The last time I communicated with you, I was in Waynesboro, VA, getting ready to head off into the Shenandoahs. My neighbors, Sunshine, David, Lucy, Sumi, and their dog Freckles had brought my dog Millie up for a visit and a short trek on the Appalachian Trail. We stayed in adjoining rooms in the Quality Inn which is a “dog friendly” place. It was a grand reunion of people and dogs. I am not sure what Millie thought of it all. At first, it seemed that she didn’t recognize me. She didn’t bark at me or anything, but it seemed like I was just one of the free-for-all crowd, not anyone special. I have to take into consideration here that Millie always loves everybody with equal, unbounded enthusiasm, and I felt lots of love coming from everyone, dogs and humans.
When I turned on the weather channel first thing in the morning, Tuesday, May 26, after a frenetic night of laundry, grocery shopping, eating, and some sleeping, I was shocked to see a graphic of the United States with the entire eastern half covered with rain and thunderstorm symbols. The long range forecast called for rain for the next four days with a period of fair weather after that. I looked outside, and it was raining hard. Without consulting anyone, I decided to take a “zero day” in Waynesboro. With all the re-supplying efforts of the previous night, I felt I needed a chance to chill after eight days and 133 miles on the trail. Besides, I really didn’t want to hike in the pouring rain.
After doing major damage to the continental breakfast in the hotel lobby, the Durham crowd and I decided to take a short excursion on the Appalachian Trail. We drove to Rockfish Gap outside of Waynesboro and saw that the mountains were shrouded in clouds. This did not dampen anyone’s spirits. We donned raingear, got out dog leashes, and readied a couple devices that enable grownups to carry small people strapped to their backs or fronts.
We hiked the section of the AT that I had done the day before. At first, the rain was just a drizzle, then it poured. The girls and dogs didn’t seem to mind, so we trudged on behind them. We got to a creek that I had crossed less than 24 hours earlier, but with all the rain, this creek was now a raging torrent. It was a good place to turn around. We returned to the motel and the girls took baths to warm up. Everybody got on dry clothes. And then came the hard part. Dogs and people got into the car and began their roadtrip back to Durham. Millie looked at me through the rear window. She looked puzzled. I almost cried.
I got up with some thru hikers that evening to take my mind off Millie and home. I also took some time to ready my pack for departure the next morning.
I hit the breakfast in the lobby pretty hard soon after it opened. I got a ride to the trail head four miles away from a “trail angel” by the name of Dubose. He is a local community activist, had served on city council before, and was planning serving again. He believed in using local government to promote quality of life services, not just water, sewer, police, and fire protection.
I walked a mile on the northbound trail in light rain before I came to an information board for Shenandoah National Park. There, I filled out a back country permit, attached one copy to my pack and filed the other copies in a drop box. That day, Wednesday, May 27, I hiked 20 miles in off and on rain to Blackrock Hut. The shelters in the Shenandoahs are called huts. I stayed there with with thru hiker friends: David from Scotland, Sam Wise, and Rolling Stone and his dog Coal. The next day, I took it easy and only hiked 13 miles to Pinefield Hut. But I had a detour along the way. I stopped at a Wayside store on Skyline Drive and had a bacon cheeseburger and a blackberry milkshake for lunch. It was a luxurious, easy day.
On Friday, May 29, I put in a long day of 20.6 miles and ended up at the Bearfence Mountain Hut. Here, I stayed with an old thru hiker friend, O. G., who I hadn’t seen in a month, and two young guys, Highlander from Long Island and Scout from Pennsylvania. There was an older man there who was a volunteer who maintained a section of four huts. His name was Dr. Dick. Dr. Dick told me a lot about Shenandoah National Park.
Much of the land that eventually became the Park was owned by the George Pollock family. George’s father had bought much of the land thinking that the mountains were rich with copper. When the first copper mine failed to produce the quantities desired, the Pollocks built a resort inn on the highest mountain peak, Stony Man, in the late 1800′s. This fine dining, dancing, and lodging establishment was called Stony Man Camp and overlooked the Shenandoah River Valley, 3600 feet below. The main resort building was surrounded by log cabins and bark covered lodges that tourists could rent.
In 1926, the Department of Interior in Washington was interested in establishing a National Park in the mountains of Virginia, much like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. The commission studying the idea was leaning toward putting the park on the Massanutten mountain range on the west side of the two forks of the Shenandoah River. When stormy weather prevented a scheduled visit to the proposed site, George Pollack invited the commission to his Stony Man Camp for lunch. He convinced the congressmen to change their mind and put the Park on the Blue Ridge Range instead of Massanutten. Congress authorized the park later in 1926, and it was dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.
A little known fact is that Herbert Hoover, the President before Roosevelt, established a Presidential Retreat on this property in the late 1920′s. It was called Camp Rappadan. It was Hoover’s trout fishing haven. It came before the modern Camp David used by the presidents today.
Many of the people living in the area of the park didn’t want to sell their land to the government, but their land was condemned. Most of these people felt they were paid less than their land was worth. To this day, a lot of the local people around Shenandoah National Park have hard feelings toward the National Park Service. They are still given rights to the family graveyards that exist in the Park with modern marble monuments next to ancient sandstone grave markers.
The Appalachian Trail was routed through the Shenadoahs in the 1930′s with the trail and its huts built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC. Skyline Drive, the northern cousin to our Blueridge Parkway, was built later. The Trail crosses Skyline 29 times in its course of more than 100 miles. The original Stony Man Camp burned down and was replaced by Skyland Lodge.
The day after I learned all this at the Bearfence Hut, I hiked to Skyland Lodge and rented a cabin. I ate both supper and breakfast before hitting the Trail again the next morning at 9:00. That day, Sunday, May 31, I made it 18.1 miles to a Wayside store on Skyline Drive at Elkwallow Gap. Here, I met up with a thru hiker by the name of Supertramp who plays a mean mandolin. I taught Supertramp a song I had composed days earlier while my hiking poles kept time in climbing the long ascent out of the James River. He caught on instantly, and we performed it to a group of thru hikers and curious onlookers. They all loved it and even joined in on singing the choruses:
Amicalola was the place
Springer Mountain was calling to me
Calling to me, right to my face.
I am a hiker on the trail
The Appalachian, one and the same
It runs from Maine clear down to Georgia
It’s from that trail, I got my name.
From Neels Gap up to Bly Gap
North Carolina and Tennessee
In the state of old Virginia
My true love said to me.
The Shenandoahs, they led me northward
Maryland was not far behind
In Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia
I had Pennsylvania on my mind.
There’s New York and Massachusetts
New Hampshire and Vermont
Washington, that famous mountain
No finer peak shall I want.
In the north state they call Maine
There’s a place that not forgotten
For two thousand, two hundred miles
I have come to Mount Katahdin.
Supertramp and I have a dream of forming a bluegrass band of thru hikers from the Class of 2009 and perfecting the lyrics of this song for a performance at next year’s Trail Days in Damascus, VA.
That night, I “stealth camped” — a term for camping in remote areas — with friends Prairie Dog, Angry Beaver, and Early Bear. We were close to the northern boundary of the Shenandoahs and wanted to be in position to make it into Front Royal, VA the next day.
The next day, I hiked 14.3 miles to a hostel right off the Trail in Front Royal. The place was called Terrapin Station and run by a guy named Mike Evans. Mike was a former Grateful Dead enthusiast and named his hostel after one of their later albums. It turned out Mike was a former Boy Scout just like me and was big time into collecting patches. We found a lot to talk about. Mike took me to the grocery store for restocking my pop tarts, oatmeal, etc. Mike also told me the about the original of the name Front Royal. Back during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, this area was divided between people who supported the English rule and people who wanted independence. At one edge of the settlement there was a large oak tree. The people loyal to England called it the Royal Oak because, to them, it represented the power of England. Every morning, they would raise the Union Jack flag in front of the Royal Oak. They called this ceremony Fronting the Royal. The town that grew up here was henceforth known as Front Royal.
The next morning, Tuesday, June 2, I hiked from Terrapin Station out of the Shenandoahs. I felt kind of sad and was moving slow. I was sad to be leaving the good times I had enjoyed in the Park. But as I passed Front Royal something snapped me out of my funk. A huge track of land was fenced off to the side of the AT. It was a high fence with barbed wire at the top. Next came strange buildings with warning signs about trespassing. My thru hiker’s handbook informed me that this was the National Zoological Park. It is used to save exotic species of animals that are in danger of going extinct. It is also used to train drug sniffing dogs. But my fervent imagination concocted other scenarios. For instance, a research lab area and adjoining barn looked just like a scene I had once seen on an episode of The X-files. Cross species generation was certainly going on here, the breeding of a new race of animals, half man, half ape, to be used in fighting future wars. Instead of guerrilla warfare, it would be gorilla warfare. The Trail does strange things to the mind.
Summer has finally come to the AT, and this day was close to 90 degrees. I hiked in the heat, drinking lots of water from springs and small creeks, and made it 19.6 miles to Dick’s Dome Shelter, a very, very small geodesic dome. The shelter was full, so I pitched my tent on the only spot left, a piece of slightly sloped land next to the creek. That night I ate my dinner by the light of a half moon. A thunderstorm with torrents of rain woke me about 2:00 AM, but I stayed dry and weathered the storm.
On Wednesday, June 3, my goal was to make it to a famous hostel on the AT called the Bear’s Den. On the way, I stopped in for lunch at the Rod Hollow Shelter. It was here I learned some almost tragic news. My friends Prairie Dog, Angry Beaver, and Early Bear had left me the night before at the dome shelter. They were going to camp about a mile farther up the trail. I almost went with them. This morning, they were awakened by a skunk in their camp. This skunk was acting very strangely, attacking their tents, growling and such. It got into Prairie Dog and Angry Beaver’s tent and sprayed them. In all this craziness, everyone grabbed their tents and dragged them back to the Trail to get away from the skunk. The skunk chased them down the Trail, eventually biting Early Bear on the foot. By now, Early Bear figured this skunk was rabid and killed it with his hiking pole. They used their cell phone to call ahead to the Bear’s Den Hostel to meet Early Bear at the next road crossing. He was taken to the hospital for rabies shots. Early Bear got back on the Trail that day and met us all at the Bear’s Den that evening. He will have to undergo a series of shots over the next three weeks, but he is determined to keep hiking. The Appalachian Trail Conference is helping him find hospitals along the Trail to administer the shots.
The Bear’s Den Hostel was an amazing place. It was built on the theme of a stone castle in 1933 by a wealthy Washington, DC doctor and his wife, an opera singer. In the days before air conditioning, the wealthy often had summer homes in the cooler mountains. Many of my thru hiker friends were at the Bear’s Den that night. We all had the Hiker Special: a Tombstone pizza, a can of soda, and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. We slept well in bunk beds that night.
I found out the next morning from the caretaker Redwing, a former thru hiker, why the trail I had taken the day before to the Bear’s Den had been extremely rocky and with so many ups and downs. This section of the Trail has actually been named the “Roller Coaster” because of this. Redwing told me that this section of the Trail once ran along a dirt road, nice and easy. It was relocated to the rougher terrain because the US government built a secret hideaway bunker for top officials from Washington in case our country was ever attacked by Russia. This was back during the Cold War. This facility was called Mount Weather. It is still there. The reason I can tell you this top secret information without being arrested is that a commercial airliner crashed some years ago on this mountain. When all the press came up, they noticed the government facility and started asking questions. The cover was blown!
I admit I have been living large on the Trail recently. This trend continues. The next day the entire crew from the Bear’s Den hiked a short eight miles to the Blackburn AT Center operated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Here, the caretaker Brain provided us with a supper of pasta with homemade sauce, homemade bread, and brownies for dessert. Some of us slept in the adjoining hostel, some on the screen porch. It poured rain all night long. This center was built in 1911, again by a wealthy doctor from Washington. This wonderful experience was given to us for a donation only.
This morning, I hiked away from the Blackburn Center almost 14 miles into Harpers Ferry, WVA. It poured rain the entire time. The trail was often flowing with several inches of water. But it feels great to be finished with Virginia and on my way to the second half of the Trail. I never really got the “Virginia Blues” that hikers talk about. I enjoyed all the different environments Virginia has to offer. At this point, I have walked 1011.5 miles from Springer Mountain, GA. Tomorrow, I plan on walking around Harpers Ferry and learning as much about this town as I can. I’ll share my findings with you.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles