By Earl V. Shaffer © 1984
Issue: June, 1984
An excerpt from the book, Walking With Spring, by Earl V. Shaffer
(We will enter the story as the author leaves the Olean Puckett cabin on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just south of Groundhog Mountain. He is heading north. The time is spring and the year is 1948.)
…I was following the Parkway now because it had taken over the Trail route. Flame azaleas were in full bloom along roadside, along with dogwood and many species of ground flowers. Visible to the east was Pilot Mountain, a massive pinnacle jutting from the Piedmont. By now I was weary of road walking. Abruptly came an interruption. Veering eastward, the Trail came to a wild deep gorge. Jutting from the bottom of that steep walled canyon was a peak as pointed as a pyramid, its top reaching the level of the canyon walls. Did the trail actually cross that incredible peak? It did, descending through a sag, then up and over the pinpoint summit. It was rock work pure and simple, with precipice on either side. Yet rhododendron grew from crannies and the ,air was fragrant with their blooms. Any pack at all, much less the forty pounds I was carrying, was a handicap and even a hazard. The view from topside was astounding, with the Dan River so close on three sides that it seldom could be seen because of intervening trees. On the far side it was necessary to go backward most of the time, along narrow ledges and clutching bushes to keep from falling. Marking was close together and very necessary. Wading the river was next and then the ascent of the 'Indian Ladder", up a sheer cliff grown solidly with rhododendron. This couple of miles was probably the most rugged and most spectacular segment of the Trail, which now has been relocated far to the west. This incredible peak is called the Pinnacles of Dan, and is visible from the [Blue Ridge] Parkway.
The story of how the Pinnacles of Dan came to be a part of the Trail was told me years later by Charlie Thomas, one of the most loyal and most eccentric of all the "Headquarters Gang." Charlie and another oldtimer were on a trail scouting trip with Myron Avery. Captain Avery was farther south, marking and measuring. They decided to play a joke on him by pretending to route the trail over the Pinnacles, expecting him to reject the idea. Instead he climbed the peak, was impressed with the view and approved the route. They might have known. He always favored the scenic way, rather than ease of access.
More road-walking followed the break at Pinnacles of Dan and heavy rain began falling. At dark I was forced to stop in a rain drenched woods. A fire was essential. Sometimes you are told to "find a mouse nest". It is much more practical to make one. Pick the tiny twigs under evergreen trees, laurel bushes, or other resinous growths, and crush them into a ball. When held over a lighted match this ball of fine twigs will ignite, whether wet or dry. Then bigger and bigger twigs are added. I gathered firewood, still carrying the pack lest it be lost in the darkness, and set up a pole and poncho shelter, facing west away from the rain. About midnight a clearup storm roared in from the west, collapsing the shelter. I broke up the pole frame for wood to keep the fire burning and huddled under the poncho until the rain stopped, then hunted more poles to erect a windbreak. That was a night to remember, or try to forget. I remember the twinkling stars.
Morning weather was after-rain, foliage shining in the sunlight and new growth scenting the air. Suddenly the feeling of eyes upon me brought a halt. To the right was a fox, sitting in silhouette upon a knoll. While I remained motionless it stayed but with my first step it wheeled away, the sunlight glistening on its gray fur.
By midday the weather turned rough again, with a gusty northwest wind and sleety rain. Later I learned this squall was caused by a severe storm in West Virginia. While fighting this wicked headwind I noticed a farmer plowing in a field, with a team of two mules and a horse. He waved, then halted the team in mid furrow, and came over to the fence, a most unusual action for any farmer, especially in the south. He said his name was Handy, adding, "I ain't got no education, that's why I'm followin' the plow, but I like to talk to everyone as sensible as I can". Mr. Handy didn't lack "education", just "book larnin." He owned two hundred acres of farmland, a hundred acres of pasture, and rented another tract, starting from scratch as a young man. He had built a large new house to replace the little old cabin in which he and his wife had started out. He invited me to go along with him to eat, saying, "My wife's in the hospital for an operation but my girl's comin' over from her place to make somethin'. If she don't come we can cook up a snack ourselves". Ordinarily I would have declined with thanks but somehow this was different.
Mr. Handy resumed plowing toward the far end of the field, with me walking alongside and recalling the days when I had worked on farms and did some walk-plowing myself. Then I noticed a young man by the fencerow ahead. He was moving around aimlessly, as though he could not keep still. Mr. Handy said, "That's my boy, got throwed, shell shocked, that is, in the army. I got him home from the veteran's hospital. Maybe it'll do him good if you talk with him. When Mr. Handy introduced us the boy hardly seemed to notice, clutching the back of his neck as though from pain or numbness.
Mr. Handy unhitched the team and told the boy to take the horse, which belonged to him, across the meadow to the barn and feed it while he took the mules to an outlying shed to fetch a load of hay. I walked along with the boy and asked him the age of his horse. His voice was hardly more than a whisper when he said, "Two year." Those were the only words I ever heard him speak. At the barn he fed the horse and we waited for his father to arrive with the hay cart. Suddenly a strange thing happened. He took off his corduroy cap, set it on my bare head and stepped back to see how it looked. I got out my floppy rainhat, my only headgear, and set it on his head. That made him laugh a little.
Mr. Handy soon came in a hurry, just ahead of a rain squall. We unloaded the hay, then went to the house, where his daughter had indeed come and made, "a little somethin'." Included were fried ham, spoon gravy... made from the fryings... stewed apples, goat milk, and real southern cornbread, the kind that is broken, not sliced. We talked at least an hour. Mr. Handy said I should stay the night, "Or a week for that matter", but I told him the Spring weather was moving north and I was going along. He agreed that this was logical but it took another half hour to get away. For a man whose wife was in the hospital for an operation and a boy almost hopelessly shell shocked he was remarkably cheerful. He said that Meadows of Dan "were about" three short miles away. My estimate was more, but the icy rain squalls may have been a factor.
At the store I bought supplies, then stood by the pot-bellied stove to warm up. The storekeeper recalled a shelter at Rocky Knob, a few miles up the Parkway and I determined to reach there if possible. Weather was clearing as I soon came to Mabry Mill and stopped to take a picture. In the old days this was the center of activity in the mountain community, including grist mill, sawmill, and cider press, along with the nearby Wheelwright and Blacksmith shops. The wheel was about fifteen feet high, overshot, and fed from a long wooden spillway. The area is maintained by the Park Service as a historic point. I finally stumbled into Rocky Knob by starlight and found the shelter was of stone, open on three sides and with a cold wind howling through. I gathered some snags for fireplace wood and gathered a sackful of leaves to cushion the stone floor. The temperature must have been around freezing.
Editor's Note - The "Mr. Handy" that the author speaks of is 95 year old U.B. Handy who still lives in the Mountain View section of Meadows of Dan today.
The shelter at Rocky Knob where he spent the freezing night can still be seen by parking at the Saddle Overlook (located at milepost 168) on the Blue Ridge Parkway and following the short trail south to the top of Rocky Knob.
Mr. Shaffer has donated all proceeds from the sale of his book to the Appalachian Trail Conference to be used to carry on the conference work. You may order this book from:
The Appalachian Trail Conference
P.O. Box 807
Harpers Ferry, W. Va. 25425
The price is only $6.95 and it contains over 60 photographs the author took along the way.)