Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shenandoahs and Shenanigans


Farewell to the Shenandoah National Park! We are happy and sad. Happy because we're getting closer and closer to Harpers Ferry, WV which is just 3 hiking days away. Happy because Harpers Ferry is known as the "psychological halfway point" because it takes you out of the 547-mile stretch through Virginia and puts you at mile marker 1,000. Amazing! Yeehaw!! But sad because the Shenandoahs will be remembered for the views, the mild hiking and the blackberry milkshakes.

Yesterday Brahma, Thinker, Longshot and I left the park together. (Longshot is an old friend on the trail but we reunited with him in the last 100 miles or so. He is from Vermont and reminds me of Glen Hansard. When we saw him again he had traded in his shorts for a hiking kilt and sprouted a red beard). It took us about 5 days to get through the Shennies and overall it was a great experience. Not only did we get to hike with Buck and Fleur the Canadians, the terrain was more moderate than other parts of the trail and while there were still climbs, they were more graded and shorter. This allowed us to do some big mileage days. Every 20 miles or so there were "waysides" where tourists (and hungry hikers) can buy $18 cheeseburgers and the Famous Shenandoah Blackberry Milkshake, which was nothing to scoff at. The AT also parallels the gorgeous Skyline Drive so every now and then we would hop out and get to walk on the road a little bit. Here are some pics from the Shenandoahs.

This is Longshot, Thinker, Dusty, Fleur and Buck on one of the many stone walls that borders Skyline Drive.

Wall walking.
A reflecting pool on top of .... one of the mountains. Can't remember which.

Um, or long.
Motorcycles and bears own the park. Right before we had our picture made with these bikes a bear sauntered across the road.

Our time in the Shennies was marked by sunny but cool days, mounting heat in the afternoon, a serious thunderstorm in the evening and then a drop in temp. Do you see this ominous storm? You can see exactly where the rain is coming out of the clouds above. We watched this until it got really really close. We were at an overlook on Skyline drive and suddenly the storm was upon us. So we pitched 2 tents, threw all our backpacks in one and all four of us jumped in the other until the storm passed. It was kinda exhilarating.

Waiting out the storm.


So here we are now in the land of milk and honey where the Cherry Pepsi flows like wine and the hot water knows no bounds. My aunt JJ picked us up yesterday afternoon when we exited the park and brought us to her and Don's home here in Northern VA. We hit the post office (where I got more mail from Mamaw Owen - thanks Mamaw!) and then took a long drive on the interstate. Coming off the trail where the fastest moving thing is a white-tailed deer, an infinite number of cars whizzing by is kinda euphoric. At least Longshot thinks so, right?

Some of the luxuries in JJ-Land are good - like bacon, cotton and soda. Others are great - like the overwhelming stash of B&B Works shower gel and the internet access. Others are dizzying. Like:

And later today we hope to catch a movie in the city and eat real buttered popcorn. Oh yeah baby. We'll also have to do chores - resupply at a grocery store, maybe find an outfitter to hit up, soak our shoes in battery acid because the smell would power a small village, write thank-you notes to many of the trail angels we've met along the way, throw Don's hand-made boomerangs in the backyard, take a dip in the pool.... I hate chores.

The trail gets better all the time. It's definitely the best when the weather is very warm (in my opinion) and when you have good friends to entertain you as you hike. The hospitality factor is also incredibly motivating, as you can imagine. Laundry mats are one thing, but to crash at a home like this is such a respite from the wilderness. Thank you again to all of you who have shown us such so much support! Mary Lynn, Trena, Carl and Scottie (everyone on the trail kept asking "How did you get your name on a sign??"), and now JJ & Don.

We are sooooo super excited to be reaching the halfway point very soon. After West Virgina we'll hit Maryland for 40-something miles and then - Pennsylvania!

Last I will leave you with a smattering of pics from the past month.

Cooking dinner on my Thermarest.

Green T showing me the flea collar system (that little aqua loop on her boot is a piece of a flea collar to repel ticks). This girl is a beast. She and her boyfriend have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
Ahhh, an unforgettable summer meal in Waynesboro and Carl and Scottie's abode.

Stealing unpasteurized milk at Mary Lynn's dairy farm. (Pick, Thinker, Brahma).

A dairy farm at night.
Bridge jumping - I forgot to put these in the earlier post. Even though he also pulled a sweet front flip from this height, in this pic I think Dust looks like a little girl jumping rope. hee hee

I was more pleased with my form!

'Til next time!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bridge Jumping, Slackpacking and a Warm Waynesboro Welcome

Greetings from mile marker 850! We are now in Waynesboro, VA getting ready to enter the Shenandoahs tomorrow.
Thanks to a host of trail angels the past few days have been marked with fun, efficiency and lots of relief from heat, hunger and exhaustion. Of course it began with Mary Lynn's incredible hospitality in the stretch from here back to Glasgow. Besides slumming around her amazing house eating her amazing food, she made 3 days of slackpacking possible for us.

Slack-packing. n.

1. the act of hiking without one's backpack

2. the ability to cover copious miles with ease

3. cheating

Whatever you want to call it, we basically got to get dropped off on the trail, walk for miles and miles (we did a total of 39 miles in 3 days) and then hop in a car and drive home to a shower and pot roast at the end of the day. It was really incredible.

Then we rolled in to Waynesboro and got a really cool and unexpected surprise. Our name in lights!

How cool is that? Our friends Carl and Scottie know the owners of this business right in the middle of town and they had a little marquee waiting for us!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Magic of Magic

**Added photos to this post below.

So I know I've mentioned trail magic before but I'm not sure I've elaborated on the potent joy it brings to a thru-hiker. The last few days have brought a windfall of some serious trail magic.

Right now I'm sitting in a cool air-conditioned kitchen overlooking a 500-acre dairy farm. I kid you not. We're near Buena Vista and Glasgow but more specifically, I don't know where we are. We met this guy Vachon (means tender of cattle in French) on the trail whose wifey poo Mary Lynn has taken a bunch of us in. Vachon is further up on the trail in the Shenandoahs but we're crashed at his pad. Brahma, The Thinker, Freefall, Twinkletoes, Cookie Monster and myself. I'm getting ready to make dinner - tortellini and meat sause - but first I'm eating some of the best homemade potato salad ever and sitting here at this superb residence.

Lately Dustan and I have been hiking with a super cool guy The Thinker. Thinker is from the upper peninsula in Michigan. He is a ski instructor and he actually works on a CSA! The CSA where he works has an artisan apple cider press, a veggie operation, a chicken coop, berries, its own irrigation system, 50 shareholders and it supplies local restaurants and grocery markets with fresh food. Dude, we have tons to talk about. Thinker is awesome.

The heat is ridiculous. Sweat comes out of our pores with little to no effort and we drink water like it's our profession (well, it kinda is our profession). The swimming holes are amazing. Today we came to the James River and jumped off the bridge and lounged in the water. We popped out and found some small trail magic (Trident, a bag of Jelly Bellies, box of Krispy Kreme donuts, Swiss Cake Rolls and 5 tall cans of lukewarm Coors Light) someone had left. That's when Mary Lynn came and picked us up.

I know I'm miserably behind in photos. There are so many photos I want to share. The pic of me when I cut my face (but it's completely healed now), 2 rad butterflies, ponies, our first motel pool experience, Thinker's nosebleed and today's pictures of bridge jumping. I will try to jump back on the computer tonight after the pasta feed and upload pictures.

Just one last story of trail magic. A few days ago Thinker, Brahma and I rolled in to Catawba on the cusp of a deluge with a need for shelter and food and nothing around but a gas station. Fortunately they made burgers (and they were good) but there were no hotels, no cabs, and the nearest towns were Roanoke and Salem. So about 9 of us soggy hikers ate about all of the Little Debbie cakes we could and then decided to start making phone calls to local taxi services. We kept on coming up empty. Finally this woman steps out of her minivan and says "Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing - are you all looking for a place to stay?" We say yes. Chaco speaks up and says "You could just take us home with you," jokingly and she stands there for a sec with hands on hips and goes "You know what, get in. That's what I'm going to do."

Two shuttles later, we are ALL at Trena's house. She has 2 older kids. She has multiple pull-out beds, a full fridge and more hospitality than she knows what to do with. We all did laundry. We all showered. We ate tons of food and went through pots (plural) of coffee. The next morning she had a dentist appointment so she left the house to us and the keys to the pick-up truck. It was insane. Trail magic.

You have about a week to get mail to this address:
The Balkcoms
Post Office
Waynesboro, VA 22980
Please hold for AT thru-hiker

**Carl and Scottie we will be in Waynesboro by the 16th but we will call you as soon as tonight.**

The next one is Linden, VA 22642.

Ok, I think that is all the time I have now. I have to chop veggies for a salad and get the pasta boiling because Mary Lynn is on her way home from picking up 2 more hikers. Dinnertime in a real house! Sleeping in a real bed! Never ever ever take these simple luxuries for granted. If you need help appreciating them, sleep in your backyard tonight and eat breakfast with the gnats in the morning.

**Photo update:


Overlooking Burke's Garden, "God's thumbprint" - a verdant valley in a peculiar basin.

Wild pony in the Grayson Highlands.

Lily of the valley. This is for the Seasons gang. $8 a stem, right?

A blaze backdropped by a mountain range.

The Grayson Highlands.
Ok, this was my harsh reminder to look up more when wearing a cap. I basically smacked right into this tree, cut my face open and we kept on going.

On the mend.
Action shot.
Sweet! We found a burned piano in front of a spooky old burned hotel.

A deer in the woods that stalked us. She was so meek and sweet. She followed us .04 miles.
Reunited in Pearisburg with our friends, the Canadians Buck and Fleur.

Friends at a hiker feed: Captain, former thru-hiker, The Thinker, Last Minute, Brahma, Rabid and Pick.
Brahma in a stream. This is what you call a lunch break.

Dust caught a black snake.

Me on Dragon's Tooth. Here's the infamous Trena in her garage. Brahma, Sweet Potato, Trena, Johnny Thunder, The Thinker, her son Ian, Wack-a-pack and Chaco. Once again: uh.mazing.

The Thinker in his class "Thinker" pose on top of McAfee's Knob. Most photographed spot on the AT.

There's my tank of a husband on the same spot. Just looking at this picture causes me to wince.
I prefer the safer pose.

Once up there we realized we'd hit a milestone. 700 miles!
The pool in Daleville was our rich reward. How many times did I long to revisit this spot just hours later as we trudged up a sweltering climb, literally soaked in sweat?
Dustan's pack on the way out of town. You can always tell by the produce.

And I'm trying to air-dry my skirt and skivvies. Worked great in the heat.

History in the making. Ugh. Back to the woods.

Hikers crossing. That means keep it between the mayo and the mustard people, because you almost took my nose off. The Thinker and The Honeybee.
The butterfly and its kin, the backpack.
Ladyslipper. Another shout out to Seasons. Why it's tempting to do everything inside a tent nowadays. Why, if I were a guy, I would employ the chamber pot. Because insects are unrelenting from here on out.

Flat walking baby!
And last, one of my favorite places we've camped so far. Right in the middle of a cow pasture overlooking an amazing sunset.

Our bombproof MSR Hubba Hubba tent has taken us through every kind of weather possible and comes out on the other side with a gleaming 5-star review.