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Week 12: June 18-June 24
Shenandoah is the national park that I have visited the most. The first time I visited was in 2014 and then this last January, during my visits I would eye the white blazes marking the AT and wonder if I ever would be back as a thru-hiker. Well here I am and I get to experience it with the best tramily! I have developed a bigger tramily over the last week. There are 5 of us now all ranging in age from 24-38, three men and two women. We have been hiking in a straight line taking turns at “leader.” The miles go faster listening to tramily members jokingly argue politics, movies, music, etc. we play jeopardy, memory games and get to experience scenery together. Our loud conversations were probably the reason why we didn’t see a single bear. Our oldest tramily member, Wiki, took a couple days off due to injury however then got back on trail and passed us! He is seriously the coolest 70 year old ever. One day when he was on his own, he woke up at 2:30 am and packed up camp in the rain and dark just to get to the next town for breakfast. We finally ran back into him at the end of Shenandoah. I firmly believe that everyone needs a Wiki in their life.
We entered Shenandoah from the south and stopped at the first kiosk to fill out our permits for backcountry backpacking. As we filled the forms out we were greeted by not just one but four rangers. We joked with them about various things like the bear poles. The bear poles are these long poles with arms, you hoist your food onto the arms, they are pretty effective against bears. I told the rangers that it is a cruel joke to require thru-hikers to lift the heavy poles and food bags above our heads considering we have weakened arm strength.
For some of my fellow thru-hikers, Shenandoah was a bit disappointing. There are not many views along the AT and you cross Skyline Drive highway about 5-6 times a day. You hear cars constantly. You never feel like you are in true backcountry. However, I have been enjoying Shenandoah because I am so excited to be back. There are still steep climbs but the trail in Shenandoah in general is pretty smooth and pleasant. You climb PUDS all day (pointless ups and downs).
The bear population is higher in Shenandoah than any other area of the AT so my tramily and I tried really hard to always end the day at a hut (shelter) or campground. We were able to put up big miles as the terrain allowed for it. During our second night in Shenandoah we staggered into Loft Mountain campground with thirty minutes to spare before their campstore closed. We gorged ourselves on burgers (that were frozen and heated up in the microwave) and soda. We then ran to the ranger station. “All sites are booked, there is no occupancy.” We were crushed but then the ranger remembered, “actually site number A57 checked out early, you can have that one.” Score! We set up 6 tents on A57, hung our bear bag in the trees and congratulated ourselves on another perfect day or as we call it “best day ever (BDE).”
The next day we ended at High Top Hut and met up with friends and trail cousins. In the middle of the night I woke up in the shelter to pee. As I crawled out of the shelter I was amazed to see hundreds of fireflies lighting up the grassy areas around me. It was so beautiful. After I used the bathroom I just sat up in the shelter and watched the fireflies until I fell back asleep. I hope this memory stays seared in my mind because it was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen.
On the day that we reached Big Meadows, Facebook reminded me that I had camped at Big Meadows that day five years prior. How cool is that? Five years ago there was no way that I thought I would be back as a thru-hiker. Shenandoah is celebrating their 80th anniversary (they opened in 1939) so all of the waitresses were dressed in polkadot dresses and skirts. The Lodge was amazing. They were incredibly hiker friendly. We could keep our bags in the corner of their main room and they didn’t mind dogs indoors. One of the hikers we met up with had a dog and the dog sat right next to him while we ate dinner. We made sure to partake of the blackberry lemonade, blackberry cobbler, and blackberry wine.
Our second to last night in Shenandoah was at the oldest shelter in the park (built in 1939)! It had two privies and was very full with backpackers. We tented next to the larger privy (the only flat land) and listened to an owl scream right above our tents. He/she was communicating to an owl in the distance, it was a bit comical listening to the screeches. Whoever said the woods was quiet lied. There are always birds, owls, crickets, toads, etc singing the song of their people late into the night. I don’t mind it but many people need earplugs.
The search for blackberry shakes was real. We inquired about them at every Wayside we stopped at but were greeted by the same response, “nope don’t have them.” However! We finally did at Elkwallow Wayside, the last wayside (convenience store) in the park. Unfortunately they did not have lactose free options but my companions did enjoy them.
I have driven Skyline Drive multiple times. The views are incredible. However the views of Skyline Drive are not what you see on the trail. Shenandoah was sorta built for cars. I have been told that side trails off of the AT offer more views like of water falls and vistas. I hope to come back and check out the side trails that I did not see on this particular backpacking trip through Shenandoah.
We did stealth camp for our last night. It started raining and we found that the official campsite we were hoping to stay at was completely full. Thankfully the rain stopped when it was time to set up our tents. We found a stealth site near a vista. Hanging bear bags on this particular occasion was very eventful. As we pulled our four food bags up into the air the branch came tumbling down…onto Pusher’s head. It took us a half hour to find a better suitable branch in the pitch dark. Thankfully the hang was good enough because our bags were still there the next day. We did not feed the bears that night!
Updates on gear: my backpack and I are working on our relationship. We went to counseling aka I adjusted the load bearing straps (why hadn’t I done this before?!!) and suddenly all the hip pain completely disappeared! This new adjustment puts a strain on my upper back, the muscles between my shoulder blades are pretty sore however I figure that those muscles will strengthen and that any pain should resolve shortly.
My trekking poles are pretty worn down. The carbon tip on one of them fell out. I found a nice Black Diamond pair of trekking poles in the hiker box at the Super 8 in Daleville but I didn’t take them. In hindsight I really should have! I plan to keep the ones I have until a better pair come along.
We left Shenandoah in five days and successfully hitched into Front Royal for showers and Mexican food. I am so excited to reach Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia – should be any day now! Before we get there we have to hike the Roller Coaster and Raven Rocks in Northern Virginia. Luckily I have done this before! I have a brewery stop planned in between them. I also get to see “Bae” soon! I miss his face so much but it is difficult to plan when to head back to DC. It is not guaranteed that I will land in Harper’s Ferry on a weekend. I also do not want to take too much time off because I would like to stay connected to my Tramily. Honestly planning when to see real family is the hardest thing about this whole trip. I am able to handle discomfort (being wet from rain, handling a period in the forest, pooping in the woods, and resupply, etc) but having limited reception to plan being picked up by my boyfriend is the one and only nuisance. I knew reception with AT&T would be limited but I severely underestimated how limited it would be. If you want serious reception I would recommend Verizon or what some people do…Spot/Garmin devices or even multiple phones by multiple carriers. Hopefully we will continue to dodge the rain but find abundant water sources in the weeks to come! Happy Trails!!
-Drop Sticks (I have been averaging dripping my Sticks 10x a day)