This is the third in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Day 3 began in the low 50′s and neither of us had brought a jacket! That stupid pack of mine was 50 pounds fully loaded with water and there was no jacket in there! We were very happy to see our food was still in the tree; but, when we saw the massive branch that had fallen during the night we realized it could just as easily have fallen on one of our tents!
My neighbor and friend Miriam had made homemade granola bars for me to take on the trip. They were perfect for the calorie demands we were placing on our bodies, they had oatmeal, nuts, and dried fruit. I realized that I had one bar left and that the energy I would get from it would warm me up enough to pack up camp. I made a quick cup of coffee, polished off the bar and packed everything up. The weather looked promising but we were shivering so it was hard to appreciate.
As we began to hike I was once more stunned to see that my body had recovered during the night from the 10 hours of hiking the previous day! My shoulders felt great under the weight of the pack (which by now was starting to be a little lighter as food was consumed.) My feet, though held together with duct tape seemed to be strong and pain-free for the moment!
As it had been throughout the trip, the hike was strikingly beautiful. I couldn’t believe how often the scenery changed! On this morning we came across a section of the forest in which the floor was all 3-ft ferns. Like rhododendrons, I have tried to encourage large pretty ferns on the shady side of my house and it’s just too hot and humid. Here was an endless ocean of them in every direction! They looked like you could dive into them and be carried across the top of them like a rock star crowd surfing!
We did not see much wildlife during the trip. We saw plenty of evidence that they were nearby, but despite all our precautions we never saw a bear and only a couple of times did we even see deer. (It should be noted that when my wife dropped us off on the first morning she turned the car around and there were two bear cubs playing on the side of Skyline Drive!)
In this first morning section of the hike however, we were greeted at the top of a mountain by a really large doe. She was approaching the size of a pony! The trail zig-zagged down the mountain and she was escorting us down. She would wait until we came around the switchback to her section, and then bolt directly through the woods onto the next section. She did this several times, each time waiting until we got to the section she was on. Near the bottom she stepped off the side of the trail and watched us pass. I half expected her to say, “OK, from here just go straight and if you pass a big rocky overpass you’ve gone too far”!
We warmed up quickly and were buoyed by the fact that our bodies had recovered from the previous day’s hike. The weather was shaping up to be a beautiful day and at the top of the next mountain we got a view to the north that showed Front Royal, VA, and blue skies. Our next stop was the Gravel Springs Hut, what should have been the previous night’s destination. This too would be a turning point in our trip.
Gravel Springs Hut was, I suppose, a standard Shenandoah shelter; but it seemed like a resort hotel as it came with all the amenities, the weather was beautiful, and we had it all to ourselves. First of all, there was a privy. A privy is essentially an outhouse but when the alternative involves a shovel it might as well be the Four Seasons. Secondly, there was a spring–Gravel Springs as it would turn out–right there near the shelter. The fire ring in front of the shelter had a large stone wall around it and this would become our dryer!
We pulled out all of our wet gear, ponchos, tents, clothes and laid them on this stone in the sun to dry. I was not conscious of it at the time but that simple act changed the entire pace of our trip to a more reasonable one. For something to dry in the sun, one must sit, relax, and not be in a rush and that is what we had been doing since we began, rushing!
Lisa had some sort of instant mocha cappuccino mix ( I would eventually learn that she had an entire barista kit in her pack!) and she made us a couple of cappuccinos while I went to the spring and filled our water. We heated some of the water to make a nice warm sudsy bowl and used it to wash the previous night’s dishes. Those too got lain out in the sun to dry and we sat at the picnic table of this quiet shelter and talked about our trip.
Our goal of 20 miles per day was unrealistic. Many people told us that, but many also told us 20 was reasonable in Shenandoah. As it turned out 20 is reasonable…if you started in Georgia in February! What we had done was the equivalent to going to the beach for summer vacation and getting sunburned on the first day! You have to start gradually.
We looked at the guidebook and recalibrated our goals. It was like a huge weight had been lifted because now we could enjoy the trip a whole lot more. The mileage goal had been arbitrary to begin with and there was nothing sacred about getting to Harpers Ferry by a certain date. Moments like this one at Gravel Springs was what the trip was really about.
We felt lucky to have figured this out and now had a completely different outlook on the remainder of the trip. We had a new and very achievable goal for this day and already had 5 miles of it behind us.
After the very challenging night before, we also had the additional confidence of having made it through the worst and turned the corner. We were truly uplifted and this time our optimism would last!
Before leaving I refilled our water. The spring was within 50 feet of the shelter and not the usual half mile down a mountain. With all water I pumped it through a filter to remove dangerous bacteria. I am pleased to say I drank water from streams and springs throughout the entire trip with no ill effects. The pump is simple, one end goes into the stream and pumps into a cylinder that filters silt and bacteria and pumps it directly into the water bottle.
When you saw the cement post with a yellow band around it you knew you were at a spring. Sometimes you would need to calculate whether you needed water because taking on water meant taking on weight and the spring was always at the bottom of a mountain. So if you were ok on water, you had to consider, do I need another 6 pounds to go up another mountain?
As we were packing up one of the more comical events took place. The packing is a slow deliberate process because along the way you have to be able to reach certain things quickly and those need to be packed for ready access. It’s also challenging to fit everything. We were in the midst of this process when two Asian men approached.
One looked somewhat nervous and questioned us as to how long we planned to be here. We told him we were packing up to leave and he seemed greatly relieved. “Oh good, this is good because we have many people coming!” He wasn’t kidding! The next thing that happened is that a large group of older asian hikers began to flood into the shelter. The first guy said something to them in what I think was Chinese, and I think he said, “These folks are just leaving, form a semi-circle around them and quietly put aggressive pressure on them to hurry it up!”
They were day hikers, and Lisa asked where they were from. I think we both expected to hear “China” or something like that and the first gentleman said, “Here. We live here and come to Shenandoah every saturday for a day hike and lunch”. My first thought was, “It’s Saturday?” Suddenly we were surrounded by 15-20 people talking amongst themselves in Chinese, snapping pictures and standing by waiting for the use of the shelter for their lunch. We felt like we had been caught trespassing and were given 60 seconds to pack up and get out! We did, and we laughed for the next mile about how out-of-place the event seemed with the rest of the trip!
We hiked now with new purpose. We would enjoy the trail along the way and not worry about mileage. This approach was rewarded handsomely when we climbed a large steep mountain to see a glorious overlook back at the point where we had crossed Skyline Drive about an hour earlier. It had been a lot of work to get to the top of this one and as we watched along came our friends the “Slack Packers”! They were fresh as daisies having stayed another night in a hotel and driven to the trail head! Still, it was good to see them and they complimented us on making good progress and looking strong.
The overlook gave us one of the finest views we had seen and one reason for that was that it was out on a very high cliff. As I looked down, I could see treetops about 50 feet down.
It would still turn out to be a long day. While we were smart enough to figure out that 20 miles was unrealistic, we still hadn’t grasped the fact that the 13-15 miles a day we were doing was too much! At about 3:00 we hit a milepost that told us we still had 5 miles to go to get to camp. This would put us there about 6:00. That was still a long 3 hours of hiking and there was just no avoiding the fact that by that point in the day the shoulders were screaming, the feet were swollen and tender and fatigue was setting in.
I noticed that in addition to the general funk of the woods, I had this sweet, almost vinegar smell about me. It was in my breath and I realized that I was in a state of ketosis. This is when your body has burned through all the ready supply of glycogen (the quick burning energy we get from carbohydrates). Now it was boosting the level of ketones (which create the sweet acetone smell) in preparation to go to backup power…fat! It only took me 3 days of hiking but I was finally burning my stores of body fat! I ate carbs all day long in the form of pretzels, flour tortillas, and dried fruit but it just wasn’t enough to keep up with the 4000 calories I was burning each day.
We hiked along a gentle fire road for almost an hour. It was so nice to walk on level ground side-by-side! We eventually came to a large sign that informed us we were departing Shenandoah National Park! This was a big milestone! From there we had to descend a huge rocky cliff. There were steps built into it and they crisscrossed many times as a set of switchbacks. Each step felt dangerous and one misstep would have been disastrous!
Finally, we reached the Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter. Again, we were the only people there! It was a charming spot built onto the side of a hill with a large inviting deck. We considered staying in the shelter but had such good luck with the tents that we stayed with what worked. There was a perfect tent site complete with its own fire ring, bench area for cooking, and perfect view through the woods of a rich orange sunset.
We set up our tents and started dinner. Tonight it would be brown rice. I cooked up my last scallion and last clove of garlic, added the rice and simmered it while we relaxed and watched the sun setting. When it was ready I topped it with tuna from a foil pouch and a squirt of lemon juice (I know, this is why my pack was too heavy!) and we dined on what had to be the best brown rice and tuna ever!
That night we stayed up till a reckless 9:00 because it was so pleasant out. When we turned in, there was still nobody at the shelter! The next morning there would be three people who had arrived at 1:00 in the morning! They had descended those treacherous steps in the dark using headlamps!
This would be my best night’s sleep yet. There could have been bears scratching at the tent door and I would not have heard them. I slept soundly through the night, proud of having conquered the previous night’s storm, and pleased that we had scaled down the mileage to enjoy the trip more.
In my next posting I detail my final day on the trail and re-entry into civilization.