Day 72 – Friday, May 20: Blackrock Hut to Stealth Camp, 25.1 miles, 907.1 total AT miles.

Note: I’m posting this from tent on Saturday morning. I fell asleep waiting for the pics to upload last night. I slept warm in my tent for the first time in a week. The forecast got it right, too – lots of rain last night.

* * *

The cold may have woken me up at 4:00am instead of 2:00 (as has been the case lately), but it was the Whip-poor-will screaming from a tree over my tent that prevented me from getting any real sleep (check out the short video I posted on Facebook – you’ll see what I mean).

I started packing up at 5:30 and ate a silent breakfast in my tent before breaking camp just before 7:00. Savage, Black Santa and McDoubles were camped at the summit of Blackrock just a half mile up trail and I wanted to catch them before they left.

I made the quick hike up and started hearing Savage’s laughter bounce around through the woods. I followed the AT around the summit and was rewarded with a clear, sunrise view of the surrounding mountains. I really wish I had broken camp last night and moved up here with them – they picked a really good spot.

Black Santa made his way down from the summit and met me on the AT – Savage and McDoubles started booking it the seven miles to the Loft Mountain Wayside and Camp Store.

Savage is getting off trail this weekend for a date – she’s been looking forward to it for weeks now. Yesterday, she realized she’ll need to get off today (one day early) in order to hitch to Luray, VA and pick up a package. And it looked like the Loft Mountain Wayside would be her best bet. McDoubles went with her because the Camp Store sells snacks.

Black Santa and I took our time making it to Loft Mountain. Neither one of us has slept well lately – he’s also having problems with his sleeping pad keeping him warm. Despite our sluggishness, the weather was finally nice. It felt like spring for the first time in weeks.

It took us almost three hours to make the hike (on extremely well-graded terrain) – pretty sad. As I approached Loft Mountain, I skipped the Wayside and opted for the path leading to the camp store. I was hoping they sold sleeping pads. I needed something, anything, to give me more protection from the cold than I was getting with my summer inflatable pad. And I wanted a flush toilet and a shower.

As I approached the camp store, I found Savage and McDoubles gorging themselves on burgers and chips – Black Santa sat in the grass and raided his food bag. I walked into the store and immediately went for the camping gear. And I found what I was looking for. Sort of.

If this were an outfitter, I would have grabbed another Thermarest accordion-style Z lite. But this was a touristy camp store. I walked away with a Coleman roll-up sleeping pad. The thing is enormous and looks like it glows in the dark. I strapped it to my pack and headed for the showers.

I paid $1.75 for 5 minutes and 15 seconds of hot water – it was amazing. I changed clothes and went back outside. Savage left to catch a hitch from the Wayside (it’s busier) and Black Santa, McDoubles and myself set off.

McDoubles is an ultralight backpacker and isn’t even 20 yet – the kid can fly down the trail when he wants to. He took off ahead leaving Black Santa and myself in the dust. Leaving Loft Mountain, the AT gets very choppy – lots of small, but steep, ups and downs. They tend to slow me down.

My immediate goal was to make it to Pinefield Hut to refill water and eat. En route, I ran into a small group of section and day hikers pointing off trail. A bear? Nope. Just a giant rattlesnake – still pretty cool though (his head followed me as I tried to take a picture).

It was nearly 1:00 by the time we made it to Pinefield Hut to have a hot lunch. I didn’t take advantage of the snacks offered at the camp store so I was pretty hungry by this point. It’s hard justifying buying food when my food bag is already insanely heavy.

We were entertained by the antics of four retired weekenders, staying in a hut (shelter) for what seemed like the first time. It was only early afternoon, but they were spread out in the hut, making camp for the night. I smiled – they probably had no idea there was a horde of thru-hikers behind them who wouldn’t take kindly to a hut built for eight being taken over by only four. I left quickly.

I hiked through a part of the Shenandoahs hit by wild fire – again, the AT acted as a natural buffer, stopping it from spreading further.

I caught up to Black Santa and we crested Weaver Mountain. Black Santa paused. He (AT&T) had cell service – I (Verizon) did not. Trail rumor had bad rain moving in overnight. We checked the radar and, sure enough, trail rumor was fact (for a change). The storm was moving in from Kentucky and had already proved to be a monster.

I wasn’t so tired anymore. Setting up my tent in the rain is one of my least favorite things to do. Even with my “rainfly first” method, everything still ends up wet. We checked the AT Guide. It was either hike another seven miles to the Hightop Hut or push 11 and hope we could sleep under the Elkton, VA overpass. I still hate shelters (especially crowded ones) – we decided to press hard for the bridge.

We caught up with McDoubles at Powell Gap, telling him of the storm and our plans – he liked the idea and zoomed ahead. I followed at a slower pace as I made the four-mile ascent of Hightop Mountain. The trail was easy for an ascent, but I was still moving slowly. All I could think about was getting a warm, full night’s sleep with my new sleeping pad.

It was nearing 7:00 by the time I passed Hightop Hut on my way to the summit. I assumed Black Santa and McDoubles were far ahead. I was hiking in search of a spring when I heard I rustling in the woods to my right and turned, just in time to see a small bear running away from me. It finally happened – I saw a bear (if only for about two seconds).

Note: I lamented not seeing a bear yet to a local in Waynesboro. He told me I’d probably get “bear assed” in the Shenandoahs. He said that, most of the time, when you see a bear, you only get a glimpse as it’s running away – hence, getting “bear assed”. It happened just as he predicted.

I paused at the spring and was quickly met by McDoubles and Black Santa. They were snacking at Hightop Hut and heard from another hiker I had moved on. The three of us set off in a hurry for the overpass.

That’s not to say I didn’t pause to take in the beautiful, flower-lined trail or the view from Hightop Mountain. Stopping for both was worth potentially getting rained on.

I finally made my way to the overpass at 8:15 to find Black Santa and McDoubles sitting by the road. The overpass was a no-go – the sides were too steep and there was no ledge to sleep on. Bummer.

After scoping out potential spots near the road, we decided to risk it and hike north on the AT hoping to find a suitable stealth camp – one that would protect us from the coming rains. It only took about 15 minutes of hiking, but we found a nice spot just off trail and made camp. I cooked by headlamp and went bed just as rain was starting to fall.

* * *

I’m going to miss hiking with Savage. We’ve been doing this thing together since the beginning – she’s become my defacto trail sister. We look out for each other. I’m sure I’ll see her soon.

I’ve gotten a few emails from folks following my hike and have gotten some great feedback – keep it coming. I asked one reader if there was anything I could be clearer on, any facts that I may have glossed over – and I got a list. I’m actually thankful I asked.

Trail names was the first thing mentioned so I’ll start there. I didn’t give myself my trail name (most people don’t). Savage and Kool Aid started calling me Cool Dad way back in GA because they overheard me going back and forth on the phone with two different hotels trying to find the one with the best amenities and cheapest rates – a very dad thing to do. But I’m Cool Dad – just like a dad (apparently), but cool. I also pre-hang my bear bag (very dad-like).

I’m texting Savage to see if I can get permission to tell her trail name story. It’s pretty funny actually.

I intend to address the other questions that have been raised as I go along. Again, many thanks for all the interest!

The plan for tomorrow is to make it just over 20 miles to the Rock Spring Hut, stopping at the Big Meadows Wayside for a burger. I’d like to hike further, but really need a good night’s sleep. Plus, I want to see what this rain is going to do.

Day 71 – Thursday, May 19: Waynesboro, VA to Blackrock Hut, 20.7 miles, 882.0 total AT miles.

I woke up at 6:00 and started silently packing up – I didn’t want to disturb the other hikers sleeping in the Grace Lutheran Church hostel. I went upstairs to use the restroom and grab a cup of coffee. Other hikers were mulling around in the lounge, planning out their entrances into Shenandoah National Park.

I was excited. Shenandoah is like the Smokeys for me – yet another awesome park that I’d read about for years before attempting this hike.

I went back downstairs to finish packing and put away my cot. The four of us left a donation, thanked the caretakers and walked outside at 7:30. While we were still standing in the church parking lot, an SUV pulled up and the driver asked if we needed a ride to the trailhead. Couldn’t be easier!

The four of us hopped in and we took off for Rockfish Gap. Waynesboro turned out to be one of the nicest little towns on the trail. Folks here go out of their way to help hikers – and the hostel at Grace Lutheran really shouldn’t be missed.

I jumped out of the SUV and grabbed my pack. I backtracked a little ways to make up for the small section of road and parking lot that I just missed while in the SUV. I made my way to the entrance of the Shenandoahs and registered. I finally started climbing at 9:30.

The park itself is beautiful – a drastic departure from forests we were just hiking in. The trails are well-graded and rarely reach 3,000 feet in elevation. The forests are much more dense, with a greater number of large, old trees than I’ve seen in quite a while. A dense fog settled in as I hiked towards Bears Den Mountain.

As I approached the summit, I started paying attention to two things. First, my pack was very heavy. I was carrying six days of food – heavy food at that. I’ve taken a liking to canned chicken – at ten ounces a pop, they add up pretty fast.

Second, my feet were starting to hurt. I had thoroughly broken in those Merrill trail runners when they split on the sides. These new Merrill’s are more like a lightweight boot than a trail runner – they’ll take some time getting used to.

The fog remained thick as I summited – I ran across a series of radio towers at the top.

I admittedly wasn’t making great time – just a little over two miles per hour. I bypassed the Calf Mountain Shelter and headed for the next available open spot to eat lunch – it was just after noon and I had covered seven miles on the day.

Shenandoah is unique in that the forest is so thick, there are few places to stealth camp – and the only option to spread out and have lunch seems to be at road crossings. But they’re not uncommon here. The AT crosses Skyline Drive over 20 times while traversing the Shenandoahs.

I found Savage, Black Santa and McDoubles having lunch on a gravel road about 9 miles away from Rockfish Gap. They were actually finishing up as I arrived. Savage and McDoubles took off ahead while Black Santa relaxed as I ate. It was 1:30 by the time we started making the 11 mile hike towards Blackrock Hut – our intended campsite for the evening.

Black Santa took the lead as we headed up an unnamed 1,000 foot ascent. I need to learn not to get fooled by the seemingly gentle elevation profiles in the AT Guide and on the app. The trail here is rocky in parts and the gains, while short (maybe 300 to 500 feet at a time), are frequent.

After a short break five miles from camp, we really took off. It was 4:30 and, having finished our ascents for the day, we took advantage of the easy grade and hauled. I met McDoubles at the entrance to Blackrock Hut at 6:30.

Undecided as to whether he was going to stay, I made my way to the shelter to make camp. I had already set up my tent when Savage and Black Santa walked over from the shelter. They had every intention of moving on – miscommunication on all fronts. I was tired and hungry and decided to stay.

After a quick dinner, I settled down and started writing.

* * *

There’s 88 miles left in the Shenandoahs. I plan on being in Front Royal, VA Monday night or Tuesday morning.

My back and shoulders are very sore today. While my new pack is very comfortable, it’s gonna take some time getting used to (like my new boots).

Tomorrow looks to be a cool day. I’ll have an opportunity to shower at the Loft Mtn Store, just seven miles from here. Two miles ahead of that is the Loft Mtn Wayside, the first of many roadside grills that dot Skyline Drive and the AT. I’ll finish the day tenting near Hightop Hut, 20-plus miles north of here.

A hut is the same thing as a shelter – it’s just what they call them up here.

Push has seen four bears in the two days she’s been hiking in the park. She’s about 20 miles ahead – some people have all the luck.

There’s this bird screaming in the tree above me right now. Another hiker a few tents over just screamed at it to shut up.

The tattoo is doing just fine.

And I finally have decent cell service – it hasn’t been this good since north GA. I hope it sticks around.

Breakfast: 20 gram strawberry yogurt protein bar, orange juice, coffee

Snack: 20 gram mint chocolate protein bar, one Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie, 4 fun size Almond Snickers, one small sleeve of PB crackers, almonds

Lunch: Bag of Oberto Buffalo Chicken jerky, one tortilla, one LD Oatmeal CP, one mini banana Moon Pie, almonds

Snack: one LD Oatmeal CP, one banana MP

Dinner: Alfredo Pasta Side with a can of chicken and instant mashed potatoes, one LD Oatmeal CP, one tortilla, almonds

Day 70 – Wednesday, May 18: Waynesboro, VA, (inadvertent) Zero Day, 861.3 total AT miles.

I woke up today feeling fully refreshed for the first time in a long time. I attribute this to the fact that Black Santa and I stayed at a decent motel – the Quality Inn in Waynesboro, VA is the best “hiker friendly” establishment I’ve run across.

Black Santa headed down for the continental breakfast and I stayed behind to update the website. I ended up having cold pizza and Powerade for breakfast.

I was buying time, waiting for Peeple’s (Waynesboro’s department store) to open. I was (and still am) very happy with my Dollar General women’s yoga pants purchase – I needed a polyester shirt to match. I ended up buying a Nike pullover – it’s an adult small so it’s huge on me.

After Peeple’s, I walked back to the hotel and packed. Black Santa left for the post office and I headed to Kroger for beef jerky and protein bars.

As I was walking downtown (pack in tow), I received a text from McDoubles. He was showering at the YMCA and would meet us at Kroger. Savage beat him to the punch and was already doing her thing at The French Press (coffee shop).

Black Santa and I shopped for groceries with McDoubles before splitting up – Black Santa and I were going to hike five-to-ten into the Shenandoahs and Savage and McDoubles were going to stay behind.

In order to get back to the trail (without getting a direct hitch), we had to walk the mile and a half to Rockfish Gap Outfitters. Black Santa needed new shorts. I browsed the hiking boot section and found a new pair of Merrell’s I really liked. The sales rep suggested I call Merrell, explain I was an AT thru-hiker whose trail runners were starting to fall apart, and request a replacement.

An hour later, I was hiking to the post office in brand new Merrell’s, ready to mail my old pair home. As Black Santa and I made our way back into town, we ran into McDoubles at the laundromat – he was packed and ready to go. We just needed to grab Savage and we were off to the Shenandoahs.

Then it got cloudy and windy. Black Santa checked his phone and saw a thunderstorm approaching. Here we go, I said, Pearisburg all over again. It didn’t take much to convince me to stay – my experience with cold rain over the past few days was enough to convince me to join them at the hostel.

As we made the turn back into town, we passed a tattoo studio. Remember the “Blue Wolf” from Trent’s Grocery? Well, it happened. On a whim, I walked in and asked if they had a chair available – and as it goes, a seat had just opened up.

A half hour later I was getting trail ink.

Or a jail tat, depending on who you ask.

I wouldn’t be Cool Dad if I didn’t keep my promises.

It was 6:00 by the time I was done. I made my way down to the church hostel and checked in. I had a great time hanging out with Savage, Black Santa, McDoubles and Sweet Potato (she’s just behind Juan and Oriole and will hike out with us tomorrow morning).

After dinner, I stayed behind in the lobby to write.

* * *

I’m very excited to enter the Shenandoahs tomorrow – I keep hearing how beautiful it is.

Waynesboro is, by far, the friendliest town on the trail. Three times today, folks pulled over and asked if I needed a ride.

On my new tattoo: sanitation is an issue. The tattoo artist recommended I use dermawrap – an anti-microbial bandage used to treat burn victims. I’ll keep it on for three to five days and wash it normally after that. She’s tattooed a bunch of hikers with no complaints so far – what can possibly go wrong?

While the forecast says tomorrow’s gonna be chilly, at least it’ll be dry(ish).

Breakfast: Four slices of Ciro’s Pizza (sausage and banana peppers).

Lunch: one piece of McDouble’s fried chicken (from Kroger)

Dinner: deli chicken sandwiches (at the hostel)

Day 69 – Tuesday, May 17: Harper’s Creek Shelter to Waynesboro, VA, 27.0 miles, 861.3 total AT miles.

I woke up at 2:00am again, shielding and cold. I could feel a frigid draft rising from between the planks of the shelter floor. I curled up in a ball, trying to fall back asleep. It didn’t happen. At 3:30, I started silently packing, trying not to wake Savage and McDoubles.

It was still dark when I put on my pack at 4:30 – McDoubles asked where I was going. I told him I was hiking into Waynesboro tonight and started hiking.

I slowly started making the 2,000 foot ascent of Three Ridges Mountain in the dark. The trail crossed numerous rock slides – this made staying on the right path very difficult. I learned a quick trick while navigating the rock slides. Even though there weren’t any white blazes, I stayed on track by looking for stones that had the moss worn off the tops (by hikers) – they stood out in contrast to the stones still covered in green or white moss.

I was making terrible time for the first hour – by 5:30, the sun started to peek out over the horizon. I was nearing the summit at 6:00 when I was finally able to turn off my headlamp. The trail was still very rocky, but ruggedly beautiful in the early dawn light.

The rising sun also brought fog and rain. The temps were in the high 50s when a light rain began to fall. I took off my cotton sweatpants and put on my rain jacket. The wind picked up and the temp dropped noticeably. Thankfully, I had already crossed the summit and started booking it downhill towards Maupin Field Shelter.

I made it to the shelter by 7:30 and took off my pack to have a quick snack. Just as I was beginning to stuff my face, Black Santa turned the corner. I was genuinely surprised to see him. He rented there the night prior and was getting ready to leave.

He also spent another night in the cold – and he got pretty wet before he could break camp. It was decided (rather quickly) that camping at the YMCA in Waynesboro just wouldn’t cut it tonight. We decided to get a hotel room in town, just 20 miles away. We hit the trail at 8:00.

Hiking in the cold rain stinks. It’s not fun – I have to keep moving at a fast rate just to stay warm. We said little as we hiked. Thankfully, the trail ahead was flat until hitting the gradual ascent of Humpback Mountain.

We stopped for a quick snack and water at 10:00. The fog was really starting to roll in and the rain kept coming down. It reminded of Seattle.

We kept hiking. The trail up and over Humpback was rocky and wet, but we pressed on, summiting at noon. After another quick snack (under a rock ledge), we started making the gradual descent to the Paul C. Wolf shelter seven miles away.

The rain was driving hard by now. I was getting very hungry – I had been hiking for almost eight hours without a hot meal. The problem was there just wasn’t anywhere to stop and cook. We looked for another ledge or maybe a forest service info sign to cook under. I eventually quit looking and just focused on making the remaining to the shelter.

We arrived at 3:00 and started making a hot lunch. I had eaten the last of my snacks – I was down to two dinners (plus and emergency meal). I ate a huge pot of food and changed socks. We started hiking again at 3:30.

The last five miles were extremely difficult. Not sleeping well for two nights in a row was taking its toll. I was moving sluggishly and my brain wasn’t working right. I felt foggy – like I couldn’t keep a linear thought going in my head. I wasn’t paying attention to time or speed like usual. I guess that’s why I was kind of surprised when I looked up to find Black Santa standing at a road crossing with his thumb out. I made it to Rockfish Gap from the shelter in just over two hours – I was ready to get to town.

After a quick hitch, we were dropped off at the Quality Inn. I immediately took a hot shower – it was one of the best I have ever had. We left the hotel room headed to the laundromat to do laundry. While we were waiting, we were able to resupply at the Dollar General next door. I ended up buying a pair of women’s yoga pants to act as a base layer – I cut off the pretty tassels that were attached at the ankles.

We made our way over to Ciro’s and ordered some pizzas to take back to the room. I had been texting Savage, inquiring when she would get into town. She texted back – her and McDoubles were staying at the Paul C. Wolfe shelter five miles from town.

After stuffing my face, I made my way over to the desk to write.

* * *

I’m beat – my muscles hurt. I can’t wait to fall asleep. The plan is to meet up with Savage and McDoubles at the post office or Kroger tomorrow morning before heading to the trailhead.

Push is in town and will be leaving first thing tomorrow. While I won’t catch her tomorrow, we should be seeing her in the coming days.

I’ve had a few folks ask if they can send me food. The answer is absolutely. I’ll be in Harper’s Ferry, WV in about ten days and will need a major resupply. The address is:

Please include everything to ensure I get it. Many thanks!

Day 68 – Monday, May 16: Hog Camp Gap to Harper’s Creek Shelter, 21.9 miles, 834.3 total AT miles.

I did not stay warm last night. I woke up at 2:00am shivering and cold. I tried putting more clothes on, putting extra clothes under my mattress pad, sitting up in my sleeping bag and leaning against my pack – I didn’t get much sleep from then on.

I totally regret sending any of my winter stuff home. My Patagonia base layer weighed next to nothing and I got rid of the pair to shave a few ounces from my pack weight.

I eventually started packing at 6:00am – I truly had not been that cold in a while. I moved quickly, trying to warm up. I collected water from the spring before leaving Hog Camp Gap at 7:30.

I knew the elevation profile called for an easy start to the day – for the first 14 miles, I was to enjoy a relatively level hike at 3,500 feet. I’d then quickly ascend The Priest before making a difficult descent to the Tye River four miles later.

It was cold and windy as I hiked. I moved as fast as I could on the easy grade to stay warm. I paused a mile outside of camp at Tar Jacket Ridge to snap a picture of the sunrise.

I stopped for a quick snack an hour or so later, then again at 10:30 – it was finally just warm enough to shed my rain jacket and sweat pants and hike in shorts and a t-shirt. I checked my GPS and was surprised to see I had already covered 10 miles. I was making really good time. It felt great to be hiking hard.

I hiked on eventually summiting The Priest at 1:30. I took the side trail to the shelter – I needed a break and a hot lunch. As I was approaching the entrance, Savage and McDoubles were packing their packs. I wasn’t expecting to see either of them until hitting Waynesboro.

They both threw their packs down on the picnic table – they tented six miles ahead of me last night and got a late start in the cold. They relayed Black Santa was pressing for big miles today as he wanted to hit Waynesboro as soon as possible for cell reception – I’m in the same boat.

I made a hot lunch and read from the shelter log. It was funny – other hikers confessed their sins to “The Priest”. I wrote my confession about accidentally pooping too close to the AT (and not caring).

The three of us left the shelter and headed for summit. After taking in a nice view I began the four-mile, 3,000 foot descent to the Tye River. The trail was rocky and steep, halting the momentum I had gained so far.

I eventually spilled out onto VA 56 and sat down to have a quick snack. McDoubles was already relaxing in the parking lot – Savage showed up just a few minutes behind me. They quickly left to make the three-mile ascent to Harper’s Creek – a potential camp for the night.

I left the road crossing at 4:00 and crossed the Tye River suspension bridge on my way up to camp. I made good time too – I arrived at Harper’s Creek to find Savage and McDoubles setting up in the shelter.

It was just after 5:00 when I set my pack down on the shelter floor. I was surprised there were no other hikers either in the shelter or tenting nearby. It was decided – this would be the second time I slept in a shelter (third if you count the abandoned Lindamood School).

I made a quick dinner and hung an amazing bear bag over Harper’s Creek before settling down to write.

* * *

Trail rumor calls for rain all day tomorrow with a high near 60. I should be just fine (probably uncomfortable though) hiking in that weather. Good news is I’ve got a change of dry socks and underwear.

I need to get an early start if I want to make it the 27 miles to Waynesboro. After a quick hitch into town, I can tent and shower at the YMCA for free – if I get into town early enough, I can go ahead and take care of my food resupply. I need a good four to five days to get me through the Shenandoahs and into either Luray or Front Royal, VA.

One benefit to sleeping in a shelter is that I can pack very quickly in the morning – no tent to mess with.

I’m looking forward to the Shenandoahs – I’ll more than likely get to see a bear for the first time. As the AT follows the Skyline Drive for a large section, I’ll get to stop at wayside grills and convenience stores from time to time.

Breakfast: 20 gram Powerbar protein bar (peanut butter flavored), third of a bag of dried tropical fruits, Sierra Mix Clif Bar

Snack: third of a bag of dried tropical fruits, one everything bagel, beef jerky, almonds

Lunch: almonds, beef flavored ramen with tuna and instant mashed potatoes, one everything bagel

Snack: the last of the dried tropical fruits, half of an everything bagel, beef jerky

Dinner: pad thai with tuna and a squirt of Savage’s Velveeta cheese, the other half of the everything bagel

Day 67 – Sunday, May 15: Damascus, VA to US 60 (Buena Vista, VA) to Hog Camp Gap, 6.3 miles, 812.4 total AT miles

.I woke up ready to go. I mean ready. Trail Days really took a lot out of me. Instead of relaxing as much as possible, I was constantly on the move for two days straight. I stretched out on my new inflatable sleeping pad and started packing up. 

The four of us were ready to go by 8:30am. We cleaned up our small camp and took the trash over to Tent City before heading over to the rental car. On the way, we ran into Push – she was also ready to go and waiting for her ride to pick her up.

She’s about a half-day ahead – we all planned to meet up sometime after reaching Waynesboro. And that was it – Trail Days was officially over for us. The four of us hopped in the car and Black Santa started driving north. I fell asleep in the front seat.

We stopped twice, once for gas (and a sandwich) and again in Roanoke to mail my winnings home (McDoubles also sent his new pack home). We arrived in Lexington, VA at noon and dropped off the rental.

I walked over to the Food Lion to buy a few snacks for the days ahead and eventually met Black Santa and Savage at a Pizza Hut (McDoubles chose to go to McDonalds). The three of us charged our phones and ate.

At 3:00pm, the four of us headed outside to hitch the 10 miles to Buena Vista. It took about 20 minutes, but we finally caught a ride. We were dropped off just outside of Buena Vista and immediately caught another ride to the trail head. We started hiking at 4:30pm.

We were all ready to be back on the trail – it felt like I was coming back from a vacation of sorts and ready to get back to my normal life (of hiking on mountains and sleeping in the woods).

The trail continued with the difficult little ascent of Bald Knob I started four days ago before hitching into Buena Vista. It was brutal – my legs were killing me. I could tell I hadn’t been hiking in a while. It took me two hours to climb the four miles to the summit. I stopped at the top and enjoyed a snack.

Savage had been hiking in the lead all day – she’s getting off trail for a few days next weekend and wants to get ahead of us before doing so (it’ll make it easier on her to catch up when she gets back). Black Santa and McDoubles were also ahead of me as well. I made the quick hike over to Cole Mountain all alone.

Cole Mountain is a bald – the first I’ve run across in quite a while. The weather was nice – maybe a little cool and breezy, but with nice blue skies. I slowed my pace and really enjoyed hiking through the tall grass.

I eventually made it down to Hog Camp Gap. I had been hiking well ever since summiting Bald Knob and felt like I wanted to press on. I walked down to the campsites and didn’t see Savage, Black Santa or McDoubles – they must have pushed further. It was already 7:00 and starting to get colder. I decided to stop there and set up. I didn’t want to get caught hiking in the dark with the temperature dropping like it was.

I quickly set up my tent and pre-hung my bear bag before cooking dinner. After dinner, I chatted with a small group of hikers by the campfire before returning to my tent.

* * *

Tomorrow, I’d like to put up some big miles. I’m 49 miles outside of Waynesboro and would like to arrive Wednesday morning for a quick resupply.

I like my new pack a lot – the Osprey AG is a lot more comfortable than my Gregory Z65. And I’m beginning to enjoy my tent. It’s a little heavier, but is a lot roomier. 

Right now, I’m wearing my Walmart sweatpants and my rain jacket over my hiking shorts and t-shirt – I’m typing all bundled up in my sleeping bag. The forecast calls for high winds and temps in the mid-30s when I wake up. I’m plenty warm now – I hope this new sleeping pad works out.

The next few days should be interesting. While the majority of hikers got off the trail for Trail Days, many didn’t. I didn’t recognize a single hiker on the trail or at camp today. I suppose I’ll have an opportunity to meet some new folks.

I’m really happy to be back on the AT.

Breakfast (Kroger): Ham and cheese sub

Lunch (Pizza Hut): one “giant slice” with pepperoni

Snack: Sierra Mix Clif Bar, one everything bagel, smoked almonds

Dinner: Mac and cheese with two tuna packets

Day 66 – Saturday, May 14: Damascus, VA, Trail Days, 806.1 total AT miles.

Note: I’m writing this from camp on Sunday night. And thanks to McDoubles for sending me his pics so I could use them here.

I woke feeling refreshed. A light rain had fallen and I was dry. It was pretty cold outside. I checked my phone – it was working fine, but the screen was a little foggy. I put on the awesome sweatpants and sweater combo I bought from Wal-mart and set off for the toilets.

I returned to camp and found Shaggy and Black Santa mulling around. I ate a lot of food yesterday – there was so much I couldn’t remember it all. It seemed like every couple hundred feet I’d run into someone cooking something.

I hoped today would be similar. We left camp heading in the opposite direction of Mellow Camp, crossed a few streams, and wound up in Riff-Raff, another hiker camp. These guys were great – they pretty much pulled us off trail to bring us over to their breakfast spread. I stuffed myself. We left with a parting gift – Riff-Raff wristbands (we’re Trail Days “Royalty” now).

After breakfast we wandered over to the gear vendors, hoping to enter more contests. I renewed my subscription to the ATC and bought some baked goods for a snack. Shaggy and I tagged our spots on a giant elevation profile posted for hikers by the folks from the AT Data Guide.

I was able to make a few calls when, on my way back to camp, my phone slipped out of my hands – and right into a small stream. I grabbed it quickly and turned it off just to be safe. It went back in the couscous.

Note: I really can’t believe I haven’t had worse luck with my phone – today was certainly an exception. Lots of hikers are on their second phones already. Black Santa just cracked his screen and will be on his third phone in one month.

I decided to head downtown. Leaving the vendor area, I turned north on the main street in town, once again following the AT. I was looking for Push and Savage – they were headed to the hiker parade. I made it to the staging area and wandered through the crowds of hikers looking for a familiar face.

The staging area was kind of neat. Different classes of hikers lined up under banners proclaiming the year they through hiked. I still couldn’t find anyone and decided to leave before the parade itself got started.

I started heading back to camp when I ran back into Shaggy. He had been at the library charging his phone. He told me he made a decision – there were too many Shaggy’s on the trail and he wanted a new name. I had been telling him he should be called “McDoubles” for a while now and was pleased to hear he wanted to start going by that.

As the two of us walked down the street, we noticed more and more people were lining the sidewalks. Police officers had starting blocking traffic for the parade – we took advantage of the clear streets and kept walking along.

Pretty soon, it became evident that the parade had started several blocks behind us – I could see flashing lights and could hear cheering. In a way, Shaggy and I ended up in the parade after all, just at the very, very front.

We turned off the road and headed over to the gear vendors once again. We ran into Black Santa – he was waiting near the Backpacker magazine raffle. It was the last raffle of the day and one of the best by far.

The three of us sat behind the tent with Champa and Get Wierd (apparently they’re tenting near us). The sales rep starting calling hiker names – he was giving away some awesome gear. He held up one of the grand prizes – a new Deuter pack stuffed full of free gear.

At first I was confused – he called “McDoubles” and Black Santa started screaming. Then it dawned on me – Shaggy, I mean McDoubles, just won! I was pretty happy for the guy.

The three of us started tearing through his pack when I heard the sales rep call out “Cool Dad” – I was the next winner. My prize wasn’t nearly as cool as McDouble’s, but it felt pretty good to win.

The three of us headed back to camp to check out our stuff. Earlier in the day, the sales rep from Gregory (that same guy I met on Max Patch) gave me a Gregory day pack. I had piles of stickers and small hiking stuff (carabiners, Chapstick). I played around with the water filter, titanium poop shovel, dehydrated meals, and pocket knife I won from the Backpacker drawing.

It was getting late and I was starting to get hungry. I walked over to the food vendors and bought a pound of pork and a sleeve of buns. I also grabbed a small pizza from a food truck and headed back to camp to eat.

After dinner, the three of us walked downtown with another small group of hikers tenting near us. We made our way to the pub and thoroughly enjoyed watching drunk hikers sing karaoke – it was well worth it.

We made our way back to camp to relax before tonight’s festivities got underway. I emerged from my tent to find Black Santa eager to explore. I told him all about getting lost last night and he assured me we’d stick together.

We wandered from camp to camp, hanging out at Riff-Raff and in Billville for a while. The owner of the Four Pines hostel had just gotten married and was having a huge party to celebrate.

There’s only so much Trail Days one can take. By 11:00 or so, the novelty had worn off – I was having fun for sure, but was getting a little tired from all the constant stimulation. I made my way back to camp and went to sleep.

Trail Days was overwhelming. I’m really thankful I went – I won a lot of free stuff. But it’s massive. I didn’t even visit half of the camps or have a chance to hang out with half of the people I wanted to. If I do return to represent the Class of 2016 or grill burgers for hikers, I’m definitely taking more than two days.

Breakfast: Blueberry pancakes stuffed with chopped ham

Snack: small loaf of banana nut bread

Lunch: grilled pork with homemade pickles

Dinner: one pound of barbecue pork, 2 buns, 8 inch pizza

Day 65 – Friday, May 13: Damascus, VA, Trail Days, 806.1 total AT miles.

Note: I’m writing this post from a Pizza Hut near Lexington, VA. We just returned the rental and are about to hitch to the trail head near Buena Vista.

I woke up wet – not just a little wet, but absolutely drenched. My phone was laying face down in a puddle. Apparently, I accidentally left a vent open on my rainfly and the rain water ran down my tent walls and started pooling on the floor.

I grabbed my phone. Despite the fact that it was in a Lifeproof case, it was obviously wet and wouldn’t turn on. I plugged it in to charge and threw it in a bag of couscous to help it dry out. Not a good start to my day.

After a good half hour of cleaning up the puddle and drying off my gear, I finally stepped out of my tent. I was surrounded by tents – it kind of reminded my of some of the campsites I made early on in this hike. Aside from the trail that wanders through the woods, there wasn’t a single space left to pitch a tent.

Savage was already up and jogging. Shaggy grabbed my wet clothes (he still needed to do laundry) and Black Santa and I set off to explore Trail Days.

I walked past Mellow Camp and made my way to the toilets next to Tent City. After a quick bathroom break, Black Santa and I walked over to the gear vendor tents. It was so cool – nearly every major manufacturer was present. I chatted with the rep from Gregory (we actually met on the trail just shy of Max Patch). Shaggy met up with us and the three of us started entering contests – it seemed like everybody was trying to win free gear.

I started chatting with a rep from Mammut, a clothing manufacturer, and Klymate, a sleeping pad company. I told him about my website and who I was hiking with. He gave me a brand new hiking shirt and sleeping pad after promising to send him some photos of us hiking in his gear once we get back on the AT. Awesome!

I returned to my tent to change and check on my phone. No dice – it still didn’t turn on. We met Savage back at camp – she had exciting news. Push, who was originally 99% sure she wasn’t going to Trail Days, had just gotten a hitch and was heading to meet us.

I left camp and walked over to the food vendors – I was getting really hungry. After lunch, I made my way over to another section of gear vendors and entered more contests.

Throughout the day, I kept running into hikers I knew. I hung out with Moon Boots and Canuck for a while – they’re still hiking together and are doing pretty good.

As afternoon drug into evening, the parties really started ramping up. I walked from campfire to campfire meeting people and hanging out. It was starting to get late when I realized I was lost. Trail Days is that big. I wandered around in the woods looking for Mellow Camp for about an hour.

I finally found a police officer and asked if he knew where I was. He pointed me in the right direction and I soon found my tent. I instantly checked my phone – it still wasn’t turning on.

After chatting with Black Santa about our plans for tomorrow, I fell asleep.

Breakfast: 20 gram Powerbar protein bar (peanut butter flavored)

Lunch: gigantic grilled chicken burrito

Dinner: the rest of my grilled chicken burrito

Day 64 – Thursday, May 12: Buena Vista, VA to Damascus, VA, Zero Day, 801.9 total AT miles.

I woke up fairly early for having stayed in a bed last night. I didn’t sleep well. Sometimes, I’m surprised at the quality I find in cheap motels (The Grand Prix in Gatlinburg comes to mind) – the Budget Inn in Buena Vista, VA sits on the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m pretty sure I slept on a cot.

Savage, Black Santa and myself were packed and ready to go by 8:30. Our car would be ready between 10:00 and 11:00 – we had a few hours to kill. After a quick stop at the post office to mail home the very last of my winter gear, I walked across the street to have breakfast at TNT’s, a friendly neighborhood diner.

The food was exceptional – I ate heartily and had a homemade donut for dessert. After breakfast, the three of us waited outside for a shuttle to the rental car facility. It didn’t take long for the shuttle to arrive and, before I knew it, I was driving to Trail Days.

But we had to make a few stops first. I first drove south to Glasgow, VA to pick up Shaggy – he had just eaten and was very excited to see us. He threw his pack in the rental and we began the long drive to Richmond, VA to finally go to an REI.

I was excited – we arrived at 3:30pm. I only spent an hour in the store, but was able to get a lot done. I returned my Black Diamond trekking poles (broken tip), Outdoor Research hat (too hot), REI brand puffy jacket (too heavy), REI Dash 2 tent (broken rainfly) and Gregory Z65 pack (broken buckle and too big for my torso).

I ended up getting new Black Diamond poles (this time with cork handles), an REI Quarter Dome 2 tent, and an Osprey Anti-Gravity pack – this pack is awesome. It fits well and actually packs better than my Gregory.

We left at 4:30 and started driving to Damascus. Because we drove all the way to Richmond, we now had to backtrack back to Buena Vista before heading south to Damascus.

About two hours of driving later, we stopped at a Wal-Mart near Waynesboro to buy a few things for Trail Days. I needed a cheap pair of sweat pants and a sweater – the forecast called for overnight lows in the upper 30s with rain. This would be the third time the weather got cold after having sent the bulk of my winter gear home.

By 8:00pm, we were back on the road and finally heading towards Trail Days. It was raining and I was getting tired – Black Santa ended up driving the last leg of the journey. At 11:00pm, we arrived. Black Santa parked the rental and the four of us set off in the dark to find campsites.

We finally found an area big enough just behind the baseball fields and made camp.

I’m in my tent and listening to a light rain fall. I’m really glad I bought those sweats – it’s really cold out tonight.

I have no idea where I’m at – all I know is that we hiked past Tent City and followed a trail to a sign that said Mellow Camp. I turned right. Hikers are tenting in the woods all around us. Tomorrow looks like it’s gonna be a lot of fun.

Breakfast: 3 pieces of French toast, breakfast burger (with an extra sausage patty), one donut, coffee

Lunch: burger and tater tots

Dinner: almonds, 20 gram Powerbar protein bar

Day 63 – Wednesday, May 11: Stealth Camp to US 60 (Buena Vista, VA), 4.2 miles, 806.1 total AT miles

I woke up late – those consecutive 20-pluses over rough terrain had finally gotten to me. My right thigh was especially stiff as I silently started packing at 7:00am.

I emerged to retrieve our food bags and broke camp. I sat by the stream as first Push, then Savage, then Black Santa made their way down to eat breakfast.

The four of us started hiking late (8:30), but with a purpose. Push had new shoes waiting at a hostel miles ahead – the rest of us would stop short and hitch into town.

After passing the Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, the AT begins a steep ascent towards Bald Knob – thankfully, I’d only have to make a quarter of that before hitting the road crossing.

Push led with Black Santa and I dragging behind, Savage just a little behind us. I expected to see Push again at US 60, but I ran into her about a half mile away from the road crossing.
She had just run a huge frog. This thing was massive – like if you needed a big frog for a film set, you’d want this guy. I touched it.

Push tapped its back legs with her trekking poles and it started doing push-ups. Incredible.

Believe it or not, this frog was a 20 minute distraction. I took my pack off for this frog – it was that cool.

It was nearly 10:00 before the four of us made it to US 60. After promising to catch up (it’ll happen), Push made her way north and the three of us started trying to hitch into town.

After about an hour, we finally got lucky – a guy pulled over and took us to town. We immediately booked a room at the Budget Inn. Savage started our laundry and we all took our turns in the shower.

It felt so good to be clean and put on clean clothes. Savage and Black Santa walked to the Chinese restaurant while I talked on the phone – I can’t tell you how good it feels to reconnect after a week in the woods.

I made my way to the Dollar General for a new USB charging cable and Febreeze. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at the Burger King for first dinner.

It was 4:00 and I still needed to call REI to make sure I’d have no problems returning my tent and pack – I was assured it wouldn’t be a problem. I also confirmed our rental car for tomorrow before heading to Burger King for second dinner.

I ate more than I should and shuffled over to my bed to write. I just called Shaggy (thankfully he’s tenting on a ridge about 30 miles behind us and has cell reception) to let him know I have a car and will pick him up sometime tomorrow for Trail Days.

Moon Boots and Canuck are 80 miles behind in Daleville, VA and have already procured a shuttle to Damascus – I can’t wait to see those two.

I still hope my not being able to reach Medicine Man is a fluke – I hope he’s getting back on trail.

I’ve been hiking with Black Santa for a while now and have just received permission (from him) to fill you in on why he’s been hiking with us. For the past two years, he’s been competing section hikes of the AT – this year his plan was to hike from Damascus to Harper’s Ferry.

That was his plan.

It took me 11 months to prepare for this thing – he made the decision to hike all the way to Maine a few days ago and has been working out the logistics ever since. Today, he approached me and said he was good to go – he has better opportunities waiting for him in Austin, TX.

Today, the trail family officially grew one hiker larger. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Breakfast: one powdered donut, 20 gram Powerbar protein bar (peanut butter flavored)

Lunch: Bacon Double Cheeseburger from Burger King (via Black Santa).

Snack: the rest of my Dot’s Pretzels

Dinner: 10 piece nuggets, Bacon Double Cheeseburger from Burger King

Second Dinner: 10 piece nuggets Bacon Double Cheeseburger from Burger King, two plain burgers (dollar menu-sized).