Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
We headed down the path to a small wetlands, helpfully bridged by a plank walkway. Once through the fen, we crossed a set of railroad tracks and began the first ascent. Now just because it was less humid didn't mean we wouldn't sweat. That first climb ascended some 650 feet in about a mile. The trail helpfully switchbacked, but it was still a daunting climb. About three-quarters of the way up, we entered a very rocky and bouldered area. It was here that I had mistakenly gone off-trail on the last visit, so today I paid close attention to the white blazes on the trees. The path zigged twice through this area, so rubbled that the trail, at least from the ground perspective, seemed to vanish.
All hills eventually come to an end, even on the AT and this one topped out into a lovely meadow, actually a hayfield. Out from under the tree canopy, the sunlight was welcome this day, although I was kicking myself for forgetting the sunscreen. At the other end of the field, we ducked back into the forest again and began to undulate, ascending and descending 200-300 feet at a time. It was fairly hard work but the shade made it much easier. The trail broke downward into a small draw, and on the right was another smaller field bordered by an ancient and weathered fenceline, which was beginning to collapse. We left the trail and walked to the other end and a magnificent view of the valley and several other mountains opened up. To our right was a large home, and I realized we may have been on private property. But the way from the trail to the overlook was well-marked through the grass. Clearly, we weren't the first to make that short trek.
Back on the trail, we descended sharply to a blacktop, VA route 638. There, an old stone and iron gate graced what had once been the front entrance to that property. to the left of that was a gap in the fenceline for hikers.
Across the road from the gate, there was a trail marker, but it was the double blaze indicating a turn. I took a few moments perusing the map to figure out that we had to go left. Carefully and circumspectly we headed that way, for we were walking on what was for vehicles, a blind curve. About 30 yards down we found the trailhead and dove back into the forest. We crossed a small stream and a few yards further encountered some bear scat. The path was slightly muddy from the previous night's rain, but I couldn't find any paw prints. The scat looked to be a few hours old, so with that precautionary, we proceeded on, our eyes now scanning the forest and also into the trees. Black bears, after all, do climb.
Something furry this way came!
We began yet another 400 foot ascent, although not nearly as steep as the previous ones. At this point, I checked with Cheryl on how she was feeling and how much further she wanted to go. Looking at the map, she saw the Jim and Molly Denton shelter. Since she had not seen a shelter, she indicated her willingness to press on.
At one point we came across the remains of an old stone boundary fence, the kind that dot the landscape of Virginia. This one was very old and peering through the undergrowth, we could see it leading off the trail in both directions for as far as we could see.
Being in the woods is, for me, a feeling of freedom. I have left behind problems, stresses, worries, and burdens. Out here, it's just me, the trail, and the woods. Despite the enormous physical effort involved, and the kind of hazards nature can present to the unwary hiker, it is a time when I can feel recharged and renewed. After tackling the hills of the AT, I feel ready for just about anything else.
The quality of shelters on the AT vary widely, from the very basic to the very elaborate. I had been told by others that this particular shelter was one of the best. According to the book "Appalachian Trail Names" by David Lillard, Jim and Molly were longtime trail activists. On Jim's urging, the largest trail relocation in its history occurred between 1948 and 1951, moving 155 miles of the trail to the west between Roanoke and Damascus to accomodate the now-legendary Blue Ridge Parkway. Molly wrote a book, "Wildflowers of the Potomac Appalachians" which is considered a priceless part of natural history literature.
This shelter ranks among the finest along the entire 2,200 mile length of the AT. The shelter occupies a pleasantly grassy clearing and consists of a picnic shelter with a stone fireplace, and the sleeping shelter itself, a very large structure complete with a deck and a couple of wooden seats. Off to the side is a solar shower, a latrine, and a clear stream for a water source. For hikers, this is the equivalent of the Plaza Hotel. The only thing missing is room service.
The shelter, as it happens was occupied this day by a young-ish man with a delightfully unkempt beard. As all hikers have the trail in common, there was plenty of room for conversation with this perfect stranger. He had left New York a couple of months previous, hiking south. He was a trail veteran, having done this for several years. He would quit his job, wherever that happened to be, and spend spring and summer months hiking. Cheryl and I were decked out in our hiking clothes, but his was very basic, A sleeveless shirt cut up both sides and a pair of cutoff sweatpants. The most expensive things he had were his backpack and boots. Sounds like a guy with his priorities straight. He had been caught in the downpours of the previous day and decided to take a half-day off to rest and dry his belongings. He was bound for the southern terminus of Shenandoah National Park where he would be picked up and transported by a friend to Charleston, SC, where he already had his winter job lined up.
Most of us are bound by the requirements of our lives, breaking free only once in awhile. When we meet someone like this who was willing to be rootless and homeless for a period of months, simply to hike the Appalachian Trail never fails to fill the rest of us with a sense of yearning. He led a simple life, uncomplicated by the requirements of career and infrastructure. And he seemed happy to remain that way. It takes a certain kind of courage to lead a life like that, and I salute his choice.
After a brief rest, we headed back the way we came. With the path now familiar, we were able to pick the pace up a bit, except for the steep climb from VA 638 and the careful descent down the steep and rocky hill where we had begun our trek.
A bit of human history among the trees.
As always, it was with a certain sadness that we began to hear the sound of traffic along VA 55 and the nearby I-66. But once back at the car, we tallied up the distance. 6.5 miles, although at a slower 40-minutes-per-mile pace, rather than our usual brisk 30 minutes.
It was a good day and a great hike. We were of course pretty tired at the end, but it was a good tired, the positive sign of a perfect day well-spent.