Living Off the Land (Shenandoah National Park AT; Front Royal to Swift Run Gap — 60 miles; Oct 8-10, 2022)

Organized within a week of the adventure, this Appalachian Trail hike through the North and Central regions of the Shenandoahs had us living like pioneers. We lived off the land. We skirted sheriffs taking down alleged bad guys. We reenacted classic slapstick comedy. Of course, we also walked and walked. All this action begs one important question: did Spider-Man have time to swing a “10 before 10?”

This trip was not supposed to happen. Suzanne long ago planned a Double Devil’s Path trip in the Catskills—hiking the most difficult trail in the east up and back. Unfortunately, on the eve of the trip, her Columbus Day leave evaporated. I tried to resurrect the trip with a Catskills Long Path trek, but no one signed on. My “plan B” was to glam on to Camel and Baconator’s AT trek across New Jersey. However, they planned the trip to start on Thursday before the holiday weekend. I had to work through Friday. I steeled myself for a long late night drive alone and a logistical challenge catching up to my friends. Then Kyle (“Water Dog”) posted the present trip—a partial thru-hike of the SNP. The shorter drive sealed the deal.

Living off the Land

Of course I already hiked much of the SNP—all DCULers do eventually because it is so close to DC. So, I knew I did not need to bring as much food as usual and, instead, “live off the land” just as my pioneer ancestors did. So, I packed my “shotgun,” (technically, a credit card), packed a much lighter food bag, and went in search of big game.

My first big score was just before I got to the trailhead—Sheetz on Friday night. Even though I was driving alone to meet Water Dog, Logan, and Holley at the Tom Floyd Shelter, a stop there is a DCUL custom. The foot long sub was tasty, but this was like shooting fish in a barrel—no sport in that. It was a good warm up, though; I knew the hunting would be more difficult in the mountains.

Saturday afternoon, I caught up with Water Dog, Logan, and Holley celebrating their successful bagging of a 30-point buck (which looked like a bag of fries, burgers, and beers) at the Elkwallow Wayside. Fortunately, they did not scare off all the game. I managed to catch a grilled cheese (SNP’s version of a vegetarian hamburger), fries, and a beer.

My good fortune continued Sunday morning. With Logan’s help, I trapped an omelette, breakfast potatoes, cobbler, and coffee at Skyland 10 miles down the game trail (AT) from our campsite.

The good earth provided sustenance just in time for a late lunch at Big Meadows. I patted my back in praise of my resourcefulness and pioneering skills!

Once off the trail, with my sharped foraging skills, the four of us caught a full breakfast at a diner with a fireman theme. It had pictures of fireman and fire trucks, and related memorabilia. The restaurant needed to hire me for marketing, however, because they missed the obvious money slogan: “We’ll PUT OUT your hunger!” (If Shane “Dad Joke” is reading this, he’ll appreciate this).

COPS! SNP Edition

Holiday weekends in the Fall may not be the best time to count on AT shelters. When I arrived at the Tom Floyd Shelter on Friday night, the area was packed with tents and people. I looked for my DCUL friends, but assumed they were already in their tents. I quickly realized many of the people awake were not really backpacking. Instead, they hiked the mile from the trailhead to party in the woods. Before I realized this, I asked one hippy-looking dude if he was an AT thru-hiker. He sure looked the part. However, he clarified that he was “through” hiking. He and his friends laughed. I didn’t; I like to do the jokes. I decided I would get a better night sleep if I hiked a couple miles down the trail from this party. I later learned that my DCUL friends arrived after I pressed on and settled on sleeping in the shelter I eschewed. They reported the evening was as miserable as I imagined. 

The shelter mayhem continued at Bearfence Shelter Sunday night. The folks already there seemed much more agreeable than the crowd at Ed Denton. There were three old guys whose only offense, according to Kyle who stayed with them in the Shelter, was loud snoring and frequent urination trips. (Who saw that coming?) There was the clean “meet-cute” couple putting their relationship through the “camping test.” (Good luck with that). Other than us DCULers, there were only a couple of other quiet guys whose only offense was building a fire whose smoke kept blowing in my direction. (Cough!  Cough!)

However, reading the shelter journal, we read about a law-man take down at the shelter the previous night. As recounted by thru-hiker “Chef-boy-ar-dee,” he arrived at the shelter to see a group of kids in camo who were not really the hiker-types and were restless. As he describes it, he was just settling in when the fuzz suddenly descended on them. As I imagine it, a SWAT team dressed all in black silently descended the access trail, their flashlight beams slashing the darkness like light sabers as they surround the shelter yelling “Freeze! Park Police!” Chef wrote they actually commanded “I need everyone to put their hands above their heads!”

When the Captain saw the contrast between the camo dudes in their overalls versus the Chef in his pink hiking shorts, he said, “Mr. Thru-Hiker, sir, you may wanna bounce for a while.” When the Captain next said, “where is the firearm,” Chef wrote that he thought to himself, “ok, f—k, it is time to bounce.” His final report was that the camo crew were evicted with two cited for underage possession of alcohol, one for being a nuisance, and one arrested for discharge and possession of a firearm.

A classic part of Chef’s journal entry was his conclusion, horrifying all criminal defense attorneys in the nation. He wrote: “All are innocent until proven guilty, however, they seemed really dumb, so they probably did it.” Bad boys, bad boys, whacha gonna do.

Slapstick Reenactment

The AT is hardly a navigational challenge. The trail is well-trodden and clearly blazed. Nonetheless, Water Dog, Holley, Logan, and I kept losing each other. It was like a long scene in slapstick classics, like the Marx Brother’s “Duck Soup,” where people in a hallway are constantly walking in and out of doors unaware that they are missing each other by seconds.

I missed Water Dog, Logan, and Holley when I mistakenly thought I arrived at the Ed Denton Shelter after them. Water Dog missed Logan and me at Skyland. Logan and Water Dog missed each other at Big Meadows—and I missed both of them when I went to the lodge instead of the wayside. Then, in the coup de grace, I finished the trail a bit early and decided to go for a walk a half mile further south and back on the AT. During that short excursion I wound up missing my friends who arrived at the terminus just after me and went to the shuttle car. When I returned to the terminus I waited 20 minutes until Logan drove by looking for me. Sorry, guys!

As a result, I spent most of my 60 miles hiking alone. (Of course, this could also be that people prefer my humor in small doses). It was fine. I was able to hang out with everyone each night after Friday night and had a good audiobook. (Holley tastefully nudged me to upgrade my term for “books on tape” to “audiobooks.”)

In any event, I recommend “Duck Soup.”

10 Before 10

Foraging for food, understandably, took time. So, for most of my hike I was unable to score a “10 before 10”—ten miles before 10:00 a.m. I certainly could not “do a Chicago”—“25 or 6 to 4” (or, 25 or 26 miles before 4:00). This is shameless plug for an upcoming DCUL Adventure of the same name. https://www.meetup.com/dc-ul-backpacking/events/288711627/. Sign up if you haven’t already!

It being Monday morning, and with no hunting needed until later in the morning. I considered going for a 10 before 10. However, we started just before 7 and, looking at my watch, it would require a sustained pace of over 3 miles per hour. However, this was the last day and the trail was pretty easy, so I started maintaining a slight jog on flats and downhills. I arrived at Swift Gap, the trip terminus having hiked only 9.6 miles. It seemed a shame to waste all my efforts just because the trip was too short, so I continued down the AT at a full run for the last 0.4 miles and just made it! I did a Snoopy dance and returned to Swift Run Gap to wait for the others.

Epilogue 

The AT through the Shenandoahs is like the interstate of the mountains. Anyone looking for a challenge and high adventure there are in the wrong place. There are a lot of other hikers and more encounters with passing cars than wildlife. Nonetheless, the views are great, it is close, and if you are ever lucky enough to hike with Water Dog, Holley, and Logan, do it. They are a ton of fun.

By my Gaia stats, we hiked approximately 63 miles with splits of approximately 3/27.5/22/10.5 with 11k elevation gain. The 27.5 day was much easier than it looks. This part of the AT is very well-graded.

Just remember: all suspects are presumed innocent. 

— Spider-Man

3 thoughts on “Living Off the Land (Shenandoah National Park AT; Front Royal to Swift Run Gap — 60 miles; Oct 8-10, 2022)

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  1. Brilliant writing! Thanks for the laughs. The description of partying at the shelters makes me sad, though. Seems like many of the best places are no longer suitable for nature lovers looking for a peaceful weekend.

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