Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Almost to Harpers Ferry - BURN OUT!

So a lot of good things have happened. I saw lots of cool and rare animals. What I didn't see and haven't seen much of is other hikers, the mythical bubble was right in front of me supposedly, by a day or 2... but then again that has been the case since Woods Hole hostel prior to Daleville. I haven't seen them.
I began doing larger and larger days after Daleville. First a 15 through James Face Wilderness - this was a half day of hiking; then a 24 a 26 a 28 followed by a 22 to get to Waynesboro. I was feeling good and doing big miles. The terrain was completely mundane, with some nice spots going through Three Ridges. Mostly though the scenery was nothing to write about, just head down miles up.

'Old' pic from down south, but still nice!

I got to Waynesboro to a waiting box I'd shipped from Daleville when Cara was visiting the weekend prior. Thus loaded, I headed out from the Quality Inn and a ride from a Trail Angel (I think Waynesboro is more of 'The friendliest Hiker town' than Damascus, if possible!) and into the Shenandoah's, promising myself I would slow it down and recuperate. I did that the first day. Eight miles to the first shelter, a less than half day. The shelter was empty and stayed empty. I was incredibly bored in camp. Not much to do but futz with my bug net. No one to talk to, and just one mundane book left in the shelter. Why am I trying to slow it down again? So I can be bored to tears? The longer I daly the less likely I'll ever see the bubble just ahead of me. Why am I at camp when I could've done 20 today to get to the next shelter area? Which brings me to why Shenandoah sucks.
The rule of the 'back-country' (never more than a quarter of a mile away from the Skyline drive) you are allowed to LNT camp anywhere you please if you are 20 yards from the Trail, and a certain distance from roads, structures and water sources. Good rule. Except there are very very rare places like that - and most of those 'apparent' sites are illegal because they are too close to the Trail - if there are other places, well, 60 feet off the Trail is too far to see from the Trail so they go unused. So basically hikers are stuck going to shelter areas, which are unevenly placed. "Shall I go 8 miles today? Or 24?" Another issue with hiking through Skyline - it is designed to suit the motorist, they get the views. Often the Trail will go below an overlook - it's a clearing, you can hear the traffic right above you, but our view... doesn't exist. The Trail couldn't be routed through a couple of these overlooks? Something other than constant green tunnel might be nice!
So I wake up, or rather, decide to get up, early at the empty shelter area. Lonely and a bit frustrated I wasted the previous day. I get it in mind to hike to the first wayside in the park to treat myself to some yummy calories and these great shakes I've heard tell of. Loft Mountain Wayside is 22 miles away and they close at 7pm - I gotta book the whole day. I make it there with plenty of time, I see a bear, I don't worry about the camping situation until later. Maybe I will go to the shelter, another 4 miles beyond the Wayside? I decide to do that rather than backtrack back up the mountain to the paid spots in Loft Mountain or to try and find a legal camp between here and anywhere (there were none anyway). I did see a few benches and the thought of hobo-style camping crossed my mind as well. The Wayside received 25 of my dollars for a soft (hard salt-less) pretzel, a blackberry milkshake, a soda, a bbq pork sandwich, and sweet potato fries. Not cheap! But after 22 miles I was getting my reward, damnit. I make my way to the shelter, a few guys are already passed out in the shelter, a few older gents tending fire. I set up my tent and come back to mingle, they aren't too talkative, I think not wanting to bother the guys already in their sleeping bags.
The next day I wake later than I wanted to. I had taken a Ib-PM and I was too groggy to do anything more than eat and fall back asleep at 5am. I wanted to try and make it to Big Meadows so I could get a room or a tent-site. A shower and/or a bed would be great, as well as a BEER!
I still had the idea of doing the 29 miles as I hiked through the morning, stopping for lunch at the one view of the day. I chatted with a couple ladies for awhile on top and down at the parking lot - human interaction is a wonderful thing, and something I was sorely missing. Cell reception was spotty to non-existent so I wasn't getting as much Cara talk as I needed, on top of feeling isolated from other hikers. The day was good though, I saw a adolescent bear run away from me, I saw a BOBCAT, and a flying squirrel. So the day was giving me good things, if not views. The Trail is so mild, both hills and condition, it is nearly like walking on a sidewalk through the park. I got service on the phone after going close to a gap and half-jokingly asked Anthony and Liz to come see me. He agreed to meet me at Big Meadows the next morning bright and early for breakfast. Now I had a deadline - it was 4pm and I had 13 miles to go. I was going to be hiking into the night.
I jogged and speed walked into the afternoon, determined to get as far as I could before the gloom of night made the travel more difficult. Just as night was falling I jumped on the Skyline drive to skip Hazeltop Mountain and not get stuck on a mountain after dark. While hiking the Skyline the overlooks looking west astounded me - so perfectly gorgeous, the blue hazy mountains melting into the distance, the soft sunset light making the scene magical in appearance - the scene I NEVER would've actually seen from the Trail. The scene that would've been obscured by trees and mountain since the Trail gave preference to the road. A bit after the second awesome scene in under a mile (double what the Trail had in the last 20+) I saw a mother bear and 2 cubs just off the road! I waved down a few motorists and pointed them out before hiking on into the growing gloom, a traffic jam beginning behind me. I made it to where the Trail crossed over the road again and decided roadside hiking was becoming a bit too dangerous even with the flashing red headlamp on. With only 2 or 3 miles left I headed up the dark Trail - seeing nothing but the next step, making noise and talking aloud so I wouldn't trip over a critter. Soon enough, or rather, a time later, I made it to Big Meadows - right at 10 pm, almost 14 hours of hiking and 29 miles later.
I walked to the front desk of the lodge, both lodge and adjacent campground were totally full. Not really caring about where I slept, I went down to the Taproom and had dinner and a few beers getting to listen to some live music. After the place closed down and kicked me out, I walked down the connector trail back to the AT, down below the picnic area I found a viable illegal camping area, I set up my tent and got to bed after midnight. I didn't sleep much, a lot of that had to do with wanting to get up at 5am to break camp before getting caught with the lightening sky.
I met with Anthony and Liz for breakfast. We had a great day of day hiking eating and visiting - so good to be with friends! I was so busy running the day before to get to Big Meadows I literally ran past a blue blaze that went up and over a rocky peak with a great rock scramble and perfect 360 degree views. We went back there to see something I really wanted to do but didn't have time to concern myself with at the time in the name of 'Big Miles' - again, or rather as usual. That is definitely one of my gripes of the Trail, not having enough days in the year to actually stop and look at the cool things the Trail goes past. I had them drop me off at Skyland, hoping they would have walk-in room availability. They did! I got to have in bed sleep. Anthony also gave me a couple cigars - so Knob Creek whiskey, a cigar, a bed, and cell service to talk to Cara? All good stuff.

Look closely, you are being watched!

Apparently one day of rest wasn't enough though. I slept well and got a late start after a good breakfast. I wanted to do another 24 mile day, I wanted to get nearly out of this park, I was sick of it. Tired of being close to the road. Tired of too many opportunities to spend money on over-priced food. Maybe a change of scenery would buoy my spirits? Plus Harpers Ferry was just a few days away over some familiar Trail! I can get there in 3 days, right?! Wrong. By 3pm, after the rain had started and the mist blew in, I was still 14 miles short of where I wanted to be - there was a Wayside that I might make it to before they closed - that whole schtick again! I packed up and started the jog to get there. I made it through the mist and rain by 6:45pm. My mind already made up to take a few days off in Harpers Ferry, to assess whether I was still having enough fun to stay on the Trail, or what I could do or change to make it more fun. I was depressed, disheartened, and lonely. The blackberry milkshake and pork bbq did little to change that. The next designated hut area was 7 miles ahead. At 7pm that would me an hiking into the night with rain and mist and that would be dangerous, my headlamp doesn't do well in mist, I can see nothing! Or I could hike a mile off Trail to get to a NO amenities campsite (Matthew's Arm) and pay $14, not that I had that much cash on me, or I could search for a non-existent LNT camoing spot... or I could go to the PATC cabin a mile up the next hill and hope a)no one was currently using it and b) it had a front porch or and area around it I could illegally camp.
I opted to look for camping spots but head for the cabin. Not surprisingly, no camping spots presented themselves prior to getting to the cabin. No one was there. There was a front porch of a sort. So that is where I stayed. Alone again on a damp misty night, at least a roof over my head and dry unless the wind blew. I woke to more rain, but it was still warm out. I was determined to get OUT of the is park. Somehow some way. I don't know, maybe trumpets and bunnies waited at the border. But wasn't I doing really big miles prior to getting to the park to get here? I'd been asking myself, "Why the big days?" Am I rushing to get to the end of the Trail? rather early for that and completely unsustainable. Am I doing it just because I am now physically able to and it feels good? Am I rushing from one good night sleep to another, since I seem to be getting little sleep on the ground? Am I doing big miles to catch the bubble ahead of me, and because why be in camp if I'm just alone and bored in camp anyway, so why bother stopping early when I could be making miles? All these questions had begun to swirl in my head even before getting into Shenandoah, but they really sunk in through the park. I would've liked to be in a group that had decided to aqua-blaze. But, hell, being in a group at all might be good... or maybe not good at all. I haven't been around enough people to fall into a group. My erratic pace seems to throw off any possibility of meeting and sustaining relationships on the Trail. I will see a couple people one two or three days in a row, then I move ahead or they do, and I've been about doing my own thing , not seeking out the party or seeking out a partner.
So here I am walking through a wet very early morning (5:30am start), determined to somehow get out of this park today. I walk along the Skyline at some points in the mist and rain as it is easier to stay cool, make miles, and keep the feet dryer between where the Trail crosses back over the road. Plus, I refuse to hitch, but maybe some angel driving by will ask to give me a ride. At times I get back on the Trail, other times on the Skyline, they are close, parallel, and much the same in the mist and rain. A pickup truck, the only vehicle I've seen, slows and asks if I need a ride - I let the words come without thinking - my options are "No thanks!", "Sure, take me to Mile marker 10!" (the last time the Trail crossed the Skyline before exiting the park), or "Front Royal, please!" I say the last one, knowing a shower, a cheap room, a bed, and town food wait. Here I am yellow blazing though. As bad and disheartening as the big miles, both basically skip parts of the Trail. Both make it less enjoyable and are just useless ways to get to Maine. This instant decision only reinforces my need to re-assess my approach. At the Quality Inn I check my phone, Cara has sensed my feelings and asks if she should come earlier that Thursday and bring me home instead of coming for the weekend. I tell her I can wait until the weekend if she doesn't want to stay out late on a school night. She insists on coming Tuesday night. Ok, I will take a few days off then.
I want to continue the Trail. I will continue the Trail. But I must enjoy it. I have to find out why I've not been having fun, and what can I do to change that?! For now I am home for a few days. I want to go back on Monday, with my car and get a shuttle out of Harpers Ferry south and hike back to my car. At that point, possibly hike north or shuttle north and hike back to my car again. At this point I will figure out how to get the car back home, or decide if I'm going to drive up to New Hampshire and hike the Whites before heading south. I have the time, I have the will. I just need to find the sweet spot for fully enjoying the Trail. I don't want to zoom past all the fun stuff with "Big Miles"  being chanted. I gotta change things up to make me want to finish this. Sheer stubbornness isn't enough if I'm hating every step and running between every town.

I have uploaded 1/3 of the pictures so far. More are on the way over the next several days. Currently they are on my Google+ page, I will link here.