Thursday, May 10
Distance: 5.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,600 feet
Time: 3 hours, 17 minutes
I wake up at 7 am. I start a load of laundry and fix myself a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, and melted Muenster cheese on a toasted bagel. I pack my suitcase and hit the road at 8:45. I can’t stand D.C. traffic, so I take I-70 out to Rte. 340. Catherine calls me to ask what temperature she should wash her bed sheets at. I tell her I don’t know.
During the drive I listen to the Mark Levin Show podcast. Massanutten Mountain drifts by on my left as I cruise south through the Shenandoah Valley. I stop for gas outside Staunton and phone ahead to the Econo Lodge in Marion to reserve a room.
I reach the trailhead at 1:40. I leave my trekking poles in the car, as the scouting report
says this is a short hike, and set off up the Dragon’s Tooth Trail. The trail ascends gently and parallels a small creek for the first third of a mile. I spot the Boy Scout Trail, my return route, across the creek.
The forest is dense and blocks out the intermittent sun. I sense a different ecosystem here than what I’m used to up north. The forest smells sweeter, the leaves are thicker and heavier. It feels tropical.
The trail leaves the creek and gradually climbs Cove Mountain. I pass several groups of 2 and 3 people heading down. One couple sounds French. At 1.3 miles I arrive at the junction with the Appalachian Trail and a nifty campsite. To the left is my return route. To the right is the scramble to the summit.
At first the scramble is not difficult, no worse than an uneven rocky staircase. Occasional obstacles require balancing or lifting yourself up with your hands. I pass a couple thru-hiking, from Georgia to Maine. They are making good time.
A tenth of a mile from the summit I encounter the “crux” of the hike, a 15-foot wall, 20 degrees from vertical. Beyond the wall, the ground falls away and is obscured by the tops of trees. A series of 6-inch wide shelves are the means of traverse. I pack away my camera, as I feel safer when it isn’t swinging from my shoulder. I take my time and clamber up the wall.
Higher, rebar has been set in the rock to help on some of the more difficult moves. For example, rather than flopping on your belly onto a chest-high boulder, you need only lift yourself up by stepping onto the rebar. Its obtrusive presence affronts my hiker sensibilities.
A switchback later I arrive at the summit. The AT continues on to the south. A thru-hiker is sitting down, sucking wind. He looks displeased to see me, as if I, a day-hiker, am horning in on his experience. I turn left and hike down a short ways to the base of the Tooth. It looks intimidating at first, but the ascent on the far side is less exposed. The way is narrow, and I must wait for a young couple climbing down. The girl is afraid to get her shoes muddy, and her boyfriend and I laugh at her. Then I head up, duck under a chockstone, and lift myself out of a crevice onto the exposed rock.
Four Virginia Tech seniors and a gorgeous view greet me. I eat and visit with the girls. It turns out they are graduating, and the ceremony is tomorrow. Another young couple arrives and climbs around me to the tip of the Tooth. The boy is sure-footed, the girl less so. I cringe as I watch her place her unsteady foot inches from the precipice. If you should fall from the Tooth, fall off the west face, where you will land 30 feet below on packed dirt beside the trail.
We all are surprised by a man who suddenly appears next to us. He climbed up—literally climbed—up the west face of the Tooth. I show admiration for his skill and tell him I couldn’t do that, I don’t have the nerve. He says you just have to force yourself to not think about falling. Easier said than done!
I am getting cold, so I take a few more photos and climb back down. I know the “wall” is ahead of me, but I am confident because I conquered it once already. But the cold has stiffened my muscles. It doesn’t help that I have to look past my feet for a way down. It’s definitely harder coming back than going up.
I continue straight on the AT past the Dragon’s Tooth Trail. I gain a short ridge and pause to admire the view. I turn around and realize I’ve lost the white blaze. I pick it back up a minute later.
The trail is steep. I descend a second wall, shallower and less exposed than the first. I reflect that if I ever do this hike again, I will do it in reverse: I will take the AT out and the Dragon’s Tooth Trail back.
The Boy Scout Trail comes in from the left. I soon arrive at the creek from the beginning of the hike and I follow it to the Dragon’s Tooth Trail. From there it is just a few minutes’ walk back to the trailhead.
I drive back to the interstate and continue south. I arrive at the motel in Marion at 6:45. Some thru-hikers are crashed out 2 rooms from me. Their gear is drying on the balcony. I am hyperaware of their presence and their undertaking, but I don’t bother them. I shower, dress, and dine at Macado’s downtown.
I strike up a conversation with a local at the bar. He was supposed to meet a girl, but she stiffed him. That seems to be the rule. He tells me he grew up just south of Marion and moved away to find work, but he eventually made his way back home. I envy him. The barmaid spills beer on my sunglasses.
On the way back to the motel, I stop at Food City to buy bread and deli meat. I call Mom and tell her what I’m up to. I fall asleep at about 11, but it is a fitful sleep.
Friday, May 11
Distance: 16.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,100 feet
Time: 9 hours, 5 minutes
I wake up at 5:50 am. I make a ham and beef sandwich and wolf it down. I make another and put it in my CamelBak, along with a granola bar and a banana. I also carry with me a sweat rag and an extra pair socks.
My car’s temperature gauge reads 37 degrees as I head south on Rte. 16. I expect the mercury to push 70 by this afternoon, so I’m wearing a long-sleeve cotton shirt underneath a light, polyester sweater.
There are about 20 cars at the trailhead, which is a parking area for overnight backpackers. The starting elevation for this hike is 4,600 feet, just under a mile above sea level. I push three-quarters of a mile up the AT spur to a bald offering a spectacular view to the east. I’m supposed to turn left onto the AT proper, but I don’t see the trail junction, so I climb on top of a nearby rock outcrop. Looking northwest across Quebec Branch, I can see wild ponies roaming below the summit of Pine Mountain.
I stow my hat to keep it from blowing off my head in the wind. I spot the trail and climb down. Heading west along the ridge I pass several pairs of backpackers. I enter Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area via a wooden gate. At first I follow the Rhododendron Gap Trail, but my GPS locator indicates I am farther east than I should be. I look to my left and spot a hiker moving south a hundred yards up the ridge. I bushwhack through the marginal undergrowth and regain the white-blazed AT.
I follow the rock-strewn trail to a grassy field, where I find a dozen or so wild ponies. I skirt past them, astonished at their indifference towards me, and continue north along the AT. I pass underneath a rock outcrop and through a cave-like hollow. I follow the Wilburn Ridge Trail south to the top of the outcrop for more spectacular views. I stop to eat and take photos.
I can’t begin to describe the scenery. The Grayson Highlands are like another planet.
More wild ponies greet me below the summit of Pine Mountain. One stands astride the trail, stock still, over a foal lying on its side. I don’t know what’s going on, so I keep my distance and beat a wide semicircle around the herd. A fellow day-hiker comes up behind me. He asks me if this is the way to Mount Rogers. I don’t know. Not a hundred yards later I see a posted sign that says “Mount Rogers 2 miles.”
The Virginia highpoint is not on my itinerary, but what the hell, it’s only 4 more miles on top of twelve. I hike southbound on the AT past Thomas Knob Shelter and some friendly wild ponies to the Mount Rogers spur. I pass a young couple on their way to the top. Halfway up the spur, the forest closes in. I reach the summit unknowingly and continue on a false path until it peters out into dense undergrowth. I backtrack and find the young couple studying the top of a boulder. They have found the summit marker.
The day-hiker from earlier joins us. After taking their pictures, I begin my descent. As I emerge into the oppressive sun, I drape my sweat rag over my ears and neck and secure it to my head with my hat. In the middle of the saddle, I pass two retired brothers section-hiking from Damascus to Harper’s Ferry, roughly one-third of the Appalachian Trail. They pass me later while I stop to rest beneath Pine Mountain.
A quick note about the Appalachian Trail: While its general direction is northward, there are stretches wherein “northbound” is actually southbound. In this case, northbound hikers follow the AT east along the saddle between Mount Rogers and Pine Mountain, then turn south and hike an 8-mile counterclockwise loop. This loop can be bypassed by taking the 2-mile blue-blazed Pine Mountain Trail, which used to be part of the AT before it was rerouted. Blue blazes are an unwelcome temptation for AT purists.
I head northeast along the rocky Crest Trail. I soon realize I am again off-course. Rather than backtrack, I bushwhack west. Two jet fighters scream low overhead. I pick up the Pine Mountain Trail and enter a rhododendron tunnel. A little over a mile later I turn right (southbound) onto the AT.
I emerge into an open area called The Scales. A thru-hiker has left her pack in the shade and is walking towards an RV with a roll of toilet paper. I’m reminded that I haven’t pooped in 2 days.
Yet again I make a wrong turn and hike south along the flooded Scales Trail. Frustrated, I turn east and climb up to a rolling, rock-strewn plain. Looking west across Wilson Creek, Pine Mountain is visible. Some rocks have been arranged on the AT to denote the 500-mile mark. Only 1,682 miles to go!
I pass several groups I had seen earlier hiking northbound on the saddle. They are befuddled at seeing me again until I explain I blue-blazed to complete a clockwise loop of the park.
The miles are beginning to take their toll. My knees and feet ache and an acute pain between my shoulder blades flares up when I turn my head left. I eat the rest of my food and descend through some evergreens to Wilson Creek. As I reenter Grayson Highlands State Park, I stop to peruse a trail register.
I cross the creek on a footbridge and face a confusing intersection of trails. Twice I’ve left the AT only to return to it later, adding time and strain to my hike. So I stay on the AT, and the route proves true. I pass Wise Shelter and cross Quebec Branch. Wanting the hike to end, I push hard up the ridge.
I arrive back at the AT spur junction completely gassed. Some weekend warriors have set up camp below the rock outcrop I played on earlier. It’s a good campsite, as the rock outcrop shields the east-facing bald from the wind.
Twenty minutes later I return to the trailhead. My Malibu never looked more inviting. I change my socks and collapse into the driver seat. As I head back into town, I pick up thru-hikers Last Out and Alex. When I drop them off where the AT crosses Rte. 16, Pacific Crest Trail alumnus Sparrow
comes off the trail and solicits a ride into Marion. We talk about our favorite mobile applications and hiking. He has whittled his base pack weight down to 10 pounds! He wants to stop at Wal-Mart, but he gets excited at the sight of a Taco Bell, so I let him out there. I, however, have been craving Pizza Hut since The Scales. I order two Personal Pan Pizzas. While I wait, I make reservations at the Super 8 in Elkins, West Virginia, a 4-hour drive north.
During the long drive, I listen to the Dennis Prager Show podcast. I drink a 5-Hour Energy to keep my eyes open as darkness falls. I pull in to the motel by 11 pm. For some reason, my reservation is under the name “Douglas Dooley.” I shower and crash. No trouble sleeping tonight.
Saturday, May 12
Distance: 14.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,455 feet
Time: 8 hours, 59 minutes
I wake up sore but well-rested. I dress quickly and head downstairs to engorge myself on the free continental breakfast. The man who checks me out of the motel is missing a front tooth, not helping West Virginia’s image to outsiders.
I drive into the Allegheny Mountains on successively narrower and bumpier roads until I reach the trailhead just off Forest Road 19. It looks to be warmer and cloudier than yesterday. I wear a long-sleeve undershirt to guard against ticks and sunburn.
I walk down to South Prong. A barefoot ford is out of the question as the creek bed is very rocky, so I rock-hop across. One of the jumps involves enough risk to send a tremor through my bowels. I should have tried to poop at the motel, but I forgot.
When I reach the other side, I climb up to a wide, grassy path that the scouting report
says is actually an old railroad grade. At about the 3-mile point, my bowels haven’t stopped begging to be released, so I move about 50 feet off the trail, drop my trousers, and let it rip.
The trail intersects South Prong again, but crossing is less of a task because it’s 2 miles upstream of the last crossing. The last creek crossing of the day is actually a half-mile downstream of the first, so it promises to be at least as challenging.
I cross Forest Road 70 and continue to climb. When the trail levels out, I hear an intermittent grunting in the woods. I think it’s either trees creaking in the wind or wild turkeys. I check my GPS locator and am shocked to find I am a half-mile off-course. I double back and find an unmarked path leading south. For the next 5.5 miles, it’s a bushwhack.
I follow the path through deciduous woods. The path splits in multiple places, but I trust my GPS locator and small cairns placed by past travelers. The pain in the middle of my back flares up again. I stop to engineer a method of carrying my camera that doesn’t place extra weight on my left shoulder.
Shortly I reach a campsite with partial views of Long Run Canyon. I follow a jeep trail through a red-tinged meadow, then descend a gas pipeline swath for about a quarter-mile, trudging through the headstreams of Roaring Creek. I turn west and pick up a leaf-strewn path as it follows north along the creek.
The path is hard to discern in the open woods. Several times I end up making my own way through the brush. I put away my trekking poles as they are more of a hindrance than a help. At an exposed scree slope I change my socks and eat, not necessarily in that order. I watch the ants mill about my feet, coming to investigate. I imagine the mountain is to me as I am to them.
The closer I get to the canyon rim, the faster I move, making sure to keep the rim in sight, but not to get so close to it that I fall off the plateau. With every step something reaches out and scratches my body.
Atop the rim, I celebrate and take photos. I have momentary cell service, so I fire off some text messages. After 15 minutes, I put on my pack and keep moving.
The path is better defined along the canyon rim. Only a couple of times does it actually intersect with the rim itself. Most of the time it stays about 50 to 100 feet back. When in doubt, I stay close to the rim until I pick up the trail. I trip over a root and fall face first towards a broken stump. I roll to my right and avert a facial by inches.
&nbs pA campsite connotes a junction in the hike. You can continue along the canyon rim towards the Roaring Plains Trail, or you can cut 2 miles off the hike and bushwhack through a thicket. I choose the latter, as I figure I’ve sapped all the fun from the canyon rim that can be had.
A row of cairns leading from the fire ring sets me on more or less the right course. Within a few minutes I pick up a faint hunter’s trail. From a small boulder field I spy a water-filled path heading east. I cling to the shrubs so as not to fall into the water. Despite my precaution, several times I sink up to my ankles. A bog obstructs my way and I consult my GPS locator. I am too far south. I should have arrived at the Roaring Plains Trail by now.
I pick my way around the bog and try to find a way north through the brush. On my first attempt the thicket closes in, and I am forced to retreat. My second attempt also ends in failure. I mutter and curse. This delay would be tolerable if I had the canyon rim to look forward to. Now that the emotional highpoint is behind me, I find obstacles like this more of a nuisance than a challenge.
Back at the bog, I take a breather. I realize I’ve lost my camera lens cap. I stow my camera and resume looking for a viable option north or west. I spy a boulder field 100 feet due south. From there I beat a path northwest. I’m making much better progress, not having to battle branches and brambles, and I gain the trail. Overjoyed at my conquest, I let out a manly scream
The Roaring Plains Trail dead-ends into Forest Road 70. A quarter-mile farther, I stop and eat the rest of my food. I take out my trekking poles on the Boars Nest Trail, which is completely underwater for the better part of a half-mile. The descent, rocky and steep, is equally challenging. At the second switchback, a fallen branch has been placed on two cairns to block the trail. I remove it and push on.
Two switchbacks later I arrive at South Prong again. Like the first creek crossing, a barefoot ford will not do. Easy rock-hopping gets me about halfway across, whereupon I am forced to hop-step off submerged rocks. I chuck my trekking poles across and jump. I stick the landing with my right foot and let my momentum carry me to dry creek bed. I retrieve my trekking poles and climb the far bank.
I cross a soggy, sloping meadow and reach the trailhead, which was empty this morning, but now I see 2 cars have joined mine. This is my third hike that I didn’t see anyone on the trail all day. I open my suitcase and conduct a fruitless search for clean socks. I decide to go barefoot rather than stink up my sneakers.
On the road, I repeatedly check my phone for service. I don’t know the way home from here, and I’m counting on the route finder in Google Maps to show me. I follow Rte. 33 east and stop outside Seneca Rocks to admire the town’s namesake. From a half-mile away, I can hear the climbers shouting to each other. I continue through rural West Virginia and pass over Shenandoah Mountain, denoting the border with Virginia. I refuel outside Berryville and get home in time to see the green-white-checkered finish at Darlington.