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Back on Trail with Laser Focus to Damascus!

Day 129: Bland, VA to Chestnut Knob Shelter (22 mi)

We got back on trail by about 8:40 am. We dropped off our rental car at the Enterprise in Wytheville at 8:05. Bubba (local shuttle driver) met us there and then dropped us off at the trail intersection with the convenient store where he had picked us up a week ago outside of Bland, VA.

We cruised on smooth trail as our bodies adjusted back to hiking. My new Hoka Stinsons felt very pillowy with all the additional cushion. Definitely more of a traditional Hoka shoe than my Hoka Torrents (which I wore for the previous ~500 miles). The Stinsons are a bit clumsier and I probably wouldn’t like trail running in them in technical terrain because of the massive platform, but for switchback terrain and walking they might do the job.

My back had a spasm about every 1-3 miles, so I would take off my pack and stretch and this seemed to provide some temporary relief from the sharp/acute pain, but there was till some chronic pain present throughout the day.

We took very short breaks as it was cold and we wanted to beat daylight. Last night the low was 27 and I was beyond grateful to be in a hotel and not in a tent! Luckily today was sunny, hallelujah.

We finally made it to Chestnut Knob Shelter as the sun was setting. It was a four walled shelter with a door at the peak of a mountain at 4,407 feet in elevation. You could hear the wind ripping outside and it was pretty chilly in the shelter. The shelter was full with a mixture of SoBo thru hikers and a few NoBo section hikers as well. It felt good to be in a mix of thru hikers again. The last thru hiker we had seen was when we got off trail in Roanoke when we said bye to our buddy Highwater 140 miles ago.

Being at Chestnut Knob Shelter brought back memories of when I did a VA section hike 15 years ago when I was 16 years old with my cousins (Yasmin, Sarita, & Khaled) and sister Shelley. We stayed at this exact shelter and it had been my most vivid trail memory from that time. We collectively had the trail name “The Boxcar Children” and looking back we picked a tough section to hike!

Getting back on trail meant that we would need to have some serious focus to get to the end (or at least try). We adopted the mantra “laser focus” and tried to maximize every moment of our day and night. If we weren’t moving, we were doing some camp chore and if we weren’t doing either of those we were either eating, eliminating, or sleeping. We didn’t socialize with the crew at the shelter too much so we could maximize recovery time to be able to continue to hike a pretty aggressive schedule.

We felt a sense of urgency because we had been off trail so much in the southern half and really wanted to beat winter. Thanksgiving was an aggressive target, and involved a lot of stretch goals with little room for error.

We took a total of 3 zero days in the first half of our hike (but we had plenty of near-o days). We have had a harder time getting into a rhythm in the second half because of all the stopping and starting and zero days. In contrast to the north half, we have taken 18 zero days in the south. 13 of which were dedicated to family time and memorial services. 2 of the 18 days were for flipping, 2 were for hurricane Florence and 1 for cold/rain/self care at Wood’s Hole.

We are ready to finish this trail and are going to push ourselves very hard to get there as soon as possible. We will not plan to take anymore zero days, but may have to for bad weather if there is a safety concern.

We has been checking the forecast and it seemed as though we would have four days of sunny and dry weather and then two days of pretty nasty storms in the 6 days from Bland do Damascus. I made a pretty aggressive mileage plan so that we could be finished with all the exposed bald peaks and ridges at extremely high elevation before the rain and wind hit. This would also allow us to enjoy Grayson Highlands with the wild ponies and views instead of suffer through it. It would mean pretty long days out of the gate and we would still have to hike in the bad weather at high elevation (just hopefully not as exposed as Grayson Highlands).

I got up in the middle of the night to pee at Chestnut Knob shelter and enjoyed a full moon and a sky full of stars on the top of the mountain. The wind was ripping so fast and loud and zapping the warmth away from me quickly, but I SO enjoyed the short moments out there alone with the vast, bright sky. It was a magical feeling and I felt so small in this very big world. We don’t get to see stars that much because we are usually in a wooded area or asleep.

Day 130: Chestnut Knob Shelter to Relax Inn at I 81, Atkins VA (24.1 mi)

Phew! Today was a milefest. We hit the trail by 7:30 am in hopes of making it to the Relax Inn on the trail to have a heated room for the night.

We started with a spectacular grassy/bald descent off the mountain with beautiful views of the sunrise and colorful sky. It was quite chilly and windy this morning (about 37 degrees), but we were actually warm last night in our sleeping bags!

We hiked together the whole day without headphones. We yo-yoed with another SoBo named Johnny Five for the middle segment of the day, but didn’t see him the last 10 miles.

The weather warmed up to be in the low 60s and we walked through some open fields that were so beautiful! We enjoyed the sun SO MUCH (we actually both ended up sunburnt/wind burnt). I was able to change into just my shorts and t-shirt and arm warmers for a bulk of the afternoon which was nice. Nice weather makes SUCH a big difference!

Our bodies were both revolting today, however. Jamie got the same left shoulder pain and spasm that I have been dealing with today! I’m so sad he is dealing with it but also a tiny bit grateful he now knows what I’ve been dealing with! We were both pretty sore from yesterday actually. I think when you tell your body it’s all over, your body changes and begins the recovery process. Then we changed our minds and decided to keep going and our feet, muscles and backs were hurting today! The bottoms of my feet were in quite a bit of pain as I am adjusting to my new shoes. I’m going to give them at least a week and see if the pain changes or goes away.

Today was a lot of climbing and descending and it felt much steeper than previous days. The terrain felt like it was starting to change and become more mountainous than we had been seeing lately. It was a tough day but we made pretty good time as we try to jog slightly on the not-so steep descents or whenever the trail is “run-able”.

We arrived at the Relax Inn and went to eat tacos at the Mexican restaurant attached to the gas station next door. The tacos were DELICIOUS! Homemade corn tortillas, homemade salsa, beans, rice, avocado, mushrooms and lime tacos. It totally hit the spot. Fresh Feet ate 7 and I ate 5! Fresh Feet was so hungry today he finished all his bars for the day early and I gave him one of mine.

The Relax Inn was exactly what I asked for. Heat and shelter. The shower didn’t work, but we didn’t have to hang out food, fetch water, and we were able to charge our devices and have a toilet. The bed was firm and sheets clean, so no need to unpack our sleeping bag or pads. All in all, we are glad to be out of the 35 degree weather and in a very warm room for the night.

Day 131: Relax Inn at I 81, Atkins VA to Dickey Gap, Troutdale, VA (25.5 mi)

With our laser focus, we got an early start around 7:15 am before the sunrise.

We walked through some frosty fields that were beautiful. I was grateful they were frosted over because wet dew would just soak our shoes and socks.

We had a big climb up above 4k for 4 miles right off the bat. Then a lot of ups and downs along the ridge that were somewhat steep.

My period started and I had to do a lot of the climbing with no hip belt so as not to exacerbate the cramps. The only silver lining is that this will likely be my last period while on the AT! Woohoo!

We then arrived at the National Park HQ for Mt. Rogers recreation area. We saw Songbird and Galaxy there! We had met them just after Harper’s Ferry at Bear’s Den hostel and had hiked with them through the middle of the Shenandoahs and eventually dropped them. I couldn’t believe we saw them again! They planned to stop at a shelter tonight before where we were planning to go, so we may not see them again unless something else happens that slows us way down.

We took a long lunch (probably too long). Fresh Feet wanted to eat one of our dinners since we ate tacos last night, so we made lentil/curry/quinoa and ate it in our last tortillas. It REALLY didn’t sit well in my stomach. Like AT ALL! I was having acid reflux for HOURS afterwards and completely lose my appetite. I didn’t eat any of my bars that afternoon because I felt so ill and full from the lentils at lunch. It was just too much combined with my cramps.

I was slowing down quite a bit and the last 6 miles were a bit of a struggle for both of us. We didn’t have cell service to cancel our reservation at Sufi Lodge (where they had told us they would have a vegan dinner waiting for us) so we forged ahead to attempt to get cell service to at least inform them we would be late. By the time we had service and called it was too late and James had already driven to the parking lot to get us and there isn’t cell service at the trailhead. We felt so terrible and tried to go as quickly as humanly possible the last 4 miles. The last two miles were in the dark with headlamps. Not ideal, but the path wasn’t too rocky or leafy and was easy to see - phew! The moon was also practically full and helped light up the trail. It was incredible to watch the moon rise. It was so bright that we didn’t know what it was for a while. It made the night hiking so much more enjoyable and awesome to have a full yellow moon rising over the horizon.

We got to the parking lot at 7:33 and James had already left. Fresh Feet had told his wife, Suzanne, that he expected us to be there between 7:30 and 8:00. There was no cell service so we couldn’t call them and tell them we were there, so we just had to trust that they would come back for us. We waited 30 mins for James to come and pick us up. Luckily, I wasn’t starving like I usually am, but we got pretty cold quickly so we changed in the parking lot in the dark as we waited to hopefully get picked up.

We ate a delicious vegan dinner and a vegan avocado chocolate pudding cake with a raspberry reduction. Wow. It was to die for!

We finally went to our room and took hot showers that never felt so amazing. Our faces were definitely wind burned and chapped from the dry, cold wind the last few days.

We had kind of a late night unfortunately and we were getting concerned about the weather for Friday and Saturday (last two days before Damascus). The forecast was still showing 100% chance of rain and 40 degrees for Friday. Grayson Highlands is above 5,500 feet of elevation for about 30 miles... it will be wet, windy and COLD! Tomorrow we will try to get as much of the exposed section done as possible and stay at a shelter because the storm is forecasted to start tomorrow night.

Day 132: Dickey Gap, Troutdale, VA to Thomas Knob Shelter (21.1 mi)

We got dropped off at the trail at 7:45 am, which was a bit later than we wanted.

It was a VERY cold morning and took a while to get warmed up.

We had lunch smoothies at Old Orchard shelter in an open forest with tons of beautiful tent spots. We took a 30 min break and it was too long as I was shivering by the end and had added layers.

We had a 1.7 mi climb after lunch to the top of a mountain and then we had a beautiful 8-10 miles of open, exposed ridge walking in what is known as the Grayson Highlands area.

There were fields with creeks and rocky outcrops and longhorns and wild ponies! The views were fantastic! We had not been this high in elevation or blown away by views since Mt. Katahdin in Maine or the White Mountains of NH. It was breathtaking and spectacular and totally stole our attention from our laser focus mantra. We had to slow down and enjoy it and take pictures. It was just unlike anything else we had seen on trail and felt really special and unique.

The last 4 miles before the shelter were open, grassy, rocky outcrops and absolutely gorgeous views in every direction. We were so filled with such joy.

We arrived at Thomas Knob shelter, at the top of a mountain and very high up and a family with an 8 year old and 8 month old puppy were there on an overnight trip. The shelter was a double decker and we all slept in the upper level for warmth and protection from the wind and impending storm.

This shelter had just reopened a few weeks ago as about 17 miles of the Grayson Highlands areas was closed to camping because of habituated bears. Since the issue this summer, a brand new bear box was placed at the shelter. Unfortunately, I have seen many signs on trail trying to educate the public about bears and how not to leave scraps of food around because it feeds the bears. Once the bears are fed and habituated they become “problematic” for the people recreating in that area. Sadly, the solution is usually that the forest service kills the bears: “a fed bear is a dead bear.” I think there are so many more measures that need to be put in place to avoid killing habituated bears. For starters, every campsite and shelter on the AT and otherwise should have a bear box for safe food storage. The northern part of the AT has a lot more of these. People are lazy or uneducated about how to hang their food properly, so it ends up attracting bears (BTW - the lazy ones are always the cocky thru hikers). Also, the are should close to tourists if there are habituated bears. The bears are not problematic, it is the people who are problematic! We are visiting the bears in their home and if people can’t do their part to leave no trace then the consequence should be for the people, not the life of an innocent bear living in its home. Anyway, we don’t know if these bears were killed, and hopefully they weren’t, but many are each year because of problematic people.

The family at Thomas Knob shelter built a fire which was really a nice luxury to warm up by it. They had also cooked too much food so and had extra beans and rice to feed us and also gave me hot tea! Totally hit the spot!

Tomorrow is supposed to be a very rainy day and 35-40 degrees. We are nervous! We are glad we hiked a majority of the open and exposed trail in the highlands today and had wonderful weather for it!

Day 133: Thomas Knob Shelter to Lost Mountain Shelter (12.4 mi)

We woke up to the sound of ripping wind and pounding rain on the metal roof of the shelter. It was pretty scary actually.

I woke Fresh Feet up at 7 am - if we were going to hike 19 miles in crappy weather we had better get going! I could only see his nose poking out of his sleeping bag and he whimpered “I don’t think I can do it” and that was enough for me to just sink back into sleeping bag land and surrendered to the “sunken place.” (We call the warmth of our sleeping bags the sunken place because it is impossible to get out and you feel stuck and paralyzed by the warmth). We slept in until about 8:30, just hiding from reality in our sleeping bags. Meanwhile, the family packed their things up. My ear plugs allowed me to keep getting meaningful morning sleep with all the extra noise.

We made warm soylent and the family gave us oatmeal and warmed water for us so we didn’t have to sue our fuel. They were so kind and generous to us!

Eventually, we needed to regroup and come up with a plan. 19 miles to Saunder’s shelter was not longer a viable option, but we needed to do something. I was able to get a text out to my dad asking for a weather forecast for the day. Receiving texts was much easier and I got detailed weather reports (THANKS DAD!)

It didn’t look good no matter how you sliced the cake. All options involved some level of suck.

We felt safer and calmer with the family there and they felt safer with us there. Power in numbers. I also felt as if we had a bail out if we really needed it. They offered to drive us to Damascus, and it was VERY enticing and initially that was our plan. It would involve backtracking on 4 miles of very exposed and rocky trail with 30-35 MPH winds (and gusts MUCH faster). It would mean hanging out in Damascus for the weather to get better, but that might not be for 2-3 days. It didn’t seem like a good idea. They also assumed it might take them about 4 hours to hike back to their car. If we were going go out and hike for that many hours in this nasty weather we might as well make forward progress (not go backwards!). We would then have to come back and hike that 4 mile stretch again. It just didn’t seem like the best plan although it was defiantly the most tempting!

We then thought about just taking a zero at the shelter and hanging out there for a day or two, but we would run out of food. It was such a nice shelter and the upstairs really protected us from the wind.

We hemmed and hawed about what to do for a very long time and just couldn’t make a decision. Each option sounded awful and there was a real threat of hypothermia. We did have some new warm layers that we didn’t used to have, and so we needed to put the gear to the test.

We looked at Guthook and the next shelter was 12.4 mi away and down to about 3,300 feet instead of at 5,500 feet. We figured the wind would likely be calmer and the temperature slightly warmer at the lower elevation. We also knew the trail to get there wouldn’t be as exposed as yesterday. We opted to go for it.

We left and it wasn’t so bad. We had enough layers on that I was mostly warm. If I tried to shed anything I got way too cold, so I stayed on the warm side and just dealt with it. I figured out how to modulate with hats and zippers.

We went through two meadows/fields. One was at the top of White Top mountain (a ridge walk above 5k feet) and the wind was knocking me over and we kept losing footing. It was terrifying and it knocked me over and I started to cry and panic. I walked in Jamie’s draft for as much as I could, hanging onto him for dear life. I couldn’t do this the whole time because it was hard to walk side by side as the trail was too narrow and the wind was coming straight from the left. It was horrible, but luckily didn’t last too terribly long.

The rest of the day was downhill and the path wasn’t too flooded. It was mostly a cold and windy day with rain being blown around, but it wasn’t driving rain so we were able to stay pretty dry. Our socks and shoes of course were soaked, but our feet somehow weren’t too cold.

We got to the shelter and there was a couple who was section hiking there. We made dinner and warm soylent and got into our sleeping bags. FF got the bear line stuck and was determined to get it out and get the perfect hang so it took him a while.

We were so grateful that we had put in so many miles the previous days so that we were able to enjoy the ponies and the views from the Grayson Highlands. We only had about 7 miles of high elevation hiking before we really descended below 5k feet but much of it was wooded and not exposed. The wind ripping through the trees was so loud today. Most of the leaves had fallen off the trees and they were bare and really swaying.

We didn’t take many pictures because our mittens and gloves coming off was too much of a risk. Tomorrow is supposed to be even colder than today but somewhat less rainy.

We hope to book it to Damascus tomorrow! FINALLY! Getting to Damascus, the southernmost part of Virginia will feel like such a milestone.

We hit 1,700 miles today! Overall, we have felt very energized being back on trail and are really happy we reversed our decision to quit and came back out here. The hostel owner in Pearisburg (a few weeks back) told me that generally people seriously struggle against the mental demons and the apathy between miles 1,500 and 1,700. Looking back, she is absolutely right! We attempted to quit the trail at exactly 1,600 miles and felt a new sense of energy around 1,700 miles. Damascus is within reach and it feels like we made it over a big hump just in this last week.

Day 134: Lost Mountain Shelter to Damascus, VA (16 mi)

Woke up this morning to cold rain. Luckily it was in the 40s and thus not as cold as it had been. We geared up to go, but were a little slow at getting out of the shelter. I was definitely procrastinating putting on very cold and wet socks and shoes!

Once we got moving it was fine. There was enough climbing throughout the day to keep our cores warm and fired up. We both even changed into shorts! There are really only two options in the rain. Rain pants and rain jacket PLUS another layer so that the wet inside of the rain gear isn’t getting your skin wet and cold or shorts and shirt and umbrella. It’s pretty difficult because there isn’t much in between for temperature, you are either hot or cold. So I went with shorts and bare legs because it was and 45 deg. Yesterday in the ripping wind and 30s I wore fleece pants under my rain pants which is so much warmer. For the most part today, the rain had let up and there was a very light drizzle from time to time.

When I saw the sign that said “Damascus 4 mi” I started to tear up. We had been trying to get to Damascus for what felt like forever. We had originally planned on meeting my parents there and it is the marker of the end of VA!!! Hallelujah! Seriously, I started to feel emotional. When we had the final climb and descent I started to just really push and push and get excited. We finally got to Damascus and I felt overcome with emotion and ecstasy and it felt more momentous than our Katahdin summit. After the brutal weather the last two days and being so close to quitting, making it to Damascus felt like such a milestone.

We checked into our B&B and I went and did laundry at Crazy Larry’s hostel while Fresh Feet went to the Dollar General to get batteries for our GPS tracker and snacks. The laundry at Crazy Larry’s took forever because I washed my rain jacket and puffy jacket and was careful about the type of soap and cycle etc. Larry wanted to chat with me so we chatted for a very long time.

Finally Johnny Five rolled in! We ended up inviting him to eat with us at the restaurant in town for dinner and chatted. He had a much worse previous two days as he threw down huge miles and had to do all of the Grayson Highlands in horizontal sleet which pierced his face for miles and miles. He took a zero at the Relax Inn because he wasn’t feeling well which is how he fell behind us a day but then caught back up. He is just getting back on trail after being off for 10 days due to a family emergency. He wants to be done by thanksgiving, so I imagine we will be seeing him a lot. It is nice to be around someone else who is pushing hard days as well and is ready to be done.

We got back to the B&B late (8:30ish and blow dried our clothes since we got wet walking back in the rain. We sorted through our resupply boxes (Thanks Lee and M&D!) and charged up our devices. It turns out Fresh Feet got a little trigger happy at the Dollar General and has a LOT of snacks for the next 4 days to Roan Mountain, TN! Haha! Tomorrow the weather looks dry and a little warmer!

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