Shenandoah III, Closure!

April 7-12, 2000

The Short Version

  • Day 1: 4 miles — Rockfish Gap to a bivy with Amy on Bear Den Mountain under the stars.
  • Day 2: 13 miles — Amy departs. Bear Den bivy to Blackrock Hut. Torrential downpours, hypothermia and numerous stream crossings on a nice bit of blue-blazing.
  • Day 3: 13 miles — Blackrock Hut to Pinefield Hut. Beautiful weather with strong winds. Many deer and a pair of black bear cubs.
  • Day 4: 21 mile deathmarch — Pinefield Hut to Bearfence Mountain Hut. More great weather. Strange halucinations. The best mac and cheese ever eaten.
  • Day 5: 11 miles — Bearfence Mountain to Rock Spring Hut. A surprisingly long and painful section of trail. Connected with hike from last spring. Closure!
  • Day 6: 14 miles — Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap. Fog giving way to gorgeous long views. One of those days you hope never ends! Pizza and back to civilization.

The Longer Version

In my attempts to section hike the AT, I’ve been stymied by this pesky section right in the middle of Shenandoah which stands undone amongst hundreds of miles of completed trail. Finally, I can put an end to this and check off as DONE about 250 continuous miles of AT from mid-Virginia to the Mason-Dixon Line.

After dropping a car in Luray, VA, at the end of my planned hike, Amy and I drove south to Rockfish Gap, dumped another car, and hit the trail. There were a few pack-related complications which were dealt with, but by 3pm we were happily on-trail and headed north. Amy is new at the hiking thing and was planning on accompanying me seven miles in to Calf Mountain Shelter for the night. Then she would turn around and hike back to her car while I headed on. But by five it became obvious that the new boots did not fit as well as possible and the pain was becoming hindersome. Progress was pretty slow so we set up camp in the middle of a briar patch on the otherwise beautiful summit of Bear Den Mountain.

Dinner was cooked and consumed and our camp set up. Fearing rain in the night, I erected a tarp shelter using mostly local materials—with moderate success. The steady westerlies caused an annoying flapping and occasionally one corner or another would come unstuck and I’d have to go scurrying and perform a tie-down. Midway through the night Amy decided it wasn’t going to rain so we dismantled the ill-fated tarp contraption and had a lovely breezy night under the stars.

Day 2: Morning came with no hints of the promised rain. We packed up camp and said our farewells. Her feet were not in great shape so we was going to walk out on the road–a process which went quite well. Meanwhile I headed off northward toward a spring and points unknown.

nfkmoormanscrkSince this section of AT was done during the ill-fated trip of March, 1999, I was less than gung-ho about repeating an otherwise relentless ridgewalk. Taking the South Fork Moormans River Fire Road off the ridge, I had a lovely hike in the sun along the brook of the same name. The weather was beginning to cloud up, but I felt good and the miles were cruising by like nothing. The South Fork empties after 3 miles into the Charlottesville Reservoir at a parking lot and trailhead.

After a brief pause for lunch, I headed up the North Fork Moormans River. The river is very pleasant winding through wooded gorges and pouring over rocks with swimming holes galore. The trail has been severely altered by the flood of ’95 in a couple places and sometimes was a bit contrived. No sooner had I performed the first of the dozen or so stream crossings than in started to rain in earnest with a hard wind. Temperatures dropped and hiking became fairly miserable. I trudged on to the headwaters past a couple of very… sketchy shanties constructed from school busses, barbed wire and cinder blocks. At this point I was getting seriously cold and was anxious for the uphill climb back to the ridge to warm me up. My supposedly waterproof boots were sloshing around and I was chilled to the bone.

The climb back to the ridge warmed me a little, but I was still weak and shaking when I pulled into Blackrock Hut (just as the sleet started). Two sleepingbag-cloaked figures advised me, shivering and inarticulate in the doorway, to get dry and get warm. But dry clothes, two cups of hot lemonade, a few granola bars and half an hour spent shivering in my sleeping bag did nothing to banish my chill. The thought of dinner seemed unpalatable. Checking my temperature revealed that I had been chilled to 97.0 degrees and had a mild case of hypothermia. Dinner was put on hold and I consumed hot beverages until symptoms returned to normal.

My cohabitants in the shelter that night were Zack, a Marine Corp officer, and his dad and a fellow S-N section hiker named Jim from North Carolina. Somewhere in there it started to snow and we were more than happy to huddle in the shelter of our sleeping bags.

Day 3 dawned clear and very cold. All the water bottles were crusty. On the plus side, the sub-freezing temperatures had done a nice job of drying out our wet items including, marvel of marvels, my sodden boots! After the initial shock of pulling on stiffly frozen leather, I was pleasantly surprised. I was the first one out and set out up the sunny climb with vim and vigor.

blackrock2000While my last time at Blackrocks was notable for snow and zero visibility, this time there were only small patches of ice left over from last night and the views were everything they were not last year. Quite a place! The wind was quite strong and ice lingered on the shady sides of trees. Mud had been pushed up by the frost in that strange way which no one has ever been able to explain to me. Somewhere in there, I also spotted a pair of black bear cubs climbing up trees about 50 feet off-trail. In all my years of hiking and camping, I’ve yet to see a wild bear, but suddenly we were each regarding each other cautiously. They were undoubtedly concerned over what I might be and what threat I might represent. I was more concerned with where their mother might be and whether or not I was between her and them.

Still, it was a short 13 miles in beautiful weather. I rolled into Pinefield Hut in the mid-afternoon and met Gypsy, a first-time southbound section hiker with shocking red hair and many an interesting tale to tell about the nomadic roadie business. Inspired by my early arrival, I whipped up a dinner of gado-gado:
o fry onion, garlic, sunflower seeds in olive oil
o add 2 tbsp each soy sauce and vinegar
o stir in two huge spoons of brown sugar and peanut butter
o pour over pasta, yum!

Jim joined us eventually from the south and we spent a social evening together. I saw 14 deer today and two bears. Not bad for wildlife!

pinefield2000

Pinefield Hut

Day 4: Ahead of me lay three shelters over a total distance of about 32 miles of virgin (to me) trail. Individually, this represented three easy days of hiking. I hoped to make up some time by splitting it into two 16 mile days and arriving at my car one day ahead of schedule. Feeling energetic, I set off from Pinefield with the dawn and quickly humped over the first few mountains. My feet had hurt a bit the day before, and the hurting continued; almost a burning sensation on the soles of my feet. Mostly a problem when starting up after standing a while. All in all, ignorable. The day was lovely and I was making good time.

By lunch time, I was really feeling under the weather. I limped into Hightop Hut 8.5 miles from last night’s dinner and collapsed in the sun. Too much sun, dehydration, sore feet and possibly a mild fever were not making me feel too chipper. I perked up after some lunch, but was still feeling tender–a feeling slightly abated by a brief nap. When Jim showed up in his usual methodical way, I knew I was behind schedule. We consulted briefly and I decided to hike on a few miles to the other side of Swift Run Gap and US-33 where I would set up a bivy. This would leave the better part of 20 miles for tomorrow if I were to stick to my ambitious schedule.

The rest had done me quite a lot of good, however, and I quickly covered the 3.5 remaining miles to the Gap. Of particular note was the nice Hightop Mountain with an excellent view and a number of day-hikers and dogs. Feeling sore, but driven, I resolved to cover at least half of the remaining nine miles to the next hut. The weather was good so far but forecasts were threatening rain and colder temperatures.

hightop1The afternoon light found me traipsing over hill and dale slowly eating up the miles. After three miles I was ready to stop, but the South River picnic area seemed uninteresting and there was still daylight. I resolved to push myself and see how far I could possibly travel in one day. Six more miles! Granola bars were ingested and hydration undertaken for the grueling task ahead… Four and a half miles left found me cursing my feet and the sun setting. With three miles to go I was seriously beginning to question my sanity. I topped a hill and saw spread out below me a green sward of grass with a beautiful rustic cabin below. Shangri-La! It took all my determination not to just pitch my bag on the porch and hope no one minded. The time was 7:00. Once again I resolved to push on. With two miles to go, I had to resort to singing out loud and talking to myself in the second person. Mild hallucinations began to affect me which weren’t just effects of the bare trees in the failing light. Phee was a Buddhist prodigy, long past the age of… I passed the Lewis Mountain picnic area and the sign said (I think) 1.0 miles to go! Limp, limp… I must have been at LEAST a mile by now! Crikey, I think my feet are a bloody pulp! Is that a signpost for the hut? No… Why do I do this again? Another !#$$#@ hill? More down? That could be a sign. “Bearfence Mountain Hut 0.1 –>”!!!

Glory of glories, as I stumbled through the last few steps of 21 miles, I was met with a raging fire, a roof over my head and five full-fledged thru-hikers headed south. I collapsed in their company, grateful for the excuse to return to reality, and contemplated my feet and feat. The macaroni and cheese I cooked for dinner was hardly gourmet, but was probably the single best meal I have ever consumed in all my days!

Guinness the trail dog, Casper, A.G., and K at Bearfence Mountain Hut.

Guinness the trail dog, Casper, A.G., and K at Bearfence Mountain Hut.

Guinness the trail dog.

Guinness the trail dog.

Day 5: Sleep came and went like a freight train. I resolved to relax and take the day easy since I had only 11 miles to cover to the next shelter. My companions for the night were A.G., Casper and Fliptop, southbounders who were picking up where they left off last year with Guiness, their great trail-dog, and K+L, a pair of ultralighting southbounders starting at Harper’s Ferry. We shared tall tales, and wisdom in the beautiful sunny morning. After they departed, I enjoyed the play of the birds and waited until I felt the moment for leaving was nigh.

Eleven miles: no trouble! Bearfence Mountain was lovely with mountain laurels and a nice rock scramble on the top. The miles passed slowly as foot pain gave me more trouble. Coming down from the top of Hazeltop, just before lunch, I passed down a level section of trail perhaps a third of a mile long. It was arched with trees and grassy and completely visible for all of its length. From one end to the other. Very odd but quite pleasant.

The day passed largely without incident. I stopped at Big Meadows and trudged up to the Wayside for a cold drink and icecream, a treat I’d been promising myself for some time. The ladies running the cash registers were not particularly impressed at my grimy vissage or tales of hardship. Hikers like me are hardly a rare sight to them, no doubt. Before pressing on, I hiked down the 0.7 very steep miles to Lewis Falls. Excellent waterfall probably 50′ high, but the hike back up was taxing.

At nine miles, I achieved closure of Shenandoah and two major sections of my AT hiking coverage when I emerged at the Red Gap Fire Road where I descended last spring. It was a moving and dramatic moment marked by a rebel whoop and a lot of prancing around. But the weather was threatening so I pressed on with growing foot pain and accumulated exhaustion. Finally, Rock Spring shelter was reached just as the first raindrops fell and I collapsed. What I remembered as a lovely, deserted shelter was not nearly so lovely this time around. The shelter log was gone as was the wonderful bench swing hanging in the entrance. The whole place was rather run-down. But still deserted.

Red Gate Fire Road! We have closure!

Red Gate Fire Road! We have closure!

Day 6: It rained a bit in the night and I awoke to fog dense enough that even the trees a few yards away were invisible. Feeling every ache and pain in my feet undiminished despite ten hours of sleep, I resolved to take the easy route across the 14 miles of trail to Thornton Gap. The traverse under the mighty Hawksbill was a surreal world of dark and light grades of grey and wet rock. I explored a bit and took the pleasant Crescent Rock trail to the Limberlost trail. If you ask me, “Limberlost” is a rather tactless name for a handicapped accessible trail, despite the nice landscaping and gravel paths through gorgeous woods.

At length I arrived at Skyland on the flanks of Stony Man. The horses in the stable eyed me dolefully and carloads of tourists loomed in and out of the fog. Breakfast in the lodge had just finished, but I still finagled a fruit cup (consisting mostly of that weird bluish melon) and a much needed cup of hot chocolate. The clouds began to lift and the valley to the west was visible below. This was more like it! I traversed the west face of Stony Man and Little Stony Man via the spectacular Passamaquoddy Trail as the fog lifted and the views increased.

Somewhere in there, the sun came out, the painkillers kicked in, and life was exactly as it should be. I was alone on the trail, with spectacular beauty on all sides and in a great mood. Indeed! The last seven miles or so of trail upon which I had toiled so doggedly the last time around in the gloom and murk seemed to fly by in a beatific daze. All the missing views from the Pinnacle and nearby ridges were windy and blue and gorgeous in every way. I caught sight of Mary’s Rock and the peaks to the north which I would not be sampling this time around.

Upon gaining the summit of Mary’s Rock, my heart rose a notch or two when I saw the highway interchange two trail miles away at Thornton Gap. I knew what I wanted to do. Instead of spending one last night on the trail and hitching out in the morning, I wanted pizza now! With quiet content and a big grin on my face, I descended to the US-211 and started the transition to society.  A ride was easily picked up by an elderly couple recently married from Massachusetts and Washington, DC, who insisted on taking me all the way to my car and would hear no discussion on the subject. Wonderful folks.

And the rest, including the large pizza consumed thereafter, is history.

A most goodly trip! 76 miles in six days. I return to the world refreshed and ready to face the daily grind once again. Final wildlife count: Two turkeys, two bear cubs, 37 deer (exactly twice as many as the last trip), numerous vultures, grouse, and other birds.

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