Day 4: SASH #9 Virginia – The AT Gets Real – No More Walking in the Park

“All right, stop whatcha doin’ ’cause I’m about to ruin, The image and the style that ya used to…” The Humpty Dance, Digital Underground

I actually slept fairly well in the shelter and, surprisingly, I appeared to be one of the few awake at 5:00 am. I usually wake up right at daylight, but this morning, I had to use my headlamp to pack up my gear. I had an Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate muffin, a treat from my wife packed in from Rockfish Gap, and a cold brewed Starbucks Via instant coffee – by that I mean I just put the packet in my water bottle and shook it up. Still a pretty bougie breakfast for an AT shelter! I appeared to be one of the first out of camp this morning at 6 am, which by my standards may actually be a first. From Paul Wolfe shelter, the trail crosses Mill Creek and then begins an ascent up Dobie Mountain that eventually leads to the summit of Humpback Mountain. I hopped across the rocks at Mill Creek, did a scramble over a very recent blowdown and prepped my mind for the planned 16 mile day. The first couple miles were gradual and I could still hear Mill Creek below; it seemed like it would be a good day. The first couple miles went by relatively easy and I found myself at a Y-intersection in the trail. There was a sign that pointed vaguely towards the two new branches of the trail labeled as a blue blaze to a parking lot and labeled North AT back from where I had just hiked. I was not sure which branch was the blue blaze and which branch was South AT and the sign oddly was not also labeled with the SOBO direction. One branch was up. One branch was down. You can fool me once; I assumed that the up had to be the SOBO AT since I was destined to climb Humpback Mountain. Fortunately, my misdirection lasted only ten yards until I saw the blue blaze. I turned around and headed downhill to Humpback Mountain.

Climb up from Mill Creek valley, VA

Busting my Hump on Humpback Mountain

This downhill was merely a short joke, as the trail quickly began back up, this time significantly steeper than coming out of Mill Creek valley. I had begun my struggle with Humpback Mountain. I tried to put my head down and get into steam engine mode. But frankly, I didn’t realize how low were my energy reserves. The switchbacks were relatively long and I soon fell victim multiple times to the mirage of the false summit. I forced myself to stop looking up towards the tops of the trees for a glimpse of the sky above the mountain. Steam engine mode was not engaging and my right hip started to ache, an unusual occurrence for me while hiking. I remembered one of my maxims from my marathoning days; it doesn’t hurt less the slower you go, it only hurts longer. I started popping Starburst candies at the turn of every switchback as a little motivator, but the switchbacks seemed to be endless. I kept telling myself that Humpback Mountain was the biggest challenge of the day and it would be relatively downhill from there to Maupin Field Shelter, the day’s goal. But frankly, there was not enough gas in my tank to even manage a weak fart. There was nowhere to go but forward, and up; so, determination took the helm. I thought about my worst marathon back in Baltimore 2005. Around mile 20 of that race, my left hip gave out and I was barely able to walk, let alone run. I had one more hill to go and at the top of that hill was an aid station. As I limped up that hill, a nice Baltimore Hon (IYKYK) on the side of the course asked if I was okay. I said yes, I am fine. She replied, you don’t look fine. I decided I was going to quit at the aid station. But when I got to the top of the hill, had some water and something to eat, a volunteer said it’s all downhill from here to the marathon’s finish at Camden Yards baseball stadium. I did not quit, walked some, hobbled some, but I ran across the finish line well over five hours after starting the race. Five months later I ran my personal best for a marathon in Virginia Beach. I finally found myself at the forested summit of Humpback Mountain with no view and no finisher’s medal. But I thought to myself, it’s all downhill from here.

Humpback Mountain summit, VA

Wife’s Trail Name: Nightingale

I summited Humpback Mountain before noon, but I was considerably behind a pace that would get me to Maupin Field at my usual early evening arrival time to shelters. I was still somewhat confident I could make it to the shelter by dark. That is if it was, indeed, all downhill. As I crested the actual summit, a NOBO passed me and asked wearily if this was the top of Humpback Mountain. From his demeanor, I assumed he had a tough climb, but assured him he was at the top. I decided to not take a long break at the summit thinking the descent would be steep after talking with the NOBO. I went around the top of the mountain to begin the descent to the opposite side when a quick cloudburst opened up and soaked me for about 30 minutes. There was no time for any rain gear. It wasn’t really needed. In fact, the soaking kind of energized me and when the sun came out, I was in good spirits. I munched on a Clif Bar for elevenses and set off down the south side of Humpback Mountain. I wasn’t quite in a rhythm, but my thoughts began to ponder a possible trail name for my wife as a way to divert my mind from the growing pain in my hip. She had texted me that the trail angel at Rockfish Gap had suggested “Helping Hands” since she was supporting me on my hike. I could tell she wasn’t convinced and I didn’t like that name either. She is a nurse practitioner and, of course, has to do frequent first aid on me after hikes or working around the house and yard at home. And since I am retired from the Army, I immediately made the connection to Florence Nightingale, a British nurse in the Crimean War and credited with the advent of modern nursing. I decided to name her Nightingale when we would meet up the next day at the Tye River crossing.

Purple-flowered Raspberry near Humpback Mountain, VA

No More Walk in the Park

I was moving slowly due to my hip pain, but soon reached the first crossing of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Dripping Rock. After crossing the BRP, the AT comes to a lovely vista called Cedar Cliffs. It would have made a fantastic grassy tent site if there had not been signs declaring “No Camping.” Still, I took off my pack and laid down in the grass for a deserved rest. I was tempted to take a nap in the sunshine, but I was only half way to Maupin Field. I ate another Clif Bar for lunch and closed my eyes for a few minutes. But as I felt myself wanting to drift into actual sleep, I pushed myself up, put on my pack, and headed south. That would turn out to be the last moment of solitude and silence in the wilderness that I would experience on this section hike. Within minutes of leaving Cedar Cliffs, the AT became a rocky jumble, just below the Blue Ridge Parkway. I now was more rock hopping than hiking. Rocks almost always slow me down a good bit, but with my hip pain, I might have been able to crawl faster. My confidence of reaching Maupin Field crumbled as I beat my feet, legs, and aching right hip against the rocks. I thought to myself, at least my left hip was holding up to the abuse. The AT just got real. This was no walk in Shenandoah National Park. After the beating Humpback Mountain gave me and the relentless rocks, I started to wonder if I hadn’t exceeded my abilities. Adding to the fun, I started to hear thunder in the distance. The weather forecast had called for the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms. I knew that it was going to be more certainty than possibility. Around 5 pm, I stopped at a spring flowing out of the rocks right on the trail and filled my water bottles. I took the opportunity to also check FarOut for possible tent sites prior to Maupin Field since it was clear I was not getting there today. It is not a myth that the trail provides. In less than a mile, the guide showed a small tent site. I decided then that was the stopping point for the day.

Mill Creek valley, VA

Sometimes it’s Better to be Lucky

I resisted the urge to try and pick up my pace, even though the thunder was growing closer and the sky darker. Well, actually, my hip refused to even consider the idea. Probably a good thing, as I did not need to add a fall on these rocks to the situation. Given their edges and angles, I most certainly would have sustained some injury. I found the tent site exactly where FarOut indicated it would be directly beside the trail and thankfully, the only two sites for tents were empty. I texted my wife that I was safe and stopped for the night, well short of the plan I had shared with her at the beginning of the trip. Today’s mileage turned out to be another respectable 12.5 miles instead of the 16 I had planned. I quickly set up my tent as the raindrops started to fall. Literally, less than a minute after I completed the pitch, tossed my loaded pack inside, and crawled inside myself, the storm was directly overhead and the rain pelted the tent. I texted my wife I was safely off any high ground and dry inside my tent. She texted back a radar image of the storm covering a wide swath of the George Washington National Forest; I estimated that I was lying directly in its center. I had my first experience of completely unpacking my pack, inflating my sleeping pad, laying out my sleeping bag, and changing into camp clothes completely within my tent as the rain continued to drench the forest. I texted back and forth with my wife that there would likely be no dinner al fresco tonight. Actually, I was so tired that I didn’t even want to eat at first; so, I closed my eyes and dozed, listening to the rain. Occasionally, I would open my eyes to see if my Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 1 Tent was holding up to the storm. I love this tent; exactly enough room and quite able to handle a heavy rain. It rained for almost two hours. There was still a bit of daylight left when the rain stopped; so, I decided to get out of the tent and cook a hot meal. I should have taken a picture of the orange glow on the horizon as the sun set through the trees. But I was hungry and immediately went to my task of boiling water for my Good-to-Go Three Bean Chili meal with a chicken packet and instant mashed potatoes. While I ate my supper, I scanned the surrounding trees for a bear bag hang option. But in the fading light I could not find a suitable tree. I walked down the trail about twenty yards, set my food bag beside a big rock, and whispered a plea to any nearby bear to please leave me some food for the morning.

Spectator on the Humpback Mountain switchback marathon, VA

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Comments 4

  • Jenny : Jun 14th

    Your writing brings me beautiful images of the trail, I can feel your hip pain, and thanks for blogging when you probably need rest. Safe journey- enjoy the up up of the Priest soon.

    • Rick "Quiet Man" : Jun 14th

      Jenny thank you for your kind comment; truly appreciated! Actually, I am back home now; the section hike was 1-5 June. I tried to make the Day 1 post from the trail, but found it too difficult using only mobile data bandwidth, especially the photos. Besides, I like some time for introspection, the purpose for the journey in the first place. I didn’t attempt the Priest this section. I know that’s another challenge! I am not sure if that will be where I start or end next time out. We shall see…

  • Nature Boy : Jun 17th

    Quiet Man – your SASH took place in my back yard (I live in Charlottesville). Nice to read a full description of someone else hiking the area – thruhikers tend to blast past without much comment in TheTrek blogs. Yep, Humpback is a something of an ascent – and it seems you missed the excellent view from the short spur to Humpback Rocks, though you made up for it adequately at Cedar Cliffs.
    Another invasive for your floral inventory – Japanese stiltgrass, brought into the country decades back as packing material. Look up some info on it. Now loose everywhere in the Appalachians, nothing eats it and seeds are viable for at least 5 years. The only slight upside is that it has very weak roots so easy to grab whole handfuls of the stuff….

    • Rick "Quiet Man" : Jun 17th

      NB, thank you for your comment and info! I actually took a pack-off break at the blue blaze to Humpback Rocks to refill the water bottle that I carry on my pack strap from one of the reserves. Two young NOBO thru hikers came down from the view and I asked them if it was worth the extra .5 mile; they said it was a great view, but not much different than others. Some days I will take blue blazes and some days I will not. This was a “not” day.


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