2019-Day 65: snake, rattle, and roll edition

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June 27, 2019

We both got pretty terrible nights of sleep. Our next door neighbors were talking in full volume from about 2-4am and wouldn’t answer their door when Oakland knocked on it in the hopes of asking them to be quiet. I turned the bathroom fan on and turned AC temperature down so it would run more often to cover up some of their noise. Oakland put in her headphones with HP and lent me her earplugs, which made a big difference (unlike my experience with earplugs in shelters where they don’t make a dent in snoring). I tossed and turned until we got up around 6:15. We packed our bags as much as we could without our bowls and had cereal with milk for breakfast. I also ate several handfuls of the spinach we forgot to eat yesterday. Then we washed our dishes and finished packing.

We were downstairs at 7:30. Allen came in from the front porch and said “good afternoon!” as if we had slept in all morning. He politely agreed to let me take his picture with his mustache coffee mug (today’s top picture). As we walked inside, I remarked on how the jukebox looked kind of like it had a mustache because of the raised dust cover:

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Then Oakland had to let him run her credit card again because the room charge hadn’t gone through for the right amount the first time. As they took care of business, a woman came in asking to use bathroom. She seemed jittery and out of sorts, and she followed us to the truck after Allen asked his friend to get her a cup of coffee.

She apparently comes by somewhat frequently in the hopes that Allen will give her small jobs and buy her food on occasion. He seemed both sad for her and adamant about her addiction situation being a matter of choice. He even went so far as to curse the democrats who make addiction seem like a disease when he knows darn well it’s just a choice. I had to push back on that one while Oakland remained silent in the passenger seat. Allen griped about a car following him closely and told us that it was someone from the sheriff’s department who complains about how slowly he drives. At some point, we changed the subject to ask about the factory that loomed large in front of us. Apparently it’s one of the largest cigarette filter producers in the world. Between that and the clearly addicted and likely homeless woman, it was a dark ride to the trail with a backdrop of beautiful mist covered mountains.

Allen turned left into the trail head parking area and drove to the turnaround point. He hopped out of his truck and ran over to the berry bushes at the edge of the woods where a cardinal hovered pecking at bright red berries. I can’t remember the name of the berry but Allen was very excited for us to try them. They were incredibly tart. We thanked him for the ride and he wished us a good hike with the appendage of “ladies” to the sentiment because god forbid someone say something without adding a binary gender to the end of the message. Whyyyyy.

We both removed our long sleeve layers and mentally prepared ourselves for the long day of hiking with freshly resupplied packs for a 5-day period. Then we went into the dark woods.

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The trail was relatively flat for a little while until it took a slight downhill through a weedwhacked section that we were both grateful for and which gave us hope that the field walk later in the day might be better maintained.

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After a few minutes, we popped out onto a busy road and walked across the long New River bridge. Far below us, an older man tried to get into his fishing boat and completely missed the mark, falling backwards up to his chest in the water. Oakland turned back to me to see if I’d caught the gaff. Then we continued walking over the loud roadway.

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On the other side of the bridge, the trail edged along a corner of the cigarette filter factory’s parking lot. There was an acrid smell in the air that burned our throats. Oakland theorized that the acid, which sat in giant metal cisterns, was probably one of the culprits.

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We took a hairpin turn down a set of stairs and walked away from the factory underneath the busy road we’d just exited. You can see a white blaze on one of the bridge pylons, which means we had a few glamorous minutes of shoulder walking ahead of us.

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Then we turned right to head back into the woods. The noises along this stretch were overwhelming and predominantly man-made, including a train whistle that was so frequent that it seemed like one long train.

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Once we ducked back into the woods, we had a short climb that felt much harder than it actually was because of our overloaded packs. After a few exclamations and near misses with spider webs, Oakland kindly offered to go in front. Not long after that, there was a rustle and two pileated woodpeckers took flight about 30 yards in front of Oakland. Sadly they landed on trees that were well out of sight, but I was still excited that she’d seen them in flight.

The trail leveled out to a reasonable walk with the muddy New River visible in flashes through the trees to our right. We went downhill through a few switchbacks and saw another cardinal. Then we came to a gravel road with non potable water signs, which is not something I’ve seen much of in my time on the AT. I wondered if it had anything to do with the proximity to the factory. Oakland needed to pee, so we dropped our packs and took a quick bio break. A young hiker with legs up to his eyeballs passed us right as we got to the road. We secretly cheered after he left because now we had someone else to break spider webs!

Across the road, we had what was the beginning of a loooong gradual climb through somewhat repetitive terrain. The high humidity had us both streaming with sweat as we walked through posted land with a fence topped with barbed wire to our left.

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I caught glimpses of farm land and whiffs of what smelled like cattle, but we couldn’t see much because of the trees. There were also loud thunking noises and trucks beeping. At some point, we saw a bunny rabbit slowly wend its way through briars to get some distance from us. Every so often we wandered through a patch of blooming rhododendrons that I couldn’t resist:

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We eventually crossed a gravel road and walked down another gravel road for a couple of minutes to a left turn up in to the woods.

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We decided to take our morning break on a nice flat rock right as we got back into the woods. Oakland spotted what she called a tweety bird, which turned out to be a hooded warbler. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes found us after only a few minutes, so we packed up and moved on for yet another section of climbing through still air. Here’s Oakland sporting her pack sweat lines:

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We went uphill for what seemed like forever. There was the occasional rocky sections with what Oakland calls boulder sneezes. We didn’t talk much because the effort of getting uphill with our bags was too much to accommodate conversation and coherence. We eventually came to a piped spring that was a functional trickle. We each filtered half full bottles, drank a fair amount of water and dumped some over our heads. I think it was Oakland’s first head dunk.

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We had about 2 miles before our lunch destination which was also our last water source for the next 10 miles. We continued upward, traversing a wooden turnstile and walking through tall grass into a field that was sadly not maintained at all. It did however lead us to a beautiful view of the valley. A shelter sat tucked into the woods to the right of the trail. I, of course, wished there had been a way for us to stay there to see sunset/sunrise, but it was too close to our starting point for the day.

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We baked in the sun for a few minutes so I could take pictures and so oakland could apply sunscreen.

Then we continued through the field, passed a communications tower, and turned right to head up a power line for much longer than usual. Both the field and the power line corridor were overgrown and itchy and hot in the sun.

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We finally ducked back into the woods for a ridge walk that was sometimes gloriously soft, but more often than not, scattered with what we call attack rocks because they hide among seemingly gentle tufts of grass. A few of the less common spotted red lilies hid amongst the usual sea of green:

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We finally got to our lunch spot around 12:35. I felt testy because of bugs and hunger. Oakland weathered my crankiness with ease and waited for food to make me more human. We sat on a log with our shoes and socks off and ate our respective lunches with the annoying company of bugs and what I believe was a hornet. Then came the search for water, which consisted of an off-trail spring demarcated by little blue flags at the trail’s edge.  We found the side trail with relative ease thanks to user comments in guthook.

Our unfortunate but necessary plan was to get 2 full bottles and a full 32 ounce sawyer bag to get us through the 5 miles left to camp. It’s such a catch 22 to have carry that much water for that distance. Your bag is heavier therefore your effort is harder, you go slower, and you want to drink more, but you need to conserve the supply.

We drank more water at the piped source before filling our vessels in the hopes of using less of our supply for the last several miles. Oakland insisted on carrying both of our full sawyer bags. We walked back up the short side trail and headed north over the rocks. We made slow but steady progress across the green rolling ridge. We were surrounded by ferns and tons of ground cover textures. At some point, I saw a black and white flash to my left. I looked up to find a small woodpecker alight on a nearby tree trunk. Another woodpecker with a red cap was on an adjacent tree. We stood and watched the birds silently tap against the bark for a minute before moving on.

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We were walking along in silence when all of a sudden Oakland yelled and skipped towards me with the unmistakeable sound of a rattlesnake behind her. Apparently it had been next to the trail and decided we were bad company as Oakland passed by after me. I wanted to see the snake, so I foolishly went back a few feet to scan the brush, I quickly gave up, thinking I should leave well enough alone. Oakland also wanted to see it, so we both crept back and she finally caught movement. We watched as the huuuge snake slowly disappeared into the brush. The thickest part of it was about 3 inches in diameter. I’m not sure about length because it was already on the move when Oakland spotted it slithering away with the tiniest flicks of its rattle. Sadly it was too camouflaged to show up in pictures.

Our next wildlife encounter came in the form of two more Pileated woodpeckers. This time Oakland was able to see one land on a tree, which gave her a better sense of how big they are. Then came another field walk in high overgrown grass. The fringe benefit came in the form of this sweet smelling flower that was in bloom throughout the field.

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We huddled on the shady ground underneath a crabapple tree. Little did we know about 50 yards away we could have taken a break on a nice sitting rock. Oh well. The field continued for awhile longer and led us through a few views:

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We eventually ended up on a grassy ridge that was nice for awhile, but then turned into more rock dodging, which exhausted both of us. We took a break on a mossy log for about 5 minutes before continuing our rock hop. I was too cranky to take pictures, and the few I took all looked pretty much like this because of the dappled sunlight:

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We finally made it to the first of several campsites to choose from for the evening. It was small and rocky, so we decided to keep moving to the side awol listed as being between where we stood and a campsite 0.5 miles away.

We bumbled along the narrow ridge through the humid air. I took a sloppy step that left my right foot wobbling and made me cranky. Oakland asked if I was okay and I answered that I was fine but getting worn thin. Judging by the tone in her agreeing statement, she, too, was tired of hiking at that point. I couldn’t imaging how the rocky, overgrown terrain was going to suddenly produce a campsite better than the last one, but not long after my misstep, we rounded a corner to find a small tent site big enough for about 2 tents with a great little rock seat. One of the sites was large and mostly flat. We put our packs down and took advantage of the rock seat to eat snacks and calm the beast (aka me). Then we peeled ourselves off the bench and went about grooming the ground for the tent. I found the perfect rock with which to pry other rocks out of the ground, which is an activity that brings Oakland great amusement (to watch). The rock had a pointy end that expertly grabbed the edges of other rocks. She laughed while I took joy in getting sharp rocks out of the way. Then we set up the tent with the sound of distant thunder rumbling overhead.

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Rain wasn’t in the forecast, but we decided to make a leaf gutter/splashguard nonetheless (not pictured). There wasn’t much material to work with but we managed to cobble together a bit of ground coverage. Then we opted to throw bear lines before setting up our beds. The options for our heavyweight bags were somewhat limited. I threw my line first and made it after about 8 tries. Then we looked for a limb for Oakland’s bag and came up with several subpar options or good options that were far too close to our tent. We finally settled on one that didn’t involve too much standing around in the brush. She got her line over a good section of the branch after only a few tries. We went back to our eating area and set up our water to boil. We bought a bag of spinach in town that we forgot to eat with our zero day lunch so we each put some in our bowls to heat up with our chili mac. I sat down on the rock to get started on dinner and happened to notice something crawling on me. I thought it was a tiny spider, but it turned out to be a tick. In fact, it was two ticks right next to each other. I beckoned Oakland over to show her just how small the ticks can be out here before I pulled them off. One of them was already attempting to get under my skin, but it hadn’t successfully latched, so I easily plucked it off. Then we boiled water and sat around being zombies until I forced myself to work on my mail request list while we waited for dinner (Dear HQ: we will forever be indebted to your ability to sling together a food drop after receiving a delayed packing list). I helped Oakland finish her list while we ate. Then came dishes, dessert (snickers and 3 musketeers), and teeth brushing time. We had the tent site all to ourselves along with a legion of bugs. The mosquitoes left us somewhat alone, but the flies seem to be impervious to the deet wipes. The skin around my ankles is red and raised. I assume it’s because of the heat. It’s definitely worse on my right ankle around the brace. It looks angry, but thankfully it doesn’t itch.

After our evening dinner routine, we hung our food bags and mutually decided that Oakland’s was too low. She reluctantly pulled the bag down and threw her line onto the same branch as my bag while I held the line as far out of the way as I could. She got it across the intended limb on the 4th or 5th try. It looked much better once she had it in the air, but we will have to be careful not to get the lines tangled in the morning.

We both tucked ourselves into the tent and went about our final routines in which I whined about writing while Oakland looked at her pictures. Then I forced myself to tap away on my tiny screen while Oakland looked at the map. She helped me figure out some logistical information for my sister-in-law who is trying to coordinate a visit with my nieces. As I continued typing up the day’s notes, Oakland fell asleep on top of her sleeping bag while the sunset, which was mostly obscured by trees, got prettier and prettier. We are supposed to have a campsite with a view tomorrow. I really hope it’s another good night for the sky because it seems like we’ve gotten rained or fogged out more often than not lately. I’m finishing this to the sound of Oakland breathing, bugs popping against the tent, a bird with an alarm-clock-like call, flies buzzing in the leaves by my door, the occasional military plane passing overhead, and frequent crashes in the woods, which of course make me worried about bears.

Mile 637.0 to mile 650.8 (13.8)

Checklist total miles: 659.6

Oakland total miles: 180.2

Creature feature: 4 pileated woodpeckers (!), the 2 smaller woodpeckers, the rattlesnake, a tiny frog the size of my thumbnail, a couple of tan frogs, the hooded warbler, cardinals, towhees, and butterflies galore

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