Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Virginia Is Not Flat!

I had two goals for this summer. To complete my hike of the Appalachian Trail in one, long-assed section. From where I got off last summer, to where I got off in Vt back in 2012. And to do it without injury.


I ended my hike last year where the James River Footbridge crosses the Shenandoah near Glasgow, VA. So that was my starting point this year. The section from James River Bridge to Waynesboro is more rugged and remote than Shenandoah to the north, with lots of steep and rocky trail. Some of the thru-hikers thought it was the toughest section they had traversed. Everyone wanted to meet the source of that great AT lie, “Virginia is Flat.” As I opted to take 8 days to hike thru the 77 miles to Waynesboro without resupply, my food bag was packed to the gills, and my pack felt heavy.

Starting with the 2200' climb up Big Rocky Row. From there the trail traverses some of the northernmost balds, unusual rock formations, and views of the Shenandoah Valley from Bald Knob, Cold Mountain, Three Ridges, and The Priest. Bald Knob isn’t a bald, but Cold Mountain and Tar Jacket Ridge are.

The trail took me past a monument to Ottie Cline Powell. In the fall of 1890, four-year-old Ottie went into the woods to gather firewood for his schoolhouse, and never returned. His body was found five months later on top of Bluff Mountain. This story is told best by two-time thru-hiker J.R. "Model T" Tate in his book "Walkin' With The Ghost Whisperers," which documents the history and backstories to many of the monuments, cemeteries and old structures we pass along the trail. I carry it in Kindle format on my phone to help provide a sense of history and place as I hike.

As tough as this section was, I managed to break one of my cardinal rules and hiked too many miles per day in my first week out. I started out slow. But on day six I did 13 miles, then 6 over Three Ridges, followed by a 16 to get to Paul C. Wolf shelter.

Bad L.Dog! Bad!

I managed to pull off a nero in Waynesboro. Neros are hiking days with “nearly zero” miles hiked. Usually in conjunction with a town visit to minimize lost hiking hours. I hiked 5 miles to Rockfish Gap, hitched into town, got a motel room, showered, picked up my bounce box at the post office, ate lunch at Chick Peas (highly recommended), did my laundry across the street, shopped at Kroger, ate at the renown Ming Garden AYCE Chinese buffet (Four thumbs up), repacked my food bag and bounce box, and passed out watching Big Bang Theory reruns. The next morning I threw my pack on, took my bounce box back to the PO, had a big breakfast at Weasie’s Kitchen. A local offered me a ride to the trail with a stop at the outfitter for a fuel canister! I entered SNP, and did 5.4 miles to Calf Mountain Shelter!

Bada Bing, Bada Boom!

Registration for thru-hikers in Shenandoah National Park is easy. Just a bit up the trail from Rockfish Gap is a self-service kiosk, with hang tags you fill out and attach to your pack. Leave the carbon copy, and hike on. No cost, no stress.

The trail parallels Skyline Drive, crossing it 28 times. More than one hiker opted to road walk to bypass sections. I'm a bit of a purist, hate road walking and can't imagine doing so, but maybe they needed a break from the long green tunnel.

Shenandoah will not rank high as one of my favorite sections. Lots of crowded, pay to stay campgrounds with camp stores stocked for car campers, Lodges with rooms around $100/night, and restaurants with lousy food. Maybe I was crabby from the pain developing in my lower leg. Wildlife is way too acclimated to humans in the park. While having deer walk right up to you, and bears that don’t run away when you walk up on them is kinda cool, it ain’t natural, and a little unnerving ...

I got a visit from a couple of my oldest, dearest friends and shipmates who drove up from the DC area, picked me up from Turks Gap, and took me to a campground where we grilled steaks and got all caught up!

Climbing out of Turk Gap, reeking of steak, I heard some rustling in the woods just ahead of me. I had seen a lot of deer in the last couple of days, and expected the same. Instead, I met this bruin rooting around the forest floor. Most black bears bolted as soon as they saw me. But this one looked up, grunted, and when back to rooting for food. I grabbed a couple of shots before it let out a low growl and the hair on its neck stood up. I backed away slowly, thanking it for its time… I saw another bear a few hours later, and five during my time in SNP.

It is kinda cool to step into Skyland Resort to have a cappuccino and a meal, with a world-class view of the valley below. They have a cool gift shop which provides a mailing service. I sent a stuffed black bear with felt claws to Mary. Just south of here, the trail took me over Stoney Man Overlook, with a spectacular view to the west.

By the time I got to the northern end of SNP, my leg was really hurting, and I limped into Terrapin Station in Chester Gap outside Front Royal. This was a stop I had planned for years. Mike runs the place and provides shuttle service. He's a thru hiker, a former Park Ranger, trail maintainer, ridge-runner, and a die-in-the-wool Deadhead. He knows the trail, the history of the area, and everything there is to know about the Grateful Dead. It was a pleasure to talk with. I took a zero there, then hiked out in viciously hot, humid weather. That afternoon, when I got to US 552, Mike had just dropped off a hiker and asked if I was ready to go back to the hostel. I was, and I did.

The next night I caught up with Blue Bird, with whom I had been hiking for the last several days, at Jim and Molly Denton shelter. A very cool shelter area with a separate, covered eating area, a huge deck attached to the shelter, lots of tent sites, a bear pole, privy, a great water source, and a solar shower! There was a great group of hikers there. At Bluebird's insistence, we had a Slackdown!

Just north of Rod Hollow Shelter is the southern end of the infamous “Roller Coaster.” A relocation of the trail put it in a narrow corridor. For 13 miles it goes up and down. The reality is not as bad as the hype, and there’s some great campsites in there.

I managed 9-10 mile days into Bear’s Den, but it was clear my leg was not improving. I took a couple of zeros there for rest, ice, compression and elevation, and watched the world soccer cup finals in a room full of screaming fans.

Bear’s Den is a very cool place to take some zeros. A great mansion turned into a Hostel and Trail Center, owned by the ATC and operated by the PATC. Shower, laundry, pizza, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, wi-fi, and a diy pancake breakfast with fresh brewed coffee for $30!

I was going to be late getting to Harper’s Ferry to meet visitors. So I got a shuttle to Teahorse Hostel, visited with a old friends over the next two days, shuttled back to Bear’s Den, took another zero, and headed north.

Hiking into Harper’s Ferry is pretty cool. One finally gets a major milestone by hitting the VA/WV border! Then the sweeping panoramas of the Shenandoah below. I crossed the bridge, took the side trail to the ATC, got my picture taken, picked up a package, and checked into the Teahorse again.

My leg was killing me. I took two zeros and hiked back out the side trail. When I hit the rocky trail leading down to town, my leg was screaming in pain despite tylenol. As I walked down those great stone steps into town, I realized my hike was over. That evening I hopped on the Amtrak which was conveniently at the bottom of the hill, and went home.

240 miles over 33 days with 5 zeros leaves 28 hiking days @ 8.6 miles/hiking day.

The radiologist told me I had a tibial stress fracture, and admonished me to give it six weeks of no-load bearing. Those early, long days in tough terrain was probably to blame. Treating it like it was a soft tissue injury did me no good. I’ll be ramping up my pre-hike training to be sure I’m ready before I set out next summer for what I hope to be the final push.

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