The Stress for the Dress
Lucky had walked 31 miles the previous day to catch up to us. He is a well-oiled machine. As soon as he reached the shelter, he peeled off his soaking wet, outer layer, flipped his pack upside down and dumped everything out, and started telling stories while setting up his sleeping pad and bag. He was back!
One of Lucky’s stories was about the ring we asked him to retrieve. It was the one Nate found in the mud at a shelter the day before he proposed to me. He handed it over to Nate and Nate slid it on his finger–a perfect fit! Nate tucked the ring away in a safe place inside his pack.
The morning turned out to be a very memorable one for Nate. He’s one of those people with an outrageous bucket list. He’s always wanted to hike the AT, spend a night in jail, eat an entire jar of cheese balls, grab onto a moving train… This morning, despite my frantic requests, he flung himself onto the last car of a locomotive that happened to be crossing the AT just in time to make us wait and count every car. He wouldn’t stop smiling for a week afterwards.
It turned out to be a hot, sunny day, an exact opposite of the day before. The terrain was a bit different as well. We had mountains to climb! After one particularly drawn out climb, we reached a shelter where we had planned to meet Lucky for lunch. When we got closer, we realized there were already four people there, lounging atop the picnic table and sprawled out in the shelter. When they saw us coming they rearranged themselves so that we had a place to plop and eat our lunch. They were locals, claiming to be on a day hike to the top of this mountain to look at the flowers. “Have you seen any morel mushrooms?” It seemed like the question flew out of the man’s mouth before he could stop it. My eyes darted to the plastic grocery bag by his side–full of mushrooms. We had heard that these are more precious than gold around these parts, but we were too busy hiking to look for any. We tried to reassure the local mushroom hunters of that before they left.
It was day 3 of 8 for, “The Stress for the Dress,” and we were still going strong.
The Roller Coaster at the very northern terminus of Virginia is a section of trail that no one tells hikers about before they start a thru-hike, but closer and closer to northern Virginia, people let you know. There’s a sign at the “entrance” that warns hikers about the difficulty of the next fifteen miles. Nate and I weren’t intimidated. In our guidebook, it simply looked like five or six “bumps” as we liked to call them. Lucky had done this section before and he told us it was nothing to worry about.
On top of the first hill in the roller coaster, we found Lucky. He had left the campsite before us in the morning, certain that we would catch him. Lucky had plans to be picked up by a friend for a night off the trail, so we continued without him. Knowing that we planned to take a day off at the end of, “The Stress for the Dress,” we were sure that it would not take over six weeks to see Lucky again.
By the end of the roller coaster, we were tired but we did have much to be excited about. Not only had we finished the “grueling” fifteen miles of ups and downs, we had passed the 1,000-mile mark, and we were finally out of Virginia! Our celebrations were cut short by the color of the sky and the chill of the wind. We needed to move to avoid being rained on.
Trailboss, the man in charge of trail maintenance along the roller coaster, and his wife are the caretakers of the Blackburne Trail Center, which is an amazing stop for all hikers, whether spending the night or just having a chat. Mainly used to house trail crews for weeks at a time, thru-hikers are welcome to stay in the bunkhouses when there is room. As soon as Nate and I appeared, Trailboss invited us into the kitchen area for a can of pop. Then his wife heated up a heaping bowl of soup for each of us, threw in a few rolls and topped us off with a massive mound of brownies. We were ecstatic! Balancing our goodies as we stiffly hurried across the lawn to the bunkhouse, we made it under the roof just before it started to sprinkle!
By this point, we were well-adapted to resupplying ourselves with food along the trail. We knew just what we needed for each meal every day and could almost predict exactly how many days we would be traveling between our planned resupply spots. But when a store listed as a “full resupply” in the guidebook turned out to be a gas station, we had some improvisation to do.
They had no tortillas. We bought a loaf of bread and squished it down to the height of an inch. They had no affordable granola bars. We bought a tray of chocolate chip cookies. They had no tuna, spam or pouched chicken. We bought extra salami from the deli. I was disappointed because food for two days cost us over forty dollars. Nate was disappointed because we spent an hour walking through the three aisles of a tiny gas station deciding what we could pack that would give us the most calories for our dollar.
We got to Harper’s Ferry, the symbolic halfway point of the Appalachian Trail, a couple of hours later. It was another thru-hiker milestone, and we wanted our picture taken and our official thru-hiker numbers. The staff at the AT Headquarters is more than experienced in dealing with thru-hikers and we were guided to a hiker lounge and told that whenever we were ready, they would be happy to take our picture. We were ready! Our official NOBO (northbound) thru-hiker numbers were 27 and 28, slightly lower than our numbers at Amicalola State Park in Georgia. We weren’t sure who was in front of us then that wasn’t in front of us now except for Ultralight (Ben). An hour after we added our picture to the 2015 thru-hiker album, we tore ourselves away from flipping through everyone else’s pictures and hit the trail again. We had more miles scheduled for the day.
“Hey, someone emailed me. They want to do trail magic for us today.” We had just woken up to a day on which we had planned to walk at least twenty-five miles, but as thru-hikers, we’ve learned to never turn down food. Nate and I decided that we could devote thirty minutes to stopping to chat with Vicki, the trail angel who offered to bring us sandwiches. He emailed her back to confirm that we would be in Washington Monument State Park around lunchtime.
Not knowing what we were in for by accepting the trail magic, we hurried to make sure we caught Vicki on time. When we got to the park we weren’t sure where she was, having imagined a table, a tent or a tailgate full of trail magic. We saw none. Confused, we walked further along the trail, closer to the Washington Monument. A smiling woman approached us. “You must be the Hiking Vikings!” she grinned, extending her hand for a shake. We had found Vicki.
Vicki was awesome. She immediately offered us each a can of pop out of the small bag she was carrying. Then, she led us to her car, where she had egg sandwiches and a plate of brownies waiting for us. She talked while we ate, telling us about all of our trail friends ahead of us that she had met and provided trail magic for. Then she hit us with the news: she wanted to take us out to lunch, then out for ice cream. Torn between keeping on track for “The a Stress for the Dress,” and enjoying a free meal of real, people food, Nate and I exchanged glances. We decided to do it.
Vicki piled us into her car, pushing fresh fruit into our hands, and weaved her way to the closest town, where there was a small eatery she liked to take hikers to. She raved about their food, explaining how big and delicious the salads were. Nate and I both opted for a sandwich instead. We needed calories and protein.
Over an hour later, we were still sitting at the restaurant. Anxious to get back to the trail and full of a delicious, much-needed meal, we thanked Vicki as she snatched the bill. On the ride back, she offered again to take us to the creamery, but we had to gratefully decline. We were stuffed.
Vicki encouraged us to take the short side trail from the AT to the Washington Monument, telling us the views were outstanding. She came with us as we climbed the spiral stone staircase within the castle-like building. It was pretty neat. We were already in Maryland and could see Pennsylvania in the distance. If all went well, we would be there tomorrow!
Nate and I slid away from the small crowd forming atop the monument and returned to our packs on the ground. Not sure how to thank Vicki for all that she had done, we were surprised when she said she would walk a little ways along the trail with us. I strapped the grocery bag full of fruits and candies that she insisted we take with us to the back of my pack and the three of us walked and talked. Two miles and one huge black snake later, we bid her adieu, thankful for her kindness and doubting our plan of a 25-mile day.
We lost our SPOT. It’s a GPS device we used to send our location home to our families every morning and night. Two and a half miles down the trail from the shelter where we’d stayed, I realized that I never picked it up from the stump Nate set it on that morning.
“I’ll run back,” I tried to convince Nate. “It’s five miles, it won’t take me very long.” Nate did not want to turn around and walk extra mileage, especially when we needed to hike 25 miles today, because we only hiked 21 the previous day. He called Vicki. Of course she would drive to the road that was just tenths of a mile down the trail from the shelter, grab our SPOT and drive it up the trail to us. She was a saint.
Still upset about the SPOT, I sulked along the trail. Nate didn’t know what he could do to console me. The only thing that would make me feel any better was to have my hands on the SPOT, often our only communication with family.
We continued hiking and made it to PenMar State Park later than we thought we should have. It was our meeting place with Vicki, but she had called to report that she would be late. Before heading to our SPOT, she had driven to Harper’s Ferry, retrieved Lucky’s girdle that he had left behind at the AT headquarters, and found him at a road crossing. He was lucky Vicki had the morning off of work!
While sitting in the sun and eating a lunch of smushed bread, chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter, we got an update from Vicki. She was on her way to our SPOT, but she wouldn’t have time to bring it to us that day. She would have to mail it. I was bummed, but glad that she was so willing to help out.
Nate enjoyed the view from the PenMar Park’s picnic table while I pouted at the ground. Neither of us noticed another hiker until a man was directly behind our picnic table. Before we could introduce ourselves, he asked us a question, “Are you The Hiking Vikings?” We told him that was us. “I think I have something for you.” Like an old western movie in slow motion, we watched a thin, smirky smile creep across the hiker’s face as his hand moved toward his hip belt. He unzipped the pocket at the speed of a snail, never losing eye contact with us. When he pulled it out, I nearly let out a yelp. It was our SPOT!
The SPOT-saver’s name is Crocman, and he was told by countless hikers heading the other direction that he had been five minutes behind us the whole morning. If Nate had agreed to walk back for the SPOT when we discovered it’s absence, we would have had it in our hands after just a three minute walk! I could not thank Crocman enough. He saved the day!
After a few more snacks Nate and I hit the trail once again. Because I had the SPOT, I could happily celebrate a moment I had been waiting for since we started our hike almost twelve weeks earlier! We made it to Pennsylvania! Though I had never been on the AT here, we were in our home state and everything felt that much more welcoming.
But half a mile down the trail, the water source we had planned to fill up at was marked as unsafe. And an hour later, we were racing to throw our ponchos over our heads as it started to pour. There was a break in the rain, during which we stopped by a shelter and talked to Crocman and a few other hikers. Minutes after we said goodbye, we were pelted with hail. It hurt. And, because the hail didn’t get us wet immediately, it was a very distinct feeling when I finally had enough hail built up on my gators that it melted through and progressively soaked my foot, from the ankle to the toes. It was as though a cup of cold water had been poured into my boot. Then, because the trail quickly became one large puddle, our feet were soaked enough that we didn’t even avoid the water. We just walked through it.
A few miles later we stopped at another shelter where there were four or five older guys sitting around a picnic table that was set under a pavilion. We wanted information about the trail ahead. Most of them advised us that it was rocky and steep. Weighing our options of hiking a few more miles in the rain tonight or stopping early and having more to do tomorrow, we figured that we were already wet and that we should just walk more. Besides, the next shelter might not be as full. We went back into the rain.
After a little while, the rain stopped. But it had already been a long day and we couldn’t get to the shelter soon enough. Just as we got to the turnoff, the sky looked like it was going to start raining again. We scurried down the quarter-mile-long side trail and frowned at the people at the shelter. There were two structures, each able to hold six people and they were both full! We made it under the overhanging roof of one of them just as it started to sprinkle. “Hiking Vikings!” someone screamed. It was Yoyo! Not having seen Tweet and Yoyo since the Shenandoahs, we chatted for a little while before Nate and I walked a little further to set up our tent. We climbed in just as the real rain started, exhausted, but knowing that with just 13 miles to go tomorrow, we would complete “The Stress for the Dress” on schedule.
Quarry Gap Shelter is the prettiest shelter on the AT. The caretaker plants flowers in hanging baskets and landscapes the surrounding area. There are board games on a built-in shelf underneath a roof that covers the gap between two shelters. Also under the roof is a picnic table. There are tarps that can be pulled down to protect the picnic table from wind or rain. There’s a bear box where it’s said trail magic is often left. We stopped for a mid-morning snack and ended up chatting with other hikers for over an hour. And we didn’t even get a picture.
Our feet kept moving today, despite the fact that we were exhausted. We wanted nothing more to finally reach the cabin where we would relax for a day, see our family and I would get to pick a wedding dress. When we reached the road that would lead us to the cabin, we rejoiced!
But when we got there, the cabin was locked. We peaked through the windows and saw our tomato soup and grilled cheese ingredients mocking us from behind impenetrable doors. We looked under the doormat. We tried the back door. We tugged at the basement door. Just when I was about to call my friend who owned the cabin, Nate discovered how to get inside. We made it!
The first thing I did was lay on the floor. Nate went for the candy jar. We explored the house, which the family fondly calls, “The Shack,” though it is far from a shack. I did laundry and took a shower while Nate found something to watch on the television and prepared us each a bowl of ice cream. After his shower we ate a bag of potato chips and grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, followed by more ice cream. Nate had a few beers.
We laid on the couch watching t.v. for a few hours before moving into bed and we were long asleep by the time our family arrived. It was much needed rest. The Stress for the Dress was over!
For a video version of, “The Stress for the Dress,” check out:
Follow our journey at facebook.com/ToKatahdin
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.