Day 22: Abingdon Gap Shelter to Damascus, VA – 10.2mi
After trudging 32 miles yesterday, I was so beat that I could barely stay awake long enough to finish my dinner. The shelter was full, but it was a nice night so I didn’t mind being outside and exposed. In fact, it ended up being the first night that I slept without my down jacket on – imagine that!
I decided to sleep in a little bit and didn’t get on the trail until 8am after cooking breakfast and packing up. I knew rain was coming so I kept my poncho handy, but it ended up being dry for the first couple of hours. The wind was picking up and spraying little bits of rain until it finally opened up and started pouring. I stopped and wrestled to get my poncho on while the gusts were blowing it in every direction. I eventually managed to get it on and continued hiking.
The trail was essentially all downhill to Damascus, and my knee was not having it. I was stumbling around like Frankenstein and was very slow. I passed by the TN/VA state line, marking entry into the fourth state of the trail, and bumbled along for another 3.5 miles into town. By the time I reached Damascus, it was still raining hard and anything exposed (e.g. my feet and hands) was soaked. My knee was desperate for a break as I hobbled to Woodchuck Hostel, arriving at 12:30.
After Woodchuck showed me around, I was happy to see that although I only have a tentsite for the night, the sites are under a covered pavilion with a nice gravel base. For $14 I get the site, access to the main house/shower/kitchen, and free breakfast. Can’t beat that!
While hanging out this afternoon and learning that there was space inside tomorrow evening, I decided to take another zero. I need to figure out what’s going on with my knee and I may need to re-evaluate my pace and plans.
Day 23: Zero Day in Damascus
Soon after arriving at Woodchuck’s Hostel last night, I knew I already needed another day of rest. Luckily, they had a bed available for the next night so I snagged it before it got booked. Woodchuck was getting calls all evening from hikers wanting to stay, as more bad weather was rolling in and everyone wanted to be warm and dry.
Because it rained for most of the evening last night, I stayed in the house as long as I could before going outside to my tent. At about 9:30pm, everyone was in bed so I headed outside. The temperature was nice – in the high 50s, I’d say – and I was able to sleep comfortably most of the night. I woke up around 4am and noticed the temperature had dropped significantly, so I put on another jacket and went back to sleep until 7.
After getting up, I went into the house where breakfast was being served. There were stacks of blueberry waffles, piles of homefries, and buckets (yes, buckets) of hardboiled eggs. It was fantastic. I ate my fair share, chatted with the other hikers, and then assumed the position in a reclining chair to wait until turnover was complete so I could move my stuff inside. Once that shuffle was done, I went for a walk into town.
There isn’t much going on in downtown Damascus, VA, if you can believe it. It’s known as “Trail Town, USA” as a number of hiking and biking paths cross through it, but it’s still a bit early in the season for everything to be operational. The biggest celebration of the hiking year, Trail Days, takes place here in May of each year (18th-20th this year), so that’s when things really kick off. They have gear vendors, workshops, music, and even a ‘hiker talent show”. I’ll be long gone by then, of course, but I hear it’s quite the spectacle.
I circled back around town and stopped at the library, where they have computers that are free to use. I’ve had great success at the libraries I’ve visited along the trail (Hot Springs and here) as the computers are in great shape and the staff is incredibly friendly. It’s a wonderful service and really helps me catch up on writing and posting.
While here, I am also taking a hard look at my upcoming schedule. It’s clear that unless my knee improves, I will not be able to maintain my current pace. I reworked my schedule a bit in order to manage expectations and lower the mileage until I get to Harper’s Ferry, which is about 500mi from here and the unofficial halfway point of the trail (the actual halfway point is a bit further).
Day 23: Damascus to Lone Mountain Shelter – 16mi
Last night I slept great on the bed at Woodchuck’s hostel. It was very comfortable and, for once, the temperature inside wasn’t crazy hot as it had been at other hostels. I was glad to be inside, as it was below freezing snowing outside (just flurries). I had more waffles for breakfast, which were great, and took my time getting ready to leave. I had all day to make it to my destination, 15mi in, so there was no real rush.
I did eventually head out at about 8:30, and the trail goes directly down the main street of town. I decided to stop in to Mount Rogers Outfitters, known as the best outfitter along the AT, to look at some shoes. I was hoping to try some on of varying brands to see what my size is in case I am unable to get Altras at any time.
Before I knew it, the owner was having me trying on a pair of Oboz hiking shoes (pretty much all they carried) and was telling me all the benefits. He seemed to know a lot about footwear and correctly determined that I’d need something wide. He is not a fan of the Altras and their “zero drop” technology for backpacking because those shoes are not meant to handle the impact of someone wearing a pack, he said. He made several good points about the positive effects of having a stable insole and the impact it can have on saving your knees.
At this point, I was pretty much sold. Of course the owner’s aim is to convince people to buy his products, but I knew that what I had currently (worn out Altra Timps) were not working and certainly not doing my knees any favors. I decided to buy a pair of Oboz Sawtooth shoes (which are popular among hikers, and the brand is solid from what I’ve read) to give them a shot.
I headed out on the trail with my new shoes and a renewed hope. After passing through downtown, the trail turns down another street before linking up with the Virginia Creeper Trail, which it followed for maybe a half mile before splitting off into the woods.
I was taking it very slow, wary of my knee and a bit unsteady in my shoes. Almost immediately, I could tell the difference and began to feel a slight pinch around the base of my toes, undoubtedly from the new (non-Altra) toe box. I knew these shoes would require an adjustment period, but I didn’t know what form that would take. As it turns out, it takes the form of feeling like my feet were being bound. After 6 or 7 miles the strange sensation turned to pain, and I spent the remaining 9 miles of the day debating whether or not to just go barefoot.
It’s been a long time since I’ve worn a shoe like this, but stopping every 3-4mi to take my shoes off and relieve the pain is not something I remember having to do. What is likely happening is that the adjustment pain is being exacerbated by my full pack and making it harder to adjust. It feels like I’m starting over at Springer Mountain with no training whatsoever. I’m glad I had a short day today, because it took me forever to get to the shelter. On the other hand, my knee played well. There weren’t any steep descents, which usually cause the pain, but there were some hills here and there. I definitely felt the soreness, but I wasn’t limping around like Quasimodo for a change.
I eventually made it at about 6pm. It’s a very popular stop for those coming from Damascus, so it’s completely full yet again. Luckily, the weather has improved significantly and it’s only supposed to be on the 40s tonight, which is a nice improvement.
I went and hung out with the other hikers near the shelter for a while, a they had a nice fire going and I wasn’t ready for bed yet. I got to talking to a couple of them about my knee issues and how maybe my name should be changed from “Flash” to “Crash and Burn”. One of the guys, “2 Clicks”, said that he works in a physical therapy office and knows what the problem is: tight glutes and an inflamed IT band, called IT Band Syndrome. He told me about how the IT band goes from your lower back over your gluteus, then down to your knee. He said that when your glutes get tight, it pulls on the IT band and stretches it. Because the band is very strong itself, you only feel the pain in the weakest point: where it crosses over the knee. He claimed that if I do some concentrated stretches a couple of times per day, that it should loosen things up and relieve the pain. Another hiker, Brayden, said that he had the same issue a few days after he started, followed the advice of 2 Clicks, and now is pain free. Wow. It’s crazy to think that this might actually work, so I’ll definitely be trying it out. I can’t believe that I never came across any of this information in my research or training over the years. You don’t know what you don’t know!
Tomorrow I’ll try to get in 17mi. Hopefully my feet continue to adjust and my knee acts right.
Day 24: Iron Mountain Shelter to Wise Shelter – 17.5mi
I got up a little later than usual, about 7, and did some stretches before packing up and having breakfast. The others in the shelter were up pretty early as well and most were on the trail before me.
I headed out at about 7:45 and had an easy morning. Not much discomfort in either my knee or feet in the beginning, which was nice. The major point of interest today was passing through the Grayson Highlands, where there are wild ponies running around. I saw a handful of them throughout the afternoon and they were pretty tame – had no issues coming up to you. Some of the other guys were petting them and the ponies licked the salt off their arms. I didn’t try messing with them, though.
The terrain was decently smooth in the morning but got more technical and very rocky later. After about 12mi, my feet were starting to hurt fiercely but my knee was holding up. I had stopped to stretch my glutes a couple of times since I left that morning, and it seemed to be making a difference already. My feet, though, seem to be having a bit of trouble adjusting to the new shoes. Having the extra arch support seems to be putting a lot of force on the outside of my feet, which I’m not used to, and causing quite a bit of pain. It was better today than yesterday, though, so I’m hoping they continue to improve over the next few days. If I can get my feet and knee back in order, I can start working my mileage back up and maybe get back on track.
A couple of miles before the shelter, I came across a group (most of the people from the shelter last night) sitting in a field. One of the guys, Honeybun, had his father meet them out there to provide trail magic. They had fruit, cookies, and some granola bars. It was very nice. We all hung out for a while before moving out toward the shelter.
I got to the shelter at about 4:30pm, one of my earliest days, and got a spot in the shelter for the night. Pretty much everyone from the shelter last night is here, which is cool.
Tomorrow I’m planning to do 21mi to another shelter.
Day 25: Wise Shelter to Trimpi Shelter – 20.1mi
Last night the temperature was supposed to dropped significantly from the nice 70-degree weather we’d had all day. While it’s did indeed drop, it wasn’t too bad. It did rain at some point during the night, and I was glad to be inside the shelter and not having to deal with it.
The others in the shelter began to stir at about 6:30, and I got up with them. Everyone left at different times, but I was hiking by 7:15. The weather was now quite cold, probably in the low 40s, and the wind was howling. It wasn’t too bad until the trail got to the top of an exposed hill, and we were being blasted by the air so hard that I almost blew over! It was super cold and hard to get across, but after about a mile the trail dipped back into the woods and out of reach of the harassing winds.
For the next few miles, I alternated my hands in my pockets to regain feeling in my fingers. Even with gloves, the wind had chilled everything to the bone. The trail was decent, but I was moving slow. Everyone from the shelter who left after me had already passed, them sailing along while I bumbled over rocks and around roots. Because of my knee and tender feet, it sometimes feels like I’m at the beginning of my hike – dealing with early-on injuries and doing low miles. It’s crazy to think that three weeks ago I was averaging a marathon per day, and now it takes everything I have to do 18.
That being said, I’m improving day by day. Since I got my new shoes, every day has been the worst on my feet. However, my mileage is increasing slowly. I started with 15mi, then 17.5, then 20. Every day was hard, but each day I feel better for longer until the wheels fall off.
Today, I caught up with a few folks from the shelter (2Clicks, Slider, and Homebound) as they were finishing up their lunch. Instead of stopping, I decided to follow them and ended up getting into a nice and fast rhythm that lasted for almost 3 hours and we crushed 9mi. When we were within a couple miles of the shelter, I finally took a break. My feet were trashed and it was hard to get up, but I did stumble my way to the shelter, arriving at 3:30pm. It’s almost a shame to waste the afternoon and not hike any additional miles, but my feet needed a rest. I had a quick thought that maybe I would eat and then do a few more miles, but after I took my shoes off and got comfortable that was it.
It’s supposed to be even colder tonight, so I’m thankful to be in the shelter again. Tomorrow I’ll make the push to Atkins, where I have a reservation at the Comfort Inn and a package waiting. It’s 21.4mi and I’ll have to hitch into town. Should be interesting.
Day 27: Trimpi Shelter to Atkins, VA – 24.5mi
Last night was quite nice. The shelter we stayed in had a fire place, so some of the others gathered a bunch of wood and got a nice one going that kept the whole place warm for hours. It did indeed cool down significantly, as expected, and was at or below freezing when we got moving at 6:30.
I was maybe the 4th person on the trail today, but as usual I got passed by the rest in short order. The trail was some of the least difficult so far – minimal rocks (at first, anyway) and not too steep. I got into a good rhythm for about 2 hours, but then my IT band issues flared up. I stopped several times to stretch but it wasn’t helping much. I limped along for a couple more miles and arrived at the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area Visitor’s Center, where the others I’ve been hiking with were all stopping. There’s a shuttle that takes people in to the nearby town of Marion, and you can also get pizza delivered there.
I, however, was continuing on to Atkins which was another 11mi ahead. By now (11am), the sun had come up and it was turning into a very nice day. A mile or so in, I stopped for a longer break to eat and stretch. After that, I was back on trail trying to get through the last leg of the day. My knee slowly began to feeling better, and I was able to get back into a nice groove.
About 3mi from Atkins there was a sign indicating that trail magic was available close by. It turned out that one of the local churches leaves items in an old school house nearby for hikers, so I went to check it out. The building itself dates back to the mid 1800s and still has original desks inside. There were a couple of other hikers inside, so I chatted with them before going for the goodies. Their spread was incredible (as all church-sponsored ones seem to be!). They had cold sodas and good snacks, but what was most impressive was their tub of other items that included first aid, toilet paper, carabiners, safety pins, hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, and just about anything else a hiker would need. It was spectacular and really helped boost my mood.
I headed back on to the trail and sailed thru the last 3mi to Atkins. There, the trail unceremoniously ends at a two-lane thoroughfare. The town of Atkins and the hotel I was staying at (Comfort Inn) is about 4mi east, so I began walking in the direction and hoping to hitch a ride. I didn’t end up convincing anyone to stop for me – in fact people made a pretty conscious effort to swing way around to avoid even the appearance that they’d pull over – and I ended up walking the entire way. I stopped by Dollar General, which is about a half mile before the hotel, for some supplies before finally being done for the day.
The guy at the hotel’s reception, Mark, was super nice and helpful when I arrived. He gave me my packages (shoes which were being returned), recommended a place for dinner that delivers to the hotel (yessss!) and answered all my questions. This place is pretty nice for what it is, and the fact that it has free breakfast is awesome. I ordered some food, washed my socks in the shower (boy, did they need it!) and watched some TV. Who knew that Snoop Dogg hosts a game show?!
Tomorrow I’m only scheduled to do 14mi. I saw a couple other hikers roll in as my food was getting delivered and if I see them in the morning I might try to get a ride back to the trailhead with them. I sure as hell don’t want to walk it again, so it’s either that or a taxi.
Day 28: Atkins, VA to Chestnut Knob Shelter – 24.1mi
Today was great! It started off with waking up in a comfy bed at the Comfort Inn, followed by an awesome breakfast where I ate my weight in waffles, donuts, and everything else I could get my hands on. While there, one of the hikers I saw the night before, Turbo, struck up a conversation and we chatted for a while. I asked them about a ride to the trailhead and they said they had a guy that would bring us for $5 each. Sweet! About an hour later, we were on the trail.
The terrain today was very forgiving. There were several climbs, but the grade was gradual and the footing solid. There were some rocks here and there, but nothing ridiculous. I walked through farmlands, climber over barbed wires fences, and crossed several streams. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny and in the 70s – and everything was going well.
With my new schedule, I had planned to stop at the Knot Maul Branch shelter, which would have made for a 14mi day. When I got there, though, it was only 3pm and I was still feeling good, so I decided to press on. Two others whom I had hiked with over the past couple of days, Duracell and Honeybun, were also planning to push to the next shelter. I took a break for lunch, did some stretching for my IT band, and then headed out.
The remaining 9mi included a solid climb of about 2,000ft, but it was stretched over about 3mi so it wasn’t intense the whole way. At the top is the shelter, also known as the Firewarden’s Cabin, which is one of the few shelters with a door. There were 7 or 8 tents set up, but oddly just one other in the shelter so I saddled up. I met a couple from Scotland who I recognized as being fellow writers at TheTrek and whom I also follow on Instagram. I also met another guy, Ghost, who is the only one I’ve met who started after me. He began on March 29 (4 days after me) and hasn’t taken a zero yet. Cool guy from Indiana, but if I didn’t know any better I would have thought he was out on his first hike ever. I remarked that we both had the same tent, the Zpacks Solplex, and he responded with, “oh, is that what it is?”. This dude has one of the lightest, most advanced, and expensive tents on the market and he didn’t even know what it was. He also told us a story about how he didn’t know how to treat water and got some strange looks in one of the Outfitters when asking about it. He must be doing something right, though, to make it this far so fast!
Tomorrow I plan to do another 22-24mi, depending on the terrain. Rain is on the way Monday and Tuesday so I’m trying to time it so that I’ll be in a hostel on Tuesday night, but I need to cover about 55 miles before then to make it happen.
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances. He is a Lead Guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures and the New England Outdoor Center.