July 9, 2019
No one slept well last night. The tent site was sloping and lumpy, and intermittent bursts of water drops smacked the tent all night. My alarm went off at 5:15. We couldn’t bring ourselves to move until 5:35. Oakland went to the privy. I crawled out of the tent and peed in the wet, high grass trying not to think about ticks. Thick fog hung over the tent site. I was packed up and done in the tent first. Then to the privy with me. It was a mansion-sized newly constructed privy with no visible wolf spiders and plenty of space between me and my 8-legged guests. After a stress-free experience, I stood by the bear box and put in my contacts. Then we went down to the shelter with all of our stuff and had breakfast on the dry shelter floor because the picnic table was soaked.
We looked at pictures of Maine a little bit more, which had pretty much the same outcome as the night before (not comforting!). I made another trip to the privy to remove my cup for good (yay!). Then came foot prep and water filtering. By this point, the sun had started to come out, but a thick haze of clouds still hung low around us. The morning started easily with a flat, soft walk through misty woods. Droplets clung to chaotic spider webs and Oakland suffered through me taking a thousand pictures of her in the fog.
We came to the parkway, which per the usual, was shrouded in fog.
We crossed the road and walked through more fog past a series of boulders to an overlook that was socked in with the exception of a small blue strip of sky.
We could hear people getting out of cars somewhere nearby, and we immediately smelled cigarette smoke. This sent us both into a silent rage. We made ourselves scarce before having to interact with the new arrivals. Shortly after scuttling away from the overlook, we saw a little orange friend that was also running for cover.
We also saw an abundance of snails that we made sure to avoid as we headed north amongst tall yellow flowers and columbine. Moisture dripped from trees and the woods were quiet for the first hour. Then the birds perked up.
We headed down for awhile through shoulder-high jewel weed, then through a short rhododendron tunnel and back out into open woods. I heard a pileated woodpecker call over my right shoulder.
Oakland felt exhausted and her usual nagging sources of pain were in a full blown flare-up. We were both worn down by the constant need to be vigilant about footing because of the wet rocks. We eventually stopped for snack break at the 2hr 15 min mark. There weren’t any good seating options so we used rock steps in middle of the trail and sat on our zseats to make it a cozier experience. Spirits weren’t exactly low, but neither of us was feeling particularly chipper.
After the break, we crossed small gravel road within earshot of the parkway. Then it was a mile climb to the unfortunately named Highcock knob. We passed a section hiker couple at bottom of the climb and had the usual discussion about water and humidity. The grade was reasonable for awhile and then turned into bit steeper. We passed through more shoulder-high jewelweed that was thankfully not too far into the trail. At some point in the climb, we stopped for water and I noticed a deer standing off to my left nibbling in the brush. I recorded it snacking for over a minute, and it was completely unconcerned about our existence.
We made our way up and over the knob, scanning for snakes the whole time because the dry, rocky trail screamed “snake heaven.” There were a couple of views to be had on the way up, but no snake sightings that I can remember (or that I wrote down) and a wooded summit greeted us at the top.
The way down from the knob started with stone steps and evolved into a laurel tunnel. After a little over a mile of descent, we came to the turn off for marble spring and decided to skip the water stop. Two deer crashed off into the woods nearby. Then came a series of doodley doos over easy trail with shale and some softer sections. There were the occasional clumps of pine needles and rocks strewn across the trail, clearly transplanted by fast moving water. I saw a flash of white cross the trail and thought it might be a pileated woodpecker. A minute later, I heard it tell-tale call from my right, but the trees were too thick to spot the bird. As we made our way north, we had choppy views of mountains to our left.
We had little in the way of seating options, so we finally just plopped ourselves on the ground beside the trail for lunch. 6.5 miles to go. After lunch, we decided it was time for the comforts of HP. Then came more rocks and another short climb up to an intersection with the Gunter Ridge trail. We stopped there so I could make a call to Stanimal’s to arrange for a ride because there isn’t any cell service at the parking lot where they shuttle hikers. Our ride is for 5pm, which is tight based on our humidity pace, but not impossible.
Then came another long downhill that highlighted the already existing ache in my knees. My feet were also on fire from the persistent shale covering the trail. We finally stopped for water. Our pack straps were soaked in sweat and we both felt a little wrung out as we collected our filtering gear. I had to make a leaf spout, which always makes me feel so self-sufficient. We filtered two full bottles each, drank a bit extra on the spot and were on our way in about 10 minutes. I didn’t take much in the way of pictures because we were worried about time. The trail went up a bit after the stream and then down forever. We ran into an older guy who was huffing his face off with a hiking partner who had her water bottle in her hand which felt like a colossal waste of energy. They were so far from their destination and so much more ascent to cover. Oakland and I were in pretty crummy moods. I had made a squabbling, insecure remark about downhill pacing, which sent us both into silent, cranky land until we reached Matts creek shelter.
A robust creek flowed in front of the shelter, and we both wanted to plop ourselves down in the cool water. Instead, we sat at the picnic table and ate a snack while patching up the moodiness from the descent. I felt exhausted, dejected by my downhill slowness, and had VERY little desire to move from my seat to cover the last 2.2 miles of the day.
Based on our scheduled ride, we had no choice but to keep moving. I walked a little ways from the shelter for a quick pee break, and begrudgingly donned my rancid pack. The trail ran alongside Matts creek for quite awhile before turning left and taking us alongside the river from a vantage point was well above water level. We heard a train whistle before the turn and eventually saw the long freight train running a few hundred yards through the trees to our left. The footing was mostly kind with the occasional rock splat.
My knees felt like cement and my feet were starting to get hamburgerlered, but we were making good time because of the footing and the gentle changes in elevation. Not far from the river crossing, I looked up to find a mammoth stacked rock formation with a trickle of a waterfall running down the center of it.
The trail took a sharp left to lead us over the James River foot bridge, which was donated by a man with the last name of Foot. That seemed awfully convenient. I was grateful for the bridge because I imagine it cut off a fair amount of road walking on 501 and because I love walking over a bridge (today’s top picture).
We followed the stairs down the other side and underneath the railroad bridge which ran alongside the foot bridge. A couple of kayakers put in right as we passed through (not pictured).
We took a left to get to the parking lot where we were to wait for our ride from Stanimal’s. We were 30 minutes earlier than our estimation (success!), so we industriously set out the tent to see if we could start the drying process. The bottom dried in a matter of 3 minutes so we turned it over and worked on the top.
Mismatch arrived in a shuttle car. I don’t know how we keep leapfrogging with him given his crazy miles. He apparently jumped in the river from the bridge, which you are expressly not supposed to do, and he forgot his poles at the hostel, so he had gotten a ride back earlier in the day. When he said he wasn’t going far, I jokingly said “so only 20 miles then?” He had plans to go 2 miles up to the first shelter from the road crossing. The shuttle driver lingered as if hoping we would ask him for a ride, but we had already made arrangements with Stanimal’s. About 5 minutes after the shuttle left, A woman in an old Beamer showed up and walked towards us asking if we were headed to the hostel. She was twenty minutes earlier! Which was great for us. We quickly rolled up the tent and tossed our packs in the car.
We went down a windy road with wind rushing through the open windows. Our driver, whose name I have sadly forgotten and didn’t write down, pointed out the sights as we passed through town. She pulled off the two lane road into her driveway where an orange cat languished around the neighbor’s car. We were instructed to take our shoes off (my least favorite policy) and stow our poles in a communal bin. Then our host showed us the ropes. Brownie and dizzy descended in happy greetings as we got the tour. The hostel had a cozy living room with multiple lumpy couches and a wide array of movies, a full kitchen with a dining area and washer and dryer at our disposal, and two small bunk rooms. We took a set of bunks in a room with a hiker we didn’t know. Oakland kindly took the top bunk to save my feet from having to navigate wooden slats. Then we picked out *sweet* loaner clothes to wear to dinner while we did our laundry. This is our last hostel stop before we get picked up for the long trip to Maine!
We hung our tent on the clothesline in the expansive back yard where a neighboring hound dog supervised our every move. Then Oakland showered while I put on laundry because I don’t mind putting on loaner clothes while still being a disgusting hiker. Then I showered. It felt so weird to be in a house with AC and the TV playing after having marinated in humidity and birdsong for the past few days.
We put the tent away and walked to dinner with brownie, dizzy and heard the call. Our destination was a rural Italian restaurant with pizza, spaghetti and burgers. I got a steak and cheese with halfway decent sweet potato fries and a side salad. It was too much food, but I worked my way through it while marginally participating in the table conversation. By the end of dinner, I was freezing from the combination of the AC and the cold soda, and I felt inconsolably tired. We walked back along the busy country road with stiff legs and tired feet. Then came chore time while trying to politely entertain conversational bids from Brownie & Dizzy. We forced ourselves to organize our food (thanks HQ!), which sent me into a near meltdown while sitting on the carpeted floor of our bunk room. It’s not that I was unsure of what needed to be done. I just felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the remaining physical chores and the impending task of writing blog notes when all I wanted to do was sleep.
We washed bowls and back flushed filters while talking to dizzy about people we know on the trail. My lower back hurt and my feet pounded while I stood in the kitchen listening to dizzy’s updates. Brownie & Dizzy have actually decided to end their hike at Stanimal’s for now. The heat and humidity have drained them of energy and enjoyment, so they will return to finish the stretch from here to their intended endpoint in Harper’s Ferry when the temperatures cool down. I finally extracted myself from Dizzy, and put my dishes and gear away. Then I sat with Oakland looking at the map. We debated over a long or short day tomorrow for about 40 minutes to the point of exhaustion. We finally gave up on deciding around 10:20. I was exhausted to the point of no return. My bunk bed mattress was miserably hard, and I wanted to blow up my air mattress, but I also didn’t want to feel the bulbous inflatable surface underneath me. I’m finishing this to the sound of a hiker named Weatherman shifting in his bed, the low hum of the AC, the muffled sound of the tv in the living room, and the ringing in my ears.
Mile 771.9 to mile 786.6 (14.7)
Checklist total miles: 795.4
Oakland total miles: 316
Creature feature: lizards! the chomping deer and the bolting deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and minnows