Day 75: Lightbulb Moments in the Shenandoahs

The Real Reason We Love Blackberries

What’s the best part of eating blackberries along the trail? Their tasty sweetness? Getting free calories? Letting Mother Nature provide sustenance? Adding nutrients to our bland hiker’s diet? Nope. The best part is the little seeds that get stuck in your teeth. They provide hours of entertainment. First while trying to get them out, and then again while crunching them once they break free.

Shenandoahs Day 2: Gus Gets a Day Off

Northstar dropped me off at Blackrock Gap at 7:30, pretty early for her. She had plans to drive up to Lewis Mountain Campground to snag a walk-up camp site. The Ranger at Loft Mountain told her that it might fill up early due to the holiday weekend. But Gus convinced her that a nap would be a better use of her time and she conked out.

When I pulled out Gus’ training collar this morning, he took one look and crawled back in bed and dug himself under the covers. He said he’d had four consecutive days of hiking, including yesterday’s 20-miler, and deserved a day off.

By the time we’d driven to Blackrock Gap, he’d changed his mind, but it had started drizzling. Neither of us want to sleep with or smell a wet dog, so he stays with Northstar on rainy days. I’m pretty sure the nap was his revenge for being left behind.

The Plan

I had two main goals today: (1) Eat a Wayside smash burger, and (2) Pass the 900-mile marker. We all know what the 900-mile marker means, and most of us have eaten a smash burger, but unless you’ve driven Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, you may have never heard of a Wayside.


Waysides are small restaurants run by a Park Service Concession with a reputation for overpriced, relatively unhealthy, delicious food. Everything I’d read before leaving Springer led me to believe that I could eat nearly every meal in the Shenandoahs at one of the many Waysides located just off the trail. Grim reality shattered my dreams of hot, greasy breakfasts, daily smash burgers with blackberry milkshake chasers, and something even more caloric for dinner.

First of all, only a few Waysides are found along the 100-mile Skyline Drive, and only one in the first 50 miles. Second, some of them, including the one I’d planned to visit today, are located about a mile off trail and require a steep detour climb. Or a blue blaze hike along Skyline Drive which cuts off a 1.5-mile loop of the AT that has one of the better vistas in the Park. Talk about a bitter choice.

Blue Blazing

Not really. I walked the road, recalling Smokestack’s advice to skip the entire trail in the Shenandoahs in favor of the road, which has much better views and smoother grades. Or at least it might on sunny, non-hazy, non-Canadian smoke days. I can’t really say for sure.

I cruised into the Loft Mountain Wayside just in time for second breakfast. Except that, unlike the adjacent gift shop, the Wayside grill didn’t open until 11:00 am. Well, I’d already ruined my previously purist thru hike by walking Skyline Drive for a mile, so I might as well sit around for an hour waiting to be fed. Plus, the drizzle hadn’t let up, and they let me sit at one of the empty tables, though my pack and poles had to wait outside.

Smash Burgers and Blackberry Shakes

Northstar cruised by just in time to share a smash burger (as delicious as it sounds), fries (meh), and ONE sip of my blackberry shake (no seeds, unfortunately). Northstar said she’d seen lots of backpackers walking the road. I’m guessing more than one purist has lost their purity sash in the Shenadoahs. It has a very long green tunnel and the road walks are very tempting.

I don’t know if the nearly 2,000 calories, the smoke-laden drizzle, or the nearly 900 miles of hiking brought me clarity, but after I returned to the trail the lightbulbs suddenly started going off.

Lightbulb #1: Beyond PUDs

Pointless ups and downs (PUDs) are a hallmark of the AT. Any tough climb that doesn’t quite reach the summit or that has no vista that makes the climb worthwhile is a PUD. The same for random descents in the middle of a long climb that serve no purpose except to lengthen the ascent.

As I climbed yet another PUD, I realized I really don’t mind PUDs. Mind you, I prefer a view and reaching the summit, but whatever. I’ll walk whatever trail section that is front of me. Unless there’s a blue blaze that leads to another blackberry milkshake.

Lightbulb #2: The Incident Gets Grumpy

I can get grumpy. Stupidly grumpy. I admit it. Mostly, I get hangry when my blood sugar drops too low or I get overtired, but those aren’t the only times I’m a jerk. I need to learn to recognize the warning signs. Like letting little stuff bother me. Or when I start muttering to myself or using hiker trash vocabulary. I must fix this by eating, napping, and mostly shutting up. Sorry, Northstar. Sorry, family.

Lightbulb #3: I Like My Hike

I really like walking the AT with Gus, meeting Northstar at night, living in the van, having good food, eating cold yogurt and fresh berries on my morning oatmeal, drinking my chai tea in a good ceramic mug before I set out for the day, wearing dry clothes, hanging with Northstar in the afternoons and evening, keeping the dog dry, and sleeping in a cushy bed. I love walking in the woods, having my afternoons to write, and doing my writing on my laptop rather than on my iPhone while lying in my tent.

For any haters out there who think that I’m not really thru-hiking, your opinion just doesn’t matter that much to me. After a thousand miles on the trail, I’ve finally walked into my comfort zone. I have a sweet gig, and I love it.

Lightbulb #4: Smooth Trails are the Best

The Shenandoahs have the best-designed and groomed trails I’ve walked so far. Smooth, rockless trails that follow the contours make me happy. Why isn’t the whole trail more like this?

Lightbulb #5: Mileage Markers are Getting Less Meaningful

I passed the 900-mile mark on the descent into Simmons Gap. Nine hundred miles is a long, long way, but I just wasn’t as excited about seeing the marker as I had been for previous milestones. Maybe passing the 1000-mile marker last week took some of the oomph out of 900 miles. Maybe I’m getting to the point where 500-mile increments will be how I measure progress.

Trail’s End

All that thinking must have worn me out. I’d thought about pushing for another 20-miler today, but when Northstar texted that she’d gotten us spots for the next two nights at Lewis Mountain Campground, I called it at Simmons Gap. From Lewis Mountain, I can hike south back to Simmons Gap tomorrow and then north to Skyland Resort the next day, and Northstar won’t have to drive anywhere to drop me off. She can sleep in three days in a row.

I sat down against a tree by the road until black ants and little green spiders started crawling all over me, and I relocated to lie down on some pavement on a side road. I must have drifted off but awoke when a doe and fawn walked out of the woods are started huffing at me. That was a first. Awakened by a deer.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Blackrock Gap (Mile 884.3)
  • End: Simmons Gap (Mile 900.3)
  • Weather: Smoky, humid, warm. Again.
  • Earworm: Rocketman
  • Meditation: Mt. 23:28
  • Plant of the Day: Red columbine & Viper’s-bugloss
  • Best Thing: 900 miles
  • Worst Thing: Humidity. Again.

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Comments 8

  • thetentman : Jul 2nd

    It is so nice that you seem OK with PUD’s Pennsylrocky is coming and that will test your PUD tolerance.

    Good luck and nice post.

    • Jon : Jul 6th

      Haha. You’re breaking my heart, homes.

  • Homeward : Jul 2nd

    I agree with TheTentman about both PUDs and Rocksylvania.
    Re: mileage, it was somewhere in Vermont that I started hearing “wow, you’re almost finished!” About the 5th time I heard that, I started saying “you’re right and I’ll wait here while you go get your pack and we’ll hike it together 😉. I guess that we all get crabby sometimes.
    Hike on, my brother!

    • Jon : Jul 6th


  • Charlotte : Jul 2nd

    Wonderful post!!

    • Jon : Jul 6th

      Thx, Charlotte!

  • Mike Nixon : Jul 7th

    Lightbulb #3 – HYOH!

    You’re welcome.

    Capt Obvious

    p.s. I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed reading about your new game…heavy-footing up behind folks who are oblivious to your presence!

    Stay safe & strong!

    • Jon : Jul 9th

      A jogger got me back this morning…almost jumped out of my skin. Karma.


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