Thanks to another delay with my mail-drops, I had a longer stay at Woods Hole. Not that there is any other place you might want to stay for an extra day, but it still costs money and takes time from trekking. Not wanting to waste an absolutely gorgeous day, perfect for hiking — sunny skies and 58-degree F temps — I accepted an offer from Michael and Neville to slackpack southbound (SOBO) from the town of Pearisburg, Virginia, back to the hostel, approximately 11 miles.
Slackpacking basically means that you are hiking without your main pack. That cumbersome beast of burden you’ve lugged who-knows how many miles, laden with all of your needs and supplies gets left in a car or at the hostel so that you can briskly and happily hop-skip-and-jump down the trail, immediately 25- or more pounds lighter. Some purists frown upon slackpacking, but as someone who grew up day-hiking rather than backpacking, I love slackpacking. Having a break from the pack feels liberating, and suddenly the miles start disappearing under lighter footsteps. Bonus: Michael let me borrow a pair of trekking poles. Although the terrain wasn’t terribly demanding, the poles gave me extra reach and confidence. Four legs good, two legs bad!
Finn kept his pack, mainly to remind him that we are in business-mode on the trail, although he carried only a water bottle, a couple of trail bars, his treats, and our small bag of emergency supplies. I carried my camera/phone. As we hiked to a viewing spot known as Angel’s Rest, we noticed some large icicles still clinging to the caverns in the boulders.
The viewing vistas along this stretch of trail were a welcome change from the dense forests we’d been traveling through, and Finn seemed to enjoy the numerous breaks we took to soak in a view or stretch out and feel the sunshine. As we crossed a patch of forested trail, another hiker suddenly appeared in view, immediately followed by a huge brown dog carrying its own pack. It was BC and Trashguts! BC was dressed in shorts and t-shirt, his earbuds attached to a pink iPod Shuffle, and his skinny legs quickly covering the space between us with his long loping stride. Finn and I were excited to run into him and Trashguts. We stopped and chatted while the dogs stretched out in the leaves. We talked trail conditions and elevations and views. BC mentioned a couple AT signs were down, but said to stick to the left. I asked if he’d seen any snakes yet; he said no but that he was always most worried about feral hogs.
“Feral hogs?” I asked.
He explained that feral hogs — hogs released or escaped into the wild and their offspring (versus wild boars, typically a bit more shy and reclusive) — were out and about through Virginia and were particularly vicious. “I can climb a tree if one comes after me,” BC said, “but those pigs will kill dogs. That’s why I have the pepper spray.” He gestured to the canister attached to his hip belt.
I wasn’t sure how well pepper spray would deter an insanely mean feral hog, but I liked that BC considered his dog’s safety on par with his own. I told BC if he was scared to hike this portion of the trail on his own, he could turn around and hike back with us to the hostel. He laughed. “If I had the money I would, but that’s a lot of ramen noodles, you know?” I agreed and when I couldn’t find any more excuses to continue standing in the warm forest chatting with a Bastard Catfish and petting Trashguts, I bid them happy hiking and safe travels and gave BC one of the mini Snicker bars in my pocket since he said he was going to pull a twenty-mile day.
Finn and I continued along our southbound path, passing through an open area marred with an imposing metal radio tower contraption and its accompanying buzz. We took a snack and water break, then pressed on, staying vigilant for the downed trail signs and possible presence of feral hogs. We entered a rhodedendron gap and I took a quick pee break. Just as we got back to our groove on the trail, another male hiker popped into view. Proceeding cautiously, I called Finn close to me as we neared the man, who waved and asked, “Excuse me, could you help me?” His voice sounded familiar, and as we approached, we recognized each other: it was Dwight from the freezing day in Bland!
Honestly, I’d been worried about him — the weather had been so terrible, especially for a section hiker just looking to spend a few days on the trail. But here he was, none the worse for wear, just a bit lost — or rather, afraid he was going to get lost. Newbie hikers (and yes, I include myself in this) have a bad habit of constantly consulting their grids or mileage charts to see how far they are from one noted feature or another. Mileage can be tricky to account for when you’re hiking in the mountains — switchbacks and loopy trails consume far more time and you always feel as though you’ve gone further than you actually have. Dwight had made outstanding time on the trail, despite the awful conditions, but he was worried about where he should stay that evening. While he had an elevation map, my grid showed shelters and campsites. I calculated some mileages for him while he told me of the conditions at Wapiti Shelter and admired Finn who was pushing against his legs in a catlike manner. I congratulated Dwight on his endurance and fortitude; he returned the compliment by saying it was my positive attitude that kept him going. I had to laugh. I tend to remember the days when my attitude is not so positive, but if I can encourage others, that’ll make me happy. Dwight enjoyed standing there talking, and I realized that if we didn’t move on, we’d probably be there a few hours. Bidding goodbye to Dwight, Finn and I continued through the pleasant rhodendron gap and along the trail until the footing became more and more rocky. Before long, to my chagrin, the trail was a stepping-stone pathway over large rocks and small boulders, a precarious balancing act even without the big pack I usually wear. My feet began to ache long before Finn and I slowed our progress to a step-pause-step-pause pattern and I cursed the rocks and the trail blazers who felt the need to stretch the trail over this particular terrain.
Finally, Finn and I reached the gravel road where a sign emblazoned with a cutout of an owl and proclaiming “Woods Hole!” pointed us to the left, half-a-mile away from the hostel, where cups of hot tea, a soft bed in a warm room, an indoor toilet, and a possible shower waited for us, under skies quickly clouding.