Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hippies and Hikers

Last weekend, a few "need to do" things fortuitously aligned so Liz and I spent a nice, long Valentine's Day weekend down in southwest Virginia.

I took Friday off and we headed down, eventually reaching Roanoke, Virginia. I had never been there before and was surprised at how big it was and by how beautiful the scenery is. Roanoke is seemingly surrounded by the Blue Ridge mountains, and the Appalachian Trail (AT) also happens to pass fairly close by.

First stop upon arrival was a trip out to Seven Springs Farm for vermiculite. This stuff is useful in gardening and almost impossible to find. Seven Springs is an organic farm supply place that not only stocks it, but has it at a very reasonable price. The only drawback was having to go pick it up myself, because shipping the stuff would cost as much as the vermiculite itself (it's incredibly light but bulky).

The online directions were... uh, less than useful. Luckily, our GPS took us more or less right to the place. Let me state for the record, that I still believe GPS should be a "trust but verify" kind of tool, but the more I use it, the more I believe it's made out of equal parts magic and awesome.

It was a beautiful drive. Over one mountain and partway around another, we were a good 45 minutes outside of Roanoke by the time we got there.

In the "small world" category, the folks from the farm had given a talk on organic and sustainable food production during a class Mookie took at Mary Baldwin college. I said that their website sounded like the place was run by "hippies", she laughed and said, "yeah, pretty much." Growing up in the San Fransisco bay area during the 60's, to me the term "hippy" is more a term of endearment than derision.

So we get to the farm, drive down a dirt road, find the store and nobody is around. Posted on the door is a list of things to do if nobody is there. This isn't the actual list, but it's close:

1. Honk your horn several times, wait a few minutes.
2. Go over to the house, knock and see if anyone is home.
3. Go into the store, use the phone to call ...... and tell him you're at the store.
4. Call ...... and tell Daisy you're at the store (she lives a couple miles away, so be patient as you wait for her).
5. Go to Daisy's house (directions below) and knock on her door.
6. Use the computer inside the store to send an email to ....... and let them know you're waiting.

And so on.

Liz and I waited a little bit and I walked around and checked the barns and sheds in the vicinity. No worries, on a weekend like this, I can be patient. Soon enough a truck pulls up and a guy gets out with a load of compost. Within minutes the farmer arrived too. He asked us what we needed (we were expected, I'd let them know via email beforehand), and we got directions to the "warehouse", which was another large barn down a couple more dirt roads.

We loaded up the bags of vermiculite, I paid and we all talked about gardening and farming for a bit, then we headed back to Roanoke. It had already been a long day.

The other big event in Roanoke was a hiker's gathering on Saturday. A couple of Roanoke locals had posted the idea on a forum I frequent that they'd like to host an evening of pizza and beer, just to get to know other hiker's from the area. If anyone else wanted to come, they were welcome to join in too. The idea caught fire, and in a few weeks their were almost 30 people coming. It also grew to include a Saturday morning hike and maybe a slide show or two from folks to show some of the trails they'd hiked.

A quick word about hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Many take on "trail names". Sometimes the name is bestowed upon them by other hikers because of a memorable trait or moment, sometimes the hiker names him or herself. Either way, there's usually a story. Not surprisingly, my trail name is Rocket Jones.

I opted out of the hike. This was a valentine's weekend for us, so spending time with Liz was my first priority. Besides, I'd be gone to the gathering most of the evening, and Liz didn't want to go to that.

Those who hiked went up to McAfee Knob, a landmark on the AT. Here's one of the iconic pictures of the trail.

Most everyone who hikes by McAfee Knob takes a photo, but only the bravest sit on the edge like this. You can also get an idea of the view from up there.

Personally, I've seen way too many RoadRunner cartoons to sit like that.

In the photo, by the way, is Caitlin. She came down from the University of Miami, Ohio, with her friend Sunshine and Sunshine's dad Kerosene. He drove from Ann Arbor, Michigan to pick up the girls and just kept right on driving to Roanoke. Kerosene is a section hiker, he's done about 1500 miles of the AT, section at a time as his vacations allow. Someone who does the whole 2200 miles in one go is known as a thru-hiker.

So yeah, Kerosene and the girls got the award for mostest out-of-town. Jersey Dave came in second, and my measly four hour drive was almost nothing in comparison.

The gathering was held at a great place in downtown Roanoke, hosted by Hikerhead and J5Man (real names are Don and Jeff, but most of us only knew each other via forum/trail names). Lots of good beer, good pizza and great conversation. Much putting of faces to names. I met Graceful Roll, who was diagnosed with Leukemia in November and spent most of December in the hospital (mucho goodwill and gifting sent to her once word hit the forum). She's just been cleared by her doctors to hike again and she still wore a goofy hat-thing to hide the after effects of chemo. After meeting her, I have no doubt that she'll kick its ass.

I spent a good bit of time talking to a nice older couple named Haranzo (I think his name was Henry and I can't remember hers at the moment). Turned out that they're the parents of John Haranzo, who had a new shelter built and named for him as a memorial on the trail (John's Spring Shelter). Henry is now the trail maintainer for a few miles of the AT, making sure the trail is clear of tree blowdowns, picking up trash, making note of any erosion problems, etc. He hikes up the mountain four times a week to do that, as a volunteeer. Later, it came out that Henry is 76 years old! I really enjoyed talking to them.

There were several great slide shows afterwards, but the highlight (for me) was CookerHiker's set from the John Muir Trail in California. This is the part of Yosemite that the lazy tourists don't see.

I left the party several hours later, full of pizza, stories and with lots of new friends. They're planning to make this an annual event, and I'm definitely going back.

On Sunday, Liz and I headed back home. As we drove up I-81, we paralleled the mountains and I think for the first time Liz realized that along those blue ridges the Appalachian Trail meandered, and that somehow, someday, I was going to walk those 2000 plus miles.