How I Climbed 1/200th of the Appalachian Trail
and Lived to Tell About It
By Kathy Chin Leong
Climbing McAfee Knob in Virginia
Back in the 1960s, at Parkside Elementary School I first heard about the Appalachian Trail. It was more of a legend to me than anything else. The 2,180 mile trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia, snaking through 14 states, was riddled with so much history my imagination ran wild with dreams of the Native Americans who inhabited the land and those who officially brought the trail to life in 1937. How cool would it be to someday hike the entire trail? I wondered.
Today the hike is known as the A.T., and is served by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, state agencies, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the muscle and volunteer efforts of 31 trail clubs.
Since I live on the West Coast, I never thought I would have the opportunity to step foot on the infamous path. Good fortune came my way recently, and on a business trip in Virginia, I snagged the chance to hike McAfee Knob, an 8.8 mile hike that is said to the most popular leg of the A.T. It is such a picturesque day hike that the McAfee pinnacle is the poster child of the state of Virginia. While I cannot claim I ate the entire A.T. enchilada, I can say I nibbled off a chunk.
On many hiker websites, McAfee Knob is rated medium to difficult in intensity. Because of that, I made sure I trained by maneuvering uphill on the steepest trail near my home in Sunnyvale. With friends I nabbed for these 7 a.m. grueling treks, I soon nailed the 8.3 PG&E trail, full of unforgiving steep switchbacks and dense manzanita forests. With months of training, I was soon passing 11 of the electrical PG&E towers along the way with ease. A month before the trip, I hiked up even further to complete over a 12-mile circuit that led to the mountain summit at 4,000 feet above seat level which took six hours.
In Virginia, I joined a group of local hikers and out-of-town visitors, led by Christa Stevens, a local who makes a point of hiking this trail at least once a year. I emailed ahead and joined the group. In fact, the area has hiking groups galore, and many people belong to the Roanoke Trail Hikers who meet to tackle the many, many paths in the county.
We started around 9:30 a.m. which is quite late for a hike. Christa introduced us to her attorney husband Andrew, and her little two-year-old Eric who would be coming along for the ride. The parking lot was nearly full, but we were lucky to snag the last couple of spaces. Running across the busy two-lane highway, we started at the trailhead marked at the very start with a bright green triangular Appalachian Trail sign with a smaller vertical wooden post etched McAfee Knob.
The hills began immediately. We started at 2,000 feet above sea level and would end up at over 5,000 feet at the peak. This particular hike is part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and as it was October, the colors of the maples, birch,and aspens were dressed in their regal fall regalia of orange, red, brown and yellow.
As I trudged the trail, I was surprised at how easy it was. The path was well marked with long wood steps. bridges, and unlike other routes I have trod, there was only a single direction with no apparent bunny trails where one would get lost.
The fall scent of dry leaves and the coolness of the morning made me leap at a deer's pace, and the excitement of being here encourage me to scale up steps and steep elevations. At only 5-foot-one-and-a-half, I heartily kept up with my taller colleagues. As my feet crunched the fallen leaves beneath, I could not help staring at the kalidescope of colors below as leaf merged with leaf merged with leaf of different tree species. The mosaic beneath and above me was an endless curtain of nonstop autumn colors in so many hues that Crayola's Binney & Smith would probably fail in naming them all.
I also kept my eyes on the ground just in case there were rattlesnakes on the path. Fortunately, none reared their menacing shakers at me.
The path lifted us up and up with no switchbacks to speak of, but we did experience slight curves with the gentle ups and downs of a baby roller coaster. My Lumix point-and-shoot camera seemed to be speaking and refused to stop clicking. "Stop here. Look at that lichen. Go take a closeup of those woody white mushrooms. Turn around, snap those daisies. Go closer. Step inside that circle of chestnut trees and capture that immensity. Don't miss the pattern of green lichen on that section of bark..."
At our first plateau we discovered a map of the trail that was framed with a YOU ARE HERE arrow. In addition, that same spot featured a sign-in book encased in metal, attached to a post. I was giddy to sign my name and date it, knowing my signature would be preserved in A.T. history, along with others who would be hiking McAfee's Knob and those other brave sojourners who would be backpacking the entire 2,000-plus miles.
I read that every year, about 100 to 200 people achieve that goal in one fell swoop that can take months to complete. One fellow in our group named Clark told me he has hiked different sections of the trail in different states, and while his goal is not to complete the whole thing, he tries to tackle bits of the trail as often as he can. According to Clark, the A.T. is so well marked, you really cannot get lost on it until you want to.
Along the way on this somewhat cloudy day, I saw a couple of wood cabins. One of the hikers pointed out that these were shelters available exclusively on the AT trail. They are free to anyone who wants to use it on a first-come, first-serve basis.
I had to see one. I waved to one of the hiking members and told them that I would catch up. Several years down the trail, I wandered off to see the structure to see it up close. The shingled wood hut was only about 10 x 12 feet, 3-sided with no doors or windows. The buiding was void of people, but they had to be nearby. Three wrinkled blue and yellow sleeping bags were stretched out at full length, and the backpacks hung on hooks were swaying in the gentle breeze. A clothesline was stretched across the cabin, drying T-shirts, underwear, and shorts. Feeling embarrassed at this underwear discovery, I quickly rejoined the group.
The different members were now gathered around a young man dressed in an official short sleeved khaki shirt with an AT embroidered patch with an EMS radio, walking sticks, a backpack and dark shorts. He was Fretcher Meadema, an official Appalachian Trail trail runner, one of 30 throughout the AT. During the weekdays, he is an urban entemology student at the University of Virginia. This volunteer spoke selflessly of his weekend duties to welcome hikers, count their number during his shift, and pick up any litter along the way to keep the trail clean and tidy. Why does he do this? "Spending time on the trail keeps me happy. Saying hello to people leads to a lot of different places."
Within minutes, we scaled the top of McAfee Knob, a flat slab of rocks with a tongue of granite jutting out precariously. Deep drops surrounded the oval tabletop. With a 270-degree view of ribbons of yellow, red, orange, and green across the chasm, I drowned myself in the view of the Southern Shenandoah Valley. I carefully scooted to the left, to the right, to the center, taking care not to step too closely to the cliff's edge. With delicate ballet steps, I crossed over the open chasms in between.
The other conquerors around me were took celebratory photos in any number of combinations. Christy and her husband Andrew were careful to keep their hands glued to their two-year-old son Eric lest he wanted to show off his Superman skills. All of us were triumphant as we munched on granola and sipped our waters.
I thought of the book I was reading called "Wild," a memoir of a woman who hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail and lost six toenails in the process. She slogged through the trail in three months, facing snow and sketchy strangers, losing water and almost losing her mind.
Walking back down the hillside, I was content to finish McAfee Knob in three hours, and to savor the views and not worry about whether or not there would be an available hiking shelter or if I would run out of water. I no longer wished to complete the entire A.T. or the Pacific Crest Trail, but I found contentment in doing the A.T. in a day hike, safely with a two-year-old and a trail runner who finds his Saturdays worth meeting and saying hello to people like me.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy - www.appalachiantrail.org
Kathy Chin Leong is an avid hiker and seeker of many things fun and unique.
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