Learning the Hard Way (Lessons from another not-so-successful shakedown hike)

Here in Maryland near South Mountain, we live in a little pocket of uncertain weather. Check half a dozen forecasts on any given day, and you’ll get six wildly disparate results — none of which usually come true.  So when I checked the forecast for our second attempt at a shakedown hike, I was pleased to see that most of the reports concurred: the weather would be mild (in the 50’s-60’s), with a slight chance of a shower overnight.  One outlier predicted heavy rain, 40 mph winds, and temperatures in the 30’s, but I scoffed at that.

Naturally, I was wrong.

After our previous shakedown fiasco, I didn’t expect to have another bad experience. For one thing, I thought we’d learned our lessons.  We have been working our way slowly through Maryland in reasonable, 6-10 mile segments since that debacle.  We’ve been carrying fully loaded packs, gradually increasing our strength and confidence while continuing to test our gear.  So spending another night in the woods should have been easy.  We were much better prepared this time, our expectations far more sensible.  We decided to park at Wolfsville Rd., hike five miles north to the Raven Rock shelter, and stay the night.  The next morning we’d hike the final five miles to the end of Maryland at the Mason Dixon line.  The plan was solid, but the shakedown was still less than ideal.  Here is what we learned this time:

tarps2Setting up hammocks in the rain is a challenge.  The predicted sprinkles began just as we arrived at the shelter.  We weren’t worried at first, but a few minutes into our setup the rain intensified.  We tried to hurry, but we haven’t mastered our camping skills yet so it took us an hour to get everything staked down.  We ended up wet, but despite our clumsiness, we didn’t think we’d done too bad.

Next we took a stab at dinner.  While John devoured the warm cheesy mashed potatoes he’d cooked up, I virtuously choked down my cold lentil/ancient grain concoction with the same gusto I felt while undergoing my last mammogram. I couldn’t finish it. It was cold, lumpy and hard, and not the least bit appealing. Lesson: I need to rethink my food.


Protected from the storm

The plummeting temperature drove us to a VERY early bed.  In fact, we were in our hammocks by 5:30! I was cozy enough inside, but for the next twelve hours a fierce storm thrashed the woods.  I slept in fits, managing to doze off only occasionally because of the roaring wind.  Surprisingly, the tarp stakes held.  In fact, the gusting wind caused my hammock to gently rock, which was kind of nice.

windWhat wasn’t so nice was trying to break camp in the morning.  Everything was soaked. It was so blasted cold that we had to keep stopping to warm our hands.  And then the wind picked up even more, adding to the difficulty. In the end, we stuffed everything haphazardly into our bags, skipped breakfast, and hiked as quickly as we could toward the Pennsylvania state line.  We finally stopped to eat once we’d made it through the Devil’s Racecourse (a treacherous boulder field where John not only fell but lost both rubber tips from his poles) because skipping meals can lead to sudden muscle exhaustion, as I unfortunately found out.  Then we hightailed it through Penmar Park to the Mason Dixon line.

So we’ve got one state down. A small one, to be sure (it’s only 40 miles across), but we did it nonetheless.  And I’ve learned a lot during our brief journey through Maryland, both good and bad.  For one thing, I’ve got too much stuff. I need to consolidate my items so I have less to keep track of. I also need to practice my setup and take down so it doesn’t take so long. And it wouldn’t hurt to revise my diet so I’ll actually want to eat my food.

On the positive side, I now know that we can do this. It certainly won’t be easy.  There will be lots of suffering and pain, more than I ever expected — and I have a feeling that given our track record, the mistakes will continue to pile up. But we’ll get there.  Eventually.  And at some point we’ll even have fun.  So three more weeks — and then we’re off.  Pennsylvania, here we come!




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Comments 8

  • Sherry Jarvis : Mar 9th

    Hang in there! It would not be a great experience to talk about without numerous trials and tribulations! You can do this my good friend! ❤

    • Gail Barrett : Mar 9th

      Thank you, Sherry! The journey is all about the struggle, right? Thanks for cheering us on!

  • Peter and Laura : Mar 10th

    Hi john and Gail,

    We have a good little trek down here. It’s called the Nullabor. It’s only 1500 km and there is no problems with getting wet or cold.

    • Gail Barrett : Mar 10th

      Only eaten by crocodiles, snakes, etc., right? Seriously, we would LOVE to hike Australia. John says if the Australian army can do it, then we can, too!

  • Ruth morley : Mar 18th

    Gail, I have been following your blog since Day 1. We haven’t heard from you since the last disappointing shakedown hike. I do hope that you’re going to get back out there and do this thing!! I’m also a female hiker in my 60’s ( I begin my SOBO half in July from Harpers Ferry), and am counting on you for encouragement and solidarity.

    Hang in there!

    • Gail Barrett : Mar 18th

      Ruth, thank you so much for your interest! I really appreciate it a lot. We definitely learned from that first disaster. We went right back out and did much shorter day hikes (6-10 miles) while carrying our packs. In fact, this second shakedown was the final bit of Maryland we had to complete, so we’ve been able to cross one state off the list. Carrying weight is much harder than I expected, so this has been good training for us. I think we are already stronger than we were. Right after the second shakedown we got a big snowstorm, though (10 inches), so now we have to wait for it to melt before we get on the trail again. I don’t want to risk falling this close to the start date.

      Don’t worry about us flaking out. We are absolutely still going to do this. We have mailed the drop boxes for the first half of the hike and are counting down the days until we start (two weeks!). I haven’t blogged much lately because about the only thing I’m doing is obsessing over every bit of equipment, which I don’t think would interest anyone. I hope we meet up with you on our second half, by the way. We should be leaving from HF sometime in early July, assuming all goes well, so we just might catch up with you! That would be fun! And I’m sure you can do this if we can. We have no skills, as you’ve probably figured out. Keep me posted on where you are!

      • Ruth morley : Mar 19th

        I’m very happy to hear that everything’s still on track for you. And I too am obsessing about gear, but then I remind myself that everyone makes changes along the way.

        It would be great to run into each other, but my schedule bridges both 2017 and 2018. I’ll be SOBO from Harpers Ferry from late July to early October, then NOBO from HF late April, 2018. But let’s keep track of each other via our postings. I’ll be making my third blog entry soon, which will make me “public” on thetrek.com.

        Good luck! We can do this!

        • Gail Barrett : Mar 19th

          Yeah, I keep telling myself that I’m not going to Antarctica and can replace things along the way. I can’t wait to read your blog. You never know if we’ll meet up. We could end up delayed or you could be a faster hiker!? Either way, good luck!


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