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How I Fell in Love with Shenandoah

Shenandoah National Park was one of my most enjoyable stretches of the Appalachian Trail. Constant views, well-maintained trails, plentiful wildlife, and easy resupply.  To top it all off, a chance reunion in Front Royal provided me with a hiking partner whom I haven’t seen since Monson, ME.

Southern PA through Shenandoah is also one of the easiest stretches of the AT—elevation changes rarely exceed 1,000 feet, and the ground is soft—making 25-mile days doable with sunlight to spare. Looking ahead, things might get a bit more challenging, but hopefully with foliage changes and continued camaraderie among SOBOs, it will be just as pleasant as Virginia thus far.

Below are my entries from this week. Enjoy!

The Roller Coaster (Friday, Oct. 5)

A group of us spent the night at Blackburn Trail Center. Sincerity, Hot Rocks, Cool Boi, Smalls, and I all enjoyed the luxuries of this surprisingly well-equipped stopover—potable water, outlets for charging, and a screened-in porch that provided protection against bugs and bears.

Sincerity and I rolled out as the rain stopped to tackle the not-so-affectionately named Roller Coaster—a 14-mile stretch of trail with consecutive steep climbs and descents that reward you with no views. I tried to find a way to make this fun—to live in the moment and not let everyone else’s description of this section color my expectations—but it really was just a day of slogging up and down, over and over again, with few flat sections. There were at least ten indistinguishable hills to tackle, and I plodded on afterward to make it 26 miles and just a bit closer to Front Royal for the morning.

I must also say that I am continually impressed by the PATC’s (Potomac Appalachian Trail Club) consistently excellent maintenance of the trail over the last several hundred miles. I found my favorite bulletin board on trail, complete with data and graphics:

As a data nerd, teacher, and school administrator, well-planned signage makes me happy.

A Reunion in Front Royal (Saturday, Oct. 6)

“The trail is 2,195 miles long but only 24 inches wide.”

I love this saying. Even though we’re all hiking the AT over many, many months, everyone meets the same people over and over again. If you think about it, a typical SOBO will meet almost all the same NOBOs as anyone else going southbound. In addition, people who pulled ahead of you back on day one are still somewhere ahead of you on that same 24-inch-wide footpath.

As a SOBO, my pace was probably about average through Maine and New Hampshire—12 to 17 miles per day with at least weekly zeroes for my body to recuperate. As I’ve pushed farther south, I’m going a bit faster than average—20 to 25 mile days with a nero each week—and I’m pushing into new groups of people every few days. In addition, I’ve been eyeing the logbooks for two friends who I met in Maine—Faye and Sonic. They have been ahead of me by a day or two since PA. As I got into the town of Front Royal, I even asked the Mountain Cabin House hostel owner if either of them were booked there for the night. No luck.

I got a ride into town and posted up at a brewery for some lunch and a couple beers. Amazingly, the Front Royal Brewing Co., along with the bakery next door and the local outfitter, maintain a beautiful haven for thru-hikers, complete with shower, laundry, and loaner clothes, all for free!

The bartender at the brewery even thru-hiked southbound a few years back.

I left to resupply at the grocery store before my ride came back, and as I walked down the street, a tall guy with long hair, tattooed arms, and a backpack walked down the other side of the street in the opposite direction. I did a double-take–Sonic! After a big hug and some catching up, we resupplied and headed back to trail.

Now let me tell you why I love Sonic.

We hiked Katahdin on the exact same day (July 8) and stuck together with a group of about eight others through the 100-Mile Wilderness. I had a couple of rough days in that first week, particularly with muscle spasms and back pains so bad that I walked out of the Wilderness wearing my pack on my chest.

On one night when it was particularly bad, I walked into camp late with a pained look on my face. Sonic told me that he wasn’t that hungry and didn’t want to finish his Mountain House (read: delicious but expensive pre-prepared meal) dinner, and asked if I wanted it. Over that week, this was just one of a number of kind things that he did to look out for both me and others. I later learned that he was, indeed, very hungry when he gave me his dinner, but he was worried that I wouldn’t eat and just fall asleep that night. After seven difficult days in the wilderness of Maine, he gave me the hot meal out of his hands and quietly went back to his tent to eat cold snacks out of his pack.

Aside from looking out for others, Sonic had a 45-pound pack when I saw him in Front Royal (mine is 25 max). His pack is heavy, but for all the right reasons. He has a Bluetooth speaker that he uses to blast 90s hits as he hikes. In addition, he has been carrying Halloween lights through the month of October and hangs them either on his tent or in the shelter every night. His most recent purchase is the costume he’ll wear on Halloween (and likely through November), and he had a solid supply of s’mores ingredients for a long time, carefully repacking the graham crackers each day so that they wouldn’t get crushed.

He brings the joy—an unbelievably important quality on the trail.

Views, Views, and More Views (Sunday, Oct. 7)

The Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park interweaves with Skyline Drive for 105 miles, offering both hikers and drivers expansive views of the Shenandoah Valley for the entire length of the park. Our first day was 80 degrees and perfectly sunny but with a refreshing breeze the entire way.

I recently bought new hiking shorts—they are women’s size small—so please excuse my blinding white thighs.

The trail, scattered with leaves of different colors, consists of lovely rolling hills.

With camp stores and waysides every 25 miles or so, you never really need to carry more than a day or two of food, and with so many spigots and streams along the way, water weight can be minimized as well. I felt like I was floating down the trail to each new viewpoint.

Tastes of Civilization (Monday, Oct. 8, and Tuesday, Oct. 9)

Columbus Day Weekend also brought a number of day hikers, section hikers, and families just driving through. It’s always fun to catch up with people, and they make thru-hikers feel pretty special (“What? From Maine?”). Some might see this as a negative, but I appreciate the variety in the thru-hike experience, enjoying the peaceful wilderness of Maine and then socializing with the travelers in Shenandoah. With so many people coming through, there are also endless amenities in Shenandoah. We planned to stop in at a camp store to shower and do laundry the following morning.

There were also horses. Although I felt kind of bad for them in their stalls.

Sonic and I hiked separately through the rest of the day, and I came across a couple walking their dog who pointed out a great stealth spot at the top of a mountain just a few miles short of our intended shelter. The woman kindly gave me what was left of her water (I only had a liter for the night), and I set up camp at the spot she’d pointed out. Once Sonic arrived, we enjoyed dinner while watching what was left of the sunset—not a bad change from shelter-hopping.

My Bear FOMO (Wednesday, Oct. 10)

Everyone wants to know if you have seen a bear yet on trail. And after 1,200 miles, I was having some serious bear FOMO (fear of missing out). Many people had seen them back in New Jersey and New York, but I had yet to spot one. Of course, most people would rather not encounter a black bear, but they are fairly non-aggressive, and seeing bears in Shenandoah is something of a right-of-passage for thru-hikers. Sonic saw two bears our second day in the park. My FOMO had increased to astronomical levels.

More or less resigned to a bear-free journey, I set out for our last day in the park. It really started to pour around midday, but a number of us from the evening before had committed to a 26-mile day to get to the shelter closest to Waynesboro. This would make for a relatively short hike the next day when the rains from Hurricane Michael were supposed to hit Northern Virginia.

The first 13 miles were smooth, but my wet feet were starting to hurt as I neared the 20-mile mark. Alone, wet, and with the sun starting to set, my energy hit a low point. My phone was tucked safely in my bag to prevent water damage, which meant that I couldn’t distract myself with music or a podcast.

But it also meant that I could hear the low grunt off to the side of the trail around mile 22. I looked up to see a momma black bear prowling about 15 feet to my left. With a quick “holy ****,” I pranced backward away from her. Completely unbothered, she meandered a bit farther away. Pretty soon, two cubs joined her in the distance. My best picture through the fog only captures them as little brown bumps in the distance.

One of the cubs scampered 50 feet up a tree in four seconds flat and I finally realized why we’re supposed to hang our food bags at least five feet away from the trunk. I stood there and watched them for about five minutes, grinning ear to ear. It was exactly the pick-me-up I needed to get to the shelter, which Sonic had already festively decorated upon arrival.

Waynesboro (Thursday, Oct. 11)

Seven of us woke up the next day after our 26-mile jaunt in the rain. Faye, another friend I hadn’t seen since Maine, and Green Machine showed up late the night before after hiking 36 miles.We all happily walked the remaining eight miles to the highway, super excited that the rain from the entire night before had ceased for a few hours. We walked through misty fields with thoughts of a shower and clean clothes in our minds.

At Stanimal’s 328 Hostel, Sonic and I showered up and then crushed Ming’s all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Back at the hostel, Sincerity, Breezy, and Bandit showed up out of the cold rain, shivering and ready for hot showers. Once we were all sufficiently cleaned up, we ended the night, and our Shenandoah experience, with margaritas and Mexican food.

(Clockwise, from bottom left: Breezy, Faye, Bandit, Sincerity, Sonic, me)

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