We woke up at 5 A.M., groggy but excited. The Shenandoahs are said to be the place where thru-hikers can stretch out their legs and really make some miles, and they’re supposed to be ridden with wildlife. We had been looking forward to this trail milestone for ages.
We expected all of our friends to join us at a shelter 21 miles into the park, but we knew we’d have an early start compared to the rest of them. At the entrance to the park along the AT is a self-registration kiosk at which all hikers must obtain a permit. We did so and we were on our way!
Less than two miles from the shelter, the sky started turning gray and the temperature dropped. It was going to storm. The distant thunder encouraged me to start hiking faster, even as we began to climb a mountain to reach the shelter. The winds were whipping and trees were bending along the trail when we spotted the side trail for the shelter. Thunder crashed above us. We hopped on the side trail and started the long, windy trek downward to a shelter that was sunken into a stream-filled marshland. Careful to not splash through the puddles, but wanting to be under the shelter’s roof before the skies opened, we skipped from rock to rock, bouncing our way to safety. A mere five minutes after we made it, rain was pouring down, lightning was flashing, thunder was roaring, and we were dry as a bone, enjoying a snack and wondering if our friends were stuck in the storm.
No one came to the shelter that night. And when we left at ten o’clock in the morning, we didn’t run into any of our friends. It was a slow, relaxing hiking day since we only had 25 miles to do before we were scheduled to be picked up by Nate’s cousin the next day. We figured we’d go about fifteen and find a spot to set up our tent, leaving ten miles for the next morning.
Even when we didn’t intend to, we still hiked fast. We couldn’t help it through the rolling hills and flat meadows of the Shenandoahs. Our chatter and noisy steps were probably deterring any wildlife within seeing distance, but Nate was disappointed. “They say you can’t help but see a bear through here and we haven’t seen anything!” he complained. “We haven’t even seen a deer!” And on the word deer, a doe who must have been bedded down right next to the trail, shot up, took one look at us and ran in the opposite direction. “We haven’t even seen a bear!” Nate tried, but without success.
While stopped for one of our many snack breaks, the sun rays tanning our arms were interrupted by a shadow. We looked up to see what was looming over us to find a friendly-faced, red-headed hiker named Redfeather. She and her husband, Windwalker, started their hike on December 3rd! Not originally planning a thru-hike, she had to leave the trail about once a month to go back to work for a few days, so she was hundreds of miles behind her retired husband.
Redfeather had stayed at a shelter with our friends the previous night and informed us that Yoyo and Tweet would most likely be headed to the shelter about five miles further down the trail. She was headed there herself. Redfeather also told us that Eddy and Ironman were at the shelter, but upon learning of some hiker friends back in town, they planned to get off at the next road crossing for another night in a hotel and may even end up aquablazing (paddling a kayak up a water source adjacent to the AT instead of hiking along the trail). We let her go and finished our snack, wondering when we might see Eddy and Ironman again. We knew that if those two aquablazed, they would return to the trail to hike the section that they missed and that could set them an entire week behind us!
That night we walked until we found a flat place to set up our tent. After dinner, Nate snuck outside to capture the sunset. When he crawled back into the tent he felt something pulling at his beard. Struggling to look down at his chin, he ran his fingers through his scraggly beard hairs and pulled out a tick! It was our first encounter with one of the tiny beasts, and we were glad it hadn’t yet reached Nate’s chin!
“You guys need to hear this!” Yoyo had caught us at the beginning of our less-than-ten-mile-walk to where we would be pulled off the trail by Nate’s cousin Julie. He frightened me when he announced his presence after silently hiking up behind us.
“When Tweet and I were filling out our park permits, we heard this strange sound down the trail….” Yoyo’s eyes grew and his face became serious. He described a group of elderly citizens encircling a tree. They were all taking cues from a woman speaking Spanish, or perhaps she was speaking in tongues. “Ahhhhhhhh,” all of the followers would chant, and, in rhythm, the woman would yell, “Hoorah, hoorah!” Yoyo obviously thought it was entertaining but he and Tweet also did not want to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. They scribbled their way trough their permits and scooted down the trail.
We arrived at Swift Run Gap with enough time to eat a snack with Tweet and Yoyo before Julie arrived. They were telling us their woeful misses at receiving trail magic, so before running off to spend a night in a hot tub, we gave them each one of our homemade granola bars.
The drive to Julie’s house was quick, but also just in time. On the way, it started to sprinkle and gray, storm clouds churned in the sky. We were grateful to have just missed the rain once again.
Julie’s house was hiker heaven. We each had time to shower before Nate’s mother and stepfather arrived and when we joined everyone downstairs we weren’t sure we would ever leave. She had trays of vegetables, crackers, cheeses and chips with homemade salsa and home brewed beer (thanks to Nate’s brother). We sat and chatted while Julie prepared two pies to be eaten for dessert, after we were fed hamburgers, hot dogs, deviled eggs, potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans and corn on the cob. The food was endless!
After eating, we waited the required hour before hopping in the hot tub, though with the amount of food we ate, we should have waited three weeks. Julie showed us how to turn the jets on and instructed us on where to sit depending on what type of massage we wanted. Of all the nights we’d spent gazing at the stars, this might have been the most comfortable one yet.
The smell of a freshly-cooked breakfast pulled us out of bed. “What are these?!” Nate gasped at Julie through a mouth full of one croissant, with one more in each hand. I couldn’t blame him; her creation was delicious. Julie shrugged her shoulders, “It’s just sausage and cream cheese mixed together and baked inside of a croissant.” They were fantastic.
We didn’t get on the trial until after noon but we got to spend the entire morning with Nate’s mom and stepdad. They carted us from store to store to resupply then helped us repackage everything in a low-trash, hiker-friendly, minimalist fashion. It was hard to say goodbye when it came time to leave, but they had hours to drive and we had miles to hike.
Lunch with the family was the first time in years that either Nate or I had consumed fast food. After hiking nearly ten miles and still not feeling hungry, it is obvious how calorie-packed one McDonald’s sandwich really is. Tuned into our bodies so much that we can actually feel energy from food, both of us struggled to eat dinner, but we had to to lighten our packs!
After dinner, with our bulging bellies, Nate and I planned out our next week of hiking. If we pushed hard and traveled 177 miles in the next eight days, we would make it to Pennsylvania on a weekend, allowing my mother and sister to meet us and go wedding dress shopping! Ready for a challenge, we both agreed to what became, “The Stress for the Dress!”
This was our longest day yet–26.8 miles, 27.4 counting in and out to shelters. It was a ten and a half hour blur.
Early in the day we met a flip-flop thru hiker from Pittsburgh. Excited that we finally met another hiker from our home state, we stopped and chatted a while. Upon hearing our plans to do big miles, he warned us to take it easy coming down off of Mary’s Rock. “It gets quite rocky and narrow coming down off of that. It could be difficult in the dark.” We kept his advice in mind and hiked on.
By the time we reached the shelter at which we planned to have lunch, we were both starving. Nate pulled out our sausage and cheese and chopped two chunks off of each while I ripped two shards of bread from our French loaf. It was a chilly day, and we huddled inside the shelter, scarfing down our food as quickly as we could so that we could return to hiking. I clasped my semi-frozen fingers around my piece of sausage and launched it toward my mouth, but midway there something terrible happened. My meat tumbled out of my fingertips, rolling it’s way around the shelter’s dirt floor. “Oh booger!” I moaned, leaning forward to retrieve my calories. I poured clean water over it to wash of the dirt and wiped it on my shirt. Then I plopped it into my mouth.
When we got to the aforementioned tricky trail, we laughed. “If this is hard, we’re going to have it easy to Harper’s Ferry!” we joked, hoping that was true. After about a mile of the descent, our feet hurt. More than ready to reach the shelter, we were barely affected when a man wearing jeans and loafers slipped up the trail past us. He looked lost, but gave us a confident smile, so we walked on. But when he somehow appeared ahead of us again at the next road crossing, we became a bit suspicious. He started walking towards us. “How did you get here?” Nate asked him, when he was still a good distance away. He pointed to his truck and inquired, “Jamie?” Unsure whether he was talking to Nate or to me, we both said no. After a few minutes, we discovered that he was looking for a female hiker named Jamie. Knowing that Eddy (real world name Jamy) had gotten off the trail to aquablaze, we didn’t know what to tell him. We wished him good luck and continued toward the shelter.
I could have fallen asleep on a rock by the time we saw the blue blaze of a shelter trail, and we were somewhat disappointed when we saw someone lurking in the shelter. Not wanting to be rude, we stopped by to talk, knowing that we would be setting up our tent, not only for privacy but because the temperature was going to dip below freezing and our tent is a few degrees warmer than the open shelter. Walking up to the shelter, I immediately knew that Nate would want to talk to this guy forever. He was foreign (Nate is fascinated by foreign people) and he had beer (Nate is fascinated by beer).
After what felt like hours, but in reality was mere minutes, I broke Nate away long enough to set up our tent. I allowed him to cook dinner at the shelter while talking to the Belgian Andy and I set up the inside of the tent. I nearly fell asleep by the time Nate returned, and he did so with no prize. Pouting, Nate crawled into the tent. “He didn’t even offer me a beer!”
“Your feet are huge.” Nate was shaking his head in disbelief as he poked dents into my poor footpads. My feet had been painfully numb for nearly two hundred miles and I concluded it was because they were so swollen and calloused. Yet I continued to walk.
Leaving the shelter, Nate had to stop and talk to Belgian Andy one more time. He was really just giving the guy another chance to offer him a beer. I was not surprised when Nate ran up the trail to me, beer in hand. “They weren’t his to give away,” he explained, smiling. “Someone else left them there as trail magic!”
A few hours later we started hearing what sounded like the pinging of a rain stick. It was coming from all around us, but we could not identify the sound, since neither of us felt or saw any rain. It was only when we stopped and examined the dead leaf-covered forest floor that we determined what was causing the mysterious noise: it was hailing! Teeny, tiny, little, ice spheres bounced across the leaves before settling in piles, but they melted as soon as they touched our clothing, making their impact on our bodies impossible to notice.
The day was broken up into times when it was a gloomy, gray fog and times when the mini-hail rang through the woods. Both miles and time felt like they were in slow motion, but we got to the shelter having kept better than a two mile per hour pace the entire day, including our breaks. With rain in the forecast, we set up our sleeping pads and sleeping bag in the shelter. And yet again, it started to rain as we sat down to enjoy dinner under the cover of a shelter roof.
It was day two of, “The Stress for the Dress,” and we remained on track to reach our Pennsylvanian sanctuary by our deadline, but we were tired, having tackled fifty miles in two days to finish the Shenandoahs. It was eight o’clock and a combination of mist and fog floated up from the ground. We turned off our headlamps and snuggled down into bed. Just as we did so, we saw a light in the distance. It was moving. It was moving from side to side, and getting closer! The black outline of a human formed behind the glimmer of light. We couldn’t imagine the poor hiker who got caught in the last bit of rain.
“Vikings?!” a voice called out.
It was Lucky!!
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