It was quite a ride, at that. I probably would have enjoyed it a whole lot
more at 7 AM than at 1 PM. By afternoon, it was stifling hot, I'd already been
running for five hours, and I was not amused by the repeated steep climbs
and descents - without benefit of sissy switchbacks - over numerous knobs.
Oh, and did I mention the Roller Coaster is notorious for its rocks and
Today's 28+ miles can be broken down into two distinctly different halves:
runnable and not.
I would just love to see an agile runner going through the Roller Coaster.
I'm guessing he would be walking a lot of it, too.
The first fourteen miles today were mostly pleasant. I could run much of it
on dirt and grass trails through the pretty G. Richard Thompson Wildlife
Management Area and Sky Meadows State Park. I felt like I was in an aviary - I
loved all the birds here!
There was an initial 500 foot climb from VA 638 that Jim hiked with me. He
turned around when we saw how rocky the descent was to VA 55 and I-66 at
Manassas Gap, and ran some of the section south of VA 638 that I did yesterday.
The descent to Manassas Gap was noisy from traffic on these two busy roads.
Add in a couple trains that went by before I reached the crossing, and it was a
cacophony that jangled my nerves early in the morning. I got to the railroad
tracks just after one train passed through, so I didn't have to wait nearby
while it screeched by.
Just before I reached the road crossing shortly thereafter I saw two plastic
bags hanging from a tree limb at eye level. Inside were snacks and fresh fruit
for hikers! I got a large strawberry to nibble and wished later I'd taken some
of the green grapes. Then I proceeded across VA 55 (not too much traffic) and
It took about half an hour on the next 1,500-foot climb into the wildlife
management area to lose the noise of traffic. I was rewarded part way up with
just-ripened black raspberries, the first fresh berries I've discovered along
the Trail. Yum! That took several minutes and I ended up with stained fingers.
The climb was gentle enough that it didn't wipe me out.
I stopped by the Manassas Gap shelter, the only one near the Trail today, to
read and sign the register. I passed two young men who were camped by the trail
leading to the shelter. Only one is a thru-hiker, 'Mystic.' I didn't talk with him
long because he was smoking a cigarette. He's only the second hiker I've seen
smoking but there are probably more who do it at shelters at night.
There was a backpack at the shelter but I never saw its owner. Turns out it
was "Hitman," who I met yesterday. He signed the register with his real name, Dan
Wilkerson, from Orlando, FL.
I noted that Warren and Terry Doyle signed the register three days ago.
Warren wrote that they were hiking 20.3 miles Friday, 23.7 miles Saturday, and
23.0 miles Sunday. He called it their "three-day hike/dance biathlon" because
they intended to go contra-dancing somewhere in Maryland each evening this
weekend. These folks have a lot more energy than I do!! (Warren appears to be
about 60; Terry is much younger and most hikers think she's his daughter. When
we met Terry at Standing Indian ages ago, she introduced herself as his wife.)
Most of the trail through the wildlife management area was shaded but
stifling hot because there was no air movement. About a mile was in open fields.
As sunny and warm as it was, I was glad it was still morning when I was running
through this area.
This is a photo of an interesting fungus growth on the side of a tree in the
wildlife area, one of many cool fungi I've seen along the Trail. It is about ten
The tranquility ended as I approached the most dangerous road crossing so far
in this adventure run: four lane divided Hwy. 50 at Ashby Gap, which was
at the halfway mark. I'd been making good progress (18-minute pace, including
numerous stops) up until then. This highway was the beginning of my unraveling
The PATC needs to seriously consider a pedestrian bridge across this
near-freeway before a hiker gets killed. You cannot see traffic approaching
around a blind curve to the left as you're hiking north and I nearly got run
over by a speeding car. There are no warning lights or even signs telling
vehicles they are approaching the Appalachian Trail. It was easier to see
west-bound traffic after I reached the grassy median, but it was a harrowing
And I could RUN across the road. What about hikers carrying 40-pound
backpacks?? I talked with several other hikers later who were also terrorized
by this crossing and the equally-dangerous VA 7 crossing fourteen miles later
(where I finished today).
This problem is only going to get worse as I pass through more populated
areas in the coming weeks. When I wrote about dangers on the AT back in one of
my prep pages I didn't even think about multi-lane road crossings!
Roads are now my Public Enemy #1 (since I've made my peace with the %&*#!
THE ROLLER COASTER
Then along comes the Roller Coaster. You already read the quote above. The
Trailboss and his merry band of co-conspirators apparently get quite a kick out
of maintaining one of the gnarliest sections of the AT. This is another one of
those places where it appears the trail designers chose the rockiest, steepest
places possible to build the trail. And they probably added more rocks to make
it even worse!
No sissy switchbacks here. Straight up and over about eleven hills in the
next fourteen miles past Ashby Gap. None of the climbs were over 500 feet in
elevation. It was the steep grade and impossible footing that made them tough.
In every gap was a shallow stream with tangled, slick roots mingled among the
rocks that further complicated the footing.
I slowed to a turtle-like 26-minute mile pace the second half of today's
section, including numerous stops to rest going up those hills. I suppose I
would have gone faster if I'd hit this section before the afternoon heat. By the
time I got there I'd been running quite a bit and was already partly
brain-dead. This section nearly did me in. It just seemed unending.
Finally, on the second-to-last hill I got a breath of fresh air when I came
upon a chipper young female thru-hiker from Vermont who goes by "Pumpkin." I've
seen her enthusiastic notes in the shelter registers and thought she'd be an
interesting woman to talk to. Unfortunately, we were both struggling so much at
this point that we could barely talk. Pumpkin was going even slower than I was.
We tried to encourage each other. Pumpkin was going to spend the night at the
popular Bear's Den hostel at the top of the last hill. I had another half mile
beyond that, down to Snickers Gap. I wondered aloud if this was the last hill.
Pumpkin cheerfully said, "I think there's one more small hill left."
Ha! That "small hill" took me forever to negotiate. I could hear the noise of
traffic on busy VA 7 a mile and a half before I finally reached it. The trail
went up and around the mountain, away from the noise, before I finally
got to Bear's Den Rocks and the side trail to the hostel. I wanted to see it
but my day was already too long and it would be an extra half mile of "bonus"
Even the downhill was unrunnable to Snickers Gap (named after a ferry-boat
operator, not the candy bar!). I called Jim to let him know I was getting close.
He asked me to call him when I hit the road so he could help me get across. He
knew my brain was fried and I'd have trouble crossing - it was as bad as the
last crossing, with a blind curve. He knew traffic was speeding at 70 MPH and
faster since he'd just driven on it.
Again, no warning to drivers about the Trail crossing. Hikers are on their
own to negotiate this dangerous divided highway. It wasn't a pleasant ending to
my long day (10:24 hours out there). I was glad to get done and be able to sit
in the cool truck as we headed to the Harpers Ferry KOA, where Jim had moved the
And what did my favorite crew person have for me? A half-gallon carton of ice
cream that he'd purchased down the road when he knew I'd be getting to the trail
head later than planned! I'd been thinking about cold, juicy fruit and ice cream
all day and he just knew what would make me happy at the end of this long, hot
run: chocolate ice cream and my recovery drink (Recoverite)!
One of the first things I do when returning to the camper is take a shower.
Oh, it feels so good! Until the last few days I've gotten chilled very soon
after stopping running and a nice hot shower would warm me up. Now that
I'm lower down and the temps are soaring I'm not getting chilled after my runs.
So today's cool shower made me feel human again.
I was still a very tired puppy but at least I had the dirt, sweat,
sunscreen, and bug spray off of me. This is probably the "perk" I enjoy the most
of slack-packing and staying in our camper: being able to get clean at
the end of the day. I can't imagine backpacking for days on end with only
creeks for bathing facilities between stops at hostels and motels.
What a weenie!!
Pooped as I am, I'm looking forward to tomorrow's "short" segment of twenty
miles into Harpers Ferry, the psychological half-way point on the AT. It's a
beautiful little town with its restored buildings from the 1700s, Civil War
history, and two beautiful rivers that merge on the West Virginia-Maryland state