Saturday, October 03, 2009

Hiking the AT in Northern Virginia

A few weeks ago, I started posting about my 1987 hike on the Appalachian Trail. I should have started the hike at the beginning, which I am doing here. I hiked from June 2 to August 30 that summer, going from Swift Run Gap, Virginia to Mt. Katadin, Maine. This post takes me through Northern Virginia to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The photo to the left the Potamac at the end of this section. The second photo is from the Hill Top Hotel website.

On the evening of June 3, I sat on a boulder outcropping in front of Rock Springs Cabin, eating a Tootsie Roll and watching the sunset. The air, cleaned by late afternoon thunderstorms, tasted good and the sun was brilliant as it slipped behind the distant ridges. The place was haunted with memories. Eight years earlier, as a college student, I’d spent four February nights in the cabin. Some students are drawn south, to the sun and sand, but the mountains seemed to always calli me. I’d sat on the same rocks with my wife at the time, sipping tea and snuggling to stay warm as we watched the sun, partly hidden by a cold gray sky, sink slowly. After light faded from the sky, we’d remained, watching the stoplight n Stanley, a town a couple miles away and 1500 feet lower. On this early June night, the air had cooled a bit and the bugs were not quite as bad as earlier, but it was still warm. Leaves covered the trees, which provided needed shade during the day, obstructing my view somewhat. Other than leaves and weather, little had changed in the eight years since I’d been here. Cars still drove through the small town, stopping at the light, unaware of those up on the mountain looking down. That evening, I thought about another sunset, one a few months earlier, on Easter Sunday. I’d watched it with Debbie, the Dean’s secretary. She’d invited me to dinner with her family. Afterwards, we took a walk in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s a sign of faith, I thought to myself, that we enjoy sunsets trusting that in the morning the sun will be back.

It was my second night on the trail. The day before, I’d left my parents home in North Carolina where I’d dropped my car for the summer. My dad had agreed to drive Reuben and me to the trailhead in Central Virginia. I’d done almost all the trail south of Swift Run Gap, the only exception being about twenty five miles at the beginning of Shenandoah National Park. As Reuben had already done that section, we decided to start at Swift Run, which would give us time to make Harper’s Ferry, where he’d catch a train back home. I didn’t have to be anywhere until the day after Labor Day and planned to keep walking till then or till I got to Mt. Katadhin, some 1300 miles away in Maine. On June 2, at 5 PM, my dad dropped us off at the trailhead. We shouldered our packs and hiked a little over six miles, stopping for the night near Pocosin Cabin.

Our second day was rather easy, as we crossed a few mountains and saw a few deer. We hiked hard in the morning, covering the ten or so miles to Big Meadows, where we ate at the restaurant and enjoyed an ice cream cone before hiking on. As we approached the shelter above Rock Springs Cabin, a thunderstorm was brewing. Even though it was only three in the afternoon, we decided to hold up for the night, having hiked fourteen or fifteen miles. About a half mile before the shelter, as we were rushing to beat the rain, we saw a bear cub scamper off the trail. Its presence reminded us that we’re in bear country and need to be careful with our food. Sitting on the floor of the three-sided shelter, I watched the storm and began reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. After the storm cleared, we fixed dinner on the picnic table in front of the shelter and was treated to a brown wood thrasher, who landed on the fire pit, then flew up to the other end of the table, in search of scraps.

We started out early on June 4th, eating just a granola bar for breakfast, knowing that three or four miles down the trail we’d pass the Skyland Lodge, another restaurant, where could get a late breakfast. It began to rain again shortly after we started hiking and by the time we got to the lodge, my boots were soaked. Even in the rain, flies were bad. Under the influence of Dillard, I asked Reuben if he thought God frowned on us when we killed a fly. “God may frown on you,” he proposed, “but not on me.” We hiked on that morning in the rain and by 3:15, reached Thorton Gap, where there was another restaurant. We had an early dinner, I enjoyed a delicious fish dinner and we split a carafe of wine. We sat in the restaurant for nearly two hours. After eating, we took turns using the phone, Reuben calling his wife and office and I called Debbie. It was good to talk to her. As we left the restaurant in the Gap, Reuben noted that we were getting a little spoiled hiking in the Shenandoah’s. It was a little after five, when we pulled out wet boots back on. We hiked a couple of miles to Pass Mountain Hut, which had a wonderful gushing spring. We’d covered 15 miles that day, mostly in the rain and the little toes on my feet were blistered.

We woke early on June 5th, at 5:30 AM when a whip-o-will landed on the fire pit in front of the shelter and serenaded us for a good five minutes. I’d never heard one that close and after a few minutes, I was ready to strangle the bird. We got a good start on the trail and the day turned out to be beautiful, with clear skies and a gentle breeze keeping things cool. In the morning, we caught sight of a black bear running away. I also saw several snakes, none poisonous. We stopped at Elkswallow Wayside for lunch, the last of the restaurants in the park. The hiking was wonderful, with several miles where the trail was outlined with blooming Mountain Laurel. The beauty was tempered by the leaves that held water from the rain and as we brushed aside them, drenching us. Examining the flowers, I noted that each one starts out as a pink bud, but then opens up like an umbrella. When fully open, they are mostly white.

As I hiked this morning, I thought about the first week of June 1967, twenty years earlier. I’d just finished the 4th grade and was in Vacation Bible School. The Mamas and Papas were popular and there was a war in the Middle East, which was the only topic us boys at church wanted to talk about, which drove our teachers nuts. I was reminded of the Six-day War from the newspapers that we’d read in the various restaurants along the way. Today was the 20th anniversary of the war’s beginning. Thinking back about such things helped me to keep my thoughts off my blistered toes.

For our last evening in Shenandoah National Park, we camped at Gravel Spring Hut, sharing the shelter with two French-speaking Canadians. He was a fireman and was studying liberal arts at the university and where his girlfriend, who was with him, taught art. I was intrigued with their dinner, built around garlic flavored couscous. I was unfamiliar with this African grain, but immediately saw the possibilities it held for hiking and later included it in my diet. As it only required boiling water to prepare, I’d often make it at breakfast and store it in a baggie, eating it for lunch.

The next morning we continued north, over the Marshall Peaks. As the trail had done throughout the Park, we crossed the Skyline Drive several times. At Compton Gap, we crossed the Skyline Drive for the last time and dropped off the ridge, leaving the park behind and hiking out across suburban Virginia. As we left the park, we encountered the first infestation of Gypsy Moths. The caterpillars had eaten the foliage and for several miles, the trees were bare and the sun beat down on us. But the weather was unseasonably cool, which kept the hike from being unbearable. In the areas of infestation, caterpillars dropped off the trees, falling on our heads and covering the ground. At first, I tried to stomp as many as possible and then gave up, as I continued to hear them squish under my lugged soles. Each step sounded like a bowl of Rice Kipsies, as the bugs snapped, crackled and popped under our feet. When out of the trees, we were in meadows filled with poison ivy. I rubbed soap on my legs, so that I could wash them off easily afterwards, keeping the poison from my skin. At Chester Gap, we crossed the Rappahannock River and hiked on another five miles. We stopped for the night at Mosby Campsite, named for the Confederate Calvary Officer that operated in this area. We’d covered 17 miles. My body was feeling good and strong, but my blistered little toes ached constantly.

June 7th was a long day as we covered nearly 21 miles, stopping for the night at Ron’s Hollow Shelter. Much of this section of the trail had been relocated and the maps and guidebook was of little value as we followed the white blazes. There were no good views and in places it seemed like we were walking through folks backyard. At Paris Mountain, we found a restaurant and stopped for lunch. Gypsy moths had eaten the leaves off most of the oaks. Locust were also buzzing around and poison ivy seemed to be ever present. Ticks were also problematic and in one meadow, I picked off a dozen of the them before they had a chance to dig under my skin.

The next day we hiked only ten miles, but they were tough as the trail wound in and out of ravines and hollows. Gypsy moths, locust, poison ivy and ticks continued to be ever present. The highlight of the day was the “Devil’s Raceway,” just north of Snicker’s Gap. Rocks flow down the mountain as if it was a stream, each boulder being three to four feet in diameter. The trail crosses in the middle, with rocks extending up and down the mountain as far as I can see. We cross carefully. As a general rule, any geologic feature named “Devil” or “Buzzard” means you better watch your step. A little later, I was startled when a grouse stepped out in front of me and waddled down the trail, just out of my reach, acting if its wing was broke. When I got far enough away from the nest, the bird flew away and turned around and went back, an interesting scheme to protect the young.

We decided to spend the evening at Bear Dens, an American Youth Hostel. The place is a respite and I spent the evening reading from books in their library, Kenneth Brower’s Starship and the Canoe reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I also was intrigued with sections of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the personal journal of a war correspondent’s tour in Vietnam. Brian and Kim are the gracious caretakers of the hostel and they offer us a can of Spam that was left by a pervious hiker. We fry it up with our dinner and, borrowing some mustard from the kitchen, find that it’s pretty good, at least for trail food. There is only one other couple staying at the hostel. Bill and Karen are newlyweds, spending time hiking as they wait for an overseas missionary assignment with the Mennonite Church.

We’re up early on June 9th. I want to get to Harper’s Ferry before the post office closes, as I’m expecting packages from my parents and from Eric, a friend in the mail room at school. Eric is sending me my mail. I’m also hoping for a letter from Debbie. We head out at 6 AM. The first few miles are difficult as we continue climbing in and out of ravines. It rains for about an hour, enough to give us wet boots for the rest of the day. After a few miles, the trail joins a ridge and the hiking is easy. Shortly before lunch, I spot and a orange box turtle. He freezes when he sees me and doesn‘t move a muscle as I photograph him. When I pick him up, he retreats into his shell. I sit him back down and continue to watch him. He stays in his shell for at least five minutes, then slowly peaks out and looks around. I then take on off to catch up with Reuben, who’s a ways down the trail and is waiting for me where he has taken a break for lunch.

We arrive at the Post Office in Harper’s Ferry at 4:45 PM, only to discover it closed at 4:30 PM. We’d hiked nearly 20 miles. We then head to the train station where Reuben arranges his travels home. He’ll leave the next morning a little after seven and will be picked up by his wife in Fayetteville around midnight. We then get a room at the Hill Top Hotel, where we clean up and eat. It’s a classic building on the hill overlooking the rivers and railroad tracks. The room cost us $46 for the night, which doesn’t seem to be that bad for a hotel that had housed the likes of Mark Twain, Daniel Webster, Thomas Edison as well as numerous presidents. The next morning, I reconsider the deal as I’m sure I slept in the same bed Mark Twain used and that Thomas Edison himself installed the noisy window air conditioner unit. Later, before I knew how bad the bed and air conditioner are, I call Debbie and tell her about the hotel and she says she’d like to stay in such a place and that there should be a letter waiting for me at the Post Office. Afterwards, Reuben and I spend the spend the evening out on the porch, talking with a couple who’s on their 8th motorcycle trip across the country.

Reuben left the morning at 6:30. I slept in, waking up only to tell him goodbye. An hour or so later, I pack up, check out and head down to the Post Office. There was no mail from Pittsburgh, just a card from my Mom. While they are checking the General Delivery mail, I meet a guy named Edward, from the Netherlands, who was here on a three week holiday. An assistant doctor (what we'd call a resident), he’d hiked for two weeks along the Appalachian Trail and was now heading for Washington. We walk over to the Appalachian Trail headquarters where I ask about where to buy groceries. There are no grocery stores in Harper’s Ferry, but one of the women working in the office offers to take me to Charlestown, a town five miles away, during lunch. She lives there and said she was planning on going home for lunch and that she could drop me off at a supermarket. With several hours to kill, Edward and I set out to tour the park at Harpers Ferry. I’m back at one, to catch a ride to the grocery store and am soon back, packing up. I head back to the post office where I learned that the day’s mail didn’t contain anything for me. I knew there was a hostel at Sandyhook, across the river and along the C & O Canal, about two miles from town. As it was much cheaper than another night in a lumpy bed, I head there for the evening.

A group of Boy Scouts from Ohio are also staying at the hostel. I talk to the leaders and finish reading Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The next morning, the scouts treat me to a pancake breakfast. I then leave my pack at the hostel and walk back to town, only to learn that the mail wouldn’t come in till 10:30 AM. I walk over to the Mountain Café and read a newspaper while I drinking coffee and chatting to some of the other customers. At 10:30, I was back at the Post Office. A package of mail from Pittsburgh and a letter from Debbie, which made me happy. I’m upset that my grades are not in the mail and I’ll have to wait till Duncannon to find out how I did. I read Debbie’s letter first, then go through the package, paying some bills and sending the receipts and unnecessary stuff on to my parents for safe keeping. I walk back through town for the last time, cross over the Potomac and hike down the canal to Sandyhook.


  1. Sage, if I was ever to hike, I'd want you with me.

    Sorry about the bed in the hotel but you made me laugh!

    One small correction: the town you went to for groceries is Charlestown. have to have the "W" in there. Charleston is the state capital and it is much further south than where you were.

  2. This time, your post reminded me of when I was in the Boy Scouts, and we hiked part of the John Muir Trail. We encounted mosquitoes, but no ticks or locus. We had rain, but luckily not while we were hiking - only after we made camp. We also encountered a bear once, but it was at the campgrounds near the trail head.

    As always, I enjoyed reading about your adventures.

  3. THanks Kenju, You must be from W VA! :)

    Dan, I've also hiked the John Muir Trail--a great trail and I saw more bears in those 220 miles than in the whole 2100 miles on the AT

  4. Was there snuggling involved with Debbie, too?

  5. Starship and the canoe sounds interesting. I quite enjoyed Zen and the art of motorcycle maintence. Will have to check it out.

  6. The AT is probably the closest we get in America to European hiking. That is, it's possible to carry a minimum of stuff and hike between bastions of civilization, i.e. carafes of vino, not to mention showers and a bed.


    (BTW, as a request from one of your fans, how 'bout some more pics?)

  7. hope someday i can experience signs of faith with you in one of these wonderful landscapes

  8. TC, Sorry to disappoint, but I honestly don't remember. I remmeber only because I made the comments in my journal about Easter and watching sunsets.

    Charles, I only read parts of it at the hostel--having been reminded of it, I've added it to my amazon wish list. I've read Zen and Motorcycle twice and may read it again, something I don't often do.

    Randall, certainly this section offers more options for such hiking adventures, but others are more remote. I will try to post more photos. I haven't found many from this section, including my pics of the turtle, but I do have more from the PA section that I'll post to add to what I've written.

    Naomy, all creation has wonderful landscapes and I can't think of a better sign of faith than your volcano experience! That's something I'd like to see--from a distance!

  9. I'd like to visit that inn. There is so much more around this area I would like to go and see and photograph!

  10. As always, entertaining to read!

  11. Deana, according the website, the inn is closed for renovation--HF is a nice toward and I bet photographing it in a week or two, with the fall colors, would be wonderful.

    Ed, thanks.

  12. What an amazing trip. Always wanted to make that one; it's all but crossed off in the "next time" category... I enjoy your ponderings.

  13. Sage...The saga continues.

    Didn't know if you had seen this

  14. I just like your hiking diary, Sage.

    ((Only that it must have been very annoying to find so many caterpillars, locusts and other bugs on your way))

    But the bright side were Debbie's letters waiting for you at the end of the day.

  15. Beau, it's a great time! You should do it and I have many more post as I try to make sense of my journal writings on here.

    Walking Guy, thanks for the link--I'll have to think about submitting.

    Leni, one of the Brits, whom I introduced in one of the early stories from the trail, was known to gripe and say, "I don't know how you people can live in a country where something is always biting you!" But the caterpillars and locust don't bite... And by mid-July, Debbie had gone out in search of new pastures.

  16. Can I have the cliff notes version of this? :-)

    By the way...I don't recall there being a Debbie on your timeline o'women.

  17. Sage: That hotel is one I would like to stay in! I must say, these chronicles are a delight as they get us beyond our own concerns and into an invigorating world of discovery! :)

  18. You have meticulously captured the essence of your hiking trip. Each time I read your articles on hiking trips, I am always carried away with cyber-hike kind of thing, with no sweat:). I miss not every word laid solid on this page, for each carries the aspiration of your soul and I could sense your earnestness in every line throughout the page. It helps me to forget the hassle of modern life and get closer to nature. Excellent. I hope, one day, you will provide an in-depth writeup on the Shenandoah National Park.