Dispatches from the Appalachian Trail

Past Articles



Hiking Through the Shenandoahs

By: Beau Denton

Beau Denton hikes through the Shenandoahs and looks forward to hitting the halfway point on his Appalachian Trail hike.

May 28, 2014


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Since my last post…

Day 74: Shuttle to Spy Rock, walk back to Buena Vista, 16.3 miles.

Day 75: Spy Rock to Reeds Gap, shuttle to Waynesboro, 19.8 miles.

Day 76: Reeds Gap to Rockfish Gap, hitch back to Waynesboro, 19.2 miles.

Day 77: Rockfish Gap to unmarked campsite near Black Rock Gap, 19.9 miles.

Day 78: Black Rock Gap to campsite near Powell Gap, 19.3 miles.

Day 79: Powell Gap to Big Meadows Lodge, 23.2 miles.

Day 80: Big Meadows Lodge to Thornton Gap, hitch into Luray, 17.6 miles.

Day 81: Thornton Gap to Skyline Drive mile marker 15.9, shuttle back to Luray, 16.1 miles.

Day 82: Skyline 15.9 to U.S. 522, hitch into Front Royal, 11.6 miles.

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Virginia has stolen my heart. But we’ll get to that in a minute…first I have to confess that I went into full-on lazy hiker mode for a while, hitching rides or setting up shuttles so that I could end the day in a town as often as possible while still putting my miles in. I’m blaming it on my approaching home trip. On some level my body knew a break was coming, so it was already checking out, and this was the best way to find motivation and maintain a strong pace…at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

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I should explain that my elusive motivation had to do with me being worn-out and looking forward to visiting home; it had nothing to do with the scenery or the weather, which have both been brilliant.

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On that note, I’ve written before about  the ongoing theme of deciding to be in a bad mood and then having the circumstances make that impossible. Virginia has made it really, really difficult to be miserable lately–especially once I reached the Shenandoahs.

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I have long believed that the national park system is one of our country’s greatest accomplishments, and Shenandoah National Park added to that belief. I love the sense of history, the random chats with strangers at scenic points and road crossings, the stunning views. Oh and the wayside restaurants scattered throughout the park didn’t hurt either. “Cheeseburger, fries, blackberry milkshake and a cheeseburger to go, please.”

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The crowds were out in full force for Memorial Day weekend. It made the road crossings interesting; the trail intersects Skyline Drive about a million times in the park, and I had lots of fun conversations with people (usually older people or families with young kids) who were curious about what I was doing. “So how far did you walk? … Oh…but why would you do that?” They all smelled very nice, too, and were polite about the fact that I did not.

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One drawback to being in the park on a holiday weekend: limited campsites. The crowded shelters, which were awkardly distanced anyways, meant settling for the first patch of relatively flat ground I could find once I was ready to end the day. I’ve missed seeing other thru-hikers, too. As friendly and supportive as all the day-hikers and motorists have been, it’s comforting to spend time with other people attempting the same thing, and I haven’t seen another thru-hiker in almost a week.

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So I called Big Meadows Lodge on a whim and found out that they had one opening left for the next night. It was just over 23 miles away, so I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. to try and get there in time to rest and enjoy it. I’ve done that a few times now, walking while it’s still dark, and I love it–the cool air, the birds singing themselves awake, the shifting colors as dawn reaches through the trees.

The night at Big Meadows was one of my favorites so far. There was live music, a guy with his guitar, in the lounge downstairs, so I headed down after dinner. After my first serving of blackberry cobbler, long enough to decide that I liked the music, I decided to order a beer. The waitress told me it was already paid for, so I turned around to meet Not Yet and Sunshine, a married couple who thru-hiked last year and were spending the weekend in the park. We passed the next couple hours trading stories, comparing our favorite and least favorite sections, and enjoying the music.

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The singer teaches high school English during the day, so, like any good English teacher, he was witty and engaging. Quite talented, too, and his song selections were perfect for the setting. He encouraged singing along, and the whole room enthusiastically joined on certain songs. “Shenandoah” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” were particularly memorable. I don’t recall ever listening to either of those songs by choice, but there was something about the setting, sitting with Not Yet and Sunshine, surrounded by strangers who had spent the day exploring and reveling in the mountains. I’ve been humming both of those songs incessantly ever since.

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The next day I walked 17 miles before hitching into Luray to re-supply and spend another night indoors. By complete surprise, Luray turned out to be one of my favorite town stops so far (so much so that I shuttled back after the next day’s hike, of course). There’s a charming and active downtown, where it seemed like every building had a historical marker out front. (That’s been true for this whole section–tons of history, especially from the Civil War.) There’s also a beautiful trail that winds along the river around town. I’ll have to enjoy that trail on another visit, since this trip means walking as little as possible on town stops.

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After my second night in Luray and a shuttle back to where I’d left off, I was less than 12 miles from Front Royal, where I was scheduled to be picked up for the airport Thursday morning. I got here Tuesday, earlier than I planned, which means I’ll be taking a zero day here tomorrow before I go home. That’s right–Big Meadows Lodge, two nights in Luray and now two nights in Front Royal. See what I meant about being a lazy hiker?

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My lucky weather streak has continued. After several gorgeous days hiking through the Shenandoahs, today’s thunderstorm waited until I was settled in before unleashing. (The power actually went out for half an hour or so while I was writing this.) To add to my happy mood, I’m so excited about visiting home, spending time with family, watching Chris graduate and resting my knees.

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I passed mile 965 today, which means I’m almost through Virginia, the trail’s largest state, and the halfway point is getting close. That’s simultaneously a thrilling and humbling thought…I’m thrilled to have accomplished so much but humbled that, after all this, I’m not even halfway done. (I smiled writing that last part…I guess it’s a good sign that I’m looking forward to having so much ground left to cover.)

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After my intermission at home, it’ll be back to my normal routine. I’ll hopefully average around the same mileage I’ve done lately, but I won’t keep going out of my way to stay in towns. Part of the allure of this trip is carrying everything I need on my back, sleeping outdoors and only getting to town once every four or five days…hopefully taking a few days off and seeing friends and family will help get me back in the swing of things.

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Last thought: I’ve tried answering questions about this hike on an individual basis, but I’m thinking about taking some of the more common ones and doing a Q&A post, maybe on my flight home. If you think of any questions, feel free to share.

As always, thanks for reading.

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