Harper’s Ferry

July   2011

by Phil Cole       Part 6

Shortly after passing the 1000 mile mark we came to a sign directing hikers to the Blackburn Shelter. Kellyn and I traversed several switchbacks down into the forest. At one point we both wondered if we missed it somehow. We continued further along the path until we came across a large structure that resembled a large estate home. The two story shelter was huge, with a large screened wrap around porch, garage and a series of stone retaining walls. There appeared to be no one there until we had heard some movement inside. I peered into what appeared to be a large kitchen, with dozens of stainless steel pots and pans hanging from the walls. A young girl was in the middle of it all peeling a mountain of potatoes that lay before her on a large wooden table. She looked up, greeted us and asked if we would like a complementary soda. Kellyn and I shed our packs and sat sipping store brand wild cherry soda, while we waited for Penguin. By that time the sun had burnt away the morning fog and we scrounged for lunch. It was slim pickens, for me by that point. I had ate most of my food ration and soon became very interested in what was left of Kellyn’s. “I got some soggy pepperoni rolls and a pop tart,” Kellyn said as he noticed my browsing looks. “Sounds better than a couple pulverized crackers and a half packet of jelly.” We were there for awhile occasionally glancing up into the forest for an incoming Penguin, but saw nothing. We wondered if Derrick said to himself “the hell with this” after walking forever down a steep side trail to the Shelter. As we were getting ready to head back to the tail, out emerged Penguin from the woods, humming a tune I couldn’t identify. We stayed while Penguin rested and then, for the first time this trip, the three of us hit the trail together. It was mid day and we had some 15 relatively easy miles ahead of us into Harper’s Ferry, where Kellie was to meet us. While we walked, I wondered how Kellie’s past five days were touring around Virginia and visiting family in Maryland. I was excited to share my trail experiences with her. The three of us were cruising, probably 3 or 4 miles per hour, which is relatively fast for trail hiking. The trail’s slopes were gentle but somewhat rocky.

The sun filtered through the thick tree canopy in patches of light on the forest floor and Derrick and Kellyn conversed as I began to realize that my journey was nearing an end. I was exhausted but at peace. I think it takes several days to detox oneself from the rush of the daily grind and I was feeling I may have been getting into a groove. I began wondering why must I return to that 40 hour week of deadlines, perpetual critiques, phone calls and frankly, arrogant professionals. It seemed that when one removes oneself in such a drastic way from an environment of criticism, the glancing blows begin to bruise and show themselves.

We had reached a road that indicated that we were within a couple miles of our destination and I decided to turn on my sleeping cell phone- which seemed like a foreign object- and called Kellie to let her know we were nearly there. She told me she would start walking south, towards us and meet us. The closer we got to Harpers, the more worn the path had become from day hikers coming from town. Soon the woods gave way to the vastness of the Potomac river valley and the trail began to switch back swiftly down the slope. The trail appeared to have been rerouted several times due to severe erosion from over use. The side slopes along the trail were stripped bare of their vegetation and have become exposed to the heavy rains, washing most of the topsoil across the trail and down to the river. We had came around a bend to a vehicular bridge that crossed the Potomac. We had reached historic Harper’s Ferry, WV. Although the “true” half way point is just beyond the Pennsylvania border, Harper’s Ferry is considered the “psychological half way point” for thru-hikers and is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy; the foundation that raises money and oversees all the individual A.T. districts. It is at this point that many hikers stop. Others might choose to “flip flop“; where a north bounder would leave Harper’s Ferry, fly or drive to Maine, then walk south bound back to Harper’s Ferry for better weather conditions. There’s a little more of a rush on the second half of a North bounder’s journey because Katahdn closes yearly on October 15th before the major snows bury Baxter State Park.

Kellie greeted us at the bridge and the four of us crossed into town and stopped at our parked car. Kellyn and I ditched our bags in the trunk of the car and the sudden weightlessness was a breath of fresh air to my shoulders all the way to my feet, which were a mess. My prehike size 10 foot had swelled to at least an 11 causing severe irrigation of the outside of both feet. My three smallest toes where blood red and tender to the touch. I again reminded myself that I have done so little and yet have many aches and pains to go home with.

We walked on the trail that skirts along a ridge overlooking the Potomac to Jefferson Rock, a truly majestic view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It was here that T.J. commented that this vista was “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.” We gracefully entered town by a series of flagstone steps that reminded me of an Italian villa, meandering around old stone and brick buildings and down to the cobble stone road. The town was bustling with visitors, reenactors and hikers. We grabbed an outdoor table at a busy pub/restaurant in downtown and ate like kings. After dinner, Derrick gathered his bag and we walked him to the main street.

My journey on the A.T. had ended. Derrick’s was now only half complete. We all shared goodbyes and like a cheesy spaghetti western he walked off into the sunset, north to Maine. 

The End
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The Bears Den

July   2011

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.

Part 6 Continues Tomorrow

The Highs and Lows of the A.T.

July   2011

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.

Part 5 Continues Tomorrow

Trail Magic

July   2011

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.

Part 4 Continues Tomorrow

Lightning, trails and bears

July   2011

by Phil Cole       Part 2 of 6
 

 Six hours and five black bear encounters later we found ourselves closing in on the Gravel Springs Shelter. Penguin had told me about his thru hiker friends that he had met before reaching the Shenandoahs and how most decided to “aqua-blaze”; skipping the National Park entirely and renting canoes/ kayaks from Waynesboro to Front Royal. I had figured he had wanted to reunite with them in or around Front Royal. So we blew past the shelter onward and I got a taste of night hiking in search for a “stealth site“; a camp location that is not designated and is typically frowned upon by park authorities for various safety reasons. “Everyone stealths” Penguin said. Our LED headlamps lit an elliptical ray of light on the rocky trail ahead. Bats swooped down, near to our heads, scooping up insects in eerie silence. Soon a quarter moon appeared in the western sky illuminating silhouettes of neighboring ridges. We came upon a breathtaking western vista called South Marshall Mountain and saw flashes of leftover fireworks across the entire landscape. We figured that a majority of the firework celebrations were postponed to the prior night’s rain and intense fog so we each grabbed a boulder for a free show. At 4500 feet several glistening communities, like Bentonville and Southern portions of Front Royal, could be seen in the night. The “boom” from the furthest fireworks display took nearly twenty seconds to reach us from our high perch. The disconnection between the light and sound was so extreme that the two seemed unrelated and didn’t share the same source. The area offered great views but not a great place to set up camp, so we continued on into the night.

It was 10:30 pm and we had reached North Marshall mountain with an equal experience to his younger brother, South Marshall. There was some clearing of the understory, a man made fire pit and a what we had hoped for a great morning vista. I couldn’t get comfortable that night; perpetual tossing and turning that left me frustrated and more sleep deprived. I had a history of insomnia since college and I envied those who could fall asleep at the drop of a hat on any surface, anywhere. I never had that luxury and I thought about the comforts a warm, soft bed at home with every turn. Before I knew it, the sky slowly became filled with light and the birds started calling. I looked at my watch; it was 5:45. I knew we had another 20 miler ahead of us but thought to myself, “maybe I can squeeze and hour or two.” It was at that moment that I heard a small rumble. Shortly after I heard Penguin say “you up?” “Yup” I replied. “Looks like we got about a half an hour or so before a storm.” he stated. “Dammit” I thought to myself. I wasn’t afraid of myself getting wet but my backpack was a different story. It was a pack I bought at a local pawn shop for a reasonable price. After all, It had endured a month of back backing hostel to hostel in Switzerland and Italy but wasn’t designed to be put through the riggers of a full week of camping and being stuffed full with 35 pounds of equipment. The “rain guard” was just big enough to cover the pack by itself and not for an additional tent, sleeping pad and water bottles that hung clinging to the outside shell. So I wasn’t ready for a down pour, but out here you’re at the mercy of whatever mother nature throws at you, whether you are in the mood for it or not. So we packed up camp and I futilely attempted to cover my bag with the cover and a “poncho” that was simply a trash bag with two arm holes and a hood. “No matter how hard you try, out here you’re going to get wet.“ Penguin said. And so the rain came right as we were leaving and the sound of the rain on the overstory trees was deafening. Claps of lighting and thunder occurred in the distance as we scooted along the forest floor. We walked for a few miles when the rain started to taper off. When the sky lightened up, I exfoliated my make shift rain cover and packed it away. Before exiting the northern portion of the Shenandoah’s, we walked through several acres of fire ravaged forest. I could still catch a faint whiff of ashy smoke in the air. We had approached an older gentleman who was weed wacking the trail among the rain drops and it was there I asked about the fire. He had said that an adjacent farmer had burned a brush pile which had spread to the forest that past January. “January?!” I thought to myself. Surprised because I had recalled moments before when walking through the scarred section of forest that, though the recent devastation, there where several seedlings and native sages already emerging from the desolate ground as a way to heal itself.

From there we had set a destination for the Tom Floyd Wayside, to restock, grab a “trail crave” item like a Coke or a donut. And that’s the thing; I normally don’t drink soft drinks or eat donuts but after a couple 15+ mile days, they all sound fantastic. Someone my size hiking 20 miles can burn in excess of 4500 calories a day, so the body is looking to recharge itself with all sorts of fuel. We exited the park and descended to the area we thought was the wayside, however we were a little perplexed at the sight of a lonely shelter and privy. “What the hell is this?” I exclaimed. Apparently this is someone’s version of a wayside, not like the others, with their cold drinks, hot eats and grandparents and grandkids outside licking ice cream and laughing, which is what I had fantasized for miles. No coke, no donut. And its not like we were going to die of starvation or dehydration but it was a stop we had looked forward to on a hot muggy day. I was running low on water and noticed a sign that pointed toward a spring. As Penguin took a seat in the shelter I continued walking down a path to the water source. The path switched backed several times as I descended further into the valley. About half way down the hillside I heard a rustling in the adjacent brush and to my surprise saw a small black bear cub. I was somewhat desensitized of the initial shock of the sight after seeing nearly a half a dozen bears over the last two days. Then I thought to myself “Cub…….momma” And it was at that moment that I heard an even more intense rustling beyond the young bear. “okie dokie, screw the water.” and I slowly back stepped, turned around and quietly returned up to the shelter, waterless. It was 10:30 and we had already hiked 8 miles with another 9 to go to the next Shelter.

  

Part 3 Continues Tomorrow

Day One

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?

July   2011

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.

Part 2 Continues Tomorrow