This is the fourth in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
On Sunday we awoke to discover the nearby spring was dry. I had walked about a quarter mile down the mountain and was very disappointed that there would not be coffee before departing! We packed up, ate a quick bite and headed out. Once again it was a beautiful crisp day and once again my body had made a miraculous recovery. When I think of how rough I feel sometimes after sleeping in a comfortable bed I couldn’t get over how much rest I was getting sleeping on the ground! Of course it is possible that I was beginning to respond to this level of exercise, and to be sure the absence of alcohol didn’t hurt!
I mentioned in my last post that three hikers had arrived at the shelter at 1:00 in the morning. They had hiked 30 miles the day before! They were just sitting up in their sleeping bags as we rolled out of camp and I half jokingly said, “We’ll see you guys again when you overtake us.”
About a half mile away from the shelter we heard a noise and there were these three hikers gliding past us! These were some badass warriors.
We hiked about an hour and a half, keenly aware that we had no water. There was no reason to panic because there were streams and springs along the next 3 miles; but, nothing makes you more thirsty than knowing you have no water! We came to a wide clear stream that looked like a spot you might film a commercial for bottled water. There was a nice sandy bank and the spot was so pleasant we decided we would stop here for breakfast. Lisa got water going for coffee and I got water going for oatmeal. We sat and basked in the sun and enjoyed a hearty breakfast and large mugs of strong coffee. We got more water and washed the dishes from the night before, and restocked all of our water bottles. Again, all of this water was treated through a filter pump as there is no guarantee that even a fast flowing mountain spring is free of bacteria.
We were now getting closer to civilization. We were seeing more day hikers (you could tell by the size of their packs) and could hear a highway and lawn mowers now and then. Sure enough, a half hour after leaving the stream we emerged into an open field with a panoramic view of some sort of campus. It was very large and the buildings were all uniform. I later learned that this was the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Previously part of the National Zoo, it now conducts research in the areas of biodiversity, animal care, conservation and sustainability. There were fields planted and numerous buildings over what appeared to be hundreds of acres. A little research shows they are doing a lot of research based on the Appalachian ecosystem.
As we walked along the perimeter of the campus, we came across a little bench with a huge ice water dispenser like you see on the sidelines of football games. There was a note pointing to the back yard of a house that said, “Welcome hikers, come in for a drink and a snack and feel free to camp in our yard.” It was signed, “She-Bear & Sweet Tea” We looked over and the woman working in the yard beckoned us over.
“She-Bear” is basically a friend of the hiker. She herself has hiked the entire trail and was very proud that her 18 year old daughter had just finished a “flip-flop” through hike in which she hiked VA to Maine, and then traveled to Georgia to complete the southern half. The man and the woman there could not have been nicer. They offered whatever they could do for hikers, rides, a spot to camp, use of a bathroom, whatever we needed! Lisa and I enjoyed some sweet tea and chatted a bit and were on our way.
At around 2:00 we arrived at the Jim and Molly Denton Hut. This was a nice spot! There was a solar shower! It was an outdoor shower stall like you might see at a house at the beach and there was a large barrel on top that was pumped full from a nearby spring.
In my next and final post on this trip I will go over things I would do differently and this would be one of them. What we should have done was stop right there and call it a day. We had one last day of hiking planned and we should have taken solar showers, cooked up a nice meal on the deck and enjoyed this naturally peaceful spot. It would have been essentially an afternoon off. (spoiler alert: this is one of the things I would do differently!)
That would not be what we did however. We had already taken a lot of time at the stream and at She-Bear’s house so we had to push on. We had 5 more miles to get to our destination and it would take all of 3 hours. Live and learn! We did stop and eat at this shelter and rest a bit but then we hit the trail and hiked for another hour.
We came to VA Rt 632, a point She-Bear had told us would look like “Little House on the Prairie”. It was indeed a spectacular wide-open meadow. As far as you could see was green grass, mountains, and blue sky. We hiked to the top of a very steep hill which sliced through the center of the tall meadow grass.
As we ascended, a thought came to me. The Manassas Gap Shelter was now about 3 miles off, we would easily make it there and recover for one last day of hiking together. But Lisa was going on to hike for three more weeks by herself. I felt I had proven all I needed to prove to myself for one trip and further thought Lisa might benefit from a night off.
I said, “I’m just gonna’ throw this out there, but in 2 miles we will cross under I-66. That’s about an hour from my house and I could call my son and he could be there when we emerge from the woods. I’m fine with doing one more night at camp and one more day hiking but this would be your chance for a night’s sleep in a bed, a shower, fresh food and laundry.”
Lisa agreed that this would be a good idea before she headed out on her own. She was rightly a little apprehensive about going alone and a night off would help. We got to the top of the meadow and there, as if positioned for this moment was a little bench under a shade tree. It was a beautiful moment.
I called my family and Andrew agreed to come get us in the tiny hamlet of Linden, VA. We sat at this bench and I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out of the woods singing.
We would hike another hour down a steep difficult mountain and our feet were once again killing us. It was ok though, because we were a couple hours away from a fresh meal and a real shower. We emerged from the woods on VA Rt 55 which parallels I-66. I called Andrew and he said he was getting off the exit. minutes later we were in an air-conditioned car (with Andrew complaining quite justly about how gamey we smelled!)
It was nice to kick off the boots and then Andrew told me to look in the bag on the floor. My wife had sent along two cold beers! As with all the meals we had eaten the previous 4 days, that was the best beer I had ever had!
We got home and ordered kabobs, took showers, told stories and that night everyone slept on a nice soft mattress. As I lay there though, I realized the transition had been so fast that it hadn’t hit me yet. I had just spent 4 days challenging myself physically and mentally.
I had met a moderate amount of difficulty and handled it and my comfort zone was now expanded.
In my final post I will go over lessons learned, what I feel I did right and what I would do differently. It was a great trip and already I am sure I will return to hike more of the Appalachian Trail!