Over the week following my last post I entered a part of Virginia sometimes called "the green tunnel." While it's hard to call any part of the AT less than beautiful, this particular stretch isn't a favorite among most AT hikers. Known for long days with very little to see through the tunnel of trees, and situated about 600 miles into the overall trip for northbound thru-hikers, it's often the cause of the "Virginia Blues," a psychological low point for a lot of thru-hikers where the novelty has worn off and the reality of hiking day after day for months on end starts to sink in, begging the question: "Do you really want to do another 1600 miles of this?"
Given I'm not thru-hiking (and I didn't start at the beginning so I've only done about 350 miles so far) I'm fortunately not feeling any of the blues yet, but it's fair to say there's not that much to see here. So I decided this would be the perfect time for a bit of a speed challenge! As I've now been hiking for an average of eight hours a day for over 40 days I'm in what we'll call "great-though-oddly-specific-to-hiking shape." Don't ask me to run a mile... I only walk now, but I can walk a lot of miles.
My thought was to do away with planned stopping points and just hike however far I felt like hiking each day for a week. The goal wasn't to go as fast as possible, but rather to find the speed I'm most comfortable at. Basically: go as fast as possible while still enjoying the trip and not missing cool stuff or falling off a cliff.
With my plan in place nothing could possibly stop me! I did a solid 17 miles on the first day of the challenge and felt great. I quit well before dark and really felt like I could have done 20 without much trouble. So as I set out on the second day I made 20 my goal. At about 2 pm I hit a shelter at a road crossing, which also featured a park visitors center. Now, the interesting thing about this visitors center is that it just so happens to be within delivery distance of a Pizza Hut...
It turns out pizza can stop me.
Having covered only 12 miles, and with a good 4 hours or more of workable daylight left, I tried to compromise by telling myself "I'll order a pizza, eat it, then hike another hour or two." And so I rang up the Pizza Hut and asked the nice lady if they delivered to the visitors center just to be sure. She said, "We do, but not until after 4."
Hmmm... If I couldn't even place an order before 4, then added an hour for delivery, then factored in 20 or 30 minutes to eat, plus 20 or 30 minutes to recover because I'd just stupidly eaten an absurd amount of pizza... I'd have no real time left to hike in the day.
So I thought about it really, really hard for almost 10 whole seconds, and then I said, "I'll call back at 4."
The rest is history. Delicious, delicious history. On a side note, no human should consume that much bread and cheese in one sitting.
Determined to make up for my short day, I set an alarm for 6 am the following morning. Then at 6 am I turned the alarm off and went back to sleep until my more usual time of 8ish. Some battles are lost causes, but with the pizza and sleeping out of the way, once again nothing could stop this train!
Except real trains... this train stops for real trains too. I saw Stand By Me. Ain't no way I'm gettin' in front of a train.
Though if I'm being honest I'd actually already crossed the tracks and hiked another hundred yards or more when I heard the approaching clackity-clack and turned around and ran back to the tracks because I just really like trains. The conductor waved and blew the whistle for me as he passed. My inner child grinned like an idiot while my outer child played it cool and grinned like a slightly more composed idiot.
Now, with pizza, sleeping, and real trains all out of the way, once again nothing could stop me! I managed to cover good ground despite the late start and however many minutes I lost waiting for the train to pass (you gotta wait for the caboose... You just gotta), making a little over 20 miles total, but I didn't really enjoy the last hour. Fatigue started setting in and my feet felt heavier, so I cut the next day off around 18 miles. That felt much more comfortable, and it's about what I stuck with for the remaining days, sometimes doing a bit more or a bit less depending on terrain and weather. I suppose it was perhaps the best week to be stuck in a tunnel of trees with few views, as I also spent most of the week hiking in fog and rain courtesy of Hurricane Matthew. It turns out weather can stop this train too... I'm not a very good train I've decided.
There's a saying in long distance hiking: never set up camp in the rain. The idea is to just hike through it (using a headlamp if it gets dark) and eventually it will stop. It's a nifty idea but someone clearly never explained the saying to the rain. As anyone who's been caught in a persistent storm knows, sometimes the rain just doesn't stop. While it proved a little frustrating, especially for my speed test as the terrain became slick and sometimes dangerous, it gave me another fun challenge: testing how my gear setup handled continuous water exposure.
Fortunately for me, my upgraded hammock system turned out to be perfect for never ending rain! This is one of those things that you tell yourself will work when you're trying to talk yourself into spending the money on an upgrade, but when the time comes to put it to the test you're kind of crossing your fingers and hoping you weren't just making excuses to buy cool stuff. The biggest change to my system is that I can hang my new tarp independently of my hammock, which means I can basically have myself a good-sized shelter in about 30 seconds. Even better, since the tarp hangs high and isn't enclosed like a tent it's safe to cook under! So on a couple nights when the rain was really getting old I tossed in the towel a little early, found a couple nice trees, strung up my tarp, changed into dry clothes, placed my ground pad down so I had a comfy place to sit, and cooked myself a nice, hot meal. It's amazing the difference having this setup made. The morale boost of being able to not just get out of the rain but to do it easily and comfortably really can't be understated when you're on your third, fourth... fifth day of rain.
And when dinner was finished I packed the cooking kit away, strung up the hammock, and read my book until night fell, all without having to leave the safety of the tarp (minus a few quick dashes to run the hammock straps around the trees and hang my food bag... the rain still gets to have a few laughs at you no matter how good your system is).
Home sweet home:
Hiking in the rain isn't all bad either. It brings out some interesting creatures. Check out this little guy! It's the juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt (sometimes called the Red Spotted Newt, or more specifically in this stage a "red eft"). When the rain started they came out of the woodwork! I had to be careful not to step on them.
The snakes don't seem to mind the rain either. The counter is up to nine, but mostly the harmless kind (harmless as in you won't die, but let's be honest, no one really wants a rat snake to bite them either).
Pizza, newts, and snakes aside, I also hit the quarter point of the trail which is pretty cool. (The quarter point for northbounders, 3/4 point for southbounders. Fractions! How do they work?!)
Well that's pretty much it. I'm off of the trail now for a quick break. My parents needed a dog sitter, and as they've so kindly watched my own dog on countless occasions I was glad to oblige. I'm using the time to replace some minor gear that's suffering under the heavy use and to map out the next stretch of the trip. My plan is to return to my starting point (Max Patch, NC) and head south this time, crossing through the Great Smoky Mountains and then into Georgia, hopefully reaching the southern start/end point of the Trail: Springer Mountain.
I'll post again in about a week or so when I'm back in the woods! Until then, I plan to eat a truly impressive number of burgers. I think I've scratched the pizza itch for now. (That's a lie. I've already eaten more pizza. There will never be too much pizza in my life.)