An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 16 - The Blue Ridge Parkway and Waynesboro, Virginia
Reaching the Blue Ridge Parkway
We woke up in a motel at a TruckStops of America in Cloverdale VA on May 8th. I noted in my journal that we watched cartoons right up until check out time at noon. In the days before cable TV, cartoons were relegated to Saturday mornings. Having the motel room until 12 o'clock on Saturday gave us the opportunity to indulge. I don't remember which cartoons we watched but it was probably some combination of Bugs Bunny and friends, Scooby Doo, the Flintstones, and maybe the Jetsons. If we were lucky we got to see an episode of Johnny Quest. When check out time finally arrived, we had to rouse ourselves out of our cartoon induced lethargy. We got up, swung our packs onto our shoulders, cinched up our hip belts, and headed out across the truck stop parking lot to find the trail and continue northward. Before long we were back in the woods. There were some on again, off again rain showers, but we were fortunate enough to be at Fullhardt Knob Shelter for the heaviest rain. We stayed there for a long time during the middle of the day.
The weather cleared off in the afternoon, and we went back to hiking. We made it to Wilson Creek Shelter for dinner. We took advantage of the extra light in the evening after dinner to make some extra mileage. By leaving Wilson Creek Shelter we passed on a comfortable place to stay with a water source. One reward was the satisfaction of reaching the Blue Ridge Parkway. The downside was the distinct possibility of a dry camp that night. That possibility became a reality a few hours later. When we reached the first trail crossing of the Blue Ridge Parkway it was already dark, but the skies had cleared and the night was beautiful. The moonlight illuminated the wide shoulder of the road and we walked five more miles along the moonlit parkway before we finally located a grassy, 20 foot tall hill that we were able to climb and sleep behind so we would be hidden from the road.
"... it was already dark, but the skies had cleared and the night was beautiful. The moonlight illuminated the wide shoulder of the road and we walked five more miles..."
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.
Two Good Days
The next morning we woke up, stuffed our sleeping bags into their stuff sacks and strapped them on to our packs. We drank the last of the water that was in our canteens and we headed down the parkway looking for the next spot where the trail crossed. We got back on the trail and hiked it until we found a water source. At that point we made breakfast. Mark decided he would continue to hike the parkway once we encountered it again, but Dave and I chose the trail for the day. We agreed with Mark to aim for Thunder Hill Shelter. We had a day where we couldn't find our hiking rhythm, but we still made 18 miles. That evening we met another thru-hiker. He was a guy who called himself “The Turtle”. We had been seeing his trail name in the shelter logs for a while and we knew from the way he signed the logs that he that he liked to make jokes about how slow he hiked and that he carried his house on his back – thus the trail name “The Turtle”.
The Turtle turned out to be a guy in his early 30s. He was short with a long brown beard and Brown hair tied back in a ponytail. He was a friendly, talkative guy who laughed a lot. In fact it seemed like he ended everything he said with a laugh or giggle. I found his cheerfulness to be infectious and I took an instant liking to him.
When we studied the map that night to see what was coming up, we noticed that the trail continued to follow the parkway, crossing back and forth across it several times and that there was a visitor center with a restaurant along the parkway. As usual we used our stomachs to analyze the situation, and by the time we turned in for the night we had a plan to walk the parkway with Mark the next day so we could hit the Otter Creek Visitor Center.
The next day was hot and clear. The miles went by fast even though we took a few breaks. It was about 2:30 when we got to Otter Creek visitor center and restaurant. There we had some hamburgers and some milkshakes. We stayed at the restaurant until six o'clock in the evening and then we hiked another 12 miles. We finally found a place to sleep along the parkway around 11 o'clock at a spot hidden from the road. All in all, we hiked 27 miles.
As we turned in for the night, we were feeling pretty good about the strategy we had followed for the day. Not only did we get to have burgers and milkshakes during a midafternoon break, we also ended up hiking a lot of miles and much of the time we had wide open panoramic views to look at as we hiked. Hiking on the parkway was different than trail hiking but it was also different than other road walking. As with other road walking, hiking the parkway shoulder was easier and faster than hiking the trail. There were no rocks and roots to navigate through and the even street surface allowed us to look around more as we hiked. On most roads, looking around didn't offer too much except to see cars whizzing past and the occasional interesting house or farm. On the parkway the cars still whizzed by, but due to the width of the shoulder they were further away. Also, since the parkway was built as a scenic drive along the top of the Blue Ridge, the views were frequent and spectacular. Another difference between the parkway and other roads were the mile markers. Every mile there was a concrete post set in the ground next to the road. Engraved on it in blue letters was the mileage going north to south which meant that as we hiked, the mileage kept getting smaller. It wasn't long before we were timing ourselves against the mileposts. Typically on the trail we hiked about 3 miles per hour, which is a mile every 20 minutes – a good pace on the trail with a backpack. While on the parkway we set a goal of hiking 4 miles per hour – a mile every 15 minutes. Dave would check his watch every time we passed a marker. We strode along trying to get to the next marker within 15 min. After a few miles we were able to calibrate our pace to match the 4 miles per hour goal. It was a challenge. In the woods we didn't take strides as long as on the road and after a while I could feel the difference in my legs. Trying to keep up the 4 mile an hour pace for several miles, I ended up feeling it mostly in my shins. It seemed like they were being flexed more due to the longer stride. I can't remember if we were able to keep the 4 mile an hour pace for the entire day, but we definitely took advantage of the road to hike a lot of miles.
When we studied our maps to plan the next day's hike we saw another opportunity to hit a visitor center. This one was the Whetstone Ridge Visitor Center. We had planned carefully for the evening by making sure we had plenty of water by filling all our bottles at Otter Creek Visitor’s Center so we would be able to have breakfast the next morning.
"We had fallen out of balance and we found ourselves at a low point."
The next day we tried to repeat what we had done the day before, but in the end it fell apart. After another long hike to Whetstone Ridge Visitor’s Center, all the while dreaming about burgers, fries, and milkshakes, we walked into the parking lot at the end of the day, and were stunned to find out it was closed. For a while we wandered around the visitor’s center buildings in disbelief. We peeked in the windows, tried all the doors, and looked for signs that would explain that we were actually at the wrong place, and that the real Whetstone Visitor Center was just a little ways further down the road.
There were a few cars in the parking lot with people doing things like getting items out of their luggage or checking maps. We walked up to a few of them and asked a bunch of foolish questions. We were used to getting friendly responses from people we encountered, but these folks only gave out curt answers and looked away like they thought we were vagrants. It didn't occur to us that up until then all the people we had met were people familiar with the Appalachian Trail and long-distance hikers. They had mostly been townsfolk and business owners happy for the money we spent in their towns and genuinely interested in the welfare of the hikers that passed through. The people we were talking to in the visitor center parking lot knew nothing about the trail. They were tourists or just people passing through, taking a scenic route through the Blue Ridge mountains. As far as they were concerned, we were vagrants. They probably thought we were going to hit them up for some spare change or ask for a ride.
Finally we had to admit to ourselves that there weren't going to be any hamburgers, fries, or shakes. We ended up slumping down against the trunk of a tree at one end of the parking lot to develop an alternative plan. Mark wasn't as devastated by the turn of events as Dave and I were. He had been planning to call his girlfriend when he reached Waynesboro, Virginia. She was a student at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. He planned to spend a few days with her. We had all been planning to reach Waynesboro by the end of the next day, but with our plan falling through, he decided to call her from a pay phone at the visitor center. Luckily the pay phones were working, even though everything else, including the restrooms, was closed. Before long he came over to where we were sitting and said she would be there in about an hour. She could give us a ride into Waynesboro, he said.
We were about 30 miles away from Waynesboro. At first Dave and I didn't reply. We had to take stock of our situation. We had food in our packs and a little water in our water bottles. There was no way to refill them at Whetstone with the bathrooms closed. We could have hiked on down the road and made dry camp that night like we had done in the past, but that part of the parkway had veered away from the trail. The trail wasn't crossing the parkway as frequently anymore. Therefore we couldn't be sure of when our next opportunity to get water would be. For a second time we gotten ourselves overextended on a road walk. Our trail guides couldn't help us plan anything and we were nowhere near the trail as evening was closing in.
Under the circumstances, we chose to go with Mark and his girlfriend into Waynesboro and find a place to stay. Looking back on it, we could have asked them to drive us south on the Parkway until we came to the last intersection of the trail and the road that we had passed, but it didn’t occur to us to backtrack, and if it had, I doubt we would have done it. We were in a frustrated mood and we wanted a reset. We decided to skip a section and return sometime in the future to hike that part of the trail. Once again we were in the “doldrums”. Things hadn’t gone according to our expectations. We had thought with our stomachs and had ignored what common sense should have told us – that we were getting too far away from the trail.
Earlier in the trip Dave and I had actively cultivated a positive mental attitude. We had even coined the acronym “PMA” which we repeated to ourselves and each other during the early days of the trip. Recently we had gotten out of that habit. We had lost our focus and had started basing too much of our positive attitude on opportunities to find places like restaurants and stores along the way. We had learned early on in the trip that using intermediate goals as a day to day motivator could help keep us from being overwhelmed by the enormity of the hike. Now we were learning that it was possible to get so focused on the intermediate stuff that we could be demoralized when one of those intermediate goals fell through. We had fallen out of balance and we found ourselves at a low point. Of course we weren’t thinking about any of this at that moment. We just knew we were down and that we needed to get ourselves back on track. We hoped that a break in Waynesboro would help us do that. What we didn’t know was that there were a few misfortunes yet to come our way before we would recover our positive attitudes.
Waynesboro Virginia is the southern gateway to the Shenandoah National Park (SNP). Just outside the city, at Rockfish Gap, the Blue Ridge Parkway turns into Skyline Drive, the road that runs through the middle of SNP. The Appalachian Trail also enters SNP at Rockfish Gap. Skyline Drive is maintained by the National Park Service. Much like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, camping in the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) was tightly regulated. Before we entered SNP we had to get a back country camping permit with all our camping sites and shelter stops planned out ahead of time.
For the time being Dave and I settled in for a couple days stay in Waynesboro. Mark and his girlfriend helped us find a cheap place to stay – a motel for $16 per night. The room was small and the TV was old, but it had a shower, and there were places to eat and a store for resupplying nearby. We agreed with Mark that we would meet him at Rockfish Gap by the park entrance in two days. Waynesboro is not a trail town the same way that Hot Springs, Damascus, and Pearisburg are where the trail runs straight through town. Where we stayed in Waynesboro was more like the truck stop in Cloverdale than the small town atmosphere in Damascus, Hot Springs, and Pearisburg. As a result, we didn't go out much other than to eat. Our big activities were lying around the room reading and trying to watch the TV, which was on its last legs. Our other big event was calling home. We called home every time we came to a town where we stayed for a while. It worked out for us to place a phone call home every week and a half or so. Generally, we both called home at the same time. Our procedure was to find a pay phone – usually one of the old-style phone booths with the folding glass doors. One of us would go in and make his call while the other waited outside the booth until it was his turn. We always dialed zero and told the operator we wanted to make a collect call to our parent’s number. Our parents would get on, accept the charges, and then we had our conversation.
In a parking lot near our motel room in Waynesboro there was a phone booth. I was waiting for my turn outside the glass booth while Dave was having his conversation. At some point I could tell that he wasn't happy about something by the tone of his voice and the number of questions he was asking. He finally hung up with a sour expression and came out of the booth.
“What's the matter?” I asked.
“Josh is gone,” he replied.
Josh was Dave's dog – a sturdy little beagle that loved to run in the woods and chase rabbits.
“What do you mean, he's gone?”
“He's gone. He's missing. He didn't come home a couple days ago.”
“Maybe he'll come back, or someone will bring him back.”
“I doubt it,” Dave replied, “He slipped his collar. Someone probably stole him – he's a great hunting dog.”
It was true. Josh had strong hunting instincts. Once on the trail of something, he never gave up. Dave often had to go out into the woods around our homes to find Josh and bring him back. He usually found him by following Josh’s baying. With Dave away, it was likely that Josh had gotten on the scent of something in the woods, had gotten too far away, and hadn't been able to find his way home before some stranger found him and took him home. As the full realization hit me I was bummed out. My dog, Mike, a mixed breed that was mostly beagle, was great pals with Josh. They often ran around the neighborhood and the surrounding woods together. Mike didn't have the same level of hunting instincts that Josh did, so he would always come home when it was dinnertime.
Now I didn't know what to say to Dave.
“Sorry about that, that really sucks,” was about the best I could manage.
Dave, always stoic, just shrugged and shook his head, “I knew something like that would happen to Josh,” he said, “With me not around to go after him in the woods, he was bound to get lost or hurt or something.”
"Do you want me to pay for it?” I asked him.
“Well, I think you should,” he told me.
Twisting in the Wind
We went back to the motel room. There wasn't much else to do. We tried watching TV but the reception was bad. The picture kept warping and flickering. We tried adjusting the reception with the dials on the set. Nothing worked. After 15 min. or so, Dave gave up and started reading the guidebook while I stubbornly continued to mess with the TV. Finally in frustration I slapped the side of the set with my open hand. I didn't think I did it too hard, but there was a snapping sound like the sound of a lightbulb going out and the picture faded away completely, leaving nothing but a blank screen. I tried turning the TV on and off over and over. I tried plugging it into a different outlet plug. I eventually announced to Dave, “I just broke the TV.”
Dave was not in a talkative mood. He shrugged and continued to examine the guidebooks and maps. I in turn, set at the edge of the bed and thought about what to do. I finally decided to go tell the motel manager what had happened. I said I would be back in a little bit and I left the room. I went to the manager and told him about slapping the side of the TV and how the tube simply blinked out.
“Do you want me to pay for it?” I asked him.
“Well, I think you should,” he told me.
“Okay,” I said glumly.
“I’ll have someone come and look at it and I'll tell you how much it will be tomorrow,” he said.
I walked back to our room with a cloud hanging over me. I had no idea what the repair was going to cost. When I got back to the room I told Dave about the conversation. My story snapped Dave out of his brooding for a moment.
He looked up from the maps in surprise, “Why on earth did you do that?” he asked.
“Because I broke the TV,” I replied.
“That thing was already broken! It was a piece of junk to begin with,” he said, “The manager should have fixed it a long time ago!”
I just shrugged. I didn't have an argument against that logic. He made a good point, but the fact was that I slapped the side of the set and the TV died. It hadn’t even occurred to me to go to the manager to complain about the TV not working in the first place. The more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. I was mad at myself for slapping the TV, mad that I hadn't thought to complain to the manager about the TV in the first place, and mad that I was twisting in the wind waiting to find out how much it would cost me. There was nothing I could do about it at that point. I just had to wait and see what would happen the next day. It turned out that the repair cost me $35. It was enough to hurt, but overall I was relieved. I had been worried that it was going to be far worse. I burned two traveler’s checks and got five dollars in change, but I end up breathing a sigh of relief.
"Now instead of wanting to get away from hiking, we were itching to get back to it – to rediscover our purpose, and to find some solace from our misfortunes through the rhythm of the trail."
A Different Perspective
The next day, after I paid for the TV we left the motel and headed back to the trail head. We were both glad to leave that bad luck motel. We stopped at a grocery store and picked up a little food to cook up for dinner that evening. Dave bought liver and onions and I bought chicken. We stopped to eat lunch outside a Salvation Army building and while we were there we helped a guy bring in a few bags of stuff he was giving to the Salvation Army. He was a nice guy and he gave us each a dollar for helping him. We continued on our way and hadn't gone far before a couple guys in a pickup truck stopped and gave us a ride to the trail. We stayed the night in the tent on a flat spot down a steep hill from the highway. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinners. For dessert we walked back up to the highway where there was a Howard Johnson’s.
The AT runs about 100 miles through the Shenandoah National Park. My aunt and uncle lived in Northern Virginia just outside of Washington DC. It was about an hour away from the northern end of the Shenandoah National Park. Dave and I were planning to meet them and spend a few days at their house visiting, getting cleaned up, doing laundry and seeing some sites in the nation's capital. To arrange that rendezvous, I called them from a Holiday Inn hotel lobby near the Howard Johnsons.
The next morning we woke up and went back to the Howard Johnson's near the Holiday Inn for breakfast. We hadn't gotten far before I realized that my wallet was missing. After checking all over our camp I concluded that I must have left it at the Holiday Inn. I walked up the hill toward the hotel hoping that I would find it. I felt a flood of relief when I talked to the person at the front desk and found out someone had turned in my wallet. We had hit a patch of bad luck ever since getting to Whetstone Ridge. I had been thinking as I walked up the hill to the Holiday Inn, that losing my wallet would be another episode in the downward spiral that Dave and I had been on over the past few days. With the wallet tucked safely back in my pocket where it belonged, now I thought that maybe our luck was starting to turn.
We had breakfast at Howard Johnson's. Then we waited a while by the park entrance. Before long Mark’s girlfriend dropped him off. He got out of the car looking refreshed. Dave and I, though clean from showering the day before, were still in our grubby, sweat inundated clothes. For the first time on our trip we had not enjoyed a “town break”. It was clear that our couple days off hadn't gone as well as Mark’s. This time, however, it didn’t make us want to get away from the hiking. Somehow during our couple days in Waynesboro, we had developed a different perspective. Now instead of wanting to get away from hiking, we were itching to get back to it – to rediscover our purpose, and to find some solace from our misfortunes through the rhythm of the trail.
If you want to read the next episode in this series, click the link below:
- An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 17 - Shenandoah National Park
The Double Daves hike through the beautiful Shenandoah National Park and find themselves among a few other thru-hikers.