We couldn't have picked a weekend with better weather — Labor Day weekend, 2016 — or a more congenial spot — Shenandoah National Park — to have a great 4-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. I had hiked this portion of the AT as a day-hiker in 2012, but my hiking partner, Ted Gregory, had not, so I joined him as he added the miles to his AT section hike.
The distances were very comfortable for us — 12 and 13 mile days — which meant we didn't hurry to depart in the morning, and by late-afternoon, when we are typically hot and and tired and footsore and ready for the day to be over, we were already at the shelter area.
We enjoy the shelter areas, even if we rarely sleep in the shelters. I pitch a tent. Ted strings a hammock. (OK, I did so one night, only to be reminded of the snoring, the jostling, and the early-morning departures that interfere with my uninterrupted beauty sleep.) We enjoy the camaraderie of other hikers, and this trip proved unique in that 5 other hikers were sharing our same itinerary; so we saw them each evening, and occasionally during the day. One retired USAF officer, a World Airways pilot, hiked with us at times for two days.
The young people are particularly fun to talk to; their ambitions and accomplishments are always impressive. On our third night, I had to coax two young couples, who had tented away from the shelter, to join our now comfortable and noisy group of middle-agers. But we were pleased that they did, because they added an enjoyable element to our gathering. One married couple, recent graduates of Washington & Lee University (Ted is also an alum), were second-year teachers in a nearby public school system.
I often get annoyed with the chitchat of shelter groups because it focuses inordinately on camping and backpacking and cooking gear and technique. How about some knock-down, drag-out discussions about religion and politics? To steer away from the usual talk, I recited poetry to the group: I started with "The Bear" by Robert Frost on our first night (which seemed appropriate for Shenandoah N.P., and we did indeed see two bears during the weekend); switched to Robert Service's Klondike saga, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," for our second night; and offered up "Song" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow our third night (three facetious verses about staying home and not ever taking any chances, the irony of which seemed fitting for this group of AT hikers). I was flattered when an encore was requested our last night, and I cremated Sam McGee for a second time.
And hitchhiking? The AT parallels Skyline Drive all the way through Shenandoah N.P., so it was a no-brainer to park our car at Rockfish Gap and see if we could catch a ride to our starting point, near Swift Run Gap. Traffic was sparse on a weekday (Friday) morning, but I doubt it took 15 minutes for the fourth car by to stop and take us all the way — about 40 miles — to our trailhead. The driver worked at Ft. Meade as a civilian for the U.S. Army, and he was also former Army, having met his Korean-American wife during his tour of duty in Korea. We chatted the hour away, then plunged into the woods and started south, where a three and a half day journey took us back to Rockfish and our car.
As always with our hikes, I come back talking more about the people we meet than the beautiful mountain vistas, bucolic woods, and wildlife — including songbirds, bears, and even two timber rattlesnakes. We head for a wilderness getaway, but are happy to strike up new acquaintances and hear new stories from our fellow hikers as we enjoy the natural world around us.