Exile's_Home ©1996 George Steffanos



Home Contents Page


Then The Hail Came

Last updated 12/02/96


A Backpacker In Paris

(Tom Floyd Wayside, Virginia to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia)

FRIDAY, 7/8/83, MILE 946.7 --- An extremely nice dog showed up at Tom Floyd Shelter last night at 9:00, just as Mark and I were getting ready to go to sleep -- a cute, friendly, quiet Husky mix. Then the couple he was hiking with arrived.

We sort of got off on the wrong foot was when the guy immediately asked Mark and me if either of us snored. He informed us that they were both light sleepers, and that they would be forced to pitch a tent if we did. Mark and I exchanged a "who are these people?" look. Mark said that he had no idea, because he was usually asleep at the time. I told him that I snored like a buzz saw, hoping that he would simply go away.

After a brief conference, they decided to lay their sleeping bags out on the sun deck in front of the shelter, which was a logical solution in that they would be all of five feet away from the uncouth louts who had the nerve to snore in their shelter. They filled the entire deck with themselves and their gear, which would turn any nocturnal visit to the woods by Mark and me into a challenging obstacle course. It was 10:00 when they began cooking dinner, which must have involved at least fifteen courses considering the incredible clatter of pots and pans which kept me tossing and turning for the next couple of hours. It was still going full blast around midnight when I finally managed to doze off, making sure to lie on my back for maximum snoring intensity.

I said good-bye to Mark this morning at 5:30, when he set out on his thirty-two-mile hike. I told him to drop me a line in the shelter registers.

My first three miles completed the descent from the Blue Ridge to the Appalachian Trail crossing of US Highway 522. Just before the road, I passed through an area which had been dubbed "The Tick Farm" by AT hikers. It consisted of about a half-mile of very tall grass that was simply crawling with the little mothers. I had been forewarned. In the shelter register at Tom Floyd, one girl had written that she pulled seventy ticks off of her dog after hiking this stretch. I was lucky -- I only found about fifteen or twenty on me. I stopped once every minute to check until I had cleared the area, finding two or three ticks clinging to my socks each time.

The trail just across the highway from The Tick Farm passed through land owned by the National Zoological Park. I saw my first African antelope on the Appalachian Trail through a tall wire fence running alongside the path and a dense stagnant haze. Today was shaping up to be a memorable scorcher. High grass often intruded on the footway here, too, but I only found one additional tick on myself. The AT route played a little game that I like to call "Lost in the Woods" for the next six miles. I went left, right, up, down, reverse, left, left, up, right, down . . . until I expected at any moment to walk right smack into myself.

The last mile down into Manassas Gap followed small country lanes. I arrived in Linden, Virginia, on the floor of the gap at 10:45. Downtown Linden was a Post Office about the size of a postage stamp with a pay phone in its tiny parking lot and a small combination gas station/general store directly across the street. Another throbbing metropolis along the Appalachian Trail.

I picked up my supply package at the Post Office and proceeded outside to select the supplies I would require for the forty-five miles to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. My original plan had not included a visit to that trail town, but I wanted to visit the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the people who made this adventure possible. I also badly needed a shower, and a night in a bed would be a nice plus. Strangely enough, despite its cosmopolitan atmosphere, Linden had no hotels or motels.

I may have gone a little heavy on the munchies while loading my backpack, but I do love my munchies. I would just have to buy some more in Harpers Ferry. I resealed the package with remaining supplies and mailed it to myself in care of General Delivery, Harpers Ferry. The Linden Postmaster assured me that it will be waiting for me Monday when I arrive.

While I was outside, a man who was preparing to begin a short backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park stopped by to talk with me. Thruhikers are minor celebrities in backpacking circles. The rest of the world's attitude is rather mixed.

My last stop before leaving Linden was at the general store. I loitered outside with a cola and a pint of ice cream as 1:00 came and went. The night's shelter was less than four miles ahead, but the steamy air and the long, steep hill on the north side of the gap somewhat dampened my enthusiasm.

Virginia Routes 638 and 601, narrow, winding strips of two-lane pavement run along the flat, low crest of the northern tip of the Blue Ridge for most of the distance from Linden north almost to the end of Virginia. This portion of the range is not to be confused with the Appalachia surrounding much of the trail further south. There is a lot of money in this area -- old money. The Appalachian Trail is not popular here, and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains this section, is forced to scramble in order to get any kind of a trail at all. That probably explains why the route snakes around so much in Virginia north of Shenandoah, and is definitely the reason I will be seeing a lot of Virginia state roads the next few days. Large sections of the footpath have been closed by landowners.

The next mile-and-a-half climbed steeply out of Manassas Gap, first on the paved road and then on a dirt woods road paralleling the highway a few yards to the east. Following that, the AT went back onto Virginia 638 for about twenty yards in order to bypass an apple orchard (apparently, the owner does not trust thru-hikers around anything edible -- a not unreasonable attitude). The AT once again left the road, passing through a pasture along its way back into the woods.

The final two miles of the Appalachian Trail today played lost-in-the-woods again, but at least this time it was a very attractive forest through which I seemed to be meandering pointlessly. I arrived at Manassas Gap Shelter at 2:20, in spite of my long stop in Linden. It was quite a luxury to have the entire afternoon in which to kick back after all of those long days in Shenandoah. I spread my sleeping bag and started to catch up on my letter and journal writing. I had a leisurely dinner. I am going to bed early tonight. I need a good night of sleep in order to make up for those sleepless nights in the crowded shelters of Shenandoah National Park.

SATURDAY, 7/9/83, MILE 965.4 --- That couple with the nice dog showed up at Manassas Gap Shelter late last evening. Dinner was another long, noisy project topped off with popcorn cooked in a metal pot at about 11:00. Gee, I hope I didn't snore and keep them awake when they finally turned in.

I was a walking zombie when I hit the trail this morning around 7:45. My friends were still in their sleeping bags. They had mentioned to Mark and me on Thursday night that they hitchhike around many less-interesting sections of the Appalachian Trail. I hope they do so today. I'm about ready to fall down.

The first seven miles of trail were another game of lost-in-the-woods. When it was over, I sat down to rest for ten minutes on a rock beside the trail. Five minutes after resuming my hike, I passed a park bench in the middle of a clearing surrounded by a pleasant forest grove. I wished this spot had been mentioned in my guidebook. It looked more comfortable than my rock. The land on which it sat was part of Sky Meadows State Park, a large tract of land which had been donated to the state by a wealthy Virginia couple.

After the park, the AT emerged onto a gravel road, which had until recently been the trail route for the ensuing three miles to Ashby Gap. A recent trail relocation took me along a number of dirt woods roads through a rather attractive forest. The woods roads must have been established public right-of-ways. Everything around them was private property. The atmosphere was marred slightly by an incredible profusion of No Trespassing signs.

One nice feature about hiking the Appalachian Trail is that you get to see the world -- Damascus (Virginia), Berlin (New Hampshire), . . . Today, in Ashby Gap, I finally got to see Paris. It was not quite as I had expected, and I could not seem to locate the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. I did, however find a quaint little bistro right on the AT at the point where the trail crossed US 50. No escargot on the menu, but the Paris Diner did offer good, plain food at reasonable prices. I had a lot of it, yet the tab came out to less than six dollars.

In keeping with tradition, I kicked back with a glass of Chateau Coca Cola and created literary art in my journal for a while after my meal. I lingered for more than an hour and did not shove off again until 1:00. Downtown Paris was a mile from the trail, and I was too tired to add a two-mile round trip to my day. Nevertheless, I should have been able to catch a glimpse of the Arc de Triumphe or the Cathedral Notre Dame from that distance. Ç'est la vie.

The remainder of the AT up to the side trail to Three Springs Shelter was an unbroken six-and-a-half-mile roadwalk along the ever present Virginia State Road 601. As usual, the winding two-lane road followed the crest of the Blue Ridge, making a considerable climb out of Ashby Gap at the beginning, but soon reaching more gentle, rolling terrain. North of Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge is much lower and more flattened along the crest as it begins to disappear into the long wooded ridges of the central Appalachians.

Massive gates of stone and wrought iron sporting wooden signs adorned with flowery names like "Morningside" and "Rockwood" broke the steady screen of dense forest pressing against both flanks of the road. I saw little of the wealthy estates beyond, but I did see dozens of No Trespassing signs. I suspect that the latter are the official flower of northern Virginia. There were many other signs to tell me about all of the other things that I could not do here. My favorite said "No Nothin'." I think that summed it all up very nicely.

Just before the shelter trail, I passed a sprawling federal government installation called Mount Weather, developed around the turn of the century as a research station for the National Weather Service. Today, it is restricted and secret, surrounded by huge fences decorated with razor wire, No Trespassing signs and armed guards. Even our own government likes to make hikers feel welcome along the AT in northern Virginia. I was told that this installation is the site where the President and other high U.S. government officials are to be evacuated in the event of a nuclear war. Gave me a nice, warm feeling.

Three Springs Shelter was a mile from the road down a loop trail, most of which had been part of the Appalachian Trail before several landowners closed the remainder of the trail through this section. I arrived here at the shelter at 4:00. It was in surprisingly excellent condition, considering that it had been built in 1940. I spread out my sleeping bag and set up my gear for dinner.

Around 5:00, a forty-ish Virginian and two younger men from Pennsylvania dropped in. They were all on extended backpacking trips on the AT, heading south. We were able to trade a great deal of information about what lay ahead on our respective hikes. Current information such as this is always invaluable. Changes are constantly being made in the trail route, and sometimes these relocations do not make it into the latest guide books. In addition, many of the small businesses located on or near the Appalachian Trail (stores, campgrounds, etc.) fail or are reopened almost overnight. They are all staying at this shelter tonight, so we will have plenty of time to trade information and have a few laughs.

Mark left me a note at the end of his entry into this shelter's register last night. It read, "Hi, George. It is best to devote your life to drinking water and p___ing."

It is growing dark, now. When the stars come out, I am going to lay out under the night sky and gaze up at them for a while as a tribute to Mark. I hope that, once in a while, he is able to do so, too.

SUNDAY, 7/10/83, MILE 981.8 --- I got an early start on the trail today -- 6:15. Another five miles of AT roadwalk were on tap, and I wanted to get them done before the relentless July Virginia heat had a chance to kick in. I quickly covered the remainder of the loop trail back to Virginia 601, which I followed, mostly downhill, for three miles to Snickers Gap. I passed a number of large estates very similar to the ones that I went by yesterday.

From the gap, the Appalachian Trail continued to follow Virginia 601, now climbing, Just before the pavement ended and the trail left the road and entered the woods, I walked past a house with a sign in front on the mailbox which said, "Backpackers Welcome -- Shelter, Cold Showers, Food, Phone."

The guys who I met last night at the shelter told me that the man who owns this house is a computer programmer who works out of his home, and is a friend to backpackers. He has hooked up a garden hose to a shower set-up in his back yard for the use of backpackers willing to withstand a good dose of cold water. It was only 8:00 on a Sunday morning when I passed by. I did not wish to disturb the man by ringing the doorbell, so I left a thank-you note in his mail box. That sign was like an oasis in a desert of No Trespassing signs.

Shortly afterward, the trail left the road, went into the woods, and entered West Virginia. The last few miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia drifted back and forth across its state line with West Virginia. The trail for the most part was on rocky old woods roads. The forest was lush and relatively cool, and, for once in northern Virginia, the route was fairly direct. The walking was quite easy in spite of the rocks. There were few views at which to linger, so I arrived at Keys Gap Shelter before 3:00.

It has been great to have had all of this free time in the afternoons in northern Virginia. I have covered forty-eight miles of the Appalachian Trail in three days since Shenandoah, so I have been staying ahead of my pace even as I have been enjoying these short days. Right now, I am feeling as well-rested as I have felt at any time on this trip. I think I am about ready for some long days after my stop in Harpers Ferry. I am actually looking forward to them. I am 438 AT miles from Connecticut, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing my friends and family again.

Virginia, which once faced me with a massive 545 miles, is now a couple of hours' stroll from becoming a memory. The LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINE has chewed it up and spit it out. I am nearing the 1000-mile mark, and when I cross into Maryland Tuesday I will have conquered both Virginia and West Virginia. That will be five states down and nine to go. There are only about forty miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, so I should be through that state in two or three days. That will certainly be a lift after spending more than a month grinding through Virginia.

All of this calls for a celebration. Behind this shelter, a side trail descends gently a tenth-of-a-mile to a little grocery store in Keys Gap. I can carry all kinds of weight for a tenth-of-a-mile. This calls for incredible decadence -- gluttony seldom matched in the history of the Appalachian Trail. And, damn it, I am just the dude to do it.

9:00 P.M. --- I purchased a two-liter bottle of Coke and about ten pounds of food for tonight. The soda is almost gone, and two big shopping bags of food are reduced to a few scraps to supplement the usual instant oatmeal in the morning. A few miles ahead lies Harpers Ferry and a long, steaming shower with my name on it.

MONDAY, 7/11/83, MILE 987.9 --- I did not hit the trail today until 7:45. I always have trouble getting myself going in the morning when I have just a short day's hike ahead of me. I lose my sense of urgency, which is the only thing that can get me motivated quickly right after I wake up. I am not a morning person.

After four miles on the Appalachian Trail, I reached the junction with the Loudon Heights Trail, which descended steeply off of the west side of the ridge into West Virginia. I turned onto this path, which is part of the blue-blazed alternate route through Harpers Ferry. I had entered Virginia on June 7. As a result of the strange crawl of Time along the AT, that felt like a lifetime ago. Virginia was now history.

After a mile of descent, the AT crossed the Shenandoah River on a highway bridge and climbed the steep bluffs lining the opposite shore, beginning the last mile into town. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located on the roughly triangular-shaped peninsula between the rivers at the point where the Shenandoah empties into the Potomac. Higher ground encircles the town on all three sides of the triangle. To the north are the lofty, overhanging cliffs of Maryland Heights across the Potomac on Elk Mountain in Maryland. Across the Shenandoah to the southeast are Loudon Heights, atop the ridge that the Appalachian Trail followed along the Virginia/West Virginia border this morning. Southwest of Harpers Ferry, the ground of the peninsula rises fairly steeply to the crest of Bolivar Heights.

Harpers Ferry played an important historic role during the Civil War. This was the spot where John Brown raided the U.S. Army arsenal to obtain guns for his ill-fated slave revolt. He was later captured, tried, and hung here by a U.S. Army detachment led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Located in the narrow northern mouth of the Shenandoah Valley, Harpers Ferry was the gateway to the South's most important granary for the North and a launching spot for campaigns menacing Washington, Baltimore, and Harrisburg for the Confederates. General Stonewall Jackson fought his famous valley campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, including the capture of the U.S. Army garrison at Harpers Ferry prior to the bloody battle of Antietam. After Jackson's death, General Jubal Early again captured the Harpers Ferry garrison on his way to the 1864 raid that brushed the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Later in the year, U.S. General Phillip Sheridan used this spot as the springboard for the campaign that finally destroyed Early's army, during which he burned most of the lower end of the valley -- a crude, but effective method of choking off much of the provisions flowing to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg during the cruel final months of the war.

The town and a portion of the surrounding area have been designated a National Historic Park, and the downtown area is slowly being restored to reflect the era around 1860.

I arrived at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference at 10:30. I picked up the brand-new edition of the New York/New Jersey guide book and put in an order for the newest edition of the Maine guide book, which is due out in about a week. There are ongoing extensive relocations in all three of these states, and current trail information will be important. I also purchased the Philosopher's Guide to the AT, a publication put out by a recent thru-hiker, with current information on the trail geared towards the needs of other thru-hikers.

The A.T.C.'s reception desk is run by a lady named Jean Cashin, known as a friend to thru-hikers. She gave me directions to the Post Office and called to reserve a room for me at the Hilltop House, the cheaper of the town's two hotels. I picked up my supply package at the Post Office and checked into the hotel, an old renovated mansion. My small room cost me $26 for the night. There are no great bargains in Harpers Ferry, but Hilltop House is a classy place.

I took one of my marathon hot showers and lay around on the bed until 3:00 p.m. looking over my new A.T.C. publications. I was not wildly enthusiastic about leaving that air-conditioned room to venture back out into another July afternoon steam bath, but I needed rice, instant oatmeal, and several other important staples which I lacked in sufficient quantities for the next stretch of trail. The most crucial lack was Pop-Tarts. I had eaten both boxes from my supply package on the trail from Linden, Virginia.

I stopped by A.T.C. headquarters again for directions. They told me that the only groceries within walking distance were at a convenience store about a mile away. The store was a bust. The only item they carried which I needed was the rice. I have no Pop-Tarts for the next stretch of the AT. More heartbreak on this trail of woes.

Back at the A.T.C., they helped me to wrap my package for home and weighed it on a postal scale so I could give them the money for postage. Someone here is going to drop it off at the Post Office tonight, saving me a walk. They are extremely helpful here. They sell Coleman fuel in odd amounts to hikers, so tomorrow I will drop by to top off my reserve bottle.

When I arrived back at the motel at 4:00, I called home. My physical condition had been very good since that eight-mile day on June 22, but suddenly, as I stood talking on the phone, I broke out in a heavy sweat. I became dizzy and a bit nauseous. I had to cut short my phone call and walk back up to the coolness of my room to collapse onto the bed.

I awoke at 7:45 p.m., feeling okay. I think that perhaps all of the sleep deprivation lately just caught up to me. I barely made dinner downstairs, arriving five minutes before they stopped seating at 8:00. The meal and the service were classy -- even to someone who had just been to Paris.

Tomorrow, I will be entering Maryland. The past few days' hike since Shenandoah National Park have been a preview of what to expect from the next few states. There will be much more development along the Appalachian Trail. I will see many more people, pass many more houses, cross a lot of roads, and there will be more numerous and more lengthy roadwalks. The scenic grandeur of the southern Appalachians is giving way to the more subdued attractiveness of the long, low, rolling ridges of the central Appalachians.

On the plus side, all of those stores and restaurants I have passed lately are also a harbinger of things to come. The occasional food crises I have endured should also become a thing of the past for a while. That is crucial at the moment. I have only enough breakfasts for four days, and Duncannon, Pennsylvania, my next supply town, is about a week's hike away. If I can only pick up some Pop-Tarts somewhere I will truly have a reason to go on living.

I am going to try to step up my pace as I pass through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. The lower elevations and the lack of distracting scenery should help me in this endeavor. After that, I will be home -- back in the mountains of New England. From Connecticut onward, I know that each state will be a little more scenic than the one before. I am looking forward to that. At the end of the trail lie the cool October forests of Maine and a mountain named Katahdin. 1150.6 miles to go.

Navigation Bar


©1996 George Steffanos


Chapter 12

Back to Chapter 10

Top of Page