by Phil Cole Part 4 of 6
After the shower I walked back up to the shelter where Penguin was cooking up a feast. “How was it,” he asked. “Exhilarating,” I replied. Right as we were ready to dig into the potatoes and veggies we heard the cry of several coyotes in the distance. Soon after “LOL” and Swazie,the dog, emerged from the woods. “Did you hear that?!?” she exclaimed. “We nearly ran here, after hearing that!” I finished my meal, popped a Tylenol PM and retired to my tent. If I didn’t sleep that night I was probably going to go mad. I closed my eyes and then opened them to the sound of Penguin “knocking’ on my tent. “Did you sleep,” he asked. “Apparently, what time is it?” I mumbled. “Seven….and I’m going to take off now. I’ll just meet you at the next shelter in four miles, oh and can I borrow your shuffle..” he said. “yeah no problem, I’ll see you there.” Penguin was in his zone and I didn’t want to slow him. I had put a collection of songs on the ipod shuffle that I had figured he was pinning for. Music is a luxury item on the trail; another thing to carry and maintain. I took my sweet time getting up, taking down my tent and using the hornet ridden privy. It was another hot one. I got onto the trail around 8:30 and began a morning decent. After the first mile, the trail crossed a road and into an open meadow, which was quite a change from the last tree covered 40 miles. The airiness was a nice change in scenery, but there was no escape from the heat of the day and again my water supply had diminished too quick.
Although I felt rested, the new abnormal routine of 8 hours of hiking and tent camping started to catch up with my body. My shoulders and back were sore from the constant weight of the backpack. My feet were throbbing and my Achilles tendons seemed to become more tender with ever step. I could feel the two smallest toes of each foot rubbing against the inside of the boots. Many times, hikers find during their long hikes that their feet swell up to one size larger. I had wondered if that’s what I was experiencing. It was soon after, while ascending a significant climb, that I started feeling dehydrated and panicky. I slowed my pace and rested often. I felt as if I were dragging myself along the trail, and I’ve only done 3 miles. Soon my weary eyes had caught a sign in the distance; It was an arrow that directed me to the Manassas Gap Shelter. There I caught up with Penguin and my cousin Shane who brought his son, 10, and nephew, 15, along to experience a couple days on the A.T.. Before I formally greeted them I simply asked with a hoarse voice “water?” “There’s a spring to the right, and she’s a beauty” Penguin said. I nearly ran to it. And it was a beautiful sight; crystal clear water running from a PVC pipe. I put all my phobias of microorganisms aside and lapped it up like a thirsty dog.
After filling up, drinking and refilling again every container that could hold water, I returned to Penguin and my cousins. “You want something to eat,” Shane asked. “I realized this morning after the first three miles that I over packed,” he added. The old warped picnic table in front of the shelter was transformed into a smorgasbord of steaming goodness. “how about some ramin and salmon,” Shane asked. “Sounds like a winner to me,” I replied. And there again I was perfectly at ease, chowing down on a salt bath of noodle and fish, remembering just moments before how panicked I was. Penguin had been there awhile waiting up for me and I could tell he was ready to continue. “Hey before you go, I wanted to ask you how do you keep from hitting rock bottom out here. I mean there’s honestly been a couple times I was ready to say the hell with this.” I said. “Hey man you’re doing great. I mean not too many start out with 15 to 20 mile days ya know, especially in this heat. You just don’t let the highs get to high or the lows too low.” Penguin said. “If you do, the emotions get out of whack and your thoughts can get distorted,” he added. Soon thereafter Penguin packed up and was on to Dick’s Dome shelter, fours miles ahead. “I’m going to hang with these guys for a bit and catch up with you there,” I said to him. My cousins packed up as well and followed shortly after him. Shane said with a smile,” Take your time Phil, we’re averaging about a mile an hour, we’ll see you soon.” “Sure thing” I replied. I still needed time. Time to process the last few days. One would think that you would have plenty of time to think, but surprisingly when hiking, you must be focused on every step, which doesn’t leave much room for deep reflection while moving. I thought a lot there in a small amount of time. Far too much to even write about. It was needed. I did think about how fortunate I was to be able and free to walk along this incredible trail and how much respect I have for Penguin and those who endure it for months at a time. From there, I gathered my personal belongs and followed the others into the woods.
It wasn’t 15 minutes before I caught up with the cousins slowly trekking along the forest’s understory. We stopped several times and took pictures of the family event and caught up with each other. Sawyer, the youngest, stopped often, and justifiably so, considering he was totting 30 pounds, nearly a third of his weight! Nathan, who was a sophomore in high school didn’t seem phased. “You two keep going, Sawyer and I will meet up with you at the next shelter,” Shane yelled from behind. And we did. It was probably the most time I had spent talking with Nathan and it was great. We talked about soccer and school, considering we both went to the same high school. I felt quite removed from those days when I realized I didn’t recognize any of his teachers or coaches he talked about.
We cruised to the next shelter, a unique geodesic dome were we saw Penguin sprawled out across its floor sleeping. Nathan and I sat off to the side and waited for the other two. “We’re meeting up with Kellyn tonight right?” Penguin asked from his prone position. “yeah, last time we talked he was shooting for Rod Hollow” I replied. Rod Hollow shelter was that night’s destination, 8 miles further north. Penguin and I, who were roommates our freshmen year of college became good friends with our suitemate Kellyn. In 2007 Kellyn (“Special K“) and Derrick (then, “Elvis“, because he sang a lot) attempted a southbound thru hike on the A.T. from Maine’s majestic Mt. Katadhn. Unfortunately, 120 miles into their hike, Kellyn injured his leg and took bus ride home. Derrick continued all the way to New Jersey where he stopped, some 800 miles later. And that was his initial goal for this trip; to walk north to where he had stopped 4 years ago. After talking with Derrick over the past few days it seem his destination has extended to Katadhn.
It was 4:30 pm and Shane and Sawyer appeared at the shelter. “Well, I think this is where we’re crashing tonight fellas,” Shane said, not confident that they would make it to Rod Hollow at a reasonable hour. “yeah, and speaking of, Penguin and I should hit the dusty trail,” I commented as I looked up at the sunlight disappearing over the hillside. Penguin told me about a spring a couple miles up and that we should meet there. I shared goodbyes with the cousins and soon followed Penguin back into the forest.
As I approached the spring I heard a couple voices. Soon I realized we had caught up with “LOL” and Swazie. I greeted everyone and continued ahead. I was feeling charged and wanted to take the lead for once. The trail’s surroundings suddenly changed at that time. The forest opened up to large fields of black raspberry vines, poison ivy and what appeared to be Kudzu, a highly invasive vine that has taken over much of the south and is apparently making its relentless way north. The change was drastic, considering 99% of the past three days was walking through the woods. The vines reached out into the path’s slender corridor, almost creating a tunnel. Several areas, mostly utility right of ways, opened incredible views out to the distant Virginia landscape.
We had made our way to Ashby Gap, a road crossing 3 miles south of rod hollow. The day was slipping away into the night and cool air filled the valley. Penguin was singing along with the tracks playing through his earphones, so loudly that I joined him in song. I was exhausted, and slowly the sound of the singing Penguin disappeared into the distance. That became the longest 3 miles of the trip. Each turn led to another bend in the trail and so forth. Finally at 9 pm I came across the sign to the shelter. And in the distance I heard several voices. As I came closer to the site, I noticed 5 or six people sitting around a fire and four or five more at the shelter. I thought to myself, ”where the hell did you all come from?” Beyond Penguin, LOL and me, there was “Long trail”and “Guinea” two twenty-something girls, and “Flatlander” and “Grasshopper” both retired men among others. Penguin told me about some of these folks. He hadn’t seen Grasshopper since the Smokey Mountains, some 500 miles back. The fires were raging and the prime tent real estate was occupied. As I fumbled in the dark with my tent I wondered when Kellyn was going to make it and hoped he was able to traverse the dark path that laid ahead of him. After several minutes of untangling and connecting tent poles, I sat to have my late evening dinner. The bugs were atrocious that night, buzzing intensely around my headlamp, to the point that I laid it on the ground directing it at the jet boil. Shortly thereafter, I saw two figures come up to my impromptu camp site. It was Kellyn and “spiderman” who he bumped into on the way from the parking lot. Kellyn and I quietly greeted one another, by that time the air fell quiet and fires extinguished, most everyone retired to their tents or shelter. As Kellyn sat up his tent, I hung my food bag from a 15 foot bear pole and stumbled back to my tent for the night.