Day 116: Roanoke, VA to Pickle Branch Shelter (12.6 mi)
We got a mid morning start, said bye to Yas and Serene as the dropped us off at the trailhead and got readjusted to our packs. I had a few moments in the first few hours where my back had some serious spasms and was killing me. I stopped, took my pack off and stretched and the spasm calmed down. I also got a random cramp in my right calf for a good half an hour. My body was definitely starting to get used To the comforts of “home” and I had some aches and pains as a result of getting started again.
After about 4-5 miles I started to feel ok again and most of the pains went away or hung out in the background.
We climbed up to Dragon’s Tooth, a prominent rock structure at the top of a more technical climb than anything we’ve had in a long time. There were a few sections of hand over hand scrambling, some rebar (which triggered a tiny bit of PTSD), but the climbing really wasn’t scary like the stuff up north because of the grade. The view at the Dragon’s Tooth was pretty incredible and worth the tiny side trail! Wow!
The last few miles of the day wore on because my feet hurt in my new Superfeet insoles after about 10 miles. I think I will switch back to my very worn out orthotics tomorrow and return the Superfeet when I get to a post office.
The last half mile it started to rain and I was able to use my new umbrella to keep me dry. The rain continued off and on in the shelter. The temperature had significantly dropped about 25 degrees from the “feels like 92” and 100% humidity to like 60 degrees with spotty rain. Fresh Feet was exhausted and took a nap before eating dinner.
Day 117: Pickle Branch Shelter to Laurel Creek Shelter (22.5 mi)
Whoa. Today was EXTREMELY Rainy. Wet. Foggy. Very long day. Fresh Feet wanted to quit the day at 16 mi @ 4:00, but I strongly encouraged us to push on. If we quit our day early we would run out of food before our next resupply, so it was important to crank out the miles as much as possible.
I used my umbrella all day and it mostly kept me dry.
The last 0.2 mi it got so dark I couldn’t see anymore so I took my pack off to get my headlamp out and when I did that I got totally soaked. I then got kind of lost and couldn’t find the trail because there were a lot of trees down. I kept trying different ways (climbing over trees) and kept coming back to the last blaze I had seen on trail. I finally figured it out. I then had to cross two very flooded creek crossings in the dark with my headlamp which was a little sketchy and hard to find the trail
through all the rain. The rain definitely picked up the last few miles and was increasing in strength.
I finally saw the reflections of FF’s rain jacket from the light of my headlamp and realized he was fetching water from the creek - we must be at the shelter! I followed him back to the shelter. There were exactly two spots left in the shelter (4 section hikers) were there and one guy had told Fresh Feet that he didn’t want to move so we slept apart (which was totally fine) but made passing items back and forth and making dinner kind of a pain. It was pouring rain. FF had walked his umbrella into some tree branches and totally broke it today. I was super glad to have mine as it kept me dryer, which kept me warmer!
Day 118: Laurel Creek Shelter to Bailey Gap Shelter (14.6 mi)
The first 6 miles of the day were super rainy and wet. We stopped at a shelter for smoothies as we were moving pretty slowly due to the extremely wet terrain and pouring rain.
We then had a big climb where we got over 4k feet. We then endured a 6 mile ridge walk that was cold, windy, and the ground was absolutely flooded. I felt like I walked through a calf deep stream for the entire 6 miles. This had been our longest stretch of sustained flooded path yet. It was miserable and difficult to keep momentum when your socks and shoes are beyond saturated and filthy.
The flooded path continued the additional 4 miles to the shelter as well and the temperature kept dropping. It was in the 40s and the low was in the 30s tonight. Since Jamie broke his umbrella yesterday his shorts and rain jacket were totally soaked, making him much colder, so when I arrived to the shelter at 14 miles he asked to please stop here for the day. I had just taken a fall and cut my knee about a mile back and was ok with the decision to end the day early. Not ideal, but hypothermia was a legitimate threat if we kept going another 4 miles.
We set up the tent and rainfly in the shelter for added warmth. I rested my feet on the top of the cooking pot while dinner was cooking and it warmed my feet for a few fleeting minutes, but they stayed cold the rest of the night. My body was thoroughly cold to the bone and my feet were so soaked it was hard to warm them up.
Day 119: Bailey Gap Shelter to Pearisburg, VA (19 mi)
We had a slow going start today because it was SO cold this morning. There is nothing worse than it being in the 30s and having to put on wet socks and shoes. My feet were numb for about half the day until things started to dry and I switched socks at lunch. My hands were numb even in my winter gloves. It was a wicked cold morning. The silver lining is that my pack was small and light because I was literally wearing ALL my clothes! This helped relieve my shoulder/back pain some, although it doesn’t seem to matter that much because the spasms are erratic and unpredictable. The pain is here to stay. As long as I’m hiking the shoulder pain will be there because of the stress of the pack. There are times, even miles, when it doesn’t hurt at all. But the default is pain every day with intermittent spasms which inhibit my ability to lift my arm up to touch my head or use my pole effectively.
Luckily today was NOT raining! Phew! The air was bitter cold, but there was a dry wind that allowed things to dry that I had hanging on my pack. We had some cell service today (finally) and I saw pictures from my cousins of the insane flooding in Roanoke! I got word from my parents that we had been hiking through a hurricane and the floods in the valleys were quite serious! Luckily we didn’t have any scary river fords in the valleys, but we had walked through some wet, windy, and cold conditions that were pretty miserable! We hadn’t seen another hiker in two days - which is pretty much unheard of on the AT!
We drank our smoothies on the top of the ridge at the Allegheny trail intersection. We used water we were carrying from our camel backs since there was no water source on the ridge.
We walked through an old apple orchard and ate sweet delicious apples!
We finally began to descend off the ridge, but after about 4:00 the sun gets lower in the sky and the temp begins to drop quickly. We decided to end our day at 19 miles instead of 23 miles due to the cold and dark as there were two different road crossings to get into Pearisburg.
We got picked up by our shuttle driver/hostel worker Acadicus (NoBo thru hiker 2017), and checked into the hostel (a trailer). It didn’t seem to have heat and was pretty chilly throughout the duration of our stay. We were grateful to be able to do laundry, have four walls and a roof, and a hot shower. I signed up for a chiropractic adjustment and acupuncture treatment (the hostel owner provides it for pretty cheap to hikers). I went to get my chiro/acu session and came back and FF had cooked pasta and red sauce with asparagus, mushrooms and garlic - yum! We also were able to repair my pole (which we thought was broken) and Fresh Feet acquired a fleece sleeping bag liner from the hiker box to supplement his thin 45 degree sleeping bag. We had a bit of a late night and the bed was not very comfortable, but we needed the break from the elements to recuperate.
Day 120: Pearisburg, VA to Woods Hole hostel (16 mi)
We got on trail around 9:15 am and it was quite cold as we had about 4 miles of downhill and flat and couldn’t get warmed up. It was windy again like yesterday so I wore my rain pants over my shorts and my puffy jacket and rain jacket over my shirt for a majority of the day. My fleece beanie came on and off but gloves stayed on all day. It was in the 40s all day and with the wind it was pretty bitter at times.
We then had a 3.5 mile climb out of Pearisburg that seemed to last an eternity. This was probably the only section of the day where I worked enough of a sweat to lose the puffy jacket and just wear my rain jacket. We ran into someone from the ATC and she took a liking to our blaze orange accents and took our pictures mid climb. Fresh Feet had such a heavy load today and it was taking a toll on him during this monster climb. We just resupplied and have about 6 days worth of food and he is carrying quite a few extras. He picked up a z-rest sleeping pad and a fleece sleeping bag liner from the hiker box at Angel’s Rest hostel and has started using two smart water bottles instead of his camelback and is still carrying his camelback (among other odds and ends he hasn’t parted ways with).
When we got to the overlook at the top (luckily there was a spring about 0.4 mi away from the ledge) we took a nice break and had our lunch “smoothies” with a view.
We then had 8.1 mi to go until we arrived at Wood’s Hole Hostel. The terrain was much easier and we moved a bit quicker. We walked through a long stretch of rhodadendrum groves and tunnels and the ground was a lot wetter and flooded during this stretch because the bushes were so dense. At one point as I was looking down and trying to avoid swamp foot as I stepped across a large pool of water and simultaneously smashed my head into a tree branch SO HARD! Ouch!! Instant headache :(
Jamie was ahead about 20 feet and saw a baby bear! His first bear sighting on trail and the first time we’ve seen bear in the south.
The ridge walking was nice and in open woods and the sun finally came out after lunch and just made everything better. We both ended up with chapped lips and faces from the cold dry wind.
When we got to Wood’s Hole (the oldest hostel on the AT, a pre-civil war log cabin!) We settled in to the bunk house, took a shower in the bath house and Neville (my 40 year old doppelgänger) offered to take us and the other few guests to a restaurant for dinner.
There were 4 hikers in total that went with Neville and Kick-It (former AT thru hiker and resident hostel worker) to eat dinner. We showed up to a very busy Korean restaurant and they told us they were totally out of food! Oh no!! Then our hostel hosts were chit chatting with the hostel hosts from Angel’s Rest and Fresh Feet began to go to a dark place with his dipping blood sugar and quickly rising hangry level.
We finally landed at an Italian Restaurant where they were super accommodating to our vegan diets and we ate SO MUCH food! We had wonderful conversation with Neville, who is absolutely LOVELY. She is a vegetarian, Montessori enthusiast and we discussed her meditation practice at length. It was SO refreshing to be around another woman, and I felt some emotional labor lifted by being with her. I was no longer the only person willing to say something about cigarette smoking, or water with no ice, or a variety of other small things. It’s hard to put into words, but her energy was so wonderful and lifted some of the emotional burdens from me socially.
We then came back to the bunk house and crashed. Luckily the pellet stove was now working (it wasn’t before dinner and I was SO COLD!). For whatever reason, the heat didn’t really seem to rise to the upstairs section where we were sleeping so I slept in my sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag and three blankets on top of me along with hat and long pants and wool long sleeve shirt. FF thinks I need to start acclimating to the cold, but I honestly don’t think it is possible. My body just does NOT do well in cold weather and it never has. The five day forecast looks cold and rainy so I’m a bit concerned with the sleeping part. If I’m hiking and moving it’s ok, it’s when the end of the day comes that the cold becomes too much to handle.
Day 121: Wood’s Hole hostel impromptu zero day
What a nourishing day. I was cold to the bone all day yesterday. I think when you are out in the elements for such a prolonged time your body temperature just drops and it takes a while to warm back up.
We woke up this morning to a very frigid light rain. Hmmm... it wasn’t supposed to rain until tomorrow. We went to the main house and ate fresh vegan bread with homemade jams and apple butter and drank hot tea with Neville. We got wrapped up in conversation while trying to wait for the rain to let up, but Neville pulled up the weather info (she gets cell service here but we did not), and it looked like it was going to maybe clear up between noon and 2:00 pm. We looked at the radar and decided it would just be best to wait a few hours for the rain to let up as the temperature was in the low 40s and it just seemed so nasty out. Then about mid morning we looked at Guthook and realized there were only two options for shelter, 16 miles (hostel) or 21 miles (same hostel different road crossing). There was one AT lean-to but it was only 7 miles away and it didn’t seem worth it if we would just be wet and cold. We got such good vibes and energy from Neville and Wood’s Hole that we decided to take a zero day and get up early and hike the 21 miles tomorrow.
We relaxed by the wood stove and got very warm. There were four very cute, snuggly and friendly kitty cats that we hung out with. We talked with Neville for a long while about her meditation practice and she convinced me to sign up for a 10 day Vipassana Meditation course. The course is free, which is amazing, so I really didn’t see why I wouldn’t sign up. It is always something I’ve wanted to do! Unfortunately, there is a waiting list, so I put my name down on the waiting list. We shall see what happens. Fresh Feet was hesitant to “jump right into it” and wants to mull it over before he signs up but says he will “probably end up signing up.”
Neville gave me an old loaner laptop to borrow so I could sign up and check my email. I then randomly got locked out of my gmail account which was SUCH a pain to recover considering I only had intermittent cell service in one corner of the front porch and it was frigid and rainy! It worked about 50% of the time I went to that spot, so it wasn’t consistent at all. I needed my phone to receive the text message for the verification code to recover my email address and it was not a fun way to spend my afternoon but it all worked out in the end. Phew.
THEN, I got a massage from Neville and DAMN she pulled out all the stops! Hot towels, cupping, essential oils and a massage technique and style that was so much her own. It was a game changer and felt so transformative and sensorial.
While Neville was giving me my massage, she gave Jamie a recipe to make dinner and he whipped up a delicious “pad Thai” (in quotes because it morphed into something else that was totally delicious, but not pad Thai). Then Mariposa and I made a salad and Neville made bread. Starfish set the table and 6 of us feasted, family style, and had wonderful conversation.
Day 122: Wood’s Hole to Jenny Knob Shelter (21.7 mi)
We woke up early-ish (6:45) because we wanted to be on trail early and not get sucked into a long breakfast. Well, we got sucked into hanging out for breakfast with Neville and the other hikers and chatted and enjoyed warm homemade bread with jam and drank our smoothies.
We hit the trail at about 8:30 am and were in MUCH better spirits about hiking today because lo and behold the temperature was 59 degrees and the SUN WAS OUT! Having clear skies and warmer temps made hiking immensely more enjoyable. The majority of the day was around 70 degrees and the sun came and went. We comfortably hiked in shorts and t-shirt which was great!
Today was mostly easy walking with a bit of a descent to lower elevation. We took lunch at a creek and the mosquitos were pretty bad so we made our smoothies and kept walking. Fresh Feet saw a coyote in the trail just ahead of us today!
We then got to our shelter destination and set up our tent in the shelter because there was a slight chance of rain. After making and eating dinner, we moved everything into the shelter and just as we did, it began to rain. It rained for a few hours and we were glad to be in the shelter!
The days are definitely getting a lot shorter as it is quite dark at 6:45 pm and doesn’t get light out until 7:30 am. We are also on the west side of the time zone and fighting cold temperatures starting around 4:00 pm most days. It’s hard to squeeze in big mile days with the confines of daylight being just under 12 hours so we may need to start hiking in the dark.
We’ve taken a lot more “zero” days in our south half of the journey, and we are starting to worry a little about being “behind schedule” (which basically just means our hiking might be butting up against winter). We’d like to be done before thanksgiving and ideally before snowfall in the Smokies (aka the “white mountains of the south”).
Cheers and happy fall! Please get out and VOTE this fall!