In 2016 on my first ever long distance hike (organized by a Meetup group, the Maryland section of the AT) I met another female hiker about my age. Like me, Jenna was a single mom, working a full time job, and making time when she could to section hike the Appalachian trail. She was, in my estimation, a hiking machine. Long legs not withstanding, she took the rocks in Maryland like a mountain goat. She was my hero, and on subsequent section hikes with her, she cemented her hero status in my mind. Her pace and her attitude (especially while hiking with popped blisters) was something to which I aspired.
When her schedule or the weather couldn’t allow her to access to the Trail, she would day hike the James River trail system in Richmond, starting at dawn and walking until her body told her to stop, often logging more than 30 miles in a day (with quick stops at local breweries in between).
I was supposed to hike with her as she finished her final section of Virginia, having completed the entire length of the AT from the Tennessee border to Pennsylvania. Never had I needed my own brand of “zero days” so badly; school had just started, my parents were on a two week trip to the Republic of Georgia visiting my brother, and I’d been managing three children’s extracurricular activities without the extra support. High school band, Boy Scouts, dance class and physical therapy every night of the week were taking their toll. So was my job. Commitments to my design clients and activities at my day job had to come first. I made the difficult but necessary decision to bail on Jenna’s section hike. It was a gorgeous fall weekend, and as it passed, I knew I’d made the right decision, but my heart grieved. I wouldn’t have another free weekend until February.
Then I took a second look at the calendar, and the weather. The following weekend my kids’ dad was scheduled to have them again. There was a tropical storm on the horizon but it wouldn’t hit until Sunday afternoon, when I’d be driving home. My work schedule was lighter that week. I could go, guilt-free!
I chose a section that was manageable for me – Snickers Gap at the Bear’s Den Hostel in Bluemont, Virginia, to Harper’s Ferry, 21 miles over two days, camping at what was reported to be one of the nicest shelters on the trail. It would be my second solo hike, requiring me to hire a shuttle driver and find a place to stay Friday night, neither of which I’d done before. Fortunately, I had been to Harper’s Ferry the year prior (on my first section hike with Jenna, in fact), and past experience with a group had given me the confidence I needed to do all those things on my own. I stayed at the Town’s Inn, just as I’d had the year before, and I reached out to my hiking resources for a very reasonable shuttle driver named Mark who could drive me to my starting point for $25.
As I sat outside in the balmy evening breeze sipping jasmine tea on the Town’s Inn stone porch, I struck up conversation with a weary-looking hiker who appeared to be in his thirties. He was from the Philly area and had been out for a week, hiking northbound from Shenandoah National Park, and he was looking worse for wear with his knees taped up with KT tape. He told me he’d started that morning at the Blackburn Trail Center, a cabin owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club that I’d be passing on my hike the next day. After 13 miles in one day, he told me, he was ready to pass out in his bed upstairs, and he looked the part. I asked him about trail conditions, and water sources at the shelter where I was planning to camp. He confirmed what I suspected: after a month without rain, all the streams were dry, and the spring at the shelter was but a trickle, with a long, steep climb to get to it. “Fill up at the spigot at Blackburn,” he recommended before dragging himself up the stairway to the comfort of his private room. A few minutes later, I did the same, taking myself down to the basement of the inn, where hikers on a budget can get a cot and a shower for $35 a night.
The innkeeper lives just above the basement, is a bit of an insomniac night owl, and wears loud shoes. I didn’t get much sleep, but I did wake up early enough to have the cook make me a scrambled egg before driving to the Harper’s Ferry Cavalier Heights parking lot where my shuttle driver was meeting me. I saw the sun rise over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers as I drove out of town. Mark took me through the back roads of the northwestern tip of Virginia, some of the most beautiful countryside you will ever see. It’s difficult to believe this is such a short distance from Washington, D.C.’s suburban sprawl and legendary highway (and legislative) gridlock.
We talked about hiking and the impending weather. Mark said he’d had a couple of cancellations, which was hard to fathom; all the forecasts we’d both heard had the rain starting on Sunday afternoon. We pulled into the parking area of Bear’s Den, and he expressed shock at the lack of cars and tents. Typically on a Saturday morning in October the grounds would be filled with cars and people out for a weekend of outdoor recreation. The weather was warm and sunny. What did they know that we didn’t?
According to one hiker there, the rain was going to start at midnight that very night. This was the first we’d heard of it, but I started to question the wisdom of camping out and hiking into Harper’s Ferry the next day in the rain. I had a poncho in the event of drizzle, but I was not prepared for hiking in a soaking downpour. One of the benefits of being a section hiker is cherry picking the weather. I avoid hiking in rain at all costs; even on a hot day, rain can mean hypothermia.
“I wonder if I could make it the whole 20 miles?” I mused aloud to Mark. I wasn’t more than half joking. I’d hiked 20 miles once before, and even without the weight of a pack, the mileage had been beyond my limit. I hit a wall around 15 miles; around ten miles is my sweet spot. I waved goodbye to Mark and headed to the trail at 8:00 on the dot, with every intention of enjoying a leisurely pace to the David Lesser Shelter about 11 miles away.
The moment I stepped onto the Trail I felt at home, as if I were being welcomed by an old friend, or putting on my favorite pair of jeans or old slippers. I’d never walked this particular section before, but somehow it felt familiar, probably because so much of the Trail in this part of the state is so monotonous; it is referred to as the “long, green tunnel” by thru hikers. This particular section around Bear’s Den is known as “the roller coaster” because of its series of back-to-back ups and downs.
Fortunately I had only the last three hills of the roller coaster to contend with for the first 4.5 miles of my hike, none of them much more than 500 feet of elevation, and a nice view at Raven Rocks promised. The temperature was warm but breezy, and there was not a cloud to be found in the brilliant blue sky.
A lot of non-hikers in my life worry about me going out alone, and I regularly reassure them you’re never really alone on the Trail. Although the bubble of southbound thru hikers had already passed this area, a few stragglers were still trickling through; I saw at least two couples who had started in Maine. I also passed a few section hikers who had started in Harper’s Ferry and were headed south for several more days. There were also day hikers and trail runners, most of whom were just doing out-and-back hikes up to the overlook at Raven Rocks. I met a man with a dog named Mercy, a young female runner who warned me of a snake, and an Asian woman in her late 50s who give me a huge peeled and cored apple that was a delicious treat when I got to my first stopping point two hours in. Trail magic is great! More than one passing hiker commented on my JMU tshirt and asked if I was a student – perhaps another form of trail magic? I also picked up a great pair of sunglasses, a Columbia rimmed hat, and a clean empty ziplock bag; unintended trail magic probably dropped by accident. God provides, I thought to myself as I picked up each item.
The sunglasses in particular would come in handy after lunch.
About four hours into the hike I made it past the “roller coaster” for a mile or so of ridge walking, which is mostly level and easy walking. I rewarded myself with lunch, took off my pack and shoes for a brief rest, and a look at my map and my pace. I was close to 6 miles behind me, another 5 or so ahead of me, mostly downhill, and at this pace I expected to get to camp around 2 or 2:30, with plenty of daylight left.
While I ate lunch I seriously started to consider the feasibility of hiking on to Harper’s Ferry. What if there was no one staying at the shelter because the prospect of rain kept section hikers away? What if the rain really was going to come at midnight? What if the spring was dry? Besides, the idea of hanging out alone at a shelter waiting for nightfall for five hours with nothing to do didn’t appeal to me. I don’t like camping without other people around, and there were definitely fewer folks on the trail than I’d expected.
What would Jenna do?
I chuckled as I thought about that Christian cliche that had been popular in the late 90s – WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? Jenna would probably laugh hysterically at the thought of becoming part of the WWJD acronym.
Jenna would press on like the badass that she is, I thought. But Jenna was also taller than me, better conditioned than me, and more experienced. She took herself backpacking about once a month; I hadn’t logged any miles since July. It didn’t matter what Jenna would do, because right then it was my feet on the Trail, and my hike to hike. The real question I had to ask myself was, what would Christy do? What would Hopper do?
Hopper decided not to decide. Instead, she put on her shoes, took a pee, adjusted her pack, and swiftly headed off along the ridge line, intent on seeing if she really could make it to camp by 2. If yes, she thought, then maybe depending on how she felt she could press on the other ten miles.
Hopper was pondering this when suddenly, she found herself airborne, and just as suddenly crashed on the ground. Hopper, who earned her trail name because of her ability to hop down rocky declines with ease when she had a destination in site, had tripped over a rock in the middle of the most even footing on the trail.
The first thing I heard was the crack of my glasses breaking. “Shit!” I said. I was careful not to move right away, doing a quick body scan to see what hurt. My knee, my hand, but not too bad. My 20 lb pack pinned me to the ground, so I unbuckled everything and wiggled out. My pinkie finger was very swollen and bruised but moving. My knee was skinned and bleeding. The side of my face where my glasses had been had a small bleeding cut, and my glasses, on the ground a few feet away, had broken on the corner and could be repaired easily with duct tape. Which I cursed myself for not bringing. I got out my first aid kit and patched them together with tiny bandaids. They were a little loose but definitely still on my head. I cleaned my wounds, drank some water, and decided the adrenaline that was pumping should be put to good use. I set my sights on the next waypoint, the Blackburn Trail Center about two miles ahead.
My glasses were so loose they kept sliding down my nose. It was irritating and slowing me down, but I thought of the sunglasses. I put them on over the glasses, and they held everything firmly in place. I thanked God for providing in advance the tool I would need to get through this minor difficulty. He must have known, I thought. Then I got irritated at the thought of a God who knows in advance that we will stumble, provides for our comfort after the fall, but can’t be bothered to remove the damn rock that would trip us up in the first place.
Then I thought of all the possible ways I could have fallen, or not fallen. God didn’t just know about that one spot, I meditated. He knew about every possible trip up and stumble I might potentially face, depending on my choices. And He knew every possible outcome, simultaneously. His intervention couldn’t interfere with my choices. It could only take the form of giving comfort and making use of what was around. I didn’t have to pick up those sunglasses left on the Trail. I didn’t have to credit God either. But there was a force out there I could thank. So I did.
Doubt also started to speak, especially as the Trail got rockier and steeper. If I had tripped over a rock when I was “fresh” and had just eaten, how the hell was I going to stay upright at mile 15, when fatigue would be setting in? How would I handle hiking in the dark for the last two miles into Harper’s Ferry? What was I trying to prove anyway? I ruminated on other options: pressing on to Keys Gap seven miles up, and calling Mark the shuttle driver. It was an option.
Adrenaline did what I had hoped, carrying me to the Blackburn Trail Center in about an hour’s time. There was a very steep quarter mile access trail down the side of the mountain, and I did not look forward to going back up. I briefly considered not stopping at all, but I needed another snack break and my water was getting low, with no prospect of reliable water for the remaining 13 miles. I took the advice I’d been given the night before and headed down to the beautiful property maintained and operated by the PATC.
What a welcome site after the steep descent! I was greeted by a section hiker named Michelle who was headed south to Shenandoah. She had gotten a late start from the David Lesser Shelter, only 3 miles away at that point, and had decided to stay put until the next day. “Why kill myself?” she said. I told her of my fear of the rain, my choices, to camp at the shelter, push on to Key’s Gap and call a shuttle, or hike in the dark all the way to Harper’s Ferry. She was surprised at my pace and determination. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed or thought I was crazy; maybe both.
I ate second lunch (hummus and crackers, small apple, fun sized Snickers bar, and a jelly packet). I unpacked my bag to refill my water bladder, which was almost empty. Stopping here had been a good decision. After repacking I took another look around the property, checked my GPS map and the time, and set my sights on climbing back up the gnarly hill to the Trail and the shelter in an hour. It was an ambitious and nearly impossible goal, but adrenaline was still flowing, and with each step I became more determined to get to town and finish my whole hike in one day.
The “long green tunnel” is not so green in October, especially after a month without rain. I was hiking what I knew to be my best pace ever along the ridge line. More than once I felt evaporating water from the canopy above sprinkle down on me like a sun shower – miraculous to me, as there was still not a cloud in the sky. Surely it wouldn’t really rain that very night? I pulled out my phone and took it off airplane mode to check the forecast. According to my weather channel app, clouds would roll in around midnight and rain chances became significant around 5 am. I would not camp, I decided.
Shortly before I arrived at the side trail to the shelter, I passed a young man whose wife had dropped him off at Harper’s Ferry. He’d started that morning at around 9:45, he said, and she was picking him up at Bear’s Den, where I had started. So my plan was doable, he agreed, if I didn’t mind hiking in the dark. “This is about the halfway point,” he said. Encouraged, I pressed on. I came to the shelter trail and checked my clock. 3:30. I’d done 3 miles in an hour and a half. Not bad. Keys Gap was another 3 miles ahead, all downhill. I should get there at 5. That would give me about two more hours of daylight. I had another quick snack and kept moving.
At Keys Gap I checked the time. 4:45! I was going at phenomenal pace! I started to think about how far I would get before sunset. I was racing the sun, and I knew it was a losing race. I was definitely feeling the fatigue in my body now. My hips hurt, my toes hurt, my shoulders hurt. I’d hiked 14.5 miles. My physical wall was looming. Surely I wouldn’t be able to keep the pace?
Another backpacker stopped by as I was resting on a log, thinking of how great a shower at the Econolodge would feel. I told him of my plan, as he, too, had come from the direction I was headed. “The path is fairly level and easy for the next little stretch,” he said, “but then there are just lots of rocks.”
I groaned. I am not a fan of rocks while going downhill, regardless of what my trail name is, and I really didn’t want to be navigating rocks in the dark. “What’s it like at Loudon Heights?” I asked. Loudon Heights was the next major waypoint, about 3.5 miles up the Trail. I calculated that the sun would be setting about the time I got there, and I’d have 30-40 minutes of twilight hiking before needing to pull out my headlamp. “I think that’s about where the rocks stop,” he said. We wished each other luck and both took off.
He wasn’t lying about the rocks. The 3.5 miles from Keys Gap to Loudon Heights were physically and mentally challenging. Was I just trying to satisfy my ego, I thought? Did I make a mistake not calling the shuttle? Maybe Jenna would have called. There was no reasonable place to camp between here and Harper’s Ferry, though, so there was not much choice but to keep putting one sore foot in front of the other as swiftly as possible to make the most of daylight. I didn’t even eat snacks, just drank water to stay hydrated. At least I didn’t feel dehydrated, I thought to myself. My pace didn’t lag, even on the rocks, and I made it to the Loudon Heights sign just as the sun was beginning to set through the trees. There were still plenty of rocks to contend with, though.
As the light grew dimmer, a young buck crossed my path and stared at me from the woods on the other side. I had a little conversation with him as I continued on. I took out my last snack, a DumDum lollipop. By the time I had finished it, the light was all but gone, but my eyes had adjusted and I could still see. The downward trail became steeper, a sign that I was nearing ever closer to the great Shenandoah River that had cut these steep banks millennia ago. I started singing “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you!” at the top of my lungs. No chance of passing day hikers at this time of day, and no self-consciousness even if there had been one.
Suddenly, I could hear the cars crossing the bridge. I could see lights in the distance through the thick trees. I heard the unmistakable whistle of the train crossing the Potomac in town. Although my pace had slowed in the dark on the steep rocky path, I was encouraged. Soon, I could see the river through the trees, and the bridge where Route 340 crossed. Not long now. I checked my GPS.
According to my app, I was not on the trail.
I stopped there, looking at the river and the bridge, knowing exactly where I was, but feeling very lost. I had no idea how to get down to the base of the bridge from this cliff.
I looked around for white blazes. I found them. The trail I was on did not match up with my GPS, but I carefully kept my eyes peeled for white blazes as I made my way down the bank. Had it been daylight I’m sure the trail would have been clear. Finally I found my way to the base of the bridge, the rumbling of traffic and civilization. It was solidly dark now, about 7:30. I hiked across the bridge, my eyes blinded by car headlights, and I sang all the verses of Amazing Grace. ‘Twas grace that led me safe thus far, and grace would lead me home.
20 miles. 12 hours. 20 lbs of gear. It was a personal best for me, and I felt like a badass thru hiker for a day. There was no room at any of the hotels nearby, so I took the three hour drive home to my own bed and a soak in the tub. I fell asleep with a smile on my face, and texted a hiking buddy in the morning to share my success.
WWJD got me there. Jenna, my hiking hero, did what heroes are supposed to do: she had unknowingly inspired me to exceed my own limitations and ultimately become my own hero. Really, I have no idea what Jenna would have done. But now I know what Christy, “Hopper,” can do when she puts her mind to it.