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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 13 - Big Walker Mountain
"Get in here!" he roared in his gravelly voice.
Before we left Damascus we spent some time considering our route going forward. Recently the trail had undergone a major reroute. In previous years the Appalachian Trail had traversed Big Walker Mountain, a 30 mile ridge in the southern portion of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. In Virginia the characteristics of the mountains changes from the high balds and rugged, more jumbled mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee to gentler lower mountains that create a pattern of long parallel ridges separated by narrow valleys. This section of the Appalachian Mountains are known as the Blue Ridge. Big Walker Mountain is a prime example of the Appalachian landscape that predominates in Virginia.
The trail had been rerouted away from Big Walker toward the east over Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in the state of Virginia. Both Paul and Mark were more familiar with the old trail that went over Big Walker than the new trail that had just opened up. They both lamented the loss of such a wonderful part of the trail. According to them, the views on Big Walker Mountain were great and the hiking was pleasant and easy. They intended to hike the old trail. Dave and I decided to accompany them. We weren't concerned about old trail versus new trail. Hiking was hiking and we felt sure that there would be interesting things to see and experience no matter which way we went.
As predicted, the hiking out of Damascus was easy and we were able to make good mileage each day. On the second day out of Damascus there was a road walk for part of the day. Paul surprised us as we were walking the road. He'd gotten an early start and was out in front of us. Mark, Dave, and I were all walking along the side of the road entertaining ourselves as we tramped along by spearing empty soda and beer cans with our walking sticks. Suddenly a van pulled up alongside of us and abruptly stopped. The three of us looked up as the big side door slid open. There was Paul standing framed in the doorway.
"Get in here!" He roared in his gravelly voice.
Part of Paul’s personality was a flair for drama combined with a bit of mischievousness. This was his shining moment - to surprise us and check our reaction. He thought we would all laugh and be grateful, and after a moment we were. At first, though, we were all startled. Past Paul, inside the van, we could see a couple young guys we didn't know grinning at us. Paul must have seen the look of alarm on our faces, because he quickly changed his tone.
"No, really guys, come on in," he insisted, "I got us a ride. These guys are from a gas station with a general store up the road apiece."
In the next instant we were climbing into the back of the van and the two guys were driving us to their store to buy snacks. As I had been in Damascus, I found myself amazed at how Paul could meet people and quickly enlist them in his plans. This simply was not part of my experience. Of course I had seen practical jokes like this. I had even taken part in them and been the victim of them. The difference was that they had always been among friends – people that had known each other for years. What was amazing to me was that Paul had the ability to establish the kind of familiarity necessary to get people to cooperate in a prank like that within moments of meeting them.
If you want to read this series from the beginning, click the link below:
- An Appalachian Trail Thru-hike: Part 1 - Deciding to...
Two teenagers hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end in 1982. This episode describes how they decided to hike the trail and their preparation for the trip.
This is the trade-off between the fun and company of hiking with a group and the independence and autonomy of hiking alone.
Hiking in a Group versus Hiking Solo
They took us about 5 miles up the road. Up till that point, the rides we had taken had been to get to a store near where the trail intersected a road, but we would always return the spot where the ride had started. This time the ride brought us 5 miles further down the road we were hiking at the time. There would be no going back. I wasn't too happy about that, but I needed to stick with my buddies. Actually between Dave and I there was little choice. The way we planned our trip and the way we packed our gear required us to stick together. Dave carried the tent and the stove and some food in his pack, but I carried the bulk of our food in my pack. We had to stay together, but we chose to stay with Paul and Mark and they chose to stay together for the time being also.
This is the trade-off between the fun and company of hiking with a group and the independence and autonomy of hiking alone. With the group comes conversation, joking, shared experiences, and oftentimes assistance given to each other which can cover sharing food, sharing a tent, sharing water, and the advantages of extra eyes and ears to observe or find things out that all can then take advantage of.
The autonomy of hiking alone means no compromising on where to stay, when to leave or stop, what food to eat, or when to eat it. It also provides the satisfaction of self-sufficiency. For many thru-hikers, the challenge of managing a solo cross-country hike is the ultimate goal. The isolation is part of the experience. Hiking solo is a lonelier existence, but there are plenty of opportunities for independent hikers to form temporary partnerships or to join a group for a while then break off to travel alone later on, only to meet other groups further on down the trail. That is how both Paul and Mark operated. They didn't know each other prior to meeting on the trail, but first they met up with each other, and then they met up with us. While we hiked together as a group, we all accepted some give-and-take.
Following the old trail turned out to be easy, especially since it was a recent relocation. We could see the white rectangular paint blazes that marked AT. They had been painted over with brown paint, but the majority of the blazes were not sufficiently blocked. The bright white rectangle could be easily discerned underneath the brown. The first two nights we stayed at lean-tos – Cherry Tree lean-to and then Glade Mountain lean-to. On the third day out from Damascus we stayed in a motel room split four ways. On the day after that, we began the climb up to the crest of Big Walker Mountain.
Big Walker Lookout
It was an overcast day, and the trail was easy to follow but it was somewhat overgrown. Bushes that grew next to the trail hadn't been pruned back by trail volunteers in over a year and the difference was evident in the slender branches and canes that crisscrossed in front of us. In some instances the plants were thorny and we scratched our legs up.
It started to rain as we neared the crest of the ridge and when we finally reached the top, we were happy to see the Big Walker Lookout and gift shop. The Big Walker Lookout was a tall observation tower much like a fire tower that had been built privately and was operated as a tourist attraction. It was afternoon when we arrived and no one else was around on such a rainy day so early in the season. Looking back on it, we were lucky the place was even open. There was a very friendly lady there. We took refuge in the gift shop for a long time to wait out the rain showers. We spend our time chatting with the lady, eating burgers at her food counter, looking around the shop, and weighing ourselves on an antique scale inside the shop. I remember being surprised because everyone else had lost weight since the start of the trip, but I had actually gained a couple pounds.
In the end the rain went on so long that we asked the lady if we could stay overnight in a shed or garage that was on the property. She offered two choices – either we could crawl under a trailer that was up on blocks and unroll our sleeping bags in the space between the bottom of the trail and the ground, or we could find a spot in an old gardening shed that was chock-full of lawnmowers, gas cans, rakes, and all sorts of other junk. We chose the shed and we set about rearranging things to create four oblong spaces where we could layout our sleeping bags. In the process of moving some of the equipment we disturbed a resident of the shed. Both Paul and I saw a brown furry thing scoot across the floor between us.
"There goes a rat," Paul announced.
Unfortunately, it was not some of Paul's drama. I had seen the long bare tail and I confirmed it to Dave and Mark. For some reason the prospect of sleeping on the floor of a shed that we knew was inhabited by rats did not make us change our minds about passing the night there. It must have been the mindset we were in as thru hikers. We were grungy and willing to spread out a sleeping bag almost anywhere. The rain was pounding down on the roof of the shed and none of us wanted to get soaked setting up our tents, then have to deal with the wet tents the next morning. Mark didn't even carry a tent. All he had was a tarp he would use in case of emergencies. Not only those factors but the element of a group decision once again came into play. Since all of us were willing to brave the rats, it made it easier as individuals to make the choice. I can't say that we didn't think about our rodent roomies as we slid into our sleeping bags that night. We all kept our hiking sticks close at hand. I can't speak for the others, but I must have been tired because rats or no rats I drifted off easily. There was one point in the middle of the night that I woke up. It was pitch dark and I seemed to feel something tugging or climbing on the bottom of my sleeping bag. I kicked my feet violently for a few seconds. I didn't feel it anymore and I drifted off again. In the morning I told the others about it but I realized that could have easily been a dream or just my imagination.
The Turkey Vulture
The rain moved away overnight and the sun was out when we awoke. We shouldered our packs and left the Big Walker Lookout behind, following the painted over white blazes along the gravel road that followed the mountain ridge for 9 miles.
As we hiked along the gravel road we found ourselves casting about for something to do to make the time go by a little faster. I had a small AM/FM transistor radio that I had brought on the trip. We usually listened to it in the evenings while we cooked dinner at camp. Sometimes we received a good signal and sometimes we didn't. As we hiked along the gravel road, I decided to see if we could get a good signal. I tried to boost the reception by wrapping some wire that we found around the radio antenna on one end and around my pack frame on the other. The signal came in and out as I walked. I was able to listen to a couple songs, but they were broken up by periods of static. Finally I gave it up and put the radio away.
In the afternoon the old trail broke away from the gravel road and cut back into the forest. The hiking became more interesting. We passed several rock outcroppings that afforded nice views of the valley to the west of Big Walker Mountain, and looking out into the sky above the valley we could see several large turkey vultures floating on the wind currents. Once we saw one up close on the ground near a rock outcropping. As we approached we got a good look at his red fleshy head. The vulture spread his wide brown wings and flapped awkwardly away from the cliff until its extended wings caught a wind current and it transitioned from unwieldy flapping to the soaring and gliding that vultures rely on as they search the ground below for food. On a hunch, Dave walked off the trail into the trees near the rock where the vulture had been perched.
After a moment he said, "Hey check this out."
We went over and saw where he was pointing. In a recessed area like a miniature cave amongst the jumble of rocks near the cliff, there was a nesting area with a few eggs. Apparently we had frightened a turkey vulture mother away from her nesting duties.
The plowed fields look like chocolate squares set against the vibrant green pastures and lawns.
We continued on and ended the day at a shelter that had been made out of a small cabin. There was a sign at the shelter that explained the place had been originally constructed as a linesman cabin. During the old days of rural electrification, electrical lines were constructed across remote areas where there was limited access by road. The lines had to be inspected by electrical linesmen. Often they had to do their work on foot and cabins were built at strategic points where they could spend the night between populated places. The shelter had originally been a linesman’s cabin. We thought the place was great. It had four wire bunks, a wood stove, and a mirror. The cabin was situated just a little way back from a fabulous view at a place called High Rock. High Rock was the top of a high cliff that overlooked a scenic valley. The cliff was so steep that we seemed to be looking directly down on the farm houses and freshly plowed fields in the valley below. The plowed fields look like chocolate squares set against the vibrant green pastures and lawns. We were so close and the air was so clear that we could see incredible detail on the country roads and farmhouses below. The gravel shoulder, doors and windows could be made out, and the scene reminded me of a set of props arranged around an electric train set.
That evening the conversation, as usual, turned to the trail ahead. We were almost at the end of Big Walker Mountain. The old trail would come back together with the new trail on the next day, and there was another trail town on the horizon - Pearisburg Virginia where there was a hostel run by a Catholic church at the edge of town. Paul and Mark had a short cut in mind which involved walking roads into Pearisburg. They wanted to arrive there the next day. Continuing on the trail would add an extra day of hiking to the time it would take to get into Pearisburg. Dave and I listened to their plan, then conferred between ourselves. We decided to take the trail and meet Paul and Mark in Pearisburg a day after they arrived. We all drifted off to sleep that night in far better circumstances than we had been in the previous night, each of us contemplating what the next day would bring.