After the photo shoot was over and my newly-adjusted glasses were mangled underfoot and we had survived the first assault squad of Cicadapocalypse 2013, it was probably 3pm when we finally set off along and around the Smithsonian Wildlife Preserve and into the woods.
At the first creek, about a mile in, I stopped and nearly drained my phone’s battery trying to watch Chris Pressey’s interview with a WSJ reporter about the esolang community and mindset as it unfolded live.
We only went as far as the first shelter (Jim and Molly Denton), five miles total from the road. It was quite a nice shelter, boasting a huge porch with an adirondack couch, and (if it had been working) a solar shower, and a water spigot. I hung my hammock on the lawn directly in front of it.
Puddin’ and Pattycake were there, on their way south from Harper’s Ferry to Rockfish Gap, a rare reversal of their northbound thru-hike. There were also two stoners dudes there whom I saw repeatedly for the next few days (Bil-J and Steve-o). Although I was pretty set with my ice-cold Mountain Dews and leftover spaghetti, I couldn’t match their fire-grilled steak and fresh salad dinner, and took Copper inside the hammock tent to sleep and sulk about our lack of steak and the broken shower.
I decided to put my summer plan into action the next day, as the weather was certainly justifying it. It was in the 80s to 90s for three days running. The plan goes like this: Get up at first light and get out as quick as possible, walk to the next shelter, spend all day just laying around and napping, then when it starts cooling off, pack up and walk on to the next shelter.
I didn’t do any of the first phase right that morning. I didn’t wake up until well after 7am, and, though I had charged my phone the previous night, I was surprised to find it had lost almost all of that charge by morning despite being turned off. Then, I couldn’t leave quickly because I had to cook and eat the rest of the spaghetti for breakfast, because there had been far too much to get down for supper. I think we didn’t leave until after 9am.
The jaunt to the next shelter (Manassas Gap Shelter) was mostly a breeze though. There were quite a few people coming through there that day going one direction or another. Idaho and his boyfriend (whose name I forget) were there cooking mac and cheese and ramen while I ate the ham and cheese sandwiches I packed in. Idaho slipped and exploded the whole pot of mac and cheese all over the place. Also, I don’t know what sort of implement he was referring to, but I had to point out to him the amusing contextuality of the following quote:
That won’t work. It’s too small, sweetie. I need the longer one.
He assured me they never say that in the bedroom.
Some older folks came in while I was napping, and there was lots of chat, so I didn’t end up getting all that much of a nap in. But I didn’t expect to succeed the first time. The point was to avoid walking in the hottest part of the day, and that was definitely successfully accomplished.
When we returned to the trail around 3pm, I was surprised to find that those two stoner guys had set up camp right at the intersection where the shelter trail turned off and did the same thing I did. We left them there and headed on to the next shelter, which was small but very curiously shaped. The sign says “Dick’s Dome aka George’s Geodesic” but it’s quite obviously a truncated icosahedron.
Someone was in a tent up the trail but never came to visit, and Bear, the ridge runner, had hung his hammock, and those two stoner dudes came through for supper, but decided to keep on hiking into the night, so I had the place to myself that night. I didn’t have to treat water because Bear filtered it for me. I shared the rest of my whiskey with him. I was so full from lunch that I waited until it was dark out to heat up my pot roast/potatoes/carrots. But when I ate it, it was so super-delicious, I wondered why I waited so long. Bear insisted it was so amazing because I waited. Anyway, I managed to down all five pounds of it in one sitting, though I barely managed to get the last few bites down. Then, we both went to bed.
The next day, the enormous tarantula-sized wolf spider Bil-J had seen in the privy the night before was gone, so I was able to get going early. I woke Bear up and we set off together, though we were headed opposite directions.
After I passed through Sky Meadows St. Park (a grassy field at the top of a hill where the motorcycle hum of the cicadas drowned out all other sound), the first thing I had to do was cross the divided highway at Ashby Gap, which was pretty scary to do with Copper, because there was a curve just a couple of hundred yards away in both directions to limit visibility, and so many cars coming through that you couldn’t hear whether one was coming around the corner either. And on top of that, Copper never exceeds his max walking speed no matter how strongly you urge him to “go!”.
For the next 27 miles after Ashby Gap, the trail follows the border of Mosby’s Confederacy, the home range of the guerilla band of Confederate soldiers led by Col. John Singleton Mosby. (If you google it, you’ll find an RTS game instead of any actual information about the man or his activities.) I only had to go another 3.5 more miles to Rod Hollow Shelter where I was going to spend the day. The two stoner dudes were already there in the shelter, and, surprise surprise, BP and Doc were camped under the cooking pavilion. I sat down in the shelter and improvised a lunch, then, inspired by Doc (who got his hammock stitched back together by a seamstress) walked up to the camping area, hung my hammock, and tried to sleep. My shade disappeared as the sun moved, and soon it was too warm to sleep, so I went back to the shelter to hang out and eat some more. The pair of old guys who had been at Manassas Gap while I was there had showed up again. And one visitor was a bit less welcome: I was just sitting there when a Blacksnake came creeping around the edge of the shelter and along the cement block to where all my food and gear was sitting. I woke up the stoner dude sleeping next to me to show him. When it was less than three feet away, I stood up, and the snake, startled witless, turned and launched itself 10 feet out into the yard to go bother someone else.
I moved my hammock under the cooking pavilion across from Doc’s, since the shade had moved to the opposite side, but I couldn’t sleep because Doc and BP were awake, and soon Boon and Lauren, who had camped about 50 yards up the shelter trail all day showed up to see who was around. We all cooked and ate together, then, around 4, I started packing, and left before 6. A mile past the shelter, I boarded The Rollercoaster.
The first hill of the coaster was easy, because I was fresh, and the second hill not much worse, and then the trail leveled for a long runout as the sun set. Soon after I turned my headlamp on, I rolled up onto a narrow area just off the trail absolutely brimming with tents. A lot of thrus were camping there for some reason, and one of them was none other than Coolie McJetpack, returned from Trail Days and a battle with a staph infection. But it wasn’t a good place to hang a hammock, so I pushed on over Buzzard Hill. It was a long descent from there to the streams, and then there was yet another hill to climb before the next shelter. By the time this hill came along, 7 miles into my evening, I was no longer fresh and I was hating every moment of it. I just wanted to be done. I stopped halfway up and sat down for a few minutes with my headlamp off to catch my breath. I psyched myself up, reminding myself I’d climbed much bigger hills in much less time, and drove on to the Sam Moore Shelter, where the stoner dudes already had a fire going. They were in the process of moving it from the near pit to the far pit to avoid burning down the shelter, though it looked like no threat to me. I left them to sit up with the fire and went to sleep.
The next day, I had only 3 miles to go to get to the Bear’s Den Lodge and Hiker Hostel, famous for its $30 package, including pizza, ice cream, laundry, bed and shower. However, I had no need of laundry, and there are plenty of places to sleep, and I had no desire to drop $30 either. But it was already shaping up to be a scorcher and the word was, the hostel was sort of a hiker lounge all day long while the lodge was closed for cleaning. (It was only open 5pm-9am.) Sitting inside during the heat of the day sounded nice, as did the Ben and Jerry’s pint. I passed the campsite of Lauren just before passing the campsite of Doc, Boon, and BP, who, despite their threats, did not make it to Harper’s Ferry that night, then made it just after 9, so the caretakers were still dealing with some hikers, which meant I was just in time to buy a pint. They had a huge selection, but I couldn’t resist the coffee heath bar crunch. It was so cold I couldn’t touch it at first, so I let it melt for a while and unpacked some stuff and spread out a bit. When I ate it, it was perfectly soft, and definitely the perfect flavor. Then I took a shower, drank some sodas, wrote a blog post (sitting outside in the pavilion while tourists and their kids played on the lawn), listened to some music (the Better-Left-Forgotten Song from the Nineties satellite channel selected by Steve-o), watched a movie (The Hobbit, the animated Rankin/Bass one, after the dudes left–amazing how much story they packed into so short a movie), ate some snacks, and finally, when it was around 4pm and a ton of hikers started arriving and I felt like I was taking up their space, I packed up and left, returned, packed up my phone and charger I nearly left behind, then left again.
Just before the rollercoaster ended, I passed a cliff where some guys were doing some rock climbing. There was one guy just reaching the top of the wall, one guy at the bottom belaying from his hammock, and sitting on a rock nearby, Lauren, who had done some climbing as well. They told me Doc had climbed some too when he had passed by during the hotter part of the day. I was eager to be done with the rollercoaster, and pushed on. Immediately after Bear’s Den is Snickers Gap, which is another treacherous divided highway crossing, and this time we nearly didn’t make it before the cars got to us. The section of trail thereafter was pretty level, and I was eager to make it to the Blackburn Trail Center before dark, so we didn’t stop moving even when I was wearing down and feeling utterly starved. When I estimated the center to be 20 minutes away, I realized it would be 40 minutes until food since I had eaten all my snacks but the Blasts and I would have to cook to eat. Then when I came to the side trail, it was way more than the 0.4mi the map indicated, winding down the hill forever. Boy, was I happy when I walked onto the porch to see a bowl of sliced watermelon and even happier when Caroline said “Would you like a soda?” and fetched one and then “How about some leftover spaghetti?” and went to warm it up. I gave Copper a bowl of food and water to eat while I ate, then we headed off to the cabin which it would appear we had to ourselves. It was just four bunk-shelves arranged around a potbelly stove in an enclosed room with the windows thankfully open, but it was stiflingly hot, so I was glad to have it to myself. I stripped down completely and laid on top of my sleeping bag until the sun was completely gone. Finally, it was cool enough to slip into my sleeping bag, and good thing I did, since just as I was about to drift off, Lauren comes clambering in, ready to chat and make a ruckus.
Lauren: Oh good, I’m glad it’s only you here.
Me: What do you mean you’re glad it’s only me?
Lauren: Oh, it might have been full of people and I’d be bothering a whole bunch of people coming in here this late.
(Of course, I still think what she meant was “Oh good, I’m glad Doc and Boon aren’t here.”)
Eventually, she got settled in and I got back to sleep. I woke up at first light the next morning, and got my morning business done and all packed up by the time Lauren rolled out of bed. I suspect all my packing noise woke her up. (Muahaha!) I probably left the center around 6:30 or 7, but it was already starting to get warm. At the very least, it was super-muggy.
My plan was to get to highway 9 as quickly as possible and get some more snacks and a pizza at a nearby mini-mart and restaurant. It was only about 6 miles, so I was there by 10. There was a great covered doorway on the side that kept the rain that was just starting off, so I tied Copper up there and got a blue raspberry Mountain Dew, a pickled sausage, and a Hershey’s strawberry sundae and sat out there with him listening to A Feast For Crows and waiting for the restaurant to open (at noon).
When it did, I sat in there and ate a whole pizza while my phone charged, then returned to the trail. There was a huge and obviously out-of-shape guy waiting back at the crossing who had sectioned the whole trail and wanted to tell me everything about the trail ahead and life after the trail, but eventually I tore myself away and got walking. Some little way after entering West Virginia proper (rather than just hugging the border), I happened upon Doc, with whom I walked the rest of the way into town. He told me about how they’d separated from Lauren (by choice), how he’d climbed the wall yesterday, and how they’d spent most of the previous day tripping on shrooms the stoner dudes had given them. He took our picture on the bridge over the Shenandoah and then we separated at the side trail to the ATC shortly after (so he could go get his picture in the book).
I told him I was planning on going to the Coffee Mill for some frozen custard and continued on past Jefferson Rock and all the old churches of High Street.
At one point I had to step right over this guy:
It turned out the Coffee Mill closed just before I arrived, so I went up the street to an ice cream and candy shop called Scoops. Coolie McJetpack was already in there chatting with the clerk. I got two scoops of black cherry with twix pieces and two kinds of sprinkles and a locally bottled root beer and sat down to have lunch with him. He had one scoop and some bean burger nachos. As we were finishing our meal, a real life embodiment of Jack Black in Brutal Legend forcibly joined our conversation. Turns out he used to be in obscure metal bands, but now he does grotesque magic for the nightly ghost tour thing that left from Scoops, was remodeling the house down the street he lived in and used for that purpose, and owned, at great expense, Aleister Crowley’s “cursed” ouija board (which he used in his act). Furthermore, he is a champion of Ayn Rand, uses the phrase “Satanically speaking”, and is extraordinarily hard to break out of a conversation with. Coolie, who had rented a house across the street with some other folks, distracted him while I bought a bag of wax soda bottles for the road and headed out. Rather than wait for Doc to show up, I decided to lead some lost tourists to the bridge and go on across to Maryland. Coolie went with us as far as the bridge and turned back.
A half-mile down the towpath, I came across the stoner dudes sitting on a log. They had spent the entire day swimming in the Potomac. I told them Doc and Boon had had a wonderful day of hiking thanks to them and headed on. Into the woods, through the canal, over the railroad tracks, up the hill to Harper’s Ferry Hostel. On checking in, I got myself laundry access, a shower, and breakfast. I hung my hammock in the yard next to an enormous tent occupied by a solitary woman…but more about her in a later post. By the time I finished my shower, they were setting up a movie on the porch, so I sat out there eating free popcorn and watched Good Will Hunting until it was over and I was the only person still awake. I called Copper out to the hammock tent, climbed in and laid there through a thunderstorm. I had to hold Copper still below me until the thunder ended. The next morning, I ate pancakes and breakfast casserole, did my laundry, dried off and packed up my hammock, then Copper and I headed back down and over the railroad tracks and onto the canal towpath, and headed east. When the AT turned off to go north again, we kept going straight.
And that brings us to the afternoon of the 3rd. Next post: Some time in the next five days.