1,600 & 1,700 mile journal – Weather Woes and Midnight Visitors

When one hikes 100 miles in less than a week, it doesn’t leave much time for writing, so this entry combines two hundred miles to finish out Virginia. Swiftly have the miles ticked by, expedited by the abrupt realization that things are about to get really cold! Waking up to frigid temperatures, (already plummeting into the 20s a few times this past couple of weeks with ice crystals forming on the outside of tents), made it less than desirable to crawl out from the warmth of one’s sleeping bag into the windy cold to hike for miles. There was one morning coming out of Glasgow that was so cold, my friend Science and I climbed a steep mountain 2,000 feet before our bodies warmed up enough to begin shedding outer layers. As coats were removed, our skin visibly steamed like a mystical halo.  Temperatures like these give hikers a reason to appreciate the exhaustingly arduous climbs because they act as internal heaters. As suddenly as Jack Frost made his appearance did we learn the harder and faster one hikes, the warmer the body stays. The quickly waning hours of daylight force hikers to cram more miles into fewer hours. Fortunately, Virginia’s smoother terrain frequently allows for 20+ mile days. Though riddled with difficult ups and downs, many are pleasantly switchbacked which lengthens the climb yet provides a bit of relief from the shorter but painfully steep climbs nestled in between.

Eventually the brutal chill capitulated to delightfully refreshing days of sunshine and temperatures in the mid 70s for a while until the coldest rain yet brought an end to these miles. The last two days saw rain with highs around 40 and a wind chill even colder. The trail flooded again so walks were through ankle deep water for miles on end. The wind on the mountain summits over 5,000 feet was strong enough to blow me sideways a bit and nearly snatch my waterproofing pack cover off and sling it to the ground below like a parachute.  Sandwiched in between the cold and the rain was a stretch of several gorgeous sunny days, a revitalizing gift! We saw all extremes of weather while trekking through Virginia.

The colors are still lively and bright in most areas, but leaves are beginning to fall with rapidity.  This tends to have an undesirable effect on the trail. Even when dry, the leaves are slippery underfoot, particularly when paired with rocks the trail likes to throw in one’s path. The stones lurk, hidden under leaves and camouflaged from sight but NOT from feel. Pointy and painful or round and rolling or slick and slippery ankle-turning rocks ambush hikers randomly, sometimes for very brief stretches and other times for miles.  Unlike in the north, however, the rocks always give way to smoother trail eventually…a gift.

Increasingly noticeable has been the nighttime cacophony of hungry, wailing coyotes. One night, while stealth camping solo on a mountain ridge, their songs echoing from every direction lulling me to sleep, I was suddenly awakened by one of the beasts creeping through the leaves directly outside of my tent. That abrupt moment between sleep and consciousness was terrifying, but all it took to solve the problem of the unwelcome intruder was to tell him to leave while shining a headlamp outside my tent. He obeyed. Good boy.

The highly anticipated Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers was a major letdown. Grayson Highlands is the home of feral ponies who frequently interact with hikers along the path. It’s rare to walk through the park and not encounter numerous ponies, but lucky me, the day of rain and wind, the horses were nowhere to be found…hunkered down, playing it smarter than these humans hiking in such terrible weather. Top that off with foggy, rainy views of nothing from Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak plus the Appalachian River to be trekked through, and it was not the way I had imagined and looked forward to that day for hundreds of miles. Guess a motorcycle trip back to this spot is in my future for take two!

To sum up these two hundred miles, finally nearing the end of Virginia, the going has gotten tough. Bitter cold already, multiple days of rain and flooded trail, exhausting hours of rocks and hills to climb have really pushed me past the point of enjoying every day out here. However, the moments that do bring joy, though fewer in number, are hugely meaningful and keep me going. The memories created in between the hours of daily hiking such as laughing or planning with my hiking posse in a trail shelter; the trail magic of a free spot to land, steaks on the grill, home cooked breakfast, and donated resupply items from a friend whom I got to meet in person for the first time; a car camping adventure with an old friend complete with huge campfires, fun chats, and a lesson or five on the delicacy of pudgie pies; Chinese buffets where we gorge our hiker appetites to complete satisfaction. Rich memories and lessons come with every day. So do exhaustion and the devil on the shoulder creating a shadow of doubt…Will the tough keep going if the going gets tougher? That is the question I’m wrestling with every day. I hope so. My countdown timer now sits at fewer than 500 miles. It’s a race to beat Old Man Winter!

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