Thursday, 14 June 2012

Hello Everyone! Yes, I bet you were all starting to think I had fallen of the edge of the world. Nearly.
I am in Damascus, Virginia! I like this town very much. It is a beautiful little town of about 1000 people, friendly and very pretty - and a sight for sore feet. I am on my second day here. My feet have been hurting and making walking painful as well as slowing me down. Add to that the factor of just plain tiredness and I felt this was (is) a good place to rest and put my feet up for a few days. Thet are much better today though a bit swollen still.

Ok. My last update was on 22 May in Gatlinburg. That was a fun town and I had a good stay there.
I managed to hitch a ride back up to Newfound Gap, where I had left  the trail, on the 23rd. I had to wait a while while a fallen tree was cleared from the road. Lots of rain the day before and that night, and a tree had come down. Driving back up into the Smokies I realised again just what an up-and-down world it is up there. Steep forested mountainsides plunge and rear dramatically and you are REALLY glad you are walking along the ridgelines and not trying to go up and down them (so much). It's a strange feeling to be seeing sky through the trees when you're looking down.

Well, I got back onto the trail, it was threatening rain again, and headed North. A short distance along, who should I run into, but the botanist girl from Rock Gap above Franklin! Exactly 10 days later, same time of day, same circumstances (me getting back on the trail and not far from the road), raining (soon to be) and her looking for plants. Weird. We said hello, laughed about it and I headed off. Because it was an early afternoon start, I only went 10.4 miles.

The next day was my birthday. 45! Now what the heck is that supposed to mean? I got up early and walked 20 miles that day, my first 20 miler. It was a long day mostly alone with a few meetings during the day. I walked past the wreckage of a F4 (?) fighter jet which crashed in the 70s. I wasn't really thinking much about anything that day except the walking and thoughts of all you guys (and life and stuff), but mostly it was just a quiet day. I got to Davenport Gap Shelter at about 6 or 7, not too late. This shelter is one of the last to actually have a cage over the front to keep out bears (the cages were taken down at the other shelters because idiots were feeding bears through the cages). 2 friends were there along with a third guy I had seen before. They were tired and quiet and went to sleep early, and so I spent the end of my birthday having a quiet contemplative moment as I brushed my teeth in the twighlight. Those of you who know me, know this takes some time.

Davenport Gap marks the end of the Smoky Mountains National Park. Next day I walked with my 2 hiking buddies down to the I-40 underpass and stopped in at the Standing Bear hostel. We had lunch there and re-supplied, and then pushed on to Groundhog Creek Shelter. This is a small 6 person shelter with a lovely water source (a big deal on the trail) and there were a fair number of folks there, most of whom I knew already. They all mostly camped, but I spent  the night in the shelter with a quiet and pleasant father and daughter who were hiking together. And then: WONDER! When it was full dark, fireflies or lightening bugs began to display. From pitch black darkness 1 or 2 would flash and then the others would join in until there was a crescendo of bright flashes which then gradually died away to complete dark again. It was like watching camera flashes at a concert, when they all try to flash at the same time, and it was all around us 360 degrees. I watched till I couldn't any more, and fell asleep. Definitely one of the highlights.

Next day we walked 23 miles to Deer Park Shelter, just above Hot Springs, North Carolina. For much of this section of the trail over the past and coming weeks we had walked along a line roughly following the North Carolina / Tennessee border.
Hot Springs is a popular town for hikers, rafters and people visiting the hot springs (I didn't, preferring to rest and sleep).  I checked into Elmer's Sunnybank Inn, a grand Victorian-style house which was first built in 1848. It was later redone in the above mentioned style for its heyday as a holiday residence for a famous and wealthy family. The interior is still pretty much unchanged. Elmer is a thru-hiker and a buddist monk, and he serves up wondreful vegetarian meals for those guests who sign up for them.
My hiking buddies went across the river (French Broad R.) to camp along the bank where it is free. I had a look around and preferred to stay at Elmer's where I could get clean, have a shave etc, and organise to was clothes. That next to the river scene has attracted a fair share of low-lifes and the homeless, and it is a bit of a drugs and booze scene, which I had and have no interest in. Others that I know had a good experience camping there but I was happy to give it a miss.  So, I spent Memorial Day in Hot Springs and on the Sunday night I met a lovely family, Mark and Sonya Edmonds, who we met at Deer Park the night before. They are both in the millitary and he is a paratrooper, the OC (I think) of a unit in Fort Bragg which tests new and experimental equipment for the paras and special forces. Very interesting. They invited me to join them, their 2 children (boy and girl) and mother (Sonya's, I think) at dinner. We had a great time talking about what they did and my days at 44 Parachute Brigade, where I witnessed the development of the Jackal mini-jeep (light but with a Ford-Escort engine) which gave our Bats the ability to move really quickly over distance and carry and pull some serious ordinance. He knew about the Jackal but didn't know that it was names after a Major Jaeckal (?) who was at the unit and was the man who headed up the team (at least at 44).They were very keen to know about my journey and why I was doing it. They are a really great family, one of the many friendly and generous people I have met. I had spoken a little about missing family and friends,  especially on my birthday which was by then a few days before. They had started eating before me and so were nearly finished when my Rib-eye steak with sweet potato fries arrived. I had decided to give myself a belated birthday treat. They finished and left before me after we swapped addresses and details, but when I came to pay, I found that Mark had paid my bill! That was generosity that meant a great deal to me. thank you Mark and Sonya.

Next day I took a "Zero Day" (zero miles), just to have a rest. The day after I set out again.
I have walked through some truly beautiful country. And rain. The day I left Hot Springs it rained in the afternoon and then was cold with more rain and mist that night. We had a full shelter that night and all seemed fine and cosy, until I got up for a wee break from sleeping. As I came out of the shelter I found a young guy crouched against the shelter wall. He seemed to have very little on. When I came back, I had another look at him and sure enough, he was only wearing shorts. For this we have named him "Shorts Guy." I asked hi:"Aren't you cold?" "Yuuh." I said, "Where are your things?" He said he had had all his stuff stolen in Hot Springs and was now walking back to Virginia. "Not like that you aren't. " I said. I pointed out that there was no way he was going to get to VA without clothes, food, pack or even shoes (he really only had shorts). I then pointed out that what he should have done was go to the police or found some friends or phoned someone - anything but what he had done: "What the hell were you thinking?!"  I gave him my spare shirt and Swithchback gave him a foil blanket, which probably saved his life, as it was easily cold enough that night for someone (un)dressed like him to die of hypothermia. In the morning we gave him some food and sent him on his way back to Hot Springs. I never heard if he got there or not, and I don't believe his story about being robbed. A more likely secenario, we decided, is that he got drugged out of his head, set out for VA, found himself in the cold and dark and pressed on to the next shelter. He didn't announce his arrival or ask for help which is probably due to the effects of the cold. If there had been no one at the shelter, he might have died.

3 days later, going up a mountain called Big Bald, it started to rain again. "Ok, just another thunderstorm." I thought. Then the wind picked up and began blasting rain sideways. as I was on the windward side of the mountain I was getting it. My pack and torso stayed dry thanks to my pack-cover and poncho, and my legs were warm enough as they were working, but my forearms and hands got cold. By the time I got to the top and out on the bald I was in a fighting mood.
I went out on to the bald with the rain blasting me from behind. Up to the summit (of course) where I couldn't see a thing for the mist and rain, and then down at 90 degrees to the way I came up. "Good," I thought, "this is the way down out of this wind and ultimately to the shelter which is not far off."  But oh no. The path then went back parallel to the way I had come and the wind and rain was now in my face! Why?! Then it did this collywobble and went back again at 180 degrees (so now I'm heading back across the bald in the same direction I first came up to the summit.) and THEN curved back to directly opposite the summit point, before switching back and Finally heading in the right direction. I could see the posts which marked the path, easily: this was all within a short distance. Why?! Even in clear weather there seems little point in this random wandering across a very short distance. Your view really won't change much. But in driving wind, thick mist and blasting rain, it was pointless, infuriating and possibly dangerous when you really need to get into the lee of the mountain. There are now wide swathes of blue grass up there where my command of Anglo Saxon and Afrikaans got a full workout. Sorry everyone. Still, at the time I thought it was better (safer) to be aggressive/angry and fighting through than to be becoming quiet, withdrawn and resigned (not a good sign). As I was walking along I  was thinking of that installment of Born Survivor (Bear Grills) in which he demonstrated the dangers of exactly such a situation. He wouldn't have survived and he had to stop the demmo when it was clear that he couldn't find a way to make shelter from the driving wind and rain - and the cold in time to not get severe hypothermia. Unlike him, however, I had rain gear, and apart from my forearms, my body was warm, even my soaked legs, because they were working hard. I later found out that the rain was due to a massive tropical storm which had come through.
When I got down to the (very nice) shelter, 2 friends, Stetti Yetti and his brother Switchback were there along with a subdued party of cold but no longer wet older people, all in their sleeping bags. After supper, when the rain had stopped, we actually got a really good fire going from dry wood which we foraged up. We are still proud of this.

The next morning was cold (gloves were worn, for a little while) but we set off for Erwin, Tennessee, where once they hung an elephant. Read all about it here:
I spent one night in Erwin at the hostel called "Uncle Johnny's." I didn't particularly like the place or some of the staff, and resupplied and left the next morning.

I camped under a powerline that night, which seemed to panic some deer that grazed there at night and then made it into the Greasy Creek Friendly (not hostel - geddit?) next night. This is run by Connie, who is a lovely lady with a great little house and bunkhouse but a psycho neighbor who seems to hate everyone though Connie and hikers are especially picked upon. Before hikers it was the hunters. He he vandalised, harassed and plagued Connie for years and will do things seemingly just out of spite - like driving his mower around his yard at 6am. The reason the bunkhose has no windows id to keep it dark inside for those who wish to sleep and cool in summer, warm in winter as well as giving no extra targets for The Hostile. Despite all this, Connie's place is peaceful and cosy and a welcome treat on the trail - you can buy Ben and Jerry's there! And eat it while watching videos!

The next day was a big day. Not so much in distance (16.4miles) but in altitude. The trail went up (and up) Roan Mountain, from 4034 feet at Greasy Creek Gap to 6217 feet at the top. Stunningly beautiful country up, on top and over. This was followed by Round Bald and Jane Bald, big open hills with some flowering rhododendron in places. I got in to Overmountain shelter late-ish and found a bunch of the gang there. Others came in later. The shelter is a converted barn, which sounds great, but I found it quite draughty as the sides are slatted with planks and gap which let the wind and mist pass right through. Still, it has a good roof. It also had a bat and a firefly flying around upstairs at one stage of the night.
Next day we were climbing again and came over the rest of the Roan Highlands - through another rain storm, yay - over the North Carolina/Tennessee border and finally on past Jone Falls (and you'll be jonesing for a chance to visit after you see the photos); and on to a new and three storied shelter called Mountaineer Shelter. It was up and down terrain for the last part and my feet were sore. This is probably where I hurt them.

Kincora! Oh hiker's paradise! This is a hostel run by the famous Bob Peoples, a retired senior airforce officer who also heads up the local trail club which maintains and improves this section of the trail, from south of Roan Mountain to the Tennessee/ Virginia border. Thanks to their efforts, the way up Roan Mountain and the following balds is a LOT less painful than it could be. It is in fact, a pleasure.   Bob is a very interesting man who seems to have been involved in a lot of interesting history, from the Cold War to covert operations in Central America and against Libya in the 80s. He is also an animal lover and he, I, Deererunner and Princess, who all spent a zero day at Kincora next day, talked up quite a storm. You wouldn't want to get on his bad side, but then you wouldn't unless you really deserved it anyway.

And so on to Watauga Dam and Lake the next day (9 June). I climbed up and over Pond Mountain after going past Laurel Falls - not as big as Jones Falls but beautiful nevertheless - and down to Watauga lake. I had lunch, a swim and then pressed on to the dam wall, which the trail crosses.
I was looking around for a water source when I met a photographer who took my photo (he later emailed my a copy) and told me I could get water at the nearby visitors center restrooms. This I did, and while I was looking about and weighing up possible (but unsatisfactory) campsites, I got chatting to a husband and wife from nearby Elisabethville called Lou and Linda. They told me about the official (but secure and with showers and water on tap) campsite at the base of the dam. I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a night there. They then offered to take me down there, did so, and while I was putting up my tent - to secure my spot - Lou , bless him, told me he would pay for my site. This kind of unexpected generosity to strangers has completely blown me away time and time again. Lou and Linda, you rock!
Next morning I was up early and headed up and over the ridgeline above Watauga Lake. It was  a long day of 20.4 miles down to Double Springs Shelter, and by now my feet were hurting but it was made easier by some trail magic of snacks and cold sodas left by a local church group of Trail Angels. I was keen to get on over the border into Virginia and down to Damascus. I did some celebrating when I crossed the border, but I limped in to Damascus.

I love Damascus! I was so tired I spent a night at "Dave's Hostel", which at $21 a night is pretty overpriced for what you get. I met up by accident with Princess the next morning at breakfast in a diner. It was her last day in town as she had finished her hiking and was going back to Canada. She's Austrailan but lives in Canada with her British boyfriend. She told about the Hiker's Inn: a lovely hostel where even the "bunkhouse has mattresses with sheets, duvets, pillows with pillowcases and even bedside lamps! All was clean and spick and span and run by a great couple, Paul and Lee for only $25 a night. Paul is Belgian and so he and I had fun speaking to each other in Flemish (him) and Afrikaans (me); and so it was here that I spent the next 3 days while my feet recovered. There is a great restaurant and bar called Quincy's where the food is really good, reasonably priced (actually very well priced for the huge amounts you get) and the music was hot 80s hits, some of which I only ever heard once in the 80s. Now who could ask for more, eh?
Damascus is a Trail town, and very friendly to the hikers and cyclist who are always coming through. I have very fond memories of Damascus.