Bird Man's AT Journal
Trail Updates and Photos from the 2002 AT "Flip-Flap" Hike
© Bruce Nichols - 2002
|June 4, 2002
It's been a long way between computers but I finally have an opportunity to bring everyone up to date on my
I arrived yesterday in Damascus, VA which bills itself as the friendliest hiker town on the AT. Damascus is
After all the cold, wet weather through Georgia and the Smokies, it's been great to enjoy some warmer going. I've spent a couple of days walking shirtless in dappled green forest light and over sunny balds in knee high grass. Sporting a bit of a tan now and looking a bit bristly after a month without shaving.
Some of the highlights of the trail have been the grassy balds just mentioned. Max Patch [image] just south of Hot Springs, NC. Big Bald a bit further north where I watched the full moon rise [image] over blue ridges as the red
I've been up and down over a host of 5000 to 6000 foot mountains as I walked north along the NC/Tenn. border. The trail wanders back and forth from one state to the other over 200+ miles. I'm sure there were times when my left foot was landing in Tennessee while my right foot was treading on North Carolina - and also times when just the opposite was true as the trail snaked and twisted it's way along. Once or twice I
With more time on the trail, I've begun to increase my daily mileage. In the early weeks 12-15 miles a day was about tops. But after a month of walking, 16 to 18 is more the norm and I managed my first 23 mile day on the way into Damascus the day before yesterday. There is a stretch of trail called the "Tennessee Turnpike" that runs up from the Hampton, TN and into Virginia. After a fairly steep climb up from Watauga Lake, the trail runs for almost 50 miles along a long ridge between 3500 and 4100 feet elevation without any really steep climbs or descents and mostly along old woods roads near the top of the crest that make the going fast and relatively easy. I learned from some trail maintenance folks that the last 16 miles into Damascus were part of the original 1940's and 50's AT which made the connection with Peace Pilgrim's 1952 hike seem especially close.
I think the most beautiful section of trail encountered so far has been the Hump Mts [image]. A series of high grassy balds that stretch for about 8 miles after a very difficult 2000 ft. climb in two miles up 6285 foot Roan High Knob. That came about 15 miles into a long day of ups and downs and was probably the most difficult climb encountered on the trail so far. But the next day in the balds between 5000 and 5800 feet was a great reward and one of the most enjoyable visually. Great grassy sweeps of mountain [image] with wild flowers [image], sparse pine and scrub oak, gray outcrops of rock, the trail snaking up ahead and back behind through tall grass, and long, long views of mountain ridges circling the horizon. WOW! This is the stuff I really love. And, of course, finding out what's over the next hill and around the next bend in the trail. Add to that the fact that it was warm and you could actually see something besides clouds made it a great, great day.
This does not distract from the other moods of the trail. The quiet of the deep woods, the mystery of the high wooded ridges where bits of the distant landscape come stealing through the gaps in the trees, the myriad of little details that jump out in singular isolation and beauty - like a broken butterfly wing, black with bright blue edging, lying on the leaf littered trail, or the night cries of barred owls filling an almost total blackness, or the whip-o-will that sang above Vandeventer Shelter at 5:30 in the morning - so close it seemed to be perched right on the roof above one's head.
That's enough for the morning. Today is a day off and I have the great luxury of a number of available computers to continue this message. I've meet some wonderful and unusual people on the trail and will profile a few in my next message.
June 4, 2002 - Damascus #2
Taking a "0" day here in Damascus, VA gives me a chance to share a little more of the last few weeks with you. Since I'm not sure where the next computer will appear, I'll make the most of this opportunity in this very "hiker friendly" town.
Along the AT in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, are a number of establishments that cater to the long distance hikers (and other wanderers) that strike out along the AT each spring. I've stopped in a number of them along the way to get a shower, catch a shuttle into a nearby town to resupply, hang out with other hikers, sleep in a stuffy, overcrowded, smelly, snore filled bunkhouse with either lumpy or no mattresses. What a joy.
The absolute best of these is Elmer's Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, NC. More of a B&B than a hostel, Elmer
Elmer is a graying bushy eyebrowed Buddha bellied fellow with a perpetual twinkle in his eye - probably about 60 (thought it's hard to really tell). He spends most of the afternoons preparing dinner for his guests in a wonderfully disheveled kitchen that is also one of the main passageways in and out of the house. He often wears a brown jacket length robe usually worn by someone who has taken some sort of lay vows with a Buddhist order (I've seen many similar in Plum Village and at other gatherings of Thich Nhah Hanh's Order of Interbeing, but do not think that Elmer is associated with that group.)
Dinner is at 8 and everyone sits down together in a cozy dining room just off the kitchen, Elmer at the end of the table. The room is just big enough that when everyone is sitting down, it's hard for those on the back wall to get up and move back around the table - but who would want to with all that great food sitting there.
The meal starts with a round of introductions. Name, trial name, where you are from, what you do or might have done. The next order of business is the nightly question. At each meal there is a question asked and
Then we would all just eat and eat and talk about the trail, life, and whatever else came out of our mouths
Breakfasts were equally enjoyable and huge. Pancakes, granola, fresh fruit, yogurt, coffee or herbal tea,
One of the books I found on the shelf at Elmer's was John Robbins new book "The Food Revolution". I read
John also did a very powerful interview for the new Peace Pilgrim documentary of which only a few minutes
I'm really going on here and will jump around a bit just to get in a few more interesting characters met on the trail.
In my earlier message I mentioned "Radar", "Harley", and "Bypass 7" [image] met on Big Bald at sundown on the full
I had walked back south a mile to the summit to watch the sunset and moonrise from the top of this high and,
Radar is an 18 year old, eagle scout from Pittsfied, MA. A great kid who looks a bit like the Radar from the old MASH TV series which may be why he got his name, though I never did find out if that was it. This was his first time really out on his own. Just out of high school and wanting to experience a bit of the world before going on to college. He had traveled little growing up (Florida once, I think), never been on an airplane, and really never been away from home on his own. And here he was out walking the AT, with a wonderfully innocent sense of humor and a friendliness that radiated around. I'm not sure how long he had been traveling with Bypass and Harley but what an unusual group.
Bypass was a 60 something ex West VA coal miner. A bit rugged looking with peppery gray black hair, a
And finally, Harley. Harley is 70 and at one time in his life was a Roman Catholic chaplain in the Air Force. When he decided to get married, he gave up both the church and the service. His wife died about a year ago and little "4-wheel-drive" is the part Pekinese part poodle that was his wife's little lap dog. But Harley wanted to get on the trail and Gi-Gi, 4-wheel's real name had to come along. So first a mile at a time, and then 2, and then 4. Harley slowly broke little Gi-Gi into the trail. It's quite a site to see this little dusty red dog walking barely two feet behind rail thin Harley with a short tattered red leash trailing back between her legs. Occasionally when the going gets especially rough 4-wheel gets to ride between the back of Harley's neck and the pack on his back - which I guess suits her just fine. Harley is Irish and with his theological background and love for an occasional beer, is one of the most interesting conversationalist I've met on the trail. In one moment he might be talking about St. Peter or some biblical point and in the next waxing poetically about how much he will enjoy finding just one can of beer in the next resupply town.
I spent about 3 days traveling with these characters until we reached a hostel at the Nolichucky river near
There is much more I could add and had actually thought about while walking north over the last few weeks. Like P Envy. Not what you might be thinking!! That's Pack Envy - which could easily be expanded to gear envy. Whenever a few hikers get together - and especially at the hostels where people are resting and not thinking quite so much about getting down the trail, the topic of conversation and actual physical comparison often turns to gear. Light, heavy, efficient, boots, running shoes, stoves, clothes, sleeping bags, jackets, socks, blister control, trail food, on and on and on. There's a whole e-mail here but I'll save it for later since I think you get the general idea, Enough for me for this afternoon. I want also to share a little of the "spiritual path" that the AT has been for me - but I think I'll let that theme deepen a bit as I head north from Damascus. I suppose that
Just a final not on my "sort of' plans. I will probably leave the trail sometime around the end of June to catch up on the inevitable personal things that accumulate when one is away from home not to mention July taxes and a commitment to finish a 2003 50th year Pilgrimage Anniversary calendar for Friends of Peace Pilgrim. But I think that once those things are done I'll head north for Maine and Mt. Katadhin or Katahdin (someday I'll actually learn how to spell it). And start walking south for a while. Might as well go north while the days are still long and the weather a little more humane than in September or October.
In conjunction with this "tentative" plan, I'd like to give my son Dylan a break from looking after my house
The-a-ta-the-a-ta-That's all folks, (some will remember the source of this ending)
Peace, Blessings, and Love to All,
page created - 11/09/2002
updated - 11/22/2002
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols