This past summer my husband went on a 5 day: 90 mile trip with his long time friend, who we now call ‘Penguin.’ Penguin was coming to the halfway point of his journey up the A.T. and the story below recounts their adventure over a hot summers week last July. What else would you want during the first snow of winter?
by Phil Cole Part 1 of 6
We approached a distant figure walking along side of the skyline drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah Nation Park. As our car came closer to the hiker it became clear that it was him, “Penguin”; a friend I’ve known most of my life and an Appalachian Trail Thru-hiker. “Penguin” is Derrick’s trail name, which all hikers acquire at some point early in their 2,100+ journey from Georgia to Maine, or vice-versa. I had planned to meet Derrick along the trail and walk with him for five days; which is merely a snapshot in time for his five to six month journey north. “Look at this guy,” I yelled playfully from the passenger side out to him. He stopped, smiled and we got out of the car and greeted him. He was nearly three months in to his hike from Springer Mountain, Georgia, some 928 miles south.
It was the forth of July and I couldn’t think of a better way of celebrating than walking the A.T. with a destination set of Historic Harper’s Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown and his men stormed the town’s armory for weapons; A catalyst to the civil war. Two other north bounders “Green Light” and “Lando” came blazing out of the woods and stopped to chat with us. The hikers, soaked from a combination of perpetual sweat and a mid afternoon downpour couldn’t help but smile while conversing. They had mentioned aiming for a shelter 7 miles further north and then continued on their trek. Kellie and I said our goodbyes and shortly there after, Penguin and I disappeared into the cool shady forest of the Shenandoah’s. It was early evening and I felt a rush of adrenaline, my legs were fresh and my strides were long. It was a feeling of independence from a typical work week filled with phones, computers and meetings that seemed to fade with every forward step I took. It was just me, a 35 pound backpack, that consisted of some food, water, a tent and other miscellaneous supplies, two hiking poles and the blazed trail ahead. Pretty simple. So with all this pent up energy I was somewhat surprised when we came to the first shelter only three miles from the picnic area when I heard Penguin say, “this isn‘t too bad, maybe we should set up here.” It was getting darker, and the mist was turning into light rain. While inspecting the lonely stone shelter with fireplace and raised dry platform, we both decided to call it a night.
The night’s rain continued as we set up our small tents under the exposed rafters of the wood and stone shelter. Once we set up and zipped ourselves in, we reminisced through our plastic and nylon tent walls of shared high school and college memories that we could both relate to and laughed as if we were still of that age. “What time do you want to hit the trail,“ I heard along with a seeking digital watch for an appropriate time. Considering my poor sleeping habits I replied “Lets go natural,“ referring to an unassisted wake up. Derrick laughed in agreement and the night grew silent except for the faint pops of fireworks in the darkness. No light could be seen except for the passing fireflies. Between the unexpected low temperature and the sound of scattering mice across the platform, my sleep that night was limited. Before I knew it, the western sky we faced was lit up magnificently and the songs of birds filled the air. I laid there in a prone position looking upward at a gathering of insects that collected between the netting of the tent and an awkward brown tarp I had purchased the day earlier. I borrowed Penguin’s spare tent and during a mock set up the day prior I noticed it was missing a key piece; the rain guard. I had brought that up to Penguin and he scoffed and said, “yeah I burned it. Got soaked one night, so I just lit it on fire the next day.”
We got off on a late start after packing up and eating some granola bars. The sun had already burnt off the morning dew and the temperature continued to rise well into the 80’s. Penguin cruised, as if he floated over the rock ridden trail. I haphazardly followed, occasionally tripping and losing balance, like I have never walked before. I was afraid I’d acquire the trail name, “Gilligan“ or “twinkle toes.” It didn’t take long for my pack to feel like it was filled with cinder blocks and then feeling slight tinges of pain in places I never felt before. “What the hell?” I thought to myself as we traversed the Virginia ridges. “I run every other day and walk everywhere, how can I feel like this when we just started?” We stopped for lunch, fired up our jetboils and prepared an assortment of trail delicacies like ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, chicken of the sea and a mix of bars and nuts. Penguin had a talent of making bland food taste like a fine dining experience. We continued northward, crossing the skyline drive several times before reaching the Elkwallow Wayside, which is a part of other waysides that offer gas for cars, refreshments, sandwiches and camper/ hiker supplies. We emerged from the woods to the hot pavement of the parking lot and met another north bounder named “LOL” and her dog “Swazie”. “Like the actor but she’s a girl,” LOL said and then laughed. I picked up on the reason for her name rather quickly thereafter. The wayside hadn’t had electricity for over 72 hours but still was open. I walked in to assess the drink selection. “Its all room temperature there, huney” the women behind the counter said. “Yeah, but its still wet, right?” I replied. “Sure thing.” So I picked up some bottled water which is nearly sacrilegious to thru hikers who depend solely on springs, streams and if necessary, a hose or facet. I will say that I’m quite paranoid when it comes to water, among other things. I had read one too many articles on Guardia and other nasty microorganisms to be more open minded about my water drinking practices. Paying for bottled water can be a sore subject to some, but it was a piece of mind to me at the time. We sat in the shade of a maple tree, traded nuts and fruit like elementary kids and then continued north.