circumstance. She lives in Florida but is originally from NYC. Her accent gave that away. An upperclass looking hiker brought in two nice pizzas to share. Very kind. His name is Hornet and told us he is salaried with the Foreign Service. I ate around the meat on a slice. Of course, Partner came to beg some more from us in the middle of the night. Two Trails saw that the fire had restarted from the night before and got up to watch it. That morning the Von Trapp family planned a 26 mile day, which is average for them, I guess. I savored my morning after packing my gear. I saw with my coffee for some time but got to hiking not long after the others. This would be my last day on the AT until I could get time to come back. I missed my home but the trail feels like a home as well. What I wouldn’t give for a few months just to hike as far I could here. Life here makes much more sense. I made great time in the morning, 4.2 miles in under 2 hours, 3 more miles in an hour to Chatfield shelter where I met the others who took off before me. I told them about my husband who I’d be going home to, and how much I enjoyed this short section. Their comments betrayed that they wondered why I would leave the trail now yet understood at the same time. I moved along past the Settlers Museum and into the grassy fields to Atkins to find my car where I left it. My husband was so worried about my whereabouts because my Spot had not sent the signals. Love. Two loves. Jonathan and trail. I weaved my way home on I-81 and smiled at every mountain I noticed. Like Disciple said, “If I want to live in the woods, then I should live in the woods.” One would say that it’s not that simple. But it should be. Humans make this shit complicated. “What do you do?” is a question I ask with a wince. It’s a proper way to ask how you make the money to live the life that you lead. Like hiking, it shouldn’t be a competition. Simple things become complicated. I find resolve in making complicated things simple. Perspective, perspective, perspective. The good hearts that infer that my potential has been wasted, whatever that means. We will always fail someone, including ourselves. But what do I know. It could all be different tomorrow.

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