Date: 5/19 – 5/26
5/19 – return to trail (Pass Mountain shelter)
5/20 – hike to Gravel Springs shelter
5/21 – Front Royal
5/22 – Dick’s Dome/Whiskey Hollow
5/23 – Bears Den
5/24 – Harper’s Ferry
5/25 – Harper’s Ferry (zero)
5/26 – leave HF, overnight at Dahlgren
Getting Back on the Trail
This week does not have a particular logic to the start/stop dates, but the theme has to be (i) returning to and reengaging with the trail and (ii) milestones. Not only was this week about getting back on the trail, but it concluded with me getting back on the trail after celebrating the “halfway” and beginning to explore a hole new part of the trail that I’ve never seen.
First, briefly, the Milestones:
– This week I would pass 1,000 miles on the Trail
– This week I would complete my 4th (Virginia, the longest) and 5th (West Virginia, the shortest) states.
– This week I would reach the “iconic” AT town of Harper’s Ferry, the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the “psychological” halfway point on a northbound hike
It was not difficult to get back into the rhythm and details of backpacking again. (Many asked me about the difficulty, if any, about being home and then being back. I made both transitions very easily. My explanation, which I believe, is that I have always been able to compartmentalize different aspects of my life and transitions thus have not been difficult.) I was in a new “bubble” of course because of my week off, but the crowd at the shelter the first night made the return easy. I met some great people who I would continue to see for much of the coming week.
After Cheryl dropped me off I had a short hike to the shelter area and setup my tent. The next morning I was back on the beautiful trails of the Shenandoah National Park as I enjoyed my last full day in that park, which continued to be busy with many day and weekend hikers/backpackers. Although I had a week off, my legs still felt like they could carry me as they did when I left. We again enjoyed a good group, many from the night before, at the shelter.
I hiked all day the next two days with Badass Betty and Freebird (two section hikers), something I’ve done little of, but we had similar paces and it was fun, for a change, to talk throughout the day. (I’ve been so independent, I did note there was some loss of freedom as to pace and breaks when you commit to hike like that. In fact, when one of the group slows for fatigue or other discomfort, you really can’t just ignore them and hike on.). The three of us went into Front Royal for resupply and/or a bed for the night.
Coming out of Front Royal we had very humid weather, including a hard rain mid-morning. The weather improved and then we raced the thunderstorms to the shelter. Despite some rumblings, the thunderstorms never materialized. Betty and I decided to try to put two big days together and get to Harper’s Ferry by Thursday night. That required an 18-mile day followed by a 20- mile day.
Freebird decided to join us for the 18-mile day. We started early, 7:00 a.m. After an initial climb the rest of the morning was quite manageable, but we were planning mentally for the big challenge of the day – the infamous Roller Coaster, a 13.5-mile stretch of the AT in northern Virginia (north of the Shenandoah) consisting of a continuous series of hills requiring the hiker to immediately start climbing again each time a “hill” is completed. At the shelter the night before, we were assured that the Roller Coaster was not as difficult as its reputation.
We decided to have our lunch break just before starting the Roller Coaster -an effort to rest up and prepare for the 10 miles of climbs and descents to come. Any notion that difficulty of the Roller Coaster was exaggerated was eliminated by the time we climbed the second of the first two hills – that said, they were too high to be mere hills and the trails went also both straight up and down. These vertical climbs reminded me of the early days in Georgia.
We got a reprieve as the exit climb was surprisingly gentle in grade on a nice trail. There was a great view onto land and we stopped for some photos. On the way down we came across a stone design of a 1,000 mile marker. We celebrated briefly.
The rest of the Roller Coaster was difficult. The climbs and descents were vertical and the trails were rocky – in particular, the climb/descent just before the Sam Moore shelter frustrated me so much that I questioned why I was out there. We regrouped and prepared for a final, tough vertical climb up to the Bears Den hostel.
Somehow all three of us still had some gas in the tank (as well as the promise of pizza and ice cream) as we pressed up the hill rather quickly considering the steepness and the length of the day’s hike. Showers, pizza, ice cream, cold drinks and a place to lay our head helped bring a very tough day to a good completion.
In retrospect the 18+ mile day to Bear’s Den was too ambitious. I underestimated the difficulty of the Roller Coaster. I knew that the next morning as I prepared for an interview with Mighty Blue. Nonetheless, I was getting ready to head off with Betty for a 20+ mile day into Harper’s Ferry. And I really never reconsidered the plans.
Betty and I took on the last 3.5 miles of the Roller Coaster in a fairly steady, methodical manner. The remaining hills appeared to be more moderate and the climbs more reasonable. We didn’t make the best time but we felt good finishing the Roller Coaster. Most of the rest of the day was a long but pleasant walk. We had intermittent difficult rocks especially around Buzzard Rocks. The hike after the David Lesser shelter was particularly easy following an old road bed (but with some rocky areas) all the way to the WV # 9. From there we felt the destination was within reach. A general, fairly gentle descent to the Shenandoah River and Harper’s Ferry continued. With a couple of miles to go the descent became steep, but manageable on earthen footpaths.
Finally we climbed up to the bridge and crossed the Shenandoah, which was brown and violent still from recent rains. Our motel was close to the trail. We checked in around 8:00 pm and saved our visit to the ATC headquarters until the next morning.
Before heading over to the historic town and the ATC, Betty and I ran into Double Tap & Seven, Easy Pete, Irish, Phin, and others at the motel breakfast room.
I had my photograph taken in front of the ATC as all thru-hikers do at this “halfway” point. It was a great feeling. I had visited these offices at the ATC often in conjunction with my fundraiser for them, but it was special to be there as a thru-hiker. Although the heat was getting intense for the early hour, I headed down to the historic part of town to get a couple of items at the outfitter. Easy Pete and I grabbed a beer and then I had lunch with the ATC.
I rested most of the afternoon. I had a great dinner with Laurie Potteiger and her husband, Dick. I prepared to head out the next day for Maryland and Pennsylvania. Encouraged by my steady progress I was nonetheless apprehensive about the heat, bugs, anticipated rain, and rocks that I expected to greet me as I started the second “half” of my journey.
Although it was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I was up and out early with a heavy pack (having just resupplied for 4-5 days). I got through town, across the footbridge over the Potomac and along the C&O Canal towpath in the early a.m. With few people around other than a stray tourist and a few runners on the towpath. Thankfully, my apprehension about the next stage of the hike was transformed rather quickly that morning to a more excited anticipation of new venues. I climbed Weaverton Cliffs, did an interview with Mighty Blue for the podcast, and headed into Maryland with renewed vigor.
Last modified: June 6, 2018