Conversion on the Coaster – Manassas Gap to Bears Den

The last section hike included several firsts for me, the most significant for me was the fact that I hiked after taking a half day from work.  I woke up around 3:30 am Friday the 24th and knew that I had to work a half day, get to the trail and hike 8 miles before it got too dark.  I nearly bailed on the trip because of how hectic my week had been, and I wasn’t sure if staying home during a kid-free weekend wouldn’t have been better for me.  Thankfully I resisted that temptation, Ken and I began our trip just off of Route 66 in Linden, Virginia Friday afternoon and ended back at Bear’s Den a little over 24 hours later.  The word of the hike was struggle and the spirit animal was a big, fat caterpillar. 

The caterpillar

I felt a bit of relief as soon as we crossed the Bay Bridge and I began to let go of the worries that wake me up at 3:30 in the morning and live in the back of my head. By the time we neared our exit, as the scenery of rural Northern Virginia farmlands nestled between the hills and mountains surrounded us, I couldn’t believe I had been contemplating bailing on the trip while I drove to work earlier that morning.  It is a transformation to go into backpacking mode – physical and mental. Although I was dressed in my hiking gear, with a pack loaded on my back, it took more time than normal to “get out of my head.” We walked under Route 66, past a group of men at picnic benches, and onto the trail right around 4 pm and had to keep a decent pace to be able to set up camp before dark. “Reality is never permanent.  It shifts in miniscule ways every second.” My focus the weeks leading up to the hike was to stay consistent with my morning routine, diet and exercise.  Despite eating well, exercising and meditating, I was not present for that evening’s hike.  My monkey mind was going a million miles an hour and I was happy to be back on the trail, but I was mentally still stuck at home and work.  I know this because even by Saturday, I don’t remember much of those first 8 miles.  It was only two days after the fall equinox, but already the air was free of humidity and I noted that this was the first autumn section hike.  

Ken planned this section hike, and the last mile and a half we walked quickly as the sun began to set.  We had to get to the top of a hill for where we were going to set up camp, and Ken kept saying there would be more light at the top – and sure enough as we neared the top, the canopy dropped away and we were surrounded by mostly tall grasses on the top of the hill, and the sunset left a glow on the western horizon.  A residual childlike fear of being stuck outside in the pitch dark made me feel slightly nervous hiking the trail at dusk.  That fear shifted my reality to the present moment, and I finally felt like “Handeye,” rather than “Liz out on a walk with some heavy ass pack on her back.”  I began to notice the fading sunlight that came through the canopy, became more aware of where I was stepping to avoid rolling an ankle, and how cool the fall air felt against my flushed cheeks as I raced against the setting sun.  Up until this trip, all of our other campsites have included tent pads, picnic benches and fire rings.  This one had a clearing for a tent, a fire ring and that was it. We were near a parking lot but other than that, there was nothing around.  We set up camp with headlights on, and ate a small dinner sitting on the ground, and I was glad to have the experience of “roughing it.”  The temperatures dropped down into the upper 40s that night, the first of many cooler nights on the Appalachian Trail. 

I slept fairly well Friday night, worn out from little sleep the night before and an 8 mile hike that evening.  Our intention was to wake up early and be on the trail by 6 so that way we would make it to Bears Den around 3.  The full moon lit the campground in the morning and after we broke camp we got right back on the trail and continued north. We were in Sky Meadows State Park, and the first few miles of the trail were like walking through fields of wildflowers with some trees off in the distance.  It was flat along the ridge, and we were again racing mother nature, trying to get to the Paris overview site to watch the sun rise.  The park has many trails, and we missed the turn for it, which we realized once we were coming down from the ridge and back into the forest.  The first 8 or so miles on Saturday’s hike were easy, slight inclines and declines, lots of trails intersecting with the Appalachian Trail and the only thing of note was passing two hunters – likely a father and son pair – dressed in camouflage and carrying shotguns.  I was glad to have been wearing a bright pink shirt.  Between the hunters, and the fact that Ken said he had read we were supposed to have made a reservation at the campsite where we had stayed, I realized that I needed to add to my checklists as I continue to section hike in different states.  

The Rod Hollow Shelter

We cruised through the first few miles, energized and happy that we were going to end our hike at Bears Den, stay in a hostel that night and meet one of our friends for some drinks.  It was as if the weather matched my jovial mood – warm but not hot, cloudless and pleasant.  About 8 miles in that morning we got to the Rod Hollow Shelter and stopped to have some food and use the privy. I can only imagine thru-hikers rolling their eyes about this, but section hiking exposes you to some funky smelling stuff, yourself included, but nothing comes close to that stench from that privy.  At this point in the day I was riding a high.  The rolling hills, occasional stone walls and leaf canopies reminded me of New England.  I came to Maryland in 2001 for college, and every fall I get a nostalgic longing for fall in New England, and this helped alleviate that pang. I started looking at the calendar for the next weekend where we could get out, what section we would do, etc.  Aside from the foul smelling privy, the respite at Rod Hollow was idyllic – it’s fun to read other entries in the log books.  A few mentioned that they had just finished the roller coaster, so I knew that we were close to the southern entrance and had about 9 miles left to finish out the day. 

Me at the southern entrance to the Roller Coaster

“Behind mountains are more mountains” Haitian proverb.  At the entrance of the roller coaster section of the trail we stopped and took a picture: I’m still wearing leggings and my long sleeve thin wool shirt and I have one hand on the sign and the other on top of my head.  I’m laughing at Ken making fun of me, but my expression reads more like “oh shit,” which is kind of how this section felt.  The first incline took us at least a half an hour, and I kept thinking we were near the top, waiting for it so that I could stop and strip down.  About a third of the way up, I was sweating so badly we stopped so that I could change into shorts.  The terrain was rocky and the trail was dotted with tree roots that stuck up as tripping hazards as well. The stay atop the ridge was brief, before I knew it, the first descent began and so did my knee pain.  My right knee has been bothering me on and off, and the declines always trigger the pain more than the inclines.  Ken and I talk, a lot, but we ended up silent on most of the remaining inclines of the day.  As our conversation slowed, so did our pace.  The climbs felt more like hiking in New England than Maryland, challenging but not impossible.  On the descents I felt the pain under my kneecap become more and more pronounced. I kept reminding myself that the challenge is the best part of this whole experience.  Humans evolved to carry heavy loads over long distances.  We aren’t very fast, but we could stalk our prey until they ran out of energy and then we would carry hundreds of pounds of meat across miles to prepare it.  Part of my ecotherapy is getting outside into nature, but the physically challenging part of it also activates primordial reward centers. “Confronting risk, fear, or danger produces optimal stress and discomfort, which in turn promotes outcomes such as improved self-esteem, character-building, and psychological resistance.” – Michael Easter.  On the last ascent, I spotted familiar looking rocks, and declared that we were almost there – it was Bears Den Rocks and our stopping point for this trip. I felt proud that I had finished this challenging section, and that we had selected it as our third section hike simply because of its notoriety.  

The fact that the trail goes all the way down between each climb felt like a personal affront. I kept reminding myself that you have to start from the bottom, but to do so over and over again was the trial for that section of the trail.  On and off the trail I am facing fear and discomfort.  Divorce is is tough, and I am divorcing a man who wants to reconcile, so he takes all steps possible to slow down the process.  I am starting at the bottom and working my way back up financially as a result of my split.  I knew as soon as I saw the caterpillar that the universe was reminding me of the transformation that is happening.  “The caterpillar has to suffer silently in a cocoon in order to become a butterfly. Change is painful in the beginning but worth it in the end” – Jaykaran Sagar. Facing fears, challenges, leaving my comfort zone are all aspects that I know are going to continue to pay off in a grand way.  Ending our trip on a Saturday, staying in a hostel with beds and having celebratory drinks and food with a friend was a great immediate reward for a challenging trip.


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