Out on the AT


Experiencing the Appalachian Trail hiking culture in Virginia

I was fine with skipping the road walk and interstate noise, but Frank Whitehead insisted that we do the extra mile across I-81 in Groseclose, Virginia. That is where we finished our last section on the Appalachian Trail a year-and-a-half ago, and his trail purism would have it no other way. Soon we climbed up verdant pastureland chasing white blazes into a tree line some thousand vertical feet over the next two miles.

It was barely noon when we came across a board nailed to a tree indicating we had completed one quarter of the Appalachian Trail. It had only taken us a decade to get here. It was our first day in the Jefferson National Forest and the billowy clouds promised a perfect spring afternoon. The weather was cool and crisp, so we carried extra clothing. And I was feeling the extra weight at mile 15.2 as we bedded down beside a small creek for the night.

Climbing up to Chestnut Knob on the second day afforded some of the most dramatic views of the section. We baked in full sun in alpine meadows at 4,500 feet, sweating up the treeless plain. A stone shelter denoted the summit which looked over into Burke’s Garden. “God’s Thumbprint” as it is known to locals, is the result of a geographical anomaly where a mountain collapsed in on itself. The resulting valley is the highest in Virginia and some of the most fertile farmland in the state. 

Low on drinking water, once we were off the mountain, we had little choice but to make camp early where we found it; the next water was almost seven miles away. Astride a forest service road, we set up tents and splurged on a small fire given the abbreviated day. 

Thru hikers cruised by the next morning clicking miles by the dozen. We were only temporarily immersed in their culture. You either must quit your job or retire to bag 2,164 miles concurrently. Heavy storms and hail dogged us the next day or two but we managed to stay behind or ahead of its bulk. Laurel Creek camp was the site of our third night, and I was feeling the miles. Each day averaged 3,000 feet of elevation, but we were only doing 64 miles. We pushed ourselves on our fourth evening with extra water weight from Helvey’s Mill.

 Our final camp was dry and trailside on a ridge outside of Bland. As the sun set on this 16-mile day, we relished the thought of a mere 10-mile exit. Roughly 130 miles per year proves we obviously have no deadline. Our only concern is that we may run these hills long enough and accidentally finish the trail.   

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