Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures
Watching the weather forecasts approaching my hiking day gave me some cause for concern. After a couple of weeks of delightful October-in-July, summer came back. It was going to sunny and H3 (Hot, Humid, and Hazy) with temps reaching into the low 90's. I normally don't do well in this kind of weather, but I sucked it up and went ahead.
Today's target was a stretch of the AT (Appalachian Trail) from US 50 southward into two really interesting areas, Sky Meadows State Park and the and the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area. The designated place to park when tackling this stretch is a parking area which can be accessed via a kinda scary driveway off Blue Ridge Mountain Road. I touched on this in an earlier post, remarking that the driveway drops off so suddenly that when you first pull off the road, you literally can't see where you're going. Pulling back out is an adventure because you can't see the traffic coming south until your front end is well out onto the roadway. Looking for an alternative, I spied, via Google Maps, Liberty Hill Lane, a gravel road that leads off into the woods. There appeared to be room for one or two cars to park there, and it was in close proximity to where the trail picks up on the south side of the highway. Arriving there, I found a sufficient space to park my vehicle (in the shade, no less) and was pleased to discover and access path leading to the AT. I geared up and headed south.
I had about an 850-foot climb to do, but as it was spread out over 2.5 miles, it was a relatively easy ascent, especially after doing South Mountain for the last two weeks. The first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be something missing. Oh yeah. Rocks. The last two hikes were over rough ground with plenty of large stones in the path. This stretch, while still possessing some rocks, they were in far less density, leaving a very comfortable dirt path that my abused feet found comforting. The trail was shaded by the dense forest, but the humidity was already making itself felt by the time I crossed the border into Sky Meadows State Park. At the top of the climb I popped out of the woods into the lovely meadows that decorate the ridgetops.
At one point, I rounded a low hill and surprised a couple of fawns, still wearing their white spots. As I came in view, they were frolicking, leaping high into the air as they danced through the meadow. Then they spotted me. The one on the left broke for the treeline. The one on the right, however, launched into a streaking run to my right. I was awestruck at the incredible grace of the deer as it sped in a large arc to my right before vanishing over the hill. Unfortunately, it wasn't until then that it occurred to me that I was carrying a camera. Drat. Would've made a great video to share.
Once past the meadows, I entered into an area of very dense foliage. The trail, which was usually quite wide, narrowed down to about the width of two feet, if one was standing at attention. There were no trees here, so the sun beat down unrelieved by the breeze that had wafted me across the meadows.
There were places where the trail almost disappeared. Because of the close proximity of the grasses, I was on continual tick patrol, checking my feet and ankles for the little suckers. The other annoyance were the abundant spider webs strung across the trail. In places, I had to lead with my trekking poles, waving them around and muttering "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!" like the robot from "Lost in Space."
At about the 3.5-mile mark, I crossed over into the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area. Consisting of an area of 4,000 acres, the area is rich in deer, turkey, and grouse, and has lakes stocked with trout. It is a popular place for hunters, hikers, birders, and...flowerers? Anyway, I couldn't see much from the trail, except for the dense undergrowth, and the occasional forest, but it was a very lovely area, although probably much lovelier when the air's a bit cooler. It was the increasing heat, aggravated by the loss of the breeze from earlier that convinced me to turn around at the four mile point. In the undergrowth, the air was incredibly still and buggy. the sight of the tail of a snake oozing into the ground cover brought me to a halt. I waited until it was completely gone, and continued on. I crossed back into Sky Meadows and arrived at the point where the AT meets the Park's North Ridge Trail. At that junction, someone had decided to build a stout bench. I took advantage, and sat down for lunch.
Nearby, there were signs, the same kind you'd see on the highway.
I was surprised to see the distance to Shenandoah National Park was only 21 miles. But then I remembered that was 21 miles...by foot.
The last three miles to where I'd left the car were downhill and, compared to previous hikes, fairly easy. There was one point where my confidence got the best of me and my speed, tripping over a rock. Again, my poles spared me the pain of a fall. About a quarter mile from the end, I began to hear the roar of traffic on US50, and eventually I popped back out of the forest to where my vehicle was parked, alas, now sitting in the sun.
I encountered a lot more people today, three singles and a couple, all geared up for a multi-day hike. It is such a pleasure to encounter these folks because everyone is so very friendly, asking how I was doing, if I had enough water, etc. The couple told me that there were ripe berries in the meadow. I passed, as I'm not much of a berry man. There does seem to be a wonderful spirit that accompanies hikers on the AT, particularly the through-hikers who seem to be in need of human contact and conversation. Part of that, I know, is the experience of hiking. Being in and around nature, undiluted by traffic or civilization, has a restorative effect on the psyche and soul. To stand in the forest, serenaded by the delightful sound of birdsong brings a sense of peace I just can't find any other place.
Next week, our youngest daughter, my "Tigger," will be visiting, so I will be spending my Tuesday with her instead of on the trail. Yet, I am in gleeful anticipation because Autumn, my absolutely favorite time of year, is on the horizon and I am impatiently waiting for those cool, crisp days when the trees paint the hillsides with the glorious art show that is the Fall season.