Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 11/16/13 - Mountain Lake Road Southbound to Symms Gap Meadow…Or Not – 16.5 Miles
I’ve endured a handful of hikes over the years that I would classify as difficult, not because of the terrain or even the distance but because of physical suffering: sore feet, sore knees, weary shoulders, bonking because of dehydration or not eating sufficiently. I’ve often said that the longest mile is the last one. And yet I’ve felt a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment even through the discomfort (okay, pain) of those days.
Until November 16, 2013.
I’d planned a 2-day, 28-mile hike on the AT near Pearisburg, VA, a long stretch with few exits. I had done many long dayhikes since the summer when I wrestled with knee issues, but this would be my first overnight with a loaded backpack in several months. I was going solo to take advantage of the good weather and I looked forward to challenging myself once again with some alone time. Jim was going to the Virginia Tech game in Blacksburg, so we would be in the same general area, but he was just up for the day. I arranged for Don, a shuttle driver that I had used before, to take me to my trailhead at Mountain Island Lake Road and from there I planned to walk southbound into the town of Pearisburg.
As we drove, Don asked me the specifics of my plan and knew well the place where I intended to pitch my tent. The shelters in this section were not spaced conveniently for me so I was aiming for Symms Gap Meadow. He told me the last reliable water source was at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter. Along Mountain Lake Road I took note of all the hunters’ pickup trucks. [Later I found this excellent section of the ATC website with information on hunting seasons and hiker safety.]
Very foggy driving up the mountain, but we broke above the clouds to a lovely sky and cottony clouds in the valley below.
I had forgotten to bring my blaze orange vest, so I tied my bright red rain jacket on the outside of my pack and crossed my fingers that it would suffice. For the first 3.5 miles of my hike the AT runs parallel and close beside Rocky Mountain Road, giving easy access for hunters, but they can venture far from the road and still be in a wilderness area where hunting is allowed. The protective corridor of the AT can be as narrow as 1,000 feet, so…not much protection. While hunters are not supposed to use the AT as a route, I guess it’s hard to avoid. And bullets don’t know anything about boundaries.
Anyway, the hike started out great, a pretty day, feeling strong. I met a couple of hunters on the trail, kept hearing gunshots all day, which made me a little nervous, but I soon was immersed in the glory of the woods.
I passed Bailey Gap Shelter with barely a glance and began a swift descent through a rhododendron tunnel…
…to a very fancy bridge spanning Stony Creek.
A lichen-encrusted blaze
Perhaps I took that downhill too quickly, short, fast steps, almost skipping in some places. My left knee began to ache along the outer edge; soon my right knee was chiming in. The problems of last summer coming back? Slowing down and stepping more deliberately didn’t help. Hmmmm…
Meanwhile the trail led me over several streams and close by “The Captain’s,” some sort of privately owned place to camp, and from the looks of it hunters were gathered there also. Then I began to notice places along the trail where the leaf litter was brushed away as though something (big) had been dragged.
Deer hairs on a footbridge – obviously Bambi and I were not alone in the woods. I made a mental note to tell all my hiking buddies to only hike on Sundays (no hunting) in southwest Virginia.
At Pine Swamp Branch Shelter I stopped to eat and assess my knee situation. By now I was feeling painful twinges with nearly every step. I was looking at a significant climb just ahead of me and about seven more miles to my campsite. Knees don’t hurt on the uphill, so I hoped to get a break and just take it easy from there. So I climbed Peters Mountain and turned south to walk the ridge, which is also the state line of Virginia-West Virginia.
Correction: knees can hurt on the uphill.
Mid-afternoon and fog was creeping in. I was trying to be noisy, kicking leaves and striking stones with my hiking poles. I walked right up to this hunter and his young son sitting quietly on a log beside the trail.
After 10 miles the knee pain was excruciating. I was holding my breath, gritting my teeth and exhaling with a whimper at each step. The fog made for limited visibility on the rocky terrain and I was slipping and falling often because my knees were so shaky. How did I get into this predicament? All I wanted to do was get to my little campsite near Mile 15 so I could lie awake all night wondering how I was going to hike out the remaining 13 miles on Sunday.
Then…at about Mile 14 I passed a blue-blaze side trail to the right with a sign that said 1.9 miles to a road! Wait, it’s not on my elevation guide…but it is on my ATC trail map. The Groundhog Trail! It was now 4:30 p.m., getting dark along with the fog. Should I try to get off the trail or hole up and hope that tomorrow would be better after some rest? I got a cell signal (hallelujah) and called Don, my shuttle driver, and told him I wanted to bail out. He said he would meet me. (Was he just waiting by the phone? I think so.)
The side trail was in rough shape, steep, slippery leaves, and I fell about 10 times in the first 10 minutes. Was I going from bad to worse? The trail itself was hard to see, but the blue blazes on the trees were excellent and I just walked for about an hour from one blaze to the next (knees screaming the whole time). I think my speed was about a mile an hour.
Don, my shuttle-driver-turned-trail-angel, had quite a drive to come find me – after all, I was now walking down into a West Virginia valley. Then he walked in half a mile through open pasture and part way up the mountain to meet me. By now it was full dark. I could see a head lamp bobbing up the mountainside. Ah, rescue! My knees were still hurting but I knew I would soon relinquish my backpack and sit down in Don’s car. As I followed him back through the open pasture, I saw that I would not ever have found my way in the dark through the overgrown grass. My last best option would have been to camp in the pasture and then figure it out in the morning. Glad I didn’t have to.
I can’t say enough about how kind Don was during the ride back to my car. He continually assured me that I had made the right decision and made me feel smart rather than a wimp. I really do suspect that he was at home “doin’ nothing” because he knew that I was out alone.
I called Jim (he was still in the area) and he met us in Pearisburg. He paid Don a huge ransom as a thank-you, gave me a hug, dusted me off, bought me a cheeseburger, and we drove home. The knees were still hurting on Sunday but by Monday everything was fine. Time for a doctor visit.
Lesson 1: Ain’t no shame in bailing out to stay safe. I didn’t want to fall and get badly injured.
Lesson 2: Always, always, always carry a trail map and check your location often to stay oriented.
Lesson 3: Don’t rely on cell phone coverage and be prepared to spend the night (but I sure was glad when I got that signal)
Lesson 4: Appreciate and become good friends with shuttle drivers. They are angels.