Friday, November 4, 2016

Autumn (updated 11/16)

This my favorite season. The leaves, of course, but also the cool winds that keep hiking from turning into a sauna experience.  Most of the irritating residents here have retired for the winter, also -- especially the ticks.  

The only real problem -- cold and wet not being a part of my definition of fun -- is avoiding any weather window when winter's heralds sneak in with cold nights and heavy rains, it's important to let the forecast set the schedule. So, I did.

Sunday 9/30

Last May, I stopped my third AT section hike at Rock Springs Cabin in the Shenandoah National Park with a broken (Salomon) boot and a bent spirit. Today, I will do an out-and-back an easy six miles from the Big Meadows center to Rock Springs; then, after waiting back at Round Hill for a cold snap to pass by, I plan to backpack from Swift Run Gap north to Big Meadows.

The Ion will wait for me in the Big Meadows visitor center both times. I exchange my driving shoes for my new (unbroken, Vasque) boots, throw on my daypack and head down the trail … erm, the trail? It’s somewhere to the north, here … checking the map, backtracking, guessing which way to turn … and there’s the white blaze.  Now, the trail is running WSW to ENE, which way is northbound? This time, my first guess is correct.

The leaves are turning, green hillsides are showing their annual challenge to photographers and painters. Some of them get pretty close, but the real experience is on a different level.

Walking up a section of the trail paralleling Skyline Drive roaring with traffic a hundred yards to my right, I was surprised to find two  deer moving around the brush in front of me. One turned and ran at me and passed by less than five yards to my right, ears laid back, eyes wide open in fear -- ah, yes, there's the buck, prancing by on my left, keeping her pinned between him and the noisy road. Sad.  Leave it, dude, she's not buying your line ...

Reminds me of a current political figure a little bit, but the buck had better hair.

Rock Spring Hut is still there, one lonely tent perched up on the hill above the cabin. Someone taking advantage of the season to do local walks around Hawksbill Mountain?  Nobody stirring, so I head back south.

Back at Big Meadows -- in to the Wayside store for a blackberry milkshake.  The facilities up here may be run by the US Park Service’s national contractor, but all of the Shenandoah restaurants have kept up their tradition of serving blackberry treats. The drive back to Round Hill is uneventful; tomorrow, a dentist appointment, then pack up for two days and return.

Monday 11/1

Parked the Ion at Big Meadows once again and bought another blackberry milkshake -- it’s a reflex. Just for auld lang syne, really, there's none of the local blackberries left on the vines that make these treats really special.

What, you thought the AT experience was all about getting close to the land, simple living, privation? All of the hostels where I have stayed set a fine breakfast, all the AT guides include tips about good places to get dinner that welcome unwashed guests, and some of the craft breweries run shuttles from the Trail to their establishments.

The next step is one that I will have to get used to as these trips get farther from Round Hill. A hired shuttle carries my south to Swift Gap, where the second to last major highway crossing the Park. In an hour, I watch the hills roll by that will take me two days to walk through on the way back.

The weather is perfect autumn, warm without being stuffy, light breezes, moderately cool nights. It’s doubtful that I will have another window as good for hiking as this for a while.

The destination, though, is not a well planned stop. Just a mile down the road from the Park entrance, but the emphasis there is down, with no apparent walking path other than the highway median. The campground itself is a run down, unattended trailer park with the office locked and no one moving. A burst of rain that the forecast missed caught my pack unattended -- I was eating mac and cheese in a gas station convenience store up the street.

The store was good, though, and had WiFi. I caught up on plans for some rock work we have planned for the Sky Meadows trail on the 13th, responded to the property manager’s email about tenant issues, and bought a fried fruit pie for dessert.  

Somewhere along today’s drive, I have definitely arrived in the South, where everything is fried. The proprietors, Belinda and Sue, kept up a running chatfest until "The Big Bang" came on. They're fangirls, they say.

Campground greeter
Tomorrow, the Trail.

Wednesday 11/2

Chrissy from Yellow Cab arrived spot on my requested time and drove me 1 1/2 miles up US 33 to the Swift Run Gap ranger station.  Nobody home? Fine. Filled out the backcountry self-registration and headed up the road to find the  AT trailhead. On trail at 8 a.m., northbound.

A southbound hiker greets me and stops to chat, ask about the trail ahead.  He’s headed for Georgia?  Let’s see, 900 miles, 15-20 miles per day … 45 to 60 hiking days. Add resupply every five days or so … sometime between late December and early January?  The tough part will be the Smokies, we agree, where the temperatures will be the coldest.  Snowstorms, even. I wish him safe travels, and we head our separate ways.

Steady slopes up Saddleback Mountain (3296' , from 2400'), Bald Face Mountain (3631' from 2800'), and Lewis Mountain (3560'  from 3000') -- nothing that really qualifies as mountain climbing, even in the East. Sunny warm skies, gentle breezes -- a few gnats easily dispersed with Skeeter Beater (). Still, the knees and back were ready to stop when I reached my planned stop at 1:30, so I did.

The store manager at Lewis Mountain Campground told me that the campground had just closed for the season -- what, with beautiful weather like this? After we connected over a rousing review of the many ways General McClellan could have ended the Confederate Army's relevance, he waived the campsite fee.

Anyone who knows about the Battle of South Mountain is okay, it seems. I only knew about it because I stopped at one of the passes that a few Rebs held against the full Army of the Potomac -- details are in my post of April 3. Trivia matter sometimes, as they did for General Lee and the Confederacy that year.

Tomorrow, another easy walk to Big Meadows and back to Round Hill before the rain arrives.

Thursday, 11/3

Slower start this morning, but on the trail by 8:30.  Easy walk, with gentle climbs, canopies of red and golden leaves arching overhead.  A trio of southbound hikers greet me; they’re headed south as far as they want to go, and then they’ll stop.  My kind of hiking.

Over two hills that pretend to be mountains with some rock overhangs and views of the color-patched hills stretching away.  All of these rounded heights are remains of a towering mountain range that compared to the Himalayas, the geologists say, and the silt that washed off of them formed the great Piedmont plain that stretches out to Baltimore, Washington, and Norfolk. Water wins.

In the short term, though, life has its moments. The Trail turns arrow straight along the spine of Hazel Mountain through a grove of slender trees that throw a golden canopy overhead. Artists try but can’t capture this one, either.

Hazel Mountain

A missionary couple chats with me as I am resting up for the last mile. Their interest in the outdoors is mostly watching birds, however, and there are many of them out this day.

Finish line! Pack in the back seat, off to the restaurant at Skyland Resort.  They serve a blackberry cobbler there. With ice cream, of course.

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