May 16, 2019
I fell in love with the idea of hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) after reading an autobiographical book written by a then forty-one-year-old computer programmer who longed to thru-hike (hike an entire long-distance trail in a single season) the famous footpath. After twice being denied his request for a leave of absence, he quit his job, strapped on his backpack, and started hiking north. He successfully completed his hike in 146 days.
Benton MacKaye (“Kaye” rhymes with “Eye”), an American forester, planner, and conservationist, conceived the idea for the Appalachian Trail in 1921. MacKaye was inspired by the construction of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile footpath that runs from the Massachusetts-Vermont state line to the Canadian border. It is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States. Benton MacKaye imagined a place that townspeople could use on weekends and vacations. It never occurred to him that someone might actually hike the trail from end to end.
While Benton MacKaye envisioned the Appalachian Trail, Myron Avery, the young associate for a retired judge named Arthur Perkins, is the man credited with completion of the AT in the 1930s. Avery became the first person to walk the entire length of the trail, one section at a time, but it was Earl Schaffer, a World War II veteran, who became the first thru-hiker, when he hiked the entire AT in 1948 to “walk off the war.”
In 1955, a 67-year-old woman known as Grandma Gatewood became the first female to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Since then, people have speed-walked the AT, ran the entire way, and at least one person has hiked the trail barefoot. In 2004, 81-year-old Dale “Greybeard” Sanders became the oldest hiker to be recognized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as a “2,000 Miler.” The term is a matter of tradition, based upon the original estimated length of the AT.
I’ve read countless books, blogs, and articles about thru-hiking the AT. While I admire the countless souls who attempt such a daunting task, I have no desire to follow in their footsteps, nor do I believe I am capable of such a difficult feat. Still, there is something about hiking even a short distance on the historic footpath that calls to me, makes me yearn to lace up my boots, strap on my backpack, and hit the trail.
When I began planning our summer trip, I knew we had to include a visit to a town where we could hike on a (very) small portion of the famous footpath. Since we planned to visit Virginia along the way, Shenandoah National Park, which includes a 101-mile section of the AT, seemed like the logical choice. The trail traces the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah, often paralleling Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that stretches the entire length of the park. The AT crosses Skyline Drive numerous times.
The weather has been cold and wet since our arrival in Luray, Virginia, this past Monday, but today dawned sunny and warm, the perfect day for a hike. Armed with bug spray, bear spray—Shenandoah has the largest concentration of black bears on the entire Appalachian Trail—a hiking watch with a true GPS and breadcrumbs lest we lose our way, trekking poles, and plenty of water, we took off for Thornton Gap, one of four entrances to the park. Thornton Gap is conveniently located only nine miles from our campground.
There are over 500 miles of trails in Shenandoah, rated from easy to strenuous. We opted for Mary’s Rock, a four-mile round trip that intersects with the AT near the parking lot. The trail is rated moderate. The average pace for a moderate trail is 1.4 miles per hour. Our pace was closer to 1.95. Not bad for a couple of senior citizens who’ve hiked less than two miles in the past twenty years.
Hiking and walking are two entirely different activities. Walking is typically done on a reasonably smooth, flat surface with few obstacles. Hiking is walking from a lower elevation to a higher elevation or vice versa, usually over rough terrain.
We went to Shenandoah to hike.
The trail was a steady climb from the moment we left the asphalt parking lot and stepped onto the well-trodden soil. Most of the well-worn path was only wide enough for one person. The trail was blazed with white rectangular bars two inches wide and six inches tall, The blazes we saw were painted on trees, but it is not uncommon for them to be found on rocks or posts. Their purpose is simple: to mark the trail’s direction.
I consider myself in reasonably good shape for a sixty-six-year-old woman. I walk briskly for three miles almost every day, pounding the payment or gravel or even a nature trail to accomplish my goal. I’ve lost over ten pounds since we started full-timing, and my pants are noticeably looser.
But all of the three-mile walks in the world could not have prepared me for this four-mile hike on the AT. Ascending a mountain is strenuous if you are unaccustomed to hiking; your breathing is labored, your legs feel like rubber, your lungs burn. Still, I pushed through the discomfort and took off at a decent pace, intent on conquering the trail. Initially, the path was fairly smooth, but it wasn’t long before we hit those obstacles I mentioned earlier; ours came in the form of rocks. Lots of rocks. You either had to step on them or over them, or in some cases, snake around them on a makeshift path barely wide enough for both feet.
Only minutes into our hike, we saw the familiar and cleverly designed Appalachian Trail symbol (an A over a T, which closely resembles a tree) engraved on a concrete post at the intersection of Mary’s Rock and the AT. Seven years after reading the book that sparked my desire to hike on the iconic trail, I had finally made it!
Most of the trail was dry, but we encountered more than a few sections that were slick from the recent rain, as well as from springs and water trickling off the mountain. There were frequent switchbacks, and only once did the path level out for a short section. Trail curtsey dictates that uphill climbers have the right-of-way, but Harry and I yielded the trail to the seasoned hikers coming down the hill. It gave us a chance to catch our breath.
Climbing a mountain trail is hard, but descending one is even more difficult. When you hike down a steep slope, you put all your weight on your knees and legs. Going down is slower, as you have to carefully navigate the rocks and roots and slippery earth to ensure you don’t fall. It feels as if your descent will never end.
Harry and I were exhausted when we finally made it back to the car. I expect tomorrow we will both be stiff and sore, and yet we intend to return to the park again before we leave Luray. Only this time we’ll be taking the other AT: The Asphalt Trail.
Note: We are staying at the Luray KOA Holiday in Luray, Virginia. The park is located near Luray Caverns and the Thornton Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park. This is a small park, beautifully landscaped, with two pools. The lots are all level. The only downside to this campground is that the WIFI is horrible. It constantly goes up and down, and the signal is so weak that our WIFI booster barely phases it. To make matters worse, Verizon service is bad, with only one to two bars of service, rending our Verizon Jetpack slow, at best. AT&T service is better here. I consistently get three bars on my iPad, the only device we have with AT&T service. Because of the unreliable WIFI, on a scale of 1-5, I would give this campground a 3.