Salem Virginia is home to Roanoke college, a relatively small liberal arts college situated just outside the city of Roanoke. As we had planned since leaving Springer mountain, the first weekend in May was to be spent in Salem to celebrate our friend Alex Walker's (Birdie's) graduation. Unfortunately we did not quite make it to Roanoke by trail before the weekend was upon us so instead we made it to the town of Atkins Virginia and decided to hitch hike north to the school from there. Conveniently, Atkins is located along interstate 81, as is Salem, so obviously our fool proof plan to hitch a ride on the highway would be a cinch.
It turns out that hitch hiking is really only effective in and around locations central to the trail. Our efforts to assure people of our friendliness included two signs, one of which read "ROANOKE" which was intended to let people know not only where we were headed but also that we were college age people (the beards are deceiving). And another that read "USMC VETERAN" (guess whose was whose). We have learned that most people down south support 3 things: the church, the second amendment and vets. Cliche but unwaveringly true. At any rate, we didn't too far. Being that Roanoke is only 90 miles by road from Atkins, we figured we could seam together the distance with only a couple hitches. Being 0 for 1000 on assumptions, of course this was also wrong. We were picked up 3 times and traveled a grand total of 37 miles toward our destination. It only took about 3 hours...
Apparently people don't pull over for 2 grungy hitch hikers on the interstate, honestly I can't say I'm surprised. We were nowhere near a trail head and nobody had any real way of knowing we were AT hikers unless they had some insider knowledge on how to differentiate a hiker from a hobo (trekking poles are a dead give away for all you would-be ride sharers). Even our stellar roadside dance moves and seductive stances weren't doing much to drum up any rides. After much deliberation we opted to call Birdie and have him span the 50 or so miles we were short by. in hindsight I wish we had just began with this course of action and saved ourselves the humiliation (although I do believe some new dance maneuvers were born from this experience).
Joining us in Roanoke was Rob's girlfriend Kate (allo angel) and our fiends Chris and Matt (Birdie's brother), all of which share a common summer spot on Cliff Island in Portland. The weekend went pretty much exactly as you might imagine. One friend graduating from college while the other 4 relive their heyday, and relive we did. Time was split between a nearby hotel and Birdies place (the Trap house) to save on costs, but I think we still managed to swipe our cards enough times at the local watering hole to nullify any savings. All in all the Cliff Island reunion weekend went according to plan. The only issue Rob and I faced was how to negotiate the travel plans from here.
Considering we had driven ahead of ourselves by about 180 trail miles, the initial plan was to drive back south to Atkins where we had left off and continue North as usual. This would have been fine, except the Trail Days festival I have spoken about previously is only 10 days away at this point, at which time we would be again leaving the trail to head south back to Damascus, VA. And of course, after trail days we would then again have to hitch back north to wherever we left off. Lots of confusion is basically how this was set up. Our remedy for the issue at hand is fairly smart if I dare say so myself. We would simply southbound the 180 mile section back to Atkins. Being that Damascus is only about 25 miles by car from Atkins, it would be an easier hitch hiking goal, we wouldn't have to drive south before we hike north and frankly, the distance and time we were working with is perfect. 18 miles a day average is well within our abilities sparing at least a day on back and forth travel would allow us to makeup 1 of the 4 zero days we took at the graduation.
We realized after the fact, that as as added bonus we would be able to get a clear picture of where everyone was in our bubble of hikers because we would be hiking against the grain. Since most everyone hikes northbound we are constantly speculating where we are in relation to a certain person(s) and also where we are situated in terms of the bubble (the herd is partitioned into smaller groups of about 40-50 people that make up a bubble, these are the people you regularly run into in town or on trail. Generally people of the same bubble are similar in hiking strength and goals which is what keeps them clumped.)
Aside from having to explain this very story to dozens of people wondering why we were hiking in the wrong direction, the southbound experience has been quite pleasant. At times, you are faced with a climb that otherwise would have been a descent and you're legs are calling your brain how amazingly stupid this decision was. But by that same token, a northbound hiker inevitably will climb a mountain intended to be a southbound decent. We pawed through the elevation profiles for an hour tallying the ups and downs trying to weigh any differences in the difficulty. We found that with a stretch this long, it's really just 6 of 1. With a shooter distance, perhaps 20 miles or so, one might be able to argue that one direction is easier than another but at the end of the day, over the course of 180 miles, what goes up must come down.
What was disconcerting about the first leg of our southbound adventures, was the weather. As usual. Arriving at he southbound trail head nearest to Salem, Kate revealed to us the 7 day forecast. I hindsight we should probably have looked into it a bit sooner because ol' Joe Coupo was calling for 6 days of rain segmented by one lonely day of overcast. Sobbing was really the sort reasonable reaction to this news. Just as we stepped out of the car and Rob and Kate commented their ritual of goodbye PDA, it began to mist. Before we had 3 miles unrobe belt, it was an all-out downpour. And I'll be a son of a bitch, the weather report was right for the first time in 2 months, it didn't stop for over 100 hours.
We were told that at some point in the month of May, everything we owned would be wet. This was that point. Sleeping bags, tents, clothes, packs, food and of corpse boots... SOAKED. I was cognitively aware of what was meant by "everything you own will be wet" but I did not fully understand the literal consequence of what it would be like to be in the rain for that long. We are not designed for this. I don't care whether it's evolution or accommodation that has sensitized us to the elements, we are simply unfit for these conditions unless there's a roof over our heads. All the outdoor gear in the world wont keep 4 days of moisture out. Tents, boots and rain gear I expect to be wet but things like food, toilet paper and ibuprofen are necessities that I never dreamed would get saturated. Instant oatmeal packets get soaked and become more like a cliff bar than something you would attempt to cook. Protein powder is completely unusable once moisture leaches into the bag. Instant coffee turns to concrete and eating wet beef jerky after 3 days in the plastic pouch is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Our ibuprofen supply resembled a jar of sprouted seeds and frankly the toilet paper was just laughable. A handful of Cheerios from my food bag would be more useful for whiping my ass than this blended mess of paper mâché.