2019, Off And Running. I Mean, Hiking

On December 31st I lamented at length in this space about my lack of hiking miles for 2018. I was given the opportunity 24 hours later to start my 2019 on the highest of notes. I mean, how could I waste a 60-degree, breezy New Year’s Day on running?

The original plan was to drive out to the Punchbowl turnout on the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike in to visit the Punchbowl Shelter on the way to Bluff Mountain. Well, this novice Virginian didn’t realize the BRP is closed to vehicle traffic this time of year, so the only way to access the AT and hike that section involved some pretty odd and lengthy rerouting on isolated roads. Jace and I scrapped that plan, and opted instead to go to my favorite local spot, the James River trailhead in Big Island, and hike out to and beyond Matts Creek (my writer brain so wants to add that “silent” apostrophe!) Shelter for a 6-mile round trip hike to start the year. Jace had never been out to the shelter, and I had never been more than a half-mile beyond it, so we would both get to see some new trail.

It was, given the record-setting rainfall in 2018, wet and spongy on this section. In fact, I saw water flowing in places I’d never seen water before.

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Impromptu waterfall. I wished for a slower shutter speed for dramatic blurring.

The dreary-ish winter landscape did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this trip through the trees. I was so excited to start the year on the AT! We made quick work of the two miles out to the shelter, then crossed over the swollen creek and began to climb.

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Over the creek, hard right turn, and uphill for the next mile.

The ascent to the ridge was a decent cardio workout, and the crest provided us with some nice views of the James and surrounding mountains.

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This view would probably be nearly or even totally obstructed in summer, another advantage of winter trekking.

We made the turn at three miles, and pounded back down the ridge for a quick break at the shelter. I found a nice rock along the creek and sat for a few peaceful minutes, enjoying the rush of the water and silence of the woods. I’ll have to go back on a warmer day with a sandwich and a good book and stay there for a bit.

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I placed my phone on my knee for this shot, to capture my actual view up the creek from the rock where I rested.

We headed back towards the car, passing two pairs of fellow hikers, and one solo trekker out for a hike and a smoke. We had a good chuckle about that one as we neared the bridge and the end of our journey.

It was a great morning for a trip to the woods, and we made the most of our New Year’s Day. As an added bonus, I’ve already hiked almost 20% of the miles I did in 2018, and this year is one day old…

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Moving Forward. In Reverse.

Yeah, that title doesn’t really make sense on the surface. Then again, neither does having the most running miles and least hiking miles I’ve had during this great transition experiment, now completing its third year.

According to my master plan, I’m supposed to be seeing a decrease in running miles and an increase in hiking miles year-to-year. That’s the whole point of the exercise (pun intended). So, in that context, I’m moving forward with my transition, but (temporarily) in reverse.

Year one established the benchmarks. Year two followed the hoped-for pattern, with an increase in hiking miles neatly aligned with a decrease in running mileage in relation to year one. So far, so good. This year? A new high for running miles, with a corresponding new low for hiking miles. A maddening reversal. *Sigh*

I could trot out the usual reasons I’ve mentioned in this space before, such as moving to a new place, or having to juggle two or more schedules with one car. Or the fact that I can run by simply stepping out my front door, while a hike involves the aforementioned scheduling issues as well as travel/logistical ones. How about a nice shiny new issue, the horrid weather? 48% of our days in 2018 featured measurable rain, on the way to piling up the wettest year on record. Now, I’m not concerned with getting caught in unexpected rain while hiking (it’s happened a few times), but I balk at purposefully tackling a day hike during a torrential, wind-driven downpour. And several planned day hikes were washed out this year. (Multi-day hikes, on the other hand, are like running marathons to my mindset; given the advance planning required, they will happen regardless of weather)

The absolute truth, though, is that I’m still battling the run-first mentality. The reality is that I had numerous opportunities to hike where I opted, for whatever reason, to run instead. That’s probably the biggest issue I face.

Here’s believing that 2019 will feature my best hiking year and worst running year ever. Assuming I can get my brain to accept “worst running year ever” as a victory…

I’ve Never Seen So Many

Blowdowns. Sure, I’ve had to scramble over and/or around fallen trees on the AT many times before, but this little journey from the Route 43 trailhead out to Bobblet’s Gap would feature blowdowns in epic proportions. As in, dozens and dozens. And dozens of them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up…

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A beautiful sky. That’s Sharp Top on the left.

The sky was beginning to clear and the temps rise as my son-in-law/usual hiking partner Jace and I set out from the car to climb up to the section of the AT in this area of Peaks of Otter that follows the Blue Ridge Parkway. Almost immediately, we hit a mishmash of tree limbs blocking the trail, but made our way around the obstacle and across a narrow brook and continued our ascent.

Then we hit another downed tree. Fifty yards later, another. And another. And still more. Some spots featured such a knot of trunks and branches that we had to completely circumvent the area.

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Welcome to the AT!
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Yes, there’s trail here. Somewhere.

We waged war against the poor tangled masses until we hit elevation and popped out onto the Parkway. In spite of everything landscape-wise being pretty much dead and dying, the sky was a stunning complement to the views.

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Sharp Top once again in the background. It would be featured in every shot taken off that side of the ridge.
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Thanks for Leaving No Trace, Chuck and Amanda! (Yes, that’s sarcasm)

Crossing over the Parkway, we began the gentle descent into Bobblet’s Gap, and arrived at the shelter ready to inhale lunch. The bubbling brook nearby was running to the edge of its banks as we sat and ate our food and enjoyed the solitude. Note: One nice thing about hiking this section in November is the strip of Parkway that runs through it is closed to vehicle traffic for the season. So even though we could see the ribbon of asphalt through the trees in many spots, there were no cars racing past to ruin the peacefulness of the hike.

We had our battles with the dead trees for that.

It reached a point where we began dragging the smaller ones we could manage off the trail, giving the local ATC a head start on what will no doubt be a busy spring cleanup. I might even volunteer to come out and help when they do hit this section. The number of fallen trees is appallingly impressive. (When we were driving down off the mountain at hike’s end, the roadside was littered with copious amounts of blowdowns)

In spite of the extra workout and off-trail mileage accrued in order to avoid large tangles of downed trees, our belated OptOutside hike (couldn’t get out on Friday, the actual OptOutside day) was a smashing success.

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Again, there’s Sharp Top in the crook of the tree…

I’m currently shopping a camera to take on future hikes. My phone screen couldn’t fend off the glare, so most of the time I was literally shooting blind, as some of these photos attest…you can only accomplish so much in post!