Cut your losses

Buena Vista, Va., AT NOBO mile 802.6, Thursday March 27, 2014 — Yesterday’s wind storm did a number on the trail.

This morning Butch, who co-owns Bluedogart with his wife Susan, shuttled me to the trailhead parking lot located a mile downhill from AT NOBO mile 818.9 so I could scamper back toward Buena Vista for a 5 pm pickup.

The one mile uphill trek was moderately steep, taking 40 minutes slowed slightly by the six inches of snow clogging the old dirt logging road.

Once up top everything changed. Yesterday’s stiff winds mounded the snow into an endless series of deep drifts, some to midthigh, but most just above the knee. A genuine posthole experience for those who know about these things.

Since the trail started on an exposed ridge line, I thought I would walk out of it. Not so. After almost two trail miles I realized the drifting was for keeps.

The sun sparkled and drifted snow drastically slowed my pace. When I reached a definable land mark on my trail guide, I realized that at my blistering pace, arrival at the pick up point would be after midnight rather than 5 pm. Time to reverse course and try another day, especially since I wasn’t carrying a tent or sleeping bag.

With rain in the forecast starting late tomorrow, lasting into Saturday, I don’t expect the snow to clear until Sunday morning. Being only two hours from home is tempting with three nights to kill. I have a call in to my wife to see if she can swoop in and rescue me tonight. If so, I’ll be home for our anniversary Saturday!

I’ll drive back Monday to hike the section to Waynesboro in three days, then recover my car.

Decision made with no phone signal, I reversed my footprints and retraced my course down the old logging road.

As luck would have it, there’s a Virginia Fish and Game fish hatchery at the bottom of the hill equipped with a phone and a really nice manager named Tim. You’re a gem big guy.

I arranged a shuttle only to arrive at the hostel (built in the 1890s) to find an overheated electrical socket. Butch and I pulled it out of the wall and disconnected it.

Upon reflection, today deep snow was a lucky break. Aside from the obvious reasons, I had $1,500 worth of gear stored on the other side of that wall!

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Can you believe it?

Buena Vista, Va., AT NOBO mile 802.6, Wednesday March 26, 2014 — Taking a weather zero (mileage) day off. The prevailing winds on the AT are from the southwest. Today a stiff wind is ripping from the northwest and I’d be walking dead into a subzero windchill. My mamma didn’t raise a fool.

Tomorrow I’m planning to slack pack about 15 miles back to Buena Vista. The advantage is twofold. One, it solves a distance problem that enables me to avoid hiking a 20-plus mileage day my second day out. Two, I get another night indoors and the free breakfast that comes with it.

Slack packing is when hikers are driven a distance down the trail and hike back to their point of origin. I so doing, they empty their packs of tents, sleeping bags, food and other nonessentials for a day hike. First aid, rain gear and water about everything that goes along for the ride.

The moving is faster ’cause the load is much lighter. I’ll still have to contend with six inches of melting snow, e.g. slush, but I’ll take that bet.

Got a huge surprise last night when I prepared to shower. A tick was noshing on my leg – as in locked on tight. It was too large to be a deer tick, the Lyme Disease vector. Nevertheless, I was a bit dumbfounded. During the past month, the overnight temps have been above freezing only twice. Moreover my base layer is skintight so the little sucker really had to work to get there. Could it be that Spring has sprung and nobody told us?

At the moment I’m soaking up lunch at the Bluedogart Cafe complete with a slab of that heavenly bee sting cake. Turns out that it’s homemade by a local Amish lady. Butch, the owner, is holding down the fort at his favorite roost.

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Where for Art thou.

Bluedogart Art Cafe, Buena Vista, Va., AT NOBO mile 802.6, March 25, 2014 — Enough of the snow already! I get it. White is white. Time for spring colors. Where’s the Easter parade?

Today’s ten mile slog through six inches of thick, heavy snow was brought to you by your favorite brand of molasses. There wasn’t much difference in the viscosity.

The good news is that once I reached the highway, and a cell signal, the folks from Bluedogart were up the mountain licketysplit to rescue me from my role in a Santa North Pole adventure movie.

Along the way from the Punchbowl Shelter, the hike scrambled through Brown Mountain Creek where Forest Service markers described the freed slave community that developed there at the turn of the 20th century.

The snow covered stone walls and foundations suggested the community that once thrived there until the government bought it out in the 1920’s to create the Jefferson National Forest.

Tomorrow’s weather is for danger close wind chill from the northwest. Will try and arrange a southbound slack pack to duck the brunt and still make progress. Otherwise, I hole up in my Bluedogart bunker.

Stay tuned…

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Blame the Weatherman

Matts Creek Shelter, Va., AT NOBO mile 778.6, Sunday March 23 — Today’s my daughter’s 25th birthday. Happy birthday Tiger. Go get ’em!

Today’s forecast was for sunny and 70F. I dressed accordingly.

Had a lousy night’s sleep. Don’t know why. The night was too warm, maybe. At around 2:30 am the temp dropped 20 degrees. That did it. I slept ’til 7 am; was hiking by eight.

There I was cruising up the first of two scheduled climbs for the day when, two hours in, nickel-size snow flakes began bombarding the woods as if dropped from a fleet of B-52s directly overhead.

“Where the hey did this come from,” I muttered. Faster than a NASCAR pit crew, my wet weather gear was on me and my pack. Everything needed fits in pockets outside my pack, making for quick access. “That’s not what the weatherman said!”

Just then a gaggle of Boy Scouts trooped by. Some were in shirtsleeve T-shirts. ‘Nuff said, I thought. I’m not the only one.

Being a bit underdressed kept me moving at a hasty pace all day. I reached my planned destination by two o’clock. Stopping for the day at 2 pm in the cold, empty shelter wasn’t a viable option, so I pressed on for a total of slighly more than 22 miles on the day. Now I’m much lower in altitude and out of the snow.

The old aphorism about everybody complaining about the weather – and by extension weathermen – but nobody ever does anything about it.

As I passed through the trail feature known as the guillotine, the answer to the age old complaint flashed between my ears.

“Off with ‘is ‘ead!” The answer was obvious.

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Say Frommage

Bryant Ridge Shelter, Va., AT NOBO mile 756.0, Saturday March 22, 2014 — Ran into two self-described southbound “Frenchies” on the trail around noon. They’re two retired French army officers, Lionel and Laurent, on a multi-day section hike.

When some people hear you’re hiking to Maine, they go goofy and want to take your photo. So did these guys, even after the military macho secret handshake stuff we exchanged.

So what was the last word I heard before the flash popped? Why frommage , naturally. :-). (Sure hope that’s the correct spelling.)

The shelter tonight is a two story wonder built as a monument to a young man who died far too young.

The register mentions numerous bear sightings in the “front yard.” After my incident in North Carolina, I’m sleeping up stairs. It’s not that a bear can’t climb the ladder. It’s just easier to defend.

I would push on to the next shelter, but it’s a 2,000 foot climb over six miles and possibly another night hike. No thanks. I’ll eat that one in the morning.

Meanwhile I’ll work on that sleeve of Oreos I remembered to bring over a cup of decaf. Life’s good.

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Namesake

Punchbowl Shelter, Va., AT NOBO mile 791.3, Monday March 24, 2014 — My name is James and so is the river. The James River of Virginia. Yes, that James River. Jamestown, Pocahontas, and all that. Well, I crossed it early this bright pleasant morning.

The bridge is a special one built for hikers in 2000. Otherwise we’d either swim as in Maine or share one with traffic as in crossing the Hudson in New York. I can wait to take that photo.

After the walkover, two very steep climbs led to breathtaking views of the James River valley. My leg muscles were less than 100 percent after yesterday’s 22-mile lactic acid bath. So, I took my time having only 13 miles on today’s flight plan.

The top of the second climb is Bluff Mountain where a fire tower once stood. Just next to its foundation is a memorial where Ottie Cline Powell’s tiny body was found in 1894 after wondering away from school at the age of four years and 11 months. Sad.

Tomorrow is the Bluedogart Cafe and hostel. Freezing rain is docketed to ensue around 4 am. It’s an 11 mile hike. Should be in town around 2 o’clock. It’ll be the trifecta: Shower! Laundry! Food!

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I hear music

Bobblets Gap Shelter, AT NOBO mile 742.5, Friday March 21, 2014 — For the first time this year song birds sounded the morning alarm! Until now, the forest has been as mute as a mime.

Just as the song birds voiced their pleasure, I spied dwarf daffodils marking their corner of the camp area. But, … There’s snow and sleet in the forecast for Tuesday. Seems Old Man Winter just won’t exit stage right or wrong. Dude! Take the hint!!!

During the day’s walk I spotted Carolina wrens, black capped chickadees, a tufted titmouse, a dark-eyes junko and a cat bird. These all appear at our feeder throughout the winter, so there’s no surprise other than why their spring concert season premiered today.

I also saw a honey bee, surely a sign of spring tho nothing is blooming. P.S. Oh yes there is.

We’re entering the area where the AT crosses over the Blue Ridge Parkway for the next hundred miles or so. It’s the same drill as Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, only minus the waysides where there’s food within easy reach.

I still haven’t forgotten that I did not get my Blackberry Milkshake at the Elk Wallow wayside because the congress closed Shenandoah… Getting one is on my bucket list for sure. Better than beer!

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Hikers gone wild!

Fullhardt Knob Shelter, Va. AT NOBO mile 729.0, Thursday, March 20, 2014 — Hikers gone wild? Not really, but it is college spring break. Last night three University of Tennessee students stumbled into the shelter at about 11 pm.

Before the bedded down, they tried to start a fire with zero success. I did note this morning that one of them was packing a Coleman tent so enormous that it could have rolled off a logging truck.

At first I felt sorry that he was trucking so much weight, but I realized he probably doesn’t know the difference. At that age ignorance is truly bliss.

Spring break will probably keep the trail full for awhile.

Passed through Daleville and ate at Three Little Pigs BBQ. Yum! Bill gives thru hikers free desert – go calories a la mode!

Fantastic walking today. It’s warming with a positive outlook til midweek. The sights were worth the energy it took to see them for a change.

There’s a father/adult son section hiker team here at the shelter which sits on an old fire tower site.

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On the road again

Lambert Meadow Shelter, Va., AT NOBO mile 714.6, Wednesday, March 18 — My dear friend in the Roanoke area dropped me off at the trail head around 11:30 am. A nice leisurely start freshly boosted by a Starbucks grande latte.

There I was, heavy of heart for having to say goodby and heavily fortified by some delicious home cooking and excellent conversation. So, into the low lying clouds I disappeared.

The hike to McAfee Knob, the most iconic of all the Virginia trail candy, was smooth as silk in spite of eight days worth of heavy chow bulging the seams of my food bag.

McAfee is the top trail attraction in the state, and it is maintained in hiker superhighway style. Put the hammer down good buddy and climb.

The substance formerly called snow is now in reality three inches of slush. Makes the going interesting at times. With 70F predicted by Sunday, ole white Christmas is going the way of Frosty the Snowman very soon. In fact, it’s now raining in spite of the sun’s valiant attempt to break through this afternoon.

At the shelter tonight is Kashmir, a 2010 thru hiker who’s trying to get in shape for an excellent AmeriCorps program called the Montana Conservation Corps. He’s a nice young man.

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Audie Murphy Memorial

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Major Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as the highest among his several decorations for valor.  The Audie Murphy memorial on the AT marks the plane crash in which he died as a civilian after the war. 

It’s a hiker tradition to leave something at the memorial, especially those of us who are veterans.  I’ve been carrying a special Army pin since the beginning of my hike, expressly for the that purpose.

Audie Murphy served in the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) which is currently stationed near Savannah, Ga. at Ft. Stewart.  There its mission is to be our nation’s rapidly deployable armored force. 

What you may not know is that many military units have unique songs that grow out of their various traditions.  The Third Division’s song is a fun ditty entitled “Dogface Soldier” which is reminiscent of the culture and times when it was written in WWII.  Here’s a link:  http://www.stewart.army.mil/faq/dogface.mp3  By the way, and no offense to my Marine comrades, but I too “Wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants Marine. 🙂

Regular readers of this blog know this, but for those who don’t, I’m a retired “dog face” Army infantryman with 28 years of service.  Today I proudly stood at attention and saluted the memory of a bona fide American hero.

“Dog Face.”  That’d be a great trail name for somebody, don’t ya think?

This is how Murphy might have heard or sung it:

“I wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants Marine.
I’ll be the dog face soldier that I am.

I wouldn’t trade my old ODs for all the Navy’s dungarees,
’cause I’m the walkin’ pride of Uncle Sam.

The poster on the wall says the Army builds men,
So they’re tearing me down to build me over again.

I’m just a dogface soldier with a rifle on my shoulder.
I eat my beans for breakfast every day.

If you feed me ammunition,
‘N keep me in the Third Division,
Your dogface soldier ‘ll be okay!”

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The day ended post-hiking up the Dragon’s Tooth in a biting wind. The icy descent to my waiting friend’s car was treacherous practice for New Hampshire’s White Mountains coming up in June.

Am now taking a weather zero in Roanoke.