Not-So-Dismal Creek: Shakedown Hike Part I
Last weekend I spent three days and two nights on the Appalachian Trail here in southwest Virginia. This kind of preparation hike is known as a “shakedown,” and the purpose is to test out your gear, get an idea of how much food to carry, and begin to accustom your legs and feet to carrying extra weight up and down mountains.
On the A.T. I hope to average around 15 miles per day over the course of the hike, but as I learned on my 4-day 60-mile Camino Fisterra back in October, that pace is painful if you don’t work up to it gradually. In my last post I detailed the training I have done so far, and now on my shakedown hike I walked 8 miles the first day, 10 miles the second day, and 9 miles on the third day. By keeping my miles modest, I hoped to avoid the blisters and bone-deep soreness I incurred when I completed the Fisterra without adequate preparation in the fall.
On Saturday, my folks dropped me off on the side of the road to Dismal Falls around 1pm. The A.T. crosses the road here without fanfare, only a narrow dirt track and a trademark white blaze spilling out of the woods on one side of the pavement and disappearing into more woods on the other. I shouldered my pack and followed it up the hill.
The going was steep for a couple hundred yards, but after the first small ridge, the path meandered alongside Dismal Creek for several miles. It’s a pleasant, uncommonly easy stretch of trail. The ground was soft, but not too muddy, and the mild weather and green rhododendron tunnels felt like spring, even though we got a few inches of snow just three days later. Wooden footbridges spanned the creek, even when a spry hiker could easily have jumped or rock-hopped across. For a mile or two, the rhododendrons disappeared, and the trail crossed through a dense, sweet-smelling pine forest. Then, more rhododendrons, bridges, and finally a sizable pond that was not marked in AWOL’s guidebook and led me to worry I had wandered onto another trail.
By the time I reached this pond, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and a breeze was blowing. I knew rain was in the forecast, and I also knew that after four hours of walking, I should be approaching the shelter. I hesitated, then pressed on. Just a few minutes later, I found Wapiti Shelter. My relief was short-lived when I rounded the side of the wooden structure and saw that it was empty. I knew most thru-hikers were still in the first few states of the Trail, but I had hoped the front of the pack would already be passing through southern Virginia. As much as I had hiked in the past, I had never camped all alone, and I was not eager to do so for the first time on a cold, stormy night at the shelter where two hikers were murdered in 1981.
Less than ten minutes after I arrived, the thunderstorm caught up with me. It poured, and I put on my nice dry camp clothes inside the shelter, thankful for my lucky timing. Another ten minutes after that, four unlucky thru-hikers arrived, soaked to the bone. After a quick round of introductions, they changed out of their wet things and strung them up around the shelter with the practiced swiftness of those who had been doing this for 600 miles of a cold, wet spring. I was happy for the company, and the rest of the evening passed quickly. Two of the thru-hikers had already completed the PCT and they shared stories of wildlife encounters and high elevation hiking.
While my companions rejoiced that this was the warmest night they’d had in weeks, the low of about 40 degrees made it my coldest night ever sleeping outdoors. However with my 30 degree bag, silk liner, and wool and down clothing, I stayed comfortable, although every time I adjusted position I was startled awake by the cold air that would infiltrate my sleeping bag. I was self-conscious about my noisy inflatable sleeping pad with all the tossing and turning, but when dawn arrived, gray and damp, the thru-hikers assured me it had not bothered them. All four of them planned to walk 19 miles into Pearisburg that day, while I would be splitting the distance into two days, so I wished them luck on their hikes when they departed, knowing I would not see them again.
(to be continued)