Appalachian Trail Update #6: Now, The North
Written May 16, 2017
Upon arriving in Virginia in early April, I had hoped I would be greeted with open arms and given a warm welcome by the state I love so much. However, I was given the cold shoulder. In fact, freezing.
I found myself climbing Whitetop Mountain in the early morning of April 7th, bracing myself for freezing temperatures and wind gusts up to 50 miles an hour. When I reached the top, the wind was pushing me off the trail and blowing snow and ice crystals into my face. With my face stinging there was no point in lingering, so I pushed on deeper in Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands. Mt. Rogers is Virginia’s highest peak, and the surrounding area is know as the “Grayson Highlands,” which consists of numerous bald areas many of which lie above 5,000 feet in elevation and offer the chance to see semi-wild ponies. On this day, this place, usually one of graceful beauty, was rearing a ugly head. However, I saw through its hissy fit and was all over again falling in love with the Grayson Highlands. I had to stop myself multiple times just to take it all in. But after 26.4 miles, I had traversed up, over, and out of Mt. Rogers Recreation Area in one day to the safety and (relative) warmth of lower elevations and gentler winds.
After a multi-year absence, poor weather had forced me out of Grayson Highlands all too quickly. But there was more great trail to see in VA, and I was hoping things would go a bit smoother.
In the days after Grayson Highlands, we were treated to out first real warm spell of the hiking season; usually a nice treat after having pushed through such inclement weather. However, I was struck with an unexpected sickness that included a cough, runny nose, and a fever over 101 degrees according to a TempaDot thermometer. Being sick in the backcountry is an incredibly unpleasant experience, when all you want is a soft comfy bed in close proximity to a well stocked kitchen and a clean bathroom. Of course, my situation could not have been more opposite, having nothing but hard earth upon which to sleep and dry-tacky Clif Bars to eat. Normally when sick it is good to stay put and rest, but with a fear of running out of food miles away from access to groceries, I had to stick to my schedule and put in miles to ensure that I could get food when I inevitably ran out. However, with the recent heat wave beaming out temperatures into the 80’s and with no leaves on the trees and a fever running inside of me, had never felt more terrible and it seemed as if the heat of a thousand suns was beating down upon my bare neck and arms. This was not exactly how I was hoping Virginia would start.
After hiking alone through all of what I just described, I couldn’t help but feel the onset of my own case of “the Virginia Blues.” As I hiked away from snow and as my fever began to relieve itself, I was struck with a sense that I would have no friends which which to share the section of AT in southwest Virginia, a piece of trail of which I am so fond. However, my sadness was unfounded, as I eventually linked up with some friends I had made in previous sections of trail, and their company and good humor lifted my spirits carried me through to Catawba, VA where I got off trail to visit with old friends and professors in Blacksburg, VA.
But the trials don’t end there. My visit to Blacksburg was excellent, but after returning to the trail on April 21st, I was treated to another slap in the face from Mother Nature: 5 straight days of cold downpour. From midday Friday to the Tuesday afternoon, it rained HARD and did not stop. I must admit, in all of my years of hiking and backpacking, it may have been the longest, hardest, and most consistent rain I had ever walked through. But with the company of my good friends Steve and Julie who drove from Pennsylvania to join me for a few nights, I made it through the first two days in good spirits. I admired their dedication to stay with me and see out their planned itinerary in such terrible weather. I met up with my pals PermaGrin and Johnny Utah and we made it through the last 3 days of rain together.
The rain broke upon reaching Glasgow, VA, but my body was in shambles. I had more chaffing, blisters, and sores on my body than ever before simply from being constantly wet for 5 days straight. But with warmth and dryness, these healed quickly, and me and my crew, now labeled ‘Crispy C and The Gruesome Twosome’ got to push over The Priest and Three Ridges in good weather. With tough climbs in the heart of Virginia, we had our minds and hearts set on the more gentle grade of Shenandoah National Park, where the trail roughly sticks to the ridge tops and parallels and criss-crosses Skyline Drive.
Although we did get some cold, wet rain through Shenandoah, we were also treated to two absolutely spectacular days that are unrivaled in my hiking history. Picture perfect weather and temperatures. Rain could not dampen our spirits as we enjoyed more gradual terrain and well footed trail, blooming trees and wildflowers, and sightings of three bear, two bobcats, many deer, and many colorful birds. We even got to break up our time in Shenandoah to visit my cousins in Culpeper, VA in which we were treated to a hot shower, clean laundry, and some spectacular meals. Overall, our time in the Shenandoah region of Virginia was an absolute highlight of the hike so far!
Seemingly just like that, we hit Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, what’s considered to be “the psychological halfway point.” It’s not the actual halfway point in terms of mileage, but if you choose to look at a thru hike in two halves, north and south, Harpers Ferry is the point at which you transition from south into north, knowing you’ll soon be through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. It feels like half way, and it felt so good to be there. Nonetheless, with its riverside views and historic buildings, reaching Harpers Ferry is quite a treat after hiking over 1,000 miles.
As I sit in Carlisle, PA writing, I think back on my time in Virginia. Despite the challenges and the length of trail in VA, my time there seemed to fly by. For me, it felt much faster than the TN/NC section. This may be because I stopped less throughout VA, and that besides my short illness, I was feeling physically healthy and strong. Me and the Gruesome Twosome were able to move at a pretty steady pace, averaging about 20 miles a day. But most importantly, despite the weather, I really just had tons of fun.
Now, as I’ve pushed into southern Pennsylvania, a section I’ve also really enjoyed, I look towards the north. With states becoming smaller in size, border crossings become more frequent in the north. Feeling very strong and that I’ve truly hit a rhythm in my hiking, I can’t help but feel like AT milestones will begin to fall like dominoes. However, I can’t count my chickens before they hatch, and I have to stay focused on the tasks immediately at hand. They say the rocks in the northern half of Pennsylvania are brutal, so I have to be aware of my steps in order to mitigate the threat of a twisted ankle. But I still hope to make steady and fairly quick progress through PA, NJ, and NY, as I know my pace will slow once I enter New England simply because there is a high concentration of folks with whom I cannot wait to visit, including but not limited to my immediate family and childhood friends in CT and friends and co-workers in NH. But the only way to get there is to do so safely.
And with that I say, onward into the north!