There are strangers wandering through our woods. They are anything but aimless. I’ve seen them. I’ve talked with them. They’re walking to Maine.
The other Saturday, I went for a hike on the Appalachian Trail with new friend Blake Mitnick, an optometrist who lives in Floyd. We picked a section of the Trail near Catawba, choosing it primarily for its low-elevation, scenic character. A storm was forecast for later in the day, and we didn’t want to get caught on a high ridge top if winds and rain arrived.
Before we even arrived on the trailhead, we encountered a hitchhiker carrying a backpack. We offered him a ride, but when we told him our destination was shortly ahead, he decided to continue walking. He looked as if he’d been on the trail for awhile.
We parked the car on Newport Road in Roanoke County and hiked in a southeasterly direction, but northward on the Trail. Blake was surprisingly unprepared, with neither food, water, nor a raincoat, something I scolded him for. I lent him a small water bottle and fanny-pack.
The Trail crosses a small stream immediately, and then ascends the modest Sandstone Ridge. On the descent, the Trail parallels a babbling stream, beautiful with its rows of parallel ripples. At one place, there appears to be abutments for what I assumed was a grist-mill, which used the falling water to power the grindstones. It was a place of quiet, restful beauty.
Approaching SR-785 which is Blacksburg Road in Catawba and Catawba Road near Blacksburg, the trail entered an open pasture, with excellent views of Catawba Mountain to the south and east. Catawba Mountain is undulating, with minor peaks only 2000 feet high and the high point at McAfee’s Knob (3200 feet). The view made MacAfee look impossibly distant, but by trail it was only ten miles or so away.
We had brought my daughter’s dog, Jason, with us. I let him off the leash for awhile so he could cavort through the field. This worked well for all concerned until he decided to roll around on a cow-pie.
We crossed Catawba Road, a quiet stretch of macadam, and descended to a branch of Catawba Creek, the westernmost tributary of the James River. Blake and I crossed over a nice wooden bridge while Jason skipped happily through the creek. We ascended Catawba Mountain first in a pasture, with black and white cows munching lazily, and then through the forest. We reached the summit and continued in a northeasterly direction.
After a rest break at a campsite where someone had built a lean-to shelter of sticks and branches, we found ourselves in conversation with one of the long-distance hikers. He was a young man, in his mid-twenties. He carried a pack that seemed impossibly small for what I knew he must have been carrying: tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, warm parka, cooking stove, food, water, and other accoutrements. He was from Rochester, New York, and he had his sights on the northern terminus of the Trail at Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
I’ve spoken with many thru hikers on past encounters. Invariably, they speak about the weather, as it is always an issue for them. At that moment, the weather was still pleasant: warming and dry.
Like many others I’d spoken to, this hiker said that the first three weeks were sheer torture, with constant aches and pains. “After that, my body hit its stride and my muscles didn’t seem to hurt any more.” He was traversing incredible distances, often exceeding 30 miles per day. Figuring 2.5 miles per hour, that’s 12 hours of walking! He started every morning around 8:00 a.m. and often didn’t finish until near darkness.
He said loneliness wasn’t a factor, because although he typically walked alone, there were several other hikers he’d frequently encounter at the many shelters. Still, there was a certain anonymity, as everyone used a “trail name” giving no reference to their real names.
He mentioned meeting occasional wackos, what with the Trail being unprotected and accessible to anyone who wished to walk it. But he said generally the people he met were wonderful. Often, near road crossings, “trail angels” would leave coolers full of free fruit drinks, candy, and sodas.
From my experience, most through hikers are either young, making the trek before spouses, families, and careers come their way, or sexagenarians, newly retired and still vibrant enough to deal with the extreme physical nature of the activity.
His destination that evening was Daleville, still twenty miles away, over McAfee’s Knob, around Carvins Cove, and over Tinker Mountain.
On our return to the car, the sky clouded up and quickly the rain came. I donned my raincoat, discovering that its waterproofing needed to be restored. Fortunately, the temperature was still mild. By the time I stashed my pack in the trunk and let Jason into the back seat, it was raining hard.
That evening, the temperature dropped precipitously. I thought about our friend on the trail and the upcoming day he’d spend walking in a cold rain, with his sights firmly set on Maine.