4 Mile Camp to Harper’s Ferry, WV
Final Virginia Camp to DC Couch Camp
AT miles: 4.3
Total miles: 1034.3
Elevation change: 741ft gain, 1421ft loss
Will that next view be cool? How smooth is the trail going to be? When will I get my next fresh apple? Questions and speculation abound during a long thru-hike, like what will it feel like to reach West Virginia? When it comes to finishing the Virginia section of the AT and reaching Harper’s Ferry, the spiritual half-way point of the trail, I was cautiously optimistic that it would mean something, that it would feel good. I must admit, that my final week+ in Virginia had turned into a grind at times. That was certainly influenced by some wet weather, but I inevitably questioned whether I was pushing myself harder than I needed to. By blitzing through resupply stops, was I skipping an important, rejuvinating part of the thru-hike experience? Was I grinding myself down, or was my pace sustainable? While I didn’t expect to find all the answers at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, I was hoping to find something, a feeling, a shift. Something to indicate that there was a milestone somewhere between Springer and Katahdin that could give me a boost. If hiking the first half of the AT didn’t feel like a big achievment, then would hiking the whole thing? Fortunately, what I did feel as I stepped down the historic stone steps into a quaint preservation of the past, was powerful. Harper’s Ferry was the right tool for the job, and I felt the boost that I was seeking.
With an important day ahead, I didn’t waste any time this morning. No time to feel groggy or tired, it’s Harper’s Ferry Day. My excitement was reflected in the bright sky and shimmering droplets hanging on the trees and bushes. I gulped down the dregs of my dry granola and packed up, post-haste. My backpack felt empty, and it nearly was. Somehow I had almost finished the appalling amount of food that I had bought in Front Royal. I’d thought it would be way too much, but it was actually the perfect amount. Astonishing.
Some incredibly rocky trail to begin the day’s walking painted a wry smile on my face. Dry humor was my only remaining coping mechanism for this punishing tread. My others were as worn useless as the cushioning in my shoes. However, the rocky shuffling was short-lived, and the closer I got to town, the wider and smoother the trail became. I met a few flip-flop hikers coming in the other direction, and their cocktail of fresh enthusiasm mixed with sobering realizations about what they had signed up for put my discomforts into perspective. I felt like a bird in a room of rabbits, so I spread my wings and flew. In reality, I ran, but it felt like flying.
Road noise mixed with the enveloping rumble of the mighty Shenandoah River, swollen and brown with the rainy remnants of the previous day’s storming and raining. I had to check my map to confirm its name. It seemed too big and restless to be the same river that looped meandering turns through the peaceful Shenandoah Valley. But if it wasn’t the Shenandoah, then I was not where I was supposed to be, so it must have been the Shenny itself.
I crossed the mighty torrent next to screaming traffic on a pedestrian walkway across a long concrete bridge. Ancient homes dotted the minor ridge ahead, and aside from the Tesla’s and big rigs, I imagined that the view hadn’t changed too much over the previous two centuries. Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of swallows banked and dove over me, snatching a buggy breakfast, or maybe just having fun. Now that was flying. I stopped to watch them and look at the mixture of sun and cloud hanging above the horizon. Warm light bathed my face and open palms, the river’s breeze rustled my hood and pinwheel. I stood over the river that marked the end of Virginia and the beginning of what came next. The weight of the past lifted, leaving just a sip of water and my baseweight hanging on my shoulders. The heavy moods and memories of wet weather would do me no good ahead, so I left them behind. Maybe the water would carry them to the ocean, or maybe they would get snatched up by a hungry swallow. Feeling a light excitment, I finished the traverse back to solid ground, whispers of ‘favorite moment of the day’ making their rounds.
The final hike into town wasn’t a total stroll, but it felt easy today. Green was as abundant as the visitors flocking to the historic downtown on this fine Saturday. The old buildings were cool in a way that I didn’t expect, and I instantly fell in love with Harprer’s Ferry. With deep roots in history, there was always an informational sign to help bring the past to life. It was a living museum. At the snout of the town, where the two rivers divided three states, I halted my progress on the AT. It was time to push pause on my march northward. Time to disconnect so that I could reconnect. I turned west into the heart of the historic town, and started walking.
The old homes and blossoming trees held my attention as I wandered to the Appalachian Trail Conservency headquarters. There, I met Dave, the friendliest volunteer, and checked in as the 11th nobo thru-hiker of the season. The only thing that this number told me for certain was that I was definitely not the 11th nobo thru-hiker of the season. I could list the names of a few hikers ahead of me who’s pictures I didn’t see in the three-ring binder. Still whatever the actual number, it was a lot lower than 252, what they wrote on my tag at Amicolola. Where did all the hikers go? How many of them were still hiking north? How many would have their pictures added to the yearbook?
I jogged another block to the post office to collect my next pair of shoes. When I emerged, there were Didj and Karishma waiting in the parking lot with the next best things after a burrito, kombucha and fruit. Heros, big time. My good friends had driven from Washington DC to collect me from the trail for the weekend, and it was fine to see them indeed.
After a big box of nachos at the local vegan eatery, they whisked me east to the nation’s capital with amazing speed and ease. They tolerated my stinkiness like champions, but I didn’t push their limits more than I needed to, and jumped in the shower as soon as we arrived at their apartment. It was my first proper soaping since Pearisburg, and the residual dampness of the past week had me and my gear in a funky state. Even after my shower, I was pretty sure that my feet still stank.
Next, after some peanut butter and apples, they treated me to a bicycle tour of the nearby sites. Oh, you know, just the marble beacons of democracy and freedom that shine brightly in a world of darkness and disaray: the US capital building, supreme court, washington monument, white house, and many others. As someone who claims “The West” as my primary residence, these places almost felt like a fiction. I’d seen them on the news, watched history unfold on their lawns and wide steps on a screen, and even visited during an unremembered 8th grade school trip. Seeing them in person as an adult was awe-inspiring and humbling. For better or worse, this was where the shakers and the makers changed the world.
After the cross-training session (Biking is fast, people. A way better way to cover distance than walking.), we bundled up back at their place with warm blankets, hot hommade enchiladas, and the best guacamole this side of the Mississippi. Sinking into the comfy couch with my feet up and a warm belly, I felt days away from the trail, even though it had been just 12 hours since I was there. It was a good feeling. The mental respite was clearly something I’d been lacking. Not today though, and not tomorrow either. What was coming north of Harper’s Ferry? I had just the slightest idea, but I wasn’t going to worry about that for a little while longer. No need to freak myself out yet, or build up unrealistic expectations. Those would both come, but not before a good rest.