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Exile's_Home ©1996 George Steffanos

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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 11/12/96


CHAPTER 8

BLOWOUT

(Pearisburg, Virginia to Cloverdale, Virginia)

SATURDAY, 6/18/83, MILE 608.5 --- STILL PEARISBURG --- After picking up my supply package with two sets of clean, dry clothing inside at the Post Office yesterday, my only thought was to drag myself to the nearest available bed and shower. A postal clerk directed me to the Hapiday Motor Inn, a block or two away. The name of the place seemed a little incongruous with the day I was having, but all's well that ends well -- I guess. Expecting a rather hostile reception when I dragged my mud-splattered carcass into the office to check in, I could not have been more wrong. The three ladies behind the desk were sweet and concerned, and quickly got me into a room. I must have looked like absolute hell.

I had one of the cheap rooms -- small, no phone, and the TV was just a little black-and-white portable. No problem. The bed was big and comfortable, and the shower blasted gallons of hot water onto my used-up body. It was hours before I made it to the laundry and the grocery store. On the way back, I stopped at the local Dairy Queen for dinner. I sat inside and ate my cheeseburgers. Maybe I should have gotten them to go. The place was full of couples and families dining together; I suddenly found myself experiencing that same feeling of exile which haunted me in those beach/picnic areas on Watauga Lake in Tennessee. I have never felt more alone. I finished my dinner and slunk back to the room with my tail between my legs.

I had about fifteen dollars left to my name when I returned to the motel. I had left most of my money home for my family to send to me as needed, but I totally messed up. I have been so wrapped up in the ordeals and triumphs of my adventure these past few weeks that I forgot to closely monitor my financial situation. Now, it has become critical here in Pearisburg, Virginia, and I discovered last night that the nearest Western Union outlet is approximately fifty miles away. Like they say: some days, it just doesn't pay to get up. I sank into a deep coma almost as soon as I undressed.

Today, I had to check out of that motel and lug all of my gear two miles farther from the Appalachian Trail, to the hostel provided by the local Roman Catholic Church. On top of everything else, the walk was all uphill. By the time I dragged into the place, I was thoroughly disgusted with myself for leaving the money home. Had my Swiss Army knife been handy, I would have corkscrewed myself. At least I would have finally found a good use for the damned thing.

Nevertheless, the hostel is not bad. From the outside, it looks like a small red barn. Inside, the place is clean and has a good atmosphere. A bunch of fun people are staying here -- considerably more than the building can comfortably hold, but I did find a few square feet of floor space for my sleeping bag and piled-up possessions. It will be cramped, but it will not be for long. I want to head out early tomorrow, anyway. I probably need several more days to recuperate from the injuries sustained in my wild flight over Pearis Mountain, but if I stay here for any length of time, I may never leave.

After paying the three dollar donation for the hostel stay, I had about twelve dollars remaining -- enough for one good meal. I walked down the hill with some of the other hikers to the local Kroger's -- a large supermarket chain in this part of the country -- and bought sandwich steaks, steak rolls, butter, an onion, a container of potato salad and a six of Bud Tall Boys. I had not touched alcohol all trip, but today seemed to call for some serious attitude adjustment. All of my purchases left me with just over two dollars to carry to Cloverdale, a town almost a hundred miles up the trail where my money will be waiting.

I walked back to the hostel, where a stove and cooking utensils are thoughtfully provided for hikers. The meal was a needed pick-me-up, especially when washed down with the first of my sixteen-ounce brews. I walked outside afterwards and played volleyball in the back yard with the rest of the kids for a while. It was fun, and that terrible, aching loneliness which had seized hold of me yesterday began to abate.

"The Wall" is the nickname thru-hikers have given to southern Virginia. It comes from a term used by marathon runners to describe that sensation near the end of a race where the runner's condition suddenly collapses as if he had run into a brick wall. The Appalachian Trail "Wall" is a psychological, rather than physical, phenomenon, occurring much earlier in our test of endurance.

Day after day, you walk identical low, wooded ridges in soaring heat and humidity. Flies pester you relentlessly, constantly becoming stuck in and buzzing around in your hair -- something which personally annoys the hell out of me. You see the same trees and farms over and over as the long, slow days crawl past. Suddenly, you realize that it is summer. All over the country, people are going to the beach, playing ball, going to drive-in movies, partying, making love, and doing all of the hundreds of things which make summer special. But you are stuck in this place, seemingly going nowhere, on a long and monotonous quest.

The Wall has claimed two victims here. One of them first arrived at this hostel eight days ago. Each morning, he tried to leave, but could never get himself motivated. The other victim is Peter from Montreal, who arrived yesterday. Tomorrow they are hitching together up to Vermont to hike the Appalachian Trail through northern New England. They are skipping the rest of the trail.

Anybody who has survived the more than six hundred miles of trail thus far in relatively good should have this thing licked. But The Wall is here as one great final obstacle. You must reach deep down inside yourself and find the strength of will to push on for a few more miles each day. I figure that if you can make it past Cloverdale you can tear down The Wall. After Cloverdale, the Appalachian Trail leaves this quiet, unspectacular portion of the Allegheny Mountains and returns to the Blue Ridge. The scenic qualities of the trail should then pick up again somewhat. Anyway, let's hope so.

I know that The Wall can be defeated. It is not a constant presence. Much of the time, you are perfectly content -- even happy. Then, suddenly, all you want to do is to pack it in and go home. Often, it takes a great effort to get yourself started again, but then you are soon alright. Until the next time.

My buddy Tom from Pennsylvania is also at this hostel. He has already put away fourteen beers here tonight after spending the entire day in a bar. The preppies, Tim and Maynard are here. They seem pretty cool. I have to learn to be more tolerant of people from different cultures. Those sixteen-ounce beers I am drinking are helping. Peter and his fellow Wall victim are here. The latter has a pocket radio, and we are all going to stay up late tonight drinking and listening to rock 'n' roll around the kitchen table. Other party people are drifting in and out. I needed this. See you later.

SUNDAY, 6/19/83, MILE 627.3 --- Last night was a genuine blast for me. After weeks of temperance those six Tall Boys had me completely ripped. The Roanoke station on the radio played a lot of lousy Top 40 drivel, but it was the best we could pick up; it was enjoyable for me just to hear rock 'n' roll again after all of this time oh the trail. They did play some Who and Led Zeppelin, and even the version of "Roadhouse Blues " recorded by my favorite group, Blue Öyster Cult. It was the kind of release I needed badly at the time.

A funny moment occurred when a girl who was staying at the hostel with her boyfriend walked through the kitchen to get something out of the refrigerator. She was pretty, but no great beauty. Still, we had all been on the trail for a long-time. Tom, who was cocked out of his mind, was eating a plum when she walked in. When he saw her, his eyes bugged out and turned to glass. He munched his plum and gaped at her, entranced, while juice poured down his chin. Maybe you had to be there. I laughed so hard I almost fell down. And I thought I had a smooth approach with the ladies.

I finally crawled upstairs with the last survivors at 1:00 a.m., totally blitzed. My lower body weight may have been a factor. Weighing myself on a scale at the hostel yesterday, I found myself down to 180 pounds. I have now lost forty-five pounds in less than seven weeks. Factor that rate of weight loss out over the fifteen or sixteen weeks remaining in this hike, and I will be down to somewhere in the vicinity of eighty ponds when I reach Katahdin. I will have to check the charts, but I think that may be a bit low for my six-foot-two-inch frame.

Incredibly, I managed to drag my beer-sbaked carcass out of bed at 6:OO this morning and out of the hostel by 7:00. That may have been my finest hour. It was easily the hardest thing I have had to do on this trip. It was so tempting to stay in town with Tom and hit some bars, and then crawl along the Appalachian Trail with him, partying it up. The Wall really had me by the b___s today, and it never let go.

It was a good long roadwalk back to the AT. Pearisburg is quite a large place compared to most other trail towns. It is almost a city. There was some more road walking when I finally made it to the Appalachian Trail. It crossed the New River on a highway bridge, followed roads through an industrial area, and began a long climb through the woods up Peters Mountain -- another long, wooded, relatively-flat ridge on the trail in southwestern Virginia.

The AT was a depressing experience today. Grades were steep, long stretches clambered over piles of loose sharp stones, and the path was continually overgrown -- often by briars and stinging nettle. The woods were a mean, dense tangle of buggy and oppressive second-growth forest. It was not quite as hot as it has been recently, but the humidity was incredible. I was constantly wringing sweat from the bandanna with which I was mopping my face, and I smelled like a brewery. I hiked very poorly, depressing me even further. The first shelter out of Pearisburg was nineteen miles from the point where I rejoined the AT this morning, and that felt like a million miles the way I was crawling along. I was compelled to collapse onto the ground about once per mile and lay there gasping for breath like a beached whale.

The Appalachian Trail followed the crest of Peters Mountain along the Virginia/West Virginia border for about thirteen miles. Several drenching thundershowers struck around noon, but did absolutely nothing to alleviate the oppressiveness of the day. In fact, they made matters worse. When the sun returned, there was plenty of new moisture to be drawn back up into the air. All of the underbrush growing over the trail was dripping wet. I was forced to wear my rain suit for the remainder of the day, even after the rain stopped and the sun began to broil me in a marinade of sweat and used beer. I was not a happy camper.

On one of my rests, as I lay sprawled out upon the ground beside the trail in dazed exhaustion, I began to hear a happy sound from childhood summers: the tinkling bell of an approaching Good Humor ice cream truck. Since I was somewhere in the middle of the woods on the top of a mountain with the nearest road five or six miles away, I began to strongly consider the possibility that perhaps it was time for me to chuck this entire adventure before my mind turned completely to Silly Putty.

Eventually, my "Good Humor" truck arrived, in the form of six black cows, the lead one wearing a bell around her neck, slowly making their way along the trail towards me, munching on-the leafier vegetation. I had to wade through stinging nettle in order to go around them. They were a lot bigger than I. It was a relief to discover that my mind was still relatively intact, but damn, that ice cream would have really hit the spot.

A vast open field, Symms Gap Meadow, ran across the crest towards the middle of the ridge walk. Some decent views through the haze into West Virginia gave me the bit of a lift I needed. I made somewhat better time over the last half of the day, although I was still pathetic.

It was past 9:00 and almost dark when I groped my way through a great, gloomy evergreen swamp to the edge of the ridgecrest and began my climb down off of the mountain. I had my flashlight out for the last two miles. It was treacherous trail at the end, plunging straight down wet, mossy rocks alongside a broad stream called Pine Swamp Branch. A spring near the trail, a half-mile from the shelter, provided hikers with water if they did not relish the thought of cooking with the nasty water from the stream, which was the outlet of that swamp. The spring itself was barely passable -- a slow little trickle clouded by the muddy run-off from all of the rain earlier today. I ended up dropping a water treatment tablet into my bottle anyway.

I dragged into Pine Swamp Branch Shelter at 10:00, following my first (and, hopefully, last) night hike of the trip This place was a pleasant surprise. Pine Swamp Branch cascades right past the open front. The layout is identical to Trimpi Shelter, the one in which I stayed the night after leaving the Virginia Highlands. It has the same type of mortared stone walls, brick fireplace, high wooden ceiling, and gravel floor. My night is shaping up to be considerably better than my day.

When I arrived, I unrolled my sleeping bag and laid back browsing through the shelter register. Apparently, nobody else had exactly enjoyed the trail over Peters Mountain, either. Perhaps we all had a little too much to drink in Pearisburg. I sure picked a bad day to be nursing my first hangover of the hike. I am just too tired to cook, so I am dining on cheese and crackers, Pop-Tarts, and Tang tonight. Then, it will be bed time.

MONDAY, 6/20/83, MILE 639.2 --- I was pathetic again today. Once more, it appears that my stupid little quest is hanging by a thread. What else is new? I woke up late this morning, ate a couple of Pop-Tarts, drank some Tang, and booted my lazy little butt out on the trail at 9:15. The days are becoming much too tropical for that kind of a late start. Squandering the brief cool hours of early morning starts you off with two strikes against you.

When I finally set out I quickly took a fastball right down the middle for called strike three. I made terrible time over the first few miles when hiking, and was constantly stopping for breaks. That little voice inside my head which tells me to quit when things become difficult was it full control. It took me three hours to hike four miles to Bailey Gap Shelter. When I left after spending an hour resting and thinking up excuses to quit, I was averaging one big mile per hour.

I finally realized I was falling into the old quitter habits and started to get mad. This is a dangerous time. I have never yet on this trip felt so played-out right after leaving a town. Is this the end?

A nice spot called Wind Rock sat atop the ridge not far past Bailey Gap. It was cool and breezy up on that open rock crag, and it had excellent views for this part of Virginia. What transpired when I left is an illuminating example of just what has been happening to my mind since I slammed into The Wall.

I hiked about a quarter-mile through the woods and came out into a parking area along a road which looked vaguely similar to one I had passed a quarter-mile before Wind Rock. In fact, a truck was parked there which was identical to one I saw parked in the first parking area . . . Earth calling George . . . Earth calling George . . . You hiked the wrong way, you idiot.

I was most definitely pissed off at that point. I have always possessed a natural affinity for the woods, and have never lost my sense of direction that badly before, not even when I was a kid. I reached down, dragged my head out of my butt, and hiked respectably for the remainder of the day. I managed to average a decent two miles per hour pace, mostly due to forcing myself to hike several miles between each rest stop. At least, that is, until I reached the final steep one-and-a-half-mile descent to War Spur Shelter.

The shin splints I picked up on Pearis Mountain are still there, and have become worse, particularly those afflicting my right leg. They throb with white-hot pain on the descents, And the climb down to War Spur was a bad one. I crawled along for more than an hour, gritting my teeth and whimpering like a whipped dog. I arrived at the shelter at 7:00, having completed an awesome twelve-mile day.

Four people and a dog were already at War Spur Shelter when I arrived. One couple had pitched a tent a short distance from the shelter, obviously craving a little privacy. They sign themselves in the registers "Ma and Pa Cretin." I like that. Inside the shelter was a fellow from Texas called "Trick Knee" who was in a rather grouchy mood (perhaps his namesake was acting up), and a kid from California named Neil. Neil had recently adopted a small, black-and-white trail stray whom he had named Oreo. He was a nice kid who really did not know a lot about dogs; I was able to reassure him about a few things that were worrying him. It has not been a bad night. Perhaps tomorrow will be better.

TUESDAY, 6/21/83, MILE 667.5 --- I left the shelter at 7:15 on this, the first official morning of summer, determined to hike the twenty-eight book miles to Niday Shelter or die in the attempt. That was not as deranged as it sounds (except, perhaps for that dieing part). The local trail club had just completed a trail relocation cutting off a long, unnecessary loop in the AT which was the result of an earlier relocation caused by a private landowner closing a section of trail on his property. The new relocation was only completed a month ago and has not yet been measured, but the consensus is that it lops off about eight miles from the trail. Nevertheless, I still had about twenty miles to hike today, so I needed to suck it up and shake off those physical and emotional demons which have brought me once more to the brink of the precipice.

I reached Big Pond Shelter at 9:45, after a very long, very steep climb up Johns Creek Mountain. I could not stop for long. It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to hike less than five miles over a rough and rocky trail. Soon after leaving the shelter, I was on the new relocation, climbing steeply down another rock pile on an extremely uneven footway.

While descending through the woods, I heard a crashing in an adjacent thicket. I turned to look, and there, a few feet away, was a young fawn struggling to stand upright on wobbly legs. We stared at each other for a few moments before it ran off deeper into the forest. Moments such as that keep you going in southwestern Virginia.

I emerged from the woods into some fields in a long, narrow farming valley wedged between two long, parallel ridges. There was one tricky stretch, along which I had to find my way across an acre of towering weeds and then climb straight up a short, muddy clay pitch to a road. The Appalachian Trail followed pavement for a couple of miles past fields and pastures before plunging straight up a rough, rocky trail to the crest of Sinking Creek Mountain.

What followed was seven miles of waterless ridge walk for which I had less than a pint of drinking water remaining in my bottle. As the older trail along the crest was somewhat of an improvement over the relocation, I was able to nurse that supply until the next water. The air was a bit cooler, and much less hazy and humid, than recent days. My body has slowly learned how to conserve its resources since this trek began. In Virginia I have hiked without undue distress some waterless stretches that would have destroyed me in Georgia or North Carolina.

Towards the end of the ridge walk, the Appalachian Trail traversed a number of steeply-tilted rock formations which provided good views into a parallel valley. I enjoyed them at first, but they just kept coming. Each of them featured rugged little climbs, and the angles at which they were tilted played havoc with my injured shins. The guidebook said that there were five or six of them, but there were more. In my condition, there seemed to be dozens. Once again, I found myself hobbling along at the end of a day struggling to reach shelter.

The two-and-a-half miles of frequently (you guessed it) steep, rough, and rocky descent completed the devastation of my right leg. The agony became so intense I could barely lift my feet. As a result of pain and exhaustion, I caught a rock with my toe at one point and took a header down the trail. There is no feeling quite like smashing your face and chest into sharp rocks at the end of a long, hard day while a heavy pack crushes down upon you. It took me an hour to trudge the final steep half-mile -- a ten-minute walk on a normal day. The shelter looked as strange and beautiful as a desert mirage when it finally came into view. I was beginning to doubt its very existence.

A man and his young son at the end of a backpacking trip of several days' duration were already at Niday when I arrived. They were nice people. They listened to me bitch about the trail for a good fifteen minutes and agreed with everything I babbled. A huge meal improved my disposition, and we soon were engaged in normal conversation. I am alright now. There was no rain today for the first time in days, and Cloverdale is less than forty miles away. Virginia is not that bad.

WEDNESDAY, 6/22/83, MILE 675.4 --- Oh, yes it is. It rained all of last night at the shelter, completely wrecking my plans for tonight. I was looking at another awkward spacing in the shelter system (the two shelters between Niday Shelter and Cloverdale were, respectively, eight and twenty-eight miles from Niday), so I had intended to camp out somewhere between them and hit town tomorrow evening. Now, the ground was thoroughly saturated by the rains, and I had no ground covering to put under my tent. I am trying to travel light, right? Sometimes, it backfires

I awoke at 7:30 feeling so run-down, depressed, and physically destroyed that I decided to chuck the whole adventure. My two shelter companions were hiking a side trail off of the AT down to their car. I asked them for a ride to the nearest town. They agreed, and my quest was officially over. My Appalachian Trail journal had become an anatomy of a failure.

At 9:15, I struggled into my backpack and set out, attempting to hike to Pickles Branch Shelter, eight AT miles (plus a half-mile side trail) ahead. Perhaps the short day would do me good, and I could always quit tomorrow.

Most of today's hike was on a hastily-constructed emergency relocation caused by a landowner abruptly withdrawing permission for the AT to cross his land. The trail was stupendously tedious. For six miles, it slabbed the lower slopes of a mountain, climbing over the tail-ends of countless ridges and crossing one shallow ravine after another. The footway was continually tilted downhill to my left, wreaking havoc on my battered shins. My ankles throbbed from the strain of being continually bent at an angle as I walked. The monotony of this section was such that I seemed to be walking in circles. I felt like I had blundered into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

I finally reached the steep, rough and rocky descent to a road, followed by a steep, rough, and rocky climb, along which I turned onto the steep, rough, and rocky side trail down to the shelter, arriving at about 2:30. I poured out my depression into a long, self-pitying entry in the shelter register and lay down upon my sleeping bag trying to find a reason to go on tomorrow.

You see, Virginia is like a gigantic treadmill placed right in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. One moment you are cruising along, feeling good, your body finally beginning to come around. Suddenly, you seem to be going nowhere. There are 545 miles of Appalachian Trail in Virginia and Katahdin is hundreds of miles away -- too remote to actually exist in the slow, stately crawl of time along the trail. Every day, you see the same things you saw yesterday as the monotony begins to eat insidiously away at your soul. Just then, you hit the stretch of trail between Pearisburg and Cloverdale -- just as boring as the rest and almost as strenuous as many of the far more scenic stretches farther south. You allow yourself to become run-down attempting to continue grinding out high-mileage days and escape from the treadmill. Welcome to The Wall.

It was an excellent idea to hike this very short day. My spirits are much higher, and I have been thinking. The shin splints are not my biggest problem -- I have had to deal with plenty of physical pain on this adventure. It has been my mental attitude which has been killing me. I need to lighten up just a bit. I have begun to change on this hike. I am not the man I was when it began.

I no longer need to be constantly driven. I am enjoying the feelings of accomplishment which follow the successful completion of difficult tasks far too much to ever desire a return to my old ways, yet I almost quit the trail this morning because I cannot stand my hiking companion: a relentless b_____d who continues to harass me every time I cannot perform up to his new expectations, regardless of circumstances. I needed him in the early stages of this quest; I would not be here without him. Now, I need him to calm down. When I hike badly, perhaps it just means that I am pushing myself too hard and need to take it just a little more easily for a day or two. I can now only barely remember that poor, sorry son of a bitch who sat in his tent on Frosty Mountain in Georgia, disgusted with the man he had become.

With the half-mile I must hike in order to return to the Appalachian Trail included, I am now exactly thirty miles from Cloverdale. In my wrecked physical condition, that will require two full days of hiking. I will have to pitch a tent tomorrow night, but I can look forward to Friday night in a motel room. Another treat is in store for me ninety-one miles from here in Montebello, Virginia: a new set of hiking boots will be in my supply package at the Post Office.

I have put 232 miles of Virginia behind me. Only 312.5 miles of trail now remain in this state . . . Nope, that didn't cheer me up. Let's try something else.

Thus far in June, I have hiked 338.8 miles in twenty-two days, which is two miles more than I hiked in the twenty-nine full days I spent on the trail in May (Yeah, this is working a little better). I am now averaging 15.4 miles per day this month in spite of that zero-mileage day in Pearisburg. I have brought my daily average for the entire hike up from 11.6 miles to 13.2 miles per day since June 1 (Yeah, I'm rolling now). This deranged quest is starting to seem possible.

Tomorrow will be the first true test of my new attitude. It is easy to be happy and confident when you are spending most of a day relaxing, but it does not get you to Katahdin. Of course, every now and then, it may help. 1463.1 miles to go.

THURSDAY, 6/23/83, MILE 695.1 --- A couple of guys from Illinois showed up at the shelter yesterday evening. They started from Springer on May 15 and, averaging eighteen miles per day, have already caught up to me. That is impressive. They were both likable guys, and I enjoyed shooting the breeze with them. One of them, Alan, was a really big fan of the stuff I have been writing in the shelter registers. This is the first feedback I have had, and it feels good to discover that I hit the mark.

I could not believe how much better my mental attitude was today after that single short day yesterday. Psychologically, The Wall was starting to feel a bit flimsy. I even felt decent physically. That run-down feeling was gone, and the pain in my shins was almost bearable. The guys mentioned to me last night that they were hiking twenty miles to Lambert Meadow Shelter today. I was feeling so much better and enjoyed their company so much that I figured, what the hell, I would consider trying it -- if I got an early start, and my attitude and legs both held up over the miles.

I was up and fed and raring to go at 6:40 this morning, so I hit the trail. The first section of trail was a rocky ridge walk along the spine of Cove Mountain with a lot of steep ups and downs, but it beat the hell out of yesterday's trail tedium. There were excellent views for southern Virginia near the summit from a towering rock outcrop called The Dragon's Tooth. So far, so good.

The trail down off of the mountain was so rocky and steep that it finished the job on my left hiking boot. The sole became completely detached from the upper portion of the boot save for a few inches along the right side -- a complete blowout. It kept flopping over beneath my foot as I walked, allowing the sharp rocks along the trail to batter the bottom of my foot through my two pairs of socks. I was forced to slow down to a crawl in order to keep from tripping over my own shoe.

I was becoming depressed once more by the time that the descent was finished. The Appalachian Trail came out on a paved road which it followed past a small store. The two Illinois hikers were sitting on the grass in front of the place, sharing a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream. That struck me as a fine idea, so I went inside and spent most of my remaining $2.12 on a pint of chocolate ice cream and a sixteen-ounce coke. I then joined them on the lawn, and we all tried to figure out something I could do with my boot that would enable me to reach Cloverdale before Christmas. A lady backpacker also hanging out at the store happened by, and suggested duct tape as a temporary shoe repair. Alan had some parcel wrapping tape reinforced with nylon thread in his pack; he gave me the roll. With it, I was able to snug up my boot better than it has been in days. It will not keep out the rain, but, then, neither of my boots have done that for a long time.

Alan and his friend seemed to be in the middle of discussing a personal problem of their own, so I told them I would see them later and started up the next mountain with a new lease on life. Thanks to the tape job, the LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINE was back, resting every two or three hours rather than every half-hour. A few miles of rocky trail would destroy the tape, but I would simply rewrap my boot and go on.

North Mountain was a nine-mile ridge walk with frequent ups and downs but absolutely no views. I made up a stupid little song which I sang to pass the time, and kept up a good pace over that ridge, considering my boot and shin problems.

Alan caught up to me during my first re-taping stop on North Mountain. He was alone. His friend had just thrown in the towel and was on his way home, another victim of The Wall. It feels like a war lately as I numbly experience the terrible attrition of friends and acquaintances. Unbelievable.

I traveled the entire ridgewalk with Alan until the long, steep descent into another farming valley at the end began to take its toll on my shin and slowed me to a crawl. I told Alan to go on ahead and I would see him at the shelter. He was reluctant to leave me in that condition, but he was too good a hiker to be keeping the slow, grinding pace I have been required to assume on descents ever since Pearis Mountain.

The final climb was the steepest and most grueling of the day. At first, the Appalachian Trail climbed sharply on ugly bulldozer roads which plowed like horrible scars up the ridge. The wide swathes they cut through the forest allowed the full force of the sun to beat down upon me, draining what strength I had left. Somehow, I soared over them, though. Climbs aggravate my shins much less than descents or even level trails do. I was still reveling in the sensation of once again being, the mileage machine.

The final quarter-mile of that climb was so nearly vertical it almost blew the good feeling I had built back up over the past day or so. I was just happy it was not raining; it would have taken me an hour to climb that slope had it been slippery and muddy. The good feeling returned at the top of the climb, and stayed with me over the half-mile of gentle downhill to the shelter. I had completed a twenty-mile hike, during which I generally enjoyed myself thoroughly, on the day after I nearly packed it in because I simply could not go on.

I wrote my little song from North Mountain in the shelter register. It was a take-off on "Another Saturday Night." I called it "Another AT Night." The thing was fairly lame, but I think that the last verse was okay:

I hit the trail two months ago
And my sex life went straight to hell
I don't meet many women
And if I did I couldn't get 'em
Because of how I smell.

Alan and I now have company at this shelter. A weird, hyper little fellow just hiked in to spend the night. He tells us that he started on the AT at the beginning of April and has just returned from taking two weeks off, picking up the trail once more at that little store where we bought the ice cream. He is very strange. He was not making very good mileage up until this point, but now plans to hike 25-30 miles per day for the next month in order to catch up to some people with whom he was hiking when he left the Appalachian Trail. He talks quite calmly about this, and seems to think it will be an enjoyable experience. Alan and I managed not to laugh until he had left the shelter to get water. There is no way he can pull off mileage like that for a month. The few people who do that sort of thing use a support vehicle following them around to allow them to carry minimal weight while they hike. He is going to become quickly disillusioned.

It has been an interesting day. Less than ten miles now remain to Cloverdale, where Alan and I are going to get a room. Alan tells me that several restaurants with all-you-can-eat deals are near the AT roadwalk on US 11. Heh, heh, heh. We'll make them bleed.

FRIDAY, 6/24/83, MILE 704.9 --- CLOVERDALE --- Alan and I hiked into town today, following the crest of Big Tinker Mountain most of the way. There were many long, steep ascents and descents, and the trail was a rock pile. I held my breath the whole distance, hoping that my loft shoe would hold up. Before we left the shelter, I had snugged it up with what was left of the tape and some nylon-coated string which Alan had. If that went, there was nothing else.

Our hyper little friend got off to an early start, but did not seem to be nearly as enthused about those long hikes in the cold light of day. Although we spent a great deal of time stopping to check out views, we passed him on several occasions sitting on rocks beside the trail, staring morosely out into space. I doubt he will last a week.

There were many excellent views along the trail, something I never expected to see in this part of Virginia. I shot five or six pictures -- my first since Chestnut Ridge. Alan seemed very impatient at those times, like he was itching to keep going, but never wanted to go on ahead when I suggested it. I guess he is not used to hiking alone. I do not know how much longer he can travel with me, though. I am too beat up to keep his pace, even if I wanted to. I like him, but I have to hike my own trail. I enjoy my photography too much to rush it.

The one exceptional spot was Hay Rock -- a giant outcrop jutting far out over the trees with great views into a wooded valley surrounding a large lake and encircled by green ridges. The adrenaline rushes from such scenery gave me a big lift, and the miles flew by despite the difficulty of the trail.

The descent from Big Tinker was on a gravel road, where we met a local man and his son climbing up from the road. I now needed a cheap pair of work boots to hold me until I reached the mail drop with my new hiking boots, so I asked him where would be a good place to buy them. He told me about a factory outlet shoe store a few miles down the road from Cloverdale to Roanoke.

A paved roadwalk at the bottom of the descent brought us to a chain restaurant called Country Cookin' on US 11. Alan lent me the money to pay for my meal. They had an all-you-can-eat salad, fruit, vegetable, and dessert bar. Heh, heh, heh -- the fools! They must have loved us. First of all, we went in there dirty. Very dirty. Clothes and bodies virtually unwashed since Pearisburg. Then, we began to eat.

We ordered the steak sandwich lunch special., which came with the bar. I started with a huge salad, a pile of rolls, and a dish of fruit. These are items which I just do not get on the trail. I was most of the way through this course, my appetizer, when the sandwiches arrived.

The finale was where we achieved greatness. Desserts came in little tin cups, which we stacked on our table as we emptied them. Our waitress kept giggling "Oh, my God!" and "That's incredible!" every time she walked past -- I thought my fly was open. Our final tally was thirteen dead soldiers. I killed seven of them: three custards, two strawberry shortcakes, and two chocolate puddings. My stomach felt like a sharecropper who had just won the lottery.

When we left, the restaurant manager was crying and pounding the floor with his fists and his feet. I guess that our eating prowess was so impressive he was overcome with emotion. I waved to the man tacking the Chapter 11 notice on the door as we headed down US 11 towards Cloverdale.

The mile to the motel was one of the longest I have ever walked, what with all of that food churning around in my stomach, but I made it without having to stop and drop my backpack or my lunch. I cleaned up and walked over to the Post Office to pick up my money order, which they cashed for me. Then, I caught a bus to the factory outlet and bought a pair of twenty-dollar work boots. I caught the bus back to the motel.

I am in decent shape for footwear, now. I can skip the long detour I was going to make into Montebello and have the supply package with my new hiking boots forwarded to Waynesboro, Virginia, making that my next scheduled trail town and supply point. I will attend to that tomorrow when I return to the Post Office to mail my old boots home. They are now useless for hiking, but were I to throw them away I would feel I was murdering an old friend.

I passed the 700-mile mark today. In the early stages of tomorrow's hike, I will reach the point at which I will have hiked one-third of the entire Appalachian Trail. I have almost beaten The Wall. I know that it sounds crazy, but it begins to look like this quest might just succeed after all. 1433.6 miles to go.

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©1996 George Steffanos

gsat@skwc.com

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