Monthly Archives: May 2014

Day 105: In which I say goodbye to the Shenandoahs

Miles Hiked: 13.4
Miles Left: 1219.7
Ending Location: US 522 road crossing, Front Royal Terrapin Station Hostel, Mile 964.6

I keep on thinking about the problem of gaining momentum while on the trail. I woke up this morning in the shelter with it raining outside and I did not want to hike. I procrastinated as long as possible but seeing that it wasn’t going to let up I finally donned my rain gear and headed out. The thought of zeroing in the shelter may have popped into my head.

The hike out of the Shenandoahs was pretty much like the hike in, the trail was nice, (though muddy), and there were no bears. The second I crossed the park’s boarder things changed. It was as if Virginia was welcoming me back to the real trail with rocks, switchbacks and tons of roots and fallen trees. At the same time though, this was also the start of the posh shelters. Rather then simply three walls and a leaky roof many of them from this stretch on for at least the next 100 miles were like mini cabins in the woods. I didn’t stay in the one I passed today simply because I had my sights set on getting into Front Royal, taking a shower and doing laundry. Eating real food at all the waysides in the park may have spoiled me as well.

The last hill before US 522, the hitch point into Front Royal, was dangerous. Well it may have been more my impatience, but it was muddy and grassy and in my haste I wiped out twice going down it. I was ok but it forced me to take it slower which was annoying. Finally after making it to the road crossing I was disappointed to find out it was a horrible place to hitch in the rain. Cars and trucks were driving past at 50 mph splashing water everywhere and there wasn’t much of a shoulder to stand on for the side of the road heading into town. After about 20 minutes of sticking out my thumb I eventually gave up and just called a shuttle instead.

I was picked up by Mike who also it turns out ran the Terrapin Station Hostel. He offered to take me there instead and while I had my sights set on a hotel, I figured what the heck and decided to check it out. The hostel itself was clean with a very nice common area and bunks. The bunks were the weirdest part since they had these oversized air mattresses that were partially deflated so they would just envelop you. They were surprisingly comfortable but considering how tired I was I might not have been the best judge. The bathroom was minimalist and the washer and drier were on their last legs so I don’t think I got clean so much as slightly less dirty. Also there was food available for purchase, on the honor system, so I ate a frozen pizza and some ice cream, spent some time updating my journal, and called it a night.

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Day 104: More bears and more night hiking

Miles Hiked: 17.5
Miles Left: 1233.1
Ending Location: Gravel Springs Hut, Mile 952.2

Unsurprisingly, after my late night last night I slept in. This was made easier by the fact that my tent-site was a distance from the shelter itself so I wasn’t woken up by the standard commotion of other hikers leaving at a more reasonable time. Eventually I headed out though with the goal of another wayside driving me on. Most of the day passed without much commotion. There were some nice views on top of Mary’s rock, (It totally was worth taking a side trail up to it), and I did surprise one bear, but nothing dramatic. Later that afternoon though it started to rain again. I was traveling through a heavily canopied forest at the time and I was very lucky to get my pack cover and rain jacket as I didn’t have much warning before it started pouring. At first, hoping it would pass over briefly, I huddled under a tree, ate a Cliff bar, and felt sorry for myself. After realizing this storm was going to go on for a while I stood up and started hiking again. It’s amazing how forward progress can make you feel better. At this point the rain had turned those nicely packed paths of the Shenandoahs into mini streams but since my shoes were already soaked I just waded through them. Eventually the rain settled into a misting and I briefly took refuge in a park restroom and tried to get dried off enough to use my phone and figure out where I was. The LifeProof waterproof case I have certainly has gotten a workout on this trip, but once it gets wet my ability to use the touchscreen becomes nonexistent. Luckily I have a camp towel in my backpack, (Douglas Adams would be proud), but using it in the rain is not really an option. Long story short, I saw I was right by the wayside so I forged ahead.

Upon arriving there I discovered two things. Their grill was on the fritz so I could only have fried food and there was only outdoor seating. Ordering a chicken club, fries, and ice cream, I ended up taking them to a covered overhang near the soda machines to eat them. I must have been a sad sight perched under there, wet and shivering while trying to squeeze ketchup onto my fries since a very nice couple approached me with their contact information written on a part of a torn up tissue box. They said they lived near Harpers Ferry and if I needed a place to stay they would happily take me in. I was amazed by the offer because at that point I don’t know if I’d let myself into my own house in the stinky and muddy state I was in. I thanked them very much and they left and I finished up my meal.

During this time the wayside closed for the day, (I had just made it in time), but some bikers stopped in and started looking around. All of a sudden the store’s alarm went off and started blaring like a car alarm. Not wanting to be around if any cops showed up, (let’s be honest, I looked guilty as hell), I quickly packed up my stuff and headed back out to the trail. By then the rain had stopped so I was able to dry off a bit before the sun set. Thanks to my late start though I still had several miles to go. This led to my scariest bear encounter to date. The sun was rapidly going down and I had my headlamp on and was going up a mountain. Suddenly in the middle of a switchback a bear stood up. I suspect it had been sleeping and I had woken it up. This was how I found myself not only much closer to a bear then I would have liked, but with it between me and both sides of the trail since I had initially walked past it and the switchback looped back around above the bear. I slowly backed off the trail and into the woods all the while telling the bear what a good bear it was and how good bears did not eat hikers. To the bear’s credit, it mostly just gave me an annoyed look like, “Really dude, I was sleeping!?”, stretched, slowly walked on to the trail and then ran away. My immediate thought after that was, “Darn it, that would have been an amazing picture”, but at least you all now know I’m not going to be that guy who gets mauled while reaching for his camera.

The rest of the night passed without incident. One interesting and slightly disorienting thing was with all the rain the ground was crawling with worms which would retreat back into the ground surprisingly fast when my headlamp illuminated them. It made the whole trail look like an old school Tool music video. Eventually though I reached the shelter. With lightning booming in the distance I opted to sleep in it vs camp. The decision was much easier than normal since everyone in the shelter was still up so I didn’t feel bad barging in there. That turned out to be a good decision since in the very early morning hours the sky opened up and it turned into a fairly impressive storm that I was able to take note of and then fall back asleep.

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Day 103: Eating my way across the Shenandoahs

Miles Hiked: 23.1
Miles Left: 1250.6
Ending Location: Byrds Nest #3 Hut, Mile 934.7

I woke up this morning raring to go. When dropping off my keys to the cabin I had been offered free coffee, I was feeling great, and I was full of energy. All was right with the world! I stopped briefly by Bearfence Hut, the place I was planning on staying the night before. Despite its name there was no bear fencing to be seen. Then it was on to the Big Meadows wayside for lunch and blackberry milkshakes. On the way there though I received even more trail magic from Dipper Debbie, her daughter Maggie, and her parents. Debbie was planning on hiking the AT next year and was full of questions about the trail so I tried to answer them the best I could. The only answer I really felt comfortable with was when asked what the hardest part of the trail had been so far I replied “The month leading up to getting on the AT”. With all the rush, doubt, and second thoughts during that month I’m still amazed I made it out here. Being the first hiker they helped I was overwhelmed with food and soda. The reason I remember their names is I let them sign my bag which appeared to make Maggie’s day. I don’t think I’ve talked about my backpack much, and it really doesn’t show up in the pictures, but I’ve been having fellow hikers and trail angels sign my bag using a permanent marker. This was an idea I stole from Oh Canada and it has been tons of fun. Not only does it serve as a neat icebreaker, but it helps me remember names and reminds me of all the amazing people I’ve met along the way. Plus by now my bag looks wicked cool with drawings, names, and sayings plastered all over it. Owl recommended that I tell LLBean at the end of this hike that they can display this in their HQ if they want to. I’m actually tempted to do that if this bag survives the trip to Katahdin.

At the wayside I met Woodstock and Gargoyle, but opted to get a table inside instead of getting my food to go like them so I could recharge my phone. The wayside’s milkshake machine was working and they were fully stocked with ice cream so I finally managed to try a blackberry milkshake. I quickly polished it down along with a chili dog and fries. After that I stopped by the store to pick up a few more energy bars and crackers to get me to the next resupply. The ability to carry a only a day or two’s worth of food in the park is amazing as that really helps keep your pack weight manageable.

Back on the trail I initially made good time but then started to slow down as I got tireder and tireder. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Eventually I found a rocky outcropping and took a quick power nap. Apparently all that food needed time to digest as it was like trying to work out right after a Thanksgiving dinner. Once I woke up though I felt much better which was good as a storm was rumbling in. There was a lot of cliff walking so it was cool, (and intimidating), watching it on the horizon. Initially it just missed where I was so by that afternoon I was feeling pretty lucky. I stopped by the next hut and it was filled with high schoolers out for the weekend. My desire to stay there was low, and combined with the near miss of the storm helped me make my decision to push on. The reason I had to think about it though was that meant I would have to stealth camp or hike a total of 23 miles that day to make it to the next hut. After the 19 miles yesterday my legs felt great so I figured that was a realistic goal though.

Of course shortly after making that decision the rest of the storm came through and dumped tons of rain on me. My rain gear certainly got a workout that evening and I’m happy to say it performed as expected. Everything was damp but my sleeping bag remained dry and I remained warm which in the end is all that matters. I took refuge briefly in a stables with some horses but then pushed on to the Skyline resort where I met up again with Woodstock and Gargoyle and grabbed dinner. That night featured clog dancing so it was a lot of fun eating hamburgers, drinking beer, getting dry, and cheering on the clog dancers. I was temped to stay the night there as by then it was dark and still drizzling, but the place was booked up. Still, there’s something profoundly awesome about slamming down a pint, putting on your rain jacket and headlamp, and saying “Well see ya guys but I’m going to hike through six more miles of bear infested wilderness before I call it a night.” And that is pretty much what I did. Part of the trail went along Little Stoneyman Cliffs which were spectacular at night, and with the wind and the rain I felt like I was accomplishing something very extreme. Luckily the rain eventually stopped and by the time I finally made it to camp things were starting to dry out which helped a lot when it came to setting up my tent. In another piece of good news no bears were seen that night but I did wake up a herd of deer. With the way their eyes reflected my headlamp I initially thought I had wandered into a wolf den but on further inspection paired with the fact that I did not die I realized what they really were. Perhaps the most annoying thing that night was the bugs. They kept swarming my headlamps so for sections I’d have to switch it over to its red light as that wouldn’t attract them as much. Of course it’s hard to see with the red light so after the cloud of insects dispersed I’d switch it back.

When it was all said and done, with 23 miles hiked and two full meals eaten it was a good day. I went to sleep that night happy and content with my progress.

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Day 102: Amazing trail magic from government employees

Miles Hiked: 19.9
Miles Left: 1273.7
Ending Location: Bunkhouse at Lewis Mountain Campground, Mile 911.6

One great thing about weekend hikers is when they are around if I get on the trail before 10am I feel like I’m getting going early. I actually did make an early start this morning though since I had a goal. If I could make it too Lewis Mountain campground before 8pm I might be able to grab dinner and a shower. At nearly 20 miles, that was a bit of a stretch but it kept me going throughout most of the day.

I was glad I started hiking early since the day turned into a scorcher. I arrived at Hightop Hut as things were really heating up and made the mistake of sitting in the sun to dry out and eat some lunch. Even after sucking down water and filtering more I started feeling sick from the heat since there was no shade. Once I realized the source of my distress I packed everything up and headed back into the woods, as with its metal roof the hut itself was like a sauna.

On hitting mile 900 of the trail I noticed several rock piles celebrating that fact. Through shear coincidence this milestone happened to occur right by some scenic cliffs which was a nice bonus as most of the 100 mile marks have been on some nondescript section of the trail. Next up, one thousand miles!

While the climb up to Hightop was the biggest of the day, as the trail continued on there were a good number of sections where you would gain and then loose 500 to 1k feet of elevation. Don’t let anyone fool you that the Shenandoah section is all flat. It was hard to stay motivated but the allure of a good dinner kept me focused. As the afternoon started to turn into evening I ended up having several bear encounters. Most of them involved a bear crashing through the woods to run away the second they became aware of my presence. You know the saying, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your friends”? Well you better have some slow friends because those bears are fast! There was one bear though that was lazily sitting on the trail and didn’t seem to mind me. I probably spent a good fifteen minutes watching and talking to him before he wandered off. Yes I talk to the bears so they know where I am since their eyesight isn’t the best. Hey, it makes me feel more safe anyways!

I arrived at the campsite around 7:30 with a whole half hour to spare … or so I thought. It turns our this camp store closed at 6. The bathroom was open though, but I didn’t have any quarters for the shower. Luckily I eventually found someone passing by who could make change so all was ok with the world. As I was leaving the bathroom a ranger was hanging out looking at my pack. I’ll admit my first thought was, “Crap, I’ve been busted!”, even though I don’t think I was doing anything wrong. In my defense, as a dirty hiker I’m pretty sure I’m breaking some rule or law every time I’m near civilization. It turns out though that he just wanted to help. The ranger had hiked the AT back in the 80’s, (trail name “Marathon Man”), so he knew what it was like and reopened the store for me. I picked up some microwaveable sausage biscuits for dinner and a few snacks for the trail and when I went to pay for them he waved me off and said they were on the house. Talking to a couple other hikers later he apperantly does this a lot. At the time though I was absolutely floored. I had been amazed with him just opening the store in the first place! I talked to him for a while and he had a bunch of good stories. Supposedly the campground used to be at the 900 mile mark before new sections were added to the trail and he still considered that to be the case regardless of what the guidebooks said. I’m not going to argue with him! Also there is usually a surprising number of through hikers who show up in July. The reason that’s weird is by that point it’s almost impossible to finish before weather makes scaling Katahdin illegal, and very possibly fatal.

As the night wore on the ranger offered me the opportunity to stay in the bunk house for free. As he put it, they weren’t going to be able to rent it that night and it’s not like they have to change the sheets. So I saw bears during the day, had a shower, and was able to sleep that night with a full belly in a warm bed. It was a good day! It was also a turning point for my time in Virginia as that was when the Virginia Blues really started to melt away. Thank you Marathon Man!

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Day 101: In which I finally see a bear

Miles Hiked: 13.2
Miles Left: 1293.6
Ending Location: Pinefield Hut, Mile 891.7

I woke up this morning with tons of gumption. That may have been due to the fact that I was looking forward to getting a shower and doing laundry at one of the official campgrounds in the Shenandoahs and then grabbing real food at a wayside. It also helped that once I got on the trail I was treated to one of the first real views of the Shenandoahs on top Blackrock mountain. As the name implies the top was completely covered in boulders so I was able to climb on those while looking off into the distance. It was a good way to start the day

The day got even better as on my way to the campground I saw my first bear of the trip! He, (I’m just going to assume it was a boy ), was nosing around in the bushes and I’m pretty sure waiting for an opening to go raid some tents. He could have cared less about me though. Also, for a wild bloodthirsty killing machine, he was pretty cute. As I was watching him a family came up so I warned then and then showed them where the bear was. The 10 year old kid’s reaction was much like mine, “That’s so awesome”. The trail ran past the bear, (it was a good ways in the woods though which was fortunate). and since I really wanted a shower I slowly walked along the path talking to the bear the whole way. The family followed me but it wasn’t till we were on the other side that the mom remembered a couple of their friends were behind them. So I walked past the bear again and waited for the other people to show up so I could warn them. When they finally arrived they immediately stared taking pictures so I headed back to the campground.

Now I arrived at the shower and laundry facility at 1:04pm. The reason I remember this was they close it from 1-3 every day for cleaning. At that point I was really angry at that bear! I didn’t want to loose two hours but I also desperately wanted a shower. My desire to get clean easily trumped my desire to hit the trail so I ended up going to the general store, eating, and reading while waiting for the showers to reopen. At that point laundry was out of the question unless I wanted to spend the night there.

Once showered and somewhat clean I started hiking again with the local wayside as my destination. I made good time and when I arrived I put in an order for one of their famous blackberry milkshakes. Only their milkshake machine was broken. No problem, I’ll just have some blackberry ice cream instead. Nope, they ran out of that about an hour ago with all the Memorial Day tourists.

Stupid bear!!!!

In the end I contented myself with chocolate ice cream, a burger, and some fries. The chocolate ice cream was surprisingly tasty. In fact I preferred it to the blackberry ice cream when I finally tried some later. Of course I didn’t know that at the time so I was a bit bummed. The hamburger was nothing to write home about but it still was better and more filling than Mountain House dehydrated meals!

That evening I arrived at the shelter just as the sun was setting. I was very happy then when a nice family made space for me to set up my tent. I spent a while talking to them about hiking the AT and then turned in for the night. Looking back at it, it was a good day but at the time I was a bit annoyed at that bear for messing up my plans. Still, the fact that I finally had seen a bear was a weight off my mind since I was afraid I’d go the entire length of the AT without spotting one.

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Day 100: In which I celebrate 100 days by having a lazy morning

Miles Hiked: 13.0
Miles Left: 1306.8
Ending Location: Blackrock Hut, Mile 878.5

One of the nice things about getting into camp so early last night was I actually had a chance to read. I know I should have been updating my journal but I needed some downtime. Over the course of the evening I finally finished my first book on the AT, “Anathem” by Neil Stephenson. It was about a religious order that studies math and was a nice diversion as it exercised a non hiking portion of my brain. For my second book I started reading “Maze Runner” which I heard was like the Hunger Games and had an interesting concept. Basically instead of exercising my brain I figured it’d be like sitting down on the couch with potato chips and watching Jerry Springer. The reason I’m mentioning this was when I woke up that morning and looked at my guidebook I realized I had a choice of either hiking 13 miles or 26 miles if I wanted to stay at a shelter. Since 26 miles wasn’t really an option I decided to take the morning off and just lounge about instead. That turned out to be a good decision since my body needed the extra rest. So I went back to sleep and when I woke up the second time I finished yet another book on the AT. Oh and if anyone is interested, I’d recommend skipping Maze Runner. Interesting concept, poor character development and plot. That being said, I’ll probably still read the other two books in the series to see how it turns out. Reminds me a lot of my experience reading Twilight now that I think about it…

Once I actually got packed up and on the trail I made great time. That being said the trail itself was fairly nondescript with a lot of ups and downs with no views. There certainly were a ton of day hikers out though. It was the most packed I’ve seen the trail yet. At one point I took a break and had fun climbing a tree overhanging the AT and greeting people as they came past. Hey it doesn’t take much to amuse me!

I once again arrived into camp early, but there were still a bunch of people who arrived even earlier. Finding a tenting location was a challenge but eventually I got squared away. I’m getting better at sleeping on an angle which is an essential AT skill. At this point more and more through hikers have been switching to hammocks to avoid that problem all together. Hanging out at the shelter with everyone else I found out if I had hung around the last shelter even longer I would have seen a bear. Apparently it had waited for just about everyone to leave before it moseyed on in and started going through all the trash that the weekend hikers left. Remember people, pack out what you bring in!! The other random thing that happened was a couple people started swapping shoes. It all started with one through hiker who had been carrying his old pair of boots while he broke in his new ones. He was going to toss them the first chance he got, but a section hiker with bad blisters took them instead. Then another hiker took the section hiker’s shoes since they were practically brand new. All I could think though was who’d want to even touch a through hiker’s old boots? I don’t want to even handle mine! That was pretty much it for the evening though and I went to bed soon afterwards.

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Day 99: Entering the Shenandoahs

Miles Hiked: 12.7
Miles Left: 1319.8
Ending Location: Calf Mountain Shelter, Mile 865.5

I was feeling much better in the morning but it was still a struggle dealing with my heat rashes. Part of it was simply getting used to the new clothing choices forced on me by the weather. Normally I hike covered up as much as possible. Long pants, long sleeved shirts, and a hat. The less skin showing the better as it protects me from bugs, the sun, and my own general clumsiness. Usually the extra heat caused by this isn’t an issue or is something I just deal with but now I’m finding myself hiking in shorts and with my sleeves rolled up. It’ll take some getting used to. The worst part of it though are the ticks. My permethrin treated pants had been doing a great job of keeping them off but now with just bug spray I’m finding them all over my legs. Let me tell you, ticks scare me way more than bears as they easily could end my hike thanks to Lyme disease.

Upon reaching Rockfish gap, I headed to Waynsboro’s visitors center which I thought was right across the road. Nope, it was on top of a ginourmous hill instead. Luckily there was a kettle corn van at the bottom so I was able fortify myself with hotdogs and soda before I started the climb. The reason I was going there was I wanted to refill my water bottles, recharge my phone, and get some information about the Shenandoahs before I entered them. I failed on all three counts. It was the most unhelpful visitor’s center I’ve ever seen. When I asked them about the backpacker registration for the park I was treated with a rant, detailing how the gov’ment was always trying to steal our money, before the two people there said they had no idea about any park registration. The same thing happened when I asked about camping in the park vs staying in the shelters. They did give me a hiker gift bag though that had a copy of the bible in it… They insisted I take it and it ended up being a couple of days before I could find a trash can to throw most of the contents of that gift bag away. I left that place pissed.

Upon entering the park though I ran into a ranger collecting backpacker registrations from the self check-in booth. She was more than helpful and answered all my questions. Registration and entrance to the park was free for AT through hikers. They just required it since they like to have an idea of how many people there were and where the clumps of hikers would be. You could camp in the park. You just had to be 20 feet from the trail and 50 feet from the streams. Oh, and she also highly recommended to not camp on animal trails unless you like being woken up by a bear. And yes, with close to 300 bears in the park I’d probably see one but the main thing was just not to panic. It was refreshing talking to her after dealing with the people in the visitors center.

The actual AT trail itself through the Shenandoahs was … weird. It was by far the best maintained trail on the AT and with the exception of some of the climbs there were almost no obstacles to walk around. For the part I hiked today there were also no views but a whole lot of ups and downs. I actually am having a hard time describing it, but the trail design was very distinctive. It took a while to grow on me but looking back on it I’m going to miss it. The way it was set up, even though it was anything but flat it let you maintain a steady pace that really let you bang out the miles. Because of that I found myself at the shelter before five. Remembering the bears, and not wanting to hike another 13 miles to the next shelter I ended up setting up my tent and staying for the night. It was a good thing I arrived early because it was the start of Memorial Day weekend and the shelter along with all the tentsites around it quickly became filled up with weekend campers. Well, actually I think the shelter was empty that night but that was were everyone was hanging out. This was a complication I hadn’t expected but it actually turned out for the best. No way a bear was going to be able to get me then!

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