Rock Sandwich.

Laurel Creek Shelter, Va. AT mile 669.1, Sat. March 15 — Today started and ended with nasty, trippy rocks. The first three miles up and out of Bailey Gap took three hours.

The meat in the middle was nutritious loamy trail bed set in open forest. Delicious. That was followed by an up and over the mountain rock salad.

Every tendon in my feet is sore from the twisting and pivoting on the uneven surface. Usually your knees can act as shock absorbers. Not so when you can’t get a square foot plant. The extra 35 lbs. on the back just adds to the fun.

The good news is that I enjoyed a lovely lunch by a jolly rushing brook.

I found one of the hikers ahead of me having dinner at the shelter picnic table as I hobbled in. He headed out straight away. He likes hiking by moonlight – and it’s full tonight. Good for sleeping too, I thought.

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Jeramiah was a Bull Frog

Bailey Gap Shelter, Va., NOBO mile 654.5 — The dawn broke cool with a warm note in the wind. The promise of a good day turned out not to be.

My pack slid over my shoulders with ease. This one, the winter newbee, squeaks as I walk. That a good signs that it’s breaking in. The shelter spring was dry, but not to worry, the guide marked water less than an hour away.

For the second day in a row, the morning sun high beamed me dead in the eyes. If the spring was marked, I didn’t see it. The next water was eight miles. I’ll chance it. Cool day and an easy walk according to my guide. That was almost true.

The trail was rocky and difficult. The ground was littered with branches torn away by the 50 mph wind gusts two nights before. The further I traveled, the worse it was. At one point I spent seven hours hiking four miles – climbing over, under, and around massive amounts of blowdown. The worst I’ve ever seen.

I was fortunate to find water in a tiny pond full of frogs eggs soon to hatch. Judging from the signs around it, it’s the local watering hole for the entire animal neighborhood.

The Captain’s zip line was obscured. I hope it’s still there. Fortunately, the next mountain over, the one I’m on now, is clean.

I’ve never been more physically exhausted on this hike, including the hard days last week. Tomorrow we strike out again with a chance of rain.

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Ides of March plus 1 = Snow

Niday Shelter, Va. AT mile 681.5, Sunday March 16 — yesterday the high temp was 60F. Today it isn’t.

The morning opened with a leaden sky. Sleet on the menu for dinner. As things generally go on the AT, it didn’t quite happen that way.

I slept in until 8. Why not? The overnight temp was 40 F. All good for a leisurely start. Only 12.4 miles to my objective. Plus it was up and over only one mountain. Piece of cake, right?

The early terrain was picturesque, but the skies foretold the future. Today’s trail candy was the Keffer Oak. 18 feet in circumference and more than 300 years old, it’s the largest white oak south of the Mason-Dixon Line, according to my trail guide.

After that, a brisk climb to where the trail followed the leading edge of a thrust fault. Que the snow, except it was 1:30 pm, a bit early. I dropped my pack and jerked on my rain jacket and ski hat.

Did I mention that the rocks started to glaze over after about an hour? Not good. A fall could easily end this epic adventure. Fortunately all was well.

Niday Shelter appeared around 4:30 pm on schedule. I startled the dickens out of a 44-year-old southbound section hiker who happened to be encamped inside the shelter cocooned in her tent. Didn’t mean it.

Meanwhile the light snow is forecast to continue all day tomorrow. Just now our shelter picnic table is finely dusted with a bit of White Christmas.

I have a long hard day tomorrow to make Dragon’s tooth on time to meet my friend Val. I’m sure her young boys will be very interested in my gear.

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Brought to you by our sponsor…

Rice Field Shelter, Va., Mile 638.1, March 13, 2014 — “This is W Appalachian Trail radio and that was Bob Dylan and “A Hard Rain.”

And now a word from our sponsor (Mad Men style). Hikers, do you feel tired after a long day on the trail? Are you more run down than usual? Do your feet get sore making every step painful? Then you need to zero at Woods Hole Hostel. Neville and Michael can restore your vitality with a deep tissue massage or a little downward dog action on the yoga mat. But best of all, Neville can prepare you a nutritious and delicious home cooked meal that will restore your energy and improve your outlook. You can even help. At meal time hikers can volunteer to help out making the leafy green salad, slicing the aromatic bread or helping to clean up afterward. ‘A little slice of heaven. Not to be missed.’ Stay awhile at Woods Hole Hostel. It’ll help you hike!

And now ‘Stormy Weather’ on W Appalachian Trail radio …

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you another one of Jim’s blogs. Take it away Sisu on the trail.”

Left my favorite little farm in the snow. The snow had all but disappeared by the time I reached Pearisburg with it’s stinky Celanese Plant. It’s aroma reminded my of the glacial acetic acid used in the wet chemistry darkrooms of long ago.

The climb out of Pearisburg was on poorly maintained trail, but uneventful. Rice Field Shelter is situated on the edge of a bald with a to-die-for view. If the weather were warmer and less windy, I would have slept on the cliff’s edge.

Matt dropped of in Pearisburg to see his cousin. Probably will not see him again.

So it goes on the trail:

The sky is blue
The leaves are brown,
The trail goes up
And the trail goes down.

Hikers come
Hikers go,
We march on
Not hoping for snow.

Tomorrow’s trail candy is “The Captain’s Place”. He’s a guy who lets hikers tent in his yard after the crossing the river on a zip line. Too bad I’ll pass at mid day.

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A bit of heaven

Years ago a writer tagged Woods Hole Hostel “A little bit of heaven, not to be missed.” That about sums it up. Game. Set. Match.

A unique benefit of being ahead of the main “hiker bubbles” is the exclusivity of the experiences snagable along the way. The lack of crowds is worth trading for occasional loneliness and isolation.

Last night Matt and I enjoyed dinner with Neville and Michael at their intimate kitchen table where we underscored the evening with buoyant conversation about all things large and small.

Woods Hole is more than a unique hostel experience noted for organic home cooked meals and yoga. It’s a working farm with incredible demands on its owners time and energy.

From Scottish Highland cattle to herds of hogs (and piglets), goats, chickens and ducks to rows of vegetable beds there’s endless work. Then there’s the hostel, bunkhouse and hoards of hikers who arrive in force around April 15 – a little more than a month from now.

Michael is principally responsible for the farm while Neville manages the hostel. They’re the whole show assisted in season only by one intern each! They do make a marvelous team.

Hikers often volunteer to help. This afternoon Matt and I pitched in with Michael and Neville to fence in a new hog pen. Just after that two weather ducking hikers arrived and Michael slid into the kitchen to cook a special pasta sauce while Neville and I rolled fresh pasta noodles in tandem.

This couple seems to be doing it right, building on Neville’s Grandmother Tillie’s vision. The character of the original log cabin – the one Neville’s grandparents used when her grandfather migrated to the region to study the elk population as a wildlife biologist – is visible in the expansion architecture. The evolution is sure and pure in its spirit.

Tonight the wind is howling outside gusting to 50 mph. The overnight projected low is 11F. It’s a perfect night to nest in a little bit of heaven.

Post script: The goat struggling to have a kid on our first night had a miscarriage, but her health is good.

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Over the mountain

Woods Hole Hostel, Pearisburg, Va. Mile 620.9. Tuesday March 11 — Pearisburg sits on a plateau above Bland, the town we just escaped.

The bifurcated 15-mile hike featured a seven mile gentle take off climb followed by a straight-up jump to cruising altitude. All-in-all, not bad.

We climbed through a range of Eco systems from hardwood deciduous forest to tall pines.

Thirst continued its grip as a side effect of the unseasonal 70 degree heat wave. The sun’s heat infused the air with a soothing pine aroma. Beats the heck out of the skunk that wafted over our tent site at Trent’s Grocery during the wee hours of this morning.

We were tenting next to a horse pasture last night. During the night the horses got frisky, galloping along the fence line. First question: what spooked them? Too tired to care. Zzzzzzz

More and more rocks are forcing themselves into the trail tread. Aside from the ouch factor on the feet, they reach out to trip you and bend your poles. Rocks, go away. You own Pennsylvania. Why not stay there? Maybe they’re Russian rocks?

We pulled into Woods Hole at 4:30 pm. Neville and her husband Michael were birthing a goat. Now that’s a welcome.

More on that tomorrow when I’m going to zero (not hike) to send a box of excess equipment home and “bounce” some food ahead to Buena Vista’s Bluedogart Cafe and hostel, my third planned stop. Should be there in about two weeks.

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Transitions and Contrasts

Trent’s Grocery, Bland (indeed), Va. March 10 — The seasonal change is about to burst forth. The signs are everywhere. We’ve been seeing fresh bear scat all week. They are around and about. Nearly every plant is preparing to bud. Today I saw a butterfly and a water doodle. Could mosquitos be far behind?

What a day of contrasts. The sides of mountains facing away from the sun – generally the north sides – we’re freezing while the southern exposures cooked. Our high temp on the trail today ladies and gents was a big 72F. Let’s hear it for the weather service.

So there I was wearing a Columbia Omni Heat shirt. For the uninitiated, this winter clothing line features Mylar micro dots that reflect heat back toward your body. I can testify that this technology is a working miracle. Only it over achieves at high ambient temps. Not wearing any tomorrow. Nope. I am not. Tomorrow’s forecast is the same as today’s.

Of course, this early in March, way too early to count our weather chickens. Sleet and snow rear their ugly heads again Wednesday and Thursday.

We’re tenting on the back lot of Trent’s Grocery – grill, off sale beer and hardware emporium. In our honor, the proprietor hasn’t opened the shower or laundry facilities. He’s waiting for the last freeze. He did let us clean up in the store restroom. That’s the one with the out of order sign on the door, except it’s in perfect working order. What a guy. Their hamburgers = A+. Just know before you go.

Earlier in the day we passed a place where seven deer carcasses had been dumped along the road. Just after that the forest floor had been burned. The trash and liquor bottles around the deer and the fire suggest a correlation of deviant behaviors, but I am not so certain. Appalachia is so poor that many families have to poach deer in order to eat. It does not necessarily follow that they engage in other irresponsible activities. It’s a hard life here.

We also saw an interesting suspension bridge.

Tomorrow it’s the famous yoga enshrined, organic and granola encrusted Woods Hole Hostel. There’s only 16 miles and a healthy climb between us.

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Ever broke a nail?

Helvey’s Mill Shelter, Va. — mile 589.7 from Georgia.

Being a pseudo macho type, I’m not sure what degree of tragedy is truly associated with breaking a finger nail. I suspect it depends on age and gender.

Two days ago something analogous happened. My right trekking pole lost its tip in a tiny cravass between two rocks on the trail.

At first I didn’t notice. What with trying to read the rocks under the leaf litter, I had enough to do just to stay vertical.

At some point I noticed my right pole was blooming like a brown leafy bouquet. What the …. is that?

I. scrapped it off to discover the rubber tip was gone. Oh the tragedy of it. Now I sound like a peg leg pirate thump, thump, thumping along the path. It’ll scare the bears away. Worse, the other hikers (what other hikers?) might think I’m an idiot. The sound and the worry of it all!

Remember the old New Yorker cartoons about the stereotypical NYC sanitation worker spearing litter with a stick with a nail on the end? That’s me.

There’s a photo enclosed.

The weather forecast is good! We’re going to try and tent at Trent’s Grocery tomorrow – mile 606.0. With luck we’ll reach Woods Hole Hostel – mile 620.9 on Tuesday before dark.

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What A Difference A Day Makes

A super nova sunset capped the day at Chestnut Knob Shelter. We were surrounded by four walls with a door. Glory be!

The temp was moderate through the night. My lactic acid soaked muscles would not let me sleep. Even though I throughly stretched.

Nature called around 2 am. When I opened the door, a starry, starry night hung overhead in all its mystery. The wind was calm and the temp comfortable. Before zipping up my down cocoon I took a sleeping pill and slept fitfully until 7:30 am.

Oh what a beautiful morning. With only 10 moderately strenuous miles on the trip tik, I lingered over coffee which I stopped making when it turned cold back in early November. Four walls remember…

Matt, the hiker I met at Knott Maul was in no hurry either. He is a very pleasant engineering technology student hiking from Georgia to Harpers Ferry. We decided to team up until Pearisburg where he plans to visit a cousin at Virginia Tech. Seems I’m one of the few folks he’s seen since around Thanksgiving.

We launched around nine o’clock. That late hour is unheard of on Team Sisu. The sky was severe clear – pilot speak for cloudless. The temp ultimately reached 60F. Do you believe it! Take that polar vortex.

We hiked reasonable PUDs ( pointless ups and down in AT speak) most of the day along a basalt escarpment formed by a thrust fault. My old friend leaf litter was back with a vengeance. Dry and slick as banana peaks, the litter transformed the rocky path into a Winter Olympic sliding event at times.

We reached our destination just past three. The Jenkins Shelter was papered in fresh bear warning posters. Not the usual kind, ones with a strong suggestion that using the shelter might be a bad idea. Too bad. The real estate was above average as shelters go.

The next camp site was five more miles away beginning with a steep climb. I’m thinking what a choice. Get mauled by a bear or maul my body myself. No brainer after my bear encounter at Carter Gap.

I was actually feeling strong physically. So off we went. Thanks to a gentle elevation profile on a disused logging road, we covered the five extra miles in less than two hours.

We’re currently tenting at Laurel Creek. The water is gorgeous.

That’s the first time I’ve pitched my tent since just after Thanksgiving. It may not even dip below freezing tonight.

You bet that a day can make a lot of difference. Now to see what tomorrow brings.

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Discretion Over Valor

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Today’s lesson children is humility.

Yesterday my plan called for 18.5 miles if my every other shelter strategy was to hold up. The real challenge wasn’t all the good stuff that happened in the morning, it was one big mountain immediately followed by a smaller one that came at the end of the day.

If the day’s exercise ended after the first mountain, all would have been hunky dory. I learned the 15 mile limit makes all the more sense after being off the trail for nearly two months.

When I awoke this morning to a landscape dusted in snow so ably predicted by mission control – thanks very much – I knew that last mountain, Bushy Peak, had done me in. Every muscle I have is sore.

Here’s the set up for my dramatic announcement. I met to southbounders yesterday who said there are six legit northbounders ahead. Most are at least two weeks ahead, but I should expect to see one of them at my intended destination, Knott Maul Shelter. And so he was, an affable 23-year-old student from Richmond, Va.

This morning we set out together. We had two steep climbs that proved significant. We both struggled. At one point I got hypoglycemic. Energy bar to the rescue.

We reached Chestnut Knob Shelter at 3 pm, two hours behind schedule. No chance of pushing on to the next shelter. As a bonus, it has a truly million dollar view so what’s not to like. The stone building even has a door, and used to house the fire wardens who manned the fire tower now long gone.

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I did lot of thinking while shuffling of today’s hills. Nearly two months off was too much. 5,106 feet of elevation gain, not counting the small ups and downs, took an unexpected toll on my body. I need to cut back my pace until my body adjusts. After all, I’ve got the time. Look for 10 mile days for awhile.