Where is the logic in calling one of the oldest rivers in the world the
See what I mean about place names?!
I'll admit it. This was not my favorite 26-mile section of the AT. I was in a
lousy mood starting from the river crossing in the early morning, and my mood
got increasingly worse as the day wore on . . . and on . . . and on.
I did not have fun. I swore I'd never set foot on this section of Trail ever
again, even though it is in the 100-mile jurisdiction of my own maintaining club
(Roanoke AT Club). They couldn't drag me back out there to work if they
paid me, I told myself as I painstakingly crossed yet one more boulder field . .
Two days later, it doesn't look as bad in retrospect. Still, it isn't a
section of the AT that I'd recommend for a run. There are simply too many
difficult rocks to make a run feasible unless you can skim over big rocks set at
an angle. Good luck to Andrew Thompson when he hits this section! He's been
through it twice before, going north, so he knows what to expect. It won't be
any easier when he tries to set his north-to-south speed record this summer,
although he'll do it much faster than my 10-hour time.
"A KICKED FLOOR RUG"
The dramatic narrows near Pearisburg, where the New River breaks through the
wall of mountains to the west (the area known as the New River Gorge in West
Virginia, popular with white-water enthusiasts and adventure racers), mark a
transition between geologic "provinces" as well as an important cultural
North of the river, the direction in which I went today, the AT runs along
the Allegheny Front, in the Peters Mountain Wilderness. The plateau beyond the
front is one of tortuous hills and valleys, including the coal country of West
Virginia and Kentucky. Culturally, it was dominated by small farmers and
squatters unsympathetic to the slave-owning planters farther east, which led to
its split from the rest of Virginia during the Civil War.
Per the AT Guide to Southwest Virginia, The U.S. Geological Survey
describes this geologic province as "alternating beds of hard and soft Paleozoic
sedimentary rocks, folded like the wrinkles in a kicked floor rug." The AT
follows long rocky ridges with steep climbs in and out of the valleys.
So I had a good idea this would be a rough day on the Trail, but I didn't
have a clue just how tough it'd be.
As soon as I stepped out of the truck, I had to cross the bridge over the New
River, a 4/10ths mile span with a safe pedestrian walkway but nerve-wracking
none the less with all the morning traffic whizzing by. I went down some steps
at the far end, walked uphill about 1/4 mile on a road, and entered the woods.
Ahh. Peace and quiet, I thought.
Because of the way the Trail is routed up Peters Mountain, I could hear
industrial noise for about four miles, which took me a good 1 1/2 hours to walk
(at least a 1,700-foot ascent). Even the sound of my labored breathing couldn't
mask the din of the heavy machinery below, which seemed to reverberate through
the valleys and mountains.
Rivers have come to mean one thing to me on the AT: a guaranteed
lengthy and/or steep climb up the other side, since they're the lowest points on
the elevation profiles. At least this climb up Peters Mountain was easier than
the climb up Pearis Mountain, if I'd been going south. All the way down that
2,000-foot descent yesterday I kept thinking, "Man, I'm glad I don't have to
climb up this thing!"
What a weenie!
CATCHING UP TO THE PACK?
The very best part of the day came shortly after the noise stopped and I
could enjoy the silence of the mountain. I came to Rice Field, an extensive open
pasture with rock outcroppings but a fairly runnable trail. The views to the
valleys and mountains in West Virginia on my left were impressive:
There is a nice shelter off to the side of Rice Field, just past a fence with
a stile, where I talked with a young female northbound (NOBO) thru-hiker taking
a break. Her trail name is "TCB," for" Taking Care of Business." While I was there
eating a muffin, two of her male companions arrived that I'd passed a few
Throughout the day I caught up to more NOBO thru-hikers than I've seen in a
week previously. I think I'm finally catching up to the tail end of the "bubble"
of hikers that started in March and April.
Another clue is that I found the second "trail magic" offering today, just
past Stony Creek - a large cooler packed with cold soft drinks, candy, and a
register. I peeked, but since it was pouring down rain, I quickly closed the lid
and went on so the rain wouldn't ruin the candy wrappers or register. That was
very nice of the "trail angel" who provided the goodies! (Often a local
resident who also hikes.)
LUNCH IN WEST VIRGINIA
Along much of this 12+ mile ridge I was doing the two-state-step like I did
with the Tennessee/North Carolina state line over and over, only this time it
was West Virginia under my left foot and Virginia under my right foot. Cool - my
fifth state, sort of. I still have lots of Virginia to cover before hitting the
WV state line again, though.
The other sign of progress today is that we started on our fourth set of maps
and guide book, of eleven total.
Part of this long ridge was runnable, but most was not. There were lots of
interesting rock formations on either side of the ridge as well as in the middle
of the trail. I didn't find the ones on the Trail to be so fascinating, though.
Around noon, I found a boulder "with my name on it," made myself at home, and
took a little break while admiring the scenic West Virginia countryside 1,700
At the north end of the ridge (designated Pine Swamp Ridge), I began a mostly
runnable descent from 3,900 feet to the second shelter at 2,500 feet. There were
pines, but I didn't see anything resembling a swamp - just rhododendron thickets
and a creek (Pine Swamp Branch).
The shelter was packed with seven hikers (mostly young thru-hikers) who were
all interested in reading the register entries their friends had written, so I
didn't get a chance to sign or read that one. At Rice Fields, I noticed that
Warren Doyle's group had been there yesterday and was doing the same distance I
am today. That gave me hope I might catch up to them tomorrow if my segment is
longer than theirs.
THE STONY CREEK INCIDENT
Soon after the Pine Swamp Branch shelter the AT comes to, but doesn't cross,
paved VA 635. There was a sign posted on a tree that indicated the bridge across
Stony Creek two miles up the Trail was washed out last fall by Hurricane Jeanne,
and it hasn't been replaced. The alternate, for those who don't want to ford the
creek, was to walk 1 1/2 miles up VA 635 (a narrow road with large trucks) and
rejoin the AT where it crosses the road.
I looked at the creek, which is as wide as some rivers I've crossed. It
didn't look that deep or fast there, and I was going upstream where it should be
smaller (ha!). Someone had hand-written on the sign to go ahead and ford it
upstream, that it wasn't bad.
You already know how determined I am to follow the white blazes, not the "bad
weather" or other blue-blazed routes. So of course I didn't take the
By half a mile I was questioning my judgment. The Trail was gnarly, slick
from yesterday's hard rain, with steep PUDs (pointless ups and downs). I was
slipping and sliding around, already fatigued from miles and miles of rocks on
And what if yesterday's rain (2-3" fell on some parts of the New River
Valley) had made the creek deeper and more swift at the crossing ahead of me?
Maybe it was a narrower channel that would look much different than it did where
the sign was posted.
I forged ahead, determined. I was ahead of schedule, and should have time to
retrace my steps if I couldn't cross the creek where the bridge was washed out.
Then I fell hard on a slanted, wide, slick rock. I landed on the side of my
right arm and slid down, down, down. It hurt. A lot.
I laid there and surveyed the damage: nasty "road rash" from my wrist
to my elbow, bleeding, full of grit, with two bulging hematomas that went away
in about an hour. My right knee was bleeding at the same spot I had injured it
in a fall a week or more ago.
I cleaned up with some tissues and a Wet Wipe, then trudged on to a little
creek feeding into Stony Creek, where I washed the wounds as best as I could. I
didn't think my arm was broken or cracked, because it didn't hurt to use my
trekking pole with that hand, but it throbbed with pain. I was too damp with
sweat and the high humidity to put on any bandages, which I carry with me in my
NO RAIN, NO PAIN, NO MAINE
I trudged another mile to the creek crossing. There were imposing steps made
from railroad ties on either side of the broad creek, but no span connecting
them. That must have been some flood! In nearby Roanoke we had two storms last
August and September, hurricane remnants, where we got 6" of rain each time in one or two
days, causing serious flooding of the Roanoke River and local creeks. This area
was also affected, obviously.
I made sure my cell phone and camera were in plastic bags before fording the
river. It wasn't bad. The cold water felt good, my trekking pole helped give me
stability as I stepped between the slick rocks to find gravel to step on, and
the water was only about mid-calf deep. I was across without incident (but with
caution!) in about a minute.
Then the heavens opened up and it poured down rain. I was glad I was at a
lower elevation (2,450 feet), with the lightning all around. Of course, the next
part was a 1,650-foot climb up Big Mountain to today's high elevation of 4,100
feet! I passed the trail angel's cooler with drinks and candy and trudged rather
stoically up that mountain to the next shelter, Bailey Gap.
A nice 30-ish section-hiking couple was there and gladly shared the trail
register. I was so drenched that I didn't read any entries, just signed my usual
greetings and continued on so I didn't get too cold. I was about on schedule to
meet Jim, but got concerned when the SOBO couple told me how rocky the Trail was
for the next couple miles. They were so tired out from it that they were
considering spending the night right where they were.
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
I was tired from negotiating around, over, and through all the previous
rocks, rattled from my fall, and soaking wet in the rain.
I was not having fun. I didn't even want to socialize with other hikers
Then I hit one of the worst stretches of rocks and boulders I've encountered
in 650 miles. I was convinced of diabolical scheming by the nasty trail
designers who either deliberately routed the AT through the rockiest part of
that mountain, or actually moved rocks into the Trail to make it harder.
My mind thinks funny thoughts after eight hours of misery!
This section also didn't help my sore right leg/calf any. It wasn't swollen,
but started to hurt again after five hours on the Trail. I had called Jim
earlier in the hike (can't even call today's effort a "run") to ask him to make
an appointment with my orthopedist later this week so I could find out what's
wrong with it. That was before I banged up my arm, too.
It took what seemed an eternity to get through those two miles of rocks and
another 2.7 miles of less-rocky trail to our rendezvous point. I was one whipped
puppy when I got there. The rocks won today. Jim had an equally bad day dealing
with the camper brakes and hours of driving, so it was a long (1 1/2 hour),
quiet drive home.
It was undoubtedly my worst day on the Trail.
We didn't get home until 7:30 PM. We had to clean up, get dinner, and get
everything ready for the next day's run. We were both exhausted when we got to
bed later than we wanted. Lack of sleep is wearing me down as much as the Trail.
What will tomorrow bring?