Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) July 4th weekend ended with my naked body on the floor of my best friend's room as she spot-checked every inch and crevice for ticks. This being my first experience of section hiking the AT in the summer, I didn’t know what I was in for. My past summer section hiking has been on my home turf the John Muir Trail in the High Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Two things these trails have in common are strong through-hikers and trail magic.
Section-hiking the AT requires advance planning. My friend Deb planned the 47-mile, four-day trip to knock off the section of the “Roller Coaster” south of the Bears Den Hiking Hostel. We completed the North end in
early spring a few years earlier. We stayed at the Bears Den, and after a comfortable night sleep, morning shower, and a quick sip of coffee, Rhonda (our ride) picked us up at 7:30 a.m. This allowed us to leave our car for the return trip.
It was an hour’s drive to Snickers Gap. I requested a quick stop for more caffeine and sugar to fuel my tank. Rhonda is retired and makes extra income shuttling section-hikers near Harpers Ferry. She shared stories with us as she drove. In the 70’s, she hiked the AT alone at 17 years of age. She was homeless at the time and living in a cave. She trapped her food along the way and sustained herself on horse feed. Her story left me wishing the ride was longer so I could hear more. At the trail head she sent us off with a traditional Cherokee Blessing, hand-carved AT wood, bead, leather, and string bracelets, a spray of bug repellant, and some electrolytes.
We climbed up to a beautiful rock outcrop and one of two spectacular views of the beautiful Shenandoah National Park. We spent a good portion of the day trekking through weeds as high as our heads. The humidity, heat, and bugs were taking its toll on me on the lower land and climbing up again was a relief as we came upon the only water of the day. At the very light stream, I filled my water bottles, treated my water, soaked my feet, splashed my face and soaked my buff. Unlike the ice-cold glacier water in the Sierras, this stream was warm and not the relief I was hoping for - but water is water.
At the end of the day a storm was brewing. It was an uphill climb to the shelter, and once we arrived, we then had a long, steep downhill to the spring to refill our water supplies. We went through liters of water on the 10 miles that felt like 13! To beat the storm, we quickly made our dinner of couscous with dried onion and homemade tofu jerky. Thank god for the Jet Boil. Finishing just in time, thunder sent us scrambling for cover. When lightning started striking overhead and the rain started to come down in sheets, a quick decision led us to stay in the shelter as opposed to pitching a tent. This was my first experience sleeping in an open front shelter with strangers, although they didn’t stay strangers for long. As we watched mother nature’s version of fireworks, we shared stories of our adventures. Everyone slept side-by-side, squeezed in like sardines, and smelling like them too!
When we arose, there was a mother bear and her two cubs at the spring so we decided to progress down the trail and get water at the next creek. I started the day with a good rhythm. The trail conditions vary a lot along the trail, and as I was passing through a very narrow section with low-hanging branches and heavy underbrush, I tripped on a small branch and fell down so hard I broke my Black Diamond hiking pole. Often when we take tumble, there is some shock. As I assessed my body, I realized I had also hit my already overused right hip - really hard. I stood up and assessed further taking deep breaths and starting to move slowly. Deb was long-gone as her trail name suggests on “Cruise Control”. My pack felt heavier now and with only one pole and I was off balance. I stuck the broken pole in my pack to re-balance things and just kept going. This was a long morning, but there was meandering sections that allowed me to adjust.
When I caught up to my friend she was waiting for me at a beautiful new shelter with an outdoor shower and Adirondack chairs on the deck. It was so comfortable I didn’t want to leave. She had been waiting for me for over an hour and I explained my fall and sent her on her way. I stayed and enjoyed the effortless water faucet, chairs and put my feet up. After some rest, I set off again with two full bottles of water and a better attitude. As the day progressed, I sweated out my water wicking hiking shirt and pants. The wet clothes started bunching up under my backpack hip belt and started rubbing the skin at my hip bone raw. As I crested the top of a giant incline, there was Deb waiting at a beautiful spot to check in with me. I told her I was stripping down to my sports bra and booty shorts and she could go ahead so she’s would not be embarrassed by my outfit. She said, “Girl, hike your hike”.
The rest of the day was a blur. The heat and humidity was so high, the trees drooped and the rocks were wet with little pools of water, and ground was quite muddy. Around 5:00p.m., I came to the only creek between me and the next shelter which was still 3 miles away. The creek was right next to the highway and it had a tiny wooden bridge and this became my oasis. I took off my boots and soaked my tired feet, filling my water bottles. I dumped bottles of water over my head and body, then sat in a welcoming patch of sunlight and dried my clothes and socks. Most of the AT is in deep shade so this was a welcome moment. A few friendly through-hikers passed by, stripped down to their skivvies and joined me in my human bird bath.
It was time to complete this section of the journey, and as I pressed through, I passed highways, railroad tracks, and farms. As I approached my last uphill to the shelter, I came across two men drinking beer on a bench - wow that beer looked so good! They warned me that the next shelter was home to two Copper Heads and two black snakes. This was not welcoming news at the end of a long and exhausting day, but I was grateful for the heads-up. I reached the shelter at sundown and the other hikers warned me to stay away from the stone fire ring where the snakes live and to watch out as I went to the spring and privy.
I became much better at navigating with my one pole and hiked again in my pole dancer outfit without a care. This day brought beautiful butterflies and bees in the open Sky Meadows. I enjoyed the meandering wide trails, wildflowers and grasses. Despite the beauty around me, the end of the day I was in agony. My overused and bruised hip was making itself known and once again it was uphill to the next shelter. This was the best shelter of our trip. The spring was close by and beautiful. The water was cool and perfectly refreshing. Deb and I shared with a young couple from Minnesota that were through-hikers and a father of two from Florida who hikes the AT for a month in the summertime. We all sat together eating and discussing our favorite backpacking foods and Wilderness First Aid. As we settled down to sleep the fireworks were going off in a town nearby. This area is famous for the John Mosby Confederate raiders. The Mosby name is connected to my maiden name Moseley, and I must admit that this section of the trail felt ancestral. I was imagining I was in the Civil War hiding in the woods. I could feel an energy in the rocks and trees that was familiar and ancient.
This group of strong and committed hikers got up before the sun. We took advantage of their motivation and started early to beat the heat. The 10.5 miles to the Bears Den felt longer. This was another day agony on my hip, and what made it bearable was the sacred beauty of the giant moss-covered rocks. The theme of the day became rocks. The trail was covered with them - large and small, pointy and slippery. This section lives up to its name, “Roller Coaster”, going straight up and straight down! Since I had only one pole, the slippery downhills made for very slow and mindful steps using trees to keep me from falling.
I met up with Deb midday for lunch. She has a knack for finding beautiful places to rest. This spot at the top of a ridge was a campsite I want to revisit in the fall for a beautiful sunset. After lunch, we had the last 3 miles to finish and it was slow going. I was getting discouraged because the trail was hard to see and the white blazes were infrequent. I was yelling, cursing and sat down a few times to catch my breath as I hiked up, up, up! As my motivation was diminishing, I heard cheerful voices behind me. Two young guys passed. They laughed and said they were dying too but staying positive because the Bears Den was just ahead and with it pizza, ice cream, showers and soda. In the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steve Covy is to the idea to begin with the end in mind. I decided since I couldn’t just stop, I had to keep going. I gave myself a pep talk and put one foot in front of the other picturing seeing the beautiful Sunset at the Rock outcropping by the Bears Den.
It was another two hours of up and down and up up up to the end of my hike. I arrived at the rocks at 6:30p.m. I sat down and said a prayer of gratitude meditating on the view and receding sun. As I passed through the stone pillars that mark the entrance to The Bears Den Hiking Hostel I felt relief. Putting my pack down on a nearby bench I went to look for my friend. I checked in with Glenn, the manager. When he saw me he laughed and said “you look like crap get some Gatorade out of the fridge now and sit down and drink it.’ I said, “I can’t stay here I smell like swamp water.” He said, “I’m used to that smell! After you drink it you can take a shower. Your friend is doing that right now.” What a gift.
The best thing about backpacking is how much I appreciate the little things that I take for granted and the kindness of strangers and the people who work to support the hikers. Part of the trail magic I experienced was much needed refreshing Gatorade! Earlier in the day at one point I decided to not fill my water at a creek because after that creek was a long up-section. An hour into the up, I was regretting my decision to hike carrying less water weight. As I was contemplating this, I saw something shiny ahead and found it was a parking lot. As I reached it on a boulder next to the trail was a red solo cup of ice, a Gatorade, an orange and a blue note with my name on it. My friend Deb has scored some snacks and left some for me. Guzzling down the icy cold drink I was grateful for Trail Magic or as one through-hikers told me, “the trail provides.”
After a shower, we said our goodbyes to the through-hikers we shared time with and ended our adventure at The Bears Chase Brewery overlooking the Valley. A cheese pizza, a cold beer, and a toast to two wild women adventurers.