Climbs, smiles, and ~15 miles (566.5m)

I rolled out of bed at around 6:00am and Specs was still asleep (we’re sharing a double room to save money), so I tended to my morning doings in a quieter fashion than normal.

Teeth brushed I opened the front door and spied the sunrise; and it was stunning. The sun was just above the horizon and was throwing yellows and oranges over the Appalachians in the distance. The hills were still blanketed by rolling mist as the humid forest floor shed its moisture from the downpour the day before.

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It wasn’t long before Red Specs and Tie Dye emerged, and we were also joined by Double Dare — a class of 2003 AT thru hiker — and breakfast was on the cards. There’s not much to do in Bland, VA – a Dairy Queen, Dollar General, a gas station, and a Subway. We hit up DQ and pounded breakfast sandwiches and burritos. Specs, Tie Dye and I saved some of our burrito breakfast to take on the trail for lunch.

We headed back to the motel where Double Dare was being picked up for his shuttle to the trail — a spot farther north than we were heading today — and Bubba rolled in at around 8:30am. Bubba provides a shuttle service for hikers in and around the Bland area.

We had to wait until Bubba returned for our shuttle to Walker Gap. We were on the road by 9:30am, and I hopped in the back of his truck as Tie Dye and Specs shared the cab up front. How often do you get to ride in the back of a pickup truck?!

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It took literally 45 minutes to get to the trail head at Walker Gap, and the ride trough the mountains albeit bumpy and long, was gorgeous. I spotted three deer (one of which stood majestically, and starred at me as we followed the forest road) and the smell of freshly dewed fauna was spellbinding. We arrived and hopped out of Bubba’s truck like three teenage gymnasts – we were ready to take on the day.

We’d decided to slack pack and flip flop today as the elevation map looked a little kinder southbound than going north. Our goal was to reach VA 610 where we had finished yesterday, 14.9 miles away. Given we were staying at the motel again tonight (I’m expecting some packages on Wednesday), it didn’t make sense taking a full pack; slack packing is easier on the body, and bigger mileage can be enjoyed with less stresses on the muscles and joints.

I led our trio up the first climb (remember, there’s always a climb out of a “Gap”), and I was going great guns. The 1.3 miles and 890 feet of elevation gain was easy, making the summit in 20 minutes. It felt great to get so much clean trail air in my lungs. At the top was Chestnut Knob Shelter, a fully enclosed concrete block shelter. The views from the summit were, as always, beautiful. We snapped away before heading out.

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A slowly descending rolling hillside was gorgeous to hike trough, and views to the east were plentiful. We passed many AT hikers going north and most of them looked wiped out; their climb (our pending descent) was a lung busting 4.4 miles over a 2,077′ elevation gain – ridiculous.

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We took our sweet time going downhill, and we spent at least a couple of hours making our way down. We stopped by a small stream to refill our water bottles and grabbed a bite to eat: burritos! They were cold but a couple drops of Texas Pete’s hot sauce turned them into gourmet food.

We came to a gravel road (VA 625) and Soul Sister was here talking to some section hikers. It was nice to see her and she and Tie Dye caught up. Photo op and we continued on.

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The trail was muddy and wet as it wound through the forest alongside creeks and streams and I pretended to be a tightrope walker along many of the notched log crossings. I was having a great day.

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Slight descent for about a mile and we came upon a gorgeous footbridge which crossed the wide and deep Lick Creek. We stopped and took some more photos and enjoyed watching the abundance of small fish swim about.

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From there we had a pretty steep and long climb, and the day had become very warm – it was at least 80°F and humid. For 1.2 miles we climbed 736′ and the heat was brutal – the cork handles of my trekking poles were soaked and slippery with sweat which had rolled down my arms and over my hands.

Once we got to the top of Lynn Camp Mountain we realized that we’d taken our sweet time all day – not starting until 10:40am didn’t help, either. We’d scheduled a 4:00pm pickup with Bubba from VA 610, 7 miles away, and it was 2:45pm. We were not going to make it, not a chance. Tie Dye called him and we were given a 5:30pm alternative. Chugging what water we had left, we ran — and I mean ran — down to Lynn Camp Creek. I was down in 15 minutes and my ankles, knees, and everything else was holding up nicely. Then came a 2.5 mile climb to Brushy Mountain – we didn’t think to stop at Knot Maul Branch Shelter to say our hellos to two other thru hikers – we were on a mission. The climb was long, humid, and prolonged. It completely kicked my ass and drained whatever was left in the tank. I was spent. I took some video while descending through open meadows and without the tree cover it was awfully hot.

O’Lystery Pavilion was at the bottom and to the side of VA 42, and the trail continued on the other side. The trail was level for the next mile, then it went up, and I had nothing left. Absolutely nothing, my body yearned for the hike to end. I bumped into Nutella as I climbed — I’d met her a few times before, nice girl — and asked how far the road was. She was it was “just up there”. I hate it when people say shit like that. I need to learn to stop asking stupid questions like these, because it’s never just up there or just around the bend.

I had to climb over another two stiles, which at this point of the day felt like climbing over giant wooden ladders. They weren’t, they were only 5-6 rungs at most. The meadow by the side of VA 610 came into view, as did the road shortly thereafter. I let out a WHOOP! and with my head down and body aching, I made my way to the road where Bubba was waiting. One more stile to climb over, I seethed in disgust. It took all I had left to pull myself into the back of the truck, and my knees were completely shot. They throbbed, and I had a headache, too. Tie Dye and I exchanged some conversation in the back as we headed “home”, and I fidgeted the whole trip trying to find comfortable positions for my beat-up legs.

Red Specs raided the hiker box inside the motel office and finagled some shower gel, which is a luxury out here.

Showered, changed, and smelling like “fresh mountain spring”, we took a (painful) walk down to the gas station to pick up a 12-pack of Heineken and I ordered two large pizzas and garlic bread for the three of us. We enjoyed the rest of our evening woolfing pizza and beers outside on a picnic bench in the parking lot and watched the night roll in.

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With full bellies we turned in. My right knee feels swollen, and I intend to zero if I’m in worse shape in the morning.

I was out like a light.

Miles hiked today: 14.9

Hemlock Hollow, thru-hike sorrow (290.2m)

Not much ankle pain this morning, but I still had to hobble to the bathroom from the sofa.

Around 7:30am, Cap woke up and began packing final items before our hike. I had my day pack set and my regular pack ready for delivery to Hemlock Hollow, a hostel with bunks and cabins 16 trail miles from our Hot Springs starting point this morning. We were slack packing, and I’d spoken with Hattie the night before — the owner of the hostel — it was going to be an easier day without our full ~25lb packs. Excited to return to the trail; hiking helps to warm up muscles and aids in circulating what lubricants I have left in my aching joints.

Coffee, group photo, and we were on the road back to Hot Springs by 8:45am. We stopped at Reggie’s for breakfast on the way which was a treat.

By the time we got to town it was almost 11:00am, so we said our farewells to Lola and we were off.

Four ibuprofen, down the hatch. I still had some swelling this morning.

Steep and prolonged climbs followed, and I was feeling great. New shoes felt superb and I was making a fantastic pace. After the climbs the trail became hill hugging and sweeping through gentle PUDs over some beautiful areas. Green tunnels and easily navigable trail, I was on a roll.

About half way in (8 miles) my left ankle started to tweak, and so did my right extensor tendon. You have to be kidding me, not now.

Three more ibuprofen; I had to keep both the pain and swelling down and keep going – it was close to 3:00pm and I still had another three and a half to four hours to go.

I pushed on and each step began to feel like I had hammers smashing me in the feet and shin. My left ankle was painful on both the outside and inside, agonizing.

By 5:30pm I was hobbling and leaning heavily on my trekking poles, and the downhills — which were aplenty — we’re destroying me.

Four more ibuprofen.

My spirit and determination was waning, and fast. It took everything I had to keep going and I hung back with Alfalfa for the final few miles. I was coming in last. I know it’s not a race, but when I’ve been one of the first to finish each day, this was a big telltale sign of what was about to become the inevitable.

Reaching the hostel at 7:00pm is was in so much pain that even standing still was excruciating. I’d told Alfalfa, Cap, and Tom that I thought today would be my last day, I just couldn’t keep popping close to a dozen ibuprofen every day. They were shocked to hear me speak with such conviction, but they’d all seen how much pain I was in, and how much medication I was taking.

I called my wife and brought her up to speed about me quitting. As usual, she did her best to motivate me, playing to my passion for staying the course; but I think my decision had already been made a week ago coming down to Davenport Gap. I was sick of pushing, tired of being in pain – it’s exhausting, and I wasn’t enjoying the trail anymore.

I’m done.