“It’s a long green tunnel,” I had been adequately warned by a hiking colleague of mine, “you’ll see for yourself.” The Appalachian Trail (AT) in general, and the state of Virginia in particular, has been billed a “green tunnel” due to the dense green canopy that often surrounds the hiker. It can feel endless; the ever-tightening walls of nature feel as though they are closing in. Whole sections of trail become tunnel-like archways of rhododendrons and other woody plants. Claustrophobic tensions can wear down a hiker to the point of anxiety and disorientation. The effect becomes intensified and the tunnel syndrome becomes a malady. Although shady tunnels of lush green forests are beautiful, they can also become psychologically taxing, leading to a disorder that is humorously known as the “Virginia blues.” Indeed, one may hike for miles upon miles without open vistas and mountain view corridors; however, my experience in Old Dominion has been quite different. Since I left from Springer earlier in the year (February 28) and arrived in Virginia by the end of March (March 25), much of the tree cover one would expect to exist had not yet had time to grow its yearly foliage. Because of this factor, there were regular wide-open panoramas in otherwise narrowly enclosed areas. The take-it-all-in views of Virginia were a pleasant surprise. Also, the rugged mountains were much more drastic from an elevation standpoint than I was initially led to believe. Far from developing psychosomatic problems associated with “over-tunnelization,” I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in both southern and northern Virginia.
From the Tennessee/Virginia border north of Low Gap, I soon came upon Damascus, Virginia. Since I explored Damascus during my time off with Pitstop, I decided to move swiftly through the town. A popular venue within Damascus is to rent a bicycle and bike down the 35-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, a railroad converted to a multi-use recreation trail (rails to trails). The rental companies offer shuttle services to Whitetop Station whereupon participants cycle down the subtle grade all the way down to Damascus. The town, home of the annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival, is a popular hang out spot for hikers with its many outfitters, hostels, and eateries. Before departing the hiker-accommodating hamlet, I did drop by the sub shop and packed out a tubular foot-long sandwich with extra everything. Camping next to the Creeper Trail junction, I woke up the following morning to a fluffy layer of white stuff on my tent. You know, the unpredictability of weather makes the trail all the more experiential! The blanket of cottony white snow in the Mount Rogers area of southern Virginia was noticeably calming. Sometimes it is the thing one does not plan—the unexpected—that can produce the sweetest memory. While crossing a snow-covered footbridge, I inscribed the word OUTBACK using one of my trecking poles.
Grayson Highlands was truly a land of the imagination; the fairytale scenes were plucked out of a storybook with picturesque alpine peaks and grazing wild ponies. Despite the inclement weather and icy terrain, there were a few day hikers and weekenders in Grayson Highlands State Park at the time I went through. The area is geographically exposed and the wind whipped up something terrible; however, there was still a sense of the serene. Ponies, with ice-clumped manes, nosed through the snow for the high prairie grass below.
The wind-driven snow and plummeting cold temperatures prompted me to stay in a shelter, which was far from my usual on-trail practice. Although conditions did slowly improve, the Partnership Shelter proved to be a worthwhile stop for the night. With its fort-like design and playful architecture, the shelter was one I just could not pass up. If the “Fontana Hilton” is the plushest shelter on trail, the Partnership Shelter is a close runner-up—what might be dubbed the “Holiday Inn” of the AT. I had walked in with Goofy, another NOBO thru-hiker, who also slept in the loft where I had blown up my air pad. The loft is accessed by climbing a lodgepole ladder; one feels like a kid climbing on the monkey bars at recess. Odie, a section hiker on the “ten-year plan,” had the whole lower level of the shelter to himself. The double-decker log cabin was well crafted and the enclosed loft provided much relief from the blasting wind. Rodent-proof hooks come as a standard feature!
A one-room schoolhouse, dating back to 1894, was situated just off to the side of the trail on a grassy knoll. The Lindamood School was preserved, as were the boys’ and girls’ outhouses. I approached the door to see if the school was unlocked. The doorknob turned and the squeaky door opened up into an old classroom with the original potbelly stove right in the middle. I was immediately transported back in time! The old blackboard still hung and the rows of wooden desks with their seat-in-the-front bench design were in place as if school were still in session. One could imagine the grade schoolers’ slate tablets sitting atop each of the desks. Unfortunately, Miss Beadle, schoolteacher from Little House on the Prairie, was not around! The school was hiker friendly and contained tubs of hiker food at no charge, courtesy of the local Methodist church. One “hiker box” included Mountain House meals, which are freeze-dried meals highly sought after by food-crazed hikers. There was another box with various used gear from which I pulled out a 1970 Gideons Bible. The pocket-sized New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs fit perfectly in the side zipper pouch of my backpack. Hikers are welcome and even permitted to sleep inside. The historical one-room schoolhouse was charming and made for an amazing little stopover.
Sweetwater Restaurant, Brushy Mountain Outpost, and Wood’s Hole Hostel were also resourceful stops along the way to replenish and load up on supplies and hot foods. As one might sus is rarely a time when food is not on the mind of a ravenous thru-hiker! Soon I passed a sign that read “1/4 GA to ME,” meaning one-fourth of the AT was complete.
After staying at a hotel in Pearisburg, I met up with Scott, whom I refer to as “Buckeye Blazer.” For a zero day, I had the unique opportunity to stay with Scott at the historic MacArthur Inn located in Narrows, VA in Giles County. The Inn is owned by a retired miner named Allen who is chock-full of local knowledge and was a most pleasant host. His drooping walrus mustache suited him perfectly; it was as if he stepped into the present from another time long ago. If you take away the bowtie and top hat, he kind of reminded me of Rich Uncle Pennybags—the Monopoly mascot guy! Anyhow, Allen shared my interest in history and has General Douglas MacArthur memorabilia, including newspaper clippings and the distinctive long-stemmed-deep-bowled corncob Missouri Meerschaum pipe, hanging from the walls of the hotel. The edifice was colonial-styled with Corinthian columns. It was about to be torn down before Allen stepped in to save the structure. The foyer has much class with a black-and-white checkered floor. There is a restored chrome-trimmed Seeburg jukebox with a Select-O-Matic system that plays 78rpm records. Allen deposited a quarter to play a song for my departure. Over the years, legendary stars including John Wayne (“Duke”), James Drury, Michael Landon, and Mickey Mantle, have stayed at the inn. Needless to say, I walked out with a smile and a hum.
Spending time with Scott, one of my “unofficial sponsors,” was such a privilege. You know, a perfect stranger can become one’s greatest collaborator. The Buckeye Blazer, whom I never met until hiking the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT) this year, has become a dedicated trail supporter and dear friend. Scott is an eighth grade public science teacher in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Coincidentally, this is the land of my ancestors as my father was born in New Philadelphia (“New Philly”), the same county where Scott happens to teach. As an educator in a rural district, Scott is noticeably knowledgeable and passionate in what he does. Young people need inspiration and motivation along with solid instruction; the impression a teacher makes upon a student can and should last a lifetime. Scott, along with many of his students, track my progress via satellite, in part to learn topography in real time. Kids regularly ask questions about my location and progress on the trail, which is remarkable! Some of them have become quite curious to learn more about various aspects of trail life. Scott discovered me somewhere around Christmas, Florida on the Florida Trail after reading a blog column I had written. I first met him in Dalton, Georgia while on the Pinhoti Trail. He drove eight hours to meet me in Dalton, then more recently, drove another 4 hours to rendezvous again in Narrows, VA. In one way or another, the trail is a special place to meet people from all walks of life who would not have otherwise associated. It’s a rare phenomenon. Friendships can make all the difference in the world—on and off trail—and for these worthwhile relationships, I count my blessings.
Hiking further north a man named Jason, a local resident, was offering a cooler of “Coke magic” near a nondescript bridge. Here I met an interesting young fellow called “Straps,” so called because he is a hammocker. Straps and I walked together to Dragon’s Tooth and, in the process, had a most enlightening conversation. Straps is a mathematics major at Auburn and had formal training in Classical Latin. We exchanged thoughts on literature, history, and philosophy. On trail the two of us discussed the Punic Wars and also ancient Greek literature involving the mythological Trojan War, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The philosophical thought of Socrates and Plato, the student of Socrates, were also reviewed during our intellectual saunter. I weighed in on Immanuel Kant, one of my personal favorite philosophers, best known for his work Critique of Pure Reason. Then, after discussing abstract mathematical theory over a Hunt Brothers pizza at a nearby convenience store, Straps and I made camp where he showed me how to properly set up a hammock. Informing me of the pros and cons of hammocking, Straps described how a hammock, especially on the AT, solves a “real estate” problem. There are more tree trunks to set up a hammock than parcels of flat land to pitch a tent. The next afternoon, Fresh Ground coincidentally pulled up at a road crossing right before McAffee Knob to conduct trail magic once again. Straps and I were served three hotdogs a piece along with fresh-cut potato fries! McAffee Knob (Elev. 3,156 ft), being the most photographed spot on the AT, was breathtaking as we had the rock feature all to ourselves. Sitting on the edge of the recognizable cliff was nerve-racking and is not for the faint of heart. Numerous people have fallen off the edge over the years while attempting to snap pictures. It’s a 100-foot drop off straight down and scooting to the edge is a risky proposition. Of those airlifted out by rescue teams, few survive to tell the tale. While on the knob and on through Tinker Cliffs, I retrieved my maroon-colored pocket Bible and reflected on the words of Psalm 139:1-14. The passage reminded me that the God of Creation is always with me and knows my every thought and action.
The Daleville Bojangles restaurant permitted me to use their wall outlets to charge up. After three egg-and-bacon breakfast sandwiches, I hightailed it further north. Blue Ridge Parkway afforded remarkable views, particularly at sunset. The Bryant Ridge Shelter, much like the Partnership Shelter, was among my favorite shelters on trail. Although I did not overnight at the shelter, it provided a great space to escape a torrential rain storm. Further up trail, a rock feature called “The Guillotine” made for a splendid photographic opportunity. The boulder, caught between two bedrock walls, appears as though it could fall any moment and lop someone’s head off. Upon crossing the James River Foot Bridge, a sign discouraged hikers from jumping off it into the river below. Apparently this has been a popular, albeit illegal, ritual for thru-hikers over the years!
After stopping in the Montebello Country Store to resupply after running out of food from a long stretch of trail, I decided to night-hike what is known as “The Priest.” As a religious person, it’s only in good fun that I tell you about a unique AT ritual. You see I was in the Priest Wilderness area, and it is a longtime hiker tradition to write one’s “confessions” in the shelter logbook. Hikers spend hours writing and reading through entries from the jolly to the profane, jotting down the most ridiculous statements ever recorded on paper! Much of the content is quite humorous. Night-hiking in the mountains is so soothing and I encourage others to try it out. Hiking down The Priest alone at night in the snow and ice was hard but a reflective time to actually focus on my real sins and misgivings. Being alone, I have been learning much about myself and feel God’s steadfast love all around in a moving and transformative way. The descent itself was drastic—dropping almost 3,000 ft (2,943 ft) in 4.1 miles! There were precarious cliffs and sharp switchbacks. After an exhausting 32.1 mile day, it was time to make camp at Tye River.
From Rockfish Gap, I decided to nero in Waynesboro to rest up for a special trail event I had schemed up called the “60-Mile Shennies Challenge.” I stayed at Stanimal’s 328 Hostel where I hung out with Tadpole and Red Moose among other thru-hikers. Tadpole is a Canadian who received her trail name after accidentally scooping up a little “friend” while gathering water to drink at a water source. Red Moose is a Mainer who strapped on a guitar to his forty-five-pound backpack and who I became acquainted with over the course of the day. The evening of the hostel stay, I resupplied at Dollar General, purchasing just enough food for the upcoming challenge.
The challenge? Hike sixty miles continuously in a 24-hour period on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park (“Shennies” in hiker parlance) from mile 870.1 (near Beagle Gap) to mile 930.1 (halfway point of ECT, near Rock Spring Hut). The “contest” was not a competition per se; rather, it was more like an inner rivalry between me, myself, and Outback! Some might view this as a kind of self-torture since there was no trophy, patch, or even as much as a pat on the shoulder at the end. Moreover, there was no FKT (fastest known time) motive or recognition involved, which has become fashionable in recent years. There was no “slackpacking” involved nor were UL daypacks. My crew chief “Pitstop” wasn’t even there as he was out of town, so there weren’t any carb-heavy Italian platters. I’m did this for the sheer pleasure in and of itself; that’s good enough for me. It’s just plain fun! Meeting the self-directed goal would shatter my old 2018 record of hiking 51 continuous miles on the PCT into Timberline Lodge near Mount Hood in Oregon. Once completed, it would be the halfway mark of the 5,726.8-mile Eastern Continental Trail. That’s 2,863.4 miles down! And, of course, it would be that many more miles to go to Belle Isle, NF. The “60-Mile Shennies Challenge,” a push to my midway point, occurred on April 12 from midnight to midnight. The challenge was strenuous, but the conditions were largely favorable and the weather held out. Apart from stubbing my toe in the first mile and limping the next five, the challenge went extraordinarily well! I made twenty miles just before 7am, thirty just before 10am, and forty just before 2pm. I hiked all sixty miles continuously through Shenandoah National Park; the hike took me 21 hours and 50 minutes. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, I reached the halfway point of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT)! It was April 12th at 9:50pm and the ECT was half over.
Shenandoah National Park was a beautiful setting to conduct the self-challenge with its magnificent viewing opportunities and gentle slopes. Just before exiting the park, I enjoyed a throat-cooling soft drink from a trailside cooler that had been left by a trail angel. Soon after, I ran into Canary, the Michigander who is attempting a Triple Crown FKT. I first met and hiked with Canary coming into Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). The two of us hiked together once more, this time to Snickers Gap. En route, we passed the AT 1,000-mile marker, which was an important milestone. Canary’s girlfriend, who is his support system for the FKT, drove us to Grand Buffet, a local Chinese all-you-can-eat restaurant. Taking a starving thru-hiker to an all-you-can-eat Chinese place is in no way profitable for the restaurant! Feeling I needed a wheelchair escort out to the parking lot, I came out of the buffet stuffed to the gills. Driving back to the trailhead that night, Canary blasted an amazing song from his van stereo. It’s a song that I somehow managed to have never heard before but touched me in a most profound way. Despite the tune having so few words, it was pleasing to the ear with its surreal delay and echoplex effects. The song is called Small Hours and was written and performed by John Martyn, a British experimental songwriter in the 1970s.
The “Rollercoaster” from the south end (mi 996.1) to the north end (1010.2) made for an eventful conclusion to the state of Virginia. Asymmetrical “iceberg rocks” poking out of the ground were ubiquitous; indeed, the little half-buried rocks account for numerous hiker injuries from stubbed toes to fractured wrists. Foot placement becomes an art form. One misstep and a hiker could sustain a hike-ending injury. Face-planting into a rock outcropping is no way to end the journey. Well, before I knew it, I arrived at Keyes Gap, and the 550-mile Virginia section was complete!
A few minutes after midnight on the morning I began the “Shennies Challenge,” I received an encouraging text message on my iPhone. It was from Pitstop who knew of the difficult obstacle I was about to face. Alone in a dark wilderness in the wee hours of the morning, I knew in my gut—despite the grueling 24-hour hike that was ahead—I would somehow succeed. The message contained the words of an old Irish blessing that is suitable for the modern hiker today. The words were especially pertinent to me on this particularly long, weary, and lonesome night:
Sometimes the path is steep, and barren. It’s lonely. It’s hard.
And yet you just have to keep going.
There are glimpses of beauty and streams of restoring water along the way where you can stop to rest.
And there is one who is beside you all along, who will never abandon you.
You are headed to new places, and to new heights.
Beauty can often only be seen from the top.