Chimney Rock to Rockfish Gap
Deep Vee Camp to Waynesboro To The Rescue Camp
AT miles: 25.6
Total miles: 872.5
Elevation change: 5515ft gain, 6119ft loss
The trails of this world offer so much to the people and animals who use them, easing navigation across rough terrain, providing essential pathways for moving stuff, capturing a collective memory woven through the forest, ground into the earth. My relationship with the Appalachian Trail combines all of these things and more. Hidden under the guise of “recreation”, my journey on the AT refreshes the worth of the trail in a time where it is easy to forget. I don’t need to be out here. The trail isn’t vital to life as it once was, at least not as overtly. But as I wandered through the hills today, flowing upstream through a crowd of others, I felt connected to these strangers in a way that only the trail can broker. We all had at least one thing in common today, we were all out here seeking something that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Maybe a different place, a different trail could bring the same release, revival, physical challenge, or bonding experience, but we were all out here, today, reaping the rewards of what the trail has to offer, expected or not. Whatever practical use the trails of this country or world may or may not provide, we humans have ascribed some intangible value to them, and for that I am grateful. I’m out here seeking a mixture of things, solitude, freedom, and challenge, among others. For the most part, these things have little or no material value, so why am I here? Why is anyone out here? The motivations are no doubt complex and varied, but one thing rings true no matter what. The trail provides. Directly, subtley, expected or not, the trail provides. I know this, I feel it. At the end of each day out here I might not have everything that I want, but I always gain something. For me, that makes the trails of this world worth keeping around.
First things first, I gained a restful night of sleep. Some go-getter day hikers passing by in the predawn gloom made me feel like a lazy lump, but other than that, I was feeling good about myself by the time I was fed and packed up. The morning sky was perfectly clear, and the sun blazed through the trees, providing enough warmth to convince me that I didn’t need to start the day in a jacket. When was the last time that happened? There was not whisper of wind.
I picked up where I left off, grinding out the massive climb up Three Ridges. It didn’t feel any easier on my fresh legs, and was maybe even a little bit harder as the switchbacks petered out into steep scrambles of granite. Still, the distance remaining was short, so I reached the summit shortly. An overlook just past the flat, wooded top, offered a spectacular vista south, back to The Priest and other bumps. I was mostly warm in the sun as I ate my breakfast bar.
For the next several hours, I lived in a state of disbeleif about how popular a trail could actually be. The fine weather and Saturday itch had the locals out en masse, and I lost count of them before I even realized that there was something worth counting. I passed those pesky morning day hikers on the descent down the ridge, then encoutered several groups of backpackers at the next shelter when I turned that way to gather water. Next, a steady stream of youths that could only have been Scouts, reminded me of the gool ol’ days when a backpacking trip was really just a opportunity to sharpen sticks and play with fire with my friends. When I finally made it to Reid’s Gap, I wasn’t surprised to find the parking lot overflowing. Spring was here, and the people were out. That’s a good thing. Trails that don’t get used, disappear. I have to admit though, stepping off the trail to let others pass was getting a little bit old.
The other hikers thinned, but didn’t go away entirely as the trail flipped over the Blue Ridge Parkway to ride well below the ridge. I wondered why, but didn’t complain about missing another climb up another mountain, even though the trail was hilariously rocky for some stretches. After a few miles, I stopped at the Cedar Cliffs overlook for a sit and a snack. Heck, why not make it lunch? I watched a vulture ride thermals over the expansive Waynesboro valley below, a patchwork of pastures and forest, extending beyond view to the north. A distant ridge to the west hemmed in the sprawl, and trapped a thin veil of hazy pollution in the still air. With a town stop tomorrow, I finished off my chips and some other things, satisfied by the definitive end to the costant battle beween desire and supply.
Next was the big hump up and over Humpback Mountain. My full belly felt heavier than my pack as I chipped away at the endless climb, up one hump only to be confronted with another. A sweet view at the top of one such hump provided a satisfying reward after a particularly steep clamber. Some interesting drystone walls kept my mind engaged and far from my belly over the top of Humpback, but then a deep lassitude descended as I navigated tricky rock stairs down the other side.
It wasn’t until I ate a mocha Clif bar and had an engaging conversation with two day hikers that I snapped back to life. And by then, then trail had smoothed out, back into gradual switchbacks of packed earth. I think I knew what my brain was up to, checking out for the hard stuff, only coming back in to harvest the glory. I’m on to you, brain.
With ten miles left to go, and still kind of hoping to get into and out of Waynesboro that night, I turned on the always classic, master strummers of the 12-string, Electric Light Orchestra’s album Out of the Blue. The soaring choruses and pseudo-disco beats kept my pace on rhythm and charging. The next few miles positively flew by.
After turning away from the road at one last juction, I had the trail all to myself again. It was a pleasant breeze as it contoured around the many shoulders of the ridge above. The descending sun behind me provided a warming glow to the new green springing up everywhere with the changing season. I guessed that just a week before, this forest had been barren brown and gray. Now, the spindly bushes lining the trail were bursting like fuzzy green pipe cleaners. Those thorny red bamble things now sprouted tiny bundles of textured leaves. Rockets of tender shoots blasted from the dirt. Purple flowers draped across the low berms on the sides of the trail.
During this cruise, as Summer and Lightning brought my soul to new heights, I was suddenly, and just for a few moments, overwhelmed by a feeling. Not good or bad. Just a fleeting glimpse of how I might feel upon reaching Harper’s Ferrry, the spiritual half-way point of the AT. It was approaching fast now, I’d be there within a week, and coming tomorrow, I would start the long traverse of Shenandoah National Park. Both of those places seemed an impossible distance ahead when I stood in the rain on Springer’s summit. The spring blossoms felt equally dangerous to envision with so much winter left to endure. Now the sprouts were here, and here I was knocking on Shenandoah’s door, Harper’s Ferry just a few days beyond. I hadn’t prepared for what the moment would feel like when I walked into West Virginia, and even though the moment hadn’t yet arrived, I felt it a little bit. Foreshadowing. Like I said, the moment wasn’t good or bad, but it did feel warm. That is my limited, human interpretation of what I felt, at least. That warmth was my favorite moment of the day. Humbling, unnerving, comforting, and warm.
When I reached the highway interchange at Rockfish Gap at 6:30pm, I figured that it was too late in the day to hitch a ride into town, resupply, and catch a ride back before dark. And the last thing I wanted to do was get forced to spring for a night in a motel or hostel when my visit would be so short. It felt like the best option to find a place to camp nearby, and catch a ride into Waynesboro first thing in the morning. I wandered around the abandoned buildings, with shattered windows and graffitied walls, piles of asphault in the parking lots, signs crumbling. I didn’t like what I saw at all. The gap had a lot of cars passing through, and even more just hanging around doing who knows what. I followed a light trail into a bush hoping to find a stealthy hiker campsite, but instead found a pile of garbage.
Still optimistic, I headed for higher ground, and trudged up the short distance to the information center, which sat perched on the hillside, overlooking Waynesboro and Rockfish Gap. A few mowed patches of grass piqued my interest, but nothing screamed “legal camping” which meant that a restful night might be hard to come by.
Forunately, I took a look at the closed visitor center’s bulletin board. In the gathering gloom, I read that there was free camping available in town. How I missed this essential bit of knowledge before left me flumoxed, but with relief in my voice, I dialed down the list of trail angels who offer free rides to hikers the four miles into town. Some were already drinking beer, but Steve said he’d be over in ten minutes. Sure enough, he pulled up and I loaded in.
After a quick tour, I unloaded, thanked my ride, and walked a few yards to the pavillion set on a wide lawn on the outskirts of town. Within 20 minutes, I had gone from desperate, to spoiled, sipping a can of grapefruit seltzer that a kind soul had left for hikers on a covered bench. Pink grapefruit energy. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Even though the grocery store was nearby, I happily ate my cold mashed potatoes, feeling like a king. Ice cream could wait until breakfast. That’s when it all came full circle. The trail bringing a bunch of strangers to the outdoors on a sunny spring Saturday. The trail getting me exactly where I needed to go just as all hope had faded. Ringing clearly in my head, not for the first time and not for the last, the trail provides. Somehow, some way. The trail provides.