Virginia: Waynesboro to Harpers Ferry

May 26, 2004
As usual I was up early and took a final shower before Walt and Pat dropped me off at the trailhead at Rockfish Gap under very ominous skies. The forecast was for rain, and some more rain after that. We took the obligatory photos, and then I parted from my friends, with no idea when I might see them again. The long distance hiking community is a small one, but linking up again might take some time.

After Walt and Pat left, I cowered under the overhang of some sort of AT office, hoping that it would either rain, now that I was secure from it, or that the clouds would go away. After ten minutes of doing nothing, I decided that my strategy was not, perhaps, and optimal one and that I should probably get on with hiking and just take the rain if it came. As if to give me some reward for recognizing my foolishness, the clouds parted, the blue sun came out, and the weather was grand. The hard ups and downs that had characterized much of Virginia seem to have ended with my climb out of the river chasm on the Mau-Har and I cruised along peacefully, deep in thought. I barely noticed the rows of tractor seats that someone had planted on a hill side as either a resting spot or as a work of art. Flowing. Nothing but flow, without resistance or friction. That is the key to thruhiking. I was feeling it today and I wanted to push it while I could. I rolled into Blackrock hut around 2:30 and found several section hikers and section hikers sitting around, done for the day.

I cooked up dinner with them and chatted for a while, trying to hide the fact that I had come from Rockfish Gap today, about 20 miles south, and was pushing on for more. Although I had gotten a late start, I thought about making a run at 40 miles, a level I had never been able (or willing) to break. Willow and MC, two thruhikers, showed up just as I was leaving and I had barely time to ask their names before virtually sprinting out onto the trail. When you feel it, you've got to do it.

The trail continued its easy, gentle route but the skies began to darken once more. And seriously this time. I hadn't bothered to check where the next shelter was, forgetting that I had to stay in them until Harpers Ferry, when my new tarp pole would alleviate my freedom problem. No matter. Something would come up. Shenandoah National Park was not the most scenic place in the world, but it had relatively frequent views off into the heavily populated countryside and the hiking was easy. Life was pleasant, except for the knowledge that soon I would be very wet. Racing the rain, I pushed hard and reached Loft Mountain Campground just before the storm hit. A front country, drive up campground, it had a standard bathroom complex, which made for good shelter from the rain. I hid in the sink closet and watched the rain come down, dry as a bone and happy to be there. I should have hiked on, or camped for the night: If I set off on the trail, even if it stopped raining, I would be quickly soaked by the overhanging vegetation. My plans for a 40 were dashed as I sat around, reading Wingfoot and doing nothing at all. The rain pounded down for an hour before it subsided into a thick mist. I put on my rain gear and hit the trail, hoping that a trail maintenance cabin at Ivy Creek, not far from here, would be unlocked and provide for something like a shelter. Not surprisingly, the SNP people were smart enough to figure out that hikers might want to use it as a shelter and had locked it up tight.

My feet were soaked and it was now dark, and I still had not found a campsite for the night. The trail kept to a narrow track, bobbing into stream valleys and passing along hills. Finally, it was pointless to find something reasonable, so I hiked directly away from the trail, into the woods, and found a spot large enough for me to pitch my tarp. Being extra gentle with the rear arch pole, I got the tarp rigged and snuggled down safely under it. While not ideal, and certainly illegal (I could see Skyline drive about a hundred yards from my sleeping bag), it was quiet and peaceful and flat. The last thing I heard before falling asleep was the cracking of the rear arch.

I was in a foul mood, and I hadn't even gotten out of my sleeping bag yet. My shoes and socks were still soaked. The tarp and ground cloth were soaked, although I was dry. I had been condensed on and my sleeping bag was damp. Then I remembered the cracking sound from the night before. The rear arch pole had broken completely, and the shattered ends had torn part of the pole sleeve. I was truly sheltered bound from here to Harpers Ferry, in the middle of a popular hiking park, with Memorial Day approaching. It was misty out. The trail was still soaking wet with vegetation, which meant that I would soon be drenched from the waist down unless I wore my rain pants, which I was loath to do. I was done, I thought. This isn't fun, and it isn't rewarding, and I'm spending more time in a funk than soaring. I stomped up the trail for a while, passing some deer who didn't bother to even look up. So, I pitched a few rocks at them. They sauntered off, confident that I was not going to hurt them. I thought for a while about chasing them through the woods, but thought better of it.

As I crossed Skyline drive and headed for a parking lot, I was almost run over by a car who couldn't see me in the thick mist. I couldn't see it either, but might have if the driver had bothered to turn on his lights. I sat in the parking lot, and felt sorry for myself. While munching on a King Size Snickers bar and cursing the AT, a hiker with a red beard strolled up and introduced himself as Scuba. We talked for a while, and then I followed him up the trail, making small talk. I began to feel better. By the time we reached a spring about two hours later, we were talking animatedly and realized we had a friend in common. Scuba had actually served on the USS Hawksbill, a submarine on which my friend Val was an officer. They had made a scientific voyage to the north pole and were written up in National Geographic Magazine. Small world.

The weather began to improve and the sun even came out. My mood had bounced once again, thanks to Scuba. I could not have done this by myself. We romped along and ran into another hiker who called himself Ashtray. More kicks. I struggled under some blow downs but raised my head to early and collided with a log, bringing forth peels of laughter from all three of us. Normally, this wouldn't seem like a very funny thing, particularly as it happened to me, but under the circumstances it really was very comical. By the time we reached Lewis Mountain campground, I was feeling right as rain. It was a hiker convention in the campground, yet another drive-up front country site with a store at which I was planning to resupply for the run to Harpers Ferry. LWOP, Pez, Camel, Tinder, Flora, Fauna, EZ-DUZ-IT [not EZ-DOES-IT from Pearisburg], Chigger, Scout, Selma, and Rocky Steady were all laying about, although Rock Steady quickly took off. He was racing the postoffice in Front Royal. If he lost, he'd have to sit around for the entire Memorial Day weekend before picking up the new boots he had coming in the mail.

The convention was mostly formed of a large band, led by LWOP, who were hiking from hut to hut in the park, and reading chapters of the Hobbit out loud in the evening. Unfortunately, we were all going to the same hut, only a mile away. The store was about a hundred yard walk from where the AT comes into the campground. Then, the AT goes out of the campground and circles around a bit, perhaps for a half mile, before a spur trail comes off to go to the store. Seems reasonable to just take the short cut through the campground to the store. This is what I did. I was the only one. Everyone else took the long way about. Purity, it seems, is rather more important to people here than in other parts of the country. I resupplied at the store and then mingled with the other hikers, as they drifted in from the circuitous AT route, before cutting cross country to the AT. My purity was very much in doubt.

I reached the Bear Fence Hut and found it filled with an overweight woman and five screaming pre-teen girls. They seemed like they were there to stay, as their stuff was spread out everywhere. Trash was most everywhere, although the woman made it clear that it wasn't theirs. A muscular woman was sitting quietly eating a snack, and she looked at me with some sympathy. I wished, I prayed, that my tarp might be magically healed. With all the hikers coming and the five spread-out women, this was going to be a painful night. The Hobbit crew rolled in slowly, complete with hotdogs and chili, which seemed to provoke the small yap dog that the overweight woman had with her. Constant barking and snarling from this little pup was almost funny. Then one of the little girls told me not to get too close, as the dog bites. I picked up and played with a heavy rock and hoped that the dog might get too close to me. But, my interest waned and I realized that a kick would send it far into the woods and so dumped the rock into the fire pit. Eventually, the woman and the five girls packed up their stuff and left. It seems that they were just there on a break, although they must have been there for hours on end. LWOP went around slapping hands with hikers in celebration of passing up the 900 mile mark. There was much mirth.

Scuba and Chigger took off, nominally in search of friends, but I suspect because they wanted to get some peace and quiet. I made the best of the situation and chatted with a chemistry (biology?) PhD who was starting a tenure track job at the University of Cincinnati this fall, along with LWOP, who knew the proper way to hike the AT, and didn't seem to mind telling me it in a very grave voice. Interested to hear the secret of hiking the AT, I listened patiently, munching on a hotdog the crew had given me, while he unfolded the standard rose smelling story. I hadn't bothered yet to tell him the distance I usually covered in a day, but the time came and I confessed my sins, which seemed to end the conversation abruptly. I would have been happy to get more tips on long distance hiking. Perhaps LWOP was right, though. He seemed to be having a good time and had figured out what worked for him. I had had plenty of awful moments on the AT so far, this morning in particular, and it might have been the case that he could have told me something I could use in the future. However, I didn't think my unhappiness at time on this trek had been caused by hiking past the ten mile mark on most days.

At hiker midnight, the Hobbit reading session began, which I tried to follow as best as I could. I even got a superb summary of what had happened in the book so far. However, it was time for sleep and the story didn't seem very compelling to me. I put the plugs into my ears and managed to drift in and out of sleep for an hour, hearing strange words filtered through the soft rubber. I was happy when a squall came in and the sound of the rain beating on the metal roof swept the sound of Bilbo out of my head for the evening.

I packed up as silently as I could in the full shelter, but still heard a few murmurs from hikers that I had disturbed at this early hour. It wasn't that I had an especially long day in mind, but the early AM is just perfect for hiking. While the rain had ceased, grey skies dominated and the air was actually cold. Combined with the soaking wet trail, I wasn't exactly loving the morning's hike. Feet and legs were soaked almost immediately. I was just moving to be moving. While not a thrilling hike, the AT did give (at road crossings) a few good views off toward the densely populated plains below.

While stopped for my evening meal (taken in the afternoon) at a drive-in picnic area, I listened to two families talk about their respective pickup trucks and their towing capacity. Gun laws, the government, shooting politicians, and revolution came up with surprising frequency. Not rednecks or hicks, these families, but well fed, middle class types who looked like they worked in an office and used the weekends to pretend to be something. These types would be first to swing if there was an actual revolution. Scuba showed up, which pleased me greatly as he was fun to talk to and always brightened my spirits. We rolled along the AT together for a while, stopping at various cliff overlooks to debate where the AT went and snapping the obligatory photos.

We reached Thorton Gap just before the store there closed and scored some overpriced, but very tasty, fudge. A thruhiker named T was lounging about the store, but he moved on shortly after we started our own lounging. Pass Mountain Hut was just down the trail and was going to be our home for the night, though no doubt Scuba would put up his hammock and escape the noise of the shelter. It finally dawned on me that Scuba was the first hiker that I had seen for more than a few minutes. Maybe that was what had been lacking so far this summer. We made the short stroll to the hut and found a couple of thruhikers already in the shelter, though they had pitched elsewhere. Of particular amusement for us was the fact that there were mens and womens privies, rather than just a single can. I found this such a unique feature in the backcountry that I had Scuba take a picture of me next to it. Though, one might argue that any place that has sex-specific privies is not in the backcountry at all.

Chigger eventually rolled in, along with Tinder, Camel, and EZ-DUZ-IT, followed shortly by two day hikers who had made the trek down from the road to see how thruhikers lived and to ask some questions. Not being a thruhiker, I was able to defer to my betters and munch on some cookies quietly instead of talking about pack weight and resupply points. The hikers had just gotten off work and decided to have a short hike before returning home, which I thought was a really grand idea. After getting their fill of hikers and hiker culture, they left us some chips and then set out for the road once again. As the night fell I said my goodbyes to Scuba and Chigger, as I didn't think I would see them again. Scuba was getting off the trail at Front Royal for a week to visit with his girlfriend and Chigger seemed pretty tired after her trek, especially as she was rained on rather hard last night due to trying to pitch her tarp in the dark. There was no sermonizing tonight, nor was there a reading of the Hobbit. Only the quiet forest. Not even a snore.

I was up and pushing hard for the park boundary a little after 6 am, hoping to race through to the end before too many day hikers clogged up the trails on this beautiful day. Easy, easy terrain and beautiful weather, without a trace of heat or humidity or cloud. Just perfect for motoring and losing myself in the rhythm of the walk. I blew by the final wayside in SNP, Elk Wallow, without bothering to stop for a snack or a milk shake or anything. I passed the normal plastic deer and even a few plastic bears, though as there were cubs about I didn't throw any rocks or dawdle too much. I cruised by at a distance of about 10 feet from the mother bear, who calmly watched me go by, her cubs behind her. I ran into a weekender heading in the other direction shortly after and warned him about the threesome, but then powered off. Not rushing, just moving hard and taking in the world at 3.5 miles per hour. At times I couldn't tell if the trail was up or down or flat. It didn't matter in the least to me.

After 20 miles I settled in for a cooked meal of Liptons next to a pleasant spring, sufficiently close to the boundary of the park that I didn't think I would be disturbed by any one. Indeed, only a single slackpacking thruhiker ,who flashed by, sans pack by on the way to a famous hostel not far up trail, passed me in the hour I was sitting by the spring. A nicer rest, then more raging down the trail. With little to see other than the trees, I had to look within for beauty and entertainment, or look for the unusual in a green tunnel. Just before the road crossing that led to Front Royal, I found a nice hiker cache of orange juice and greedily drank down a bottle while resting on a footbridge/path over a swampy area. The sun felt so good on my face and my body so fresh that it was hard to believe that I had come so far today already.

I sat on the edge of the swamp longer than usual, soaking up...nothing? This was about as unscenic as you can possibly get, yet it all felt so right. The mild sun, the odd smell from the stagnant water. My peace had nothing to do with where I was. It was just me. Satisfied, I went charging off once again, well pleased with my own minor discovery. Or, rather, confirmation of the obvious. After some annoying skirting of a wild life sanctuary, the AT ran through a very nice, mature pine forest and then dumped me into the lap of the Jim and Molly Denton shelter. Another luxury shelter, complete with shower, the structure was impressive in the way that people like massive RVs. I was starting to tire of the ostentation, but then again no one was forcing me to stay here. If my tarp was functioning, I could have camped where ever. It was only 6:30, and I had covered about 32 miles, which meant that I could hit 40 today if I worked a little bit. But 40 miles wouldn't get me into Harpers Ferry any faster and would mean a night spent tempting Nature. So here I stayed.

There were two thruhikers at the shelter, in addition to some section hikers and weekenders. Wild Horse (his real name, not just a trail name) was as tall as me, but weighed perhaps fifty pounds less, and was hauling a truly preposterous pack that made up this difference. I was a surprised not to find Rock Steady here, as this is a pretty natural place for a Front Royal racer to end up for the night. Maybe tomorrow. I probably won't see either thruhiker again. The three of us talked for a while about anything but the trail, except for a brief mention of the upcoming rollercoaster, but as night began to fall everyone scuried off to their own corner of the palatial shelter.

I curled up in my sleeping bag and thought about the AT for a while and the nice day I had had. When the weather is good and I have the time to reflect on things, life couldn't be better. When the weather is foul, the AT just isn't scenic or wild enough to make hiking it worth while. Perhaps this is snobbish, but that is how things are for me. At its best, the AT seems to be pleasant. If it isn't at its best, it isn't very appealing, at least for me. Long distance hikes are individual things, and others may (and certainly do) find more to hold their attraction. After all, there are people who have hiked it many times, and still come back for more. I just won't be one of them. My first section hike on the AT was one of the best things I ever did. I just wasn't the same person that set out from Springer two years ago.

The weather looked good this morning, but I had a bit of a shock: Wild Horse beat me out of the shelter a little after 6 am and then left me far behind. Taking enormous strides and seem not to care about the weight on his back, he powered down the trail, leaving me behind after only a minute or two of hiking. Strong hiker. I was a little tired from yesterday which, coupled with the generally uninspiring terrain, left me feeling flat all day long. At a road crossing there was a sign announcing a BBQ at the Bear's Den Hostel, about 29 miles from the Denton Palace. Although I am never in time for such things, today was different: The BBQ was tonight, and I could make it. This gave me something to shoot for, and off I went.

I cooked dinner at the Rod Hollow shelter and drank down as much water as I could hold, in an attempt to rally my spirits further. Wild Horse was there lounging around, but set off before I had finished my Ramen and thus I would face the Roller Coaster all alone. The track, complete with warning signs, is a sequence of eight sharp hills, with elevation gains between three hundred and six hundred feet, along with some pretty views from some of the hills. As expected, it was mostly easy hiking, although I rolled into the Bears Den Hostel fully lathered in sweat.

The hostel is really something. A large stone building that seems to act also as a conference center and work crew center, it also houses itinerant thruhikers in its capacious basement. $13 buys you a bunk, shower (with towels, soap, etc), internet access, and cheap sodas. I showered and changed into my blue rain suit before heading toward the fire ring where the BBQ was in full swing. Zero and Yo-Yo had thruhiked the AT last year, which made them moderately famous in the small world of distance hiking. 2003 was an extremely wet year on the AT, with almost every day of the summer seeing rain. Wild Horse was there eating away, as was Rock Steady and a couple of weekenders. I introduced myself to Zero and Yo-Yo, but they knew who I was already. They were planning a PCT thruhike in 2005 and had bought my friend Yogi's PCT Handbook, to which I had contributed heavily. Rock Steady had apparently read a copy of the Handbook that was sitting at Kincora (the famous hostel in Tennessee), and all the attention I got made me feel like a rockstar again. Although normally I try to avoid questions, when they come from people who understand, I love them. In between stuffing my face with cheeseburger after cheeseburger, I talked about some of the differences and similarities between the two trails, resupplying, the desert, the Sierran snow and river fords, time windows, and anything else that came up.

Everything felt so right at the BBQ that I was sad to see it come to an end. Opportunities to spend time with experienced hikers were rare so far on the AT, but night had come in force and I had to get a few chores done. If you are reading this, thank you so very much Zero and Yo-Yo. Rocky Steady, Wild Horse, and myself retired to the hostel to do laundry and internet stuff. I ordered a new pair of shoes to be sent to Unionville, New York and checked my email before snuggling up under my blanket and talking for a while with Wild Horse and Rock Steady. They brought to a total of 4 the number of hikers that I had seen for more than a day (Scuba and Chigger being the others). All of us were going in to Harpers Ferry tomorrow, a short 22 mile jaunt that should get us there in plenty of time for food and laying about at the ATC headquarters. The unofficial, mental half way point for thruhikers, Harpers Ferry was a big deal. For me, it was just the end of Virginia and the start of the Mid-Atlantic, a region I feared more than any other.

There was nothing but rain and mist to greet me in the morning. I set off before Wild Horse and Rock Steady, hoping that the weather would clear, although I knew that it was here to stay for a while. But one can always hope. And this was the best part of the day, this leaving thing, as the rest of the day went downhill from there. I was wetted out almost immediately. Twenty feet of visibility. Rocks, minor hills, more rocks. And more wet. And more minor hills without anything to look at. And then it started to rain for real. I stopped, briefly, at the trail sign welcoming me to West Virginia, but mostly I kept moving.

My mood got worse and worse, and eventually audible curses began to be heard. Eventually, they became shouts, and I was happy that no one was around to see my emotional failure. Rock Steady, and then Wild Horse, came by me as I was sitting on a log, taking a rest break on the driest thing I could find. I was not happy, though they seemed to be bearing up to the day just fine. It was me, not the AT, that was causing the unhappiness. Slightly buoyed by this, I set out in a fury of hiking, not to stop until I reached the Potomac.

The rain ceased, although the clouds and mist still hung about, by the time I reached that fabled river of American history. I sat under the bridge over it and rested for a while, collecting myself and generally feeling better about where I was. Watching the river pass by was soothing to me, and I sat for quite some time there on the concrete. Composed, but a little melancholy, I set out down the bridge and took a minor short cut to the ATC headquarters, lodged in a small white house. They took my picture (#178 so far) and I poked around a bit, but didn't feel much like talking to the other hikers lounging about. Wild Horse and Rock Steady showed up and we walked down the street to a place called The Pub, which had good, cheap beer and plentiful portions of food. I don't think hikers come to The Pub much, as we were the subject of much (good natured) amusement for the other pub dwellers.

Wild Horse left for a shelter outside of town while Rock Steady and I checked out the 7-11 for supplies, of which they had little, even for my very non-picky nature. A local in a truck gave us a lift back down the street to the Outfitters, whose owner I happened to know from the 2002 Gathering. Laura and I talked for a while and I bought some more supplies from her, before Rock Steady took off some duct tape from his heel, along with a lot of skin. Blood flowed freely in front of the Outfitters, though it was quickly staunched with iodine and toilet paper from Laura. Despite the red puddle at his feet, Rock Steady and Laura had a scientific, calm discussion on why the blood became foamy when the iodine came in contact with it. Bandaged up, we said goodbye to Laura and walked down the road to a local hostel, where my tarp pole was supposed to be sent. Unfortunately, the Memorial Day holidays kept it from arriving, forcing me to leave some cash with the friendly hostel owners to have it sent up to Duncannon for me.

The hostel was quite nice, with plenty of hikers about to talk with, now that I was in a good mood again. I should have been in a bad mood, as my pole hadn't arrived and I was still shelter bound for another week. But, it didn't seem to matter too much to me at the time, and this was a good sign. Rock Steady and I walked down to a local convenience store to buy some ice cream and snacks and got rained on heavily on the walk out. At least two teenage girls whistled at us as we walked along the road in the rain. Tomorrow I would have to face the start of the section I had been dreading ever since I thhought of section hiking the AT. The Mid-Atlantic states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York threatened me not with difficult, physical hiking, but rather with mental and emotional challenges that I was unsure if I would be able to bear. Hopefully they would be like The Rollercoaster, and prove better in reality than they seemed right now. Hope is what makes the future bearable, and without it, I would be lost.