Hubris in the Highlands: Unexpected Obstacles on the Appalachian Trail

A view of the Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail.
A view of the Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail. Ben Townsend
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The Appalachian Trail has seen its fair share of hubris. Every year, thousands attempt to traverse its 2,000-plus miles, and only one in four makes it end-to-end. In addition to those defeats, a smattering of section hikers are conquered by the trail every year as well: couples setting out with lofty plans to hike all the way through Vermont, overeager Boy Scouts looking to run up Thunderhead Mountain, and spring break college kids thinking they’ll hammer out 20-mile days through the Smoky Mountains.

Whether your aspirations reach all the way to the finish line at Katahdin or not, the Appalachian Trail will laugh at them all. Such was my story.

The Original Plan

While not a thru-hike, our endeavor was ambitious—to hike from East Tennessee to Pennsylvania in three months. My hiking partner (I'll call her Erin here) and I planned to tackle the 950 miles (close to half the full length of the AT) from Newfound Gap to Erin’s home in Pennsylvania, just a few miles from from where the the AT crosses nondescript Peters Mountain. We decided on early March for the start of our trip, mostly to avoid the horde of northbound thru-hikers—aka “the bubble”—that sets off from the northbound Springer Mountain starting line in April.

We started just east of the Smoky Mountains near Snowbird Mountain. Spring had already started showing in Knoxville by our departure date, but in the mountains, it was still decidedly winter.

The morning after our first day of hiking, we woke to several feet of snow on Snowbird Mountain and temperatures in the mid-teens. Erin untied our food pouch from the branch I'd crudely slung it over the night before as I began to take down the tent. The poles were frozen together, and as I bent down to lick the connecting points, I wondered if this was where I would die, in the middle of the woods, one day into a three-month trip, tongue frozen to a tent pole. Luckily, they detached from each other (and from my tongue) and we packed it all up and set out down the trail.

We pushed through knee-deep snow for a few miles. The white blazes that mark the AT were obscured in the steady snowfall, and the resistance from the weather grew. We progressed at a painstakingly slow rate. Perhaps a thru-hiker who’d been on the trail a few weeks wouldn't have found this so difficult, but for us, it felt like this:

Actual footage from our section hike
Actual footage from our section hike

After a few more slow, painful miles, Erin and I both decided that this was not the mountain we wanted to die on (how often do you get to use that phrase literally!) and turned back for home. We’d take a week or so off, we said, and start again when the weather wasn't quite so rough.

Plan B: The Virginia Creeper Trail

Fast forward a few weeks. We decided to have another go at it. And where better to start our second attempt than the AT hiking Mecca and home of the annual Trail Days festival, Damascus, Virginia? Located 230 miles north of our previous starting point, this section of the AT features a jaunt on the Virginia Creeper Trail and climb up Mount Rogers in Grayson Highlands State Park . After sitting on our butts for three weeks waiting for the weather to break, we were happy to finally set out with clear skies and high spirits.

Metal stairs led us up from the streets of Damascus into the wilderness. I took the lead starting out and wound through thick forests for two miles to Cuckoo Knob. I would stop every now and then, wait until Erin popped into sight on the disappearing edge of the trail behind me, and keep moving. After the third or fourth round of this, I decided to continue on at my own pace. Stunning views of nearby Laurel Valley met me just before a steep ascent up Straight Mountain to the fork for Saunders Shelter, our pre-determined stop for the night.

Only eight miles from where we started, we figured this would be a nice, easy first day to get into the swing of things. I dropped my pack for a breather at the fork and waited for Erin to catch up before hiking the final quarter mile or so to the shelter. After about half an hour, I checked my watch. It was only 4 o'clock, but the sun was already beginning its quick descent toward the horizon, and still no Erin. So I stowed my pack in some nearby underbrush beside the trail and hiked back into the woods a bit to relieve myself before setting back out down the hillside to find her.

Half a mile, a whole mile, then two miles of retracing my steps down the long switchbacks, but no sign of her. I began to worry. Had she passed me while I was taking a bathroom break? Maybe we missed each other somewhere, and she’d been sitting at the shelter this whole time wondering where the hell I was. I decided to head back up the mountain, more or less running to the intersection with the Saunders spur where I'd rested before. Still no sign of Erin. I grabbed my pack from where I'd stowed it in the thistle and headed down the short side trail to the shelter, hoping I’d see Erin's curly mohawk and bright blue backpack as I rounded every bend. I finally saw the back end of the shelter and took a deep breath as I approached and peaked inside.

Empty.

It was dusk, getting cold, and visibility was fading. I started pacing around the shelter, wondering what I should do. Erin had her sleeping bag as well as most of the food. But I had the tent, and the puffy clouds silhouetted against the darkening sky threatened rain. A wet night for Erin, though, was among the least foreboding of my fears.

A diligent planner and worst-case-scenario neurotic, I’d prepared for our endeavor by researching all the terrible incidences that have occurred along the AT. While most of the fatalities on the trail are doled out by Mother Nature and bad luck, the ones that seared themselves into my mind when I read them were the murders.

In 1991, Molly LaRue and her boyfriend Geoffrey Hood were gruesomely killed during a thru-hike by a drifter. Torture, rape, stabbing and shooting had all been employed in the grisly attack. In 1996, two women were slain just north on the AT in Shenandoah National Park. And as recent as 2011, a man's body was found on the AT. The cause of death was "asphyxia by suffocation" and the identity of the culprit is still a mystery. These were the kind of scenarios that crept up in my mind as I eventually settled into my sleeping bag. I stared up at the tin roof of the shelter, listened to the scurry of mice near my feet, and tried to relax the frantic rate at which my mind was painting unnerving pictures of the possible.

The next day, I got up at first light (I hadn’t really slept) and headed back for the fork. Right would take me back down the hillside, straight would take me farther northbound on the AT, to Lost Mountain Shelter near Mount Rogers. I left a note for Erin on the sign, telling her I'd gone on, and I continued toward Lost Mountain. I figured if she was behind me, I could always double back, but if she was in front (and thought I was in front of her), she'd just keep going and I’d never catch her. I started forward at a quick pace and crossed a ridge and descended down Straight Mountain, to the spot the AT intersects with the Virginia Creeper Trail. As I recall, Laurel Creek was roaring nearby. But I hardly noticed the pristine surroundings, because the intersection with the Creeper Trail also brought more people and more faces, and I was looking for my own Virginia Creeper.

I searched the faces of every passerby for the threatening profile I’d formed in my mind of Erin’s imaginary attacker, a composite of the vagabonds and villains who’d enacted previous killings on the trail. Geoffrey Hood’s assailant had been found wearing his boots and backpack. I imagined picking out Erin's distinct bright blue pack jaunting down the trail ahead. I'd run up, call out her name, and she’d turn. Only it wouldn't be her. It’d be him: gaunt, scraggly, his eyes just empty pools of darkness, no guilt or shame. Just animal urge. I shook my head free of the image. I followed the Creeper Trail until it crossed a long wooden bridge over Laurel Creek. At the other end, The Appalachian Trail broke away, turned left, and began its steady climb up out of the valley to Lost Mountain Shelter. I was hiking fast, so the fact that I still hadn't encountered Erin was weighing on me and sharpened the image of the creeper in my mind. Hope was dwindling and finally totally drained out when I reached the Lost Mountain Shelter.

No Erin.

I turned back. I’d either encounter her on the way back or I'd have to file a police report in Damascus. I started rehearsing what I’d tell her parents.

The Bridge Across Laurel Creek.
The Bridge Across Laurel Creek. Logan Mahan

Back onto the Creeper Trail, back up to Straight Mountain. I’d cycled through fear and anger so many times over the past 24 hours that when I finally saw Erin ambling toward me near my starting point at the Saunders Shelter intersection, I could only muster one feeling: profound relief.

"Well, look who it is," I said, collapsing in the grass next to the trail.

“Oh...hey,” Erin said as she reached me. “I saw your note.”

“Where were you?”

“I accidentally went down a side trail. I couldn’t remember what our campground was called, so I thought it might be down there.”

“Why didn't you look in your guide book?”

“Oh...”

“Oh what?”

She’d left her guidebook in the car. Her guidebook. She'd left it. She'd wanted her pack to be lighter, she said. I sighed.

“Where did you sleep?”

“I just laid down in the grass. Used my pack cover to protect me from the rain. It wasn't that bad.”

A sense of frustration lingered somewhere deep down in me, but mostly I was just happy to see her, alive and un-creepered. As I lay in the grass, the adrenaline that had been pushing me forward over the last day drained away, and in its place came pain. Physical pain, in my back, hips, and knees. Oh, my knees: How had I not felt it until now? The tightness felt like someone had stretched my IT bands to their full elasticity. I imagined my illusory Virginia Creeper cranking away at one of those ancient rack torture devices. “Well, let’s get going,” I said. We set off back to Lost Mountain Shelter.

Lost Mountain Shelter
Lost Mountain Shelter Logan Mahan

Making Miseries

Over the last two days, I'd averaged around 18 miles a day, running up and down the Appalachian Trail. This feat is a perhaps common pace for a thru-hiker well into their 2,000-mile stride to Maine, but for my unacclimatized and out-of-shape body, it hurt. But even so, I was beyond excited about the next days. I anticipated the beautiful views from the edge of Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak, and imagined playing with the free-ranging wild ponies in big open fields high up in the hills. When we awoke the next morning, a thick fog shrouded the copse of trees that encircled Lost Mountain Shelter.

We set out into the woods, and after about a mile, we crossed a footbridge, passed through a horse stile, and hit a large clearing near where VA 601/Beech Mountain Road crosses the AT. In better weather, I imagine this field might be dotted with the ponies the Grayson Highlands are famous for. But when we emerged from the trees, we were not met with ponies, but with a strong wind that cut across our faces and through our Gore-Tex. A mix of snow and ice started falling as well, lancing across any exposed patch of flesh like tiny shards of cold glass.

We hunkered down in a latrine-style bathroom near the road to wait out the worst of the weather. It wasn't letting up, so we braced ourselves, cinched down everything we could against the howling weather and ran toward the protection of the trees. Through the roaring wind I heard something surprising—it was barely audible above the wind and our flapping hoods, but you could hear it. It was laughter. It was Erin’s. And it was also mine. It was perhaps not wholly sane, but it was incontestable proof of the fun and giddiness of this hilariously hellish endeavor. We were making miseries. And it was honestly really frickin’ great.

A mile or so into the forest, the canopy began to thin out again and we were suddenly standing in a field of shrubs and low, wide-limbed trees, all covered in a thick layer of white ice I later learned had a name: hoarfrost. It felt like we’d stepped into another world.

Hoarfrost on the Appalachian Trail.
Hoarfrost on the Appalachian Trail. Logan Mahan

By this point, my stride had been formidably hampered. My hiking poles were serving as makeshift crutches as I hobbled along, trying to take some of the weight off my knees, which were in intense pain. I was happy to stand for a while, amazed at this Narnian wonderland we’d stepped into, silent and still. We broke out of our trance and followed the white blazes through the white hedges into the whiter fog, enjoying the mystery the thick mist. We weren't getting the typical welcome offered in Grayson Highlands State Park, but we felt as if we’d come upon in it a different mood, a special and more intimate one. And we were thankful.

The Best Laid Plans

We hiked for two more days, snaking through the rest of of the park, crossing Buzzard Rock, Elk Garden , and sloshing through the muck as the weather warmed and the ice and snow turned to water and rain. The pain in my knees was getting worse, and I feared a more serious injury. As the skies cleared and the sun emerged, I got enough cell signal to listen to my voicemail and discovered I was a late hire for a summer mountain guide position through an outfitter out west. I determined it wasn't worth screwing up my knees and ruining my chance at a summer in Colorado just to push through more painful miles, so we decided to call it quits and hitch into town.

One of our last stretches of trail crossed a grassy meadow, brown and mucky. We maneuvered through the soup of snowmelt, spirits low. Our 950 miles had been whittled down to barely 60, an embarrassing loss by any calculation. The AT had defeated us, as it had countless others, and this was our losers march to mid-field to shake hands with the trail and tell it “good game.” As we neared the edge of the meadow, we saw the carcass of a bull. His hide was like torn canvas stretched across a sun-bleached bone frame, and the soft earth was sunken around his remains. Erin and I stood there for a good while and just stared at him, squinting from the glare of his brilliant white bones.

“Well, at least we made it farther than this guy, right?” I finally said. I knew it was stupid and crass and in poor taste, but the juvenility of it made us both snicker and drew us marginally out of our self-pity. At the end of the day, we knew we were lucky to get whatever time we got along the Appalachian Trail. Nothing is promised out there, and our best laid plans rarely stay where we lay them for long.

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