Riding Mountain Bikes on Mt. Rogers, VA

Last weekend I was down in the southern Appalachians.  The first 5 days, I was there, I walked 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  It was glorious.  The wildflowers were in abundance,  and were prolific . There were times when I was backpacking, sometimes over 5,000 feet in elevation, while at the same time inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of woodland plants and trees. It was a healing experience.

Flame Azalea

Flame Azalea

Rhododendron in full bloom

Rhododendron in full bloom

After my backpacking segment, I stayed at my friend Mike’s mountainside cabin that I reported on in my previous post about my week down south.

 

One of the activities that Mike and I shared was a 14 mile mountain bike ride from the cabin through the Mt. Rogers Wilderness, where we pushed our bikes uphill toward the Grayson Highlands.  Our ride then followed an abandoned railroad grade to the top of our ride, where we intersected the Appalachian Trail at a corral known as the Scales.

The Scales

The Scales

The other geographical feature of this area are the Balds,  which are large mountaintops that are devoid of trees.  here’s a panorama of a bald that I visited.

Bald near Mt. Rogers

Bald near Mt. Rogers

Riding bikes here was a unique experience.  My friend Mike owns two Diamondback bikes.  He rode a later model with a front suspension fork, and I chose a 1986 vintage Diamondback Apex for the day.  I have an 1985 Apex at home, that I have converted to a road bike.  On this ride, I was forced to remember why modern bikes often sport front AND rear suspensions. The ride up was not so bad, because it was a steady climb of 1600′.  The ride down was a real suffer fest, due to the constant pounding of the front end on the numerous rocks and ruts that littered the trail.  My forearm and wrists were toast.

The next day Mike, his wife Susan and I went uphill again, walking a new route.  The real treat of the walk was encountering two black bears.  Mike’s Blue Heeler Jackson had run ahead of us and treed them.  The dog came right back to us when Mike called it, when we were able to watch this giant fat black bear drop like a stone down a tall tree with it’s little cub doing likewise on an adjacent tree.

 

 

Cabin in the Virginia Hills

Awoke this morning in Mike and Susan’s newly built cabin just one mile from the AT on the edge of the 150,000 acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It’s way up at 3,500 feet bordering Federal Wilderness. The view is spectacular, and there are no light visible in any direction at night.

20140520-064108.jpg

A single solar powered light and an oil lantern illuminate the small cabin. It’s one open space on the bottom floor with a standing room loft that has a couple of hammocks strung up for sleeping.

20140520-064243.jpg

I met Mike in 2011, when we both worked at Don Kevilus’ Four Dog Stove booth at Trail Days. Don was the major sponsor of both my Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trail thru-hikes. Don believed in me. He poured encouragement, cash, and gear my way in 2010 and 2013.
Mike is an avid winter camper and made the trip to the Snow Walkers’ Rendezvous in Vermont the past couple of years. I liked Mike then and hoped to spend time with him in the outdoors for sometime. That’s happening right now!

Don and Mike share a love for mules. This part of Tennessee is one of the two major areas of the USA that celebrates the mule as a viable form of wilderness travel, and as a work animal.

Mike’s spot of heaven borders the Mount Rogers Wilderness, and is a stunningly beautiful situation. He harvested the trees to build his small off-the-grid cabin from white pine from the family farm, with his cousin milling the lumber for the cabin at his sawmill across the street from Mike’s actual house at a ridiculously low price.

In just two years, Mike and his wife Susan have created a sanctuary here that is heated with a wood stove, appointed with an outhouse with one of the best views in the Eastern US, and is supplied with crystal clear spring fed water that gushes from the slopes of Mount Rogers, at 5,700 feet, the highest point in Virginia.

20140520-080131.jpg
My stay at Mike and Susan’s was the crowning event of my week of hiking and mountain biking in the Damascus, VA area.

I slept upstairs in the loft, sleeping one night in a hammock and the other on a lush pad on the floor.

20140520-080246.jpgI got to use a vintage metal bedpan, giving me an authentic cabin experience. No traffic sounds, just owls hooting in the night. It was in the 30’s both mornings when I woke up. Guthook is now likely fighting the cold under his 48 degree quilt.

Mike and I share a love for the same type of music- old time Americana, brought to us this weekend by a superb local FM radio station hosted by a fellow with a drawling Appalachian voice that was so thick I only caught half of what he said.

The other treat for the weekend was the southern food that Mike’s mother, Susan’s mother, Mike, and Susan prepared for us, mostly cooked on the wood stove.

20140520-080409.jpg

The mainstay of the fresh food were the ramps that Mike, Susan, and I harvested. Ramps are a type of wild leek that we dug up beside one of the streams on the north side of his property.
The first night Mike and I ate them raw with home-made sauerkraut and sausages. The rest of the weekend, I ate picked asparagus, hummus, salsa, shelled beans, relishes, zucchini bread, tenderloin, berry muffins, free range chicken eggs, raspberry bars, coconut cheese cake, and several other scrumptious examples of local, real food. Oh, yeah- we went through a few growlers of artisanal beers. Most of the time, there was ancient soulful music echoing through the cabin as the whole deal was going down.

I bought a trail guide to Mt. Rogers and a High Country map at Mt. Rogers Outfitters.

20140520-080816.jpgI’ll be back!

A huge shout out to Susan and Mike, and to Don for hooking us up.

Day 6 Hiking the AT in TENN/VA

Guthook roused me with a “Morning, Uncle Tom”, on his way from the Abington Gap lean-to to retrieve his food bag, hanging from a nearby tree. I snapped open my eyes in the hopes that the deluge of rain that came in the night had stopped. It hadn’t.
My tent leaked in the thunderstorm last night. One thing that I hadn’t completed before this hike was resealing the seams on my Tarptent. There’s a lot of wear on gear that takes place on a five month thru-hike, and one piece of gear that suffers from neglect is a tent. The months-long packing and pulling on the tent seams wears off the coating over time, thus a leaky tent.

So Guthook and I shouldered our packs, and hiked 10 miles in three hours straight to hit Damascus. It was raining off and on the whole way, but warm enough that you could hike in shorts and a shirt and it was enough.

The laundromat in Damascus was closed. The closest one was in Abington, 18 miles away. Guthook, EZ Hiker and I ate ate breakfast at the Tastee Freeze and then headed up to Tent City outside of the downtown area where we scored a free shower and a fresh washing/drying of our clothes all courtesy of the Trail Days Ministry. I was pumped to run into Crazy Horse, my benefactor from 2007.

20140518-175749.jpg

At the Appalachian Trail Conservancy booth, I saw that Guthook’s AT App was now being promoted by the ATC.

Guthook was in the market for a super light sleeping quilt and four one that weighed about a pound. Here he is “field testing” it.

20140519-043914.jpg

How about some dehydrated beer?

20140519-044126.jpg

The rain came down even harder, and we huddled up with some other hikers under a tarp. So we got showers and clean clothes and the rain started to come down again. Our plan was to hitch 22 miles out of town to a cabin over by Mt. Rogers that my friend Mike had opened up for us.

When the rain abated a bit, the three of us started walking towards the center of town when an SUV pulled up and the driver welcomed our sorry wet selves into the dry interior of his vehicle.

The rest of the story is lifted from EZ Hikes’s blog.

20140518-175547.jpg He’s hiking with Guthook:

“We all climbed in and started introductions. The driver said ‘My name is Longhaul. I hiked in 2005′. I looked him and said ‘I hiked with a Longhaul in 2010.’ He replied ‘I hiked in 2010 and I remember you, EZ Hiker. So were do you guys need to go?’
I explained to him we were trying to get to a cabin near Troutdale.
He said, ‘I have a bunk room at my farm house. Come stay we me tonight and I’ll take you back to Trail Days in the morning’. “

Things worked out, again. We ate a huge amount of home made chili. Longhaul whipped up fresh omlets and bacon in the morning.

Day 5 Hiking the AT in Tenn

The chance of serious thunderstorms are predicted for tomorrow, starting at 1 am tonight. I pushed out 22.5 miles today to be positioned for a 10 mile downhill run into Damascus. Even if it is raining hard, I’m heading out early. I estimate that I will be walking for 3 more hours. When I hit town, I plan to get an early shower, hit the laundromat, and eat some real food, though not necessarily in that order.
From there, everything’s open.
The hiking today was super enjoyable.

20140515-204905.jpg It was a little cooler than yesterday, and the wind cut down on the sweating.

20140515-204345.jpg
I am camping at the Abington Gap shelter tonight. I am in one of 22 tents that are pitched around the shelter. Guthook and EZ are in the shelter. We are trying to figure out where to sleep during trail days.

Day 4 Hiking the AT in Tennessee

20140513-194502.jpg
What a crazy last half hour. I struggled into the Vanderventer shelter just before a huge thunderstorm hit that went through a hail phase.
This is a tiny cinder block shelter, and right now there are 20 grimy young hikers stuffed in, with more coming every 10 minutes. The shelter holds 6.
I planned to stay here tonight, but the situation is deteriorating by the minute. The young Gandalf, seated next to me, just drenched his leg and the floor all around me with boiling water from his pocket-rocket-fired liter of water. I was pissed. The minute he perched the stove on the edge of the shelter floor and then simultaneously started rolling himself a cigarette I felt there was going to be trouble. Luckily, I started pitching my gear to the dry floor at the rear of the shelter just before the amoeba of boiling water reached my stuff.
I really enjoyed this morning’s hike. I took the river route and viewed Laurel Falls.

20140513-194622.jpg
The new cool thing this year for both guys and gals appears to be roll your own smokes. The rest of the guys fired up their roll-your-owns and proceeded to fill the shelter with tobacco smoke. Great.
Who should roll in the lean-to viewfinder this afternoon but my hiking friend Guthook! He is on a self-imposed assignment to thru-hike all of Virginia in just three weeks, putting him on a 25 mile a day pace. He’s got a sidekick named EZ hiking with him. We hung out a bit behind the shelter and caught up on plans.
Eventually the horde of grimy testosterone picked itself up and shuffled north around 5:30 PM, when a more friendly and other-oriented assemblage of hikers took their place.
My buddies Ken, Squirrel and White Rabbit are right beside me. By the time the darkness came, there were 10 more tents and 1 hammock surrounding the shelter.

Day 3 Hiking the AT in Tennessee

20140513-070720.jpg
Profile from Huthook’s AT Hiker Guide, for iPhone (and Android), on the APP store.

The thermometer hit 87 degrees today. All the climbs, jumping off ledges, stepping up and over downed trees, black fly devils, andy sweat -drenched shirt were intensified by the heat of the sun.
In the forest, the deciduous trees up over 3,500 feet still have little damp, light green leaves, which do nothing to create shade below. The only respite from the brutal heat were the frequent groves of rhododendron, with their long, thick , dark green leaves. The ground below them was damp, too, further lowering the temps.
I had a bad night of sleep. My upper spine was aching all night long. I forgot to pack ibuprofen.
I left the Mountaineer shelter at 6:20 this morning. Ken, the richly tattooed hiker, was out first at 6. I passed 16 hikers and was passed by two today.
At the end of the day, at the Dennis Cove parking lot, I ran into Hippie Kippy, a fellow thru-hiker and friend that I met a few times while hiking around New England in 2011. Kippy asked me to bring Bob Peoples a big tray of trail magic enchiladas.

20140513-192607.jpg It was just a .3 mile hike up Dennis Cove Road to Bob’s place. The frozen casserole felt great pressed against my chest.
I completed the 16 miles by 2 PM, and arrived at Kincora Hostel in time to snag a spot in the upstairs bunkhouse. A number of the other folks that I’ve been staying the night with came by later. Squirrel, a petite young lady organized a group supper, and I volunteered to organize a breakfast for the eight of us. Bob drove us to Hampton for resupply for the next 50 mile segment to Damascus. I bought three and a half days worth of food.
I hung out with Bear and his wife, Honey, a couple from Andover, Maine, who have run the Bear’s Den Hostel there for the past 20 years. They were staying with Bob in their pickup/ camper combo. They are vacationing before the hiking season starts in Maine. They had been out to the PCT Kickoff in California and were winding their way back to Maine.
I’m thinking of hiking the 50 mile Maine section from Gorham, NH to The Height of Land just south of Rangely. Bear told me he is able to slack hikers through that whole section. He said he would give me a great time stay at the Bear’s Den.
Great communal feed of spaghetti, salad, watermelon, and ice cream tonight. I very much appreciated the hikers including me in their group, and plan to repay them tomorrow morning when it will be my turn to cook.
The hiking was difficult and relentlessly hilly for most of the day , but the hot shower and warm welcome at Kincora made all the hard-earned sweat go right down the drain with a pile of my fretting and cares.

20140513-192730.jpg

Day 2 Hiking the AT in Tenn

20140512-123917.jpg
Profile from Huthook’s AT Hiker Guide, for iPhone and Android, on the APP store.

I woke up without an alarm at 6 am and decided to get up and start walking. It was still dark. I used my headlamp in the red light mode, which protects night vision, and also is respectful to those hikers who want to sleep later.
I had cell coverage, and saw heavy fog warnings for Roan Mountain, nearby. The rain held off all day, but the humidity was high, and my shirt got soaked anyways. My boots get wet by the grass in the morning, but dried out in the afternoon when it got in the mid-70’s.
I was the first one out at 7 am. Another former thru hiker passed me at 9 am. He was the only one. I passed 26 hikers today. I felt strong. I’m still ten pounds lighter than I used to be, and it makes a big difference humping up there long slogs. There was 3400′ of elevation gain today. Damn, it’s good to be out again. Lots of your hikers surround me, but just a handful of retirees.
My plan for the day was to keep moving steadily. I put in two and a half hours of steady walking, then dipped my water bottle into a stream, purified it with my Steripen, and drank a quart. I also ate a snack. I stopped again at noon, and ate a quick lunch. Then I somehow got into my head that I was going to arrive at the next shelter, Mountaineer, at 2:30 PM after an 18 mile day. That’s exactly what happened, even with no wrist watch . Mountaineer is a new shelter and is three levels high.
I was the second one into the shelter. I like sleeping against a side wall. It means that I can pile my gear undisturbed on that side, and only have to cope with one body next to me.
It is very reassuring to me to be hiking the AT. Sometimes, I lapse into a low level of anxiety on these walks, fretting away about what is not yet to unfold. Then I glance up and see these fresh white blazes on the trees and rocks ahead and settle back down, reassured. All is OK tonight.
I hope to reach Kincora hostel tomorrow, but am not expecting to score a place to stay there, with an estimated 50 hikers between me and Kincora.
Another adventure for tomorrow.

20140512-124118.jpg

First Day Hiking the AT in TENN

bag.

20140511-180540.jpg
My first day of backpacking in Tennessee started in the rain. Bob Peoples dropped me off at Carver’s Gap,at 5512′. The parking lot was full and hikers were congregating in the alcove to the pit toilet, and huddled in the kiosk for the AT. The wind was strong, but it was warm out, in the high fifties. I had a trash can liner inside my pack, and a black trash bag over the pack. I put on my rain jacket and rain wrap, and struck out for a 6 mile run to Overmountain Shelter, a big red barn with a second floor. The place holds 40.
I just kept walking for two and a half hours. There was one hiker ahead on me and we tagged each other back and forth. He had hiked the AT before, just like me.
There was a lot of wind. None of the usual problems that one expects came up this time- my hands stayed warm, and I didn’t slip and fall in the mud that often coated the trail.
Despite the rain blowing around, the hiking was world class this afternoon. So many spectacular scenes, but no views at all. Cloud world.
There were about 20 hikers here tonight. One family with a boy, and girl under 10 were there just napping and drying out. They took off around 5:30 PM to try and hike 6 more miles. The parents looked angry and stressed.
People were friendly. A crew of three guys built a good fire that they cooked on. One of them tipped his pot of almost boiled water back into the fire, and launched a huge smoky cloud that blew back into the shelter.
I awoke in the night and went our to pee, where I saw many stars sparkling in the sky. Later I awoke again, to the sound of hard rain drumming on the metal roof. My crazy start to this trip is now fading, as I bathed my sorry self in contentment and the warmth of my down sleeping

20140512-110655.jpg

ALMOST HIKING

Sometimes traveling is a bitch. Like right now. I staggered into what I thought was Tricities airport in Tennessee at midnight last night after two flight delays of 5 hours total and a reroute. I called the motel shuttle and was looking forward to complete collapse when I learned that I was at the wrong airport- Knoxville, TN. There are no direct flights from here up to Tricities. Being fried, I had no clue how to deal with anything.
I was one lonely ranger after 14 hours of riding, sitting, but mostly waiting. I spotted the glow of a Hilton sign in walkable distance and scored a room for 6 hours of rumpling the duvet that cost me $130.
The next morning I walked back to the United counter only to learn that a flight up the Tricities would cost me 9 more hours of waiting and another $730. Nope.
Enter Bob Peoples, from Kincora hostel. He called me back after I cancelled the shuttle I was to take from Tricities over to Carver’s Gap, where I had hoped to walk north on the Appalachain Trail for some 100 miles this week.
“I’ll come and get you, be right there, hold tight, ” he said. The man is an angel.
It’s a shaky start that may still see more changes in plans, with 70% chance of thunderstorms today. I was to start walking between 4,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation- a poor situation to deal with up there, with exposure, wind, rain, and lightening strikes adding to the zings I’m dancing around right now.
But the faintest glimmer in my heart rests on an image of Mr. Calm and Capable, heading my way right now.

20140510-190641.jpg

Time for backpacking again

I have come alive in these past couple of weeks again after a tough winter. The snow is gone, and even the mud is firming up. In the past week, I have enjoyed some mountain bike trail rides with The Bubbas and also started some longer backpacking excursions in Camden Hills State Park. I can’t say enough about how enjoyable the hiking was here on the coast of Maine this week where it is still cool out, the black flies are not much if an issue ye, and the views through the bare trees allow glimpses of the Atlantic waters in unexpected places.
It still rains, but not enough to stop me from going out.
Two nights ago a dozen of riders took to the Rockland Bog for a couple of hours’ riding bikes. It was still raining when we started and there were a few serious mud pits that I splashed through. When go got back to the parking lot, my feet were soaked but I forgot to bring dry socks, so I changed into a pair or bandannas. Stevie Hawk tried to make fun of me, but I knew I enjoyed dry feet, mo matter what the social cost.

20140509-134551.jpg

An app that I have been enjoying lately is Fitbit, which normally links to a wristband that costs $100. Those of us who have an iPhone 5s can forgo the purchase, and utilize the phone’s motion sensor to track movement related to walking. I tracked yesterday’s 12 mile backpacking hike in the Camden Hills and ended up with these results for the day:

20140509-135110.jpg
It’s reinforcing to see this type of screen at the end of the day, and the ease of entry for foods consumed that day allows me to make progress in keeping my weight down some 10 pounds below normal for me this time of year.

Strava also works into the mix, tallying mileage from my walks, hikes, and bike rides. It all adds up to motivate me to do things outside again. I love generating the elevation profiles, too.

20140509-140033.jpg

Here’s yesterday’s alternative to the Stairmaster- actual walking in the spectacle of an awakening forest.

20140509-140150.jpg