Thornton Gap to Moore Run
Drenched Lawn Camp to Bye Bye Shenandoah Camp
AT miles: 26.4
Total miles: 978.9
Elevation change: 5066ft gain, 6355ft loss
My last full day in Shenandoah National Park was the gentlest yet. Not only was the trail tread particularly forgiving, but the weather draped a sense of peace and quiet across the hills. By keeping the cloud curtains drawn, my focus was directed to what was in my immediate vicinity rather than how far I could gaze, in days or miles, into my future and past. I was reminded of an earlier time on the trail, when hiking in a cloud was a novel experience and I still felt overwhelmed by the journey ahead. Those feelings came back, either just to visit or because they remain below the surface, painted over by the surety that having my trail legs provides. My body is strong and my commitment to this task is stronger. So why doesn’t it feel like I have this in the bag? I don’t think anyone would label me as crazy for having doubts, for feeling uncertain. There is a long way left to go yet. I’ve come a long way too, but I think it’s safe to say that I’m still not even close. And there is still so much I don’t know and places I know nothing about ahead. So many questions remain besides the ones about my own physical and mental resolve. Of course there are, it’s why I’m out here in the first place. As my time in Shenandoah waned, as I moved one day closer to the rapidly approaching AT halfway point, I started thinking about what’s next. ‘What’s next’ is huge and full of unknowns. It’s too big to think about responsibly right now, so I return to the clouds and think about the past. Familiar tread underfoot, familiar clouds hanging in the familiar trees. Thank you, Shenandoah, for bringing me back.
It was abundantly clear this morning that I had made a huge mistake last night in the dark. After I slopped together my collection of damp gear and soaked tent on the squishy lawn, and moved to the public restroom, the depth of my folly was understood. Why oh why had I not slept in the restrooms last night? The private stalls were huge, clean, and heated. Each was just a microwave short from being as nice as a room at Motel 6. Camping in the rain had been fine, but far from luxurious or glamorous. This bathroom, in comparison, felt both. I hung out for an hour, to dry things out and feel human again after a degrading night of desperate camping. Not that hanging out next to a toilet wasn’t degrading, but at least it was dry and warm too.
The rain that had been heavy at times was just a misting cloud by the time I got moving. I scurried across an empty highway, then across Skyline Drive and back into the woods. I soon warmed up in the quiet cloud and cruised without a jacket up the gradual trail, slowly regaining my optimism for the day ahead. The sky brightened, and the circular shape of the sun appeared through the gray overcast, temporarily blinding me each time I looked up to check. Then shadows returned, and for a few miles I was able to pretend that the day would be sunny, and that all of my gear, heavy with moisture, would have a chance to dry out.
That didn’t all quite happen, but I found peace in the quiet morning. The ground was soft, the smells of the forest renewed. The clumps of deer that kept a safe distance from me seemed perfectly comfortable with things just the way they were, and I aspired to be as accepting. I ate a Clif bar, watched another tiny salamander scooch across a rock, and considered how Spring had yet to reach this part of the mountains.
After filtering water gathered from a pipe extending from a gurgling spring, I followed the trail as it snaked up the rounded back of Hogsback Mountain. This amounted to the big climb of the day, though I didn’t know it at the time for lack of interest in the elevation profile and limited visual context beyond the mist and trees. Enthusiastic day hikers reminded me that A) I was the coolest wildlife around, and B) this cloudy tree walking was actually pretty freaking sweet. In the future, when the temperature cranked up with the warming season, I would long for these moments when the only sweat I needed was freely given by the mist.
Even though the top was socked in, I stopped at the Hogsback overlook for lunch. It was time, my stomach told me, and my rekindled appreciation for swirling cloud got me excited to sit and observe. I mostly observed disappointed tourists getting out of their cars, before quickly moving on once they realized that the view was not what they had expected. I finished off my chips and almonds, among handfuls of other things.
After staying for longer than I should have, the swirling white became a little more textured with slightly more depth. Then, with a final blow, the cloud was gone, and I was left sitting on the edge of an incredible view. Even though I hadn’t been waiting for it, my patience was rewarded, and I soaked in the fresh perspective and the wisdom that came with it. The passing cars stopped for a little longer now.
The afternoon was even easier than the morning, and I made great time, putting me back on track after a late start and long lunch. I turned on some tunes to aid my digestion and keep my head out of the clouds and thinking those dangerous, cloudy thoughts. Even though everything north of Harper’s Ferry was a blank spot on the map, a dark spot in my mind, it would all work out. Hadn’t Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia all been massive question marks at one point too? I would figure it out as I went, just like before.
Another Clif bar later, I filtered some more water on the side of a hill and planned out my final hours. Five and a half miles, nearly all downhill to camp. Easy peasy. The cloud capped my ridge for a level cruise from Compton Gap, then I exited Shenandoah, marked by a self-issue permit station. Switchbacking down, back out of the cloud and into Spring, I brought my brother along for the ride for our first phone call since Fontana. The salubrious palaver was long overdue, and re-fuzzed some of my light-hearted energy that had been flattened and slicked back by the damp weather. A bright beam of sunshine blasted through a gap in the clouds just before dipping below the ridge, painting a flamboyant stripe of gold across the treetops ahead. Fresh buds were the only explanation for the vibrant shock, the likes of which I hadn’t seen this season so far. It was fleeting, but this moment was my favorite of the day, shining bright in my memory just as it did on my corneas.
Down low, in a valley I didn’t know, I pitched camp along the rushing Moore Run, the biggest water seen in a while. My final bag of couscous, the last crumbled tortilla, and the dregs of my peanut butter provided fuel for a restful sleep, hopefully stoking the fire for long enough that hunger wouldn’twake me in the wee hours. A short visit to Front Royal to resupply tomorrow morning, then the final push to Harper’s Ferry. After that, I don’t know. But I’ll figure it out. One step, one mile, one day, one section, one state at a time.