days 23-31: the priest to thunderhill shelter

Day 23: Roanoke to The Priest Shelter
The toe is definitely broken. 

It’s been a slow recovery from the food poisoning, and having Sar Tec take care of me and my poor bruised toe has been…well, probably more than I deserve. 
But on Day 22, New Years Eve, Lil Popcorn Hat told us that he wasn’t getting back on trail until Monday; two more days off trail. Ok, I thought. I can write that off as time I need to ice my toe and finish recovering from food poisoning. 
But then Sar Tec had a family emergency and had to fly home, and I was left with the prospect of being alone in a hotel room for two days or getting myself back on trail somehow. 
I talked it over with Sar Tec. Y’all know what I decided on. 
I called Homer, a trail angel and shuttle driver, and in 20 minutes I was saying goodbye to Sar Tec. 
The climb up the priest was steep but well-switchbacked. It’s a definite 4 miles to the top, and my full resupply and broken toe slowed me down. I just don’t recommend hiking it at night or in crocs. 

Or with a broken toe. 

But I got to the shelter and was greeted by a friendly crowd of hikers- Rain Gear and Beth and their dog Winnie, and Just Will and his friend who’s name I’ve forgotten. We had a great time, and I went to bed missing my trail family, but happy I was on trail, 4000 feet above sea level, with strangers who were quickly becoming friends. 
Miles: 4.7
MVP: Sar Tec’s crocs

LVP: broken toe 
Day 24: the Priest Shelter to Seely Woodworth Shelter
I watched the sunrise on the first day of 2017. My toe throbbed and my nose ran and the cold wind snapped at my face, but I felt at home. 

I stayed at the shelter talking and packing until noon. Lazy. 

And then a quick 6.6 miles later (it was not quick, and it was not easy), I arrived at the shelter. 

My socks were wet. At one point there was an odd assortment of rocks across the trail. “I bet this is a creek crossing the rest of the year,” I thought, just as my foot sank deep into wet leaves, soaking my double layers of socks with cold water. 
I was only a mile from the shelter by then. 
Usually, the AT delights in taking you over and then back down every tiny hill in sight. Today, for whatever reason, bless it, I went AROUND this hill. And then over the next one of course. 

Once I made it here, I went down an unnecessarily long blue blaze for water. It was piped but the pipe wasn’t running. I civil engineered that thing into a gushing flow though. So talented. Just go ahead and give me that civil degree too, TTU. 

I was feeling pretty low and lonely as dinner was cooking when Rabbit, a sobo we met in the Shenandoahs, came in to the shelter. I thought he was ahead but he’d had food poisoning too! It was nice to chat with him tonight. 
Miles: 6.6
MVP: piped springs skills

LVP: I miss my trail family 
Day 25: seely woodworth to brown mountain shelter
Rabbit and I woke up together. “Is it morning?” We couldn’t tell. In the heavy fog it could be 3 am or 7am. 
It was 7am. 
We had breakfast and discussed plans for the day (heading to Brown Mountain Shelter). And soon I headed out. 

I was slow and a little sad. I stopped frequently. My toe hurt. My knees hurt. My back hurt. The random side of my left leg hurt. 
That’s not to say that the trail wasn’t pretty. It was. 

I just wasn’t feeling it today. 

Lil popcorn hat texted that he was back on trail and would catch up as soon as possible. And then sar tec texted that he’d be back on trail Wednesday and would shuttle to wherever we were. That helped some- I needed my community. 
But the day still seemed long. 
I did eventually get to a section I hadn’t been sure I’d get to hike. Until a few days before I left for the trail, several miles of this section had been closed due to a forest fire. It had been burning for weeks, and I’d been watching it carefully. 
I was happy to walk through it. I’ve walked through a lot of burned areas. It’s sad when fires are caused by arson or carelessness, but fires are a natural way of renewing the forest and making way for new plants. New growth will pop up faster than you can imagine. 

Then I had 6 miles to go, and 4 of those were a steep downhill that nearly had me in tears. And nearly had me calling my parents to come get me. Hiking in crocs is no joke, kids. And hiking with a broken toe is fine for about 10 miles, and then it’s sheer misery. 
The trail flattened out after that, and I met up with Rabbit again. We walked along Browns Creek, where a community of freed slaves once lived. We looked at the stone walls and some ruins of a home, and wondered if the community got a fair price when they sold their land to the Forest Service. And also wondered how anyone farmed on these steep slopes. 

The shelter was waiting for us, and I changed into dry clothes, as is my habit now, and retaped my toe. Rabbit and I sat and ate together, then had those conversations you tend to have at night- how’d you end up here, what makes you who you are, etc. It was a good night. An exceptionally good night. 
Despite my throbbing feet, I look forward to tomorrow. And that, my friends, is why you never leave the trail on a bad day. 
Miles: 15.8
MVP: me! I hiked 16 miles in the rain in freaking crocs!
LVP: that downhill
Day 26: brown mountain shelter to punchbowl shelter
We woke up to rain. I wasn’t about to jump on the trail in crocs in pouring rain, especially not for a short 10 mile day (or whatever it was supposed to be), so I made coffee (Starbucks white chocolate mocha and a packet of hot chocolate…does that even count as coffee?) and read while rabbit wrote. 

I said something about what a nice, lazy morning it was. “It’s not lazy. You’re resting. The work will be done by the end of the day, won’t it? What does it matter if you rest now or later?” Rabbit had a point, I guessed, but I told him I still felt like I should get the work done before I took rest. “You’re awfully hard on yourself, aren’t you? You were beating yourself up for not doing 20 mile days with a broken toe in crocs, but you’re still out here hiking, doing 15 mile days. That’s amazing! And it’s almost like you don’t really see that.” I thought maybe he had a point. It felt so much like failure, to know that I wouldn’t hike all 588.8 miles that I’d intended to, that I couldn’t see that just hiking at all right now was good enough. 
Maybe it’s time to slow down and forget about 588.8 miles, just for this section. Maybe I just do the miles that make sense for the day, and feel good about that. 
Anyways. Enough of Birthday Girl’s feelings journal. This isn’t Tumblr, after all. 
I hiked, and I was glad that I’d come up with a sock-grocery bag-sock system; my feet were warm when I came into the shelter. 

The day had been full of moss- ok, that sounds stupid, but hear me out. There were so many different kinds of moss– brain looking moss, starburst moss, carpet moss, tiny baby fern moss…I kept stopping to look at it and touch it and it was just so nice to see it again. I don’t know why it seemed so different from what I’d been hiking through recently, but it was beautiful. 

Miles: 9.5
MVP: bread

LVP: out of bread
Day 27: Punchbowl shelter to Glasgow Free Shelter
It was cold again. And there was another incredible sunrise. 

I walked alone most of the day, and it was nice. Nice for a lot of reasons- but mainly because I’d hiked this before, a few months ago, with Bent. And despite the broken toe and the crocs, it was all easier now. It’s good to have trail legs. 

Rabbit and I walked the last few miles together, then met our shuttle into town. I intended to just do a quick fuel and lunch resupply then pop out of town to Matts Creek Shelter with Sar Tec to meet up with Popcorn Hat, so I didn’t want to spend an hour trying to hitch. Plus the shuttle driver sold fuel. 

We got into town and found Sar Tec stacking wood at the free shelter, conveniently located just behind the only restaurant in town. We ate a delicious lunch, then headed to the laundromat. I washed my feet and evaluated the toe to show Sar Tec. Still broken. 

Dinner and a fire and a quick resupply later, we were charging electronics in the shelter and deciding not to go back on trail. Well, that decision had been made earlier, and we’d texted Popcorn Hat, but evidently he didn’t get the message in time. 
It was a cold night, but I was glad to have Sar Tec back on trail. 
Miles: 10.7
MVP: awesome honey mustard at Scottos

LVP: Not a great laundromat bathroom situation
Day 28: Glasgow to thunder hill shelter

We ran out of town and straight to Matts Creek to find Popcorn Hat. He was there, still unpacked, claiming he’d almost died of hypothermia last night. 
We snacked and chatted and waited approximately 20 hours for him to pack his bag. In that time, 100 (or 19) women known as the Happy Hikers descended on the shelter. Sar Tec was in his element. 

We hiked up bluff mountain and it started snowing. And kept snowing. It was beautiful but…cold. 

Rabbit caught up with us after waiting for a package to be delivered this morning. 

I climbed a mountain in crocs. 
And when we finally got to the shelter, we were frozen, cold, and all smiling. 
We cooked dinner and laughed and made hot chocolate…it was perfect. 

Miles: 14.4
MVP: snow

LVP: snow
Day 29: thunderhill shelter zero
You know what? We woke up and it was cold and there was more snow and we all had enough food to just stay here for a day, so we did. We made lots of tea and grilled cheese on the fire and the boys made a bow and arrow and it was one of the best days of my life. 

Miles: 0
MVP: grilled cheese

LVP: no s’mores 😦
Day 30: double zero at thunderhill shelter
I woke up to wet things on my face. “Something wet is falling on my face.” 
“It’s probably just your frozen breath falling off your sleeping bag.” 
I sat up. “No. it’s snowing inside the shelter and there’s like 5 inches of snow outside.” 

We all sat up in our sleeping bags and stared. That was a lot of snow. It was really cold, and still snowing– a lot. We made coffee. We sat and evaluated the food situation. “One more zero, then we hike 14 to those cabins or Buchanan so we can be off trail for the coldest day.” 

One more zero it was. 
Mid-afternoon, Raingear and his dad, Graybush, showed up. They brought with them trail magic: double stuff oreos, pastries, sour jelly beans, and a summer sausage. We ate it all, quickly. The sausage we saved for dinner. 
Raingear and Graybush had been camping a shelter or two over, then came to see if we were at Thunderhill. They were going to tent that night, then offered to drive us down to town if we needed to resupply or whatever. Incredible trail magic. 
We enjoyed the rest of the day, me with my toe propped up and reading on Sar Tec’s book, the boys building a giant snowman and trying to shoot it with their bow and arrows… and then cooking a giant communal meal with the leftovers of our food bags. It was delicious. 

We snuggled up together after another perfect zero spent in the woods together. Our trail family- Cult of the Hot Rocks. 
Miles: ZERO
MVP: summer sausage 

LVP: sleeping with fuel canisters is the WORST
Day 31: thunderhill shelter to Bedford, VA
The thing about winter hiking is this: cold weather is fun down to freezing, and maybe even the teens. It’s cold, it’s rough, but you can still do things and have fun and not feel miserable. 
At zero and below zero, fuel canisters barely work, so you have to sleep with them. As soon as you use it, you can literally get frostbite from touching it, because they get colder when you use it. 
Your water freezes constantly. Even if you sleep with it, when you take it out to drink it, the water in the lid will freeze, so you never et the kid on back again. 
You have to sleep with batteries and phones and medicines and wet socks and fuel canisters and, in our trail family, a hot rock from the fire, and there’s so much stuff in your sleeping bag that turning over feels like flipping an overstuffed-omelette and you’re the omelette. 
The entire top part of your sleeping bag freezes from your breath into hard pieces of ice. 
You’ll wake up and dig through your food bag for coffee and hot chocolate, then warm your fingers in your bag for 10 minutes before you can pour it in the water. 3 sips before your hands go back in the bag. 
Packing up means constantly moving your feet to keep feeling in your toes. 
It’s rough, is what I mean. 
And that’s what we slept in last night. A beautiful clear, cold, windy night. 

We packed up, and I took 15 minutes to shove my broken toe into a frozen trail runner (Sar tec had been playing in my shoes the past two days, since his boots were hopelessly frozen and our entire family wears the same size shoe). 
I left the shelter to hike in the deep snow to the blue ridge parkway, then road walk there (this section was plowed due to a huge comm tower) to Graybush’s truck. It was a soft dry powder, and with two good feet and maybe just a touch warmer air it would have been glorious. 

It was a few miles on the blue ridge. We’d heard a coyote last night and saw the tracks of several all down the road. Turkeys too. The woods had seemed so dead recently that it was nice to see the tracks. 
We made it to the truck and brushed it off, then piled in. Raingear took the bed with our packs, and I took the front with the heater and Graybush at the wheel. 

The forest service road they’d taken up was slick and steep in places. Some four wheelers had been up having fun. Most of the drive was fine, but there was one hill with two sharp turns where…well, Raingear bailed out of the back of the truck (while it was moving) and none of us could believe the insane rally skills Graybush had. 
We made it down though, all happy to be alive and together and laughing. 

Graybush and Raingear dropped us off at a Super8, and we did hiker things- food and resupply and showers. I took my first shower of 2017! It was a good one. 

Hopefully we’ll be back on trail soon, and by Wednesday we should be back up in the 50s. Winter in the south, huh?
I can’t tell you how much I’ve loved every day of this hike. 

9 days no shower! (The front desk gave us lots of extra towels lol)

Miles: .2 on the AT (3 or 4 total I guess)

MVP: Tostitos and jalapeño cheddar dip

LVP: shoving my foot in that frozen trail runner 

3 thoughts on “days 23-31: the priest to thunderhill shelter

  1. Crazy schedule this year with lots of travel with work so I saved reading this until I had time to savor it and picture myself on this hike as I read the details…

    Wow! There is so much I could comment on and ask questions but I’ll save some for another time. The pics were gorgeous! There one was trail that was lined on both sides with bright green (moss maybe, not sure) and it seemed to welcome the hiker down its’ path. Noticed some roots across the trail and I’m thinking if that broken toe were to accidentally hit a root, I cringed just thinking about the potential for pain, lol.

    The shelter in which you woke up and it was snowing inside, WOW. The snow pics were so beautiful though. I actually felt cold and start to shiver while reading and looking at the pics. When I see a girl bundled up in cold weather, I go yeah, it’s cold but when I saw the guys bundled up too, I was like OMG, it most have been an artic freeze!

    Glad you made the beautiful but challenging hike even when alone. Was happy to know that you and your trail family were able to reconnect.

    P.S – who knew that crocs could function as long distance hiking shoes/boots and accommodate a broken toe at that. Love your ingenuity!

    Liked by 1 person

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