Day 74: The Shenandoahs


We left Maryland just shy of the Pennsylvania border and headed back to Virginia to pick up 109 miles through Shenandoah National Park. Northstar got more and more depressed as we drove south, finally admitting that it felt like we were losing ground. Regressing. Slipping down the mountain.

I had the same feeling, but I knew we’d made the right decision. As bad as going back felt now, it could only be worse if we waited until after Katahdin. Mustering up the will power to pick up those missing miles after “finishing” in Maine might be more than I could do. Northstar is “all-in” on this adventure, but that might be a hard sell even for her.

The Plan

We hope to finish the Shenandoahs in six days. We didn’t have a lot of flexibility because the Park strictly enforces their no boondocking policy. I read reports that rangers patrol the likely parking spots at sunset. But I was able to get campground reservations for all but one night. We’ll need to get a walk-up spot for that night. Given that our “missing” night is in the middle of a holiday weekend, that might be a challenge.

Originally, I’d planned to be at least halfway through Pennsylvania by July 4. But life intervened and we’re two or three weeks behind, completely eating up the time I got back by getting out of my Alaska commitment. But at least we feel like we’re getting back on track now.

A Gift from Canada

The Canadian wildfire smoke was just blowing in when we set up on the ridge above Rockfish Gap, making for a beautiful red sunset. Our parking spot next to an abandoned motel offered a great view, but wasn’t quite as lonely as we had hoped.

A dozen cars came and went before sunset, all of which seemed to be driven by slightly creepy old guys. But they left us alone, disappeared before dark, and didn’t reappear during the night. The smoke hung around all night, creating an other-worldly orange sunrise. Despite the air quality warnings, I rarely smelled the smoke and didn’t notice any trouble breathing, even on the steepest climbs.

Heading Into the Mountains

Walking out of Rockfish Gap in the morning, I felt as if I were finally back to thru-hiking after nearly a month of planned and unplanned interruptions, obligations, course corrections, and logistical accommodations. The last three weeks seemed like a series of section hikes. I’m sure hiking across the Pennsylvania border next week will feel even more like I’m back to thru hiking.

The climb out of Rockfish Gap greeted me with a face-full of spider webs, letting me know I was the first one out this morning. Gus and I left early to beat the heat, mostly because I discovered that the van was out of drinking water. We managed to gather two liters, which would need to get us eight miles to the first reliable spring. In fact, all the rain over the last two weeks gave us plenty of dog-worthy options not on the map.

The Shenandoah Hit Parade

We hit all the highlights. Gus insisted we take his picture at Beagle Gap, saying that it’s important to recognize the “lesser” dog breeds occasionally. His words, not mine. I tried out the steel tractor seats at the top of Bear Den Mountain. The seats were fine, though both left disappointed at the lack of a bear den. In fact, despite numerous posted warnings, Day One in the Shenandoahs was completely bare of bears.

What we lacked in bears, we made up for in deer and rabbits. We saw so many, we gave up counting. During our lunch break, a six-point buck walked out of the woods, between two parked cars, and strutted across the parking lot not 25 feet away from Gus. I called to the buck as he re-entered the woods and he turned around and came right back out. That was a little more than Gus could take, so he barked the buck back into the woods, but was incensed to see him 50 feet up the trail after we finished our break.

I also came up with a new way to pass the time. I am not a soft-footed hiker – I clump my feet, breath like an old man walking uphill, and clack my poles on rocks. Yet I still manage to walk up behind slower hikers, getting close enough to tap them on the shoulder before they notice I’m there.

Not that I actually touch them. I just walk “silently” behind them until they look over their shoulder. At which point, many of them jump and let out a little scream. I think I’ll keep doing this until someone shoots me. Or punches me…the Shenandoah “hit” parade.

The LONG Green Tunnel

I think I felt my first hint of being tired of the long green tunnel this morning. But it could have been the humidity. Without the sun to dry me off, sweat drenched my clothes. Or possibly the smoke. Every time I topped a peak or broke out of the woods at an overlook, smokey haze buried the view.

These woods are jungle-like, offering no line of sight further than a hundred feet and crowding the trail with overhanging branches and lush verdant underbrush. Despite the constant bird calls, I only catch fleeting glimpses of birds in flight, or sometimes just their shadows, which disappear by the time I look. The green foliage radiates humidity, amplifying the discomfort of the already moist air. Ivy twines around nearly every woody trunk and branch, adding even more leaves to the thick cover.

If not for the trail, I would not be here. I would not venture into these woods, where I can’t see my feet and every other plant seems to look like poison ivy. If I veered off the trail, I doubt I’d re-emerge unscathed. I’d be eaten by bugs. Or worse. For a place with so much biodiversity, everything looks the same. For those who walk off trail, how do they mark and hold a direction in the face of all the uniform green?

I loved the woods in winter and spring, and I love the trail through the summer woods, but I do not love the thick jungle of latent green that wants to cover and bury every thing that is not green.

And yet, the jungle is shady and cool. Every plant exhales oxygen for me to inhale. I walk out of the tunnel into the hazy sunshine and am relieved, hot, and ready for more of the green tunnel.

A Face from the Past

I walked past Mudbug this morning. I’d wondered if I’d see anyone from my original hiking bubble in the Shenandoahs. I hadn’t seen Mudbug since the descent into Fontana two months ago when he was hiking with Happy Feet and another guy. Instagram tells me that Happy Feet moved on and just did a 30-mile day. Mudbug said he’d been moving slowly due to foot issues.

Surprisingly, even though we’d only talked once or twice back in April, we recognized each other right away. Oddly, he heard that my brother had passed. And that I’d left the trail. For being so isolated, news (both fake and real) travels fast on the AT.

We Like the Shenandoahs

So far, I’m loving the Shenandoahs. I mostly had the trail to myself. The trail was quiet, despite the proximity of Skyline Drive, and was very well maintained. Except for the smoke, the occasional views would have been spectacular.

As I sat under a shady tree eating my lunch at an overlook, with Gus napping in my lap, I thought “This is how I’m spending my summer.” I walk in the woods, get great exercise, see cool stuff, rarely have to wash or bathe, and avoid seeing almost every unpleasant person I’ve ever known. I hang with Northstar morning and night. What could be better?

Miscellaneous Thoughts

  • I started a new audiobook – Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. I pulled it out on a long climb through the long green tunnel. So far, an excellent read. Or listen.
  • Does it bother you that the word “Wordle” has six letters?
  • I can smell Day Hikers well before I see them. They smell like perfume, shampoo, and detergent. I do not.
  • I got to our pick-up point about ½-hour early and saw that Northstar was still in Waynesboro, so I hiked another 1.8 miles to Blackrock Gap, making it a 20-mile day.

It’s really good to be back.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Rockfish Gap (Mile 864.3)
  • End: Blackrock Gap (Mile 884.3)
  • Weather: Smoky, humid, warm.
  • Earworm: Audio book
  • Meditation: Mt. 22:29 (wow!)
  • Plant of the Day: Goat’s Rue (no, really)
  • Best Thing: Blackberries
  • Worst Thing: Humidity

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Comments 9

  • thetentman : Jul 1st

    You will enjoy the Andy Weir book.

    Thx for the post.

    • Jon : Jul 6th

      I am. Can’t put it down.

  • Alison : Jul 2nd

    Definite thumbs up for Project Hail Mary

    • PcS : Jul 6th


    • Jon : Jul 6th

      Yup. Loving it.

  • Mike Nixon : Jul 4th

    Welcome back! Stay safe & strong.

    • Jon : Jul 6th

      Thanks, Mike!

  • Linda in NY : Sep 9th

    I’m way late with a thumbs up for the audio Hail Mary.

    One of your Maine posts popped up in my feed recently, don’t know why; maybe because I grew up in Maine, between Andover and Rangeley. Decided to read your Trek from the start. I’m loving your thru-hike / @vanlife mashup.

    Thanks for sharing your adventure with us.

    • Jon : Sep 14th

      Thanks, Linda. Welcome to the e-tramily !


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