Day 80: A Day to Remember
A Perfect Plan
I set this one up perfectly. June’s interruptions gave me lemons and a flippity-floppity itinerary, and I turned them into a sweet lemonade of a day. A day of epic milestones. Watch and learn. Or read and learn. Whatever.
Yesterday, we put the Shenandoahs behind us and drove north to Key’s Gap, where we stopped two weeks ago before heading to Indianapolis for Tim’s funeral. As we drove north from Shenandoah National Park, Northstar said that she finally felt like herself again. She hasn’t had a shingles flair up for more than a month, her energy level is good, she’s avoided dozens of gas station posts, and she’s even ready to hike little bits of the trail with me.
I stopped at Keys Gap two weeks ago for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to leave Virginia before finishing the 109 miles I’d left in Shenandoah National Park. Second, walking past the 1,000-mile marker before the 900-mile marker had felt weird. I didn’t want to relive that feeling at by walking into Harpers Ferry, which is kind of the AT’s emotional halfway point, before I’d actually finished the first half of the AT. I’d stopped just shy of the Pennsylvania border, after walking most of Maryland with Dan, for the same reason.
Today’s plan set me up to click off the following milestones:
- Finish Virginia (State #4)
- Enter West Virginia (State #5)
- Cross the Shenandoah River
- Enter Harpers Ferry
- Visit the ATC headquarters and get my AT mugshot recorded.
- Finish West Virginia (State #5)
- Finish Maryland (State #6)
- Cross the Mason-Dixon Line and enter the North
Plus, in a non-purist, cheating, yellow-blazing sort of way, I could pull off the four-state challenge. Uber-hikers hike the 40+ miles from just south of the West Virginia line to Pennsylvania, bagging four states (VA-WV-MD-PA) in less than 24 hours. My days of doing that sort of mileage on foot are long behind me.
We boondocked at the VA 9 parking area at Keys Gap along the Virginia-West Virginia border. Trucks roared by all night, but we put our exhaust fan on high and drowned out most of the noise. After nine straight days of walking, I could probably have slept well on the VA 9 centerline.
Virginia’s last few miles of trail was pleasant. Not great, but the woods were more open, with better visibility and bright, spring green cover of ferns and grass, as well as a blanket of the brown leaves I love leftover from last fall. I could survive off-trail in these woods. In fact, the open understory tempted me to take a left and just spend the day exploring.
I might have on a less humid day. From now on, you can just assume that its hot and humid unless I say otherwise. To celebrate my new acceptance of East Coast humidity, I dropped a layer. I’ve always worn a wicking t-shirt under my long-sleeve shirt. Even during summer field work in Arizona. But that just doesn’t work well in high humidity. It only provides more fabric to get hopelessly soaked with sweat.
On a short rocky section, I slipped off the edge of boulder, dropped and twisted my ankle and knee, but caught myself before doing any damage. Whew. One bad step is all it takes to end a thru-hike, I reminded myself, as I picked my way along more carefully. One bad step.
Within an hour I walked up to the West Virginia border sign. It felt great walking out of Virginia knowing I’d done everything to the south. After more than 500 miles and 47 days, Virginia is finally done.
I loved Virginia, my favorite state so far, but I’m happy to check it off the list. I just have to avoid thinking about that John Denver song for the next 3.1 miles.
Most of the AT in West Virginia lies within the Harpers Ferry National Historical Area, which is rife with Civil War remnants, memories, and ghosts. But my thoughts looked to the future, not to the past. I found myself thinking about hiking in New England, something I hadn’t been able to visualize so far. I even started planning the drive back to Arizona from Maine. It must be the proximity to Pennsylvania and the North. For the first time, I’m sensing the end of my hike.
The rumble of Highway 340 and glimpses of the Shenandoah River through the trees brought me back to the present. Just before the bridge, I stopped, chatted, and laughed with an Amish family heading south. They had the traditional beards, brimmed hats, bonnets, and long dresses, but the men wore brightly colored shirts and they all were using carbon-fiber trekking poles. I need to learn more about their lifestyle.
Walking the Shenandoah River Bridge felt like a celebration. Such a beautiful river, so wide, and with so many bedrock shelves and white, swirling rapids. What I wouldn’t give for a canoe and an afternoon off.
Harpers Ferry/ATC Headquarters
Gus and I walked up the hill to the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) headquarters in Harpers Ferry just before 9:00 a.m. but discovered it didn’t open until 10:00 a.m. on Wednesdays. Fortunately, Northstar drove up a minute later and whisked us away to the Battle Ground Coffee Shop for a mug of the best chai tea latte I’ve ever had. So I had another one. Northstar said the coffee was also excellent.
Thoroughly sugared and caffeined, we headed back to the ATC for the standard halfway mug shot that goes in the ATC’s permanent records. I looked longingly at the notebooks full of this year’s hikers, but didn’t feel like burning any more of the morning’s cool temperatures paging through to see who was ahead of me. I wanted to get out and log miles.
On my way out, I bumped into Sharpens Steel. I’d last seen him around mile 500, on the day the van wouldn’t start the first time. He’d lost 45 pounds, he said, and looked great. I mentioned that I’d seen V6 and Optimist, his original hiking partners, which seemed to make him happy, though I think he had a new tramily with him.
Since I’d already hiked the Potomac River Bridge into Maryland and most of Maryland’s AT, we drove 40 minutes up to Raven Rock Road at Mile 1061.4, six miles south of the Pennsylvania border. As I climbed out of the van, a day hiker pulled up and parked behind us, asking if it was legal to park here. I’m the wrong guy to ask, as Northstar didn’t plan to stick around, and I’d pretty much leave any parking tickets behind. The parking cops can chase me up the AT or come get me in Arizona.
The hike out of Maryland started with a sweaty 900-foot climb, followed by six rocky miles up to Pen-Mar State Park which straddles the state line. I planned to meet Northstar at the park and hike the 0.2 miles to the border together. Then we’d hike back to the van, drive into Waynesboro, and take a zero.
The Perfect Plan Unravels
An AT First. About three miles from Pen Mar Park, I popped out of the woods at a parking lot. I’d been seeing spray painted graffiti on boulders and trees for about a mile, a rarity for the AT, but suddenly realized where I was. High Rock Ledges, a bedrock overlook, is a local graffiti mecca. The overlook and nearly every paintable surface around it is blanketed with layers of colorful, but not particularly artistic, graffiti. But there’s enough of it that it somehow transcends (barely) ugly and becomes interesting.
I’d forgotten about this place and didn’t expect to see it, since it requires a blue blaze side trail to reach. But I’d somehow gotten off the AT and on the blue blaze. After snapping some obligatory pictures, I turned around to head back to the AT, but couldn’t find the blue blaze trail I’d come in on. FarOut to the rescue. I turned on the map app, zoomed in, and followed the little icon through the woods until I reached the AT. Problem solved.
I’d hiked about 30 minutes further when I saw a hiker coming my direction. As soon as he saw me, he called out, “Hey, did you hike to the state line and back already? That’s incredible!” I didn’t know how to reply. Who was this guy? Why did he think I’d been to the state line? And more importantly, why did he think I was “coming back?”
Uh oh. I recognized him as the hiker who parked behind the van at Raven Rock Road. A dark suspicion began to form in the back of my mind, so I asked, “Are you hiking north?”
He gave me a funny look. “Yes,” he said, “Which direction do you think you’re hiking?” I didn’t have to answer. I knew which direction I’d been walking. I was headed back to Raven Rock Road, not north to Pen Mar Park. My six-mile hike just became a nine-mile hike.
I thanked Von for saving me from hiking all three miles back to the starting point, for recognizing me, and for saying something. It could have been much worse. I turned around and headed back north, having just done my first wrong way hike after a thousand miles on the AT.
Rocks…Nasty Rocks. The trail down from High Rock Ledges is nasty. It’s steep and so bouldery that it’s nearly impossible to find and follow the trail in places. It may be Maryland’s way of letting us know what’s coming in Pennsylvania.
The huge rock fields are a geologic feature called rock rivers, which are created by freeze-thaw processes that break chunks off cliff faces and slope processes which move them slowly downhill. They look like huge, steeply sloped, boulder fields. The AT crosses many of them in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, but today’s rock river was one of the biggest I’ve seen yet. If some of the rocks weren’t painted with white blazes, I’d probably still be out there wandering around.
One Misstep is All it Takes. I walked into Pen Mar Park and met Northstar and Gus for a 0.2-mile celebratory hike into Pennsylvania. As we walked off the park’s manicured lawns and into the green woods, Northstar mentioned she had an itchy bug bite on the back of her leg and asked me to look at it. She’s been a little on edge about tick bites because Gus brings so many of the evil little ba$t@rds back to the van.
I’m always willing to check out her legs, so I leaned over for a good look. And saw a central red bump with a red bull’s eye halo ¾-inch off center. My heart sank.
It wasn’t a textbook picture of an infected tick bite, but it was close enough for concern. We turned around immediately and headed for the nearest urgent care, calling our genius doctor son on the way. He agreed with my assessment. As did the urgent care doctor, who’s prognosis was that it could be anything from just a bug bite to you’ll be in the hospital for weeks… we’d just have to take the prescribed antibiotics and wait.
Now What? So we wait. Northstar had a tough battle with thyroid cancer 28 years ago, and has struggled with autoimmune disorders ever since, so we’ve been down the “just wait” road many times. It sucks. Really, really sucks.
We sat in the van, totally stunned. Eventually, one of us started talking scenarios. Do we go home? Do we want hospital-level symptoms to occur while I’m out hiking? If we stay, what could we do differently to avoid future tick bites? Should we find a place for Gus until we’re out of the middle Atlantic states and the worst of the tick habitat? What if it’s just a bug bite? Are we overreacting?
Just when we started to normalize all this and formulate a plan, the phone rang. Our daughter in Phoenix was on the way to the ER. She’d described some of her symptoms to my doctor son and he told her to get to an ER right away.
Tomorrow will be a zero day, but we’ll have more than zero going on.
- Part 1: VA9 Keys Gap (Mile 954.4) to Harpers Ferry (Mile 1024.3)
- Part 2: Raven Rock Rd (Mile 1061.4) to the Mason-Dixon Line (Mile 1067.3)
- Weather: Puffy clouds, warm-hot, humid, afternoon drizzle.
- Earworm: Project Hail Mary
- Meditation: Lk. 12:27
- Plant of the Day: Butterfly Bush
- Best Thing: ATC mug shot
- Worst Thing: Northstar’s halo rash
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