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Bird Man's AT Journal

Trail Updates and Photos from the 2002 AT "Flip-Flap" Hike
© Bruce Nichols - 2002

Damascus, VA
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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
continuing journey north on the Appalachian Trail.

I arrived yesterday in Damascus, VA which bills itself as the friendliest hiker town on the AT. Damascus is
455 miles north of Springer Mt., GA where I began walking on May 1, and about 220 miles north of my last
e-mail from near Davenport Gap in Tennessee. Virginia is my forth state and stretches out for about 500
miles north. I plan to continue walking for a few more weeks before heading back to CT to catch up on all
the personal stuff that collects when one goes traveling but I also hope to head north to Maine and Mt. Kadahdin in mid July and walk south while the weather is still good in northern New England - we'll see.

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
sun was setting on the evening of May 25th. A cool wind blew up from the valley and I stood around a small fire with three other hikers [image], "Radar", "Harley", and "Bypass", who I'll get around to a little later or perhaps in a second message.

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
crossed roads with a welcome to NC sign to my right and a welcome to Tennessee sign on my left. When I
arrived at a hiker hostel or resupply town, I'd look at the license plates to determine what state I was in.

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.

Hiker Hostels

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
was a hiker himself and has been hosting AT travelers for over 20 years. I had a room to myself though I did have to pass through one of the bathrooms to enter. Other rooms are shared by no more than two. The Inn is a large white rambling building that sits right on the AT. I think of Elmer as the Zen Angel of the AT. The house is filled with books - wonderful books from trail guides to Whitman and Thoreau. One whole shelf is dedicated to Buddhism with Zen being the predominant theme but there are also western philosophers and volumes and volumes of wonderful minds to explore. I took my first "0" day at Elmer's spending two nights and having 4 of Elmer's incredible vegetarian meals. Dinners are 4 courses - a wonderful hand made soup (carrot one night and some potato blend the next), followed by an extraordinary green salad with homemade bread, and an entrée (vegetarian lasagna to die for one night), and finally a desert (would you believe pecan pie and ice cream)! WOW! And to be able to serve 6 or 8 famished AT hikers and still have food left over on the table is absolutely beyondbelieving if not seen with one's own eyes. And Elmer does all this himself with the help of one young thru hiker who has taken a few months off the trail to work for stay (can't blame him there).

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
everyone in turn must answer it with the only qualification being that no answer may be repeated. On the first night the question was, "If you could commit any crime and get away with it absolutely, what would it be?" My response to that one was, I'd steal all the nuclear weapons in the world and hide them where no one could ever find them. On the next night the question was, "If you could have any writer, living or dead write your autobiography, who would it be?" While I went first on the crime question I got to go almost last on the writer question (Somehow it works out that Elmer gets to go last.) I vacillatedfor a while between Walt Whitman, whose wild flights of poetry I have always loved, and Mark Twain, a Connecticut native, at least late in life, whose simple, direct, witty style I've always enjoyed. I went with Whitman and wouldn't you know, Elmer came out with Twain immediately after my response.

Then we would all just eat and eat and talk about the trail, life, and whatever else came out of our mouths
when the food wasn't going in.

Breakfasts were equally enjoyable and huge. Pancakes, granola, fresh fruit, yogurt, coffee or herbal tea,
muffins - I think maybe it's time to head south again.

One of the books I found on the shelf at Elmer's was John Robbins new book "The Food Revolution". I read
around if for two days and found it absolutely fascinating. John is the son of the founder of the Baskin and Robbins ice cream chain who split with the family early in his adult life to campaign against the industrialization of the food industry - especially the atrocious conditions under which most meat and poultry is produced in this country. For many reasons he has espoused a vegetarian diet, and his arguments are very well reasoned and backed by much hard research. My two days reading this new book have me giving much thought to whether I will continue to eat eggs and dairy which are the only animal based parts of my current diet. I do recommend this book to anyone. But be prepared to reconsider you dietary lifestyle if you pick it up.

John also did a very powerful interview for the new Peace Pilgrim documentary of which only a few minutes
were used. When I was last in Somerset early in the spring, I had a chance to see the entire unedited tape and was really moved by John's thoughtful and powerful ideas about both Peace Pilgrim and life in general.

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
moon day last month. A most unusual trio - make that 4-some if you include "4-Wheel-Drive" Harley's dog.

I had walked back south a mile to the summit to watch the sunset and moonrise from the top of this high and,
on that evening, windy bald. It was a beautiful if just a bit chilly afternoon and the three were camped on top.

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
solid physique and a graying goatee. He'd grown up in PA near Johnstown where I once taught TM and I
recognized the regional dialect almost immediately. He had sold most of his possessions and moved to Alaska with one of his daughters when he was not on the trail. At another daughters last Thanksgiving, he had stopped by for the holiday after walking several hundred miles on trails further north. On a stroll down to the local market he had a heart attack at the end of the driveway and seven (count them) seven bypasses as a result. Hence the "Bypass 7" trail name. Here he was less than a year later with 300 miles already under his boots. He didn't go fast but he did just keep going.

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
Hampton, TN. I left about half a day earlier and have put in longer miles since then so don't know how this
bunch is doing. But that is a little of the way things work on the trail. The little community is constantly in flux.
Some people you pass, some pass you. I traveled with a bunch of younger fellows either in or recently out
of college for almost 200 miles. We would often end up in the same shelter or camping spot or might just have lunch together somewhere. About a week ago they all picked up their pace and I hovered a day or half day behind them until I reached Damascus where they were taking a day off.

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
might even be biblically appropriate.

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
and poor old deserted cat for a while so I'm entertaining the idea of having someone house-sit for perhaps a month or two. If anyone is interested - or perhaps knows of some one who might be, let me know. We can work out the details in July.

The-a-ta-the-a-ta-That's all folks, (some will remember the source of this ending)

Peace, Blessings, and Love to All,
and as the Navajo say, "Walk in Beauty",


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page created - 11/09/2002
updated - 11/22/2002
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols