Redemption—DCUL Style

Most DCUL assistant organizers plan DCUL trips a month or so in advance. Some, like Michael M (“Uturn”), will post international trips a year in advance. Last weekend 10 DCULers hiked a Shenandoah National Park trip planned four years ago. Hope, dispointment, and—ultimately—redemption were the mile markers of this journey.

I was a new DCULer four years ago. A fit hiker, I carried a bit too much in my pack and wore ridiculous over-the-heel hiking boots. Beth posted a trip in the southern Shenandoahs. The mileage looked ambitious at twin 20-milers with elevation but, shoot, it was the Shenandoahs! I wasn’t signing up for the White Mountains. 

I was unable to complete the loop. Was it the 90 degree weather on exposed ridges? Was it the humidity? Was it poor hydration management? Was it those stupid, heavy boots? Was it trying to keep up with Karan on the climb up the inexorable Furnace Mountain trail? Whatever the cause, I hit the wall at the top of the Furnace Mountain trail and self-extracted from the trip, skipping the last seven miles. I never forgot my only unfinished trip.

Four years later, I tried again. Nine other DCULers gamely signed on to join me and, in good fellowship, adopted my redemption as their own.

We started Friday night without a single departure location. Kylie, Bryan, and Chandler carpooled from Arlington. Adrian, Chris, Yvette, and I pooled from Fairfax. Noah, Dmitri, and Alexander each drove solo. Kyle’s car and Adrian’s car arrived at the trailhead at the exact same time. We hiked a half mile up the AT with headlamps to Blackrock Hut to find Alexander waiting for us at the cut trail off to the Hut like a maitre d’. He let us know there were no suitable sites by the shelter because it was crowded with others, but that Dmitri was already there. Chris, who hiked with Alexander in the past, immediately discounted Alexander’s warning and hiked down to the Hut with Kylie and Chandler. Alexander hiked further up the AT for a better spot. The rest of us just pitched tents along a seemingly disused fire road at the junction of the AT and the Hut’s approach trail. Noah arrived just after everyone settled in their tents.

Saturday morning began with the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call shout: “Good morning, DCUL! We travel light, wake early, hike far!” (Alexander specifically requested that version of the call. It surprised me because he is a big Will Ferrell fan. I thought he’d have requested the “stay classy, DCUL!” call derived from his favorite movie, “Anchorman.”). Dmitri, who was 3/10 of a mile away, later reported having heard the call. As of this writing the non-DCULers staying by the Hut have not contacted DCUL with requests to join. Weird. We packed up quietly in the dark with headlamps showing us where we each were.

We didn’t all start hiking at 6:30 as planned because most of us started earlier—probably fearing I’d break out with Will Ferrell quotes. Kylie, me, and a couple others waited for the official 6:30 start time, but we were missing Chandler and Chris. At the 6:30 mark, Chandler hiked up from the Hut and reported that Chris suffered an oatmeal emergency. Everyone looked down, nodding knowingly. We decided to give her 5 minutes. (Ok. I’ll admit it. What the heck is an “oatmeal emergency?” And, why didn’t I think to ask her about it despite later hiking with her for hours?) She didn’t arrive in her allotted time, so we departed—expecting to see her at the Wayside a few hours up the trail. [Play foreshadow music here].

The morning hike was delightful. It was very humid, but the cool morning air masked it. We immediately reached Blackrock and many of us rock scrambled to the peak to watch the sunrise colors and the mist covering the valley.  

We soon left the AT and went down and up the Jones Run Trail, named after some family whose name has been lost to the ages. The trail follows a seemingly endless series of waterfalls more dramatic than most on the east coast. Bryan likes to photograph beautiful items while hiking and he took a lot more photo breaks than usual. The area was jungle-like with thick green vegetation, streams and waterfalls all around us, and humidity covering us like a light, wet blanket that was actually not unpleasant in the late morning-side of the day. The miles passed quickly. 

We rejoined the AT before descending down a side trail to the Loft Mountain Wayside for the milkshakes I advertised in the trip description. I knew the kitchen was closed due to Covid, but I thought there was a chance the famous blackberry milkshake machine might be working. 

Sadly, no milkshakes were on the menu. Only the gift shop portion of the Wayside was open. Souvenir paperweights with pictures of bears on them attracted none of us for some reason. (They were clearly not marketing for the UL crowd but for the UH one). They did have a cooler with soft drinks, water, and—wait for it—Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccinos. I declared them adequate milkshake substitutes and several of us drank them outside on the deck while remarking we didn’t really like blackberry milkshakes, anyway. (They are sickly sweet and lack the Starbucks caffeine kick). We later learned that Dmitri skipped the Wayside in favor of the Loft Mountain camp store, where he discovered ice-cream. That guy is resourceful!

Noah arrived at the Wayside and, concerned he lost his wallet on the trail, opened up his pack and looked everywhere in the vain hope he put it in odd places within his gear where no one would ever place a wallet. He couldn’t find it. I offered to spot him for snacks and a “milkshake.” However, he said he would not enjoy his hike not knowing the fate of his wallet. He rejected my other idea—to just look around for the bear who was suddenly, and uncharacteristically, ordering stuff off Amazon—and hitchhiked back to his car to check to see if he left he wallet there. Recognizing he would never catch up with us he said his first goodbye from the trail and decided to self-extract from the trip.

The remainder of us drank our milkshake analogues and enjoyed each other’s fellowship as we awaited the arrival of Chandler and Chris. Adrian told us about hiking in Chile. Yvette told us about her upcoming PCT thru hike. Alexander performed “magic” by making a leaf appear to float by a spider web strand.

Suddenly a bear jumped out of nowhere and bit our strongest hiker!

Ok. Maybe this is a bit of hyperbole. It was serious, though. A bee stung him—completely unprovoked, which is highly unprofessional—and caused more damage than a bear ever does on our trips. Unfortunately, he is highly allergic to bee stings so he immediately pulled out an EpiPen. The shot failed. However, he had a backup Pen that worked. It made sense to wait a while longer at the Wayside to see that the shot worked.

While waiting, Noah returned from his hitchhiking. His wallet was in the car after all and he was grateful that we actually waited for him (as if . . .)—until he learned the reason for our delay. Only slightly crestfallen, he was back on the trip with us.

We started talking about bee sting allergies. Coincidentally, a bee stung a DCULer on the Triple Crown trip the prior weekend. She suffered a debilitating reaction. So soon after that traumatic experience, some voiced concerns about our friend’s lack of another EpiPen. What if another bee stung him while we were deep in the backcountry? What if he reacted to the first sting after the antihistamine wore off? What would we or could we do? After a discussion, we took a vote and unanimously agreed we had to ask our friend go home. He was deeply disappointed and thought we were overreacting. However, this seemed like the smart decision. Kylie generously agreed to drive him and she pulled herself off the trip, too. She, and he, earned redemption from a higher source. The two hitchhiked back to her car to drive home. (Kylie later reported that he was fine). Alexander went with them to transfer Chandler’s after-hiking pack from Kylie’s car to his. I waited for Alexander with Noah. Adrian and Yvette hiked onward.

Despite having waited for hours, Chandler and Chris never appeared at the Wayside. We assumed they skipped the detour to the Wayside and went directly toward the evening campsite behind Dmitri. Upon leaving the Wayside we saw the two of them coming down the trail. Just as Noah misplaced his wallet, Chandler lost a hand fan. He decided to hike three miles back to where he thought he might have dropped it. Chris decided to wait for him. This, naturally, explained a two-hour delay as he had to walk an extra six miles. They continued down for their “milkshakes” and promised no more backtracking.

Back on the trail, we continued north up the AT. There was no good connector from the AT to the Brown Mountain Trail for some reason. It required a half mile walk along Skyline Drive. Most took the road walk, hiking on the stone wall to avoid traffic. Alexander and I stayed on the AT parallel to the road and then bushwhacked down to the trailhead. (The deep scratches I sustained will heal by next week).

Brown Mountain Trail was exposed, hot, rocky, and a bit overgrown with steel wool-textured brush on the edges. There were no water opportunities for approximately six miles, so we needed to tank up, weighing down our packs. It felt like being in a desert. If I had ever hiked in Arizona, the trail would have reminded me of that. The climb was not bad, though, and it led to a long descent to our intended campsite at Big Run.

At the campsite, Dmitri had been waiting for hours unaware of the adventures involving bees, lost wallets, and lost fans. He showed off the good tent spots and the best waterhole for swimming. Adrian was just returning from the hole dripping wet with a huge, satisfied smile. Alexander dropped his pack and immediately took a dip. Noah arrived and did the same. Just before sunset, Chris and Chandler arrived. Once they set up their tents, the entire group—the remaining eight of us—sat on the cool, flat rocks along the stream to make dinner, laugh, and relax. Chandler produced and distributed single source, dark chocolate bars from Thailand for each of us, and gave a lesson on how to properly eat fine chocolate. (When he is not studying biology at GW, he works at a chocolate shop). Hunh. Chocolate eating lessons? I thought I had that “chocolate eating” thing down pat . . . The evening felt delightful. The afterglow of a solid 20-miler. The cool steam and evening breeze. The full moon. The satiated appetite and thirst. “Hiker midnight” called for us before 8:00 p.m. It was colder overnight and the full moon was so bright it cast shadows in our tents. This caused some of us to sleep fitfully. 

Photo Credit Noah O.

We woke again before sunrise at 5:30 to take advantage of the cooler morning air for our upcoming climbs. We had close to 5,000 feet to climb and 20 miles to walk. Sunday’s heat looked like it would rise a notch, too. Dmitri took the lead with Adrian close at his heels. Alexander, Chris, Noah, and I took the rear. Knowing that I needed a bail-out four years ago, I told everyone to wait for me at either of the two bail-out points if they intended to bail so I’d know their plans and condition.

On the way up the first climb we saw an ocean of mist completely covering the Shenandoah Valley. The southern “horn” of Massanutten Mountain stuck out, framed by the Alleghenies, with only a few, smaller peaks appearing as “islands” in the creamy mist. We stopped and stared knowing that no photo would ever adequately capture what we witnessed.

The temperature rose and the sun seared us. Alexander and I whipped out our umbrellas to use as parasols as we sang show tunes. Chris, who hiked with us on a previous trip, but who nonetheless came to hike with us again anyway, again pretended she didn’t know us. (No, of course we did not really sing show tunes. But we did use the umbrellas—they really do make you cooler, albeit physically and not socially). It was hot even with the umbrellas. 

At the top of the first climb Noah bailed out. He was in high spirts and was hiking strong. He said that he was having a blast and felt great. However, he hates hiking in the heat and the temperature was clearly going much, much higher. The entire ridge was exposed to the sun. He wanted the trip to remain fun and felt he’d keep the spirit alive if he took a detour. We cheered him on as he turned left while we turned right.

Near the bottom of the first climb, Chris decided to do some yoga. Alexander and I pressed on. We met Yvette, who had just finished lunch. Alexander wanted to get water and snacks but I was ready to attack the next climb. So, Yvette and I started the climb that broke me four years ago.

That second climb was unrelenting. The grade was very nice, but it was a sustained climb, exposed, with the sun quickly becoming the chief concern. There was also no water refill opportunity until we got down the other side of the mountain, so we had to ration our water. There was also an endless run of “false summits.” Each slope seemed to be the last, but once climbed revealed a longer slope to slog. I remembered why I bailed out four years ago!

I arrived at second bailout trail alone, just short of the summit. I sat down in the shade of an evergreen to drink all but a few swallows of my remaining water, and fixed myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. As I was finishing Yvette arrived, soaked with sweat and red-faced. She caught her breath, took some water, and gamely pressed onward. Alexander was not far behind her and he stopped to join me to wait for Chris. 

When Chris arrived, she was in great spirits. She immediately did a yoga pose and then agreed to press on with Alexander and me. Shenandoah gave us a break and we enjoyed an easy ridge walk until we began a gentle, but very long descent. The three of us wound up splitting up and hiking alone.

I got to the bottom first, got water from a low flowing stream, and waited for my friends. When they arrived, got water, and rested, we started the last climb to Skyline Drive up a rocky horse trail. Chandler, who had been waiting for a while by the cars, hiked down to greet us.

When I reached the top I knew my trip was complete and my redemption, four years in the making, was earned!

Dmitri, who arrived the earliest and waited the longest, drove himself home. The rest of us drove out to Grill 309 in Culpeper for the victory meal I missed when Beth planned the original trip years ago. The beer tasted like success.

The 10 DCULers who joined me on this adventure made my redemption their own. So, they also earned redemption. Congratulations to DCUL’s newly-minted “Veteran Members”—Chris, Yvette, and Chandler. This was a hard trip in which to earn that status. How is that for redemption! Also, for completing two back-to-back 20 mile days in good form in challenging hot weather, Alexander, Chris, Yvette, and Chandler have each earned the coveted “(2)” next to their names on their  profiles. 

The southern part of the Shenandoahs are wonderful. I’ll consider doing this loop again someday. If I posted a trip going clockwise instead of counterclockwise and called it the opposite of “Redemption Time!” what would I call it? “Damnation Time?” Let me think about that.

— David O.

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