This hike dedicated to my father George B Robbins April 3, 1915 - March 5, 2000 He was a good man and a great father. I thank him for everything, especially for giving me my love of nature and the outdoors. He was with me all the way.
Dates .... April 15 through May 5, 2000
Miles .... 285.9 miles total
From .... Petites Gap, VA (about 30 miles north of Roanoke VA) Northbound through WV and MD
To ......... PenMar Park (PA state line)
This long distance backpacking journey was a hike north through central Virginia, starting about 30 miles above Roanoke, through the beautiful and rugged George Washington National Forest, through all of Shenandoah National Park (about 104 miles), then through the rest of northern Virginia, along the border of Virginia and West Virginia, a few miles into West Virginia around historic Harpers Ferry, then finishing up with 40 miles across Maryland to the Pennsylvania border at PenMar. We planned to hike an average of 15 miles a day, about 100 miles a week.
Our original plan was to start at Virginia's Apple Orchard Mountain along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) but it was so damn foggy we could not find it, despite our best efforts. We started at Petites Gap, a clearly defined starting point about 10 miles further north on the parkway.
We spent all day Friday driving mostly in the rain getting to a motel in Troutville, VA. We went into a local supermarket for a bottle of wine to cap off dinner and engaged a local cashier about the Appalachian Trail, which passes very close by. In her finest southern drawl and crackly old voice she warned us:
|"OHHH - The Aaappalakin Trail - that's a very daaangerse place. Why, not too long ago somebody shot two wimin and a dawg up there (pointing to the nearby hilltop) and they aint never found who dunn it. Ya know - there's a lot of LOOONIES up there."|
We thanked her and escaped with our wine purchase. We, no doubt, were qualified as "loonies up there"- heading out on this hike with a forecast calling for four days of rain and thundershowers.
I had my good friend Brett with me, out for his first ever long distance backpacking trip, and we were up to a real adventure. And, adventure it was. It rained and when it wasn't raining it was a cold drizzly fog. For the first two weeks, we had only a couple of nice, sunny days. The nights were cold - and wet. One day we stopped hiking short of our goal and put up the tent so we could get out of the cold and into our sleeping bags and ward off hypothermia. At times the only way to stay warm was to keep moving. Stay warm - and wet. The trailside brush never dried out. But we persevered and made the most of it. Wherever it was, we HAD to get there.
This section of the AT is dripping with history, especially Civil War history. The trail guides mentioned the most significant events and where along or near the AT they took place. At times I could envision the soldiers ramming black powder and lead balls down the barrels of their muskets, the artillerymen loading their field cannons. I could imagine the awful noise and smell of battle, blood, and death. Realistically, as we hiked, I could see the monuments, the plaques, the battlefields and the graves. Such is a hike through these historic lands; a wonderful bag of mixed emotions.
The first few days I was bothered by severe knee pain - bad enough that I wondered if I could go on - but I was determined not to let this hike be anything but a success. So I popped the hikers pal - Vitamin I, aka ibuprofen, and kept moving despite the pain. Brett had his share of pain - blisters and aches, despite our previous conditioning. But evidently Brett was as determined as I was to see this adventure through. I was forced to learn the advantage of two-stick rhythm hiking. I found that really took a lot of the pressure off my knees, especially downhill, once I got the hang of it. Brett was forced to learn to run full flat out over rocks, steep downhill, through fog and cloud, with a full pack as he tried to get off a mountaintop before one of the many nearby lightning bolts took us out.
We had some real challenges ahead - hiking up five mountains over 4,000 feet high, many summits and ridges over 3,000 feet high, several climbs and descents exceeded 3,000 feet and many over 2,000 feet. Unfortunately, often, when we reached the higher elevations and viewpoints, they were either in or above the clouds. The few clear summits and awesome views we enjoyed were our reward and provided our staying power, which often battled with our better judgment. The nice thing about having two people on a hike is that you make decisions jointly and, if they turn out wrong, you can always blame your hiking partner. Brett was a trooper - most of the time acting like a seasoned and determined trail veteran. I was glad to have him along and missed him dearly when his two weeks were up.
Highlights of this trip, besides the rich history, real mountains and wilderness were a black bear sighting and a close encounter with a rattlesnake, and hiking with or meeting some of the finest people and hikers on earth.
We met hikers from all over the US as well as three from England, three from Canada, one from France, one from South Africa. The three Brits and several others were inspired to come over here and hike the AT after reading Bill Bryson's A Walk in The Woods. It's very well written, great reading, and funnier than hell - but a lot of serious hikers are not pleased with it. Read it and form your own opinion - after you stop laughing.
We had the extreme good fortune to connect with a real trail angel bent on doing his trail magic along much of our route through VA and into MD. His "magic" consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, candy and chocolate chip cookies left in a cooler at roadside junctions along the trail and trademark grape soda left in a nearby stream or where a hiker would find it. One night, at a shelter where we met the wonderful Fannypack, we were treated to all of the above plus a sack of McDonald's sandwiches - still warm. He even arranged time off work to pick up a hiker in Harpers Ferry, take him to meet another hiker in Washington DC at midnight, and return them both to Harpers Ferry WV. THANK YOU Fannypack!
The forest, wildflowers and wildlife before and after Shenandoah Park were breathtakingly beautiful and inspirational - and made the whole hike "magic" - even with the bad weather.
As I hiked north through MD I noticed the rocks getting more profuse and characteristic of the state famous for them - the state I was getting closer to - Pennsylvania. The hiking became more difficult - even on the level portions. Dancing on rocks is a tedious but necessary skill. One wrong step and you twist, pull, sprain, strain or break something - a dear price for your carelessness. Lots of rocks on the trail slow you down and increase the hazard. Therefore, hikers are not fond of rocks. They would rather travel fast and "make the miles".
There was a really big disappointment besides the weather - and that was the condition of the forests in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). They were utterly devastated, looking as though they were nuked, burned or poisoned - or all three. In fact, a large part of the trail goes through a major forest fire area that was a deliberately set "controlled burn" that got out of control. That fire blazed right through its control lines and charred several thousands of acres beyond what was planned. 500 firefighters, planes and helicopters had to be called in to quell it. Almost devoid of vegetation, wildflowers and wildlife, blackened tree stumps and charred ground are not pretty. (When I heard the latest news about the huge blaze at Los Alamos NM, I could only shake my head in wonder) Maybe man should rethink the policies and consequences of setting "controlled burn" forest fires.
But not all of Shenandoah's devastation was from fire. Insects, especially the gypsy moth, combined with years of drought and harsh winters also took their tolls. There were millions of standing dead trees, an equal number of leaning or fallen dead trees and terribly few healthy ones. There were places the trail was chainsaw cut through layers of fallen trees, sometimes four or five trees deep. There was no place and no way to safely pitch a tent with the constant hazard of trees and limbs falling. In fact, on a few windy days, we chose to avoid the trail and walk the Skyline Drive for safety.
Probably due to the large number of dead trees, I saw more red headed and pileated woodpeckers in Shenandoah than I have ever seen anywhere before. I was close to at least 10 pileated and five red headed woodpeckers. Shenandoah did offer the opportunity to get some good off-the-trail food at its waysides. Hamburgers, hot dogs, Reubens, French fries and hot chili beat trail mix and Liptons hands down. Especially on a cold, wet day. We even managed a good breakfast buffet (after finding the restaurant in the pea soup fog) that was far superior to our usual oatmeal and cocoa.
We hiked north, with the changing season. When we left home near the NY/PA border, there were only a few leaves starting to develop. Most were still in the swelling bud stage. When we got to VA, the trees were greener, perhaps 20-25% leaf development, and by the time I reached the PA line at the end of the hike, there was 75% leaf development on the upper story of the trees and the undergrowth was nearly fully developed. I planned the hike to avoid the fully developed vegetation - that makes for better views, usually, and less insect problems with the cooler temperatures.
The bugs were not bad, generally, but the ticks were out in force. I had two wood ticks and one deer tick embed themselves in me and Brett had one wood tick embedded in his leg. We had to brush a lot of ticks off our clothing, also.
And when it was all over and our rides came to pick us up, it was with truly mixed and strong opposing emotions. On the one hand we were glad to be getting back to the comforts of home and our loved ones but on the other we hated to see this beautiful, challenging wilderness adventure come to a close. I had a craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken, a good pizza, and some fine wine that could not be fulfilled along the trail.
If you want to get a better, more detailed idea of the adventures, scenery and geography of every day trail life; you may want to make arrangements to read my entire photo journal. This introduction only touches on the highlights and presents an overview. Try as I do, I cannot convey the wonderful euphoric feelings experienced while hiking, the heavenly fresh scent of spring air in the woods, the delicate mix of wild flowerers in bloom, the exhilaration of reaching a mountain peak, the awesome scenery and the rewarding feeling of looking back on a distant mountain, ridge or valley and thinking I was THERE earlier. In my photo journal I try to convey those feelings and experiences.
But if you really want to understand, you simply must experience the joys of long distance wilderness backpacking for yourself. Lace up your boots, shoulder your pack and hit the trail.