15. Short and Sweet

Last week I left everyone feeling very sorry for myself after my fall, and while things are certainly better, no pain, no gain has taken on a whole new meaning. I’m certainly testing my ability to endure which is not necessarily a bad thing but an uncomfortable place to live life.

Day 73

Buena Vista to Seeley Woodworth Shelter. 7.7 miles.

Hiked out today on what felt like weak limbs and an overly full pack.  The weather was great,  decent terrain, all in all an OK hike.  A lot less pain would make the day go from OK to great,  from around the 6 mile mark my feet,  ankles and knees started to protest with the ferocity Emily Pankhurst, if I listened to my body and stopped to rest, getting going again was agony, it was an out and out fight with myself with no medal for the winner.  I dug deep and went into overdrive to make it to the shelter.  I’m frustrated because I was upping my mileage really steadily for a while,  I should be doing 16-18 mile days no problem, instead I’m doing less daily miles than in my first week on the trail and that’s a struggle.  My only goal now is to get stronger and let that strength take me as far north as it can.

As I write my blog tonight there is a severe thunderstorm happening.  My poor little tent feels like it’s being blasted into space, I’m being shaken from the ground up, lightning is coming from everywhere and I’m genuinely scared of being crushed by falling trees.

Day 74

Seeley Woodworth Shelter to The Priest.  6.6 miles.

Today was hell, literal hell. I made it worse I’m sure because mentally I was in a bad place but that aside it was still terrible. The thunderstorm died out overnight, I survived and managed to stay relatively dry but it was still drizzly when I got up. I’m extremely efficient at packing up from inside the tent but there is nothing I can do to make packing up a saturated tent better.  My ground sheet was covered in a thick, cement like mud which if I could have dried it would be OK but I had to pack up with an extra 2 lbs of mud to carry.

Damp and cold I started hiking around 9am and within minutes the heavens opened,  I quickly suited up to prevent a complete soaking, put my head down and hiked. On paper the first 6.6 miles were supposed to be pretty easy,  in reality it was continuous short, extremely steep ups and downs and with the trail now a river my feet were soaked and squelching,  I kept tripping on hidden rocks and it was freezing.  The visibility slowly got worse and for the rest of the morning I could barely see 10ft in front of me. Someone told me that when the trail gets tough I should walk with my head up (this is impossible, I would fall on my face instantly and I don’t have enough tears for that) and I should smile, smiling releases happy endorphins in your brain. I tried so hard to do this today,  not so successfully I think.

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Swamp monster 

I arrived at a shelter at lunchtime and immediately made the decision to go no further,  all I wanted was to be dry and warm. The shelter is called The Priest and instead of signing the trail register, hikers write a trail confession which entertained me for a while.

Several other hikers appeared out if the mist in the same depression I was feeling and also decided to go no further and so the grumpy hiker shelter was formed.  We sat and reminisced, not about the good times but about all the times when the life of a hiker is purely about dodging the hellfire sent by the trail gods. It was a huge weight off my tired and aching shoulders to hear other hikers describe feeling like being on the same rapidly sinking ship, young, old, athletes, newbies and chubby English girls fighting just to walk.  You know it’s been a hard day when at 8pm,  camp is completely silent.

Day 75

The Priest to Harpers Creek Shelter.  7.6 miles.

I slept really well last night,  it dropped in temperature and I was in all of my clothes, socks and tucked fully into my sleeping bag.  It was so snuggly I didn’t want to get out, and I didn’t until gone 9am.

I was dreading the day,  if it was a repeat of yesterday’s weather I was having such negative feelings that I wasn’t sure I could continue.  My day was going to be a 4 mile descent, loosing over 4000ft of elevation,  followed immediately by a huge ascent gaining the elevation plus some back again.

To my absolute pleasure, when I got out of my tent, it was blue skies, birds chirping,  full Disney Princess.  I saddled my pack and got going. Within 10 minutes I was greeted with a spectacular view that had I carried on hiking yesterday I would have missed.

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For over 2 hours I picked my way down the mountain,  the terrain wasn’t great and it crunched every bone in my body but eventually I came to the very bottom where I ate lunch with my feet in the river,  sun on my face in the company of some other great hikers. Sat under a swinging bridge in the valley of 2 magnificent mountains I felt like anything was possible,  gone are the dark thoughts of yesterday and in are the welcoming thoughts of adventures to come.

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Happy places

I knew it would be a gruelling climb up to the shelter, but I greeted it like an old friend, it’s the last 4000ft climb of Virginia and I felt stronger in mind even if my body was betraying me. I arrived a third of the way up the mountain at a great campsite feeling full of beans. I had a leisurely supper, read, chatted with fellow hikers and took a lot of ibuprofen,  my vitamin of choice. There are several weekenders here and I impressed myself at how efficient and how normal my camp chores seem to me, I can get my tent up and bed set, dinner made and eaten,  bear bag hung and in bed in less than an hour,  tonight I chuckled at how long it took three young guys to fight with the rain fly on their tent.  The trail is such a mental game and I have to keep reminding myself of that,  I’m falling asleep looking forward to the trail tomorrow, today has been a great day.

Day 76

Harpers Creek Shelter to Maupin Shelter.  6.4 miles.

I had a very restless night sleep worrying about climbing the mountain today.  I finally fell asleep telling myself, it’s not K2, I’ll make it! For the most part, on the trail in my little cocoon I sleep wonderfully,  much better than at home where my insomnia can be insufferable.

As such I got a late start,  it was a mean 4 mile relentless climb up several thousand feet of elevation.  I went for it hell for leather and it really was hell. There were boulder fields, sharp rocks, hand over hand climbing and steep switchbacks.  Something today was different,  because yesterday was so great,  today I felt invincible,  I put my headphones in and selected very specific songs to listen to, gentle reminders of the people I love. So with the help of my soul sisters, I got down to business,  to save the break of dawn, dodging wagon wheels with just one spoonful of sugar and beasted the mountain.  I climbed for over 3 hours, sweat was dripping everywhere and I felt like a warrior.  

There was no glorious view to greet me at the top which was a slap in the face, but just a mile later I got my reward.  I could see the mountain I came down yesterday and the mountain I climbed today which all looked very imposing, giving me that small and insignificant in the world feeling.

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After such a physically demanding day, again it’s been very short mileage.  At the shelter there are just a few exhausted hikers telling fun and exhilarating stories of the trail. Tomorrow I have just a few miles to a road crossing where I will get a ride into town.  These last few days have been rough physically,  my achillies is really slowing me down and hurts continously but I’m glad I hiked out, I’ve made very few miles in comparison to my usual mileage,  but it’s all forward progress.  A days rest and food are in my future,  but I will look forward to getting back on the trail.

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14. Thrills and Spills

Firstly the flu bug I had knocked me for six, I spent 4 days in bed feeling completely rotten. I haven’t been that ill for years,  I don’t think I have ever taken 4 consecutive days off work but there was no way I could get out of bed.  I was Poorly enough that I had to put the Harry Potter movie on silent because it was so loud! Anyway you get the picture,  I was a sad sack of feeling sorry for myself,  while all kinds of meth heads who apparently live at the motel roamed outside my room.  Good news is that apart from my usual lingering cough I feel so much better.

Day 59

Pearisburg to Rice Field Shelter.  6.7 miles.

Guess who’s back, quick clue it’s not Backstreet??  (nineties girl reference)

Yep, the very best hiking buddy in the world who just so happens to be one of my very best friends,  Willow!!  For one ish week I get her back for some great sights and milestones.

We just did a really short half day to ease us both back onto the trail.  Life was pretty great until about half a mile from the shelter when the heavens opened, loud crashes of thunder were directly over our heads and we were instantly soaked through and as soon as we got to the shelter it stopped. There was a great group of people at the shelter tonight including an English couple. I shared my Percy Pigs in exchange for some Ambrosia custard,  it’s the small things that can change your trail mood in an instant.  Just up the hill from the shelter was a fantastic view, I stood there with my great friend all felt right in the world.

 

Day 60

Rice Field Shelter to The Captains.  13.9 miles.

Pretty average hiking day, we spent a lot of time on a ridge line, but the forest was so lush and green we didn’t get any views.  The weather was extremely humid, so all day hiking we were covered in a film of sweat followed by a film of bugs stuck to the sweat. Deja vu, about a mile from the shelter it poured on us, we were slightly more prepared this time with our rain gear accessible but I’m not sure I was any less wet. I’ve got myself a new rain poncho which, love would be an over the top descriptor of how I feel about it but in comparison to my rain coat it’s marvellous

We arrived at the shelter which was a bit dank and Willow persuaded me to hike on to a campsite called the Captains and I’m so glad she did.  The Captain is a person whose house is literally on the trail and he lets people tent in his garden for free. He has built a cool zipline across the river to get into his yard which was great fun and we were lucky enough to arrive right as some hikers were cooking up some hotdogs and invited us to join them, it couldn’t of turned out better.

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Zipping

 

Day 61

The Captains to War Spur Shelter.  11.5 miles.

Basically the jist of the day was that the trail kicked our arses. It was a mixture of really steep uphills, humid weather and miles of boulder fields that did it.

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This is unacceptable

We were both super crabby, hungry and in pain for most of the day, we are rarely crabby with each other which is so wonderful about our friendship, e can still laugh even when life is a sick sick joke. As per our new normal it rained about a mile out from the shelter and continued to rain and thunderstorm throughout the night. There is always beauty to be found in the darkest of mental places, we got to see a great view today,  Virginia is delivering on spectacular sights.

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Day 62

War Spur Shelter to Laurel Shelter. 7 miles.

After yesterday we significantly reduced our mileage, I mean nearly halved it. One of the things I’ve learnt on the trail is when you are having a bad day,  walk less and eat more, it makes the hugest of differences. What we did realise was that we only brought the bare bones of food and it just wasn’t cutting it so the new plan was to get off the trail a day earlier than planned and wallow in the luxury of 2 days worth of food. We had to work for it, climbing up a never ending mountain for several miles for a mediocre view (I’ve become a view snob) then followed a steep descent. We arrived at camp in luxurious time and quickly pitched up. The weirdest thing happened: not one other hiker came to the shelter to stay. It has never happened before, the trail is certainly clearing out as people drop out but this was weird, we played cards and tried to pretend we weren’t freaked out, but I definitely slept with my trekking poles in my tent.

day 63

Laurel Shelter to Blacksburg. 3 miles.

We survived the night at what felt like murdersville shelter and we were up at the break of dawn with only food, a shower and a bed on our minds. Had a ridiculous moment when we realised our food bag that we so diligently hung high in a tree was in fact stuck and after several failed experiments to get it down,  including a piggy back and a broom it was finally released by bashing it out like a pinata. Willow isnt called Willow for nothing, she got to put her ridiculously long limbs to good use.

 

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It was an easy 3 mile hike to the road crossing, followed by 2 easy hitch hikes back to Willow’s car. Fried food was consumed and the rest of the day was spent lying in bed laughing about silly things. We decided to take advantage of having Willow’s car and we plan on hiking much shorter sections, allowing our packs to be lighter and more luxury items to be available (bread, cheese and fresh fruit). We are very much looking forward to our holiday on the trail and spent far too long planning our fantasy picnic.  Clearly I’ve been extremely hungry on the trail as it’s all I’m talking (and thinking) about.

Dragons Tooth 

Dragons Tooth is an incredible rock monolith on the top of a mountain. We camped a coupled of miles away and got a nice early start before the sun started to scorch us.

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Our homes

The first 2 miles of the trail were nicely graded uphill and extremely well maintained.  The last 0.7 miles got very serious.  It was literally rock climbing the whole way, if I had children with me I would want them in a harness. Our trekking poles were completely useless and we stowed them straight away, there were huge step ups, sheer rock faces and metal hand holds drilled into the rock. We had a great time actually, it was really exciting, very technical and extremely strenuous, we loved it.

To make the day even better, Dragons Tooth was amazing.  A huge rock cropping you could climb all the way up, the view was outstanding.  The weather was perfect, as was our picnic with fresh nectarines. If you asked me what would be my favourite thing to do I would go as far as naming this day, adventurous hiking,  good food and best friends to share it with.

The hike back down was as strenuous if not more than going up. We got back to the car,  grabbed some dinner and drove to our next spot on the trail.  We are very lucky that in this particular section there are several instances where the trail crosses a road with a car park,  it is very popular for people to hike short sections or day hikes in this area. We had 2.5 miles to hike uphill to our camp spot, but seeing as we had only hiked about 6 miles in the morning we blasted up.  The campsite was the worst, very rocky and not at all flat. I did run into another English guy and had an enjoyable chat about hiking on Dartmoor and how, in less than 100 miles from now we would have hiked the equivalent of Lands End to John O’groats with the added elevation gain and loss of climbing Everest 10 times.

McAfee Knob

I had literally been waiting for this day since the trail was but a twinkle in my eye. McAfee Knob is one of the most iconic landmarks on the trail and the most photographed, for very good reason.  The view was like no other I have ever seen.  We were incredibly lucky and had perfect blue skies with great visibility.  It was just a short 3.9 mile hike to the summit and then we had the luxury of time,  we sat, ate, napped and contemplated all afternoon with the rest of the world carrying on their business below us.

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Mum don’t look

We hiked just under a mile down the other side of the mountain to a stealth camp spot and ate fancy cookies for supper like grown ups and headed to bed with our alarm set for 4am to hike back up to the top for sunrise.

At 4am it was still pitch black. We packed up in record time and were hiking with our headlamps as our only light source by 4:30am. This was our first night hike and I have to say I was really scared.  At one point we could see green eyes staring at us from the woods,  Willow got her bear bell out and we tried to make noise to scare the night creatures away.  We got to the top in perfect time,  it was packed with other beauty loving hikers. We sat and watched the sky changing colours and the sun rising for several hours,  I don’t think I will ever forget that morning for the rest of my life.

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Day 68

Daleville to stealth campsite. 7 miles.

Back on the trail again for a couple of days before Willow has to leave me again. Just a short 7 miler out of town on a very well behaved trail, uphill but well graded. It had been extremely hot,  on the upper 90’s,  but the trail was shaded and every so often there was a nice breeze. So far the best hasn’t bothered me too much but I am plowing through water which means carrying more which means a heavier pack.

We arrived at our tent spot in ample time to leisurely soak our feet in the stream before dinner.

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Now that willow has her own tent we have invented tent games. Gems such as which zip is this zip?  And what’s in my hand?  Are top favourites, we don’t miss the Internet at all……

Day 69

Stealth campsite to Bobblets Gap Shelter. 10 miles.

Today was a day of ups and a spectacular down.  We decided to get up early and hike the bulk of our miles in the morning before it got too hot.  We only had 10 miles to hike and we had done 7 of them before 11:30am. Today the trail followed the Blue Ridge Parkway with plenty of sweet views. We found a great tree to set up under for a long break. We ate lunch, we napped, we chatted with people both, driving, cycling and hiking the Parkway, we even got given cokes and a chocolate bar from complete strangers, it was wonderful.

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Lunch with a view

We only had a short 3 mile hike to our destination for the night but, 0.3 from the shelter DISASTER,  I completely bit the dust, biffed it right on the trail. I stood on a rock that rolled, I rolled my ankle over the top of it and the downward force threw my pack over my head making me bite my tongue, followed by me landing full weight on my opposite knee. It’s one thing falling over, but falling with a 35lb pack is a whole new sick joke. I cried and cried and cried like a toddler right on the trail for over half an hour,  I just couldn’t get my act together, I think I was in shock.  I found myself wonder what I would do without Willow.  I ditched my first aid kit long ago, proudly boasting that I hadn’t used it and wouldn’t need to and suddenly there I was,  hysterical and in desperate need for an alcohol wipe.  Took me a long time to get my shit together after the fall and to honest, I went to bed that night nearly crying again,  falling over as an adult really hurts.

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Day 70

Bobblets Gap Shelter to Middle Creek Campground.  9.7 miles.

Today was a mentally a very difficult hike. When I woke up I was optimistic that my body would have recovered overnight,  but as soon as I stood up pain shot through my knee, ankle and worst of all my achillies tendon.  Dosed up to the eye balls with ibuprofen,  we started our hike, the terrain was the best I could of asked for, but everything felt unstable.  On a normal day I roll my ankle 5-10 times,  but it never hurts, today every time was excruciating and mentally upsetting, I kept bursting into tears, at one point I saw Willow roll her ankle and it left me hysterical for a minute, ending in some serious cry-laughing. After dragging ourselves 10 miles, we came to the end of our day and got a  free ride to a nice campground with food, swimming pool and flat tenting spots. For the last few nights we have had to pitch on very sloped spots and in the night you find yourself in a bundle at the bottom and it’s such a pain trying to inchworm your way back to the top of your mat. We swam in the pool, ate hotdogs and sat at a picnic table enjoying the cool evening, the smallest things make me feel like I’m on holiday. Tomorrow Willow has to leave me, I’m going to RICE the crap out of my injuries and try to remind myself that the trail isn’t a punishment, but potentially  a life changing event.