Back from our trip up to McAfee Knob that afternoon, and after a trip to filter water, we set about making dinner. I was having Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles; Lisa had chosen Chili Mac with Beef. Lisa found it to be “filling and tasty … and great!” She also used the word “bangin'”. The Stroganoff was very good as well – I got a bit too much water in mine so it was a little soupy, but still a great meal.
Once we had finished supper and tidied up camp, we started the hike back up to the Knob for sunset. At 6:50 P.M. the cliffs were happily devoid of phone-obsessed young folks. Shortly after we arrived, we were joined by an Environment and Natural Resources major named Ben. We had met him earlier at the shelter and discovered that he was on spring break from Ohio State. Ben had driven out from the Buckeye State that morning and hiked in from the south.
We chatted as we waited for the sun to set. When it finally slipped below the western mountains, and we felt we had carpe’d all the diem out of that particular day, we headed back down to camp. Ben accompanied us back, where we sat around the picnic table, shared some bourbon, and swapped some stories from the trail. Ben shared an anecdote regarding unprepared hikers from a 2014 Grand Canyon trip with his parents.
A father and his two children hiked down into the canyon with no gear whatsoever. They carried nothing but a single twelve-ounce, store-bought water bottle each. They had apparently done zero research and expected to find some manner of lodging or services in the canyon. Maybe an escalator back to the parking lot? Realizing they were facing a long cold night without so much as a blanket they called search and rescue and all but demanded a helicopter to whisk them back to their car. The park service wasn’t having it, and they were denied an easy out. Rather than expend costly and critical resources on fools and their foolery, a lone, armed ranger was sent to escort them up and out … on foot.
Bet that was a pleasant stroll.
The conversation on unprepared hikers wrapped up with a slightly sheepish admission from Ben that he had misjudged the amount of water he would need and had not packed a filter. So, when the bourbon (and the anecdotes) ran out, we happily topped off Ben’s water supply from our own and, thanking us, he headed for his own camp a couple of hundred yards down the trail. No helicopters were called.
The forest was enveloped in an inky blackness and stars twinkled in the velvet sky as we prepared to turn in for the night. Well, that’s how we imagined backcountry camping on the Appalachian Trail, but as I mentioned in Part One, the Pig Farm Campground looks out over Roanoke City. The lights of Roanoke, 10 miles to the southeast, were not an unpleasant sight and we had become accustomed to their shimmer through the trees that surrounded our campsite. Nonetheless, after 15 minutes in the tent getting settled, we clicked off the headlamp that hung in the tent and I immediately exclaimed, “Where the hell is all that light coming from!?”. Lisa, who had apparently been prepared for this, replied,”Roanoke”. “No!” I said and unzipped the door of the tent to peer out. As usual she was right. I zipped the door back up thinking that it couldn’t have been brighter if a street light had been mounted in the middle of the campground. We set our alarms and zipped into our bags.
When the alarms went off at 4:30am we were conflicted. Sleep had come in fits and starts, so while we were feeling less than fully rested, we were also eager to be on our way and were looking forward to a bit of night hiking. We managed to break camp (tent struck, bear bag collected, and packs packed) in about 30 minutes. With Pop-Tarts in hand and headlamps blazing, we set out for Tinker Cliffs in the dark. It was 5:00 am and the winds were strong from the west.
Navigating on a woodland trail can sometimes be tricky. It can be easy to lose the path or to turn onto a side trail. Fortunately the Appalachian Trail is one of the best-marked trails in the United States, with blazes nearly every hundred yards. We were especially apprehensive about staying on course in the dark but found that the blazes really popped in the light from our headlamps. It was not that much different than navigating in the daytime. We did suspect that, having lost the trail, the darkness would significantly reduce the chances of easily finding it again so, on the few occasions when we felt unsure of our course, we employed a system of leaving one of us stationary at a point we knew was on the path and sending the other ahead to look for a blaze. This worked well and we made far better time than we had expected. For the most part, other than the wind, the only sound was the crunch and swish of our feet through dry leaves, which were, at times, 12″ – 16″ deep on the trail. Occasionally the trees would creak and groan and a few times we heard mysterious animal calls.
At one point the light of Lisa’s headlamp fell upon a magical sight. Faeries fluttered around a gnarled twig-like tree just off the trail. Upon closer inspection the faeries were silver Christmas ornaments. Someone had randomly decorated a small tree, a surreal sight in the middle of the dark Virginia woods!
For an hour and a half we hiked in the pitch, branches tugging at our clothes and packs. Rock formations loomed out of the blackness like specters in the night. By the time the pre-dawn light began to filter through the trees, we had covered roughly four miles and were nearing Tinker Cliffs. As we pushed up the last incline to the cliffs, the sun erupted from the eastern mountains in a blaze of yellow and red; the forest around us was ablaze in golden light. We stood and watched, happy for the respite and transfixed by March 17th’s opening act. It was St. Patrick’s Day and we were in the Blue Ridge Mountains at dawn fighting winds that, at times, threatened to knock us down. A semi-coherent toast with lukewarm, green beer seemed a sad substitute.
At first light Tinker Cliffs was every bit as fresh and unspoiled as one might expect. As the day spilled over the cliffs and filled the valley below, we wound our way along the crag, enjoying the vista but keeping back from the edge. Although the winds were gusting from the west (pushing us away from the edge), the way they buffeted us about made us feel very unstable on the exposed bluff. We had intended to take a break at the cliffs, but the relentless wind encouraged us to keep going until we dropped down off of the ridge. For the first half of the hike out, there had been no shelter from the wind. As we began our final descent it mostly abated, returning in sporadic gusts to remind us how weary we had become of its pitiless voice.
After a snack break at the rock formation where we had commented on the precarious cube, we beat the path for home in earnest. By “home” I mean the Jeep and a ride to a cup of hot coffee. In our effort to get on the trail quickly that morning we had elected not to take time to heat water and I was yearning for a cup of joe. Downhill is often harder on the body than up, but after 4400 feet of elevation gain in the last 24 hours we were happy to be descending. Soon we reached Scorched Earth Gap and turned onto the Andy Layne Trail. A little over three miles to go.
This is where the trail starts to play tricks on you. When we reached the pasture and the twin crossings of Catawba Creek, we were sure we were nearly at the trailhead. Yesterday, it had seemed the creek had come five minutes into the hike. With Catawba Creek five minutes behind us, it now seemed as if the more we walked the farther away the trailhead got. In reality it was only 0.7 miles and we made it just as the first hikers of the morning were piling out of their car. It was 10:07am and we were ready for lunch – and coffee … always coffee! ♦
Date: March 16 – 17, 2015
Location: Catawba, VA
Trailhead: 37.45754, -80.01730
Distance: 24.22 miles (total)
Elevation Gain: 4,442 feet (total)
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous