We love hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Maryland. When here in the Oyster State, we have had sublime ridgeline hiking; those easy going trails that make the day feel like a walk in the park. As we wrap up our week of AT hiking in the South, we come to Smithsburg in northern Maryland in mid-October. During the Civil War, Smithsburg was a hospital town, treating soldiers from the nearby Battle of Antietam.
We’ve come north from Richmond, VA through the I-95 logjam of northern Virginia, west on the I-495 beltway to I-270 to Frederick, MD. Lunching on Subway subs at a local park, we know we have just three hours and change to hike before our dinner plans. We, who think happy hour nachos and margaritas at Ruby’s are a big deal, have dinner plans.
Turning east towards the mountains from Smithsburg, we head up Wolfsville Road to trailhead parking for 12 cars. A blue blaze trail to the AT takes us into the Maryland woods on this October day at 60 degrees (blue blaze trails are side trails leading to the white blaze main trail).
Immediately as we head north on the AT we pass the Ensign Cowell Shelter. I’d have to lose a large bet or be held at gun point to stay overnight in a shelter. Lying on a thin pad in a sleeping bag on pine floors, wedged shoulder to shoulder with another of God’s smelliest human beings? I think not. Snoring! NASA still hasn’t developed earplugs with enough sound-proofing to give a hiker a good night’s sleep in AT shelters; and don’t get me started on the mice that scurry over and around and, yes through, sleeping bags. Okay, I admit it, I’m soft.
Check out the Ensign Cowell Shelter.
With an ambitious goal to hike the five miles to and from the Raven Rock Shelter in three to four hours, we have a tight window to make our dinner plans in nearby Ijamsville (the j is silent). Today is another golden day in the South and the last one before we head home to winter in Maine. (That’s not as appealing as it sounds.) Our trail guidebook says we will be hiking between 1100’ and 1400’ to the Raven Rock Shelter. We love our mellow Maryland hills.
Stepping along the AT of yellow and brown fall leaves, we find the trail well-marked with white blazes. Truth be told the leaves are hiding a rocky terrain similar to ones we found on the boot-shredding AT in Pennsylvania. Still, the trails here in the Terrapin State allow us to talk easily without the huffing and puffing that we do when climbing the mountains of the AT in North Carolina.
Soon we are crossing fields, passing other hikers with backpacks who are out for a few days on the trail before the winter snows. When hiking in the South, I travel back in my mind to Civil War times. Surveying the hills, farmland, and valleys as we hike, I wonder what it was like for soldiers as well as the townsfolk trying to survive the ravages and uncertainty of war. What must have been the terror and hope of slaves traveling the Underground Railroad through this part of the country?
Wondering how far it is to the shelter, we meet up with a young couple from nearby Hood College. They let on that they lost the trail and are turning back. Undeterred, we have no doubt we’ll find the trail and carry on. And we do.
After 90 minutes of hiking and no Raven Rock Shelter in view, we wonder, considering our dinner plans, do we go on or do we turn back? Four teenage boys out for a first time backpacking adventure, going in the opposite direction, say the shelter is 2-3 hours away. We dismiss their youthful wild guess and hike on.
Soon thereafter we meet up with a 40-something male hiker, who tells us we are a mile away from the shelter as he points upward to the mountain before us. We weigh another hour of mountain climbing versus our dinner plans? With never a doubt, we head back to the trailhead. for out “don’t miss” dinner plans.
Hiking back to the Wolfsville Road trailhead, we meet Bubble Gum (his trail name). Wanting to get to the Raven Rock Shelter before dark, he is understandably distracted talking to day-hiking dilettantes (i.e. dabblers) like us. We do learn that his trail name comes from giving bubble gum to other hikers. Sadly, he never offers us any. Such can be the dismissive approach to us day hikers.
Heading for the trailhead, we soak in every last bit of our fifth of five hikes on the AT over the last week. After thirty years of running on streets and biking country roads, we have found gold in hiking the trails of the Appalachian Mountains.
Heading for dinner, we see the teenagers on the trail ahead. They hear us and pick up the pace! Kids! A fool’s errand. We have dinner plans, fanny packs, and years of hiking experience; they have heavy backpacks, youthful bravado, and mistaken notions of their own fitness. It’s no contest as they finally relent, step aside, and let us pass. We smile graciously as they look beaten and stunned that we two, who are probably older than their grandparents, go sailing by.
Packing up off Wolfsville Road, we navigate the modest 5P traffic through Frederick and Ijamsville, Maryland for our dinner plans.
Arriving at the home of Hannah’s College of Wooster classmate, Wendy and her husband Bill, we are welcomed like long lost friends. Wendy and Hannah find the forty plus years since they were last together melt away. (While they graduated from this liberal arts college in Ohio, I lasted just three years there and graduated from the Harvard of the West – Arizona State.). Treated like old friends, we reconnect over wine and cheese, down home dinner, and a mutual interest that allows our stories and theirs to emerge in a soul-satisfying confluence.
We’ll be back again. To both the AT in Maryland and Wendy and Bill’s, you can count on that.