This account chronicles the third of the last four Section hikes on my questv to complete the southern half of the Appalachian Trail by age 75 (January 2023) At the start of this latest trek I was short 206.9 miles, having done 59.6 miles with daughter Anna in May 2021. The division point for this last stretch took a bit of figurement to get the best access point, and I finally decided to get off at the trail’s intersection with VA-615 (Suiter Road) at Laurel Creek, 92.7 miles, leaving 104.2 for the last. We are in he midst of planning this last Section for this September. As you will read this current Section had several challenges – 4 thunderstorms, the New River Gorge, a Massasauga rattler, a hostel and three 3-mile, 2,000′ ascents. All part of the adventure experience.
FYI – this text is written primarily from voice recordings made as I progressed along the trail, plus memories adding in more details and perspective since being off the trail. Hence the precise times of certain events come from the time stamps of the recordings.
As usual I broke the trek into two pieces with a resupply. As it broke down I was 7 days/5 nights on the trail, split 3 and 4. The resupply accomplishes four things – a shower, saving half of the space and weight for food, a change of clothes, supporting Mary Ann my ever faithful spotter. We stayed in three locations this tome – Blacksburg VA, Princeton WV and Oak Hill WV. The latter stop was for our extra day to take in the New River Gorge with the US-19 bridge.
I should reiterate that thru-hikers use this same convention of 4 or 5 days on and 1 off for the same reasons – food weight, resupply and a shower. They are also known to “slack-pack” for which the hostel drops their pack ahead and they hike with just a daypack. In my book this is cheating, pure and simple. Thru-hikers also take “zero days” from time to time at hostels or motels in the cities they pass through, which in my book is fine and part of the experience. I’ve never done this to this point.
I repeated the same menu I used with Anna in May. The difference was that the first day back on the trail after resupply I was staying at a hostel with meals, which cut out two in the pack. I did figure to add bacon jerky to the granola breakfasts, splitting the jerky with lunch. Splet torillas were again the carbohydrate mainstay. And again hot tea and no coffee at dinner.
On to the hike
Days -3, -2 and -1 – Avon for July 4th Weekend
On Friday evening, July 2 we had the big deal “100 Eagle Scouts Court of Honor” outdoors at Dave and Vicki Niswonger’s. This even was delayed for a year in the COVID Panic. Nate, Karen and the grandsons came, making him the Senior-most Troop 325 Eagle in attendance. It was really good to finally pull this off, and gave me some closure at leaving for the trail.
July 3rd was the big neighborhood party in Avon – closed street with tons of. food for dinner, games, some fellowship and a huge, I mean huge, fireworks show. I played corn hole with Nate, Hannes and Sarah. The weather couldn’t have been better.
And to top it off Sarah’s birthday party followed on Sunday. More fireworks and food. Jon got a bit carried away, for the betterment of all.
Day 0 – Monday, July 5 – Blacksburg VA
We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express & Suites. We got there late afternoon in time for a leisurely check-in before dinner. No issues with the travel or the accommodations. COVID is not so “post-COVID” in places outside St. Joseph County, IN, and one of the main selling points for this motel was that it was back to the full, hot breakfasts. Blacksburg is the home of Virginia Tech University with a campus population of around 45.000, but school wasn’t in session yet and so people for dinner at the Panera were pretty sparse. It was nearby.
(Note: I noticed at the last oil change before we left that the plastic rock shield under the rear suspension was hanging down, so I pushed it up. Well it is hanging again, so I pushed it up again for a temporary fix. It took JB eld and Gorrilla tape to put it back together when we got home; it was split in half by whatever we ran over on I-75 at Jelico Mountain TN last winter.)
Day 1 – Tuesday, July 6 – Sinking Creek Valley to Potts Mountain
We found our way back to the trail where it intersects VA-42 in Sinking Creek Valley. The picture of the trail stretching on ahead has been burned into my memory since September 2020 and now the time has come. Mary Ann showed me her Google map with the satellite aerial view last evening, so I was ready for the alternating fields and woods for the early part of the hike. The cows n an adjacent field seemed extra animated and vociferous at my passing although I never saw them.
I was on the trail at 0814, Amazingly I broke a fever last night. I was shivering at dinner at Panera and knew I had some sort of fever. I woke up at 3am to pee and took some ibuprofen. When I got up at 6am I was drenched in sweat and felt a whole heck of a lot better. (Note: I discovered on returning home that I had a urinary tract infection; I finished up the antibiotics on July 28. Am I tough, or what – crazy?)
Weather is good but rain is coming for the last half of the week. At 0930 hit my first real landmark at Laurel Creek, 2.5 miles. I feel a bit out of shape but not overwhelmed at this point. Had passed two NoBo hikers at this point. The rhododendron are in bloom, something I hadn’t even thought of. It’s humid and sweat is dripping of of my nose. By 0950 had passed the Laurel Creek shelter (these names keep repeating in every Section I swear) and 5 more people. Crested Kelly Knob by around 1035 and had passed 5 more people. Had my first fall of the day, but I’m not counting it because I was off the trail passing a couple and didn’t see the rocks, plus no blood. The trail is mostly flat, not too rocky and grassy. Blazes are at a minimum making the trail a bit hard to find in the rockier spots so am just looking for worn grass.
And now at 1120 I am fully awake. While on the phone with Anna via my headphones a 3′ Massasauga rattler crawled across the trail right in front of me, then stopped to look me over. Fortunately the undergrowth along the trail here was very sparse making him easy to spot. I took the opportunity to get a couple pictures. As I made a move to put the phone back in my pocket he started rattling and I was gone in a heartbeat. Fourth rattler I’ve encountered since beginning this madness in July 2002 – one in Shenandoah NP, two together in the Smokies sunning themselves and now this one. I’m guessing it was a Massasauga because it was very darkly colored.
Crossed trails with Mantis , as in “bug person”, a SoBo, at the intersection with VA-601. She was out of food and waiting for a ride to a hostel. I prayed with her, asked the Lord to take care of her and encouraged her.
It’s a long downhill and my legs are getting a little rubbery. Just traversed an area of nettles right up to trail’s edge, so a little bit of topical anesthesia to go along with the fatigue.
Stopped for lunch at 1235 trailside where their was a butt log. Mantis caught up to me and sat down opposite me across the trail to work on her right foot and we had a bit of a conversation. She had decided to push on to VA-632 to get picked up. She left before I finished, interesting I didn’t offer her any of my food, but she was not so hard up for food after all. May run into her again.
Got to the bridge over John’s Creek at 1337 and then VA-632 at 1341; started up the first 3-mile, 2,000′ ascent past War Spur shelter toward the crest at Lone Pine Peak. Caught up to Mantis at the shelter at 1433 conversing with 3 NoBo hippy-ish looking dudes. The discussion centered on the lack of water ahead, and I am anticipating a springs up top here near the Pott’s Mountain trail intersection. So I doubled back to the War Path Branch and watered up, adding two pounds to the pack – no problem. Did the ascent in thirds of a tenth, 37 paces each. This worked very well. Flushed a turkey at of a tree on the way up – scared the daylights out of me. The trail had switchbacks on towards the top, always a blessing. Passed two discarded COVID masks behind a tree and I took it to mark the end of the Pandemic Panic. At 1608 I passed a NoBo Aussie who confirmed that the spring near the Pott’s Mountain trail is flowing and is just to the left of the trail. This is great news, and makes me wonder about the dudes back down at War Spur shelter. Crested Lone Pine Peak at 1644 and got to the spring at 1715. Mantis caught back up to me and was headed to Wind Rock for the night. I headed another 3/10 or 4/10 to find a campsite with butt logs and no undergrowth. It did have gnats and mosquitoes. For an anxious couple of minutes I thought I had forgot to pack my bug spray, but happily looked again and found it. Life got way better. By 1930 I had cam all set up and dinner on the stove. The weather has been good today.
Distance today: 11.9 miles
Day 2 – Wednesday, July 7 – Dickerson Gap
Woke at 0430, had prayer time, packed up camp, at a hearty breakfast of and was on the trail at 0701. Sunrise was at about 0608. Had some leg cramps when I first got into the hammock but these subsided quickly Didn’t need to get up during the night. I have about a liter of water and 5 miles to refill – not a problem. It’s a great morning.
Was at Wind Rock at 0730 and took a nice vista picture. Mantis was just breaking camp. She is headed down to Cherokee Flats to get picked up and is headed for a hike with a friend in the Grayson Highlands. I wished her well and am happy for her. Seems that my prayer for encouragement worked wonders for her.
Went under a deadfall that appeared higher than it was and ended up on my knees. This doesn’t count as a fall, however.
I had reached the creek at Bailey’s Gap shelter by 0945, where Mantis caught up to me. I bid her farewell once again and was headed toward VA-635, Stony Creek and Cherokee Flats, the Section head parking area. Crossed VA-734 at 1050 after watering up and finally crossed Stony Creek at 1130. On the way down I was in one long rhododendron tunnel. Crossing the creek the trail appeared level to the Pine Swamp shelter two and a half miles away, but at several points it went vertical over rock outcrops on the creek bank that were really tough. As it turned out I came upon a perfect campsite for lunch right on the Dismal Creek tributary flowing into Stony Creek, with two waterfalls right by it, about 1.3 miles short of the shelter. Heck, I took a well deserved break, re-watered again and ate lunch. Got rained on by a flash storm while re-watering and then just like that the sun was back. That was weird.
After lunch approaching the Pine Swamp shelter the map and blazes got a bit wonky. The map showed a second intersection with VA-635 and the trail split with blazes in both directions. I surmised that the fork to the left that was blue blazed went to a parking lot at the creek while the right fork was the right fork heading toward the shelter. The trail guide was equally confusing, implying you needed to take the blue blazed left fork to get to the shelter. The blazes to the right were not forthcoming for what seemed like a half mile but was more like a tenth or maybe two, but my analysis was correct. A trail relocation not too well documented.
Once past this while clearing a gnat from my eye I tripped and fell, both knees, so I guess it counts. No breaks, no blood. It has turned very humid. And now for another wonderful ascent of 2.7 miles and 1,500′. The big plus was that there were switchbacks starting just past the shelter.
1453: And then things got more exciting. Came upon a deadfall across he trail. It was wider gthan usual. I attempted to set my right pole in its center and step over it, lost my balance, fell on my right pole and snapped it off right above the lower section. Rats. So there was a sappling close at hand of the right diameter, which I cut down and from which I whittled a temporary pole. This counted as an official fall. Took me maybe 15 minutes to fashion thre pole and I was off uyphill once again. The pole will work basically for balance but it is doubtful that it can hold my entire weight.
Passed NoBo thru-hiker Billy Ray who was slack packing. he had his north/south directions a bit confused, but a bit later I passed his buddies who I am sure will straighten him out.
1650: Crested Peter’s Mountain finally and met Brother Bear at the intersection with the Allegheny Trail. This put me about 2 miles short of Dickerson Gap with a minor down, up and a down to go.
Got to a great open flat campsite sometime around 1800 and spent a bunch of time trying to pinpoint my location. The problem is that the 5X exaggeration in elevations makes it hard to detect the small ups and downs, which are what I just traversed. However, after using my GPS program, Family 360 and Google Maps I was able to pinpoint my location at 1.8 miles short of the Groundhog Trail intersection, and precisely in Dickerson Gap. This was confirmed by a late NoBo named Apollo who reported a steep downhill just ahead. Amazing how things are working out. I was so distracted that I didn’t get a picture of the campsite in the daylight. It was the best of the trek so far (and in hindsight turned out to be the best of the whole trek). Another quiet evening developed after dinner and I retired at dark.
Distance today: 13.9 miles; Total so far: 25.8 miles
Day 3 – Thursday, July 8 – Pearisburg Pickup Day
Broke camp at 0705. I did fine finding the bear bag in the dark because before retiring for the night I took a bearing from the line of the hammock to its location. What I forgot about was the return bearing. After stumbling around in the dark for a bit I intersected the AT down the trail a bit when I lit up a blaze, maybe 150′ or so, and followed the trail back until I saw the hammock to the right. After that things improved. Perfect temperature and no rain followed by a nice sunrise. A thunderstorm generated by Hurricane Elsa was due to hit at about 0830 but we’ll see about that. When I broke camp I had two cups of water left. The Psalm from morning prayer today is Psalm 42:- “As a deer longs for flowing water so my soul is athirst for you my God”. How true and poignant when you are carrying all the water you own on your back and it’s 5 miles to the next spring, you hope.
Shortly after breaking camp I passed another nice campsite after the first rise, so the Lord had me covered if I had decided to go further yesterday. I reached the Groundhog sidetrail at 0820, about an hour and 15 minutes. At about my pace of 2.5 mph this put me a bit farther back on the trail than I thought, at3 miles rather than 1.8. This second campsite was likely the Dickerson Gap I was looking for. Anyway I was still 4.5 miles from water. The trail now deteriorated to shoulder high nettles, which kind of made it like a trip to the dentist. Perhaps after two days I have enough dead skin cells and gunk built up on my skin that the nettles sort of bounce off. Other issues with this besides the nettles are rocks and rattle snakes. Musings as I trudge along.
Having pack strap issues on my left side, cutting off circulation and irritating the nerves. So I undid the hip belt for a while for some relief.
Made it to the Symms Gap meadow by 0900. Here I found an apple tree with small green fruit. I ate one, which contained water of course, and I felt like I was doing it just like Earl Shaffer and Grandma Emma Gatewood. Would that I had more and better skills in this area.
I finally reached the southern crest of Peter’s Mountain close to 1100. Hiking along I passed a fallen limb with blue flagging tied to it. I didn’t think much of it until a few feet later I passed a sidetrail on the right, which gave me pause to stop and think. I thought, “Hey, maybe this is the spring at the Peter’s Mountain crest.” I turned around and immediately passed a SoBo hiker who told me that, “Yeah, there looked to be blue tape down a sidetrail right there.” Sure enough, I almost hiked right past the spring! And a nice spring it turned out to be, at least using my 1/2″ pipe. Refreshed and re-watered by 1130 I pressed on through the Rice Fields, so refreshed in fact that I went right past my proposed lunch stop at the Rice Field Shelter. There was a post in the center of the trail with arrows pointing left and right. Water was to the left and a campsite to the right, but since I had plenty of water and was not looking to camp I just blew by it, only later realizing that the shelter was to the left. But it was at least 1/10th distant. On I pressed looking for a lunch spot until I turned a bend and ahead of me was a large square flat topped table-like rock. This will work, I thought and then I saw it – a piped spring hidden behind it on the left. It was 1230. There was mention of a spring and campsite at about this location, but there was no campsite. There has been trail relocation in this area, so this must have been affected. So I had a great lunch and re-watered as well. Actually I slaked my thirst and then drained all but my water except for my platypus bladder for the descent into Pearisburg and my pickup.
No sooner had I packed up and gone 100 yards down the trail than the wind began to pick up and it was obvious that a thunderstorm was coming through. I made a pickup day decision – put on the pack cover to protect the gear but not the rainsuit and take a bath. It was indeed refreshing. My only miscalculation was that the rain ran into my socks and inside the Gore-Tex socks thus soaking my feet. The boots were seriously wet by the time I got to Mary Ann.
So downward, ever downward I went an a very nice graded ands graveled trail with switchbacks as needed. It just never seemed like it was going to end. And then 3 hours later at 1550 poof the trail discharged in front of the Pearisburg Celanese plant on US-460 across the New River from Mary Ann. The rain had let up a bit by then, but crossing rhe bridge I had the experience of being rained on twice, once from the sky and then from the trucks. Thankfully the trail diverged from the road after crossing the river. Then very hospitably it had no “pimple” of a short and steep uphill/downhill, as it usually does, getting to the parking lot. At precisely 1620 I emerged by the car.
Then it was off to the Holiday Inn Express for a shower and to dry out the equipment, followed by dinner and the Bull and Bones BBQ restaurant and a trip to the nearby Lowe’s for the repair items for my broken pole. After some design review what worked was 1/2″ hard copper tube, a small hacksaw and Gorilla tape. It took me about 30 minutes back at the motel to make the fix. It supported my whole weight, too.
That one it was time to relax and an early bedtime for tomorrow.
Day 4 – Friday, July 9 – Out of the Gorge
After the usual hot breakfast at the motel Mary Ann dropped me off at the trailhead at 0830. It was rainy but not for a bit yet and I had a 3-mile 2,000′ climb to Angel’s Rest at the crest of the gorge. To my absolute joy they had redone the trail in switchbacks all the way up. Bless those guys, Lord, really. The rain started soon enough, at 0920 and lasted nearly to the top. At 1115 it had stopped and I was at Angel’s Rest eating my lunch. Fairly perfect timing.
At 1246 I stopped for water at the spring on top of Pearis Mountain, 2/10ths off the trail just as the map showed. It was sunny and breezy and it was getting warmer. Took off my wool shirt and proceeded toward the Doc’s Knob shelter at about 6 miles.
Went through a continuous rhododendron tunnel in the dip between Pearis Mountain and Doc’s Knob. It was really thick, deep, dark and in bloom. Very little sunlight was penetrating inside where I was. Beautiful. Arrived at the Doc’s Knob shelter a little bit after 1600 and decided to take a snack and nap break for 30 minutes as I was in no rush close to the hostel in 2.5 miles. I was back at it at 1630. My legs were tired, of course.
At this point I complained that my legs seemed to be unusually tired. I figured it was a circulation issue from wearing the hip belt too low. Readjusted the belt location and bingo more leg energy. I crested Doc’s Knob about 1710 with much more confidence. Passed two NoBo’s – Bones and Mapache (Raccoon in Spanish) heading for Pearisburg tonight – that’s a pretty tall order. Also passed Crime Scene in this stretch. The grass and weeds were shoulder high in this Section and the trail was hard to see in places. Arrived at the road intersection at Sugar Run Gap at 1740 and then 1/2 mile down the road to the Woods Hole Hostel, where I arrived at 1800. Checked in with Ryan and soon learned that the cook was on vacation so I was on my own for dinner and breakfast. “How is that supposed to work?”, I asked, “because I didn’t pack anything for those meals.” Ryan told me they had a full pantry of freeze dried and other trail food, so help myself and give him a list to charge my from. He said, “it’s in the old outhouse.” I laughed out loud. Sure enough they had converted the old outhouse into a pristine pantry. I discovered a new brand of freeze dried food – Good To Go – that turned out to be excellent. For dinner I had a kale and white bean stew to which I added bacon jerky, and a Pad Thai to which I also added bacon jerky. Both were excellent. For my beverage – LaCroix Lemon from the fridge – I was in heaven.
It turned out there were just two of us in the bunk house – Joy a NoBo and me. I took the loft and she had the bunkroom on the first floor. There were two other B&B couples – Shannon and Derrick , whom I met, and another couple. Figured out the arrangements and got my shower. Turned in around 9pm (21200) for an early start tomorrow.
I learned that Joy was a recovering heroin addict that credited the trail for saving her life. She had first dreamed of thru hiking when she was 11 living in Maryland. And here she was headed north. There was also a ragtag church youth group on a mission trip that was camping up the hill behind the main house. Shannon and Derrick had apparently been here before and were there for the weekend it seemed.
Day 5 – Saturday, July 10 – Downhill to Dismal Creek
It was coffee on the front porch at 0600 and then my oatmeal from the pantry with some more coffee for breakfast. Ths was getting pretty civilized. They had a sink and running water on the porch of the bunkhouse with a little cooking area and a dining area inside.. It was a nice arrangement.