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Shenandoahs National Park, Waynesboro to Front Royal
Volume 37: Sat June 28, 2003
I last left off with my arrival in Waynesboro, where I would spend a couple of days before resuming my hike. First off, we headed off to the library where I could make more use of my Internet time to learn more about making an alcohol stove—and pay some bills that would quickly become overdue if I didn't attend to them quickly.
Then it was off to Staunton where Amanda's innate sense of direction took us through most of the town before finding the movie theater. I'd been looking forward to seeing Finding Nemo for a couple of years now, and I was finally getting my chance!
While driving around the town, we passed the birthplace of Woodrew Wilson which was exciting because now I can brag about seeing the birthplace of Woodrew Wilson. It was rather by accident, though, since until we drove passed it, I didn't realize that Woodrew Wilson had been born in Staunton.
Then we stopped at a Taco Bell for lunch. I bought a replacement for my sadly limping umbrella at TJ Maxx. And since we still had an hour before the movie was to begin, I pulled out some fresh soda cans and started poking holes and cutting them up.
But eventually the movie was to start soon, so we bought our tickets and made ourselves comfortable. Finding Nemo was a fun movie, although I'll admit I didn't like it as much as Pixar's other movies. (Editor's note: Ryan does own stock in Pixar and may not be the most objective reviewer for Pixar movies.) However, I really, really did enjoy the preview for The Incredibles, Pixar's next movie due out next year. It looks hilarious! =)
After the movie we sat down at the food court where I continued to drive terror into the hearts of soda cans everywhere. We were planning to meet Lisa, a letterboxer extordinaire that I had actually never heard of before. =) Amanda was in charge of my social life at this point, in case you couldn't tell, and set up several meetings with letterboxers while I was out of touch and on the trail.
We met up with Lisa, swapped stamps and letterboxing war stories, and heard lots of good gossip on Legerdemaine, and then parted ways after awhile. It might sound boring, but it was a lot of fun. =)
Amanda and I went out for dinner to Rowe's, a local place seemingly well-known for its food and atmosphere. I didn't really care for it much, though. The food was so-so and the interior was so plain boring white I wanted to cry. I ate my food quickly and was happy to leave.
The next day I'd do something unheard of: I'd take an unprecedented second zero day in a row. It would be only the fourth day I hadn't hiked the AT since starting my journey two months before.
First stop was the library, where I tried out version 1.0 of my MacGyver stove in the parking lot as we waited for the place to open. And it worked beautifully! I boiled some water (I was just testing the stove—not actually cooking anything!) that I proudly threw across the parking lot. Then I waited for the rest of the fuel in my stove to burn off. Strange thing about alcohol stoves, but the wind won't blow them out, and neither could I. One just has to wait for it to burn off—which took a half hour for the amount of fuel I put in my stove.
Flushed with triumph, I visited the library one last time. Then we headed back to the motel where we'd meet up with Mary, yet another letterboxer with nothing better to do than to hang out with Amanda and myself.
We stopped at Wendy's briefly for lunch, then drove a half-hour or so to Monticello since I'd never had the pleasure of touring Thomas Jefferson's home. And, we knew there was a letterbox in the area, although the combined brain power of Mary, Amanda, and myself wasn't enough to crack the code, so we weren't really sure where at Monticello the box was hidden.
We arrived, got our tickets, and headed up to the mansion where Jefferson once walked. We had over an hour before the tour of the house started, and we theorized that the letterbox might be down by Jefferson's grave, so off we went. We searched trees, rocks, nooks, and crannies, but to no avail. When time was up, we went back up to the house for our 2:20 tour.
Monticello was far smaller than I had imagined, but stuffed with fascinating features and gizmos that makes the tour worth it.
After the tour we wandered around the complex some more—always on the lookout for a likely place a letterbox might be hidden, but not with much hope of finding it.
Then we walked back down to the parking area where we bumped into someone Mary knew. It was a fellow letterboxer who had cracked the code, and we learned there was yet another letterboxer wandering around the complex looking for us as well.
After several cell phone calls, the five of us—Amanda, Mary, Bernadette, and Eileen—finally got together at the front door of the house where Amanda, Mary, and myself read the decrypted clue for the first time.
And who'd have imagined, but was hidden—well, I can't tell you that—but it was practically in the house with tons of people EVERYWHERE watching our suspicious actions hunting down the letterbox.
But we failed once again, and the box continued to elude the five of us. Dejected, we headed back to the parking lot to lick our wounds, then drove of to the Wintergreen Ski Area where five other letterboxes awaited us.
The toughest part of these boxes was just finding the trailhead, but eventually we got that figured out and successfully found five letterboxes in a rather nice area. I felt like I was no longer shirking my hiking duties, although I wasn't actually hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
We stopped in Charlettesville for dinner before going our separate ways. Amanda and I found ourselves a hotel to sleep the rest of the night away.
The next morning we dropped by a hardware store for more stove-making materials. I wanted to get some tape to help keep my stove together, and I also needed something to make a stand that I could put my pot on while cooking.
We found the necessary stuff. Amanda would take the stove I had been using for over 850 miles back with her leaving me solely dependent on my new hand-made creation. Two of them, in fact, since I managed to make two seemingly useable stoves, although I hadn't actually cooked anything with either of them.
Then we headed off to lunch at Crackle Barrel, a place Amanda insisted I had to try before I died. I'd been IN a Crackle Barrel restaurant before, but hadn't actually eaten at one.
There was a long line when we arrived, during which time I used to finish perfecting my new pot holders and browse their gift shop. Finally we were seated and ordered food to accommodate our large appetites.
The food was great—but the place was so noisy it was enough to give anyone a major headache. I'd probably have enjoyed myself more if the place wasn't so darned popular.
Then it was back to the trail for me. Amanda dropped me off where Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was raining, of course, so I pulled out my new umbrella and tuned my radio—a gift from Amanda—to an oldies station. and started walking up Skyline Drive.
I walked a measily seven miles to the first shelter—technically outside of Shenandoah NP—crossing Skyline Drive twice, and set up camp there in the rather full shelter. There wasn't much room to work with, so I ate some snacks for dinner and called it a night.
The next day I woke up to rain, that horrible wet stuff with the innocent sounding word. I had little doubt that rain was not a four letter word by accident. This time I hiked 13 miles with six Skyline Drive crossings to the next shelter before calling it quits for the day.
But I was finally in Shenandoah National Park. For hundreds of miles I heard wonderful stories of food at every road crossing and wide, level trails and well-maintained shelters. It sounded something like heaven, and I had been anxious to try it out for myself.
This would also be the first night I'd try cooking with my new MacGyver stoves. First up: Raisin Cinnamon Muffins. I added water to the mixture, threw it in my pot, lit up the stove, and waited to see if it would work or if I'd starve for the night. =) Just kidding, I had back-up food that didn't require cooking—just in case I couldn't get anything to cook correctly. I already had a Plan B set up before I even tried Plan A.
But the muffins cooked perfectly, and I gobbled them down quickly. That was just an appetizer, though, and I next whipped up a batch of spaghetti that also turned out phenomenally well. I'd be eating well on the trail with this hand-made stove of mine! I went to sleep dreaming of all the wonderful meals I'd be making with it....
I woke the next day to rain—again. The trail did improve, although not nearly as dramatically as promised. I still was dodging trees and bushes that needed pruning back from the trail, skated through mud, and climbed up and down hills like I had been for the last two months.
Seven miles into the wet hike was the Loft Mnt Campground with a camp store I was anxious to see and buy a good, hearty lunch in a dry location. But no, it was closed when I arrived. The power was out and everything was locked up tight, including the restrooms. I couldn't even pee in a dry place! Shenandoah was quickly making my "never visit again" list.
I found a group of thru-hikers still sleeping in the breezeway, protected from the wet rain. While a sign said that cooking, spitting, and scratching your butt wasn't allowed in the breezeway, they neglected to outlaw sleeping there, and the quick-thinking thru-hikers had taken advantage of it the night before. I'd learn later than many a thru-hiker have spent the night in the laundromat there.
Dejected, I ate a Pop Tart and continued to the next shelter. At one point the trail crosses a creek flowing well above the stepping stones provided to get across without getting your feet wet. So I tromped directly through the creek somehow managing to wetten my water-logged feet even more than before.
And at last I reached the Pinefield Shelter after a measly 13.2 mile day and crossing Skyline Drive five more times without a single place where food was available. It was depressing.
I woke the next morning to a strange sound: Silence. It wasn't raining! I quickly ate breakfast, brushed my teeth, and threw everything in my pack and hit the trail with the vain hope that I could get some miles on before the rain started. The forecast was scattered showers, and I expected nothing less than promised.
I stopped at the South River Picnic Area for lunch, which reinforced my opinion that the national park service needs a good dose of common sense. For some bizarre reason, they seemed to be under the impression that leaf blowers and shovels being dragged on asphalt is a pleasant sound that everyone eating lunch would want to listen to while fumes from the leaf blower permeated the air.
The thing that really annoyed me most was that the walkways they were blowing leaves off of weren't really filled with leaves in the first place. A random leaf here and there, but really, we're in a national park and that's to be expected. Heaven forbid what would happen to tourists if we actually stepped on leaves in an outdoor picnic area.
And these two park rangers making all this noise—one look at them would have told you they could have used the extra exercise a broom could have provided. Doesn't it seem ironic that our wonderful national park service personnel would find the most environmentally unfriendly method to clear the precious walkways of leaves and flowers that everyone comes out to see in the first place?
I angrily turned on my radio rather loudly to drown out their horrible noise and gobbled down some peanut butter, cheese, and an orange before quickly hitting the trail again. It would take 20 minutes before I couldn't hear that damned leaf blower anymore.
But things were looking up. Five more miles and I'd be passing the Lewis Mountain Campground along with the camp store there, and all reports were that the power was back on and camp stores were open. I was looking forward to it.
And it was exactly as promised. I bought pizza, and sodas, and chips, and resupplied my stash of Pop Tarts, and life was good. I made some phone calls before hiking the last mile to the Bearfence Mountain Shelter.
And it didn't rain the entire day until AFTER I arrived at the shelter, to my delight. Things were definitely going well that day where I was able to cover 20.6 miles with six more crossings of Skyline Drive. (Only one with food available, though.)
All shelters have mice problems, but this one actually boasted of a deer problem. A family of them kept trying to sneak up on our food if we turned our backs for a second and had to shoo them off multiple times while cooking dinner. The register also mentioned a resident bat in the shelter, although we never did see a bat there.
Speaking of animals, they've been much more common and brazen than anywhere else on the trail thus far. Deer are usually very shy and run at the first hint of people, but not these creatures where it's all one can do to scare them off. And bears, until now considered a rare sight on the trail, are sighted so often only blind people (and myself *cough*) hadn't seen any. It seemed like every other entry in the registries are by excited hikers that finally saw their first bear.
In any case, I went to sleep and sure as a clock ticks, it poured rain most the night—a hard, steady rain that made me sympathetic for all the poor, wet hikers that decided to tent it for the night.
By morning the rain stopped, and I turned on my radio for the latest forecast: chance of rain and scattered thunderstorms all day. Who'd have guessed? And many areas had flood warnings. But summer was only two days away, I thought grimly.
Fortunately, the chance of rain held off during my hike. My first stop for the day would be Big Meadows with promises of food and other wonderful things. Perhaps I'd even take some time off to tour the visitor center and hike off the trail in the area instead.
That didn't work out, as it were, when I walked right past the turnoff for it without even realizing it. I discovered my mistake about a mile later when I headed up to another area of Big Meadows—the part without the food, visitor center and other glorious things. And there was no way I was going to backtrack a mile to take advantage of it!
I continued on where I stopped for lunch at Rock Spring Hut.
Further on, I spotted something. It was large, black, and—it was a bear! In fact, it was four bears: a mom and three cubs. When the mom noticed me, she chased the three cubs up a tree then stood at its base, staring at me, just daring me to get closer.
I blinked first and decided to mosy along and continue on away from the bears and on to Skyland.
There I finally bought snacks (Starbursts and Skittles), soda, and batteries. I called Amanda to brag about my bear sighting, or rather to rub it in because I know she's wanted to see bears in the wild since before time began but hasn't succeed yet. =)
Continuing my journey, I saw something even more rare than the elusive bear: a one-legged hiker. Oh, the stories THAT guy could tell about a bear encounter around a campfire! (Not that it would be true, but who's to know if the story is true or not?)
In any case, I thought it was wonderful that the one-legged hiker would get out on the trail despite his obvious handicap. Kind of inspirational. I passed him rather quickly. As he said, "I don't move very quickly, as you see, so go ahead and pass me." I did as I was told and continued past.
Now it was getting around 6:30 in the evening and the clouds were starting to come in thick. It was time to start thinking about setting up camp for the night.
I was at an awkward place between shelters where if I wanted to stay in a shelter that night, I'd have either a short 11.5 mile day, or a lengthy 26.8 mile day. Neither of which was very appetizing. So I decided I'd camp between shelters, weather be damned, and do a 20 or so mile day, only crossing Skyline Drive a measly three times that day.
Now that the weather was visibly worsening, I set up camp just off the trail, possibly the first person to ever camp at that particular spot.
Amazingly, Shenandoah National Park actually allows this. They prefer first for people to stay at designated camping areas, but if none are available, you can set up camp *almost* anywhere.
I set up my tarp first—always important when storm clouds are coming in using large rocks I found nearby to anchor it down. Then made myself comfortable underneath it and not a moment too soon since almost immediately it started to rain.
A deer woke me the next morning, munching on leaves next to my tarp. He kept a close eye on me, and me him, for the next half hour. I was in no rush to break camp since it was still sprinkling outside.
Then I noticed it. A caterpillar trying to crawl up onto my groundsheet. I flicked it off. Then I noticed another one. And another. One of my camp shoes had seven of the suckers, while my other had claim to four. I found six on my cookset which I left out during the night, and another four crawling on my sleeping bag. Another dozen were crawling up my tarp.
It was a caterpillar invasion unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Caterpillars went flying in all directions as I flicked them off two or three at a time.
At last, with things finally under control, I turned on the radio to hear the latest forecast, which called for rain in the morning that should let up later in the day. A good thing, I should hope, since the sprinkle turned into a rather strong downpour. I huddled in my sleeping bag for another hour, killing time, flicking off caterpillars I missed my first time through, and watching the deer forage for food.
Finally I got up and ate breakfast, peed, and partially packed my backpack—all from under the protective cover of my tarp. But the downpour continued to worsen, and I had no desire to leave the dry comfort of my tarp, so I waited and killed more time.
By 11:00, the rain started to die down, so I packed up and headed out intending to hike a whopping 20 miles despite the incredibly late start.
I pretty much charged on with narely a break. After a half hour on the trail, the rain stopped and I thankfully put my umbrella away. However the storm clouds stayed close by, hovering and following me wherever I went.
I stopped for a half hour at the Eldwallow Wayside where I bought an over-priced cheeseburger and fries that tasted absolutely delicious.
But with storm clouds still a threat, I pushed on the last six miles in two hours, arriving at Gravel Spring Hut, 20.6 miles, at 6:30 after six more crossings of Skyline Drive. Fantastic time! And I made it before the rain started again. Life was good.
The next morning was overcast, but not raining—yet. It was also the first day of summer, and I couldn't help but think the rain has to let up NOW. So wrong I'd be....
I left camp at around eight and hiked down nearly 14 miles (with another five Skyline Drive crossings) with nothing more than a five minute rest here and there. I wasn't in a rush, but neither did I have any reason to plod along slowly.
I spotted one bear along the way. My brief view consisted mostly of its butt as it ran away from me at a high velocity.
Also interesting, just before the Tom Floyd Wayside, I heard some music coming off from the distance. At first I thought it might be coming from the shelter there—a bunch of teenage delinquents more interested in parting than enjoying the sights and sounds of the outdoors.
But no, it was coming from further down the mountain. Maybe some hikers just ahead of me—out of view but with a radio cranked up to outrageous volumes. I'm a relatively quick hiker and figured I'd catch and pass them pretty quickly.
But they always seemed to stay just ahead of me, mile after mile. I had to be getting closer, though, because the music was slowly getting louder. Elvis. Big Bopper. Well, at least these hooligans had good taste in music.
Eventually I reached a spot on the trail where the music seemed to come from the side of the trail instead of in front of me. How did that happen?
I continued on.... and now the music was definitely coming from behind me. Very strange, indeed. The trail ran up a hill along a fence with signs reading, 'US Government Property—No Trespassing'. Perhaps there's a government party the music is coming from out here in the woods?
Reading my handbook, I learned that a swimming pool was about a quarter mile away that hikers could use for a fee, and my theory turned to that as the source of this ghostly music I'd been hearing for nearly two miles.
Whatever the source, I never did find out its source with any certainty.
A short while later, I bumped into Tony, a member of the Triple V Gang. Now I was planning to meet some people at Chesters Gap another mile up the trail, but the Triple V Gang had emailed me saying they had made plans that afternoon and wouldn't be able to make it. So naturally, they surprised me a second time by meeting me as I came out of the woods.
However, their trail angeling skills had improved dramatically since they were actually able to find the trail this time. =)
It was a nice surpise to see them, but the Knights of Columbo—the letterboxes I was planning to meet at the gap—were nowhere to be seen. I wasn't too worried since I made it out of the woods a bit earlier than I had told them, and sure enough they showed up another five minutes later.
We all made introductions and chatted for awhile. I proudly showed off my MacGyver stove to the Triple V Gang who I had left as I was carving away at their soda cans in a menacing way. I wanted to show them that I really was sane and not a crazy maniac! =)
The Triple V Gang did have plans for the afternoon and evening, though, and had to leave shortly. I rode into Front Royal—about four miles away—with the Knights of Columbo where they took me to the library before it closed and later treated me to lunch.
And these wonderful people actually offered to let me crash at their place, perhaps a 40 minute drive away, and they'd bring me back to the trailhead the next day!
It was an offer too good to refuse, so we started on to their place. We made a slight detour to visit the Manassas battlefield along the way, a place I'd heard of many times in Civil War context, but seemed strange with McDonalds and Home Depots spotting the area. I never read about those at Manassas in my history books!
The 1st Battle of Manassas (also known as the 1st Battle of Bull Run)the first major land battle of the Civil War in the summer of 1861 was so exciting, they followed it up with the aptly named 2nd Battle of Manassas (also known as the 2nd Battle of Bull Run).
The north was soundly trounced both times by the southern armies, and we took a walking tour of Henry Hill where some of the fiercest fighting from the first battle occurred. It was nearing sunset, partly cloudy, and amazingly calm and tranquil as we wandered around the cannons reading the information signs.
It was hard to fathom the vicious fighting that occurred there so many years ago on such a beautiful afternoon. When the 1st battle occurred, it eclipsed Waterloo as the bloodiest battle in the history of the world. The Confederates felt their sovereignty was assured after winning such a major victory. More than 30 more 'Waterloos' would occur before the Civil War came to an end, some of which would make this battle look small in comparison. At Gettysburg, for instance, casualties would be ten times larger than the 1st Battle of Manassas.
After this sobering but fascinating stop, the Knights of Columbo took me to their place where we ate pizza while watching The Mummy. After the pizza, I would start carving away at soda cans and make a MacGyver stove for my benefactors. =)
I went to sleep by the flickering light of the computer screen, surfing the web reading information about alcohol stoves, catching up on e-mails, until my eyelids fell off at about 2:00 in the morning and I went to sleep.
And that covers my time through my arrival to Front Royal. I've now reached Harpers Ferry, West Virginia—over 1000 miles from the start of the Appalachian Trail—and you'll be hearing plenty more about those adventures in an upcoming episode. =)
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