Virginia (North), West Virginia, & Maryland on the Appalachian Trail
Virginia (North), West Virginia, Maryland - Shenandoah National Park to the Mason Dixon Line
Waynesboro is the largest town most hikers will encounter on the Trail. It has a great selection of services, but they are spread out over a large area. This rather detracted from the restful break we had longed for - this was our first true 'zero' day of the trip - too much of it being spent trudging (and in my case hobbling painfully) between hotels, shops, restaurants, outfitters and the post office. Any town stop is a good stop and this was no exception. I had my best laundry experience of the entire trail - the laundromat having a 'Pang' arcade machine, on which I spent a solid hour filling the high-score chart while I waited for my laundry. We spent further hours at the outfitters deliberating over the possibility of doing away with packs all-together and carrying bum-bags [fanny-packs] - at least until we got into New England. By now all of my possessions and a couple of days of food would squeeze in ok, but the price of the pack was too high to be able to justify the experiment. A trip to a nearby hunting outfitter proved more productive and I picked up a Frogg Togg jacket like Billy's. Less sensible gear purchases were the key-ring lights we picked up to replace out headlights. These are the kind you see for sale on the checkouts of dollar stores - that emit a vague red glow that's barely adequate for guiding your keys into the lock of your Honda. For some reason they struck us a perfect to use for hiking rough trail in the pitch black. After our dramas getting into town, we were grateful when a kindly old-timer outside the grocery store offered us a lift back to the trail.
Shenandoah National Park represents a big change in the hiking experience - more people, more facilities, more regulations and far more expense. No longer are you able to camp where you choose, but must stick to the designated camp areas. There are many stores offering groceries and meals to tourists which seem like a blessing until you realize that all is overpriced and mostly just plain awful. Still, it’s a pretty area and represents an easing of the trail difficulty that lasts all the way through to New York. The abundant places to buy food mean that it's necessary to carry less - usually a day's worth is quite adequate, which makes the hiking all the easier. The park is home to wildlife a-plenty - we saw our first bears of the trip and became sick of the sight of the deer that roam everywhere - though even I had to admit that the baby deer were quite cute. We made good time through the park despite my increasing concerns about my back. Several times I came close to giving up the hike before Billy would snap me out of my malaise. Soon we were out of the park and hitching into Front Royal for lunch and groceries. Our hitch into town was courtesy of one of the many wonderful retired people living near the trail that have made a hobby out of helping hikers. I guess it is like feeding the birds but on a grander scale. I think if I was in the same position, I’d enjoy doing the same, though I'd have to resign myself to having the car take on an unshakeable hiker-funk. Our driver informed us about the Smithsonian Zoological Park that we would be hiking through next. It was formerly used to raise horses for the cavalry, but now was a breeding ground for endangered species. Front Royal is a nice town and I took advantage of the Big K to audition yet another pair of shorts and chat up a sales assistant. Ever since losing my prized pair of Speedos to a dog-bite in Bland I had failed to find a pair that were really comfortable and chafe-resistant. These were to prove another disappointment.
Hitching out of Front Royal was to prove even easier than hitching in. We didn't even need to try. As we strolled through the town, a car randomly pulled over and offered us a lift. 'Hiking Mike', our driver, was a local teacher and section hiker who had almost hiked the length of the trail himself. A very friendly fellow, he gave us his advice on the trail ahead before dropping us back at the trailhead.
Back on trail, the rain hit us hard. We received some heavy showers that turned the trail into a flowing stream. At intersections with existing streams it was often easy to forget which was which. We waited out some of the worst of it at the lovely Jim and Molly Denton Shelter. There we met a section hiker who lectured on political science at George Washington University. I left Billy in deep discussion with him about neo-conservative foreign policy to take a shower at the advertised ‘warm-water shower’. I won’t argue that it was a shower, but ‘warm-water’ may be misleading. I hope my girlish shrieks didn’t interrupt the men’s discussions on the role of China in the post-Cold War World-Order. An unexpected bonus of the rain was that it drove every female hiker for miles around towards the shelters. We struck gold with three soaking beauties joining us to wait out the rain.
Our next stop was to be Harpers Ferry. We were facing a problem familiar to many thru hikers: we had packages waiting at the post office, but we were likely to be arriving in town on Saturday afternoon and would have to wait until Monday morning to collect them. Neither of us fancied this prospect, and there was no way Billy was going to put up with two days hanging around a town for no good reason. So, after a lot of dithering that wasted time and made life even harder for ourselves, we finally made the decision to try and make up the miles, despite my afflictions. We pushed on to the ‘Roller Coaster’ - a testing stretch of constant ups and downs that were made hellish for me by my back pain, the heat, terrible chaffing of some of my favorite body parts, and the failure of my filtration system. Trying to catch the flying Billy I wasn’t able to filter enough water to quench my thirst, and I wasn’t sure how pure the water I did drink was – the answer to that question would be answered soon enough.
There was some respite in the form of the Horse Shoe Curve Restaurant - a very nice bar with good food that we took a detour to. We ate and drank well and went to the counter to pay. The management informed us that our tab was taken care of - a section hiker named Artful Dodger, who came to hike the trail each year, couldn't make it out this time and so had sent money to the restaurant with instructions to use it to buy meals for visiting hikers. The gesture was not wasted on us.
Back on trail, the last few miles of the day were some of my worst of the journey. Desperately trying to catch up with Billy at the shelter, I was stumbling through failing light with only a 99 cent key-ring lamp to light my way. My chaffing had become so bad that I had to remove my shorts altogether and was hiking in my plastic rain skirt. Even this wasn’t enough to ease the discomfort – soon I was hitching the front of the skirt up to get a breeze through and clutching a handful of my tender anatomy in the other. I was in constant fear that I might run into a troop of southbound girl scouts and end up in a West Virginian prison cell. By the end I was moving so slowly down the trail, I lost all idea of how far was left to go. I was beginning to panic and thought I had missed the turn, when Billy bounded out to meet me with a container of water. My relief was immense. Billy himself was pretty excited as the shelter was packed with hiker girls - it was the only time Billy seemed glad to have company at a shelter. What a good time to show up in nothing more than a transparent plastic skirt.
We made the post office in good time, checked in at the ATC headquarters - where Billy refused to have the traditional photograph taken for the records - and went in search of lodging for the night. Along the way we met up with Charles again and we agreed to find a room together. We had timed our arrival badly - there was a craft show in the area and all the motels in the area were full - so it was fortunate that we had Charles on hand to wrangle a lift (from another hiker's visiting mother) to the town of Martinsburg (the nearest town with any vacancies).
Next day we took a taxi back to Harpers, said goodbye to Charles again, and set about idling the day away before our planned attempt at the Maryland Challenge the next day. However, the effects of my incautious water drinking in the preceding days were starting to become apparent. Apart from needing to limp to the lavatory continuously, I was starting to run a fever. This was not good news for our plans to hike 40 miles the next day. We finally came to the decision that we needed to get off trail for a while. Billy's cousins in Baltimore were kind enough to offer us a place to stay, so we just needed somewhere to spend the night before we caught the train the next day. Camping in or around the town was prohibited and as we sat, looking less than purposeful, a local ranger started to take an interest in us. He began to quiz us as to our plans and Billy panicked - telling him we were about to hike on out of town. His fear at having his deception uncovered was short-lived though, as I hadn't the strength left to stealth camp anywhere. I caved and we checked into a hotel. I guess the place was nice, but didn't have chance to notice as I passed out, delirious, within minutes of arrival.
R&R – Baltimore
The train was three hours late and when it did arrive it took us another 7 hours to get to Baltimore. Normally fine, but this was a day when I would visit the lavatory no fewer than 23 times, so I couldn’t really sit back and enjoy the journey.
Billy’s cousins proved to be the model of hospitality and our time with them was as enjoyable as it was good for us. The doctor diagnosed an inflamed disc as being the cause of my back problems and prescribed horse-strength painkillers, which carried lots of reassuring warnings along the lines of “Narcotics – highly addictive”. He also suggested I invest in a sleeping pad – a rather soft measure, but I complied. We took the opportunity to make further adjustments to our gear and by the end of a week we were rested and ready for Maryland.
The Maryland Challenge
We arrived back in Harpers in much better shape than we had left it. We grabbed a bite to eat before heading a mile into Maryland to find a stealth camp site in the 50 yard wide corridor between the Potomac River and the railroad tracks.
We awoke early the next day, back tracked to the WV/MD border and began the challenge at 5.30am. There are 40 miles of trail in Maryland -most of it pretty easy going. We began strongly, making very good progress. By the time we took an early lunch, we had already knocked off 20 miles. We were confident enough to even take detours to do some sight-seeing - larking about at the original Washington Monument and at Annapolis Rocks. My body was still holding up ok. The back wasn't proving to be a problem, though my stomach was upset and I couldn't eat enough food to fuel me.
Our problems began about 30 miles into the day when we came across three lost kids - part of a terrifyingly incompetent church group. With no idea of where they were or where they were supposed to be going, tired and out of food and water, it was a wonder they hadn't wandered off the trail and gotten into real trouble. We quizzed them and made a guess at where they were probably supposed to be going, turned them around and continued along in search of their 'supervisors'. Two more miles took us to the next road crossing and Billy sprinted down a side trail to a shelter and found the church group to which the kids belonged. Apparently the kids had been lost for hours and two members of the group had gone searching for the kids North of the shelter. When they refused to send anybody South to where the kids actually were, Billy took matters into his own hands, doubled back - still at a sprint - and set about bringing the children back himself. I didn't have quite so much energy left myself, so could only walk after him. Before long I was treated to the sight of Billy, loaded up with as much of the kids' equipment as he could carry, marshaling three sorry looking children down the hill towards the road. By the time he had gotten to them, they had well and truly panicked and, unable to stand the weight of their packs had begun jettisoning their possessions. I continued south and set about gathering miscellaneous items of clothing that were strewn over a half mile stretch. Billy got the kids to the road crossing as the ranger - alerted by the church group - was arriving. He was very unimpressed by the incompetence that had put the kids in danger, but was delighted with us.
We still had ten more miles to go and had just wasted a lot of time and energy. I finally started to flag and we took a long breather to steel ourselves for the final section. When night fell there were just three more miles to go. It was difficult to follow the blazes for these last miles and it was great relief to finally reach Pen Mar Park and the Mason-Dixon Line. We stumbled about 10 yards into Pennsylvania, lay on the ground and slept.
Continue on the Appalachian Trail: Pennsylvania