2019-Day 78: steamy 800 mile edition

IMG_7795July 10, 2019

I tossed and turned all night, but managed to get some sleep. To my great surprise and delight, weatherman did NOT snore. Oakland joined me in my bunk for final decision time. We opted for the longer option with a bail out plan in case our heavy packs made it impossible to go the distance. We finally got up for good around 6:30. Brownie and dizzy microwaved eggs and talked up a storm while Oakland and I ate bars at the picnic style kitchen table. A few bathroom trips (goodbye indoor plumbing) and much gear shuffling later, we donned our shoes on the turf-covered side patio while the resident orange kitty fervently rubbed against the carport poles. We were standing at the trailhead by 7:50am after a winding, but relatively short drive back. The car ride was a mixture of shop talk and silence. Weatherman used to work for Zpacks, which is the company who makes my duplex tent. I love my tent, but, as I have whined about before, it has some serious splashing issues in the rain that have been more pronounced with 2 people inside. 

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The morning air already felt warm as we tucked ourselves into the woods to get on the trail and cross over the two-lane road by the parking lot. Then came a series of footbridges with a beautiful creekside walk that was moderately flat.

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There were brief upticks in elevation, during which we passed Heart the Call. She asked if we’d seen the giant black snake (presumably a rat snake), but we hadn’t. Yet another instance of timing dictating trail experience. We eventually stopped at a creek to drink a bunch of water and refill our bottles. Our water sources are lopsided today. We pass 4 sources in the first couple of miles and then there’s nothing for another 9 miles, during which we have to make the biggest climb of the day. Yay. We did not pack extra water during our creek stop because the thought of adding water weight to our newly stocked packs was too oppressive.

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Not long after our water stop, we began the nearly constant 3.3 mile climb up to Big Rocky Row. Buckets of sweat poured down our newly laundered clothing as we walked over the dusty, rocky trail. We eventually hit very welcomed switchbacks. Along the way, we stopped to collect *poopnuts* for our mileage markers. We took our first break of the morning at the fullers rock overlook, which had an obscured but decent view of the James River. It’s also the point at which I realized that I had left my zseat at Stanimal’s. I think I tucked it underneath my “mattress” (aka torture device) to give my hips a modicum of cushioning, and I forgot to remove it this morning. Oakland demanded that she cut her seat in half so that we could each have a barrier between our rears and the elements until I had a chance to order a new seat from REI. 

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The world showed up as we mowed through snacks and contemplated where to make my 800 mile sign. There were two blown-out overnight backpackers who hiked up without their gear from the shelter at the bottom of the climb. Their two gregarious (and giant) dogs came loping towards us, curious about smells and snacks.

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Then came a VA tech student in sandals who was clearly one of those people whose feet don’t actually touch the ground when they hike. I immediately resented his bounciness, but he was nice enough and seemed to really appreciate his surroundings. We loitered long enough to get the overlook to ourselves again, and I went about making my 800 mile marker while Oakland crafted her overdue 300 mile marker which was posted on the accurate day. 

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Then I brushed the tiny red ants off my pack and we continued north. It felt like we hit a wall of hot air as we rounded a corner and found another hazy view of the James.

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The ridge walk between Little Rocky Row and the next climb was sandy at points and blissfully flat compared to the last hour, but it didn’t take long for the grade to sharpen for the ascent to Big Rocky Row. The switchbacks never really leveled out. We kept turning corners and continuing up (and up) over rocks.

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I heard a bird call out very closely, and looked up to see an indigo bunting sitting at the end of a limb on a dead tree about 20 yards away. It called out again and flew into the treetops. I also saw a large garter snake. We finally crested the last rock pile and ended up on a softer trail over the wooded summit. We took a few minutes to admire another hazy view from a side trail where we ran into the VA tech student contemplating life with his shirt off (why yes, another point of resentment because his body doesn’t get sexualized by systems of power, and he isn’t subject to the same predatory violence so he can wander around in the world without his shirt off on an insanely muggy day). 

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We invaded his space to take a picture of the hazy mountains and order a new seat on REI. A family arrived as I finished up my purchase. The dad told us about a rattlesnake they had just seen (timing!) while his two sons wandered around the overlook. He asked us about our hike and proceeded to give a flurry of unsolicited trail intell that we didn’t need. We politely grunted every now and then while he downloaded and then said our goodbyes and thanked him for his offer to drive us into town if the weather goes south. 

As we walked along the easy and somewhat breezy ridge, the light dimmed, and the imminence of rain made me worry about getting soggy during lunch. The VA tech student made quick work of passing us, followed shortly by the blonde dad with his entire blonde family this time (his wife and daughter hadn’t made it up the hill when we left the overlook). Then came a SOBO backpacker and 2 more women going south on a day hike. Oakland was actively tortured by the desire to take pictures of cool mushrooms while also wanting to make better time. I pointed out an orange anemone-like fungus in a taunting voice, and she said “oh for fucks sake” and stopped to take a picture.

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Not long after the mushroom, we ate lunch on a log near saddle gap trail intersection. As we swatted bugs and crunched away on our respective wraps, we made a water plan for 5 miles away at a gravel road rather than the off-trail source at a shelter. The guthook comments say the road has a good source, and we would save 0.4 mile round trip to the shelter. 

After lunch came a flat, winding trail that was an imperceptible descent until we eventually went back up for a steady climb up to the summit of bluff mountain where the pillars of an old fire tower stood. Just before the summit, we passed a monument to a child who wandered off and died nearby. It’s hard to imagine weathering that kind of event. I didn’t take pictures because it felt too morbid. 

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We admired the pointy, wave-like cluster of mountains in the distance and took in the view of Buena Vista, VA. The flies were relentless as I sat on concrete fire tower remains trying to write notes (after having given the cracks a thorough snake check). 

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The trail took us back into the woods and downhill over loose rocks that weren’t awful, but were shifty enough to make my ankle tired. We walked through a laurel tunnel that widened and narrowed and switched over to other trees after awhile.

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Oakland had been quietly chewing on some anxieties behind me that we ended up discussing as we inched our way down the mountain and then over a few doodley-doos. I stopped to admire the array of textures in the ground cover around us:

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We descended down to the parkway at punchbowl mountain overlook. Oakland dumped her tuna trash (yay!) while I admired a couple of spiders on the AT signpost.

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Then we headed back into the woods below the parkway to a dirt road intersection where other hikers have left comments about finding water. We followed the directions off-trail and found a little stream that thankfully had a great flow. We filtered and drank water from above the little dirt road and had snacks carefully nestled amongst bits of broken glass from who knows what kind of jackass that would use this as a place to drink and litter. 3.8 more miles to go. I felt felt wiped and sore, and Oakland said she was basically sleepwalking, but we were both happy that it hadn’t rained yet. 

We walked back up the gravel road to the trail intersection and took a left to head north. The trail immediately started climbing through laurels and the occasional rhododendron patch. We grumbled our way through a series of rollercoaster hills.

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The trees eventually transitioned over to pines. My left knee felt stiff and my right knee decided to start occasionally pinching on the ups. Whenever one pain would subside, another took over. I felt like a traveling ache, but kept putting one foot in front of the other and tried my best to engage my core to keep some of the work out of my legs. Oakland scuffed and crunched behind me as we made our way through the sweltering woods. After about an hour of walking, the trail gained some elevation and took us into an even hotter and less shady section, which made us both groan.

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Thankfully it didn’t take too long for us to head back down into shade. Of course then we went right back up (AT rules), but at least we had slightly cooler temperatures than an oven because of the leaf canopy.

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We made it over the last climb around 5:15 and stopped to pee at a  cluster of very large cut logs. I asked Oakland to step down the trail a few feet so I could sit on a rock to pee. I didn’t want to put weight on my cranky knees in a crouching position, so I dropped my pants, sat at the edge of a rock and peed. It was strange, but very effective. Then we both put on Harry Potter to help us get through the 2 miles of downhill standing between us and camp. It’s a bit of a blur with mostly packed earth for footing. The grade was annoyingly steep for the first mile and a half with little in the way of turns or switchbacks. My knees did surprisingly well given how stiff they had been earlier in the day. At one point, we passed a happy cluster of over a dozen circle ferns, which made both of us perk up for a second.

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With about half a mile to get to reservoir road, we heard the sound of a rushing creek and the occasional crunch of a car driving over gravel. I had feared that the road would be way down in the ravine next to us but it turned out to be a reasonable final descent with several switchbacks. As we approached the road, we heard people talking loudly. We got to the intersection at reservoir road and saw a woman talking to a southbound hiker. She hopped back in her car and he walked towards us looking like a sweaty, but happy mess. He was an older man with a hitch in his gait and what looked like sopping wet pants. We asked him if he’d seen any tent sites up ahead in the hopes that he could confirm the stealth site we were planning to use for the night. He thought about it for a second and recalled a few flat sites in pines about a half mile north. He said he’d gotten murky, but sufficient water from the lazy creek in front of us. He wished us a safe hike, of course punctuating the sentence with “girls.”

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We walked across the bridge to check out the water. Neither of us really wanted to use it, but we could hear water rushing into the creek from a little bit upstream. We went back to the southern end of the bridge and dropped our packs and grabbed our filtering gear to go searching for the fast moving stream that fed into the creek (river?). About a hundred yards up the gravel road, we found a goat path down to the stream we’d heard. It looked like snake dwelling, ankle-twisting hell, but we made it down there safely enough. There was a wide culvert where the water went underneath the road.

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We drank some water, topped off all of our vessels, wiped our faces down in a vain attempt to feel cleaner, and went back to the footbridge. I didn’t really want to camp so close to a gravel road, so we didn’t go searching for the tent sites listed in the app. Instead, we continued north up several switchbacks until we got to a small tent site just off the trail. It was exactly where the older man said it would be. The climb made us both sweat profusely, AGAIN. We dropped our packs and sat on a log to eat a snack and make a plan. We decided: Tent first (in case of rain). Then food setup. Then bed setup while food cooks. It was a hard choice between bear line or food, but we figured the late hour (7pm) dictated a meal before taking on the trying task of throwing rope. We used the fire ring as a staging area for our pots while we begrudgingly set up our sleeping gear. 

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Because of the heat, I had absolutely no desire to get in the tent to blow up my air mattress, but I forced myself to go through with it. We both ripped our socks off the second we got in, which made for happier feet and a veritable cloud of dank feet smell. 

We ate dinner on a mossy, sodden log (thank you, zseat) and both reveled in our macaroni based selections while fending off giant black ants. I had cheesy noodles with peas and Oakland had chili Mac. I also forced down a packet of tuna to get some extra protein given the lack of it in my main dish. Then Fritos and snickers. Right as I started opening my dessert, we heard the faint sound of either wind or rain. Given the stillness of the trees around us, I said aloud “is that RAIN?” Earlier we had checked the basic forecast on the gps and it had given us a 10% chance of rain. We both stared into the trees and listened intently to the sound. It got louder, and it became increasingly clear that rain was indeed heading our way. We collected our dinner gear and food bags and made a dash for the tent before the rain actually hit. We closed all the doors and left our food bags under the eaves. I could barely breathe because of the heat, but it was worth it to stay dry. We lay there on our beds laughing with incredulity that it had rained. Of course. Why wouldn’t it??

Around 8:15, we forced ourselves to head back out and throw bear lines. By that point, the moisture hitting the tent was primarily coming from trees. The limb options were slim because of our newly stocked, heavy bags. I found a decent looking limb that Oakland took a crack at, but she finally asked me to throw it. I managed to get the line over after several tries. Because of the way the line had gone over two branches, Oakland couldn’t hoist her bag all the way up, so it wasn’t quite high enough. We decided it would have to do given the waning daylight. I threw my line on the limb I had picked in an adjacent tree. When I yanked on the line, a shower of water fell on my head, and I could immediately tell that it wasn’t strong enough. Thus began the search for a new tree. Oakland went to get her headlamp, and I went past the tent site to try the other direction. I found a tree that seemed plausible. It was tucked several yards off the trail, so we had to bushwhack through the brush. It took about 10 minutes and several fights with the rope getting caught in leaves and twigs, but I finally got it over the intended branch. The rock bag landed around a sapling. When I shone the headlamp to get a look at how it was caught, I found a giant spider scurrying in its web with some poor bug in its grasp. I managed to get the rock bag back without disturbing the web. Then I gave the line a yank and crossed my fingers that it would be strong enough to hold my cinderblock food bag. Unfortunately, my line had also gone over a neighboring cluster of small branches, so I, too, couldn’t hoist my bag all the way up. The final result was nearly identical to Oakland’s: About 9 feet in the air. That would have to do.

We clomped back through the bushes to the trail and each went off to pee. By the time we got in the tent, we had both started sweating again because of the effort of hanging our food. Everything felt sticky and the air continued to be dead still. We donned our headlamps, stripped out of clothes and did a tick check. All clear. At least until I saw something small and black scurry across my pack at the foot of the tent. It turned out to be a large black ant. Sadly it had to die because neither of us wanted to share the tent with something that would bite. Oakland crouched half-naked with her headlamp still on and managed to find the ant in the top of my pack. She crushed it between the layers of fabric, and I applauded her ninja ways feeling very grateful she had taken on the roll as exterminator. I gave her a square of tp to remove the carcass. Then we continued putting on our evening clothes even though the concept of adding layers seemed abominable. Oakland puttered over the maps and her pictures for the day while I wrote up the late afternoon and evening notes. I had no stamina for making the entire day into full sentences, so I gave myself a pass on that effort. I’m finishing this to the sound of water drops smacking the tent, rasping nighttime bugs calling out to each other, Oakland breathing heavily beside me, crickets, and the distant sound of road noise. 

Mile 786.6 to mile 802.2 (15.6) 

Checklist total miles: 811.0 

Oakland total miles: 331.6 

Creature feature: lizards! Two garter snakes, a bunny crossing a gravel road, an American goldfinch in the trailhead parking lot, the indigo bunting, and an oven bird. 

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