“Accept the pain, cherish the joys, resolve the regrets; then can come the best of benedictions–‘If I had my life to live over, I’d do it all the same.'” – Joan McIntosh
“Sir Fob will make the hike because God made that his journey.” – Eian, 5th Grader, Foundation Christian Academy (FCA)
I woke up and decided to re-read the letters that had been written to me by Mrs. Wilkinson’s 5th grade class at Foundation Christian Academy. Allow me to share some highlights from the creative minds of these young people:
“One day Fob was doing the AT. He heard something in the bush, so he went out to check it out. It was a bear!! The bear swallowed him whole. He stayed in there for five days. The bear threw him up. Fob came out and said, ‘It was a good thing I had pepper.’ And then he hiked the rest of the AT. And he lived a happy life til he got eaten by a bear again.” – Jessie, 5th Grader, FCA
“Fob was walking through a soup trail. He was trying to get through the soup but a deer was eating the soup and licked his face. It was made of chocolate. The deer ate Fob’s face off and skipped away.” – Karisa, 5th Grader, FCA
I eventually left my comfortable cabin and headed out into the heat and humidity. Before leaving the Skyland Lodge area, I couldn’t help but think about the 1996 murders of two female hikers just 1/2 mile from the lodge. I did a fair amount of research on AT murders and other crimes before starting my journey. While one is safer on the AT than in a city or on a highway, bad stuff can and does still happen. If you want to read more about the murder of these two ladies, check out this link… http://www.readthehook.com/85806/cover-murder-park-rice-release-revives-memories
At mile 942.6 I approached the Pass Mountain Hut to get water and use the privy. A fellow hiker standing by the hut looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re Fob! Do you know Larry Alexander?” I answered, “Maybe. What did he do?” (One must always be careful in associating oneself with Larry in case any sort of crime has been committed.) The hiker replied, “We have something in common. Larry gave both of us our trail names. I’m now called Little Brother but on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) I hiked with Larry (trail name Baro) for awhile and he named me Young Gun. And I know through your blog post on Larry’s Facebook page that he named you Fob W. Pot.” I said, “Wow! It’s a small world (after all). Larry is a great dude. His two AT books helped inspire me to be out here. It’s great to meet you, Little Brother.”
“Once upon a time, Fob was in the woods on the AT. He woke up and a bear got his bag! He got up and ran but the bear got away! He was lost with no tent and no food but there was a creek full of clean water. He saw his yellow tent but it was about 7 miles away. He got to his tent but it suddenly burned. I don’t know why or even how. He found his food and picked it up and it burned. ‘Wow, I can’t even make a fire but I burn everything I touch,’ he said. He prayed and prayed then God sent angels down. They picked him up and brought him to heaven. He was happy in heaven and he spent his time there worshipping God.” – Brock, 5th Grader, FCA
At mile 943.9, as I descended Pass Mountain, I looked up and saw…(dramatic pause)…(play Kentucky Derby bugle call)…(all rise as judge enters courtroom)…(drum roll)…A BEAR! A real life Shenandoah National Park black bear! Yes! Finally! I had joined the club of aspiring thru-hikers who’ve seen a bear in the wild! No longer would I be made fun of a shelters, campsites and lodge restaurants. Instinctively, I crouched to one knee and, for just the second time on my AT journey, raised both trekking poles in the air in the single troop phalanx formation. I bowed my head and whispered, “Spartan, prepare for glory.” I’d seen The Revenant and now I was Hugh Glass, about to be charged and mauled by a bear in the wild. The bear, still a good 25 yards away, continued to calmly forage for berries and grubs along the trail. She (or maybe he, I didn’t check for parts) just completely ignored me. Like the attitude of the girls at most middle school dances I ever attended, I didn’t exist. There was not even a warning growl or threatening glance. I eventually stood up and returned my trekking poles to a non-defensive position.
I guess this was not my day to die. But a problem remained…the bear was directly in my path, right on the AT, and was taking her sweet time foraging and enjoying the day. So I got a little closer for the obligatory photo and video, and then sat down on a rock to wait her out. I ate a granola bar, drank some water, wiped the sweat off my arms and face, and waited. And waited. I started to throw a warning rock or yell, “Excuse me, Winnie the Pooh, hate to bother you…but I’m hiking the AT…trying to survive out here in the wild by living off the land…and I need to get to the next SNP eatery for a blackberry milkshake before they close. Any chance you could move it along and forage elsewhere?” Eventually, on her own schedule, without regard to my feelings or agenda, she moved her black hairy behind along. I continued northward, but I was a different Fob now, a battle-hardened Fob who had survived a close encounter with a distant, non-threatening, berry-eating wild bear.
Delayed by my near bear attack, I kicked it into high gear in order to make it to Elkwallow Wayside before they closed. I arrived just in time and ordered a pretzel, grilled cheese, and blackberry milkshake. Why? Because I could. This was Shenandoah National Park, the second happiest place on planet earth. And this is how we roll here…no apologies. I was joined at the Wayside picnic table by a trio of aspiring thru-hikers…Happy Feet (from Germany), Pharmacist (from Laurens, SC), and a guy from Idaho. I enjoyed talking to them, even after they told me they were hiking on Skyline Drive some of the time because it was “more scenic” than the actual AT. They are right about that, but as a white blaze loving purist, this was like hearing someone’s nails scraped across a chalkboard. But hey, hike your own hike.
It was starting to get dark, so I ended my 19.2 mile day stealth camping at mile 950.9, near Rattlesnake Point Overlook. I figured after surviving my near wrestling match with a giant black bear, surely I could survive tenting where rattlesnakes come to view the valley below.
About mid-morning I stopped at the Gravel Springs Hut to get water and use the privy. Just after exiting the privy, I heard a loud cracking sound and spun around just in time to see a large tree branch fall on the privy! Had the branch fallen 3 minutes earlier, I would have been trapped inside the privy. Within seconds, my skin would have started to peel off. Within minutes, the putrid privy smell would have caused asphyxia-induced hypoxia. They eventually would have found Fob in a fetal position, moldering away at the bottom of the tank.
After removing the branch, I hiked on. Near Little Hogback Mountain and South Marshall Mountain, I saw my second and third (final) SNP bear. I was a little more confident following yesterday’s encounter, so I attempted to pose for a selfie with the second bear. However, by the time I got my phone positioned and the angle just right, the bear had scampered off. Thus, I ended up taking the worst bear selfie in history, as there is no bear in it! By the way, some of the selfies I post on my blog appear upside down on some computers. Sorry about that. It looks right side up on my phone. Anyway, the photos in my eventual book will all be right side up.
“So one day Fob wanted to hike the Aplachin Trail so he did but when he got there he felt a tickle in his backpack so he turned around and saw a bear taking a samwhich so he chased him for awhile and gave up so he saw a deer and tried to get a selfie but the deer hid in the pond and Fob was not happy but he went to get his phone and it fell in and he said why did i do this.” – Aldon L, 5th Grader
At mile 965.5 I exited and said farewell to Shenandoah National Park. It had lived up to its lofty reputation and my memories of the friendly deer, ferocious bears, and delicious blackberry milkshakes will remain with me forever.
Not quite ready to give up my week of comfortable backpacking, I decided, after an 18.2 mile day, to stay at the Mountain Home Cabbin (yes, with two b’s) near Front Royal. The owners, Scott and Lisa, were extremely helpful and friendly. After he thru-hiked the AT, they bought the abandoned, dilapidated historic property and are renovating and restoring the various structures a piece at a time. The property was once owned by Samuel Gardner, a magistrate and horse and cattle farmer. He owned 3000+ acres and used the hostel where I stayed, which dates to 1847, as slave quarters and later as the tri-county courthouse. Scott and Lisa are still renovating the main house which will one day become an upscale bed and breakfast. He ran me into town to grab a bite and resupply, and she gave me a great tour of the property and historic buildings.
We had quite a mix of folks staying at the hostel that night. Four of us were upstairs, including another hiker with a leg injury who will seek treatment in Front Royal. Next to him (in nearby beds) were Matt and Sarah, who are finishing up a 3-week long archaeological dig at the nearby Belle Grove Plantation. They are trying to locate the plantation’s slave quarters in support of Matt’s doctoral work at Syracuse University. Scott and Lisa were downstairs, since their living quarters in the main house are still being renovated. They were joined by a Fulbright scholar who was on her way to a conference in Washington D.C. She will eventually teach English in Indonesia. Each of these hostel guests are on missions, and had compelling stories, and getting to know them certainly enriched my own AT story.
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