Rockfish Gap to Browns Gap
Waynesboro To The Rescue Camp to Shenandoah Cruiser Camp
AT miles: 24.5
Total miles: 897.0
Elevation change: 6194ft gain, 5341ft loss
Ever since Springer Mountain in Georgia, hikers have been saying that Virginia is flat. I think that I may have heard that rumor even before starting the AT. In fact, hikers have probably been spreading this falsehood since before the trail existed. It’s exactly the same phenomenon that affects the psyche of PCT hikers, who hear for months that Oregon is flat. The entire state! Well, Oregon is a lot of things, but it ain’t flat. As Crunchberry used to say, you can’t trust hikers. Obviously Virginia isn’t flat. There have been plenty of ups and downs throughout this state so far. Plenty. If anything has made Virginia easier than the preceding states, it hasn’t been the lack of mountains, it’s been improved fitness. Just ask my legs. They speak the truth. However, even though Virginia isn’t flat, I held out hope that a modified version of that rumor were true. A snarky comment left by a sobo hiker mocked nobo complaints, “lol, Virginia doesn’t get easy until Shenandoah.” Well, here I was, about to find out for myself. Excited to see a new national park, excited to see if Virginia was about to turn into a cruise. Because, people, I’ve been working so darn hard out here, climbing up and over these freaking mountains and ridges all day, everyday. I wouldn’t be out here if it were easy, but an easier finish to the first half might be nice. Shenandoah, let’s see what you got.
It wasn’t until I lay back for the final time last night, that I noticed the sign prohibiting camping under the pavilion nailed to the rafters. Meh, I was the only one there, and who would know (besides the entire internet after this posts). I cowboy camped for the first time on the AT, and it was glorious. My dreams, unrestricted by the confines of my tent, were able to soar and meander where they pleased, gathering both more and better rest for my tired brain. Not really, but that sounds poetic, doesn’t it? I did sleep well, especially for a town sleep, perched on a picnic bench in a park on the edge of town. I wasn’t bothered by the eternal lights of the old factory across the river, or by the long freight trains that lumbered along the nearby tracks. I woke up with the sunrise, hungry and ready to move efficiently through my town chores.
I packed up and walked the few blocks to Kroger to gather my resupply for 108 miles through the national park. The store was missing its selection of frozen burritos, but had everything else that I was looking for. I carted my bounty next to the Redbox outside, where I’d left my battery to charge. I consolidated two bags into one, ate an apple and a banana, then walked two blocks to the main street, hoping to catch an easy ride out of town.
Even on a sleepy Sunday morning, I didn’t need to wait long for a local to pick me up. Ten minutes later, I was back at Rockfish Gap, almost ready to go. I did my final resupply consolidation, transferring boxed items into baggies and removing all fresh-seals, at the benches in front of a kettle corn stand. I started on the table, but soon moved to the ground after the ripping wind blew everything there anyway. I ate a bag salad, then inhaled a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, half-melted by the warm sun. At 11am, I saddled up, and got back on the trail, feeling full and ready for the next phase.
A face full of wind brought me to a standstill as I crossed an overpass, but then I followed the trail into the trees, where the wind was turned into a full roaring rather than a buffeting force. I filled out my free backcountry permit at a kiosk, and hiked on into a forest not unlike the one I’d been hiking through for over a month.
The trail was no different either, steep and rocky in parts, down and smooth in others. I hiked a few minutes with a section hiker carrying a tiny pack who was just starting a week on the trail. She told me that Pennsylvania was easy and beautiful, and that New Jersey was her favorite state so far. I’d already heard exactly the opposite from the hiking community at large, and so took the opinions with a grain of salt, hoping that she was right. You can’t trust hikers.
The trail did have some beautiful parts in the first few miles, grassy meadows and limited views, but I was focused on hiking, making up for my late start. Even with the ice cream powa, I was pretty sure that my typical 25 miles was out of reach, but I intended to get as close as I could. The wind roared through the gaps and strange shapes of radio tower equipment on top of one low summit. I roared along the old access road.
On the top of Little Calf Mountain, I took a quick look at the view and picnickers, then pushed on. Just a few yards later, I stopped and turned around. If I wasn’t going to sit for a few minutes in a place that beautiful, why was even hiking? Besides, I was hungry. I found a spot on the wide, grassy summit, popped off my shoes for an abbreviated lunch, and spent more time looking south to Humpback Mountain than at my hands, which mindlessly shoveled chips and granola into my chomper. The picnickers had this one right at least, this was a sweet place to hang.
After I gathered water for a 14-mile stretch without an on-trail source, the AT really did find a flatter and smoother version of itself. It was wide and well-manicured with very few rocks and roots trying to trip me up. I contoured around the hills, rather than huffing over the tops of them. Even when the trail did take me over the top, it was on gradual switchbacks worthy of the PCT. I made great time, starting to believe, cautiously optimistic that this was the new normal.
In order to keep my ice cream momentum moving, I reached for my music early in the afternoon. I was looking for something a little aggressive, something with a little bite to it, to keep my energy up. I went with Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight, a classic album that took me several years to warm up to. Cranking the volume today (reasonably), it felt like coming home.
I flew through a mixture of the same familiar forests that the AT is known for. Lots of oak, lots of mountain laurel, lots of pine. Everywhere, fresh green shoots and leaves were bursting forth from twigs, branches, and the dense litter of fallen leaves. Spring was just getting started, but the amount of green was already staggering. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to loose the views through the trees as they leafed out, but the new life would be beautiful too.
I crossed Skyline Drive a few times, which runs parallel with the AT along the spine if Shenandoah, and saw a lot of parked cars. However, the trail was relatively quiet, especially when compared to yesterday, and for that I was grateful. The miles whizzed by. I felt strong and energized, like a hiking machine.
The Bravery came next, and I really appreciated their upbeat jams for keeping me on track. One of my favorites from that album, Swollen Summer, matched my ‘charge-hard’ pace perfectly, and I truly did charge hard up a particularly long climb. The views were few and fleeting, so the miles continued to add up with alarming pace and consistency. I made sure to keep stoking the furnace, downing bar after bar and gulping water every mile.
When my feet began to ache, almost as if I’d asked for it, the trail tread turned into a soft mattress of pine needles long enough for my mind to move onto something else. I considered my shoes, which had how many miles on them now? 500? It seemed right that my feet were starting to groan in new ways. I was glad to have a new pair waiting for me in Harper’s Ferry, less than a week away.
After a particularly long ascent, I crested the boulder pile at Blackrock. My arms were tired, a sure sign that I was giving it all that I had, and I was ready for my first breather in hours. I perched on a jagged point and swiveled my head, feeling the biting wind chill my damp parts. The views to the north and south were superb. My memory was far from comprehensive, but I could make out familiar silhouettes perhaps as far down as Daleville. That felt like a longshot, but it was a direct line of sight and the trail had been pretty consistent in its trajectory. North, I was pleased to see a lot more of the same gentle hills. They extended to and beyond the horizon, and I could just make out Skyline Drive on a few of the crests. I was looking at my next few days of walking, could see it all without moving my gaze. Pretty cool. Checking my phone, I was thrilled with my progress. The afternoon had consisted of some strong hiking, maybe my strongest ever. Feeling satisfied, surrounded by brilliance, my moments on Blackrock were my favorite of the day. Spectacular, earned.
With nothing but downhill to camp and temperatures in the 30s, I pulled on my wind jacket for the final sunset cruise. I filtered water at an empty picnic area, then crossed the road one more time. A mile later, I found my flat spot, out of the wind and quiet. I still felt strong, and felt good about my effort. Camp was all I wanted now, though. To get horizontal and eat a lot of things. And that’s what I did because it was all that I had left to do. Couscous for dinner, cookies for desert. My final thoughts echoed my shock about how easy the trail had been today. The elevation numbers weren’t too far off of normal, but it had been so smooth. Not quite flat, nope, but it almost felt flat. Maybe that’s what all the hiker rumors are trying to say, that Virginia feels flat. I can get on board with that. Oh sorry, let me qualify that statement further. Virginia feels flat eventually when you reach Shenandoah after 400 miles of the hard stuff. That was true today. Let’s hope it’s true tomorrow.