An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 15 - The Hike to Cloverdale, Virginia
"Most thru-hikers experience doldrums at points during their trip."
Roads and Rides
Paul left Pearisburg ahead of us. A consistent pattern had emerged where Paul would coordinate with us about his plans and then he would take off early. Sometimes we wouldn't catch up for a few days. We would either fail to get to the shelter he identified as his goal for the night, or we reached it to find he had gone ahead. As Mark had said in Pearisburg – everyone had to decide how they wanted their own trip to go, and Paul's style was slowly separating him from us. Mark, on the other hand, had settled into the same rhythm as ours. At least for now we seem to share a similar pace and ratio of hiking and downtime.
We were in a restless mood when it came time to leave Pearisburg. When we walked out of town we walked roads instead of the trail. Most thru-hikers experience doldrums at points during their trip. Hiking doldrums are feelings of tedium or depression that seep into long distance hiker's minds after weeks or months on the trail. Hiking 2000 miles over 5-6 months can be exhilarating at times, but the truth is that there are also times that are more tedious than exciting. Hiking can be mind-numbing when that is all a person does day after day for months on end. After a while, long distance hikers can start to question why they are doing what they're doing. Each hiker or group of hikers find their own way of coping with the doldrums. The first thing most hikers do when they feel the doldrums is to simply push through the tedium, with faith that further along they will recapture their adventurous spirit and the wonder of the AT that they had at the start of their trip. When that is not enough, there are other coping methods used. Sometimes they take extended time off, and then return to where they stopped in a more refreshed state of mind. Sometimes they skip forward to hike a different section of the trail, with the plan to return later to the section that they skipped. Sometimes they look for ways to shake things up by finding alternate routes to follow for a while until they connect back up with the trail further along in the direction they are traveling. Some decide they've had enough and they quit altogether.
When we had our down periods there were times that we tried all those techniques - we pushed through tedium, and recaptured a good hiking rhythm after days where we were dragging. Other times we took time off, like when we made impromptu trips into Franklin, NC and Robbinsville, NC. At other times we walked on alternate trails or roads for a day or two. The last approach was what we chose as we left Pearisburg.
We took Route 460 until we hit route 613, then followed it up to the trail. Along 460 we hit a couple towns. At one, Pembroke, we met an older fellow who bought us some soda. I gave him a piece of candy. He told us he was on his way to Stony Creek to go fishing. Route 613 was a 5 mile uphill hike to where the trail intersected near Mountain Lake Lodge resort. Once on the trail we hiked about 2 miles to War Spur shelter where we stayed the night. To our surprise Paul was nowhere to be seen. Since he had left earlier than us, we figured he would already be there.
We woke the next morning and went about 3 miles on the trail until we hit route 601. As we had the day before, we decided to walk some roads instead of the trail. The appeal to us of deviating from the trail for a while was for variety. Whereas the trail was a constant corridor through the forest, road walking got us into the open and allowed us to see some different scenery. Most of the roads we hiked were country lanes with few cars. The homes and farms we passed were uniformly well kept up and the people we met were friendly. We had yet to experience the downsides of deviating from the trail by walking roads for a day. Before the end of the day we would discover one of them.
We walked on route 601 about 6 miles to Newport. The walk along that road was beautiful. We passed numerous farms that were very scenic. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the 70s. After eating lunch at a park, we continued on more roads. We took route 42 to route 460 and took that to Route 621. We intended to follow 621 in order to hit the trail just past Niday shelter.
The trouble with the road walking we did that day was that we overextended ourselves to the point where as evening fell we were still far from connecting back to the trail. Late in the afternoon we found ourselves on a long gravel road lined with beautiful woodlands interspersed with homes that looked newly built and well-maintained. Most were small to midsize ranch homes with pickups parked out front. The shadows were growing long and Mark speculated that we might still be a long way from where the road intersected the trail. All the land we were walking past was private. There were no shelters, no campsites, and no water source. We weren’t sure what to do for the night. Not long after that a black car came driving slowly past. We flagged down the driver who turned out to be a young woman not much older than Dave and I. We asked her how far it was to where the trail intersected. She told us it was quite a way still. After a short discussion she offered us a ride to the trail. The back seat of her car was full of stuff. We put our packs in her trunk and squeezed into the back. We had to sit on top of piles of magazines, clothes, and other stuff. We had a nice conversation during the 15 minutes or so that it took her to drive us to where we could see the familiar white blazes on the trees. We ended up camping a little way down the trail from where she let us off.
That incident just goes to show that when hiking on roads, even when not trying to hitch a ride, it is easy to fall into a trap of needing a ride or having someone stop and volunteer to give you a ride. In other words, it is a slippery slope from road walking to getting a ride from someone. Each AT hiker should realize how easy it is to get into a position where a ride is very tempting, either as a simple convenience or a handy way out of a pickle, even when the hiker doesn’t intend to look for a ride in the beginning.
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.
Bob's Big Time Barn
The next day was hot. It was probably as hot as any we had felt since the early days of the trip in Georgia. Before we had left Pearisburg, Paul had told us about a place to stay he had read about in the “Bootlegger’s Guide”. The place was called Bob’s Big Time Barn. It was situated next to a grocery store in Catawba, Virginia. The building had once been a pigsty, the Bootlegger wrote in his guide, but it had been converted into a shelter for hikers. Paul had talked up Bob’s Big Time Barn before he left Pearisburg. He had mentioned it as a place where we might meet up. As we approached the spot where we expected the old pigsty to be, Dave must have had a premonition because he suddenly turned to Mark and I and said,
“Wouldn't it be funny if we walked up to the grocery store and saw Paul laying in the grass, next to the barn?"
Within about 10 minutes of Dave saying that, we intersected a road and saw the grocery store. Sure enough, lying on his sleeping pad in the grass next to Bob’s Big Time Barn, was Paul, dozing in the sun. When we walked up to him, Paul opened one eye then broke into a smile. He said he had been expecting us. We all shared a laugh as we told him about Dave's prediction.
Bob’s Big Time Barn was a midsized wooden building with a flat metal roof, and the Catawba grocery store was a large general store that sold meat and other groceries. After we hit the store for snacks we went to check out the barn where we were planning to stay the night. As soon as we walked in we realized that we wouldn't be staying in that shelter after all. Bob’s Big Time Barn already had an occupant. We walked in to see a slack faced older man standing in the middle of the floor. He looked at us with glazed eyes and mumbled something incoherent. Spread across the floor next to him was a mound of beige Coors cans. Besides that, the place was filthy, it had a dirt floor, and it smelled. We backed out of the place like it was toxic. We looked at each other and shook our heads. Bob’s Big Time Barn was a bust. I had less desire to sleep in there than I had in the shed behind the Big Walker Lookout. We went back to hang out with Paul and Mark and report to them what we had seen.
Paul was unfazed. It looked like the weather would be good, he said, so we could probably just sleep on the roof of the place. Of course, the lure of staying there at all was the proximity to the store. With a grocery store so close by, we could get fresh meat to cook up for dinner, and ice cream for dessert. Otherwise we probably would have just headed down the trail. The rest of the afternoon we spent soaking up the sun's rays, reading, and snoozing. We all bought ourselves fresh meat to cook in our frying pans over our backpacking stoves. As darkness came on we went over to the barn. We took a quick look inside and found that the vagrant man had disappeared. Thinking about him made me remember the menacing shout that had startled Dave and I as we had walked into Pearisburg. With some sadness, I suddenly realized that the shout had probably come from someone very much like the pathetic, broken man we had seen earlier inside the barn.
We boosted each other up on to the roof and the last guy on the ground hoisted up the packs. the ones on top then extended their hands down and pulled the last guy up. We found that the flat metal roof was still warm from the days sun. The roof consisted of a series of 2 foot strips of sheet metal crimped together forming a set of slots just the right width to roll out a sleeping bag. We each took a slot and got into our sleeping bags. Below us we could feel the warm roof radiating through our sleeping bags while above the stars were shining bright. Paul must have hearkened back to his sailor days because he started pointing out constellations to us and told us their names. Before long though, we drifted off to sleep, hoping for more clear skies for the next day.
In the morning Paul, as usual, got up early. We helped him down from the roof and handed down his pack. We waved so long, figuring we would catch up with him further down the trail, but it wasn't to be. Neither Dave nor I ever saw Paul again. We did read a few shelter log entries, and later in the trip Dave got a letter from him. The letter contained a picture of a shirtless Paul standing on top of a boulder wearing his pack. His letter said the photo was taken in Maine. Paul looks good in the photo – slimmed-down, tan, and happy. One of Paul's shelter log entries we read recounts an adventure he had. Somewhere up in Maine where there are many lakes, Paul came across a pilot of a seaplane. The plane was pulled up to a dock. Paul got talking to the guy and the guy offered to take them up in the plane. Paul talked about seeing the Maine wilderness from a birds-eye perspective, then landing back on the lake. We had to smile when we read it because we could easily imagine Paul talking his way into the seaplane ride and how much he must have enjoyed it..
"Hanging in a few loops off of Mark’s walking stick was a large black rat snake."
A Blister and a Failed Prank
The terrain was easy that day, until we hit Tinker Mountain. The trail went straight up the mountain very steeply. On top of the mountain we were rewarded for our efforts. We had one of the best views of the trip to that point. After that it was only a short way to Lambert's Meadow shelter, where we ate supper. All day I had been bothered by a blister on my left foot. After supper I bandaged it up before we set off again. We went 10 miles after dinner and slept under some power lines just outside of Cloverdale.
For close to two months I had been hiking on the AT and hadn't had any problems with my feet. The hike up Tinker Mountain gave me my first blister of the trip. Normally the AT was a well-constructed and well-maintained trail. It went over all sorts of terrain and obstacles, but the pathway was reliably level for the most part. For some reason on that day we traversed a section where the path was tilted. Instead of being cut into the side of the slope or being built up as a brow that followed the contour the slope, the trail was a tilted 2 foot wide stripe that followed along the slope contour. Hiking along the trail that day involved having one leg constantly higher than the other. Also, the trail followed the contour for a long interval without switching back. Therefore my downslope leg took more of the weight for a long time and my ankle was on the verge of being rolled over. It was very uncomfortable and caused the side of my foot to rub in a strange way against the inside of my boot. Before long, I could feel the tell-tale prickle of a hot spot forming on that part of my foot. A hotspot is always the first indication of a blister forming. Any Boy Scout knows that when you start to feel a hotspot it is time to stop, untie your boots, put some moleskin or other padding or bandaging to cushion the spot, then retie the boots securely to eliminate the rubbing on the hot spot. That was in the back of my mind as I hiked along feeling the hot spot form, but to stop and do all that takes time. I was already behind Dave and Mark and I didn't want to get further behind so I kept going. When I finally came upon them they had a surprise for me. When I caught sight of them they had their packs off, leaned against some trees, and they were standing on the trail facing each other looking down. Dave had his camera out.
“Hey Dave," he said when he saw me, “Come here and look at this."
I was instantly suspicious. I detected a mischievous glint in Dave's eye. I knew him too well to be fooled into walking over unprepared for a prank.
I stopped a safe distance away. “What is it?" I asked.
“Just come here," he said.
“What is it?" I repeated the question while I tried to peer around Mark, whose back was to me.
Suddenly Mark pushed his walking stick forward and lifted up while he slowly rotated toward me. Hanging in a few loops off of Mark’s walking stick was a large black rat snake.
“Whoa!" I said.
I was glad I hadn't just walked up unaware. I had a thing about snakes. They were fascinating from a distance, but if I was surprised by one, they gave me the jitters. A shudder would run through my body and I would jump a couple feet off the ground, even with my pack on. Dave knew that and was hoping to induce that reaction. Fortunately, I was savvy to Dave's tricks due to years of hanging out with the guy.
The snake was surprisingly sluggish. I was surprised that it allowed Mark to lift it up on his stick. The reason turned out to be because it had just eaten. When I walked up Dave was finishing taking a series of pictures of the snake eating a chipmunk. It was possible to see the lump in the snake’s throat just behind the head. Mark lowered his stick into the bushes next to the trail and the snake slithered off onto the ground. In an instant it had disappeared into the undergrowth.
"The long shadows and the deep yellow cast of the sun’s rays gilded the trees and rocks with a golden chrome."
We spent a lot of time at the overlook on top of Tinker Mountain. When we got to Lamberts Meadow and ate dinner we decided to make up some of the lost time. The spring was far enough along by that point that there was light in the evening, and we were beginning to see opportunities for hiking after dinner. While we broke for dinner at the shelter, I was able to bandage up my foot to neutralize the blister. The evening hike was beautiful, the terrain was easy, and the hiking rhythm was clicking. Often hiking after dinner was a completely different experience than the hiking earlier in the day. With the energy from dinner flowing through our veins and the heat of the day dissipated with the setting sun, the miles seemed to fly by. The change in the light also made a difference. The long shadows and the deep yellow cast of the sun’s rays gilded the trees and rocks with a golden chrome. Hiking under those conditions never failed to put me into the groove I loved to be in when striding along the trail.
10 miles flew by in about three hours before darkness set in. Then we had to find a spot to camp for the night. There was no shelter nearby and all we could do was hope to find a water source. Finally we came out into a clearing. It was a broad swath that had been cut from the top of the ridge we were traveling along straight down the mountain on either side. Running through the middle of swath was a power line. The trail crossed the powerline cut and plunge back into the dark woods on the other side. We had pretty much given up hope of finding a water source by that time, and in the cut there was at least light and space to lay out our sleeping bags. Looking down the mountain we could see some lights of the town and moving lights of cars and trucks on the highway. Faintly we could hear the sounds of the traffic on the road below. The clearing created by the powerline cut was bare earth dotted with boulders. There was a glow of moonlight. Before we went to sleep we figured that we were very close to the point where we cross the highway at Cloverdale Virginia where our guidebook reported that there was a truck stop. We figured we might get breakfast there the next morning. Since we had a little water left in our water bottles, we were anxious to wake up and move out in the morning, hoping that there would be a good breakfast opportunity within a few miles. We slept out under the stars just off the trail for the night.
We hit the jackpot in Cloverdale the next morning. The trail crossed a highway next to a Truck Stops of America with a motel and a Howard Johnson's restaurant. Nearby there was also a Pizza Hut. After breakfast at the Howard Johnson's, Mark told us he planned to stay the night at Hollin’s College which put up thru hikers for five dollars a night. Dave and I liked the proximity of the truck stop to the Pizza Hut, so we told Mark we would stay at the motel and meet him in the morning. We hung out at the truck stop for the day, watching TV in the motel room and we ate pizza for dinner.
The next morning Mark showed up at the truck stop. We had breakfast at Howard Johnson's again and we couldn't help but notice that beneath the Howard Johnson's sign in the parking lot, there was a big marquee-style message board where large black letters had been placed advertising “All-you-can-eat – fried fish and clams – every Friday night”. It just so happened that Dave loved fried clams and he hadn’t had them in a long time. I thought they were OK, but I really liked fried fish. As soon as we saw the sign we started figuring out what day it was. While on the trail we could keep track of the date because of our daily journal entries, but it was easy to lose track of which day it was. It didn't take long though, to determine that it was indeed Friday.
Mark just laughed when he realized that we wanted to stay another night so we could hit the All-you-can-eat fish and clams. He agreed to pitch in and split the room three ways for a second night. Another day was spent in relaxation – reading, watching TV, and just talking. We also studied our guidebooks and maps to plan for the upcoming sections of the trail. We would be hitting the Blue Ridge Parkway soon. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a mostly two-lane scenic Highway that follows the main ridge line of the Blue Ridge mountains. It is known for its frequent panoramic views, wide grassy shoulders, and frequent pull offs with parking at scenic overlooks. The Parkway and overlooks and were well constructed and well-maintained with attractive stone walls and wood post guard rails lining the road. The effect is that the Blue Ridge Parkway has a rustic, park-like quality to it compared to other highways. There were also several visitor centers with snack bars or restaurants. The AT follows the Blue Ridge Parkway closely. It crisscrosses the Parkway several times per day. Our map clearly showed the way the trail wove back and forth across the road. Mark told us the best thing to do was to simply hike the shoulder of the Parkway. The views were more frequent, the hiking was faster, and there were more chances for hitting snacks on the way. Dave and I were non-committal about the road versus the trail choice. We wanted to get there and see it for ourselves.
Our dinner that night was enjoyable. We made the most of our All-you-can-eat opportunity. Dave made sure to get a whole plate piled high with the clams. The two-day stopover had an extra benefit for me. It gave me time for my blister to heal up without having to walk on it too much.
If you want to read the next episode in this series, click the link below:
- An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 16 - The Blue Ridge Parkway and Waynesboro, Virginia
The Double Dave's, two teenagers hiking the Appalachian Trail, do some hiking by moonlight, encounter some highs and some lows, and look for a way to get their mojo back.