Day 91: 8.6 miles
ATC HQ to David Lesser Memorial Shelter
Our night in the hotel was luxurious and we slept in just a bit longer than usual. Pappy and Pat had helped us restock our food supplies (Trail mix, MnMs, Cheese crackers!), so we only needed a quick Walmart stop to get the rest. We headed from Walmart to the Country Cafe where we had plans to rendezvous with the entire trail family.
The cafe had delicious breakfast choices, including homemade doughnuts. Toots, Paw Paw, and Crazy Mountain Mama joined us first, and we caught up with them over coffee and bacon. (And home fries. And sausage. And eggs. And toast. And, of course, doughnuts).
Soon MnM, Redline, Still Kelly, and Mr. D arrived. It had been awhile since we had seen them and there were plenty of tales to tell. Unfortunately, there was also an impending storm of doom pressing on our agenda. Hurricane Florence was on course to devastate NC and VA, which could not only result in rainy hiking, but potential flooding and blow-downs. None of us knew what to do.
We spent awhile at the cafe, and then Mr.D and co decided to hit the trail. The rest of us headed back to the ATC, hoping for more information on the storm and access to a computer in their hiker lounge for blogging.
We spent a little more time together, and then Pappy and Pat headed back to Pittsburgh. It was so much fun getting to share this exciting time with family.
While we sat in the ATC hiker lounge and typed weeks worth of blog posts, quite a few visitors came through to chat. Some were former hikers, some current hikers, some just stopping in for a visit. Most asked us what our plans were for the hurricane, and at that point we still had no idea.
And then Shenandoah National Park announced it would close on Thursday. Whelp. Guess we’d be zeroing in Front Royal! If we could get there–all State parks would also be closing and Sky Meadows State Park would be on the way. Fortunately, the folks at the ATC were extremely helpful and friendly. We got confirmation that the AT corridor would remain open, and Levi exchanged numbers with an employee there so that they could keep one another in the loop about closings and trail conditions.
Based on current weather information, we booked a hotel from Thursday-Tuesday in Front Royal. It was frustrating to take that much time off, but the park would close Thursday and the storm was due to hit Saturday. They were expecting 8-12 inches of rain across Central VA, and that was in addition to the rain which had already saturated the ground.
Around 2:30, we finally headed to the trail. We crossed over the Shenandoah River and hiked up to a ridge. It was rocky, but there weren’t many trees blocking our path. Rain misted, but we got to the shelter relatively dry. The shelter was very nice and looked new. It had a deck and painted floors, plus a bear-hang pole for our food bags. We made dinner and settled in for the night.
Day 92: 21.1 miles
David Lesser Memorial Shelter to Rod Hollow Shelter
We awoke to more mist and cool weather, but still no rain. Given our current weather predicament (imminent hurricane conditions), this cool misting was a pretty good scenario for the Roller Coaster. The Roller Coaster is a 12.5-mile section of trail which “consists of over 3500 vertical feet of steep up and down hills, mostly 300-400 foot climbs and descents“(Alltrails.com). Basically, every hiker’s pet peeve.
There might’ve been a few good views on a clear day to mitigate the annoying terrain, but we weren’t so lucky. On the plus side, there were ample water sources in every valley!
We made it to camp as it was beginning to get dark. Redline and MnM were sitting at the picnic table with two other hikers who were NOT Mr.D and Still Kelly. Uh oh. Turns out, Mr.D had recovered from a 103* temperature, but still felt sick and needed to seek medical treatment. (Spoiler: He was fine, but learned an important lesson about always treating water before drinking).
We chose to sleep in our tents (the shelter smelled like urine), but the sounds of tree branches falling in the woods around us resulted in fitful sleep for everyone.
Day 93: 15.4 miles
Rod Hollow Shelter to VA Rt. 55
By the morning, the path of the hurricane had changed quite a bit. Shenandoah was still closed, but VA would not receive nearly as much rain as anticipated.
Although we had a hotel on our horizon, it was a looooong day of hiking. Without day hikers to do so, Redline and Levi struggled to clear spiderwebs along the trail as we hiked by. You’d think rain would deter the spiders, but that’s wishful thinking. The rain DID make the webs more visible though.
We met one section hiker (who had thru hiked in 2016) when we stopped to fill water, but she hadn’t come far. She did inform us of Pinworms in the water source. If you need something else to worry about on our behalf, feel free to Google “Pinworms”. Good thing we always filter!
We made it to VA Rt. 55 just after a decent bit of rain. Not wet enough to validate wearing raingear, but wet enough that our soggy bodies couldn’t get a hitch into town. So we called an Uber. The four of us had to cram into the back of the driver’s Kia Soul and sit with our packs on our laps. But we made it to the hotel!
While Levi showered, Kristen headed to the gas station for shampoo and beer and Redline picked up Arby’s for everyone (except MnM, she was holding out for pizza). We got clean, set our shoes outside to dry, and gorged ourselves on curly fries, roast beef sandwiches, gyros, mozzarella sticks, and jamocha shakes.
We sat in out beds until it was dinner time, then ordered Pizza Hut. A dog barked incessantly next door, but wasn’t much louder than Still Kelly’s snores, so we slept just fine.
Day 94: Zero in Front Royal, VA
The Motel 6 didn’t have breakfast, but it did have hot coffee and comfortable couches from which we could watch media coverage of the hurricane. At this point, the storm was downgraded to a category 2 and wouldn’t be truly hitting us for a few days. Or perhaps not at all. Or it could rain gummy bears. The newscasters couldn’t convince us of much, but Shenandoah was still closed so we weren’t going anywhere.
We started some laundry and then left MnM in charge of it while Redline, Levi and Kristen went to Popeyes for lunch. The rest of our trail family happened to hit Rt. 55 and catch a ride around the same time and joined us there. A new guy, Porcupole (his hiking pole handles once made a midnight snack for some porcupines) was with them.
We spent a pretty relaxed day in Front Royal watching movies, doing laundry, making a Wal-Mart run, and Lysol-ing sleeping quilts.
Day 95: Zero in Front Royal, VA
We began our day together again in the lobby sipping coffee and watching more hurricane coverage. The park would be opening today, but we wanted to continue monitoring the weather and catch some college football.
Everyone did their own thing, but most of us ended up at a coffee shop downtown for lunch. We had delicious sandwiches and some of the best peppermint hot chocolate known to mankind. Seriously.
After killing some time editing photos, working on the blog, checking facebook, etc. we decided to explore town a bit. It was there that we hit thru-hiker GOLD. Our first stop was an outfitter with lots of great gear, clothing, and resupply food (basically a tiny REI). We then went next door to an adorable bakery where Levi and Redline bought cinnamon rolls the size of their faces. As we headed to the brewery, a chalk-wall reading “Basecamp” caught our eyes. We opened the door next to the wall and found a space specially designed for thru hikers. Basecamp is an alcove between the outfitter, bakery, and brewery with storage lockers, a washer/dryer unit, shower, and boot dryer. It was so clean, inviting, and thoughtful! We signed our names on the walls with the provided chalk markers and wrote in the log book. Thank you Front Royal!!!
Levi and Kristen headed to the brewery and watched football while enjoying some local brews, fabulous charcuterie board, and beer-cheese pretzel. We were joined for dinner by the rest of the tramily and then cabbed back to the hotel.
While in the cab (which cost all of $3 to bring us across town) we asked the driver about the possibility of getting picked up from inside Shenandoah park the next day. She said cab drivers could enter the park without paying the park fee. Hmm..We couldn’t get out of our hotel booking, so we decided to hike out the next day but get a lift back to the hotel for the night.
Day 96: 21.6 miles
Front Royal to Gravel Springs Hut
The morning started off well enough. We (including Toots and Paw Paw) left most of our food and clothes at the hotel since we would be returning for the evening. It was good to be hiking all together again, the weather was ominous but currently fine, and we had a few big uphills but nothing too crazy.
We hadn’t booked our taxi ride back to the hotel, but figured we could do that from the trail. Levi called to make a reservation and ask for a ballpark cost. The guy said he would need to get back to us, but we thought it couldn’t be too bad since a ride across town was $3.
Turns out we were wrong. We got a call back about 2 miles past a road crossing that the cab fee to pick us up from Shenandoah and bring us back to the hotel would be $140. For one way. Crap.
The four of us ended up walking to the next road, cabbing from there to the hotel, packing up our stuff, and then picking up Popeyes since we’d be getting to the shelter late and probably wouldn’t want to make dinner in the dark. All together it took about 2 hours, but we made it back to the trail with enough daylight to catch up to the group.
The remaining trail for the day was a never-ending course of switchbacks up to the Shenandoah backcountry park entrance. We filled out our form (names, contact info, plans for camping during our stay) and entered the park. It got steadily darker and the light drizzle began to come down as real raindrops.
By the time we reached the shelter we were using flashlights and ponchos. The 10-man shelter already contained the 5 members of our trail family, plus 3 other flip-floppers (thru hikers who start in the middle of the trail) named Bean, Meltdown, and Hard Hat. If you did that math in your head, you’ve realized the problem. We managed to squeeze 3 more people into the shelter, and Kristen volunteered to sleep at the foot of the shelter which was still under the roof. Levi slept in a corner of the shelter that smelled like animal urine. We had each chosen our personal lesser of the two evils.
Hurricane Flo’s remnants progressively escalated overnight. The rain beat down on the roof. Strong wind blew humid air all around. Tree limbs fell off in the distance. It was a fitful night of sleep for all of us.
Day 97: 5.7 miles – Gravel Springs Hut to Elkwallow Wayside
That morning we all awoke to steady rain and wind. We hiked through thick fog, trying to keep eyes on both the slick rocky trail below and precariously swaying branches above. It was exhausting physical and mentally.
Around 11am we arrived at the Elkwallow Wayside, a spot to stop with a bathroom, gift shop, and concession. The smell of something warm and delicious wafted towards us from the side of the building, but there wasn’t a person or car in sight. As we came around to the entrance, we learned why. A small typed sign taped to the door read, “Closed due to hurricane.”
Much to our dismay, even the bathrooms were locked. Having no cell service whatsoever, we (Kristen, Levi, Toots and Pawpaw) decided to wait a bit under a pavilion and generate a plan. Soon, a ranger pulled up and notified us that the park had closed once again. The backcountry (trails, shelters, etc) would remain open, but the frontcountry (roads, waysides, visitors centers) would close. All personnel would be leaving the park. Basically we were permitted to stay and hike, but if anything happened we would be SOL.
Though frustrated, we decided to err on the side of caution (you’re welcome, moms). And we took the ranger up on his offer for a ride to Thornton Gap where we could get a ride into Luray, VA.
At the Thornton Gap park entrance, we met a hostel owner who was returning two hikers to the trail. She was willing to give us a ride to town and recommended a hotel (understanding that sharing a room would be cheaper than staying at the hostel). We booked a room at the Quality Inn and went to Gennaro’s Restaurant to warm up and eat up before our check in time.
Mr. D, Still Kelly, and MnM were all staying at a different hotel close by. They were at the wayside about 20 minutes before us, just as it was closing. Porcupole and Red Line were farther ahead, and ended up hiking all the way to Thornton’s Gap. They came to the restaurant soaking wet and thought it would be a good idea to split 50 hot wings (spoiler alert: it was not a good idea, but all wings were finished before we got back on trail).
Our day in Luray was pretty chill. The weather in town was beautiful, but we could see dark clouds hovering over the mountains. We showered, walked across town to do laundry, watched the Office, and enjoyed more Gennaro’s for dinner.
Day 98: 11.8 miles – Elkwallow Wayside to Byrd’s Nest #3
After many calls and text messages, we finally got in contact with a trail angel who shuttled us back to Thornton’s Gap. Here we took different routes.
Porcupole and Redline had already hiked the ten miles between Elkwallow and Thornton’s Gap, but everyone else had gotten a ride from the park at Elkwallow. Everyone but Levi and Kristen pressed on south; others had intentions of coming back to hike that section later. We hiked north to Elkwallow since we had only 50 miles to go until meeting up with the Mortons.
Once back at Elkwallow we chose to take the road back to Thornton’s Gap. We figured it would be gentler on our feet and there was a chance of getting a hitch. The first few cars passed by and waved, but finally an SUV pulled over. Out stepped a ranger. He ran our IDs (apparently that’s required for riding in a police vehicle), and we were allowed in the backseat. On to Thornton’s Gap!
The rest of the day was smooth sailing. We found the Byrd’s Nest shelter empty though slightly damp. We checked the weather, set out our groundcloth inside the shelter, and tucked in for the night.
Day 99: 14.4 miles – Byrd’s Nest #3 to Big Meadows
This was one of the most relaxed days we had on the trail. Our morning was crisp and cool, but not raining. Early on we met a very sweet German couple who we talked with for half an hour. They wished us the best and we sauntered on.
When we hit the Lodge we decided to stop for some food and phone charging. The restaurant wasn’t open yet, but there was a concession so we each ordered a sandwich and large coffee. The coffee came with free refills, which resulted in a much longer stay than originally planned. However, we were able to fully charge our phones, battery pack, and water purifier, plus talk with two other nice couples who sat for a spell.
The afternoon was also pretty easy terrain-wise and the weather continued to hold out. We were thankful for dry shoes that stayed dry an entire day. Sometimes it’s the small things, like feet without a pruny texture or mildew smell, which make us happiest.
The first thing we saw at Big Meadows campground was a bear. Technically, we first saw the large crowd of people starting up at something, and THEN we saw the bear at the top of a tree. Either way, we had our first bear-not-at-the-zoo sighting. It was pretty impressive that the branches that high didn’t break under his weight.
Although there was a fee to stay at that campground we chose to fork it out and set up camp nearby. Not having to hang a bear line (there were fortified bear boxes at every tentsite) and having easy access to the bathrooms were worth it. We set up our tent and walked to the nearby Lodge for dinner. There we had dinner, drank beer, and enjoyed a blackberry ice cream meringue pie.
After a filling meal, we headed back to the tent for a full night’s rest. We’d be meeting up with the Mortons the next day! Whether it was the anticipation of a family reunion, the half gallon of coffee we’d consumed earlier in the day, or the sugar-laden pie scarfed down for dessert, something kept us awake late into the night. I think we finally drifted off around 2am.
Day 100: 16.9 miles – Big Meadows to Swift Run Gap Entrance
We woke up this morning desperately wanting to sleep in, but knowing we were on a schedule. We made fast work of our 17 miles and arrived at our rendezvous point about 15 minutes before Levi’s parents, Ellen and Dale.
After lots of joyful hugging, we hopped in the backseat and took off. The Mortons handed us a giant bag of Garrett’s popcorn (a mix of carmel and cheddar cheese) which we messily scarfed down. We headed to the airport to pick up Jeremy, Levi’s brother.
We made a quick stop at Chick-fil-A, just beating the dinner rush. We arrived at the airport and Jeremy joined us, then we headed to Front Royal for our Air BnB. We had an interesting encounter with the owners, but found the property to put liking. We showered off, had a nightcap, and enjoyed a much easier time falling asleep.
Day 101: Zero in Front Royal
Despite being hundreds of miles from Bull Valley, IL this morning felt like a typical Morton family morning at home. Dale grabbed some coffee from a local coffee shop (fortunately sans the Cincinnati Bengals mug always reserved for Kristen) while Ellen made sure we ate fruit, bagels, and mandel bread, and Jeremy sat working on the crossword.
Levi opened his birthday gifts and we called some family members while all together. Since it was a beautiful day, we went for a walk in the center of town. Naturally, our walk led us straight back to the outdoors store, bakery, hiker center, and brewery. While in the presence of a large washer/dryer unit we decided to wash our down jackets and Levi’s sleeping bag.
As the laundry cycled, we went nextdoor for some lunch at the brewery. Everything was as delectable as we remembered, plus we got dessert this time! Following lunch, we hit up a few antique stores on the walk back to the Air BnB. Kristen and Levi went back to the hiker center to wait on laundry, while the remaining Mortons headed back for a ‘toes up.’
It took awhile for the quilt to dry, but in the meantime Kristen walked to the post office to grab the resupply box. Some other hikers showed up at Basecamp and we enjoyed catching up with them over hurricane survival stories. Once we were done, we went back to the house to get ready for dinner.
Still rather early in the evening, it was decided that the birthday boy needed a trip to the Virginia Beer Museum. The museum is an old house which has been remodeled with exhibits and a bar for touring purposes.
A gentleman on the front porch welcomed us to the museum, and his demeanor quickly answered the question we’d all been wondering: “Is there beer actually served here?” Why yes, yes of course.
Another gentleman came through and ushered us inside to the bar, where we ordered from a large array of the numbered options. This gentleman gave us the tour, which he claimed was much improved by the #9 beer in his hand. The tour did get better as that #9 kicked in. It was actually quite interesting to learn about our founding fathers’ associations with beer, about the role of pubs in colonial America, about prohibition and the blah years of boring beer which followed, and finally about the recent Renaissance of craft beer making.
After a second round in the bar, we danced over to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It had been recommended to us by a number of folks in town, and did not disappoint. We’d talk more about it, but the meal was a blur of incredible food and good company. The specials were especially scrumptious and we left feeling warm and maybe a bit tipsy.
We headed back to the house and played a round of games before sleeping one more time under one roof.
Day 76: 6.4 miles
Delaware Water Gap to Kirkland Shelter
At last, it was time to return to the trail. Our resupply box and tent pole had FINALLY arrived at the post office and two of our tramily members were due to arrive around lunch time.
We got our post office business taken care of and then walked down to the pizzeria to wait on our friends, the Hope Hikers (Toots and Paw Paw). When they arrived (YAY!!!) they had another hiker with them. Rabbit is a hiker from South Korea, and will soon be the third hiker from his country to “Triple Crown,” or hike the AT, PCT, and CDT. We all spent some time catching up on recent adventures. We hadn’t seen the Hope Hikers since Levi took on the boulder with his forehead.
A whole pizza, giant sandwich, and gyro later, we were back on the trail. We’ll, all except Rabbit. He was taking a zero day and would catch up later. It was a scorcher and Levi and Kristen hadn’t used their trail legs in three days. We had a very rocky climb out for the valley and stopped frequently for water. We had hoped to go a bit farther, but the Kirkland shelter was nice and had a water pump easily accessible so we chose to spend the night.
Day 77: 19.7 miles
Kirkland Shelter to Tentsite
We successfully hit the trail before 8 am. Rocksylvania is real, folks. We started out going over a section called Wolf Rocks, but the rocks didn’t end there. They just didn’t have cool names.
Snake rocks might’ve been appropriate for the remainder of the day. Or maybe drought rocks. We had been lucky during most of the proceeding trail with water access, but now with the heat wave we had to carry water since streams and springs had dried up.
We took a break around two. While everyone was off getting water, Levi watched a real live animal planet episode back at the shelter. A rat snake flushed a toad out of a bush, but mid-pursuit the toad just froze and the snake lost track due to poor vision. Nature is pretty cool, eh?
We hiked along a ridgeline for the rest of the day. The tentsite had good water access and Rabbit caught us by dinnertime.
Day 78: 17.5 miles
Tentsite to Bake Oven Knob Shelter
We hiked on ridgeline to the infamous Lehigh Gap–a precipitous and rocky descent into Palmerton, Pa. The rocks were hot to the touch after baking all morning, and we kept a sharp eye out for snakes (which we later learned was unnecessary, phew!).
We stopped for lunch at a local pub, while chores were run at the nearby post office and gas station. We enjoyed Yuengling and perogies, and were happy to get back on trail.
Our hike was pretty uneventful for the rest of the day. Around 5, we were a few miles out from a shelter and Kristen suddenly needed access to a privy. There’s a 2 mi/hr pace, a 3 mi/hr pace, and a Kristen-really-needs-the-privy pace. She set off with dust at her heels towards the shelter.
An overwhelming majority of shelters have privys nearby, and we assumed our destination shelter would as well. She arrived to the shelter, found the side trail, and sprinted down it. About 100 yards down, the grass was overgrown, massive spiderwebs cris-crossed the trail, and it became apparent that no one had come this way in a while. The side trail was for springs, NOT a privy. She hiked back up the hill to the shelter where the rest of the group was arriving, muttered a few profanities, and set off to a secluded spot to dig a cathole. (Which is not very easy to do in Rocksylvania)
We filled up at the spring, then ended up finding a tent site nearby and settled in for the night.
Day 79: 26.5 miles
Bake Oven Knob Shelter to Windsor Furnace shelter
We made fast work of the miles in the morning, trying to maximize our time hiking before the heat could really set in. In honor of Paw Paw’s birthday, we threw out the crazy idea of hiking 31 miles for his 31st birthday. At our morning pace, it would be possible.
After lunch, we made a stop at Eckville shelter. This shelter is slightly off-trail and maintained by a caretaker. It had a shower and a flushing toilet. We ran into Good Time Gumby, who we had seen back at the beach.
It was valiant effort, but we only made it 26.1 miles to a shelter. However, it was a monumental day for a few other reasons: it was our first night hike and Toots and Paw Paw saw their first rattlesnake. The shelter was very nice, and we enjoyed some Mountain House Meal Apple Crisp for Paw Paw’s birthday.
Day 80: 20 miles
Windsor Furnace shelter to Rock N Sole Hostel
After our epic day prior, we slept in a bit and got a slow start. There were plenty of rocks to make our day interesting, and late morning rain made the going slow.
Luckily, we were able to make it to our road rendezvous point by 5, and were picked up by the owners of the Rock ‘n Sole Hostel. The Rock ‘n Sole Hostel is a cute and cozy out-building and comes complete with an outdoor shower, privy, and many warm comforts of home. Dinner on the front porch consisted of burgers, potatoes, mixed veggies and an ice cream and warm cookie dessert. Levi went out for a resupply at a very well-stocked Dollar General while Kristen drank tea and chilled.
Day 81: 13.4 miles
Rock N Sole Hostel to William Penn Shelter
Breakfast consisted of coffee, fruit, OJ, egg casserole, coffee cake, and warm bagels. After taking in as many calories as was offered to us, we packed up and got back on the trail. The day was pretty easy, but the trail was flooded and still rocky. We stopped at the 501 shelter for lunch and to watch videos we had been talking up during the morning. While there, the caretaker of the shelter stopped by and said hi. He was very kind and handed out Gatorade to each of us.
After that, we hiked 4 more miles to the 1000 mile marker. We had queued up a playlist and timed everything to culminate at the 1000 mile mark, but it turns out the marker was placed 0.2 miles later at the shelter. Oh well.
The shelter we stayed at was a cool, two-story shelter with room for 8. We chowed down on dinner while watching more videos and passed out at sundown.
Day 82: 18 miles
William Penn Shelter to Yellow Spring tentsite.
The beginning of the day was eventful as Kristen fell down stairs of shelter. After we determined that she was okay, we moved on to walking flooded trails and wet rocks. Hiking was extremely dreary and chilly, so we stopped under an overpass for a break. We walked a bit farther and crossed 1890s bridge where we ran into Allen and Nancy setting up for a Trail Magic lunch. If we hadn’t taken that break at the overpass, we would have missed them. As we sat, Allen and Nancy brought us homemade ham sandwiches, potato salad, watermelon, chips, and local chocolate milk/Gatorade.
As we started to hike on, we ran into lots of overgrown trail. We did frequent tick checks.
We then walked through a section of trail flooded by a burst beaver dam. The water was disgusting, but was so widespread that we had no choice but to walk straight through the gunky water. We then stopped at a shelter with a spring in order to wash out our footwear, and take a privy and snack break. Kristen had what appeared to be blisters on the tops of her toes. Luckily this went away by the next morning.
We ended the day by hiking four miles to a buggy tentsite.
Day 83: 20.1 miles
Yellow Spring Tentsite to Clarks Ferry Shelter
Levi got to start the day off right chowing down on his breakfast a few feet from a spook-free deer. The day was full of wildlife as we saw two rat snakes, one of which was on trail.
The weather got humid early, and Kristen was struggling and kicking rocks. We took a break at Mt. Peter’s shelter to get water and found out that water was a loooong way down. 300 steps down.
We had nice views of the Susquehanna river from both sides of the ridge we were walking.
We pulled up to Clarks Ferry Shelter and proceeded to make a large fire to keep bugs away. It worked on things that fly, but not so much on things that crawl – Paw Paw and Toots found a few fishing spiders on their side of the lean-to and decided to set their tent up on the inside.
Day 84: 15.6 miles
Clarks Ferry Shelter to Darlington Shelter
We got up and hiked four miles to town. We crossed a bridge into Duncannon (the rails were home to a million spiders) and were a little worried by the strip club and gun smith right as we entered town. As we made our way further into town, things got nicer. We stopped by the post office and took advantage of the great hiker box by filling our snack bags with granola bars.
We stopped at a breakfast place called Goodies for an early lunch, and then the historic Doyle for beer. Kristen resupplied at a gas station and met a local named Steve who offered to take us to his pool/ a real grocery store. She politely declined.
We stopped early at a shelter for much needed privy use (disruptive town food) and water fill. We then hiked some uneventful miles down to a stream, then across fields. We went up and over a hill, and the rocks began getting slightly better. We marched up a long hill to the shelter, just as the sun was beginning to set. There, we met a section hiker and his adorable black lab, Liberty.
As it got dark we made dinner and then headed to our tent. As we were laying down, we got text from Toots about a snake in the privy. (To clarify, the snake was not emerging from the toilet itself, but lurking down from a rafter.) Just what you want to think about as you’re laying down to go to sleep.
Day 85: 19.5 miles
Darlington Shelter to stealth site near Whiskey Spring Road.
Today’s terrain was the easiest we have seen so far. We hiked 3mi/hr downhill and then across fields, roads, and along streams. We stopped at the Hiker place for water and to use the portapotty. Kristen got to spend a few minutes exploring a cool old graveyard with graves dating back to the early 1800s.
We continued on into the town of Boiling Springs. For lunch, we went to a local pizzeria and ate most of 2 large pizzas. To digest, we stopped at bench by shallow pond and sat in the shade for a spell. Finally, we got up the inertia to hike 4 miles uphill to the shelter. In order to save ourselves a few miles the following day, we decided to press on to a tent site. We ate leftover pizza for dinner and hit the hay.
Day 86: 23.9 miles
Stealth site to Birch Run Shelter
We hiked a pretty easy (though hot and humid)14 miles into Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The trail wasn’t too challenging, but we did run into a couple slithery fauna. Toots and Paw Paw saw a rattle snake just off trail in the leaves and Kristen walked over what she thought was a root, but was actually a rat snake.
As we entered the state park, we saw a lakeside beach and filled up on water at the rest area. Next, we went to the general store–the home of the half gallon ice cream challenge. The store was supposed to close after labor day, but was in fact open with limited hours. After much consideration of flavor choice, Levi and Kristen both did the half gallon challenge. (Levi ate 1.5 quarts of vanilla/chocolate and .5 of Moose Tracks; Kristen had 1.5 quarts of black cherry and .5 of chocolate). At the general store, we met Snicker Bear, another hiker who did the challenge and would be completing her thru-hike in Harper’s Ferry. She was nursing an infected shoulder wound, a broken toe, and a full belly of ice cream–but there’s not much that can stop a hiker when they’re so close to the finish line.
This day was a SCORCHER. The heat index was around 105 and we had passed more than one person who told us it was too hot to be hiking. After eating our ice cream, Levi hung out at the general store while Kristen, Toots, and Paw Paw went to the AT museum. There was lots of cool information and artifacts about trail construction, some of the earliest hikers, and trail components.
Finally, we got back on the trail. Clouds lurked in distance, but the wind was welcome. There were some sprinkles, but we never needed rain gear. It was the perfect amount of rain. We hit the old halfway point, then Dead Woman Hollow Rd (halfway according to AWOL guide), and then official halfway marker.
Paw Paw’s parents met us on trail and hiked with us to a parking lot. They all left for a hotel, while we went on to Birch Run Shelter.
Day 87: 14.7 miles
Birch Run Shelter to Rocky Mtn. Rd
This was a quick and rainy day, with some surprise rocks at the tail end. Luckily we were able to get picked up by Kristen’s high school friend, Leah
Stefanski Hanson (she just got married). At her house, we got our first shower in a week and quickly began a load of laundry. We had also sent four boxes to her house, and had fun opening the resupply box, box of snacks from Aunt Dana, Kristen’s new shoes, and a new water purifier. Her cat, Pickles, really loved all of the new boxes! Leah’s husband came home a few hours later with two large pizzas and we chowed down happily. A few episodes of Parks and Rec later, we were ready for bed.
Day 88: 22.9 miles
Rocky Mtn. Rd to Ensign Cowall Shelter
We ate an awesome breakfast of leftover Panera pastries (from the wedding) and fruit. We reluctantly got packed up and and got back on the trail around 9:30. By about 10:30, Kristen’s shoes weren’t looking so new anymore. It was rainy and muddy for most of the day.
In the afternoon, we crossed the Mason-Dixon line and began the Maryland section of the trail. We met up with Toots and Paw Paw (and Paw Paw’s mom, Crazy Mountain Mama) for a bit, as they cruised through while Slack Packing. An hour or so later, we had to crossed crazily flowing stream. There weren’t supposed to be any serious water crossings in MD, but the rocks to hike across were completely submerged due to the amount of rain. We made it to shelter just before dark. To our surprise, the shelter was crowded with two groups of section hikers. We slept next to a guy named Stewart who had warned us he “snored” and usually slept in his tent. Thank goodness for ear plugs is all we’ll say on that matter.
Day 89: 28.1 miles
Ensign Cowall Shelter to Canal Towpath (Hostelling International-Harper’s Ferry)
Anyone who knows Kristen well knows she does not like to get up and out of bed in the morning. This morning was particularly difficult, and Levi almost had to break his wedding vows and deflate Kristen’s sleeping pad. Around 7 am we had put on wet socks and shoes, packed damp packs, and draped ourselves in our ponchos. It was going to be a long day.
The rain didn’t stop. At all. We trudged up and down stairs-turned-waterfalls, through ponds, and over never-ending partially cobbled paths. It was exhausting and unrelenting. Our final descent was actually rather dangerous (sorry Moms and Dads) due to the wet rocks and early loss of daylight due to cloud cover. We got out our flashlights and made it down the mountain without incident. After a short flat stretch we road-hiked to a hostel for a hot shower, warm bed, and access to pizza.
Day 90: 3.7 miles
Canal Towpath to ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) Head Quarters
At the hostel we had a nice breakfast and did our laundry. We headed out around 10 am and had a smooth flat walk into town. The Potomac River was running WILD. The river was muddy and extremely high. It came about 6 ft. from the trail! We hit the bridge to cross and were in awe of the large tree parts floating downstream. Our walk through historic Harper’s Ferry was beautiful–hopefully we can come back here some day to appreciate it fully.
When we finally made it to the ATC HQ, we spent some time talking to the folks working here about our travels and the impending rain. We learned that the bridge would be closing around 4pm due to the flooding, and we texted Paw Paw and Toots who were behind us. Hurricane Florence is going to be pretty serious business.
About half an hour after we arrived, Kristen’s grandparents (Pappy Fries and Pat) walked up the ATC! After such a rough few days of hiking, it was so comforting to be greeted by family. They had been following our journey on their AAA maps and knew quite a lot about milestones on the trail and AT culture. We got our official picture taken for the register, bought some postcards, explored the headquarters, and headed off to lunch. We had delicious fare at Almost Heaven, then drove to the hotel. Pappy and Pat surprised us with a cooler of beer and some beignets from Cracker Barrel. We took a nap, then hung out in the hotel room for awhile showing off our gear. Pat even gave the sleeping pad a try! We had dinner at a diner and went to sleep shortly afterwards.