This is the second in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
6am, Day 2 ready to hit the trail and try to outrun a storm.
After the first night’s sleep I woke up surprisingly fresh! I felt I’d been awake all night. The night before we’d heard weather warnings from several people along the trail and at the shelter. Serious thunderstorms were rolling in around noon. We got up early (which is not hard when you retire at 8:30!) and after a couple cups of coffee and a quick breakfast hit the trail.
We had heard the storm was coming from south to north and we were headed north so we would do our best to outrun it. Your best bet out there is to simply look at the sky because as the day went on we heard the storm was coming from the East, from the West, and from the South.
The skies were overcast but the weather was still nice. No rain, still beautiful views, and cool.
We hiked for 3 hours feeling strong and perky. We were chatting as we hiked and the scenery was gorgeous! We passed Thornton Gap the point at which entered the park two days earlier by car. Now we could feel weather rolling in.
By now we could see clouds rolling in from the eastern valley. At times we could tell that we were in them!
At one point we watched a cloud move through and shroud the woods in which we were hiking. It’s a very ominous feeling. One minute we’re hiking along and suddenly a smoky mist glides in from the east between the trees. The temperature, amount of light, and humidity changed instantly and a feeling that we were “not in Kansas anymore” crept into our minds!
Way up in this rocky peak was a handsome rhododendron in center, full bloom and thriving. Note the leaves and bushes in the foreground…you can tell there’s a storm approaching!
The natural beauty, however, was not diminished by approaching storm. At one point we came across a rocky summit that rose about 4 or 5 stories above the rest of the mountain. Centered in the cliffs of this summit was a huge wild rhododendron bush in full flower. I am a huge fan of the rhodo but have never been able to get them to grow at my house because it’s just too hot and humid in the DC area. Now we were surrounded by them everywhere, growing wild, unpruned, unfertilized, and in full bloom everywhere you looked!
Thornton Gap, the point where VA Rt 211 crosses Skyline Dr. Two days earlier we had entered Shenandoah National Park here by car.
Around late morning we reached the Pass Mountain Hut. It was so cozy! There was a privy nearby and a spring right near the hut. We filled our water bottles and got a snack. We took this opportunity to prepare for rain. I covered my sleep pad with trash bags, and had a rain fly to put over my pack. Ponchos were donned and laughing ensued! Mine was essentially a trash bag with arm and head holes. Lisa had a very nice large poncho designed to cover both her and the pack. It was bright orange and when she put it over the pack, she looked like Quasimodo directing traffic! (I am under oath not to show a picture).
It was difficult to leave this cozy shelter with a spring and a fire ring right in front of the opening but it hadn’t started raining yet and we were only to last night’s destination!
We set out ready for rain, and it never came. That’s not entirely true but the canopy is so thick in the forest that we heard a good deal more rain than we felt. The plastic poncho was likely creating more moisture from the inside! This meant the hiking was still quite pleasant. We had hiked 6 miles and were on our way to the next milestone, the Elkwallow Wayside. Today we would make up for the short hike yesterday and now we were on our way…we thought.
My rain gear was not something you’d see in the LL Bean catalog but it was effective!
The forest was misty and lush and this stretch was not as challenging as the day before. Elkwallow Wayside is sort of a mountain convenience store. There are gas pumps and a camp store and bathrooms. It would only be a rest stop and it was seven miles away. From there we would have 6 more to our destination for the night.
With a light rain falling on the canopy and little of it making it to the ground, the trail was lush and misty and the hiking was almost surreal.
We hiked, and we hiked, and we hiked! We still hadn’t realized yet that our hiking speed in the morning was about 2 mph and as we tired in the afternoon it slowed to about 1 mph! From the Pass Mountain Hut we failed to realize that we had picked a destination that would be about 9-10 more hours of hiking!
The Pass Mountain Hut was, by AT standards, cozy and dry and would have been a great place to wait out a storm, but we didn’t have a storm yet!
We had targeted 3:00 to reach Elkwallow and we got there at 3:30. It was like an oasis! Picnic tables became instant couches! There were bathrooms and though I had only been in the woods for two days I felt like an Amish man in New York City. I came out of the bathroom and said, “Lisa! There’s a knob in there and you turn it and hot water comes out!” It was so nice! We rested, doctored our feet for new blisters, ate and refilled our water.
You might think a long hike in the forest would be a monotonous day of sameness but it was surprisingly diverse.
We met three young men who had just graduated from Brown University and were celebrating with a bike trip through Shenandoah. They seemed ill-equipped even for this and when we arrived they were slicing at a tree with a bottle of beer trying to get the cap off. They said they had spent the previous night in their car because they thought there would be more hotels here. Ivy League grads poised to lead America.
Elkwallow Wayside is little more than a convenience store but with actual bathrooms, manicured grounds, and picnic tables it looked like an oasis to us!
We set out again hoping to find a place to stay. Our feet were really hurting by this point. I would no sooner repair a blistered area on my foot that it would shift the load to another area and a new blister would develop. On top of that, my feet just ached. I thought back to a movie of my teenage years, Midnight Express when a young American is imprisoned in Turkey for drugs. At one point they club him on the soles of his feet so he won’t try and run away. I was beginning to feel like I’d had the Turkish pedicure!
Once we decided to simply camp on the side of the trail, we would walk another hour before finding a level spot to accommodate two tents. This spot at the top of a ridge would be our home for the night.
We saw a sign about a mile and a half past Elkwallow for the Rangeview Cabin. This was a pristine cabin in the woods, the setting of fairy tales. We knew from the guidebook that the cabin was locked and is rented out to members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club but we thought we might be able to camp nearby. When we got to this idyllic spot there was a sign that said, “No camping within sight of the cabin”.
We now understood we were not going to make our intended destination. We would have to just find a nice spot on the side of the trail and camp. This would not have been a big problem except that we would hike another hour before we could find a level spot to accommodate two tents! Again, you’re always either climbing a mountain or descending one so “level” is rare.
We got the tents up and had just started dinner when the skies opened.
By the time we reached the top of a ridge and found a suitable spot we were again exhausted. We had hiked for 10 hours for the second day in a row and were farther behind our goal than the day before!
We set up our tents and I started dinner. I was recreating the pasta dish I had made on my dry run camping trip. I had just started sautéing a garlic clove, some dried salami, and a scallion in my pot when the skies opened up. The storm we had avoided all day was now upon us.
I got the water and pasta in there and covered the pot. While that simmered Lisa and I threw our gear into our tents and threw a rope over a tree limb. We did this by tying a baseball sized rock to the end of the rope and throwing it over the limb. The first time I didn’t hold the rope and all 50 ft sailed over the limb with the rock. It would have been funny except it was pouring rain.
The next try I held the rope but I held it too close to the rock and when the rock went over the limb it accelerated around under the limb right toward my face! Fortunately I ducked just in time because that would not have been funny in any circumstance!
After eating in our separate tents we jumped back out in the rain and hoisted our food, toiletries, and dishes into a tree to keep away from bears.
When the pasta was ready I tossed the contents of a powdered sauce envelope in and dished out half to each of us. We each retreated to our individual tents and ate in the pouring rain. Lisa yelled at one point, “This is really good!” but the rain was so loud I couldn’t hear her!
When we finished eating we had to get back out in the rain to put all the food, toiletries, and dishes into bags and hoist them by the rope into the tree. Then it was back to our tents for the night. It wasn’t even dark yet.
As I lay there I questioned for the first time what the hell I thought I was doing. The wind was making my tent ripple like a kite being flown at the ocean. The rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t hear myself think. I was filthy, exhausted, my feet hurt and nobody in the entire world, including us, had any idea where we were.
I started to think about home. I remembered that this was the night I had been invited to a Nats game in DC. I pictured my wife with friends enjoying a lovely night at the ballpark with a cold beer, clean and rested. I never considered that the same storm was raging in DC. In fact, it was much worse 2 hours away where the Nats got rained out and numerous tornadoes touched down around the metro area. Little did I know that my family and friends were thinking about me as they huddled in their homes!
This pack was killing me! We had now named it Bernie because it appeared to have a dead body inside and reminded us of the movie Weekend At Bernie’s!
In addition to my feet bothering me, my shoulders were suffering from the weight of the pack. We had now named it Bernie, after the movie Weekend at Bernie’s where a dead body is concealed in a number of ways. I lay in that tent wondering how in the world I would recover in time to start hiking all over again. I would later learn that Lisa was doing pretty much the same thing a few feet away in her tent.
At about 4:00 in the morning, a huge branch blew off the trunk of a tree and fell a long ways to the ground. It slammed to the earth about 20 or 30 feet from out tent. I went from a sound sleep to a state of high alert in an instant! A second later I heard Lisa say, “Tooonnny?????” I had adrenaline pumping through my body and I said, “I heard it!” It was still dark and we both thought that somehow a bear had gotten to our food.
I lay in my sleeping bag all zipped up because behind the storm and heavy winds had come cold temperatures. I was definitely not going out there in the dark but I wondered for an hour what we would do with no food, and a mess that would surely get us in trouble with park rangers.
At 5:00 I peeked out the tent to see that the food was still in the tree and a huge branch was on the ground nearby. I would have gotten up but I hadn’t brought a jacket and it was in the low 50’s! would I have to stay here until July?
We finally got up, had a quick bite, packed up and headed out. Miraculously, my body had recovered during the night to hike again!
Things would get much better from this low point and in my next post I will paint a much drier, sunnier picture of our AT adventure!