Maryland - West Virginia - Northern Virginia
September 19 ~ Harper's Ferry, WV at milepoint 1163.6 south, 99 days since start of hike, averaging 11.8 miles per day
Trail data: Day 97 AT miles hiked: 40.1 Total miles hiked: 42.6 Interesting critters seen: deer, wild turkey, grouse Interesting views: 0 People I saw on the Trail: 1 jogger, 1 day-hiker
The first part of today’s journal should be called “Night Hiking with a Dim Bulb.” Jake and I were awakened at midnight by the sight of two other southbound thru-hikers – Moon Dance and Mr. White – whose head-lamps were shining on us as they stumbled across our encampment. They were pleased to see us and even more pleased when they heard we’d be joining them in trying to cross the state of Maryland in one fell swoop. Like me, they had mailed most of their gear ahead to Harper’s Ferry. They slept last night under plastic garbage bags, just a short distance from our encampment.
Jake and I were half asleep as we packed up our gear. But the predicted rain was nowhere in sight, and we were both excited about this adventure. At 12:30 a.m. we crossed the Mason-Dixon line, hoping to do all 40 miles of the Trail in Maryland before the day ended.
I had first heard about this Maryland Challenge from a northbound thruhiker named Spur, whom I met in Glencliff, NH. He said that Maryland is completely flat and therefore it’s not all that hard. So, I had been thinking about whether to try this challenge since July. With my knee pain and back pain now in remission, it seemed do-able, even though my longest hike to date was 26 miles. However, when I looked at the profile chart of the Trail for Maryland, my hopes for a “flat” hike were dashed. There was plenty of up-and-down. In fact, the uphills – none more 750 feet or so – collectively amounted to 6,150 feet of climbing. (That’s about the height of Mt. Washington).
Starting out on this 40-mile jaunt at night was essential in order to avoid the need for break-neck-speed hiking all day and into the evening. I wanted to pace myself. But Jake and I had sent our headlamps home to save weight, and we were both using tiny Photon LED lights to find our way. The next time I try some crazy night-hiking adventure I am going to use a headlamp or proper flashlight. The dim bulb of this Photon – which weighs half an ounce and is smaller than a silver dollar – gave me just enough light to stumble along though the rocks.
Although it was a struggle to see where we were going, I actually enjoyed the night-hiking. The struggle to see where you are going sharpens all of your senses. Jake and I stayed close together for the whole 6 hours before it got bright enough to turn off our LED lights, around 6:30 a.m. We only got lost once, though we were bewildered several times at Trail junctures trying to figure out where the next blaze was. One clue in the dry air was the sound of crunching leaves, which told us we were off-track; all the leaves on the Trail are pretty well mashed. One of the advantages of hiking at night with a tiny flashlight is that you can’t see the long uphills looming ahead. You can see only the small stretch of Trail by your feet – it’s an unusual “be here now” type of experience.
But the real “dim bulb” of the evening was me. At 6:30 a.m., Jake and I stopped to put on our pack covers because it was beginning to rain, and I discovered my sleeping bag was missing. I had stupidly left it at our encampment. I recalled stuffing it into its small black compression sack; I must have left it on the ground. Now we were 10 miles down the Trail. Although I could buy another one in Harpers Ferry, they’re expensive and this one was ideally suited for the Trail – extremely high-loft down and very light weight. I decided to head back even if it meant dashing my hopes of crossing Maryland in one day.
This next part of the journal should be called “Hiking through Hurricane Gordon.” The rain began in earnest as I hiked the mile or so back to the nearest road. I think the rain helped me get rides because the drivers felt sorry for me. I must have been a pretty sad-looking hiker.
My third ride – with a woman named Trudy – was wonderful. She not only took me out of her way to the area near the Mason-Dixon line where Jake and I camped, but also waited there while I got my sleeping bag and drove me 10 miles back to the trailhead. By doing so, she enabled me to get back on the Trail with only two hours lost because of my spaciness. Thank you, Trudy – trail angel of the month.
(I found my sleeping bag, by the way, at the bottom of a slope near our encampment. It had apparently rolled down there while I was starting to pack up. Out of sight, out of mind.)
I did a few calculations and decided that I could still complete the Maryland Challenge if I hiked at a 2.5 mph pace – a little fast for me but do-able. But then there was this rain, which I later learned was the remnants of Hurricane Gordon. It alternated between light showers and heavy downpour, and the Trail began filling with water. With temperatures in the low 60’s, the rain was chilling. I thought about Jake, who was two hours ahead of me but with no raingear (he sent it home a long time ago). His entire wardrobe is a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and a thin long-sleeve shirt. He is always wearing two-thirds of his wardrobe, which makes doing laundry an interesting experience. (He usually borrows my rainpants for the occasion.) I thought about how cold Jacob must be without a rain jacket.
The weather forecasters later admitted their mistake. Having predicted a chance of showers in the morning, they did not realize that Gordon would reach us so soon. But I trudged along, water sloshing in my boots, because of the ponds that stretched from one side of the Trail to the other.
One of the things that propelled me over slippery rocks and muddy Trail was having gotten up at midnight. The investment of six hours of night-hiking gave me a stake in this adventure. I realize this is the sort of illogical reasoning that leads humankind into some of its worst misadventures. The Vietnam War comes to mind as but one example. There was a part of me saying: “torrential rain and a mislaid sleeping bag are life’s way of telling you not to try hiking 40 miles.” There was another part of me saying “Trying to hike 40 miles on 3 hours sleep is going to be an interesting experience – go for it.” The latter voice won out, and I kept on hiking.
Each time I stopped for a rest, I had to struggle a bit to keep from falling asleep. During the course of the day I ate almost everything in my food bag: granola bars, protein bars, two Almond Joys, and a little bit of GORP. If there were any views today, I missed them because of the low clouds and haze.
At 7:30 p.m. I could no longer see the Trail without my Photon. But I was only 4 miles from Harpers Ferry. I wound my way down a one-mile stretch of rocks (the Weverton Cliffs) where the Trail maintainers have built an elaborate set of switchbacks. By 8 p.m. I was on the footpath of the C&O Canal. These last 3 miles of Maryland on the Trail are blissfully flat and free of obstacles, a real cakewalk even if I could see only a few feet of it at a time. Freight trains roared by occasionally on the opposite side of the Canal, briefly illuminating the path and the trees that line it. I could hear the Potomac River on my left, even though there was not enough moonlight to see it. (It had never occurred to me that the quiet, almost sleepy Potomac that we see in Washington, DC could have a fast-moving whitewater section to the west.)
With half a mile to go before the bridge into Harper’s Ferry I sat down for a rest. That was a mistake. My legs buckled a bit as I stood up again. The chafing inside my legs felt much worse, and so I was walking bow-legged as I climbed the spiral staircase to the old bridge that links Maryland to West Virginia. Harpers Ferry looked beautiful: some of the antique buildings were lit up and gave the town a stately but somber look.
As I reached the far side of the bridge, I thought to myself: hiking 40 miles was a completely nutty thing to do, but I’m glad I did it. I felt high on endorphins all day, and I enjoyed the experience of finding out what my body can do with a lighter pack and an interesting challenge.
I searched Harper’s Ferry for a restaurant or convenience store. Nothing was open except for an antique shop. It was almost 9:30 p.m. – an unusual hour for an antique shop to be open in a sleepy town. There were several people gathered by the side door of the shop. When I asked about a restaurant, they told me that nothing was open but I was welcome to have dinner there. The proprietors were holding a party at the shop, and there was a wonderful buffet spread out on one of the antique dining room tables. I felt more than a little self-conscious in my smelly, rain-soaked clothes but food is food, especially after hiking for 20 hours. Again, Trail magic spreads its blessed twinkle dust over a weary hiker.
I decided to treat myself to one of the hiker rooms at the local hotel, the Hilltop House, which commands a big view of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers where they meet here. That final half mile of hiking up to the hotel was probably the toughest climb of the day. Now I was really walking like a cowboy who’s been in the saddle too long. But at least I had a full stomach and the satisfaction of knowing that I would be sleeping in a bed with a pillow if I could press on just a little further.
When I got to the hotel, I discovered that Jake was not there and there was no message for me. He must have had the good sense to stop at one of the shelters along the way. I checked in and hung up my one set of clothes in front of the heater in my room. My head hit the pillow and I was asleep before you could say “Boy, does he look tired, or what?”
Dad and I camped at the Pennsylvania – Maryland border last night to get a little sleep before setting out at midnight. We probably would have overslept but Moondance and Josh came along also planning to do the MD challenge. We got up and started hiking in the dark with only our LED lights. It was tough going and we got lost many times, but we made pretty good miles before dawn. We took a break when it started to rain, shortly before dawn, and Dad discovered he’d left his sleeping bag at the state line! He headed back to the last road to hitch back there and get it and hitch back. I went on, and the rain gradually got worse and worse. I was also really tired by that point, nearly falling asleep on my feet, but I couldn’t take a break because of the rain. Finally I got to Pine Knob Shelter, 17.4 miles out, at 9:30. I planned to take a short break there, eat something and head out, but when I arrived I found Josh and Moondance asleep and looking very warm and comfy, lost all willpower. Also the rain seemed worse than it actually was once I was in the shelter. I unrolled my sleeping bag and had a nice long warm nap. Later the other 2 Reservoir Dogs showed up. We wanted to try and make 7 more miles if the rain stopped, but it didn’t and we wound up hanging around all day.
September 20 ~ Harper's Ferry, WV at milepoint 1163.6 south, 100 days since start of hike, averaging 11.6 miles per day
Trail data: Day 98 AT miles hiked: 0
I took a “zero” day today, recuperating from the 40-mile Maryland Challenge and waiting for Jacob to arrive. I met John the Baptist, a southbound friend, at the Outfitters Shop – he had hiked the 40 miles the day before I did. So did Blue Light Special and The Kid. We compared notes on the experience. We were both glad we did it. John then went off to pick apples for a local farmer to earn some money for his thru-hike.
Other SoBo’s filtered into town during the day. The Appalachian Trail Conference has its headquarters here, and its office is a magnet for all the hikers in town. Harper’s Ferry is close to the middle of the Trail and in some ways it’s the spiritual center of the Trail. Hikers stop at the ATC office to get their pictures taken – the ATC has albums going back many years. The office sells posters, maps of the Trail, and books. From their collection it appears that about half of the people who have hiked the Trail went home and wrote a book about it.
I was very pleased to see that the ATC had copies of the new book “On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage.” I was even more pleased to learn that the author, thru-hiker Robert Rubin (“Rhymin’ Worm”) was a member of the ATC staff. He came out of his office and chatted with me for a while about his hike in 1997. He and his wife had their 10th anniversary while he was on the Trail; Beth and I will be celebrating our 20th in a week. We talked about missing our spouses. Best of all, he inscribed a copy of the book for me. He said it was a real compliment that I was willing to hike with a hard-cover book.
One of the most interesting – but also alarming – items in the ATC office is their 3-dimensional map of the entire Trail. It’s about 8 feet long and shows the terrain in vivid detail. What alarmed me was seeing how mountainous the southern half of the Trail is. Jake and I have a LOT of work still ahead of us.
My next stop was the Post Office where five packages awaited me: a new ultra-light tarp to replace my tent, our food maildrop, the clothes and gear I sent forward from Pennsylvania, a huge, ungainly box with my old jumbo-size backpack, and a surprise package from our friends Jim and Sue.
I opened the package from Jim and Sue in the lobby of the Post Office. It contained wonderful Trail-food treats: dried fruits, dried veggie snacks, some ultra-good Trail dinners, pistachio nuts, and the coolest thing I’ve ever received in the mail: a 3-D picture of Beth and Lily. (They also sent a pair of 3-D glasses.) Jim created the picture with two digital cameras and a rig that he has developed. Thanks Jim and Sue for some wonderful, unexpected Trail magic.
After dropping off all these great things at the hotel, I went off in search of a library, about a mile away in the next town. The town library in Bolivar, WV, offers Internet access but requires you to read a page of fine print warning you not to do anything with their computers that you wouldn’t do if your mother was looking over your shoulder and, above all, stay away from viruses. I promised to do all that, but the librarian still seemed a little hesitant. I don’t think she likes hikers.
My final stop for the evening was the Harpers Ferry pizza shop, where Jake joined me for dinner. He hiked into town this evening and got my messages at the hotel. It was great to reconnect and de-brief our last two days. I used to be nervous about being apart from him on the Trail, but I’ve gotten to be very comfortable with it. He is a very savvy and capable hiker – I’ve come to realize that he can manage just fine on his own.
Many people have said to us that our hike will be a major bonding experience for us, and I think that’s true. But, in a slightly different sense of the word, it’s been an important “unbonding” experience too – an opportunity for me to learn to let go a little. At age 19, Jake probably appreciates the unbonding at least as much as the bonding.
A final thought: I spent a couple of hours today writing and getting my journal up to date. I had not realized when I started this hike how much I would enjoy writing about it. Some days it feels like a chore and I put it off. But when I finally put pen to paper, it’s sheer joy. My only frustration is trying to find the right balance between the things that are of interest solely to me as vivid memories of the day and those things that might be interesting to others. My primary focus is communicating to my family and friends about the experience of the Trail, and that’s a lot of very different people. But the discipline of writing also focuses my attention during the day. I struggle with the question of how personal to make the journal. (Jake has resolved this by keeping part of his journal off-line.) And as the days get shorter, I struggle to find the time to write and maintaining a balance between time for living and time for writing. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy, though, because I feel so very much alive with pen in hand.
(Transcriber's note: there are no journal entries for Jacob until 9/29)
September 21 ~ Blackburn Trail Center, VA ... in Maryland-W.Va.-N.Virginia - map at milepoint 1176.0 south, 101 days since start of hike, averaging 11.6 miles per day
Trail data: Day 99 AT miles hiked: 12.4 Hikers we camped with: Will, Catherine, Banjo Bill, Courtney (caretaker)
Jake and I often find it difficult to leave town when we stop for a maildrop box, and Harper’s Ferry was no exception. There were plenty of our SoBo friends in town: John the Baptist, Blue Light Special, Fairweather, The Kid, all three of the Reservoir Dogs, Merlin, and Moon Dance.
Harper’s Ferry is also a particularly appealing town. Much of it is within a National Historic Park, and therefore development is heavily regulated, and the stone buildings are beautifully preserved. With the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers defining the town’s boundaries, it’s not hard to see why Civil War armies fought to control it, or why John Brown’s raid struck such a nerve.
Just across the Potomac I could see the C&O tow path, the homestretch on my 40-mile trek across the state of Maryland. The perfectly flat, beautifully maintained path runs from Washington D.C. to Cumberland, MD – 185 miles – virtually without interruption.
The AT runs right through the middle of town, past 3 centuries of history and up to Jefferson Rock. Thomas Jefferson once stood here and wrote that it would be worth crossing the Atlantic just for the view of these two rivers flowing together. I climbed the Rock and admired the view, but concluded that Jefferson was exaggerating a bit.
The biggest adventure of the day was crossing the bridge over the Shenandoah River. Because of construction, the lanes leading up to the bridge were crunched together, with no hiker lane. Everytime I could hear trucks barreling down the road toward the bridge, I stood with my back to the edge of the bridge, and my pack hanging over the cement barricade. I held my breath and prayed that the two feet between me and the trucks would be enough.
At the end of the bridge, I was in Virginia and for my reward found the Trail climbing vertically into the trees. Ok, back to the mountains, I thought, although Virginia was reputed to be mostly easy hiking. The Trail turns back towards West Virginia after the first climb and then follows the state line for about 10 miles. So half of me spent the afternoon in Virginia and the other half in West Virginia.
At lunch time Jake and I had a good talk on a pile of rocks where we stopped to eat. I asked him whether there was anything he would like to see us doing differently, since we had almost half the hike still to go. He said he would think about it. We talked about our schedule and our time constraints: we’re going to try to finish between Thanksgiving and December 1. We both think that’ s do-able. I told him how much I appreciated what he wrote in the ATC hikers register in Harper’s Ferry (he said that he has “a ton of respect for Pilgrim and the other hikers who did the Maryland Challenge”). I told Jake that I have a ton of respect for him and his decision not to hike that distance in the rain. I told him about a conversation with Beth in which she suggested that I ignore the time pressures, enjoy the hike, and finish it some other time if I didn’t get to the end this year. She said it might do me some good – emotionally, spiritually – to let go of the goal. I said to Jake that, even though part of the enjoyment of the Trail for me is the discipline of trying to complete it, “I know Mom is right, and the best part of me is not the voice telling me to press on regardless.” He smiled a knowing smile. I guess he knows that about me too.
Jake and I reached our destination for the evening together. The Blackburn Trail Center is, as Jake put it, like the White Mountain Huts but without the guests. There’s a large comfortable wood-burning stove, a big kitchen, a wrap-around porch, and even a pay phone. There was some extra food at the shelter, so I sauteed some onions to make our noodle dinner a little more palatable.
The best part of the evening was playing music. The caretaker, a former thru-hiker named Courtney, brought out her electric bass and an acoustic guitar. With help from a hiker named Will we did some singing and jamming. Will sang a particularly soulful rendition of “The Cat’s in the Cradle,” and Courtney sang harmony in a final song of the evening, “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
I would have played longer but Jake and I are planning some major miles for tomorrow and all of us weary hobos needed some sleep.
September 22 ~ Campsite near Ashby Gap, VA ... in Maryland-W.Va.-N.Virginia - map at milepoint 1198.4 south, 102 days since start of hike, averaging 11.7 miles per day
Trail data: Day 100 AT miles hiked: 22.4 People seen on the Trail: 3 section hikers 4 day hikers 9 weekend hikers People we camped with: Just us Interesting critters: 2 box turtles hiking the Trail A huge flock of starlings that sliced through a grove of trees like x-rays, and just about as fast
When the dawn broke this morning at the Blackburn Trail Center, I could see broad bands of orange and red through a break in the trees. My hunch is that the conservation-minded members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cut the trees in that section to maintain the view. I looked down the hill and saw the shelter’s caretaker, Courtney, completely enclosed in a high-loft mummy bag, looking like an elongated pillow. She prefers sleeping under the stars – weather permitting – even though she has a very cozy lodge to sleep in.
Jake and I planned to hike 24-26 miles today, so that we could get to our next maildrop before the Post Office closes for the weekend at noon tomorrow. So I woke him at 7:30 a.m. as I was heading out, trying to get my usual head start before he overtakes me. We planned to do a lot of miles for today based on the impression that terrain in northern Virginia would be easy. It’s actually more like a rollercoaster: 500 feet up, 500 feet down, over and over again. The treadway over the first ten or twelve miles was rough to boot – rocks and more rocks. It felt like Pennsylvania all over again.
At lunch time I reached the Bears Den Rocks, with a big view of Virginia, West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. A short distance from the Trail there’s a modest-sized stone mansion that was once a vacation home and has now been converted by the Appalachian Trail Conference to a hostel. Although it doesn’t open until 5 p.m. each day, I could see through the windows what a deluxe lodge it is, with a piano no less. These ATC folks really know how to live. In the basement of the mansion there’s a hiker’s den that’s always open, and I had lunch there with a few hikers, including one south-bounder named High Speed who ’s known for taking his time.
As the day wore on, it became clear to me that night would close in before I would hit the 24-mile point. I didn’t know if Jake was ahead of me or behind me, because of my detour at the hostel. Our understanding – not very well thought out, as I realized this afternoon – was that whichever one of us reached the 24-mile point would begin looking for a campsite but not beyond 26 miles. If I was ahead, I could just stop and Jake would see me when I passed. But if I was behind, I should trudge on ‘til I reached him, or he would worry about me.
At the 21-mile point, I took out my tiny "Photon" flashlight and began inching my way along the Trail. About a mile and a half later, exhaustion took over and told me to pitch my tent for the night. I had a strong hunch that I was in the lead and therefore Jake would see me.
My “tent” now consists of a 13-ounce thin nylon tarp (brand name: “Silshelter,” because the nylon is impregnated with silicone). This was the first time I had tried to use it. Darkness complicated the process a bit. After driving in the various stakes and tying the various cords, the whole thing just flopped over sideways. On my second try, it stood upright but left a large gap directly above my head. With heavy rain predicted, that seemed like an inconvenient arrangement. My third try seems to have worked, although I don’t know for sure, because it hasn’t rained yet.
But with a candle lit inside, the Silshelter is a brilliant blue, looks something like a tent, and provided a glowing marker in the middle of the Trail for Jake. As we sat huddled inside and made dinner, I watched the spiders crawl in and tried to remember why I thought this would be better than a tent. (A: less weight.) I wondered what other visitors I might have during the night. But I like the fact that it’s big enough for Jake and me to sit together while we enjoy our rice and beans.
September 23 ~ Linden, VA at milepoint 1209.7 south, 103 days since start of hike, averaging 11.7 miles per day
Trail data: Day 101 AT miles hiked: 11.3 Creatures seen along the way: - 5 deer (2 dead, 3 alive) - Rabbit - Grouse, wild turkey Hikers seen along the way: - 1 section hiker from South Africa
Today was probably the most frightening day I’ve spent on the Trail. It began with an early morning climb on grassy paths leading to a wooded state park. It was barely light but, as I crossed a dirt road, I could see off to my left something odd-looking. I stopped and walked over to it. Lying there in the road was a full set of internal organs: lungs, heart, liver, intestines. My heart skipped a beat. I looked around; there was no one in sight. My mind raced a bit. Were these human remains or those of a deer? I know that hunters often “ field dress” their prey. I had never seen a full set of internal organs before except in pictures. By their size, these could have been those of a deer or a person. Was I looking at the evidence of a grisly murder? The sight was as riveting as it was horrifying. Blood on the lungs was still red; the intestines churned and wriggled as if still alive. Should I call the police or the game warden? I decided to do the latter once I got to Linden, VA, our destination for the day.
Another mile down the Trail I came upon a dead fawn, curled up as if it were asleep. I couldn’t find the wound that brought it down, and I didn’t want to disturb it. So, I thought, there is clearly a hunter about somewhere, and that means I need to watch my step. Based on the sight of the clearly under-sized fawn, the hunters evidently shoot first and examine their prey later. I began clanking my hiking poles as I walked, hoping the sound would differentiate me from the four-legged creatures out here. As I came around a bend I saw a yellow diamond-shaped warning sign with a drawing of a fleeing deer and bird: “Hikers: Use Caution – Virginia Game Department.” Then a turkey vulture flew up from the woods at a spot where an awful stench (probably a carcass) wafted across the Trail.
A few miles later two large dogs came barreling down the Trail in my direction, barking in a way that struck me as vaguely ominous. One of the dogs was a golden retriever and didn’t worry me; it’s hard to imagine a golden gone bad. But the other dog looked like a cross between a boxer and a mastiff; he looked mean and refused to make eye contact. I looked around for a hiker but saw no one. These dogs were off on their own, and I felt very vulnerable. The golden approached me and was friendly. I kept my eye on the boxer-mastiff who swung a wide berth around me through the woods. Then they were gone, and my heart resumed normal functioning.
My final adventure of the day came when the Trail crossed an excavation site. A backhoe/front loader stood next to a large dirt pile where the Trail had been dug up. A small stream passed through the exposed dirt and there seemed to be no easy way to get to the next blaze, directly across the excavated site. One area looked like a rock ledge with a thin coat of black mud. I decided to give this area a try. As I stepped onto what I thought was ledge, or at least solid, my foot sank in and soon both feet were in and I was sinking. I was in wet muck up to my waist and I felt like I was being sucked in. “Oh my God,” I said, as I struggled to extricate myself from the mud. I flashed on those scenes from Saturday morning TV adventure movies in which someone is devoured by quicksand. I threw myself at the edge of the mud hole and just barely found solid enough ground to pull myself out. I looked down – everything from my waist down was covered with mud. I thought: I could have died in there. I was shaken. I headed for the woods and the small stream that fed into this excavation. I managed to get most of the mud off my hands, my hiking poles, and my boots.
At this point, I was about 35 minutes away from Linden, and it was 11:15 a.m. The Post Office there closes at noon on Saturday and Jake and I wanted to avoid having to wait until Monday for our mail drop. It was probably because I was hurrying that I made such a colossal misjudgment about the mud-hole. I should have relaxed about the time factor because my brother- and sister-in-law (Bob and Faith) told me they would drive to the Linden Post Office before noon and pick up our mail. But I wanted to avoid keeping them waiting.
The Trail crosses the road to Linden about a mile from the Post Office, and I didn’t even try to hitch-hike. With my coating of mud, I could see drivers staring at me as they drove by. They usually stare a bit, but this time their jaws dropped a little too.
When I arrived at the Post Office, about 5 minutes before closing, Bob was waiting for me in his car, our mail safely tucked into his trunk. I was hoping he had a camera to snap a picture of me at my dirtiest point on the Trail. But alas there was no camera handy. I found an embankment where I could change my clothes out of view of people driving by. My mud-contaminated clothes and boots went into a plastic bag.
In some ways it was ironic that I arrived in Linden looking like a coal miner who’s been in the mines too long. Just an hour or so before I reached the excavation I was thinking that I looked surprisingly clean for a hiker. We had done laundry a few days before, and I was wondering if our clean clothes would give Bob the impression that the Trail was a bit of a cakewalk. Instead, I think I created the opposite impression.
Bob and Faith did a great job of pampering us back at their house in Ivy. Bob helped me get my clothes de-mudded, and Faith made sure we had plenty to eat. My niece Sarah and a friend of hers accompanied us for pizza, and Jake and I rented a movie (“Magnolia” – a truly strange film). With at least two days of rain predicted, Jake and I are in no hurry to go, but tomorrow we head back to the Trail.
September 24 ~ Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter, VA ... in Maryland-W.Va.-N.Virginia - map at milepoint 1220.8 south, 104 days since start of hike, averaging 11.7 miles per day
Trail data: Day 102 AT miles hiked: 11.1 Hikers we camped with: Craig and Dan Interesting critters: African donkey (in captivity at the National Zoological Park, which abuts the Trail) Hikers seen along the Trail: 4 day hikers 6 thru-hikers (southbound)
Jake and I spent the morning getting our gear together at the home of my brother- and sister-in-law, Bob and Faith, who fed us a great breakfast and shuttled us back to the Trail. Faith even packed us a lunch. Jake and I had walked about 100 feet down the Trail, when we decided it was lunch-time.
Both of us are struggling a bit with the weight of our packs, which now include the seven days worth of supplies we picked up in Linden. Jake has it worse than me. I wince when I see him hoisting his pack, his knees buckling a bit before he straightens up and gets all the straps adjusted.
One glance at the profile chart on our maps and we could tell we were back into the mountainous terrain: the Shenandoahs. We had seen about 50 miles of the mountain chain we’ll be climbing as we drove down from Linden to Ivy and back with Bob. Today’s hike took us over a couple of 2,000-foot peaks and brought us half-way up a 3,000-footer (Campton Peak). The Trail here is well-established, however, and the treadway is relatively smooth. This makes all the difference, whether going up, down, or in-between.
We are starting to see more fall colors, and I watched a raft of leaves suddenly flutter to earth when a light breeze swept across the Trail. The temperatures are dipping – Jake and I are going to need heavier clothing soon.
One thought – only somewhat related to the Trail – kept me occupied for much of the afternoon, as we hiked through towering poplars and oaks. How is it possible that if all the Earth’s matter was condensed – i.e., the electrons, protons, neutrons, etc. packed together without any space between them – the entire planet could fit into a thimble? I’ve heard some people say there would be room for several more planets in that thimble, and that the actual size of this unimaginably dense planet would be less than a pea. I have been puzzling over this thought because, as we hike along, I am astonished at the magnitude of the Earth we are walking on, and the massiveness of the boulders and mountains we are climbing. How is it possible that these rocks are spun of matter so thin that a mountain would shrink to the size of an atom if its particles were crunched together? One scientifically trained hiker explained to me that the solidity we experience as we walk the Earth is mostly not the matter itself but rather the energy holding the particles together. There’s the majesty in these mountains, boulders, streams, and towering trees: a complex force-field, invisible, pervasive, orderly (at least until you get to the subatomic level), and beautiful. It’s a stunning experience to walk on a planet reimagined as a billion times more gossamer than the fluffiest cotton candy but totally energized.
And it’s not just the objects around us but us as well. We are mostly energy with only the tiniest component of matter. I look out from this hut and wonder about my connection with the energy zinging through these woods around me and through the people next to me in this shelter.
September 25 ~ Gravel Springs Hut, VA at milepoint 1231.2 south, 105 days since start of hike, averaging 11.7 miles per day
Trail data: Day 103 AT miles hiked: 10.4 People we camped with: Eric, Dave, Steve, Dan, Craig, Banjo Bill Critters seen on the Trail: 12 deer
Jake and I woke up this morning to the gentle sound of rain on the fiberglass panels of the Wayside Shelter and, at day’s end, went to sleep with the rain pounding the shingles here at the Gravel Springs Shelter. Between the two shelters we had unrelenting rain and a very wet Trail. Not a fun day.
One of our biggest challenges on the Trail has been finding the courage to leave a dry, warm sleeping bag and go hiking in the rain. We lolled around the shelter all morning waiting for the rain to let up. Jake finally left around 2 p.m., and I should have gone with him. I was enjoying the opportunity to read and do some writing, and it was very cold. The rain seemed to be tapering off. The Trail sign said only 9 miles to the next shelter. I used all of these rationales to languish in the shelter ‘til 3:45 p.m., when I headed out into the rain. With a 2.5 mph pace I would be at the next shelter before dark.
And I would have been, but for two unforeseen circumstances. First, I encountered a group of nine deer (is that enough to be a “herd”?). They must be used to hikers because they let me get quite close. At one point, as I walked down the Trail, I was only 15 feet away from two of them. I spent almost half an hour inching my way down the Trail, a few feet at a time, watching the deer eat, groom themselves, relieve themselves, and shake themselves all over (the way dogs do) to throw off the accumulated rain. I even saw two of them rub noses. I realized that this long interlude was costing me precious daylight, but I couldn’t pull myself away. The deer kept their eyes on me much of the time, and they were wary, but they never seemed spooked. Finally their path and mine diverged, and I pressed on.
The second problem this afternoon was that the mileage sign was wrong. The actual distance between the two shelters is 10.4. When I reached the 9-mile point and found there was no shelter I got out my map and flashlight. Getting anything out of a pack in the rain is tricky. There were no covered spots anywhere along the Trail today. So, each time I went into the pack I had to be quick about it, and hovered over the pack to fend off rain.
As I slogged along through the puddles with my tiny Photon light, my speed slowed and I began getting colder. With rain still falling and temperatures in the low 50’s, I realized that the only thing that stood between me and hypothermia was continued motion. And the only thing that enabled me to keep moving in the dark was my tiny Photon. I have candles but they’re not much use in the rain. I even have a spare Photon; tomorrow I’m definitely going to put batteries in it – a process so complicated that it can only be accomplished with daylight and unshaking hands.
Both my hands and legs were shaking by the time I reached the shelter. Jake and six other hikers were curled up in sleeping bags, but there was room for one more. I warmed myself a bit over the stove while I made Jake and myself a fashionably late supper of angel hair pasta and cheese.
There was not much scenery to be seen in the mountains today because of the fog and rain. But it was a rewarding day – notwithstanding the cold and the rain – just to hang out with those deer.
September 26 ~ Pass Mountain Hut at milepoint 1244.3 south, 106 days since start of hike, averaging 11.7 miles per day
Trail data: Day 104 AT miles hiked: 13.1 Critters seen: lotsa deer People we camped with: Banjo Bill, Dan, Craig, and 2 northbound SNP hikers
Today was another slow-start day because – once again – we woke to the sound of rain. The weather forecast shifted from “clearing by mid-day” to “light rain all day.” Part of me wanted to stay put all day. By noon, however, the drizzle had turned to mist and deprived me of a good reason to be lazy.
The hardest part of packing up to go was trading my warm dry shirt for the cold clammy one I wore yesterday. But I really didn’t have a choice. The temperatures dropped into the low 40’s last night and are predicted to fall into the 30’s tonight. I have only 2 shirts (to save pack weight), and I have to keep one of them dry. I gritted my teeth and switched shirts.
The second hardest thing was slipping my dry, warm feet into my wet – make that very wet – boots. The night air turned my boots nearly to ice, and my dry socks felt like ice water had been piped through them about 3 minutes after I laced up my boots.
All of this is a bit like jumping in a cold lake, or into the ocean in Maine. It takes some getting used to. Once I was suited up, however, the only remedy for feeling sorry for myself was to get moving – briskly – and generate some warmth from within. This actually works, but only to a point. My feet felt cold all day no matter how hard I worked them.
Fortunately, there was a mid-afternoon stop only 6 miles from our starting point: one of the “waysides” (i.e., tastefully understated concessions) that dot the Skyline Drive. The architects of the AT designed it to crisscross Skyline Drive and thus gave us hikers an opportunity every 10 miles or so to get a cup of coffee, a sandwich, or some cute souvenirs of our hike through Shenandoah National Park.
The Elkwallow Wayside had veggie burgers, so Jake and I were happy campers. They also had a phone, bathroom, and above all heat. We stayed there for an hour and almost got warm.
Back into the mist and onto the rain-soaked Trail, I revised the song “ Summertime” to fit our current circumstances (same melody):
Autumn-time and the leaves they are dripping. The rain is falling, and I can’t see the sky. My boots are wet and my clothes they are sopping. Oh when, dear Lord, will I ever be dry?
(My apologies to Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward, “Porgy and Bess.”)
September 27 ~ Rock Spring Hut, VA at milepoint 1259.6 south, 107 days since start of hike, averaging 11.8 miles per day
Trail data – Day 105 AT miles hiked: 15.3 People we camped with: Banjo Bill, Happy Pappy, Dan, Craig
Today my wife and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I can’t begin to describe how painful it is to be apart on this otherwise very happy occasion. I got up at 6 a.m. and sped down the Trail to a pay phone on Skyline Drive – about 1.5 miles from the shelter – and reached her before she left for work. Later in the day flowers arrived for her at our home (with help from our friends, the Bradleys). Beth and I talked about this day many months ago and agreed that we would do our celebrating a few weeks from now when she flies down to Roanoke, VA, for a visit. In the meantime, however, I want to nominate her for an award as one of the world’s most understanding and supportive spouses.
After I spoke with her on the phone, I heard on the radio a song that always makes me think of Beth: Eric Clapton’s “You Are Wonderful Tonight.” Happy Anniversary, honey – I miss you!
We were blessed today with perfect hiking weather: clear skies for a change, moderate temperatures, and crisp, dry air. Three other hikers joined Jake and me at the Panorama Visitors Center, where we all laid out our soggy clothes in the sun, wrote postcards and read until noon or so. That left just enough time to hike to this hut before dark. We must have been quite a rag-tag sight for the tourists at Panorama with our back packs, hiking poles, and clothes strewn about next to the gift shop. We all stuffed sheets of newspaper into our boots to get them to dry out – a hiker technique I learned from Jake.
We climbed several peaks today and were rewarded with arresting views from rocks, ledges and cliffs overlooking the Shenandoah River valley. The first vista of the day was nearly 360 degrees from Mary’s Rock, a boulder reportedly more than one billion years old.
We also walked past several rock slides – a hillside of boulders and large rocks arranged like pick-up sticks. It appears, as you walk along the bottom edge, that one jarred rock would release the whole hillside and that would be the end. Looking up at this pile of thousands of tons of rock precariously balanced and seemingly ready to resume their avalanche at any provocation, I was acutely aware of the click of my hiking poles and I tried to walk quietly by.
Throughout Shenandoah National Park the Trail criss-crosses Skyline Drive which was the original path of the AT here. Tourists on Skyline Drive, a scenic two-lane road lined with picturesque stone walls here and there, are known to stop and feed the deer, sometimes from their car windows. This may account in part for the 60-100 deer killed each year on the Drive by other motorists. The deer are so tame that one walked right in front of me on the Trail. It was a buck, browsing in a pasture of horses at a riding stable in the Park. I stopped when I saw him. He walked toward me, jumped the pasture fence with an effortless, fluid leap, and then stood in the woods next to the Trail – all of this within 15-20 feet of my staring, disbelieving eyes.
Later today the Trail took me to a group of four deer grazing in a glen of trees. One of the trees was an apple tree, and I watched one deer, about 20 feet away, lift herself up on her hind legs and grab an apple from the tree. Two or three loud munches later and the apple was gone. I watched another deer at even closer range, rubbing its head against a tree – the bark was completely shredded on this apparently favorite scratching spot. I’ve never seen deer at such close range except in a zoo, and there they do none of the quaint things that I’ve seen them do here in the Park. As I approach them, I have in mind the technique that Anne Dillard described in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” “At the Creek,” she writes, “I slow down, center down, empty. I am not excited. My breathing is slow and regular….I find a balance and repose. I retreat – not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone.”
My efforts at peacefulness – becoming like petal, feather, stone – seem to be lost on these deer, however. They are content to stand close by virtually any human in the Park. No wonder that local hunters use specially trained dogs to flush wildlife out of the Park and onto private land, where the guns of October and November await them.
We have been hearing those guns recently, just beyond the park. It’s a time to be cautious. I suspect that the greatest risks out here on the Trail – aside from self-inflicted injury suffered by people who share my level of clumsiness – are from other people and not the bears or snakes.
September 28 ~ Hightop Hut at milepoint 1283.5 south, 108 days since start of hike, averaging 11.9 miles per day
Trail data – Day 106 AT miles hiked: 23.9 People we camped with: just us People seen on the Trail: 5 SNP hikers 1 thru-hiker (Banjo Bill) Critters: grouse, geese, lotsa deer
The best thing that happened today – actually the best thing that’s happened to me on the Trail for several weeks – was a heart-to-heart talk with Jake. I don’ t want to invade the privacy of that conversation by going into all of the gory details. Suffice it to say that when you hike with your 19-year-old son (or perhaps any close relative) for four and a half months, tensions of one kind or another are likely to develop. I credit my wife, who is a therapist, with teaching all of us in the family how to talk about tough issues in a productive way. And I am in awe of my son’s kindness and maturity – I could not have endured, much less contributed to, a two-hour conversation with either of my parents about highly charged issues when I was nineteen. Jake and I had stopped at a shelter for lunch, and expected to stay for only about 20 minutes or so. We were lucky nobody stopped by to use the shelter, because we would have immediately ended our earnest conversation.
At the end of the two hours, we had resolved the issues we were discussing in a manner that left both of us feeling better – at least I did. I’ll have to let Jake speak for himself. We hiked for the next two hours in sync with each other, kibitzing as we hiked, and also hiking silently at times. (Usually Jake is far ahead of me as we hike.)
Many people on the Trail – as well as our friends and relatives at home – have told us how lucky I am to be having this experience with my son and I agree. Part of what is valuable about that experience is working through “issues.” All polishing is accomplished by friction, it has been said. I think Jacob and I are both conflict-avoiders by nature, and therefore it is good for us to engage in some plain talk now and then. Our long talk meant that I had to walk the last couple of miles using my flashlight, but it was well worth it.
September 29 ~ Blackrock Hut, VA at milepoint 1304.9 south, 109 days since start of hike, averaging 12.0 miles per day
Trail data – Day 107 AT miles hiked: 21.4 People we camped with: Mountain Wind (northbound section hiker) and Jack (his friend) People we saw on the Trail: 4 section hikers Lotsa campers Critters: Lotsa deer; chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit (we see them almost every day)
This morning the early light filtered into the woods through a veil of dense fog. Jake and I could see only the trees closest to the shelter and their color was washed out by the mist. Our world, already closed in by the tangled woods, shrank overnight to a 50-foot radius, beyond which we could see only the vaguest outlines of forest. However, the luminescent pale green of the trees in this misty morning light and the damp hush were lovely, and I walked out in them softly, with renewed awe for the grandeur of the Trail.
The limited visibility brought to mind one of the best moments that I’ve had out here. Jake and I had just climbed Chairback Mountain in Maine. An earlier rain had drained the air of its moisture and, with the clearest of skies, the sun lit up the landscape of rolling green forests with brilliant clarity. I looked out from a rock ledge at the summit, with the wind in my face, and felt that I was seeing the world as God sees it. I sat on that ledge for almost an hour, riveted by the sight and the feelings that accompanied it.
The expansiveness of that view, and the limited visibility this morning, strike me as merely two sides of the same coin. The elements shift our focus from near to far and then back again, but the Divine spirit that lives in these woods is with us, either way.
We invoked that spirit this evening when we arrived at this shelter. I broke out two candles, and Jake and I said a prayer for the Sabbath and the New Year as we lit them. Tonight is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and we asked our two shelter-mates (neither of them is Jewish) if they minded our celebrating. They said fine, and we sang “Shalom Aleichem” and ate apples dipped in homey to symbolize our hope for a good and sweet New Year for all. Happy New Year, y’all, from the woods of Virginia!
Our shelter-mates helped us out this evening by giving us a freeze-dried gourmet hiker dinner (much better than what we had in our food bag) and sharing with us some boiling water for tea and to make the dinner. For the first time on this hike, our fuel supply ran out – probably because I’ve been making a jug of tea each night to fight the cold weather. It’s amazing to me that the Trail provides an answer to our problems almost every time they arise, which is just about daily.
However, the most extraordinary event today was not our encounter with the graceful deer (we’ve seen an awful lot of them). Nor was it the sight of beautiful lavender asters that line the Trail here, adding color to the otherwise muted palette of the woods. It was a chance conversation with an 11-year-old boy who, with his parents and younger brother, is staying at a campground near the Trail. As I walked by, he asked me if I was going all the way to Georgia. “Yes,” I told him, “that’s what my son and I are trying to do.” He asked a few questions (when did we start? how do we get our food? etc.), and with each answer, I saw his eyes get bigger. They were lit with what seemed to be a vision of what it would be like to hike the Trail himself. I could almost hear the gears turning inside his head as he began thinking about how to integrate this vision with his other plans. Igniting the fire in someone’s eyes just by sharing a few words about this pilgrimage – now that’s a rare and wonderful experience.
I also had the pleasure today of meeting another hiker whose Trail name is Pilgrim. He is a northbound section hiker and has served as an Army chaplain for the last 19 years. I asked him why he chose the name Pilgrim. “Because of the religious pilgrimages that people have gone on over the years.” he said. “I memorize lines of Scripture and prayer and use my time on the Trail for meditation, like a retreat." I am not as organized about it as this northbound Pilgrim, and my religious views differ from his, but I find myself seeking the same kind of experience.
P.S. A big THANK YOU to our new transcriber, Susan Boquist, who has been doing our journal entries since August 10! We really appreciate your hard work on our shaky handwriting. (Transcriber’s note: Aw, shucks. I’m having fun doing this.)
Wow… A ten day gap. I really haven’t felt like writing lately, in part because it’s been so cold and in part because I’ve gotten really lazy. Anyways, to recap: We got a chance to spend some time with fellow SoBo’s, which was nice since many are taking several zeros and we may not see them again. We wound up spending half a day in Harper’s Ferry, doing misc. stuff, including celebrating Fairweather’s birthday! After that we had a couple more or less uneventful days to Linden, where we met Bob Bedford and went to stay with him and Faith for a night. It was great to see the two of them and Sarah, and very nice to sleep in a warm dry bed. When we got back to the trail, we had a few slow days due to inclement weather and wound up hiking in parallel with Banjo Bill and a couple section hikers, which was fun. Oh, also, the first day after Linden, I stopped in at a shelter for a short break and to read the register. The side trail was rather poorly marked so I left my hiking stick at the junction as a signal to Dad that I was down at the shelter. When I returned to the trail, my stick was nowhere to be found! There was a day hiker who had stopped at the shelter briefly while I was there, and I assumed he had taken it, mistaking it as being discarded. I set off after him at a furious pace, determined to catch up to him before he got to the trailhead, even though he was 15-30 minutes ahead and had no pack. First, though, I caught up to Dad, who had left before me. He reminded me that there had been two side trails down to the shelter, and the unmarked one was first, but I had probably come back to the AT by the marked one, so of course I didn’t see my stick at the junction. I considered briefly whether to go back – we were about a mile past the shelter, then I dropped my pack and ran back to the shelter, full-tilt. Fortunately the Moosekateers were there, and they had it. They were going to carry it till they saw me next, but that might have been a while. Anyways, it was interesting to see how much the stick had come to mean to me.
The only other interesting story I can think of is that at a recent shelter (I forget the name) I was getting water from the spring when this big black snake slithered up onto the rocks above the spring. He stared at me and I stared at him, then all of a sudden he came charging towards me very fast, off of the rocks, and dove PLOP! Right into the water, and disappeared beneath a rock. I guess he was really thirsty.
Overall, the Shenandoahs have been pretty nice. The trail is beautifully maintained and relatively flat, and it’s been nice stopping occasionally at the wayside for a good meal. (or a candy bar – I tried a “zero” bar for the first time here, and it was –very- good.)
Last modified Thursday July 25, 2002