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.