Virginia Is the Best Kept Secret on the Appalachian Trail
We all know that Virginia is the longest of the 14 states on the Appalachian Trail, at more than 500 miles. And those of us in the hiking community have certainly heard of the ‘Virginia Blues’ that afflicts so many thru-hikers to the point of knocking them off the trail. In Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, I wrote, “The initial frisson of excitement has worn off by the time thru-hikers reach Virginia. This is when the whole thing begins to seem like a job.”
All of the above is indeed valid. However, some balance needs to be injected into the discussion. I just finished a 230 mile section hike in Virginia, beginning at Buena Vista and ending in Harpers Ferry. It was almost like an experiment. Most section hikers prefer to go to the more storied section of the trail (Smokies, White Mountains, Maine, etc.) But I just wanted to drop down in the middle of an a relatively anonymous area of the trail, and start schlepping. It proved to be well worth the investment in time and effort.
“Virginia is flat,” many of us thru-hikers in 2005 had heard. BALONEY. I was with a doughty, 44 year-old lady trail-named Willow (bends, but does not break). It proved to be a prescient trail name. After climbing 2,000 feet, we arrived at a campsite. “Hey Willow, I suggested, “Let’s keep going. We can probably make the Sealy Woodworth Shelter before dark.” She responded ambiguously to my proposal. But we continued on. Not only did we not make it before dark. It began raining. Around midnight we finally arrived at the shelter in the rain, hoping to dive right into the shelter. Alas, two ladies had set up their tent inside the shelter, forcing us to search out campsites. A rhubarb ensued when one of the women complained at our noise (which wouldn’t have happened had we just been able to get into the shelter).
Over the ensuing days, we took on the steep eminences of ‘The Priest’, and ‘Three Ridges’. These long, stiff, and rocky climbs have long garnered respect from AT hikers. I still remember a disgusted–and apparently cuckolded–hiker writing in the trail register that “Virginia is about as flat as the world Columbus explored.” Adding to the challenge was that we were hiking in the rainiest season in possibly AT history (according to the ATC). Steady downpours greeted my new hiking partner and myself. “It’s three times as easy when it’s not raining,” I tried to assure her. One of the great virtues of long-distance hiking is watching people you get to know dig so deep; that was certainly the case here as Willow took on her new craft with unusual fortitude. Finally, after five days in the rain, we arrived at Rockfish Gap and Shenandoah National Park. A cracking new hot dog stand greets hikers emerging from the woods. I promise you I haven’t enjoyed a hot dog that much since Little League baseball.
Shenandoah National Park receives 1.3 million visitors per year. Few walk away disillusioned. That includes myself and Willow. The park stands out for its especially lush greenery, beautiful vistas, and ample wildlife. Willow couldn’t get enough of gazing out on overlooks into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Better yet (I promise!), were the bear encounters. Altogether I saw eight bears, and surely many more lurked in the vicinity. Yes, a few volts of juice shot through us each time. One should never forget they are kings and queens of the Appalachian Mountain food chain. But these are park bears; they are very habituated to human encounters. Never did they look aggressive. In fact, I made significant progress in ridding myself of the ursuphobia that a clinical psychologist named Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosed me with in 2005. Yes, caution should be exercised around these creatures with their virtually mythical appetites. But spotting them is part of the pleasure of hiking.
Willow and I resupplied (Waynesboro, Luray, and Front Royal) in three cities along our section. An unwitting individual might refer to all these towns as backwaters. But anybody who knows just how exhausted and hungry hikers are when they arrive in town is aware of just what a delight they can be. The Ming Dynasty restaurant in Waynesboro has one of the greatest buffets I’ve ever eaten. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as good if I hadn’t been out hiking for five days in the rain.
Finally, after 19 days (including two days of rest), we arrived in the historic town of Harpers Ferry where Appalachian Trail headquarters reside. Yes, Mount Katahdin is the very greatest place for a hike to end. No doubt about that. But walking into the cool confines of the ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) and having friendly faces point us towards ice water coolers, computers, and the hiker-famous Italian restaurant down the street had its own brand of glory.
“Solvitur ambulando, (Walking solves all)” St. Augustine wrote 15 centuries ago. While that is not literally true, every single time I go out on an extended journey on foot the wisdom of those words take on new meaning. And every single time I go out on America’s great trail of the masses, the Appalachian Trail, I know new challenges await, and a vast array of colorful characters (Jupiter, Turtle, Juno, Boomerang, and many more) will be. And this latest journey also revealed one great irony–despite being the longest state on the Appalachian Trail, Virginia is also the most underrated.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.