by Phil Cole Part 3 of 6
We continued north towards route 33. Penguin led and started pulling away with every step, as if I were taking half steps to his full stride. He then disappeared into the forest ahead. He was in his element, and I didn’t want to slow him. I knew he would wait for me somewhere ahead. I had started feeling the effects of having no sleep and only small rations of water during that leg. In my zombie state I began to think to myself, ”wow my feet and shoulders hurt, I have a severe case of cotton mouth, I’m tired and hungry, how could someone do this for six months?!” Followed by doubt and slightly delirious thoughts. I mean hell, these folks are walking 2100 miles for months through storms and snow and I’m in it for a measly 5 days in Virginia?!?” I was having an self diagnosed episode of trail trauma or slight heat exhaustion, and I began wondering if I should continue. Then I saw Penguin stopped under a mulberry tree looking at a two large containers sitting on the ground, right off of the trail. “Is that….?” I gasped. “trail magic? I believe so..” Replied Penguin. Trail magic; a randomly occurring phenomenon where complete strangers personally provide or leave behind food, drink or supplies to hikers. In this case it was a three gallon tank of water and an equally sized tank of sweet tea with a simple note from the supplier “Enjoy.” Never had I been so excited for one glass of iced tea. And was it ever so good. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, all my ill conceived notions of doubt, worry and angst faded with each gulp of that sweet tea. I made sure not to be a complete hog and leave some for someone behind us on that hot day. I filled up my nalgine with water and we continued on our descent to route 33 and I was a new man. We had soon come across two misplaced non-hikers sitting along the trail each with a malt beverage and one of which was a dead ringer of Christopher Guest‘s character on This is Spinal Tap. “You doin’ the whole thing?” one of the strangers said. “He is” I replied. “Well alright! You know what you got to do, is go to town and get yourself some oil”…”yeah rub your feet down good with oil, I’m telling ya…take my word…83rd airborne.” “Good deal” Penguin stated as he began walking away. As we neared the road, we could still hear him: “there’s nothing like oil, cuts down the friction, ya hear?”
We then came to route 33, four miles east of Front Royal, VA. Penguin looked at me and said, “well, you want to hitch hike into town?” “For oil?” I jokingly replied. “Ha, nah maybe some lunch and supplies.“ “sure” I had never hitched before. “How long do you think it’ll take for someone to stop?” I asked. “Depends, could be 5 minutes or an hour. If we had a chick it would be immediately…” Penguin said. So we stood there for a few moments; Penguin with thumb extended, and I trying to look harmless with a cheesy grin and relaxed stance. A few vehicles past, and then a white mini van with a female driver pulled off of the road in front of us. Turns out she worked for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club that is an organization which helps to maintain and improve trails, shelters, and cabins in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania. “I was keeping an eye out for you hikers on my route today.” She said. The van’s AC was cranked to where the seat belts were cold against my warm and dirty skin. She dropped us off at a diner she suggested right in the middle of town. We picked an out-of-the-way corner of the diner to sit down our bags in hopes to not disturb the peace with our “hiker trash” ways. “Hiker trash” as I interpreted it, is a close-mindedness that some may exhibit towards hikers in the form of disgust, ignorance or straight out rudeness. Hikers’ seem to have embraced the self dubbed “Hiker trash” moniker with some humor fused confidence. I was able to see a hint such harshness from our waitress as she tossed food at us and never offered coffee refills. But we continued to ooze with pleasantries and kindness with an abundance of “pleases” and “thank yous.” I noticed as another waitress walked by, a look of disgust as she waved her hand in front of her face to notify the others that we apparently had body odor. Before I started thinking of serious societal issues this reminded me of, I took a bite of my large, fluffy, omelet and drifted away into a mid day egg coma. We finished up our lunch, paid and walked across the street to the super market. Penguin went inside for some miscellaneous supplies, including Tylenol PM for me, while I watched our gear and made calls to others that were to meet up with us on the trail in the following days ahead. We took over a section of the covered area outside the main entrance to the market to repack and situate. Some folks, aware of the A.T., stopped to ask if we were hiking the entire trail. I immediately would clarify each of our planned durations and they usually returned with a “that’s great and best of luck!” It was amazing to me how people’s demeanor to the same idea could be so different in a matter of 50 feet.
We packed up and decided to walk to route 33 to catch anyone traveling eastbound. We stopped near an intersection and within a matter a seconds a large pickup pulled of the road. I was amazed. We threw our bags in the truck’s bed and were ready to jump in ourselves when the passenger told us to sit in the extended cab. We traded hellos and expressed our appreciation for the ride. “Ya know, we’ve always seen you beatniks walking around town. We saw you and thought that we should pick you up, I mean we‘re going that direction anyway to pick up a mattress” the young passenger said. He was in his early twenties, with long curly (almost seemed permed) hair, a designer t-shirt and plaid shorts. He asked Penguin about the trail and how him and his buddy had talked about hiking some sections of the A.T. They dropped us off where we had left the trail some 2 hours earlier. It was mid afternoon and our destination was 7 miles ahead; the “Jim and Molly Denton Shelter,” equipped with a solar shower. We knew this because of Penguin’s remarkable hiker guidebook The A.T. Guide, by fellow thru hiker David “AWOL” Miller. It’s an excellently laid out book that indicates not only elevation change, shelter locations and mileage but nearly anything from a barber to ATMs all within a reasonable walking distance from the trail in a very comprehendible fashion. As a collector or maps of all kinds, this book fascinated me, to where Penguin let me borrow it for most of my hike.
The afternoon was hot and humid, but I felt fueled and refreshed by our trip to town. We arrived at the shelter, which was a well built structure with an extended south facing deck. Penguin started dinner while I checked out the solar shower. The shower consisted of a raised rain barrel over a three sided wood stall. A 4’ garden hose with a nozzle dangled down from the barrel to about chest high. I tested the water and it was freezing. But it was in my best interest to take advantage of the facility and wash three days of stench off. I disrobed and gingerly tip toed under the gravity fed hose and began my woodland shower.