Riding the Blue Ridge Home
Well, I made it! I’m in downtown Frederick, Maryland, taking a zero day right back near where I grew up. For a thousand miles I’ve walked from town to unfamiliar town, my points of reference scattered far apart. And then I walked down the hill into Harpers Ferry, and I knew where everything — absolutely everything — was. I keep asking myself, How did I get here? And how the heck am I walking through so fast?
I’ve been staying with old friends from when I was a kid, catching up and telling them about my hike. It feels so disconnected from the rest of my trip, it’s hard to believe that I’ll be trekking on north through Pennsylvania in just a few days. I’m planning to take my one and only ‘double zero’ here, an extra pause to rest up before the northern half of the trail. In the past week I’ve walked 145 miles, so I could use the break!
But enough about where I am now. The rest of this post will be about where I’ve just been, and how I got here.
Into the Mist
I had a nice, restful day and a half in Waynesboro. The Farmhaus coffee shop was a great spot to hang out, and I ate a slice of pizza the size of the head at Benny Stivale’s. On Sunday afternoon, Andrea drove me out to the trailhead, and I started the walk uphill in a misty rain shower. For those first eight miles in Shenandoah there were no views, and I arrived at the Calf Mountain Shelter feeling cold, wet, and miserable. My neighbors were a couple of section hikers, and two thru-hikers I’d met in Pearisburg who rolled in late.
The next day was also cold and damp. The mountains were blanketed in a fine, soaking mist. I was walking with one of the section hikers from camp, a GI doctor from the Mayo Clinic (trail name ‘Ğut’ with a soft G). He’s been doing AT and PCT sections every year, and has a pretty intense backpacking style with cold-soaked vegan meals and ultralite gear. Even though it was his second day on trail, he did a full 26.2 marathon hike with me, and we got in to the Pinefield Hut around seven. There’d been no views in the cold fog, and the temperature had barely risen above 40. It was hard to believe I’d been sweating in the May sunshine less than a week before.
Since Shenandoah has one of the gentlest sections of trail, built by the CCC in the 1930s, I took the opportunity to push for longer miles through the park. My first full day, as I’ve mentioned, was a marathon, and I wanted to push for even longer on day two. So I got up early and started out towards Swift Run Gap, hoping to make it 28.5 miles to Big Meadows by the evening.
The sky had cleared, and I began to see great views, starting with Hightop mountain eight miles in. Soon afterwards, I passed the 900-mile mark. At mile twenty I stopped at the Lewis Mountain camp store for beers and ice cream. And then I walked the last eight miles to Big Meadows campground with a girl named Leapfrog, whose friend Batona had walked ahead to set up campground.
Arriving at Big Meadows was a big deal for me. It’s the southern end of the section I’ve hiked before, so from there to the New Jersey border I can rely on memory and my own mental map to plan out where I’m going. It feels good not to have to guess what a spring or a campsite is like from random comments on FarOut! In a few weeks I’ll be back in the unknown, but for now I’ve got a kind of superpower that’s helping me along the way.
Big Meadows was also an opportunity to indulge in a little luxury. There’s a lodge there with a fancy restaurant, and after I’d set up my tent in the park campground (camping fee $30 😮) I went up there for dinner. And then again for breakfast the next morning, in a wood-paneled dining room perched up over the valley.
The next day, Tuesday, I made sure to take my time, enjoying the high country at the heart of the park. Hawksbill, just past Big Meadows, is the tallest peak in Shenandoah, and the only one to top 4000 feet. Between Hawskbill and Stony Man lies the Skyland resort, with an excellent restaurant I made sure to stop by for lunch. While I was there I called Big Agnes to ask them for a new tent pole, since mine had gotten damaged the other night. Some of the other guests must have been listening in, because as I was on the phone a man walked up to my table, set down a twenty-dollar bill, said “Trail magic!”, and walked out. The funniest things happen when you’re a thru hiker.
Lions and Tigers and Bears
For the rest of that day I was retracing my steps from a section hike last year. It was on that trip that I had the idea to do a 2022 thru-hike, so it was interesting to revisit where I’d been. I saw the spectacular view from Mary’s Rock and finished the day late in the evening at the Pass Mountain Hut.
As I walked up towards Pass Mountain from Thornton Gap, I had the very strong feeling that there were bears nearby. In fact, I was convinced that I would see one, though I couldn’t have said why I had this feeling. I kept my eye out for a bear along the trail, but of course I didn’t see a thing. When I got to camp I set up near a big spring, with rabbits, warblers, and wood thrushes foraging noisily nearby.
As usual, I emptied my food bag and made dinner while the sun went down, eating a dehydrated meal in the vestibule of my tent. Then I boiled some water for tea and was relaxing with an audiobook when I heard the noise. Some kind of animal was crashing through the brush, and it sounded like it was getting pretty close.
It was dark by now, so I turned on my headlamp and pointed it towards the bushes where the noise had been. Sure enough, a pair of close-set eyes glowed back at me. All I could see around them was a dark shadow. When I got up to investigate, the creature retreated a few feet, but kept its beady gaze fixed on mine. It was bigger than a cat or a raccoon, but I couldn’t be sure it was big enough to be a bear.
I tried to scare it off, but it just retreated a few steps and stopped. And when I pointed my headlamp towards it, there were those eyes again. I decided to ignore it and went back to my tent, but it crept back closer and stood staring at my camp. That’s when I got a good look and saw that it was, indeed, a small bear.
At this point, I considered that my food was still lying around all over the ground. If I walked away now, the bear would move in and wreak havoc on my things. So I stood my ground and started yelling as loud as I could, banging my poles together and shouting to scare it off.
The bear just stood there and stared at me for a while. It seemed almost impatient or bored with my antics, as if it wished I would just get on with it and leave so it could look through my stuff. After I’d yelled myself hoarse, it reared up on its hind legs to get a better look, standing a full five feet tall.
That was the final straw for me. Keeping one eye on the bear, I hastily packed up my food and other ‘smellables’ and walked them over to the shelter bear box. Then I kept going down a meandering path to the tenting area across the hill, where an older couple was camping for the night. They were a bit hard of hearing, so they hadn’t heard my shouts.
After I explained the situation to them, the husband agreed to accompany me back to my tent, and stand guard while I packed up my things and moved them over to where they were camped. Sure enough, a large black shadow was moving around my tent when we arrived, and it ran off into the woods as we got close. None of my gear was damaged, and after a few minutes of awkward packing I was safely relocated to the other campsite. As I drifted off to sleep, I heard the man saying to his wife, “If that bear comes back here I’ll whoop him!” The only other creature I heard that night was a rabbit.
Riding the Roller Coaster
My last day in Shenandoah was uneventful. I called the park service and reported my bear encounter, and they said they might come out there with paintball guns to ‘haze’ the bear — scare it into thinking twice before hanging around the shelter. I took a break at the Elkwallow wayside, where I finally met Nicole, a hiker I’d been a day behind for over 500 miles. And late in the day I left the park and made it to Front Royal, where I stayed at the wonderful Mountain Home B&B.
The next twenty miles winds through brushy woods, tangled with invasive vines and shrubs. The few miles south of Sky Meadows are particularly overgrown and uninviting, though birds like the indigo bunting feel quite at home there. I camped on Thursday night at the Rod Hollow Shelter, just at the southern end of the ‘Roller Coaster.’
The Roller Coaster is a section of trail that was built to replace a road walk past Mount Weather, a government facility deep beneath the Blue Ridge. The trail goes up and down a series of low knobs on the shoulder of the mountain. The constant elevation change inspired the name, since there’s almost a dozen steep hills along the way.
Some people really hate the Roller Coaster, but I think it’s a lot of fun. Sure, there are no views, but you travel through a beautiful lowland forest of beech and hickory, studded with picturesque cliffs and gushing streams in deep hollows. Few other parts of the trail go through this environment, and none for so long. It’s also a real challenge of endurance, yet none of the hills are high enough to totally wear you out.
The day I did the Roller Coaster it was damp and humid. Sometimes the sun would peek out from behind the clouds, and sometimes a brief shower would cool me down as I trudged uphill. I passed the thousand-mile mark of my hike. At Snickers Gap, I stopped in a little roadhouse for a greasy lunch and a beer, then tackled the last four miles of ups and downs. By five pm, I was back on the ridge and the Roller Coaster was over.
The Home Stretch
By now, I was in a different part of the trail — the first section I’d done as an overnight trip in 2020. Just to see what would happen, I’d started from Harpers Ferry one Friday afternoon and walked south as far as I could. I’d met a veteran AT hiker named Otter, who taught me a little about thru-hiking culture and encouraged me to give it a try. Two days ago, as I walked north from the same stealth site I’d camped at in 2020, I half expected him to walk right up the trail, telling me that Harpers Ferry was right ahead and the hostel was open for business. But all I encountered were noisy birds and day hikers.
I left Virginia that morning, a month after I’d entered it in Damascus, and before I knew it I was climbing down Loudoun Heights towards the Shenandoah River and Harpers Ferry. The thick, humid air was just as I remembered it, and the leafy, flowery smell of honeysuckle filled the air. I crossed the river and turned off the trail towards ATC headquarters, where I got my ‘official’ picture for their book. I was NOBO number 210 to stop by, though 1268 people registered at Amicalola before me. I guess that proves I’m going pretty fast.
I looked through the album pages and saw the people I’d met along the way, or knew by reputation, who’d made it there before me. Ibex, speedy as always, had stopped by on May 9th; Roadrunner and Sligo were there on May 11th, three days before. I got a good look at Logman’s 20-pound log, and finally put a face to Masshole’s name.
For the rest of the day I meandered around town, walking by all the sights and grabbing a meal on the tourist strip downtown. I wanted to swim in the river, but it was receding from a flood, and the banks were high and covered in slick mud. I just managed to get my shoes and feet plastered in muck, and to wade a little in the brown water as it washed over a tree trunk.
Around four o’clock, I finally walked up the ramp to the bridge and crossed the Potomac. My first step into Maryland felt momentous — here I was, for the first time on the trail, in the North! And I turned and walked east along the C&O Canal, familiar to me from many years of evening and weekend outings. Whitewater rafters rode the rapids to my right; to my left turtles sunned themselves on logs in the canal while coal trains rolled on by.
At Weverton, I was picked up to spend the night at a friend’s house, and I was dropped back there yesterday morning. Another old friend met me at Gathland State Park, and I walked with him to the White Rocks overlook on Lamb’s Knoll. From there it was less than four miles to the South Mountain Inn at Turner’s Gap, where I went in to Frederick to stay with other friends.
I’m looking forward to getting back on the trail, but it’s nice to have this break. Some people do the ‘Maryland challenge’ and blow through the state in a day, but I prefer the chance to pause and catch my breath at this middle point that’s so familiar to me. I’ve been moving very fast, speeding down the Blue Ridge, and now I have a day to stop back home.
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