Week 21: Country Roads
The Shenandoah National Park is such a weird set of contrasts. On one hand, you have some truly breathtaking mountains, some challenging Trail sections, and plenty of fascinating species of wildlife. On the other, you have the Skyline Drive criss crossing the Trail every few miles, short order diners (fried chicken as a mid day hiking meal is a gift, pure and simple), and hotels found throughout the park, plus a TON of car campers out for the day.
This leads to a complex set of experiences to be had. On my first day, I stopped at Rockfish Gap to grab a jumbo hot dog and fries, then made the first few climbs into the park, where I nearly gave back that hot dog when I came across my first rattlesnake.
I was pushing myself to get to the first Hut before dark (I took WAY too long eating that hot dog) and I was already stepping over the snake when it started rattling with what felt like an explosion of sound. I didn’t consciously recognize the sound at first, in fact I originally thought it was simply the cicadas I’d been hearing for a while already, just echoing oddly close. Despite this, I still felt uncontrollably scared, with fear pulsing through my body at high speeds. I jumped in the air and lept forward several steps. It was only when I looked back and saw the shaking tail raised in the air that I realized what happened.
I struggled with hiking the Shenandoahs to first few days because I’d definitely overdone it on my resupply in Waynesboro. For the last few weeks I’d been hitting small campsite convenience stores for my resupply, and the selection had been painfully bad. For the week leading up to town, I’d been eating exclusively Ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes, so when I found myself at a full sized grocery store, I went insane with my food purchases. I’d be willing to guess my food bag weighed around twenty pounds as I made that first climb.
That said, I feel like I’ve got a pretty decent handle on my food plan at this point. I struggled, especially early on, with finding the right balance of nutrition, ease of cooking, and things I’d actually enjoy eating. Too many meals would do well in one of those areas, but fail in one or both of the others. After a long day of hiking, you don’t want to take twenty minutes or more to put your dinner together. And it’s always nice if what you’re eating is something you actually like. You may not notice a lack of nutrition right away, but your body tells you pretty quickly if you aren’t keeping it properly fueled.
Breakfast is the meal I wanted to have the least effort for. I am not a morning person by any stretch, and I tend to sleep in until the last possible second. Unfortunately, this can cost valuable hiking hours, especially when the summer heat is particularly powerful. It’s vastly preferable to hike early in the morning before the sun has really gotten to work. With this in mind, I made my breakfast mix by buying a jumbo box of honey bunches of oats cereal, then mixing it with a bag of Walmart brand indulgent trail mix and splitting the result into two gallon size ziploc bags. This is not a particularly healthy trail mix since it’s got chocolate, white chocolate, and butterscotch chips, along with the more traditional golden raisins and nut mix, but when combined with the high fiber cereal, it’s a pretty solid start to the day and requires no preparation. If I’m feeling industrious, I’ll also make a cup of Carnation instant breakfast, which helps make sure I’ve got a good nutritional balance going on.
Lunch is also kept pretty simple, but since I’m more awake at this point, I let a little bit of assembly play a part. I bought a small bottle of pickle relish, a ten piece bag of medium size flour tortillas, and several six ounce pouches of tuna packed in soybean oil. Lunch then is one of the tuna packs split across two tortillas with the relish, then consumed. The soybean oil when combined with the pickles makes a nice dressing and adds some much needed midday calories to the party. Speaking of which, this is also a great reason for why flour tortillas are such a common player in most hiker diets, it’s an easy way to increase the quick calories that help us get through the day’s miles.
In addition to this filling snack, I’ll pepper the rest of my day with some lighter snacks low on effort. This will include some meal bars usually, but this time I added something new. I really enjoy these store brand fruit snacks for the different flavor they give, along with some quick sugar and vitamin C to let me lie to myself and say they’re healthy.
When I sit down for dinner after I finish hiking, I’m willing to put forth a little more effort. I bought a few bags of dehydrated vegetable soup mix at the grocery store, along with a bag of dry quinoa. I’ll mix a bit of both into my pot and boil for about ten minutes. The resulting soup has got a good bit of veggies (something I’d been woefully missing in my diet), some fiber (to make my morning privvy visits go more smoothly), and protein. (to ensure my muscles can keep up with my hiking efforts) Overall, these were some great choices, I probably just didn’t need to bring five or six days worth of them!
Something else that’s odd about the park is the behavior of the wildlife. Because so many visitors come through, no hunting is allowed, and it’s got so many fortresses of civilization, the animals are particularly nonchalant about humans. I’ve had fawns come to within a few feet of me, heard stories about bears wandering calmly through campgrounds (I haven’t seen any bears in the park myself yet), and even the birds seem just pleased to sit an watch you walk on by. This certainly has an attraction, but I can’t help but feel like I’m somewhere I don’t belong when the animals are putting on this quasi Snow White show.
I’m looking forward to keeping my pace going and heading out of the park in the next few days, Harper’s Ferry is now less than a hundred miles away.
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