August 14, 2019
I slept soundly nearly all night with the usual rotisserie action required to maintain a comfortable position on the ground. My lumpy tent site proved to be the coziest I’d had since Oakland and I left VA back in mid July. The frogs and the crickets sang all night, and I heard a light wind sifting through the trees every time I woke up. My alarm went off at 5:15am, and I hurried to turn it off. I didn’t want the coziness to end, but I also knew the privy was far away, and I didn’t want to rush through my morning hike. I laid in the dim morning light and made another recording the frogs. Then I changed into my rank hiking clothes for the last time and put in my contacts before the potentially dirty task of breaking down my tent. A barred owl called as I pulled out my stakes and wrestled with the competing pressures of wanting to be done, not wanting to leave the woods, and wanting to be on time for my lunch rendezvous with HQ at Elkwallow Wayside. I dropped my pack against the low rock wall at the shelter and took my tp to the spider cave. I don’t have any notes about 8-legged encounters, so it couldn’t have been that bad, and I managed to get there before the rest of the bros took over. I ate my usual probar with spoonfuls of peanut butter for breakfast while said bros rustled around and made themselves breakfasts of all manner. After filtering the remainder of my water, I said goodbye to the bro troupe and headed back to the trail.
A light breeze blew as I stepped back onto the AT. The vireos were in full swing with squeaky tittering that punctuated their usual chatter. I stopped to soak in the sounds and the morning light filtering in from my right before continuing north through variations of a green tunnel. I didn’t take many notes for this entire day (strange, but true), so I don’t have a lot of terrain minutiae to share (lucky you). Here are a handful of pictures from the first couple of hours.
The hiking was easy and monotonous with exceptional moments caused by the occasional new flower, fresh piles of seedy bear scat, and the frequent crashing of squirrels that always, always made me think a bear was responsible for the racket. Damn squirrels.
A text from HQ came through about two hours into my morning. She had also gotten an early start to avoid being late, so we were both on track to arrive at Elkwallow in good time. I decided to stop for a snack break to slow myself down mentally and physically. There were no overlooks to speak of between my location and the wayside, so I chose on an unremarkable, but comfy log and ate part of a bar. I was grateful for another dry day of hiking, especially because I didn’t want HQ to have to hike in the rain.
After my break, I continued making good time in the green tunnel with minimal distractions. The trail looked pretty much like so:
Less than a mile from the Elkwallow turn off, a southbound hiker approached in a smashing polka dot outfit. I gave a hearty hello and made an admiring remark about her polka dots. When the hiker called me Oboe, I realized that I was standing in front of Stitcher, whom Oakland and I met during dinner in Stratton, ME. She had just started the southbound section of her flip-flop! Such is the way of the trail. Meet someone once, see them weeks (and many miles) later. We took a selfie, exchanged social media info, and congratulated each other before parting ways.
I headed towards Elkwallow marveling at the coincidence and feeling envious that Stitcher had so much of her hike left. When I got to Skyline Drive, I made a right turn and took a short road walk down the wide shoulder that led me to Elkwallow.
There were several picnic tables scattered behind the wayside and one picnic table with a good view of the road. I dropped my pack by the shop door and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich & fries from the grill. I sat at the picnic table with the road view so I could watch for HQ. We had decided that I wouldn’t wait for her to eat, so I enjoyed my last greasy trail meal alone (it was gooood).
The minutes ticked by with no sign of HQ. I couldn’t get in touch with her via text, and we hadn’t made a plan for when I should bail to walk towards her, so I waited. Two SOBO hikers arrived, and I asked if they’d seen someone who matched my mom’s description. They couldn’t confirm one way or the other, which worried me. This would have been a good time to write some notes, but I fretted and watched the clock instead.
Right as I was about to toss the last of my fries and hike north, I saw HQ coming down the side of the road. Huzzah! She was drenched in sweat and looked slightly panicked. I barely said hello before she exclaimed that she had NO idea how I’d hiked alone for so many months because 7 miles had been enough for her. We took a few minutes at the wayside for her to hydrate and get some salty calories in before heading north towards her car.
When we’d checked the elevation for this stretch, we hadn’t deemed any of the elevation changes to be extreme, but the heat combined with HQ’s difficulty breathing on an incline made for a challenging 7 miles back to the car. It didn’t help that we started with a nearly 2 mile climb towards Hogback Overlook. We dropped into a rhythm of me hiking for about 3 minutes, pausing to make sure HQ was still moving, and then continuing to inch worm my way north. The slower pace gave me a good opportunity to admire the jewelweed.
I eventually remembered a hiking pole trick that helped HQ get more leverage on the ups/downs. As soon as we hit flat stretches, HQ’s mall-walking gear kicked in, and she would take the lead until we hit another change in elevation. We both marveled at VERY fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail and crossed our fingers that the depositor of said pile had other places to be.
I felt the urge to reflect on my last day while also being tugged into caretaker mode to make sure HQ didn’t pass out. I was also aware of the time pressure of trying not to keep our welcoming committee waiting for too long. It was hard for me to balance other people’s experience with my desire to have company for such a momentous day.
In the first hour, we saw a handful of beautiful views that doubled as a chance for HQ to catch her breath and a field mouse huddled in the middle of the trail. I took a picture of it and moved on quickly because I didn’t want to scare it, and I couldn’t figure out why it was out in the open.
Shortly after the mysterious mouse, we crossed Skyline drive and went up and over one more quick blip in elevation change before finally getting to Hogback Overlook (third pic).
It was a little over a mile from Hogback to Little Hogback. We paused to take in the view from the power lines and then wound our way down a short set of winding switchbacks. The forest floor was covered in green and the trees were spacious around us. You can see a tiny partially camouflaged HQ in the second to last picture for scale on the switchbacks.
We popped out of the woods below the Little Hogback parking lot and went through a short but steamy stretch that rose just enough to break HQ’s stride.
We went back into the shady woods for a short uphill before the gradual descent towards gravel springs hut. I tried to take a decent mushroom picture in honor of Oakland, but my phone camera couldn’t quite decide where to focus. We passed waist and sometimes shoulder high jolly yellow wildflowers and both enjoyed the break from climb.
With about 3 miles to go, I could tell that we were running pretty late for our rendezvous with our cheering section, so I sent a garmin message to Liala, my sister-in-law. At our next road crossing, I asked HQ if she would rather get picked up by Liala and the minions because I was worried about her exhaustion level, but she said no. I asked her again when we got to the gravel springs gap parking lot because it was her last chance before another 1.6 miles mostly uphill to our destination. She refused again, so we crossed skyline and chugged along at HQ speed with a short pitstop to say hello to a black snake in the middle of the trail.
About 3/4 of a mile from the end, I stopped to see my last overlook while HQ kept plugging away at the current hill. The view was unbelievable (today’s top photo). The weight of the moment finally hit me, and I cried as I used the last vestiges of my phone battery to take my customary video and a slew of pictures.
I wanted to sit there for much longer, but I succumbed to the pull of not wanting to make people wait. I caught up with HQ, and we made one last road crossing around a semi blind corner before hitting the home stretch.
I could see a kiddo peaking down the trail, and I heard a squeal of excitement as we got closer. Both of my nieces came bursting onto the trail holding home made signs and jumping around with excitement.
Little did I know that back in Haymarket, my stepdad was rushing around making a sign for our arrival at home. Here’s his handiwork that he hung on the garage door.
After a good dose of excitement from the littles, Liala directed us to a circle of lawn chairs and a feast of snacks. HQ collapsed into a chair and fanned herself while I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and texted Oakland to announce my finish. The kids ate snacks on their blanket and obliged with gusto when I asked them to make silly faces for a picture.
Then my older niece helped me make a “done” sign and took 37 pictures when I made the mistake of handing her my phone. I’ve included one of many shots with her thumb in the frame 🙂 and another one taken by Liala. It was impossible to get both kids looking at the camera, but who cares.
We loitered for quite a while before piling into separate cars to head back to Haymarket. On the way out of the park, we made one last stop at an overlook, so I could take pictures of the jesus light pouring over the valley and reflecting off of the Shenandoah River.
Done and done. Checklist, signing off (for now).
Mile 945.0 to mile 959.9 (14.9) – parking lot at North Mt. Marshall (skyline mile 15.9)
Checklist total miles (give or take my math errors that I will fix someday): 1181.0
Creature feature: so many squirrels, vireos and the usual bird suspects, the black snake, the mystery mouse, and giggling minions!