First Hike Of 2018!

I could spend this entire post lauding Virginia for its hiking-friendly winter weather, but that wouldn’t leave room for photos. Instead, I’ll say this: Getting out on the AT at the end of January in shorts, with no snow in sight, is this transplanted Mainer’s dream come true…

Having said that, I opted for a short day hike to the Johns Hollow Shelter from the James River Foot Bridge trailhead to celebrate my winter freedom, and to launch my hiking year. It was sunny and 53 degrees with a touch of breeze when I left the car and crossed state route 501 into the trees.

I had barely gotten my pack adjusted when I hit the first bridge spanning Rocky Row Run, a bubbling, peaceful little waterway that I would follow for the first mile:

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I met four ladies from the Natural Bridge Trail Club heading back from their own 8-mile out-and-back, and chatted with them about the club, as I’d seen the NBTC mentioned online in various places. They were glad to share, and excited about the club and its group hikes. I guess I need to join up!

It was so peaceful on that stretch of trail. Even crossing a dirt secondary road just beyond the one mile mark didn’t interrupt the flow of silence, as I buzzed across and back into the woods.¬†3/4 of a mile later, the AT marched left along the ridge and a sign pointed me down into the hollow to the shelter:

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My experience with shelters on the AT is limited; I’ve only seen four, to be honest. But it seems to me that the pair that exist two miles from the James River, Matts Creek to the south and Johns Hollow to the north, are pretty luxurious. Like Matts Creek, this shelter is in good shape, with a picnic table, fire ring and privy.

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And, most importantly, both shelters have a water supply running next to them, ready for filtering. Assuming non-drought conditions, which was an issue at times last year. The advantage that Johns Hollow has over Matts Creek, however, is that the area around the shelter is a tent-pitcher’s nirvana. The space is wide open, with an impressive number of camping sites. This might be a good spot for my first overnight¬†shakeout at the end of March…

The shelter is a scant 1.8 miles from the trailhead, and as I was looking for a five mile day, I left it and hustled up the side trail, rejoining the AT.

When I hit the 2.5 mile mark and made the turn to head back to the James, two trail runners and their dog blew past on their way up the mountain. I greeted them but stood aside; as a less-ambitious trail runner myself, I know enough to avoid interrupting their rhythm. One of the guys, head down and arms pumping, looked like a member of the staff at my favorite local outfitter. I need to stop by soon and ask if it was indeed him!

The return trip went too quickly, as always. I slowed to take several photos on the way to try and lengthen my afternoon, but couldn’t stop the inevitable springing from the woods onto 501. After dropping my gear at the car, I did go out onto the bridge; it would be a shame to ever make the trip to Big Island and NOT tread the Foot Bridge!

I’m still excited over the condition of the trail in January, and how accessible and easily hiked it was. At my favorite AT launching point in Maine, the trailhead parking lot gets plowed under until spring, and the trail is covered with literal feet of snow.

I much prefer the Virginia version in winter…

 

Note: In case you’re wondering about my powers of observation, or lack thereof, this was my third run out to Big Island, but the first time I saw this sign:

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If I don’t find a job soon, I might have to take that 775-mile trip to Springer…

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864

Boy, was it hard to type that number. That’s my expected total running and hiking mileage for the year, combined. 64 miles hiking, and 800 miles running (might end up with 801 or 2, but I’ll use the round number for now).

Back in the marathoning days, double that number in running miles was an average to below-average year. But wanting to cut back to save my body and simply stay in shape for hiking, I figured a minimum of 1000 miles per year running/hiking would be a good baseline.

I didn’t even hit that.

Of course, moving had something to do with it. And living the first three months of the year in Maine and struggling to want to get outside in the winter months (seasonal affective disorder is REAL, people!) didn’t help. But living in Virginia means that I’ll have NO excuse to NOT hit that easy-peasy 1000-mile minimum, given both the milder winters and my proximity to so many great hiking trails, including the AT, of course.

2018 is the year I’ll find my stride again.

Pun intended.

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!