Harper’s Ferry to Swift Run Gap

Day 91: 8.6 miles
ATC HQ to David Lesser Memorial Shelter

Our night in the hotel was luxurious and we slept in just a bit longer than usual. Pappy and Pat had helped us restock our food supplies (Trail mix, MnMs, Cheese crackers!), so we only needed a quick Walmart stop to get the rest. We headed from Walmart to the Country Cafe where we had plans to rendezvous with the entire trail family.

The cafe had delicious breakfast choices, including homemade doughnuts. Toots, Paw Paw, and Crazy Mountain Mama joined us first, and we caught up with them over coffee and bacon. (And home fries. And sausage. And eggs. And toast. And, of course, doughnuts).

Soon MnM, Redline, Still Kelly, and Mr. D arrived. It had been awhile since we had seen them and there were plenty of tales to tell. Unfortunately, there was also an impending storm of doom pressing on our agenda. Hurricane Florence was on course to devastate NC and VA, which could not only result in rainy hiking, but potential flooding and blow-downs. None of us knew what to do.

We spent awhile at the cafe, and then Mr.D and co decided to hit the trail. The rest of us headed back to the ATC, hoping for more information on the storm and access to a computer in their hiker lounge for blogging.

We spent a little more time together, and then Pappy and Pat headed back to Pittsburgh. It was so much fun getting to share this exciting time with family.

While we sat in the ATC hiker lounge and typed weeks worth of blog posts, quite a few visitors came through to chat. Some were former hikers, some current hikers, some just stopping in for a visit. Most asked us what our plans were for the hurricane, and at that point we still had no idea.

And then Shenandoah National Park announced it would close on Thursday. Whelp. Guess we’d be zeroing in Front Royal! If we could get there–all State parks would also be closing and Sky Meadows State Park would be on the way. Fortunately, the folks at the ATC were extremely helpful and friendly. We got confirmation that the AT corridor would remain open, and Levi exchanged numbers with an employee there so that they could keep one another in the loop about closings and trail conditions.

Based on current weather information, we booked a hotel from Thursday-Tuesday in Front Royal. It was frustrating to take that much time off, but the park would close Thursday and the storm was due to hit Saturday. They were expecting 8-12 inches of rain across Central VA, and that was in addition to the rain which had already saturated the ground.

Around 2:30, we finally headed to the trail. We crossed over the Shenandoah River and hiked up to a ridge. It was rocky, but there weren’t many trees blocking our path. Rain misted, but we got to the shelter relatively dry. The shelter was very nice and looked new. It had a deck and painted floors, plus a bear-hang pole for our food bags. We made dinner and settled in for the night.

Day 92: 21.1 miles
David Lesser Memorial Shelter to Rod Hollow Shelter

We awoke to more mist and cool weather, but still no rain. Given our current weather predicament (imminent hurricane conditions), this cool misting was a pretty good scenario for the Roller Coaster. The Roller Coaster is a 12.5-mile section of trail which “consists of over 3500 vertical feet of steep up and down hills, mostly 300-400 foot climbs and descents“(Alltrails.com). Basically, every hiker’s pet peeve.

There might’ve been a few good views on a clear day to mitigate the annoying terrain, but we weren’t so lucky. On the plus side, there were ample water sources in every valley!

We made it to camp as it was beginning to get dark. Redline and MnM were sitting at the picnic table with two other hikers who were NOT Mr.D and Still Kelly. Uh oh. Turns out, Mr.D had recovered from a 103* temperature, but still felt sick and needed to seek medical treatment. (Spoiler: He was fine, but learned an important lesson about always treating water before drinking).

We chose to sleep in our tents (the shelter smelled like urine), but the sounds of tree branches falling in the woods around us resulted in fitful sleep for everyone.

Day 93: 15.4 miles
Rod Hollow Shelter to VA Rt. 55

By the morning, the path of the hurricane had changed quite a bit. Shenandoah was still closed, but VA would not receive nearly as much rain as anticipated.

Although we had a hotel on our horizon, it was a looooong day of hiking. Without day hikers to do so, Redline and Levi struggled to clear spiderwebs along the trail as we hiked by. You’d think rain would deter the spiders, but that’s wishful thinking. The rain DID make the webs more visible though.

We met one section hiker (who had thru hiked in 2016) when we stopped to fill water, but she hadn’t come far. She did inform us of Pinworms in the water source. If you need something else to worry about on our behalf, feel free to Google “Pinworms”. Good thing we always filter!

We made it to VA Rt. 55 just after a decent bit of rain. Not wet enough to validate wearing raingear, but wet enough that our soggy bodies couldn’t get a hitch into town. So we called an Uber. The four of us had to cram into the back of the driver’s Kia Soul and sit with our packs on our laps. But we made it to the hotel!

While Levi showered, Kristen headed to the gas station for shampoo and beer and Redline picked up Arby’s for everyone (except MnM, she was holding out for pizza). We got clean, set our shoes outside to dry, and gorged ourselves on curly fries, roast beef sandwiches, gyros, mozzarella sticks, and jamocha shakes.

We sat in out beds until it was dinner time, then ordered Pizza Hut. A dog barked incessantly next door, but wasn’t much louder than Still Kelly’s snores, so we slept just fine.

Day 94: Zero in Front Royal, VA

The Motel 6 didn’t have breakfast, but it did have hot coffee and comfortable couches from which we could watch media coverage of the hurricane. At this point, the storm was downgraded to a category 2 and wouldn’t be truly hitting us for a few days. Or perhaps not at all. Or it could rain gummy bears. The newscasters couldn’t convince us of much, but Shenandoah was still closed so we weren’t going anywhere.

We started some laundry and then left MnM in charge of it while Redline, Levi and Kristen went to Popeyes for lunch. The rest of our trail family happened to hit Rt. 55 and catch a ride around the same time and joined us there. A new guy, Porcupole (his hiking pole handles once made a midnight snack for some porcupines) was with them.

We spent a pretty relaxed day in Front Royal watching movies, doing laundry, making a Wal-Mart run, and Lysol-ing sleeping quilts.

Day 95: Zero in Front Royal, VA

We began our day together again in the lobby sipping coffee and watching more hurricane coverage. The park would be opening today, but we wanted to continue monitoring the weather and catch some college football.

Everyone did their own thing, but most of us ended up at a coffee shop downtown for lunch. We had delicious sandwiches and some of the best peppermint hot chocolate known to mankind. Seriously.

After killing some time editing photos, working on the blog, checking facebook, etc. we decided to explore town a bit. It was there that we hit thru-hiker GOLD. Our first stop was an outfitter with lots of great gear, clothing, and resupply food (basically a tiny REI). We then went next door to an adorable bakery where Levi and Redline bought cinnamon rolls the size of their faces. As we headed to the brewery, a chalk-wall reading “Basecamp” caught our eyes. We opened the door next to the wall and found a space specially designed for thru hikers. Basecamp is an alcove between the outfitter, bakery, and brewery with storage lockers, a washer/dryer unit, shower, and boot dryer. It was so clean, inviting, and thoughtful! We signed our names on the walls with the provided chalk markers and wrote in the log book. Thank you Front Royal!!!

Levi and Kristen headed to the brewery and watched football while enjoying some local brews, fabulous charcuterie board, and beer-cheese pretzel. We were joined for dinner by the rest of the tramily and then cabbed back to the hotel.

While in the cab (which cost all of $3 to bring us across town) we asked the driver about the possibility of getting picked up from inside Shenandoah park the next day. She said cab drivers could enter the park without paying the park fee. Hmm..We couldn’t get out of our hotel booking, so we decided to hike out the next day but get a lift back to the hotel for the night.

Day 96: 21.6 miles
Front Royal to Gravel Springs Hut

The morning started off well enough. We (including Toots and Paw Paw) left most of our food and clothes at the hotel since we would be returning for the evening. It was good to be hiking all together again, the weather was ominous but currently fine, and we had a few big uphills but nothing too crazy.

We hadn’t booked our taxi ride back to the hotel, but figured we could do that from the trail. Levi called to make a reservation and ask for a ballpark cost. The guy said he would need to get back to us, but we thought it couldn’t be too bad since a ride across town was $3.

Turns out we were wrong. We got a call back about 2 miles past a road crossing that the cab fee to pick us up from Shenandoah and bring us back to the hotel would be $140. For one way. Crap.

The four of us ended up walking to the next road, cabbing from there to the hotel, packing up our stuff, and then picking up Popeyes since we’d be getting to the shelter late and probably wouldn’t want to make dinner in the dark. All together it took about 2 hours, but we made it back to the trail with enough daylight to catch up to the group.

The remaining trail for the day was a never-ending course of switchbacks up to the Shenandoah backcountry park entrance. We filled out our form (names, contact info, plans for camping during our stay) and entered the park. It got steadily darker and the light drizzle began to come down as real raindrops.

By the time we reached the shelter we were using flashlights and ponchos. The 10-man shelter already contained the 5 members of our trail family, plus 3 other flip-floppers (thru hikers who start in the middle of the trail) named Bean, Meltdown, and Hard Hat. If you did that math in your head, you’ve realized the problem. We managed to squeeze 3 more people into the shelter, and Kristen volunteered to sleep at the foot of the shelter which was still under the roof. Levi slept in a corner of the shelter that smelled like animal urine. We had each chosen our personal lesser of the two evils.

Hurricane Flo’s remnants progressively escalated overnight. The rain beat down on the roof. Strong wind blew humid air all around. Tree limbs fell off in the distance. It was a fitful night of sleep for all of us.

Day 97: 5.7 miles – Gravel Springs Hut to Elkwallow Wayside

That morning we all awoke to steady rain and wind. We hiked through thick fog, trying to keep eyes on both the slick rocky trail below and precariously swaying branches above. It was exhausting physical and mentally.

Around 11am we arrived at the Elkwallow Wayside, a spot to stop with a bathroom, gift shop, and concession. The smell of something warm and delicious wafted towards us from the side of the building, but there wasn’t a person or car in sight. As we came around to the entrance, we learned why. A small typed sign taped to the door read, “Closed due to hurricane.”

Much to our dismay, even the bathrooms were locked. Having no cell service whatsoever, we (Kristen, Levi, Toots and Pawpaw) decided to wait a bit under a pavilion and generate a plan. Soon, a ranger pulled up and notified us that the park had closed once again. The backcountry (trails, shelters, etc) would remain open, but the frontcountry (roads, waysides, visitors centers) would close. All personnel would be leaving the park. Basically we were permitted to stay and hike, but if anything happened we would be SOL.

Though frustrated, we decided to err on the side of caution (you’re welcome, moms). And we took the ranger up on his offer for a ride to Thornton Gap where we could get a ride into Luray, VA.

At the Thornton Gap park entrance, we met a hostel owner who was returning two hikers to the trail. She was willing to give us a ride to town and recommended a hotel (understanding that sharing a room would be cheaper than staying at the hostel). We booked a room at the Quality Inn and went to Gennaro’s Restaurant to warm up and eat up before our check in time.

Mr. D, Still Kelly, and MnM were all staying at a different hotel close by. They were at the wayside about 20 minutes before us, just as it was closing. Porcupole and Red Line were farther ahead, and ended up hiking all the way to Thornton’s Gap. They came to the restaurant soaking wet and thought it would be a good idea to split 50 hot wings (spoiler alert: it was not a good idea, but all wings were finished before we got back on trail).

Our day in Luray was pretty chill. The weather in town was beautiful, but we could see dark clouds hovering over the mountains. We showered, walked across town to do laundry, watched the Office, and enjoyed more Gennaro’s for dinner.

Day 98: 11.8 miles – Elkwallow Wayside to Byrd’s Nest #3

After many calls and text messages, we finally got in contact with a trail angel who shuttled us back to Thornton’s Gap. Here we took different routes.

Porcupole and Redline had already hiked the ten miles between Elkwallow and Thornton’s Gap, but everyone else had gotten a ride from the park at Elkwallow. Everyone but Levi and Kristen pressed on south; others had intentions of coming back to hike that section later. We hiked north to Elkwallow since we had only 50 miles to go until meeting up with the Mortons.

Once back at Elkwallow we chose to take the road back to Thornton’s Gap. We figured it would be gentler on our feet and there was a chance of getting a hitch. The first few cars passed by and waved, but finally an SUV pulled over. Out stepped a ranger. He ran our IDs (apparently that’s required for riding in a police vehicle), and we were allowed in the backseat. On to Thornton’s Gap!

The rest of the day was smooth sailing. We found the Byrd’s Nest shelter empty though slightly damp. We checked the weather, set out our groundcloth inside the shelter, and tucked in for the night.

Day 99: 14.4 miles – Byrd’s Nest #3 to Big Meadows

This was one of the most relaxed days we had on the trail. Our morning was crisp and cool, but not raining. Early on we met a very sweet German couple who we talked with for half an hour. They wished us the best and we sauntered on.

When we hit the Lodge we decided to stop for some food and phone charging. The restaurant wasn’t open yet, but there was a concession so we each ordered a sandwich and large coffee. The coffee came with free refills, which resulted in a much longer stay than originally planned. However, we were able to fully charge our phones, battery pack, and water purifier, plus talk with two other nice couples who sat for a spell.

The afternoon was also pretty easy terrain-wise and the weather continued to hold out. We were thankful for dry shoes that stayed dry an entire day. Sometimes it’s the small things, like feet without a pruny texture or mildew smell, which make us happiest.

The first thing we saw at Big Meadows campground was a bear. Technically, we first saw the large crowd of people starting up at something, and THEN we saw the bear at the top of a tree. Either way, we had our first bear-not-at-the-zoo sighting. It was pretty impressive that the branches that high didn’t break under his weight.

Although there was a fee to stay at that campground we chose to fork it out and set up camp nearby. Not having to hang a bear line (there were fortified bear boxes at every tentsite) and having easy access to the bathrooms were worth it. We set up our tent and walked to the nearby Lodge for dinner. There we had dinner, drank beer, and enjoyed a blackberry ice cream meringue pie.

After a filling meal, we headed back to the tent for a full night’s rest. We’d be meeting up with the Mortons the next day! Whether it was the anticipation of a family reunion, the half gallon of coffee we’d consumed earlier in the day, or the sugar-laden pie scarfed down for dessert, something kept us awake late into the night. I think we finally drifted off around 2am.

Day 100: 16.9 miles – Big Meadows to Swift Run Gap Entrance

We woke up this morning desperately wanting to sleep in, but knowing we were on a schedule. We made fast work of our 17 miles and arrived at our rendezvous point about 15 minutes before Levi’s parents, Ellen and Dale.

After lots of joyful hugging, we hopped in the backseat and took off. The Mortons handed us a giant bag of Garrett’s popcorn (a mix of carmel and cheddar cheese) which we messily scarfed down. We headed to the airport to pick up Jeremy, Levi’s brother.

We made a quick stop at Chick-fil-A, just beating the dinner rush. We arrived at the airport and Jeremy joined us, then we headed to Front Royal for our Air BnB. We had an interesting encounter with the owners, but found the property to put liking. We showered off, had a nightcap, and enjoyed a much easier time falling asleep.

Day 101: Zero in Front Royal

Despite being hundreds of miles from Bull Valley, IL this morning felt like a typical Morton family morning at home. Dale grabbed some coffee from a local coffee shop (fortunately sans the Cincinnati Bengals mug always reserved for Kristen) while Ellen made sure we ate fruit, bagels, and mandel bread, and Jeremy sat working on the crossword.

Levi opened his birthday gifts and we called some family members while all together. Since it was a beautiful day, we went for a walk in the center of town. Naturally, our walk led us straight back to the outdoors store, bakery, hiker center, and brewery. While in the presence of a large washer/dryer unit we decided to wash our down jackets and Levi’s sleeping bag.

As the laundry cycled, we went nextdoor for some lunch at the brewery. Everything was as delectable as we remembered, plus we got dessert this time! Following lunch, we hit up a few antique stores on the walk back to the Air BnB. Kristen and Levi went back to the hiker center to wait on laundry, while the remaining Mortons headed back for a ‘toes up.’

It took awhile for the quilt to dry, but in the meantime Kristen walked to the post office to grab the resupply box. Some other hikers showed up at Basecamp and we enjoyed catching up with them over hurricane survival stories. Once we were done, we went back to the house to get ready for dinner.

Still rather early in the evening, it was decided that the birthday boy needed a trip to the Virginia Beer Museum. The museum is an old house which has been remodeled with exhibits and a bar for touring purposes.

A gentleman on the front porch welcomed us to the museum, and his demeanor quickly answered the question we’d all been wondering: “Is there beer actually served here?” Why yes, yes of course.

Another gentleman came through and ushered us inside to the bar, where we ordered from a large array of the numbered options. This gentleman gave us the tour, which he claimed was much improved by the #9 beer in his hand. The tour did get better as that #9 kicked in. It was actually quite interesting to learn about our founding fathers’ associations with beer, about the role of pubs in colonial America, about prohibition and the blah years of boring beer which followed, and finally about the recent Renaissance of craft beer making.

After a second round in the bar, we danced over to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It had been recommended to us by a number of folks in town, and did not disappoint. We’d talk more about it, but the meal was a blur of incredible food and good company. The specials were especially scrumptious and we left feeling warm and maybe a bit tipsy.

We headed back to the house and played a round of games before sleeping one more time under one roof.

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