1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I head to the ATC headquarters as soon as it opens the next morning. The building lies on the edge of town, easy to miss were it not for the handful of colorful backpacks slung over the front porch. Appalachian Trail memorabilia and souvenirs line the walls inside, and a small side room functions as a hiker lounge, complete with refreshments, a hiker box, and photo albums of AT hikers through the years.
I flip through the 2017 album, looking for familiar faces. I quickly find my trail family, their photos just a couple pages before mine. I turn another page: Ian, 84, Scallywag, Ty, and Giggles. No sign of Tenacious or Nighthawk. For fun, I grab the 2016 album and find Woody's photo among the 2016 March hikers.
Easy Goin' and Logjam, two thru-hikers from Connecticut, tell me that Tenacious and Nighthawk should be arriving soon - within an hour or two. I join them for breakfast and a CT hiker picture in front of the ATC headquarters; minutes after our return, Tenacious and Nighthawk walk through the door.
For the rest of the morning and early afternoon, I wander around town, sampling the wild wineberries, visiting the historical candy shop, and enjoying the views. As I eat a late lunch on a bench by the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, Carter hikes past me; he ends up doing over 20 miles that afternoon! I finally, reluctantly, hoist up my pack and trudge out of town shortly before 3:00 pm.
West Virginia contains only 4 miles of the Appalachian Trail; I soon veer into Maryland, home to an additional 41 miles.
My feet ache more than usual the next day. The insoles in my new shoes seem uncomfortably high as they press into my arches, distributing the brunt of my weight to my toes. I find myself taking unscheduled breaks throughout the day just to loosen my shoelaces and stretch out my feet.
I pass Gathland State Park and the Washington Monument that morning. At Pine Knob Shelter, I string a length of rope between the shelter and a tree, and hang my tent - still damp from the Shenandoahs - to dry. Tenacious and Nighthawk arrive at dinnertime. We talk excitedly about crossing the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, located just past Pen Mar Park, tomorrow. My Guthook Appalachian Trail app mentions pizza delivery and running water at the park.
When I reach the park, I find Nighthawk studying a menu for the local pizza joint, Rocky's.
"I figured since we're short on food, we could solve our resupply problems," she says.
"I'd be down for that." I pull out my phone and and type in Rocky's website address.
We order subs and a large cheese pizza to share: enough food for dinner and an additional day of hiking. In about 45 minutes, a man pulls up and delivers our food in a zipped black bag. Delicious!
At dusk, we finally hike out, camping just beyond the MD-PA state line. I attempt to throw my bear line as the sunlight rapidly fades. Again and again, I cast my line. Tenacious and Nighthawk try their hand at throwing, to no avail. Half an hour later, my line is hopelessly tangled in the branches.
Ah, well. I borrow some line from Tenacious and try again.
My insoles continue to plague me; my hiking speed decreases markedly over the next couple days; by the end of each day, I'm sitting down for at least 15 minutes every hour in a futile attempt to alleviate the sharp pain driving up each toe.
Pine Grove Furnace Is coming up soon, I tell myself. I can zero there.
I push on, trying to ignore the pain. There are moments where I succeed: Once, around mid-afternoon, I notice a traditionally dressed woman sitting on a bucket by the side of the trail. Further along are more young men and women, all perched on buckets, all gazing contemplatively into the woods, all wearing clothes that make them look as though they time traveled from the early 19th century. The men wear suspenders and trousers. The women, full-length dresses and bonnets. Some carry journals. Others, sketchbooks. An older bearded man paces back and forth in the distance, keeping an eye on the youths.
Great, I've gone mad, I think drily. Or walked into a portal. Like a TARDIS in the middle of the woods. Then, incongruously, I bet this is how it would feel to be a hobbit meeting a group of elves.
In the middle of the group is an unconventional encampment, which does little to reassure my rising doubt as to my sanity. Huge piles of firewood dot the camp, sandwiched between tall tents and Oregon-Trail-style wooden carts. I later find out that the campers are Mormons reenacting the trek to Salt Lake City; I wish I took the time to speak to them.
The day I reach Pine Grove Furnace State Park is the day I pass the geographical halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. Though Harpers Ferry is known for being the emotional halfway point, the actual halfway mark lies some miles to the north, near Pine Grove Furnace, at mile 1094.5. Pine Grove Furnace is also known as the home of the Half-Gallon Challenge, in which thru-hikers chug down half a gallon of ice cream in exchange for a wooden spoon that marks their induction into the 'half gallon club.' There is no time limit or monetary reward; hikers pay the sole camp store $10 for each attempt.
Tenacious takes the challenge, chooses her flavor, and digs in.
More members of my trail family arrive. As we eat at the camp store, a man from the local newspaper photographs us for an article on thru-hikers at the halfway point.
Tenacious, Nighthawk, and I decide to zero the next day, go canoeing, and stay at Ironmaster's Mansion, a hiker hostel at the park.
Tenacious fears water. Nighthawk, heights. Down south, they'd struck a deal: If Nighthawk went up a fire tower, Tenacious would go canoeing. And so, we find ourselves walking (or hobbling) down a road to a lake 2 miles away in search of the canoe rental stand shown on park maps.
We leave our packs at the park's AT museum, promising to return by 4:00 pm: closing time. Partially to save time and partially because we're feeling rather lazy, we decide to try hitching a ride down the road.
The first car we see stops for us.
The same thing happens on our way back, saving us a couple hours of walking!
Before heading to Ironmaster's Mansion, Nighthawk successfully tackles the half-gallon challenge with half a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream.
The inkeeper, Jeff, a portly, impeccably dressed man with a trimmed mustache and beard, makes us pizza for dinner. He tells us there is a secret compartment in the mansion, a room used as part of the Underground Railroad. He also talks about his extracurricular pursuits:
"I'm a demonologist-angelologist," he says. "They're the same thing. They have the same hierarchies, the same abilities..."
Well, this is turning into quite the interesting evening, I think.
Jeff regales us with tales of his exorcisms. He carries a black doctor's bag full of herbs and holy water. A church official took notice of his activities and contacted him, asking him to join the Franciscan seminary.
"I said, 'Forced celibacy for two years and choosing that for the rest of my life are two different things!'" Jeff laughs. "He said, 'I'll tell my wife!'"
Franciscan priests can marry. I had no idea.
Later that evening, a few of Jeff's friends drop by: a tattooed woman with bright red hair sporting a Ghostwarepro T-shirt, a man in a red shirt, and their son-in-law. They own a ghost shop in Gettysburg. The Ironmaster's Mansion is rumored to have a ghost of its own: a lady in white.
"I think God has a sense of humor," the woman remarks.
"I think a lot of things wouldn't be here if God didn't have a sense of humor," Tenacious responds amicably.
"Hello-oo!" Jeff waves his hands in the air. "Like me!"
"You're the coolest member of the clergy I ever met," Tenacious says.
"Can you show us the secret area?" Nighthawk asks.
"No! You'd never come back!" the man in the red shirt responds, guffawing.
Jeff takes us to the secret compartment, located beneath a trapdoor in a room beneath the stairs. A wooden ladder leads down into what looks like a small stone room, barely large enough for one person. I can't imagine hiding down there while journeying along the Underground Railroad.
Wow. You never know what you'll run into on the Appalachian Trail! I think.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
June 18, 2017: Father's Day. I wake up to the smell of fried eggs wafting upstairs, courtesy of former thru-hiker and current owner of the Mountain Home Cabbin, Scott.
"The younger you are, the more likely you are to get bored, because you haven't gone out and worked for a living yet. You get tired of looking at your feet, everything's green -- the older ones are more mentally strong...
Almost a month ago, I'd asked Mom whether she could meet me around Harpers Ferry: a birthday present for me. Today is the day. She will drive down to a gravel parking lot at a remote tent site at mile 986.1, northbound.
All morning, I think about seeing Mom for the first time in months (and dream of her delicious cooking). I send a text to Dad before leaving, wishing him a happy Father's Day.
Then, I see his reply.
"See you this evening. With love, Dad."
My heart races. A grin spreads across my face. Mom had dropped unintentional hints that Dad would join us, but I dared not believe them. Dad worked in California; how could he take time off to fly out and see me?
Father's Day. As a family. There could be no greater gift.
I race down the trail to the tent site. Two trucks are parked at the gravel lot. There is no sign of my parents. I call Mom. Traffic delays; they'll be here at 7:30 pm.
Wandering back along the trail, I notice a family of four camped at one of the sites. The mother walks over and offers to let me sit on the tailgate of her blue truck. Her friend even drops by with slices of watermelon for me! When she finds out I majored in math, she introduces me to her 12 year old son. He spends the next hour excitedly explaining his forays into multivariable calculus and showing me diagrams of polar coordinates. Amazing!
Then, my parents arrive. I can't stop smiling when I see them. We retire to Bear's Den Hostel, where I savor the veritable feast my mom prepared: shrimp, fruit, scallops, eggs...the first home-cooked food I've had since I started the trail.
I slackpack for the next two days, hiking from the tent site to Bear's Den (getting soaked in a rainstorm in the process), and from Bear's Den to the Blackburn ATC Center. My parents join me on the second day, then drive me to REI for new boots.
After 1000 miles, my old Lowa boots sport several holes at the seams. Dirt covers the exterior, the stitching is frayed, and the insoles could stink up the entire floor of a house. I will miss them.
After much debate, I decide to try a pair of Oboz: sturdy looking trail runners that resemble sneakers more than hiking boots. Mom and Dad drive home the next day as I try my Oboz for the first time.
The short hike into Harpers Ferry leaves my feet somewhat sore; I chalk that up to breaking in the new pair of shoes. Once in town, I join Tom, Carter, and Kali at their hotel room, and think no more of the shoes.
We enjoy a pizza dinner while watching Mastermind. I look forward to spending the next morning in town. Little do I realize how much trouble the Oboz will bring me...
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Every hotel in Waynesboro maintains a list of trail angels willing to shuttle hikers back to Rockfish Gap. After breakfast, I consult the list and randomly pick a name. A man picks up.
"How many hikers did you say you have?"
"Possibly three." I hastily recruit two more hikers I see in the dining area.
The man agrees to pick us up at 7:30 am, sharp. He drives up in a red car that looks so clean, I feel almost guilty for putting my dirt-covered pack in it. He says he's part of the Waynesboro Economic Development Committee.
"If anyone's treating you poorly, I want to hear about it," he says as he drops us off at the trailhead.
The trail enters Shenandoah National Park shortly afterwards. After registering, I continue up to Little Calf Mountain, feeling a sense of déjà vu as I look back towards Waynesboro. I remember hiking these mountains last year, before the last frost turned to spring. The green forests look far different from the seas of brown in my memory.
As I hike, I meet Bigfoot, a man who thru-hiked in 2012. He wears glasses, and his rimmed hat covers gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. I join him for lunch.
"This foot's size 14. The other one's size 12 1/2," he tells me.
He worked as a waiter, then a chemical engineer; now, he envisions building a community of tiny homes on 160 acres of Idaho.
I ask his opinion on how to become successful.
"Hard work, perseverance, and find some job that makes you feel good...A degree gets you in the door. You use your wits to make it."
"How do you know if you're going in the right direction?"
"You're happy," he says. "Things seem to -- fit together."
"I have a theory: You need to train your mind and your body to be successful."
After lunch, Bigfoot sets up his tent as I pack up and leave.
"Bye, kid," he says.
A few hours later, I find a small clearing, pitch my tent, and turn in for the night.
The next afternoon, a mama bear suddenly pokes her head out from a patch of shrubs by the side of the trail. She is close - maybe 20 feet away - close enough that I can make out the tufts of black fur on her ears, the gleam of light in her eyes. Slowly, she swivels her head towards me. For a few suspended seconds, we stand there, frozen. Then, with regal indifference, she turns away and lumbers down the trail. One cub emerges from the shrubbery, then another, each bounding after her.
I slowly move one hand away from the bear spray in my side pocket. Fumble around my hip belt for my phone. Snap a photo of their receding forms.
For the next couple days, I continue to push for higher mileage. Each night, I clumsily force myself to complete my camp chores before crawling into my tent, jotting down a jumble of thoughts in my journal, and drifting to sleep. I pass the 900 mile marker, yet barely notice. I take no time to see the views; I shovel down each meal as if training for a speed eating contest. My feet ache, and I hobble around camp, my body not quite able to recover from each day's exertions.
This is not how I want to hike, I realize, midway through my fourth day in the Shenandoahs. So, I slow down.
I stop by Big Meadows, one of many pit stops in a park dotted with camp stores, and sample the famous blackberry milkshake. It tastes rather plain, like vanilla ice cream mixed with blackberry flavoring. After finishing, I stop by the coin-operated campground showers to wash away several days of grime; for a brief moment, I feel like a normal person, rather than a wild thru-hiker roaming the woods.
Rain starts falling as I reach Rock Springs Shelter that afternoon. I squeeze onto the top bunk, above a group of hikers I'd seen eating lunch at Big Meadows. There are three girls, two boys, and an older gentleman; they alternate freely between speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and English. The girls wear full length plain blue dresses covered by white aprons, their hair neatly tied up beneath bonnets. The man's face and beard bear a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. He explains that he is hiking the Shenandoahs with his sons and daughter; they'd arranged for a driver to take them to and from the park.
The rain continues intermittently through the next two days, made more bearable by my frequent stops at additional camp stores: I grab breakfast at Skyland Resort and lunch at Elkwallow Wayside. During a lull in the rain, I take a detour to Stony Man Mountain to see the view.
Finally, I find myself a mere 14 miles from Front Royal, a town at the northern end of the Shenandoahs. I rush into town to snag a bunk at the Mountain Home Cabbin before the hostel fills up.
I spend the rest of the day in town, enjoying the company of other hikers, including one man from Slovenia - "the home of the infamous Melania Trump," as he puts it - happy to be done with the Shenandoahs.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Mere minutes after we clamber down from Spy Rock, a cloud of fog rolls in.
Wow, we lucked out on sunrise, I think.
I get a perfectly obscured view atop The Priest. Hiking down quickly, I cross a bridge and continue up the Three Ridges. Last year, I'd taken the the Mau-Har trail around the ridges: This year, this section is my last new section of the Virginia AT. I go over the first ridge. The second. The third. The sun sinks low in the sky, grazing the edges of the treetops.
By the time I roll into camp and set up my tent, I need my headlamp to cook. Just two other tents sit nearby, in stark contrast to my memory of Maupin Fields Shelter from the previous year: I recall crowds of hikers playing cards around the shelter. That night, I dream of the trail-famous Ming's buffet in Waynesboro. So close, I tell myself. Just a day or two away.
Drunk on the promise of food, I somehow hike 21 miles into Rockfish Gap. I join Carter and Kelly at a roadside popcorn stand, loosen my boots, and put my feet up between two benches. Half an hour later, we stand at the edge of the road, thumbs out, attempting to hitch a ride into town.
Car after car passes by, until finally, a white truck pulls up. A piece of plywood lies across its back, sticking out its open tailgate. We pile in for a short ride into downtown Waynesboro.
When Silas and Jenny hitch into town an hour later, we all meet for dinner at the Ming Garden Buffet. The staff, well acquainted with thru-hikers (and the thru-hiker stench), seat us in our own walled-off compartment away from regular customers.
Who knew that a simple Chinese buffet could be so delicious? I pile a plate high with broccoli and salmon - despite eating tuna pouches every day, I still love fish - and head straight for the fresh fruits and vegetables. How I have missed these simple pleasures!
As we leave, we run into Silk smoking a cigarette at the back of the buffet. She asks us about the Waynesboro Hiker Fest. It's listed in the guidebook as a free meal at Heritage on Main, followed by a free movie. Tomorrow. It sounds fun, but not a single poster in town advertises the event.
Still, we take a zero the next day and head down to Heritage on Main. A confused and slightly flustered staff greets us.
"Uh -- we don't know anything about that," they say to the crowd of about ten hikers gathered in their lobby. They seat us in the back room. "It's not unusual for something like that to be arranged, but we weren't informed of anything like that."
We fidget in our seats, glancing over the menus and fingering our glasses of water. A couple more hikers trickle in.
"We don't know what's going on," we tell them.
"The staff doesn't seem to know about it."
The waiters leave to speak with their manager. Just as we're debating whether to leave, a thickset man in a red shirt strolls in.
"Hiker trash!" he shouts in a boisterous voice.
A waiter scrambles to pull up a chair for the newcomer; another scurries over with a tall glass of sweetened iced tea. They are beaming. "Good news!" they say.
The newcomer introduces himself as Yellow Truck, a shuttle driver based in Waynesboro. "Let me tell you something," he says. "When you get into my truck, you're all smelly. You're all ugly. The girls are cuter than the guys. I don't want to know your trail name. I don't want to know your real name. I'm never gonna see you again."
Yellow Truck offers us all a free meal - anything on the menu, but "no alcohol" - and a movie afterwards.
"I was born in New York City, but you can't tell them that. People down here would never elect you if they found out you were from New York. So, I say I've been here since I was four...
After lunch, my trail family and I return to our hotel room. We are about to enter the Shanandoahs, where we will temporarily part ways. They plan to "aqua blaze" and canoe through the mountains. Being rather nervous about canoeing down a river and in no way inclined to pay for such an experience, I plan to take the AT through.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I linger at McAfee Knob, my back nestled against the rocky outcrop, for a few moments longer. A soft glow still emanates from the clouds just above the horizon when I turn to go, walking past several bands of thru-hikers up for the sunrise. The trail follows a curved ridge to Tinker Cliffs; I remember seeing the flicker of headlamps bobbing along the ridgeline last night.
I reach Tinker Cliffs a few hours later. Peering out from the cliff edge, I can just make out the faint outline of McAfee Knob jutting from the ridge across the valley below. I smile as I remember standing here, just over a year ago, watching the sunset.
11 miles later, the trail leaves the cover of the woods and exits onto a four-lane highway. A Howard Johnson and Super 8 Motel stand to my right, just down the road from a BP gas station: Daleville, VA.
I glance at the group text. My trail family headed to the local coffee shop after renting a couple rooms at the Howard Johnson. Dropping off my pack at the Howard Johnson lobby, I join them.
For the next couple days, we putter about town, sampling the fast food joints, resupplying at the grocery store, and touring the local shops. We sleep three to a room: one for girls, one for boys. The second afternoon, Jenny brings in a bottle of wine, only to realize that no one has a wine opener. In the ensuing minutes, we try various methods to pop the cork. Following YouTube instructions, Jenny stuffs the bottle into a hiking boot, heads outside, and slams it against the wall.
"I don't necessarily want to stand downwind of that," Carter remarks, edging to the side.
Finally, Tom succeeds in pushing the cork into the bottle.
Later, Silas plays Lil Dicky's 'Pillow Talk,' bobbing his head along to the music. Jenny soon joins in. Within minutes, both are waving their hands around as though dancing to 'Walk like an Egyptian.' Silas grabs a couple Q-tips and stuffs them into his ears. Tom walks in, stares for a good 10 seconds, and slowly backs out.
I join everyone for breakfast the morning of the third day, then hike 5 miles to the next shelter. Carter and Kali stay back waiting for packages to arrive; everyone else plans to hike out after lunch.
When I reach Fullhardt Knob Shelter, I find Tenacious and Nighthawk at the picnic table with a gentleman I don't know. The first thing I notice is his 'POLICE' cap.
Nighthawk introduces him as her uncle, Truncle Ass Swagger.
"Truncle Ass Swagger?!" I ask.
"He brought deodorant named Swagger, and we were like, 'We smell like ass,'" Nighthawk explains.
"Ah. Why Truncle?"
"Truncle - trail uncle," Truncle replies.
Nighthawk, Truncle, and Tenacious soon move on.
I set up camp and wait. 6:00 passes, then 6:30. No sign of my trail family.
'Are you guys zeroing again?' I text at them.
'😬,' comes the reply.
I can't help but laugh.
At dawn, sun rays paint the shelter orange. I pack quickly, hoping to catch up to hikers I know. About 14 miles in, I find Silk, a blond-haired woman I met at Woods Hole Hostel, and Bananas, a male hiker, collecting water from a stream. Silk has launched into a detailed conversation on female hygiene issues on the trail; Bananas, looking increasingly uncomfortable, hastily excuses himself and leaves.
"I'm just so comfortable with myself. I say whatever I feel like to myself, so why should it be any different for anyone else?"
As I fill up with water and sit to take a break, Tenacious joins us. I push on another 6 miles to Cove Mountain Shelter, and spend a fun evening playing Skip Bo with Tenacious, Nighthawk, and Truncle.
The next couple days pass fairly quickly. I head to Middle Creek Campground for an egg sandwich, and enjoy goofing around beneath the Guillotine, a boulder suspended between two cliff faces that straddle the trail. Later, I stay at the Stanimals Hostel in Glasgow and resupply.
"Money is a symbol of productivity. That's all - you can be poor and wealthy, or rich, and not happy."
That's when I notice the small holes peppering the balls of my feet. Gross, I think. The holes are not painful, but are slightly itchy. I slather some antibacterial cream on them and debate whether to nero the next day.
The pouring rain the next morning makes up my mind: I hike to the next shelter and set up my sleeping pad. A former thru-hiker sits there, as well. I ask him about Maine.
"You have to fight for every inch, but every inch is worth it," he says.
He tells me he met the builder of the Roller Coaster, a relatively rocky section at the end of Virginia that incorporates many small hills. "I asked him, 'Why did you make it so hard?'
"He said, 'Because you are hikers.'"
I hike on as usual for the next two days, stopping at Spy Rock at the end of the second day. After waiting around for awhile, I reunite with my tramily!
We enjoy another sunrise.