Into the Shenandoahs
2016-04-01 — Mountain Home Cabbin
5 miles: I only need to hike 5 miles. Today, though, my feet begin to bother me almost immediately after I lace my boots.
Remember why you’re here. Overcome the challenges. Cultivate flexibility. Develop resilience, I tell myself. Even so, when I see a flat, sofa-like boulder by the road after 2 miles, I rush over to tear off my boots and air out my feet for a minute. My boots are killing me, I think, sliding out of my pack. How can I make this work?
I scan the outside of my pack, where I attached several carabiners to the straps. Various odds and ends dangle there: a whistle with a compass and thermometer, my Halfapp trail angels wristband, the outer jacket I shed in the heat, and bright pink flip flops.
I unhook my flip flops, tie my boots onto the carabiner, and slip the flip flops onto my feet. I begin hiking a bit awkwardly at first, but the terrain is gentle, and my toes have enough room to expand.
Prior to leaving for the trail, I packed multiple mail drops: boxes of food and supplies to send to myself along the way. Today, I plan to stay at a hiker hostel, the ‘Mountain Home Cabbin,’ and pick up my first mail drop.
A few dozen yards from the trail, a gravel driveway bears the sign “Mountain Home Cabbin | Bed and Breakfast.” I catch sight of two buildings as I head up the driveway. The first is small, brick, and nondescript, more the size of a shed than a house at first glance. Tibetan prayer flags line the doorway. The second, a large, white plantation house with Greek columns at the entrance, overlooks the entire estate.
Though I see several cars, no one appears to be on the property. For a moment, I hesitate. Then, a woman pops her head out the window of the plantation house.
“You must be Lilian!” she calls.
“Yes,” I shout back.
“I’m Lisa. Go ahead on upstairs. I’ll be there shortly.” She gestures at the small brick building.
Upstairs? For a second, I wonder how such a tiny-looking building could fit two stories. Then, I shrug off my pack, leave my boots, flip flops, and poles in the entryway, and open the screen door to go inside.
I step into a small, cozy kitchen. A partition runs down the middle of the room; two beds are crammed into the other half. To my right, a staircase leads up to a small square room filled with four beds and a bathroom in one corner.
After hauling my pack upstairs and onto one of the beds, I wait all of ten minutes before the desire to shower away days of dirt and grime overcomes me.
Lisa is not yet there when I finish. I head downstairs. A book propped on the kitchen table details her husband and son’s journey on the Appalachian Trail. As I flip through the pages, admiring the photos, Lisa enters.
“I took a shower. I hope you don’t mind,” I say.
“Oh, no, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Make yourself at home. Do you want some lemonade?”
“Ooh, yes, please.”
“So you need to go to town for laundry and the post office,” Lisa says, taking out a plastic cup.
“Yes, please. Oh, and are there any places in town to get new boots? Mine are too small.”
Lisa turns out to be one of the most gracious hosts I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. She shuttles me to town not once, but twice: once to lunch and Walmart for new boots, and a second time for laundry and mail - I pack my old boots to mail home in between.
At Walmart, I try on at least ten pairs of shoes before I find one in the men’s shoes section wide enough to accommodate my flattened toes: In the past four days, my feet have grown from a women’s 7 to a men’s 8.5.
Once we’re back at the Mountain Home, Lisa treats me to a tour of the plantation house. “My husband, Scott, had a lot of time to think on his thru-hike,” she tells me. “When we decided to open a hostel, we looked everywhere for places close to the trail. The realtor kept sending us listings for places, but they were all far away - more than a couple miles from the trail. When we told her that, she said, ‘well, there’s always Mountain Home.’ Right now, it’s just the cabin, but we’re working on restoring the house.”
Layers of plaster and half-finished paint line the walls of the plantation house. White cloth covers the hallways.
“I was working on painting when you showed up. I don’t always dress like this.” She gestures at her paint-splattered work pants. Both Lisa and Scott hold day jobs outside of the hostel; Lisa talks excitedly about her work with the EPA. I can hardly imagine how they find time to manage the hostel and renovate the Mountain Home, but part of me thinks, I want to be like that: always working on a project, always following my passions, always trying to achieve my dreams.
The history of the house and its old artifacts fascinates me. “We found a bunch of shoes in the attic,” Lisa continues. “My son - he’s a PhD student in archaeology and anthropology - tells me they were put there to ward off unfriendly spirits.” Rounding a corner, we step out onto the balcony and watch as the sun sets over the mountainside. I look forward to a good night’s sleep.
"What are some of the hardest lessons in life?" "Hmm. I think it's different for different people. The decisions you make now will have an impact many years later... For me, probably the hardest lesson was that I can't be in control of everything in life." - Lisa, owner of the 'Mountain Home Cabbin'
2016-04-02 — Entering Shenandoahs
After a week of rising before dawn and sleeping at sunset - ‘hiker’s midnight’ - my body wakes by 5:00 am. Mark, another hiker, remains asleep in the bed next to mine; he drove in past 9:00 pm the previous night.
Immediately, I slip from the bed and head for the shower. I won’t have the chance to shower for another 5 days, I think. When I step out, the smell of eggs and toast wafts up from the kitchen downstairs. Mark’s bed lies empty. Hurriedly, I head down the steps to find Mark sitting at the table and Lisa frying eggs over a small, portable stove.
“Morning,” I say, taking a seat.
As Lisa serves up eggs, toast, fruit, and juice, Mark begins to flip through photos on his phone. “I’m from Pennsylvania,” he says. “I spent years working, getting fat and happy. Now, I’m hiking my happy little heart out.”
“This is from the fall.” He shows me a photo of a river meandering between multihued hillsides.
“Wow,” I say.
“You show these pictures to people,” he continues, “and they say things like, ‘nice trees,’ or ‘nice view.’ But to you, they’re much more than that. They’re all the struggles and experiences you went through to get the pictures.”
“There’s a certain satisfaction I get from working for the views,” I reply. “It’s different from driving up to the summit of a mountain and taking pictures.”
After cleaning my plate, I pack my bags and hike out. My feet enjoy the roomy toe-boxes in my new boots.
That afternoon, I enter Shenandoah National Park. Though I plan to stay at Gravel Springs shelter to shield myself from forecasted 50 mph winds and single digit temperatures, I end up 3 miles short after my late morning start.
The wind begins to pick up even as I pitch my tent. All night, I listen to the wind roaring from the foot of the mountain and crashing through the trees like a tidal wave; even my earplugs fail to block out the sound. Cold air seeps up between the seams of my sleeping pad. I lay awake all night, shivering, curled up in a ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag.
I promise myself to take an easy day the next morning.
2016-04-03 — Gravel Springs Hut
After a sleepless night, I rise before dawn to find a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. I stumble around the campsite packing up my gear, my muscles still feeling the effects of my lack of sleep. Drawing out the tent stakes from the ground, I find little balls of soil frozen onto the stakes. A gust of wind rushes through the trees. My tent lifts into the air, and I make a wild grab for it. After wrestling my tent into its bag, I finally start hiking.
I expect to reach the next shelter - just a few miles away - early in the day.
Dawn unfolds as I round a corner to find myself at the edge of a cliff. The sun’s orange glow illuminates the Shenandoahs. Seeing dawn on the ridge makes the night’s suffering worthwhile, I think.
I reach Gravel Springs Hut well before noon. A troop of Boy Scouts linger around the fire pit, shoving the last of their belongings into their packs. Two hikers, Captain Yoga Pants and Gentle Ben, stand brushing their teeth over the bear box: a bear-proof cabinet for storing food. A young man in a patterned blue shawl sits in the hut, looking contemplative.
"One time I was hiking in yoga pants - all the girls do it, so I figured I'd do it, too - and this girl comes up and says, 'move over, captain yoga pants.' The name stuck." - Captain Yoga Pants
I look around for the logbook, where hikers and visitors traditionally leave their signatures. Remembering Mosey’s advice about giving myself a trail name, I settle on Lil Phoenix. The name is nod to both my American and Cantonese heritage, Lil being a nickname from Lilian, and Phoenix being a translation of the second character in my Cantonese name.
“So are you Parkour?” I ask the young man, after seeing the name in the logbook.
“What brings you to the trail?”
He thinks for several seconds before carefully replying, “In almost every culture, when children grow into adults, they’re sent out to commune with nature.”
His reasons and experiences echo my own.
“The trail is hard,” he continues. “Most times, I wouldn’t call it anywhere close to fun. But I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been out here.”
“And there are moments,” I add, “like seeing the sunrise, that make all the challenges worth enduring. I think that in great struggle lies great potential for growth.”
By the time lunchtime arrives, the sun melts away the last of the snow. I experience an unexpected touch of trail magic when a large group of Korean dayhikers arrives with pots and pans in hand, builds a fire, and begins to cook lunch. Half speak only Korean, but they insist on including me in their meal: one man lays a small bowl of sake before me, and another continuously drops morsels of shrimp, meat, squid, and tofu into my cup. As they leave, they press a bag of candy into my hands.
That night, more hikers arrive: Phlatlander, Woody, and Turtle Catcher. Both Phlatlander and Woody started in Harper’s Ferry shortly after me.
I sleep feeling grateful for the random trail magic I received, the new boots I bought, and the beautiful sunrise from the morning.
"I don't think it ever gets easier; once you can do more miles, you do." - Phlatlander, who is completing a SOBO hike she started in '15
2016-04-04 — Pass Mountain Hut
Phlatlander leaves the shelter early in the morning, aiming for an 18 mile hike into Bird’s Nest Hut. I follow shortly afterwards. Within a couple minutes, Turtle Catcher surpasses me as I stop to adjust my gloves.
“Guess you’ve caught your first turtle,” I joke.
Though I am not yet ready to hike 18 miles, I feel a slight improvement in my hiking. My feet still ache, but less than before.
Towards midday, I begin hiking down a hill towards Elkwallow Gap. Suddenly, I hear the leaves rustle to my left. I turn towards the sound, expecting to see squirrels or birds.
I freeze. Two bears: a momma bear and its cub. They look smaller than I expect. After a second, the cub begins playfully scurrying around its mother.
The momma bear stands rigid, staring steadily at me.
Ok. Avoid eye contact. I tell myself. I’ll just go about my business and they’ll go about theirs. I doubt they want a confrontation any more than I do.
As I edge around the bears, eyes averted, I manage to snap a picture on my iPhone.
After walking another few hundred feet, I glance back. No bears. Good.
Exhaustion begins to set in around mid afternoon. By now, I know I can handle it. As I take a break and consider finding a spot to tent, I check for a signal on my phone.
A text message arrives from Lisa: a forecast for snow and freezing temperatures.
Refusing to spend another sleepless night shivering in my sleeping bag, I choose to push on.
That night, I head to Pass Mountain shelter. Two section hikers and three thru hikers who started the trail in the Shenandoahs share the shelter with me; Woody walks in just before hiker’s midnight.
“So what do you think of the trail so far?” Adam, one of the section hikers, asks. Both of us stand at the bear box, brushing our teeth.
“It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Sometimes, it’s not fun. But it’s worth it.”
Reflecting back on the day, I feel that hiking through the mountains is an analogy for life: from youth, every lesson learned, every challenge conquered, is a mountain climbed. To get to where I want to go, I must choose to keep going, to keep pushing past exhaustion and frustration. There is no other choice, just as I had little choice but to push for the shelter today. Time never stops.
"This is what we like to call 'type 2 fun.' It's not fun when you're doing it, but it is when you look back." - Adam, section hiker from Shenandoah National Park to Harper's Ferry, on hiking the trail
2016-04-05 — Skyland Resort
Throughout the night, a fire crackles in the firepit outside, lending us warmth against the raging wind. Several times, I hear one of the other hikers get up to throw another log onto the flames.
I wake to find a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. Snowflakes continue to drift down as I pack.
Bird’s Nest Hut, the next shelter, lies merely 5 miles away. Woody and I talk about hiking through Bird’s Nest and trying for the shelter after that: 15 miles.
I leave after the three thru hikers hike out. Woody stays behind, cleaning his pot.
With a long day of hiking ahead, I try to hike as quickly as I can. After half an hour, though, something seems wrong. The shelter lies only 0.2 miles from the trail, but I have yet to see white blazes. I don’t remember seeing the tire tracks in the ground when I hiked in the day before. Though my footprints lie clearly in the snow, I see no other footprints from the other hikers who left earlier that morning.
I decide to backtrack.
As the shelter appears in the distance, I find myself at a fork in the road. Footprints line the other path. In my haste, I failed to notice I took the wrong path! Vowing to be more careful, I continue onto the trail.
Bird’s Nest Hut lies nestled at the top of a ridge. As I climb, the snow picks up. I pass a road and keep climbing up the rocky path. The road gets smaller and smaller below me.
A turkey vulture begins circling above my head as I near the top, which I find mildly amusing: perhaps I am staggering up so slowly and wearily that I look like I will drop dead at any second.
Bird’s Nest Hut stands empty when I arrive at noon. I see no sign of either Phlatlander or Woody all day. Vaguely, I wonder whether we will meet again.
The snow clears up in the afternoon. As I hike past parking areas and campgrounds, the trail flattens out considerably. The aroma of grilled food reaches me as I pass Skyland Resort. How I wish I could stay for some real, non-dehydrated food!
I grit my teeth and hike on.
That night, I set up camp at dusk after hiking 13 miles. I am a couple miles shy of the second shelter, but no matter: If I hike as far as I can every day, I will be able to make better mileage one day. How lucky I could view the Shenandoahs in snow!