30/-1 Between Comfort and Survival – Manassas Gap to Elkwallow Wayside

“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” – Alexander Supertramp

Back on the trail

Two weeks ago I got back onto the Appalachian Trail for the first time in five months. The Thanksgiving trip had been very cold, and I decided to take a break at least through the holidays, then January and February passed without any more miles logged.  I was anxious to get back out to the trail, but I also wanted to wait for warmer weather, so I figured I would start back the last weekend in March, because the month is supposed to go out like a lion, right? I thought about the thousands of people who started their thru-hike this spring and felt a spasm of jealousy.  I would love to thru-hike, but right now I can’t take that time away from my job nor my kids. In this last section hike we covered 27 miles, and traveled over two 3,500 foot mountains in cold weather.  The spirit animal for this trip as the cardinal.  

Ken started off near Manassas Gap, not too far from where we had been the weekend prior with my kids at the Luray Caverns. My adventures and traveling have been eating away at my leave at work, so I decided not to take any time off for this trip.  We had forgotten about Friday afternoon DC traffic, so very quickly we looked at the Far Out app to plan a new spot to hike to for the first night.  We started out a little before 6, and my pack was super heavy with warm clothing, rain gear and extra food since my blood sugars had been less predictable than normal that week. The Virginia terrain felt very familiar.  Like with the last hike, the dead brown leaves littered the ground, the trees were mostly bare, but you could better see the rocks jutting up from the earth.  As we began the first ascent towards the Jim and Molly Denton shelter, I instantly regretted having such a heavy pack, and not training more specifically for hiking during my hiatus.  I had done much more hiking the previous winter, thanks in part to a much more flexible work schedule. An old rusty horseshoe hung off a branch on the path, and I hoped it would be a sign of luck for the trip. The shelter was only about 3 miles from where we parked, and it is an incredible spot. The shelter is large with a deck out front, a separate gazebo next to a firepit, a privy, a horseshoe pit and a solar shower is located there too.  No one was around, so we decided to put the tent up in the shelter.  

Saturday morning I woke up to the sound of pouring rain, the kind that falls so hard it almost sounds like wind.  We didn’t have to wait long for the storm to pass, packed up and started out around 7:30. We were at about 1,500 feet elevation and there were little signs of spring – white flowers, birds flying around and as we walked, I stripped down to a thin Merino Wool long sleeve shirt.  It was a very pleasant start to the hike, mostly flat and then downhill and as we were talking about antics we had in high school, we noticed we were walking next to a fenced area with intermittent signs that said it was Property of the United States.  There was a gate with a high security entrance, but just past it were buildings that looked like abandoned barns.  We ran into someone on Remount Road who told us about how the property is owned by The Smithsonian and as we crossed the road and continued we might be able to see wild ponies and maybe even some border patrol dogs that they train around there. We only spotted one pony.  Around the same time, I saw a red cardinal and I tried to photograph it for my friend Maria, but it flew away before I could.  After crossing Remount Road we headed up a steep incline next to houses and the Smithsonian fields and I mentally prepared to start the serious climbs.  We had our highest summit to date (on the AT) and I knew pacing would be the best way not to get too tired, but also to make sure we would get to our overnight spot.  Since we had taken 3 miles off Friday evening, we had to tack that on Saturday for a total of 20 miles in one day to get to the shelter.  Doable, but challenging. 

Views as we crossed Skyline Drive

As we continued to climb North Mount Marshall, those signs of spring all disappeared.  The temperature began to drop, and there were no birds nor buds that high up.  Right about the time we got to 3,000 feet, it began to snow hard.  We had crossed into Shenandoah National Park and officially we were backcountry camping (note that you must obtain a permit for camping there).  The word backcountry sounded intimidating to me.  Before last August when I started section hiking,  I had done lots of day hikes, but I hadn’t camped in years and I had never backpacked.  I used to talk about planning to do this adventure and joke about getting fake eyelashes beforehand and how I would need to “learn how to poop in the woods.”  I loved nature, still do, but I don’t know how to read it (still learning) and I think for me this slow change is a good one.  Sure, I am jealous of the thru-hikers right now, but I am ok that I get to do this in bits and pieces over a long period of time.  As the physical journey continues, I will also continue to grow and change (not caring how I look or smell on the trail for instance) as well as my actual skill levels and MAYBE one day Sawbriar (awesome shuttle resource) won’t slap her hand to her forehead when Ken and I tell her about some of our stupidities on the trail.

Snow on the trail.

“The further you get away from a road the more interesting the people are.” – Dr. Brown.

On the descent from North Mount Marshall, an old wrestling injury flared up and Ken started limping.  I worried about his ability to continue the hike.  It was getting cold, and we were close to Gravel Springs shelter and luckily he was able to take some ibuprofen and walk it off.  An oddly welcoming aroma of weed and a dog who barked and snarled (who was actually very friendly) greeted us there, followed by Dr. Brown and Slow and Steady.  Slow and Steady was out with her dog and wanted to do a few days and nights in Shenandoah but the dropping temperatures were too cold for her dog, so she was getting picked up the next morning.  Dr. Brown is a NOBO section hiker who was continuing on to the Delaware Water Gap. It was the first time we really had other people to talk to out on the AT for a prolonged period of time.  We all worried about how cold it was supposed to get, there was some food and supplies bartering and overall camaraderie as we stood around a fire and talked about our lives.  After mentioning that I teach French, Dr. Brown explained to me in French that he’s Canadian and his wife is from Brussels.  Slow and Steady almost went to my alma mater to be a writer. It was a little taste of the “tramily” or trail family. 

 As the temperatures dropped below 30, I worried about how cold my feet were.  I had not taken off the long johns from Friday night, and I had added many layers on top.  We set up the tent, packed away our food and I climbed into my sleeping bag – rated for comfort at 30 degrees and survival at -1.  I estimate the low was probably around 17 degrees Saturday night.  I slept in all the clothing I had, two jackets, a hat, and gloves.  I put my water bladder and filtration tube in my bag too to prevent them from freezing.  I went to sleep shivering and woke up throughout the night because I was uncomfortably cold.  Around 3:30 in the morning, the thing I dreaded the most happened- my blood sugar went low, but like most fears, the reality wasn’t bad.  Ken got the bear bag down, I quickly ate my low food, and he put the bag back up.  It had been a long time since I had been that far outside of my comfort zone, and truly scared that something really bad could happen.  In my family, I am known for running warm, and yet I was truly chilled to the bone that night.

Sunday we overslept and had to quite literally haul ass to get to our shuttle ride on time.  The climb out of the shelter was a steep ascent followed by more crossings over Skyline Drive and a slow climb up Hogback Mountain.  Each time we got to a scenic view, we left the protection of the trees and as we walked towards the edge of the mountain, the wind picked up and chilled me back to the overnight cold I had felt.  My blood sugar hovered between 60-75 on the last big climb of the trip and I slowed way down and kept eating sugar.  The problem was that we were running late to meet our shuttle driver and we had no service, so I had to slow down enough to be able to keep moving and bring my sugar up, without having to stop completely if my sugar dropped too low.  When we did talk to Sawbriar she suggested two things – one, we definitely need a satellite phone.  As much as I hate to deny it, I do have a manageable, but potentially life threatening disease.  Second, we need to have her drop us off at our starting point and we hike our way back to our car so that way we can run late and not have to potentially miss a ride where there is no cell phone reception. 

I am finishing this post almost a week after I started it.  My demands at school and at home are picking back up and I sometimes wonder why I still continue to write about the hikes/nature walks I take. I come back to the title of this blog, and the whole reason I announced to my friends a few years ago that I would section hike the AT; I was going to go figure out who I am.  I think the spirit animal of this hike, the cardinal, was a good reminder for me.  “Specifically, the red cardinal can show up frequently when you are learning the lessons of love, devotion, and commitment to a spiritual purpose or destiny. They help you strengthen your faith, and give you a sense of belonging that you need in order to feel secure in your environment.” (source)  I crave the woods, nature and the outdoors even though I am far outside of my comfort zone, especially after months away.  I have faith that this journey I am on is helping me reconnect to who I am, especially on these trips where I am pushed physically and mentally.  When someone is lost, most of the time they will eventually come to the conclusion that they wanted by simply talking it out – they just need to be asked the right questions to get there.  That question for me began many years ago when I read Fahrenheit 451 with a class.  “Are you happy?”  Well, are you?

Granted this is a very cold Liz, but a happy one.


One comment

  1. Wow!  What a great post. We drove that Skyline drive with the Gilbert’s before you were born. It was dizzying and I can’t believe you climbed UP those mountains!  Damn you’re one awesome hiker. Congrats

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: