Named for its prevalence in the little known town of Lyme Connecticut, Lyme disease is enemy number 1 on the Appalachian trail. Once the attrition rate begins to ween (north of the Mason Dixon), Lyme disease becomes one of the primary reasons hikers find themselves off-trail. The disease is a tick-born illness, one of the many, and can be extremely debilitating if not treated in a timely manner. The deer tick variety is the usual suspect for Lyme. This can be extremely problematic due to the pin-head size of these little vampires. 
Thus far, the majority of us have had a number of deer ticks on us. Generally they like to congregate around the warm/moist areas of the body. Waist bands, arm pits, groins, belly buttons, and hair lines are a few of the favorite hot spots for deer ticks. Often they can be seen scurrying across your legs or arms in search of a nice warm site to latch on, unlike the dog or wood ticks which will usually tap into you wherever they land. Fortunately for hikers, it takes at least 36 hours to contract Lyme disease. If a tick is found latched onto you within a day or so you can be confident that you have not gotten Lyme. That said, a daily (and very thorough) tick check is all one needs to avoid the sickness. 
If by chance you do happen to contract Lyme, the illness would show first as a red bulls-eye rash around the initial bite site. If still left unattended, the body will present additional bulls-eye rashes and you are now, for lack of a better phrase, shit outa luck. If you have let it get this bad, you are in for a long recovery. 
As a precautionary measure, many inkers have chosen to carry a course of doxycycline, the primary anti-biotic treatment for Lyme. As you might imagine, acquiring these drugs presents its own challenges. Without a current ailment, most doctors won't prescribe a course of anti-biotics. And even if they do, having something in your bag that you don't use every day will inevitably get wet. Your sleeping bag is usually your priority when is rains, then your food, then your clothes etc etc. Things like my beer coozy, my duct tape, and other things that get used on a now-and-again basis will inevitably get wet. I imagine pills would bloom into little popcorn looking pellets if they got wet. 


Cicada Village


I'm sure you have all heard the word "cicada" at one time or another, but it seems that perhaps the definition has been lost or misconstrued by most. This is apparent only because there appear to be so many people on the trail who are unaware of what these little creatures actually are and how their presence is significant. Cicadas are a locust species that live in a number of regions throughout the globe. The North American variety are usually concentrated in the south and make an appearance every 17 years. The cicada larva are deposited deep beneath the forest floor using small tunnels about the size of a quarter in diameter. There they spend the the vast majority of their lives maturing into a large flea-like insect. These things are nasty looking. They are about the size of a June Bug and colored a sandy brown. The front legs are angled backward like a preying mantis and the head is a smooth blank pellet devoid of eyes or any other features which would distinguish it as the head. On the 17th year, after the temperature reaches a palatable level, the cicadas arise from their sleepy lair and take to the trees in droves. They cling to the underside of leaves, we noticed specifically oaks and aspens. Although I'm sure they settle upon the leaves of other deciduous species, we just happen to notice dense pocket of them clung these two types of trees. I do not know why they stay away from conifers, our theory is that they use the leaves as a food source and sun protection. 
Once these little buggers molt, a relatively large winged alien rises from the ugly flea-like casings. Don't get me wrong, the adult cicadas are ugly as all hell too. They have a large black and orange body about 2 inches in length and big red eyes about the size of a lentil. After the molt, there are literally millions of these little bastards. Looking out into the fields and open areas along the trail one can see swarms of these things flying around their colony trees. From this point, the cicadas have about 3-4 weeks to procreate and deliver their larva down into the underground caverns. During this period, the cicadas make an ungodly noise. I swear to all things holy, if I could have wiped cicadas off the face of the earth I would have. These things are completely and totally annoying. Individually they are relatively quiet. If you raise one up to your ear you can hear a faint squeaking noise but a single cicada wont produce enough noise to bother you. In swarms however, these guys will create a noise that is reminiscent of an industrial gas generator. The forest is alive with the cycle of gradually rising and falling screeches. At times the noise is deafening. Rob and I have been in situations where we literally could not have a conversation over the noise. Annoyance aside, it would be most unfortunate if we did not welcome any and all experiences this trip has to offer. We can now say that we were part of the 1 in 17 groups of AT thru hikers that hiked through a cicada year. Seeing entire trees eaten to bits, swarms of cicadas so big they looked more like rain clouds than bugs and yes, the overwhelmingly frustrating sounds of cicada mating are all things we are happy to have been a part of. 
Rob has taken to calling areas of high concentration (of anything) a "village" or a "nation". For instance, when we arrive in a wide open field of tall grass he refers the area as "tick nation". Or when we were on the river he referred to the farm lands as "cow village". Without a doubt these titles have risen from his experiences in the middle east. Commonly referred to as "sand nation". My all time favorite was the description of a Pennsylvania as "rock nation". Thus the title of this post. 


Row row row yer boat!

As I've mentioned, the town of Waynesboro is the jump off point for any hikers who would like to rent some canoes and paddle down the Shenandoah River. Our first major issue was deciding which company to rent from. The primary rental company (aqua blaze solutions) sells the canoe to the participants for $600 and buys it back for $220 providing there is no damage to the boat. Since we aren't the Rockefellers, we chose to investigate the other options and found a company called Front Royal Canoe Company who would rent us the boats for $230, bringing down the price per person to a cool $115. Deal.

We organized a group of 6: talula, Novy, Fig, Pepa, powderpuff (Michigan, the only one I have not yet introduced), and myself. The FRCC met us at a town called port republic and we were on our way. 1 hour, literally within the first 5 miles, rob manages to get his canoe pinned against a rock in a rapid. The boat tipped just enough to let in the rushing water and within seconds the boat was completely full of water with all the contents floating down the river. The contents included both his and figs packs, all the food along with the cooler that housed it, all the warm (reserve) beer, and a number of nic-nacs associated with canoeing (life jackets, ropes, paddles, bailors, etc). To add insult to injury, the weight of the water rushing through the yoke, thwarts, seats and gunnels actually bent the canoe in half. I say bent only because I can't say broke. Somehow the fiberglass did not perforate, crack or even crease. Once we all made our way back up through the rapids on foot (so comical) we managed to flip the canoe and rob drug it ashore in attempts to correct the shape of the folded canoe (the S.S. Tumbleweed)

In the meantime, Novy and I jumped back into the H.M.S. Beverage (our seaworthy vessel was in charge of the cold beverages... If another canoe needed a refill, they would simply holler "BEVERAAAAGE" down through the canal and we would dock alongside for beverage services. Considering Novy was the captain (the sleaziest sleaze of the seven seas) and I the first mate, he pulled rank and named our vessel with the Canadian prefix "her majesties ship" (H.M.S).

Camping along the banks of the Shenandoah isn't the most convenient task. While on the trail, camping is fairly easy. The woods are primarily public land which means all you need is a flat spot for a tent or a couple appropriately distanced trees to hang a hammock, this is not the case on the river. Most of the land is private. Camps, cottages, private camp grounds, farms and year round residences make up the majority of the river bank. Because the maps are nowhere near as useful or as accurate as AWOL's AT data book, we were forced to sort of guess how far we had come and how far remained before reaching a public stretch of land or an uninhibited island suitable for camping. Of the six nights we spent on the river, I estimate that we trespassed at least 4 of them. By and large the trespassing can go fairly unnoticed, but knowing that you could be kicked off your camp site or held at gun point by some backcountry farmer was a possibility I found less than comforting.

The river itself was actually a bit dirty in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, the Shenandoah is gorgeous and we had impeccable conditions for a week on the water but one cannot help but notice the plethora of discarded tires and beer cans that line the banks and river bottom. Within the first 15 minutes of launching our boats from Port Republic, we came across a dead floating deer that appeared to have been there for a number of days if not weeks. Yum. The FRCC had also warned us that any fish we caught in the river were unsafe to eat as a result of a mercury spill caused by the Du Pont chemical company in 1930. Apparently mercury is one of those things that doesn't magically evaporate after 83 years. Pity. Despite the warnings I had still planned to treat and drink the river water until we noticed the immense amount of cattle farms that line the banks. Farmers allow their cattle access to the river so they may spend the hottest part of the day wading in the water. Sounds refreshing for the cows but the pods of heifers spewing cow shit directly into the river made me rethink my decision not to carry fresh water.

Without a doubt the most eventful morning of the trip came on day 4. After we had coffee and breakfast there came a crashing counts form the opposite bank. As we peered across the river to see what all the commotion was we took note of the 70 foot cliff that faced our camp site. Upon further investigation we noticed that a light brown colored animal was flailing around in the overgrown foliage. It was a young doe that had fallen off the cliff. We speculated that it had either made a fatal miscalculation in footing or had been chased off the rock face by a predator. Coyotes have been known to run deer until exhaustion and if I had the choice I would certainly nose dive off a cliff before I was eaten alive by a pack of small mangy dogs.

(you may find the following a bit upsetting)

At any rate, the deer was fatally injured but still alive and by this time had panicked it's way into the water. As it hit the water we noticed a plume of red from the rear and mouth of the animal. This would suggest an excessive amount of internal bleeding, only confirming our theory that the animal would not survive. Being that we have a reputation to uphold as the boys of Maine, Rob and Novy took to the canoe while I waded into the water to corner the animal. She did her best to evade us but the back legs and spine were so damaged from the fall that escaping wasn't going to happen. The girls on the bank were instructed to look away while rob delivered the finishing blow with one of our canoe paddles. She went quick. Quicker than if we had allowed her to pass from the injuries sustained after the fall. It was the only escape we could offer the animal. Now that we had a freshly killed deer to deal with.... There was only one thing to do. Spread the legs with a canoe paddle, hoist the deer into a tree, gut it, skin it, and take the back-straps and tenderloins. Why waist it? Something tells me the coyotes eat pretty good around here so we decided not to leave the choice cuts for them. Novy had never participated in the processing of a deer so this episode also served as a tutorial for our Canadian counterpart. With 3 or 4 pounds of fresh venison tightly packed in the ice, we continued our voyage in shock of the mornings events.

All in all, the aqua blaze was a hell of a time. We did 95 miles over the course of 6 days. A light workload of about 16 miles per day. It was surprising how little paddling you had to do to travel 16 miles with a current under you. Not to mention that floating down a sun soaked river with your friends and an endless supply of beer doesn't exactly seem stressful.

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After Trail Days, Rob and I were finally headed northbound again. Seeing as we had southbounded the section spanning from Roanoke south to Atkins, VA, we would inevitably have to catch a ride back north to Roanoke where we had originally began heading south. Sounds confusing but the gist is that we were walking south and after the festival are now heading north again. The next section spans 130 miles from Roanoke to Waynesboro, a task we hoped would consume about 8 days of our time, with a quick stop over in Buena Vista to resupply. This was a really cool section. For one, the terrain is relatively easy in comparison to the rest of the trail but somewhat challenging for the state of Virginia. The section included two 4,000 ft elevations called "the priest" and "the 3 ridges". Both of which had some unbelievable views and some really awesome outcroppings which supply hikers with some perspective on where they are in the mountain range. Another reason this section struck us as unique is due to the unmistakeable transition from spring to summer. Spring is short here in VA. By the end of may the forest is completely green. The trees have filled in and the forest floor has become overgrown with waste high vegetation. Gone are the days of brown leaves carpeting the forest floor. As we approached Buena Vista, about half way through the section, we came across a 500' bridge that spans the James River. The bridge is foot traffic only and exists solely to deliver hikers from one side of the James to the other. Being that the river is fairly wide, we assumed that it was also fairly deep. Deep enough (hopefully) for 200lb adults to jump into it from the bridge 30 feet above. Having heard of a bridge that you could jump off, we figured we were in the right place so we seized the moment, dropped trou in the middle of the afternoon in plain sight of the public and hopped over the guardrail. WAHoOoOoOo! As you may have assumed since I'm writing to you now... The water was deep enough. We sorta figured it was. 
With summer splashing and frolicking out of our system, we made tracks for Waynesboro, the town which we have arranged to aqua-blaze out of. As the last few miles of the leg began to dwindle, we decided we would camp just outside Waynesboro to save ourselves a few sheckles. We had friends that were behind us on the trail that we had planned to aqua blaze with so we would have to wait for them in town anyways, might as well just camp and save the jing.
Having already set up camp and getting ready to make dinner, a friend who we had assumed was infront of us (and thus already in town) appeared from the forest looking clean and freshly showered. Turns out that he (Easy E) and his pal Sharky had taken a local secret side trail up to the camp sight and were there to persuade us into town a night early. Sharky told us about his home that we could actually see about 2000 feet below in a nearby valley, told us that we would be free to camp on the lawn and that we could swing in town for all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. SOLD! 
We packed up the tents in record time and Sharky, Easy, the Dude, Mallet, Rob and myself quickly traipsed through the neglected side trail, dodging fallen tree limbs, piles of river debris and giant rotten logs all the way to the road. 
The early escape from the woods was well worth it. Sharky is an awesome dude and just the type to have earned the title of trail angel. His home is beautiful and he regularly opens his doors to AT hikers to enjoy the gorgeous views from his property. After Chinese food and beer, we enjoyed a long and restful night sleep and awoke to Sharky making piles of coffee and a spinach/feta scramble. So unreal. After breakfast Sharky handed rob the keys to his car and told us how to get to wal mart so we could do our resupply. Having been invited to spend another night in sharky's hot tub in the foot hills of the Appalachians, we decided grab the supplies for homemade pizza and a quick stop at the state-run alcoholic beverage commission. GAME ON. 


Trail Days


As I have mentioned before, there is a festival called Trail Days which is held in Damascus VA, May 17th-19th. The events are centered around the AT and backpacking in general. Much like a state fair, there are. Number of food and beverage vendors as well as crafts and local produce up for purchase, but the reason most thru hikers attend Trail Days is for the gear and the party. The town is divided into two congregation areas. The first is about 2 miles outside town and is the designated camping area known as "tent city". It lives up to its name. This section of town is where all the camping and craziness takes place as well as the spot where all the big name gear companies are set up for repairs and exchanges. The second are is the town center. This is where one would go to get a bite to eat or to visit gear companies that attend Trail Days on a more sales-oriented basis. The larger manufacturers that are allowed to set up shop right next to where the hikers are camped are generally there to service any malfunctioning or damaged gear. They come with an army of gear techs and tables upon tables of tools, sewing machines and rolls of nylon fabric. This is an unique service and a large part of the reason people migrate back to Damascus for the festival. We tend to forget that the mud stained, mildew laced pack we have slung over our shoulders is actually housing about $2,000 worth of gear if ot more. As well made as these articles are, they still break down when you use them every day. Having the manufacturer come to you, take in your gear, fix it like new, and then hand it back to you with maybe a free doo-dad or additional piece of gear is a wicked service. 
Tent city itself is half field and half woods with a river running along the edge of the forest, camp sites and big event tents set up throughout. There were probably 2,500 people camped in a 20 acre space. The turnout was much smaller than we anticipated but, then again, the validity of information that trickles through the trail tends to be fairly diluted. At any rate, the party scene was pretty much exactly what we expected. Big fires, cheap beer, tye dye, harmonicas, frisbee, hacky sack, banjos, dred lockes, drum circles, body painting, big beards and course; ganja. The whole place turned into the quintessential hippie combine for a 72 hour period. We definitely land on the conservative side of the hiker spectrum but it was a hell of an experience to see such a free spirited lot in a contemporary setting. There were definitely a few people out there who were born in the wrong generation, viewing the full-on hippie culture up close was like going back in time. 
The keystone of the festival is the thru-hiker parade that takes place on Saturday and is made solely of previous and current thru hikers. The hikers get dressed up in everything silly they can get their hands on and march through the streets arranged by the year they hiked. The most senior thru hikers lead the parade, with current hikers bringing up the rear. The whole mob is equipped with squirt guns, water balloons and five gallon buckets to splash each other as well as onlookers lining the streets. we had gotten about 300 yards through the 1 mile march before pandemonium broke out. A local older fella who drives in the parade each year had some sort of episode which caused him to lose consciousness. He had forgotten completely that he was supposed to be driving slowly behind a parade and instead hit the gas, plowing through the back portion of the parade. We looked to our right to investigate the commotion and saw an old Cadillac literally driving over people that we had just been standing next to. The crowd scattered. Every person in the area was screaming bloody murder and those that had been right near the vehicle (our group included) began running along-side the vehicle to try to stop the car. Once the car was stopped (by a member of our group, Big Yankee), the surrounding people muckled onto the chassis (lead by Thunderfoot, another member) and lifted the car off from a young girl who had ended up under the vehicle at the time it was stopped. You could hear her over everyone. It was absolutely horrifying. After we scurried around to make sure everyone was accounted for, the mood quickly went from a big silly party to a state of emergency. The crowd squeezed on the side walks and ambulances screeched down the road. Paramedics attended to a lane of scattered hikers laying on the road. Helicopters were touching down at any space large enough to accommodate one. Four injured hikers were air lifted to whichever hospital is closest. Anyone who was unscathed was directed to leave the main drag and go back to tent city. Party's over. 
Being that the mood had just gone from happy-go-lucky to utter shock, we all just went back to our respective camp sites and cooled down. We got together and said a word or two for those who had been rushed to the hospital and made our arrangements for our departure the following day. Having received some follow-up news that those affected would be okay, we are able to look back on Trail Days fondly.