Captain Fantastic’s Account of The Shennies

I closed the spiral-bound blue notebook and handed it to the young woman who’d gone out of her way to walk down a steep and rocky blue-blaze path to get her hands on it. She had come to make her confessions to The Priest. Having spent the better part of an hour reading the entries I was pretty sure I’d seen all seven deadly sins in some shape or form. Most began with “Forgive me Father for I have sinned…” and then went on to share lighthearted anecdotes concerning the seedy side of trail life. Trust me, there was plenty of sophomoric humor about lust and bodily functions.  But some hikers, mostly anonymous, poured out heavy hearts with gut-wrenching accounts of marital woes, addiction and sadness.

We were atop Virginia’s 4k foot Priest Mountain at the shelter of the same name. All shelters have a trail register that hikers can sign and date as a record of who’s been coming and going, and it’s fun to look back through the pages to see if you know anyone. Some people just sign their trail names, but others draw pictures, write poetry, or wax rhapsodic about life on the AT. But The Priest’s register, due to the holy nature of its name, required something a little different and I was having a hard time identifying something amusing I could confess to.

My first idea was a confession to sometimes digging lackluster “catholes” when performing the ole daily constitution, but it didn’t meet my criteria of being original as a quarter of the entries said the same thing. In our defense, btw, it’s not easy to dig an 8-inch hole in ground that’s mostly rooty and rocky. And after the usual breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, time is of the essence!

As I sat at the shelter’s picnic table and continued to ponder my shortcomings I noticed another fellow had joined me and was emptying the contents of his Bear Canister in preparation for supper. I’d passed him by an hour and a half earlier as we’d climbed the mountain but hadn’t gotten his name. Turned out he was Mister IT, a self-professed nerd (for the record, I actually think he’s pretty cool) and tech support specialist who was section hiking the northern part of Virginia on his two-week vacation.

Bear encounters have risen on the AT this year to the point that some shelters have been temporarily closed and camping prohibited for ten or so mile stretches where problems are occurring. A couple was chased from their tent in the night by an aggressive black bear that ended up destroying all their gear in its search for food. Another young woman was nipped on her behind by one as she exited a privy and took off running when she saw it, which apparently is a bad idea since they have a strong prey drive and even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear.

In pretty much all cases, the backcountry bear problems stem from their hunger and the easy pickings presented by human food storage. The traditional way to keep food safe is to hang it in a bag from a tree branch about a dozen feet off the ground. But for a number of reasons, which boil down to most people just aren’t any good at properly doing it and bears have figured out how to circumnavigate it, there is now a call to put an end to the practice of the “Bear Hang.” In its place, many hikers are purchasing bear-proof containers, which they load with Snickers, ramen, and honeybuns and set upon the ground away from their tents.

Mister IT’s bear canister was a sight to behold. He methodically removed its vast and colorfully wrapped contents and spread them across the table until he’d selected the ingredients for his supper. Of special interest to me were several packets of instant coffee sealed in yellow-hued wrappers with Korean writing on them. I’m a coffee fiend and drink it night and day. We fell into a conversation about how he orders it online and that they have a creamer mixed in. Next thing I know he’d taken five packs and dropped them into my food bag. As up to this point I’d been drinking my instant Starbucks black I was excited for my next cup of Joe.

Gucci and “I’llbe” (short for “I’ll be there for you”) joined us at the table, as well as two southbound sisters who were flip-flopping from Harper’s Ferry to Ga. Since the girls had just been through Virginia’s Shenandoahs (aka the “Shennies,”) where we were heading next, we peppered them with all kinds of questions about what to expect. After feeling horrendously let down by strangers’ assurances foretelling how much flatter Virginia was than everything south of it, my eyes began to glaze over as they repeatedly ended most of their descriptions with, “but it’s really not bad at all.”

However, the sisters did get my undivided attention as they explained the many “waysides” we’d be encountering throughout the Shenandoah National Park. I’d come to believe I might be disappointed that these mystical restaurants and campstores everyone kept talking about were just rumors, but the girls eagerly smiled and enthusiastically verified their existence. Sweet.

Over the coming days I had something else to look forward to. Sapling had arranged to be off work to complete most of Shenandoah NP’s 105 miles with me. She picked me up as I left trail near the quintessential small(ish) town of Waynesboro, Va. I needed a zero day following a long week of high-mile hiking, so we grabbed a room at the Quality Inn. After washing clothes and resting we decided to have pizza in the nearby town of Crozet, which according to a National Geographic review was the BEST on planet earth. It was mighty good, and after several local beers, I came closer to agreeing with them. Then again, the 80s band Poison was starting to sound like the greatest band ever as I took my final few sips.

By the time we’d driven back to Waynesboro my hiker hunger had kicked in again and I was craving a strawberry milkshake from Kline’s Dairy Bar. Based on the constant line at the ordering window it was clear this was the most popular place in town on a summer night. As we crossed the parking lot Sapling and I encountered Mister IT and invited him to hang out. Surrounded by local families with kids in their baseball uniforms and older kids hanging out “Happy Days” style, the three of us spent a glorious evening in a town I’d never heard of with a new friend enjoying delicious ice cream. It seemed like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

On the actual Zero Day we moved over to a Bed & Breakfast called The Bowman house. The owners, Jan and Dave, love the AT and we stayed there along with a couple from Vermont, Bliss and Valid, who were section hiking. That evening eight of us enjoyed wine on their stately porch and talked all things Appalachian Trail. They’d invited their neighbors Mark and Sandi to join too, as Mark runs a shuttle service and hikes quite a bit himself. I was so thankful we got to know him as he graciously volunteered to meet us 80 miles up-trail and bring Sapling back to her car in Waynesboro in five days’ time. As a thru-hiker it seems like you’re constantly walking a logistical tightrope, but so far the “trail provides” is much more than a cliche.

We wrapped up our Waynesboro Zero by meeting Mister IT for supper downtown. His name stems from his profession as he provides Information Technology support for machinery and software packages sold by his company. We were also wowed by his extensive trail knowledge and enthusiasm. I began to think he’d perfectly complement us as we hiked through the Shennies. While I’d been doing twenty-mile days for weeks, I knew that would be too much to ask of Sapling. But I did think she could do fifteens, which is also the preferred distance of IT. So for the first time, we planned our hike with someone else, and our real-life family morphed into a section-hike tramily.

Shenandoah National Park was great during Sapling’s time with us. The weather was mostly beautiful, though the views were slightly marred by the haze emanating from the Canadian wildfires. The terrain generally spanned 2,500 to 3,500 feet in elevation and provided plenty of climbing and descending challenges. Luckily, Sapling, IT, and I were up to the task, and we had a lot of fun crisscrossing Skyline Drive, the roadway version that most people use to enjoy the Shennies. In fact, if The Priest’s confessional came after the SNPark a healthy number of AT hikers might have some confessing to do as “yellow blazing,” aka walking the easier road as opposed to the tougher trail, was prevalent. We stayed true to the trail, however, and were rewarded with some sweeping views, well-groomed trails, and the coveted waysides.

Big Meadows was hands down my favorite part of the Shennies. It’s a campground and lodge that magically appeared at the end of a long, tiring day just as rain was about to set in for the foreseeable future. We were well over the 15-mile mark I had promised Sapling and I could sense her frustration as we struck out around every bend in the trail while searching for a place to stop and set up our tents. Mr. IT tossed out the idea of paying $30 for a campsite, and Sapling and I readily agreed that ten bucks a piece would be worth it.

The three of us stumbled our way through Big Meadows grounds before spying the park rangers’ hut at the entrance. I had to endure a scolding from a uniformed kid not even half my age for not making my reservation online. I dutifully put up with it and was soon rewarded with a change in tone and a primo campsite. We threw our tents up as the rain began and then made a beeline for the Lodge itself, which contained lovely rooms, a large and tasty restaurant, a tap room, and best of all a great room for just chilling out. We made it to the restaurant just as the rain’s intensity picked up to soaking mode and enjoyed beer and good food while shuddering to think of the poor souls still out in the woods on this cold wet night.

Mister IT kindly took it upon himself to plan out Sapling’s potential next trip to visit me in several weeks. She’ll be bringing her boyfriend, Brennan, and Mister IT chose an easier section of the AT in New York with lots of food known as the Deli Run to the thru-hiking community. While he went over the details with her in the great room I simply vegged out in the rocking chairs and took a short nap. By 10pm the rain had let up enough to head back to the tents. Sapling slept like a baby but IT and I were kept awake all night by some sort of faint alarm going off somewhere in the large tenting area. We both guessed it had been tucked away in a Bear Box and the owner had elephant-like hearing and could only pick up low tones to explain why they didn’t end the torture.

The next day was wet and the forecast for the coming two weeks included a lot of rain. We tried to delay the impending doom by packing up and heading back to the lodge for breakfast. The restaurant opened at 7:30 and we were the only ones there until a fellow named Michael was seated behind us. While IT went over the day’s game plan Michael couldn’t help but overhearing us and began asking questions about the FarOut app we were using. Thus began a long conversation between he and I that touched on everything from Civil War history and its relevance to today’s political climate to overcoming physical adversity to hike and be active. Michael shared with me that he was in his 70s, which floored me, and that he’d suffered a debilitating stroke which required extensive therapy that has pretty much rendered it undetectable. I found him to be such an inspiration. Thank you Michael!

I found Sapling and IT enjoying the great room rocking chairs again and keeping their phones topped off in the electrical outlets near the furnace. None of us seemed eager to step onto a drizzly wet trail but there comes a point when reality wins out. Besides, we had a schedule to keep if we were to get Sapling to a place where Mark could pick her up in two day’s time at 9:30am.

Hiking in the rain requires more effort for less payoff. There are no rewarding views to behold, the rocks are slippery and the trail becomes a river for long stretches that puckers up your feet and causes blisters or even worse, trench foot. I’ll warn you right now to not Google trench foot unless you have a strong stomach. But it’s a serious malady and is normally caused by wet walking conditions in sub 60 degree temps for prolonged periods. Luckily in the early afternoon the skies lifted just enough to provide some short range mountain views and dry up the trail a bit as well as our feet.

About this time we stumbled across another Lodge, Skyline Inn. I was still feeling full from the past two meals over at Big Meadows. However, my wife had recently verified a feeling that was a growing concern of mine. I’d taken a picture with Sapling and sent it to her and I looked alarmingly thin. She told me to eat out at every opportunity so in we went. We were also joined by one of the coolest guys on trail who arrived at the same time we did, a dapper and athletic fellow who hikes like a lion named Jukebox. It was fun getting to know his background and sharing ours with him. He and Mister IT swapped stories from their time in the Navy, and Jukebox proudly unbuttoned his shirt when I asked to see the rumored AT symbol that had been shaven into his chest hairs at the over-the-top hiker party we’d attended a few days back.

The hiker party began as a big source of frustration to me. In Sapling’s first days back on trail she had lost her hiking legs and we were often lagging behind Mr. IT. That morning an announcement briefly appeared on FarOut for a free hiker party being put on in a large campground named Loft Mountain. It disappeared within a few hours presumably because it violated some sort of the app’s terms. But we’d seen it and were excited to attend. IT got in front of us again and by early afternoon was texting me that we needed to get there as it was awesome. He said there was tons of food and drink and everyone we knew was there. Well that got us excited and though we were fashionably late the party sounded like it was still raging.

I looked at the map on my phone and could see that Loft Mountain Campground was quite large and had streets named by letters of the alphabet up to the letter S. Oh boy. But then I saw a handwritten sign on the trail touting “Trail Magic Today” with an arrow pointing up the bank on its western side. We bounded up only to find a battered white cooler with a piece of notebook paper taped to the top with slimy wet painter’s tape. In marker was written, “take one.” I lifted the lid to see a tiny Three Musketeers candy bar floating around in some tepid water flecked by particles of bark. No thank you.

We looked about and were quickly discouraged by the size of this campground. Sapling nor I felt like carrying our packs on a potential wild goose chase. I had lost my phone signal so we decided to get back on trail, walk to the front of the campground where there was a store and just buy our own stuff and have a lamer party there. While sipping my beer and eating a full bag of Family Sized Salt-n-Vinegar potato chips, I got another text from IT imploring us to get over there and that now they were serving Bear of all things! Well, I wasn’t going to eat any bear, but strangely, it did make me want to go to the party that much more. Being the outstanding friend IT is he told us to stay put and that he’d come the half mile to meet us and lead the way back.

The party lived up to the hype. All our friends were there, and Truck Stop, the host, was manning his pull-behind grill like a pit master. He made Sapling and me burgers, and I hung out with him while watching my daughter connect with new and old friends alike. Truffle had found a pair of scissors somewhere and was cutting hair, shaving Jukebox’s chest, and painting everyone’s fingernails. There were 20 or so hikers seated on folding chairs in a huge circle, and it was just the kind of community I dreamed of being a part of for the past few years. To see so many friends brought together by Truck Stop’s kindness was special. He must have spent a few thousand dollars in food and drink alone, plus renting out tent spots in the campground. He promised breakfast to anyone who stayed. Thank you Truck Stop! And thank you IT for getting us there.

There is a term on trail called being “vortexed.” It basically means getting so comfortable somewhere that you don’t want to hike anymore. While I heard the breakfast would involve bacon and homemade honeybuns, I knew we needed to stick to our plan and get Sapling to our preplanned destination so we bid everyone adieu and busted a move onward.

All in all Sapling’s time in the Shenandoah National Park had decent weather and lots of high moments. By the end of five days she was flying on the climbs and once again was sad to go home as we hiked into the Panorama Parking Lot at Thorton’s Gap to meet Mark as he was pulling up. At my request she’d already checked with him to see if he’d be willing to drive IT and myself to the nearby town of Luray, Va. for a night at a hostel and a resupply. He kindly agreed and I’ll pick up the adventure from there in the next exciting installment with the working title “Rise of the Section Hiker.”


Captain Fantastic

Ps- still wondering about my confession? You’ll have to hike up Priest Mountain and read it! But as a retired English teacher, I’ll confess to using a split infinitive somewhere in this blog. Let me know in the comments if you spot it!

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Comments 9

  • Bluewhale : Jul 3rd

    I’m happy to read of the Dynamic Duo reunion. You and Sapling are fortunate.

    For “to sometimes digging”, does a split gerund count? 🙂

    • George Preiss : Jul 4th

      You found it Bluewhale! Though I don’t believe digging is actually a gerund in that case as a gerund is a verb functioning as a noun with the -ing ending. As in, “Hiking is my favorite activity.”

      • Bluewhale : Jul 5th

        🙂 I stand corrected. I’m enjoying your trek vicariously. Happy trails!

  • thetentman : Jul 3rd

    I was a Copywriter. I spotted it.

    NJ is mostly downhill.

    Nice post.

    • George Preiss : Jul 15th

      Thanks Tentman… I’m holding you to that NJ description. I’ll be there in 2 days!

  • Sandeep Asokan : Jul 3rd

    Captain, it is fantastic that Sapling was able to join you for a section. The steady progress you are making is amazing. I am glad to see no mentions of discomforts or injuries.
    Looking forward to next week’s update. Good luck!

    • George Preiss : Jul 15th

      Well, I appreciate the kind words Sandeep! But like I’ve learned it wouldn’t be my hike without a lot of drama. If you read my newest post you’ll learn that I’ve suffered a pretty tough new injury.

  • Chris aka Han Slolo : Aug 8th

    Have you crossed path with Fresh grounds and his “Leap frog cafe” this summer?
    Ps, no mention of the famous Blackberry ice cream pie. Yummy

    • George Preiss : Aug 10th

      Hi Han Slolo… love your name! It’s funny you asked about Fresh Grounds because I was just complaining to Miss Janet yesterday that I never had the chance to cross paths with him. And as for the pie, I went for the chocolate- I know, blasphemy! Appreciate your comment and that you read the blog!
      Captain Fantastic


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