Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 3 of 3

If you have been following my Skyline Drive trip by bike you know there was an element of overestimating my ability, and not taking seriously the extent of this challenge.  After quitting at the 25 mile mark the previous day I woke up wondering if I would be able to do better on the second half of Skyline Drive.  The goal was 55 miles.

Thanks for the lucky shirt Mark!

I was pleasantly surprised to wake up and realize my body had done some remarkable recovery in one night’s sleep.  I put on a cycling jersey given to me by my friend Mark who is a much more experienced biker than myself.  When he rides Skyline Drive he just keeps going at the end until he hits the North Carolina state line!  I knew this jersey would bring good luck!

Brett considered biking some of it but this would have meant going half of some distance because we now had a car at the midpoint.  He decided he would just hang out, enjoy the scenery and meet up with me.  I would later find that he had actually written on the map where he predicted I would give up!  He was wrong, very wrong.

Given the progress of the previous day we estimated spots where I would be at the 1 hour mark, 2 hour mark and so on.  Brett would meet me at each designated spot.

It was another perfect day weather wise and since it was a Monday, there was almost no traffic on Skyline Drive.  I departed from mile marker 51 headed south with the goal of Rockfish Gap, mile marker 105.  It helped that I began my ride at nearly 3500 feet so I would not have to begin with a 6 mile ascent.

At marker 66, I realized I had gone 15 miles in the first hour, way ahead of schedule.  This was what I expected the ride to be like, long gradual uphills matched with long gradual downhills.  I felt stronger (no doubt due to a little more discipline at the bar than the first night!) and was enjoying the ride a lot more than I had been the day before.

The first time I met up with Brett I said, “I think I might be able to do the whole thing!”  He gave me a dubious look that suggested otherwise.

The views were so perfectly grand that I had to stop and photograph them.  The colors of the leaves were at their peak and the visibility was close to 50 miles.

Before I knew it I was at the 75 mile marker, nearly half the day’s goal.

The nice thing about Skyline Drive is that it constantly traverses the ridge-top of the Shenandoahs so you get magnificent views to both the east and the west.  You see neighboring mountains up close, distant ranges 35 miles away, and geographic features like rockslides, hollows, gaps, and overlooks.

I had the elevation profile in my head this time so as I would come into a  long ascent I knew how long it would be.  Everything about this day was better than the previous day.  I would see Brett every 15 miles or so.

Top of the Virginia looking east just north of Loft Mountain

Looking southwest toward Waynesboro, with steep rockslides in middle ground.

At one point I saw a row of power lines that went over the top of the mountains and looked like it might deliver power to the entire midwest.  I could hear the hum of the lines as I passed under them and felt like I might see myself in cartoon x-ray as I did so.

Somewhere around mile marker 95 I was getting tired.  I knew at this point I would make it, but I was sore from the previous day and had ridden a number of long climbs.  I had 10 miles to go and stopped at a gorgeous overlook to rest.  I lay down on a low flat stone wall as Brett came up and snapped a picture.  I was too tired to even remove my helmet and was loving the hard flat surface against my spine which was beginning to rebel against the low handlebars of my bike.

Brett asked me if I would snap a picture of him jumping off the wall.

Thus, here at mile marker 95 you see the difference between 45 miles of bike riding vs. 45 miles of driving and sight-seeing!

I recovered and watched the final miles go by, knowing the last 5 would be a long rewarding descent back to the sub-1000 foot surface of Virginia.  I had done the second half, which took some of the sting out of the previous day’s failure.

Mile marker 105 is not quite the marathon finish line I envisioned.  There are three markers, the mile marker itself, a ranger station for people entering the park from the south end, and a sign letting you know you are exiting SNP.

Each was a welcome sight however and each a sign of accomplishment.  We returned to the parking lot where two days earlier we had left a car and pretty much jumped in and drove 3 hours home.  When we stopped for gas halfway I got out of the car and my now stiffened muscles seized up on me.  This was going to require some stretching!

The ride home was as beautiful as the ride in the mountains.   Colorful farms on the rolling Virginia countryside were surrounded by autumn splendor and even common things like cows and silos looked like scenes out of a photography book.

At one point I saw a hot air balloon which looked so natural and perfect as if it was

permanent features of the skyline.

The “finish line” was a bit anticlimactic but a welcome sight nonetheless.

I had set out to do a 2-day bike trip but got so much more.  I recommend this trip to anyone who is up to the challenge but would discourage anyone from letting an arbitrary mileage goal get in the way of enjoying the complete trip.  I learned this lesson on my Appalachian Trail hike and was once again reminded that years from now I will remember the gorgeous scenery long after I have forgotten how many miles I rode.

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Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 2 of 3

Fresh and ready to ride!

Day 2 of this trip was the first day of actual bicycling.  Day 1 had been mostly about positioning the cars, getting there, and as I mentioned, some unwise celebrating!  Thus, we woke up on a pristine autumn day, groggy, late, and not exactly in shape to ride uphill all day.  Maybe in my next life I will learn that sort of discipline!

We drove from Winchester to Front Royal, VA, the northern end of Shenandoah National Park.  It was a Sunday in the middle of October and the road leading to the entrance looked like the clogged commute in Northern Virginia that I drive every day to work.  Three lanes of cars moving one car length at a time as the front row a mile ahead paid their entrance fee.

My thinking was that all this traffic would mean the cars went slower.  On a two-lane road with no shoulder this seemed like a good thing.  Lesson Learned #1:  This didn’t matter because they were still going faster than I was and I might as well have been riding on an urban highway.

Not only was there no shoulder but much of the road had a ditch along the side!

We found a restaurant (Joe’s Steakhouse) with a large parking lot near the entrance and they kindly allowed us to park our car and leave it overnight.  We pumped our tires, donned our backpacks, locked the car and headed out.  For the first minute it was rather exciting because we were riding past hundreds of cars.  Sure it was uphill, but the slope was mild and it seemed so much better than being in that traffic!

We got to the ranger station and paid our $8 entry fee and the ranger said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  He instructed us to pull off whenever we heard cars backing up behind us because the traffic would be so heavy that they would not be able to go around us.  He then told us we were crazy to do this on a weekend.  We thanked him for the diagnosis and proceeded on our way.  He didn’t even know that we were hung over!

The first mile was uphill and had me breathing hard but I still had plenty of gears left to shift down to, so I was not worried.  I pulled over to let cars go by and Brett was not behind me.  I waited for an amount of time that in the back of my mind was mildly alarming.  He showed up completely out of breath and flushed.  We waited a moment and let him catch his breath.  Somehow, “1 down and 51 to go” didn’t seem like the thing to say.

The grueling climb did have its rewards.

We started again and at the second mile I stopped again, still feeling strong, but no Brett.  I waited.  I waited some more.  Finally I thought to check my phone and there was a text.  I think this says it all.

Brett had dropped out of a 105 mile bike ride at mile 2.  I rode back to him, a refreshing downhill, but troubling because it meant not only was he out, but I would have to ride this segment again!  He apologized but said he was out of shape and hadn’t taken the ride seriously from a training perspective, not to mention the late night before!

This would be the highest point of the day. Though an achievment in its own right, I still had nearly 30 miles to go!

Brett was to ride back (bringing his total mileage to 4, 2 uphill and 2 downhill) and retrieve the car.  He would do some sightseeing and drive along meeting me in spots.  I proceeded on my own.

There is some debate about which direction, North to South or South to North is the best way to do this ride.  Without question the most difficult climb is the opening 8 miles in the southbound option.  I pedaled my bike up hill for what seemed like an hour…and it was exactly that, an hour of uphill climbing.

Here is a profile of the first 35 miles of ride from the website BikeWashington.org.

As you can see, the first 6 miles are all uphill, then you get a downhill that lasted approximately 1 1/2 minutes and it was uphill again.

I have three chain rings on the front gears of my bike.  The third one is condescendingly known among bikers as the “granny gear” and when riding around the trails of northern Virginia I will often not use it all day.  On this ride I quickly settled into the lowest “granny” setting on the bike and would pedal there literally for hours.  On level ground I can cruise on my bike at over 20 mph for extended periods of time.  This would be hours of 6 mph.

Looking west from the Shenandoah Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley in front of the Massanutten Range and the Alleghenies in the background.

My bike is as nice as a road bike can be.  The Scattante CFR Elite has an all-carbon fiber frame, Ultegra gears, and weighs a mere 16 pounds.  On this day, it was not the bike that gave out, it was the engine.

I thought the downhill would be enjoyable enough to outweigh the uphill.  I had heard friends speak in rapture of descents in excess of 50 mph.  At about mile 16, exhausted already, I got my first such descent and nearly shit my pants!  I pulled out into the middle of the road so cars could not go by me and quickly reached 35 mph.  The air rushing by my ears was so loud and my eyes were watering.  The road is not straight so I leaned into the turns.  I realized that every muscle in my body was tight and at high alert and then I began to think about the fact that the only protective gear I had on was a $35 helmet.  I started thinking about how a squirrel or even a pebble could result in my death; then, I began thinking about how the story of my death would be that a squirrel ran out in front of my bike.

I got to 40.5 mph and started braking.  I wasn’t worried about holding up the cars because at 40 I was exceeding the speed limit but I could hear them behind me and snatched an occassional glance at the small mirror on the end of my handlebars.

Elk Wallow Wayside in peak foliage season…not so quaint!

It wouldn’t last long anyway and there I was climbing a mountain again as cars whizzed by me on this shoulderless road with a ditch along the edge.

Now the shadows were getting longer and I began calculating my progress, average hourly rate and how far I had to go.  I knew that the elevation of miles 35 – 50 were not much better than the first 35 miles and when I pulled into Elk Wallow Wayside I saw Brett sunning himself, leaning against the car and I handed him my bike and said, “Take this and get it away from me.”

An interesting side note, Elkwallow was the spot of another occasion when I had misjudged my ability.  In June of this year I was hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail and arrived at Elk Wallow going northbound.  In June it was a sparkling oasis where we rested on picnic tables and refilled our water, and even reveled in the luxury of real bathrooms!

This time it was like a refugee camp.  There were hundreds of people in line for gas, bathrooms, food, and parking.  There was nowhere to even sit down and they were pulling in and out from Skyline Drive like a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike.

I decided that simply going on just because I had set this goal would be foolish and knew that if I should still be out there when it got dark I would very likely be risking my life.  I decided to quit for the day.

A welcome sight after taking 4 hours to do 25 miles!

We drove the second 25 miles to Big Meadows Lodge where I got a shower and changed out of my bike gear.  I was really fatigued and angry with myself for overestimating my biking ability.  I had no idea what the next day would hold and felt like I had genuinely failed.

We got dinner and though we indulged a bit it was nothing like the night before and I was in a deep sleep by 10:00.

I won’t leave you in suspense; the next day I got on the bike and things went much better!  There are some great pictures and I will post Day 3 next.

The interesting thing to me is how we judge ourselves.  Brett who dropped out at mile 2 was happy and relaxed and mentally preparing to train to return and do this the right way.  I who had ridden 25 grueling miles felt like a failure.  Perspective.

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Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 1 of 3

Our bike trip began with a lot of logistics.  We drove two cars out to the mountains, leaving one a the southern end of Skyline drive, and driving the second car and bikes to the northern end.  The plan was to ride 50 miles–the halfway mark–to Big Meadows Lodge on day 1, and then 55 miles on day 2 to Rockfish Gap where the first car would be waiting.  We would then drive back up to the northern end, retrieve car number two and drive home.

It didn’t quite work out that way!

On Saturday we began at a bike shop picking up a few last minute supplies.

The fun began when Brett tried on a serious racing helmet!

From the bike shop we drove southwest from Arlington across the Shenandoah Valley.  It was peak fall foliage and gorgeous weather and the drive was exceedingly pleasant! We decided we would make a stop at a winery and the best choice on our route was the Prince Michel Vineyards & Winery.  It was clearly a good day for a romantic date at a Virginia winery so Brett and I felt a bit out of place!

I can tell you, however, on an empty stomach that wine makes one silly pretty fast!  When we finished our tasting we decided to take a self-guided tour to sober up a bit before getting back on the road. The winery had a lot of beautiful memorabilia, and the tour of the tanks and barrels was interesting.  When we left they were setting up outdoors for what was going to be a really perfect wedding!

Next it was time for lunch and we selected a quintessential Virginia BBQ joint that could easily have been featured on the Food Network.  It was called the Pig N’ Steak in Madison, VA.

It was about 5 miles down the road from Prince Michel and when we walked in it felt like we’d entered the past!  There was an Uncle Remus Flour poster on the wall and country music playing.  Everything on the menu looked epic so we asked our waitress if we only had one shot, what should we have?  She directed us to the Pulled Pork Sandwich with some of the best baked beans I have ever had.  The bbq was spectacular and had the distinct flavor of something that had been slow-cooking all day long.

Now well fed and watered, we headed to Rockfish Gap, the southern end of Skyline Drive.  This tiny hamlet is located between Charlottesville and Waynesboro and is the point at which Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At this point what had been a beautiful drive became almost overwhelming in its beauty!

To the right in this picture is the southern-most tip of Shenandoah National Park. To the left in the background is the town of Waynesboro, VA, and in the foreground is the junction of I-64, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive.

We arrived at Rockfish Gap just a little before sunset.  The Afton Inn has a large parking lot and allows people to leave their car overnight.  From this elevated piece of ground the view was inspiring!

These two guys would not be smiling quite so much the next morning!

Saturday night.  In hindsight this may not have been the blessing it seemed!

We found a couple fun spots in Winchester including the Picadilly Public House and Brewbakers.  This is where my teenage daughter and her friends would simply say, “YOLO!!!” (you only live once) but not only am I not convinced that this is true, it does a person no good when they have an olympic level bike ride ahead of them.

One would think that in my 50+ years I would have learned this lesson before and while I have indeed taken this class many times, I clearly have not learned the lesson!

We got back to our hotel in Winchester at around midnight and settled in for the big bike ride the next day.

In my next post I will detail the ride, the views, and the challenges.  There was a lot of each!

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Skyline Drive – Sheanandoah National Park by Bike

This map is from the National Park Service website

Today is about logistics.  The actual bike riding does not begin until tomorrow but it will take a full day to get everything in place.  One lesson I have already learned is that if you’re going to one of Virginia’s most beautiful spots in the fall, reserve early!  We are riding on a Sunday/Monday because there were no rooms available in the park on Saturday night in this peak foliage season.

Skyline Drive is a 105 mile ridgeline road built during the Great Depression.  It runs the length of the Shenandoah National Park and is a gorgeous curvy, mountainous road with spectacular views and a small amount of quaint lodging.

My riding partner is my co-worker and close friend Brett Roth (@roth_brett).  We joke frequently because not only is Brett half my age but he’s about half my weight and when his energy runs out he does not have the reserves that I do.  This weekend age will triumph over youth!

Today begins with driving both our cars to the southern-most point of the ride, Rockfish Gap which is just outside of Waynesboro, VA.  This should be about a 3 1/2 hour drive across the Shenandoah Valley.  That’s if we go directly; but, on what promises to be a perfect fall day, we will no doubt stop on the way to visit apple orchards, pumpkin farms, and wineries…ok, mostly wineries.


We will leave a car at Rockfish Gap and take the other car up I-81 to the northern end of the ride.  The northern end is Front Royal, VA.

Here again, advanced planning is important because though Front Royal does not have a lot to offer (in my opinion) it is at the entrance to SNP and every hotel in that town is booked on an October Saturday night!

Elkwallow is little more than a convenience store/gift shop/snack bar but at the 25 mile mark, this oasis will be the halfway mark of day 1 and a welcome lunch spot!

Thus we will stay in the comparatively cosmopolitan Winchester, VA, birthplace of Patsy Cline.  Winchester does offer more choices for hotels and restaurants but it means in the morning we will have to begin with a 20 mile drive.

The plan is that we will leave a car near the entrance to the park and ride our bikes 52 miles to Big Meadows Lodge.  We will spend the night there and enjoy a carbohydrate-heavy meal and on Monday resume the ride covering the second 53 miles.  At that point we will retrieve the first car, drive back up I-81 to retrieve the second car and head home.

A lot more driving than bicycling, and no doubt jumping in the car for 4 hours after the ride will enable our muscles to stiffen up to concrete, but that’s how it goes on a low-budget bike trip!

Stony Man Mountain will be among the highest altitudes of our ride, which will at times take us to over 3500 feet.

The route will be mountainous…there will be no level stretches, only ascents and descents.  I can only imagine how wonderful that lodge will look when we arrive, and I really look forward to what appears to be a 5 mile descent at the very end!

Earlier this year I did a short backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail and one of the surprise highlights was an oasis called Elkwallow.  This rest-stop on Skyline Drive is at about the 25 mile marker and will be the site of our lunch break tomorrow!

So stay tuned for some great pictures, and the inevitable hijinks that result from traveling with Tony & Brett!

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Return to Shenandoah National Park…This Time by Bike

The view at the beginning of summer from Shenandoah National Park

The last time I blogged about Shenandoah National Park I was hiking it by foot along the Appalachian Trail.  This time it will be by bike.  While a bike would not work on the Appalachian Trail, it will indeed work on Skyline Drive.  This 105 mile ridge-top road is the spine of SNP and promises a rewarding challenge for two days.

The Scattante Elite – My ride for 105 miles of Shenandoah National Park

I’m going with my friend Brett and we will drive two cars, leaving one at the southern end, Rockfish Gap, and then driving to the northern end, Front Royal, VA.  There is a lodge at the midpoint and we will take two days.

Stay tuned for pictures and what I’m sure will be a good story!

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My Appalachian Trail Adventure Conclusion – 10 Lessons Learned

This is the final posting of a 5-part series on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

At many points during my 4-day section hike of the AT I asked myself, “Would I do this again?” and each time the answer came back YES!  Even during the low spots I still loved the experience.  It is intoxicating how beautiful and removed it is out there!  Would I do it again?  Hell yes.  Would I do some things differently, most definitely.   There are also a few things I feel I got right and would repeat.

Here is my “newbie’s guide” to 10 Lessons I learned on the trail.

Lesson-learned #1: The trail is a lot like life itself. There is beauty and challenge at every point along the way and passing that by in an effort to reach the end is a mistake.

1.  Mileage.  There are two types of Appalachian Trail hikers, those out to simply enjoy a portion of the trail and through-hikers.  This is not to say the through-hikers are not enjoying themselves; but they are–above all else–on a mission.  Section hikers can easily get caught up in the through-hikers’ mentality and feel they need to pile on the miles.  People set out on an adventure like this for different reasons, but just checking off  the “bucket list” is not a good one.  The Appalachian Trail is far too grand to hike the whole thing simply to say you did it.

If your goal from the start is to enjoy your trip, do not make daily mileage your primary goal.  You must decide up front whether your trip is about the destination, or about the journey.  I did not realize going in how much focusing on the destination could rob one’s enjoyment of the journey.  Next time I would set more modest daily goals and when I found a magical spot, not rush away.

I compare it to the beach.  Most of us have a favorite beach or beach town and we go there and enjoy our time for a day or weekend, etc.  Imagine if we got there and someone said, “We don’t have time to enjoy this spot in Myrtle Beach because we have to start walking to Maine!

Items like lentils made for a hearty meal. Small items like garlic cloves and chili peppers made the lentils more interesting.

2.  Food.  This is an area which I think I got right and would likely repeat.  There is a trade-off of calories, weight, and fuel.  I packed a combination of foods that gave me a strong balanced diet, while remaining relatively lightweight.  Sure a pre-packaged container of Ramen Noodles would be lighter, but when you’re burning 4,000 calories a day, eating a container of Ramen is like tossing a piece of paper onto a forest fire.  It just burns instantly.  I brought foods like lentils, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat pasta.  These foods gave me more calories, protein, and staying power.  It was more like putting a log in the fireplace.  All of them were dry items and thus still pretty lightweight.  Even though these items cook for 30 minutes, the tradeoff of more fuel was worth it.  I did pack some small fresh items for flavor and that too made a huge difference.  These were things like a few scallions, a chili pepper, and a couple of cloves of garlic.  As the hike wore on late in the day, I found myself eagerly anticipating the one time all day when we would just sit and relax, the evening meal.

A checklist is a good idea but if it has 50 items and sub-lists, then a critical evaluation of the list is a good idea.

3.  Clothes.  This is just a matter of experience.  The simple fact is that you could put on a fresh clean set of clothes every hour and you’re still going to sweat and get dirty and smell bad.  I brought a change of clothes for each day and that was clearly unnecessary.  Another time I will bring fewer clothes and add a lightweight fleece!

4.  Duplicates & Non-Necessities.  Preparation is important and anticipating challenges is a good idea but the weight of that pack is critical.  I had a headlamp and two small flashlights, AND a set of backup batteries!  That was crazy.  The headlamp and batteries would have sufficed.  I brought three canisters of fuel and never finished the first one!  Next time I would consider the fact that my hiking partner has backups of everything.

I had two huge tubes, one bug spray and another sun-screen.  I never used either!  The breeze in the mountains kept the bugs away and the canopy protected us from the sun.  At the very least I would bring significantly smaller containers.  Another good example is the first aid kit.  It’s important to be prepared but I could have treated an entire village.

5.  Lightweight Gear.  On my dry run camping trip I slept on a lightweight thin sleep pad and was very uncomfortable.  I switched to a self-inflating pad that while quite comfortable, was also 5 pounds.  What I did not realize at the beginning of my trip was that 5 pounds on the trail is like 100 pounds in normal life!  Another time I would sacrifice money over comfort and weight.  That is, I would go to the camping store and drop $120 and get a sleep pad that was both lightweight AND comfortable.

6.  Free Time:  This is apt to sound crazy but you get no free time on the trail!  You get up in the morning, make breakfast strike camp and hit the road.  Then you hike all day and stop only for short breaks and a lunch break.  Each day we got into camp just in time to make dinner and collapse into our tents.  This sort of goes along with setting modest mileage goals, but it would have been nice to pull into camp at 4:00 and have time to sit and relax a bit.

The one thing you seem to constantly do on the trail is completely empty and repack your pack.  This is mostly because you use everything in it each time you camp.  Having an extra chunk of time to get organized would have been welcome.

The shelters are simple and exposed, but nearly always dry, and a great way to meet other hikers.

7.  Shelters:  We used tents and another time I would get used to the shelters and use those.  Looking back, the argument was that the tents afforded a slice of privacy, and sealed you off from what was out there.  Each night I would drag my pack into the tent and create what I now realize was my field version of the comfort zone.  Thing is, setting up that tent after walking all day was a chore I could have lived without.

The argument against the shelters was that it was exposed, you would find yourself sleeping next to a stranger, and there were mice running around.  In retrospect this was just one more expansion of the comfort zone.  Sure it would have been uncomfortable the first night but clearly people get used to it and prefer it.  The next time I will plan to use the shelters as much as possible.

Lisa on her return to the trail where she would hike 3 more weeks on her own.

8.  My hiking Partner:  This is definitely something I did right and would repeat.  Lisa was the perfect hiking partner!  Our fitness and experience was equally matched and more importantly our temperaments complimented each other.  Whether we were getting up and ready in the morning (we were both quiet and not particularly talkative while packing up in the morning) or hiking for hours together during the day we got along incredibly well.

Lisa is hiking a full month and after the week with me she would go on for 3 more by herself.  As I write this she is still out there!  I have received a few messages from her and she is doing really well, having learned the lessons listed here and put them to immediate use.  It was a bit sad when, after a night off, I returned her to the trail and said goodbye.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had met two cousins, a man and a woman who had a mutual love of backpacking and had, over the years hiked the entire AT together.  Each had their own family but each had recognized the value of a good hiking partner.  I will definitely return with Lisa to do more sections of the trail.

My wife Alice was my biggest cheerleader for this trip!

9.  Support:  I am very fortunate to have the time and the means to do this sort of adventure.  This is not critical but in my opinion makes all the difference.  My son Andrew had accumulated most of the gear I used and he not only lent it to me but taught me how to use it.  That alone, as I write on Father’s Day, was a great experience!

What Andrew did not have I borrowed from my friend and companion-to-my-mom, Joe McGonagle.  A few years ago at the age of 68, with the trail name “J-Walker”, Joe hiked from Georgia to North Carolina before a knee injury forced him to end his through-hike.  Joe shared his advice, guidebooks and maps, his water filtration system, and numerous little items I would not have thought to bring.

My neighbor Miriam found a recipe for homemade granola bars that used wheat germ, oatmeal, dried fruit, almonds, honey, and coconut.  They were amazing and special and a great source of energy.

My son Andrew was both my camping outfitter and instructor!

Many of my friends, co-workers, and family followed along with my practice hikes, preparations, and planning.  They have been reading my blog postings and offered warm and loving support.  None of them more than my wife Alice.  She was initially just happy she didn’t have to do this with me; but, as it got closer to the trip she became my biggest cheerleader and has been marketing my blog to everyone she talks to.  She really has made it possible for me to pursue activities like this and for that I am very grateful.

10.  The Unknown is the Boundary of the Comfort Zone:  Through many discussions with Lisa and many actual examples on the trail, I learned that often what puts something outside our comfort zone is the unknown.  The difference between lying awake in the tent the first night hearing every leaf rustle and sleeping like a baby on the third night was really a reduction in “the unknown”.  This is what defines our comfort zone.

I came to see the comfort zone as a balloon which we have to blow up to expand.  When we return to normal life the air goes out and the balloon goes back down, but not quite to the size it was before.  Each time you blow it up it stretches a little bigger than it was before.  For this reason, a friend of mine pushes himself outside his comfort zone at least once a year.  I think this sort of personal challenge can only make us better.

I came to see the concept of “the bucket list” as a list of things that have been far enough outside one’s comfort zone that they have not gotten to them.  I have been thrilled to hear a few friends inspired by my doing this trip to go off and pursue their own bucket list items.  You have to pursue those challenges, the bucket list does not come to you.

This summer I will return to passionate blogging about food; and since my return I have already purchased a new bicycle–a road bike which goes faster than any man-powered vehicle I’ve ever seen– from which I will see many “bloggable” sights.

But I will also continue hiking for I have come to love what I see and learn on the trail.

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My Appalachian Trail Adventure – Part 4 of 5

This is the fourth in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each morning we took a picture just before heading out for the day and in my opinion the pictures grew progressively more tired.

On Sunday we awoke to discover the nearby spring was dry.  I had walked about a quarter mile down the mountain and was very disappointed that there would not be coffee before departing!  We packed up, ate a quick bite and headed out.  Once again it was a beautiful crisp day and once again my body had made a miraculous recovery.  When I think of how rough I feel sometimes after sleeping in a comfortable bed I couldn’t get over how much rest I was getting sleeping on the ground!  Of course it is possible that I was beginning to respond to this level of exercise, and to be sure the absence of alcohol didn’t hurt!

I mentioned in my last post that three hikers had arrived at the shelter at 1:00 in the morning.  They had hiked 30 miles the day before!  They were just sitting up in their sleeping bags as we rolled out of camp and I half jokingly said, “We’ll see you guys again when you overtake us.” 

About a half mile away from the shelter we heard a noise and there were these three hikers gliding past us!  These were some badass warriors.

90 minutes into our hike for the day we came across this pristine stream. It would serve as a great location for breakfast!

We hiked about an hour and a half, keenly aware that we had no water.  There was no reason to panic because there were streams and springs along the next 3 miles; but, nothing makes you more thirsty than knowing you have no water!  We came to a wide clear stream that looked like a spot you might film a commercial for bottled water.  There was a nice sandy bank and the spot was so pleasant we decided we would stop here for breakfast.  Lisa got water going for coffee and I got water going for oatmeal.  We sat and basked in the sun and enjoyed a hearty breakfast and large mugs of strong coffee.  We got more water and washed the dishes from the night before, and restocked all of our water bottles.  Again, all of this water was treated through a filter pump as there is no guarantee that even a fast flowing mountain spring is free of bacteria.

We were now getting closer to civilization.  We were seeing more day hikers (you could tell by the size of their packs) and could hear a highway and lawn mowers now and then.  Sure enough, a half hour after leaving the stream we emerged into an open field with a panoramic view of some sort of campus.  It was very large and the buildings were all uniform.  I later learned that this was the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  Previously part of the National Zoo, it now conducts research in the areas of biodiversity, animal care, conservation and sustainability.  There were fields planted and numerous buildings over what appeared to be hundreds of acres.  A little research shows they are doing a lot of research based on the Appalachian ecosystem.

Everything visible in this picture, the fields in the foreground and all of the distant hillside was part of the vast Smithsonian Front Royal campus!

As we walked along the perimeter of the campus, we came across a little bench with a huge ice water dispenser like you see on the sidelines of football games.  There was a note pointing to the back yard of a house that said, “Welcome hikers, come in for a drink and a snack and feel free to camp in our yard.”  It was signed, “She-Bear & Sweet Tea”  We looked over and the woman working in the yard beckoned us over. 

“She-Bear” is basically a friend of the hiker.  She herself has hiked the entire trail and was very proud that her 18 year old daughter had just finished a “flip-flop” through hike in which she hiked VA to Maine, and then traveled to Georgia to complete the southern half.  The man and the woman there could not have been nicer.  They offered whatever they could do for hikers, rides, a spot to camp, use of a bathroom, whatever we needed!  Lisa and I enjoyed some sweet tea and chatted a bit and were on our way.


At around 2:00 we arrived at the Jim and Molly Denton Hut.  This was a nice spot!  There was a solar shower!  It was an outdoor shower stall like you might see at a house at the beach and there was a large barrel on top that was pumped full from a nearby spring. 

In my next and final post on this trip I will go over things I would do differently and this would be one of them.  What we should have done was stop right there and call it a day.  We had one last day of hiking planned and we should have taken solar showers, cooked up a nice meal on the deck and enjoyed this naturally peaceful spot.  It would have been essentially an afternoon off.  (spoiler alert:  this is one of the things I would do differently!)


That would not be what we did however.  We had already taken a lot of time at the stream and at She-Bear’s house so we had to push on.  We had 5 more miles to get to our destination and it would take all of 3 hours.  Live and learn!  We did stop and eat at this shelter and rest a bit but then we hit the trail and hiked for another hour.

In this high mountain meadow I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out singing!

We came to VA Rt 632, a point She-Bear had told us would look like “Little House on the Prairie”.  It was indeed a spectacular wide-open meadow.  As far as you could see was green grass, mountains, and blue sky.  We hiked to the top of a very steep hill which sliced through the center of the tall meadow grass. 

As we ascended, a thought came to me.  The Manassas Gap Shelter was now about 3 miles off, we would easily make it there and recover for one last day of hiking together.  But Lisa was going on to hike for three more weeks by herself.  I felt I had proven all I needed to prove to myself for one trip and further thought Lisa might benefit from a night off.

I said, “I’m just gonna’ throw this out there, but in 2 miles we will cross under I-66.  That’s about an hour from my house and I could call my son and he could be there when we emerge from the woods.  I’m fine with doing one more night at camp and one more day hiking but this would be your chance for a night’s sleep in a bed, a shower, fresh food and laundry.”

One last turning point, from this little bench in a warm sunny meadow we decided to cut the hike short by a day and get back to civilization.

Lisa agreed that this would be a good idea before she headed out on her own.  She was rightly a little apprehensive about going alone and a night off would help.  We got to the top of the meadow and there, as if positioned for this moment was a little bench under a shade tree.  It was a beautiful moment. 

I called my family and Andrew agreed to come get us in the tiny hamlet of Linden, VA.  We sat at this bench and I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out of the woods singing.

We would hike another hour down a steep difficult mountain and our feet were once again killing us.  It was ok though, because we were a couple hours away from a fresh meal and a real shower.  We emerged from the woods on VA Rt 55 which parallels I-66.  I called Andrew and he said he was getting off the exit.  minutes later we were in an air-conditioned car (with Andrew complaining quite justly about how gamey we smelled!)

It was nice to kick off the boots and then Andrew told me to look in the bag on the floor.  My wife had sent along two cold beers!  As with all the meals we had eaten the previous 4 days, that was the best beer I had ever had!

We got home and ordered kabobs, took showers, told stories and that night everyone slept on a nice soft mattress.  As I lay there though, I realized the transition had been so fast that it hadn’t hit me yet.  I had just spent 4 days challenging myself physically and mentally. 

I had met a moderate amount of difficulty and handled it and my comfort zone was now expanded.

In my final post I will go over lessons learned, what I feel I did right and what I would do differently.  It was a great trip and already I am sure I will return to hike more of the Appalachian Trail!

π

Appalachian Trail: Virginia – Part 4 of 5

This is the fourth in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each morning we took a picture just before heading out for the day and in my opinion the pictures grew progressively more tired.

On Sunday we awoke to discover the nearby spring was dry.  I had walked about a quarter mile down the mountain and was very disappointed that there would not be coffee before departing!  We packed up, ate a quick bite and headed out.  Once again it was a beautiful crisp day and once again my body had made a miraculous recovery.  When I think of how rough I feel sometimes after sleeping in a comfortable bed I couldn’t get over how much rest I was getting sleeping on the ground!  Of course it is possible that I was beginning to respond to this level of exercise, and to be sure the absence of alcohol didn’t hurt!

I mentioned in my last post that three hikers had arrived at the shelter at 1:00 in the morning.  They had hiked 30 miles the day before!  They were just sitting up in their sleeping bags as we rolled out of camp and I half jokingly said, “We’ll see you guys again when you overtake us.”

About a half mile away from the shelter we heard a noise and there were these three hikers gliding past us!  These were some badass warriors.

90 minutes into our hike for the day we came across this pristine stream. It would serve as a great location for breakfast!

We hiked about an hour and a half, keenly aware that we had no water.  There was no reason to panic because there were streams and springs along the next 3 miles; but, nothing makes you more thirsty than knowing you have no water!  We came to a wide clear stream that looked like a spot you might film a commercial for bottled water.  There was a nice sandy bank and the spot was so pleasant we decided we would stop here for breakfast.  Lisa got water going for coffee and I got water going for oatmeal.  We sat and basked in the sun and enjoyed a hearty breakfast and large mugs of strong coffee.  We got more water and washed the dishes from the night before, and restocked all of our water bottles.  Again, all of this water was treated through a filter pump as there is no guarantee that even a fast flowing mountain spring is free of bacteria.

We were now getting closer to civilization.  We were seeing more day hikers (you could tell by the size of their packs) and could hear a highway and lawn mowers now and then.  Sure enough, a half hour after leaving the stream we emerged into an open field with a panoramic view of some sort of campus.  It was very large and the buildings were all uniform.  I later learned that this was the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  Previously part of the National Zoo, it now conducts research in the areas of biodiversity, animal care, conservation and sustainability.  There were fields planted and numerous buildings over what appeared to be hundreds of acres.  A little research shows they are doing a lot of research based on the Appalachian ecosystem.

Everything visible in this picture, the fields in the foreground and all of the distant hillside was part of the vast Smithsonian Front Royal campus!

As we walked along the perimeter of the campus, we came across a little bench with a huge ice water dispenser like you see on the sidelines of football games.  There was a note pointing to the back yard of a house that said, “Welcome hikers, come in for a drink and a snack and feel free to camp in our yard.”  It was signed, “She-Bear & Sweet Tea”  We looked over and the woman working in the yard beckoned us over.

“She-Bear” is basically a friend of the hiker.  She herself has hiked the entire trail and was very proud that her 18 year old daughter had just finished a “flip-flop” through hike in which she hiked VA to Maine, and then traveled to Georgia to complete the southern half.  The man and the woman there could not have been nicer.  They offered whatever they could do for hikers, rides, a spot to camp, use of a bathroom, whatever we needed!  Lisa and I enjoyed some sweet tea and chatted a bit and were on our way.


At around 2:00 we arrived at the Jim and Molly Denton Hut.  This was a nice spot!  There was a solar shower!  It was an outdoor shower stall like you might see at a house at the beach and there was a large barrel on top that was pumped full from a nearby spring.

In my next and final post on this trip I will go over things I would do differently and this would be one of them.  What we should have done was stop right there and call it a day.  We had one last day of hiking planned and we should have taken solar showers, cooked up a nice meal on the deck and enjoyed this naturally peaceful spot.  It would have been essentially an afternoon off.  (spoiler alert:  this is one of the things I would do differently!)


That would not be what we did however.  We had already taken a lot of time at the stream and at She-Bear’s house so we had to push on.  We had 5 more miles to get to our destination and it would take all of 3 hours.  Live and learn!  We did stop and eat at this shelter and rest a bit but then we hit the trail and hiked for another hour.

In this high mountain meadow I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out singing!

We came to VA Rt 632, a point She-Bear had told us would look like “Little House on the Prairie”.  It was indeed a spectacular wide-open meadow.  As far as you could see was green grass, mountains, and blue sky.  We hiked to the top of a very steep hill which sliced through the center of the tall meadow grass.

As we ascended, a thought came to me.  The Manassas Gap Shelter was now about 3 miles off, we would easily make it there and recover for one last day of hiking together.  But Lisa was going on to hike for three more weeks by herself.  I felt I had proven all I needed to prove to myself for one trip and further thought Lisa might benefit from a night off.

I said, “I’m just gonna’ throw this out there, but in 2 miles we will cross under I-66.  That’s about an hour from my house and I could call my son and he could be there when we emerge from the woods.  I’m fine with doing one more night at camp and one more day hiking but this would be your chance for a night’s sleep in a bed, a shower, fresh food and laundry.”

One last turning point, from this little bench in a warm sunny meadow we decided to cut the hike short by a day and get back to civilization.

Lisa agreed that this would be a good idea before she headed out on her own.  She was rightly a little apprehensive about going alone and a night off would help.  We got to the top of the meadow and there, as if positioned for this moment was a little bench under a shade tree.  It was a beautiful moment.

I called my family and Andrew agreed to come get us in the tiny hamlet of Linden, VA.  We sat at this bench and I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out of the woods singing.

We would hike another hour down a steep difficult mountain and our feet were once again killing us.  It was ok though, because we were a couple hours away from a fresh meal and a real shower.  We emerged from the woods on VA Rt 55 which parallels I-66.  I called Andrew and he said he was getting off the exit.  minutes later we were in an air-conditioned car (with Andrew complaining quite justly about how gamey we smelled!)

It was nice to kick off the boots and then Andrew told me to look in the bag on the floor.  My wife had sent along two cold beers!  As with all the meals we had eaten the previous 4 days, that was the best beer I had ever had!

We got home and ordered kabobs, took showers, told stories and that night everyone slept on a nice soft mattress.  As I lay there though, I realized the transition had been so fast that it hadn’t hit me yet.  I had just spent 4 days challenging myself physically and mentally.

I had met a moderate amount of difficulty and handled it and my comfort zone was now expanded.

In my final post I will go over lessons learned, what I feel I did right and what I would do differently.  It was a great trip and already I am sure I will return to hike more of the Appalachian Trail!

π

My Appalachian Trail Adventure – Part 3 of 5

This is the third in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

To fight the cold temperature Lisa wore socks on her hands. I was just ready to get out of the site that had been our low point in the trip.

Day 3 began in the low 50’s and neither of us had brought a jacket!  That stupid pack of mine was 50 pounds fully loaded with water and there was no jacket in there!  We were very happy to see our food was still in the tree; but, when we saw the massive branch that had fallen during the night we realized it could just as easily have fallen on one of our tents! 

My neighbor and friend Miriam had made homemade granola bars for me to take on the trip.  They were perfect for the calorie demands we were placing on our bodies, they had oatmeal, nuts, and dried fruit.  I realized that I had one bar left and that the energy I would get from it would warm me up enough to pack up camp.  I made a quick cup of coffee, polished off the bar and packed everything up.  The weather looked promising but we were shivering so it was hard to appreciate.

This “ocean of ferns” was one of the more beautiful things we saw! In every direction the floor of the forest was covered with soft 3-foot ferns.

As we began to hike I was once more stunned to see that my body had recovered during the night from the 10 hours of hiking the previous day!  My shoulders felt great under the weight of the pack (which by now was starting to be a little lighter as food was consumed.)  My feet, though held together with duct tape seemed to be strong and pain-free for the moment!

As it had been throughout the trip, the hike was strikingly beautiful.  I couldn’t believe how often the scenery changed!  On this morning we came across a section of the forest in which the floor was all 3-ft ferns.  Like rhododendrons, I have tried to encourage large pretty ferns on the shady side of my house and it’s just too hot and humid.  Here was an endless ocean of them in every direction!  They looked like you could dive into them and be carried across the top of them like a rock star crowd surfing!

This large deer escorted us for a ways down the mountain, walking in the path about 30 yards ahead. She was huge, approaching the size of a pony!

We did not see much wildlife during the trip.  We saw plenty of evidence that they were nearby, but despite all our precautions we never saw a bear and only a couple of times did we even see deer.  (It should be noted that when my wife dropped us off on the first morning she turned the car around and there were two bear cubs playing on the side of Skyline Drive!)

In this first morning section of the hike however, we were greeted at the top of a mountain by a really large doe.  She was approaching the size of a pony!  The trail zig-zagged down the mountain and she was escorting us down.  She would wait until we came around the switchback to her section, and then bolt directly through the woods onto the next section.  She did this several times, each time waiting until we got to the section she was on.  Near the bottom she stepped off the side of the trail and watched us pass.  I half expected her to say, “OK, from here just go straight and if you pass a big rocky overpass you’ve gone too far”!

Looking north over the Shenandoah Valley toward Front Royal, VA

We warmed up quickly and were buoyed by the fact that our bodies had recovered from the previous day’s hike.  The weather was shaping up to be a beautiful day and at the top of the next mountain we got a view to the north that showed Front Royal, VA, and blue skies.  Our next stop was the Gravel Springs Hut, what should have been the previous night’s destination.  This too would be a turning point in our trip.

The Gravel Springs Hut was supposed to be last night’s destination but would still serve as a turning point in our trip and one of the sweetest highlights.

Gravel Springs Hut was, I suppose, a standard Shenandoah shelter; but it seemed like a resort hotel as it came with all the amenities, the weather was beautiful, and we had it all to ourselves.  First of all, there was a privy.  A privy is essentially an outhouse but when the alternative involves a shovel it might as well be the Four Seasons.  Secondly, there was a spring–Gravel Springs as it would turn out–right there near the shelter.  The fire ring in front of the shelter had a large stone wall around it and this would become our dryer!

We pulled out all of our wet gear, ponchos, tents, clothes and laid them on this stone in the sun to dry.  I was not conscious of it at the time but that simple act changed the entire pace of our trip to a more reasonable one.  For something to dry in the sun, one must sit, relax, and not be in a rush and that is what we had been doing since we began, rushing!

Lisa had some sort of instant mocha cappuccino mix ( I would eventually learn that she had an entire barista kit in her pack!) and she made us a couple of cappuccinos while I went to the spring and filled our water.  We heated some of the water to make a nice warm sudsy bowl and used it to wash the previous night’s dishes.  Those too got lain out in the sun to dry and we sat at the picnic table of this quiet shelter and talked about our trip.

Our goal of 20 miles per day was unrealistic.  Many people told us that, but many also told us 20 was reasonable in Shenandoah.  As it turned out 20 is reasonable…if you started in Georgia in February!  What we had done was the equivalent to going to the beach for summer vacation and getting sunburned on the first day!  You have to start gradually.

We looked at the guidebook and recalibrated our goals.  It was like a huge weight had been lifted because now we could enjoy the trip a whole lot more.  The mileage goal had been arbitrary to begin with and there was nothing sacred about getting to Harpers Ferry by a certain date.  Moments like this one at Gravel Springs was what the trip was really about.

We felt lucky to have figured this out and now had a completely different outlook on the remainder of the trip.  We had a new and very achievable goal for this day and already had 5 miles of it behind us. 

After the very challenging night before, we also had the additional confidence of having made it through the worst and turned the corner.  We were truly uplifted and this time our optimism would last!

The cement marker with yellow band meant a spring was nearby. Usually this was a large pipe driven into the side of the mountain (always at the bottom) that tapped into an underground reservoir.

Before leaving I refilled our water.  The spring was within 50 feet of the shelter and not the usual half mile down a mountain.  With all water I pumped it through a filter to remove dangerous bacteria.  I am pleased to say I drank water from streams and springs throughout the entire trip with no ill effects.  The pump is simple, one end goes into the stream and pumps into a cylinder that filters silt and bacteria and pumps it directly into the water bottle. 

When you saw the cement post with a yellow band around it you knew you were at a spring.  Sometimes you would need to calculate whether you needed water because taking on water meant taking on weight and the spring was always at the bottom of a mountain.  So if you were ok on water, you had to consider, do I need another 6 pounds to go up another mountain?

As we were packing up one of the more comical events took place.  The packing is a slow deliberate process because along the way you have to be able to reach  certain things quickly and those need to be packed for ready access.  It’s also challenging to fit everything.  We were in the midst of this process when two Asian men approached.

One looked somewhat nervous and questioned us as to how long we planned to be here.  We told him we were packing up to leave and he seemed greatly relieved.  “Oh good, this is good because we have many people coming!”  He wasn’t kidding!  The next thing that happened is that a large group of older asian hikers began to flood into the shelter.  The first guy said something to them in what I think was Chinese, and I think he said, “These folks are just leaving, form a semi-circle around them and quietly put aggressive pressure on them to hurry it up!”

A water filter pump enabled me to take water directly from streams and springs without chemical treatment or boiling.

They were day hikers, and Lisa asked where they were from.  I think we both expected to hear “China” or something like that and the first gentleman said, “Here.  We live here and come to Shenandoah every saturday for a day hike and lunch”.  My first thought was, “It’s Saturday?”  Suddenly we were surrounded by 15-20 people talking amongst themselves in Chinese, snapping pictures and standing by waiting for the use of the shelter for their lunch.  We felt like we had been caught trespassing and were given 60 seconds to pack up and get out!  We did, and we laughed for the next mile about how out-of-place the event seemed with the rest of the trip!

In the upper left was a section of Skyline Drive that we had crossed about an hour earlier.

We hiked now with new purpose.  We would enjoy the trail along the way and not worry about mileage.  This approach was rewarded handsomely when we climbed a large steep mountain to see a glorious overlook back at the point where we had crossed Skyline Drive about an hour earlier.  It had been a lot of work to get to the top of this one and as we watched along came our friends the “Slack Packers”!  They were fresh as daisies having stayed another night in a hotel and driven to the trail head!  Still, it was good to see them and they complimented us on making good progress and looking strong.

The overlook gave us one of the finest views we had seen and one reason for that was that it was out on a very high cliff.  As I looked down, I could see treetops about 50 feet down. 

The view straight down from the overlook. This was not a spot for someone with a fear of heights!

It would still turn out to be a long day.  While we were smart enough to figure out that 20 miles was unrealistic, we still hadn’t grasped the fact that the 13-15 miles a day we were doing was too much!  At about 3:00 we hit a milepost that told us we still had 5 miles to go to get to camp.  This would put us there about 6:00.  That was still a long 3 hours of hiking and there was just no avoiding the fact that by that point in the day the shoulders were screaming, the feet were swollen and tender and fatigue was setting in. 

I noticed that in addition to the general funk of the woods, I had this sweet, almost vinegar smell about me.  It was in my breath and I realized that I was in a state of ketosisThis is when your body has burned through all the ready supply of glycogen (the quick burning energy we get from carbohydrates).  Now it was boosting the level of ketones (which create the sweet acetone smell) in preparation to go to backup power…fat!  It only took me 3 days of hiking but I was finally burning my stores of body fat!  I ate carbs all day long in the form of pretzels, flour tortillas, and dried fruit but it just wasn’t enough to keep up with the 4000 calories I was burning each day.

This is hard to see through the trees but it a rocky cliff down which were treacherous steps that went on forever! Going down was the final test of the day before arriving at the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter.

We hiked along a gentle fire road for almost an hour.  It was so nice to walk on level ground side-by-side!  We eventually came to a large sign that informed us we were departing Shenandoah National Park!  This was a big milestone!  From there we had to descend a huge rocky cliff.  There were steps built into it and they crisscrossed many times as a set of switchbacks.  Each step felt dangerous and one misstep would have been disastrous!

Finally, we reached the Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter.  Again, we were the only people there!  It was a charming spot built onto the side of a hill with a large inviting deck.  We considered staying in the shelter but had such good luck with the tents that we stayed with what worked.  There was a perfect tent site complete with its own fire ring, bench area for cooking, and perfect view through the woods of a rich orange sunset.

The Tom Floyd Wayside shelter was again like a story book setting. A quaint cottage nestled in the woods and completely uninhabited.

We set up our tents and started dinner.  Tonight it would be brown rice.  I cooked up my last scallion and last clove of garlic, added the rice and simmered it while we relaxed and watched the sun setting.  When it was ready I topped it with tuna from a foil pouch and a squirt of lemon juice (I know, this is why my pack was too heavy!) and we dined on what had to be the best brown rice and tuna ever!

That night we stayed up till a reckless 9:00 because it was so pleasant out.  When we turned in, there was still nobody at the shelter!  The next morning there would be three people who had arrived at 1:00 in the morning!  They had descended those treacherous steps in the dark using headlamps!

Our tent site was perfectly situated to watch the glowing sunset through the trees.

This would be my best night’s sleep yet.  There could have been bears scratching at the tent door and I would not have heard them.  I slept soundly through the night, proud of having conquered the previous night’s storm, and pleased that we had scaled down the mileage to enjoy the trip more.

In my next posting I detail my final day on the trail and re-entry into civilization.

π

Appalachian Trail: Virginia – Part 3 of 5

This is the third in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

To fight the cold temperature Lisa wore socks on her hands. I was just ready to get out of the site that had been our low point in the trip.

Day 3 began in the low 50’s and neither of us had brought a jacket!  That stupid pack of mine was 50 pounds fully loaded with water and there was no jacket in there!  We were very happy to see our food was still in the tree; but, when we saw the massive branch that had fallen during the night we realized it could just as easily have fallen on one of our tents!

My neighbor and friend Miriam had made homemade granola bars for me to take on the trip.  They were perfect for the calorie demands we were placing on our bodies, they had oatmeal, nuts, and dried fruit.  I realized that I had one bar left and that the energy I would get from it would warm me up enough to pack up camp.  I made a quick cup of coffee, polished off the bar and packed everything up.  The weather looked promising but we were shivering so it was hard to appreciate.

This “ocean of ferns” was one of the more beautiful things we saw! In every direction the floor of the forest was covered with soft 3-foot ferns.

As we began to hike I was once more stunned to see that my body had recovered during the night from the 10 hours of hiking the previous day!  My shoulders felt great under the weight of the pack (which by now was starting to be a little lighter as food was consumed.)  My feet, though held together with duct tape seemed to be strong and pain-free for the moment!

As it had been throughout the trip, the hike was strikingly beautiful.  I couldn’t believe how often the scenery changed!  On this morning we came across a section of the forest in which the floor was all 3-ft ferns.  Like rhododendrons, I have tried to encourage large pretty ferns on the shady side of my house and it’s just too hot and humid.  Here was an endless ocean of them in every direction!  They looked like you could dive into them and be carried across the top of them like a rock star crowd surfing!

This large deer escorted us for a ways down the mountain, walking in the path about 30 yards ahead. She was huge, approaching the size of a pony!

We did not see much wildlife during the trip.  We saw plenty of evidence that they were nearby, but despite all our precautions we never saw a bear and only a couple of times did we even see deer.  (It should be noted that when my wife dropped us off on the first morning she turned the car around and there were two bear cubs playing on the side of Skyline Drive!)

In this first morning section of the hike however, we were greeted at the top of a mountain by a really large doe.  She was approaching the size of a pony!  The trail zig-zagged down the mountain and she was escorting us down.  She would wait until we came around the switchback to her section, and then bolt directly through the woods onto the next section.  She did this several times, each time waiting until we got to the section she was on.  Near the bottom she stepped off the side of the trail and watched us pass.  I half expected her to say, “OK, from here just go straight and if you pass a big rocky overpass you’ve gone too far”!

Looking north over the Shenandoah Valley toward Front Royal, VA

We warmed up quickly and were buoyed by the fact that our bodies had recovered from the previous day’s hike.  The weather was shaping up to be a beautiful day and at the top of the next mountain we got a view to the north that showed Front Royal, VA, and blue skies.  Our next stop was the Gravel Springs Hut, what should have been the previous night’s destination.  This too would be a turning point in our trip.

The Gravel Springs Hut was supposed to be last night’s destination but would still serve as a turning point in our trip and one of the sweetest highlights.

Gravel Springs Hut was, I suppose, a standard Shenandoah shelter; but it seemed like a resort hotel as it came with all the amenities, the weather was beautiful, and we had it all to ourselves.  First of all, there was a privy.  A privy is essentially an outhouse but when the alternative involves a shovel it might as well be the Four Seasons.  Secondly, there was a spring–Gravel Springs as it would turn out–right there near the shelter.  The fire ring in front of the shelter had a large stone wall around it and this would become our dryer!

We pulled out all of our wet gear, ponchos, tents, clothes and laid them on this stone in the sun to dry.  I was not conscious of it at the time but that simple act changed the entire pace of our trip to a more reasonable one.  For something to dry in the sun, one must sit, relax, and not be in a rush and that is what we had been doing since we began, rushing!

Lisa had some sort of instant mocha cappuccino mix ( I would eventually learn that she had an entire barista kit in her pack!) and she made us a couple of cappuccinos while I went to the spring and filled our water.  We heated some of the water to make a nice warm sudsy bowl and used it to wash the previous night’s dishes.  Those too got lain out in the sun to dry and we sat at the picnic table of this quiet shelter and talked about our trip.

Our goal of 20 miles per day was unrealistic.  Many people told us that, but many also told us 20 was reasonable in Shenandoah.  As it turned out 20 is reasonable…if you started in Georgia in February!  What we had done was the equivalent to going to the beach for summer vacation and getting sunburned on the first day!  You have to start gradually.

We looked at the guidebook and recalibrated our goals.  It was like a huge weight had been lifted because now we could enjoy the trip a whole lot more.  The mileage goal had been arbitrary to begin with and there was nothing sacred about getting to Harpers Ferry by a certain date.  Moments like this one at Gravel Springs was what the trip was really about.

We felt lucky to have figured this out and now had a completely different outlook on the remainder of the trip.  We had a new and very achievable goal for this day and already had 5 miles of it behind us.

After the very challenging night before, we also had the additional confidence of having made it through the worst and turned the corner.  We were truly uplifted and this time our optimism would last!

The cement marker with yellow band meant a spring was nearby. Usually this was a large pipe driven into the side of the mountain (always at the bottom) that tapped into an underground reservoir.

Before leaving I refilled our water.  The spring was within 50 feet of the shelter and not the usual half mile down a mountain.  With all water I pumped it through a filter to remove dangerous bacteria.  I am pleased to say I drank water from streams and springs throughout the entire trip with no ill effects.  The pump is simple, one end goes into the stream and pumps into a cylinder that filters silt and bacteria and pumps it directly into the water bottle.

When you saw the cement post with a yellow band around it you knew you were at a spring.  Sometimes you would need to calculate whether you needed water because taking on water meant taking on weight and the spring was always at the bottom of a mountain.  So if you were ok on water, you had to consider, do I need another 6 pounds to go up another mountain?

As we were packing up one of the more comical events took place.  The packing is a slow deliberate process because along the way you have to be able to reach  certain things quickly and those need to be packed for ready access.  It’s also challenging to fit everything.  We were in the midst of this process when two Asian men approached.

One looked somewhat nervous and questioned us as to how long we planned to be here.  We told him we were packing up to leave and he seemed greatly relieved.  “Oh good, this is good because we have many people coming!”  He wasn’t kidding!  The next thing that happened is that a large group of older asian hikers began to flood into the shelter.  The first guy said something to them in what I think was Chinese, and I think he said, “These folks are just leaving, form a semi-circle around them and quietly put aggressive pressure on them to hurry it up!”

A water filter pump enabled me to take water directly from streams and springs without chemical treatment or boiling.

They were day hikers, and Lisa asked where they were from.  I think we both expected to hear “China” or something like that and the first gentleman said, “Here.  We live here and come to Shenandoah every saturday for a day hike and lunch”.  My first thought was, “It’s Saturday?”  Suddenly we were surrounded by 15-20 people talking amongst themselves in Chinese, snapping pictures and standing by waiting for the use of the shelter for their lunch.  We felt like we had been caught trespassing and were given 60 seconds to pack up and get out!  We did, and we laughed for the next mile about how out-of-place the event seemed with the rest of the trip!

In the upper left was a section of Skyline Drive that we had crossed about an hour earlier.

We hiked now with new purpose.  We would enjoy the trail along the way and not worry about mileage.  This approach was rewarded handsomely when we climbed a large steep mountain to see a glorious overlook back at the point where we had crossed Skyline Drive about an hour earlier.  It had been a lot of work to get to the top of this one and as we watched along came our friends the “Slack Packers”!  They were fresh as daisies having stayed another night in a hotel and driven to the trail head!  Still, it was good to see them and they complimented us on making good progress and looking strong.

The overlook gave us one of the finest views we had seen and one reason for that was that it was out on a very high cliff.  As I looked down, I could see treetops about 50 feet down.

The view straight down from the overlook. This was not a spot for someone with a fear of heights!

It would still turn out to be a long day.  While we were smart enough to figure out that 20 miles was unrealistic, we still hadn’t grasped the fact that the 13-15 miles a day we were doing was too much!  At about 3:00 we hit a milepost that told us we still had 5 miles to go to get to camp.  This would put us there about 6:00.  That was still a long 3 hours of hiking and there was just no avoiding the fact that by that point in the day the shoulders were screaming, the feet were swollen and tender and fatigue was setting in.

I noticed that in addition to the general funk of the woods, I had this sweet, almost vinegar smell about me.  It was in my breath and I realized that I was in a state of ketosisThis is when your body has burned through all the ready supply of glycogen (the quick burning energy we get from carbohydrates).  Now it was boosting the level of ketones (which create the sweet acetone smell) in preparation to go to backup power…fat!  It only took me 3 days of hiking but I was finally burning my stores of body fat!  I ate carbs all day long in the form of pretzels, flour tortillas, and dried fruit but it just wasn’t enough to keep up with the 4000 calories I was burning each day.

This is hard to see through the trees but it a rocky cliff down which were treacherous steps that went on forever! Going down was the final test of the day before arriving at the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter.

We hiked along a gentle fire road for almost an hour.  It was so nice to walk on level ground side-by-side!  We eventually came to a large sign that informed us we were departing Shenandoah National Park!  This was a big milestone!  From there we had to descend a huge rocky cliff.  There were steps built into it and they crisscrossed many times as a set of switchbacks.  Each step felt dangerous and one misstep would have been disastrous!

Finally, we reached the Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter.  Again, we were the only people there!  It was a charming spot built onto the side of a hill with a large inviting deck.  We considered staying in the shelter but had such good luck with the tents that we stayed with what worked.  There was a perfect tent site complete with its own fire ring, bench area for cooking, and perfect view through the woods of a rich orange sunset.

The Tom Floyd Wayside shelter was again like a story book setting. A quaint cottage nestled in the woods and completely uninhabited.

We set up our tents and started dinner.  Tonight it would be brown rice.  I cooked up my last scallion and last clove of garlic, added the rice and simmered it while we relaxed and watched the sun setting.  When it was ready I topped it with tuna from a foil pouch and a squirt of lemon juice (I know, this is why my pack was too heavy!) and we dined on what had to be the best brown rice and tuna ever!

That night we stayed up till a reckless 9:00 because it was so pleasant out.  When we turned in, there was still nobody at the shelter!  The next morning there would be three people who had arrived at 1:00 in the morning!  They had descended those treacherous steps in the dark using headlamps!

Our tent site was perfectly situated to watch the glowing sunset through the trees.

This would be my best night’s sleep yet.  There could have been bears scratching at the tent door and I would not have heard them.  I slept soundly through the night, proud of having conquered the previous night’s storm, and pleased that we had scaled down the mileage to enjoy the trip more.

In my next posting I detail my final day on the trail and re-entry into civilization.

π

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