Day 67

Thursday, April 21. Mile 864, 12.9 miles/day

After dodging one more winter storm, we were back on the trail at 6:30am on April 19. The shuttle driver Mithral the Guide works a couple jobs and only had time at 6:00am to pick us up at the Motel Six in Lexington and return us to Mile 809.2 where the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Lexington had no snow on the ground, nor did we see any when we resumed our hike. As we climbed, though, it felt like Ground Hog Day. We had been here before in a cold wind and clouds scudding across a vivid blue sky. It never got warmer than the mid 30s all day. Scott layered up all he has: a zip-up fleece hoodie, a hooded rain jacket, and rain pants over his shorts. We sent home our winter gear a couple weeks ago, so he had no hat or gloves or puffy jacket. He wore his scorched Darn Tough merino wool socks on his hands and kept hiking to stay warm. He doesn’t like wind because the interference with his hearing aids makes it impossible to hear or converse. A cold wind that sucks all the warmth from his extremities is even worse.

I had the benefit of a nano puff over a windbreaker and long sleeve summer hiking shirt, summer hiking pants, and SPF sun gloves under those wonderful Costco merino wool socks. It was exhilarating to be out in the tempest and hiking through a spectacular ice sculpted landscape. We passed over some grassy balds covered in hoar frost. The freezing rain of the night before coated the trees and shrubs in ice. When the sun broke through and shone on the branches, the ice broke free and shattered on the ground like glass. Our hoods kept us warm and protected our heads from the ice blowing loose. So exciting to feel Nature’s power!

Scene from an ice storm hiking north toward Priest Mountain.

My hands were so cold and my eyes watering so much, I didn’t notice that I was taking videos instead of still photos from my iPhone. These are screen captures from the videos.

Scott and Omega, hiking hard and fast through the wind.

Ice melted and shaken loose from tree branches. What a spectacular way to see winter.

Earlier in the day, Scott said he wanted to take a short detour to the top of Spy Rock, a promontory where 5,000 Union soldiers in 1861 watched General Robert E. Lee’s troops on Sewell Mountain in West Virginia. About 4:00pm we got to the spur trail, and he was inclined to skip it, he’d had enough wind and cold for the day. For once, I was the one who wanted to take a look. When we lived in Rockville, Maryland, we visited a few Civil War battlefields, this was almost right on the AT. On the bike ride, we stopped at every historical marker. This was like an AT version.

The view from Spy Rock.

The wind slowed as the day wore on, and by day’s end, the sun was out and the snow a fading memory of a spring squall. In the late afternoon, we were hiking up a gentle grade to the Priest Shelter on Priest Mountain. I would love to know how the peak gets its name, but the Wiki entry makes no mention of that. That easy slope after all the weather drama was a nice way to end the 20.5 mile day.

When we got to the shelter, a few of our fellow hikers were there: Omega, Silver Bullet, and Dozer who we had not seen in a couple weeks. We all commiserated over the seemingly endless Appalachian winter. A hiker from Delaware who has hiked the AT in Virginia multiple times said the Priest Shelter is the coldest on the AT and often freezes into May. Scott remembers other shelters being called the coldest on the trail. Who knows?

We made a quick hot dinner of four-cheese mashed potatoes with salmon and extra cheddar, then got in our sleeping bags before sundown. A young local hiker doing a two-week stint ended up next to me. He snored so loud, he woke me up a few times. The tent would have been quieter, but maybe not as warm, and warm counts.

When we woke at 6:00am the next day, April 20, it was 27° outside. Wearing burnt socks over his cold hands, Scott managed to heat water for tea and cocoa while I huddled in my sleeping bag. Yeah, I know, entitled princess hiker. I tried to add value to his day by rolling up his sleeping pad because his fingers were too cold.

The water from the ice melting off the trees made hundreds of little prisms in the branches. Alas, my iPhone 13 mini didn’t capture that.

The descent down Priest Mountain was rough and rocky like the country western song. We stepped aside about halfway down for a group of nine or ten gray-haired hikers coming up the mountain. Anyone hiking up has the right-of-way, as Scott cheerfully informed them. Older hikers are always happy to stop and chat with us. They said they had escaped from an old folks home, but their vehicles in the parking lot at the trail head belied that. Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Subaru, Land Rover. They were well heeled and well wheeled individuals.

The rough and rocky trail down Priest Mountain.

We were enjoying the warmth and sunshine, trudging on to a peak innocuously named Three Ridges. I had checked the elevation profile that morning and noted we had a steep climb ahead, then put it out of mind. What good would it have done to brood? In fact, “steep” meant 2,241 feet of gain in 3.4 miles. Not as steep as Mount Brown Lookout in Glacier Park, but a gnarly enough push through limestone crags. I had already forgotten, we did more than 20 miles on Easter Sunday and went up more than 5,000 miles. That just goes to show, it’s the terrain and not the distance or gain.

While I was struggling up, an old man who was 75 or 80 years old with bony banged up shins was hiking down. He said he was from Wisconsin and hiking with his granddaughter. They were headed for the Priest Shelter which was about 10 miles back. I saw the granddaughter a couple minutes later sitting on a rock scrolling through her phone. She was maybe 20 and looked like a young Kate Winslet. I wondered why she wasn’t staying closer to her grandpa. Then an older woman came down. I was huffing and puffing, too tired to talk. She told Scott this is what it’s like hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I really regret not talking to either of them to get more of the story. I wonder if I’ll be strong enough to hike like that in ten years with my grandsons. Something to strive for maybe.

We only hiked 17.3 miles that day, one of the toughest so far. We got to the tent site at Mile 847 about 6:30pm. We had to carry water the last mile or so, because the campsite was dry. Silver Bullet was already there on the west side of the trail, we pitched our tiny tent on a little shelf on the east side. We made dinner, probably mashed potatoes again, brushed our teeth, and hung our food and emollients bags in a tree safe from bears and mice. It felt good to snuggle into the sleeping bags as the wind started rising again. One good thing about a hard day, it makes for a sound sleep.

April 21 was another 17 miler to Rockfish Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but with a hard 4:00pm deadline. We needed a shuttle to take us into Waynesboro so we could stop by the post office and pick up a package our daughter-in-law had sent us with my new hiking shoes and summer socks. We made it in plenty of time, the trail and terrain were favorable.

We met this woman and her nanny goat a few miles south of Rockfish Gap. The spikes protect the goat from aggressive dogs.

Happy hikers on Cedar Ridge northbound to Rockfish Gap.

We haven’t yet learned to resist town temptations. We had burgers and fries for dinner, plus two beers for Scott. I was intrigued by the frozen custard stand the shuttle driver said should not be missed. When might we see frozen custard again? The portions were huge, but we dutifully polished them off.

Then we headed to Walmart for resupply. The breeze was a little nippy, and Scott was wearing shorts and his rain jacket. In the hyper air-conditioned warehouse, he started shivering and just wanted to get the heck out. We raced through the aisles, snapping up the snacks, bagels, cheese, jerky, powdered milk, etc., and bypassing the bandages. He had fallen before Lexington and scraped his shin. I should have bought those Bandaids despite his protestations, but we were tired and cold and wanted to talk to our oldest son before our 8:30pm bedtime.

I was pretty psyched about entering Shenandoah National Park the next day. It was supposed to be a little easier than the trail so far.

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Jackie McKennan

Jackie McKennan

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Jackie is a freelance writer loving life in western Montana. She retired to the state where she was born and raised after 29 years in the Foreign Service.