I was up and on the road by 5AM, it was rainy, I wasn't super excited about the drive but I was excited about getting back out, it had been over a month and a half since my last trip. Luckily I had Wicket to keep me company too.
Over the weekend, I drove out to Shenandoah National Park to meet up with my old roommate Bobby who now lives in New England. Somehow we decided Virginia was the middle between us, not sure how that worked out but its better than Pennsylvania I guess...
We met up in the north of the park at the Dickey Ridge Visitor's Center around 2PM, after a long drive we were all ready to stretch our legs. Bobby and I went inside to get permits and the lady at the desk looked at us like we were crazy, "You're going out this weekend? You know its supposed to snow and rain tomorrow night?" I assured her we knew what we were doing, got the permit filled out and headed south towards the trailhead. It took over an hour to get from the north end of the park to our trailhead at Brown's Gap, this park is long to say the least, but the views along the drive were beautiful. We got to the trailhead a little after 4:45, with the sun set at 5:15 we didn't have much time left before we'd be hiking in the dark. As Bobby got his pack rearranged and I got Wicket's pack on him and mine on me I noticed Wicket staring off into the woods. I assumed it was a deer or squirrel as usual and kept going about what I was doing, when I looked up again there were 3 black bears walking down the hill towards us. I definitely had an "oh shit" moment and quickly grabbed Wic before giving them a friendly greeting to go away. The mama and her two cubs, all no bigger than Wicket quickly got the message and continued on their way. That would be all the excitement for the day, we hiked 4 miles towards the setting sun before setting up camp in the dark on a ridge near Austin Mountain.
In the morning we awoke to cold frigid air and that feel of dread getting out of your sleeping bag. At least one of us was enjoying the cold air...
I knew today had to be a fast paced day, freezing rain was forecast to start around 1PM and we had 9 miles to cover with 2,300' of elevation gain between miles 3 and 5, hopefully the views would be worth the pace. We ate breakfast, packed up and hit the trail. We were instantly heading down a rocky mountain side with enough loose rock to break quite a few ankles... About halfway to the valley floor I again noticed Wicket staring off into the bushes in front of me. I took a quick break to let Bobby catch up and looked off down the ridge. About 20 yards off, sneaking around in the bushes was another black bear, checking us out trying to stay hidden. As soon as he noticed Wicket and I looking at him we could hear him bolt off down the hillside. We continued on our way until we reached the valley floor and a nice break from the pounding of the steep downhill.
Soon enough we started gaining back the 1,300' we had gone down as we headed up Furnace Mountain. We played leapfrog with a couple of day hikers, but for the most part quickly found our way to the "summit". It wasn't a bad view, but I learned three things about Shenandoah, the views are always better in the fall, the summits aren't really summits and the temperature changes every 5 minutes. We enjoyed a quick break up top before heading on our way.
We ran into a few more day hikers on our way to Trayfoot Mountain, one guy excitedly said "Oh Cincinnati people, I love Rhinegeist" which spiraled into a 15 minute chat about beer and OTR. Eventually we didn't see anyone else and were alone and on our way again. A few miles later we hit the summit of Trayfoot Mountain, another unexciting peak, before continuing on to Blackrock Summit and hopefully a good view.
Suddenly the trees opened up into a boulder field and we found the best overlook of the trip as we reached the AT.
It was nice to finally see where we had been going, the entire route around the valley was visible from the top. We took in the sights before getting off the windy ridge and heading south towards Blackrock Hut for the night. After a quick mile we reached the hut and found another backpacker who was thru hiking the entire park. He was in his early 50s and like us, was trying to find shelter before the rain, luckily it was 2PM and we hadn't felt a drop yet. We sat and talked with him as we made dinner, he had hiked all over on the AT and helped with conservation efforts on the trail. He talked about how backpacking had always been a passion of his but his wife and kids weren't into it as much. He knew almost as much about gear as I did too. We chatted for about an hour about different things, he encouraged us to follow our dreams while we were young and said age has a way of taking away your free time. Eventually it began to rain so we said goodnight, headed up to our tent and played cards, Wicket was out like a light and as it grew darker Bobby and I dozed off too.
The next day was cold, wet and windy. We had a short 3 mile hike out to the car so we skipped breakfast, ate some bars and got on the trail. Within an hour we were back to the car and our journey was coming to an end. Bobby and I bullshitted a good bit as we drove back towards his car. We talked about how lucky we had been for a good weekend and guessed at ideas for where we could meet up again. Eventually we got to his car and he went his way and I went mine, starting the 8 hour drive home.
I spent my time in the car, and really the last few days, thinking about this weekend. Not just that it was nice to get out and nice to see a friend I hadn't seen in awhile but that it felt great to be out there and I actually have a lot of friends that I need to catch up with more often. During this trip and that drive I thought about what I wanted from life in the short term; I want to catch up with my close friends more often than I do, I want to get out on more little weekend trips, I want to talk to more new people like the guy we met at Blackrock Hut and I don't want to fall into the easy motions of life (go to work, go home, sleep, rinse and repeat). I've always been a planner, my goals are what guide what I do and I'm fixated on the PCT at the moment but I can't let that be the only thing guiding me. We'll see if I stick to what I say... Until next time!
The Hopeless Wanderer