“Do you still want the shuttle?” appeared in my Messenger alert. I watched the rain hitting the window pane, the tree limbs blowing in the early morning light, and wondered to myself if I did indeed want to be shuttled from this warm and dry place to the southern end of Shenandoah National Park at Rockfish Gap. Rain was forecast for the next two days.
But we hadn’t driven all the way from Michigan to Virginia to hide from the rain, even if it was the remnant of a hurricane, so I sent back an affirmative to Nina, and she picked up me and my hiking buddy, Jeff, shortly after. The rain continued to fall on the hour-long drive, but the rolling hills and farmland were beautiful anyway, and by the time we arrived at the trailhead, I was in “embrace the suck” mode.
This feeling quickly evaporated as we began to climb our first mountain. Much like the first minutes of a previous Appalachian Trail section hike several years earlier, I was struck with the feeling, “What have I done? I don’t think I can do this!” as I huffed and puffed my way up the incline. While I had been training for this hike, it is tricky to train for endless mountain ups and downs when you live in the flat Midwest. However, the rain was cooling, the trail wasn’t too sketchy, and Jeff was patient about my endless breaks. We looked out into the dense mist at what might have otherwise been scenic viewpoints, and took note of the random farm gates and other relics of a way of life long past as we made our way to the Calf Mountain shelter, about eight miles away.
When we arrived at the shelter, around 4:00 p.m., we found it dry, which was encouraging. We set up our insulated pads, sleeping bags, and organized our dinner fixings. Shortly after, another hiker came into camp, and announced that his buddy was not too far behind. As they unpacked and began to cook, I took mental stock of the gear they were using, and what and how they were cooking for dinner. No ultra-light nonsense here–they had canned Campbell’s tomato soup, each had a large pan, and all kinds of other bulky, weighty gear that had me feeling self-righteous about my carefully planned gear selection. Shortly after, another hiker came in, and the gear and trip plan discussions began anew. When it began to get dark around 7:30, we stowed our food to keep it safe from black bears and microbears (chipmunks, mice, raccoons, etc.) and went to bed, the earliest I’d retired probably since I was a child. However, sleep came quickly and I slept through the night pretty well despite the snoring and rustling of my shelter company.
The following morning, the rain continued and we ate breakfast and packed up camp according to our own trail clocks–the single hiker took off first, without eating, while the four of us remaining had coffee and warm food. Eventually, wrapped in trash bag ponchos, the other two hikers left, and we followed not long after, gearing up for our first full-length day on trail.
We were headed to the Blackrocks shelter, a location I’d been to before on a previous trip, so I was excited about the gorgeous view, hoping it would clear up either today or tomorrow morning so that we could enjoy it. However, the rain persisted for the whole day, which actually turned out to be a good thing, because when we arrived at the shelter, we discovered the water source was dry, and our only option to refill our water was to collect it from the eaves as the rain drained down the roof of the shelter. We set up our cook pot under the drip line, and before long were filtering water to cook dinner, for coffee and breakfast in the morning, and fill our water bottles for the following day’s hike. When we went to bed, I spent a little time reading the trail log, enjoying the goofy entries, messages from hiker to hiker, poems, weather reports, etc. that had been logged. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something scurry in the corner–my first shelter mouse. Later, when I turned off my headlamp and tried to go to sleep, the mouse bravely (or stupidly) made a run at my pillow and head, which led to serious shrieking and flailing, but the mouse didn’t bother me again for the rest of the night.
When we awoke the next morning, a miracle had occurred–the rain had stopped. While it was still misty and gray, no drops were falling. As we hiked, the day grew clearer, and when we stopped for lunch at a campground store, we were delighted to find laundry facilities that we could use to dry our damp gear. We enjoyed a lunch of gas station subs, chips and Gatorade while we waited for the dryers to work their magic.
That night we arrived at the Pinefield shelter as a young man was cooking dinner. He was a through hiker headed south, planning on some night hiking, so he wouldn’t be staying with us. He told us about a hostel he had stayed at recently, Small Axe Farm, an unheated barn where great homemade food was served. He raved about this place as he packed up, and we filed the information away. I shook my head as I watched him put on his Crocs instead of his wet hiking shoes, and he took off into the night, his headlamp showing his location as he climbed back up to the AT from the shelter’s spur trail.
The following day we decided to take the young hiker’s advice and reward ourselves with a night at the Small Axe Farm barn hostel, and thus learned about the challenging logistics of making a reservation and arranging for a shuttle while hiking with cell service only at mountain summits. However, after all arrangements were made, we had a wonderful reward to look forward to: a home cooked meal!
In order to meet our shuttle driver, Wayne, at 4:00, I hiked the fastest mountain downhill of my life, my fear of falling outweighed by my fear of missing our ride. Wayne was a kind and amusing local character, and we enjoyed his company as he picked up another hiker, took us into town to the gear outfitters, to a local brewery to grab a couple cans of beer, and then dropped us at the farm. We made our way into the barn, and got an impromptu tour from another hiker. The barn was not heated, but had cozy couches for us to hang out, lots of extra blankets, and a dining room table that would soon be laden with homemade vegetable soup, roasted sausages and chicken thighs, baked potatoes, and for dessert, pear crisp with vanilla ice cream. It was a peaceful and entertaining night, as we listened to other hikers’ stories and told our own. The food had been amazing as promised, and we snuggled into our sleeping bags with full bellies.
The next morning, Wayne arrived to drive us back to the trailhead just as we were finishing a hearty breakfast. The weather was clear, and I was excited to get back onto the trail. We enjoyed another challenging day of mountain ups and downs before arriving at Bearfence Hut. Because the mouse infestation at this shelter was more obnoxious than usual, we opted to sleep in our tents and hammocks–the shelter was completely empty for the night. But we did put the fire ring in front of the shelter to use–it was such a nice way to spend the evening, as opposed to heading to bed at 7:30 when the sun went down. As it turned out, two of the hikers we had met at the Small Axe hostel were there, too, and it was nice to listen to more of their stories. We watched the full moon come up, and heard both a great horned owl and a barred owl hooting in the night.
Our miles added up as the days passed, we met more and more interesting people, and while the hiking never got easy, I did feel as though we were getting into a groove. While my feet were a bit of a mess from spending the first three days of the hike wet, and my shoes smelled worse than death, my feet weren’t causing me any pain. On our eighth day of hiking, we enjoyed a fabulous view atop Mary’s Rock before beginning what seemed like a miles-long rocky downhill.
When we stopped for lunch, my right knee was feeling twingy, and I asked for a second Aleve to top off the one I had taken with breakfast. By mid-afternoon, my knee was throbbing on the downhills, and I proposed that we hatch a plan for slackpacking the following day, rather than backpacking to Front Royal. We arrived at the Elk Wallows wayside around 3:00 p.m., planning to call a shuttle to take us to my car at the Mountain Home hostel, hoping we could spend the night there, or at least find another hostel or campground site. We ordered hamburgers from the wayside grill and began the communications process, which was short lived since neither of us had cell phone service. The clerk at the wayside let us use their 1980’s era plastic landline phone, but everyone we called just went to voicemail. I finally reached the Mountain Home hostel, but they had no vacancies and no time to provide a shuttle. I left a message with Wayne, who had taken us to the Small Axe hostel earlier in the week, hoping he might be in the vicinity and just stop by the wayside. We sat at a picnic table, ate our burgers, and hoped for progress.
As the sun began to set behind the mountain peaks, it got colder. The wayside (including its bathrooms) closed at 5:00, so I took advantage of the toilets and sinks with warm water one last time. When I returned, Jeff had good news: Wayne had called back to the wayside, and he could come get us, but it wouldn’t be for an hour and a half or so. I was ecstatic. What we would do once we got back to my car remained up in the air, but at least we would have options.
The sun set for real, and it got even colder. The wayside was deserted, except for the two of us sitting at the picnic table. As darkness fell, I wondered how often the black bears came out to try their luck with the “bear proof” trash cans that I had seen so many tourists leave unlatched. I began to run through “What would I do if…” scenarios in my head, which is how I deal with anxiety: make a plan for every foreseeable thing that might go wrong. We heard the phone ringing inside the wayside, but had no way to answer it. Was it Wayne calling to say he couldn’t come, after all? I began to think through camping scenarios if he didn’t show up. We couldn’t legally camp in the wayside lawn, but we could hike a few hundred yards down the trail and be legal. However, trying to find a decent spot in the dark was not going to be fun. Jeff used his Garmin InReach Mini GPS unit to send Wayne a satellite text, and Wayne responded that he was still coming, but that it would be an hour. I was shivering, so I began to walk laps on the sidewalk in order to stay warm, even though it hurt my knee. I wondered if getting out my down quilt would constitute “camping” and get me into trouble. Then I wondered why I was more concerned about rules than my own well-being.
An hour or so later, Wayne arrived and drove us through the dark and curvy Skyline Drive north to Front Royal, and dropped us at the Mountain Home hostel. We retrieved my car keys, and were just about to leave when the hostel owner pulled up in the driveway. Unfortunately, they still didn’t have space for us, so nestled into the car, we drove into town to see about hotel rooms, not realizing that this was a fool’s errand, since it was Columbus Day weekend and most everyone had Monday off, and was vacationing. There wasn’t a hotel or hostel with space anywhere. We quickly decided our best odds were to head back into the park and see if any of the campgrounds had sites.
After passing by several “campground full” signs, we resigned ourselves to sleeping in the car. It was late, and we just needed some rest. I pulled into one of the many picnic areas in the park, parked near a restroom, and got my down quilt out of my backpack. We tilted back our seats, opened the windows a crack to keep condensation at bay, and tried to sleep. Throughout the night I had dreams of flashing lights and an angry security guard tapping at my window, but as it turned out, the flashing light was just the red car alarm indicator on my dash.
In the morning, my knee was still iffy, so we decided to take advantage of the car and use it to check out some of the waterfalls the AT had bypassed. We drove to Dark Hollow Falls trailhead, and cooked up some oatmeal and coffee on the stone wall of the parking area. Fortified for the morning, we began the hike down to the falls. Carrying just a daypack with my first aid kit, water filter, and a few snacks, my knee felt much better than it had the day before. The falls began as a small series along a tiny stream before becoming a more impressive sight in terms of height and water volume. Definitely worth the couple of miles to hike in and out.
Next we ventured to Lewis Falls, parking near the Lewis Mountain wayside. We had hiked past the trail to these falls earlier in the week, but hadn’t taken the time to explore. This time, I asked a ranger about the trail, which she declared one of her favorites, and highlighted the map to show me how to make the hike a loop with the AT. As we began our descent, it was pretty easy hiking, and then about a mile in, it became a rock scramble with a drop off that induced us to sing, “We’re about to do something sketchy, doo-dah, doo-dah” to the tune of the Foghorn Leghorn song in the old Looney Tunes cartoon. Eventually we made it to Lewis Falls, which was a bit of a letdown after the majesty of Dark Hollow Falls, but it was still a nice hike. We ran into a mysterious door in the mountain on our way back, which was probably my favorite part of the hike.
Upon returning to the Lewis Mountain Campground, we decided to have lunch at the wayside before beginning our trek home–we still hadn’t tried the often-referenced blackberry shakes that every through-hiking vlogger seems to mention, so we needed to check that off the bucket list. We waited in line to be seated, perusing the menu options, but ended up with burgers again as most of the healthier options were out of stock. This didn’t really make me sad. The blackberry shakes were, as promised, food of the gods.
As we traveled Skyline Drive to see the park highlights from the car, I couldn’t believe our hike had come to an end. We had hiked 101.5 miles, according to my Gaia app that I used to record each day’s hike. As we drove along Skyline from the north end of the park back to where we had begun at Rockfish Gap, it seemed to take forever, and even as I recognized different road crossings where we’d stopped to have a snack and distinctive views of towns far below and the famously blue-hued mountain chains, it was hard to believe that we had hiked that whole distance. It was certainly one of the most uncomfortable trips of my life, but also one of the most beautiful and rewarding. I loved the simple routine of hiking every day, listening to the various hikers we met at each shelter, the amazing views that occurred every so often, and the feeling of accomplishment that came with getting to the top of each mountain peak, looking back at where we’d begun earlier in the day.