Frustration seethed through Alexander (Mr. Woo). The late morning of the day of the Heaven & Hell trip, Adrian, who had previously committed to being a driver for our point-to-point hike, couldn’t use his car as he expected. I commenced the puzzle-like process of reforming carpools and the shuttle plan—a process made complicated by Maryland’s many trail rules. (I needed permits for parked cars at our intended destination—Gambrill State Park). Alexander offered a sensible solution: why not skip the late Friday night, 3 hour, 9 mile headlamp hike in below-freezing weather, park all the cars in the permit-free lot a short stroll from our intended campsite, and just arrange for an Uber to take drivers back to their cars Sunday? Voila! No need for any shuttles. No need for complicated carpools. No need for a stupid 9 mile walk on a boring section of the Appalachian Trail (AT), at night, in the freezing cold, on a section we all just did last month for the 4 State Challenge trip.
He wasn’t expecting my reply:
“What?!?! What kind of Hell is that? If we did that we’d miss out on the ‘Arctic-style’ 9 mile night hike tonight!”
He tossed his phone across his desk and didn’t reply for an hour and a half so he could calm down. When he did reply, it was only with the make, model, and license plate of his car (and the implied middle finger)—the bare minimum I needed to get the parking permit. He was doing it, but wasn’t thrilled.
The Heaven & Hell trip began—and for Mr. Woo it was already on the Hell side.
The AT in Maryland cuts cleanly north to south along a mountain ridge. The Catoctin Mountain Trail (CMT) does the same, parallel on the immediately adjacent ridge. DCUL’s own Michael Martin (Uturn), in his book “AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic,” links the two trails by mapping “2.4 miles of uninspiring road walking.” (Hell). Combined, he charted a 48 mile horseshoe hike. Because the road linking the two trails is “Hell’s Delight Road” at the northernmost part, because the link is just before the AT’s “Devil’s Racecourse,” and because the trails link at a famous church, well-known by Rolling Stones fans, I themed this hike the “Heaven & Hell” trip. (I’ll explain the Stones reference shortly. Some say the Rolling Stones actually got their name from the rockier sections of this trail—but they would be pulling your leg).
These mountains used to be as high and ragged as the Himalayas, but that was a few years ago—approximately 500 million years ago. When we hiked this route the weekend of November 20, 2021, the route was very gentle. (Heaven). Still, hiking almost 50 miles can be challenging on a standard weekend. And, due to Maryland trail rules, dispersed camping is strictly limited. (Hell). So, to make this work, I planned a 9 mile hike for late Friday night after work, an 18.5 mile hike on Saturday, and a 17 mile clean-up on Sunday. (If your math totals this to 44.5 miles and not 48 miles, understand that Uturn is better known for backpacking than algebra. In all fairness, the trail may have been rerouted since 2014–an excuse for Uturn to publish his second addition).
Eight DCULers set out to see if the trip would be more Heaven or more Hell.
We met at the Gambrill State Park’s trail system parking lot between 8:00 p.m. and 8:20, left two cars there, and shuttled to the AT’s Annapolis Rocks parking lot to start the hike. It was only a hour drive out of DC, so the hiking-to-driving ratio couldn’t have been better. (Heaven). A cold front moved in that day dropping temperatures 30 degrees over 24 hours. It was below freezing when we started. (Hell).
The Devil interceded almost immediately. No sooner did we touch the AT from the parking lot access trail that Dmitri and Mr. Woo started walking southbound, across the bridge over I-70. (Hell). This puzzled me because they were not leading the pack. Those immediately in front of them went northbound—Dmitri and Mr. Woo had to have seen them. Positive the route was north, I stopped and rechecked my map as I was left alone in purgatory. I was right. After unintelligible shouting to each other across the roar of the interstate, the two returned to me. Apparently, they just wanted to cross the bridge and return. I have my doubts, but we all soon resumed hiking in the correct direction (Heaven).
We never caught up to Alex Chew, Adrian, Bryan (Wolverine), and Logan until our evening destination at Cowall Shelter. Dmitri, Mr. Woo, Sophie, and I variously hiked alone, together, and in different pairs for the next 2.5 hours. The full moon was so bright I did not use a headlamp for much of the hike. (Heaven) It was too dark for any real views, but the many lights in the valley were pretty. This part of the AT seemed very flat and easy, but it did have 1,043 feet of elevation gain somewhere.
At the campsite most of us quickly set up tents. Mr. Woo and Alex Chew set out nests for cowboy camping. Some of us drew water from the nearby boxed spring and quickly went to sleep. (Heaven). Some animals screamed loudly in the middle of the night—turkeys? cougars?—but they otherwise didn’t bother us.
We woke with the sun and were hiking by 7:00 a.m. Dmitri and Sophie took a 15-20 minute head start so as to not stand around in the freezing weather. This was a later departure than most DCUL trips, and I used the time to cook up breakfast, which warmed me up nicely. (Heaven). The sunrise was nice and the cold weather felt very agreeable for hiking. The trail continued its gentle grade and we hiked through woods, open farm meadows, and across streams. (Heaven).
Very quickly, we reached the “uninspiring road walk.” (Hell). I don’t like road walking any more than any other backpacker. But I think Uturn undersold this part of the hike. First, the name of the road—Hell’s Delight—amused us more than it should. Logan, Mr. Woo, and I took several posed photos by the sign (none of which my friends forwarded to me by press time. Logan took some shots using my iPhone, but he is no National Geographic photographer. He left off the sign, which was the entire point of the posed photos)! There was a very small church on that road. Can you imagine “Hell’s Delight” as your congregation’s address? Second, a farm house along the road had a field with a bunch of kids milling about. Mr. Woo shouted out to them and they began jumping about and bleating. (Readers note: this wasn’t entirely weird—a “kid” is a baby goat. They were farm animals and amused us more than they should). Third, we passed a second church painted all white with a bright red front door. I pointed out that this was the church that inspired the Rolling Stone’s hit song “Paint it Black” (“I-see-a-red-door-and-I-want-to-paint-it-blaaack.”) Adrian (who had jogged to catch up to us), Logan, and Mr. Woo were with me. One said “really?” I won’t embarrass that hiker. However, I soon regretted my joke. Adrian developed an “ear-worm” and would absentmindedly hum or sing that Paint it Black line over and over and over and over again . . . (Hell). The next time I tell a Rolling Stones joke around Adrian it will have a “Honkey Tonk Women” punchline!
We soon reached the CMT and turned south for the right side of the horseshoe hike. Soon all of us except for Sophie and Dmitri, who never lost their lead, caught up to one another and we hiked as a group. (Heaven). As we skirted the boundary of the presidential retreat, Camp David, a “ranger” approached us to say hi. I suppose we didn’t seem too threatening with our ultralight equipment and Adrian’s Mic Jagger impersonation.
We were a very fast group and, single-file, flew through the trail at a pace well over 3 miles per hour. (Heaven). It was too cold for breaks. As with the AT, the trail seemed flat to me. However, I later saw that we earned 2,635 feet of elevation gain that day. I’m not sure when that happened. Anyway, we were moving so fast we were destined to arrive at the campsite way too early. (Hell). The site was a “car camping” campground. I hate these places (Hell), but Maryland rules prohibited camping between that campground and our cars, so we couldn’t just hike a bit further down the trail to shorten the mileage on Sunday. So, we went sightseeing. We took a side trail to Swallow Falls and had a long lunch at the overlook. (Heaven). Mr. Woo discovered that cold soaked dehydrated mashed potatoes with taco seasoning isn’t as appetizing as it sounds, and wound up hiking out with his uneaten, newly-heavy, reconstituted garbage. (Hell). We took a bonus loop down to Cunningham lake and back up to the CMT. Further down the CMT, we took in an overlook. We were clearly trying to kill time.
Even with our excursions, we arrived at our campsite way too early by DCUL standards. (Hell). Someone pointed out to me that the campground rules permitted only two tents per site. Of course we each had our own tents—four too many. I missed that on their long, small print, list of rules. (Hell). I had reserved only two sites after seeing the rule of no more than 6 people per site. With 8 of us I figured we were well under capacity. However, I don’t knowingly break the law, so I set out to see if I could reserve an extra two sites. Unfortunately, the campground was fully booked. (Hell). My backup plan was to draft four of us to cowboy camp. Heck, two of us did it the prior night. I was willing to take one for the team and Adrian volunteered to join me. However, it was very cold and was expected to get below freezing again. And, since we were at the campground so early, it was going to be a long night. Expecting to be rejected, I called the “duty Ranger” to ask permission for a small rule modification. She said “yes!” (Heaven). She made me promise not to do it again but, if we all fit our tents on the tent pads in each site, she would permit us each to pitch our tents. I readily promised.
The tent restriction problem solved, I resigned myself to hanging out for hours in the cold at a car-camping site poorly situated just steps from US 15, which sounded like the interstate it was. (Hell). At least I had the other DCULers, whose company I really enjoyed, a firepit to keep warm with wood we could buy from the campground, a water faucet nearby, and special trail magic performed by Shane. (Heaven).
Someone—I think it was Alex Chew—discovered there was a seafood restaurant and bar across US 15–only 10 minutes by foot. (Heaven). I knew DCUL’s founder, Evan, would definitely approve of this, so all but Dmitri and Sophie set off for hot food and cold beer. Crossing US 15 wasn’t the “Frogger” experience I feared, and soon we were in paradise. I texted Shane to let him know to meet us there. When I offered to buy him a beer it occurred to me this was about to be the hiking world’s first recorded instance of “reverse trail magic.” We returned to the campground at a much more reasonable hour, with much more satiated stomachs, and much more cloudier heads. Shane broke out the trail magic—a cooler of drinks, cookies, croissants, bananas, and other treats. He even brought some lounge chairs! Dmitri had the fire roaring and we sat around enjoying the evening. (Heaven). Wolverine was so enthralled with the conversation he fell asleep where he sat. His neighbors caught him when he started to fall forward toward the fire. (Almost Hell). It was a pretty early evening for all of us. It turned out to be warmer than the prior night and many of us woke to shed layers.
Logan reported that overnight a mouse got into his tent and ruined some of his gear. Mr. Woo woke to say he misplaced his long pants. (How does one do that?) I couldn’t find my headlamp. For the remainder of the trip I had my eyes peeled for a cool-looking mouse sporting a newish headlamp in very, very baggy pants.
We started hiking again at 7:00 a.m. (with Dmitri and Sophie taking another head start). Again, the remainder of the group stayed close together and maintained an even faster pace than the prior day. We caught up to Dmitri and Sophie and started spreading out a bit. Dmitri joined the pack. Alex Chew set an almost-jogging pace and hiked solo at the lead. We caught up to him when he stopped for water at a nice creek and we all stayed for water and snacks. Alex Chew was the first to saddle back up and start back on the trail. The weather had turned a bit warmer. (Heaven). It was now in the 40s, but with our fast hiking I was too warm for my long pants and I stripped down to shorts. However, I started getting chilled just sitting next to the creek, so I figured I’d hike with Alex Chew and I set off after him. That guy is a fast hiker! I tried hard to catch up to him but he was always just out of reach. We waived at each other when we passed at some extremely pointless switchbacks. At some points I was actually jogging. I caught up to and passed him only because he stepped in some scat and wanted to wipe it off his shoes. (Heaven—for me; Hell for him).
Hiking alone, I kept my pace up. The trail again seemed easy. (I later learned we took 2,580 feet of elevation gain somewhere). This section of the CMT is a popular mountain biking route. We had to be alert for them tearing down the hills in packs. (Hell). No one got hit. (Heaven).
A mile away from our cars I saw a sign marking the end of the CMT. Looking at the map, I could see that the path to our cars changed blaze colors twice. The CMT is blazed blue, but we needed to take a black blazed trail to a yellow blazed trail. (Hell). Knowing Wolverine was behind me, I decided to wait at that junction for him. He has been known to . . . ahem . . . grab unintended “bonus miles” on a backpacking trip. A short wait at the junction could prevent a longer wait in the parking lot. Alex Chew quickly arrived at the junction sporting his newly clean shoes. Wolverine showed up. (I’m glad I waited. Wolverine thought we still had five miles to go—not one mile). Eventually everyone showed up, except for Dmitri. Sophie checked her texts and reported that Dmitri had taken a different route to the cars and was already in the parking lot. We tore through the last mile together as a pack startling the day hikers, reversed the shuttle, and went for a victory lunch at JB’s Seafood House. (Heaven).
The AT-CMT horseshoe route—a local trail runner who passed us told me they call it the “At Cat”—had not been previously posted during my 5 year tenure with DCUL. It was nice to try a new trail—especially one so close to DC. What it lacks in epic climbs and higher altitudes, it makes up for as a good, fast leg-stretcher. Per my Gaia statistics, we did 44.5 miles and ascended 6,258 feet over the weekend, which didn’t feel at all like a 6k trip. The trail was so well-graded, I barely felt the elevation gain. The DCUL crew for the trip was typical VMO awesome. This was Mr. Woo’s first trip with his newly adopted trail name. He even remarked that he was glad we did the Friday night hike. Final Heaven & Hell verdict: Heaven.
— David O.