We begin mid-story on a hot Saturday afternoon . . .
I was the last person to drop down into Edinburg Gap (boy do I love that final bit of exposed, pine-needle and rock stretch, even in the too-hot September sun) and a bit of a sweaty mess in the near 90 degree afternoon heat. As I approached my trio of hiking companions, Mark, Sophie, and Kyle, they joked that they drank our entire water cache and didn’t leave me any. But their faces didn’t really look like they were in a laughing mood. They pointed to a punctured, crumpled set of empty gallon jugs of water on the ground. Not a drop of water remained. The consensus based on sets of even punctures spaced an inch or so apart led most of the team to surmise that some animal did it. I couldn’t help thinking of the worst animals of them all, human beings. But either way we didn’t have any water and it was getting hotter. Mark’s heroic water-caching from Thursday morning to save us at this moment was now moot.
“Treachery on the Massanutten Trail!” I exclaimed.
We made the necessary call to walk the half mile or so down the road to a reliable pipe spring and dared the fast traffic and blazing sun. We made it without dying thanks to echoing calls of “Car!” and “Game on!” and the water was cold and refreshing. But we also took on that extra mile in the hottest part of the day, now laden down with five to seven liters each, and about to begin the rather long climb up Waonaze Peak. With more smiles than not (even if forced), that’s exactly what we did. I was more thankful than ever before that we had always planned to stop four miles short of the normal campsite option favored by the team down in the Little Fort Recreation Area, and instead enjoy a little site on ridge at the 7-Bar None Trail Intersection. So there we were at about 7:00 p.m. at night, relaxing in a spot of pleasant grass next to a little fire ring and contemplating cowboy camping when I took my phone off of airplane mode to check in with my wife and received a weather alert for an incoming storm that was only minutes away. We went from leisurely spreading out our stoves and libations – and ready to start the fire – to scrambling to put up our shelters – all but Sophie who had dutifully set hers up as soon as she had reached camp. But let’s back up a moment and figure out how we got here in the first place, water cache ravaged by an unknown foe, exhausted from way too hot backpacking weather, and hurriedly putting our shelters up as the wind and rain approached.
Two days earlier . . .
Mark and I rendezvoused at the Signal Knob Parking lot on time a little after 9:00 a.m. The weather was cool, breezy, sunny, and perfect. Mark had cached water at a couple critical places on the western ridge and we were excited to get away from life and begin the first 30+ eastern ridge miles that would bring us down near New Market Gap to meet up with Sophie and Kyle on Friday evening to do the second part of the 70-mile Massanutten Trail. This was my seventh thru-hike of the Massanutten Trail and Mark’s fourth. And one of those dang times the two of us did was with Max (Yeti!) in a bruising and rainy 48 hours. The plan this trip, however, was to take our time, even out the mileage over the course of four days and enjoy what we hoped would be early autumn on the ridges. It started out as glorious as we expected, with hints of red and gold on the ridges. The breeze kept us at a perfect temperature – and kept it up all night, even as we strolled into a lovely ridge campsite located a little after the Milford Gap Trail intersection. There were plenty of flat tent spots and a well-built little fire ring. I had noticed this site over the years but always in passing as I trudged along. We stretched our old bodies out with some yoga poses, enjoyed cigars and whiskey, and generally just relaxed over a long sunset and blissful evening.
Friday morning started the same kind of good, with more cool weather. We met a diligent PATC trail maintainer and talked for a bit, with him thanking us for enjoying the trail and us thanking him for keeping it in such great shape. He noted to us in a dour way that he keeps sending reports to the PATC and forest service recommending that something be done about the Signal Knob overlook being grown in by trees, but nobody listens to him. We bumped into 30 7th graders enjoying Kennedy Peak with us, and then continued our merry way down into Duncan Hollow. This is where and when things began to turn on us a tad bit, even if that was just to snatch away the notion that a Massanutten hike could possibly be perfect the whole way through. The afternoon heat kept rising, with a few bugs to go along with it. Most of Duncan Hollow was bone dry and our eyebrows raised at the possibility that even reliable water sources would end up being dry. We weren’t doing poorly on water, though, and marched on. As the heat made things less pleasant, other factors were beginning to annoy us a bit more too. Let’s start with a constant for this trip – and a first for me on a Massanutten trek: spiders. These guys aren’t anywhere to be found in March or April, but starting from the first mile of the journey, spider webs across the trail were a constant presence. Whoever was in the lead assumed Mirkwood duty and cleared the path for folks behind them. The spiders only had 1 HP each, so it wasn’t that taxing of a constant battle. There were definitely times when we traded times in the lead just to share the experience of wiping spiders and webs off of our faces. You may think that trekking poles will take them all out for you. You would be wrong.
Halfway up Duncan Hollow we deviated from the normal orange-blazed path and went up to check out Duncan Knob. Mark was surprised to find out I had never ventured up there before. It was nice, don’t get me wrong, and I would have struggled to find my way to the top without a knowledgeable guide, but once up there in the full sun we did not linger long.
After rejoining the Massanutten Trail we meandered down to the creek side campsite at the base of Waterfall Mountain that I had always wanted to stay in but never managed to over the years. It was as good as I thought. Listening to gurgling water we started a blaze and waited as first Sophie, then Kyle came in on the trail. Sophie gifted us with chorizo and bratwurst. Kyle with IPAs. Life was damn good. Saturday morning started normal and we huffed up Waterfall and savored the last of our canned beverages with something we hope will be a DC UL tradition: breakfast beers with a view. Particularly after a stiff morning climb.
Fighting spiders, we enjoyed the ridge then made an almost stupid decision to push through the reroute of the trail due to logging. How bad can it be? I thought. Bad enough that most of the blazes were gone and the trail seemingly overgrown from existence. We road-walked and met back up with the trail for another climb and onward journey.
And the sun kept on blazing down on us. I’ll give the universe some credit for relatively low humidity. It wasn’t too hard to cool off in the shade. But when exposed it felt like it always does in the summer, that is to say not great. And then we came off the mountain to find our water cache butchered . . .
Saturday night’s storm was mild in the end, and we got our shelters up in plenty of time. Sadly, however, it did keep us from building a blaze and enjoying the rest of my whiskey – which, if you must know, was actually packed back out. Lagavulin and Whistlepig survived for another adventure. Most of us slept on top of our sleeping bags and knew we were in for another hot one in the warm morning air. We hiked an hour in the dark. I caught a delicious sunrise at Woodstock Tower. Our second water cache was also a-ok and we were pretty set for the rest of the trip, even if it meant both chugging when needed and carrying more than was usually comfortable. In the morning light a few of us saw a bear cub scamper up a tree, which wasn’t too surprising considering the amount of bear scat and flipped rocks we saw on the trail. At some point fast-hiking Kyle gave up the lead position. The spiders had worn him down.
We briefly contemplated going off the normal blazes to do the Tuscarora Three Top Mountain variation near Signal Knob but decided against it to limit our exposure. It turns out the normal blazed section leading up actually has more tree cover than in April, which was a pleasant surprise. We enjoyed some fall colors and a rejuvenating Signal Knob stop, complete with the normal army of day hikers to say hi to and beg their forgiveness for our body odor. We did note the trees slowly growing up to obscure the view. We hope the Forest Service reads our PATC friend’s report one of these days and does something about it. That, or DC UL needs to lug some axes and chainsaws up and help.
And so we finished. A little sweaty, sure, but we had dry feet the entire time and a very different overall experience than the normal rite of spring version. I wouldn’t say better. It’s tough to beat the camaraderie and tradition of the scheduled outing. It was, however, just what I needed to get back into a backpacking rhythm and say hi to both great friends and a dear trail. Beers and burgers at the Front Royal Brewing Company were our reward to ourselves – and then onward home, eager to hike again.
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