My Shortest Solo AT Section Yet was also my Toughest: 55 Miles of Northern Virginia in November

It was Wednesday, November 11th, and I felt the sweet relief I had been noticing the past few days at the moment I opened my eyes and realized it was light out. Restless nights of sleep will do that, especially when the sun goes down around 5 PM and doesn’t start showing its presence again until sometime between 6 and 7 AM. As much as I tried to befriend the extra darkness in the evenings, I didn’t welcome the extra time I had been spending with it as I tossed and turned every couple hours at night, becoming hyper aware of any residual hunger, need to pee, or sensitivity to the chilly November air that I fought off as I stared at my eyelids waiting impatiently for either sleep or light.

Packing Up Camp at the Tye River

It appeared that the tiredness cultivated from the previous two nights had finally caught up to me that third night, gifting me a sound sleep. It took me an extra second to realize why – the pouring rain the forecast had promised pelted my tent, and I was sure it had drowned out the snaps, crackles, and pops of the woods all night to sing me to sleep. Thankfully it didn’t drown my tent, as I confirmed by reluctantly reaching my hands around the base of my sleeping pad and let out a sigh of relief. I knew I was going to deal with rain today, but as long as my sleeping bag and sleep clothes remained dry, my number one priority was already taken care of.

I uncomfortably fought the instant morning urge to go to the bathroom that I always wake up with, as I stuffed my sleeping bag, pad, and sleep clothes into my pack. The second I left the tent to use the facilities – aka dig a hole- I’d be soaked, and I didn’t want to come back into my tent dripping all over my sleeping bag. If it was pouring this hard any other day, I’d at least consider waiting until it lightened up a bit to pack up camp. But this rain wasn’t supposed to go anywhere the entire day, so I knew I had no choice but to get moving. I finally emerged to retrieve my food bag and dig my hole, scanning my tent site right near the Tye River suspension bridge at NOBO mile 835.5 on the AT. Just the night before, I sat there enjoying impeccable weather and a sky full of stars on my third night in a row of camping alone. My surroundings had been my companion, but now the harshness of the rain seemed to accentuate my aloneness.

My campsite next to the Tye River suspension bridge – while it was still dry, of course!

Battling Low Energy and Rain

I knew I was starting off with a climb, and one that wouldn’t really end for another six trail miles and 3,064 ft. higher than where I was standing in that moment. Being on city legs and not in peak hiking shape, I knew the trail was just going to feel tough this week no matter what I did. But I don’t think I really thought about what a climb like that would feel like that day, standing out even amongst the general ups and downs the AT brought me that week. I had been struggling with my appetite the past few days, which isn’t normally what you hear when you think of long distance hiking and hiker hunger. But when your body goes from hardly any exertion to suddenly a little too much exertion, it can take some adjusting. The extra hunger when hiking doesn’t kick in for me until I’ve gotten past that adjustment phase where my body seems to be a little shocked and loses its appetite in response to the stress I’m putting it under.

It being day four of my hike, I was really starting to feel the need for more calories and energy, while still feeling like I was force feeding myself any of the snacks I brought. So for those first few miles uphill, I trudged along, continuously sucking on fruit snacks to try to find a balance between feeling nauseous yet knowing by principle that I just needed to get something more in my stomach. My handle of my Walmart umbrella was pressed against me under my chest strap (best piece of gear I ever brought on trail, I might add), providing a little oasis from the rain yet blocking some of my view up the incline of the trail. This caused me to get into this little rhythm of staring at a small window of earth while systematically getting one fruit snack down at a time and non-stop thinking about how there was a shelter in just a couple miles where I was going to take a quick break out of the rain. I was already mentally pushing so much that I couldn’t think past that for now.

Harpers Creek Shelter – A False Relief

I felt immense relief to see Harpers Creek Shelter after 2.5 miles, only for that relief to dissipate as I realized that I was getting cold too quickly for the break to last very long. I skipped any real food intake, sat at the edge of the shelter trying to get some baby powder on my feet as a false sense of relief to how soaked they were, and knew it was time to continue on. I took a quick glance around the shelter for the log book and for some reason didn’t see it anywhere, which gave the place in that moment an emptiness that I didn’t need to sit with much longer anyways.

Pushing to Three Ridges

The next three miles were the hardest three I think I’ve ever had on the AT. There wasn’t a single moment of relief from going up. The AT always goes up. But this just felt different. I was feeling void of all energy and started feeling like me and my body were two separate things. It was like I was just pulling my legs up the mountain one by one, back and forth, with no sense of a rhythm or forward motion but rather like something was dragging me behind it. The rain never stopped, the fog socked me in, and my heart raced slightly when I remembered that there was a chance of afternoon thunderstorms and at this rate I’d be at the peak just in time for them. But I couldn’t physically move any faster than the baby steps I was taking.

I broke it into segments in my mind. There were 3 miles left of this climb after the brief shelter break, and I kept repeating “just get to that 2nd mile”. Even though I’ve been trying to lessen my frequency of unnecessarily checking my location the guthook app while hiking, I needed it as motivation today. I was moving so lethargically that I’d sometimes only have moved two or three tenths of a mile between checks, hoping I’d gone a full mile or more. By that third mile, I found myself taking ten steps, then stopping to bend over and lean my head on my trekking poles, asking whatever was listening for a moment of strength to finish this thing. I did that again, and again, starting to wonder what on earth I was doing up there. I hadn’t seen another person yet that day, and I wondered if I was the only person to ever find that climb in those conditions so overwhelmingly difficult.

I eventually reached the peak of three ridges, and I assume there was an incredible view somewhere out there. The fog and rain were so thick that I never saw it, and truthfully didn’t care one bit. I was so beyond thankful to have reached the top, somehow, and the storms never appeared. I started to feel desperately hungry, and although thankful to finally feel a real appetite while hiking, I had no time to celebrate the peak and take out anything significant to eat because I couldn’t stop moving.

I had three mostly downhill miles to go until the next shelter, and the second the exertion lessened from that uphill monster, I could feel myself getting cold. On a day like this, I knew in the back of my mind that I had to take that seriously. I still hadn’t seen anyone else and didn’t fancy I was going to. I was responsible for myself, and to set the scene, I’m a relatively small person and have always gotten cold very quickly – it’s my weakness out there. My hiking clothes and rain clothes I was wearing over them were completely saturated by this point. I could no longer use my location on guthooks as my motivation, because things were so damp and chilly that my phone screen wouldn’t accept my fingers pressing into it. I started this mantra in my head. “Don’t stop moving. Privy. Dry Clothes. Food.” I repeated that to myself robotically, sometimes in my head and sometimes out loud, over the course of those three miles. I knew I needed to do those things in that order. Even if it was overly cautious, it was sort of a safety measure I set up for myself, thinking that if I got so cold and tired that I was barely thinking straight, I just had to do those things. This is why I was on this part of the AT at this time of year anyways – to have a more solitary experience at times, and with that, to be solely responsible for myself.

Making it to Maupin Field Shelter

I made it to Maupin Field Shelter, and there wasn’t a chance I was going any further that day. The next shelter was 16 miles ahead, and I desperately needed to be out of the rain for the night. When you think about it, the shelters along the AT can be a luxury, but today the shelter started to feel like necessity. I was able to keep my sleeping bag and my sleeping outfit dry rather than having to roll it out in my wet tent that had been a sopping ball in my pack. I never saw another soul that day, night, or next morning – neither creature nor human. Maybe that’s why when I realized I had one bar of cell service, I gave my boyfriend a call and surprised myself when I started involuntarily tearing up upon hearing his voice. I had pushed myself all day that day, and now I was feeling the release. The trail provides, and I felt so provided for by being able to have that moment to chat with him.

I focused on this day because it was so unique for me in comparison to a day on the AT during the thru hiker bubble or a Saturday among many day hikers. It was just me there with myself, and only I harbor that memory of what it actually felt like for me to do what I did that day. I’ve started to feel a disconnect between the pictures and videos I took during that week on the trail, and what actually made the experience. It’s also this reason that I’ve stopped posting on social media. I have pictures of beautiful views and pretty shelter sites to share with my family and friends, but only my words can attempt to capture the backbone of what this hike was, and not even those words can do it justice. Not every moment on the AT is actually enjoyable, and that particular day felt really hard. Of course I’d have rather been warm and dry. But if I was, I never would have gotten to say that I did that. I couldn’t sit here thinking back about how I got to have one more experience that pushed me and challenged me, even though I wouldn’t necessarily wish to be back in the heart of that day. Yet, I know I will do it again sometime, because that’s just the trail, it calls us back. Even the crazy hard stuff that makes no sense.

 

A quick logistical note for those interested – this was during a week-long NOBO hike of the 55 mile section from US Route 60 at Lexington/Buena Vista to Waynesboro, VA. For an indication of what the AT is like there right now, I camped alone for four nights, but started seeing a lot of people on trail once the weekend hit.

 

It was so rainy on the day I’ve just written about that I didn’t take any pictures, but I wanted to share some better-weather pictures from different parts of the week!

My first night’s dinner – dehydrated risotto, zucchini, and mushrooms! Unfortunately I forgot to bring seasoning for it which made it a little bit difficult to eat.

 

I found that having a nice campfire was comforting on the nights I camped alone.

 

The leaves were mostly bare already, turning Virginia into a place full of views along the trail!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments 8

  • Avatar
    Robbie Steen : Nov 19th

    Sarah, Thoroughly enjoyed your trail tale. As a young guy, the highlight of time spent with my pop was hiking the AT w/him and family friend, Mr. Dawson. They’re both gone now, but hiking Three Ridges among other sections of the trail in VA, is a memory that comes to mind whenever I’m tackling a mega climb or ride. I’ve biked across our country, numerous countries in Europe too many times to count, hiked Macchu Picchu and Volcan Baru in February. My peers don’t have nearly the chutzpah that you do and if I’m gonna do a thru-hike of the AT, it will be solo. Your account was inspiring. Stay healthy and go hard!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Don Joseph : Nov 19th

      Sarah,
      That section of trail is a “beast” in the best of weather – so many rock falls and steep trail sections (I’ve hiked that section SOBO twice and camped next to the Tye River bridge June 2018) – I can hardly imagine how tough it would be in cold non-stop rain. That’s one of those personal accomplishments that you’ll keep with you the rest of your life! Congratulations and happy trails!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    camelback santa : Nov 19th

    Three Ridges was brutal! you should have gone to Devils Backbone brewery for a free shower afterwards and $5 breakfast .

    Good going!!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sarah Lesiecki : Dec 16th

      I unfortunately missed out on Devils Backbone because it seemed like things were different this year in terms of what they were offering for hikers, at least according to guthooks so I decided not to risk trying to get there. But as the story continues, after sleeping in the shelter that night and the rain continuing halfway through the next day, I discovered in the AWOL guide that I could walk a mile and a half off trail to Royal Oaks cabins. I couldn’t resist the idea of a dry room and shower at that point so I headed there for the next night, and although it wasn’t Devils Backbone, it was exactly what I needed in that moment!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    thetentman : Nov 19th

    Great writing. You captured the pain and frustration perfectly. Keep writing and hiking.
    Cheers and good luck.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    iota san : Nov 20th

    I enjoyed your thoughts. The imagery of the experience was so clear! Hike on!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Happy Hermit : Nov 21st

    I can relate with your experience. I hiked 20 miles from Seeley-Woodworth Shelter to Maupin Field Shelter on a cold, sunny 4 December 2018 during my AT flip-flop (WV>ME, GA>WV). I swapped out my trail runners for waterproof boots at Thanksgiving – I was tired of cold, wet feet since Roan Mountain. But the boots pinched my big toes, which I tolerated until my descent of The Priest. By the time I crossed the Tye River bridge, I had to stop and remove my boots and double-layered socks. Both of my big toenails were black – my first (and hopefully last) experience losing toenails. I loosened my boots and limped the remaining nine miles over Three Ridges into Maupin Field Shelter.

    Overnight in the shelter, I heard something scratching at my pack behind my head, and thumped the pack to chase it off. When I heard continued activity in the shelter, I sat up and caught a critter against the far wall in my headlamp. I didn’t realize what it was until it turned its rear end to me and raised its tail. SKUNK! I cut the lamp and ducked into my bivy, expecting to be sprayed but the skunk had mercy, and I shortly heard it in the leaves outside the shelter, and later directly beneath me under the shelter floor.

    All things considered, I was lucky, and awoke to find a beautiful cover of light snow that fell overnight. A quick cold breakfast (stoveless) and I was on my way again, still limping a bit.

    At that point, it was rare to see any hikers, and I had most shelters and all hostels to myself. I enjoyed the solitude, but at times it was also lonely so meeting another hiker was a pleasure.

    Happy Trails!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sarah Lesiecki : Dec 16th

      I loved hearing this story, thankfully there was no skunk for me!

      Reply

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