Travel: Anything Bryson can do...
A walk along the Appalachian Trail in the spring sunshine - well, that was the original idea.
Saturday 27 March 1999
Virginia is on the same latitude as Gibraltar. But Gibraltar does not suffer the freezing Canadian jet- stream that meets the warm air from the Gulf of Mexico right overhead, and dumping on any visitor rash enough to venture to the eastern US before April.
The purpose of my visit was to follow, or at least inspect, the footsteps of Bill Bryson. A Walk In The Woods is his account of an attempt, somewhat half-hearted if you ask me, to walk the Appalachian Trail. A bestseller here, but largely unremarked over there, I think if I had told the immigration official in New York that I intended to emulate our favourite adopted American, he would have thought I meant Evander Holyfield and thrown me out for being cheeky. But the book is there in the Virginia bookstores, alongside several more macho approaches to the AT (as it's known) including the, I'm sure delightful, How To Shit in the Woods.
Bryson decided to try the trail, all two and half thousand miles of it, in about half a year. And despite the snowfall showing on the weather- map, I took off for the heart of it, the Shenandoah National Park, where the AT follows the 469-mile Skyline Drive along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains.
The rangers there offer limitless suggestions, including round-trip hiking routes ranging from barely losing sight of the car park up to miles of hard, hilly slogging. The names of landmarks were tantalising: Wildcat Ridge, Riprap overlook, Sawmill run, and Naked Creek. We knew it would be cold, so Naked Creek was out, and we had a dog with us, so Wildcat Ridge would be safe enough.
Rockfish Gap, to the south, is 90 minutes' drive from the nearest big city, Richmond, and gets you started at 1,900ft above sea level. As the snow prevented us from getting the car into the park, that was where our walk had to start - and end.
For your English hiker, used to the unmistakable thread of English footpaths, it certainly appeared a challenge, especially under all that snow. The path over Scott Mountain, peaking at half-a-mile high, snaked up, around, and back on itself and was a lot more rocky and uneven than I expected. So progress was slow, but as any Bryson reader knows, the trees alongside the AT are all marked with a white blaze - a six-inch stripe of white paint - to guide the way. And if there is a junction, there are two streaks to warn you.
Once under way, it was easy to appreciate the AT's spell. Though how you can go on admiring the view for two and a half thousand miles escapes me. Suffice it to say that at this point in the trail, and on a particularly clear and crisp day, you could see right across the Shenandoah valley to the Adirondacks hunching ominously in the distance, the town of Waynesboro cradled between the two ranges.
The silence was, for the most part, unbroken and made the more noticeable by the occasional aircraft passing beneath us in the valley. Two other sets of footprints in the snow, one in each direction, were the only other signs of human life and the deer were silent too, the only sign of their presence being the odd set of hoofprints.
After two hours' hard walking we reached the first crossing of the Skyline Drive and chose to walk back along the road, it being closed. We hiked along like real American men, talking about power tools.
If you are feeling less energetic, then the Skyline Drive, when open, is a good way of getting a measure on the Appalachians in this area. It starts 75 miles west of Washington DC, and was part of the building of the American car dream - opening up the nation's spectacular countryside to those who want only to drive it.
But drop off the road to one of the many small towns and you can discover America in all its Walton-ness - the family lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains just south of Shenandoah. And you really can drop into a diner to enjoy Cherry Pie in Twin Peaks-style surroundings.
But if you want to get outdoors in Virginia, the Appalachians are not the only game in town. Drive east from Richmond and you get to the York River, site of West Point military academy. This is itself 10 miles upstream from York River State Park, where you don't even have to try to spot osprey, eagles and buzzards. In contrast to the snow-covered west of the state, the park was warm and welcoming.
Back on the AT, however, two days after the last snowstorm, temperatures were hitting the 70s Fahrenheit. With air fares for April below pounds 200, it's ideal for that walk in the wood. Just don't go when I'm there.
Bob Carter paid pounds 274 for a flight on Continental/Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow via Newark, booked through Trailfinders (0171-937 5400). Due to bad weather, he missed his homeward connection and was eventually repatriated aboard United from Washington to Heathrow
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