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Front Royal to Harpers Ferry

Volume 38: Tue July 8, 2003

I last left with my arrival in Front Royal, Virginia, and my tour at the Manassas battlefield. My battlefield tours would continue the next morning at Balls Bluff, essentially the second significant land battle of the Civil War. Again, the south soundly trounced the north, although the magnitude of this battle was far smaller than at Manassas. The historical context of the park was fascinating, but the primary reason for the stop here was that there were letterboxes hidden here, and we wanted to nab them. =)

I was also greeted by two more letterboxers there that the Knights of Columbus managed to scramble together at the last minute for exchanges: The Doubtful Guest Gang.

We enjoyed our tromp through this old battlefield looking for letterboxes, but the day was wasting and I needed to get back to the Appalachian Trail early enough to hike about five miles to the next shelter after Chesters Gap.

The Knights of Columbus dropped me off, we said our goodbyes, and I once again continued my journey down the trail.

Within minutes I found myself slogging through mud and crap up to my ankles, pouring down into my shoes. My handbook says the other side of the fence was the National Zoological Park, home to endangered animals from all over the world. And that we were most likely to see "a breed of rare African donkeys" near the fence. I didn't see any donkeys, but there was plenty of evidence of their droppings, and they might be rare, endangered, and from Africa, but their crap still stinks to high heaven just as the trail mud deepens ankle deep without any way to pass except slogging directly through it.

The trail soon started following along a creek, a fact that did not go unnoticed by myself and I itched to get to so I could rinse my shoes, socks, and feet of the crap and mud. Annoyingly, a tough patch of thorns and brush separated me from the free-flowing water scantly ten feet away, and I hiked on nearly half a mile in that horrible state before the trail crossed the stream and I was able to wash perhaps the dirtiest, smelliest feet and shoes in the entire world.

This elaborate shelter had a cute deck, a kitchenette, and even a shower!

The rest of the day's hike was rather uneventful, and I finally reached the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter—a small slice of paradise. I was simply amazed stumbling into the shelter. One sign pointed to "Spring & Shower" to the left. A SHOWER?!

The Partnership Shelter way back when had a shower too, but it was next to a visitor center and civilization—including running water-but this shelter was in the middle of nowhere!

I had to check out the shower, and I learned that the water is piped from a spring to a holding container over an honest-to-goodness shower with a chain that the user pulls to let the water out. Way cool! However, the water wasn't heated, and taking a shower holds the same shock as the ones I took in Central America. I happily washed my shoes, socks, and feet again in the shower, but that was it.

The shelter also had a separate cooking pavilion nearby so people wouldn't cook IN the shelter. This was another feature I'd never seen before at a shelter. And darn, it's an amazing shelter. They even cleared trees around it, so I could get a view of the sky! And a brick path leading up to the shelter. They spared no expense on this place!

I'd share this shelter with Rubberband Man and Haiku that night, rather spacious accommodations for only three. I told them wild tales about letterboxing and making my MacGyver stove, both of which they seemed interested in.

I didn't even sleep IN the shelter, but rather just out of it where I could watch the stars on that clear night. It was great with the exception of the bugs that bit at us all night long.

The next day I had planned a leisurely 9.9 mile day, so I slept in late before making my way up the trail. The day was supposed to warm up to 86 degrees, rather warm by our standards, but certainly bearable.

At Manassas Gap I decided to take a 1.2 mile detour to the small town of Linden to get a Pepsi. Normally I wouldn't walk 1.2 miles out of my way for something as trivial as a Pepsi, but I needed to do something to fill up the extraordinarily short hiking day, so why not?

Halfway to town, a car pulled up beside me and the driver asked if I wanted a ride. I wasn't in a rush, obviously, and if I got in town quicker than expected, I'd just have to waste the extra time sitting around killing time.

However, the road walking provided absolutely no shade on this warm summer day, so I said sure and hopped in. He introduced himself as Sundial, a former thru-hiker from two years back. He dropped me off at the grocery store, I gave my thanks, and he was off again.

I picked up a Pepsi—a can, of course, so I could turn it into another stove. =) Made some phone calls, since I could. After downing the Pepsi, I bought another one. For one, the first was pretty darned good on that now hot day, and for a second thing, I needed two cans to make a stove. =)

As I was offing the second Pepsi, Rubberband Man and Haiku showed up. They had to go into Linden to get a maildrop, and the post office was just a block away.

Rubberband Man eyed my two soda cans with an interested look. Next thing you know, he was carving away at the cans under my close supervision as I instructed him on how to make the MacGyver stove. More than one customer of that grocery store eyed us with great suspicion. At long last, the stove was finished, Rubberband Man proudly showing off his stove to anyone that would give him a second glance.

I used the top of one of the cans to make a simmer ring for my stove. I didn't know if it would work, but I'd try it that night. To celebrate, I went back in the grocery store and got an ice cream sandwich.

I said goodbye and walked back to the trail—no offers for a ride this time and continued up the trail.

My next stop was Manassas Gap Shelter, where I learned from the registry that Sundial had hiked out to it and placed some Cokes in the spring for anyone that wanted them.

In case you're wondering, placing things like drinks in springs and rivers is our way of 'refrigerating' them. The water it's in is cold, so it turns the drinks cold.

I went down and picked up two Cokes—naturally I needed two in order to make a stove. The fact that it was a hot day and they were good and cold might have had something to do with it too....

I would learn later that this shelter is perhaps the only one I've seen without a mouse problem, shocking as it may seem. As it turns out, two black rat snakes have turned the shelter into their home, and where there's a rat snake, there won't be any rats or mice around for long.

Strangely, most hikers don't like to stay in shelters inhabited by these friendly, non-venomous black rat snakes and choose to set up tents instead. Since I was just passing through, I wouldn't have to make such tough decisions.

After finishing the two sodas, I continued on to my destination for the day: Dick's Dome Shelter.

The first surprise getting to the shelter was the river running down the trail. It was a full-fledged stream raging down the trail, which I tromped through like it wasn't there until I reached.... a bridge, over another small stream that I could have jumped across.

Well if that wasn't the craziest thing I ever saw, the shelter itself could have been. It was a dinky little thing designed to hold four people, the smallest shelter I'd ever seen. And it was dome shaped making it perhaps the strangest looking shelter besides the smallest.

I reconsidered staying in it, mostly because it looked like it was resting on cinder blocks, and anyone that wanted to could push the shelter over, or even do so by leaning on it too hard.

Inside was a kid who looked like he was in his mid-teens that, at first, I thought was a day hiker since I didn't see any gear around. But no, he explained, he was planning to spend the night. I asked where his gear was, and he explained that he didn't have any.

"No sleeping bag?" He shook his head.

"No food?" He shook his head again.

"Nothing at all?" He nodded that I was correct.

Now this kid was starting to freak me out. There was a story this kid wasn't telling us, because nobody hikes into the wilds to spend the night without so much as a Snickers bar.

I scouted around for a place to set up my tarp, but the shelter was between a river and a mountain and flat terrain was scarce. I finally settled on a slope near the river that was a little less steep than everywhere else.

I also met up with another guy scouting out he area for a place to set up his tent, and I asked him what he thought about the kid in the shelter. We concluded that we should keep a close eye on him, but that was it—for now.

After setting up my camp, I pulled out the two Coke cans acquired at the previous shelter and started carving away at them. Then I cooked up a batch of Hamburger Helper with my MacGyver stove and used my newly made simmer ring to simmer it for 13 minutes. It worked beautifully. I dreamed of making a pizza in the outdoors—a luxury thru-hikers are always imagining—and with this simmer ring, I was one step closer.

I cleaned up my dishes then went to sleep.

The next day I woke up and turned on the radio to hear the weather forecast. Temperatures were supposed to be scorching in the 90s that day, but at least no rain was on the horizon. Summer had finally arrived, after just one day of spring.

The DJ on the radio station went on to say that these high temperatures would be a shock on the human body after wallowing in the 60s for most of the last couple of months, and strenuous outdoor activities should be avoided. I couldn't help but laugh, since I had anything but in mind.

I ate breakfast and packed up camp, then snuck out of the shelter area to avoid the bizarre kid living in it. The trail was still a mud bog from all the previous rain and much of the day was spent balancing on rocks and dancing through mud.

Eventually I reached 'The Roller Coaster.' I'd been hearing horror stories about this ride for hundreds of miles from past thru-hikers, and now it was my turn to fasten the seatbelts and keep my arms and legs inside the cart at all times.

The roller coaster was a 10 to 15 section mile of trail known for steep, rugged climbs then sudden, fast drops, mile after mile without rest. I've heard rumors that this was done because the ridge they wanted to run the trail over was owned by the federal government where there's a top secret military bunker that the vice president of the United States goes in the event of a nuclear attack. So in the event of a nuclear attack and you're watching CNN describe the vice president as being at an 'undisclosed location', now you know where he is!

Naturally, the government wouldn't allow the trail to go over this ridge vital for national security, so they had to route the trail around it over that terrible section of trail now called The Roller Coaster.

In all honesty, I have no idea if there's any truth behind that story. You hear a lot of stories on the trail—some are true, but just as many are as fictional as the tooth fairy.

In any case, I was now standing at the start of The Roller Coaster. A sign on the tree next to the trail proclaimed as much:

Hiker Notice
You are about to enter
Built and maintained by the
"Trailboss" and his merry crew of

Have a great ride and we will
see you at the Blackburn Trail
Center (if you survive)

Just to show it wasn't all fun and games, someone scribbled just below it, "Does that mean the mud bog ride is over?"

There's always a budding comedian on the trail. (And the answer to that question was a resounding NO.)

I started up the first hill, steep, but not especially bad. After about 500 feet, the trail crested the hill and it was downhill again. I did this several more times and am happy to report that the difficultly of the roller coaster was greatly exaggerated. It's harder than the last couple hundred miles of trails, but only marginally so and I had little trouble getting through the coaster.

I stayed the night at the Sam Moore Shelter. When I arrived, a small group of Boy Scouts had already arrived, and although there was still room in the shelter, I was feeling anti-social and set up camp nearby. The ground was flat and soft, and no foul weather would plague me that night, so why not?

Glowing from the success of my simmer ring the night before, I was going to try the next step in making a pizza: Baking a crust. I didn't actually have any pizza toppings in the event that my crust turned out, but I like bread, so if I managed to succeed, I'd just eat the crust by itself.

To be totally accurate, I didn't exactly have crust making materials either. However, I did have a small bag of biscuit mix for making pancakes, doughnuts, and muffins and such, and I thought I could improvise it into a pizza crust.

Not sure how much water to put in, I guessed. One part water for four parts biscuit mix. Having worked at Pizza Hut, I had a good notion of what uncooked pizza dough should look and feel like, and that combination seemed to do the trick.

I patted it down and formed it into a five or so inch disk shape, threw it in my pot, put on the lid, and started to bake it using my MacGyver stove.

I let it cook for 20 or so minutes, then peaked in to see a beautiful looking crust. Far beyond what I was expecting, in fact. Excited, I showed off my pizza crust to the other thru-hikers around the table who were impressed, although not as much as they should have been. Jealousy, I figured.

Then I remembered that I had some cheddar cheese that I bought to snack on! I immediately whipped it out, broke it into small crumbs on the crust, put the lid back on, and waited another 10 minutes.

I took another look—I had a pizza! Miles from the nearest electric plug, I made a pizza with nothing more than my hand-made MacGyver stove and improvised ingredients! I was walking on water!

Now I'll admit that it wasn't the best pizza I'd ever eaten, but given the conditions it was nothing short of miraculous. Ideas for more complex pizzas with pizza sauce, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and more flashed through my head. When I made it to Harpers Ferry, I definitely had some grocery shopping to do!

I went to sleep, dreaming of pizzas and what wonderful creations I'd come up with next.

As is norm, I woke the next morning. I planned a measly 10 mile day and wondered how I'd kill so much extra time. Sitting around doing nothing seemed so darned boring.

In any case, the scorching weather was supposed to continue with temperatures creeping even higher, this time to the mid 90s. So I started relatively early just to get some miles done before the real heat of the day struck.

Two leisurely hours later I found myself standing at Snickers Gap, surely named by a former thru-hiker I surmised. My guidebook mentioned two restaurants and a small grocery store about a mile off the trail on Virginia Highway 679. With lots of time to kill, I decided to walk down and get myself an ice cream. Doesn't everyone walk a mile out of their way—one way—on a 90 degree day for ice cream?

I found the grocery store and bought a Klondike Bar, Starbursts, and a bottle of Hawaiian Punch. I was somewhat dismayed to learn that this grocery store had absolutely no cans of soda—something I'd wanted to acquire to make another MacGyver stove. (What can I say, I'm addicted!)

I ate my goodies at a shaded picnic table outside, then wandered over to the Pine Grove restaurant for lunch in a cute, little air-conditioned building.

The waitress came up and asked if she could bring something for me to drink while I decided what I had for lunch. I asked for water, and just as she was about to leave I had a thought and asked if they had cans of soda. She gave me a strange look—it was probably an unusual question—but said that yes, they did. I was rather surprised they did, to tell you the truth, since this place seemed nice enough to have fountain drinks than resort to canned sodas.

But I cheerfully ordered a Coke and she went off to fill my order. I decided to order the Italian sub, which is what I did when the waitress returned with my drinks.

But then I looked at the soda can—it was dented! It looked like it had been dropped at some point, and while I had no doubt the drink inside tasted just fine, the dented can just wouldn't do for a MacGyver stove.

I felt kind of sheepish for asking, but I asked the waitress for a different can that wasn't dented and told her the reason for it so she wouldn't think I was crazy. She still gave me that look like I was crazy, although she did take the can back and bring me an undented one.

The rest of the meal went well, I paid the bill, then started the mile long hike back to where I got off the trail and continued my journey.

At long last, I could say goodbye to Virginia, over 500 miles after I first entered the state

Two more miles down the trail and I gave out a yelp of joy: I had reached West Virginia! A whopping 535.2 miles of the AT runs through Virginia, nearly a quarter of the trail. I'd walked more miles in Virginia than in Geogia, North Carolina, and Tennessee combined. Reaching that sign announcing my arrival into West Virginia was something I'd been striving over a month for, and at long last, I made it. Goodbye Virginia!

That wasn't exactly true, actually, because the trail does dart into West Virginia briefly, then comes back out at the Virginia border. From there the trail follows the Virginia/West Virginia border for 14 miles before leaving Virginia for good one last time.

I continued on to the Blackburn AT Center, a free hostel (although donations are appreciated). The hostel is actually located on the Virginia side of the ridge, where I'd spend my last night in Virginia.

At my arrival, Sarah welcomed me in. She's one of the caretakers of the place, and asked if I'd like a cold drink of my choice and a frozen ice thingy—I don't know what it's called—but it was something cold on that hot mid 90s day so I gladly accepted.

She gave me the grand tour of the place including a solar-powered shower that I was anxious to try. She also said that a spaghetti dinner would be served at 7:00. Yes, that's right, a free dinner too. This place was a little slice of heaven!

My guidebook said that the monuments of Washington, DC, were visible from the lawn on clear days. The view from the lawn IS good, but I couldn't see any monuments and asked Sarah about that. She said that on a REALLY clear day, with binoculars, you might be able to see *something*, but don't count on it. Oh, well. I guess the monuments will have to wait until another day.

I didn't sleep especially well that night due to annoying biting bugs that were able to slip through the screened patio, but I survived the night.

I hit the trail early once again—it was supposed to be another 90 degree day—and I had a trail town in my sights: Harpers Ferry.

For those of you that don't realize it, this town is probably the most famous for thru-hikers everywhere as being the 'psychological halfway point' on the Appalachian Trail. And it is.

I had a 12 mile, very easy hike into Harpers Ferry, but during that 12 miles I reached several important milestones.

Someone created this message on the trail to mark our 1,000th mile of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Think about that. One thousand miles. And we haven't even reached the halfway point!

First, I would pass the 1,000 mile mark on the Appalachian Trail. Four digits. It's a staggering number to think about, and even more staggering to think I hiked that distance. That's farther than from San Francisco to Seattle. Wow.

Second, I would finally be leaving Virginia for good this time. Over 500 miles of that state were now behind me.

Third, Harpers Ferry is the headquarters for the ATC (Appalachian Trail Conference). If you show up there, they'll take your picture for their hiker album and tell you what number hiker you are so far for the year.

And forth, while Harpers Ferry isn't technically the halfway point, it IS close to it—about 46% of the distance.

So naturally, there's a lot of celebrating among thru-hikers that make it this far. By now, about 75% of attempted thru-hikes have already been aborted. Only the lean, mean hiking machines (such as myself!) are left. =)

So I was in a pretty good mood despite the hot weather. At one shelter I rested at, I even joked in it that "I can't take this dry weather anymore! I'm gonna pour two cups of water into each shoe and slap mud on my legs!"

Then I passed the 1000 mile mark. It was hard to miss, because someone had found little rocks and arranged them to read 1000 at the correct location. I joyfully took pictures of the momentous occasion.

Later, where I was following the Virginia/West Virginia border, I crossed a road where I was amused to see a "Welcome to Virginia!" sign—the first I'd seen since entering Virginia over 500 miles before—especially since I'd be leaving the state in a few more miles. I took pictures of that too.

Then it was on to Harpers Ferry. The trail crossed over the Shenandoah River and into town. A short blue-blazed trail lead off the AT to the ATC headquarters, which I followed through Storer College. It felt like I was on a letterboxing hunt, but I was looking for an entire building this time!

Harper's Ferry marks the 'psychological halfway point' of the Appalachian Trail. We were in Union territory now!

I found it, with several thru-hikers already sitting outside, resting. I went in where I found a couple of messages letterboxers had left for me (Go Green Turtle! Congrats on making it so far!) I thought it was hilarious to see they had even signed their register entries with their signature stamps—the only people in the entire book to have done so. Of course I'd be affiliated with them in some manner! =)

Then I had my picture taken out front. I filled out the picture with my vital statistics—when I started, how far I was planning to go, contact info, and so forth. They labeled me as hiker number 468 for the year. (Over 1700 are known to have started at Springer Mountain, most before I even got on the trail, but not all of the 468 hikers they took pictures of were thru-hikers.)

Then I wandered down to the Hilltop Hotel where I was disheartened to learn that all their hiker rooms were already full and I'd have to pay the normal price for an oversized room without a television set. The horror.

I learned from another hiker that the town's library was closed for some unknown reason, so to kill the time I walked down to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

For those of you not up on your American history, Harpers Ferry is most famous for John Brown's raid which helped flame the emotions that led to the Civil War. During the Civil War the town was a focal point of many military actions and control of it switched sides over 20 times. (You'd think that would be a record or something, but the town of Winchestor, Virginia, switched sides over 40 times!) So the area is rich with Civil War lore.

The town first began when George Washington chose it as a location for a federal armory. Thomas Jefferson paid a visit saying the views were worth crossing the Atlantic to see. Lesser well-known are two visits to Harpers Ferry by Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame where he ordered provisions for his epic, continental journey.

So the town has plenty of history behind it, and I had a mind to check it out.

But you'll have to wait until my next installment of Ryan’s Great Adventure to hear about Harpers Ferry. Along with the trail tales from Maryland and one minor incident involving lighting my crotch on fire. =)

Carpe diem!

— Ryan

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