Day 57: Johns Hollow Shelter

Day 57. Hiking is weird sometimes. I’m nearly 2 months into this trip and have not had a single blister. Then today, I wake up, start hiking, and instantly realize I have 3 at once. Arg! I know it is likely due to the continuous rain and wet feet since Daleville, but it’s extremely annoying nonetheless. All 3 are on little toes, spread between both feet, so it was pretty uncomfortable hiking throughout the day.

Time wise, I could have made the 25 mile option for today, but when I reached the shelter at 16 miles, my little piggies told me they were done. I tried treating the toes at lunch, to cover the hot spot before it turned blister, but it was already too late for that, so they just continued to pain me all afternoon.

I got to Johns Hollow Shelter around 2pm, and instantly soaked my feet in the nearby stream. That felt fantastic! Then after some careful cleaning, I did my best to treat the blisters fully (pop, drain, bandage, etc.) and pray it will heal up by morning. I have 20 miles to do by 5pm, so I can’t be limping on sore toes the whole way!

Besides that though, It was a gorgeous day. A full day of blue skies and sun while hiking in the James River Face Wilderness. Many stream crossings and just a couple big elevation changes meant it was a fairly simple day of hiking. One nice view came at Thunder Ridge Overlook, where I snapped the photo above. Even with foot pain, today’s hike was a good one. And it finally emptied out on the massive James River. Not the prettiest of waterways, with its murky brown water, but a big river and big landmark. After crossing the HUGE foot bridge, I was nearly done for the day.

Oddly, I didn’t see too many others today. I only shared last night’s shelter with one other person, and he left before me in the morning. I had a short chat with one of the local Ridge Runners (trail maintenance volunteers), and another with a day hiker sitting by a stream, but that was it. Looking at the registries in all 3 shelters I passed today, I realized I don’t have many people within a day or 2 of me … and of those that are ahead, I have no idea who they are. Up until now, I’ve always recognized names in the registries from earlier days on the trail together, but I seem to have passed just about every name I know, and am now chasing the hikers who started weeks before me or after. It’s an odd feeling for some reason, makes me feel just a bit more alone. But that’s alright of course, it just means there are new people to meet.

I saw a lot of cold blooded wild life today, which was pretty neat. There are these tiny orange salamanders, about 2-3 inches long, that have been out the past couple days. They are incredibly beautiful but strange out here against the constant green/brown backdrop. I also saw countless lizards, each about 6 inches long and more of a prototypical looking mini reptile. I saw a giant bullfrog hop along the trail in front of me … and I saw my first real snake. Not the tiny garter snakes that scurry into the brush as you approach, this one was the real deal. It was about 4-5 feet long, and all black. It hissed peacefully at me while slithering around Matt’s Creek Shelter, clearly letting me know this home was his … and I was welcome to visit it, as long as I kept my distance. I don’t know much about snakes, but in doing some research on the snakes of this region, it appears to have been a Black Kingsnake. Harmless to humans, but big compared to others, and it has an awesome name. If I wasn’t already Sharkbait, I’d like to be called Kingsnake.

After crossing the James River Bridge, it was a brief 1.5 mile hike uphill to the shelter. I laid out my pad and quilt in the shelter one more time because rain is coming tonight. I’m getting more comfortable sleeping in these things, especially if it means my gear stays dry. It appears I’ll be alone here for the night … a first for me on the trail. Tomorrow I’ll tackle the 2,000 ft climb of Bluff Mountain before heading back down to meet my family. It should clear up by late morning, and if the toes have heeled a bit, should be a great hike with epic views.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait!)

  • Start Mile: 771.4
  • Start Time: 08:30
  • End Mile: 787.7
  • End Time: 14:10
  • Miles Hiked: 16.3
  • Miles to Go: 1403.2
  • Lodging: Johns Hollow Shelter

Day 56: Thunder Hill Shelter

Day 56. As expected, it rained all morning. But, as hoped, it stopped in the early afternoon. I rolled into Cornelius Creek Shelter at the 18 mile mark around 4:30pm, and at that exact moment … the sun finally broke through the clouds. I took it as a sign to go on, and hiked the last 5 miles uphill to Thunder Hill Shelter with plenty of daylight to spare.

There were some interesting sights today, though it was mostly the same as yesterday with fog and cloud cover everywhere. A few tough stream crossings too, but nothing as bad as the one I wrote about last night. I stayed pretty dry most of the day, all things considered.

All of us in the shelter slept in late, as the pitter-patter sound of rain on the tin roof was soothing, and the view if you poked your head out of your sleeping bag was not. I eventually rolled out of bed around 8am, had a quick and cold breakfast, then hit the trail. I told Happy Feet and Tarzan of my tentative 24-mile plan, thinking maybe they’d be up for the challenge too … but they were less optimistic. It’s after 8pm now, so I’m guessing they stayed back at Cornelius Creek. Oh well, they will catch me again after the weekend I’m sure. It was fun catching up, so I hope to have the chance to hike with them again.

Around midday, I stopped for lunch at the most extravagantly built shelter I’ve seen to date. It didn’t have running water like the Fontana Hilton, or a shower and pizza delivery like Partnership … but it was built for kings. It looked brand new, feature by a double decker platform with an L-shaped porch, built in benches, ladders, and more. And the whole structure covered by a gigantic roof. It could probably hold 20 people comfortably, with 10 more squeezed in if needed. And the river is only 10 feet away for fresh water. The only thing missing was a gas grill. 🙂 I really wanted to stay there, but I had more sunlight and miles to go today, so I sadly moved on. Here’s a bad photo to try and capture it, next week’s video will have a full walkthrough.

There were 3 high climbs today, but I didn’t mind them that much. The ascents were not too steep (maybe 1500 feet over 4 miles), and the forest got steadily greener as I went. By the end, when the sun poked out, I was darn near skipping for joy. Blue skies and green forests? This is the trail I’ve been waiting for!

Of course it didn’t last long, as the sun quickly got covered up again and a light drizzle followed me for my last 2 miles of the day. It was right around this time, about a mile from my Thunder Hill Shelter destination, that I crossed under a prominent landmark of the Appalachian Trail. It’s nothing special, but has a great name and scary look: The Guillotine.

The Guillotine is a 15 foot rock tunnel you walk through, where a giant boulder lies tightly wedged between too other giant slabs of stone. You walk right under this monstrous rock, realizing at any point, it could probably come crashing down and flatten any poor soul unfortunate enough to be standing beneath. So I did what any normal, mature, 36 year old man would do … I ran like hell to the other side. Hey, I’ll admit the chances were slim of it falling, but it still COULD happen. The main photo above doesn’t do it justice, but you can see the geologic marvel in action.

I made good distance today, so I’m only 36 miles from my destination on Friday. I spoke to my sister and it sounds like she and the family will meet me at the US Route 60 road crossing in the late afternoon. If I stay at shelters, I’ve got 2 options:

  • If I do 16 miles tomorrow and 20 on Friday, I would arrive around 6pm.
  • If I do 25 miles tomorrow and 11 on Friday, I’d get there more like 2pm.

I’ll need to chat with them one more time to get an idea on their ETA before I decide. But if I get there early, they arrive late, and I’m forced to take a mid-afternoon nap in the sun … I could live with that too.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait!)

  • Start Mile: 747.7
  • Start Time: 09:05
  • End Mile: 771.4
  • End Time: 18:20
  • Miles Hiked: 23.7
  • Miles to Go: 1419.5
  • Lodging: Thunder Hill Shelter