Days 43-44: We're in Virginia! ...and it's still raining.
May 25th: Damascus to stealth site at mile 475: 5 miles.
After a comfortable night in the cabin-house with Shasta and Adam, I wake up feeling remarkably fresh considering the big miles of the day before. My legs are sore, but no more than usual. Adam drives us back to Damascus and leaves us at Mojo, a hiker favorite for coffee and breakfast. We eat and then hang out on the wifi while we wait for my parents, who are driving from my hometown an hour up the interstate to have lunch with us.
After lunch, my parents deposit us outside the Dollar General just as a downpour arrives. We resupply and then loiter under the overhang, reluctant to hike out of town in the heavy rain. We pack and repack, and finally, when the sun has reappeared, we drag ourselves away from Damascus and into the woods. We only make it five miles. I feel heavy and slow from all the food, even though the trail is easy where it follows the Virginia Creeper Trail, a popular local bike path. The first few miles out of town always feel heavy and slow, but there’s relief too. After the relative stress of roads and cars and decisions to be made in town, the trail is beautifully peaceful and simple. There’s only one thing to do out here, and that’s hike.
May 26th: Stealth site 475 to Whitetop Mountain: 17 miles.
The next morning, it’s clear when we pack up, but not long after setting out, it begins to rain again. This time, it’s a long, drenching rain. Not quite a downpour, but close, and it lasts for hours, until my dear Frogg Toggs are soaked through and useless. My hair and pack and clothes are as wet as if I’d jumped in a river. For some reason, my head is aching. We arrive at a shelter around lunchtime, only ten miles into our seventeen-mile day. Thankfully, this shelter has an overhang large enough to protect the picnic table from the rain. I huddle there, feeling miserable, and I tell Etienne I want to stop for the day.
“Okay,” he says simply, and I am flooded with gratitude for his unending patience. I pop some ibuprofen for my headache with lunch. Within an hour, the rain finally stops. I’ve already hung up some of my possessions around the shelter to dry and started to unpack, but my head isn’t pounding anymore.
“Actually, I think I’m good to keep walking.”
And again. “Okay.”
So we continue. I soon fall behind Etienne, but the forest is green and my clothes are almost dry, so I’m in good spirits until I slip on a wet slab of rock and fall hard. I catch myself on my hands and knees, but then the momentum of my pack carries me forward down to my elbows, and only the bill of my baseball cap prevents me from smacking my face on the rock. There’s a sharp pain in my right knee, the one I’ve injured in years past, and I start to panic as I feel trapped under my backpack, unable to use my right leg to push myself upright. I unbuckle my hip belt and wriggle free of the pack. I pull myself up onto a rock and gingerly roll up my leggings to examine my knee. There’s blood, but the scrape is superficial. Below that, the skin is already beginning to swell and bruise. I stand up, wiping away tears that are more from panic at the thought of a hike-ending injury than from the pain itself, and I take a few, careful steps.
Relief. Nothing is broken or out of place, that’s certain. It hurts, but the sharp pain from the initial fall is already fading to a dull ache. I sit again and give myself a few minutes to calm down. Then, I hoist my pack onto my shoulders and keep hiking, because as always, there’s nothing else to do.
Storm clouds are gathering as I hike out of the forest and onto the open mountainside, studded with gray outcroppings of rock. Like the Roan Highlands in Tennessee, the landscape is reminiscent of Rohan from the Lord of the Rings. This is Whitetop Mountain, the second-highest peak in Virginia. I eventually find Etienne, and we hurry across the open terrain, not eager to find ourselves in such an exposed area if a thunderstorm is about to descend. But the rain holds off until we reach a small parking lot, the same spot I began my three-day section hike of the Grayson Highlands in 2016. We hike a few hundred yards further on and pitch our tents in the grass where the bald meets the forest. There’s been a lot of talk of a problem bear in the area, so we are extra careful to do perfect PCT hangs for our food. I cross my fingers that the bag will still be there in the morning, tend to my bloody knee, and go to sleep.