by Phil Cole Part 5 of 6
I was awoken by Penguin who was on his way out for the day. “Catch you guys on the trail,” he said. “Rock on” I replied in my half-conscious state. By that time more than half of the others had left or were packing up. I slowly gathering my items, which started to feel oddly routine and pack up camp, when Kellyn appeared. “Did Derrick take off,” he asked in a surprised and slightly annoyed tone. “Yup, he’s in the groove….we’ll catch up with him at some point today.” And so the fresh footed Kellyn and I carried onward. It was nice to share some experiences from the past few days with someone with trail experience and who would understand the inside jokes and references to both the trail and days back in college. After six or seven miles into the sun filled day we came across a southbound day hiker who greeted us with, “gonna get a big storm here in a couple hours, f.y.i..” As he passed, I looked up at the clear blue sky then looked at Kellyn and chuckled. Shortly after we ran into Derrick at the Sam Moore shelter. He had been cooking an assortment of items he had picked up at Front Royal. We joined him in his feast and drank iodine-treated stream water. Derrick decided to nap there at the shelter while Kellyn and I decided to continue on. Our destination for the evening was the Blackburn Hostel, which left a fairly smooth 17 miles into Harper’s Ferry the following day. We set forth hoping to bag those eight miles in the afternoon. That’s when the clouds rolled in.
Not two miles after leaving Derrick, it started to rain. And hard. Light clamps of thunder soon followed in the distance, as we scoured up a relentless hillside. The trail quickly became a perennial stream. Our strides grew longer and swifter as the claps of thunder became louder. We both knew about the Bears Den Shelter that sat halfway between the shelter we had just left and Blackburn Hostel. We were going to pass up the Bears Den, but agreed to stop there until the storm passed. I came to the sign that pointed us off the trail and onto a gravel service road. We then came across an unexpected sight; two large stone columns that presented itself as an impressive gateway. Beyond the columns, we saw the Bears Den Hostel; a beautiful split level stone building. In an adjacent gazebo we saw other hikers huddled together, most familiar to me from the previous night. I noticed a sign the said, ” Hikers entrance in back”. We passed through the rear entry into a small foyer filled with muddy boots and mountains of wet gear. Sopping wet, we peeled off our top layers and boots and continued into the building, where we found a group of hikers sitting in lounge chairs drinking Cokes and watching Space Balls. The room was filled with bunk beds, like one would find at summer camp. Kellyn and I joined in on the refreshments and made wet butt-prints in the low woven carpet. “Grasshopper” emerged from another room. He was a quiet yet distinguished older man from South Carolina who’s words poured out slowly in a Jimmy Stewart/ Sean Connery like fashion. “What is this vile motion picture?” he asked. “Space Balls.” someone replied. “Space Balls??…” he muttered and shook his head in disbelief. But Grasshopper sat and watch the remaining hour with the rest of us like it was his brotherly duty. I did, however, catch him fighting back a laugh or two.
After the movie I began to roam around the building-although it didn’t officially open until 4pm. I looked outside; the rain was relentless. Kellyn and I both pondered the idea of putting back on our soaked jackets, boots and bags and continue onto our initial destination, some five miles north. Would Penguin stop at the Bear’s Den or continue on himself? I was torn. Torn until I heard what the Bear’s Den had to offer. For thirty some odd dollars, each hiker received their own personal 12” pizza, one half pint of selected Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, beverages, a hot shower, laundry and a cot for the night. Immediately after discovering this information, I turned to Kellyn and said, “I got a half pint of cookie dough with my name on it.” He shook his head “yes“, although he was disappointed we had only completed a ten mile day. More hikers began to fill up the hostel. Some were going to have a meal and continue onward while others, like ourselves, claimed a cot, got into comfortable clothes and lounged around like we where on vacation at a mountain lodge. A young couple ran and lived at the hostel for six months out of the year. They offered shuttle services and kids camps beyond catering to wet hunger hikers. The operation was simple and efficient. While Kellyn and I chowed down on our pizzas, in walked Derrick; cool, casual and wet to the core.
After dinner we sat in a living room with other hikers. “Grasshopper“, who turns out to be a political writer, was writing memories of his trip; “Torch,” a twenty something who accidentally caught his pants on fire with lighting a stove; and an older husband and wife from Indiana. They were retired doctors and were very interesting folks. I had learned that they have been staying at the Hostel for several days after she diagnosed herself with Lyme’s disease. “Torch,” said that he too was concerned that he contracted it and was getting checked in Harper’s Ferry. Lyme’s disease, I had learned, was not uncommon among hikers. Spread by the bite of deer ticks, these nearly invisible insects are very difficult to discover. An infected tick can pass the disease on to a human after a couple days of being attached. The disease may attacks the joints, heart, and nervous system of the victim if left untreated. So enough about that. Kellyn and I decided to retire early to our large room of bunk beds on the upper floor of the building. Of the 30 some bunks, 5 or 6 bottom bunks were occupied by hikers. We had a 20 mile day ahead of us, the first five of which was known as the roller coaster, a series of relentless ups and downs. Past that was “smooth sailing” a hiker read out loud to us from his guidebook.
Kellyn and I awoke early and gathered our things, and prepared for our last day on the trail. We had a quick breakfast in the dining area and then returned to the sleeping quarters to check on Penguin. “You guys go ahead, I’ll catch up,” he said. So we thanked our hosts for everything and walked into the cool misty morning. The “roller coaster” was exactly as it sounded, although with no significant climbs it was perpetual ascending and descending. In cross section it looked like a long wavy line with a stream crossing at all the low points. After a couple hours we knew we had reached the end of that section of the trail when we came to the West Virginia border. We were a little bummed that the three of us, all having gone to school at West Virginia University, didn’t share that moment together. That was the second state for me in 75 miles, and would be state # 5 for Penguin. Another bench mark was a mile beyond the WV border; the 1000 mile mark for north bounders. It was simply a small wooden sign nailed to a large oak tree, but I couldn’t image what that must feel knowing you’ve hit such a mile stone, and then realizing you’re not even half way on the A.T.