Johns Spring Shelter to Interstate 81
Over The Snow Camp to The Hiker In Your Backyard Camp
AT miles: 20.1
Total miles: 739.2
Elevation change: 4800ft gain, 5387ft loss
Today I had a chance to visit one of the most iconic spots on the entire Appalachian Trail. Or one of the most Instagramed, at least. However, when I woke up this morning, a good view was a few rungs from the top on my wish list. After the frigid and snowy weather yesterday, all I really craved from the day was warmth. Short or sustained, I wasn’t picky. Just a chance to relax for a few minutes without worrying about dipping into hypothermia. Good views from McAfee? Those would be cool too, but how good could a view really be? Especially one that I’d already seen from behind a computer screen. I decided to keep my expectations low, for warmth and scenery, to lessen my chances of being disappointed. As you might guess, the AT exceeded those by leaps and bounds. I wasn’t exactly leaping and bounding with joy, but that’s just because I was wearing a heavy pack. The day turned out alright indeed. Much better than alright.
As the clear sky brightened from horizon to moon, I wondered if I should be doing more to catch a potentially epic sunrise from the summit McAfee Knob, less than three miles away. I heard a couple day hikers pass on by, clearly with that intention, but I decided to give myself a pass. I was cozy and warm, potentially for the last time for many hours. Nope, I would do my thing as I do it, without rushing or FOMO. Leave the sunrise to the frat boys. I caught my own sunrise through my tent mesh anyway, as I ate and packed up. A fellow came into camp, whistling up a storm, then hiked on. By 8:45am, I was ready and moving to check out the Big Mac (I’m not sure if anyone else calls it that) for myself.
The air was frigid indeed, well below freezing for now. However, the sun shone brightly and the wind was held safely distant by the ridge on my left. I hiked in my wind jacket, which was plenty to keep me warm as long as I was moving quickly and uphill. The trail was wide and smooth, buffed and thickened by the masses, and wound through and around some interesting features of stone scattered throughout the forest. When I caught up to whistling guy, strolling without a care, he took off running, presumably to stay ahead of me. The next time I caught up, he pulled over and ate a bar instead. The next campsite was full of backpackers still just considering packing up. I envied their campfire, and felt a little bit better about my start time.
I found myself on the top of McAfee earlier than I expected. The trail transition from mundane to epic happened in a heartbeat. And let me tell you, it was way cooler than I expected, and different in a way that I couldn’t comprehend was possible until I was standing there for myself, staring at the view. It had been all wrong in my imagination, lacking so much of the essential insignificant details required to get a true feel for a place. McAfee boasted an awesome, 100% Insta-worthy vista, but it was everything else that made it a million times better than that picture on a screen. Large flakes of gray rock overhung a high cliff. Puddles of snow melt collected in the pocketed surface were frozen solid, brown bundles of pine needles trapped in hazy ice. Stunted pine trees howled in the mighty gusts of wind rushing up the mountain face. A sweeping panorama, as good as any on the trail so far, carried my gaze from south to north across a landscape of rugged hills and tame pastures. Through the clear air, there was no limit to how far I could see except for my eyes’ ability to put it into focus. As I walked along the edge, to the diving board and beyond, I considered that the granite cliffs of Yosemite were the closest thing to McAfee that I’d experienced before. That was not a bad thing to be reminded of.
I had the place all to myself except for a small family, and eventually Whistling Guy. It was a perfect time to be there, and I forgot all about what a sunrise view would have looked like. We all took photos of one another, then went out separate ways to explore and move on. After sitting on a secluded cliff out of the wind for a few minutes trying to figure out which airport I was looking at, I decided it was time to leave the Big Mac behind. The Tinker Cliffs awaited. Down the other side I went, sure that those moments would be tough to beat. They had FMOTD all over them, and I begrudgingly admitted to myself that Instagram had got this one right, at least a little bit.
It was cold going for several miles along the following ridgeline. The sun was out, except for several minutes when the stupidest cloud that has ever existed planted itself in that portion of the sky, but the wind was unforgiving. An icy blast buffeted me as I kicked through deeply drifted leaves. The scene was beautiful, but I kept my eyes pointed at my feet and kept moving. Eventually, after freezing my butt off for so many miles of downhill, I checked the elevation profile. With more down, I’d throw on another layer. If uphill was coming, I’d tough it out, sure that the extra effort would warm me up.
Uphill was the winner. I hit it hard, enjoying the warmth that it generated even as I struggled to change gears. The wind was now mostly held distant by the trees too, so I finally got the warmth that I had been seeking since leaving bed this morning. Then trail grew increasingly rocky, dipping around more boulders, and ascending slanted slabs of bare limestone. It was building to the next great cliffy feature.
At the top, I wandered over to an unassuming overlook and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had made it to Tinker Cliffs, my last of the Virginia Triple Crown. This feature was pretty darn similar to the top of McAfee, except with more cliffs and lacking a single, striking point quite as dramatic as the Mac’s diving board. That was just fine by me. Not that it had been busy today, but the Tinker Cliffs felt a little more secret, and for that reason, they felt more like my own. Instead of walking into someone else’s picture like I had done on McAfee, I was discovering Tinker for myself. I staggered along the edge, continuously buffeted by the growing wind, turning to see where my gaze took me. To the south, I could follow the AT for a day and a half through ridges and pastures before my geographic memory ran dry.
I would have loved to perch on a slab of sun-soaked rock like a lizard for an hour’s lunch, but the biting wind said otherwise. With the chill, my thermometer was dipping below 20F, so I kept moving to find the protected side of the mountain.
I found calm warmth at the next shelter, tucked into an intimate valley of sun and daffodils. I threw on my puffy for good measure, and sat on the wooden floor in the sun, eating so many things. I made sure to fill up so that I wouldn’t need to root around for an extra bar like I had yesterday evening. Chips, gone. Trail mix, gone. Chia seeds, far from gone, but I ate a lot of them. Feeling fine indeed, I kept moving, now looking forward to the grocery store in Daleville, just nine miles ahead.
The cruising to town was fast and sublime over some of the easiest ridgeline yet. The soft pine needle tread was conducive to fast and comfortable walking, and regular rocky outcroppings provided awesome overlooks in every direction. I made great time, ticking away the 18-minute miles, without much strain, although I did feel the sharp sting of a blister popping after an overzealous step up. It faded quickly, and I cruised, even feeling a little bit warm.
I crossed the train tracks, then reached the highway in town. A quarter mile off the trail and down the road, I loaded my pack into a shopping cart and pushed it up and down the isles of Kroger. It was an incredible store with absolutely everything. I almost wished that I needed to hike further to my next town so that I could take advantage of the tremendous offerings. However, not wanting to repeat the mistake I made in Pearisburg, I was conservative in what I chose, and made it out of there with a reasonable handful. 57 miles to Glasgow, two nights, two and a half days.
With some fresh food to snack on scattered around me, I posted up at an electrical outlet out front to charge. I ate and made a wonderful call home to California where SpiceRack was now hanging out with my parents for a few days. It was uplifting to see them all in one place enjoying one another’s company, baking cookies. Of course, it also made me a little bit homesick, but that’s just the way it goes. It’s a part of thru-hiking, maybe even an essential part, feeling far from the places once called home. Isn’t that what adventure is, after all?
With the sun set and darkness growing, the parking lot lights flickered on and I stretched my stiff legs. Time to find home for the night. I said goodbye to the people that bring my home with them wherever they go, then walked back to the trail, a boule of sourdough in my jacket.
A mile out if town, still within view of the many lights, and next to a busy interstate, I pitched my tent on the flattest spot I’d camped on in days. With no more eating left to do, I lay back and looked at the days ahead. I’d just walked into the next section of Virginia in my app, and so was now seeing the general direction ahead for the first time. Some good stuff coming, that’s for sure. The Big Mac was behind me now, but there was plenty more big things waiting out there for me. That is for certain. North Virginia, here I come.