Tornado Sirens (Days 49-51)

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The weather lately has been rather… wet. I often find myself walking with my head (as well as the rest of me) in the clouds with the rain dripping, drizzling, condensing, or pouring down on me. Sometimes I even get the full multi-sensory experience with the thunder rumbling around me, usually in a long low ongoing grumble instead of the short staccato crack or clap that accompanies a cloud to ground lightning strike. As long and I’m not on a ridge or seeing lightning etc. I try not to worry about it too much. Getting wet is just part of the thru-hiking experience (though wet boots and socks are things we’d rather avoid).

I was hiking in typical muggy summer afternoon thunderstorms when the weather started to do something different. The winds picked up, with strong gusts overturning all of the leaves and causing small branches to break off and float down around me. The cracks of thunder also got louder and shorter as the sky around me turned that weird eerie yellow that I associate with tornados.

It was clear that a storm was coming. I figured I was just being paranoid about the tornado part since the last time I was in town (admittedly a while ago) I had watched the weather channel describe the devastating tornadoes in the Midwest.

I was approaching a town, so I decided that I would try to hurry up and get down into town before the torrential downpour that was clearly coming had a chance to get me drenched. As I continued down the hill the weather just seemed to get worse and worse…windier and windier… eerier and eerier.

The road finally came into sight through the trees when I heard the screech of a siren. It sounded just like the air raid sirens you hear in the old World War II movies. “Oh sh**”, I suddenly realized what those sirens were! They were the town’s tornado warning sirens going off!

What do you do when you are in the backcountry and a tornado is coming?! For me the answer was to run for cover while keeping an eye on the sky. As the sirens were blaring I got to the road and started running down it looking for a shelter of some sort, any sort, and counting the time between the lightning strikes and the thunder. One one thousand, two one…. crack boom! As I rounded the bend I saw a house in the distance. Surely the owners wouldn’t mind sharing their basement with a sopping wet thru-hiker…

Kaaaboom!!!! Lightning struck a tree by the side of the road right next to me. The thunder crack was so loud that I felt it with my whole body and could smell the ozone from the strike. My heart and my feet skipped a beat and froze for a second with a more immediate and primal terror than I think I’ve ever felt before.

I blinked a rain drop from my eye and my feet kept moving. One one thousand, two one thousand… Crash boom! I was getting closer to the house. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand… Crack, Rumble.

Then the tornado sirens stopped. They just stopped. I was back to just being outside in an afternoon thunderstorm that was moving further and further away from me. The only difference being that now I needed my adrenaline levels to drop back to normal.

I slowed to a walk, still keeping one eye on the sky and the other on the nearest, closest refuge in case the sirens started up again, but decided that I didn’t need to barge into a strangers basement anymore (unless those sirens started up again).

As I continued walking in the pouring rain my mind wandered back to my original plan for this visit to town, which was to get food and to fill my belly. The excitement hadn’t diminished my appetite! It had, however, diminished my desire to keep hiking in the predicted thunderstorms all afternoon. I decided that I’d had enough excitement and hiking for one day, and was ready to spend the night in town at a hostel that luxuries including: a roof, four solid walls, and a basement!

Party Central (Days 46-48)

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I woke up to the chirping of birds in the pre-dawn darkness like I do every morning. I groggily packed up my things and as the sky grew lighter peeked out of my tent. I’d forgotten that I’d camped with a view the night before, an East facing view! The spectacular red orb of the sun slowly rose up from behind the distant mountains… It then disappeared behind some low-lying clouds so that I could have the pleasure of watching it rise a second time. It was an awesome way to start the longest day of the year!

Even though it was a gorgeous day, I was feeling pretty tired and worn out. I’d heard about a trail angel called Truebrit who would pick you up at the trailhead, help you resupply, and let you stay the night at his camp. It sounded perfect! After 15 miles of hiking in the 90 degree weather I was definitely looking forward to a nice cold beverage.

I called from the top of the hill, and by the time I reached the parking lot Truebrit’s girlfriend Betty was smiling and standing by her beat up old white pickup truck, waiting to give me a ride to wherever I wanted to go. We went into town and I bought some snacks and ice cream to share. Thus fortified we headed up to the camp at Fort Bastian.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. the description in my guidebook was pretty sparse. As we bounced and bumped down a really rough forest service road I briefly had the thought that this was the kind if place someone could disappear into forever. We turned onto an even more rugged stretch of road where a Fort Bastion sign was posted. As we turned the corner an rv, some tarps, tents, and really rough hewn log cabin type structures came into view.

Fort Bastian is a cross between a bachelor pad and the ultimate car camping experience.

Alone? (Days 42-45)

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It seems like there are some days when I see more bears and snakes than people. I have to admit though, I was surprised to find myself in line behind a snake at the privy. I thought about trying to pick it up and move it, but it didn’t seem worth it. I waited for it to do it’s business and move along… It took its time slithering up the stairs and around the throne before slowly lowering itself down towards the base of the privy. From there I envisioned it slithering under the base of the seat and just waiting there for me. I knew that it wasn’t likely, but still decided that I’d feel more comfortable doing my business in the woods.

Folks often ask me if I get scared hiking by myself. For the most part the answer is no. Most of the wildlife seems just as scared of me as I am of it. There is also a community of other thru-hikers that are out here sharing this experience with me, and we all look out for each other. I typically hike alone all day and meet up with other hikers when I break for lunch or make camp for the night. I do sometimes get lonely or a tad nervous when I find myself alone in camp at the end of the day.

The other night I pulled into a shelter at around 5:30 pm to make camp. No one else was there yet, but that wasn’t unusual since I usually leave camp first in the morning and am the first to make camp in the evening. This shelter was awesome, but only 0.1 miles from the road. The downside to shelters that close to the road is that *anyone* can get there easily (even if they are starting out drunk). The shelters near the roads are usually trashed, covered with graffiti, and littered with broken bottles and cans. Staying at the shelters near the roads makes me nervous… Especially when I’m alone.

I decided to cook my dinner and wait until other hikers arrived before unpacking my pack and setting up my bed. I was hoping to sleep on the lower level of the shelter if other hikers showed up, but decided that I would brave the series of rungs that led up to the loft if I was alone for the night.

By 8 pm, I was done with all of my chores and ready to start thinking about sleep. No one else had showed up yet, so I settled into the idea that this might be the first night on the trail where I would *actually* be alone. I put my backpack on and went over and looked at the rungs going up to the loft. I swear it was slightly over hung! With my backpack on, I felt like one of those monkey in a barrel toys climbing those rungs. I would cling to a rung above me with one arm and then awkwardly swing an arm and a leg out so that I could grab the next rung and cling to it.

Once I made it up into the loft it was quite nice. It also seemed like an easily defensible position. No more than one person could climb those rungs at a time and I seriously doubted anyone could do it without me hearing them. Also, unless somebody climbed up into the loft, there would be no way to know that I was hidden away up there.

I set up my sleeping pad and sleeping bad and then changed into my pajamas. I was still feeling nervous about being so close to the road, so I got my knife out of my backpack (which was on the floor beside me) and strung it around my neck. I’ve slept with it as my necklace a few times before and it’s better than any other security blanket I’ve ever tried.

Even with my trusty security blanket knife, I was still feeling a bit nervous. I hate sleeping that close to the road. Perhaps I needed a second security blanket? I remembered that my pepper spray was still in my backpack. I took it out and wondered how I could have it on my person as well. If for some reason I needed it, I didn’t want to have to fumble for it in the dark. My pajamas (long johns) didn’t have any pockets so I tried tucking it up my sleeve… It fell out. I tried tucking it into my waistband… I was uncomfortable and kept sliding down my leg. I tried tucking into the ankle cuffs of my long johns… It fell out. I tried tucking it into my ankle socks… It didn’t fit. I lay there for a minute wishing that I had an ankle holster for it when inspiration struck. My parents had sent me some tall socks (I hadn’t been wearing them because they gave me heat rash on my ankles) that would be perfect as an ankle holster for my pepper spray! I changed my socks and sure enough the pepper spray slid into the top of the sock and stayed exactly where I put it!

Feeling armed and dangerous I curled up in my sleeping bag and prepared to sleep. As soon as I was settled in and comfortable I heard a truck pull into the nearby parking lot. Not long after, the unmistakeable laughter of drunken teenagers started rolling through the hills. I sighed… groups of drunken boys/men were the exact reason I hated staying in shelters/campsites near the road.

The peals of laughter got closer for a while, then drifted further away, and then closer again. I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag, just listening. I felt secure in my fortress and my ability to deal with any situation that might arise. Eventually the laughter died down and I heard the truck roar away.

I was, quite happily, alone again. The whippoorwill began its nightly song and I drifted off to sleep.

Tents Are Not For Eating! (Days 40 & 41)

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While thru-hiking, most people do a combination of tenting and staying in shelters. One of the nice things about tenting is that it gives you more flexibility in terms of how many miles you hike and where you stay at night.

I typically consult my maps each night and figure out where I’m likely to end up the following night. As I was doing this, I was surprised to see a note saying that tenting wasn’t allowed in the Grayson Highlands State Park. I was disappointed because even when I stay near the shelters, I like having the option to retreat into the privacy of my tent at the end of the night.

The hiking near Mt Rogers and the Grayson Highlands was beautiful (even if it was rockier than most of the hiking so far) with grassy ridges, stone outcroppings, and stunning views. I was also excited because all of the rhododendron bushes on the trail were in bloom. Apparently they are blooming late this year because it’s been such a cold spring.

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I was already feeling pretty good about the day when I rounded the bend and came face to face with a heard of ponies. They were wandering across the trail and had just found a nice grassy area to graze in. Unfortunately, some hikers had already found this grassy area, pitched their tents in it, and had presumably wandered off to do some day hiking.

I stopped to watch the ponies graze, and then I watched as they moved into the campsite and made themselves quite at home. At this point I was assuming that the reason that you wouldn’t want to pitch a tent in the area was that the horses might trample the tents (with you inside). But then, as I watched, one of the foals went up to the tent and started chewing on the edge of the fly. I couldn’t idly stand by and watch the horses try to eat someone’s tent, so (after snapping a picture) I walked over to the tent and tried to discourage the foal from eating it. It worked! That foal wandered off…

It wandered straight over to the other tent and started to chew on it. Then two of the other foals started chewing on the backside of the tent that I was standing in front of. I was outnumbered! Eventually I gave up and continued on with my hike.

I was convinced that there was no way I was going to pitch my tent anywhere near the park, so I opted to stay in a shelter for the night instead. A couple of other thru-hikers joined me at the shelter later that evening and told me that by the time they went by the ponies had completely wrecked that campsite.

Normally we hang our food at night to keep the bears and mice from getting at it, but this time the thing we were more concerned about were the ponies!

When I told this story to my friend’s kids (3 and 5 yrs old), they said that they would have told the baby ponies that, “tents are not for eating”, or that “tents are not food.” They repeated this chorus emphatically for a while while giggling and exclaiming that the baby ponies were silly.

I still wonder what it was about the tents that made the ponies interested in them… Maybe salt from the sweaty humans handling them? Maybe there was condensation and water on them? Maybe the hikers had left food inside? Or, maybe the kids were right… Maybe the ponies were just being silly.

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Detour to Eden (Day 39)

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Since starting my hike in Georgia, I’ve gotten used to scanning the ground for snakes. I’ve seen snakes in the trail, snakes under logs, and snakes on rocks. Here in Virginia, I experienced a new one, a snake in a tree.

I was hiking down the trail and stopped to chat with someone coming from the other direction. They told me that there was a six foot long snake in a tree overhanging the trail about 1/4 mile ahead. He told me that I’d know that I was in the right spot because all of the birds near there were flipping out.

I kept hiking and listening to the birds. What do birds sound like when they’re flipping out? I wasn’t sure, so whenever I head an unusual birdsong I’d stop and listen, trying to ascertain if it was the special song of a bird flipping out.

About 1/2 a mile down the trail I suddenly found the spot where the birds were flipping out. There were five or six birds that were jumping from branch to branch and making loud clicking/trilling noises incessantly. I watched the birds jumping around for a minute… It was fascinating.

I scanned the tree branches for the snake and didn’t see anything. I stepped back a pace and looked again. Sure enough, the snake was there. It was on the branch that had been hanging directly over my head, with it’s head draped down so that it could watch me. The ripples of its body covered what looked to me to be about five feet along the tree branch.

I was reminded of the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The snake dangling from the tree and offering the fruit of knowledge. I walked by the snake and left it dangling in its tree… Thinking about the promise and allure of the career that I’d left dangling back at home when I decided to leave and walk this walk.

On such a gorgeous day it was easy to appreciate the detours that had brought me to this point in the trail, and to this point in my life.

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