We, or let’s be honest, I have chosen poorly for tonight’s motel stay in Luray, Virginia. I choked. Having just hiked three hours in the Shenandoah National Park in late April, Hannah and I arrive just before 7P in this town famous for its caverns. Pulling into the first motel that we see, a Days Inn, we inquire about a room.
It’s two double beds for $62 and with a minimalist continental breakfast: Raisin Bran or Fruit Loops, mini store-bought bagels, oatmeal in a pouch, OJ, and coffee. That’s not good. It’s a classic deal breaker! But I’m soft. Having driven from Richmond this morning, hiked, and then driven 90 minutes more, I am just ready to kick back with an evening glass of wine with Hannah rather check out more in-town motels. I convince myself that the breakfast can’t actually be as bad as what the motel clerk said it was.
As expected, the breakfast is dismal. Neither fueled for our hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park or energized for the 600+ miles of driving home after we hike, the breakfast does prove to be the source of another good life lesson. Take the time to get three bids for our business. That said, this hardly qualifies as even a first world problem.
With temps in the low 40s, it’s pants, long sleeve tee-shirt, and sweatshirt weather for our morning hike. Leaving Luray via Route 211, we immediately climb the switchbacks of the three lane highway to the mountain top Skyline Drive as the temperature continues to drop. We select Elkwallow as our point to access the AT. (By the way, the verb “wallow” means to roll about or lie in water, snow, mud, or dust. The noun “wallow” is an area where animals wallow.)
Pulling into the parking lot at the Elkwallow Camp Store, we jump onto the AT ready to begin a hike with 900 feet of elevation gain towards Rattlesnake Point. We’ll hike parallel to Skyline Drive, though we often can’t see the road from the trail.
Approaching from the north, we meet a young woman hiking a section of the AT for the past three weeks. As soon as she sees us, she asks if we know what the weather will be. Though it’s sunny and 43F now, she has been hiking in rain and cold temps, colder than what she has expected. Whether it’s the cold or her caution or us, she is not into much conversation.
We do learn she is from New England but shares few details of her life. Though one detail she does is telling – her dad didn’t want her to hike the AT alone. She reminds me that females can feel and be more vulnerable hiking alone on the AT. I think to myself, what would my advice be if our daughters Robyn or Molly wanted to hike the AT on their own. My first reaction is that I’d be all in, supporting their goal to complete this daunting challenge.
There have been few hiking related deaths on the AT among thousands, millions(?) who have hiked this trail. A notorious one in 1996 when two young women were murdered spooks people who are inclined to be spooked. If Robyn or Molly are so inclined to hike the Appalachian Trail, I am on board and will be cheer lead from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. I’d love to meet up and hike with them from time to time, buy them a meal, and treat them to an overnight in a motel.
Once past Matthew Arms Campground, the trail levels out to ridgeline hiking; our core body temperatures warm with our steady pace. With no leaves on the trees, we see vistas to the valley below. The downside is that we have mostly brown trunks and brown branches as company in our hiking day.
As 10A approaches, we look for a turnaround point 90 minutes into our hike. We’ll straddle the Skyline Drive on our way back, though we are rarely close enough to hear the few cars that pass on this cool pre-season spring day.
Then another backpack toting hiker approaches. We learn his trail name is Early Light; we share with him that we, too, are early risers. As another three week section hiker, he is hiking north from Roanoke, VA. He’s so happy to be within a day of getting off the trail at Harper’s Ferry, WV where he will get a bus to head back home to Massachusetts. After weeks on the trail, he openly laments that he finds the hiking quite monotonous. Rarely has he seen vistas and lakes to punctuate the sameness. I’ve heard that thru-hikers call the AT the “green tunnel” once the leaves come out. When you hike, you could really be anywhere; it all looks the same. It’s no surprise that a beer and pizza are what he looks forward to.
As for me, sleeping in shelters with others, hiking in bad weather, and my balky knees after all day hiking are three of many reasons why I wouldn’t hike the entire AT. Another reason is that hiking for 8 t0 10 hours a day would be tedious. Early Light says he understands why kids have their iPods and their books on tape; he has not come around to those diversions. Given his doubts, I wonder whether he’ll finish all 2180 miles of the AT in sections after finishing these 250 miles.
After three hours on the AT, we arrive back at the Elkwallow parking lot knowing we are staring at 600+ miles of driving home through the traffic-clogged Northeast. But I wouldn’t have missed the chance of three hours on the AT in Virginia just to get a jump on the long drive. These are golden moments.