Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Trail Recommendations

Dutch Haus B&B
Mile 808

Everyone says that the Homeplace restaurant in Catawba VA is the best restaurant on the trail. I'm sorry, but no. Homeplace gives you an infinite amount of fried chicken and other good country things, but nothing to write home about. Certainly not worth the hellish two mile walk along a busy road.

Three Lil Pigs BBQ in Troutville, however, is sublime. It's a decent southern BBQ joint that had a front-end collision with a bistro. The vinegar pork was pretty much perfect, as were the ribs, although the pitmaster at 3 Pigs prefers to smoke the meats a little lighter than what I am accustomed to. Gazpacho fresh and tasty, but needed a touch more sour and a touch more spicy (both of which were corrected with Tabasco). Onion straws . . . These little shreds of joy were perfectly batter-dipped onion fragments that somehow managed to not have a drop of greasiness or pasty onion texture- just a puffy onionness, and a cajun garlic aioli to dip them in. Chicken salad touched with fresh sage, the leaves blanched to a brilliant green. Sigh. Only a half mile from the trail, as well.

Dutch Haus in Montbello, VA is, well, fantastic, but pricey for a hostel, at $25. The food is well-prepared, simple stuff, but Earl and his family are so wonderful that it tastes much better. And being out of the elements is always nice for a night.

Best of the 80s, and more!

Mile 788
Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, VA

Imagine: you are walking the Appalachian Trail.

Yesterday the temperature reached one hundred and two degrees. Today the heat is breaking, and a muscular thunderstorm broaches the horizon. It comes out of nowhere while you are on a rocky outcrop at the bad end of a three thousand foot climb. BOOM. Lightning shakes the mountain from under your feet, and eleven inches of rain falls in less than four hours. The trail is an ankle-deep creek filling your shoes, and the tiny stream that was once a water source is now a raging torrent, waist-deep water smashing a cliffside far below. What comes into your mind at times like this?

Carribean Queen!
Now we're sharing the same dream!
And our hearts will beat as one
No more love on the run!

Yes, I am the walking eighties station. When the going gets tough, the tough get Phil Collins. I've plagued so many shelters with "Easy Lover" that I should probably send Phil royalties. And let's not forget "Lucky Star", "Take My Breath Away", and God knows what other musical trainwrecks that have haunted my uphill pace since I entered Virginia.

It's time for Zatarain's Red Beans and Rice tonight, to which I am adding some homemade smoked peppers I purchased at a roadside stand near Buena Vista. Tomorrow's walk to the privy, I might be taking the "highway to the danger zone"

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Daleville, VA
Mile 712

It's going over 90 degrees today here in Daleville, somewhat cooler in the woods. My pack straps and shirt are white with salt, and I am filling my reserve water bottles as well as the 3 liter Camelback. The heat beats you up worse than any uphill, and it beats you no matter how many miles you are doing that day.

Some of the folks I've been hiking with are making dropping-out sort of noises. The "Virginia Blues" are in effect. It's that time when thru-hikers realize that they are not just on a very long vacation, that they are actually on an expedition to walk across the country. And there's the heat. Virginia Blues.

I will walk through them.

Mile 666

Mile 666
Sarver Cabin, VA

If an old through-hiker walks up to you and tells you that Virginia is flat, he or she is lying. The mountains here are flat-topped ridges that all run in the same direction. When you are going in that direction, all is good with the world. When you are going across that direction, God help you.

Sarver Cabin is a relatively new shelter, with a supposedly haunted privy. I look forward to challenging their stinky spirits. I only regret I didn't get to stay here on 6/6/06.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pearisburg, VA

Mile 621

Rolled into town late last night, trying to get errands run with enough time to make it into the woods again by this afternoon. I really don't want to spend another night at the Holiday Motor Lodge. Its "24 Hour Tanning Salon" has a surprising number of pasty white day laborers as clientelle, and employs a number of twitchy deaths-head women. The poor South is awfully depressing.

On the plus side, it's now less than a month before I get a visit from my wonderful girlfriend Monica. It's a good reason to haul serious butt through Virginia.

Burke's Garden

Burke's Garden, VA
Mile 570

Burke's Garden is a huge, almost completely circular valley with its own microclimate. The trail follows the ridgeline that surrounds this feature for almost 60 miles, which is harder than it looks on the map, because the ridgeline is some of the rockiest trail I've encountered yet.

The rocks of the ridgeline are pretty fascinating. They look like volcanic flows, but the Appalachians are far too old for that. I wonder if Burke's Garden is an ancient impact crater?

Little Pink Houses

Knot Maul Shelter
Mile 550

Leaving the interstate after Sugar Grove, VA, the Trail in Virginia plunges into quite a few scenes of pastoral beauty. Rustic farmhouses dot the gentle hills with such profusion that I began to think I was being stalked by John Cougar Mellancamp. There he was, prancing across the fields, strumming his one chord as if beating someone to death with his fists.

After being continuously haunted by this specter I began to wonder: how can I detect John Cougar Mellancamp before he surprises me with mildly socialist lyrics? Using the amazing technology encapsulated in my Palm, I have developed a computer program that detects John Cougar Mellancamp before he begins annoying my social conscience. Let's ask a test question from what I call the Mellancamputer. . .
Me: Mellancamputer! Arise!
Me: Why is John Cougar Mellancamp surrounded by supermodels when he has what is arguably one of the homeliest faces in the music business?
Me: I hate you Mellancamputer.
Me: <delete mellencamputer>

I guess there was a reason I left the IT business. I just don't understand these computer things.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


In 2002, at a New College party, an unidentified girl walked up to me and asked, "I know this sounds like a weird question, but have you ever been attacked by a black bear?"
"Why yes," I said. "I guess you saw the video."

I am asked about this story so often I decided to write it down once and for all. For corroboration, feel free to contact the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or, if you happen to be in the area, see me in the Bear Safety video displayed in the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.

In the last week of July 1995, I set out from Deep Creek campground for backcountry campsite #53, "Poke Patch" in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). I slept poorly the night before I hiked out, unwisely experimenting with a camping hammock in unseasonable fifty degree weather. At dawn I swallowed a few ephedrine pills (another bad habit from college) and started walking. The day was pretty miserable, one of those all-day Smokies downpours where the raindrops are so massive that they feel like hail. I also lacked a decade's backpacking savvy, so my load was probably somewhere in the 50 or 60 pound range. By the time I got to #53, 16 miles in and up, I was wasted. I ate dinner, tied up my food bag (out of the reach of bears, of course), and went to sleep at 6:00.

At this point it's probably a good time to mention that at 19 I was absolutely terrified of bears. I dreaded the snuffling, snorting approack of an enormous creature that not fifty thousand years ago preyed on megafauna. One of the reasons I started backpacking in the first place was to confront the paralyzing terror, this childhood nightmare. The sniffing gets closer, and something, not quite a branch, definitely a nose, pushes in on the side of the tent.

At 8:00 PM I was still convinced that I was in the depths of a nightmare. This assumption was broken by a broad paw coming down, somewhat gently, on my face. The tent came down around me. Without seeing the animal, I could feel its jaws closing on my right bicep, then I felt myself being dragged and lifted through the air.

After what seemed like an eternity, I came to my wits. I yelled. Being a 19-year-old, I naturally slept with an enormous knife, with which I battered the blunt snout now mounted on my right side. Realizing that there was a living creature inside the tent, the bear withdrew. Sorry about that, it seemed to say. I thought you were a huge upholstered bag of Snickers.

For another subjective eternity, I balled into the fetal position in the remains of my tent, waiting to feel my flesh stripped from my back and buttocks. I made the decision to rise from my tent and check on the bear's activity (in actuality, it was probably only a few seconds since first contact). The adrenaline in my body had made it impossible to unclench my fists to work the tent zipper. Slitting the tent fabric with the blade of my knife, I stood up, and saw Ursus Americanus, fifteen feet away, standing on his hind legs.

The bear was reaching up toward my food bag, comically just out of reach of the animal's claws. "Scram!", I yelled. The bear regarded me, went back down on all fours, and made as if it intended to poke around for a while, utterly unimpressed with my presence. Not even a huff or a bluff charge from this one.

I did some thinking. Blood was dripping from my elbow and down my right side from the tooth puncture marks in my bicep. The animal was hungry, not terribly afraid of people, and a dozen feet away. It wasn't going anywhere. The road was 3.4 miles up the trail, uphill. There was still light. I decided to try for the road.

I backed from the bear, very slowly, until I reached the trail leading from the camp. I continued backing up for another few yards, then started jogging, barefoot, clad only in boxers and dried blood. The light began to fail. I began noticing that I had left the trail and was running in a creek bed. I had a little talk with myself. John, I said, people are not killed by bears. They are killed while running naked down creek beds in the middle of the night with a knife in their hands. I would not make the road.

I buried myself in a layer of rotting vegetation, remembering something about how it is warmer from the microbe action. It was actually quite a bit warmer. It was in the low forties and raining, but I've been colder in the mountains than I was that night. If it weren't for the fact that, in the back of my mind, I was still worried about being eaten alive. This won't kill me, I thought. Other people have done this. I can do this. It can't kill me.

I made it to the road the next day. Unsurprisingly, passing motorists did not stop for the mud-covered long haired naked guy waving a knife on the side of US 441 near Newfound Gap. I ditched the knife and got picked up by a trio of park maintenance workers, who took me to a ranger station. I filled out paperwork, ate an entire cherry pie, traded bear stories with the rangers, received seven different injections, and caused my parents to start smoking again. After a few days I was interviewed by a video crew.
"The last flesh wound we have from a bear in the park is from the early 80s," he said, "Mind if we interview you?"
"Sure," I said.

The morning I made the road was the finest morning of my entire life. I fell in love with a woman that day. Even now, when times become difficult, or when the pulse quickens, I can still feel the coarse hair pushing out from beneath my skin, claws gripping ground, muscles under sagging skin, as ground passes faster below me. With that bear I had found my totem.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Last night at the Mill Creek pub in Damascus, I found myself listening to the life story of a very sad young man. I'll call him Jason. His father, a brutal alcoholic, attempted to provoke the miscarriage of Jason's younger brother, kicking Jason's mother in the abdomen repeatedly. It was not the only episode of violence, not by a long shot, but it was the most memorable. It also failed, as Jason's brother was born healthy.

Jason's father eventually got into a head on collision with a rock truck, drunk, with his two sons in the car. Jason's arms and ribs were broken, but his brother's femur was driven into his heart and he died. Jason's mother and father were divorced overnight. When Jason woke in the hospital, there was no one at his side but nurses and doctors. His parents had fled their ruined lives, leaving Jason behind, in agony, alone in a hospital bed.

Now Jason's father has remarried and turned to Christ and away from liquor. His mother has also remarried. Both parents pretty much ignore Jason, even through stints in jail and a suicide attempt. I do not know how a parent can ignore the fact that a son was sucking on a 12 gauge alone in the woods. The scale of that kind of denial can only be described as evil.

Now Jason has been sucked into a charismatic megachurch congregation. He relates how he felt the Spirit inside of him as the preacher laid hands on him before thousands of worshippers. I didn't have the heart to tell him that it wasn't the Holy Spirit. It was the feeling of not being throwaway.

The horror of this story is that his friends in the church are from nearly identical situations. Throwaways, once innocent, now so very vulnerable. These are the legions of hate, just now mobilized, filled with dire anger at the secular culture that has abandoned them.

Jason offered me liquor and cocaine for listening to his story, in between exhortations of the Spirit. I declined, and went to the Hostel for a troubled sleep.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Damascus VA

Mile 458

Damascus after Trail Days shows its true identity: a semi-rustbelt little town whose churchgoing community lives in weird coexistence with the itinerant hiker population. I have a lot of respect for the people of Damascus. They are unfailingly polite, not even two weeks after the notorious "Panty Dance" at the Hiker Parade. Their attitude, insofar as I have been able to gather from conversations with locals, is that the trail experience is a lot healthier for young people than college. From personal experience, I'd have to say that they are right.

To do the hikers justice, they do bring in a fair amount of cash. It doesn't replace all the industry jobs gone to China, but it helps. And the thru-hikers, though hairy and smelly, are almost always polite and articulate. Most of the trail crazies have dropped out already.

As for me, I am blowing out of town after a nice, 4 dollar bunk at The Place, a church hostel. Normally I'd stay a day, but I am meeting my folks at Grayson Highlands State Park, 3 days or so up the trail.

Demiurge, Titans, and Johnny Cash

Kincora Hostel
Mile 407

Not long ago, I remembered a critic saying that Hurt, as sung by Johnny Cash, was the song sung by God to Christ on Gethsemane. The funny thing about this memory is that it is a false one. I later went to the critic's article and found no such comment. I probably liked the article so much that I associated it with an idea I had about the song. Not unusual at those times when I could hear the fuses in my mind blowing.

This interpretation of "Hurt" casts an interesting light on the book of Job as well. Just because God is testing you does not mean that he is going to stop. If God is making you hurt, there is no guarantee that it is ever going to stop, or even that God will ever repay you for your efforts. "I will let you down . .", he sings.

As with most things, this complicates the relationship between God and The Adversary. The origins of the word Satan (as I remember, since I can not look it up on the Internet at this time) is related to the root for Titan- as well as other culture's elder gods-, from "tester" in Indo-European (literally, the anvil of earth against which sky-gods smash things to see if they break). Satan tests Job's faith by bringing hardships; how does the God of "Hurt" challenge Christ's faith in his own fate? And if the Satan of Job is challenging faith at the behest of Jehovah, who is the God of "Hurt" working for?

In full-blown Gnostic wackiness, the God of Hurt is working for himself, trying to subvert the universal personal salvation that Christ represents. By downplaying the meaning of existence, i.e., by reducing all existence to himself, the God of Hurt wants to make personal salvation irrelevant. Ah, gnostic weirdness. Esoteric religions can suck you in, like all good conspiracy theories.

Magic Bourbon

Beauty Spot
Mile 350

On the way to my appointed campsite I ran into some amazing "trail magic", courtesy of former AT through hikers Crispy Critter, Funky Monkey, and The Dude. Camped out on the unimaginatively named Beauty Spot (a huge bald with commanding views in all directions and cushy grass everywhere), there were supplies of hot dogs, chili, beer, bourbon, some sort of moonshine, and various unmentionable party type substances. The weather cooperated in making this a fantastic stop, although it's worthy to note that no one was making big miles the next few days. Mugged by magic bourbon, undoubtedly.

6000 Feet

Mile 385

The most beautiful stretch of the trail to date is the string of balds from Carver's Gap to US 19E. Also known as the Roan Highlands, this stretch is very closely managed by the Forest Service, as it is home to several severely threatened species.

Bald mountains are still a mystery to scientists. No one knows why some high peaks refuse to grow forests while others do not. They are amazing, each peak affording 360 degree views of the surrounding ridgelines.

The Roan Highlands also mark the spot where I leave the 6000' contour for the last time - until I get to New Hampshire, where it will be above the timberline. I'll miss the fairy-tale spruce forests, but I won't miss the early summer frost.

Trail Runners

Erwin TN
Mile 338

Breaking in new trail runners purchased in Hot Springs. Trail runners are basically stiff running shoes with heavy treads for gripping rock and such. They have no ankle support, but with my light pack I don't really need it. They weigh about a tenth as much as boots and, unlike boots, they actually dry out when they get wet.

Unfortunately breaking in any new footwear involves a period of blisters. This is why journal entries have been somewhat scant of late- I spend my spare time in the evenings pampering my feet.

Erwin TN is a case-in-progress of how to ruin a rural community. Someone somewhere must be happy that poverty-level families need cars to get groceries or to do damn near anything. That someone being the Sauds, actually.

I didn't linger there, and this journal won't either.