Blind hiker prepares to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail

Stretching more than 3100 miles in length, the Continental Divide Trail is one of the longest and most challenging treks in the entire world. Together with the Appalachian Trail and and the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT makes up the “Triple Crown” of long distance hikes in America. This spring, blind hiker Trevor Thomas will set out to conquer it, starting the journey along the Canadian border and traveling south to the Mexican border.

Thomas, who lost his sight to illness back in 2005, has already backpacked the full length of both the Appalachian Trail (2175 miles) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2650). In the case of the AT, he went completely unassisted and on the PCT he had help only through deep snow and poorly marked areas. When he sets out on the CDT this June, Thomas will be joined by three companions who will assist him through the more challenging sections, although he expects to hike most of the trail just like any sighted hiker would.

As the name implies, the CDT follows the Continental Divide through the Rocky Mountains, passing through five U.S. states in the process. Thomas’ route will take him, and his team, through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Along the way, they’ll pass through a variety of sub-mountain ranges including the beautiful San Juans, the Sawatch Range, and the breath taking Grand Tetons. The entire journey is expected to take roughly six months to complete.

You can find out more about their plans at

Appreciating Winter in West Virginia

West Virginia is about as Appalachia as Appalachia gets. For those of you who don’t know, Appalachia isn’t just a mountain range… it’s an adjective that describes the culture of this sliver of a region in the USA. And of all the states the Appalachian Mountains pass through, West Virginia is the only one enveloped completely by these rolling hills. It’s a small state. It borders several other states and isn’t too far from big East Coast cities (my folks live just 3 hours from DC), and yet I get this ubiquitous sense of aloneness in West Virginia that I don’t easily find in other places. Maybe that’s why I like it.

Being raised in a section of Appalachia close to West Virginia, southeast Ohio, I learned early on to appreciate the enchanting beauty of this region. Bluegrass is big, just like you’d imagine, and even Moonshine has its place. But the outdoors are the bigger attraction in this area of Appalachia. Rock climbing, caving, snow boarding, skiing, hiking, white water rafting… the options are exhausting. Even on my most languorous days, I find the scenery to be inspiration enough.

Although it is believed the Appalachians were once the highest mountains on earth (It’s said that they were higher than the Himalayas during the Ordovician Period, about 466 million years ago, when they connected to mountains in Morocco), they’re much more humble highlands these days.

%Gallery-112317%The area my family calls home is part of the Appalachian Plateaus, one of the thirteen provinces that make up the mountain range. Generally speaking, the Appalachian Mountains act as the geographical dividing line between the eastern seaboard of the USA and the Midwest region, so generally speaking, I grew up in Ohio but not in the Midwest.

My family relocated to West Virginia after I’d moved out and on to New York. So while I don’t regularly visit my hometown anymore, going ‘home’ still looks the same… rugged hillsides and sprawling valleys contrasted against stunning sunsets–at least most evenings. There’s something especially beautiful about this area and people I meet who have spent time there seem to agree… something about the landscape just stills you. This area in the winter is particularly magnetic and eerie, quiet and calm. Take a look at the photos from my most recent trip and see if you can catch a glimpse of what I mean.

[photos by Ben Britz]

Chilhowie, Virginia: farmhouses and…fine dining?

Although I write about food for a living, it takes a lot to get me to make a pilgramage to a restaurant. For me to fly from Seattle to the East Coast, and then drive across a state (staying at a campground down the road from a correctional facility, en route), I need more than just the promise of a great meal.

Town House, in the far corner of southwestern Virginia, is that sort of place. Six hours drive from Washington DC, the acclaimed restaurant is located on quiet Main Street in rural Chilhowie (pop. 1,827). Twenty miles from both the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, Chilhowie is pure Americana. Pastoral imagery abounds: dairy cows grazing in rolling pasture, dilapidated barns and silos, weathered buildings shedding peeling paint. There are shady groves, creeks, wineries, mountain biking and hiking trails (this is Appalachian Trail country) and sleepy little villages. It’s like an episode of “The Twilight Zone;” where you’re driving along, and bam! It’s 1930. I’m originally from the strip-malled badlands of Southern California, so it’s easy to see why this region appealed to me.

In addition to the Appalachian Trail, there’s the Virginia Creeper Trail, Hungry Mother State Park (do names get better than that?), great fly fishing, a flock of community theaters, galleries, and museums in nearby Marion, Abingdon, and Bristol. It’s an absolutely beautiful, little-known part of the U.S.. But certainly, Town House isn’t the only rural destination restaurant (Virginia also has The Inn at Little Washington, and The Barn at Blackberry Farm is just outside of Knoxville, two hours from Chilhowie). It is, however, a lot more rural than most non-urban, fine dining destination restaurants.

I don’t give a hang about eating at a place based on its hipster credentials, or because it’s on the checklist of self-proclaimed “foodies (a term that needs to be banished from existence, in my opinion).” A dinner at Town House gave me an opportunity to explore the Virginia countryside, but I was also curious to see how chef John Shields was pulling off a somewhat eccentric menu in such a remote location. I also loved that he and his wife/Town House pastry chef Karen Urie Shields–who aptly describes her desserts as “whimsical”–develop their ever-changing menu around seasonal ingredients that are foraged, or sourced from local family farms and food artisans.

Destination restaurants have always intrigued me. It’s hard for a meal to live up to the hype, but sometimes, it’s about the experience as a whole. An absence of atmosphere and sense of place can kill a meal, even if the food is divine. I’ve also had bad food transformed by the right dining companions (I’m recalling a remote Tuscan osteria I ended up having to hitchhike to. The food was godawful, but what would have otherwise been an abysmal, depressing experience was turned into a wonderful night by the arrival of ten boisterous Icelanders who invited me to join them). Still, given the time, expense, and effort required to dine at a destination restaurant, there’s a lot of pressure on the chef and staff to execute nothing less than a stellar performance.


The majority of Town House diners come from Roanoke or Knoxville (Roanoke is also two hours away, and has a small airport), or DC. Others, like my boyfriend and I, make a road trip of it. We drove down from northern Virginia, turning the six-hour drive into a three-day camping trip, broken up by an overnight at Town House’s sister property, Riverstead (276-646-8787). The two-bedroom guesthouse (there is no staff on-site, if these things matter to you) is located on a 30-acre hay farm, four-and-a-half miles from the restaurant. The painstakingly restored, 1903 farmhouse is a draw itself, and blissfully free of gag-inducing accoutrements like dolls, frilly, Victorian-era decor, and cutesy signage.

Earlier this year, thirty-three-year-old John was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs,” and he participated in June’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (a three-day bacchanal of seminars, tastings, demos, and more tastings). Yet he’s been drawing crowds with his “inspired cuisine” since he filled the chef position at Town House in 2008. Prior to that, the restaurant had a humdrum menu that John has described as “from another era.” He and Karen, 32, credit farmers and producers on the menu, which, ironically, is a rarity in rural areas. As John, an intense young man (the skater shoes and slightly baggy jeans he wears with his chef’s jacket are nothing less than endearing), explained to me, “People often comment on how it must be hard to get good products, living out here. We respond by saying, ‘Where do you think big cities get their food from?'”

As for why they left the big city to try experimental cuisine in rural Virginia, John says, “We knew it would be a challenge, but we never wavered with the menu once we moved forward. We stuck to our guns, because we believed a true identity was what would make this restaurant stand out. Our staff and employers are passionate, as well, so the biggest challenge has been the lack of dining options for us on our nights off! We’ve been most surprised by the amazing reaction people have had to what we’re doing.”

The couple met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, where John was sous chef, and Karen was pastry chef. In 2005, John became sous chef at Alinea (he credits chef/owner Grant Achatz as his mentor). In ’08, Trotter hired John to run his (since closed) Las Vegas restaurant. It was while waiting for that restaurant to open that the Shields’ decided they were ready for something more low key. A “chef wanted” ad at Town House kept popping up on Craigslist, so they went to Chilhowie (they were initially unable to locate it on a map) to meet with owners Tom and Kyra Bishop. The rest, as they say, is history.

My boyfriend and I arrived at Riverstead just as a thunderstorm hit, which was great, because the two-story farmhouse is my idea of a slice of heaven. The expansive front porch affords a view of pasture and the neighboring farm, and a short path leads down to the South Fork Holston River. Waiting for us inside were Karen’s chocolate chip cookies, a full kitchen stocked with coffee and tea, and a note directing us to the refrigerator. There, we found part of our pre-checkout breakfast: Mason jars of freshly-squeezed orange juice, Karen’s farro (emmer wheat) cereal with dried cherries, and two soft-boiled eggs. The kitchen itself is a dream: robin’s egg-blue walls, commercial-grade stainless appliances, weathered oak butcher block, and vintage cookware displayed on the matching shelves. The living room is a bit more genteel, with antique rugs and original oak floors, and a sofa by the fireplace.

Our sunny room took up half of the second story. Like the rest of the house, it’s a charming mix of old and new: gleaming white bathroom with stainless fixtures, wood paneling, retro-black-and-white tiled floor, clawfoot tub, glass-encased shower, and two vintage-style sinks. A nightstand beside the plush, king-sized bed held a bottle of wine, and a glass dome-covered cheese plate. I work in a cheese shop, so I was thrilled to see a farmstead selection from nearby Meadow Creek Dairy. Their award-winning Grayson is a sticky, stinky, Jersey milk washed-rind with a luscious, buttery interior. It was accompanied by Karen’s panforte, a dense, chewy, sweet similar to fruitcake.

To fire up our appetites, we headed down to the river for a stroll, before consulting Riverstead’s thoughtful “local activities and attractions” sheet. We headed up to the Appalachian Trail entrance at Elk Garden for a short hike, and then drove back down through the picturesque “town” of Wilkinson’s Mill, with its wooden swinging bridge, abandoned buildings, and old timey convenience store.

At last, it was time for our dinner reservation. A major plus of staying at Riverstead is that you can have a glass of wine or five during your meal, because round-trip transportation to Town House is included. The restaurant is located in a 100-year-old brick building that once housed a dry goods store. The interior, with its dark, polished wood floors, tables, and chairs, faux tin ceiling (actually cleverly-disguised sound-reducing tiles) and contemporary art fixtures blends local history with minimalist modern design. Diners can choose a one-to-three-course menu composed of a la carte items, a $58 set four-course, or the $110 ten-course tasting menu, which offers a choice of starter, main, and dessert. We decided on the four-course (a hell of a deal, I might add). Wine is separate, but you can request they be paired with your meal.

Not every dish worked for me. A “soup of cherries” with bronzed sardine, sweet and spicy ginger, tomato, and “almond bread” (more of a foam) was just too out there for my liking. On the other hand, “scrambled egg mousse ” with smoked steelhead roe, birch syrup, sweet spices, and preserved ramp was delicate, decadent, and beautifully executed- an orgy of flavors and textures. Peekytoe crab roasted in brown butter with lime, salt cod, vanilla, and sea grapes came with ethereal puffs of caramelized onion, and lamb shank cooked in ash, with black garlic marmalade, salsify, and burnt onion was deep, complex, and soulful. It was while savoring that dish that it clicked for me; how John’s food fit into the context of this tiny corner of Appalachia. Not all of the ingredients are local, or even domestic, but even when he’s using something high-end, like foie gras, there’s an earthy sensibility to his food that somehow makes sense in Chilhowie.

We ordered both of Karen’s desserts, because they sounded so poetically strange: Powdered chocolates with steamed yuzu sponge, bergamot, and an “aromatic” salad of herbs, and the unexpectedly lovely combination of strawberry ice cream with braised artichoke and pink peony sorbet. Before we headed back to Riverstead, Karen stopped by our table with a still-warm galette of shallots and goat cheese (from local Ziegenwald Dairy) for our breakfast. After her desserts, a tart seemed deceptively simple, although great pastry is anything but.

That galette is one of the most outstanding things I’ve ever eaten. Buttery, caramelly, comforting. It may seem strange that a homely tart and a soft-boiled egg eaten over a sink were the highlight of my trip, but that’s the thing about destination dining. At its best, the place and the food are a reflection of one another.

Karen’s Hot Breakfast Cereal
Unbelievably easy, delicious, and nourishing, this is my favorite new breakfast for fall.

Serves 2-3

1 cup Anson Mills farro piccolo (If you can’t find at your local grocery or speciality food store, you can purchase it online from the online Town House shop or Anson Mills)
4 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoon grade B maple syrup
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 cup of your favorite berry or other fruit, or dried fruit

Combine the farro with the water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until most of the water is evaporated. Meanwhile, toast the sunflower seeds at 350 degrees, for 10 minutes. Season farro with cinnamon, salt, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, and fruit. Enjoy warm or chilled.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

The abridged Appalachian Trail: Shenandoah National Park’s day hikes

Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods seven ago, I’ve wanted to through-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Bryson’s account isn’t all birds and trees and sunshine, however. It largely focuses on the blisters and blood, and cast of often-sketchy characters he meets on his grueling trek. Yet through it all, he paints a beautiful portrait of one of America’s greatest recreational and conservationist achievements.

Conceived in 1921 by Benton MacKaye as a “project in regional planning,” the AT reached completion in 1937. It begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and runs 2,179 miles, culminating in Mount Katahdin, Maine. It traverses14 states along the way, including Virginia.

I’ve always been an avid hiker and camper, but I’ve never managed to find time to do the full trail. In May, while planning a business trip to Virginia, I realized it was time to face facts: I was 41, recovering from a lengthy illness, with a bad back, and an anemic bank account. Taking the three months or so required to through-hike the trail simply wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Fortunately, there are alternatives for thwarted ambitions and weak lumbar regions like mine. The AT extends 100 miles through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, making it possible to day-hike sections, or connect to them via the park’s other 399 miles of trails.

%Gallery-98597%Thus, my boyfriend (who has bad knees to go with his bad back) and I decided to camp for a few days in the park. Our sole purpose was to find the best AT day hikes situated in, or near, Loft Mountain campground, 26 miles from the southern entrance at Rockfish Gap. Then we’d continue up Skyline Drive-the famed scenic road that runs the length of the park-to the northern entrance at Front Royal. We decided to bring only the bare minimum of food (coffee, peanut butter, and a loaf of bread), to see what the park camp stores stock for ravenous through-hikers on a tight budget. During our visit, we discovered that cheating the AT is a great option for outdoor enthusiasts short on time, money, or fully-functional body parts.

We arrived at Loft Mountain on a hot, overcast afternoon. It’s a huge campground, but it was nearly deserted during our mid-week visit. All four of the park campgrounds cater to RV’s (something we wished to avoid), but after checking out the other places, we found Loft Mountain the best if you’re looking for full amenities, sites ranging from hike-in to RV, and overall scenic splendor. Outside of the campground proper, there’s a store, sewage disposal facility, coin-operated showers, laundry, telephone, mail drop, and gas station, and an amphitheater for weekend ranger programs. The AT trail runs along the eastern border of the campground.

Reservations are strongly recommended in high season, which is Memorial to Labor Day, and October, when fall colors are at their peak. The campgrounds also have a set number of first-come, first-serve sites. There are fire pits, but the park prohibits outside wood to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle: purchase wood for five dollars a bundle at all campgrounds and stores, or collect deadwood for free. Tent sites are spacious, clean, level, and mostly devoid of back-puncturing debris. We selected a sandy tent site in the more isolated “A” section, which overlooks the pastoral Shenandoah Valley. It was located above a series of equally well-maintained, but smaller, sites down a short foot path just steps off the AT (the campground has 44 walk-ins). A large, white-tailed deer, antlers covered in velvet, ambled out of the bushes near our site as we unloaded.

It’s an easy, one-and-a-quarter mile hike on the AT from the campground to the popular Doyles River Falls trailhead (mile marker 81.1 on Skyline Drive).The Doyles River trail runs along a wooded creek, which keeps things cool on steamy summer days. It’s an easy-to-moderate downhill walk (three miles, roundtrip), through mossy, fern-shrouded terrain thick with wildflowers and oak-hickory forest. The trail is well-maintained, although it could have a better marker at a major junction (hang a right just past the spring). Unfortunately, the falls were essentially non-existent, due to global warming or whatever, but it’s such a pretty, peaceful hike, no matter.

On the way back, we stopped at the camp store. It’s well-stocked; you certainly won’t lack for basic necessities or food. There’s a lot of backpacker-friendly options: pasta, rice, canned meaty things. If, however, you’re health conscious (I am), there’s mighty slim pickings. I’m not dissing the store, which is great by national park/campground standards. Camp stores obviously aren’t created to cater to the palates of demanding gourmands or health foodists, so pack accordingly. There are a lot of black bears in the park, as well, so whether you’re car or backcountry camping, you’ll need to store your food accordingly.

Dinner options included a minuscule selection of sad, floppy, produce, and some grillable meat items, such as anemic pork chops, the ubiquitous hot dogs and dubious burger meat. To save cash, we went the processed meat route. Which is how we ended up eating “pressed and formed” deli turkey (49 cents a package!) and processed “cheese food” sandwiches on squishy wannabe-Wonder Bread. In retrospect, we should have splurged on s’mores makings, which would have been great with the Bulleit bourbon Boyfriend had thought to bring from home (because, while pressed turkey is one thing, cheap bourbon is another, and life is too short to drink it).

On day two, we hiked to 81-foot Lewis Falls (moderate, 3.3 mile loop, half of it uphill), outside of Big Meadows campground/Byrd Visitor Center. The center is a nice interpretive facility with camp store and restaurant (tip: give the park restaurants a miss). The trailhead off Tanner’s Ridge Overlook (mile marker 51.5) is tricky to find. Instead, drive into the amphitheater parking, where there’s another trailhead.

If you hike the downhill loop to the falls, there’s a well-marked junction to the AT. I highly recommend a detour, even if it’s just a mile (you’ll need to backtrack). It’s a particularly beautiful section, but it also gives you a good sense of how solitary and meditative the AT can be. At the falls proper, there’s a stellar view of the Shenandoah Valley, dotted with barns, silos, and farmhouses.

On our last day we stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, near the northern entrance, and took the one-mile Fox Hollow Trail. It leads to the ruins of some old homesteads and a tiny cemetery. The homesteading heritage of the park is fascinating; it was initially formed from more than 1,000 privately-owned land tracts ranging from forest and pasture, to orchards. If you want to delve more deeply into the history of these early residents, other good trails with homesite ruins include Hannah Run at mile marker 35.1, Nicholson Hollow at 38.4, and Rose River Loop at 40.4. The visitor centers also have excellent books and exhibits on this topic.

For Shenandoah National Park backcountry information and regulations, go here.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

10 summer trips to America’s greatest natural treasures

A visit to a national park conjures up views of lush landscapes, dramatic skylines and lines of honking cars. While the National Park Service estimates that nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, you don’t need to join the throng to experience a national wonder. Consider visiting one of the following American treasures instead:

1. Arches National Park/Canyonlands National Park
A trip to Arches National Park and the nearby Canyonlands National Park in Southwest Utah can feel like visiting another world. This high desert is home to odd red-rock formations, vast canyons and some of the most delicate flora and fauna. Take a guided tour and learn about cryptobiotic soil, a black crust that covers much of the desert floor but contains live organisms that are vital to keeping the desert healthy.

2. White River National Forest
Home to the Colorado ski resorts of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, eight wilderness areas and Gold Medal trout waters, the White River National Forest is an outdoor sports enthusiast’s playground. Backpackers can explore the national forest by reserving a hut trip through the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association.

3. Ozark National Scenic Riverways
Located in Southeastern Missouri, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways are known for their clear, clean water, elaborate cave system and eight spring water systems. The national park is nestled near the Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark mountains.

4. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Since its dramatic eruption on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington has become one of the most studied volcanoes in the world. Visitors can hike and climb the mountain. Take a guided tour and learn more about how volcanoes work.5. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is located in a remote area near the Minnesota-Canada border. It is a beautiful, tranquil area meant to be navigated by canoe, so those looking to visit a park by car will need go elsewhere. But if you are looking for adventure, some prime fishing and a cool refuge from the summer heat, the Boundary Waters has much to offer.

6. Appalachian National Scenic Trail
The Appalachian Trail is more than 2,100-miles long and wanders through many of the states on the Eastern seaboard. One of the best ways to access the trail is by going to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia, which also is home to several Civil War battlefields.

7. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Located in western Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to a stark, dramatic desert landscape, an interesting array of plant life and fossilized reef. There’s plenty to do here for hikers and campers. It’s also within driving distance for many Americans living in the Midwest.

8. Everglades National Park
Best known as a home for alligators and snakes, the Everglades in southern Florida also are unlike any other national park. The swampy, grassy wetland is easy to tour by foot or canoe. It’s also home to several endangered species, including the manatee. A guided tour can help ease any jitters about alligators, while also help to guarantee that you’ll see one.

9. Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park offers a great escape from the hectic pace of Southern California’s cities. Located off the shore from Santa Barbara, the boat ride to the islands alone makes the trips worth it. Expect to see dolphins chasing your charter boat and if the timing is right, you may even see a few whales. The Channel Islands are home to bald eagles and sea lions. The best way to tour the islands is by sea kayak.

10. Acadia National Park
Located on Maine’s southern rugged coast, Acadia National Park is a haven for outdoor recreation enthusiasts looking to beat the heat and the crowds in many of the country’s national parks to the West. You can canoe fresh water or take a kayak along the Atlantic shoreline, or hike along the coastline bluffs.

Tamara Miller is a writer based in Portland, Ore.