AT RunVenture Project Segment No. 6
AT Segment #6 June 24-27 Pearisburg, VA to Petites Gap Rd miles 637.5-777.2
The summer heat had arrived, in fact, it was a heat wave! Celia and I were psyched to see no rain in the forecast for our second June weekend on the trail. The thought only briefly crossed my mind that a little rain would be really nice, but not having to worry about being wet did seem easier, so we were excited. We’d set the bar high for this segment, pushing for 150 miles in 3 days.
Unfortunately I’d had a fairly poor health status for the three week between our segments. As soon as I got home from our last trip I had an (undiagnosed) “autoimmune flare” (doctor’s appointment and all pending) which took me out for 3-5 days with a lingering headache for almost 10 days. Then, right after that had cleared my son brought home the sniffles and next thing I knew I was congested and exhausted. By the end of the week leading up to our run I’d begun to dose with sudafed but continued draining snot all day and night.
Thursday I managed a short day at work on sudafed before getting in the car to drive down to Glasgow, VA. The drive was longer than I’d hoped but in our post covid state, the extra traffic and accidents were expected. I stopped at Sheetz and had a solid lunch and then finally around 4:45pm I arrived at the lot where Celia and Keith were already packing up.
I was exhausted and very congested, but tried to get my act together. I managed to get changed and repack everything into Keith’s car but it was not organized well at all. We got going and drove the final 90 minutes or so to get us back to Pearisburg, VA where we’d ended our last segment. It was a beautiful warm, sunny evening and we were excited to get moving before dark.
At 7:06pm we crossed the road in front of Giles Farm Bureau and walked across the bridge on trail, taking a sharp left down the embankment on the opposite end to a parking lot that we followed until we were back in the woods. We held a steady pace as we chatted and caught up while we climbed a gentle slope. We reached the top right around sunset and took in a beautiful sunset. We both continued to feel well, I was actually breathing a little more clearly now that I was being active.
Around 11pm we both started to feel our first touch of fatigue. I was definitely in a strange head space with the head cold, the long day leading up to our start and knowing we had three big days ahead was quite daunting. We just steadily hiked toward our unknown destination for the night. You see, we had picked a shelter on the map as a goal point but we knew that getting into a shelter at 1:30am would likely not bode well for us, and in fact it did not. As soon as we arrived at the shelter, Pine Swamp Branch, a voice sleepily said “It’s Full.” With that, we turned and got back on the trail. We had discussed trying a dirt nap, (where you legitimately lie in the dirt with your sleeping bag and pad) and we were totally ready. We hiked on, with plans to get to a parking lot area to sleep but we walked past it and after crossing a small stream we picked a nice flat area of the trail. We laid out our things and got comfy around 1:40am.
I was more uncomfortable than Celia. The top reason being that as soon as I stopped moving and laid down I was coughing a lot and couldn’t stop long enough to sleep, but that also meant the mucus was flowing and overall, well, it was gross and hard to get comfortable. Beyond that my imagination had spiders crawling in my nose, ticks in my hair and a bear trudging up to my pillow of our “bear-bagged” food and swatting my head away to get the goods. Needless to say, it was not the best 90 minutes of sleep I’ve ever had. At 3:40am I was awake and waiting for the alarm. Celia was quiet and so I assumed she was sleeping well, I didn’t dare bother her yet. I wanted her to get as much out of our 3hrs of rest as possible. 4:30 finally came and I began prepping myself to get moving, I was fatigued, sluggish and congested. I was a bit nervous for the long 48 mile day but planned to take it as it came. At 4:35 I woke Celia and we were moving forward before 5am.
Celia seemed excited for this section, I tried hard to feed off her energy, I was feeling pretty crappy and was not even able to comprehend a 48 mile day. My thoughts were that if I could make it to Keith, each time I would be ok to keep going and eventually I, we, would get to the hostel at mile 704.5.
We got to Keith quickly and transferred our sleeping gear to his car and ate breakfast and drank coffee. We'd see him again fairly soon so we were able to go very lightweight. Then we took off on the trail. The sun was slow to rise, but as it did the cool morning, grew heavier with humidity.
At mile 670.2 we met Keith after crossing a gorgeous meadow. The sun was now heating us up, but as long as we were in the trees it wasn’t uncomfortable at all until the open meadows, they were intense already! We got into the pickle juice and tried to hydrate well. Now was about when I realized my last minute thoughts of us needing ice might have been more important than I let on. Initially, my thoughts went to not letting things go bad so I asked Keith to get some ice for the cooler, but still thought we’d be okay without more. (In Hindsight, we needed ice at every stop and this is something we can plan better for in July- September segments.)
The next section is a blurr, I know we kept pushing uphill and I had planned to stay with Celia all weekend since I was feeling so bad but near the top of a climb Celia urged me onward and fell back a bit. I felt saddened, not sure if I should wait for my sake or go for hers. It seemed like she wanted me out of her space so I kept on going. Not to mention with the heat my sinuses were pretty dry and I was feeling pretty ok, so I went with it.
I am not sure where we next saw Keith, I think at mile 678.5, but it was absolutely hot out now. The water in his car was warm, everything was warm. I drank all the liquid calories I could. I filled my bottles and did my best to recover before taking on the next climb. I took a coke and was only a bit disappointed when that too wasn’t cold. I finally got myself to stop chit chatting, and waiting in hopes Celia would pop up, and headed onward.
The next time I saw Keith it was approaching dinner time. It wasn’t yet cool, but the heat of the day had finally peaked and passed. I was feeling a bit worn down. I had red stinging rashes to both legs already. Despite my compression socks, I was still having enough vasodilation and swelling to my legs in the heat to cause exercise induced vasculitis. By this point in the day though, I’d had enough of compression. I decided that for the last chunk of the day climbing and descending Dragon’s tooth I was going to be comfortable. I changed out of my compression shorts and socks and tried to eat and drink as much as I could, but I was not hungry at all. I knew I was going to struggle a bit on this last section but I figured maybe Celia would catch up to me and we’d get to the hostel together.
Dragon’s tooth was everything I expected. It was a lot of climbing, a lot of rocks and jagged trail. It was not runnable. When I finally did get to the top, there was hardly a view to see, simply a clif down. The first 100 feet of loss are literally climbing down the face of the rocks. There was only one 3 rung ladder, the rest you find yourself trying to manage your poles so you can use your hands to jump 5-8’ drops over and over and over. It was the first thing all day to break my mood. I was finally having fun! I was exhausted, hot, sick of moving but I couldn’t help but think this was the coolest thing. It was uplifting!
Eventually I made it down to the road and headed the 0.3 mi walk to Four Pines Hostel at mile 704.5. As I arrived at 6:56pm, the hostel owner Joe greeted me with “If you want any hot food from the grocery you better call it in now, the kitchen closes in 4 minutes.” I was in a daze, I was very calorie deficient but I was not even a little bit ready for all that. I’d spent most of the day dreaming of sleep and now I desperately needed food. I walked into the hostel and snagged a couple bunks for Celia and myself and then headed out to join a group of 6 headed to the grocery (which in reality was a gas station shop) and crammed myself into the van with the other stinky, tired folks, (at least a few who had climbed down Dragon’s Tooth as well.)
At the grocery, I shopped aimlessly, not even knowing what the hostel had to cook, or heat with. I started asking questions and I ended up with two hot pockets, a bag of chex mix and a big bag of potato chips for Celia. Since Celia was still on the trail she would not make it to the grocery and she said she had enough food but still I wanted to find her something, but there wasn’t much there that she could eat, except the potato chips. Luckily, she was thrilled with that when she did arrive a little after 8:30pm.
Those first couple hours after I stopped running were odd. I spoke with my husband but I was hardly coherent. I felt wiped out, congested and weak. Once I ate, sat down for a bit and cooled down I was a lot better. This was about when Celia arrived smiling as she walked up the driveway to the hostel. We chatted with some folks while our electronics charged. We repacked for the next day, knowing it’d be an early start. We tried to hustle to bed but getting in so late, we just couldn’t get it all in too much faster. Lights out was at 10pm and we had both moved from bunks to couches which were cooler and softer.
I spent a good portion of that night coughing and bringing up phlegm while trying to elevate my feet, so I didn’t sleep great, but definitely rested better than the prior night. At 3:30am I woke up and got Celia up. I made us both coffee in the Keurig and gathered our electronics from the charging station.
NOTE:This hostel visit was a blur and I am hardly doing the tale justice, I am struggling to remember anyone’s names or even what I had for breakfast, but we did what we needed to do to get back out on the trail.
Off we went into the darkness at 4am, headed out for our second very long day. We had a high goal of 50 miles! Naturally though we hiked a half mile south before I realized our terrain didn’t make sense. So we added about 1.4 miles that morning between our detour and the walk from the hostel. A little mistake but it put us 25 minutes behind schedule already!
Our first stop was the base of McAfee’s Knob. Here we met Keith who would do this hike with us. We spent a few minutes here because this would be our last stop until mile 730 in Daleville, VA about 20 miles later. Once we were prepped. I had an extra liter of water on me as there was only 1 off trail water stop for the next 20 miles. Celia went for the camel method and drank as much as she possibly could hold in her stomach and carried only 32oz.
We three started the climb. It was really pleasant and in no time I started to pull ahead. I had planned to move comfortably all morning and assuming I’d get to Daleville ahead of Celia I was planning to rest for an hour or more before heading into the afternoon heat. I thought maybe that rest would allow me to cool down enough to make the last 20 miles less intense.
Anyways, I made it to McAfee's Knob where I called my husband, cried about the beautiful struggle of my situation. I felt so blessed to be seeing what I was seeing. The view was breathtaking. I was still sick, but improved from the prior day. I was somewhat homesick for my kids, but my husband assured me they were much too busy having fun to be missing me. He reminded me that I should have fun. This silly set of words, “Go have fun baby” changed the segment for me. I needed that reminder, I needed to remember that this was fun. I waited a little longer in case Celia and Keith caught up to me, but they had not so I took off into the humid and sunny morning. In about one half mile I saw the sign for the one water stop and despite not wanting to go ¼ mi off trail for it, I figured it was the smarter thing to do. I hiked down, down, down until I came to a tiny puddle that was rippling just slightly, just enough to call it “moving” water. I filled what I could into my filter bottle and drank it, then filled again. In total I probably managed to get 0.4L from this puddle before I headed back up to the trail. I texted Celia that I thought she should stop as I could feel the heat already at 8 or 9 am!
From McAfee’s on for the next few miles it was ridgeline running all the way to Tinker Cliffs. On this stretch I had my first face to face with a black bear. He was on the trail about 100 yards ahead and when he heard me he turned to face me, I was thrilled to have a photo op. I wasn’t even a little concerned but I could tell from his stance that he was expressing just the slightest bit of his own caution. He almost seemed to say, “I don’t want to be mean, but I will if I have too”. After looking at how cute he was and taking his picture I started to think through how I would continue on, get around him, and that’s when I remembered that as much as I wanted to befriend this furry creature and walk with him, I would have to be the predator and scare him off. So I did.
I began waving my poles around yelling, “You’re going to have to move, I’m big and scary and I’m coming through” He turned quickly and ran on the trail northbound, so I kept saying it until he finally took a left off the trail and took off into the trees. I stayed loud, yelling “Thank you! Sorry!” until I was a couple hundred yards away.
Tinker Cliffs were gorgeous. I saw two turtles up there and I could not figure out what they were doing high up on a bunch of rocks, but it was a simple pleasure to see them anyway. From there, it was a long net downhill to get to Daleville. The day was hot! It was definitely in the 90s before lunch. When I was a little over an hour away from Keith I messaged a list of requests. I was ready to eat! I asked for a cold cut sandwich, Dr.Pepper soda and Fritos. By the time I got to him he had obtained all three requests!
He parked in a lot just to the side of the trail and I sat in the shade eating and “recovering”. I tried to elevate my feet as much as possible as my rashes were red, stinging and annoying. I rested there for over an hour before Celia arrived. She only wanted about 20 minutes there so we gathered ourselves fairly quickly after that and in the heat of the day, just before 3pm we took off on the trail. We would not see Keith again for 14 more miles. Again I carried a lot of water and Celia opted to “camel”. Luckily, this section appeared to have quite a bit more water available on trail.
As soon as we left we climbed, starting first through hot open meadows. I planned to go as slow as possible through the rest of the heat, just move comfortably. As anyone knows though, comfortable in 96 degree weather after laying down 30 miles, is still hot and challenging. We made it up to Fullhardt Knob and at least with the ascents you get some breeze and “cooler” air. Then though, we descended back into the heat but there were a few creek crossings. We stopped at two and soaked ourselves and drank “cool-ish” water. At Wilson Creek, mile 741 we spent a good 5 minutes trying to cool down. By now, the peak heat had passed and we were headed into the evening, but still fighting to stay cool.
At mile 744.7 we saw Keith at Taylor’s Mountain Overlook. We were both still hot, feeling the day, feet painful, legs tight and yet still both determined to keep on. The plan was to move until midnight, get as much as we could in the cooler temperatures. We also wanted to know what a 20 hour day would feel like. We hadn’t yet pushed past 15 or 16 hrs. We make these crazy goals out there! They inspire us and push us onward.
We asked Keith to see us one more time before we picked up our sleeping gear. This last stop would be pushing into his bed time but it would allow us a few more miles of a very light pack. Lucky us, he agreed!
At Peaks of Otter Overlook, mile 749.6, we saw Keith for the last time that day. It was now dark but we’d been blessed by a gorgeous sunset that we had the chance to watch as we passed other overlooks on our way. We had a couple hours left until 12am midnight. We planned to keep moving as best we could.
We were both uncomfortable, hot, tired and aching but we hiked on. Around 49.5 miles ( a little over 50 if you count our Southbound mistake) into the day Celia found a perfect open spot on the side of the trail for a dirt nap. We took it! We laid out our gear, finished eating and packing up our food into our bear bag and we laid down for a 3.5 hour rest. This time it was hot, the sleeping bag was too much, but I didn’t dare come out completely with the bugs, spiders and ticks, I was not about to lie directly in the dirt! I cinched my bag around my waist and tucked my hands (sleeve cuffs) inside and still sweating, legs throbbing I fell asleep.
I tossed and adjusted some throughout the night but did well until 3am when I fully woke up, legs wet with sweat. I was tired and struggling to picture us going through another hot afternoon. The air had not cooled much overnight. It was humid and warm. I continued to try and rest until our alarm at 3:30am and then I woke Celia and we packed and headed down the trail by 3:45am.
We descended to Jenning’s Creek, where I was sure there would be water, but as we crossed the bridge 5-8’ over the creek I did not see anywhere to climb down to the water so on we hiked with whatever water we had from Keith the night before.
From there, we climbed a short steep climb that had us sweating bullets by sunrise, then we descended to a few stream crossings where we split up. I waited for a larger stream as I had a few sips left but Celia stopped at the first dribble as she had run out already. When I saw the better water sources a quarter mile ahead I wanted to call back to her but knew she would not hear me. I continued on to a flowing stream and soaked my shirt on the front, my face, arms and drank 0.6L filtered water and carried 0.6L more with me as I knew we were about to be climbing for the next 10 miles.
From mile marker 761 to 771 the AT takes you up Apple Orchard mountain. No one mentions this mountain as most thru hikers break this climb into separate days. This climb was endless, it was steep, rocky, then smooth and rolling, but it did not cease to ascend for the entire 10 miles, or surely that was how it felt. My back was so sweaty with my pack, my body hot in general, I wanted to rest, but so badly wanted to reach Keith.
We had picked a point the night prior that was not on our “pre-planned” aid list and I couldn’t figure out why until I was within a mile and looked at guthook only to realize the parking lot was 0.4mi off trail. I quickly texted Keith and sent him the next road crossing at FS81. He agreed to find this place and on I hiked, ready to see him and my iced Old Mill Coffee and my confetti Pop Tarts. I popped out on the Fire Service road and realized I was an idiot to have sent him to that location, of course he could not access this point. When I checked my messages he had said just that and I sent him the next location, 2.3 miles ahead, just past the peak of the mountain. He agreed and I texted Celia, knowing she’d check her phone when she devastatingly came to the same realization I did, that Keith could not be where we were hoping to see him.
I continued to climb, expecting some glorious view after all that hard work getting up there! At the top of Apple Orchard Mountain there is a large tower and a plateaued area of meadow, but directly on the trail there is no view. I was disappointed and drained but was now within a mile of Keith and ready to be done with the heat. Finally! I crossed onto Blue Ridge Parkway and there was Keith’s car. He got out and handed me the large iced coffee and I sat and indulged. I was there quite a while waiting for Celia. I didn’t have much will to push on. I wanted to finish with Celia this weekend and I truly thought we should stop before the heat of the day. The next gap would be a decent enough place to pick up in July and it would get us down the current descent. When she arrived looking as beat up as I did, still smiling, of course and with new friends she’d made on the trail, I expressed my thoughts and she agreed. We would stop at Petite’s Gap mile 777.2 with 141 miles for the weekend, 9 miles short of our goal. We took some extra time here to share some of our goodies with Celia’s new friends and laugh a bit about the stupid climb with no view.
We both knew, 9 miles was doable, if we really wanted it we could have gotten there, we’d need to hike until 3-4pm and get through an even hotter and more humid day than we already had. Could we? Of course, but would it be worth it? We agreed it would not. We arrived to Petite’s gap just after 12pm and we ate, elevated our feet, kicked a couple handstands and then got in the car to drive the 30 minutes to Glasgow VA where we’d left our cars, 9 miles up trail.
We stopped short, but we stopped happy, unbroken, sweaty, stinky and accomplished. Keith kept us going, and kept our spirits up. He hung with us through the heat wave and found beauty in our toughest moments. We could not be more grateful to have him out there with us for this section.