Two Sides. Same Coin?

In the span of less than a week, I discovered two thru-hiker news stories online. The first told the tale of 75 year-old Tom Young from North Myrtle Beach, SC who conquered the stretch from Springer to Katahdin in a week shy of six months. A few days later I came across the story of 26 year-old Joe McConaughy, who did the same deed, but in the course of his trip shattered both the supported and unsupported (he carried a 25-pound pack the entire way) speed record by landing at the “Northern Terminus” sign in 45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes.

Most people fall heavily on one side of the following argument or the other: Is it more fulfilling to hike for enjoyment, like Tom “Grey Eagle” Young, or hike with a mission, like Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy?

I land somewhere in the middle. Back in my halcyon days of 26.2 milers, I was totally mission minded. A marathon was something to be conquered, not enjoyed. The enjoyment came after the race. And when I tackle my first week-long section hike on the AT, there will definitely be a mission mindset at play. Given X number of days to complete X number of miles, one can’t help but assign goals to the thing. However, I’m hoping to schedule myself enough hiking days so that, while staying focused on time/distance markers, I’m not hammering my body to achieve them and allowing myself some rose-sniffing opportunities along the way.

Of course, age and ability play a part for me, too. I was never an elite marathoner; my PR was 3:28, so I never expected to run with the human tornadoes when the gun went off. Likewise, even if I was in my twenties I couldn’t maintain the pace of a world-class ultra athlete like Stringbean. I’m thinking shooting for 100 days would have been an aggressive enough goal for me.

Today, being north of fifty and all? Let’s just say that this blog isn’t called “Slowing Down to Enjoy the View” for nothing…


Over the River and Through the Woods

…to Matts Creek Shelter we go! Doesn’t quite have the same panache as the original, I know. But it was a nice, easy (and short) hike on a beautiful summer morning. I started from the parking lot off US 501 at the foot of the James River Foot Bridge (pun not intended). It was such a surreal experience to be traversing this span, having read about it (and the exploits of those who have illegally *cough cough* jumped from it) in so many journals and post-hike tomes:


There’s a nice plaque that pays homage to the AT legend after whom it’s named once you land on the other side:


A hard right took me under the ubiquitous tree canopy that is the hallmark of the Appalachian Trail, and along the James River. It was easy, essentially flat terrain with numerous cover breaks that allowed me to peek at the river and a few folks fishing its length. I even stopped to grab a shot of the bridge about a half mile in:


I had barely worked up a decent pace when the trail turned left to follow Matts Creek. Same easy terrain, same lack of elevation, same tree cover. It was such a peaceful morning, and I was grateful for the release from the (seemingly) never-ending tyranny of job hunting.

I passed a husband and wife heading back to their car with a very happy black labrador, and a few minutes later was standing at the shelter, a casual two miles from the trailhead:


I had feared, given its proximity to both US 501 and the Blue Ridge Parkway that this poor site would be the poster child for anti-Leave No Trace. I’m pleased to report that it was in good shape, including the privy:


After a short break spent sitting on the picnic table, I crossed the creek for a quick jaunt up the rise across from the shelter. That was to be the only real elevation I saw on this short hike, but it was enough to give my cardio system a bit of a workout. I went only halfway up the mountain before making the turn to, uh…return.

Back at the shelter I saw three backpackers approaching, and stopped to chat. One of them looked positively fired up; the other two looked wrung out. The fired-up one was chatty and friendly; the others silent. It only took a minute or two to discover why: the chatty one was a flip-flopping thru-hiker. He started at Shenandoah National Park in the spring and hiked to/crested Katahdin, and was now heading southbound to Springer. His two lifelong friends had opted to join him for a short section, and were paying a heavy price for that decision. I can’t even imagine how those poor guys were feeling, trying to keep up with a guy who had gained his trail legs while hiking just over 1400 miles! I wished him well (and silently wished the other two good luck) and headed back towards the trailhead.

The return trip flew by, and before I knew it I was sitting on the bridge steps eating a snack and enjoying the lazy passing of the river. Next trip out that way I’ll go north and see what’s in the woods on that side of the road…


Note: In the past I’ve lamented how newspeople keep telling aspiring/practicing hikers to “Never Hike Alone!” Well, there was a billboard at the trailhead with a section labeled, “Recreation in Bear Country”. Care to guess what the first “tip for safety” was? Yep. Hike in groups and stay close together. Well, I passed two people and a dog on the way out, saw three hikers at the shelter and passed two couples, one with a dog on the way back. So I did hike with a group. We just got spread waaaay out…



Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a monster of a scenic route that stretches 469 miles, connecting Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Along the way, there are scads of scenic turnouts and opportunities for day hikes. Sharp Top, spot of a previous day hike, is off the Parkway. I decided to jump on in Big Island, VA to check out a couple of places.

First, Otter Creek falls. No hiking involved, and pretty much no falls, either. We’ve enjoyed a beautiful, essentially rain-free summer here, which means that typically rushing water sources are now trickling ones. And when those trickles hit spots that are meant to be falls, well…Otter Creek was pretty dry, a theme that would repeat itself later on.

(Note: When I see low water sources, I immediately think of the difficulty of procuring sufficient drinking water by distance hikers. Yikes)

Next, heading south I stumbled upon the Thunder Ridge Overlook. Stunning view.


Standing on the point with outstretched arms, it was easy to feel a “I’m the king of the world!” moment as the valley spread out beneath me. There was no real hiking here either, but this particular turnoff had one key advantage: the path from the parking lot to the overlook bisected the AT. My wife, a good sport who doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm for spending days lost in the wilderness (especially in snake country) can now lay claim to something her friends cannot: She has hiked a small section of the Appalachian Trail:


From there we moseyed down the Parkway to Fallingwater Cascades. Now, this one features a .75 mile out-and back with some elevation gain on the return trip. Remember how I mentioned a lack of water previously? Well, the same held true at the “falls” we trekked in to visit. Easy/interesting terrain:


But walking the distance without the reward of a crashing water fall at the end was a bit of a letdown. It was so much of a letdown, I’m not even going to post a photo of the waterfall, just one of me crossing the bridge that spans the top of it:


Note the brackish puddle center-left in the above. I should have known that a lack of rushing water at the top would lead to a lack of a waterfall on the trek down to the base.

Regardless, a perfect day for being out-and-about, and a couple of places to revisit after it rains for a bit. Like late spring, maybe? In the meantime, planning my first short solo hike on the AT out of the Big Island area.

But that’s for next week’s post. Happy hiking!