I dreamt about the Trail last night.
It was twilight when I came into a town. I wasn’t sure where I was, but it felt like Maine. I realized I’d already been to all the towns in Maine, so I began to doubt that I was in Maine. The town was dim, with few streetlights, the way most of the Appalachian Trail towns were. I was looking for the white blaze that would indicate which way the Trail went out of town, but I couldn’t find any. I pulled out my guidebook, but found that it had swollen to Lonely Planet guidebook proportions and was missing a lot of pages. The only thing that was left in the book was the section on North Carolina and a lot of currency converter charts in the back. I was beginning to feel very stressed out. I had told a friend that I would see her at the next shelter area, and I was afraid that she would worry about me. In desperation, I stopped a bunch of locals. I asked them where the trailhead was and they pointed to a blaze on a tree where we stood. “Then it goes down there, along the highway.” They told me. Relived, I began to walk in the direction of the highway before I suddenly realized, ‘wait, I’ve already finished the Trail.’
And the dream, embarrassed at having been found out, shifted into something else.
The country started to mellow out a little after Atkins. The climbs were slight, when they were there at all and I enjoyed a few days of nearly flat terrain. As such, my mileage picked up a little, some days I was walking close to 30 miles. I began to worry that perhaps I’d reach Harper’s Ferry too early. Through the rest of Virginia, this was my main concern, For at least an hour every day, I thought about my anticipated meaning with Gina. I created this ideal scenario in which we came crashing into each other’s arms under the domed ceilings of DC Union Station. I’d get off my commuter train just in time to rush to the track where her train would just be arriving. I’d watch her get off the train and run to her. After that, we’d get an amazing cup of coffee and we’d go off to eat mountains of food. Or maybe she’d be waiting for me. I’d get off my train, dazed by the sudden urban surroundings and look up to see her walking toward me, with a huge smile and a bag of San Francisco burritos…
I’d get so lost in these fantasies that I’d come out of them startled to find myself in the woods, walking. Particularly in the morning, I was often able to crawl into my day dreams and make worlds out of them. It was the closest I ever got to the profound thought that I guess a lot of people expect from their hike. Most of the time, I was still stuck on the confounding mental radio station of scraps of songs, images from the past and, rarely, novel thoughts. From what I gathered talking to other hikers, the Trail produces no Confuciuses or Sartes. If you weren’t great at profound philosophical thought before you got on the Trail, don’t expect revelations, expect the radio, expect pop songs. The day dreams, however, were pretty impressive.
I found the mild terrain was better for these fantasies. Climbing and descending mountains, even the subtle green mountains of the Appalachians, takes concentration, or maybe it’s just that the physical effort is distracting. Either way, when I was huffing and puffing up and down mountains, I noticed the time went by quickly, but that I was hardly thinking about anything. When I was just walking along a river or something, my mind would be bouncing all over the damn place but, as such, time seemed to drag.
Before Trent’s Grocery, around the Wapiti Shelter (famous for the bizarre murders that had taken place there, luckily, I knew nothing about this until I was past it) I enjoyed a beautiful meandering walk along a river that seemed to last for hours. In the southern parts of the Trail, water means rhododendrons and this abundance of water had grown veritable hedges of them which the Trail maintainers bore through until the Trail resembled nothing so much as an emerald green mole’s tunnel.
I walked late into the day and what I thought was just twilight revealed itself to be rain clouds. It was around 6 and I’d already walked over 20 miles, but I wasn’t tired after the day’s relaxing walk. I stopped into a shelter to make dinner and decide what to do. There wasn’t anywhere to camp in the area and the shelter was dingy-looking, especially since the sky had darkened. It looked like a lonely place and I thought I’d probably keep going rather than stop here.
The rain came before my ramen water had started boiling and I had to run out a grab my stove from the picnic table. By this time, a few other hikers had joined me. As we all seemed to be from different walks of life and ages, in the little dusty shelter, waiting out the rain, I was reminded of the Canterbury Tales. I told my fellow hikers about the book, the different pilgrims and their stories. One middle-aged guy was really excited to tell stories and he and I mostly talked to each other while everyone else hovered between attention and sleep. It was then that I heard about what had happened at the Wapiti Shelter.
The rain let up with the suddenness that it had begun to fall. The clouds parted to reveal a twilight sun. The hour seemed too magical to stay in the shelter, plus we’d been joined by an incessantly arguing couple, so I decided to walk a little further before dark.
I had come a little higher that the river valley where I’d spent the whole day. The change in elevation, the rain and the twilight gave the Trail a magical feel, like the path from the book Grandfather Twilight. I seemed to float along, without a thought. The sky darkened and I hardly noticed at first but then I realized that I wouldn’t make the next shelter before it got dark and I wasn’t sure there’d be anywhere to stealth camp. Almost as soon as I had these thoughts, I noticed a hammock tied between two trees. Whoever was in it, looked to still be awake. I approached to see if there were any tent spots nearby. I recognized the pack leaning against a tree next to the hammock. “Kyle?” I asked the gently swinging nylon. “Hey! Mossman!” He bolted up.
We were next to a beautiful powerline clearing. I camped on the other side and in the morning, we got up and watched the sun come up over Pearisburg, VA.
The walk into town was easy, downhill to Angel’s Rest. I stopped on the rock for a while to contemplate the early morning view of the river and the smokestacks piercing the clouds above it.
The switchback leading down to the town was precipitous, the downed trees were mossy and wet and the Trail was clogged with mud. I was moving a little too quickly and almost fell a few times, but I managed to keep myself out of the mud. About half-way down, I crossed paths with a group of guys. They had the anonymous air of the city about them, so I heartily greeted them, as I tried to do to anyone I saw on the Trail who seemed unsure if they should say ‘hello.’ They responded not by returning my greeting but by asking me if they were almost ‘at the end.’ I paused a minute before answering.
“Which ‘end’ are you talking about? This Trail goes all the way to Georgia.”
“Yeah. If you’re talking about the Angel’s Rest, it’s right up there, but ‘the end’ is about 600 miles down the Trail.”
“Is this the Appalachian Trail, then?” One of the group asked. “And are you hiking the whole thing?”
I told them I was and they rewarded me with the greatest compliment one can get, looks of total astonishment. To be fair, these guys were out in basketball shoes and sweat pants, so I can see how they’d be amazed by the idea that someone could walk 600 miles, they clearly hadn’t even prepared for their short walk up the mountain. But it was nice to be the recipient of such looks, they twinkled a little with admiration, which was nice given that I knew these guys looked much better than I did. They could’ve just dismissed my bearded and backpacked character as a ragged bum and moved on.
As it turned out, thru-hikers didn’t look so out of place in the town of Pearisburg, VA. The area of town by the trailhead, was a little down-at-heel. The hotels there were obviously residential and, when I stopped into the laundromat, I noticed that toilet tank lid was bolted down, a sure sign of economic hardship, drugs or, as is usually the case, both.
Despite this ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ the downtown area of Pearisburg was very nice, mostly red brick buildings over a 100 years old. The ‘hostel’ that was listed in my guide, turned out to be a sort of hikers’ clubhouse behind the catholic church. An ‘A’-roofed building was edged by a wide porch. Inside was a sitting area, a bathroom, with shower and toilet in separate rooms, a kitchen with a stove and a refrigerator and, up a ladder a loft with sleeping pad that it was way too hot to sleep in. I took a shower as soon as I arrived and set up my tent in the yard. It was a beautiful place to stay; there was even a gazebo in the yard where I went to read when the other hikers fell to talking in the evening.
I left Pearisburg late the next day. I picked up two packages and bought some food which had me quite weighed down when I got back on the Trail. It was a grey Sunday and the Trail skirted the industrial area on the edge of town. I’d read that there was a stream we shouldn’t drink out of as there was a landfill nearby. For all this, after I’d gotten out of the town, the Trail was quick to turn impressive again. Before I hit the Rice Field Shelter, I hiked with Tarzan for a while: another thru-hiker I would eventually catch back up to in Maine.
I walked past the shelter and looked down from a cliff into West Virginia. The ledge offered a beautiful walk for the evening and my thoughts had begun to drift so profoundly, that I almost didn’t see the bear until I was right up top of him. He stopped digging and looked up at me. I hadn’t seen anyone since the shelter and had no reason to think that there was anyone else around. Just this 200+ pound bear and I. I remembered my bear whistle and blew into it. Yogi didn’t seem at all perturbed and continued looking at me, as if deciding what to do. I blew again, harder and the bear, slowly, turned and walked a little way from the Trail. I walked on, trying not to run. He hadn’t gone far from the Trail and I worried that when I had my back to him, some instinctive impulse would force him to chase me.
I walked until I felt I was far away enough to look back. I didn’t see him, but for the rest of the evening, when I heard something behind me. I’d stop and look back, half expecting to see the bear again.
There are three places I camped that stand out in my mind and the spot after Pearisburg is one of them. Not long after I passed the bear, I came into an area that was semi-bald, that is, there were few trees up there and lots of long, yellow grass. I came to a rise on the Trail and found, under an old gnarled oak, a beautiful spot to put a tent and watch the sunset. There was even a fire ring and improvised benches nearby.
I set up my tent and settled down to eat. Having just resupplied in town, I was particularly weighed down with food and I worried about not being able to get it all up in the tree for my bear bag. I hadn’t passed that bear more than a mile back and I worried he was going to find my campsite before long and come sniffing around for food. All the cookies and peanut butter I had so recently been excited about now seemed like a terrible millstone around my neck.
It wasn’t even dark when I heard a branch break almost right behind me. I spun around fully expecting to see Yogi lumbering toward me and was immensely relived when I saw a hiker instead, a guy I’d seen earlier that evening, standing just off the Trail and having what looked like an intense conversation on his phone.
He stopped and introduced himself as Freebird. I offered the tent spot next to mine, relived to have company should the bear still end up coming to pay a visit.
After he was set up, Freebird and I talked and watched the sun set from our log perches. He told me that he’d been on the phone trying to figure out what to do with his dog. He explained that he’d found a stray dog months before coming out on the Trail. They’d become pretty close and when he set off for the hike, he left his dogs in his dad’s care. His dad had just called him to tell him a woman had showed up at the house and claimed the dog was hers and was particularly beloved by her grandchildren who lived with her most of the time. Freebird told me that he believed the woman. She seemed to have good intentions and had furnished various kinds of proof that the dog had been hers, “Still,” he told me. “This doesn’t make it any easier to let the dog go. We’d gotten really close and it’s a bummer to think that when I get back, she won’t be there anymore.”
We talked about the dog and about our lives before the Trail until after dark. When I finally got into my tent, I realized that the tall grass I had set up in was full of field mice. I listened to their rustlings, praying they wouldn’t smell something in my tent and chew through it. I also listened for Yogi, still fully expecting him to show up at some point, but, eventually all this vigilance took its toll and I fell asleep.
I woke up early, before dawn and made coffee. I sat on the log seat of the night before, expecting to write but put down my pen when I realized I’d miscalculated where I’d expected the sun to come up. A sliver of the blood orange-colored sphere had begun to show above the highest peak on the misty ridge to the north. The mountains were a cold, milky blue. The valleys sloshed with rivers of fog and, as the sun climbed, it illuminated this Himalayan landscape with its fruit-colored light. I sipped my coffee and savored the best sunrise I’d ever seen.
I hadn’t been back on the Trail 20 minutes before I crossed paths with Yogi again. This time, however, he ran off when he saw me. He’d probably been hanging around while I was watching the beautiful sunrise, deciding whether or not to maul me.
It rained for the next few days until just before the Dragon’s Tooth. Although I had cursed the rain and my sodden boots, I felt incredibly lucky to come to the Tooth after the sun had come out. With so many rock scrambles and precarious footholds, this section would’ve been terrible in the rain. As it was, I enjoyed it very much, especially after the days of rain, the sun-warmed rocks felt terrific. Living outside in the rain, the body cultivates a cold and damp feeling that only pure sunshine seems capable of eradicating. I lay on the rocks and let the heat and light pour into the still-damp pockets of my clothes. I noticed that the area behind my ears seemed to be drying (I had ceased to notice that it was damp), as were my armpits and the divots behind my knees. Only my feet, still swathed in their damp socks, enfolded in damp boots sustained their dampness. Even these began to dry when I took off my boots and happily wriggled my mummified, fish-pale toes in the sun.
The morning the rain stopped, I woke to the sound of an owl, calling to another owl through the woods. I fell asleep again and woke up around dawn. I was on the Trail early and enjoyed the solitude of it. I noticed a sign, crossing a road, that said something about ‘slack-packing’ here at 8 am. I checked my watch, it was 7:45, but I was enjoying my stride and didn’t really feel like hanging around to see what the sign was all about.
I climbed another rise in the Trail and came down into another gap. There was a stream next to the road and I had stopped for water when I heard a car pull up. I ignored it and was just about to go on when a girl with a strong mid-western accent came tripping over the bridge calling out ‘Trail Magic!’ I followed her back to the road and enjoyed a soda and a few granola bars with two girls who had come from Wisconsin with a thru-hiker supporting regimen. They told me they were going to be moving up the Trail the next few days, dispensing food and other hiker essentials along the way. I told them I hoped I would see them again and walked back into the woods.
I climbed up the Dragon’s Tooth that afternoon and was awarded with several beautiful views and the previous days’ rains rising in gauzy clouds from the folds of the forest. A number trail sections jutted out in Charlie’s Bunion-like viewing platforms and I was continually stopping and sighing.
It was late in the afternoon when I came down into the last gap of the day where the girls from Wisconsin had told me they’d be later in the day. I stood around a second, slightly disappointed that I wouldn’t be having another Coke and walked into the soaking woods. The path was nearly obliterated by puddles and mud and I hadn’t gotten far up with rise when I heard a car pull up on the road. I turned and peered through the trees to see the girls’ car and came dashing down the trail, nearly falling a few times in my excitement.
The girls greeted me warmly and offered me a seat and a Coke. I’d made good progress that day and didn’t mind taking a rest before the last 3 miles, which looked to be relatively mild. As I was enjoying my Coke and chatting with the girls, Kyle and another hiker came across the road together. The three of us chatted while the girls prepared to receive other weary hikers.
After our respite, Kyle, No Name (a section hiker, just doing Virginia) and I walked to the next shelter together. My new companions had come from town and had brought some wine and olives. We decided to build a fire at the shelter and split the wine and olives with dinner. The only other hiker at the shelter was a guy named Green Brier, who told us about the edible plant and pointed it out. The rest of the hike, I foraged the waxy leaves of this plant and munched on them as I walked.
The next morning, I made my way up to McAfee Knob, saving my coffee so I could drink it while I took in the view. I stood on the ledge and took a wind bath, savoring the warm coffee and watching the hawks rise and fall in the thermals below. After I finished my coffee and got a few pictures, I had a hard time leaving the most photographed site on the entire AT, in the quiet of a weekday morning, it was an amazing place.
Soon after I came down from the Knob, I was tightrope walking along Tinker Cliffs, another beautiful part of the Trail. The Cliffs have the formation of one tectonic plate pushed over the top of another. The spare vegetation at the edge results in some beautiful and precipitous views. Walking along, I noticed a piece of paper held down by a rock—a hiker communique. Something about being in the woods for extended periods of time makes one believe in the semiotic tenant that states ‘humans are sign-making animals.’ My eyes automatically jumped to anything that looked slightly inorganic. I visually devoured anything printed, even when I knew what I sign would say, I read it anyway. I saw other hikers do this too. In this spirit, I stopped to read the note pinned down by the rock at my feet.
“Be Careful! There’s a rattlesnake under this rock!”
An arrow pointed to a rock about two feet ahead and the date was listed at the top of the note. At first, I didn’t see the snake and then, as my eyes adjusted, it’s coiled body seemed to spring out into relief from the stone and piles of pine cones and needles. The snake didn’t rattle, but, as I moved around cautiously, he coiled tighter as if anticipating a strike. I took a few pictures and moved off quickly, so as not to annoy him too much. The rest of the walk into Daleville, I trod the Trail and little more cautiously, telling everyone heading the opposite way to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, I didn’t realize how unaggressive these snakes are until I nearly stepped right on one in Connecticut and still didn’t provoke a bite from it. The terrible thing is that a lot of people on the Trail feel justified killing these docile snakes on sight, as if they’re some kind of horrible menace, taking out hikers left and right. As it turns out, almost no one has been bitten by a poisonous snake on the Trail who wasn’t provoking the snake in some way.
I came into Daleville in the late afternoon. The town was spread out along a highway and wasn’t comfortable to walk. A small section of the Trail ran between Daleville and the hamlet of Troutville. The Trail was ringed by highways, but was well-kept as perhaps a place where locals walked (although I didn’t see any). It was also the place where I saw my first ripe black berries. I stuffed my mouth with the fruit as I walked, a thunderstorm moved across the sky and rabbits bounded continuously across the Trail.
Troutville was a portion of the Trail I was never able to share with anyone else. I never talked to any other hiker who’d stopped there and, indeed, when I camped in the town’s park that evening, there was only one other hiker. The old town lined a rural highway that slowed down to a 25 mph speed limit as it passed the peaked roofs and the thunderous front yard oak trees. There was a general store that was already closed at 7 pm and a fire station. I stopped at the latter and was told I could use the facilities to shower and wash my clothes. I finished just as dark was falling, but luckily the park was just across the street and I had my tent set up on the soft mown lawn in no time.
The next morning, I stopped by the post office on my way out of town. The front window was decorated with a painting depicting a hiker with a USPS package. A hiker box placed by the PO boxes was overflowing with granola bars and toothbrushes. After I got my package, I went back to Daleville to resupply and stopped at an outfitter where I found a pair of trekking poles in the hiker box. As one of the only people on the trail not using these poles, I had begun to feel curious about them, especially as I had begun to feel a pain just beneath my shoulder that daily waxed and waned, but never entirely diminished. Since the poles were free, I figured I’d just try them out, if I didn’t like them, I could always leave them at the next hiker box I came to. But after I hit the Trail, weighed down by my overzealous resupply and climbing up and down hills all afternoon, I was overjoyed to find the poles made the walk so much easier. Even the pain in my shoulder seemed to have vanished. Initially, the poles were a little awkward, but it didn’t take long to acclimate to them. The only drawback was that I no longer had a free hand to snack with as I walked, which probably wasn’t a bad freedom to have to give up.
Ran into Leslie the next morning, leaving the shelter and we walked together, talking until about 3 pm when we reached the road where the girls from Wisconsin were hosting a sort of trail magic bonfire. They had bagels and all kinds of snacks they were giving away, saying they were going back to Wisconsin and didn’t want to bring any of the stuff back with them. I had a difficult time deciding what to do but eventually decided to camp in the area rather than move on so that I could enjoy the food and nearby river without feeling like I had to keep moving. I went for a swim in the cold water and ate everything I could get my hands on. The girls had lots of vegetarian stuff and I ate until they had to go. Leslie caught a ride down the road to meet her parents. We’d been walking on and off together since North Carolina and I expected that we’d cross paths again sooner or later, but after that day, I never saw her again. I asked after her further up the trail. Once in Pennsylvania, someone told me that she was ahead of us, but the last I saw of her was in the logbook at the ATC in Harper’s Ferry, WV.
Bear activity had closed down the next shelter 15 miles up the Trail from the river where I’d camped the night before. As I hiked the next day, still full with all the trail magic food I’d eaten, I scanned the woods and the Trail for signs of bear, but didn’t see any. I passed the closed shelter in the late afternoon and made my way down to a clearing about 5 miles further out where I’d heard there was a good place to pitch a tent. When I found this clearing, there was a note stuck in a post marking the camping area. The note was an impromptu logbook. The first entry was dated 5 days earlier and read “Camped here last night and had a bear show up just before dark. We yelled, threw rocks and even maced it, but it wouldn’t go away. I’d consider camping somewhere else.” The next entry, dated the next day, said “a bear showed up and hung around sniffing for a while before leaving. Also, there’s a copperhead in the hollow tree to your right.” Although it was getting late, after reading this disconcerting note, I decided to keep walking. There was another shelter area further down the mountain and I figured the lower elevation would probably discourage bears.
The walk down the mountain in the evening was beautiful. A number of times the Trail came out alongside the mountain and opened up to the evening sky and the autumn colors of the late sunset. As I often did when I’d walked a long day, I put on my headphones and listened to a podcast and just spaced out for a while, crossing rivers and walking down switchbacks as the darkness rose through the forest, growing from the roots of trees, up into the lower branches, like a swelling shadow.
It was almost dark when I came into a river valley. The south bank of the river was marked by a clearing and a single tent. The hiker was already inside. I found a place to camp on the other side of the river, it was a peaceful spot, but I was disconcerted to notice there was no place to hang a bear bag. All the branches were either very high or very flimsy, as was so often the case and with all the nearby bear activity, I really didn’t want to leave my food out where it could be pulled down or would attract a bear to the area. I tied my paracord to my water bottle and tossed it as high as possible to the lowest, thick branch I could find which was still probably 35 feet up. The bottle fell short of the branch and exploded when it came down on a rock. I paused a moment to fume about the bottle, but I realized that I’d still be able to drink from it, but like a cup, since it’d broken in half. Still, I wasn’t happy and I was even less pleased on my second attempt, this time using a rock, to get my paracord stuck in the tree—something I’d felt fortunate I hadn’t yet experienced after seeing it happen to so many other hikers.
It was completely dark by the time I got my bag up in a spot that any bear could easily pull down, but, at least it wasn’t in my tent or lying on the ground. I crawled into my tent and hoped for the best before falling into a deep sleep after the long day.
The next few days passed without much event. I crossed the Charles River Bridge, which was quite impressive and walked all afternoon along a lake that resulted from a dam. It was a scorching hot day, but I kept walking as I’d read that the next shelter area was supposed to have a great swimming hole upstream from the camping area. After I’d gotten my tent up, I walked deep into the brush along the river, but I never saw anything like a good swimming hole, but I was too hot and sweaty to care about the lack of options and I settled for lying down in the shallow river for a while.
The next day was Sunday and it was incredibly quiet. I hardly saw any other hikers after having some great trail magic at the first gap I came to in the morning. It felt like everyone else had left the trail. I walked all day, alternately lost in thought and thinking about nothing in particular before heading down into a bowl-like depression where there was a spring that flowed out from underneath a huge rock. The trickle of the spring and the unnatural darkness created by the depression gave the place an eerie air. I made a fire to cheer myself up a little, but a gentle breeze blowing the twilight through the trees felt like it blew right through me into my heart. It was getting dark and no one else seemed to be coming. For the first time since I’d gotten on the trail, I knew I’d be camping in the spot all alone. The lack of underbrush made it possible to look deeply into the surrounding forest, even in the fading light. It felt huge, like it went on forever, an ocean of trees and darkness breaking against the tiny bulwark of my tent.
I woke up once in the middle of the night in that desolate place. I had to pee and as I stepped out of the tent, it was like falling off a cliff; I hadn’t taken more than two steps, but I felt like I was alone in the middle of the woods with nothing, no tent, no jacket, no shoes. I stood there for a minute feeling this baptism in wind and night, the dry leaves rattling overhead before I jumped back into the tent, wound myself up in my sleeping bag and lie awake, listening to the howling darkness, waiting, as a child waits, to hear something, softly and pitifully, deep in the forest, begin to call my name. I listened until I was asleep again.
I woke up and left the haunted grove behind, as soon as I climbed back up to the Trail, the sun hit me and warmed my face, which had grown cool and slightly clammy after a night in a depression by water. I was walking, lost in thought when I accosted a sobo who told me he was walking to Panama. He also told me that an up-coming blue blazed trail was well worth the detour as it was basically along an entire chain of waterfalls, which provided great swimming opportunities. I thanked him, convinced that there were some occasions worth getting off the Trail and a trail of waterfalls was certainly one of them.
I had a late breakfast on top of the Priest Mountain. The log book there had been turned into a confessional, but it was disappointing to read that the confessionals were mainly about eating stuff on the Trail or going to the bathroom and not burying it. It hadn’t been much of climb getting up the Priest, but the switchback going down seemed interminable, wrapping around the larger rocks of the mountain, occasionally spilling down in little rockslides. I tried not to move too fast, but it was hard when walking down what, in places, must’ve been nearly a thirty-degree grade.
Down in the gap at the bottom, there was a substantial stream along the road and a few locals were out for the day, their dogs gamboling in the water. I thought about stopping in the alternately golden and aquamarine stream and soaking my feet if not jumping in and spending the afternoon drying out on one of the large rocks that stood, half-soaked, in the river.
I kept moving, thinking of the waterfalls ahead and before long, I came to the junction which continued on the AT or veered to the left for the Mau-Har Trail. The sobo had told me that the trail was really rough, sawtoothing up and down with little respite. Initially, it didn’t seem too bad, but about half a mile down, the trail ran up the mountain and then slid down like a rope of Christmas tree lights that have slipped their nail and are hanging in a big tangle from the eaves.
I was continuously listening for the familiar roar of a substantial waterfall, but couldn’t differentiate the sound from the continual wind in the trees. Eventually, the distant roar raised itself about the sound of wind. The Mau-Har Trail took me down a crumbly switchback and I was standing above a river going straight down the mountain, alternately stopping in pools and then tumbling 10 or 20 feet further down. It seemed a shame that the AT skirted this majestic tumbling body of water.
There was a group of hikers down on the bank of the river sitting in the fashion of stoned hikers everywhere, that is to say, their packs were all nearly empty, stuff was spread out everywhere and they all wore happy grins as if admiring the chaos they’d created at their feet. I said hello and then went bounding down the falls, looking for the ideal place to swim. About 200 yards downstream, I found a great pool, the middle of which looked as though it may go down indefinitely to the earth’s core and come pouring out in some antipodal fountain. I stripped, put on my swimming trunks and then made the mistake of trying to wade into the freezing water. For minutes, I couldn’t face the possibility of jumping into the icy water. My feet had gone numb, but my body was still sweaty and dirty. I finally let myself tip over into the arctic water. I shot up immediately, teeth chattering, fingertips instantly numb, ear lobes and lips blue. After hiking in the humid 80-degree weather all day, it was beautiful. I plunged in again and dog paddled over the abyss in the middle of the pool. I let myself sink for a while, but the water got so cold and I couldn’t tell if I was anywhere near a bottom, besides, who wouldn’t fear the life that such a desolate and dark pool may cultivate, despite or maybe in spite of the cold.
I swam around for a few more minutes before getting out; my whole body had gone deeply, shockingly cold. Even my scalp felt chilled. I dried off and decided that I would retrace my steps back down the Mau-Har Trail. I could’ve continued down the trail and shaved a few miles off the AT, but I didn’t want to miss anything, so I decided to go back to where I left the Trail.
I can’t say this was exactly a mistake. But damn, it was hard work. In places, the Trail was so overgrown I felt like I was bushwhacking through a tropical jungle, using my trekking poles to knock the overgrown grasses out of my way. This side of the gap seemed to rise as steeply as the other had come down, where I’d been slipping and sliding a few hours before, I was now leaning on my trekking poles and heaving myself up every step. Perhaps the cool water of the waterfall had energized me. I’d been walking all day, but I didn’t mind the climb. The sun began to sink behind the mountains and I felt peaceful, like I belonged to the mountain, like I was not an intruder, but a natural component, like a tree, a rock or a bear.
I came into the shelter just before dark, there were only two other people camping there. There were iron fire rings and bear poles—poles that looked like giant hat racks, each with a loose pole attached to it by a chain, the purpose of which was raise food bags up to the top of the hat rack. It took a few tries to get my bag up there, especially as I’d used the last of the daylight finding wood for a fire. I stayed up with the fire for a while, appreciating the spectacle. The warmth it provided was almost as a secondary characteristic.
The next day’s walk was spent recounting the dreams of the last few nights, which seemed to be increasing in severity and verisimilitude. In the mornings, I had been waking almost dazed, like I’d been thrown suddenly from the arms of Morpheus, back into the waking world. As I walked, I picked over details, so realistic, I wondered if I wasn’t still dreaming.
I was attempting to camp right before the gap that led into Waynesboro, VA. As usually happened before coming into a town, I had begun to feel food-crazed and I wanted to be as close to town when I woke up as possible, so I could stumble into town, get a coffee and a bag of cookies and then plop down in a laundromat and watch the world go by for the rest of the day.
The last shelter was 5 miles out, it was a beautiful place, right along a river, with tent spots all set at a distance along the water. I decided to stop for a snack at a memorial bench that’d been built next to the river. A man at the shelter was holding forth on the area’s topography, flora and fauna. I decided to go up and ask him if there were any good stealth spots before the gap leading into town. As there were two streams, I assumed at least one of them would have an area to pitch a tent, but the man shook his head. “It’s all ridgeline,” he assured me. “There’s nowhere to pitch a tent between here and the gap, unless you want to sleep in that pioneer’s cemetery about half a mile from here.” I asked him if he was sure there was really nothing. He nodded vigorously as if it were the one thing in life he could be sure of. Slightly dejected, I went to look for a place to set up my tent along the beautiful river.
The bugs were terrible, so I built a fire. I cooked and then watched the flames until I ran out of wood and the bugs came back, driving me into the tent and another tumultuous night of dreams.
I woke up before dawn, feeling like I was starving. The thought of cookies, coffee and a laundromat pushed me out of my sleeping bag before the sun was up. I was on the Trail early; I stopped for a minute to pay my respects at the Pioneer’s Cemetery; in the early light, the crude, eroded stones looked themselves like ghosts, or lights rising from the ground. I was soon to find out I wasn’t alone on the trail. Not long after the cemetery, I heard a sound like digging and looked up to find the largest black bear I’d seen sitting right next to the Trail, digging in a stump. I could see that I’d have to walk right past him, so close that he’d be able to reach out and take a swipe at me if he should feel the need. I decided I’d try to scare him away, rather than walk by him. I raised my trekking poles up and started banging them together, yelling, but without much conviction, so early in the morning, it sounded more like a childish complaint. I couldn’t think of anything to say other than “hey, bear!” Luckily, he seemed to get what I was trying to do and took a few steps back from the Trail, enough for me to get by. I looked ahead as I walked past him, careful not to make eye contact that could be viewed as a sign of aggression.
I hadn’t walked half a mile after my bear encounter before I heard a scratching and looked up to see a bear cub scrambling up a tree, at the base of the tree the mom was crouching down in the way dogs do before they launch themselves after a ball. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to hide herself behind the tree or if she was getting ready to charge me. I noticed she had another cub on her back; she couldn’t have been more than 50 feet from me. I tried to make myself as non-threatening as possible. I walked on casually as if I hadn’t seen her, my heart hammering in my chest, waiting to hear the heavy sound of her paws pounding the Trail behind me. She stayed behind the tree. About 20 minutes later, I passed another bear, this time, I didn’t even bother to look up, neither did he, much more concerned with digging in his log that watching me. I came into the gap, like I came up from being under water, taking a deep breath after a morning in the bear-haunted forest outside Waynesboro, VA.
That night, I pitched my tent in a town park, in an area designated for thru-hikers. It was supposed to storm, but it only drizzled for a few minutes sometime in the night.
I was ahead of schedule to meet Gina in DC, so I decided to stay another day in Waynesboro, hanging out in the voluminous library there. The anticipated storm came that night while I was still in the library. It was amazing to hear the tumult of rain and thunder from safe inside a building.
That night, I stayed in a church basement hostel, thinking the storm would come back. I went for a walk in the evening, I could still hear the storm rumbling in the distance and the streetlights gleamed in the rainwater puddled in the slick darkness of the town at night. I heard voices talking quietly between sips of beer and the crinkly sound of burning cigarettes on the porches of the surrounding houses.
In the morning, I thumbed a ride back out to the Trail where it entered the Shenandoah. Freebird, the guy I’d met outside Pearisburg, after I’d seen the bear, was already in the car. We hit the trailhead together, but split up soon after. There was a shelter area only about five miles in, too early to stop and the next one was too far out. I figured I’d just walk until I came to something in the evening. I wasn’t seeing too many stealth spots, but I wasn’t too worried, the Skyline Drive which kept crossing over the Trail in the Shenandoah, made the Trail seem less remote.
As the sun was setting, I found a spot that looked flat enough, cleared off an area to pitch my tent and sat on a log to eat. I hadn’t been there 15 minutes when Freebird caught up to me. He stopped a moment to examine the area, looking to see if there was another place where he could pitch his tent. Although it was getting dark, he decided he was going to keep moving to see if he could find a better place further down the Trail. I wished him good evening, finished my meal, watching the light fade between the spindly ash trees that ringed my campsite and climbed into my tent just as the moon was troubling the horizon.
The Shenandoah was easy and I was way ahead of schedule to reach Harper’s Ferry, so I tried to take my time through the park. It was this point on the Trail when I started seeing the same hikers over and over, perhaps because I was doing shorter days. Sometimes, I appreciated the sense of camaraderie, but the park was already slightly more crowded than other parts of the Trail had been, so I occasionally resented never feeling far away from the next hiker. Even sleeping, I often found myself close enough to hear several hikers snoring through the night. But sometimes, it was beneficial to sleep near a group.
I had been hearing rumor of bear since I’d entered the park, but there were so many people, I didn’t pay much attention. I had seen plenty of bear and under more solitary circumstances when their presence was liable to be more unnerving. But, as in the Smokies, the talk was of the bears who were completely indifferent to people and, as a result, were quick to swipe at your pack or sniff around your tent at night, considering ways to enter.
Before I came to the—perhaps conspicuously named—Bear Fence Shelter, these claims didn’t worry me. It had been a lazy day and I’d been hiking on and off with a thru-hiker named ‘Go, Go Gadget.’ In the late afternoon, I came to a Way-Side (the camp stores that sold junk food, soda and beer throughout the Shenandoah Park) and plopped down on the bench outside deciding if I wanted another fruit pie (I was beginning to feel spoiled with all the extra food). Gadget was there charging his phone and asked me if I wanted a beer. He went in and bought a few and we sat on the porch of the store, talking about the Trail and our lives before it. The Bear Fence Shelter we were both headed to, was less than a mile up the Trail. So, even as the sun set, we were in no great hurry. It was the first beer I’d had since I’d said good bye to my folks in Georgia and this new unhurried relationship I was cultivating with the Trail felt good.
We continued the conversation as we returned to the Trail and got so involved in what we were saying that we missed the side trail to the shelter. We had walked more than half a mile past it before Gadget noticed. Having not seen any other places to camp, we decided to turn around.
There weren’t too many people at the shelter and we easily joined the conversation taking place around the fire. Gadget handed me another beer and after not having a drink for nearly two months, I could easily feel the effects of the alcohol, my hands and tongue felt heavy and I felt increasingly comfortable just listening to the voices of the other hikers detached of meaning, the way one would listen to birds sing. It wasn’t long before I decided to go to sleep.
I had pitched my tent down from the shelter in a semi-marshy area. There were few campsites in the area, as it most mostly large rocks and mud. Even the spot I had found I would’ve avoided if I thought it was going to rain; it looked low enough to flood.
I hadn’t been asleep long when I awoke to a sound, like a fugitive running blindly through the woods, but instead of the baying hounds behind him, I heard a sort of squeal. Now, everyone who camps with any kind of regularity has heard an unexplained noise in the dead of the forest night. Countless times, I have heard stories of growling-screaming-yawning sounds that were certainly not the product of coyotes, raccoons nor the frequently blamed loon. I have had this classic camping experience myself having once woken repeatedly to a sound like wings flapping in the middle of the night. This experience, however, was much more blatant.
Shortly after I heard the squeal, which was also a sort of braying, the crashing started. All at once, it sounded like a heard of elk was storming through the woods. I could hear the large rocks lifting and knocking back together in seesaw motions as the heavy animals trod on them. The braying continued and seemed to be moving around my tent. The crashing and knocking seemed to follow it. Something was wounded or lost, I envisioned a bear cub and an entire sleuth of bears hunting frantically for it. As the crashing grew louder, I considered looking outside, but it seemed certain that, should I risk something so foolish, I would be quickly and deservedly mauled.
Eventually, the sounds quieted, but it took a while. Every time they seemed to slacken, some stubborn member of the heard or pack or whatever, would come stomping, slowly past my tent. I feel asleep, hoping nothing would inadvertently crash into my tent.
The next morning, I was packing up my tent when I saw Gadget getting up. I was about to ask him when he yelled out “what the hell was that last night?” I was glad that I hadn’t been alone in the experience.
The next evening, a storm was blowing in. I’d hiked into the sunset and enjoyed a peaceful dinner, watching the last rays fall below the horizon from a picnic table in front of an empty shelter. A few other people were camping, but they were all already in their tents, anticipating the storm which the warm, dark wind blowing through the area seemed to portend.
The wind blew all night, but the storm never came. When I woke up around dawn, the sky looked stormier than ever. I hurriedly made my coffee, knocked down my tent and scuttled the mile up to Mary’s Rock. Standing on the windy ledge, overlooking the green valley and the heavy storm clouds in the distance, I sat down and tried to appreciate the view and my coffee, but, as high as I was and with the storm coming in so quickly, I started to think it would be prudent to climb down a little.
While the rain makes the Trail unpleasant, the lightening makes it terrifying. The Trail goes over the mountains and, often, to assure the greatest views, it goes right up to the top. Every time a storm came through during the day, I found myself running along, hoping the trail would go down, but, imperturbably it always continued up, as if seeking the thunderous clouds themselves. This became especially hazardous after I picked up my aluminum trekking poles; when storms came through the poles were like my personal lightening rods. I had even tried once or twice, when a storm came, to wait it out, crouched under a tree, but no matter where you were in the woods, you got soaked in the rain. Being so wet, it was impossible to stay still. Without moving, it wouldn’t be long before you would start shivering. To keep warm, you had to keep moving, to keep moving, you had to climb, ever closer to the lightening.
The morning I came down from Mary’s Rock was possibly the one exception while I was on the Trail. Just as the rain started to fall, I spotted a parking lot and visitors’ center. I ran to the structure’s already dripping roof and managed to get under it before the rain began to fall too hard.
Being in a crowded park with a road weaving across the Trail had its advantages. Later on that day, I found myself gaining another visitors’ center and giftshop just before the rain began to fall again. I waited out the light shower, eating an apple I purchased, mealy as it was, I enjoyed it profoundly.
It was the third rain that got me. I was on the Trail, talking to a girl who’d recently lived in Buenos Aires. We were talking about Colonia del Sacramento when the light drizzle began to coagulate until I felt like someone was continuously pouring a bucket of water me. I said goodbye and began to walk in the hopeless quickened pace of all hikers in a storm, who know themselves to be far from any kind of shelter.
I arrived to the shelter thoroughly soaked. The rain seemed to be slackening and I set hung my boots and socks up, hoping for a windy night that might, at least partially dry them.
I left Shenandoah the next day. The walk was easy and I was at the last shelter area before the town of Front Royal before 3 pm. To kill time, I set to building a nice fire to cook with. I’d heard a storm was coming and the shelter was empty, so I refrained from setting up my tent, unsure what I was going to do.
I had just gotten a fire going, when a group showed up. Initially, I thought them day or section hikers, but as I overheard more and more of their talk, I realized they were actually attempting to walk the whole Trail as such a mob. How they planned on doing this, I had no idea. I couldn’t even fathom how they’d gotten as far as they had, given that the hour and a half they hung out around the shelter, I’d only heard them argue about which of them was going to go into town and get pizza.
The shelter was much more peaceful after the group left and before evening, the sun came out for the first time in days. I knew the rain was supposed to hit early in the morning, but I thought I’d probably be up before it hit anyway. I was planning on going into town the next day and I wanted to get an early start.
I set the alarm on my phone for 5 am, so it was no surprise that it started pouring rain about 4:45. I lie there in my tent listening to the rain falling through the pine needles, listening to the earth turn to mud.
It rained hard all morning. There was no point in leaving the tent, I knew I would only get soaked, but after more than two hours of lying awake, staring up at the tent, I decided I needed coffee, besides, I was going into town so I knew I’d be able to wash and dry my clothes, at least. I also expected to pick up my replacement boots, so I’d even have dry boots waiting for me at the post office.
I caught a shuttle into Front Royal from the trailhead and hitched out in the evening, after a day of washing, eating and reading. The shelter was an easy five miles up from the gap and I walked it with a loose, easy feeling. In town, the weather report looked good for the next few days and everything I had on was dry. The one detail I was upset about was the sign I’d seen for Harper’s Ferry. The town from which I was to take a train into DC to meet Gina was only about 22 miles—a day’s hike—away and I still had a week left before I was to meet her. I didn’t want to spend the time just ambling around DC. Harper’s Ferry would’ve been worse as there was no place to stay in the small tourist town. I couldn’t walk farther than Harper’s Ferry; the further north I went, the farther I got from DC and the more difficult/expensive it became to get into the city.
I had one good day of hiking before coming to the most impersonal part of the Trail around Bear’s Den. The section was just outside of suburban DC and, as a result, was crowded when I passed through over the weekend. Over the course of the entire Trail, I greeted those who passed by. Usually, the other hikers, regardless of whether they are out for a day or a month, were friendly. Perhaps the greatest thing about the Trail lies in its ability to act as an emotional link between very different people. Out in the wild, most people recognize that they are equal. Spending the better part of the day alone with the birds and trees induces a greater degree of friendliness in the most curmudgeonly hiker.
The hikers outside suburban DC have brought too much of the city to the forest with them. They walk in groups, talking loudly and don’t bother to even look up when they pass other hikers. Passing these people all day, I began to feel as if I were walking down a sidewalk, rather that hiking in the woods. When I did venture to greet people, my attempts were rebuffed, as if I were asking for spare change. Very few people even bothered to acknowledge me.
After living on the Trail for nearly two months, I felt a connection to it. Until this point, I had never felt jealousy over sharing it with others, but among these indifferent suburbanites, I felt protective of the Trail. I felt it belonged more to me than to them. I’d walked every step from Georgia, these people had just driven out for the day to try out their new running shoes. They weren’t giving the forest a chance; their headphones and loud conversations were isolating them from the experience.
It was a shame to have these feelings just before I knew I’d be returning to the city myself. I didn’t want to feel bitter. I wanted to take the Trail with me into DC. Out here, I’d seen so many magnanimous acts. People had given me rides, warned me of approaching storms and had fed me for no benefit to themselves. I had been the recipient of so much kindness, it seemed terrible that just being close to the city already seemed to be stripping it away.
That night was to be my last night in the woods for a while. I reached a campground full of people about 5 miles before the last gap before Harper’s Ferry. In the morning, I was going to walk two miles to a farm I had read did work-for-stays for hikers. I still had six days before Gina came into DC and I thought working on a farm would be a good way to pass the time if I couldn’t walk. I also hoped that my time on the farm might restore my faith in humanity before I went into DC. After the last few crowded and impersonal days on the Trail, I didn’t really even feel like hiking much anymore.
My one concern was that I would have to deal with heavy proselytizing on the farm where I was going to work. The place was owned by the 12 Tribes, and though I’d heard they were friendly to hikers, I worried there was an ulterior motive to their friendliness. Still, I had no other option, other than to hang out in DC for nearly a week before Gina arrived. Rather than face the multitudes again, I woke up early and headed down the road toward the farm.