|©1996 George Steffanos|
Heavy thunderstorms rumbled through this area yesterday evening and returned this afternoon. I enjoyed experiencing them from inside a motel room looking out, rather than from my usual vantage point this summer: in the heart of the storm. Intense heat and humidity cooked central Virginia today. I did not mind missing out on that experience for a while, either.
I begin my hike through Shenandoah National Park tomorrow. With my usual, uncanny sense of timing, I am managing to enter this park, one of the most heavily-used portions of the entire Appalachian Trail, on the eve of the Fourth of July. Since the holiday itself falls on a Monday this summer, most workers will receive a three-day weekend. This weekend, falling as it does in the heart of the summer, will no doubt bring out the campers and hikers in droves, particularly to a place like Shenandoah. It may be a little crowded in there.
In earlier chapters, I have minutely chronicled the details of my trail town routine. Thus, the details of today would be extremely tedious for me to write about, and just as boring to read about. I think I will bring this entry to a close.
SUNDAY, 7/3/83, MILE 850.1 --- Last night, I left a wake-up call with the front desk for 6:00 this morning. Then, I proceeded to watch television until 1:00. On this trip, it has always been difficult to resist the temptation to stay up late while in a motel room. I hate to miss a minute of that luxury; I get a charge out of simply turning on the bathroom faucet and watching all of the water I could ever need gush forth. It sure beats scrambling halfway down a mountain to get some. Thru-hikers are very easily entertained.
I woke up when the call came this morning, and somehow managed to stay awake. I started my day, as so many commercials suggest, with a healthy breakfast: an entire box of Pop-Tarts and a sixteen-ounce coke. Then, I walked down-to the motel office to check out. The night clerk, who was just coming off duty, offered me a ride to the Appalachian Trail in exchange for a couple of bucks' worth of gas. As I was still looking at that twenty-mile day to the first shelter, I readily agreed.
The Blue Ridge Parkway comes to an end at Rockfish Gap, a low point on the ridgecrest located four miles east of Waynesboro (this was the spot where I left the Appalachian Trail on Friday to hitch into town). Another paved road, known as Skyline Drive, traverses the length of Shenandoah. The southern end of Skyline Drive is in Rockfish Gap, also. The parkway is basically a continuation of this road.
The motel clerk drove me to Skyline Drive and dropped me off at the entrance station. The ranger on duty there gave me a copy of the list of rules for visitors to Shenandoah National Park and the backcountry camping permit required for all hikers who stay overnight at the shelters (known as huts in Shenandoah) or pitch a tent outside of the huge National Park Service campgrounds. He also gave me a list of the eight huts in Shenandoah where overnight camping is still allowed. The remainder of the huts have been closed to all non-emergency overnight use, a result of the severe abuse of the shelter system in Shenandoah by short-term campers.
In past years, the huts were constantly filled with weekend campers, many of whom would drive their cars to a nearby Appalachian Trail crossing of Skyline Drive and pack the shelter before the long distance hikers would even begin to arrive. The areas surrounding the huts were becoming damaged and defoliated by the hordes of campers, and thru-hikers would often be forced to pitch their tents, anyway, when they arrived in the evenings to find a hut full of weekenders. The eight huts still available for overnight use are now limited strictly to long distance hikers, and the National Park Service says that they will also close these if the system continues to be abused.
Having completed the business of acquiring my permit, I walked back one mile on Skyline Drive to Rockfish Gap and picked up my hike where I had left off Friday. It was just 8:30, but the day was already sweltering. The first seven miles of trail traversed three mountains located on private land south of the actual park boundary.
This stretch began with a quarter-mile roadwalk on Skyline Drive from the I-64 overpass in Rockfish Gap and a steep half-mile footpath that climbed almost to the ridgecrest of Scott Mountain. Until recently, the AT continued along the open crest and over the summit, before the landowner suddenly withdrew his permission for the trail to pass through. The recent relocation necessitated by this act remains in the woods just below the crest for the length of the mountain. Small climbs and descents abounded along the new route, but it lacked most of the visual rewards of the old trail.
Eventually, I descended steeply into McCormick Gap, crossed Skyline Drive, and began to climb the second mountain. Most of the trail route from the gap onward was devoid of trees. The AT followed the ridgecrest of Bear Den Mountain to a flat, rocky meadow. The summit area was crowned with a cluster of equipment buildings and storage sheds and bristled with a number of police radio towers. My reward for a long, sweaty climb was some remarkable panoramic views and the first cool breeze of the day. Someone had planted about a dozen tractor seats in a semicircle around an outdoor cooking grate in a small meadow just below the summit buildings. Damn! I forgot the marshmallows!
Those seats did come in handy. I needed to sit down, having been exposed to the full force of the July Virginia sun all of the way up the mountain. The spot sported a bird's-eye view the Shenandoah Valley. The forested slopes of the Blue Ridge dwindled into wooded foothills wrapped around the green fields of tiny pocket farming valleys. Beyond, as the terrain leveled, the fields gradually took over and the forest diminished into strips of windbreaks between pastures and long rows of crops. The valley was enormous in breadth. In that huge scale, the farmhouses, barns, and silos scattered throughout the valley looked like miniatures. Occasionally, they clustered into tiny toy villages. The Allegheny Mountains at the western rim of the valley were a line of very faint gray smoke on the horizon when viewed through the miles of summer haze. Below me, Waynesboro was a larger clump of buildings and a few tall smokestacks along the curving gray line of the river.
As I kicked back, a tall, wiry backpacker with a strong New York accent came along. He told me his name was Mark and asked me what mine was. I answered, "George."
He said, "Steffanos, right?"
I said, "Yeah, but how did you know?" I had a funny feeling about what his answer would be.
"I read your stuff in all the registers," he replied. "You got any pot?"
"Sorry." Now, just what could he have inferred from reading my innocent little register entries that could have given him that idea? Geez!
We talked for a while as we took in the views. I found out that Mark is from a town in New York close to the city. He has been chewing up the Appalachian Trail, averaging about twenty miles per day. His accent and personality reminded me quite a bit of many of my friends from back home (My home in Connecticut is about an hour from the city. Unless you are from the New York area, you would probably consider mine to also be a New York accent). Just hearing him talk relieved a bit of the mild homesickness I have been carrying around since Georgia. I could have listened to him talk for hours (especially about my register entries), but he quickly resumed hiking, and rapidly pulled away while I lingered at the summit.
Once again, I had those Leaving a Trail Town Blues. I rested for another ten minutes after Mark had left and continued to hike like a sissy all morning. My backpack weighed a ton, my heart was not in the endeavor, and I had grown just a little bit soft on my day off. I generally like to put in about a ten-miler on my first day out of a town. Unfortunately, the first hut was a twenty-mile hike from Rockfish Gap.
The meadows continued down the northeast flank of the mountain as the Appalachian Trail descended towards the Skyline Drive crossing in Beagle Gap, providing steady views east, north, and west. They also provided the July sun with ample opportunity to fry eggs on my body -- I knew I should have brought a spatula! The sky was gallons of whitewash mixed with a few drops of blue paint, and the air I was breathing could have come from my bathroom after I had stepped out of a long, steaming shower (which would account for me being soaked to the skin -- but hardly explained that fragrant aura of old gym socks. Use new Jaques Strap soap and smell like a man . . . ).
The third of the three mountains south of the park was the most difficult. The steep half-mile climb out of Beagle Gap was still completely exposed to a broiling sun. By this time, it had become late morning and the heat of the day was near its peak. I became so lightheaded at one point that the mountain started spinning. Fortunately for me, one small, dense grove of pines was along that climb up Calf Mountain, and I reached it exactly at the point where I most needed their shade. After ten minutes of relative cool, I was able to continue.
The remainder of the day's hike was a breeze, allowing me to make up for some extraordinarily bad hiking over the initial six miles. From Calf Mountain's open summit, the Appalachian Trail descended into Jarman Gap, where I crossed a dirt fire road and entered Shenandoah National Park.
My final twelve miles today were in Shenandoah. The trail inside the park was well-graded and almost completely cleared of overgrowth. I hiked through dignified old forests of stately trees, following the ridgeline for most of the distance. There were a number of good viewpoints. The AT crossed Skyline Drive several times and brushed past it a few more, but the road remained out of sight from the trail most of the day. Excepting in the gaps, where the trail and the road made their occasional crossings, the drive skirted the crest. The trail passed over the summits.
I saw five or six white-tailed deer along the trail today, from extremely close range. Like their cousins in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they seemed to harbor no fear of man. They would come strolling down the trail, allowing me to approach within thirty feet of them before taking a few steps off of the path into the woods, where they would stand patiently waiting for me to pass by. They always watched carefully and seemed ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble, but it was still a valorous display for deer. I was touched and honored by their trust in me, and the venison tasted great that night.
I arrived at Blackrock Hut, at which I am spending the night, at 7:15. It is constructed of mortared stone, with an extra-long roof overhang in front sheltering a wooden picnic table. A huge mortared-stone and brick fireplace stands just outside the overhang. The hut sits near the bottom of a deep, densely-wooded ravine just below the ridgecrest. Thickets of laurel cover the forest floor beneath the trees, and a cold, gushing piped spring is just a few feet away on the floor of the ravine.
I will not be lonely tonight. The shelter capacity is eleven, and ten hikers were already here when I showed up. Mark, the guy I met on Bear Den Mountain today, was one of them. I asked him if he had seen Dave down the trail. He met Dave at a shelter some weeks back. Dave has been joined on the trail by a female friend, and they are hiking with Ron and Sonny. I owe a great deal to my chance meeting with Dave in Georgia. He was a good hiker, and the effort of staying with him had been the major factor that had turned me into one. Dave was basically out for a little adventure this summer before landing another job. Had he seriously wanted to complete a thru-hike, I have no doubt he could have made it. I know he will have a blast traveling with Ron. Good luck to them all.
MONDAY, 7/4/83, INDEPENDENCE DAY, MILE 871.5 --- Almost all of my ten shelter companions at Blackrock Hut last night were fellow prospective Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. Several of them were women -- the first female thru-hikers I had met on this trip. I enjoyed sitting up late, sharing stories of our hikes.
Mark has an interesting attitude towards all of the beautiful scenery through which he hikes. I found this out while sharing my Pond Mountain war story. He had absolutely no recollection of that terrible stretch of trail. I tried to jog his memory by using the nearby Laurel Falls as a reference point, but he could not remember that, either. He told us, "When I get to a place like that, I turn and say, 'That's nice,' and I keep going." I like the guy, but we are definitely not on the same trip.
The first half-mile from the hut climbed along the crest of the ridge forming the western rim of the ravine. This led to an interesting summit called Blackrock. It rose above the wooded ridgecrest, a huge, barren mound of gray boulders smeared liberally with streaks of green paint. The "paint streaks" were patches of green lichen, a tiny alpine plant which grows in colonies on the face of rocks. The rocks were jagged and jumbled, resembling the aftermath of a tremendous explosion.
Blackrock was the center of a magnificent panorama of mountains with a couple of narrow glimpses of the Shenandoah Valley. South-by-southwest, Skyline Drive wound around the lower knobs along that portion of the Blue Ridge crest I hiked yesterday Afternoon. Westward, Trayfoot Mountain bulked massively across a small sag, denuded lines of large rock slides running down its east flank. Northwest, a wide arc of ridges coiled around a rolling, wooded valley called Dundo Hollow. Hawks and turkey vultures effortlessly soared below me, ranging for miles above the hollow as I watched.
Up to this point, the park has offered a quiet sort of beauty. Aside from Blackrock, there have been no outstandingly spectacular features, but occasional nice views were strung along the AT again today, and the forests, for the most part, were mature and attractive.
It seems hard to believe that, until the park was established in the 1920's and 30's, people had lived throughout these mountains for many years. The area was farmed and lumbered heavily from the middle 1700's until the late 1800's. Even after the economic decline of these mountain communities in the 1800's and the subsequent departure of the majority of the inhabitants, scattered families had hung on until the federal government bought them out or forced them out in order to create the park. Some faint traces of old long-abandoned roads, fields, and orchards still remain, along with carefully-preserved or restored remnants of wooden fences along the drive, but most of the forests look ancient in comparison with those along the Appalachian Trail in southern Virginia.
Scattered traces of the old Shenandoah formed interesting diversions in a long, pleasant woodland stroll. After Blackrock, the Appalachian Trail descended to cross Skyline Drive in a scrubby area (one of those old orchards), skirted a small picnic and camping area along the crest, and descended again to Browns Gap. It crossed an old road next to a field surrounded by a wooden fence just before another of today's frequent crossings of Skyline Drive.
A mile later, the AT passed through the Doyles River overlook on Skyline Drive, a parking area with a magnificent view of the wooded upper river valley cradled between two lofty spurs of the Blue Ridge, gradually growing into a sprawling farming valley beyond. With the exception of Blackrock, so many of the Appalachian Trail's best views during my first two days in Shenandoah National Park have been at the crossings of overlooks on Skyline Drive.
Perhaps the most outstanding features of Shenandoah National Park to a long distance hiker like myself are all of the conveniences located on or near the Appalachian Trail. Shenandoah seems basically to be geared toward the accommodation of car and recreational vehicle campers and tourists, with backpackers and backcountry tampers an apparent afterthought. This is not necessarily a bad thing for a thru-hiker. Trash cans are at many of the AT crossings of Skyline Drive, so I need never carry around much garbage in my pack. The trail passes through a number of picnic areas, and all are equipped with water taps, picnic tables, and more trash cans. The tables make nice spots to eat lunch or just take a break, and finding water is never a problem. Finally, the Appalachian Trail goes by several massive car campgrounds which have stores where I can purchase instant gratification in the form of soda, ice cream, and other treats, along with solid food and snacks for the trail. All in all, I am able to travel fairly lightly in Shenandoah, without the worry of experiencing disappointments such as the closing of those stores between Cloverdale and Waynesboro.
A couple of miles past the Doyles River overlook, on Big Flat Mountain, the trail skirted the first of Shenandoah's campgrounds, passing through very scraggly woods with a floor alternately covered with grass and dense tangles of weedy underbrush. It looked to have been a huge field in the not-too-distant past, but whatever views had once existed were rapidly yielding to the regenerating forest.
A very short side trail ran uphill from the AT to Loft Mountain Campground. I walked into its fair-sized grocery store and walked back out with a pint of strawberry ice cream and two ten-ounce cokes, joining a couple of guys I had met at the shelter last night on the store's front lawn. One was a thru-hiker from Florida named Gene, and the other was a friend who was hiking with him for a while.
We traded Mark stories as we snacked. They told me that Mark hiked past them while they were on the summit of Blackrock. As he walked by, he turned his head to check out the view, said, "That's nice," and was gone. Apparently, he was not kidding when he told us of his attitude towards scenic highlights at the hut last night.
They also informed me that he had dropped a water treatment tablet into his canteen after filling it up from the hut's cold, clean, delicious piped spring. When they asked him why he felt the need to do so, he told them that he had treated the water he had obtained at all but three sources on his entire hike. He followed this statement with a long lecture on the dangers of contracting Beavuh Fevuh (as he called it) and related how someone somewhere had once died from it. The trots -- what a way to go! It makes for an attractive picture, doesn't it?
This story reminded me of his reaction when I had told him about the huge blisters which developed on my feet during my early days on the trail, and how I stopped coveting them with moleskin protective patches after a few days (I was wasting a half-hour of hiking time every morning just cutting out all of the patches I needed), and they still eventually went away. Mark looked at me like I was a cretin and proceeded to lecture me at length about Woodrow Wilson's son. Apparently, he developed blisters on his feet while playing tennis and also ignored them. He then developed blood blisters and died from complications arising from them. That's Mark -- a million laughs. Good thing I did not tell him that I have only treated my water twice on the entire hike up to this point. He probably would have come after me with a straight jacket.
Considering Mark's attitude towards waterfalls and nice views, I wondered why he had not measured his block and backpack6d around it for 2138.5 miles. I spent an entertaining hour in front of that store, laughing and joking with the guys. Gene confided to me that he never eats Pop-Tarts at home, but he now eats a box of them per day. My own habit is not quite that bad, but the story was so similar to my own experience that I just had to laugh. It was difficult for me to drag myself back onto the sweltering trail, particularly since I had to leave all of that good food and cold drink in that store behind.
The trail across the ridgecrest of Loft Mountain went through Patterson Field, once a 240-acre pasture running up the ridgecrest past the summit. Except for a few towering old oak trees, the old field today was a snarl of vines, thorn bushes, and black locust trees. The Appalachian Trail was overgrown in several places, but a few good viewpoints remained to compensate for the difficulty of traverse.
The remainder of today's hike was fairly uneventful. I saw a few more deer and several good views from along the trail, which made the walk pleasant. I passed through some areas that looked to be old, overgrown pastures and orchards left over from the days before the park was established, but most of the forests were mature. There were no huge climbs but the trail was occasionally strenuous; I was tired when I reached Hightop Hut after more than twenty-one miles of hiking.
What a nice surprise to find the shelter full of Boy Scouts. This was exactly the kind of misuse of the hut system which threatened to close the remaining ones down. There were eight in the group, and the shelter capacity was seven, meaning that they effectively hogged the entire shelter. I had a few words with the two guys who were in charge of the group. One of them claimed that a ranger had told them they were entitled to camp in the shelters because they were on a six-day hiking trip. That sounded fishy to me, particularly when I heard their original group size before they split into two groups was thirteen -- greater than the capacity of any hut in Shenandoah, but I dropped the subject because I didn't want to hurt the kids' feelings when after all they were only following the direction of their adult leaders.
Eventually, they made room for me, but it is no picnic being crammed into a seven-person shelter with nine other people on a sultry July evening (Mark, who had arrived before me, is also spending the night). I will be happy to get out of here tomorrow and resume my hike.
TUESDAY, 7/5/83, MILE 895.4 --- The sleeping situation was so uncomfortable last night that Mark got up at 3:30 this morning and started to make breakfast. I arose shortly after he did and followed suit. Mark hit the trail at 5:00, using his flashlight, and I headed out at 5:30, at first light. Having gotten such an early start, I decided to try for twenty-four miles today to Rock Spring Hut.
Hightop Hut was perched near the edge of a wooded plateau on the lower southwest slopes of Hightop Mountain, a short distance off of the Appalachian Trail on a grassy road. After rejoining the AT, I completed the climb up Hightop. There were a couple of excellent views of the Shenandoah Valley from small cliffs on the AT near the summit. The first looked westward where secluded farm valleys wrapped in foothills fronted the Shenandoah Valley with its tidy farms and villages. The long, flat, blue-green line of Massanutten Mountain divided the portions of the valley drained by the north and south forks of the Shenandoah for many miles of its length. The second cliff also had a vista extending southward along the Blue Ridge crest for miles.
The trail descended from the summit, steeply at first, and then more gradually. It turned onto one of those very old, abandoned farm roads that still linger from the old days and passed through the remains of a venerable apple orchard, now reverting to forest, before completing its descent into Swift Run Gap.
US Route 33, a divided, four-lane highway cutting across the Blue Ridge, ran through the gap. The Appalachian Trail crossed the highway on a pedestrian footway along the bridge which carried Skyline Drive over the larger road. The trail re-entered the woods on the other side and climbed back out of the gap. It soon turned onto another old dirt road, which it followed for two miles over Saddleback Mountain, passing some more overgrown pastures.
The first place I stopped today for longer than a minute was the South River Picnic Grounds. I already had six-and-a-half miles under my belt this morning when I arrived, so I felt entitled to kick back for a half-hour. I pulled off my boots and socks in order to give my feet a break while I sipped Tang and munched peanut butter crackers. Picnic tables were scattered along the grassy floor of an airy grove of tall hardwoods centered around a small building containing indoor rest rooms with flush toilets and sinks. Two trash cans and a water fountain were conveniently located right next to my table. Does it get any better than this?
Shenandoah National Park is renowned in thru-hiker lore as the home of the free meal. Stories abound of lucky backpackers receiving barbecued hamburgers, potato salad, and other delicacies from generous tourists in the campgrounds and picnic areas of the park. It is not happening for me. I keep hitting the picnic grounds early in the morning, before the tourists arrive. My timing has been just as bad at the campgrounds. I can live with this little disappointment, however. Thanks to those grocery stores in each campground, I am doing a respectable job of feeding myself.
Five miles past the picnic area, I came to Lewis Mountain Campground and another small camp store. I bought cokes, ice cream sandwiches and some chips and sat down for an hour on the grass outside to relax and enjoy my lunch. I actually became quite chilled sitting there. After days uncounted of heat and humidity, the weather finally turned cool, cloudy and dry this morning.
That was my last break of any consequence today. When I left Lewis Mountain Campground, I had already come more than fifty-two miles from Rockfish Gap in two-and-a-half days, and an additional twelve miles and change were planned for the afternoon. I chugged along, making good time despite the condition of my feet, the soles of which had become bruised and tender from all of the miles.
The next mountain after Lewis was Bearfence. The Appalachian Trail skirted its rough, rocky crest, but a loop trail ran over it. The craggy summit was becoming overgrown with small, gnarled trees, but several projecting rock outcrops nearby looked southward along the Blue Ridge and westward over a broad chunk of the Shenandoah Valley. The loop continued along the crest, winding around and over the massive, protruding rock fins of a ridge which resembled the back of a stegosaurus. Several spikes rose completely above the treetops, including a northern summit with a four-star 360-degree panorama which supplanted Blackrock as the finest viewpoint I had encountered in Shenandoah National Park.
To the south rose the summit of nearby Bearfence. In the west, the wild wooded foothills dissolved gradually into the flattish, bucolic Shenandoah Valley beyond. Westward, the blunt, forested mass of Bluff Mountain combined with Bearfence to enclose a secluded, wooded hollow. Up ahead to the north beyond Bush Mountain the Blue Ridge bulked higher and wider. A broad, flat swathe of Virginia's Piedmont region rolled eastward towards the invisible horizon where the land grayed and faded into the haze beneath the high overcast. I could have easily sat up there for an hour, but a line of darker, more threatening clouds streaming towards me across the Shenandoah Valley urged me quickly onward.
The trail continued across the stegosaurus' back, dwindling in elevation and submerging back into the forest as it approached his tall. Clambering over his spiked ridges carrying a backpack was no picnic, but the loop trail was short and I was soon back on the AT, descending alongside the drive on a narrow stretch of ridgecrest. A thundershower of respectable magnitude overtook me at the end of the descent in Bootens Gap. I crossed a fire road just below the drive, wading through a blustery downpour. It blew over quickly, leaving me wet and somewhat more chilled in its aftermath.
From the gap, I climbed over a mountain called Hazletop, whose 3816-foot summit is the high point of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. There were no views to speak of from the wooded summit, but I stopped for a moment or two. I will not be seeing that elevation again on the trail until the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Late in the day, the AT began to skirt a huge complex called Big Meadows which sprawled across acres of ridgecrest. A short climb on a side trail brought me to the summit of Black Rock (not to be confused with Blackrock, a summit I traversed further south in Shenandoah). An incredible view, massive in scope, opened up, taking in thousands of acres of central Virginia: the Blue Ridge, south to Hazletop and beyond, and north to Hawksbill and Stony Man -- the two loftiest peaks in Shenandoah National Park; hundreds of square miles of the Shenandoah Valley to the west. For about forty miles, the long line of Massanutten Mountain divides the Shenandoah into two separate valleys. The western portion, drained by the North Fork of the river, is home to the major cities of the central valley. The eastern, more rustic portion, through which runs the South Fork, is known as Page Valley. Black Rock was perfectly situated along the ridgecrest to provide a prospect encompassing the entire length of Page Valley.
A cluster of buildings, part of the Big Meadows Lodge, lay below me near the edge of the crest. A fair-sized swathe of forest had been cleared behind the lodge, providing tourists in the overpriced rooms with a great view of the valley. The National Park Service has a policy of not interfering with the course of nature on their lands. Thus, the steady, progressive disappearance of the old cleared fields in Shenandoah as they revert back to forest. Funny, but this policy did not seem to apply here.
A projecting rock outcrop right on the Appalachian Trail just past the side trail provided about fifty percent of the scope of the summit's view. It was still excellent. A picturebook valley embraced by a U-shaped arc of ridges emptied into that broad panorama of the Page Valley. The smaller valley was a thin strip of buildings along a rural lane surrounded by a few fields and wooded hills. The prospect of Shenandoah's farms and villages created an idyllic picture of an America that might have been drawn from the homesick longings of a lonely expatriate.
The sun was beginning to re-emerge, and the valley shone unbelievably green and vibrant. I tried to imagine the sight as it would have appeared in the autumn of 1864, when a man standing atop Black Rock would gaze down at a black, charred wasteland spewing thick, greasy smoke. Union General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered General Phillip Sheridan to put the torch to the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederacy's last great granary, so thoroughly ". . . that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them." In the words of Grant's friend and associate General William T. Sherman, "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it."
The Appalachian Trail followed the edge of cliffs most of the distance around Big Meadows. Through occasional openings in the foliage, I continued to enjoy some of the best views in the park. Amusingly, much of this portion of the trail was gravel-surfaced, and brief stretches were actually paved. Protect our wilderness -- please stay on the sidewalk.
Believe it or not, I actually passed up the side trail to the store and snack bar. At that point, I had already come more than twenty miles today, and the ball of my right foot was hurting so badly I could hardly put weight on it. I was still three-and-a-half miles from Rock Spring Hut. All I cared about was getting there, taking my boots off, and lying down.
After leaving Big Meadows behind, the trail passed below the brooding gray mass of Franklin Cliffs on a narrow ledge between their base and the top of another set of cliffs. I enjoyed more fine views of another wooded hollow sloping down into the Shenandoah Valley, but I did not linger. Had I stopped, I may not have been able to resume. I was spent, and it was growing late.
At the end of a gradual climb just before the shelter, a massive boulder offered one last view of the Shenandoah Valley and a glimpse of a large spur ridge of Hawksbill known as Nakedtop. It had obviously received its name during a different era of its botanical history. The crest was now thoroughly wooded.
Limping the last few miles to the shelter, I had been compelled to break fairly frequently, but I still managed to arrive by 6:45. After hiking twenty-four miles, I was somewhat dismayed to find the clearing surrounding the shelter teeming with another large group of Boy Scouts. Tonight looked to be shaping up as a rerun of last night, and I needed a good night's sleep far to badly to relish that idea. I was relieved when the man leading this group walked over and assured me that they were hiking down the trail a ways to camp for the night.
Mark, who was also staying at Rock Spring tonight, had told them about the group we had run into last night. The Scout leader we met here asked me if I knew the troop number and the home town of that other group. He wanted to send a letter to the Scoutmaster of that area. He told us that scout groups are not supposed to camp in the shelters along the Appalachian Trail unless the weather was looking dangerously inclement. I did not have the slightest idea, but Mark, who had been a Boy Scout, knew all of this information, and he told him.
After this group had departed, Mark confided to me that he hated squealers, namely the man who was going to send a letter to that other group's Scoutmaster. I found that statement ironically amusing, as Mark had unhesitatingly sung like a canary to this gentleman, but I reserved comment. Personally, I hope those guys get screwed. The standard of trail ethics they were teaching those boys was abysmal.
Rock Springs Hut sits on the floor of a shallow, gently-sloping valley nestled just below Nakedtop. An excellent spring bubbled out of a large, elaborate natural rock formation a bit further down the valley. Near that spring was a rustic locked cabin where the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club rents out homogenized wilderness experiences. The front porch had a nice peephole view of the valley.
Mark and I have the shelter all to ourselves. As night fell, we swapped stories and grew to know each other. He told me a little bit about his life, at which point I laughed and told him that he was a f___ing sc____g. Being a fellow native of the New York City area, he laughed, too. My favorite story concerned a time when he was living with a high school teacher. He could not understand why she became so upset when he kept "b___ing the little sl__s" she brought home to tutor.
Somehow, I find myself really liking this guy, better than anyone else I have met on the trail except for Dave and Ron. I don't have the slightest idea why.
WEDNESDAY, 7/6/83, MILE 910.4 --- Thus far in Shenandoah, in order to spend each night in one of the huts, I have been forced to choose between a long and a short hike each day. Monday, I had a choice between hiking thirteen miles or twenty-one. I chose the twenty-one-mile hike. Yesterday, my choice was between thirteen miles and twenty-four. I chose twenty-four. Today, it was fifteen or twenty-eight miles. You know, I have always been fond of the number fifteen. It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Fifteen.
As usual, Mark left the shelter about a half-hour before I did. As he was leaving, he good-naturedly accused me of deliberately allowing him to begin hiking first every morning in order to have him to clear the trail of spider webs for me. I innocently replied that I did not know what he was talking about. He didn't seem to believe me.
The Appalachian Trail today passed several groves of red spruce and balsam fir. These trees, native to the cold boreal forests of Canada and the mountains of northern New England, grow only in scattered colonies at the higher elevations in the southeastern United States. The last time I had seen them was around the summit of Mount Rogers, more than 400 miles ago. According to my guidebook, my next encounter with them will be in Vermont. Once I have left Shenandoah, I will be traveling through the lowlands of the Appalachian Trail until New England. Therefore, I am glad I decided on the shorter hike today. It gave me some extra time in order to fully savor the dwindling stretch of highlands.
The AT climbed to a low sag between Hawksbill Mountain and Nakedtop and passed across the northern face of Hawksbill. For a time, it followed a narrow shelf sandwiched between the tops of one set of precipitous cliffs and the base of another. The cliffs above me, vertical walls with impressive craggy tops, had spilled a considerable amount of rubble along the ledge. The rocky trail was not kind to my battered feet.
A raven who had been perched on a treetop along the cliffs above me took off as I went by. His beautiful, sleek black plumage and surprisingly athletic flight for a bird of his size seemed to belie the fact that he was, after all, basically just a big old nasty crow. Several viewpoints looked out upon a deep, wooded hollow carving down through the spur ridges and foothills. Between two ridges, a triangular slice of the Shenandoah Valley was visible, looking quite lovely, as usual. North of the hollow, Stony Man Mountain also gazed westward across the valley, towards Massanutten Mountain and the distant Alleghenies.
The vertical cliffs gave way to steep slopes, and the AT began to descend diagonally across them as it approached Hawksbill Gap, crossing wild jumbles of gray boulders whose slide down the mountain had obliterated wide swathes of trees. Lower down, I traversed (older?) slides, over which the trees had grown back up. Two one-mile side trails led up to the summit from the AT, but I had to pass on them because of my sore right foot. I will be back someday to more thoroughly explore this wonderful area.
Passing just below the ridgecrest at Hawksbill Gap, the Appalachian Trail continued to slab the western slope of the ridge, often on a narrow shelf between cliffs. It passed beneath another old lava flow -- a massive, spike-tipped hunk of rock called Crescent Rocks. Several ledges along the route gave a dead-center view down that wooded valley I saw from the ledges on Hawksbill. On the map, it is called Timber Hollow. The bottom of the valley opened up into a large bowl of green fields encircled by low, wooded hills -- the village of Ida, one of several places where the U.S. government resettled the mountain people displaced by the creation of Shenandoah National Park.
After Crescent Rocks, the shelf broadened into a wide plateau for a while, the Appalachian Trail following the western edge. A grassy mowed field just below the Timber Hollow Overlook on Skyline Drive gave an up-close view of Timber Hollow and the best view of Ida's little valley, a couple of small openings in the hills connecting it with the Shenandoah Valley beyond. To the south was the unmistakable profile of Hawksbill, while Pollock Knob loomed ahead of me northward.
Pollock Knob was a high point on the southern ridge of Stony Man Mountain. Several outcrops along the western edge of the ridgetop looked out over Timber Hollow, Ida, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Blue Ridge north from Hawksbill. One or two secluded homesteads dotted the foothills above Ida. The Appalachian Trail wound briefly over the crest before descending on a sidehill trail along ledges. Soon, I was walking along a flat section of ridgecrest, past the wire fence of a large corral in which horses were quietly grazing.
This was my introduction to Skyland, a resort dating back to the 1880's, well before the establishment of the national park. Hiking through the place was a rather bizarre experience. One moment, I was walking on a trail along the edge of the woods, and the next, I was following a gravel track past a set of stables.
Four people on horseback were standing side by side in a row in front of the stables, apparently waiting for someone or something. As I approached, I noticed them all staring at me with dour, mindless expressions. I tried to stare them off, but they did not look away, so I said hello to one of them. No response -- just more blank stares. I said hello to the second rider. Still no response and no break in the rude staring. I just laughed and continued walking, whistling the theme from "The Twilight Zone" as loudly as I could manage. People who apparently consider themselves to be superior to you hate to be laughed at. Perhaps they were part of some secret government experiment, attempting to discover whether the lobotomized could still ride horses.
The Appalachian Trail runs past a restaurant in Skyland. I had been planning on grabbing a meal there, but my feet were throbbing fiercely and I doubted my will to keep going after a long break. Shortly after leaving Skyland's gravel and cement paths behind, I sat down in a quiet grove of towering hemlock by Furnace Spring and ate a couple of granola bars. A six-inch-diameter pipe was gushing cold water out of a spring house built into the side of a small hillock. The water was delicious, but a restaurant meal would have been nice.
The trail after Skyland skirted the west side of Stony Man Mountain, climbing along some cliffs, passing through stately, often huge, stands of hemlock, with some large old white pines and oaks. The forest had an aura of great age. Perhaps that was a result of being part of the Skyland resort, or probably it had more to do with the very rugged terrain. Certainly it would have been difficult to lumber economically. Jagged rocks protruded out of the ground and large boulders perched upon the steep slopes. There were rocks everywhere. The path was strewn with stones. Once again, my feet were taking a terrible pounding.
The Appalachian Trail passed a massive rock cliff with jagged projections overhanging the trail. Tiny springs were trickling down the face, staining the rock black where it was not covered with vivid green moss. I saw a three-inch-long centipede crawling along the rock ledge that the trail was following.
The AT crossed a rock slide with views of the Shenandoah Valley and began to descend slightly along the face. Near the base of Little Stony Man's massive cliffs, the trail came to a rounded ledge of naked rock with some wonderful views: Skyline Drive to the north skirting a low knob and The Pinnacle; a good look at Stony Man's profile to the south; a wide portion of the Shenandoah Valley with three secluded foothill valleys in the foreground.
A couple of miles later, the Appalachian Trail followed a paved path along the fringe of the Pinnacles Picnic Grounds, a large field with scattered pines and clusters of laurel along the crest of a knob just south of a mountain called the Pinnacle. I took my lunch there. As usual, I had arrived at a picnic area in Shenandoah National Park when it was virtually empty of tourists. I had peanut butter crackers and Tang for lunch again. It begins to appear that I will be one of the few thru-hikers who pass through Shenandoah without receiving even one small treat off the barbecue of a friendly tourist. At any rate, it felt good to take off my boots and socks for an hour.
Masses of boulders were strewn in random, often fascinating formations throughout the laurel thickets along the narrow crest of the Pinnacle. Near the summit, a long series of projecting rocks thrust out towards the Shenandoah Valley. The entire western face was a jumble of crags, cliffs, and loose rocks stretching halfway down the mountain. A web of stream-carved hollows united into one vast foothill valley below, where a couple of small lakes glittered amongst the forests and fields. Beyond the hills lay the Shenandoah Valley crossroads town of Luray.
The trail descended along a ridge whose many rocks continued to beat the crap out of my feet. On the floor of a sag, it came into a meadow at the end of a grassy road leading up from Skyline Drive. There, in the middle of the woods, sat a lonely three-sided stone picnic shelter called Byrd's Nest #3. A large brick fireplace and chimney was built into one of the inside walls, and a single picnic table sat upon its concrete floor. A water fountain supplied with piped water from a nearby locked spring box stood right alongside. A picnic shelter was rather a strange finding on a fairly secluded stretch of the Appalachian Trail, but that's Shenandoah. I kicked back for a few minutes to give my poor feet a break and savor the strange beauty of the spot.
The AT followed another stretch of narrow, boulder-strewn ridgecrest for a while, with good views westward of the Shenandoah Valley and the hollows running down the flanks of the Blue Ridge to join with it. About a mile later, after a climb, the trail skirted around an enormous mass of ancient exposed rock sitting atop the wooded crest. This was Marys Rock, which turned out to be the scenic highlight of my most scenic day in Shenandoah.
A short spur trail led to the base of the outcrop. Marys Rock towered high above the deep Blue Ridge pass called Thornton Gap. From its base, nearly every mountain up ahead in the northern third of Shenandoah National Park stretched before me in one mighty vista. The entire area was swarming with day hikers and tourists, but I threaded my way up towards the summit. The top of the rock was a series of interconnected rock wedges jutting almost straight up from the crest.
The summit rose a good twenty to thirty feet above the surrounding treetops. From there, I experienced the only legitimate, unobstructed 360-degree view in Shenandoah. It blew everything else away. Miles of the Blue Ridge unfolded to the north and south, a prospect stretching from Stony Man to Dickeys Ridge, about forty miles apart via the Skyline Drive. Beyond the ridges and hollows to the west, a good chunk of the Shenandoah Valley lay simmering beneath the July afternoon haze. The most amazing vista lay eastward, where a huge expanse of the Piedmont seemed to go on forever, dissolving into the sky near the horizon, the haze uniting earth and air in the distance into one steamy gray mass. The Piedmont is rolling country, broken by large rivers, but from this height and distance all looked flat and featureless with the exception of a few isolated hills. It looked like an enormous multicolored pancake frying on the griddle of a Virginia summer.
I lingered but a short time on Marys Rock. My foot was still throbbing with pain, and I was wanting badly to be at the shelter with the day's hike completed. The two miles downhill from Marys Rock to Thornton Gap were covered with the most vicious rocks of the day. They brutalized my foot. I was elated to reach Skyline Drive at a parking area in the floor of the gap, knowing that the descent was over.
I had intended to stop for a meal at the Panorama Restaurant in Thornton Gap. I decided to go on past. I was little more than a mile from Pass Mountain Hut, where I could make my own dinner and lie down. The afternoon heat had drained my appetite, and thus my desire for a restaurant meal. I pressed on, crossing US 211 below-Skyline Drive and beginning the climb up Pass Mountain.
The terrain along the Blue Ridge changed immediately upon crossing the gap. The rocks and cliffs, boulders and,crags, outcrops and thrusting rock slabs, rocks and stones and rocks and rocks of the central portion of Shenandoah gave way to somewhat gentler slopes on Pass Mountain. Pass obviously had a rich agricultural history. The Appalachian Trail and the side trail to Pass Mountain Hut crossed numerous old fields, where briars and small trees crowded together atop the grassy forest floor. The side trail followed a grassy old road which felt like heaven to my feet. The shelter sat in a meadow which had been freshly mown, filling the air with the nostalgic and (in my case) almost-forgotten aroma of suburbia. Surrounding the meadow were acres of old, overgrown fields and orchards, where tangles of briars formed an impenetrable mass between the old trees. I arrived at the shelter before 4:00 in spite of all of my long stops today and the battered condition of my feet.
Mark was already at the shelter. So, too, was another large group of people, but Mark assured me that they were not staying. Later, he told me they had intended to stay, but he had informed them that the shelter capacity was seven, and he was not about to make room for twelve people on a night when it was not raining. Do any of these people even bother to read the list of park regulations that they receive along with their camping permits?
The group camped in a clearing nearby (another rule violation), and came over to use the shelter's fireplace to cook their dinner. They were an interesting crew -- a church group from Texas. Before they ate, they sang grace (that's right, they sang it). They sang a little prayer of thanks to the tune of "Jingle Bells," while I stared straight down at the shelter floor and fought off the urge to giggle. These were mostly grown men and women.
Later, after they had left, Mark told me that he could see the struggle through which I was going. To both of our credits, neither of us heathens laughed out loud. During the course of our conversation that night, he also told me a joke which I liked:
Two backpackers were hiking through the woods. Suddenly, they saw a large bear charging down the trail towards them. The first backpacker froze for several seconds. Then, he turned to his companion, who had emptied the contents of his backpack all over the ground and was proceeding to put on his running shoes.
"Are you crazy?!" the first backpacker demanded. "You can't outrun a bear!"
"I don't have to," his friend calmly replied. "I just have to outrun you."
As we talked, Mark confided to me that he very much regretted not having the time to savor the sights and experiences of the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, with only slightly more than three months available for his hike, he must average better than twenty miles per day in order to complete the trail. This tyrannical, schedule leaves him with little time for sight-seeing and drains him of the inclination. His deepest regret is that he no longer has the ambition to simply lay back on the ground outside at night and stare up at the starry black sky, which had always been one of his cherished pastimes while hiking and camping. Apparently, his stoic nonchalance towards the beauties of the trail was merely a protective facade. Hearing this, I regretted having been such a smart-ass when joking about him with other hikers.
Last night's gabfest of sardonic humor and funny stories from our lives had drawn us closer and broken the icy reserve with which people like Mark (and, to a lesser extent, me) face the world. We talked together far into the night navigating much deeper waters than we had last night, discussing our mutual sensations of becoming consumed by the Appalachian Trail and our obsessive quests for Katahdin. I told him of my realization that I hardly ever talk or think of my life before the trail. At night my dreams are only of the trail. He agreed that his experience has been identical. He turned out to be a deeper and more thoughtful guy than most of the hikers who joke about him will ever imagine. I am happy to have had these past two nights as a chance to get to know and begin to understand him.
I had a big day today, for a fifteen-miler. I finally caught up to that fourteen-mile-per-day pace I must maintain in order to reach Katahdin safely before the snows arrive, and I passed the 900-mile mark on this hike. 1228.1 miles to go.
THURSDAY, 7/7/83, MILE 933.6 --- The trail was excellent today, and there continued to be far fewer rocks along the footway. Thanks to this factor, and yesterday's short hike, the condition of my feet was much improved, and I flew.
The crest of Pass mountain featured many relatively-flat areas as the Appalachian Trail passed through old orchards and fields, cool pine groves, and occasional rock outcrops. Many of the fields were twisted solid masses of briars and tall weeds above the grassy floor, but I did cross several meadows of tall grasses stirring in the morning breeze. The grassy footpath was gentle on my feet, and the soft carpet of needles beneath the pines felt heavenly. The entire crest was flat or gently-sloping save for in the vicinity of the gaps on either side. The summit was a flat-topped, wooded knoll rising slightly above the remainder of the crest, with a scattering of boulders beneath the trees. The only viewpoint on the mountain was from a line of rocks a short distance to the left of the trail not far past the summit, overlooking the outlying ridge of Neighbor Mountain to the west and the intricate network of hollows running down from the slopes around Thornton Gap towards Luray in the Shenandoah Valley.
Pass Mountain was deer heaven. I saw more deer in the tall grass and pine groves of this mountain than I had seen in the rest of the park combined, which had not been an inconsiderable amount. It seemed every time I looked up white tails were bobbing off into the trees. I walked by a large group lying directly beside the trail in the middle of an extensive, overgrown old orchard. They did not even budge as I went by. Once again, I was amazed and touched by their lack of fear towards me. Once again, the venison tasted great.
I hiked the seven-and-a-half miles from Pass Mountain Hut to Elkwallow Gap in two hours and forty-five minutes, arriving at the Skyline Drive crossing in the gap at 9:00. The little store and snack bar in Elkwallow Wayside was just opening. Someone finally gave me a burger in Shenandoah National Park! The attendant in the snack bar, after I had handed him some money. It was still a pleasant experience. I devoured a cheeseburger, some fries, and a chocolate milk shake. After days of steaming, oppressive heat, today was breezy and cool, awakening my dormant appetite. The accustomed white, washed-out sky was a deep Octoberish blue.
At the store, I picked up a box of Pop-Tarts and a box of granola bars. I was all out of both. I had also eaten all of my crackers, but I opted for a loaf of rye bread instead. It was an excellent decision. I think that I will get bread rather than crackers more often when I hit stores in between trail towns. When I am leaving a town, my backpack is crammed full of food for the trail, and crackers require less room than bread. Between towns, my pack empties out, and I can buy a fresh loaf of bread and truly live it up.
Hogback Mountain was spectacular, although Skyline Drive was a constant presence. The trail over the Fourth Peak ascended gently along a grassy, wooded crest strewn with boulder fields. Beside the summit was a tiny, rocky meadow encircled by small trees. Standing atop the highest rock, I could catch a glimpse of the Piedmont country to the east and just the bare outline of the higher ridges to the south. That was just a faint taste of what was to come.
Descending gently, the AT crossed the drive in a shallow sag and climbed the Third Peak. Another small meadow crowned this summit, but the crest was flatter and the surrounding trees taller -- there were no views. A short spur trail to the left led to some giant boulders just above the Hogback Overlook on Skyline Drive where a magnificent view unfolded: miles of the Page Valley, culminating at the northern end of Massanutten Mountain, where the severed halves of the Shenandoah Valley were reunited into one sprawling agricultural plain stretching forever toward the Alleghenies. Northward, I could follow Skyline Drive all of the way to its terminus in Front Royal. In the foreground, Hogback's Second Peak bristled with radio towers. Below, Browntown Valley, a big, beautiful hollow encircled by the Blue Ridge and some spur ridges and foothills was a tapestry of fields, farms, and a tiny azure pond.
The AT crossed the north end of the overlook, where the view was almost identical, and climbed along and beside the tower's access road to the Second Peak. The road ended in a wide circle on the summit, surrounded by towers, equipment buildings, and tall trees. The trail descended to a field at the top edge of a nearly-vertical drop-off of the western face of the Blue Ridge looking directly down the center of Browntown Valley towards the vast plain of the northern Shenandoah Valley.
The entire ridgecrest of the Second and First peaks of Hogback was covered with massive clusters of mountain laurel. The fine views north and west continued over First Peak and Little Hogback. The Appalachian Trail brushed close to Skyline Drive several times and crossed it once along its long descent to Gravel Springs Gap.
In the gap, the AT crossed the drive once again and began to ascend South Marshall. The road was much less obtrusive on Marshall Mountain, with only one trail crossing and no other close approaches. Ledges and rock slabs near the top of the ascent gave a great view of the gray strip of Skyline Drive snaking around Hogback's green summits southward and descending Dickey Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley to the northwest. The trail descended to cross the drive in the fair-sized plateau between Marshall's peaks and climbed North Marshall.
A ledge just above the AT along the ascent had a 180-degree view stretching from southwest to northwest including the Blue Ridge south from Hogback all of the way to Hawksbill. Views of the Shenandoah opened up as I reached the crest, following a line of westward-facing cliffs. As the ridgeline narrowed, a nice view of the Piedmont appeared from some eastward-facing outcrops. Beneath today's clear skies, the prospect was especially impressive -- an endless sprawl of farms, towns, and solitary wooded hills stretching to a distant horizon. The summit was a big, jagged, westward-facing spur of rock, with tiptoe views of the Shenandoah Valley north of Front Royal and the Blue Ridge north of Shenandoah National Park, where the range dwindled to a low, flat ridge projecting up through Maryland. The park is the swan song of scenic grandeur for northbound Appalachian Trail hikers until they teach New England.
In Compton Gap, twenty-one miles into my hike today, the Appalachian Trail crossed Skyline Drive one final time. At this point, the drive departed the crest of the Blue Ridge and descended along a spur ridge to its northern terminus at Port Royal in the Shenandoah Valley. After two hundred miles of paralleling the drive and its extension, the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was leaving the road behind. The trail followed an old woods road over the crest for another couple of miles. Then, it too, left the ridgecrest and began to descend.
Almost immediately, the AT exited Shenandoah National Park, crossing into private lands. It soon entered a camping area known as Tom Floyd Wayside, where an absolutely gorgeous shelter, which oven boasted a built-in sun deck oh the front, perched along the side of a steep wooded slope. That is where I am staying tonight.
I am out of Shenandoah National Park, never once having been fed by the tourists. The park bears make out better than I did in that respect. As I have said, I fed myself a few times, so I cannot complain. Although I was disappointed to have walked through both Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park without seeing one bear, that's life.
I hiked twenty-three miles today. That means I have traveled 103 miles from Rockfish Gap in the past five days. My hiking has improved considerably since Georgia. The new light-weight hiking boots that my family mailed to me in Waynesboro are working out very well. I am now sure I can successfully complete this quest, as long as my determination holds up and I can avoid major catastrophes. I am less than fifty-five miles from the end of Virginia.
I am giving myself an easy day tomorrow: thirteen miles to the next shelter. A considerable amount of road walking lies just ahead, making for some relatively-easy miles, and Mark plans on utilizing that tomorrow to crank out a thirty-two-miler to the second shelter. I really am going to miss him. I am still not sure exactly why.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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