Appalachian Trail - Damascas to... out
Day 52 - Damascas to Feathercamp Trail Branch.
5.5 miles. 23,296 steps. 116 flights of stairs climbed. 3,188 calories burned.
Cooked breakfast for Sunshine and Forgiven before heading to Mojo's Coffee House to meet Sunshine's cousin James. He came to section hike with Sunshine for a week. Having not hiked much before, James came very unprepared with no sleeping bag or pad, no real meals other than snack bars, and a very uncomfortable looking backpack system. He didn't own a decent sized pack, so brought two standard backpacks that one might wear to work. We didn't realise how unprepared he was until we were already on the trail. Otherwise we would have taken him to the outfitters.
The hike from town followed the Virginia Creeper Trail for about half a mile, before splitting off to ascend back into the mountains. It was very hot and we were aware that James hadn't hiked much before, so we took it easy and stopped at the first campsite large enough for all of us.
Best part of the day - going for coffee in the morning. It was great drinking good coffee in the morning. We almost felt normal again!
Worst part - climbing a mountain in the midday heat.
Day 53 - Feathercamp Trail Branch to Whitetop Laurel Creek.
8.7 miles. 23,740 steps. 116 flights of stairs climbed. 3,525 calories burned.
Around 4am the temperature dropped. James had been sleeping in a hammock without any padding or insulation, so woke up shivering. He couldn't get to sleep so spent the rest of the night wandering around camp trying to keep warm. We named him Snowman. James wanted to bail and go back to Damascas, but we convinced him to stay. Forgiven offered his tent and Chris offered our spare sleeping pad (which we had been using as a sit pad and yoga mat).
The start of the hike was tiring today. There was a lot of climbing, stretched out over miles of switchbacks. And very little shade as the trees still haven't gotten their leaves yet. In the afternoon, we stopped for a break by Laurel Creek and all took a dip. The water wasn't too cold and it was a really beautiful spot. The guys wanted to camp here, but I wasn't keen and wanted to keep going to make sure we were meeting our miles. However when I saw James finally catching up on his sleep I agreed to stop early. He looked so peaceful, I didn't want to force him to wake up and hike further. Nick, who had been given the trail name Bonzai, had also stopped and decided to camp with us. It was a really nice chilled out afternoon.
That's until we heard a loud bang into our camp and saw Fuego & Squeak, Dragon & Nav, Yelp, Castaway, Cheers and Four Star arrive. They had set off a firework into our camp as a prank. It sounded like a gun had been fired. Chris exploded into anger that a firework had been set off in a wilderness area and shouted that it's not OK, especially when we had passed several memorials for firefighters who have given their lives to stop wildfires. The forests were really dry from the heat over the last few days and there had very recently been a wildfire in Hot Springs and Virginia. I was also really angry that we were on a trail in the wilderness to enjoy the peace and quiet, but now they were going to set off fireworks, not only annoying other hikers, but also scaring all the dogs and wildlife around. Fuego and Dragon had at least another 3 fireworks each, strapped to the outside of their packs.
As Chris started shouting at them, Yelp took the opportunity to shout at Chris, but used it as a personal attack and shouted all sorts of horrible things that weren't related to the incident at all. He told Chris to "hike your own hike", which was ironic as we'd been trying to avoid them to do just that. Yelp then stood over Chris while we were eating, shouting down at him as if gearing for a physical fight, but Chris and I remained seated and told him to leave us alone.
Eventually, it calmed down a bit and Yelp apologised to Chris. The rest of the group had mainly hung back and kept quiet, apart from Dragon who kept shouting that fireworks are fine and wouldn't cause a fire. We could also hear Castaway saying that we were just worried because we'd never been to America before. Which isn't true and isn't relevant. Four Star was the only decent one in the group, who came and had a nice chat with me at the end. Luckily none of them stayed long. We were all left fuming and stressed. So much for our lovely day.
Later on, loads more thru-hikers arrived at our camp, including Matt, Dunk & Egg, Mountain goat & his mum Sheila, and Jaipur. Word got around about the fireworks and no-one was impressed.
Best part of the day - swimming in the creek.
Worst part - the firework gang.
The phrase 'hike your own hike' is meant to mean that everyone should be able to have the experience that they want on the AT and shouldn't feel forced into someone else's definition of hiking. However the Firework Gang (who I will name as such from now on, as it's easier than listing their names every time) have constantly been affecting our hike. We've had snide comments about mileage, both towards our short and longer days, bitchy comments about where we hang our bear bags, what we should and shouldn't put on a fire, how we look and our small budget. And now, fireworks in our camp. We had been trying to avoid camping near the group so we could start enjoying the tranquility of the trail without their weird social dynamics, but however hard we try they just always seem to be there. It's starting to feel like a nightmare or horror film.
Day 54 - Whitetop Laurel Creek to Brier Ridge Saddle.
13.1 miles. 42,684 steps. 436 flights of stairs climbed. 5,071 calories burned.
Neither of us slept well because we were too stressed and angry. We gave up trying and hiked early out of camp on our own. We passed the Firework Gang's camp about a mile up the river and just after we passed, they set off another couple of fireworks. We continued walking and hoped they wouldn't catch up in the day.
Sunshine, Forgiven and Snowman caught up with us at our first break, but we all hiked at different paces wanting our own alone time to deal with the stress. We met for lunch and camped together again at the end of the day. Just after lunch we stumbled across some trail magic. There was another thru-hiker handing out snacks, drinks and insect-bite cream with her mum for the weekend. As we were hanging around chatting to them everyone started talking about an aggressive bear that has spent the last week hanging around Thomas Knob Shelter. This bear had apparently been ripping apart people's food bags and got 8 bags down from trees just last night. We were told the trees are all too low for decent bear hangs, so we decided to avoid the shelter and neighboring campsite.
We camped in a huge meadow on Brier Ridge Saddle instead. Although there were no trees to hang our food, we figured a bear would be unlikely to come that far out into the open. The main issue with food would be the ponies. Lots of ponies live in the area and are not shy about approaching people. There was a huge rock next to our camp, so we put our food bags on the rock, knowing that the ponies could never reach it. The camp spot we found was great. The only downside was that the Firework Gang had the same idea and camped near us. We were all polite to each other, but didn't engage in much conversation. It was an enjoyable evening, stroking the ponies and running away as they tried to lick salt off our legs.
Best part of the day - watching the sunset over the ridge. The sky turned purple and red. As the sun went down, we could see loads of campfires lit up in the distance, marking the Appalachian Trail for miles over the mountains. That was pretty cool.
Worst part - alot of climbing in the heat again; sweaty!
Day 55 - Brier Ridge Saddle to Scales Trail junction.
6.6 miles. 26,107 steps. 82 flights of stairs climbed. 3,891 calories burned.
Another terrible nights sleep. There was a large pack of coyotes near our camp last night, howling to each other. It sounded like they'd surrounded us. Sunshine and Forgiven had been cowboy camping (no tent or shelter) and had woken up, scared at how close the coyotes were. I couldn't get back to sleep because I could hear them chatting. At least Snowman slept well in Forgiven's tent! Chris also slept well... he didn't wake with the howling despite it being pretty loud.
Chris and I left camp with Snowman and hiked to Thomas Knob Shelter to get water. Sunshine and Forgiven stayed behind and said they'd catch up. Just as we were leaving we heard another couple of fireworks being set off again. The Firework Gang had set them off in the wilderness area, next to the ponies. It seemed a bit too much of a coincidence that they'd set them off as we were just passed their camp two days in a row. We were really angry and started discussing what we should do. Neither of us wanted to be hiking next to a group of people who were risking wildfires and who were disturbing all the wildlife.
At the shelter we saw the remains of all the bear bags and food packaging. It was a shame that the hikers had just left it there, rather than packing it out. Chris packed out as much as he could fit into his bag and I took some of our food off him to equal out the weight. Booga Bear and Wizard & Spinelli arrived, all angry about the fireworks that were being set off. Bonzai had told them about the first incident and now they had witnessed it themselves they were fuming.
As we were discussing it, several section hikers spoke about their annoyance over the fireworks and we decided to call the Rangers. None of us had any signal, but as we got out of the forest we were able to borrow a phone from a day hiker. This day hiker was out with his two young sons and was really keen to assist. Just as Chris hung up the phone from reporting the incident, Fuego and Dragon arrived, followed closely by the others. Chris informed them that we had reported them and told them to get rid of the remaining fireworks. Fuego just said, "OK", but Dragon started shouting abuse at us. He shouted that we were pathetic and should mind our own business. We told him that it's not OK to continue setting off fireworks and we weren't the only people who were worried and angry about it. Dragon's response was that people should mind their own business. He then said he doesn't care about anyone else or other people's opinions. The day hiker had walked ahead a little with his sons, but then stopped and kept an eye on us to make sure we were OK. As the Firework Gang eventually walked off past him, we could see him having a go at them. He then gave us a nod as he left. We waited for another 20 minutes before continuing on. We had also found out that Forgiven had set one of the fireworks off, which had really disappointed Chris and I, but had also disappointed Sunshine.
Being tense from stress ruined the rest of our day and left us aching and tired. Chris twisted and hurt his knee and became fixated on needing to quit. I told him not to think about it because I wouldn't let anyone bully us off the trail.
The rest of our hike was really slow because the terrain was rocky and tough. We passed through Fatman Squeeze, a rocky tunnel on the trail, and then through some shrubby areas which were charred from previous fires. A few hours later it started to rain and we could hear thunder all around us. The rain wasn't very heavy, but we didn't want to keep walking on open unsheltered paths in the thunderstorm, so stopped early and put up the tent.
Sunshine and Forgiven had been off at a grocery store in search of ice cream since the morning and we hadn't seen them pass us. We also realised that we hadn't seen Snowman since the shelter. We assumed Snowman must have found them before they went and had gone too. Around 6pm, Sunshine and Forgiven arrived at our camp expecting to see Snowman with us. We all started to worry that he had accidentally taken a side trail and may be lost in the wilderness. The next shelter was miles away and we thought he would have stopped to meet up for lunch way before then, so none of us thought he would have gone all the way on. We agreed a strategy for the following day to try and find him; Sunshine and Chris both text him instructions to get to Old Orchard Shelter and wait until we arrived. Chris and I would go there quickly in the morning to see if he was there. Sunshine and Forgiven would hike back to try and get phone signal in the meadows. They would then hike to the shelter for the afternoon/evening in case he arrived later.
Best part of the day - seeing the ponies and passing the 500 mile mark.
Worst part - having verbal abuse shouted at us.
Day 56 - Scales Trail Junction to Hurricane Mountain Shelter.
10.4 miles. 30,822 steps. 192 flights of stairs climbed. 3,447 calories burned.
Hiked to Old Orchard Shelter, but no sign of Snowman. We continued on. The rain poured heavily all day and we got completely soaked, so we hiked quickly and put our tent up just before Hurricane Mountain Shelter. We still hate staying in or by the shelters; they're noisy and full of mice! Around 5pm Sunshine and Forgiven walked past our camp. They had found a note from Snowman at the shelter, saying he had enjoyed his time with us but had gone back to Damascas to his car. Apparently he wrote a really nice note about Chris and me, saying how much he liked us. That cheered us up a lot.
Best part of the day - hiking alone and barely seeing anyone else on the trail. It was really peaceful and calming.
Worst part - the never-ending rain. It didn't ease up at all.
Day 57 - Hurricane Mountain Shelter to Dickey Gap. Then hitched back to Damascas.
5.1 miles. 27,743 steps. 62 flights of stairs climbed. 3,930 calories burned.
Quick hike to Dickey Gap, where we then hitched a ride to Damascas for Trail Days. Trail Days is a hiking festival with loads of freebies and competitions for hikers, and has a reputation for being host to some wild parties in the evenings. We didn't really want to go, because we wanted to use the time to hike away from the Firework Gang, but Chris had a new phone coming to the post office. He had dropped his on a rock a week prior, smashing the screen.
It took us about 30 minutes to get a ride and the lady who picked us up had no idea where Damascas was, but she said she was happy to look it up on Google maps and take us. She was brilliant. A nurse by day, originally from Ohio and now trapped in Virginia, which she hates. She told us about all the deadly and dangerous animals, the cliquey nature of her work place and the lack of Starbucks in the state's cities. She also told us a story of her getting stabbed in the back of the leg when she lived in a ghetto, and about the hand gun she has in the car, which she carries in case of bear attacks but doesn't know how to use. As we were telling her about our friend Forgiven, who also comes from Ohio, we saw Forgiven and Sunshine trying to hitch from outside a church hostel. She did an emergency stop and told them to jump in. We made it to Damascas in one piece.
Considering it was only the Thursday and meant to be the quietest day, Trail Days was still pretty busy. Lots of thru-hikers were buying ridiculous outfits from the thrift store to wear for the rest of the weekend. We saw men in hot pants, men and women in ball gowns, and lots of colourful tie-dye. The ministries were giving out free dinners in the Fire Service hall, so we ate dinner there and then set up our tent in 'tent city'. We went for the 'quiet' field, which was quieter than the woods, but still very noisy. Spinelli & Wizard and Booga Bear were also camped in this field, so we spent our evening hanging out with them. Out of curiosity, we all wandered into the woods to inspect the parties. It was an odd combination of people playing beer pong and people tripping on acid, waving glow sticks around. The music was terrible 90's rave music and way too intense for 9pm. We were completely sober and found it all very surreal.
We got into bed around 10pm and went to sleep. Every hour we were awoken by different drunk and/or high hikers returning to their tents. The music was still gently pumping from the wood until about 2am and we had two hours of peace until a rooster started making a noise at 4. This annoying rooster continued to make a noise every 10 minutes until the sun came up. Who on earth would bring a rooster to a festival?! I can only imagine they plan to sacrifice it in some weird ceremony on the final night. Poor guy.
Best part of the day - the library was open all day, so we spent several hours on the computers whilst waiting for dinner. Pinch and Pistol popped in to say Hi, as did the Smith family and Bear, the Kiwi guy we met right at the start. It was great seeing all these people again!
Worst part - having to say goodbye to some really great people, knowing we will probably never see them again.
Day 58 - Damascas back to Dickey Gap, then on to mile 527.3.
6.9 miles. 31,449 steps. 127 flights of stairs climbed. 3,625 calories burned.
Packed up our tent and said our goodbyes to Sunshine and Forgiven, who were staying with Forgiven's family for the rest of the weekend. Had a free shower, ate as many free snacks as we could, left our bags at the library so we could stealthily charge our battery and then we went to resupply at Food City. The Smith family had offered to drive us back to the trail if we couldn't find a shuttle, so we called Mrs Smith and she kindly drove us back to Dickey Gap.
It started raining as soon as we got out of the car, but we hiked as far as we could before we started getting hungry. The trail was super quiet all day; it was amazing! Since no-one had been out disturbing the wildlife, we saw several lizards and salamanders, and a snake.
Best part of the day - the peace and quiet of the deserted trail.
Worst part - saying goodbye to Sunshine and Forgiven, and to the Smith family.
Day 59 - Mile 527.3 to a camp spot just before the Settler's Museum.
15.2 miles. 43,526 steps. 345 flights of stairs climbed. 4,318 calories burned.
Lots of branches cracked and fell from the trees in the night, leaving debris all over the trail. As there was no-one else around, there was no-one clearing the trail before us. We tried to move some of the larger branches off the trail, but it got too tiring and slowed us down so we just climbed over them instead.
Our first break was at the Partnership Shelter, which was built in memory of a guy who loved the AT. It had a wash basin and running water, so we did some laundry and tied it to our bags to dry. Unfortunately there was another thunderstorm in the afternoon so nothing dried. The trail was muddy and wet all day, leaving us with wet shoes and socks, and soggy toes. My toes were red raw with blisters by the time we got to camp.
Best part of the day - Partnership Shelter was beautifully crafted and very well maintained.
Worst part - my feet were agony by the end of the day. Blisters on top of your toes are the worst!
Day 60 - Camp spot before the Settler's Museum to Small Creek near Va42.
15.9 miles. 43,453 steps. 327 flights of stairs climbed. 4,254 calories burned.
Barely slept; I kept waking up with stiff and aching joints. My legs were cramping in the night and I've started waking up with extreme hunger pains.
The hike was more varied today than it has been in a while. We passed the Settler's museum and Lindamond Schoolhouse, walked through some really overgrown grassy meadows, crossed an interstate, entered some more forests and crossed some cow fields.
At the end of the day we reached a sign advising hikers to bypass the next river crossing because the bridge had flooded. By this point our feet were already soaked, so we decided to ignore the warnings and continue along the AT. The flood was a lot worse than we expected and we could hardly make out the bridge. Chris went first, stepping very carefully and slowly, using his poles to steady himself. He left his pack at the other side and came back to help me across. I kept my pack on hoping the weight might help to keep me balanced in the water. I rolled up my leggings to keep them dry, but kept my shoes on as my feet were soaked anyway. The current was really strong against my legs and poles, but I kept my feet really close to the ground and used my poles to feel for obstacles. The water came right up to my knees and sloshed around in my boots. I'm surprised I made it across without falling. I squeezed Chris's hand so tight his knuckles went white!
Best part of the day - the forests are getting more colourful now as Summer is arriving. We walked through some really pretty rhododendron tunnels with bright pink flowers. It's nice seeing some colours other than brown and green.
Worst part - the trail has been so muddy that our boots don't get enough grip and every footstep seems to take double the effort.
Day 61 - Small Creek to Walker Gap.
12.9 miles. 35,807 steps. 367 flights of stairs climbed. 3,893 calories burned.
Today felt really long. It started dry and we crossed some nice creeks, but as we were climbing Chesnut Knob, thunderstorms started around us. It was so hot and humid that we didn't bother putting our raincoats on. They get so sweaty that they become pointless. Chesnut Knob seemed to go on climbing forever. The last section was out in open fields, which is very unsafe to be doing in a thunderstorm. Luckily the thunder and lightening stayed to one side of us and we just had the rain overhead.
On top of the ridge was a shelter. We stopped there for lunch to get out of the rain and met loads of fellow hikers hiding from the storm. Matt was there, as well as Dunk & Egg, and an Italian guy called The Hustler, who we'd briefly met the night before.
The trail is much busier again now that Trail Days is over. We seem to have found a new group of hikers who were a few days ahead of us initially, but we were well aware that the Firework Gang may only be 10-20 miles behind us and we were both feeling the pressure of wanting to move faster and increase the distance between us. After lunch we hiked a bit further, but my knees were so sore that we didn't get very far. We took a blue blaze trail to a campsite which was once used for the AT but has been left to grow over for years. It was a bit eerie, but we were alone all night so enjoyed the solitude.
Best part of the day - we saw a little tortoise on the path today. He was so cute! We also saw another rat snake; he wasn't so cute.
Worst part - I couldn't get my backpack to sit right today and it kept pulling on my shoulders and neck. I'm so sore all over and don't feel like my rest periods are doing anything to help.
Day 62 - Walker Gap to Suiter Road.
13.7 miles. 39,461 steps. 255 flights of stairs climbed. 3,992 calories burned.
Another restless night with very little sleep. Leg cramps, aching muscles and stiff knees. I took drowsy Ibuprofen and I've been drinking electrolyte drinks, but so far it hasn't made any difference. My body is exhausted. I struggled all day, even with the small climbs.
We were hiking along on our own, on a fairly flat surface, and I suddenly tripped on something. I had no energy or strength left and couldn't even use my poles to stabilise myself. I fell flat on my face and rolled over onto my side, weighed down by my pack. I felt like a turtle upside down with no ability to right myself. I burst into tears for no real reason and laid on the floor for ages. I wasn't hurt or even shocked. I was just tired. Exhausted.
Chris picked me up and said he wants to quit the trail. This made me cry more. I'd known he'd been unhappy with the hiking for a while, but we'd had good days in towns and had fun times on trail when we swam in creeks and messed around. Those fun times had been getting less and less frequent though and we couldn't afford to go at that leisurely pace any more. We had worked out the average amount of miles we needed to hike in order to complete the trail before our visas expire, and it was a daunting number. In order to have a nero day of 10 miles every resupply (once every 6-7 days), we would need to hike an average of 16 miles a day. We were not averaging that at the moment and the 15 mile days had been causing my knees to get really bad. Neither of us wanted to do long days. We'd also been stressing about money a lot. Our tent doors weren't doing up properly and the zips were breaking, both of us would soon need a new pair of shoes, and we were getting through bear lines and dry sacks regularly. It was inevitable; we would soon run out of money and have to go home. There was no way we could complete the AT in time and on budget. Neither of us were looking forward to the 'Virginia Blues' or the prospect of hiking on rocks for miles through Pennsylvania. And then we had to ask ourselves, "is this worth it?". The simple answer is no. We realised that we weren't enjoying the hike enough to use up the last of my savings on it. I didn't want to go home feeling rubbish and defeated, so we agreed to spend the last of our money sightseeing.
The more we spoke about it, the more excited we were to be going home. Back to real life, real family and real friends. Real accommodation and real jobs. We were excited to have a real purpose again and to start contributing to society. To earn an income and save to buy a house. I was excited to see my parent's pets again and to eat fresh food. Chris was excited to start putting all his ideas into practice and get coding again. There were no doubts about our decision. Tomorrow we would leave.
Day 63 - Leaving the trail.
The logistics of leaving were a bit of a challenge. We hiked down the road towards Bastien, where we needed to get our last mail drop. On our way, a laborer offered to give us a lift. He didn't know where the post office was and we got a bit lost. Eventually we found it, collected our post and called a shuttle to take us to Pearisburg.
We booked a room in the Plaza Motel for 2 nights, had all our laundry done and then went to use the library. On the way there we popped into a gift shop so I could buy a tote bag. The sales assistant was really friendly and gave us advice on how to get to Washington DC and New York by coach. We booked all our tickets, hotels and flights home in one go, then contacted my mum to check she could meet us at the airport in a week. It was a bit of a rush, but fairly easy to sort once we knew what to search for, and we got some great deals!
Neither one of us regrets the decision we made to leave the trail because we know it was the right decision. We realised that 6 months hiking in a forest is just too much for us at this point in time. We want to get on with our lives and we can't wait to do so! We will continue blogging and sharing our next adventures, so feel free to follow along! If you have any questions about the trail or our experiences, you can either use the comments box below or send us an email using the contact form on the Our Partners page.