“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” – William Butler Yeats
“The man who has accomplished all that he thinks worthwhile has begun to die.” – E. T. Trigg
After a night of thunderstorms, I awoke to an overcast, humid morning. The trail crosses Skyline Drive several times and that’s often where the best views are. At mile 882 I stopped for water at Blackrock Hut. As I filtered water at the spring near the hut, I looked up and saw AT snake #10 about 15 feet away on a pile of rocks. As I stood up and got my phone out, he slithered between two rocks and out of sight.
Back at the hut, I met a hiker and his injured dog. The dog’s paws were torn up from the trail and the hiker was cutting way back on miles to give them time to heal. Although I understand a hiker’s need for companionship, I’m personally not a big fan of taking dogs on long distance hikes. Logistically, they make everything more difficult…provisions, rock scrambles, stores, hotels, etc. It can also take a major toll on them physically. The same is true for hikers, but the dog doesn’t get a vote. So I wouldn’t recommend bringing a dog along, even though I enjoy petting them and receiving an occasional lick on the mouth.
A half-mile later, I climbed Blackrock, a massive pile of boulders and perhaps the most interesting geological feature in all of Shenandoah National Park (SNP). I’m told the boulders are there, rather than trees, because they are still shifting/moving. Later that day, at mile 891.5, I took a .5 mile side trail to my first SNP eatery, the Loft Mountain Wayside! I downed a cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake in under five minutes, got water, and charged my phone. I kept waiting for Mickey Mouse to appear and give me a big Disney hug but that never happened.
Partially full and happy, I hiked on and crossed Ivy Creek. That’s when I entered the area that had been burned by the April forest fire. The fire, second largest in SNP history, burned over 16 square miles, causing the evacuation of hikers and the temporary closing of Skyline Drive. I decided to stealth camp in this area, at mile 893, finishing up a 20.5 mile day. As I set up camp, Tree and Big Pea passed by and we spoke briefly. After crawling into my tent, I had a good SNP milkshake belch, breathed in the light smell of burnt forest, and dozed off to sleep.
Choosing the most difficult section of the AT in SNP is like choosing the ugliest Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. But for me, I would go with the section between miles 892.1 and 911.9. There were a few moderate climbs, enough to cause me to break out into a full sweat. I saw a few deer and a few hikers going in each direction. Most hikers reported having seen one or more bears in the park, but so far I’d only seen large mounds of bear poop.
As I hit the 19-mile mark on the day, I was tired and more rain was in the forecast. I looked at my guide and saw that the Lewis Mountain Campground and Cabins, featuring a camp store with laundry and showers, was only 3 miles away. Decision time. Option 1 – stop now and camp, stay dry, rest tired feet and body. Option 2 – press on, risk getting wet, further tire the body, but reach the campground. My feet voted for Option 1, but they were overruled by the rest of my body. I pressed on and hiked to the campground, just as rain started to fall. It had been a 22-mile day, my longest on the AT so far, and my 6th 20+ day overall.
At the Lewis Mountain Campground store, I met the manager, Randy, who has been working there more than 30 years. He’s a friendly, outgoing person who loves telling stories and jokes to hikers. My first priority was to take my first-ever coin-operated hot shower. As the rain continued to fall, I put in a load of laundry and purchased a Stromboli and chocolate ice cream. As I sat there on the porch eating, Tree Beard approached me and said, “Hey, Fob, a bunch of us went in on the hiker cabin if you want to join us. It’s rustic, and all the beds are taken, but you can sleep on the floor or on the covered porch under a picnic table. It would save you from having to tent in the rain.” I replied, “Yes! Absolutely! Thank you so much! I’ll be over in 10 minutes.”
It’s funny how perspectives change on the AT. In the real world, it’s so easy to complain if the hotel room temperature is a little cool or warm or the church pew isn’t soft enough. Here I am, on the AT, absolutely thrilled to be offered a 6′ by 3′ section of dirty floor in a small, rustic cabin with 5 other tired, smelly hikers. That, my friends, is how the AT can change your perspective and make you appreciate what you have rather than complain about what you don’t have. Mission trips, by the way, have a similar effect.
Several of us sat around the small cabin porch that night telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. I met Happy, an older military veteran doing a section hike. We were joined by Tree Beard, Waterfall, Pantry, Too Tall, Tree, and Arrow. Arrow, a short, friendly hiker in her early 20s, is considering a military career, and asked for my advice on the differences between the services, types of jobs within the military, pros and cons of military life, etc. Having grown up as a military kid and then having served a 23-year Air Force career myself, I had some opinions on these subjects. Among other things, I told her the most successful people I knew in the military had two things in common:
1. People skills…the ability to understand, relate to, and get along with people. No one likes to work for or with self-centered jerks. On the contrary, people who respect you and enjoy working with/for you are generally going to be highly motivated…which makes it easier to accomplish the mission.
2. Communication skills…the ability to sell your ideas through speaking, writing, or giving a presentation. If you have good ideas on how to fix things, how to “work your boss’s problems”, and you can effectively pitch your solutions, you are going to stand out.
As an Air Force personnel officer, I have given career and other forms of counseling to hundreds, maybe thousands of Airmen through the years. It felt good to wear that hat again and try to help out a young lady who is trying to plan out her life while on the AT.
As we sat there, I checked tomorrow’s forecast. It was supposed to rain most of the day. Tree Beard, who is quickly turning into one of my favorite hikers said, “You know, we could take a zero tomorrow and avoid the rain. One of the nicer, regular cabins is available. If we split the cost it’d be cheap. And I talked to Randy, the manager. I think I might be able to convince him to loan me his truck so we can go into town for some grub and re-supply.” He had me at “zero day and avoid the rain”. Yes, we can hike in the rain, and sometimes we need to. But sometimes you audible to a day just hanging out with friends, staying dry, not hiking, and resting the body. Everyone wholeheartedly agreed with Tree Beard’s proposal, as did my feet.
I slept well last night on the floor next to Tree and an old wood stove. When I awoke, Tree Beard was on the porch in deep thought, plotting a strategy. I have been amazed out here with the boldness with which hikers ask for things. I know a hiker who saw an older woman working on some landscaping and other yard work on the main drag in Hot Springs. He approached her and offered to do whatever yard work needed done in exchange for a bed or couch to sleep on. She counter-offered that in exchange for his work, she would pay the $20 fee for his hostel stay that night. Deal! That’s how you do the AT on a budget.
I don’t know what he said or how he did it, but somehow Tree Beard convinced Randy to loan us his truck not once, but twice, today! I wouldn’t loan a vehicle to a just passing through thru-hiker in a million years. We smell and we haven’t driven a vehicle in awhile. Still, I appreciated Randy’s kindness and the trust he put in us. Perhaps after thirty years of doing this, he has a good sense of who he can trust. I repaid the favor by filling up his truck with gas.
We all piled in the truck and headed to the Big Meadows Wayside for a delicious hiker’s breakfast. At the gift shop, I got several SNP postcards for family. Tree Beard dropped $40 on a red bear onesie with a trap door opening in the back. It reminded me of something Jason, my eldest, would have worn to play club softball in at Harding University.
We returned to the campground and checked into our new, upgraded cabin. This one had two bedrooms with queen beds, and a bathroom in the middle. It’s designed for four people. Our plan was to double that number, plus a dog, by bringing in two cots and using the remaining floor space. Tree Beard offered the 8th and final spot to Fire Starter, a rare late 30s/early 40s female hiker. We spent the afternoon resting, reading, napping, blogging, calling family, and snacking.
That evening, we all piled back into Randy’s truck as rain started to fall. Tree, bless his heart, volunteered to sit in the bed of the truck and endure the rain for our 20-minute drive to Elkton. I was scrunched in the back kiddie jumper seat with two other hikers, including Fire Starter. With our knees semi-painfully jammed next to each other’s, I asked her where she was from (near Nashville) and what college she went to (Harding University). Imagine that! She graduated in 2006 and won some awards as editor of the school newspaper, The Bison. I’m in the backseat of a truck in the rain with a fellow hiker, and she graduated from the same university as my two sons. I thought…it’s a small world. In fact, here on the AT in SNP, you could say it’s a small world after all.
After a delicious meal at Ciro’s Italian restaurant in Elkton, we stopped at a grocery store and then returned to the cabin. Since I slept on the floor the previous night, I qualified for a highly coveted spot on the queen bed. Tree Beard earned the other spot by virtue of having suggested the zero day and for acquiring the use of the truck. Pantry and his dog were on the floor, Arrow was on the cot, and the four other hikers were in the adjoining cabin.
As I laid there on the bed, Tree Beard emerged from the bathroom wearing his red bear onesie with a trap door. Of the roughly 4000 people who will attempt an AT thru-hike this year, I somehow managed to be in bed with a guy named Tree Beard wearing a red onesie. I can’t make this stuff up. As he crawled into bed and we turned the lights off, I told him I appreciated all he had done for us today. I also reminded him that I’m happily married and he had better keep his trap door shut!
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