Shenandoah National Park, 9/16-18/11
We did it. 107 miles over 3 days. Day 1: 33.2 miles from Rockfish Gap in Waynesboro, Virginia to Pinefield Hut in 13 hours. Day 2: 36.6 miles from Pinefield Hut to Skyland in 15 hours. Day 3: 37.2 miles from Skyland to Chester Gap in Front Royal, Virginia, in about 16.5 hours.
Before beginning this adventure, we knew Day 1 would be the exciting & energetic one. Our friend Annie hosted us Thursday evening, and dutifully drove us to Rockfish Gap in the dark 5:00 hour Friday morning. We got our backcountry pass and waved farewell. She had a huge smile of pride with a little of ‘what-in-the-world-are-they-getting-themselves-into’ on her face. It was dark and cool and misty, and we were going on a hike. That trail started straight up.
So straight up we went to Bears Den Mountain. Our arrival at the summit was timely; the early sun was blazing for us. We were hiking! Our faces had huge smiles and we were indeed full of energy. We had a brief stop to refuel and take in the summit’s juxtaposition of tranquil meadow bathed in morning sun punctuated by a public art installation of tractor seats and an unsightly cluster of radio towers. The tractor seats were useful. The radio towers too. We had cell reception and let our loved ones know we had had a successful start to the Crooked Trail 100. Right from the start we got encouraging texts; this was fun!
That entire first morning was simply awesome. We saw our first bears – a momma and her cubs. We saw many deer, we saw just two other hikers. We saw a wonderful trail angel station full of water for the weekend’s hikers. At one point we saw a very serious sign with bold, capital letters warning hikers of a bear danger area. The silver lining to this is that we saw this sign as we were leaving that area. Nice.
The morning trek led us to Blackrock Mountain. We had lunch on the warm rocks at the summit. Unanimously the favorite stop along the trail. The other unanimous conclusion was that we each had way overpacked sweet protein bars, granola, and gu, but were lacking salt in a major way. We savored Jason’s packet of tuna and devoured his beef jerky. We needed more salt…
Another bear, an afternoon of hiking, and the camp store at Loft Mountain. We had one thing on our minds. We ate an entire bag of chips in record time and stocked up on Day 2 lunch in advance. Tuna, salt, pretzels, salt, cheese crackers, and salt. We were good. A nice little pause in the afternoon sun and a whole lot of water to wash down that salt and we were ready for the day’s last hike.
The Crooked Trail 100 was divided into small hikes. Jason proposed this early on, and his reasoning was clear. Who wants to hear, “Great! 5 miles down, 102 to go!”? It was easier to hike a few hours at a time with short rests in between, longer breaks for lunch. So after our camp store stop, we had another 2 hours to hike to our camp.
Pinefield Hut was a welcome sight at 6:30 that first day. After 13 hours of hiking, I was so excited to see our faithful friend Erin. We had visions of strolling into camp, seeing our tents warmly awaiting us, sitting down to a nice sandwich, and calling it an early night. Imagine our surprise when, at 6:30 and nearly 40 degrees outside, night was falling and Erin was nowhere to be seen. An extremely polite thru hiker named Denver had settled in nicely at Pinefield Hut and was happy to have the company. Jason anxiously waited for Erin 100 yards up from camp by the road, knowing he was bound to appear momentarily. Denver and I exchanged stories next to the warm fire he had built, and he assured me that Erin would come. Jason returned without Erin. Amidst our worry, our choice was to make a plan. Denver divided up his belongings between us, deciding how to best keep us warm for the cold evening. Jason said we would sleep a little and then start hiking when we got too cold. My teeth chattered and I nodded. Plan in place, cup of tea in hand, and alas! Erin! His headlamp bobbing in the dark was the most reassuring sight. His unintended tardiness was due to HOV restrictions on 66 coming from Washington. Who cares. He had arrived bearing the best Italian Store sandwiches ever made, and tents, and warm sleeping bags, and warm clothing. Breathe. Sandwiches disappeared, tents pitched, and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Marimba takes on a whole new sound at 4:45am in the woods. We reluctantly opened our eyes, stretched, regrouped, and were off. Good-byes and thank-you’s to Erin. Time to hike.
Hiking in Saturday morning’s pre-dawn silence clarified my realization that when we have a break at a gap, that gap follows a mountain. Mountains up, gaps down. Onward. Day broke in an uneventful manner in comparison to Friday. We loved seeing the deer so close, so quiet. So many! Another bear too. This is getting fun. Our bear count was up to five by mid-day Saturday.
In our pre-hike forecast, we both agreed that Day 2 would be the hard day. The newness of Day 1, gone. The morning’s hikes were to Powell Gap and Swift Run Gap. Some of the mountains did not have names to us, Hightop was the one before Swift Run. The day’s long hike came prior to our intended lunch stop at Lewis Mountain campground. 8.3 miles before lunch was long. We were both bonking, and were dreaming of our tuna packets and our cheese crackers. After a hard morning we were there, and we were hungry. As for the temperatures and weather in general, we could not have been more fortunate. It was perfect; fresh and good. Not too hot, cool enough to be a bit chilly, but we warmed quickly once we were moving.
Lewis Mountain campground lunch was a necessary slow process. We ate, refueled, and regained strength. We were good. How about a hike?! We were about half-way to Skyland. The afternoon’s first two hikes were great. Because we had energy again, we could talk! I got a one-on-one lesson on chocolate. I highly recommend Jason as a teacher. He knows his chocolate. I am sure I held up my end of the deal in talking, but I have no idea what I talked about. Thank goodness for Jason’s patience.
Rock Spring Hut was the starting point for our last hike of the day, the hike that would take us into Skyland. A warm dinner, a hot shower, and a cozy bed. So close. Yet so far. As dusk fell, it was time for headlamps. Evening headlamps are entirely different from morning headlamps. Here’s why: in the morning, wearing headlamps is temporary. The sun is going to rise. In the evening, it gets dark, and then it gets darker. You are tired and nearly beyond yourself. Animal eyes are unbelievably reflective. The willies set in.
Again, thank goodness for Jason’s patience. He confidently reassured me that we would be at Skyland in no time. Just two short hours. He was going to stay close, and we would take it carefully. We were both convinced. Good. As he turned to take his first step onto the dark path… BEAR! Standing right there on the path in front of us. Staring at us. Confidence temporarily shot. Oh, that bear was looking right at us. A beautiful side profile with his face turned to us, his eyes reflecting our headlamps. We stated our intentions to him, clapped our trekking poles, and he sauntered off. Good lord, that one gave us a jolt.
Every single time we encounter a bear, we go through the motions of letting her know we come in peace. Once we know we are safe, we admire how cute they look and how cuddly. And then we silently reassure ourselves that the bear is gone, and we are safe. Phew.
We made it to Skyland. Tara was so right about all of those beady reflective eyes deep in the woods. Super creepy. We were exhausted. Once we found the trail marker for Skyland, it seemed unfair to walk 0.7miles to the lodge, but we did. We had a plan. Jason was to go to the bar to get us a table. I was to check us in and meet him at the bar. Easy. Ha.
I am normally quite good at managing more than one thing at a time, but this was an exception. I recall calling Chris to check in at home. To let him know I was at Skyland. I remember telling him about camp last night, about the bear, and that I was hallucinating. The two wooden doors in front of me were undulating. I had best go, check in, and eat. I stood outside the two wooden doors with their brass handles for a good minute before realizing they were not going to slide open to let me in. I had to exert myself to pull the handle. At least I did not swipe my iPhone in front of them.
I checked in. I was holding myself up on the counter, and I was watching the face of the woman behind said counter. Her eyes were squinting and her head was dodging around a little. She said something softly, and I had to ask her to repeat herself…”Um, ma’am, your headlamp…” I quickly turned it off, of course. The room was ready, the bag we had left a week ago was there, it was all good. Just imagine the look on my face when she told me my room was “just a short 5 minute hike down the path”. She repeated herself, and I thanked her. I needed to find Jason.
Found him! He was at a corner table of the bar, staring at a menu. We ordered food and sat in silence while we waited to be fed. Correction. Truth be told, we did not speak with each other because we were so wasted. Completely beat. The silence part is in need of the correction. An acoustic guitar player entertained a scant crowd with his covers of Jimmy Buffet, John Denver and a few originals. Really. Really? Yes. And most of the crowd was pleased. It was comical to us, totally surreal. The important piece is that we were fed warm food that was great. Jason sends a shout out for the house salad. Real baby greens. Green ones! Nice.
So that five-minute hike down the hill was fine. We had our hot showers and our big cozy beds. Once again Marimba came way too early. At that hour I was feeling every step of the five-minute hike between the room and the lodge, because it was uphill. We checked out and were off. A little later than the last two days, at around 6:30. We were doing our best.
Stony Man came and went. The morning’s clouds were a sight, hanging below us like giant pillows. Seeing them from above was a treat. Mary’s Rock was the first stop of the morning, and it was 7.6miles from Skyland. So we hiked. Getting there we agreed that the 0.1mile to the summit was unnecessary. We had both been there. Mary’s Rock was our first hike together a year and a half ago, so we ate our bars and gu and were off. En route to Beahm’s Gap we started seeing other hikers. A few sizeable groups, one led by a hardcore ambitious dude, the other modelling the Fall 2011 North Face line. Elkwallow picnic area could not come soon enough. I was bonking again. This was hard. Much to our surprise upon our arrival there was a grill serving hot food, and we indulged. The hot food was nice and it did its job, but what Jason really seemed to like was the nub of chocolate at the bottom of his Nutty Buddy.
Much of the conversation throughout the hike turned to food. The chocolate lesson took it to a whole new level. We talk about recipes, restaurants, what the kids eat, what the kids won’t eat, and then some. I am stuck on the avocado toasts Jason described. How I would have loved one then.
In the aforementioned thoughts pre-hike, we had ear-marked Day 3 as an easy one. The home stretch. Not so. It was a really long day. Literally our longest. We were tired, a little achy, and done. My mantra had pulled me through Day 2. Today I resorted to counting. Endless. To 1,000 and back down twice. And more. It’s what kept me going. Looking back I was physically prepared, no doubt. The mental part was really hard.
So we hiked. The downhills became the dreaded hardship for me, banging my feet into the rocks. For every 15 or so rocks, 14 were stable. It required constant attention. We trudged on and on and on. I think it was after Jenkins Gap in a burnt out forest when we hit 100 miles. 100 miles. We had hiked 100 miles. The Crooked Trail 100. Fait accompli… almost. My legs collapsed as Jason was asking if I wanted to stop for a quick break. It was getting dark, and we needed to get up the mountain. We had a little high-five moment that proved to open my flood gates and the emotions poured. We had another bar, another gu, and another hike to do. So we hiked. We heard a huge thud, a black bear jumping out of a tree about 10 feet away in the dark of the forest. I told him to watch out, I was coming through. That’s how much I cared about black bears at this hour.
I got a text from my mom asking if we were done. When I told her we had 4 more hours of hiking, I sensed her tears through the phone. Her texts, along with so many others, were invaluable. So many friends sent strength and energy up into those mountains and I used up every bit of it. I am forever grateful.
We really did hike 4 more hours into the night. Compton Peak was our last big one, and Jason said that after that one, “Heartbreak Hill” as he had named it, was our last. After crossing a farm road in Front Royal, we only had Heartbreak Hill to climb. We had made contact with Chris and Jane. They were going to start hiking towards us. They sounded like they were having fun and they were saying how cool it was to have headlamps and hike at night. We just wanted to be done. A hat left on a post along the road caught my eye as we crossed that farm road, and went straight up Heartbreak Hill. I culled every ounce of energy left to keep going. Jason had the lead, and the speed, and I swear I was taking some of his energy too as I did my best to keep up and follow him. Conversation that late at night, that late into our hike, resorted to middle names of family and friends. We were looking for material.
So we peaked Heartbreak Hill and the trail seemingly abruptly ended. We stumbled around looking for it, and Jason found it. Those white blazes were hard to see. There were trees down and lots of deep debris. We oriented ourselves with the blazes and kept them in sight. All the way back down to the farm road. Yes. We back-tracked. Just imagine how that felt. It was worse. As if we were not done before, we were now DONE. New plan. Jason pulled out the maps, and after about 6 attempted calls, our skimpy single bar of service allowed Chris to answer. We gave him directions. He and Jane were on their way.
We were sitting on the side of this farm road, and I wanted to walk. Seriously. I did not want to be still. Why now? So we got up, walked several paces, congratulated ourselves for doing this, and fell into stride. Our new environs were on a road through a 4-H complex, and we woke all sorts of animals. We got to an intersection with Route 604, and at this point I decided no more walking. I made Jason stop, and within minutes Chris and Jane appeared.
We did it. 10:45 Sunday night and we were in my minivan riding back to Arlington in style. Just like that.