2019-Day 108: marathon edition

August 9, 2019  

I slept somewhat soundly thanks to the bugs and general exhaustion. Last night, I decided to set an early alarm to give myself the choice of going with the higher mileage. I awoke in the dark and listened to the wind while I made a final pass through my options. Long time readers and anyone paying attention to the post title can already guess which decision I made. What does the word “moderation” mean, anyway??

With my intentions set, I massaged my feet and put on my ankle brace for the trip to the privy. My headlamp cut through a light drizzle as I walked up the hill to the left of the shelter, hoping that I didn’t frighten the flip flopper with my footfalls. The privy for Paul Wolfe shelter has only half of a door, which is both helpful when you don’t want to be closed in with the spiders and a terrible idea if you actually want a private experience.

The cloak of darkness helped with the latter issue. I did my best not to think about the spider population while I took care of business and stopped to gawk at one of the exterior residents before I headed back to my tent.

I changed into my hiking clothes and packed up my gear, lamenting the hiss of air leaving my sleeping pad. No matter how excited I am about the day, that sound always brings the sadness of no more sleep. I stood in the mist and ate breakfast as the morning light slowly turned the sky a grayish blue. I tried not to focus on the rain and what it might do to my plans if it continued.

I left camp at 6:30am and started the day with a short set of switchbacks as the wind and drizzling rain persisted. The humidity was already off the charts, so I started sweating immediately, which made the sting on my calf even itchier than it had been. A windowpane in the tree cover gave me a peek at the peachy horizon in an otherwise overcast sky.

I heard several woodpeckers reporting for duty along with a smattering of crickets and a wood thrush (formerly known as the star trek bird). My anxiety about bears kept me on high alert as I made my way past a small cemetery with several unmarked stones. A few minutes later, I saw a piece of neon tape on the ground. Upon inspection, it read “bees ahead.”

I laughed at the way information spreads in the woods and also wondered whether said bees were still around in this ambiguously “ahead” place. I had yet to come across any bees by the time I arrived at the W.J. Mayo home place, so I considered myself safe from whatever ground nest had prompted the note. The homestead consisted of a stone chimney and a partially intact stone wall in a sea of saplings. Someone must maintain the site given the lack of overgrowth on the structures.

The woods brightened as the sun filled the sky with hazy golden light. Somewhere along the way, the rain had stopped. The trail flattened out for a bit, and I caught another view of the neighboring mountains before the green tunnel surrounded me again.

Not long after the set of rock steps, I saw a bird hopping and noticed a flash of blue. It turned out to be an indigo bunting. I could also hear a second bird that might have been a vireo. I watched the bunting flit from sapling to sapling until it flew off into woods.

There were smalls drops and rises in elevation over the next couple of miles. I crossed a stream and considered whether I should get water, but decided to wait until the next source 0.8 miles away. When I reached the stream, I filled a water bottle and drank most of it while watching a woodpecker dance around a tree trunk.

Birds chirped up a storm above me as the small stream bubbled its way over the trail and down the hillside. Given the warmth and humidity at 8am, I refilled both of my bottles. I don’t have any notes about stocking up on water despite the fact that the next source was on other side of Calf Mountain, almost 9 miles away. I’m guessing I somewhat foolishly decided to keep my load light and just traveled with the bare minimum.

I crossed over the stream and immediately got distracted by a new purple wildflower, which the internet tells me is most likely New York ironweed (pictured above). Shoulder-high jewelweed and other ground cover closed in on the trail as I gradually climbed towards the sound of interstate 64 at Rockfish Gap. I was grateful for whomever had mowed the last stretch where the trail itself was only a narrow dirt path. I probably would have found myself wading through tall grass without the work of trail maintainers.

The trail abruptly stopped at the guardrail for the Blueridge Parkway/Skyline Dr, upon which someone had stapled a laminated list of trail angels willing to give free shuttle rides for local services or paid shuttle drivers for farther distances. I didn’t see any reason to need a ride, but I took a picture of the list in case of an emergency.

I climbed over the railing and took a right turn to follow the road across the interstate overpass. The wind and car noise were overwhelming after a morning spent with the whisper of leaves and bird song. I walked along the shoulder for another minute or 2 before taking a right turn for the woods.

A registration kiosk marked the beginning of Shenandoah National Park (SNP) and the point at which hikers are supposed to fill out a paper registration/permit with the details of their hike. The last time I registered myself for SNP, it was at the northern terminus and I was attempting to continue my 2017 flip-flop hike with a broken elbow. Later that same day, I decided to call it quits for the season. Needless to say, I had some feelings as I sat on a rock and used my trusty Aunt Mary’s pen to fill out my permit.

I felt excited to begin the last leg of my long journey with a fully functioning body (mostly) and far less enthused by the potential for bears to join me along the way. I lingered for a snack with highway noise and a strong breeze for company.

Once I got moving again, I scanned the sides of the trail for poison ivy hiding in the dense ground cover. In my search, I found a new wildflower that the internet tells me is an asiatic dayflower (check out this site for flower identification – seems to be a pretty good source). Apparently the blooms only last for one day (hence the name), it’s edible, and it’s considered “occasionally invasive” by the VA department of conservation. Who knew.

The trail rose in elevation towards McCormick Gap with minor dips and the occasional hairpin turn just to keep me guessing. Nothing much to report from this section, which may be a phrase you see a lot for the rest of my entries given the monotony of SNP’s green tunnels.

When I got to McCormick Gap, I went up and over the wooden turnstile next to a locked gate and crossed Skyline Drive under bright blue skies.

I headed back into the green tunnel. Wildflowers left pollen on my shorts as I made my way up Bear Den Mountain. I paused to investigate the random tractor seats that were bolted to the ground near the communications towers. The lack of shade and my marathon mission kept me from loitering longer than a few snapshots.

The trail dipped back into the shaded woods for a few minutes before popping back out into the sun for the summit where I passed a weather radar station that I apparently did not take a picture of.

A sunny field walk led me down to Beagle Gap where I did not see any beagles, but I did meet a chihuahua and a couple of rangers gave me a lesson about coyotes in the park. I also got the chance to use a porta-potty. Ah, luxury.

I had just finished my lunch when an older couple in a single cab red pickup truck pulled into the lot. They greeted me with enthusiasm in their thick Georgian lilts, and the woman immediately started offering me food. They were clearly familiar with hiker culture and sharing resources. I had a hill to walk up (obviously, because it was after lunch), and I didn’t need food, but she was so enthusiastic that it felt rude to say no. When I reluctantly agreed, she hopped out of her seat and started rummaging around in gigantic tupper ware bins stored in the truck bed. She offered me one heavy carbohydrate after another, and I finally said yes to a blueberry muffin. When she handed it to me, my heart and my hand sank at the same time. It must have weighed 8oz, easy. She got back in the truck and that’s when I noticed that a tiny white chihuahua was nestled between her and her husband. I thanked her for the food, and proceeded to get an unsolicited full rundown of their trip. They had originally planned to go to the smokies for the husband’s 69th birthday, but their destinations were closed, so they’d kept driving up to VA and had been toodling around SNP for a couple of days.

I finally extracted myself and sat on the ground to eat part of the costco sized muffin. I had literally no desire to taste it because my lunch had been on the sweeter side, but there was no way I was going to carry that whole muffin for the rest of the day. The chihuahua took a short bathroom break while I unwrapped my gift, after which the couple drove off with big waves to me.

Crumbs rained into my lap with each bite, which gave me yet another reason to regret my decision: bear bait. In hindsight, I should have just asked the rangers to throw it out for me, but that didn’t occur to me in the moment. I was more concerned with the amount of time I had just lost in the parking lot. I had a strict allowance for each break of the day, and I had just blown my schedule by about 25 minutes. That might not sound like much, but it could be the difference between setting up my tent at twilight or in complete darkness.

I put the half-eaten muffin into my food bag and grumbled while I tidied my pack. Then came a hot and hilly field walk towards Little Calf Mountain.

After the summit, there was a slight drop in elevation followed by another short climb to Calf Mountain. Somewhere in that distance, a bear came crashing out of a small tree just to the right of the trail and ran deeper into the woods (not pictured). Well, that didn’t take long.

:: I have no notes for the next 10ish miles, so I’m going to do my best to fill in the gaps with pictures and what I can remember from this never ending day of hiking::

A giant rock pile marked the wooded summit of Calf Mountain. About half a mile later, I saw a sign that said a half mile of the trail was closed for power line repairs and the detour itself would be 1 mile long.

I hadn’t seen any information about the detour in guthook because I hadn’t tapped on the power line symbol on the other side of Calf Mountain. As far I was concerned, power lines were just another blip and weren’t usually cause for exploration unless they might lead to a sunset view. I also hadn’t noticed that users commented about the detour bypassing one of the few streams of the day. The unexpected change sent me into a mild panic about time and energy. I gave myself a headache and wasted a couple of minutes struggling to figure out how the mileage added up with the distance closed versus the distance of the detour. The best I could figure is that I would be adding almost half a mile to my original total mileage (25.7), bringing me even closer to the marathon distance I had secretly hoped to accomplish somewhere in SNP. I was simultaneously excited and anxious about how I would get it all done before dark.

I put my phone away and hiked while deliberating my new circumstances. A dark blob off to my right made my amygdala go, BEAR, but it turned out to be a blackened tree stump. I laughed at myself and kept moving.

I reluctantly took the left turn for Calf Mountain shelter. I desperately needed water, and I had no choice but to eat more time with the 0.2 mile round trip to the piped spring. Chest-high jewelweed closed in on the side trail. Obviously I stopped for a picture:

The piped spring had a low but decent flow. I was grateful for the speed of filling my sawyer bag out of a pipe rather than having to use my scoop. I hadn’t seen another human in quite some time, and I was starting to feel creeped out by the isolation of sitting off-trail surrounded by dense weeds. I tried to comfort myself by zeroing in on the sensory experience of my water duties.

I drank as much as I could muster before filling my bottles and heading back to the false security of the trail. I don’t have any notes about carrying extra water even though the next reliable source was at my evening destination, 13 miles away. It’s hard to imagine I left with only two smart water bottles worth of water for that kind of a distance on a summer day in VA, but I wouldn’t put it past me to do that. [insert ultralight eyeroll here]

I reached the start of the detour shortly after getting back on the AT, and proceeded to cover a very mild one-mile stretch of trail through a combination of public and private property. I crossed a set of power lines that I assumed were the same power lines being repaired on the AT. Then I followed a semi shaded gravel road until it met up with an SNP boundary line.

Somewhere in the second half of that stretch, I saw a parked pickup truck with someone puttering around in the cab. My alarm bells sounded as they normally do with large pickup trucks in a southern state in the middle of the woods with no one else around. I dawdled while assessing the situation as I closed the gap between myself and the truck. To my relief, the person in the truck started their engine and drove away from me.

As I approached the boundary for SNP, a mountain biker arrived from the park side and stopped at the yellow gate. He seemed confused about where he was, but he quickly turned his bike around and disappeared down the hill. I was happy to be inside the park bounds again and even more so when I was back on the official AT.

The trail wound me through a dense forest and past a seasonal stream that was most definitely dry at the moment. Thankfully I didn’t need water, but I remember continually checking the stream bed as the trail followed it. I heard voices in the distance, and I cringed at the sound of male voices. It’s hard to explain the phenomenon of feeling lonely and isolated most of the day and equally uninterested in human contact when the opportunity arose. I feel like they must have gone a different way (if that’s even possible) because I stopped for several pictures of a weird tree fungus (below), and I have no memory of them passing me.

The trail grew dustier and hotter as it slowly gained elevation and the tree canopy dissipated. I saw a bright orange flower leaning across the trail and stopped to examine the spotted beauty. The internet says it’s a “leopard lily” also known as a “blackberry lily,” but it’s apparently not a lily at all.

It’s in the iris family, and each flower only lasts a day. Knowing none of that at the time, I also assumed it was a lily. I carefully stepped around it and continued up the increasingly hot hill. The elevation changes for my self selected marathon day were frequent and tiring me out in a sneaky way that I had not anticipated when I’d looked at the elevation map the night before.

Somewhere between the leopard lily and the next road crossing, I encountered a solo day hiker in regular clothes. He seemed confused about how to get back to his car, but he couldn’t remember where he had parked, and I had no clue how to help him figure out where to go. His clothing and his confusion set me on edge. The details of his story are lost to me now because I didn’t write them down, but I do remember being unsettled by how they didn’t seem to add up at all. I tried my best to give him concrete information about where he stood in that moment (about 20 minutes from one road crossing to the north and much farther away from any other road crossing where he might have parked a car). He headed southbound, and I continued north with the wariness that comes from a lifetime of being exposed to violence against female-bodied people. I had no desire to run into the day hiker again, so I tried to pick up my pace to make it to the road sooner than later.

I arrived at Sawmill Run Overlook in the estimated 20 minutes that I had shared with the day hiker. An ominous dark cloud hung low in the hazy sky on one side of the road. A trio of southbound hikers emerged from the woods as I snapped a couple of pictures. They crossed the road, and I felt slightly relieved that they were going in a different direction.

The next three or four miles were a blur of green tunnels. I was too on edge to listen to harry potter for fear of missing bear sounds, so I plodded onward as quickly as I could manage without pounding my feet.

The trail crossed skyline drive nearly every couple of miles, making for a hamster wheel effect. At some point in the middle of the afternoon, I stopped on a log to eat the rest of that blasted blueberry muffin. It made me far thirstier than the amount of water I had available to me, but I’m sure my body appreciated the calories. I started the counter on my watch to make sure I didn’t linger more than a few minutes. My feet were starting to get sore, but they had held up better than I’d expected thus far. I added a couple of snacks to my hip pocket for easy access to deal with the fact that I would definitely be hiking through the dinner hour.

A breeze cooled me as I walked through a slightly more open section of woods. I looked up to see a bear silently loping north down the trail about a hundred feet in front of me. It looked like a dog out for an afternoon walk. I stopped in my tracks and watched as the bear turned right into the woods. I had no idea what to do. There was no way to tell if it had plans to get back on the trail or if it had changed course for good. I decided to make some noise to encourage the bear to make the latter choice. I gave my sports fan whistle and clicked my poles together as loudly as I dared without breaking them and slowly continued down the trail. About two minutes later, I saw a bear cross the trail maybe a hundred feet away from me. I couldn’t tell if it was the same bear or a new one, but I was in the same predicament nonetheless. I made all the same noises, and waited an arbitrary 3 minutes before continuing up the trail. About five minutes later, I saw two separate southbound hikers, and I warned them about my bear sightings. One hiker was nonplussed, and the other was clearly a bit surprised and on alert. I, too, was on alert, and I tried to make sure I looked up from the ground as often as I could without tripping. The last thing I wanted to do was surprise a mama bear.

At 4:45pm, I crossed skyline drive yet again and checked my mileage. 6.7 miles to go. That was a dismal number relative to my energy level and my strong desire to stop hiking. I had no choice but to keep going because of the complete lack of water between me and the shelter. Late afternoon light filtered in from my left as the breeze continued to make the air far more comfortable than I expected to be at this time of year.

And then came the rocks. Small to medium sized rocks littered the trail for long stretches at a time interspersed with confusing, but welcome sandier patches.

I was in no mood for the tenderizing action of rocky footing or the constant ups and downs. The last four miles on the elevation chart were sawtooth misery. None of the changes were very drastic (it would have been considered sleepwalking in Maine), and I know my body does much better on ups or downs, but my mind just wanted flatness.

I crossed skyline around mile 882 (in 2019 mileage) and paused to take in the beautiful evening light (today’s top photo).

Back into the woods I went. The rocks eased up from that road crossing to the next. Here are a few pictures from that stretch:

I stopped in between the two road crossings for a five minute break to rest my throbbing feet. My lower legs were covered in a raging red rash that I now suspect is golfer’s vasculitis. It’s also sometimes called hiker’s rash or, amusingly, Disney rash from long summer days spent at theme parks. The sting on my calf was puffier than it had been this morning, and it hurt when anything brushed against it. Basically, I was heading into full body meltdown zone with a couple more miles to go.

At 7:20pm, I arrived at the Blackrock Gap pull off, which was empty given the late evening hour. A few long minutes later, I crossed skyline again at an unmarked intersection. Only half a mile to go, which at that point felt like an eternity.

I generally have a rule about not camping within a mile of a paved road, but the shelter locations in Shenandoah make that rule nearly impossible to follow. The next few minutes were obviously rocky and uphill, as the unwritten AT rulebook dictates.

My heart sank when I saw a sign warning about bear activity in the area. No surprise there, but it was more official than I wanted to see in that moment.

I finally reached the shelter turn-off at 7:45pm, and steered my tired ship towards the dark green tunnel that led 0.2 miles to dinner and sleep.

I noted the bear box location (yes!) as I entered the shelter area. There were two tents behind the shelter and a person inside the shelter who was already buttoned up for the night. I’d read in a guthook comment from late June that this shelter had resident wolfies who were about to hatch babies, so I had ZERO intentions of getting anywhere near it.

I walked past the shelter and dropped my back against a tree before wandering around the tenting area in the hopes of finding something more hospitable than a slanted rock bed. The options were dismal at best. I finally settled on a plot that would fit the footprint of my duplex without sending me completely downhill all night. A dog with one of the tenting hiker’s barked at me the entire time I surveyed the area. I finally walked over to their tent with the intention of introducing myself to the dog so it would stop freaking out. My neighborly gesture was not well received by the dog, so I retreated to my campsite to get to work on the most pressing chore at hand.

I made a half hearted attempt at grooming the site, tossing one sharp rock after another down the embankment at the foot of my site. I cleared maybe 30% of the most egregious debris, but I finally had to give up and just pitch my tent. It seemed like tonight might be the night I either rip the bathtub or have that magical experience of puncturing my sleeping pad through the bathtub. Here’s a picture of the site that I took the next morning because I didn’t have the energy or the light to do it in real time:

I felt terrible for causing a ruckus at what was basically hiker midnight, but I couldn’t do anything about the noise required to set up a tent. I used any towel I could spare to cover the sharper spots on the ground and crossed my fingers as I laid out the tent. Getting my stakes into the rocky soil was about as easy as you would expect, but I made it work. I pulled the last guy line taut at 8:10pm and called it a success. Next up: water. In my addled state, I made the mistake of leaving my filter by the tent (classic Checklist move), so I filled my sawyer bag and added water collection to my mental list of morning duties.

Back at the rock ranch, I filtered water in the last minutes of day light. I made to sure drink some in an effort to catch up on what was NOT a good day for hydration. I grabbed my food bag, a water bottle, and my pot and sat on a rock about twenty yards away from my tent. I had no desire to create food smells in the dark, but I also couldn’t fathom a cold dinner made of snacks. I boiled water at twilight and poured it straight into my ziplock bag of bare burrito. There was no way I would be doing dishes tonight. All I wanted was to be motionless for a few minutes, but I forced myself to set up my bed while my food cooked. I clicked on my headlamp and got to work while the dog shared its feelings about my priorities. Then I went back to my dinner rock and ate fritos in the dark while I waited for my dinner to finish. At the 11 minute mark, I opened the ziplock bag and proceeded to scarfed my dinner, partially out of hunger and partially from the fear of attracting bears. I jumped at the slightest noise from the surrounding woods and was grateful when the evening bug concert started right on time, this time with frog accompaniment. I ate two of my dessert chocolates and brushed my teeth without getting up. My stomach twisted from having eaten so quickly, but I was relieved to be done with the sitting duck portion of my to do list.

I toted my stove, fuel, and water back to my tent, and walked past the shelter to stow my food and smellables. The handle on the bear box gave an unavoidable metallic squeal, but the dog didn’t bark. I stumbled my way past the shelter again, trying my best to avoid shining my headlamp into the sleeping area. One more bio break, and I crawled into my rock bed for good. I sat there for a minute while my body vibrated with exhaustion. I contemplated sleeping in my hiking clothes, but that seemed like a terrible idea, so I forced myself to change. Then I made a short phone call to Oakland (yay phone signal) hoping that the bugs would muffle some of my voice. I massaged my feet and calves while we talked. I forgot about my sting until it reminded me that it was still very sore. Oakland and I kept it short for everyone’s sake. I shuffled things around in my now palatial tent, making sure I had easy access to my knife, headlamp, and pee cloth. Nighttime essentials.

The dog started growling and barking as I settled into bed, which put all of senses in high gear. I hoped the dog’s noises would scare away whatever creature it had heard or smelled. I wished I was tenting closer to the dog as I started on my notes for the end of the day. I managed to cover the last quarter of the day in partial sentences, but that was all I could bring myself to do before calling it quits. My feet and calves were actively in pain. I didn’t bother setting an alarm before laying my phone beside my head and staring at the bright moon through my tent wall. I’m finishing this to the cacophony of evening creatures, the wind rushing through the trees and the occasional squeak of the sleeping pad of whoever is in the shelter. Today was kind of a terrible idea, and I doubt I will be doing it again anytime soon.

Mile 858.7 to mile 884.4 (25.7 officially, but 26 total with the detour) – Blackrock Hut

Checklist total miles: 1105.5 

Creature feature: bears! two, possibly three of them, the cute chihuahua and the barky dog at the shelter.

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