Burning Off The Turkey

Less than forty-eight hours after the annual gorge-fest known as Thanksgiving, I dragged my son-in-law and his new Gregory Zulu 40 pack down to Daleville to do a ten mile out-and-back north to the Fullhardt Knob shelter.

Virginia Hills

It was a beautiful day in southwest Virginia, and we took full advantage of the forty degree morning to launch our quest after a brief hiccup on my part. While gearing up for this trip, it never dawned on me that we were smack in the middle of firearm deer hunting season here. And idiot that I am, I wore a white hat, not realizing until we hit Daleville the error in my choice. We tried unsuccessfully to find a different hat at the stores near the trailhead. So I resigned myself to a day without eye shade. Fortunately, I was only blinded a few times, and quickly adjusted to the result of my lack of sound judgment.

This was an important trip for us for several reasons: First, neither of us had done a double-digit day hike before, so we wanted to see how we would do. Second, my son-in-law was anxious to not only try out his new pack, but to drag his hammock out of storage and see if it was still in good shape. Third, well…we wanted to start a fire in the pit at the shelter and cook over it. You know, like cavemen have done for ages. Finally, we needed to gauge our fitness the next morning to determine how prepared we were for a future overnight. It’s one thing to hike ten miles then take the next day off. It’s another to hike ten miles, get up the next morning and do it again. Well, we found out the answer to that question, for sure. I’ll get to that later.

The first two miles went quickly, a fact for which I was glad because they hugged civilization a bit too much for my liking. The roar of passing cars from Interstate 81 kind of sucked the wilderness experience from the early part of our trek. Finally we began to move away from the cacophony of man and up, up into the hills, though train whistles and planes passing overhead remained throughout the day.

AT Sun Flare

I was surprised to note afterwards that we had gained 2,141 feet in elevation. It didn’t feel like it as, once we climbed out of the lowlands, the trail pretty much hugged the ridge to the shelter. But the Garmin doesn’t lie. Maybe I’m in better shape than I imagined? Or maybe a bunch of it was gained on this insane, 45-degree hill in a cow pasture (I took the first picture from the top of it) that we tackled on the return trip. Seriously, you could almost reach out and touch the ground in front of you, it was that steep. Mercifully it was relatively short!

Anyway, we powered through the last three miles and there it was, off in the distance:

Shelter In The Distance

We charged up the final rise, slipped off our packs and got busy gathering up wood for a fire. We had just gotten it going when another hiker appeared. Turns out this man, trail name “Rube”, thru-hiked in 2015. We chatted for a bit and, after refusing our offer of joining us for lunch, Rube continued his day hike.

We found and whittled sticks, then enthusiastically cooked our hot dogs over an open flame, something neither of us had done in some time:

Lunch

Yeah, there was a grill. But where’s the fun in that?

We puttered around there for a little over an hour, my son-in-law successfully setting up his hammock, me trying to coax a trickle of water out of the cistern system behind the shelter. After a few quiet moments spent sitting on the picnic table, looking out over the hills visible through the trees and wishing we were there for an overnight, we reluctantly packed up our bags and headed back. Until next time, Fullhardt Knob shelter!

Fullhardt Knob Shelter

About a mile into the return trip my hiking partner started complaining of discomfort in his left foot. We slowed the pace a bit, but there was no way to ease the pounding of four more miles of trail. With two miles to go, we stopped so he could remove his shoes and socks and give his feet a massage. It seemed to help some, and we crossed a small bridge just beyond our resting place and began the insane trek up that cow pasture hill:

Before The Hill

During the last two miles we passed a pair of girls and their dog out yo-yoing to complete their thru hike. They were on their way to a finish at McAfee Knob, and were excited to spend the last night of their hike in town, getting good food and rest before tackling the final leg of their epic journey. Congrats to them!

We finally burst out of the woods onto VA Highway 220, all smiles and congratulations. A quick stop at the local outfitter nearby, and we were officially done.

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the trials of the day for my son-in-law. On the hour drive home, his left foot stiffened up so much he could barely walk. A bad case of plantar fasciitis? Probably. The next morning he was slightly improved, but was essentially immobile. I had sore feet at the end of the hike, but woke up the next morning fully recovered and went for a short run. I would have been ready to hike ten more miles. He definitely would not. The difference? I run four days per week, on average. Him? Athletic in high school, he’s fallen off track (and gained some weight, according to my daughter) given the hectic nature of his schedule. But it was a good lesson for both of us: Me, to keep running; him to start. As of today he’s pretty much recovered and psyched to start planning the next adventure.

I’m ready for an overnight. But, and this is an old, OLD story on this blog, I can’t go until I buy that blasted multi-day pack!

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Take A Hike Day

I was all set to go out and slog through an easy 5 mile run last Friday morning when I discovered it was Take A Hike Day. Well, any excuse to hike will do, of course, so I gathered up my Airlite 22 and trekking poles and headed to the Appalachian Trail. I usually plan my hikes before I take them, but given that this was a spur-of-the-moment thing I decided to revisit an earlier hike southbound across the James River Foot Bridge to (and beyond) Matts Creek Shelter.

Along The River

‘Twas a beautiful morning along the James River, with bright sunny skies and a rich carpet of leaves that measured six inches deep in some places. Kicking leaves like a joyful five year-old made my day!

Once I turned away from the river to follow the creek to the shelter, I was pleased to discover that, unlike on my previous visit during the summer drought, Matts Creek had blossomed from a pitiful trickle into an actual creek:

Matts Creek

The giggling, bubbling water chortled off to my right for the mile trip to the shelter, and really added a level of ambience that I didn’t realize had been missing from my late August trip along the same path.

As I approached the shelter I discovered, much to my surprise given the time of year, gear piled on the picnic table and a fire burning in the pit. I passed a hiker in the lean-to putting on some outer layers to battle the 35 degree morning, threw a “Good morning!” his way and jumped over the creek to begin the climb that awaited me across the water.

Now, I’ve often lamented how I’ve seen more wildlife in town than out in the wilderness, and that’s still true, as you’re about to see. Because while I did see an animal in the woods on this trip, it was far from wild.

A half-mile after crossing the creek I was daydreaming when I heard a bell. Not the church variety, mind you. The jingle variety. I thought I was imagining things until I rounded a slight curve and saw a goat, horns, bell and all, chomping on grass in the center of the trail. In the middle of nowhere! When I recovered from my shock and gathered my wits, I grabbed my phone to try and take a shot (Seriously. Who would believe I saw a flippin’ GOAT out there?), but he bolted when he saw me. I continued on a bit further, fully expecting to encounter his human owner, but saw no one. Bizarre!

Laughing like a crazy person, I turned and headed back to the shelter. By this time, the hiker was out and about, so I stopped to chat with Tyler, trail name “Chicken Hawk” (named for the excitable little hawk in the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons) who was yo-yoing to finish up his thru hike at Daleville, 54 miles to the south. He was energetic and enthused but seemed relieved to be on the home stretch of his journey. A family emergency had taken him off-trail earlier in his quest, resulting in his late-season unorthodox completion of the AT. After a nice fifteen minute conversation, he gratefully accepted my gifts of a Gatorade and Clif bar, which pleased me as much as it did him. My first presentation of trail magic to a thru hiker! See, I always carry extra supplies for the purpose of giving them away, but have never had the opportunity to do so. I was thrilled! During the course of our conversation The Hawk did ask me the name of my blog, so if you’re reading this Tyler, thanks for accepting. It made my day, brother. And congratulations on finishing your hike!

He was a guy on a mission, so I left him to finish breaking camp and headed back towards the trailhead. I stopped to grab a shot of the Foot Bridge between the bare trees:

JR Foot Bridge

And a photo of two fallen trail sentinels that were just high enough off the ground for my diminutive 5’7″ (okay, 5′ 6.5″) frame to pass under without crouching:

Low Bridges

As I approached the bridge from the south I noticed something that made me smile and practically REQUIRED a photo. In all the journals and books I’ve read, I had heard lots about thru hiker mail. The electronic age (translation: ability to text, etc.) has done away with some of the creativity of leaving it, so I was excited to come upon this gem:

Thru Hiker Mail

I hope Swamp Donkey saw the note…

A successful, completely enjoyable Take A Hike Day trip came to its conclusion with one more trek across the bridge. By the time I got unlimbered and settled into the car for the ride home, I was already wanting to be back in the woods. I need to settle on and purchase a multi-day pack so I can do an overnight!

Next up? A northbound out-and-back on the AT to the Fullhardt Knob shelter from Daleville the day after tomorrow. My son-in-law/hiking partner has a new Gregory Zulu 40 pack to break in…

 

I’m Becoming Too Weight Conscious

Not my body weight, mind you, though I’ve managed to get a head start on winter weight gain by virtue of some questionable food choices. I’m talking about gear weight. I’ll never be a gram counter (at least I don’t think so), but weight is beginning to influence my potential future gear choices to a strong degree.

Take, for example, my seemingly endless quest for the “right” multi-day pack. My initial list of wants did mention weight, but very near the bottom, just before “integrated sternum strap whistle.” Seriously, it was a consideration, but other things, like an integrated rain cover interested me more.

But with reading comes education, and as I continued to pore over every site backpacking related, I discovered that carrying more than 20% of my body weight on my back while schlepping along wooded trails didn’t really appeal to me. Granted, the stuff I’ve already bought can’t be changed (for now), but I’m still in a position to save weight on a bear-proof food container, stove and backpack. Those are the three main items left on my “expedition” gear list. The first one is easy. Ursack. No way I’m carrying a canister unless the area in which I find myself requires one. Stove? Well, for hikes of three days or less, I’ll probably not carry one. As one of the world’s least picky eaters, I can survive a few days without a hot meal. When I do carry a stove, I’m leaning towards the Solo Lite. As a primarily AT-bound hiker, fuel for that will be pretty much everywhere. Of course, I may hate it when I try it, but hey…I’m a total newbie, which practically requires mistakes to be made in the interest of gaining knowledge.

Then the pack. *Sigh* Anyone who has graced this site has read my back-and-forth battle with choosing a pack. I’m getting closer, and one of the key considerations for me now is weight (after capacity, of course). Being more weight-conscious has eliminated several great packs from my list. The other day I was in REI with my son-in-law looking at bags, and we fitted him for an Osprey Atmos AG 50. He pranced around the store with about fifteen extra pounds of sand on board, and just loved it. I did too, until I saw visions of Gossamer Gear Mariposas and Granite Gear Crown2s dancing in my head. Then it felt like steel in the hand. At four pounds, it’s not a heavyweight by any stretch, especially when compared to one of my other considered options, the Deuter Futura Vario Pro 50+10, which weighs ten ounces more than the Osprey. But when stacked against the two pound, five ounce Crown2, it’s flat-out heavy…er. I’m learning that two extra pounds (give or take) is a whole lot of weight on my back. Especially if my back is going to be dealing with PUDs in Virginia for days and days on end.

So while he, thirty years younger and much bigger than I, may ultimately choose an Atmos, I’m still wrestling with the lighter weight choices.

Oh, did I mention the ULA Circuit?