Pocosin Road to Thornton Gap
Shenandoah Grinder Camp to Drenched Lawn Camp
AT miles: 28.1
Total miles: 952.5
Elevation change: 5581ft gain, 6247ft loss
On a day that featured no sustained climbs or particularly strenuous sections of trail, I sure made things difficult for myself. Totally avoidable dehydration clouded the first hours in an unpleasant haze, and indulgent lollygagging came back to bite me in the butt when the weather and dark caught me miles from camp. However, even with the rough start and finish, today was enjoyable, and featured some unique experiences that provided a nice change of pace from the first half of Shenandoah. In the end, I think that starting with low expectations, due to the rain and my headache, afforded me the permission to take things as they came. Unexpected detours became fun little adventures rather than obstacles to overcome in order to make the mileage goal. The miles did come anyway, but they weren’t the driving force today. If I had been a little more focused throughout, then I might have avoided a pretty dreary end. However, I’m not sure that I would change anything if I could. Not that it matters anyway.
Wouldn’t you know it, even spending the night less than a mile from water, I woke up with a headache. The number one suspect was dehydration. Again. How? The salty couscous dinner and my own poor planning were to blame. I drank all of the water that I had left, which wasn’t much, then packed up in a slight haze, anxious to find out how deep-seated this discomfort would be.
Lucky for me, the Lewis Mountain Campground was less than two miles up the trail and was open for business. The smell of damp campfires were a dead giveaway as I approached up the final low hill. It was a warm morning, but had rained in the night and continued to threaten now, so there were just a few hearty campers, bundled in rain gear, poking at smoking logs in their fire pits. I beelined for the restroom, the lighted window pulling me with a gravity, like a moth to a flame.
I took my time in the heated building, using the flusher and warm tap water to revive myself a little bit. I washed the accumulated grime and sunscreen from my hands and face, feeling the oily film dissolve in the harsh, public restroom pump soap. I also filled my bottles with delightfully lukewarm water, chugged a bunch, then refilled. I mixed a coffee packet into my smaller bottle. No reason to mess around. This headache is going down.
With recovery underway and feeling refreshed, I took the time to learn a little bit about the history of this campground from a conveniently place informational sign. Back when Virginia was still segregated, Lewis Mountain Campground was the only place in Shenandoah where black visitors could stay, and from the sounds of it, they had a lot more fun than the rich white people staying at the fancy lodge just up the road. Relating this to my experience, minority access to the wilderness is still a huge issue today, but it was crazy to think that yeah, there were actually laws on the books not that long ago that prevented citizens from experiencing the joys of their public lands. This seemed obvious when I thought about it as I walked away, but I guess that I had just never thought about that specifically before, which is a glaring example of my incredible privilege. So much to learn. Nothing left unaffected by inequality.
I checked out the campstore next, just for kicks, and left after a good conversation about Florida and with a belly full of nutritious green juice. Feeling a little bit lighter in the head, I wandered through the empty picnic area and back to the AT. I wouldn’t call the time spent wasted, but I had some mileage to make up now. I ate a big cookie, glugged a little coffee, then got to it.
A gnarly alternate route across the jagged ridge of Bearfence Mountain for a quarter mile didn’t do my schedule any favors, but it was a worthy challenge that I couldn’t possibly have skipped. I love rock scrambling. In a light rain, with slippery stone, the conditions were far from ideal, stupidly risky maybe, but I made my way across the gnarly fins deliberately and with care. I bashed my elbow hard once, but otherwise escaped unscathed. Would I do it again? Not in the rain.
Back on the AT, I finally got my day underway. It was easy going on smooth trail, so I made great time even though my head still felt like an overinflated balloon. The rain petered out, so I was able to focus on avoiding the squelchiest mud without worrying about catching my umbrella on overhanging branches. I walked by a cemetery, then through the home orchard of the Milam Apple variety, learning more random bits of history from the many signs located at the many road crossings.
By the time I reached the viewpoint at Blackrock (a different one today), my head was feeling fine and my legs were feeling all lubed up. The valley far below was still caught in a haze, however. A patchy mist, or low cloud, hung over the dark pastures in addition to the high cloud that hung over me. It looked spooky down there and I wondered how all of the little people far below were feeling today.
Looking for a sheltered place to eat lunch, I wandered around the yet-to-open Big Meadows Lodge. It was deserted and dripping, also kind of spooky. My wanderings then brought me to the nearby campground store, which was open and had a covered porch. I plunked down outside the shower room and commenced my snacking. Even though it wasn’t actively raining, it was a huge mental boost just to be slightly protected from the elements for a brief period. I relaxed and thought about how nice it would be to lay on the wide lawn on a sunny day, feeling a warm breeze tickle the hair on my legs and the sun warm my bare feet.
Daydreaming and eating complete, it was time to see where the afternoon would take me. Despite my hazy lack of focus in the morning, I was in pretty good shape mileage wise, probably more an indicator of the easy terrain than my care-free badassery, though. The trail swooped past many magnificent viewpoints, all holding the same cloud-draped valley scene in frame. I contoured around the sides of the mountains, leaving all the climbing and descending to Skyline Drive, always within earshot above. I hiked without a jacket despite the gloom, quite comfortable in the mid-50s damp.
Yet another empty resort scrolled by on my float northward. Then I reached an epic spot that would perk even the droopiest hikers awake. The views from Little Stony Man Cliffs were of the same familiar scene, yet better than all the rest. The sharp cliffs added an edgy touch, and the prominence collected a wider arc of view. Not only could I see that same spooky valley below, but I could also see quite a distance north, following Shenandoah to its northern boundary, and beyond. Hazy sky, hazy hills. Once the small infinity pool evaporated, there would be the most epic spot to cowboy camp on cliffs edge. I saved that info for another day.
In a few more easy miles I reached a picnic area where I made an inefficient mess of filtering water. I didn’t lose more than ten minutes spilling water all over the place, but with an eye to sunset in less than two hours, those ten minutes as well as the ten here and ten there for conversations with other hikers seemed like they might end up costing me. The place I wanted to camp was a little over five miles north. With satisfactory intermediate stopping places in short supply, I just had to go for it.
I hiked harder than I had all day, feeling surprisingly fresh, like I had been saving myself for this moment. Up and over, then along, I reached my super-stride, rare and probably kind of funny looking. But as the rain started up again after a long hiatus, I doubted there would be anyone around to judge me. I was pretty well soaked and muddy by the time I reached Marys Rock. It was almost dark too, and I was dismayed to see that the long descent was going to be a rocky one. Carefully and with maximum haste, I glided down the slippery jags, using my trekking poles as much as my legs to keep me on my feet. As objectively lame as the situation was becoming, it was actually my favorite moment of the day. The hiking felt like a mix between downhill skiing, running, and mountain biking. Also like a dance, pure art in motion. It was fully engaging, no mental energy was spared for thought, and I was lost in the moment, fully engrossed and committed to staying on my feet. Each solid foot placement or small leap over a mud puddle felt like a minor victory, and I was winning a lot. It felt good. It was also probably reckless and a little dangerous. I did unconsciously allocate enough mental bandwidth to think about what I would say in a voice message to my loved ones if I catapulted off the trail into a broken heap on the rocks below. As I lay dying, feeling the rain wash over my broken body, what would my final words be? Advice, regrets, encouragement, jokes, final wishes, an apology for being so reckless? Breaking my face while running on rocks in the rain seemed like a stupid way to go, which was why my focus was so sharp.
And it paid off. I lived to hike recklessly another day. I missed the stealth spot that I was looking for once the trail flattened out, but a parking lot surrounded by grassy lawn was right in front of me. In the pouring rain, with just a shred of dusk lighting my world, I didn’t care if it was officially allowed (because honestly, it probably wasn’t). I pitched my tent on the least muddy patch of grass that I could find and loaded in with all my gear, streaming with warm humidity. I was drenched, but not chilled, and grateful for my synthetic quilt and jacket. I may have been wet, but I would have a warm night. I ate my couscous and fell asleep speculating whether or not I could have made it to camp before the rain if I had just hiked harder throughout the day. But that wasn’t an internal dialogue worth having, was it? I was here, safe, after a fun and interesting day. That’s what mattered. I also wondered if sleeping in the heated bathrooms nearby wasn’t the better move. But it was too late now, and besides, that was definitely not officially allowed. Would I be hassled in the morning? Only one way to find out.