2019-Day 69: 700 mile Brush(y) mountain edition

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July 1, 2019 

I woke up to the sound of a whippoorwill around 5 after managing to get a decent night of sleep. I kept both of my doors open, which helped keep the overnight temperature more reasonable. Oakland took a Benadryl last night and reported that she slept much better than usual. After she left for her first privy visit, I stared out the door at the Beautiful orange and pink morning light While Listening to a veritable din of birdsong. I couldn’t even count how many birds I heard. Oakland returned and reported no spiders in the seating area at the privy. I reluctantly grabbed my tp and my headlamp, tucked my trowel into my pocket just in case I got desperate, and grabbed a bottle of water to spray at any spiders that might be in the privy chute. When I got to the privy, I stood and checked the corners. Various webs and small spiders. No big deal. Then I checked the seat: small spider on the inside edge bouncing around on a partial web. Not great, but I moved it out of the way with my trowel. In doing so I spotted a small black spider curled up under the far edge of the seat. Less good, but fine. I tapped on the seat and the spider huddled father under the edge of the seat. Fine. Stay there and live in poop land. I took my toilet paper out of the ziplock to have it at the ready. Then I hovered over the seat, which I never do because it makes a giant mess, and peed while watching for escaping spiders. I heard a loud buzzing, which I initially ignored, but I looked up to find one of those menacing hornets hovering about a foot from my face. I yelled and reflexively grabbed the broom, shoving the handle towards the buzzing. In doing so, the broom bristles whisked my toilet paper over the edge of the privy floor and into the brush (the Privy had a foot-wide gap at the bottom of the walls). I stared forlornly at my TP while I continued to hover over the seat. There was nothing to do but lift my shorts just far enough to avoid flashing the world and retrieve my TP. Then I had to find a way to relax enough to finish the process of pooping, which had been the whole goal of the trip. I made quick work of the task and left in such a hurry that I forgot my water bottle. I went back for it and got all the way back to the tent before I realized I had also forgotten my trowel. Oakland agreed to retrieve my frantically forgotten gear at her next visit. 

I shared my disastrous visit with Oakland and we both laughed hysterically at the part where my TP flew out of the privy. Then we packed up our gear to get a head start on the day. We decided to eat breakfast inside the now empty tent because the no-see-ums were too hungry.  I showed one of them to Oakland after having killed it on my leg, and she was horrified by the minute size of them. After carefully eating in the tent so as to avoid being bear bait, we got out to brush our teeth and finish packing. I decided to give in to the deet and applied it immediately after brushing my teeth. I also decided to brave the privy again because a second visit was clearly in order. It was less traumatic, but the hornet still made a visit to the area. In my haste to escape the hover monster (as we have dubbed the hornets), I managed to forget both my water bottle and trowel AGAIN. Oakland retrieved them for me. Then we filtered water and prepped our feet.

I made a quick trip down to the shelter to sign the logbook and give a perfunctory goodbye to the two older men who were both smoking cigarettes. They had slept on completely opposite sides of the shelter, which I found amusing and mildly irritating because it reminded me of all the times I’ve seen straight men balk at having to sleep too close to other men. Grow up, which I say as a general comment because I don’t actually know why these two people decided to span the length of the shelter. Obviously, I made my assumptions. Anyway, I returned to the tent site to find Oakland peacefully staring into the sunlight streaming through the trees. 

The morning started with a brief downhill through laurels over loose rocks. then we walked on a somewhat soft and flat trail with steep hills on our sides.

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Large blowdowns all around us made the hillsides look steeper. Then came a short uphill onto a flat, sandy stretch with sunlight filtering in from our left. We discussed our favorite parts of the previous day as we walked. The air was already getting humid and I felt a bit nauseated.  Perhaps I was too tired or maybe it was the air pressure?  

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We eventually crossed a small road, went through scrubby woods, and crossed power lines that led us to a series of footbridges over mostly dry stream beds with the exception of this moderately flowing creek.

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The bridges were perplexing given the completely dry streambeds, but maybe the area gets a lot of rainfall in spring and late fall?

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We went through more pines with a few winding ups and downs and eventually came to a dribble of a spring with minnows in the deepest part of the pool. We smelled of deet as we filtered water to the squeak of a bird I didn’t recognize and the buzz of gnats.

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The flow was so low that we had to do the leaf and rock trick to get a decent spout for filling the scooper. Thankfully the bugs weren’t too bad because it was a slowwww process. 

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Then came the climb up brush mountain, which we called brushy mountain because it’s the name of an old time song. We walked over pine needles and dusty, crushed pebbles with the occasional cluster of stacked shale.

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There were thankfully a number of switchbacks. There was also a lot of light giving the illusion that we were near the top, but when we stopped for Oakland to adjust her pack, we discovered that we were only a quarter of the way up. We stopped around 10am to take a snack break on the log steps of a switchback because there wasn’t anything hospitable along the sides of the trail. Tiny blueberry bushes grew next to us along the rocky hillside.

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We were both happy to be mostly in the shade thus far because it was a hot climb. I tried not to get too squeamish about the gigantic ants surveying the area for food at our break spot. We didn’t stick around long given our slow progress thus far and the rising temperatures. Somewhere along the way, we heard birds squawking in midair, and I looked up to find a flash of red flanked by gray flapping birds. It turned out to be a scarlet tanager that was being hotly pursued by two other birds. They disappeared out of earshot before we could see any resolution to the scuffle. I warily said to Oakland that I hoped the tanager was okay. We wondered about the behaviors of tanagers and whether it had made itself a nuisance and deserved the brush-off we’d witnessed.

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We stopped a little while later to make my 700 mile marker (today’s top picture). Oakland helped me scavenge for the pine cones and then took unflattering pictures of my ergonomically questionable process. 

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We made it to top of today’s climb sooner than expected given the drudgery of the first half of the ascent. We exited the narrow trail and turned left onto a grassy lane that had several unexpected park benches. 

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It also had hidden rocks that made for trickier footing than the pictured would imply. A nice breeze blew around us as we griped about the rocks and enjoyed the change of scenery. 

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We reached the Audie Murphy Memorial around 11. There were trinkets and patches and American flags scattered among the stone work that marked the area in which a highly decorated war hero died in an airplane crash. A giant spider had also set up camp in the memorial (no picture because it kept hiding from my shadow). We set our packs down on a bench and went to check the view at the overlook. We found a monolithic ridge with small snippets of farmland down below and a second, smaller memorial on the nearby boulders. 

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The benches at the main memorial would have made for a great lunch spot, but it was too early for such luxuries, so we kept moving. About 30 minutes later, we stopped for lunch on a large log that lay over the trail. Based on the day thus far, we weren’t in danger of being in anyone’s way. We sat in dappled sunlight with a strong breeze and fought off the giant black ants while we enjoyed our lunch wraps (Pb for me, tuna for Oakland, both containing Fritos). Our food bags are running on vapors because we have exactly what we need to get through tomorrow’s pickup by Oakland’s college friend. I managed to get a couple of texts out, one of which was to my mom at HQ in the hopes of trying to figure out our transportation to Maine. 

We left our lunch spot with only 4.5 miles to go. We have a short day because the water and tenting options are pretty sparse between here and our pickup tomorrow afternoon. We decided it was better to cross Dragon’s Tooth with fresh legs and have a short day today rather than try to find an unofficial mystery campsite half way up the climb with no water and no guarantee of being hospitable. 

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The trail continued to be a grassy lane for a few more minutes with the occasional view of neighboring mountains.

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Then the trail became a narrow rock pile that transitioned into a dusty 2-mile descent to VA 620. We both had lunch feet and were stumbling a bit more than usual as we navigated the rocks. The descent offered little shade and many lizards. A few minutes into it, Oakland suggested we stop to put on sunscreen because it didn’t seem like we would get much in the way of leaf cover for awhile. She was right, which made for a steamy and monotonous terrain though we did get frequent views of the surroundings mountains. We also got another scarlet tanager sighting. Now that I can recognize their call, it’s a lot easier to find them if they’re hanging out low enough in the tree canopy. 

We both griped about aching knees, so we stopped and checked our distance. We were sadly only halfway through the descent. As we shuffled along, I thought I heard voices. Sure enough, a few minutes later, we rounded a corner to find a young person leading a group of teenagers on a backpacking trip. The leader called out for everyone to move to left on the narrow path. I said that they had quadrupled our human sightings for the last two days as we squeezed past them. Oakland scuffed her feet on the loose rocks covering the trail as she went past the last kid. Right on the other side of the group, we had to navigate a blowdown that sat across the trail and went down the hillside. I decided to take my pack off and used broken-off limbs as handles to keep myself from slipping down the steep bank to our left. It was far more comfortable than trying to duck under the tree because the lower clearance was only about a foot and a half. Sorry for the lack of pictures along this stretch. I was hot and tired and spaced on documenting the drudgery. 

A few minutes later, I saw a new white mushroom that I pointed out to Oakland so she could photograph it.

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About 5 feet past it, I took a poor step onto a loose rock about the size of a golf ball and tweaked my bad ankle. It wasn’t a full-on roll, but it was more displacement than has happened since I twisted it in TN. Oakland exclaimed with excitement over the mushroom, and I said I needed a minute because I had almost turned my ankle pointing to the shitty little rock that I’d absentmindedly stepped on. She expressed concern and gave me space by taking pictures of her mushroom. She asked me how I was and I said I couldn’t really say yet. I walked down the hill assessing whether anything hurt. There was a slight pull on the tendons but nothing sharp. We made it down to the road where there were several subpar tent sites and a metal trash can (Oscar/Sesame Street style). While we emptied our food trash bags, I told Oakland that there wasn’t much pain, but I was upset because I’m so tired of being anxious about my ankle. As someone who has dealt with her share of chronic injuries, she gave a knowing look and said that she understood the mental weariness. The trash can smelled rank, so we didn’t loiter to have an in-depth emotional conversation. Instead, we crossed the small paved road and delicately crossed trout creek over a rickety foot bridge.

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A lounge chair sat on the far bank of the creek (you can just make it out in the left side of the picture). At this point, I don’t question such sightings. It’s far more exciting to stumble upon new creatures like this! 

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We immediately started climbing again through very similar terrain as our descent. We marched to the crunching sound of our feet and grumbled about the reintroduction of flies buzzing around our heads.

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I put my earbuds back in to deter the dive bombers. The other side of the road had been breezy enough in most places that I’d removed them to give my ears a break. We sweated our way up the hill with the occasional switchback. I felt a few slight twinges in my ankle, but for the most part it just felt tired. The footing turned into more difficult loose rocks and shale that caused my ankle to be even more exhausted and heightened my worry about twisting it. I felt like I couldn’t raise my gaze from the ground, which was putting me into a sleepy trance. We stopped a few times to drink water. We made it to the shelter turn-off around 3:15pm. Another long day of short-ish miles. I paused at the side trail and asked Oakland to go first so I could take a mental break from leading the way. 

The trail to the shelter was actually quite beautiful and provided a welcome change from the dry dusty sections we’d covered most of the afternoon. I had been dreading it because of the length (0.3 miles), but as we wound our way through vibrant greens and over soft pine needles, I could feel myself relax a bit.

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Pickle Branch Shelter sat in the shady bottom of a pine forest. We dropped our packs and made a plan of attack while we both put our feet up against the shelter wall. Oakland suggested we go get water and then head back towards the tenting, which we had passed on the way in. We hung our packs on the mice deterrent hooks inside the shelter. Oakland carried our water gear in her daypack, and we both brought our poles because guthook listed the source as far away and down a steep hill. It was longer than usual, but not the farthest I’ve ever had to walk and the steepness was mitigated by a very nice series of steps. We arrived at a beautiful and fast flowing stream amusingly named Pickle Branch. We filtered and drank copious amounts of cool water. Then, despite the nuisance of incessant flies, we both sat on rocks and soaked our feet in the crisp water.

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It was so cold that I had to remove my feet every 30 seconds. I like to think the cold water did my ankle some good. Then we went through our respective “cleaning” routines. I didn’t want to remove the traces of deet from my arms and legs because I was hoping it would deter bugs (no longer true) and because I just didn’t feel like it. I did however rinse my face and dump water over my head. We walked back up the steps with dripping heads and bellies full of water. Then we distributed the water weight into our packs and headed back to the tenting area – uphill of course! It seemed as if there were only weird lumpy sites right on the trail, but I happened to spot a pine clearing about 50 yards to our left. We followed a faint side trail and arrived at several tenting options along with a camouflaged camping chair with no apparent owner. We picked out a site and went to work setting up the tent. The ground was oddly resistant to tent stakes even though it didn’t appear to be rocky. It felt like trying to bang a nail into plaster and having it bounce back at you. We finally managed to get the stakes in far enough and we used fire pit rocks to reinforce the poorly set stakes. Then Oakland went off to the privy while I was left in charge of the bear line. We had a fabulous option that met all the criteria and included the bonus feature of throwing from a slight uphill. I stood in front of the tree determined not to make a mess of our evening if I couldn’t manage the throw, but my resolve wasn’t necessary because I got it on the first shot. Success! 

I went back to the tent and began setting up my bedding right as Oakland returned. She gave me a silly high five to congratulate me on the bear line. Then we both climbed into the tent to escape the ravenous insects. Between the gnats and the giant black biting ants, we were sitting ducks outside the safety of the tent doors. We both set up our beds and decided to eat a few non-messy snacks inside so we could wait until a more reasonable 6pm to start dinner. We lounged around for about 25 minutes before suiting up in long sleeves and in my case long johns to combat the bugs. It made me overheated, but it totally worked as bug defense. 

We grabbed the weird, abandoned camping chair (after a quick spider inspection by me and laughter from Oakland) and went down to a lower tent site that had a cinder block and decent sitting rocks. We used the cinder block as a table for water boiling and eagerly waited the 11 minutes for our food to cook.

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Oakland ate chili mac and I ate kettle chili – two vastly different experiences. We had a somewhat zombiefied quiet dinner that involved a lot of eating and staring off into space with small bursts of conversation. Then we puttered through dishes, dessert and dental hygiene time. We were both exhausted and very excited to return to the tent after hanging our light food bags on the same line. Oakland poured over the maps while I worked on turning today’s notes into complete sentences. We heard the occasional snap and crash of leaves but it all sounded like pesky squirrels. There’s at least one person down at the shelter – probably both of the older men from last night will end up here based on the way the camping and water work out in this section. I’m finishing this to the sound of a distant whippoorwill, Oakland squeaking around on her sleeping pad while she puts away her maps, vireos and other birds I don’t recognize continuing to share their stories, and bugs popping off the tent. Also: lightning bugs! twinkling all around us as the light wanes as we settled in to ignore the random sounds and get some sleep. 

Mile 687.2 to mile 697.3 (10.1) – Pickle Branch Shelter 

Checklist total miles: 706.1 

Oakland total miles: 226.7 

Creature feature: tanagers, lizards! minnows, blasted squirrels, and the sound of deers that weren’t actually visible. 

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