Two colleagues agreed to walk the first half: Grace Hemmingson, a grad student, and Peter Schmitthenner, a faculty member (in both History and Religion and Culture). Another grad student, Katie Brown, wanted to walk but had a conflict, so agreed to do the last 5 miles of the walk. Mindy Quigley, a friend and the wife of a colleague, agreed to jump in for a couple miles in the second half. One more colleague, Danna Agmon, made me a period lunch based on a passage from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book — a sausage roll, a butter sandwich, apple turnovers, cookies, and apples.
Peter, Grace, and I arrived at the Cassel Coliseum parking lot to get onto the buses out to the Caldwell homestead in Craig County, which still exists. We left about 8am and I sat on the bus and talked with Mike Weaver, deputy commandant for the corps, who is a Tech alumnus and came back to VT after a life in the military and a Masters in Divinity from Duke.
Caldwells had been living in the area for about a hundred years when Addison made his walk — descendants still live there now. We stopped in front of Mt. Carmel church, which was all closed up, got off the buses, and followed the cadets as they formed into two lines, one on either side of the rural road — 624. Peter knew the parts of the route — as a hiker and cyclist, he has been over all of these trails and roads many times. The weather was cool but clear and sunny. The cadets were loose and relaxed, joking with each other along the way. Their lives were going to get much better because the Fall Caldwell March marks the close of the Red Phase for freshmen, one of strict control of their lives. Peter, Grace, and I chatted about our backgrounds and generally caught up, passing the time pleasantly. The route was gently rolling, without too many big ups and downs, surrounded by farmland, for the first 3 or 4 miles. We turned onto 626, then onto State Route 42/CR 629, then stopped for a break of about ten minutes at Bethel Church. I saw one or two cadets I knew in the course of things, Grace knew several cadets from her undergrad time at VT, and Peter knew many cadets from his classes.
After a downhill walk in single file along 42, we turned off onto a farm property and the cadets got their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, a mediocre but multi-course and portable meal), then we started the long trek up Sinking Creek Mountain. It was about a mile on the horizontal axis, but rose from 2400 to 3300 feet. The first 2/3 was grassy, so it was just a matter of walking slowly or taking a break after short segments. The moderate altitude and the steepness made everyone short of breath. About 2/3 of the way up or so we reached the edge of Jefferson National Forest and the trail turned to some loose dirt, which was hard to keep your footing on. I fell in with the first group going up, E20, who recited Jodies, military cadences, to keep their spirits up. We made it up to the top, and the Appalachian Trail followed the top of the Sinking Creek Mountain ridge. This was where everyone stopped for lunch, so we had about a half an hour to sit and eat. Peter and Grace came up with the last group — Grace had an especially heavy pack and Peter switched with her to even things out. It was cool and a little breezy, which was a nice contrast to the heavy sweating everyone did on the way up. This was about 9 or so miles in and I was feeling a little worn, but basically strong. I had a delicious lunch. The sausage roll, especially, was dynamite. The only thing missing was some coffee. (Next year remind me to swing by Idego with a Thermos in the morning.) In the month leading up, I had taken 2 ~10 mile walks with the same socks and shoes that I was using, so I was feeling pretty good. I didn’t sit down much, even on the breaks, so I didn’t stiffen up and I didn’t have any problems with blisters. One of my key worries, based on my marathon experience, was chafing, so I had made provisions by getting some body glide, an excellent and simple product.
There was some disagreement with the Jefferson National Forest where the Corps can get permission to walk in the forest with a large group, but not on the trails, on the thought that it would be too destructive to the trail. Thus, they have to blaze a new trail themselves each year. I don’t understand this and it seems like there must be something missing to the story. The takeaway is that once we started moving again, we had to veer off the trail and trek through brambles and what not, winding back and forth over spongy and rooty ground that was not very sure, and heading down at a fairly steep angle. Overall, not pleasant, and I was a little worried about rolling an ankle or slipping and banging a knee or something. I had several tiny slips, but there was one where I slipped on a steeply angled flat rock and landed on my butt, with my leg bent back. Fortunately, there were no weird forces or pressures — my weight went onto my butt, instead of onto my knee, and I didn’t hurt anything. This is a serious drawback to going with the Corps. This a nonsense solution and should not be tolerated. We got word that one cadet twisted her knee badly and limped down to the logging trail where a truck could pick her up, and was done for the day. I saw several slips and falls — fortunately, a Corps EMT was along for the trip — and there could have been much more serious injuries.
The roundabout route seemed to have put us about 45 minutes or an hour behind schedule. We had been planning to get to Caldwell Fields, on Craig Creek Rd., by about 2:30, when buses would take people back to campus. We got to Caldwell Fields about 3:00 or 3:10. Peter and Grace peeled off, we said our goodbyes, and I headed east on Craigs Creek Road for the second phase.
This route, being closer to Blacksburg, was more familiar to me and wast totally straightforward with the exception of scaling Brush Mountain. I walked solo for about an hour, texted supporters with updates when I had cell service, and listened to music. I was feeling tired but still good — no trouble spots on my body, I had drunk plenty of water throughout the day, and Craigs Creek Road was fairly deserted. It didn’t have much of a shoulder and cars were driving fast when they came through, but overall it was fine. The challenge was going to be Brush Mountain.
The Brush Mountain climb was just as high and nearly as long as Sinking Creek, but all wooded — tougher to get your bearings visually. I had found a spot to step into the woods on Google Maps that approximated the Corps’ route, so when I got there, at a crossing with Craigs Creek, I started heading south. The plan was to head due south up to the Brush Mountain ridge. I made the mistake of reading my surroundings and going a bit by feel, climbing to the top of a ridge. Once to the top, I saw a drop and another, higher ridge. These were steep, so I had to climb on all fours at times, and had to stop every three or four steps. I did this a couple times and got a bit discouraged. I could see the sun through the treetops and had a compass, but aimed roughly towards the sun to have a consistent navigation point, in the southwest at this time of about 4:30. After another ridge or two that then took me down to a little creek again, I was getting discouraged and worried. Down at the bottom of a ridge it was dark, and there were lots of fallen trees and things to twist your ankle upon. It was chilly in the shade, and I was lamenting not having a jacket (which was mostly unnecessary for the day’s hike), because what if I got lost and was out there after dark? I was cursing myself for not packing for a worst-case scenario — matches, a blanket, an extra phone battery. On one of the ridgetops I still heard a car on Craigs Creek Road and realized I had been moving too much to the west and not enough to the south. I pulled up the compass and map apps on my iPhone and, though the compass had precise position down to the second, the map app put me south of the VT airport. It did not inspire confidence. Worrying scenarios were playing out in my head. Should I press forward or head back to Craigs Creek Road? I scrutinized the topographic map again and concluded that I had been crossing a series of finger ridges that led down from the Brush Mountain ridge, and I needed to get to the top of a ridge and head due south on the ridge until I made it to the top. The way was brambly and I got quite a few scratches, some serious. There was evidence that a path had been lightly trod, but I couldn’t tell if this was by humans or animals. A due-south path made sense, but after 45 minutes in the woods I hadn’t seen another soul and was late to meet my fellow walkers. The good news was that I could see flecks of sky through the trees at the top of the ridge up ahead. It could very well be the top of Brush Mountain, or at least someplace where I could see the lower surrounding land.
I plodded on for another twenty or thirty minutes and finally came to a clearing. Just 30 feet away was a paved road. I stepped out and wondered weather it was Jefferson Forest Lane, my goal street, or if I had gotten totally turned around and was back on Craigs Creek Road. 50 meters on I saw a house and walked towards it. No one seemed to be there. A little farther on was an intersection with a street sign that was turned around. One of them was Jefferson! But which one? I looked down one road and saw buildings that had to be Blacksburg. I thought about walking down without confirming but decided on caution, not wanting to head in the wrong direction. I walked back towards the house, and saw a car come to the intersection. I flagged down the driver, asked which road was which, and where Preston Forest Rd. was. She told me, I walked a quarter of a mile on and found it, and was back on my way. I had felt tired and my legs were burning on the Brush Mountain ridges, but once I set foot on Preston Woods Drive, I knew I would make it. I reconnected with Mindy and Katie, who had arranged to wait a little bit and meet me later, but together, and after a half mile down Preston Woods Drive, Paul drove up with those two and Alice. Paul joked that the registrar’s office was closed so, unlike Caldwell, I would not be able to enroll in classes when I got to Virginia Tech. I had run out of water, so Mindy gave me some, and, in just a minute, we were happily chatting, three quarters of the whole walk done and the two hard parts in the rearview mirror.
We got to Mount Tabor Road, which was just about the only danger we faced on the whole walk. Traffic was light, but there was little to no shoulder, and of course no sidewalk, so in a couple of cases we had to really crowd against the edge of the road and hope a driver would be responsible as they came around a curve. I had brought bike lights, but it was still light enough that they wouldn’t show to drivers. After about 45 minutes or an hour, Paul and Alice pulled up to collect Mindy and gave me a Gatorade, which I downed quickly. I had a 3-liter bladder in my backpack and refilled it once during the hike, but I had anticipated one more water stop at Caldwell Fields that wasn’t there. Katie and I were about a half mile from North Main Street and started getting walking/biking paths, which tided us over until we reached the place where the sidewalk ends. The sun was setting, and that part of Main Street is bleak. We got to Patrick Henry and cut across to Giles, in order to pass my house and the Agmundzas, where Ernest was staying and ready to cheer us on. We got there with the last light, stopped and talked for about 10 minutes. I didn’t sit down because I was worried about stiffening up. When we were done catching up, Katie and I headed off into the darkness for the last half-mile to the Caldwell statue on the upper quad.
My feet were really sore and my left hip was hurting with each step, and a scratched leg was a little bloody, but I still had energy and a decent stride. It was fairly anticlimactic getting to the statue. No one was around, and since I had gotten back onto paved roads I knew I would finish, so it wasn’t too much of a relief. Katie and I took some photos with the statue, then headed off to The Cellar to meet up and debrief with Peter and Grace, which we had arranged earlier.
NOTE: My best calculations using web-based distance-measurers indicate 8.25 miles to the base of Sinking Creek Mtn, on the private farm land; 12.5 miles to Caldwell Field (possibly more based on the winding, bushwhacked path); 16.75 miles to the turn-in point for Brush Mountain; 18 miles to Jefferson Forest Rd.; and 24.5 miles to the Caldwell Statue.