Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Waynesboro, VA to Front Royal, VA

Darwin and Legs finally leave Waynesboro after food poisoning. They enter the easy, and well stocked, but sodden, Shenandoah National Park. To catch their tramily, 20 mile days are ahead!

May 4th, 2017
Waynesboro, VA to Blackrock Hut Shelter
20.7 miles

“I don’t remember life before Waynesboro!” – Darwin

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Finally, we were ready to leave Waynesboro, and I have to give it to Legs, she was ready to go despite just getting over terrible food poisoning. We called Yellow Truck, a local trail angel, and he picked us up in…a yellow truck!

Low and behold, Darwin and Legs were back on the the Appalachian Trail, so rain was in the forecast! It rains in Virginia, I don’t remember if I told you yet.DSC02700.jpgAll day, the rain loomed over us. Tapping us on the top of our heads every now and then, then scampering away like a petulant child. Thankfully, the trail was very gentle, so we maintained a 3+ mph average for all 20 miles. That’s pretty fast, guys. Guys?!

With the final words of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix fading away, it started to rain. Anyone would cry at the end of that book, so for this once, I didn’t blame the sky. With six miles left, it was just a drizzle. With .2 miles left, it started to pour! We ran into the shelter before getting too saturated.

Home for the night was Blackrock Hut Shelter. There were only two other hikers there, already snug and cozy in their bags, eating their dinners. We quickly took a patch of platform and made dinner. DSC02702.jpgLegs was happy that she could keep food down, and I swear I heard her swearing off French Toast forever. For water, there is a small, hidden spring in front of the shelter in a ditch. To see it, you have to be right on top of it, yet when you finally see it, its relatively large and gushing! It rained long, and hard that night, so the hidden spring became one of many, obvious, waterfalls. As always, the shelter protected us and we slept snug and warm.

May 5th, 2017
Blackrock Hut Shelter to Hightop Spring Hut
22 miles

I heard the rain before opening my eyes. My watch read 5am, too early to wake up, but late enough to hint at the day ahead. Instantly depressed, I curled up into my quilt and went back to sleep. I woke again a few hours later, and miraculously the rain had stopped.

The ditch in front of the shelter, where the hidden spring was, now had a dozen gushing falls filling it up. The ditch was now a pond. We made breakfast under the particularly loud morning chorus of the birds of Shenandoah. The sun was warmly buzzing down. I thought back to the cold days of Georgia, and North Carolina, and smiled at the warm morning. DSC02703.jpg

We set out into the damp. Every overhanging branch, sodden and low, brushed a cold swathe of water over us with each pass. The rhododendrons were particularly annoying.

Before long, we were soaked from the ambient moisture, but we didn’t care or stop. Our double zero in Waynesboro had put us behind the tramily, and though we did a 20+ the previous day, we were still 10 miles behind their camp. Strider, Glim-Glom, and Wet Wipes purposefully did a smaller day the previous day, so we could have a chance of catching up. We hiked for 10 miles straight to Loft Mountain Wayside, near where they had reportedly camped the previous night.

We saw them sitting in a booth at the wayside, having hiked -.8 to get there. That’s right, they technically hiked backwards that day, and it was already 11. I’d like to believe they stayed for us, deciding to do two small days in a row for us to catch them. The morning rain had nothing to do with it…

It was such a warming sight to see Strider’s neon pink bandana, Glim-Glom’s red trucker hat, and Wet Wipes’ blue galaxy kitten and taco pizza shirt (wow thats a sentence).  We sat down to eat with them, and heard there stories from when we were apart. 

Apparently, as we were snuggled, warm and protected in Blackrock Shelter, they had made a makeshift camp on a side trail. They took the full force of the night long storm in their tents and hammocks, which made for a flooded, harrowing night. The next morning, as we hiked towards them, they took turns hitting the group snooze button. Basically, someone would yell from a tent,

“Does anyone wanna hike out? “
“NO.”
“NOoO.”
“Nooooo.”

Rinse, and repeat for 4 hours.

As we sat in a plush booth near a wide window, another huge storm rolled over. We couldn’t have planned it more perfectly, and watched the whole thing from inside, eating. I was ready to call it right there, because there was no way I was walking out in a storm like that. If I have any rules out there, one of them is,

“NEVER HIKE OUT INTO A STORM!”DSC02705.jpg

As we debated hiking another 12 miles, the storm stopped on a dime, and the sky turned a robin’s egg blue.

Without the excuse of rain, we left the wayside and continued north through Shenandoah. We had no major climbs, and we had crested the Shenandoah Ridge, so the trail felt extra easy. Despite the occasional flooded trail, the trail was very gentle, and perforated with roadside vistas. You cross Skyline Drive about 147 billion times. but those tend to be the best views.  The road did used to be the Appalachian Trail.

We walked through the wet, green, forest, where every petal, blade, and leaf was dusted with glittering water droplets. They sparkled like the finest gems in the bright sunlight.DSC02724

By the end of another 20+ mile day, Legs’ right shin was beginning to flare up. Typical, as her left shin had began to feel better. Such is life on a thru hike, there is usually something bothering you.

We were happy to reach the side trail to Hightop Hut, but the side trail turned out to be a flooded, muddy, mess. With some creative rock hopping, and prayers to the trail gods, we made it through without getting our shoes wet. At the shelter, a large stone fire pit acted as drier for several pairs of socks, shoes, and pants. Other hikers had not been as lucky as us in the mud pits. Many socks lay speared on sticks like severed heads, dangling over the fire.

There were a ton of section hikers, and weekend hikers, so we assumed we would have no space in the shelter. Ironically, they all wanted to sleep in their tents.

There’s a big difference between the mindset of short term hikers, and long term hikers. Many of these people wanted to sleep in their tents, because they hadn’t in months, and were excited to get in there. For us, I was excited to NOT set my tent up! It smells like an aquarium for fucks sake and the ground was literally a tar pit! 

May 5th, 2017
Hightop Hut to Big Meadow Campground
20.8 miles

Now, I hope you are sitting down, because what I am about to say is going to blow your mind. When we woke up, it was raining. Take your time, I’ll be here.

I squirmed in my 55 degree sleeping bag, I had been sent in Waynesboro. I thought about my down jacket, and rain shell flying through the air back to NYC. What a perfect time to have sent ALL my layers home. Currently, all I had was my hiking shirt and shorts, a 2oz wind shell, and a poncho.DSC02718.jpg

“You’d be surprised how much warmth you can squeeze out of a poncho.” – Darwin 

It was in the low 40’s. All the section hikers, and weekend hikers had left hours ago, but Strider, Wet-Wipes, Glim-Glom, Legs, and myself, were sitting in our sleeping bags, backs against the shelter’s back wall. We would hike out, eventually. We just wanted to see if the rain would stop first!

We left at 11am, after we were certain the rain was finished. Legs’ took the lead as usual, and moved well despite her shin pain. She explained to me,

“I find if I keep moving through the pain, it eventually goes away, and it’s way better throughout the day. But, if we stop for a long break, and then start again, it is exponentially worse. So the best thing to do for my injured leg is to hike this 20 mile day with little to no breaks, right?”

That seemed like hard science, so we didn’t take many breaks that day. Plus, Big Meadow Wayside closed at 7pm, and we had 20.8 miles before we got there. And you best believe we were eating hot food again for dinner. Gotta love the Shennies! DSC02713.jpg

It was the first cold day in weeks, staying in the low 50’s during the day. A chill wind whipped through the trees, so Legs hiked with her rain shell. For me, it was the perfect temperature. I WASN’T SWEATING! We hiked together for the first ten miles, hitting High Top Mountain, and Baldface Mountain in the clouds. It was a dull spot in the trail, so I decided to go my own way, and speed hike the last 10 miles to Big Meadow Wayside.

Everyone made it to the Wayside before it closed, and a feast was held. Chili, fried chicken, blackberry milkshakes, and mash potatoes covered the tables.DSC02706.jpg

All the food put us into a torpor, so we waddled .8 to the Big Meadow Campsite. We set up our hammocks and UL tarp tents among vacationing families with all assortment of nylon mansions. We felt like fish out of water, and we probably smelled like it too. $20 split between 6 people isn’t bad though and no one bothered us freaks. 

May 7th, 2017
Big Meadow Campground to Pass Mountain Shelter

20 miles

Are we still in The Shenandoah? Yes? Then we are eating hot food for breakfast. We hiked the mile back to Big Meadow Wayside for breakfast. I was particularly hungry this morning, so I decided to go big.  I ended up eating somewhere around 4,200 calories that breakfast, and weirdly, I could still have eaten more.DSC02719.jpg

Legs called me a monster. Hurtful. She also paid, so I get it. 

It was another cold morning, and another quick pang of, “Why did I send all my layers home again?” The day was dry though, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting wet and cold at least.

The trail was gorgeous, running along the western edge of the Shenandoah Ridge. Intermittent pockets would open in the foliage, exposing the historic valley below. Spread out were a patchwork of farms, and small towns. Small storms lumbered in isolated chunks over the valley as well, leaving behind a wet trail. It was a sight to behold.

We made it steadily upward to Skyland Resort for 9 miles, and sat down to eat again. Shenandoah hiking is easy, ultralight, and delicious, but damn, can it be expensive! All these hot meals seriously put a dent into a hiker’s ziplock bag wallet. Just be aware.DSC02725.jpg

After Skyland, the trail hits it’s highest point in Shenandoah, and one of the best viewpoints of the Appalachian Trail thus far, The Stoney Man Cliffs.

The trail wraps around a corner, opening to a rocky shelf facing due west. The view hasn’t changed from other vistas in the park, but there’s something special about Stoney Man. Maybe it’s Stoney Man Summit framing the view to the South, or the glasslike puddles in the stone that served as mirrors. Maybe it was the approaching rain storm, and cumulous clouds casting complex shadows on the valley, or the amazing company of a tramily we have hiked with for nearly 700 miles. All I know is, we all shared a collective moment of trail joy as we looked out.

We watched a rolling storm continue toward us, so we decided to bolt. The tramily fell into their paces, and we were cruising again. Legs and I continued with Harry Potter on Audiobook, and fell into a steady rhythm. The rain must had veered off, because it never hit us.DSC02759.jpg

Legs’ shin was bothering her, so she kept walking when Strider, Wet-Wipes, Glim-Glom, and I took the side trail to Mary’s Rocks. From Mary’s Rock’s you could see the usual view west, but also see north along the Shenandoah Ridge making is a unique vista in Shenandoah. You could see exactly where the trail was going along the winding ridge, and could basically touch our future campsite.DSC02769.jpg

A few hours later, we were there. Interesting how that happens when you walk the miles. It’s almost like all these hours will add up eventually and we’ll be at Katahdin. That can’t be right, right? Katahdin is just a myth.DSC02776.jpg

May 8th, 2017
Pass Mountain Shelter to Compton Peak campsite
19.7 miles

On the morning of our final, full day in Shenandoah National Park, we left camp at 11am. It seemed fitting as we didn’t want to change our Shenandoah rhythm up on the last day!DSC02761.jpg

The Tramily was firing on all Hiker Trash cylinders. Wet Wipe’s only had honey buns. Not a lot of honey buns. ONLY honey buns. Strider had transformed into a pink clad beatnik in short shorts, and Glim-Glom was just being regular Glim-Glom. So you know, eclectic. I had no clothing anymore, except the stuff I was wearing, and had maybe a days worth of snacks, so my pack felt about as heavy as a grape. Of course there was another wayside in 7 miles, and of course we were going to eat there.DSC02777

We arrived at Elkwallow wayside in a few hours, went inside, and gorged ourselves again. We only eat like this now, there is no subtlety, just carnage. Chili, chicken tenders, and anything you can throw into a deep frier, it went in my stomach. Full to bursting, we went outside to sit on the cement stoop.

In the warm sun, and full of fatty, fried foods, everyone but me fell asleep. Geriatric park visitors looked down at Legs in confusion as she slept half on the steps, half on the walkway, completely passed out, while Glim-Glom draped his foam pad over himself like a blanket.

Overheard on the AT: At some point during that day, Strider and I had a full conversation about beds. We talked about how comfortable they were, what types of mattresses we preferred. We debated the pros and cons of spring and foam, hardness and softness, and of course, just having a mattress to sleep on. Basically, we had a long conversation about mattresses because sleeping on one sounds like an absolute dream right now. – Legs

We left the wayside, and settled into our northernly rhythm. Shenandoah gave us it’s quintessential self; easy trail with the errant rocky patch, punctuated with view points, and road crossings, usually at the same time. It’s damn near impossible to feel negative on some level when you get to a view you worked hard for, only to find it packed with cars. I don’t mind the other tourists, but I am human. Who doesn’t want pristine vistas to themselves?

Sometimes even Skyline Drive can be beautiful, winding away into the green, and blue in both directions. It’s also not very busy, so you can stand in the middle of the road and take photos!DSC02784.jpg

Thanks to Wet Wipes and his Guthook App, we knew of a flat spot just off the trail, before Compton Peak. On AWOLs, it’s maybe .2 after Compton Springs, to the left of the trail. It was at this campsite, Wet Wipes laughed so hard he could barely breath. There has definitely been an increase in moments of hysterical, fall down, side splitting, laughter since we’ve been hiking.

Pain on the AT: Legs’ hip, and shin were definitely beat up. Pain is an old friend on the AT, but there is a difference between the dull, stiff ache of hiking many days in a row, and the sharp, hard, pain of an injury. Legs’ was feeling the latter, which not only hindered her hiking abilities, but also made for some hard nights. You’d be right to equate most suffering of an injury while you’re hiking, but a good injury will follow you back to your tent. With her hip hurting, Legs’ would constantly rotate from right hip, to back, to left hip, to stomach, like a painful, sleepless, rotisserie. Thankfully, her moms were sending her a pillow in Front Royal, which would nudge her towards a little more comfort.DSC02789.jpg

May 9th, 2017
Compton Peak to Jim and Molly Denton Shelter
11.8 Miles

We all woke to high spirits. There is certainly a boost in moral when you snag a great camping spot for you and the tramily without anyone else rocking up too. It was an easy morning, as we had about 6.5 miles to hike into Front Royal. I checked AWOLs to see what the terrain would be like. Besides a small uphill at the end, the trail looked like it would trend downhill for most of the way. Thus I decided to hike it as fast as I could. Wet Wipes, always up for a challenge, said he would pace with me.DSC02783.jpg

We left camp at a high rate of speed, and did not let up for the entire 6 miles. It was more of a slow run than a hike, but I was determined to out distance Wet Wipes. For his credit, he stuck with me for the most part, and I could only get a few dozen feet ahead of him until he caught up on a down hill. These are the things we do to entertain ourselves. Fake compete on a meaningless stretch of this ridiculous trail. Yet, I was screaming back at him insults and encouragement, enjoying the hell out of it. 

Within the last 50 feet, I broke into a spring, hearing Wipes do the same. I reached a small bench on the side of the Front Royal road crossing and quickly laid down. Looking down at my watch I said,

“Geez Wipes, what took you so long, I’ve been here for hours?!”

The rest showed up not too long after, though they decided to walk like normal people. We all hitched into Front Royal for resupply, of course hitting a Thai Restaurant almost immediately.

We decided to stay later into the evening to catch the movie Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which we were all so desperate to see. Watching a movie is such a luxury on a thru hike. Cool, dark, comfortable, and so much food!

The theater never opened, for no given reason, so all of us hiked the 5 miles out of town to the shelter, in the dark, with I KID YOU NOT, the biggest disappointment of the trail hanging over our heads. We arrived to the shelter in the dark, and were not even able to take advantage of how sick it was.

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