Harper's Ferry

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Appalachian Trail - Ashby Gap to Harper’s Ferry

July 26-28, 2002

           Living close to both Virginia and West Virginia, we took our newfound confidence and decided to do a three-day hike on the A.T. from Ashby Gap, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV. Hey, it’s only 40 miles and we had all the right gear and a “can-do” attitude. How hard could that be? We have an entire 3-day weekend! Well, here is how hard it can be. First we got hung up in traffic on Thursday night getting out of the DC area to the trailhead so by the time we actually got on the trail it was getting dark. Not a problem, we’ll just walk faster; the camping area was not that far away. When we arrived, there was someone already using the shelter, so we decided to hike back out toward the trail and use a tent pad. Well, we had our first experience of setting up our tent in the dark and decided it was not something we would repeat, if at all possible. Setting up a tent while holding a flashlight in your mouth is a bit uncomfortable not to mention the fact that you can’t really see the rocks under your tent that will ultimately end up poking you in the back while you sleep. (Mental note: look into getting a headlamp that is brighter and frees up your hands) But tomorrow would be a new and better day; or so we thought. When we woke up it was pouring down rain and not having broken camp in the rain before I made the decision of waiting out the rain for awhile to see if it would let up. Bad decision! We waited two hours; precious time when you are on a tight schedule on a trail you don’t know. This miscue put us desperately behind schedule and with the slow going we kept coming up short on all of the shelters we planned to get to. We ended up breaking camp in the rain anyway only to have the rain stop thirty minutes down the trail. Oh well, a new lesson learned; stay on schedule no matter what the weather. As it turned out, we got caught in a 2-hour torrential downpour later in the day anyway. So much for trying to stay dry.

 In July, in the MD/VA/DC area, it is generally very humid all summer; something that you never really get used to even if you have lived there for years. But, start the day with a heavy rain and then have the temperature jump up to 85-90°F by noon and you have a recipe for extreme fatigue and heat prostration or heat stroke; a fact that I learned all too well the last day of this hike. I also learned that it is well worth the investment, in fact a necessity, to spend the money on those special clothes designed for backpacking. Like the nylon, boxer underwear that wick moisture away from your body and keep you from getting “crotch rot” when it gets damp out. Or the lightweight shorts and shirts that stay dry no matter how much you sweat and that dry out in minutes after they get wet in the rain. Being a “financially conservative” person, I felt that spending $20-25 on a pair of underwear was pretty excessive. Now, after that hike, and having personally increased the sales numbers for Lamasil by 10% with my purchases of their product in order to relieve the chronic itching brought on by my wet cotton underwear and shorts, I have become an avid supporter of having the right clothes. Yes, they are expensive but when you factor in the cost of a doctor’s visit and medication to rid yourself of the result of walking in wet clothes for two days, it’s pretty much a wash financially. Believe me, you will feel better hiking and they are a lot lighter.

 We trudged on through the rain, heat and humidity and finally reached the Sam Moore shelter on Friday night. This was the first time we actually stayed in a shelter and we were glad we did; No taking down the tent in the morning. We were very wet and uncomfortable when we arrived and even though all the wood was as wet as we were, we were able to get a fire started, though a rather smoky one at that, had a nice dinner and called it a day at about 7:30 p.m. I tried to dry out my cotton shorts and came to a another brilliant realization that probably should have seemed obvious; cotton clothing takes forever to dry! After an hour, my shorts were still wet but they did have a nice smoky aroma to them. I decided that as part of my hiking experience I would do a “privy reviews” of all the privies along the trail. Sort of like how Ebert and Roeper review movies. Well, the privy at Sam Moore Shelter gets “Two Cheeks Up”. This was the nicest one we had been in so far; immaculately clean and newly painted. It made heeding the call of Mother Nature a rather nice experience. Although we had the campsite to ourselves when we turned in, we arose to find that an entire community of backpackers had moved in overnight.

 Saturday was again hot and humid and the constant up and down steep mountains started to do us in rather quickly but we tried to keep up a good pace. The scenery was beautiful but the footing was unbearable. The trail was nothing but rock so we spent a lot of time looking at our feet instead of the scenery. They say that Pennsylvania is the rockiest part of the trail and will literally wipe out a pair of hiking boots. If that is the case, I can not imagine how bad it really is there! This section of trail was so littered with rocks, that tested our boots and our ankles that we wondered if we would make it the whole way if the remainder of this section was all like this. We made yet another discovery; have boots that give you good ankle support and, whatever you do, don’t step on top of every rock in your path – try to go between them if possible. And also, wet rocks are “bad”!

 We had heard that this section of the trail was known as “The Roller Coaster” because, for miles, it is a steady diet of 400’-500’ ascents and descents. I guess a better description would be “up the mountain and down the mountain”. It was brutal! We no sooner got to the top of a mountain (with Georgia leading, of course) then we would start right down the other side with me in the lead. Once at the bottom, we were immediately faced with the next, and equally high, mountain to climb. This went on all day. AT hikers affectionately call sections of the trail, like these, “PUDS” (“Pointless Ups and Downs”). What really gave us pause was the fellow hiker we met on this section while we were taking a well-deserved break. He told us he hiked this section of trail every weekend for two months in order to get ready for the historically steep sections of the A.T. in New England. His conclusion; this section of trail was physically less demanding than anything he experienced in New England. In other words, New England was going to kick our butts if we couldn’t conquer this section! Oh, joy! We still have half a day of this section to go yet!

 It is funny how preparation and perception work. We were to hike this same section again in 2005 and, upon completing it, wondered to ourselves just what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t so tough.

 Despite how grueling this section was, we still had an opportunity to eat our lunch on some awesome rock outcroppings with beautiful views of the valley below and traveled on some magnificent sections of the trail on the ridges. We also got our first real opportunity to use our water filter. Now these filters come in various types and I would highly recommend talking with the employees in the store where you buy your gear to get their input on what is best. Don’t rely solely on what you read in the magazines. Because my wife is allergic to iodine and also has a degree in biology, we looked at the non-chemical filters and settled on a Katahdin filter that, though rather hard to pump, eliminated virtually every contaminant known to man. We have since replaced it with a First Need filter that is easier to pump and fits nicely into the filler opening of our hydration bladders. Don’t short-change yourself on your filter. The first time that you run low on water and have to refill from a shallow, muddy, pool of water it is reassuring to know that the filter you are using will provide water that will not make you sick.

In the afternoon we got hit with a rainstorm that lasted about 2.5 hours and made for a rather uncomfortable couple of miles. But when the sky finally cleared and the humidity broke a bit we were able finish the day in some beautiful weather. As we walked on we met trail maintainer, Chris Brunton. We had read a lot about him (he is a regular fixture along the trail. In some respects, a legend.) He is the trail boss for this section and was evaluating the trail so his work crew could come out the next day and do trail maintenance. He was very outgoing and has been maintaining the trail since 1984 0r so.

 We trudged on, taking numerous breaks, and eventually, with the heat and humidity still in the high 90s, and near dinnertime, reached Blackburn Shelter. Here we were looking forward to a shower, a relaxing evening sitting on the huge wrap-around porch and the chance to sleep in bunk beds in what used to be the home’s servant’s quarters. Our feet and our knees had taken a beating and we just wanted to sit down – for a really long time! We were rejuvenated at the thought of being so close to “the promised land”; at least until we realized that the trail to the shelter went virtually straight down for .3 mile. A feeling of defeat set in and I was not sure that I could physically even make it, but we had to. That is one thing that you MUST develop early on in your backpacking experience; the “will” to keep going, no matter what the pain either physically or emotionally. Once we arrived at the shelter, it was truly an evening we would never forget and renewed our desire to keep at this hiking thing.

 We were greeted by Norway (who maintained the house and hostel at Blackburn) and Chris Brunton who offered us cold sodas. Boy, I never remember a Sunkist orange soda ever tasting so good. There were also a number of guys there who had been out on the trail doing maintenance all day. Now, thank God for these folks who give so unselfishly of their time to make our hikes so safe and memorable. After having kicked off our boots for the day, we dined on spaghetti, fresh bread and tomatoes in vinegar, wine and desert. What a luxurious finish to a brutal day. Then, the highlight of the day; a shower in the solar powered outdoor shower house. Unfortunately, our delight was short-lived when we realized that the sun had gone down quite some time ago and that the water was coooold! But it felt great anyway. We had the whole shelter to ourselves and totally enjoyed not having to set up our tent. Georgia had developed a bad rash on her legs from chaffing wet clothes, several blisters on her feet and her hips were rubbed raw from her hip belt. My left knee was giving me a lot of trouble to the point where it was difficult trying to walk. The bottoms of my feet were also sore but, surprisingly, my back was doing well.

 The next morning we arose to beautiful weather, though still hot, and of course had to face our first hill of the day; the .3 mile trek from the shelter back up to the trail. Interestingly enough, a simple night’s rest made this initial ascent a piece of cake but we knew quite well what lay ahead.

 This was the last day and we were still quite a distance from Harper’s Ferry but with an early start and steady going we were sure we would make it. We weren’t very far up the trail when we met one of our dinner companions returning from an early morning stroll to the David Lesser Shelter. He informed us to be on the lookout for a copperhead snake he encountered sunning itself on a rock in the middle of the trail a few yards ahead and that he had also seen a bear in his travels. Needless to say, being in the lead and hoping to see animals on every trip, I scoured every rock and scanned every horizon for our two friends. Unfortunately, or for my wife fortunately, we saw neither. Well maybe another day! I typically gauge the success of a hike by how much wildlife we actually see. (Squirrels and chipmunks don’t count because they are actually rodents and I can see them in my back yard). This initial part of the trip was uneventful and we just marched on checking our watches to see how much time we had left before our scheduled arrival at ATC headquarters in Harpers Ferry.

 The heat and humidity was still oppressive and it was during one of my moments of “being in the zone” that it hit. Heat prostration! Though I thought I was drinking enough water, my zeal to reach our destination left little time for breaks; against Georgia’s recommendation. First it was a mild upset stomach and then the chills. These feelings morphed into lightheadedness and what seemed like a complete draining of blood from my head. I felt like I was burning up and cold at the same time. I started shaking and my hands went numb. Having never experienced this before, I panicked, which made matters worse. It was at this point I thought, “I am not going to make it. Georgia will have to go on without me and get help.” In shear delirium I suggested that I was not going to make it and that she needed to get to the nearest road and get help. Then reality really set in; the nearest road was miles away and our cell phone, which we brought for emergencies such as this, was not in a service area. We got out my sleeping pad and I laid down with my feet elevated while Georgia put a wet bandana on my forehead to try to cool me down. After what seemed like hours, I stabilized and we picked up where we left off. Though totally embarrassed by my apparent lack of courage and common sense in this situation, my wife reassured me that this would probably not happen again if we took more rests and I drank more water; suggestions that I took seriously and have followed ever since. This was one of those situations that I spoke of earlier where you learn to work off of each others strengths while on the trail in order to keep going. More than once on this hike, one of us would get worn out or discouraged and the other would always offer solace and encouragement to keep them going. This is something that every team of hikers needs to develop in order to survive on the trail. I can’t even imagine how a solo hiker makes it through those types of situations.

 Eventually we reached the cliffs overlooking the Potomac River and across it was our destination; Harpers Ferry. As we looked down on the river, we saw kayakers, tubers and just people lying on the rocks in the river. After what we had been through the last three days, we were both angered and envious of those who were keeping cool in this unbearable heat. But, we were almost there. Little did we know that there were still challenges ahead.

 The first was traversing a narrow “goat trail” along the side of the cliffs overlooking the river. It was the only way down and our fatigue made it more perilous than it would normally have been. We made it down, our eyes always looking at our goal on the other side of the river, until we reached the Rte 340 bridge that crosses the Potomac. Now keep in mind, Harper’s Ferry is a major tourist attraction so traffic on this bridge on a weekend is typically bumper to bumper. It’s 98 degrees in the shade and we are walking across this bridge right next to all these cars emitting additional heat. We thought we had died and gone to hell the heat was so intense. But, we kept our eyes on our goal. We ultimately made it across the bridge only to be confronted with the following; a ½- mile trek straight uphill, yet again. At this point we had to laugh. This seemed like such a cruel joke at this point. After all we had been through, to have to finish the day going uphill instead of down, seemed like a fitting end to a trip we will never forget. We reached our car in the parking lot behind the ATC headquarters and both broke into smiles and tears simultaneously. The only thing I could think of was that if this was the level of euphoria we would experience after only a three-day hike, how would we feel when we reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin? I was pumped just thinking about that level of emotional rush. The only downside to completing this section of the AT, was that we would have to do it all over again when we did our thru-hike. For better or for worse, we would know what to expect.

 Three years later we would be back and this time it would be different!

 

“How many times have you thought to yourself, ‘Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh’ Why wait?”

 

Appalachian Trail, Pen-Mar to Harpers Ferry

May 28-30, 2005

 As wonderful, tranquil, and beautiful as life on the trail is, it can also be interspersed with some of the most interesting and sometimes bizarre events and people you could ever imagine. Such was this particular trip.

 We started off from the peculiar little town of Pen-Mar, which is situated right on the Pennsylvania and Maryland border. Thus, the name; pretty creative, huh? Since we were not able to park right at the trailhead, because of all the other cars already there, we rightly expected to run into a host of other hikers at some point during the weekend. We had done this section before, but because it is such a nice section, we were doing it again now that we were more seasoned hikers and would be able to concentrate on the beauty of our surroundings and not on our aching feet and backs.

 The morning was clear and somewhat cool for this time of the year but as we made our way past the perimeter of Fort Ritchie, we became acutely aware of an impending storm headed our way. Fort Ritchie is quite an interesting place. As you drive into the town of Pen-Mar, you can not help but notice this World War II vintage military installation with its abandoned barracks and other buildings. Here is some history on the fort compliments of the Army’s own website.

 With more than 2,000 military and civilian employees, Fort Ritchie is the largest employer in Washington County, Md. These employees serve in several different organizations at or affiliated with Fort Ritchie.

 The U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Ritchie supports the post's workforce and its families through centralized programs and facilities. The 572nd Military Police Company, part of the garrison, provides security at Fort Ritchie and Site R.

 The U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command-Continental United States moved to Fort Ritchie in 1974. The command engineers, installs and tests information systems equipment and facilities within the continental United States, Alaska, Puerto Rico and Panama.

Fort Ritchie is headquarters for an element of the Defense Information Systems Agency-Western Hemisphere.

 Also at Fort Ritchie is the U.S. Army Information Systems Command-Continental United States and the Army 1108th Signal Brigade. The brigade conducts interoperability testing and evaluation of information systems; develops testing strategies and methodologies for information systems for echelons above corps; and transitions these systems into the Army's information systems. The brigade also provides command and control for the 1110th and 1111th U.S. Army Signal Battalions, the Northeast Telecommunications Switching Center, and the Defense Metropolitan Area Telephone Systems in Boston and St. Louis.

 The history of Fort Ritchie dates back to the 1890s when the area was used as a resort by the wealthy of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Beautiful Upper and Lower Lake Royer are artificial lakes built during that time.

 In 1926, the Fort Ritchie area was chosen as a training site for the Maryland National Guard because of its "altitude, picturesque surrounding topography, and accessibility by both road and railroad." The state purchased 580 acres for $60,000.

 The site was named Camp Albert C. Ritchie in honor of the governor of Maryland. On July 9, 1927, the National Guard's 5th Infantry brought the first troops for training.

Fort Ritchie's garrison headquarters building was built to resemble the castle on the insignia of the Army Corps of Engineers. Most of the buildings surrounding the parade field and lakes date from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s and can be recognized by their stone construction.

 During World War II, the Army leased Camp Albert C. Ritchie from Maryland for one dollar a year. It became the centralized Military Intelligence Training Center, and the name was shortened to Camp Ritchie. By 1944, all Counter Intelligence Corps personnel were trained there.

Approximately $5 million was invested in the camp between 1942 and 1945 to build 165 assorted structures and house 3,000 troops.

 Following the war, Camp Ritchie was returned to the state of Maryland. Between 1946 and 1950, the camp was used for the state's chronic disease hospital.

 In 1948, the Army again decided it needed the post for support of the soon-to-be constructed Alternate Joint Communications Center, also known as Site R. The AJCC began operation in 1954, and supporting it was the prime mission of the post for 10 years.

 From the early 1970s, Fort Ritchie was a premier installation in providing the services of the information age throughout the Army located within the continental United States.

 On Oct. 1, 1998, Fort Ritchie was closed as an active Army installation as part of the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Act.

 Makes you wonder why they still employ 2,000 people to work at a facility that is closed. (ah, very suspicious). Closed or not, the facility now stands in disrepair and, at first glance, appears uninhabited though the main gate is open and the vehicles there would indicate that there is a skeleton crew of folks who are guarding it and doing some type of work there. It is actually a bit unnerving driving past it because you get the sense that there is something secret still going on there that the government does not want you to know about. Rumor has it that there are actually small cameras and microphones hidden in the trees along the trail that skirts the fort’s property and that Big Brother is watching and listening to everything that is going on as hikers pass by. Right after 9-11, we read in a trail register at the Ensign Cowell Shelter not far from the fort, that two backpackers had been stopped by armed military personnel and had their backpacks searched. So, with this information etched in our minds, we make sure never to talk too loud or do anything suspicious while we are in this area.  

As the skies continued to darken, we made our way to the Ensign Cowell Shelter for lunch and arrived there just as the skies let loose. Man, what timing! This is a relatively new shelter, very nice and clean but close enough to an access trail at Wolfesville Road, that it is frequented by weekend hikers who use it as a party place. The result being that there tends to be a lot on unwanted trash left behind; evidence that these hikers have no knowledge of or choose to disregard “Leave No Trace” practices. We stayed here for over an hour, ate our lunch and rode out the storm hoping it would break before we headed back out.

 As fate, or coincidence would have it, a father and his son from Baltimore arrived at the shelter shortly after we did. This was one of those interesting moments we spoke off earlier. We had stayed at a motel in Thurmont, MD on Friday evening in order to be close to the trail and get an early start. During the course of our conversation with these two gentlemen, we found out that they had stayed at the very same motel, left only minutes before we had and parked at the same trailhead as we did. If we had not had that last cup of coffee before leaving the motel, we assuredly would have met them in the motel lobby during our departure. As we continued our conversation, along came two other wet and weary travelers and we were about to be part of one of the most bizarre moments we had ever experienced, since the day in “Devil’s Alley”.

 These two hikers were dressed in some pretty ragged looking clothing and their packs were covered with camouflaged rain covers. The first was an older gentleman, sort of a scaled-down version of Grizzly Adams and trailing behind was a young girl, possibly 13-14 years old. Upon reaching the shelter, the gentleman immediately asked if we were trail rangers and voiced his disgust at the fact that rangers were on the trail giving out tickets to hikers who were “stealth camping’ along the trail. Being a rules-type guy, my immediate response was “Good! They should be.” I knew from the disconcerting look on Georgia’s face, that this possibly was not the correct thing to have said. The conversation morphed into his diatribe about their trip from Springer, GA. According to his story, he, “Mountain Man” and his daughter, “Mountain Dew” had left Georgia on November 29th, 2004 and had been held up twice by blizzards. He rambled on about how they had almost run out of food and water and that, without their weather radio, they would have been in bigger trouble. He claimed to be a Christian and when we asked how his daughter could get out of school for such a long period to hike the AT, he insisted that he was home-schooling her. This trip was a learning experience for her and that she was performing math, science and history lessons in a “real-life” environment. There was something very odd about these two. You just get a sense of this type of thing when you meet people on the trail. “Mountain Dew” backed up all his stories and proceeded to pull a doll out of her pack. It was bedraggled lion by the name of Emmanuel. She also let us know that, as a science project, she had been collecting salamanders along the trail and was keeping them in a jar in her pack; a pack that from all appearances, weighed as much as she did. The longer we talked the stranger and more menacing they became. We decided it was time to go and as we walked, we conjured up explanations for these two’s weird behavior and developed some unusual scenarios as to the real reason they were on the trail. Admittedly, these ideas were pretty bizarre and somewhat frightening. We later found out that our concerns were not that far off the mark. Seems that they had been, at one point, detained by authorities because of their trail journal entries and because of the concerns of other hikers. Seems that they displayed all the indications that they may be white supremacists as indicated by the swastikas and hateful graffiti in their journal entries along the trail. What concerned us the most, aside from the obvious physical danger that we could have been in, was that these two were doing what they did and basing their cultural philosophy on Christianity. Their displays of hate were so far from the Christian values we subscribe to that it was difficult to comprehend how they could twist them so far out of shape. We had to wonder if they were hiding out from society for some reason and, to this day, wonder if they are still on the trail hiding from the very society they evidently abhor or maybe they have been arrested. 

We walked on past the familiar surroundings at Annapolis Rocks until we reached our destination for the day, Pine Knob Shelter. We had completed 17.5  since breakfast; not a bad day’s hike. There was a young couple already there who had pitched their tent and were obviously there as partiers, not as serious hikers. This was evident from the equipment they had with them which included a large cooler. As we sat and contemplated the rest of our evening, up the trail and into the site, comes a hiker whose pace would lead you to believe he had just left the trailhead at Rte 40. I mean, he was rolling! He greeted us with a wave and a loud, “Smilin’ Joe – Northbound”. His name was Joe McAllister and he was thru-hiker who had left Springer, GA on March 28th and was averaging 26 miles per day. He was a great guy; a truck diver in his real life, and the fact that he is a tri-athlete quickly explained his ability to walk so quickly for so many miles.

 Not far behind was now the “Lancaster Pods”; 4 young Mennonite guys from Lancaster County. Now here’s the rub: these guys had never hiked before starting their thru-hike and they too were averaging 26 miles per day. Oh, one of them had read a book about hiking but other than that, they headed out completely oblivious to what lay in store for them. Their success, thus far, was a bit discouraging to us since we had been training for several years and still wrestled with sore feet and backs and did not yet feel prepared to take on the whole AT all at one time. And not only were these guys “newbies” to the hiking experience, but their Mennonite background precluded them from buying any of the hi-tech, lightweight gear that we all carried. That had these huge, army surplus packs and each one of them was carrying an unbelievable amount of weight. Here we were with our titanium cook set and these guys were using heavy stainless steel, enameled pots; probably lifted from one of their kitchens at home. They were exceedingly nice guys and despite the weight and lack of training, they were in pretty darn good shape. We spent the evening in shelter with two of them and the other two went in search of appropriate trees in which to hang their hammocks for the night.

 For the first time, we tried some of our new dehydrated food. The vegetables didn’t rehydrate very well but they still tasted good.

 There was a dog at the shelter that, from all appearances, had made this site his home. He was quite friendly and did a reputable job at keeping any unwanted animals out of the site during the night. What was odd was that he had a collar and dog tags with a name and phone number. All of us tried to figure out if he was lost or if someone hiking the trail had just left him there. For several months after returning from the trail, I attempted to call the number from his tags but no one ever answered the phone. We later heard that he was no longer at the site and that a rabid raccoon had bitten a young girl at this very same shelter.

 Sunday was going to be another 17-mile day to the Ed Garvey Shelter, so we got an early start. As we crossed the footbridge over Rte 70, we were simply amazed at how beautiful a day it was and we were really looking forward to this section. We were also looking forward to staying at the Garvey Shelter that we had seen earlier in the year during our winter trek through this area. Our excitement was dashed, however, when we arrived late in the afternoon and found it already taken over by a group of twelve, or so, weekend party-goers. We knew immediately that they were not legitimate hikers when we noticed the expresso machine sitting on the nearby picnic table. They were nice enough people and invited us to stay with them on the second floor of the shelter but we opted not to, instead choosing to pitch our tent away from all the commotion and noise. Little did we know, when we made this decision, that all of the tent sites were taken up by a large contingent of Boy Scouts training for an upcoming trip to Philmont. So much for the solitude of the trail! One of the Scout leaders graciously offered us a piece of his site and we immediately obliged.

 The Ed Garvey Shelter is a magnificent display of the creativity and hard work of the folks who maintain the AT. By AT standards, this is a luxurious log structure, with two floors, that overlooks the valley below. To reach the second floor, you climb a set of steps on the backside of the shelter and enter through a door that helps block the wind. This second floor sleeps 4-6 people and the front, overlooking the valley, is covered with clear plexiglas so you can take in the marvelous vistas below and still be protected from the weather. The bottom floor is open to the elements on the front side but, because the shelter is deep and there is a huge overhang, you are also protected from the bulk of what nature throws at you. And the privy! Well it definitely rates a “Two Cheeks Up”. It is spacious and clean and two of the walls have round, frosted glass blocks installed in them so there is a constant flow of light filling the interior. Bring something to read when you use this privy!

 We never cease to be amused by the variety of people who use the Appalachian Trail and its facilities. There is everything from the casual dayhiker out walking his/her dog, the trail runners who, for some reason that only they can explain, choose to trade in their hiking boots for Nike’s and run the trail, to the rugged thru-hikers who are easily recognized by their svelte physics and their “woodsy” aroma. And then you have the “weekenders”. These are the folks who find a shelter with easy road access and who never leave the shelter from the time they arrive until the time they run out of white Zinfandel and shrimp cocktail. These are the folks that obviously subscribe to the “trendy” recreational magazines like “Outside”, because they wear all the latest outdoor designer clothing and their daily menus resemble those of the more upscale restaurants in DC. The atmosphere surrounding these groups is a combination of a fraternity/sorority party blended with a country club mixer with a bit of the outdoor life thrown in just to stay in keeping with their location. Some day, I truly believe we will arrive at one of these accessible sites to find a Starbucks kiosk and a mobile sushi bar.

 Despite the large crowd of campers at this site, we did enjoy a good night’s sleep and early on Monday morning, while most everyone was still sleeping, we headed out to try to make our scheduled arrival time of 10:00 a.m. in Brunswick, MD. It was only six miles so we were confident that we would make it just as we had planned.

 The hike down from Weaverton Cliffs, with it’s endless but welcome set of switchbacks, was rather pleasant, despite our somewhat sore feet, and before we knew it, we reached the C&O Canal Towpath and the last leg of the trip. The weather was beautiful, the towpath rock hard as ever but we kept on, undaunted, and reached our car at exactly 10:00 a.m.

 Since we finished so early in the day, we decided to do some exploring, one our favorite pastimes, and headed out to drive many of the country roads that parallel the trail on our way to Pen-Mar to pick up my car. We were also on a mission to try to recover a Patagonia shirt that I lost somewhere on the trail near Lamb’s Knoll. One of the unwritten rules of the AT is that if you find a lost article along the trail, you carry it to the next road crossing and leave it in plain view so, should the owner happen to come looking for it, it can be easily retrieved. Such was not the case in this instance, so I would have to replace this shirt on my next visit to the outfitters. Oh well. As we drove, we were repeatedly amazed when we looked at the ridgeline, at how far we had hiked. What a sense of accomplishment!

 We picked up my car and drove to Waynesboro where we had a delicious lunch at the Subway store there. After several days on the trail, living off of tuna, pita and trail mix, just about anything tastes great; but a sub? Well, that is the ultimate delicacy. (Though we are actually big Quizno’s fans and usually celebrate the completion of a successful hike with a trip to the one near our home). I wonder if we could get Quizno’s to sponsor our thru-hike? Baby Bob would be great to have along.

 Lessons learned: Mentally stay prepared to alter your shelter plans to meet whatever situation presents itself. Also, despite what other hikers are able to accomplish on any given day, hike your own hike and don’t get discouraged if you can’t do 25-30 miles a day.

  

"Getting what you go after is success; but liking it while you are getting it is happiness." (Bertha Damon)

 

Appalachian Trail - Bear’s Den to Harper’s Ferry

October 28–30, 2005

 It may seem, from reading our other journal entries, that we have this obsession with  Harper’s Ferry since we always seem to end up there. In all honesty, we indeed do both love Harper’s Ferry because of it’s historic buildings, rich heritage, spectacular views and all the quaint shops and restaurants that line the narrow streets. More importantly, we love it because it is a relatively short drive from our home and that allows us to park cars at either end of a three-day hike. Not everyone who wants to section hike the AT is quite so lucky to have things so convenient, so we feel quite blessed to be as close to the trail as we are. But, this is the fall of 2005 and gas prices have hit an all-time high of over $3.00/gallon, so driving two cars the forty-some miles to this weekend’s adventure was not cost effective. Oh, but what to do?

 We had heard and read about the various shuttles that transport hikers from point to point along the trail, so we thought we would give it a try and possibly save a few bucks on gas in the process. At the very least, we would save wear and tear on the cars and not have to drive home separately which would give us time to reflect on our weekend.

 Friday evening we headed out to the Bear’s Den Hostel by way of the Capital Beltway and Rte. 7, and not 20 minutes into the trip we remembered exactly why we enjoy being on the trail so much. Traffic was so bad that we stopped in Leesburg, VA for dinner while the rush hour traffic cleared out a bit. This allowed us to get our blood sugar up and helped us to keep our sanity. An hour later we were on the road again, with much less traffic I might add, and arrived at the historic Bear’s Den Hostel at around 9:00 p.m.

 If you have never stopped in at this hostel, you are in for a treat. It is a large stone structure reminiscent of the old stone hostels found in Germany and Austria and inside we found virtually everything a thru-hiker or weekend guest could ask for. We had decided not to stay in the hostel itself but, instead, pitched our tent on the back lawn where we were treated to the sounds of owls and a pitch black sky full of stars. It is sometimes difficult to imagine how much urban ground lighting there is where we live until we get away from the city and are able to see the millions of stars that are unobservable where we live. The cold evening air added to our sense of adventure and after a final welcome trip to the hostel to use the bathroom, which is always available to thru-hikers, we slipped into our winter bags and called it a day.

 Since this was the last day of the year, before we set our clocks back one hour, we woke up at our usual time to find total darkness and a tent that was soaked from a heavy rain the night before. Georgia had been awoken by the rain during the night but I, being the sound sleeper that I am, hadn’t heard a thing. This makes me wonder what might happen should we be visited by a bear or other furry creature during our thru-hike next year. Quite possibly, Georgia might be left with the responsibility of fending off these intruders and simply tell me about it in the morning, much to my dismay. We packed up and then visited the hostel in order to use the bathroom one final time and to use the kitchen to prepare a hearty breakfast before setting out. At some point we will need to get used to the fact that having a clean bathroom and a well-equipped kitchen will be an ultimate luxury on the trail and that planning these mini-hikes with creature comforts at both ends, though nice, aren’t really getting us hardened to the realities of life on the trail. Maybe next trip.

 By the time we finished breakfast, the sun had begun to come up and there was enough daylight that we did not need our headlamps. We headed out with the goal of reaching either the Blackburn Shelter or David Lesser Shelter by mid to late afternoon. Now some history to give you a perspective on why hiking this section of the trail a second time in three years was so important.

 On the weekend of July 26-28, 2002, back when we had more enthusiasm about backpacking than we had gear and common sense, we hiked from Ashby Gap to Harper’s Ferry in 100° F  heat and comparable humidity. Since this section includes the venerable “Roller Coaster”, a series of repeated 400’ ascents and descents, this had been both a memorable and traumatic hike. We were constantly wet, either from rain or humidity, were then wearing the less expensive but less than appropriate cotton clothes and, despite our will-power, were not physically ready to tackle this section without brutalizing our bodies. Now I tend to inappropriately dwell on those events in my life that cause me mental or physical discomfort rather than those events that bring joy and satisfaction. Not a worthwhile mindset for someone who is competitive and driven to always succeed. This, obviously is something I need to work on if our thru-hike is to be a success. Our memories of this past trip were of severe physical pain and of my bout with heat exhaustion, which introduced us to the perils of being far from civilization and rescue and having to deal with a potentially life-threatening situation. We eventually made it to our destination but the fear that we both experienced has stayed with us and made us much more aware of what our bodies are communicating to us.

 For me, this trip over the same section, was a way for me to look straight into the eyes of the demon that has haunted me since that ill-fated hike in 2002 and, this time being a more experienced hiker, to beat it once and for all. For Georgia, it was an opportunity to re-visit those points along the trail that almost did us in and to reflect on how far we had come since that time. As we completed this section on Sunday and sat eating our chicken sandwiches from one of the restaurants in Harper’s Ferry, we knew we had beaten the trail, giving much credit to our better physical conditioning, cooler weather and better awareness, after years of hiking, of what life on the trail is truly like.

 Saturday was a beautiful day, a bit cool with a steady wind, but with the trees beginning to turn, the views from the many overlooks were spectacular. We stopped at Crescent Rock for a morning snack and a photo op but first had to pick up all the trash left behind by a group of rock climbers who were illegally camping across the trail from the outcroppings. Since they were still in their tents, I was tempted to toss the zip lock bag with all their left-over marshmallows, hotdogs and candy into their campsite but thought better of it and kept the bag for future use. While resting we encountered a couple and their dog who informed us that this location was a well-known spot for teenagers to party so the mess we found was not to be unexpected. They told us about a local high school student who had recently fallen from the cliffs and was killed.

 We rejoined the trail and, during the course of traveling up and down the many hills there, we were awed by the beauty of the day, the colors of the turning leaves and even had a large doe check us out from her perch on a rocky ledge. Before we knew it we had arrived at the sign for the blue blaze trail that would take us to the Blackburn Shelter

 and it was only lunchtime! Definitely not time to call it a day but definitely time for lunch. We had made incredible time mostly due to the fact that I was leading and I tend to mentally get into a zone and loose track of my pace. Georgia typically lets me know if I need to throttle the pace back a few notches but today she willingly let me go and chose to keep up.

 As we sat and ate our tuna and Pita bread, we realized that the cool weather that we had been enjoying all morning, was chilling us down considerably. The pace we had been keeping had us work up quite a sweat and we obviously had not been adjusting our clothing layers to compensate for it. So now, as we sat in what once was a comfortable breeze, we were hurrying to complete our lunch because, quite frankly, we were getting cold. Georgia has always had a problem with her biological thermostat (i.e., she sweats a lot) so she was feeling the affects of the wind much more than I was.

 We packed up and headed, out knowing that only a few miles away we would reach the David Lesser shelter and looked forward to not having to pitch our tent. However, when we arrived, much to our dismay, the shelter had been taken over by a family of six who were using the shelter as a base camp for a weekend of trail excursions. Now, aside from people having to take a driver education course and test to be able to drive, I feel that there are two other areas where people should not be allowed to participate until they have learned the rules of the road, so to speak. New golfers should not be allowed on a course until they have thoroughly learned correct gold etiquette (and own a divet tool)  and hikers should not be allowed on the trail until they understand and appreciate the rules of “leave no trace”, stealth camping and shelter sharing. This family, who were very nice people as we found during our conversations with them, had not only taken over the entire shelter but also the picnic table and pavilion and had even pitched an additional tent in the path from the shelter to the privy for their mother-in-law who, I suppose, chose the tent to keep out any “critters of the night”. Now, this was not a big deal, really, since there were numerous tent sites available but it was just the principle of the thing.

 We found a nice tent site, complete with a 4x4 wood frame and pine bark mulch as a base and nearby was a fire pit and a picnic table. We also had neighbors, Frank and Rebecca, who had been there since Friday night and from the amount of gear, beer and electronic conveniences they had with them, were not planning to go anywhere any time soon. They were very pleasant and laughed a lot but they were loud. As the day wore on other campers arrived; most notably “Gung-Ho” and her two unleashed Corgies. She is a marathoner and was running the trail as a training exercise.

 As dinnertime arrived, it was time to get water from the nearby spring. I use the term “nearby” very loosely. This spring is quite a hike from the shelter area and it is almost straight down – this is not a convenient spring and if you should decide to use it, I would highly recommend taking a cup or Nalgene bottle with you. There was plenty of water but I had to scoop it out from between rocks to get my water bucket filled. And the hike up, with a full bucket of water was possibly the toughest thing I did all weekend.

 Speaking of water buckets; we searched for a long time to try to locate a bucket that was both sufficient in size for our needs but that was not excessively heavy. We never did find one so we made our own and it fits both our criteria. We purchased a lightweight nylon net bag, similar to what you use for, say, dirty laundry or food shopping. You can get these bags at Bed Bath and Beyond or some store that handles this type of thing. We simply insert a 2 gallon Zip-Lock bag inside and, viola, we have a compact and lightweight water bucket.

 This trip was also an opportunity to try out our new alcohol stove. We had heard a lot of glowing recommendations about these and had even seen several in use so we thought, why not? They are extremely lightweight and since alcohol is available almost everywhere on the AT, we would not have to be concerned about running out of fuel on the thru-hike. As it turned out, we were both glad that we tried this stove out on a trip that required minimal use. Our conclusion is that this is not an appropriate stove for two people; you just use way too much fuel heating the amount of water required for two people’s needs. We also found it very temperamental to operate, the requirement of a level spot to sit it on became difficult to meet and the fact that the air shield must always be around the stove, just made it an unwielding piece of gear to use. We decided not to continue any future use of this stove and are going back to our Pocket-Rocket or Whisperlite International.  Yes, they are somewhat heavier but there are some things that we take with us that we want to make our trip easier and more efficient, despite their weight. An efficient and fast-working stove is one; the other is a comfortable sleeping pad. If we are going to hike 15-20 miles, day in and day out for 6 months, we need a good night’s sleep and, even though they are slightly heavier than the foam Z-Rest sleeping pads, our Pro-Lite pads give us the comfort we need to feel refreshed each morning.

 Sunday morning we were up bright and early – early enough to see a spectacular sunrise over the mountains to our northeast and stopped at a primitive campsite to have breakfast. The walk from this point was rather uneventful unless you include a brief stop at the spot where I had layed down to recover from heat exhaustion on our previous trip along this part of the trail. We arrived in Harper’s Ferry at around noon after a brief stop at Jefferson Rock and the historic Harper’s Ferry Church for photo shoots. Since we had about three hours to kill before our shuttle arrived, we found a shady spot under a large oak tree near the train tracks, dumped our packs and I headed into down to purchase us some lunch. Now Harper’s Ferry can be a busy place almost any time of the year but since we were experiencing a rather uncommon warm spell and the tress were beginning to turn, the town was exceptionally busy and the lines at the local eateries were long. Some 30 minutes later, I returned to our picnic spot and we enjoyed a great chicken sandwich lunch followed by a brief nap.

 The shuttle ride, provided by River and Trail Outfitters, was right on time and it was a very enjoyable ride back to our car, though we did have to provide the driver with directions to the Bear’s Den Hostel. Though the $1.00 per mile, times two, cost of the shuttle was a bit more than we would have spent on our own gas, it was a pleasant change to not have to drive as soon as we left the trail.

 All in all, this was a wonderful weekend, both weather-wise and physically and, as we get closer and closer to the date of our thru-hike, we are becoming more and more confident that we will be ready for whatever the trail has to offer.

 

“I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you... we are in charge of our attitudes.” (author – unknown)

 

 

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