Tuesday, September 24, 2013

AT Project in VA - On The Loose To Climb A Mountain

Appalachian Trail in VA Project – 6/9/13 - Lambert Meadow to US 220 Daleville – 9.1 Miles

The mysterious backpacker sleeping 20 feet away from me was only a memory the next morning.  The bubbling creek muffled any sounds of him/her packing up and walking away – in the early dawn?  In the dark?  Who knows?  Stephanie and I were not quite so stealthy, feeling a bit stiff from the previous long day, but we pumped ourselves up for an “easy 9-miler.”

Well…not as easy as it looked on paper.  What appears like a flat line on the elevation profile is an endless series of small ups-and-downs, 50 feet gain, 50 feet loss, and more than a few boulders to navigate.  What was also a bit of a surprise was the beauty of this section.

Walking along narrow Tinker Ridge and looking down into the Valley of Virginia

A very long rock wall

Stephanie standing beneath Hay Rock

Our first glimpse of Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, which contains the reservoir for Roanoke and protected watershed.   Carvins Cove is the second largest municipal park in the United States. 

Carvins Cove

The AT builders made sure we didn’t miss any views

They say all good things come to an end, and the last couple of miles downhill to Highway 220 were not fun – okay, borderline miserable.  The day had grown very hot and the descent followed a powerline cut of steep steps in red clay.  Then the trail passes through a boggy, messy, buggy stretch of flood plain along Tinker Creek.  I’m hoping that at other times of the year this is a pleasant place for the local Daleville folks to enjoy. 

Railroad tracks – yay, almost there!

At a large intersection I searched for a white blaze, finally found it nearly completely covered by vines on a tree.   Stephanie was a few minutes behind and I waited for her because I was afraid she would miss it.  I didn’t realize we were 10 minutes from the car. 

Hot, sweaty, tired and triumphant, we cleaned up in a gas station restroom, cranked up the air conditioning full blast, and cruised home.  (Oh, yeah, we also ate everything on the menu at a Cracker Barrel on the way).  

Thanks for joining me, Stephanie!  Here's an old Girl Scout song that I loved hearing the girls sing around the campfire once upon a time: 

On The Loose
"On the loose to climb a mountain, on the loose where I am free
On the loose to live my life the way I think my life should be
For I only have a moment and a whole world yet to see
I'll be searching for tomorrow on the loose... 
There's a trail that I'll be hiking just to see where it might go
Many places yet to visit, many people yet to know    
So in time when you are ready, come and join me, take my hand 

And together we'll share life out on the loose.”   ~Steve Schuch

[A very sweet YouTube video of girls singing this around a campfire is here!]

Saturday, September 14, 2013

AT Project in VA - McAfee Knob & Tinker Cliffs

Appalachian Trail in VA Project – McAfee Knob & Tinker Cliffs – 6/8/13 – VA 311 to Lamberts Meadow Campsite – 10.7 miles

It has been called the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail:  McAfee Knob.  Some are thrilled by it, some are horrified.  How close to the edge would you go?

Stephanie, one of my favorite buds from our Girl Scout leader days, is getting back into back- packing.  She has lately come to realize that jobs and obligations will always fill in the spaces of life unless you fill them with what you love.  So how about an overnight trip on one of the most iconic stretches of the AT through Virginia?  Yes!

I booked a ride with Homer Witcher, well-known not just for his shuttle service based near Daleville, VA, but perhaps even more for his trail building and maintenance efforts and his whole family’s involvement in the AT.  In 2002 Homer, age 60, and his wife, age 40, and their two children, ages 8 and 11, thru-hiked the AT as a family.  Now 71, Homer still does half-marathon trail runs for fun and devotes himself to being an ambassador for the trail.  I don’t think you’ll find a better one.

Need some more inspiration?  Read about the Witcher family thru-hike here.

Well, Homer wasn’t available for us so he sent his son Ben to set us up for our overnight hike (that 8-year-old is now 19.)  Currently a student at Virginia Tech, Ben takes after his dad in a rare combination of self-assurance plus humility, and is a ridiculously gifted athlete.  He occasionally runs from his home in Daleville to the campus at VT for “practice.” 

Back to Stephanie and me on the AT – here we go to McAfee Knob.  I’ve been there once before (see photo above) and was very excited to be going again.  I love showing these special places to friends!

Steps already? 

Galax bloom

Mountain laurel still had the star power with an explosion of blooms everywhere

Although it is a 7-mile out-and-back dayhike, the trail to McAfee Knob is not lonely on an early clear-blue-sky Saturday afternoon.  Rarely were we out of eyesight or earshot of other hikers both coming and going.   No chance of getting a solitary photo but we can still prove we were there, right?

Looking northeast from the Knob, the shadowy ridgeline at the center of the photo is the northbound AT that we will follow next

The prominent mountain in the center is Tinker Cliffs which we will pass over next on our way to tonight’s campsite

Just as Stephanie and I left McAfee Knob to churn out more miles, a large group of people arrived.  I’d bet money there was a tour bus in the parking area.


A fern bank

Sometimes blazes lead you through tight spaces

And sometimes they require you to duck your head

Yeah, Stephanie, come on up here!

Fire pinks

Our reward: standing on Tinker Cliffs, looking back at McAfee Knob in the center

I’ve heard other hikers say, and now I can agree, that Tinker Cliffs is even more amazing than McAfee Knob.  It’s an extensive wall of sandstone, a half-mile-long walk along the cliff edge looking down into the Catawba Valley.  The fact that an overnight or a long dayhike (18+ miles) is required to access Tinker Cliffs adds to the appeal.  After the throngs of McAfee Knob, we shared the Cliffs with just three thru-hikers who had stopped to enjoy the late afternoon.

Stephanie looks very content

One more look

But we have a few more miles to go today, so continuing on…

From Tinker Cliffs we tiptoed down a one-mile, 1,000-foot descent, passing through Scorched Earth Gap.  My A.T. Guide says, “Sources differ over the origin of this place name.  One account says slash-and-burn agriculture may have been used here; another says it was the site of a scathing argument between maintainers.”  Now it just looks like an open gap with an intersecting trail.  Any other guesses?

We peeked into the Lamberts Meadow Shelter just to see who was in residence (half a dozen hikers) but did not plan to stay there.  A green-and-yellow garter snake gave me a start by crossing the overgrown side trail near my toes.  On Ben Witcher’s advice, we continued on another .3 miles down the trail to Lamberts Meadow Campsite.  After all, Stephanie had carried her sleeping hammock and I had carried my tent all this way.

The campsites were spread along the edge of a stream.  We’d had a late start and a long day and it was 7:30 p.m. when we arrived, so most of the sites were taken.  One tent was pitched by itself in a large site and the owner’s food bag was half-heartedly strung in a tree near the other suitable tent spot.  It appeared that the hiker had already crawled into bed for the night.  Stephanie strung up her hammock, I pitched my little Lightheart tent, and we quickly treated water and cooked supper.  In the waning light we hung up our food bags the right way, high up in a tree and tied up tight.  It was the first time we had done that in some years and we congratulated ourselves on a job well done. 

“Sleeping in a tent after a long day’s walk is one of (my) life’s greatest pleasures.” ~ Sharon McCarthy aka Smoky Scout

Sunday, September 8, 2013

AT Project in VA - Social Network

Appalachian Trail in VA Project – 5/26/13 – Spy Rock Road Access Southbound to U.S. 60 - 17+ Miles

Will the knees hold out?  The first two days of this trip were a bit hard on them, some soreness on the outer edges of my kneecaps and the usual fatigued muscles.  I was apprehensive about today, going for longer mileage with significant downhill at the end.  Rather than continuing northbound, I opted to reverse and go southbound so Jim wouldn’t have to find the side trail to the AT to meet me at the end of the day.  Having ended at U.S. 60 yesterday, that was now a familiar spot.  Jim planned to bike to Lynchburg, VA to visit an old friend and the U.S. 60 meeting place made it much easier on him.

Ah, the approach to the AT starting up on Spy Rock Road.  Have I mentioned that this is about .8 miles of extremely steep yuckiness?  And have I mentioned that I had a bad cold going on since the moment we left home, stuffiness, aching sinuses?  (I’ve concluded that hiking is the best thing for a cold, being outside with your mouth hanging open and breathing hard anyway.)  And after our hiking and biking we faced a long drive home, more than 4 hours.  Yes, apprehensive is the right word.

Turned out to be the best hike day of the trip.

Going up the Spy Rock side trail was tough for sure, labored breathing and very slow steps (just like last time, no escalator had been installed).  I made the right turn onto the AT southbound and took a deep breath.  Almost immediately I began passing hikers.  After all, it was a spectacularly gorgeous day, Memorial Day, and everyone was outside. 

There are three types of people on hiking trails:  hikers who smile or say hello and keep moving, hikers who say, “Hi, great weather, have a nice day,” and then keep moving, and hikers who stop and spend a few minutes, “Hi, where are you from, where are you hiking to today?”  I soon met an engaging retired couple from California who were doing a 450-mile section from Roan Mountain, TN to Waynesboro, VA on what they called a “five-year AT section plan.”  We chatted about Mount Whitney (they have summitted three times) and how fortunate I am to live so close to much of the AT.  Somehow this pleasant conversation gave me a change in attitude that helped me enjoy the day.

A lovely fern-lined path 

Jack-in-the-pulpits!  Dozens of them!  Once I spotted one, the rest magically appeared everywhere.

Yellow lady slippers!  A rare orchid, yet here they were in several clumps very close to the trail.

Next I met a group of back- packers, two men and three teenage boys from Lynchburg, who stopped for a nice chat.  I told them to look for the rare lady slippers and to shout when they found them – they did.

Much of the day’s trail was pretty level walking and I made up time from the occasional slow uphills.  I seemed to breathe easier (maybe my cold was finally easing off) and the mileages clicked off.  Maybe it was encountering so many people out, embracing rather than chafing at the lack of solitude.  Along with the people came lots of dogs, something I do not usually enjoy.  Most dogs were unleashed but well-behaved.  Note:  accept what you cannot change.

I crossed a large stream, the North Fork of the Piney River, and stopped for a break.  Campsites were nestled among car-sized boulders.  This large tree seemed to grow out of a boulder.

A look around on other side revealed an extensive root system stretching down to the ground.

From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a flash of red, a brilliant red bird with black wings, but I could not get a photo.  Soon after, I encountered three hikers with binoculars – birders – who explained that I had seen a scarlet tanager.  Hhmmm…do I need to keep a birder list now?

A flower I didn't recognize

Purple phacelia

Meadow parsnip

As I have mentioned before, the AT crosses many forest service roads along this Virginia section.  Although the signage is usually quite good, at one multiple trail/road intersection I lost track of the white blazes and walked for nearly half a mile without seeing one.  Did I take a wrong turn?  No, eventually the blazes reappeared.  

Another people encounter:  I saw a man approaching with a teenage girl, both wearing loaded backpacks, and the girl’s face looked familiar.  They were of the hello-nice-day-keep-it-moving variety and I noted the girl’s big round glasses (not sunglasses) and her equally big smile.  Back at home later I confirmed that this was Sassafrass and her dad, Kaboose, whom I read about online recently.  Sassafrass is 13 years old and had begun a thru-hike on the AT to raise awareness for hunger in her community of New Gloucester, Maine and beyond, asking people to donate money and food to local food banks.  Update:  Sassafrass had to get off the trail due to foot problems but you should read the trail journal written by her and her dad here.  Very inspiring story.)

Time for another break on Tar Jacket Ridge

On Tar Jacket Ridge

A little squeeze-through

Virginia’s version of Cold Mountain – a bald – is quite different from North Carolina’s version and a whole lot easier to get to.  I didn't know there were balds in Virginia!

The view from the top of Cold Mountain 

The first two days of this trip, nursing a cold and worrying about my knees, made me feel like I was slowing down, old age, but today I felt like I had mastered the uphills and made reasonable time.  Maybe it’s just a matter of conditioning, having first days be shorter and then the last one longer.  Standing on top of Cold Mountain, I felt much more confident of my stamina and endurance and overall physical abilities.

And then…downhill at the end was as bad as I anticipated, 1,400 feet in 1.5 miles, which doesn’t sound so terrible but it seemed so after 15 miles.  My right knee began to ache with each step and I tried many tricks to ease the bending and weight-bearing stepping down.  I walked like a peg-leg pirate, keeping my right leg stiff and swinging it around, which helped minimally.  Sticking my tongue out helped some.  But it was a tortuous ending to an otherwise very happy day. 

Jim met me about a mile in from the parking area and distracted me with conversation for the last push.  As always, I was very happy to see the end.  Looks like I need to do something about the knees.

I dream of hiking into my old age. I want to be able even then to pack my load and take off slowly but steadily along the trail. ~Marlyn Dolan

Thursday, September 5, 2013

AT Project in VA - Brown Mountain Creek Community

Appalachian Trail in VA Project – 5/25/13 – Punchbowl Mountain Overlook to U.S. 60 – 10.9 Miles

A confession:  I cannot find my notes of this hike and I have only a few photographs.  This will be a short blog post. Some of you will be relieved.

The day started where yesterday ended, at a pull-off on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Other hikers were assembled there but they headed trail south while I set off all by my lonesome going trail north.  A short hike today with a U-shaped elevation profile, going downhill, then flat, then uphill to end at U.S. 60. 

Remember yesterday’s wind worries?  A good example across the trail

Pedlar River Bridge

The AT passes near the Lynchburg Reservoir

The interesting part of this hike is along Brown Mountain Creek.  Several benches and sign boards relating the history of the Brown Mountain Creek community, a freedman's village established after the Civil War, are spaced along a 1.5-mile section.  I wish I had read up on this area before my hike (I did afterwards).  The stories are fascinating. 

A summary from the Appalachian Trail Guide to Central Virginia:  “Brown Mountain Creek Valley was farmed by slave labor from around 1800 to the end of the Civil War.  In 1868, a former slave purchased the land and built a series of cabins, the remains of which are still evident.  He rented the cabins to former slaves who sharecropped the land.”  This means that they compensated for the use of the land by paying the owner ¼ of the proceeds from their crop each year.    Descendants lived in the valley until the land was purchased by the Forest Service in 1920. 

A long winding rock wall follows the creek, built to provide protection against flooding.  The valley is small and narrow and I could easily picture the modest fields of corn and small gardens.  At this time of year vegetation was lush, but with a little exploration the foundations of houses and outbuildings could be found.  I saw a beautiful rock walled spring but vegetation obscured it so I couldn’t get a good photo.  

Winter would be an excellent time to visit this area.  It reminds me very much of the Old Settlers Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park where rambling rock walls, stone foundations and towering chimneys evoke bygone days of robust communities living that simple but hard life.

Here is an interview with Taft Hughes, a former resident of the Brown Mountain Creek community, taken 20 years ago as part of an oral history project.  So glad that his words have been preserved!   

Brown Mountain Creek flows on down the valley and past a shelter named after it.  I stopped at the shelter for my last break since my ending point at Highway 60 was only two miles away.  I caught the last 10 minutes of quiet for the weekend there – as I got closer to the road, I passed a strung-out group of Boy Scouts, troop leaders, and parents heading to the shelter.  Isn’t it great to see people getting outside?

“Observe as you walk.  Be aware that history surrounds you.  Keep your eyes and mind open to explore the secrets held by the land.”  ~Sign board at Brown Mountain Creek, Appalachian Trail, VA