September and October are usually fairly dry months around these parts compared to the rest of the year. The days are warm but not scorching, while the nights are normally cool and clear. My wife and I enjoy sleeping in the great outdoors, so we try to plan as many camping trips as we can during the first half of autumn in order to take advantage of these optimum conditions. This past weekend we left the kayaks at home, loaded up our backpacks, and drove down to Maryland to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
For those who may not be familiar with it, the "AT" is a 2100+ mile continuous footpath that runs between Maine and Georgia. A total of fourteen states host the trail as it follows its namesake mountain range in the eastern US. Millions of adventure seekers have traversed at least a portion of the rugged trail. Each year thousands of people attempt to hike the trail in its entirety, but only about one in four of those who embark on this months-long endeavor succeed in completing their goal.
Given a mere three-day holiday weekend to work with, our goal was a bit more modest. The AT spends only 42 of its miles cutting across the Maryland panhandle and we selected 32 of them for our little walk. Our adult daughter decided to come along on this outing in an attempt to relieve some work-related stress. After an early breakfast at a DC-area IHOP, we made the one-hour drive to the small town of Weverton, left her car at the southern end of our planned route, then continued north in our Jeep to Raven Rock Hollow where our hike would begin. After a final check of our gear and a time-delayed group photo, we set off around 10:45am.
As is often the case, the first mile or so of trail from the parking area was a grueling uphill slog. The AT spends a good deal of its mileage along ridgelines, so hikers can anticipate a series of steep descents and ascents wherever the trail intersects a road. I don't know how it is for other folks who participate in the sport of backpacking, but for me it is usually about 15 minutes into the first day of walking that I begin to question why it was that I opted to bring this or that item along. A few ounces here and there don't seem to matter much when I am laying out my gear the night before, but they do indeed add up and I invariably promise myself that I will trim the list of "must-have-alongs" next time. Eventually the trail leveled off and we took our first break.
The weather was unseasonably warm on this particular weekend. Normally you would expect a high somewhere around 70 degrees this time of year, but we were dealing with mid-80's to around 90 all three days. I had an advantage over my female traveling companions in that I could remove my shirt. Perhaps that was why I seemed to have a bit more energy and eventually ended up about 20 minutes ahead of them on the trail. This was just as well since I could then scout potential lunch spots. After a sweaty grind it is quite a treat to be able to rest on an exposed ledge where the mountain breeze can quickly cool you off and dry your soaked clothes. I found just such a spot and left a note on the trail for the others.
After a nice relaxing meal, we continued our southbound trek. Mid to late October usually affords the most colorful autumnal display and we were a couple of weeks too early for that. However, the annual process was just beginning and it was enjoyable to walk upon a thin layer of freshly fallen leaves while still having an abundance of green all around. The heat would have been much harder to bear if the trees weren't still providing ample shade on the forest floor.
Within the first hour after lunch, I again found myself way ahead on the trail. I have hiked many miles along this footpath in several states and with many different companions and it is seldom that any two people are perfectly matched in the speed at which they feel most comfortable walking. This difference is inconsequential on short jaunts, but on an all day excursion lugging thirty pound packs it usually means that each hiker in a group will find their own pace. As long as each person is experienced and capable of handling unforeseen circumstances which may arise, there is no problem leaving each to travel at their own speed. In this case, I knew that wandering out in front by as much as 30 minutes posed no danger to the others. There were no tricky turns that could send them miles in the wrong direction, the topography posed no hazards, and there was no threat of bad weather moving in suddenly. Aside from the element of personal comfort, there is much to be said for what happens when you are alone with yourself in a place that is far removed from your everyday world. If you are inclined toward introspection, you will find that your inward vision is much clearer here. A person who by nature carefully observes their surroundings might be more likely to notice subtle things in their immediate environment like unusual insect sounds or the texture of the ground beneath their shoes. Perhaps another person will find that communing with their Creator is much more natural while they are apart from all others in this big open place. In short, being alone in the woods is conducive to heightening one's awareness and concentration. If you have some backpacking experience under your belt, I would highly recommend a solo hike. There is nothing like it for clearing out the cobwebs in your mind and helping you to get some perspective on what is real and what is important.
Eventually I arrived at a side trail that was supposed to have a spring a short distance downslope. In keeping with the ritual, I dropped my pack at the intersection, grabbed all my empty flasks along with my trusty water filter, and went to find the essential fluid. I have been on hikes where getting water was a major issue, sometimes requiring a steep two-mile round-trip venture off the main trail. One time I resorted to sucking rainwater out of tiny recesses in rocks through a straw in order to accumulate enough to rehydrate a meal. One time all that was available was a small mud hole and it took me over an hour to gather half a quart and another half hour to clean my filter element before I could use it again. Another time I had to filter slimy, stagnant swamp muck. Yes, those are extreme circumstances and most often you will be able to find what you need with minimal effort. That was the case this time. A short 100 yard descent and there was the tiny but flowing spring. I siphoned a gallon and by the time I got back to the main trail, the women had caught up. I took their empty containers and repeated the effort, returning with another gallon and a half of fresh, pure, cold H2O. In addition to quenching our thirst, this would be enough to cook and clean up with that night and probably carry us through lunch the following day.
Another seven tenths of a mile down the trail took us to our destination for camp one: Black Rocks. This is a quartzite outcropping facing west toward the Cumberland Valley. There is an awesome unobstructed 180 degree view from the edge of this cliff. We arrived just in time to watch the sunset. Visibility was somewhat limited by the high humidity level in the air, but it was still quite impressive. We sat still on the rocks letting our muscles recover from a long day's work and enjoyed the warm evening breeze as dusk slowly faded into night.
Sometime around 8pm we began to think about food. We prepared a nice hot meal of wild rice mixed with a vegetable concoction on our tiny camp stove and ate our fill. We were careful not to spill any morsels since we intended to sleep in this same spot and didn't want to attract any nocturnal visitors. I will never forget one trip when a marauding band of brazen raccoons swept through camp in the middle of the night and made a huge mess. They are very hard to dissuade once they get the scent of an easy meal. Then of course there are always the bears, although I have not personally encountered one yet. This isolated location does not afford campers any emergency exit if confronted by something large and aggressive, but I kept all such thoughts to myself and merely stressed the importance of cleaning up well before we settled in for the night.
The lights of civilization far below us and clear out to the horizon provided an incredible nighttime view. We were actually able to watch the traffic signals change in Hagerstown, a city some 8 miles away. As someone who prefers to sleep out under the stars instead of inside a nylon cocoon, this location ranks as one of my all time favorite places to camp. There is some flat ground under the trees a stone's throw from these rocks where one can pitch a tent if one is not comfortable sleeping on the edge of a cliff. However, on this night, all three of us sprawled out on the slabs of rock and drifted off under a moonless sky.
Camping in the wild is always less comfortable than one's own bed at home, and anyone who would argue this point is just plain crazy. Most people find it hard to sleep straight through the night while they are "roughing it". One can either be annoyed by this or accept it as part of the overall experience and embrace it. I choose the latter. If (when) I wake up in the wee hours, I take the opportunity to observe how the sky has changed since I last viewed it. For example, while we were all still awake and talking after dinner, someone asked where the constellation Orion was. That set of stars is normally associated with the winter sky and was not yet visible, but I speculated that it would rise sometime between midnight and daybreak. Sure enough it did and I was glad to get my first view of it in many months. During one of my later stirrings sometime after 4am, I watched the waning crescent moon rise, escorted by Venus. I don't recall ever having seen a heavenly body so bright and large as she looked that night. I'm no astronomy expert so I didn't know exactly what I was seeing at the time, but presumed it must be a planet. While writing this blog I pulled up the interactive sky chart at skyandtelescope.com and was able to reproduce an image of the night sky from that precise geographical location on that date and hour and thereby confirm exactly what I had seen. What a clever free tool they offer there!
Unfortunately, not all of us got to enjoy the early morning astronomical delights and the camera I was using is not especially good at capturing distant images in low light conditions. However, the flash DOES work well so I made good use of it.
At some point in time during the first day of our hike, my daughter remembered that the keys for her car (which we had left at the southern terminus of our trip) were safely locked up inside our Jeep which was half a day's walk behind us by that time. It was decided that on day two we would split up. She and my wife would re-hike the section we had already completed and return to the car on the north end, while I would continue south. The plan was for them to relocate the Jeep as close as possible to where we had planned to camp on the second night and rendezvous with me near sundown. We would use our cell phones sometime around 4pm to confirm our separate locations and that all was going according to schedule. We hit the trail heading in opposite directions somewhere around 9:30 Sunday morning.
I kept the camera with me so I was able to record what I saw along the way on day two. Following a long, gradual descent, I arrived at the place where the AT crosses Interstate 70. There is a nice footbridge that was built to accommodate hikers and I snapped a picture of it for your viewing pleasure.
The trail continued along the spine of South Mountain through some very pretty forest. This section was also quite busy with day hikers. I saw a cub scout troop, a girl scout troop, and many families out for a nice Sunday morning walk in the woods. Many times when you hike the AT you can go for hours without seeing another soul. Other times, especially near easy access points on holiday weekends, you might see hundreds of folks out enjoying the trail. I take it as it comes, but naturally prefer the more sparsely used sections. Although I would guess I saw around a hundred people this day (including the troops), the norm is that you will encounter less than twenty. At least that has been my experience.
The trail passes very close to Washington Monument so I went for a look-see. Of course this is not the famous one that is some sixty miles to the southeast in downtown DC, but it is a very impressive structure all the same. Originally built in 1829 and later restored by the CCCs in the mid 1930's, it has been preserved as a national historical site. An internal spiral stairway winds its way to the top and the view from there is outstanding. I met a couple of bird watchers, binoculars in hand, waiting for the next hawk to pass by. Although I don't share their keen interest in ornithology, I admit it is nice to spy the occasional large bird of prey hunting on the updrafts of the mountains. We saw several such flying creatures each time we paused on a rocky overlook to sip from our water bottles.
The Appalachian Trail has many access points in the more developed areas. Maryland qualifies as one of the more populated places that the trail passes through, so you can hardly go more than five miles along the path without encountering a road crossing. The parking lot at Washington Monument is one such place and this is what you might expect to see where the trail goes off into the "wilderness".
It is my opinion that very few sections of the AT qualify as true wilderness, but that does not detract from its appeal. It is a very good thing that there is a trail like this so close to the heart of the vast and densely populated east coast metropolis.
If you spend any significant time hiking this footpath, you are likely to meet some interesting people. We were only out for a weekend, but it was on the very first hour of our trip that we met "John" from Massachusetts. An interesting and talkative character sporting a pony tail, we bumped into him several times over the course of two days and learned that he had already been on the trail for about a week. Like us he was southbound and very much unlike us he was hoping to remain on the trail until he reached its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia approximately 1200 miles away. I asked if he expected to be done by Christmas and he replied that he thought he would finish by the end of November or the first week in December. Most "thru-hikers" average between ten and fifteen miles a day over the course of six or seven months. It only took me a moment to calculate that he would need to average closer to 20 miles per day to make his goal. We were only planning on around ten miles a day for three days and it was all we could do to accomplish that much. Since he was content to stay and chat with us slowpokes, I have my doubts about his being able to go the distance. All the same, I wish him luck.
Our group successfully reassembled at Dahlgren Backpack Campground late Sunday afternoon. This is a free campground set aside for ATers and the state of Maryland graciously provides hot showers, restrooms, picnic tables, and fire rings for those who pass by or stay here. Each of the five sites has an adjacent grassy area for pitching a shelter, and there are also a few more unofficial sites hidden in the surrounding forest. This was a pleasant enough place to spend the night and surprisingly had very few bugs. Amazingly, I didn't see even one mosquito the whole time we were there. I arrived first and set up camp. The others strolled in about three hours later after going into town and buying sandwiches for lunch. As if there was ever any doubt, I guess we now know who the REAL backpacker among us is, huh? Wimps! We hung out for awhile and rested our weary bones, then finally made ourselves some dinner and toasted marshmallows over a wood fire. My wife and I spent the night on the ground while my daughter opted to make use of the tent. It was a comfortable night, but one with neither a panoramic view or any appreciable portion of the sky available for stargazing. The two hot showers I took somewhat made up for this lack.
The next morning we decided to give our feet a break and instead of doing the last 14 miles of our route, we instead hiked the short distance back to the repositioned Jeep, drove to the other car, parked, then hiked the one mile steep trail up to Weverton Cliffs. There is a fine view of the Potomac River gorge from there. Facing south, directly on the other side of the river is Virginia and if you look upstream you can see Harper's Ferry, West Virginia about three miles westward. People who have the gumption can start a trip in Pen Mar, Pennsylvania and hike 46 fairly easy miles along the AT in three days and be able to say their journey involved walking in four states. Our group was content with 18 miles in two days and we are able to say that we hiked in one state.