One of the great services available to thru-hikers in the Marion area is the public transportation between the town of Marion and the Mount Rogers Visitors Center, for the total cost of fifty cents. This service is only available Mon- Fri, and is only by request. On Sunday afternoon, I called and left a voice message requesting a pickup at 8:30 am. The pickup point is a Walmart located near the motel, so after checking out from the Travel Inn, I hiked over to see if my transportation request had been processed. At precisely 8:30 am, the shuttle, unlike the ponies (yes, I’m still bitter about that), arrived as promised, and I began my 15 mile ride back to the mountains.
The drainage system in town was filled to maximum capacity from the incessant rain, and there were many creeks along the way that had escaped their banks and threatened to flood the nearby homes. I was thankful that the rain had stopped, and reasoned that the local conditions were a result of all the water draining off of the mountain, and that conditions would be fine at the higher elevations. Little did I know, this was just a precursor of things to come.
After arriving at the Mount Rogers Visitors Center, I began the gentle ascent of Glade Mountain. It felt good to be back on the trail, even though I was once again walking in the clouds through a leafless hardwood forest. Coming down from the mountain, I soon arrived at a sight that made me realize that today was going to be something other than a walk in the woods. Arriving at a spot that the AT Guide listed as a spring, I encountered a gushing torrent of water about a foot deep that covering about 20 feet of the trail. Now what? After studying the situation for a while, I decided to go uphill about 30 feet where it appeared that I would be able to island hop across the water using my trekking poles to “pole vault” between the islands. This tactic was 100% successful, and boosted my confidence that I could do this.
Confident, that is, until I noted that my guide indicated that I was about to cross the Vaught Branch a half dozen times. If a “spring” was that flooded, what would a “branch” be like? I was about to find out that my opinion that all of the water had already drained of the mountain was a bit premature.
The Vaught Branch was over its banks and flooding the trail. Turning back was not an option I was willing to consider, so it became an exercise in problem solving. So I took off my boots and tied the laces together, stowed my socks and cell phone in waterproof bags, and put on my camp shoes. My camp shoes are more like lace on water shoes with a decent tread, and I chose to carry them on this trip specifically to use in situations like this (although I didn’t think the situation would arise until I was in Maine).
With my boots around my neck, and the hip belt of my backpack unbuckled, I tested the current. The best course seemed to plow through where the trail originally intended, so I carefully picked my way through the rushing water. The water never got over calf high, and while the water was roaring down the mountain, the current was never strong enough that I felt unstable. But holy moly, that water was cold!
I knew that this was not my last trial by water, so I just continued walking with my camp shoes on. Water crossing number two proceeded similar to the first, and I soon arrived at the Chatfield Shelter. There was a SOBO hiker at the shelter drying his boots and socks, so I asked him what I had to look forward to down the trail. He told me that I had about six more crossings, but that it looked like I had the right solution. So, I walk another mile in my camp shoes. The rocks on the trail were a bit painful due to the lack of cushioning in my shoes, but it was better than have to change shoes at each crossing.
Eventually I put the worst of the flooding behind me, but it took a real chunk of time out of my day. I had planned to pick up my resupply package in Atkins and continue on for several miles, but it was getting so late that I decided to go ahead and spend the night in Atkins.
Before reaching town, I came across three interesting sights. The first was a high tension power line. I could hear the humming and cracking from half a mile away, and the trail was routed directly under one of the towers. I probably gained some sort of super power (glow in the dark?), but having more children is probably now out of the question. I think, though, that it fully charged my cell phone.
The second, was the Lindamood School. This one room schoolhouse was built in 1894 and is part of the nearby Settlers Museum (which was closed). The schoolhouse, which was operational until 1937, is a wonderful example of Appalachian history and remains unlocked as a refuge for hikers. The West End United Methodist Church of Wytheville, VA, also uses the schoolhouse to fulfill a mission of providing “trail magic!” I enjoyed a fresh apple and a cold Mountain Dew, but there was a full stock of hiker needs with everything from batteries and hand sanitizer to snacks and dog biscuits. Thank you West End UMC!
Finally, there was a bridge across the Middle Fork of the Holston River just prior to town. The water was above flood level, and I cautiously crossed, in case the bridge foundation had been compromised. A few hundred feet down the trail, I passed a forest ranger who was in his way to check out the condition of the bridge. I gave him my unqualified assessment, and he told me that he was happy to hear it was crossable since it had been under water a few hours earlier. I guess I dodged a bullet on that one.
After climbing out to VA 683, I saw that my destination, the Relax Inn, was right in front of me. As I walked towards the motel, I could see a couple of hikers sitting out front, and they were waving at me. It turned out to be the Cutest Couple on the Trail! I hadn’t seen them since Fontana Dam, and we had a fantastic reunion catching up and sharing stories. While climbing Whitetop Mountain in the rain, they experienced the onset of hypothermia, and found a person to give them a ride to the nearest town (which happened to be Atkins). Essentially, they “yellow blazed” sixty miles of the trail, passing Mount Rogers and the ponies (or lack thereof). Having assumed the trail names of Captain and Be, they have decided to skip the section they missed, and continue toward. After visiting for a while, Captain and I walked to The Barn for dinner and enjoyed nice burgers.
The Relax Inn is the worst dive in which I have ever stayed. However, the family that runs the place is very hiker friendly and the price is right, making it a popular stop for hikers. I chose not to take a chance on the shower stall (Be and I discussed filtering the tap water), but the heater and toilet work, and even the lamp, if you hold the switch just right. I’ll be sleeping on top of the covers tonight.