Trail Update | 3
Welcome to Virginia, for real! This near-150 mile stretch was a good one for us in many ways. For the first time, we did not have any deadlines or events that we were planning our hike around, and no reason to get off trail again, which was super exciting. Finally, the feeling of actually being on a thru-hike could settle in and take up residence. We met countless northbound hikers, made friends with any southbounders we came across (spoiler alert: there weren’t many), and even adopted one SOBO sectioner to start the makings of our very own trail family (tramily). We encountered critters aplenty, glamped our way through the Shenandoahs, hit several awesome and very hiker-friendly towns, and hiked some of our longest days ever as a couple. I’d say in the battle of hikers versus Northern Virginia, hikers won!
Northern Virginia and Shenandoah National Park
Dates: 5.22.19 – 6.3.19
Days: 20 – 32
Miles: 214 – 355.9
Zero days: One
Location: Snickers Gap to Waynesboro
Returning to the trail after nine days frolicking about for wedding number two did not result in the same level of shock and negative emotional baggage that I had experienced following wedding number one, praise Odin! It was easy to notice when we resumed hiking, however, that my burgeoning trail legs had abandoned their fleeting attempts to actually become trail legs after so many days off, and I felt like I was starting all over again in terms of endurance and fitness. A gauntlet of short, steep, and occasionally rocky climbs and descents through the rest of Virginia’s Roller Coaster confirmed my lack of trail legs on that first day back, and we called it quits for the night on top of a hump in the ridgeline a couple of miles north of Rod Hollow Shelter, dusk falling down around us.
The Stuff of Nightmares
Question. Has anyone else ever turned on their headlamps to the highest setting, aka BRIGHT AF (differs by brand), and flashed that puppy across the surrounding landscape just to see whether there might be critters watching you or not? I’m sure there are hikers out there who have definitely done it, but for many of you reading this, probably not. Well, we were wrapping up evening chores at camp (making dinner, eating, cleaning up, hanging a bear bag, arranging our gear inside the tent for sleep formation, etc.) with headlamps on in the near-darkness. I went to put something in my side of the tent, leaning in close to open the vestibule doors, my face next to a hip-high stump that we had set up alongside. I saw the shape out of the corner of my eye and reflexively flew backwards while pinpointing the stump with my headlamp. Giant wolf spider!
Garrett is usually the spider killer at home, so imagine my surprise when he began exhibiting worse arachnophobia than me! He wasn’t sure what kind of spider it was, and since a few spiders down here have potentially fatal bites (none can kill you in Maine), he wasn’t taking any chances and left dealing with it up to me. I managed to shoo it away down the stump, but we saw a couple of other smaller spiders in the area. No one else was around so I wasn’t worried about how bright my light was. I turned it up to full spotlight, and learned something new in that moment. As the beam swung across our site, I instantly noticed tiny eyes reflecting the light back to me from the ground… hundreds of them. On trees, logs, stumps, and throughout the leaf litter of our campsite, basically everywhere. Holy shit, it was a little overwhelming!
Garrett decided that it was time for bed and made preparations to get into the tent, though not before somehow falling out of a squat position and rolling around on the duff-covered ground with all the eyes. After a final freak-out, he dove inside the tent and made a statement, something along the lines of, “Well, I’m just not going to pee or get out until morning.” His paranoia and arachnophobia triggered a stronger fear response than I might have had otherwise, and overall we spent a somewhat sleepless night thinking of spiders, bears, and falling tree limbs due to some wild winds blasting our campsite on the ridge. Yay!
Magic, Rain, Monkey Butt, and Trail… Celebrities?
Our second day back on the trail was a combination of much better and much worse than the first, if such a thing can happen. Our food wasn’t stolen by bears and we weren’t crushed by a falling tree branch overnight, so the day started as good as any other normal day out here. We met more hikers that we recognized from vlogs on YouTube and updates on Instagram, which was super cool—Cushy Life and her companions Trigger and Dodger Dog in the morning, and the Hartleys (also bloggers for The Trek, check their Instagram) in the evening. Both groups stopped to chat with us for quite some time, a nice change of pace during our long day.
Midafternoon saw us blazing through Sky Meadows State Park under some heavy direct sunlight while a thunderstorm threatened from the other side of the ridge. All we could see as we stopped to filter some water were the leading edges of dark gray unfurling beyond the treetops. Thunder increased and the sky darkened ominously, so we hurried down off the ridge and back into the woods en route to nearby Whiskey Hollow Shelter, hoping to reach a protected spot before the storm opened up overhead. No such luck. Light sprinkles quickly became an all-out deluge and we raced as fast as we could down the side trail to the shelter, getting soaked within seconds. While we waited out the storm with another hiker who had made it in before the rain, wild winds whipped up, sideways rain blasting under the covered deck of the shelter, hail bouncing off the roof in small chunks. Due to the excessive moisture and half-dried sweat, one unfortunate word could describe the rest of that day—chafing. Chafing and endless monkey butt for both of us. The last handful of miles to camp were brutal.
We camped at the edge of a trailhead parking lot on a residential street, an unmanned police cruiser the only vehicle around the entire night. Our strange location set us up for shorter mileage the following morning into Front Royal, where we could catch a 9:50 a.m. trolley at the trail crossing if we hiked fast enough. We managed to get hiking in the dark by 5:30 a.m. and the morning to town flew by—we made it with minutes to spare before our 50-cent ride appeared.
Our lovely driver dropped us off right at the Mountain Trails Outfitter downtown, where we disembarked with two other hikers and found ourselves inside the newly created Basecamp, a jointly owned hiker hangout equipped with storage lockers for packs, bathroom and shower with towels, industrial-sized laundry machines, a few loaner clothes, hiker box, and boot dryers. All free for hiker use! I’d say that the three shops responsible for Basecamp, which consist of an outfitter, a brewery, and a bakery, have taken advantage of the hiking community by forming quite a reciprocal relationship. I don’t know any hiker who wouldn’t want to clean up and stash their stuff while perusing all the gear, drinking beers, and scarfing down some delicious treats.
Front Royal served also as the northern gateway to Shenandoah National Park from a southbound perspective. We were itching for the views and wildlife sightings that the park is known for along the trail, and talk of bears was extremely common among the hiking crowds. We encountered folks who had seen over 20 bears during their time in the Shenandoahs, while others didn’t see a single one. The trail meanders through the park for just over 100 miles, and to say that it is one of the most densely populated bear areas on the entire AT is an understatement. Spoiler alert: I saw four—two cubs while hiking with Garrett (separate occasions), one on Skyline Drive while in a car (hikers in a car—what!?), and I also scared the shit out of a larger bear while hiking solo one morning, deep in the throes of an uphill climb when I rounded a bend in the trail. Don’t worry, I clacked my poles together and uttered some kind of roar that was apparently terrifying.
The Shenandoahs are responsible for some of our fondest memories from this hike so far, including making friends with some great people heading in the same direction as us (we thought we never would!). A southbound section hiker named She-Beast (SB) walked with us for a few hours on Memorial Day, and we came to learn that she was completing her entire section hike of the AT that day at Big Meadows Campground, where we were headed for the night. SB snagged her truck from the Big Meadows Wayside while we erected the woods castle and cleaned up after our sweaty 19-mile day, the longest yet for Garrett and me together. SB’s friend Lance had reserved a campsite for them to share, surprisingly only a few sites away from ours.
The four of us headed up to the Big Meadows Lodge and Taproom on the hill, where we could get some late-evening grub, and we proceeded to celebrate SB’s accomplishment with a few drinks and food. An offer was made by SB and Lance of a trip to Bear’s Den Hostel the next day where a further celebration would ensue, complete with a steak dinner, and even a return ride back to Big Meadows if we chose to accompany the duo. We brushed off the prospect of an adventure that night, eager to keep our forward momentum going.
The following morning was muggy and gloomy, with a forecast of scattered thunderstorms, and the decision to have a zero day adventure overpowered our drive to make miles. We were really enjoying having some company, and didn’t want to let our new friends get away just yet. Plus, the offer to go to a hostel that I wanted to revisit and Garrett wanted to experience due to my excessive chatter and good reviews, but that we had missed due to timing for our second wedding excursion, was just too serendipitous. It’s not at all common to be proffered a ride out of the Shenandoahs with the option to be returned and dropped off at the same location, mostly due to the fee involved with Skyline Drive. Little did we know it at the time, but this sideways journey to Bear’s Den would be the start of a new chapter in our hike.
Riding in She-Beast’s truck was a truly surreal experience as we wound down along Skyline Drive, following the mountainous ridgeline we had been hiking on for the past few days, passing road crossings, lodges, waysides, and trailheads that were prominent and now quite familiar landmarks along the AT. Leaving the park for a faster route than the entire northern half of Skyline Drive, country roads took us down into valleys and through farmland before we broke off onto a more heavily traveled route and ended up back in Front Royal for a pit stop (also a strange experience—felt like a time warp!).
When we finally reached the hostel, we had much of the afternoon to ourselves, and checked out the relatively new Bear’s Chase Brewery down the street. Showers, laundry, a phone call to my parents, and some relaxation before the huge steak dinner filled the rest of my day, while Garrett interacted with some of the hikers in the hostel. At one point, Garrett ran in and said there was another SOBO there who had started in Harpers Ferry the day before, and that he was going to do a shakedown with the hiker after dinner. I was intrigued, but distracted by other things, and didn’t think much more of what he had said.
And Then There Were Three
The next day, we adopted the southbound hiker and became a trio. Our new friend was a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran named Gary, trail name Patriot, and he was hiking from Harpers Ferry to Springer this year with intentions of hiking Harpers to Katahdin next year, breaking up the 2,192 miles into two long sections. He had pushed himself to reach Bear’s Den Hostel on his second day on trail, finishing about 15 miles in the heat and humidity, arriving shattered, disheveled, and with a broken pack (sternum strap failure). Garrett helped get rid of nine pounds of stuff from Patriot’s pack, and the plan was to bring Patriot to the Shenandoahs, where he could keep going south with us, a mutually beneficial arrangement that would give us all added companionship and motivation. We also plotted out a stop in Front Royal at the outfitter for a new pack along the way.
Our days finishing out the rest of the Shenandoahs were mixed with fun and challenges as we enjoyed the park’s smaller campgrounds and scenic overlooks while simultaneously getting used to hiking with someone else and dealing with some nasty weather. Every day became a race in the afternoon to both get a tent site at our proposed camp area and beat thunderstorms. Camping outside designated areas in the park was not allowed, so we had to either plan to stay in or around a shelter with limited space (and arrive early enough to get a spot), or snag a campsite in one of the park’s campgrounds for a fee.
After dealing with wildly overcrowded shelter areas that were accessible by overnight campers, section hikers, and thru-hikers (think 20-40 people with space for half that depending on the location), we began opting for the campgrounds, which were pretty cheap when splitting the cost between three or four people. When we finally reached the southern park boundary sign and left the rules and regulations behind, I sighed with relief. Back to a hike without a schedule again!
Our grassy camp spot on top of Little Calf Mountain that night was quiet, the impending doom of nearby thunderstorms dancing around our pseudo-bald mountaintop, throwing only a short burst of rain our way. The high heat and humidity wave that had characterized our time in the Shenandoahs broke with the passing storms, and we enjoyed a cooler night in our tent, as well as a crisp morning the following day, waking up to temps in the low 50s or possibly upper 40s. A short sub-seven-mile hike brought us down to Rockfish Gap, where the southern end of Skyline Drive connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Town: A Beacon for Shiny Packages and FOOD
The sprawling town of Waynesboro is a straight shot down into Shenandoah Valley from Rockfish Gap. An extensive list of area trail angels provides easy access to this hiker-friendly community via shuttles, which many locals offer for free. We shacked up in the older part of town at the Quality Inn, showering, doing laundry, and striking out to retrieve a couple of packages from the post office before grabbing an early dinner and resupplying. One of the most lauded food stops of the entire AT is based in Waynesboro—Ming’s Garden Chinese Buffet—and we were ready, having talked about and fantasized over it for miles, days, since the dawn of thru-hiking time really. Not surprisingly, we all ate far too much, making resupply afterward a struggle, waddling around the Kroger next door.
After the uncomfortable walk back with full bellies, laden like pack mules with our grocery bags, Garrett discovered that the new shoes he had mailed didn’t fit. Before the hike he tried on this year’s Altra Timps trail runners, and bought last year’s version in the same size for a serious discount. Enough of a change had been made between the models, and the older ones were too small. Quite a fun debacle when you’re somewhere unfamiliar and want to get back on trail the next day.
Despite the stress of this, things worked out great for the time being. While we were back at the post office the next morning, Patriot spotted a discarded pair of Brooks Cascadias in the waste bin there that looked to be about Garrett’s size. Shockingly, they were! Left in the trash with a new shoe box, clearly a hiker had dropped them when they got a new pair, and these looked to be in pretty decent shape aside from worn-down tread and a small hole. Garrett made them work, knowing they would at least get him to another town where he could sort out picking up a new pair. Luck and good weather was on our side for once, and we rolled out of town as planned. Huzzah! Onward and southward to the Blue Ridge Parkway!