Bluff Mountain, Punchbowl Shelter, Voices

November 9, 1891, was an unusually cold day in Snowden, Virginia. The season’s first snowfall had come the week before. Miss Nannie Gilbert, teacher at the one-room schoolhouse at Tower Hill, today Bluff Mountain, sent her students out to gather firewood for the pot-bellied stove which sat in the open aisle between the students’ desks. Among the students was Ottie Cline Powell, aged four years, eleven months.

When the other students returned, Ottie did not. After an initial search, Miss Gilbert wisely sent her students home to retrieve their parents for a more exhaustive canvas. As night fell, Ottie had not been found. A cold rain, the beginnings of an icestorm, began falling that night.

Ottie’s body would not be found until the following April, when hunters, following an old trail over Bluff Mountain, discovered his remains, seven miles from the school.

On May 5, 2019, a drizzly, fog-enshrouded day, I hiked the Appalachian Trail up Bluff Mountain, past a memorial stone for Ottie. What I felt as I stood in front of it, was the overwhelming grief, loss and despair left here by those who loved him. No one had thought to search a mountaintop seven miles from the school. Why would they?

I hiked down the mountain a few miles. That night I stayed, alone, in the Punchbowl Shelter. Hikers tenting nearby had left their bear-proof cannisters in front of the shelter and gone to bed. I laid awake, as is my unfortunate habit, until well after midnight.

Light footsteps crunched in the gravel immediately in front of the shelter. “Ooohhhh!” I heard an unmistakably childish voice, as if discovering the bear cannisters’ contents in their clear containers. A complete, unintelligible sentence followed. In less than a second I grabbed my headlamp and shined it toward the sound. Nothing but the cannisters were visible.

There are a thousand natural explanations for my experience. I hope one of them is true; any one of them is preferable to the spirit of a five-year-old, however tenacious, wandering Bluff Mountain for eternity.

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Cornelius Creek (International) Shelter and a Whirlwind Trip to Missouri

Of the many secrets the Appalachian Trial holds, the number of international hikers you meet may be one of the best kept. Hikers from England, Scotland and Switzerland are, in my experience, the most common.

After hiking ever-upward (see previous post) to Cornelius Creek Shelter, it appeared I would be spending the night solo. Then a wonderful lady from England popped in, having just hiked twenty miles, her hair still done up perfectly.

In a matter of minutes, as happens on the trail, we were talking like old friends and she told me about a particularly unpleasant Hostel room she’d stayed in where “everythin’ was covered in mouse poo and the carpet hadn’t bean hoovered in it’s life.” Loverly!

Just then a hiker from Switzerland arrived; it turned out he and the English lady were well acquainted and they chatted about the day’s hike. After a bit he began removing a bandage from his elbow, which covered two, inch-long cuts forming a perfect “plus” shape, suffered when he took a spill while crossing  a creek.

With the lady handing me supplies, I applied methiolate and suture strips, then a length of K Tape which is kind of the “duct tape” fix-all of the trail. (Hopefully this proved effective, because I doubt I’ll ever see him again!)

During our “treatment,” the Swiss hiker, a master of understatement, told of witnessing two hikers coming across a couple of fishermen who were in possession of a quantity of cold beer. When asked if they’d sell some, the fishermen said yes, but the price was a whopping $5 a can. Said the Swiss hiker, calmly, “This resulted in a loud discussion.”

The next morning the pair hiked out early, and after breakfast I hit the trail.  Not far into the morning I found I was needed back in Missouri for some personal business, so where the AT meets Forest Service Road 812, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, a shuttle driver by the name of Homer Witcher picked me up and whisked me to Roanoke to catch a plane.

Three days later I was back in Roanoke and Homer’s lovely wife Theresa happened to be nearby; so, she picked me up and delivered me back to the exact spot where Homer had rescued me.

The Trail Provides!

 

Middle Creek Campground to Cornelius Creek Shelter

Climbing mountains on the Appalachian Trail can be frustrating. Imagine yourself as a tiny, tiny hiker, climbing a Dairy Queen swirl cone made entirely of mud, rock, trees and roots. Yum.

Now, instead of circular swirls, imagine these have sharp corners and go back and forth across the face of the cone; so, as you climb upward, the horizon ahead constantly shows beautiful blue sky through the trees, presumably the mountain top. As you approach the horizon, expecting the swirl to start downward, the swirl abruptly turns, revealing another climb at least as severe as the ones you just completed.

If you will, imagine your tiny self climbing this cone all day, stopping at a stream occasionally to filter water and have a snack, finally reaching the top…only to find that someone has moved another, taller swirl cone (which you definitely did not order) in on the far side of the first one and your shelter for the night is on the other side of this second cone.  Sigh.

Damn this Dairy Queen!!

(I hope you found this analogy helpful. It made me kind of hungry.)

Anyway, this was my experience climbing my way to Cornelius Creek Shelter, which I and my two shelter-mates, a lady from England, and a gentleman from Switzerland, renamed Cornelius Creek International Shelter. More on our delightful interactions later.

McAfee Knob to Lambert’s Meadow Shelter

My shuttle driver from Four Pines Hostel, Nature Boy, dropped me at the McAfee Knob trailhead, on VA 311, and I headed up, literally, the trail. Since it was Saturday I had lots of company.

Three point nine miles doesn’t sound bad until you combine a fat, out of shape (did I mention old?) hiker, with a forty-pound backpack and point them uphill. Then it’s bad.

At the top I met a personable young hiker named Jacob and we talked and ate lunch on the same flat slab of granite. Afterwards we headed for the iconic Knob for pictures. Here’s mine:

Another young guy told me his phone was dead, and asked me to take his picture and text it to him. Of course I agreed, but then had to take his picture with my eyes closed because of where he posed:

Yeah. Makes mine look like I just rolled out into the bronc-busting event at the Calgary Stampede on a coin operated pony, doesn’t it? Anyway, we both survived.

Following a tougher than expected (even the young whippersnappers said so) rainy, 6.7 miles, I saw the Lambert’s Meadow Shelter just ahead. As I turned right on the short turnoff trail, facing the side of the shelter, a football-sized, smoking, black object came flying out of the front of the shelter and rolled a few feet.

Immediately on the heels of the “bomb,” a tall, ashen-faced, young hiker leapt from the shelter, grabbed the object, ran to a bearbox about ten feet away, hurled the object in and slammed the door. He seemed greatly relieved.

My mind refused to form even one rational thought about what I’d just witnessed, so I turned to the hiker and said, rather presciently I felt, “Um….”

“I borrowed my friend’s Jetboil campstove for this trip,” he said, wide-eyed, “and I thought it was about to blow up!”

“Wow!” I said, walking toward the shelter. “Glad you’re okay!” Ramen noodles littered the area in front of the sleeping platform.

Inside the shelter were Jacob, my McAfee Knob acquaintance, and another hiker, apparently the buddy of the one who’d valiently risked his life.

After some discussion, it was determined that the Ramen noodles had simply boiled over, but rather than turn down the heat,  the hiker had heroically “thrown himself on the grenade” to save his friends from Ramen boilover.

Here’s the thing: as comical as it turned out to be, the hiker didn’t know this…he thought he was risking his life.  Yes, there are still such people in the world.

Back to the AT, and Other Crazy Stories

Wish I’d gotten in better shape for Phase 2 of the Appalachian Trail. This morning, April 18, 2019, my friend Steve (who drove me from Missouri to Roanoke, VA, yesterday) dropped me off in the rain at a wide place in the road on VA Route 624 near Catawba, VA. I put on my backpack walked off into the trees.

After only six miles up and over indescribably beautiful mountaintops, ranging from 1,800 to 3,150 feet, I was spent. VA Route 311 appeared in the valley below, so I stumbled down into the parking lot, cried “Uncle” and called Four Pines Hostel. Joe, who owns the Hostel with his wife, Donna, mercifully drove the five road-miles to pick me up.

At the hostel, most everyone was loading up in a van to head to The Homestead, arguably the finest restaurant on the AT; but, having just begun AT Phase 2, I hadn’t yet developed “hiker hunger” so I declined.

Later, when the group returned to the bunkhouse, I witnessed the following profound hiker conversation:

Hiker 1: I have a friend who’s Mormon, so I once read the entire Book of Mormon just so I could be accurate when I made fun of him.

Hiker 2: Mormon? He should be a Catholic! To become a saint all you have to do is perform three miracles while you’re alive and then three after you’re dead.

Hiker 1: Dude, how are you gonna perform three miracles after you’re dead?

Hiker 2: You’re a saint, man! Figure it out!

Hiker 3 (picking up a book): Ah, a math book. Think I’ll sit and read a little.

Hiker 1: A math book? Why would you read a math book?

Hiker 3: Why wouldn’t you? Oh, that’s right, you can’t read.

On and on throughout the evening until lights out at 10:00 p.m. Severe storms are forecast for tomorrow so I’m taking my first zero. Walk a day, rest a day. I may stick to this plan.

As Promised…Grandkids!

One of the excuses I used to take a break from the Appalachian Trail was to meet my newest grandchild, Alden McCoy Reece, born in May. And I promised someone pictures, so, without further ado:

Alden McCoy Reece with dad, Josh

At three months he is, perhaps, the happiest little kid around, except at nap time. (I think he knows he might miss something.)

Big Sister, Hattie Mae Reece, with ice cream. After she scooted herself back into the easy chair she sighed, and said, “This is nice.”

When I asked Hattie if she was happy to have a little brother, her face clouded over as she said, with brutal child honesty, “No, I wanted a sister.” Maybe Alden will, you know, grow on her.

And mom, Courtney!

Since Alden can’t talk very well yet, and Courtney and Josh just say your standard mom and dad stuff, I’ll share one more Hattie-ism. In a pond near the house they have discovered a snapping turtle; however, thanks to Hattie such a turtle will forever-after be known as a “smacking turtle.” Thanks Hattie.

Go Greyhound and Leave the Sleeping to Us!

You’re going to assume this statement is an exaggeration, simply based on the flimsy evidence that I always exaggerate. That fact notwithstanding, I truly believe that if you had to take a cross-country trip on Greyhound, you’d die from lack of sleep. Not kidding here.

Arriving in New York City (I was in the front seat here…no one told me it was reserved for those with disabilities.)

From Gorham, NH, to Boston, I’d been able to remain alert, probably due to, one, the novelty of bus travel and, two, the fact that our driver honked repeatedly at any vehicle that did not follow the rules of the road as he interpreted them. However, by the time we reached New York City my adrenaline levels were subsiding. The thought of sleep became more and more attractive.

Port Authority Bus Station, Manhattan

Then…once inside the bus station, the hustle and bustle of the colorful multicultural crowd once again activated the wakeful side of my brain and I was good for a few more hours. I entered the very cleverly-named “Snacks-N-Wheels” cafe (a cafe name no-doubt purchased from the clearance rack) and experienced my only moments of fear for my safety.

The two gentlemen at the next table (there were only two tables with chairs in the place and we were the only customers) kept looking my way and seemed intent on setting the Ripley’s record for using M-F and N***** in a sentence without taking a breath. (If you don’t know what those abbreviations mean, ask your children.) I ate my turkey sandwich and jalapeno chips with a “hood” attitude: I didn’t use my napkin…at all. It must have intimidated them, because they left without mugging me. Or just maybe, dressed in the clothes I’d been hiking in for six months, they didn’t think I had anything worth taking.

Leaving New York City

Here’s where the wakeful-endurance phase began. From NYC to The Delaware House Travel Plaza, (our first stop) located in Newark, DE, is a roughly two-and-one-half hour drive. As tired as I was, I was unable to sleep sitting up. Plus, I had not yet discovered the little handle that releases your seatback; so, as I gazed out the window at the moon, the words to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” (…and the moon rose over an ohhh-pen field…) played an endless loop in my head. The Delaware House was a welcome sight.

I was in seat 12c here. No disability restrictions.

Since I’m putting myself to sleep writing this, I’ll conclude with the 36-second video above to let you experience the sights and sounds of nocturnal bus travel at no extra charge. To get the full experience, play it repeatedly for forty-eight hours.

To be continued…