Mothman Trail Update: Charlottesville, VA, 8 June 2003

Editor’s note: This is an abridged reprint (with Jim’s permission) of an email from Jim Heaney sent during his “through-hike” of the Appalachian Trail.

If you’re keeping track at home—Where’s Mothman?—I actually fell about 4 days short of my goal of getting to Rockfish Gap (where I-64 crosses the AT; where the Blue Ridge Parkway effectively turns into Skyline Drive), and am currently at the road crossing near Glasgow, VA; the nearest “big city” is Lexington. Shoutout to Uncle Jim and Aunt Pat for making it possible for me to attend my reunion and not have to “yellow blaze” the 80 miles in between.

Welcome to some old friends from UVA. I’ve been sending these emails out since I started my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) two months ago today, and 769 miles south of where I’m about to get back on the Trail. My Trailname is Mothman.

As I said, I didn’t quite make the goal I had set, but looking back at it, it’s easy to see what went wrong: (1) I stuck around at the Trail Days festival in Damascus, VA, a day longer than I had intended; (2) I counted Friday as a full hiking day rather than a shuttle day (which limited hiking to 2 miles); (3) I had mail drops that coincided with weekends and Memorial Day, neither of which I planned for very well; (4) they say that Virginia is an easy hiking state, but they are specifically referring to the north half of the state—hiking got easier and the treadway less rocky a few days ago; and (5) I had that ankle overuse injury from, you know, walking 769 miles.

However, a big week for the following:

  • I’ve taken more zero days than any other time I’ve been out here—should help the ankle.
  • I wore a seatbelt for the first time since being dropped off at Amicalola Falls in Georgia.
  • I was referred to as “Jim” for the first time since mid-April.
  • I was awake long after dusk for reunion activities this weekend; not usually the case in camp.
  • I’m now hopefully in the pretty-easy section. It reportedly doesn’t get terribly hard again until New Hampshire, maybe Vermont.

The theme of this year’s hike is rain. I don’t know if this is national news, but for the benefit of those of you on the west coast, four or five years’ worth of drought has essentially been wiped out by this winter’s snows and this spring’s rains, the latter of which have fallen almost entirely on my head or my tent. Coming out of Catawba, VA, we had a beautiful, sunny day to climb the Tinker Cliffs and McAffee’s Knob; it was the third day I had been in Virginia where it hadn’t rained… and I had been in Virginia for 15 days at that point. Just the day before this sunny day, I had been caught on Dragon’s Tooth during a thunderstorm (thesecond stormthat hour); if you’ve been up there, you know it’s not easy to get down ina hurry.

Stonehenge (an earlier hiking partner) believes that hikers can only tolerate three days of being out in the rain before going crazy. How do we survive? A few ways. There is a series of shelters built along the AT, typically separated by five to ten miles with some outliers. Predominantly, they are three-sided with overhangs to keep boots on the ground from getting wet; sleep six or more; made of wood (stone in the Smokeys); and have places to hang packs and food. (The food is to then be safe from mice; bears, not so much.) Some have fireplaces in side, and some have picnic tables under the roof. I passed one the other day that slept 20 and was designed by an architect, and there’s one in Fontana Dam, NC that is referred to as the “Hilton,” but these are rare. They are free and dry, but first-come-first-serve, so you have to hope for the best when planning to stay in one; otherwise, you can camp in the area.

Another way is to hostel, and recently this has been a very convenient way to get inside, give the backpack and its contents a chance to dry out a bit, get a cold soda and a candy bar, maybe even a ride into town to a grocery or a restaurant. The price ranges from free-donate what you can to about $15 per night. I have stayed in a few hostels along the way, but the recent hostels have been real hike-savers.

When I get back on this afternoon, I’m going 1.7 miles to the next shelter to see where my original hiking buddies are. When I pressed to make it north for the reunion, I lost pretty much everyone I had been with for the first month-plus. My guess is that they are caught up, maybe a little bit ahead. The way I can tell this is by checking the shelter log: notebooks are left in all the shelters, and thru-hikers and others usually sign in with information valuable to the people behind them. Before I got off the Trail this weekend, I left a blurb for all the folks I thought might be a few days behind. My guess is that I’ll run into some of them, maybe not others; but as I walked the big miles recently, I kept running into great people. There was one night in a shelter where I was cooking and the other three people there were reading Kafka short stories out loud to each other, which really sort of fit my image of the typical backpackers; otherwise, we’ve been playing cards and such.

Next installment: water safety. Maybe from Waynesboro, but heck, I haven’t really figured the towns I’d spend time in terribly well yet.

Something to note: I hear that some of you in DC might be interested in day-hiking with me on a section. I will get back to you to confirm, but I may be near Harper’s Ferry, WV on Sunday the 22nd. I think Deb Spears, my excellent supply chain manager, has volunteered to coordinate.