When I was cleaning out some stuff in my basement office I stumbled upon one of my old notebooks. In it were my notes jotted after a Memorial Day Hike in 2010. During that hike a group of friends and I went from Big Meadows Wayside to the 4-H pool on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. Here’s the breakdown.
Day Zero: Big Meadows Wayside to North Skyland Service Road (9 miles)
I arrive alone in my car after driving through some annoying construction projects that are going on along Skyline Drive. It is also very foggy/misty, so I can’t even enjoy the vistas. Unfortunately for me I took one exit North of where I actually wanted to be, so I’m stuck going 35 for lots of miles before reaching the parking lot outside of Big Meadows. It starts to rain as I wait for Tommy to arrive (he’s being escorted by Katherine) and I spend the time watching the couple in the car next to me make out vigorously as if I wasn’t there.
Tommy arrives w/ Katherine at the parking lot around 4:25, and I jump in Katherine’s car to head to the trailhead. I get some unwanted kisses from McAffe and head out on the trail just as the rain starts to pick up. The fog is still everpresent and we joke about the construction signs that are posted along the trail at regular intervals (quite a ways away from the actual construction). Look out - construction far away! I stopped to take a few panoramas while my camera battery lasts - I forgot to charge it before leaving.
We were going to stop at the Rock Spring Hut and press on to meet the rest of the Danglers in the morning, but we decide to press on for another 4 miles and bandit camp somewhere closer to our rendevous point. We made it to Skyland at about 8PM and set up our hammocks as it started to turn pitch black. That being done, we went down to the lodge about a quarter mile away to see what was going on and found a live bluegrass concert in progress. The songs sounded awful but the crowd loved it - they were up and dancing. It must have been the alcohol. We stayed about an hour and went back up to the campsite. We made and shared a “Raman Bomb”
Day One: Skyland Lodge to Pass Mountain Hut (11 miles)
Tommy and I woke up with our gear wet from all the mist during the evening. Most of the stuff is nice and dry in our packs, but the rainflies and clothes are pretty well soaked. We keep those out and head back down to the lodge area, where we spread it all out on the balcony while the sun came up. I watch one of the groundskeepers of the lodge area dismantle the specailly-constructed trash can (designed to keep the racoons out) to change the bag.
When the rest of the team arrived we caught up for a very short while before heading out. The sun was nice and it felt good to walk and talk with people I hadn’t seen in a while. My feet were fresh so the hike wasn’t too bad. We ate lunch at Mary’s Rock while enjoying the gorgeous view and drying off in the breeze.
We arrived at Pass Mountain Hut with good timing. A scout group of tons of little kids came into camp just after us. They brought a ton of gear as usual (because “always be prepared” really means “I carry lots of weight”) and were also very loud. Thankfully Scott directed them to a camping area away from ours where their noise was limited. We did have to deal with three annoying teenage kids who enjoyed making fun of each other a bit much. They weren’t big into sports, apparently - one of the teenagers missed a lob of a throw and was pegged in a…not good place.
As the sun went down we started to settle into camp. I set up with Tommy in a triangle formation with our feet anchoring on the same tree. Scott was nearby. When he got up to relieve himself he found out we weren’t alone. In mid-stream he noticed a bear scampering down the tree directly in front of him. He let out a yell of warning and everyone scampered over to the hut as the bear made its way out of the camp. It was just a baby bear, but it was the first one I’ve seen on the trail. Pretty cool. One of the boy scout leaders tried to chase after it for pictures but was unsuccessful.
After we all settled back down we hopped into our hammocks to sleep. Around 1:30 in the morning Scott starts to moan in his sleep. I try to shush him, but I’m too late - Jason hears him and starts yelling “WHOAH WHOAH WHOAH” as he rumbled around in his hammock. Our whole camp wakes up (and I’m sure some of the scouts too) and we have a good, albeit groggy, laugh.
Day 2: Pass Mountain Hut to Gravel Sprints Hut (13 miles)
We start off the morning with a pretty big incline. Pass Mountain Hut is way down in a Valley so it is a rude awakening for our shocked legs.
About halfway through the day we hit Elkswallow Wayside, which was fantastic. They had burgers, gatorade, and - best of all - blackberry milkshakes. We gorge ourselves and try to dry off a bit by putting all of our clothes on the hot asphalt. The sun has come out and the dampness of the fog/mist is gone, replaced by our sweat. We are stinky and starting to ache here and there. We idle for a long time at the wayside, making tons of “Milk was a bad choice” jokes on account of the milkshakes.
We arrive at Gravel Springs with little fanfare and I arrange myself with Scott and Tommy in another hammock Triangle. We head over to the shelter and rest there for a while until everyone notices the large number of ticks around. First Phil flicks one off of his shirt and then he gets one off of my shin. Having had enough of the bugs we went back to the camp area and pass out. I sleep fitfully because I brought my 10 degree down bag instead of my 45 degree bag (i.e. I was dumb) and I was way too hot with the humidity of the day trapped under my rain fly. I make adjustments throughout the night using my new suspension system, but in the end I couldn’t avoid the heat.
Day 3: Gravel Springs Hut to 4-H Center (11 miles)
We depart Gravel Sprints around 6:30 AM. The previous morning we all agreed that we’d left too late and suffered too much heat as a result. In just a little over an hour of walking we see a huge black bear in the trees to our right. He’s about 20 yards out and up a tree, which he descends quickly with his eyes focused on us the whole way. Phil comments that he’s going to do one of two things: come after us or run away. Fortunately he does the latter, and we’re all super alert from that point on. At every turn in the trail we holler “NO BEAR” or something else to alert the bears that we’re there.
We go up and over Marshall Mountain, waiting for the huge decline that signalled the end of our day to begin. The hike was mostly downhill, but the accumulated miles our feet had thus far endured made us feel every step. My soles in particular were aching - I wprobably wore those particular hiking boots one time too many. Fortunately the grade of the decline wasn’t too bad, and before we knew it we were out of the North side of the park. I dance a little jig at the boundary line and move on.
After Scott stopped at Tom Floyd Wayside shelter we quickly approached the 4-H center. The manager of the center kindly let us in for a dollar apiece on the condition that we buy some food. That was no problem for us - we feasted on doritos, cokes, choco tacos, hot dogs, and ice cream sandwiches. I jumped in the pool (the reason we stopped there) and all those miles melted away from my feet. A friend that we’d met on the trail (Three Bear) met us at the center, but just as he got into the pool the sky opened up with thunder and rain and everyone had to clear out. We went to a nearby picnic area that had a roof to snack some more, as by that time Katherine had arrived with food and McAfee in tow.
At the shelter we ate tons of chips and drank beers poured into our nalgenes or gatorade bottles (classy, right?). I got to know that Three Bear was friends with my cousins in the TV production scene, which was pretty cool. The time comes for us all to leave and we say our goodbyes and Three Bear walks back to the trail for another 9 miles or so. I ride back to my car with Tommy and Katherine, where I then prepare to leave. We decide to grab yet another blackberry milkshake before departing, which we get to go as the tourists look at us (“look hon - thru hikers!"). I drive the four hours back home in good traffic and soak up the hot shower in my upstairs bathroom once I get there. I put on some dry athletic stuff and went downstairs for some family time, but not before picking off two more ticks that were taking a joyride on my legs.