Day 88: U.S. 522 (Front Royal) to Jim and Molly Denton Shelter, 5.2 miles.
Day 89: Jim and Molly Denton Shelter to Ashby Gap, 14.8 miles.
Day 90: Ashby Gap to Sam Moore Shelter, 10.5 miles.
Day 91: Sam Moore Shelter to Bears Den Hostel, 3 miles.
Day 92: Bears Den to Blackburn AT Center, 8 miles.
Day 93: Blackburn AT Center to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 12.5 miles.
I don’t know how much it came across in these posts, but despite thoroughly enjoying the last section, I was wearing down pretty fast–physically and mentally. So heading home for a few days was a good decision on many levels. It meant the world to me to see my friend Chris graduate and get to spend some time with him before he moves away, and the family meals, time with friends and rest were all tremendously restorative.
So I headed back with rested limbs, a full heart, and a few extra pounds that I get to walk off now. My brother Chris picked me up at Dulles and treated to a feast at Panda Express before dropping me off at the trail Monday afternoon. I walked a short day to the Jim and Molly Denton Shelter (no relation that I know of), complete with a porch, chairs, covered picnic table, and even a solar shower. Denton pride.
I made plans with Uncle Bo to meet at Bears Den Hostel on Thursday, three days to cover less than 30 miles, which meant I could take my time getting back into the swing of things. The hostel is in a gorgeous stone building run by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, next to the Bears Den Rocks, one of my favorite views in a while. It rained the night before, so I started early and got to Bears Den in time to air out my tent before my cousin Sydney picked me up. I got a soda at the hostel and chatted with some day hikers while we watched the sun burn off the clouds.
That night with Uncle Bo, Nancy and Sydney was perfect in every way: a delicious steak dinner, more re-supply options than I could ever fit in my pack, Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and pancakes, bacon and sausage to fuel me in the morning…hospitality and generosity at their finest.
The next day I passed 1,000 miles since Springer Mountain, finally crossed the state line out of Virginia, and walked to the bunkhouse at the Blackburn AT Center, where there was a bit of a hiker traffic jam. After quite a few recent days of walking alone, it was refreshing to see so many hikers, about 15 of us, in one place. Most of them were new to me since I was off the trail for so long, but there were a few I had met before. I sat on the porch until dusk with Spirit Hawk, talking about family, addiction, faith and the process of learning to love ourselves. That night–the hiker camaraderie in general, and especially the porch conversation–was a reminder of one of the reasons I am on this hike.
The next day carried me into Harpers Ferry, considered the psychological halfway point of the trail. It was a beautiful, warm day, and Jefferson Rock was a highlight. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that the view there, looking toward the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, was worth a trip across the Atlantic. Then I walked to the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference, where I signed the register and had my official thru-hiker photo taken for their records.
I planned to stay just one night in Harpers Ferry before moving on, but after seeing all the museums and exhibits in the historic downtown, I decided to spend all of today exploring and stay a second night. (Tonight’s Game 2 of the Finals added to the decision as well.)
Moment of honesty: Adjusting to trail life after several days off has been tough. Even after all the rest, my knees are at a new level of pain…meaning I am slower than ever on the downhills. I just finished a section called the Roller Coaster, a 13.5-mile stretch of densely packed ascents and descents. Worst roller coaster ever. It’s not that the climbs were particularly long, but the relentless up and down started to get really old. (I kept looking for the monitors where you can buy a souvenir photo of the ride, but no luck.) And the rocks have been pulverizing my feet. I tend to post pictures of the gradual, appealing parts, but lately the “trail” has looked more like this:
Worse than any of this, I found out today that my buddy Tank suffered a nasty fall and has to take a few weeks off to let his ribs heal. He plans to head to Maine and hike south once he’s better, but he won’t be able to finish his hike until next year.
By this point there are plenty of folks I’ve walked with who have had to end their hikes, but this one hurts. Tank is the closest friend I’ve met out here, and his motivation is as strong as anyone’s, so I can’t imagine his pain–physical and emotional. I have no doubt that he’ll be at it again as soon as humanly possible.
Catching up with Tank was my main reason for wanting to work back up to big miles, so now I think I’ll keep it slow and easy for a while. No need to rush across the Pennsylvania rocks and risk ending my own hike. Plus, seeing the beginning of autumn in Maine would be nice.
The time back home, the lunch with my brother, the night at Uncle Bo’s and the porch conversation all make me smile, and it really does feel good to have finally reached Harpers Ferry. But I’m sad for Tank and a little homesick, my knees are throbbing, and most of the folks I’ve seen lately have hiked together for weeks while my friends are either way ahead or off the trail. All this means I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster lately…is this what having a period is like?
Sorry, weird joke.
Sorry, too, to end this on such a downer. I’ll be back at it in the morning, and I’m confident that things will improve as I keep a slow, steady pace moving north. In the meantime, I think unloading on here is already making me feel better. Honesty is the best policy, right?