AT Birthday Backpack –Day 1 – 4/11/13 – VA 611 to Dismal Falls – 11.7 Miles
I believe in celebrating birthdays in a big way. A special dinner with those you love is great but you can do that any time. A picnic in a local park? How about mountain climbing or whitewater rafting or ziplining or biking on the beach? Challenge yourself with something new. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” With that advice, your birthday should be terrifying!
On my 50th birthday I started a challenge to hike all the trail miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I completed the challenge on my 51st birthday, hiking about 1,075 miles in that year. I have hiked somewhere on my birthday each year since then. This year was my 55th, so it seemed a good idea to set a new challenge similar to my 50th, more than just a day on a trail. After some pondering, I decided to spend a year hiking the Appalachian Trail section in my home state of Virginia, about 550 miles.
When your birthday is on a Thursday it’s hard to find hiking buddies, so my new project started with an overnight solo backpack near Pearisburg, Virginia. Why there? Two big reasons: Woods Hole Hostel and the Virginia Tech “Run In Remembrance” 5K.
Woods Hole Hostel has been operating for 28 years, established in 1986 by Tillie and Roy Wood. Roy passed away a year later and Tillie continued fulfilling their dream for the next 22 years. When she too passed away, the dream continued with their youngest granddaughter, Neville, and her husband Michael. The hostel is a short walk from the AT and a favorite of all hikers, section or thru. It is also a wonderful weekend retreat offering massage, meditation sessions and farm-to-table meals. Please take the time to look at the Woods Hole website here.
Leave shoes outside
Enjoy the porch
I was a little nervous about staying at Woods Hole during thru-hiker season, so this fit right into Eleanor’s edict. Would I seem too old? Too inexperienced? Turned out there were 12 thru-hikers, most of them young’uns staying in the bunkhouse (20-somethings) and one 70+-year-old man staying in the main house along with me, a long distance section hiker and cancer survivor named Dynamo Joe. Prior to our evening meal (which everyone either helped prepare or clean up) Neville asked everyone to join hands, introduce themselves with their trail name and express gratitude for something. There was E-Slide, Shake&Bake, and I forget the other names. There’s a story for each name. Conversation was trail-centric, weather, mileage, food. I asked if anyone was carrying books to read, and those who were named heavy subjects like philosophy or history of architecture. I realized the world is in good hands with the coming generation.
My bed in my private room was comfortable; nonetheless, I spent a restless night thinking about the coming two-day hike. The weather forecast was serious for a bad thunderstorm and most of the thru-hikers planned to wait it out at Woods Hole or hike into Pearisburg. This was the only window of time I had, though, so worrying about it through the night made it better (not).
After an enormous communal breakfast of farm fresh egg frittata and other stuff, I stumbled out to meet my shuttle driver, Don. The shuttle was expensive ($60) but that is how it’s done in the section hiking biz. Don was congenial and talkative as we drove to my starting point crossing gravel road VA 611. He warned me about the weather forecast calling for rain and high winds during the night and suggested that I stay at a shelter. But the shelters are spaced wrong – one is too close and the next one is too far – so he advised me to camp at Dismal Falls, pitch my tent at the base of the tall rock wall near the base of the falls. The big concern was a tree falling on me.
When he dropped me off, Don took my photo and then asked me an odd question. “Have you ever read a book called “Murder On The Appalachian Trail?” Well, no, Don, and if you are thinking of writing one, everybody knows that you drove me here. He told me to look it up after my hike. Gee, I can’t wait.
Mid-April, a warmish day but the trees were still bare. I had four miles of smooth strolling, descending down to Lickskillet Hollow, where I crossed VA 608 and trail angels had left a cooler full of (now empty) soda cans.
The trees were not leafing out yet but wildflowers were emerging. I think this is anemone hepatica.
Trail maintainers have also been hard at work, cutting an accommo- dating step through this downed tree trunk
Another five miles brought me to a suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek.
Look who I almost stepped on right beside the trail. I noticed the fat part of this fellow as I stepped within a foot of him. I didn’t scream or jump, just walked on a few feet past him and then turned around to take a picture. He was certainly paying attention to me and even rattled the end of his tail at me. I didn’t know black snakes would do that.
This way to Dismal Falls, a .3-mile side trail. There were several very nice campsites along the trail down to the falls.
Plenty of water flowing in Dismal Creek and a robust waterfall
It was only 3:30 p.m., seemed much too early to stop for the day, but I was very concerned about being protected from possible high winds and felt that this was my best option. I pitched my tent and explored the area but didn’t attempt to cross the creek. On the far side I could see a couple of footpaths going up the embankment and I spotted a gravel road. Not a good sign. Then I noticed a couple of campsites close to the water’s edge and fire rings with trash. Double not a good sign. This was a locals hangout.
No one else was around and I was a little bored. One thru-hiker stopped by, a young guy from Raleigh, NC, but he planned to press on to the next shelter. After he left I set up my backpacking stove and prepared my delicious Mountain House supper. While I ate, I heard a car drive nearby, stop, and then voices coming down the path. Three teenage boys walked down to the creek’s edge, talking loud and laughing. One pulled off his shorts (had on a bathing suit, thank you Lord), waded into the creek and began to climb the waterfall while his friends took pictures and hollered encouragement. They saw me sitting by my tent on the other side and waved congenially. I waved back but got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
The guys played for a while, then went back to their car and returned with another guy and two dogs. The dogs ran around but fortunately were not interested in swimming across the creek. However, two of the guys crossed at the top of the waterfall and said hello again as they came near my camp and crossed back over downstream. My stomach was still churning. I decided that if they brought a cooler down from the parking area I would move on. I even walked back up the trail to look at the campsites I had seen coming in.
After about an hour I decided to pack up. I didn’t really think the guys would hurt me, but they might think it was funny to come back in the dark and scare me. They knew I was alone. I realized I didn’t need to justify leaving to anyone, just followed my gut feeling and moved on.
I hiked back up to the AT and after another quarter mile I found a nice campsite literally hidden under the rhododendrons, beside the creek, a lovely spot.
I felt cozy and safe and utterly relieved. I sat creekside and watched the water flow by for more than an hour, almost like meditation, until dusk turned to dark.
During the night I heard a little thunder, saw a flash or two of lightning, some rain but no wind. I put in ear plugs and rested well. Happy birthday to me!
“I try to end each day saying,
‘I am glad I did,’
rather than, ‘I wish I had.’" ~Barbara J. McMorrow
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” ~Satchel Paige