Out of the Shenandoahs to The Priest
2016-04-11 — Calf Mountain Shelter
6:00 am. The sky slowly brightens. Laying in my sleeping bag on the second level of the shelter, I hear no one stirring below. I raise myself up and peer down. Six men lie cocooned in their sleeping bags, squeezed together across the bottom floor. How am I supposed to climb down without stepping on someone?
I start packing. As I finish, a couple men rouse themselves. Very carefully, I hoist myself down, placing each foot between sleeping bags.
The northbound hikers begin planning how far to hike over breakfast. 25 miles. 15. One heads out. “See you later, Razzle,” he says, waving.
Razzle looks up. “I’m never gonna see you again in my life,” he calls jokingly between bites.
We all hike independently, seeking our own goals, sometimes congregating together, other times going our separate ways. Who knows if I will ever see those I met on the trail again? Leave it to fate!, I think, strapping on my pack.
Woody passes me early in the day. “I’m not going to spend an hour and a half eating lunch today,” he says. He continues speaking and walking, gesturing vaguely towards the trail ahead. I don’t quite catch his words, but gather that he may try to hike into Waynesboro, 20 miles away.
Perhaps because I’ve pushed for several 13 mile days in a row, or perhaps because I don’t know whether I will ever catch up to Woody and Phlatlander again, each mile seems to take much more effort than usual. Loneliness and discouragement plague me. Compared to the first week, the lessons I’m learning on the trail seem fewer and farther between. Yet, what choice do I have but to go on?
Toward the end of the day, I crest a hill to find a wiry young man, curly auburn hair tied back, staring up the mountainside.
“Are you thru-hiking?” I ask.
“I’m not, but my mom is.” He scans the mountain again. “She’s somewhere back there.”
Farther up the trail, I meet two women tottering down the trail, their hands tightly gripping their walking sticks, their jackets clipped onto their packs.
“Is one of you thru-hiking?”
“I’m not. She is.” The woman on my left gestures to the woman on my right.
We chat for a few minutes, exchanging news and information. From them, I learn that Phlatlander stayed at the shelter ahead the previous night, and planned to take a zero day in Waynesboro. I also learn that the shelter lies about 2 miles away.
“Ok, I can do that,” I say, ignoring my aching feet.
I continue on, passing under crackling power lines, until I reach a battered sign marking the road to the shelter, located 0.3 miles off trail. After what seems like several miles, I finally catch sign of the shelter, camouflaged in the trees.
As I approach, I notice a black backpack sticking out of the shelter’s entrance.That doesn’t look like Woody’s backpack, I think to myself.
A couple steps later, a fierce barking assails me. I cast a sidelong glance at the shelter. A woman sits there, a green earpiece in one ear, one arm wrapped around a small German shepherd. “Shh,” she urges, whipping her head towards her dog. “Don’t do that.”
Turning towards me, she asks, “Are there any tent sites around here?”
“Um, yeah.” One tent site lies directly in front of the shelter.
“How far? 20 yards? 30 yards? I’m blind,” she explains.
And so, I meet Lynn and her guide dog, Ronda, from New York City.
"I don't want to just be known as the blind woman." - Lynn, Appalachian Trail hiker
I reach for the shelter’s logbook and offer it to her.
“I don’t know what to write,” she says.
“That’s ok. Some people just sign their names, or draw something.”
Around dinnertime, another hiker strides down to the shelter. He sports a brown beard, sunglasses, and a multicolored bandana. I assume he’s northbound.
“Maybe I will sleep in the shelter tonight,” Lynn is saying. “There’s just two of us, after all.”
“There’s a guy walking down now …and now he’s sitting at the table.”
He looks around. “Hi!” Later, he introduces himself as Shweasle.
Lynn and I talk into the night; I ask her permission to take her photo. I can’t help but feel inspired by her determination as she explains how she decided to hike the trail, and how her phone app tells her how far she is from the trail at any given time.
The trail has a way of teaching me lessons when I least expect them. What started as a trying day turned into a good day. I have so much more to learn, I think.
“They say that the trail changes people,” I reflect aloud.
“I hope it changes me,” she replies.
2016-04-12 — Waynesboro
Today marks my last day in the Shenandoahs, on which I will hike to the town of Waynesboro 7 miles away. When I wake, lights from a nearby town still glimmer in the distance.
A slight drizzle rains down in the morning as I climb Little Calf Mountain. At the summit, I turn to look back across the Shenandoahs at the peaks and valleys fading into the distance. I walked across all that, I think.
I continue hiking, descending from the mountains and passing a cell phone tower, several fields, and a fence stile. Shweasle walks by me at midmorning. So he’s southbound, too, I realize. By now, trees obscure my view of the valleys. I make out bright green fields beyond the tree branches, illuminated by rays of sun peeking out from the clouds.
Around midday, I reach Rockfish Gap, the site of the Appalachian Trail trailhead in Waynesboro. ‘Appalachian Trail Hikers - Welcome to Waynesboro!,’ reads a paper nailed to a tree just north of the gap. A list of trail angels offering rides to town follows.
I fumble in my pockets for my guidebook page with a map of the area, intending to walk the 0.5 miles to my mail drop at a local motel. Gone. Two busy highways intersect the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway here; after mulling over my options to get to my mail drop, I decide to call a trail angel. Taking a deep breath, I pick a number and dial.
“Hello?,” a woman answers.
“Hi, is this Cindy?”
“I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I got your number from a paper on a tree near Waynesboro - I was wondering if you had the time to shuttle me to town today?,” I say in one breath, in such a hurry to finish that I forget to mention my name.
A pause on the other end. Then, “I really need to get my name off that list.”
“I’ve got some health problems right now, so I can’t drive as much as I used to,” she continues.
“Oh, I underst–,” I start to say.
“Well - where did you say you were?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m feeling pretty good today, so how about I come get you in about 15 minutes?”
Relief. “Ok, thank you so much!”
"I made about 350 trips up the mountain last season. I'm going to miss it." - Cindy (AKA Miss Lady), Waynesboro trail angel
Cindy directs me to wait at a red-roofed abandoned Howard Johnson’s inn next to an old popcorn stand across the street.
Presently, a truck pulls up at the curb. A white-haired lady wearing sunglasses and a lilac long-sleeved shirt rolls down the window. “Going somewhere?”
“I only need to go a mile or so,” I tell her, clambering into the truck.
“Oh, you’re staying at the motel,” she says knowingly. “If I might make a suggestion, the Quality Inn in town is a much better place to stay. It’s at the center of everything, and a lot of the hikers stay there - I don’t want you to feel isolated.”
She hands me a map of Waynesboro and drops me off at the Quality Inn, after swinging by the motel to pick up my box. I vaguely wonder whether any of the other southbound hikers are at the Inn. That afternoon, I walk all over town, doing laundry, mailing extra food home, and checking out the grocery store. For dinner, I head to Ming’s Chinese buffet, load up a couple plates with broccoli and fish, and join a couple hikers and a biker seated there.
“How do you like it so far?” one of the hikers asks me.
“There’s lots of interesting people to meet.”
He chuckles. “That about sums up the trail.”
The biker gets up to refill his plate. He returns with a few jello cups and ice cream. “When someone asks, ‘How’s the trail up ahead?,’ I never know how to respond. It’s such a personal question,” he says.
His statement lodges in my mind. My experiences on the trail are so shaped by my mood, my physical condition, the time of day, the weather, and factors other than the terrain. Some days, the rockiest hills seem fun. Other days, the smoothest dirt paths become seemingly insurmountable challenges.
He’s right, I think. We all experience the trail differently. Just like life - we all experience life in our own unique ways. And so much of it is mental.
2016-04-13 — Paul C. Wolfe Shelter
I stretch out lazily across the bed before rising, pulling half a cantaloupe from the fridge, and heading to the hotel lobby for breakfast. 6:30am is too early to call for shuttles, I think, digging into my melon.
I spot several hikers standing outside the building, already packed to go. Returning to my room, I call a trail angel on the list. No answer. I put a dash next to the name. Busy. Another dash. I go through three trail angels before reaching Debby.
“I’m headed your way anyways,” Debby says. “I’m bringing my car to the shop.” She offers to call and pick me up in an hour and a half.
After an hour, I head to the lobby to wait. There, sitting at the hotel computer, is Woody!
We exchange news. I tell him about the couple hikers who said Phlatlander was about a day ahead.
“I know,” he replies. “Walked in last night, and there she was, checking Facebook.”
We both hitch a ride with Debby. Another surprise meeting awaits in the front seat the car: Lynn and Ronda!
Ronda wags her tail, clambering over the seat. “Not barking at me today, eh?” I laugh and scratch behind her ears.
After thanking Debby, I hike out with Woody. Sunlight glints through newly unfurled leaves. As we reach a bluff, Woody points at a mountain range across the way.
“See how the green is creeping up the mountains?” He traces the ridge line with his finger.
“Did you see that every year in Asheville?” I ask, thinking about the elevation there.
We continue chatting for the 5 miles to the shelter.
“At one point, we had 5 llamas,” Woody tells me, detailing how he and his family used them as casual pack animals. “I’ve found their personalities to be like cats’.”
He talks about his wife, an electrical engineer, and daughter, who studied animal science. Such great stories, I think. I think Woody loves them both very much.
“That was a quick 5 miles,” Woody says as the shelter looms ahead.
Paul C. Wolfe Shelter is one of the nicer shelters I’ve encountered, with two levels and a narrow vertical window up the sides. Phlatlander greets us from the picnic table; for the first time since Gravel Springs Hut, the three of us end up at the same shelter for the night.
For the rest of the afternoon, we all relax, enjoying the mini waterfall and stream nearby. Around dinner time, Phlatlander pulls out two morel mushrooms, fries them in some butter from the hotel, and passes a morsel over. An earthy, buttery flavor bursts forth.
“Wow, those are the best mushrooms I’ve ever had!” I exclaim.
That night, I fall asleep thinking about the serendipitous events of the day.
2016-04-13 — Maupin Fields Shelter
At 19 days, with my trail legs firmly beneath me, I begin to truly enjoy the hike. Every shrub seems more lush, every tree more fresh, and every view more wondrous. I pause at each overlook to admire the scenery.
After 16 miles, I walk almost normally, with almost no hobbling, into camp. The setting sun lingers on the roof of Maupin Fields Shelter, illuminating a handful of hikers nearby. Phlatlander and Shweasle sit at the picnic table, playing cards. Woody stands in the shelter, unpacking his sleeping bag. Farther up a hill, a group of car campers chop firewood with machetes to feed a raging bonfire.
I slide in next to Phlatlander and Shweasle to cook dinner. A northbound section hiker introduces himself as Bob from Chicago. He pulls out a handful of Snickers bars and scatters them across the table for all to share. Two more northbound hikers, Torch and Tinder, roll in after dusk. Torch produces a gigantic, 1-foot tall camp stove: his namesake.
That night, I listen to the spirited discussion around the picnic table, laughing at the difficulty of hanging bear bags on an abnormally tall bear pole, and enjoying the company of strangers around a campfire.
2016-04-14 — The Priest Shelter
Over the next few days, thoughts about how to end my Appalachian adventure loom, unbidden, in my mind. On a rare day with phone signal, my parents and I talk about meeting for my last week on the trail.
“When?” Mom asks.
I don’t know. Do I end my adventure after 30 days, or stay longer? If I stay longer, should I focus on ramping up my mileage to hike through all of Virginia, or take time to enjoy my journey near its end?
“How about you give me a few days to think on it?” I propose.
Before leaving Maupin Fields Shelter, I unfold my map to trace the Appalachian Trail winding from the Three Ridges, across the Tye River, and up The Priest. A red dotted line meets the trail by the shelter, bypassing the Three Ridges and rejoining the trail a few miles before the river: a blue-blazed shortcut called the Mau-Har Trail. Woody declared his intentions to take the shortcut last night; Shweasle already set out down the trail earlier that day. Intrigued, I follow their lead.
A sign precedes the trail, warning, “The Mau-Har Trail is a tough, rugged, 3-mile trail, with lots of ups and downs. It requires the same stamina and energy as the 6.2-mile shelter to shelter hike up and over the top of Three Ridges.”
The Mau-Har Trail runs along several creeks, passing by small waterfalls and pools. I enjoy the variety of wildflowers thriving along the edges of the path, though many sections are rockier and less well-maintained than what I’ve experienced so far.
By lunchtime, I reach the Tye River. Happily, I heave my pack onto a slab of rock, dig out a bag of granola, and sit down to eat. As I look across the river, I see Shweasle emerge from behind a tree. He waves, then stoops to gather water.
With only four miles left until the next shelter, I anticipate an easy afternoon. I completely underestimate the time required to climb The Priest: a 4,000 foot mountain requiring 3,000 feet of ascent.
Just put one foot in front of the other, I tell myself. The woods engulf me, obscuring any view of the mountain ahead. I have no idea how far I am from the summit. Keep going. Sweat drips from my forehead as I watch streams of northbound hikers bound past me down the mountain. Just like life, I think, as my pace slows to a crawl. Slogging through challenges is just a part of life. Think about what it’ll feel like to reach the summit.
Another northbounder passes by.
“Is that the summit?” I call, pointing to the highest point I can see in the distance.
He whirls around. “No, you’ve still got a ways to go.”
I continue hiking up the relentless uphill, focusing on each small step forwards, until –
After nearly four hours, I crest a hill and see the trail plateau before me: Triumph!
Life is just like climbing mountains, I think to myself. The way isn’t always clear - especially at the beginning of the road, the foot of the mountain - but the farther I climb, the harder I work, the more I see.
I unclip my pack as I reach The Priest Shelter, located on a clearing near the summit. I am the first to arrive for the night, though I see a group of weekend campers setting up tents across the field. I busy myself with camp chores: inflating my sleeping pad, drawing water, and cooking dinner.
As I return from the small stream next to the shelter, picking my way through swampy patches of land, my foot sinks into the soft, squishy mud. I can’t help but laugh: I changed into my flip flops as soon as I arrived. Next time, check the lay of the land before switching shoes!
An hour later, Woody and Phlatlander stroll in, looking just as relieved to reach the shelter as I felt after the long climb.
Phlatlander pulls out a can of Coke and Dr. Pepper. “Want one?”
The soda tastes unexpectedly good after a long day of climbing.
One day from my next mail drop, I think as I fall asleep. One day from a hot shower and real food.