Friday, March 14, 2008

Shenandoah Hike

The wilderness phase of my mid-life crisis adventure is concluded, and I think it's fair to say it went entirely according to plan. Not Plan A or Plan B or even Plan C, but nothing was completely unforeseen; everything that happened had been prepared for in advance.

My original plan was to backpack the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, following the Appalachian Trail--115 miles--in seven days. I have no excuse for the insane optimism reflected in that estimation of my abilities. Just take into consideration that I have lived in Florida since 1980, and "mountain" has become a rather abstract concept to me. (Although I have actual memories of hiking up mountains in the Rockies and other places.) Somehow I thought the fact that I could walk 20 miles in 6.5 hours in Florida would translate into being able to cover 20 miles a day on the Shenandoah trip. "I'll have nothing to do all day but hike! In twelve hours, surely I can do that." It was obvious from the morning of the second day that it was completely out of the question, so I readjusted my plan, completely stopped worrying about mileage at all, and just hiked every day as far as I felt like going. In the end, I covered about 50 miles in 5 days, had a great time and made memories to keep for a lifetime.

But I'm getting ahead of the story--day one of the trip deserves attention, as it was the most dramatic of all.

I left Fort Lauderdale early in the morning, March 8, hoping to land in Charlottesville at 10:30 a.m. Weather-delayed flights resulted in my not arriving there until 1:45. Rodney from Mountain and Valley Shuttle Service was there to meet me and had brought the fuel for my stove that I wasn't able to bring on the plane. He whisked me off to the park and dropped me off at Rockfish Gap at 3:00. As we pulled up to the parking area, it was raining lightly and there was some snow mixed in, just occasional flurries. I put on my rain jacket but didn't take the time to put on rain pants, as that would require taking off my boots and I was eager to get going. Here's the beginning of the trail:

As I crossed the pedestrian walkway over the highway I looked at the horizon and saw a rainbow--the original good omen, and to say I was in good spirits at that point would be a gross understatement. In fact, I was euphoric, and I set off down the trail determined to go as far as I could before darkness forced me to set up camp.

It was cold--in the 30s--but I was comfortable hiking. I passed several small streams and considered stopping for water but didn't--at that point they seemed to be occurring frequently. About 6:00, circumstances started to converge in a dramatic way. The temperature dropped into the 20s, the wind picked up sharply, and it started to get dark. I had to cross Skyline Drive at Beagle Gap, where there are open areas on both sides of the road. In those unprotected areas the wind was blowing so hard that it literally stopped me in my tracks at times (with the pack on, I resembled a sail more than my normal profile would), and other times I turned sideways to present a smaller cross section, otherwise I would have been blown over. It was so cold my whole face was numb, and my euphoria was replaced with real, justified concern. This was a situation where good judgment was necessary, and nobody was going to help me--nobody knew I was there. I headed for the trees and stopped as soon as I found a marginally acceptable spot. I regretted not having water but that was a secondary consideration. I put up the tent, got all the necessities inside, secured my pack and crawled in for the night. It was dark, 7:00, and it was 23 degrees F. I stayed pretty warm all night, but didn't sleep much. The campsite was on a slope so I was sliding downhill all night, but this was Camp Desperation and I was glad to have met my first challenge so successfully.

Oh, did I mention, I climbed a mountain that day?

Day two, I woke up at first light - 6 a.m., Eastern Standard Time. That's right: even though the U.S. officially started Daylight Savings Time, I opted out. For the duration of my trip I had my own personal time zone. Now that is power.

I was packed and on the trail by 6:40--enthusiastic about reaching Calf Mountain Shelter, where there would be water, a shelter and a picnic table. Just had to climb one mountain to get to it--no, sorry, two mountains, Scott and Calf Mountain. I am going to stop naming every mountain after this, and just tell you now that the trip took me to or near the top of about a dozen mountains and that does not represent the amount of up and down--there are a lot of big uphills that aren't mountains.

The hike to Calf Mountain shelter convinced me thoroughly that I did not have the speed necessary to make the big mileage. And my night with no water convinced me that it was worth the weight to carry a day's supply--after that I always filled up my two one-liter bottles whenever I came to a spring.

I left the shelter determined to "hike until dark" but--

Journal Entry:

...Well, here it is 2:00 p.m. and I have changed my mind, am reevaluating this whole forced-march expedition. Factors: warm sunny weather makes hanging around in camp more attractive (2) mucho pain in shoulders and back from carrying the backpack is making hiking less fun. (3) Found a really nice campsite among the rhododendrons--it's LEVEL unlike last night's hillside bivouac.

So I'm stopped for the night, about to eat some Mountain House scrambled eggs and then read my book for a while.

My shoulders are saying "THANK YOU, THANK YOU"

The next four days went about the same. I enjoyed the hiking and scenery, while dealing with the shoulder pain, which sometimes seemed to be getting better, but never went away. I saw very few people--about seven altogether, all of whom appeared to be spring breakers (guys) except one guy with two dogs who seemed to be local.

On my way down from Hightop Mountain, I met two guys and asked one of them to take my picture--this is not a portrait, just photojournalism, documenting the facts. No primping, no posing.

On Wednesday, my 50th birthday and the main inspiration for the trip, I stood out on a ridge and watched the sun go down, stood there in the silence of the woods until the red gradually faded from the sky and the stars came out one by one. The moon was a little more than a quarter, very bright. I felt perfectly calm and happy.

When I went to bed that night, though, my right calf cramped up with the mother of all charley horses--I've had muscle cramps before but this was in a whole new league. I spent the entire night lying there talking to my leg. I knew it wasn't broken or damaged, just tensed. Some nerve had been overstimulated and reacted by contracting the muscle; it was like the hiccups, only continual.

I had planned to hike one more day and then catch a ride out, but this new development required another plan revision. So I got up Thursday morning, limped down to the highway, and got a ride into town with a nice French Canadian couple. The scenery was gorgeous.

Front Royal is a great town. I got dropped off at the town limits and hiked over to the post office, where my civilization luggage was in General Delivery waiting for me. I made the transition, using the same box to mail my camping gear home. Then took a taxi to a motel, and I was officially back in the world. Time to spring forward.

Two final observations in general about backpacking in Shenandoah National Park:

(1)This was my second time hiking the AT in the park but my first time experiencing Skyline Drive by car and I was surprised to find that the views from the road are about a hundred times better than the views from the trail. So scenery shouldn't be a motivating factor.

(2) The best reason to backpack to a place is that there is no other way to get to it. Our Colorado backpacking trips were always like that. When we got out there, the only people we would meet were other backpackers. In Shenandoah, you can hike 50 miles, arrive at a destination, and meet up with people who walked 100 yards from the highway to get there. That opens up a much wider demographic. This is why I did both my Shenandoah hikes in the off-season--my first one started on Christmas Day 1977.


As you read this narrative, there is one burning question you should have been asking yourself: "What book did you take?" And I have a great answer for you. I took Proust. Swann's Way, the classic translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. The reason I took it was that the first section totally captivated me, made me a Proust convert, had me saying that from now on, I'm only reading Remembrance of Things Past, I don't need any other books. That was the section about his early childhood. Unfortunately, the whole middle part of the book is an endless, tedious, repetitious account of friend-of-the-family Charles Swann's obsession with his fickle and heartless mistress. It has its merits but is by no means equal to the promise of the opening pages. By page 50 the narrative opens up more and has some amusing character descriptions. I will certainly continue reading Proust's great work, which is, I believe, seven volumes long.

Interesting that I was reading Proust all week and then the first conversation I had upon reentry into civilization was in French. A surreal touch.

This entry was drafted at Computer Medical Center in Front Royal. The people here are very nice and the use of the computer terminal with internet access is FREE. Did I mention that I love Front Royal?!?!