Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some doubts, some miles, some views.

It's been a long road from Damascus, but contrary to some of your suspicions, I'm not dead. Though the internet might have been for all the access I've had to it for the last fortnight.

If you're traveling in the American interior, bring a Verizon phone, the other networks don't work, it's that simple.

Rested and resupplied, I headed off down the trail. Unfortunately the bounce in my step didn't last long. A combination of my aging trail shoes, the rocky terrain and my feet (softened by the days in town) made this one of the worst days on the trail. My feet were in significant pain after 10 miles, and by 15 I had no choice to stop. I camped at the Lost Mountain shelter more worried than I had been for a while.

Some sleep and ibuprofen later I was much better, most of the pain seems to have been caused by my lack of hiking and the next day was much better.

At this point I was crossing an area known as the Grayson Highlands. Rolling grassy hills, more Scottish in character than the endless American woods of the last few weeks. Unlike some of the other areas we've passed through, the forestry department aren't trying for 'wilderness', where everything is left to flourish, but looking to conserve the look of the area, as it was when early settlers got there. They use livestock and ponies to keep the clearings grazed which leads to beautiful views, unobscured by trees. (Because of the lower latitude the tree line is much higher than in Ireland, consequently views are rarer than you might expect for all my climbing.)

That day I did a little under 19 miles, stopping at Old Orchard shelter. I caught up with some friends, and heard that some others were only 5 miles down the trail.

The next day we finished crossing the highlands stopping at Partnership shelter. This shelter is special for two reasons. A shower, and a local Pizza place willing to deliver! As that's not an opportunity to be spurned there were lots of people there that night. High on carbs and caffeine we went to bed cleaner and better fed than usual.

Next, in terrible weather that had rolled in overnight, I did the 11 miles to Atkins. Home of the Red Barn, a pretty good diner, and one of the dodgiest motels I've ever been in. The Norman Bates feeling greatly aided by having half the buildings burnt down and marked as condemned.

Then we went from Lick Creek, to Laurel Creek, a few daya of nice but in eventful hiking.

Next stop Pearisburg, originally I was just planning to overnight there, but for better or worse, I ended up staying 3 days.

The decent into Pearisburg is mean. Almost 2000 feet in something well under 3 miles of new, muddy, slippy, frankly dangerous, trail. By the bottom, at the end of a 25 mile day, my feet felt like they'd been caned. If you combine this with being the type of wet you can only get if you're hiking in a cloud, you begin to understand my state of mind. (Feeling thunder go off in the cloud you're in is...odd.)

The next day, after reflection on the previous night's Mexican dinner, the group I was traveling with decided to stay another night here.

We were 630 miles in and my shoes were shot. I'd called Zappos from Atkins to replace them and the new pair were waiting for me in the post office. It's the first piece of equipment to need to be replaced because of ware and I feel strangely proud about it.

The following morning I didn't leave. I woke tired, uninspired and generally in a crappy humor.

I've quit things, or this would be a blog about a Bodhran-playing-physicist, but I didn't think there was a chance I'd quit this.

I decided to relax for a day, I kept the room I'd been sharing, sleeping and reading away the afternoon. While I hike on my own, a combination of inclement weather pushing me into the shelters and the desire to save money in town meant that time by myself, relaxing, had been missing from my life. By the end of the day I was somewhat refreshed and feeling much better.

The next day I was planning to hike out, but a friend arrived back in town with a day left on their car rental and a desire to see a movie.

One Thor was too late to leave that night, so we left in the morning.

A triple zero. I'm days behind some of my friends, but in retrospect I needed it to keep my head on straight.

Out of Pearisburg we made it to Pine Swamp shelter, as delightful as it sounds. That night, the thunderstorms that I thought I'd avoided by staying in Pearisburg resurfaced and the following day I managed only 3 miles between downpours. (Bailey gap shelter.)

From there, in barely improved weather I did the 21 to Sarver Hollow Shelter. A lovely new shelter, a disheartening .4 miles off the trail straight down.

Next I stopped in the 4 Pines Hostel in Catawba. It was full, but sleeping on the floor is easier to face with some good company and a shower. That rest was needed after the last 5 miles into town was more challenging than expected. Who knew a ridge called 'Dragons Tooth' would be a tricky climb. The decent from that was the closest to a mountaineering style climb I've had so far. Hard when it's after 20+ miles of hiking.

Yesterday I hiked from the 4 pines to here, Daleville. After a late start it was probably on the foolish side of brave.

It was a great day, views from rock promontories, a cliff walk, my stupidly late approach even gave me a look at the sun sinking into a lake, but after another tricky, steep decent (it seems to be a hallmark of Virginia) I got into town last night, late, but just in time for dinner and a bed.

Now it's 3 minutes to checkout, the blog is written, I've just to shower and get on my way.

Talk soon, or as soon as possible.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A lazy day leads to a catchup post.

Yesterday, In my excitement at discovering the second espresso machine since Springer Mtn., I drank too many coffees and couldn't sleep last night.

In light of this, I took another zero-day, and you guys get a catch-up post.

(Sorry the links in this post aren't clickable, either the Blogger app for Android doesn't support it or I have to go back and take remedial blogging.)

First off, here's a GPS track of a hard day's hike. The track cuts off when I reached the road and I needed the last iota of phone charge to find the hostel, so it's a couple of miles short of the day's total. The terrain is fairly typical for the trail in that area. (This is the day, ending at Davenport gap, that I mentioned a couple of posts ago.)

A couple of you have asked for some detail on my gear, as of Gattlinberg, this is the contents of my pack.

The bundles are, from top left, in rows:

-Hiking Poles.
-Pack towel.
-Bag containing rope.
-Tent, Squall 2 Tarptent.
-Rain Jacket, by Go lite. (An upgrade, lighter than the one I left NY with)
-Sleeping bag. Marmot Plasma. (Great bag, rated to -9C, will probably be swapped out for something lighter in a month or so.)
-Washbag, Ziploc replacing the actual wasbag I left NY with. Saving oz's!
-Valuables Ziploc : kindle, passport, spare glasses, wallet.
-Sleeping pad, Neoair. Great, very comfortable.
-Foodbag, waterproof for hanging from bears. (My stove and pot, since sent home, were inside it at the time.)
-Clothing. (2 T-shirts, 2 shorts, winter running top and leggings, hoodie, 3 pairs of socks. Winter gear will be exited in a week or so.)
-Backpack, 65L.
-Water bladders, the blue/grey thing is an inline water filter.
-Alcohol bottle. Fuel for stove, since removed.

That photo is about 10 days old. I'd just dropped my fleece, switched to a lighter water bottle and raincoat. Since then I've got rid of my cooking gear, going all cold food, and swapped my 'night socks', that lived at the bottom of my sleeping bag, for a silk sleeping bag liner to stop the bag getting too dirty.

Loaded with 4-5 days food this comes to a 25-30lb, which is pretty good.

In the last few years I've gone from a small two-bed apartment in Dublin, to a smaller apartment in Brazil, to a smaller hotel room in Brazil, to a smaller still apartment in NY, to the contents of a 65L pack.

At current trends, in 18 months, I'll be walking the earth in a single silk sarong.

Something I've not talked much about is the social aspect of the trail. While it's far from crowded, you could be the only person for a mile or two in any direction, everyone is using the same shelters and campsites. There are people from many walks of life, all ages (I've met people from 15 to 80), there's a great feeling of being in it together. You make friends with people traveling in the same bubble as you down the trail, you ask after them, you read their entries in the shelter journals to see how far ahead they are, and you write messages to be found.

I was expecting to be more lonely. And while anyone who doesn't think I miss my many homes is nuts, the separation is lessened by the comradery of the trail.

OK that bit was supposed to be a jolly paragraph explaining trailnames!

Everyone on the trail gets a trailname, usually it's something about you, easy to remember and unique. I don't know what started it, but for me it has two big functions; a conversation starter, and it ensures you're talking about the right 'John' when you ask after someone.

Some examples are: Goldilocks, Kiddo, Tidewalker, Bam, Firestarter, Cargo.

I'm Alien, 'cos I'm not from around here.

That's about it for stuff i wanted to share that wouln't fit in my usual posts. Thanks to everyone who's reading along and commenting. The support's been fantastic and you all make it that much more likely I finish this thing!

Talk soon.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A traveller on the road to Damascus.

This traveller on the road to Damascus need a little help, and southern hospitality was glad to oblige.

With my slack-pack to Iron Mountain Gap, I was left with 100 miles or so to get to the trail town of Damascus. The intention was to break that up with a hostel or two along the way, intentions don't always come to pass.

My first day with a pack on in a while started very well, nicely rested and with fairly kind terrain, the first 6 miles rolled by and I kept up good speed throughout the morning. After a break for a snack, and to resupply water, that all changed.

Roan Mountain is a big-ish peak, something over 6,250 feet, but nothing we've not seen before at this stage so so need to worry. Unfortunately this peak has one of the meaner assents on the trail to date. It rises like a series of rough hewn walls, each steep and separate enough that you've no idea how far up the mountain you are or how many more there are to go. A draining and disheartening climb, it left me bent double, breathing hard, and without a payoff. (There is a side trail to a lookout, but the condition I was in, short of them adding a ski-lift, I wasn't going up any further than the A.T. took me.)

Just the other side of the peak is the site of a 20's era hotel, little but the hearth remains but a plack to commemorate it shared that it stood astride the North Carolina / Tennessee state line and that it had a line down it's ballroom to highlight this fact. This was important as at the time prohibition was in effect on one side of the room but not the other.

Back on the trail, shrouded in cloud, I began the decent. The weather which would later become the 'centennial' storm that tore up nearby country-side was getting warmed up. Strong winds bent and shook the pines, which luckily gave a good deal of shelter down a tricky, rocky path. Whoever thought a steep ditch filled with sharp rocks would make for a nice path needs some serious re-education. I'm sure it makes the path more durable for all the visitors Roan Mountain receives, but it was hell on the ankles of this through hiker.

The trail lead down into Carvers Gap, and up over some fabulous 'balds', grass covered peaks with commanding views of the surrounding land and the impending storm. Without the cover of the pines, gale-force winds forced me off the path in a number of places, even accurately placing my hiking poles became a challenge. Speaking to a lighter hiker later, they said the felt like a badly tethered kite. The views were gorgeous, but with the worsening weather, I made haste to get to the shelter. (Though I did stop to investigate a somewhat incongruous post box offering 'Goat Info'. Apparently they want to introduce them to the balds to repel a 'Canadian blackberry invasion'. I couldn't make that up.)

Down again into a valley I stayed in a particularly nice shelter. A restored barn named for the 'Overmountain Men', a group of revolutionary war irregulars who, again according to a plack: 'Supplying their own arms, horses and rations, travelled 170 miles over the mountains, without the aid of surgeon or pastor to fight and defeat British loyalists.'

At this point I reminded myself not to mess with the locals as they're clearly of dangerous stock.

The barn had a commanding view of the valley, which thanks to the impending storm was wreathed in magnificent shadow and light.

That night the rain that was threatening all day arrived in buckets. The barn shook violently, but was an excellent place to spend the night. I wouldn't have bet on my, or anyone else's, tent surviving the night.

By morning the storm had blown itself out and we were left surrounded by thick fog.

Over the course of the day, word of the extent of the storm rippled up the trail, with so many of the hikers from relatively near the area I was one of the few without family or friends affected. Moods swayed from subdued to hyper as people made great efforts to find out if their people were all right.

Disconnected from the world it felt odd to be hiking on, but there's not a lot else that could be done.

After a hard climb out of the valley we walked along the ridge line, and when the fog rolled out mid-morning, we were greeted with a washed clean, many greened, valley floor.

The original aim for that night was to make it to a hostel, but the strangely effective word-of-mouth news apparatus got to us that it was closed. Staying in a shelter again that night, a little short of food, I decided to put in a push the next day to get to the hostel in Hampton, 25 miles away.

The terrain changed again. More rock outcroppings were added to the mix, leading to quite a few waterfalls. These are great places to stop and rest. They always have water, are often pretty, and a combination of spray and steep terrain tends to lower the temperature a bit too.

A hard days hike, finishing with 6 miles over the inaccurately named 'Pond Flats' mountain, left me beside Watauga lake, a couple of miles out of town.

Not for the first time this trip, I needed a ride and got one quickly. Since starting the trail, any time my life could be made easier by someone passing by, they've made the effort. Hitching, directions, and advice have all been given happily by everyone I've met.

The people of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, have been unstintingly helpful and kind.

Unfortunately, once I got to town, I found out that their hostel was also closed and that even the upmarket out-of-town accommodation options were booked out. Stifled, I decided to play to my strenghts, and headed to the town bar.

Things them began to fall into place.

After a chat with a guy at the bar I arranged a ride to restock at the gas station and then back to where the trail crossed the road. He was even finishing a Foosball tournament, allowing me time to get dinner and again lower the size of the 'smallest town Tiarnán's ever done Karaoke in'.
(I'm beginning to think Karaoke is naturally occurring in my presence.)

That night I camped beneath the stars, and the 'no overnight camping' sign, at the lake. The night was clear, the stars were bright, while I still desperately wanted a shower, it was a great place to be.

The following morning a combination of the beautiful lakefront view and the incredible condensation in my tent convinced me to dawdle for a while. I read and chatted with other passing hikers for most of the morning, then, as I was about to leave, someone had pizza delivered to the beach.

This, as you might imagine, delayed me further.

After a pepperoni fueled afternoon waddle, I'd made it 10 miles, far down on my target for the day, but still happy.

That night I spent at the Vanderventer Shelter which boasts a rock outcropping with an awesome view.

With views like this one and the one at Overmountain it becomes increasingly difficult to consider yourself to be 'slumming it'.

The morning of sloth and pizza left Damascus beyond my reach the next day, but a 22.7 mile day left us with an easy 10 mile dash into town.

Dash I did, and was showered, fed and watered by 1pm. A short day and the promise of indoor plumbing really lets you pick up some speed, I averaged better than 3mph for that run into town, well above my long distance average.

Damascus is where you find me, I had a rest day today and will venture out again tomorrow.

I've completed 20% or so of the A.T. now, I'm happy with how it's gone so far and ready for my slog up through Virginia.

Virginia makes up over 25% of the trail and the next most likely reason to quit is the 'Virginia Blues', a depression brought on because after the fairly swift changes in states and terrain up until now, it stretches on forever, swallowing hope.

With look and a bit of will I'll get by it.

I intellectually understood the scale of American wilderness, but until I'd climbed to the highest point for 50 miles and looked on endless forest, in my third state, I don't think I really got it.

Thanks for listening.

The latest round of stats:
Around 45lb or 20kg lost.
464.4 miles covered, 1716.6 to go.
3 states finished.