Monthly Archives: May 2012

The hostel vortex

May 29

0 miles, 996.9 overall (Bear’s Den hostel)
I set my alarm for 6:00 to try to get an early start. It is supposed to be almost as hot as yesterday and I know I’ll need to get a lot of miles done early. A friend from WV has offered me a place to stay tonight so I need to be in Harper’s Ferry to meet him on-time. Upstairs the kitchen has a community cupboard with pancake mix. I whip up a batch of batter and make myself two large pancakes. I cover them in butter and syrup and wolf them down. Meanwhile Puff and Mrs Mule are working on coffee. I grab a cup to drink while I pack up.

While packing I am dreading the heat. I am ready to go by 7 but I don’t feel like hiking. I text my friend Ben and ask if tomorrow would still be good to come visit instead and he says sure. Score! I am now zeroing at Bears Den. It was already incredibly gracious of Ben to offer me a place to stay for a night but to be flexible with my plans too is an added bonus, so thanks Ben!

Perhaps I should take a brief interlude here to explain how weird it is trying to mesh the schedule of a thru-hiker with the schedule of a non-thru-hiker. For a thru-hiker it is hard to project where we are going to be more than a few days in advance. This doesn’t mesh well with the schedules of non-thru-hikers who often have their days planned out weeks in advance. Flexibility is key as our plans can change at the last minute depending on things like weather (in this case), food supplies, sickness, terrain, or any number of other reasons.

Huff and Puff are the first hikers to get out. They leave while I am working on a third pancake that I decided to have since I’ll be sticking around. Next out are the Myakka Mules. Last is Gato. He had been considering a zero but now he is talking about doing a half day. However instead of leaving early and stopping early to miss the heat, he sticks around for a while. He ends up watching Star Wars: Attack of the Clones while I play on my phone. I’m betting after the movie he sticks around. While he is watching the movie several hikers come through the hostel looking for showers. Tallyho and Gringo are first, followed by another couple whose names I don’t recognize. Once the movie is over it is the moment of truth, and true to his word Gato heads out into the heat of the day around 11. I wish him luck but don’t envy his situation.

For a little while I’m alone in the hostel. I eat some lunch and have a soda. I pop in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, having never watched any of the new ones all the way through (hence why I played on my phone instead of watching the second one with Gato). A section hiker comes in to stay for the night and hangs out watching the movie. Every once in a while Justin, the hostel caretaker, pops in to check on things and to clean up. Justin is a great guy who looks a lot like the actor Jason Lee. He and his wife thru-hiked last year and plan to own a hostel in the future but when they found that the Bear’s Den was searching for caretakers they decided this was a great chance to learn the business. By my estimation they are doing a phenomenal job.

Just after the movie finishes we start getting other hikers who are staying the night. The first one looks familiar and when I ask her name I realize why. The hiker is Mouse. I’m familiar with her because she has a trail journal that I found before I started because we shared the same start date. I never met her because I started on the approach trail while she started from Springer, and in addition she started off doing 15 mile days while I was doing 8 mile days. I never thought I would meet her because she had been over a week ahead of me but an ankle injury forced her to take about 10 days off. She is just now returning to the trail, proving that you never can tell who you’ll catch up to out here.

The four section hikers from the last shelter I stayed at arrive later as well as Caveman, a young man who explains that part of his reason for hiking the trail is that he watched Fight Club and it motivated him to try a more primitive life. Tonight everyone is more social than last night and we hang out in the living room upstairs until it is time for bed. For the most part the thru-hikers are on one side and the section hikers on the other, but we do mix some and I learn a bit about some of the section hikers and what they do at home. I also get a chance to interact with Mouse who I find to be wonderfully interesting. It must be something about her southern charm, having grown up in Tennessee. I’m glad I’ve gotten to meet her and hope I’ll get to stick around her for a little while. We listen to Caveman play on the hostel guitar and I show her how to clap so as to make it sound like many people are clapping (i.e. clap really fast).

Eventually I head to bed. It is already raining outside and it is supposed to be cooler tomorrow, but I still want to get an early start. I want to be out by 6:00 instead of 7:00. Mouse is thinking the same thing. I go to bed while Caveman stays up and watches Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a movie he says has been stuck in his head for days. I don’t mind because it reminds me of home where Christy will never go to bed without a movie on. Tomorrow I will get to Harper’s Ferry, the psychological halfway point on the Appalachian Trail!

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Categories: VA | 3 Comments

The one that’s really incredibly hot

May 28

22.8 miles, 996.9 overall (Bear’s Den hostel)
I set my alarm for 5:30 hoping to get an early start. When the alarm goes off I hit the snooze. I’m not used to getting up quite this early. When it goes off again at 5:45 I get up and start packing. The tent is wet so I “squeegee” it using a credit card and then towel it off before packing it up. I head to the shelter and eat my breakfast with everyone else but they are still getting moving. I am the first out just before 7.

The trail is cool this morning. The thunderstorm seems to have cooled things off a bit but it is still supposed to be even hotter today than yesterday. I try to make good time before the day gets hot, knowing that the hostel is just over 20 miles away. The thought of a nice cool shower pushes me onward. The AT here is the main trail with several other unlabeled trails and forest roads branching off in various directions. Every once in a while the trail will follow one for a little bit before turning off again. It is on one of these roadwalks that I get lost. I come upon a paved road where I know there shouldn’t be one. I was afraid of this because I hadn’t seen a white blaze in a while. When I backtrack I find where I went wrong, missing the turn where the trail went back into the woods after following the service road. Luckily I only lost about a half mile to the error but that means one more half mile to do in the heat later.

I’m hoping to get a lot done before noon. That way I can take a long break and still be at the hostel at a reasonable hour. I move quickly through Sky Meadows State Park and wonder as I’m passing through it why there is a park here. From the little bit I see it is nice looking but nothing spectacular. It seems like a big grassy area in the middle of a forest – or in hiker terms, a great place to pick up ticks. Good thing I’m wearing my pant legs today! Perhaps they simply located the trail in a remote piece of the park so visitors wouldn’t be able to interact with the smelly thru-hikers!

After the park I cross a large paved road and wind up in what can only be described as a jungle. The trail is practically overgrown by the forest. In some places it is almost difficult to tell where the trail is, and I get smacked in the face numerous times by vines or branches that are hanging in the way. I look around half expecting to see monkeys swinging from the trees. Once again I’m happy to be wearing long pants. This is certainly one of the least well maintained sections of trail we’ve encountered yet. It is interesting that this stretch is maintained by the PATC, the same club that maintains the trail in Shenandoah. The conditions make me wonder how much the NPS has to do with the trail maintenance in Shenandoah and how the PATC prioritizes their work.

Around the time I reach the shelter 13 miles into the day the trail starts to clear up and be passable again. I stop at the shelter because I need water but it is also 11:30 and I know it will be hot soon. I try to make it a quick stop but I also know the Roller Coaster begins just after this shelter. The Roller Coaster is a series of PUD’s (pointless ups and downs) over the next 13 mile stretch. My reading of trail journals from previous thru-hikers suggests that the section isn’t as bad as it sounds but I figure a rest beforehand could be good.

With 10 miles left to the hostel it is too early to stop for a siesta and I get going again by 12. It is insanely hot. My personal thermometer hits 85, meaning it is even hotter outside of the tree cover. I make it over 2 climbs before I have to stop. First, I have to use the bathroom and forgot to use the privy at the shelter – strategic error. Second, there is a stream and with 6 miles left it seems like a good place to wait out the heat. It is just past 1 now and the heat is smothering. I douse my hat and shirt in the stream to cool off and it is only after a few minutes of wearing a soaked shirt that I understand how overheated I was. Although I wasn’t showing any signs of heat exhaustion because I had been drinking plenty of water and electrolytes my body definitely needed a break. I end up taking an almost 2 hour break during which I call Christy and Gato passes me. This morning he scoffed at the idea of making it to the hostel. It seems he has changed his mind.

I am still wearing my long pants, worried that without them I could get ticks. Before I get going again I zip off the legs to convert them to shorts. I simply can’t go on in this heat anymore with full pants. I will risk the ticks. The Roller Coaster is rocky, much more so than the sections we’ve hiked the last couple days. It makes for slow going, but eventually I catch up to Gato. He is just starting again after his own break. He makes the same observation that he didn’t realize how overheated he was until he stopped. This is definitely something we’ll have to be more aware of in the coming weeks.

Only a few miles remain to Bear’s Den at this point and I keep thinking about a cold shower. Even though I’ve heard good things about the place when I finally arrive I am still pleasantly surprised. The hostel is located in an old stone house that was built to resemble a castle. I go around back to the hiker entrance and have to work to solve the puzzle in order to unlock the door. Once I do I’m able to get in where I take off my shoes and find the Myakka Mules. They are already clean. My first order of business is a cold soda. Second, I get into the shower with the soda. In a few minutes I am a new man. While showering I do find a tick but it seems to be dead. In addition to the Myakka Mules also staying here are Gato and Huff and Puff.

The hostel has a hiker special that includes bunk with linens, laundry, shower, a pizza, a soda, and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. This is perfect. I get a tour of the facilities and then get my pizza started. While at home I might be embarrassed to eat a full pizza, but I’m not here where every thru-hiker finishes theirs. We all struggle a bit to get the ice cream down in one sitting and end up putting it in the freezer to finish later. Although Woods Hole is probably still my favorite hostel, Bears Den is definitely up near the top.

I plan to get to bed early tonight. I want to get at least close to Harper’s Ferry tomorrow. There isn’t much chance I can get there before the ATC closes for the day, so I plan to get close and then visit the headquarters the next day for the traditional hiker picture on the Appalachian Trail.20120531-124740.jpg20120531-124752.jpg20120531-124803.jpg20120531-124823.jpg

Categories: VA | 3 Comments

The one that’s incredibly hot

May 27

24.1 miles, 974.1 overall (Manassas Gap Shelter)
My suspicions about the quality of my sleep are sadly confirmed. Throughout the night I wake constantly. Something about the shelter floors just doesn’t let me sleep well. Compounding the problem is the fact that I can hear the mice scurrying and squeaking around the shelter all night. In the morning I am grouchy and apologize in advance to the other hikers.

Due to my restlessness and the early starts of the section hikers I do get out at a reasonable time. By 7:00 I am hitting the trail, heading north. On the way out I notice that the large family group has coolers in their campsite. I first wonder if they bear-bagged their food (I’m guessing no) and second wonder how they hiked a cooler in. I get an answer to the second question when I pass a parking lot where I notice some of the people from the family-type group. This lot is only about a half mile from the shelter, which explains how they got the coolers in. I realize that either these people couldn’t get reservations at one of the Shenandoah campgrounds because they are all full for the holiday weekend or they wanted to camp for free so they decided to park here and camp at the shelter. This really bothers me since it is a blatant misuse of a backcountry shelter area and I consider calling a ranger to come check for backcountry permits which I’m sure they don’t have. I decide against it but plan to let a ranger know if I see one.

I don’t see a ranger though and after a couple hours of hiking and a short snack break I am out of the park. Just outside the park is a sign for Tom Floyd Wayside. I get somewhat excited thinking perhaps there is a wayside that the data book has missed. It lists a Tom Floyd shelter, but nothing about a wayside. It turns out they both refer to the shelter. I curse the misleading sign for making me think about blackberry milkshakes. It does make me think about food for a while though and I decide that it might be fun to eat a whole pan of Cinnabons next time in home, just because I can.

The shelter has a spring so I go to get water. This puts me in a worse mood. The spring is way down the hill and it turns out it is the same one I could have gotten to by hiking a bit further on the AT. To make it worse, it is hard to pull water from this spring and I’m only able to get about a liter. I return to the shelter having perhaps sweated out as much water as I retrieved. Fortunately there are some weekenders there who lift my spirits some by being impressed with my thru-hiker status and asking me some questions about the trail while I treat my water.

Opie and Parmesan pass through while I’m at the shelter. They are heading to Front Royal today to spend some time with Opie’s uncle who lives there. I probably won’t see them again for a little while so I say goodbye for now.

As the trail leaves Shenandoah and goes by Front Royal it gets uglier. The forest is filled with a dense understory that seems to trap the heat. Periodically it takes me through fields where I am directly exposed to the ferocity of the sun and these fields always seem to be incredibly humid to boot. For a while I walk along fences that seem to indicate some sort of government installation – not exactly scenic trail. I pass the road to Front Royal and head up the hill to the next shelter. This one is supposed to be really nice. The data book actually says “excellent shelter” and it has a solar shower. I decide to stop there for lunch. When I arrive a dayhiking couple is there also eating. They finish soon after I arrive but on the way out ask me if I want some of their leftover vegetables. I graciously accept and end up with a bag of some cucumbers, spinach, red bell pepper, and a bit more than half of a perfectly ripe avocado. What great trail magic! I add the spinach and pepper to my typical fish tortilla wrap and they make a huge difference. Then I eat the avocado by itself and really enjoy it.

I plan to move on but don’t know how much further to go. There are shelters 5.5 and 10 miles ahead and it is 3:30 already. I haven’t taken my afternoon break today either, but two things push me onward: one, I want to get to a hostel tomorrow and two, I need to get to a shelter in time to claim a spot. It is still a holiday weekend and I anticipate shelters still being full even outside of Shenandoah. I decide to simply hike to the next shelter and see how I feel, although I know on the way how this will turn out.

Once I arrive I find a spot for my tent and make camp. I decide to save the other 4.5 miles for tomorrow rather than pushing late today, especially after getting such poor sleep last night. There are only a few other hikers here tonight: one thru-hiker and four section hikers who are in a group. After I finish cooking dinner a thru-hiking couple who I don’t seem to recognize arrives and also sets up a tent but they keep to themselves. The other thru here is Gato, someone I met a while back around Damascus but haven’t seen since. We talk a bit about food, plans for the next few days (he doesn’t seem to have any), other hikers we’ve seen lately or passed (among those mentioned are Biscuits, Animal, Provisions, and Mr Wrong who I haven’t met yet). He informs me that he saw Einstein et al in Front Royal doing a resupply and they are paddling to Harper’s Ferry. We also talk a bit to the section hikers and learn that one thru-hiked in 2007. They are all from NJ and one gives me her information so I can call when I get near the area. They inform me that Delaware Water Gap is a great spot in PA and I get a kick out of the fact that my one spot to look forward to in PA is the border that I use to exit it. I turn in early, hoping to catch up on some of the sleep I missed last night and to get an early start tomorrow. It was incredibly hot today and tomorrow is supposed to be at least as bad. As I get ready for bed the wind picks up and I can hear some thunder in the distance. It appears it may be a wet night on the Appalachian Trail!20120531-124340.jpg20120531-124351.jpg20120531-124445.jpg20120531-124457.jpg20120531-124513.jpg

Categories: VA | 2 Comments

The holiday multiplication

May 26

14.2 miles, 950 overall (Gravel Springs Hut)
Happy Memorial Day, and a big thanks to all those who are serving or have served!

I wake later than usual, a side effect of being in a comfy bed. Christy and I have breakfast at the hotel’s continental offering. It is standard fare but I pack away a couple bowls of corn flakes, a bagel, and several danishes. Then I finish packing up and Christy returns me to the trail. I already know that with the late start I won’t get the 20 miles done that I had originally planned. Instead I aim for getting 15 miles in. That will keep me on pace to get to Harper’s Ferry in the next few days. I notice that I plan to arrive in Harper’s Ferry a few days ahead of what I had planned and wonder why I am so far off – something I’ll have to examine at a later date.

The trail today is once again boring. I can see why people both love and hate the Shenandoahs. On the one hand the trail is perfectly maintained, with even the grassy areas being cut back in some places. I have caught myself on more than one occasion cursing the tall grass and wondering why it isn’t cut back. I have to remind myself that it is a luxury to have the grass cut back and that the maintainers can’t possibly keep all 100+ miles of trail in the park cut back all the time. So with great trails we are able to make miles quickly. On the other hand the views are pretty pedestrian compared to what we have already seen, and each view tends to be incredibly similar to the last. The Shenendoahs definitely aren’t the place for beautiful vistas or, in some places, beautiful trail either.

The redeeming piece of today is the wayside that is perfectly timed to coincide with the hot part of the day. Elkwallow Wayside is about 9 miles into my hike and I plan to stop there to get my elusive blackberry milkshake. You’ll note that I have had an opportunity previously to purchase one on my marathon day but opted for beer instead. I will make no such mistake this time. I reach the wayside just after 1:00 and find a group of hikers there. Two of them are thru-hikers who I haven’t met before: Domino and Froth (I think). The others are section hikers from PA.

I enter the wayside and order a hot dog, fries, and a blackberry milkshake. Pretty soon I am outside stuffing my face. The milkshake is everything I hoped it could be and the hot dog is better than expected. While I eat I talk to the other hikers. I ask the ones from PA what I should be looking forward to in their state. Unfortunately rather than dispelling my worries they confirm them, telling me that there isn’t really anything to look forward to. PA, you’re officially on notice.

Just after this group of hikers leaves a section hiker names Matt arrives as well as Opie and Parmesan. I have finished my food but have gone back for a Sobe and a soda. I sit and talk to them while waiting for the heat to pass. It is busy at the wayside with all of the tourists out for the holiday weekend. We kill time until almost 4:00, watching the tourists and talking about random stuff. At that point we finally start the last 6 miles to the shelter.

The 6 miles go by quickly. I leapfrog Opie and Parmesan the whole way but I wind up arriving first. It is crowded. All of the tent sites are already taken. The shelter has space but I’m reluctant to take it. I look around briefly but the number of people makes it extremely unlikely I can find a suitable tent spot. I eventually settle on the shelter.

I don’t mean to harp on the difference between thru-hikers and non-thru-hikers too much, but it must be said that this group is particularly bad. There are several section hikers who hang out at the shelter and, for the most part, section hikers are good. They understand rules like not doing laundry or cleaning your dishes in the spring that people get their drinking water from. The other groups who are here tonight, not so much. The main culprits are a family-type group of about 10 and a group of Boy Scouts with Philmont 2012 tshirts on. I’m especially disappointed in the Boy Scouts who should know better and who also make tons of noise until almost 10:00.

Overall it was a good day. I had a great breakfast with my wife, didn’t have to do too many miles, and spent some good time with good people at a wayside. A good night’s sleep doesn’t seem likely, but we’ll see. At least tomorrow I’ll be leaving Shenandoah so there’s a chance there will be fewer people at the shelter tomorrow night on the Appalachian Trail.

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Categories: VA | 3 Comments

The one with a surprise

May 25

25.7 miles, 935.8 overall (Luray, VA)
Today I want to deviate from my typical format a bit. The day of hiking was somewhat uneventful so I will simply summarize so that I can discuss a few random items. First, a poem by yours truly:

Oh middle Shennies, how I hate thy rocks
You negate all the cushion in my socks
Your views are so trite
And your lodges just bite
Your trail’s not even worthy of my blog.

I wake up and start hiking. The section hikers are great people and I joke with them as we leapfrog in the morning. I find I have cell signal and over a text from Christy saying she gets off early from work and would I like her to come visit for a night. YES! Instead of a 22 mile day I now want to do a 25 mile day to a road crossing. I skip the Big Meadows wayside but stop at the Big Meadows Lodge hoping for a quick milkshake. The lodge has nothing for me. I should have stopped at the wayside. Next stop: Skyland Lodge. I know there are at least vending machines there. When I arrive I am able to find cookies, a Gatorade, and a soda. Disappointing. I stop for a while to eat a snack. 10 miles left, I almost take a wrong turn to the Stony Man summit. At the last second I catch an informative sign that tells me I am at the highest point on the AT within Shenandoah. Realizing that the trail I’m about to go down is uphill I catch my mistake before it is too late. I pass some rock climbers on Stony Man cliffs and cruise along to the shelter that I was originally planning on staying at. Quick snack break and an entry in the shelter log, then downhill to the road crossing. On the way I make a quick stop at Mary’s Rock to check out the view. It is definitely a spot I’ll have to make a return visit to. When I reach the road crossing I have no cell signal so I have no way to let Christy know where I am. The road crossing is a large intersection with an entrance to the park so it would be easy for us to pass each other. I eventually camp myself at the turnoff for the entrance station figuring that if she turns into the park I’ll see her and if she drives by the park I’ll still see her. Not long after she pulls into the entrance station and we’re of to Luray for a night. I get to shower, do laundry, eat town food, and sleep in a bed for a night!

So, now for some random thoughts.

I realize some of my posts sound a little depressing lately. I don’t want to sugarcoat anything, but at the same time I probably don’t share enough of the good stuff that happens. When it rains and you have to hike in it it is not the most enjoyable experience and times like those are definitely the hardest to keep going. At the same time, I am still enjoying my hike but I increasingly think about what the next chapter of my life holds when I get home. It is exciting and sometimes it is tempting to jump ahead, but it is something that I have to recognize is the next chapter and this chapter is only half complete.

You may notice that lately I’ve also spent less time contemplating who to hike with. I am starting to really enjoy hiking on my own and not as part of an even loosely knit group. It gives me a certain freedom and it also let’s me meet more hikers than I would otherwise. I am finding as I meet all these hikers that more and more we are becoming similar. We all are seasoned backpacking veterans at this point. We can mostly identify other thru-hikers by how they look, even if we hadn’t met them before. Conversations are easier than they used to be and it seems like bonds form in a shorter time than at the beginning of the trail.

On my weekend and shakedown hikes I used to run into thru-hikers in and around Shenandoah. I often thought they seemed a bit aloof, not engaging in much conversation. They also seemed to have this sort of business-like resignation. I understand it better now. The resignation is business-like because for us it is our job. For the last 60 days we have done the same thing every day. We get up, pack everything we own into our pack, walk about 20 miles, unpack, and sleep. In between we eat when we can. The aloof-ness is because it is hard to talk to people who aren’t other thru-hikers. For one thing they don’t fully understand the difficulties of the trail. How can they if they’ve only hiked 20 miles of it? That’s less than the distance from Springer to Neel’s Gap. For another, we won’t see them again. They can’t do the miles we are capable of so tomorrow night they will be miles behind me. That’s not to say that I’m not polite when they strike up a conversation, but rather that I find myself less and less inclined to be the one to start the conversation.

In a few days I will be at the psychological halfway point of the trail in Harper’s Ferry, WV. It is hard to imagine. I haven’t thought about it much because until now it has been too far off to make it worth thinking about. As far as time left on the trail I still have almost 3 months, partly due to some time I will take off the trail for weddings and partly due to the difficulty of the terrain in parts of New England (read: the White Mountains).

Speaking of time of the trail, while I’m excited about a trip home in a couple weeks for a friend’s wedding, I am also extremely nervous about it. It is often hard for people to get back on the trail after several days away. It is even harder if those days away are at home. Christy has already told me that she will kick me out when it is time for me to go back so I’m not so much worried about physically returning as I am keeping my mental focus. This thing is so much about keeping your head in the game that I need to take advantage of the time off by using it to prepare myself for the last couple months.

Finally, have you all seen the Appalachian Trail tshirts and other apparel with the white blaze on them? I don’t get it. Am I supposed to follow you if you’re wearing one of them? Will following someone with that shirt on get me to Maine? One of these days I may have to try it out.

So, it was a good night off. I removed the mud from my clothes that had been there since the rain. I got some good food in my belly. I showered. I’ll get a good nights sleep. And tomorrow I’ll get a few miles closer to that halfway point and, ultimately, Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail.

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Categories: VA | 5 Comments

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