We had heard some pretty magical things about the Shenandoah National Park before we entered, pretty magical things for a thru-hiker anyway. We heard that the terrain was mellow, the grade of the trail easy, that there were many roads to cross where one might encounter trail magic, that there were waysides nicely spaced where one could buy real food and beer, and last but not least there there were bears by the dozen! We had yet to see a bear so we were mostly excited about the potential wild life sightings and for the arrival of Kyle’s friend Chris, who would be joining us for five days.
Day one in the park and a bear snuck up on us. If it had not been for another hiker he might have walked right up to us during our snack time and joined in. We had just crossed Skyline Drive and sat down to give our feet a rest (we were at mile nineteen of the day with three more to go) when another hiker, Jigsaw, came out of the woods and stopped to read a sign on the far side of the road. When she looked up I opened my mouth to say hello but was silenced by the look of utter fear on her face and her warning shout of “there’s a bear right there!” Kyle jumped up and he and Jigsaw retreated down the middle of the road away from the bear, who had apparently materialized twenty feet from us in the span of a few seconds. Ever the intrepid photographer for the trip I was not leaving without my camera, which I snatched up and turned on immediately, causing Kyle to go into a fit. The bear, not phased by our humanly troubles, sauntered towards us looking lazy and harmless. Have I mentioned yet that he was tiny? Most of the dogs I have owned were bigger then him. Suddenly it made sense to me that Mastiffs had been bred to fight bears. I had always imagined them taking on a Grizzly and wondering how that was supposed to work, but now, seeing this tiny little bear, it all made sense. The three of us finally came to our senses and followed bear protocol, acting big and yelling at him until he bounded off into the woods.
The second day in the Shenandoahs Kyle and I were taking break when we heard this appalling noise. Something akin to a very large baby crow mixed with a screaming human. We looked at each other and Kyle muttered, “sounds like a baby bear”. We both hoped he was wrong but about two hundred feet up the trail we found just that, a tiny baby bear, high up in a tree, scared and howling for mamma. When it spotted us it when silent and began trying frantically to descend, which resulted in it falling straight out of the tree. Kyle and I booked it out of the area singing at the top of our lungs so that the mamma bear wouldn’t have a chance to blame her baby’s temper tantrum on us.
The third day into the park Chris met up with us. He met up with us on the worst weather day we had had yet. In the morning Kyle and I hiked eleven miles to Lewis Mountain Campground where we were meeting him in some of the hardest rain I have ever seen, and I’m a Washingtonian! It was the kind of rain that forces you to put your windshield wipers on the highest setting and you still cant see. We were instantly soaked and often we would just laugh, wondering if it could possibly get any harder, just to be surprised the next second by even more water falling out of the sky. The trail quickly transformed into a river of flowing water, so deep it was up to our shins. Kyle and I just laughed and jumped in puddles because lets face it, we’ve gone mad after being in the woods for two months.
Despite the bad weather Chris surprised us immediately with his wide eyed bushy tailed attitude. He got excited about ferns, chased after butterflies like a fourteen year old girl, actually wanted to stop and look at the views, and would gasp and point every time we saw a deer or a bird. It was refreshing and reviving to be reminded of the splendor that Kyle and I had become accustomed to. But by his third day on the trail we still hadn’t “got” him a bear and we were starting to get desperate. As mother nature always does she delivered just when we needed it most. We had just stopped at a wayside for a long lunch and nap and were pushing on despite aching feet and painful blisters. Then, just out of the wayside, we saw a bobcat! Just up the trail from us he was walking north and right as we saw him he disapeared into the brush. We rushed quietly up the trail to see where he had gone and he was still here, not seven feet from us, slinking off into the undergrowth. We jumped for joy, a bobcat is a very rare sight! Then not thirty minutes later we startled a bear that was just a few feet off the trail. He ran about twenty feet into the woods but after realizing we weren’t a threat sat down and looked at us. We all stared at each other for a while before he ambled off into the woods. High fives all around. Then the next morning I practically ran into another bear as I was heading to the privy. I sprinted back towards the shelter and brought a whole crowd of people with me to see him as he ambled through our camp ground and off into the woods.
That last day we hiked out of the Shenandoahs and into Front Royal, managing to hole up at the Quality Inn right before gale force winds and torrential rains filled the streets and no doubt the trail with water. Chris had pushed hard through the Shenandoahs, doing more miles a day then most people do for the first few weeks of their thru-hike. When we got to the hotel, he unveiled his blistered feet with a sense of humor, irony, and maybe even a little pride.
Now Kyle and I are looking forward, as usual, to mile 1,000 and Harpers Ferry, the mental “half way” point of the AT, just fifty miles from here. We will be ending our time in Virginia, crossing the Mason Dixon line, and heading into the North. We are excited for new states, new scenery, and new adventures.