Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Appalachian Trail's Virginia Roller Coaster


Departed Ashby Gap at the side of US 50. My mentor tried to help me heave the 45 pound pack onto my back, but I declined -- have to do these things myself. Up the hill, avoiding gasping for breath until I was out of sight.

Up, up, down down and then up -- the Roller Coaster is well named. The tongue-in-cheek sign posted at each end titled  "HIKER WARNING" identifies the trail maintainers as "Trailboss" and his crew -- Trailboss being in real life an intensely cheerful Englishman who I have dragged along behind as he rushed into a patch of briar, wearing shorts and swinging a machete while the briars drew streaks of blood from his calves. He and his equally energetic spouse are well loved by all.

As the trail approached the northern end of the Roller Coaster's first section, the number of people heading south increased -- usual friendly greetings, with one of the standard phrases: "Great weather!" "Isn't it great to be outside!" "Nice looking dog!  How old?" "Are there more uphill climbs?" "Do those poles help?" Just conversational sound bites.

Fourteen day hikers, one trailrunner, and three backpackers with shiny new hiking gear, greeted me and passed on southbound.

The elder member of the group of three greeted me with the question "How far is it to Harper's Ferry?"

"Uh -- about 30 miles back the way you came from?" A short course in map reading followed; at least they had a map!  The AT is notorious for drawing less than knowledgeable hikers out on the trail with fashionable exercise clothing, flips or similar footwear, and a twelve ounce bottle of water.

Yeah, they're ready ....

First evening's stop -- Sam Moore Shelter. One other occupant ahead of me, who introduced himself by his trail name "Poacher", had a fire started in the pit, so I got my bedding and dinner set up and then joined him in foraging for downed wood. We spent the evening until hikers' midnight (9:00 pm) ritually bemoaning the various things that would draw us back out of the beauty and quiet of the wilderness, back into so-called civilization.


After an early wakeup and breakfast, I dawdled over tea to chat more with Poacher and did not get back on the trail until 8:45.  Another three hours of up and down brought me to Bears Den, a large stone hikers hostel where bears apparently used to roam (These days, the bears would have to be in the top 1%, it's a very upscale neighborhood.)

As I was working my way north from Bears Den through a cluster of day hikers, a young woman greeted me by exclaiming that she could never carry such a large pack, this South trail was too rocky. (In those tick-bait shoes, child, I wouldn't worry about the pack or the rocks.)

"South trail"? Right, the sign. With an attentive and quiet fellow of her generation listening, I politely explained -- this is the Appalachian Trail, "AT South" is pointing toward Georgia, a thousand miles away. Turn around, walk a thousand miles the other way? New Hampshire. Although fascinated by the idea , she again claimed that she would never be able to do such a thing.

Barbie Doll reflex, I thought to myself, and asked her to reconsider, if only as a way connect with nature, to improve her physical fitness, step away from the distractions of city life, and be reasonably safe -- if the two of them hiked together.

Well, he looked interested at least.

After scampering across the four lanes of Route 7 -- ever tried to scamper with a 45 pound monkey on your back? -- I entered the northern part of the Roller Coaster and headed for the Blackburn Trail Center. Our crew visits once a year to help Trailboss and his spouse, who are the center managers there. The tasks involve no more than lightweight house maintenance on doors, gutters, and the like, and nobody really minds if you break a PVC water line or two (as long as you repair it afterwards).

They feed us well.

Although my joints were blessedly pain-free, the thigh muscles started to object to the uphill parts as the afternoon shadows grew longer, and insisted both on a slower pace and a dose of hikers' vitamin I (ibuprofen). Sunset arrived before the turn towards Blackburn, so I pitched tent in open land about 30 feet away from the trail.

Fighting exhaustion ... pitch tent, make dinner, pull leftover food items up into the trees to avoid animal interest, and curl up in my tent.

A word or two about hiking technology, which was part of the conversation that Poacher and I shared. Some things are a tremendous improvement -- frame packs that weigh less than 20 pounds, water boilers, and GPS; others are of questionable value. I found, for example, that the Katadyn (r) water purifier was difficult to use and not sturdy enough for the trail; it me failed after the first day.

Sleeping bag liners are definitely a big plus that allows comfortable sleeping at subfreezing temperatures without needing to pack a bulky zero degree bag. Downside? Those predawn needs to step out and answer nature's call ... getting back into the liner while half asleep and cold, not so easy.

The Katadyn filter did lead me to my closest non-human animal encounter of the trip. While I was quietly frustrating with the device by the side of a spring, a racoon came walking up to get a sip -- but my attempt to get my camera out startled him, and he went away. Damn paparrazi ...

While gulping down a double serving of hastily warmed chicken chili this evening, I looked out over the street lights of Round Hill below in the valley.  Tonight, I thought, I could be eating a healthier and tastier salad dinner, grabbing a hot shower, and retiring to sleep on a cushioned bed -- but I can do that any time. All in all, this is a better place to be.


Blackburn Trail Center was only an hour further up the trail; could I have made it in the dark? Possibly. I chatted with the overseer at the center, filled up on water, and headed north. Five hours later, including an hour long lunch/nap, Keys Gap -- 28 miles, nearly twice the originally planned distance, with sore muscles and a smile.

Walk in the woods enjoyed, good people met, lessons learned. On to the next backpacking adventure, in April!

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