October is one of my favorite months of the year, partly because of Halloween, and partly because it’s when I do my annual pilgrimage to Shennandoah National Park. I rent a cabin. I hike for 3-4 hours a day. I decompress in a place where the WiFi is so horrible that it’s pretty much nonexistent, and the cell service is spotty at best. I tend to just put the phone on airplane mode, and check it a twice a day when I’m at an overlook or near the lodge. I do get some writing done, but the purpose of this trip is for me to get my butt outside, get my heart-rate up, maybe see a bear or two.
Day 1 – I drop the kids off at the bus stop. I drop the dogs off at the kennel. I do a little bit of laundry, a little bit of vacuuming, then I get in the car and drive. The trip to Front Royal (the north end of Skyline Drive) is so familiar I could probably do it in my sleep. I’ve been coming up her to camp and hike since I was in college. I can feel myself unwind and relax the moment I pay my $25 park entrance fee and joke with the ranger about how I’m going to race my Challenger along the winding roads.
I’d love drive this road top-speed, but I won’t because I don’t want to hit any bears.
Still, top speed has to be faster than this:
Yes. I’m behind a mini van. I get to Skyland at 3:00 and check in. I unload my car and unpack. I dine on hummus and kale chips (Gabe would be so proud). I drink a tiny plastic bottle of some generic red wine. I nap. And at night, as the sky begins to darken, I sit in my cabin with the windows open wide and listen. Owls. Oh, how I love the sound of owls at night.
Day 2 – I’m up before the sun because that’s when I’m used to rising in order to get my kids on the bus for school. Once the sun comes up and I’ve already had a small pot of coffee, I hike up to the lodge for breakfast, and work in their cozy lounge area. Then at noon, I forego lunch, throw one of those go-packs of tuna and crackers in my pack along with binoculars and my trail maps, grab my hiking poles, and head out.
I love to hike. Don’t tell my boss, but I sneak out once or twice a month to one of the local trails and follow the sign posts while moving as fast as I can. Some days it the 7 mile hike at Braddock Mountain. Sometimes it’s the 4 mile hike at Patapsco. Sometimes it’s the 1 mile at Cunningham Falls because I’ve got no time.
I’m out for 4 hours, moving fast. I start on the Passaqua-something-or-another trail, detour to the Furnace Springs Trail, jump onto the Stony Man Trail, then onto the Appalachian Trail. By the time I figure I need to turn back, I was just over four miles from my cabin.
Fuck. That four-something miles back sucked, especially because I took a detour that may have saved me on miles but had me on a horribly rocky trail with elevation changes that left lots of red marks on the heart rate monitor of my Garmin.
By the way, my Garmin lies. Lies, I tell you. I figure I probably did 7-8 miles in hiking, but this is what my traitorous watch showed:
Day 3 – Up early again. I’m in a routine with the breakfast and working until noon. It’s foggy. It’s seriously foggy and it’s not letting up. I give zero fucks so at noon I grab my sticks, leave the day-pack in the cabin, and head out. I take Stony Man all the way to the overlook, which is hysterical in the fog. It’s basically like standing
on a bunch of rocks with gray all around. I nod a few times. Take this cute picture, and head out, moving south. My Garmin is a bit more reliable this time, clocking me at 6 miles, which seems pretty accurate.
I haven’t seen a bear yet, beyond the cute stuffed one I brought along with me. All I’ve seen is chipmunks. Evidently bear sightings are common, and I did see one last year. I’m beginning to think I should ask for a refund. The park needs to have a Bear Experience, maybe import more bears. And I seriously think they should guarantee a bear sighting at least once every visit.
Did I mention that my cabin has 3 rental rooms? Day one I was solo in the cabin. Day two a very loud bunch of people arrived in the evening, acting as though they were the only ones in residence. They even banged on my door and appeared shocked when I answered it—maybe because I looked like I was ready to shank them. They apologized for being loud.
Tonight it was worse. There is a common hallway, and since they’d rented two of the rooms, they just opened their doors and treated the whole thing like it was one giant hotel room. I hunkered down on my bed and fumed. Finally I got up to make my way to the lodge and poked my head in their room, informing them that when they leave their doors open like this, I can hear every word they are saying, including their conversation on speaker phone just now about Aunt Millie who is in rehab. Then I left.
The fog was gone, but clouds had settled in the valley with the mountain peaks jutting above like some elaborate whipped cream dessert.
I left the lodge at nine at night, and it was POURING rain. I ran down the trail with my cell phone flashlight and was completely drenched by the time I reached my room. I stripped in the bathroom, wrapped myself in a towel and laughed because I don’t melt. Rain is my friend.
Day 4 Rain is not my friend. The temperature dropped. The rain didn’t. It’s not pouring any more, but a steady more-than-a-mist rain that normally I’d shrug off, but in these temps just makes me feel chilled to the bone. I put on a thick hoodie and hiked just over a mile before throwing in the towel. So instead I took a hot bath and spent the day with chamomile tea, reading in bed. It was glorious.
My neighbors were respectfully quiet, and even apologized when I saw them this evening. I think they are appalled that I now know about Aunt Millie’s rehab.
I head to the tap room in the lodge because I could use a beer and tonight a local Clogging group is performing. I end up in conversation with several AT distance hikers, including Captain Bob, a retired Navy CO, and Wildflower. I’ve never done anything beyond a three-day backpack trip in the past, not counting the seven-day horseback riding trip in the Grand Tetons that was kinda Glamping IMO, so I’m intrigued by Bob’s experience. He’s southbound (obviously because you’d be crazy to be a northbound through-hiker in Virginia in October) and I’m really interested to hear about his daily miles, where he’s camping, etc. He’s got the kinda I’m-taking-my-time style that I’d love to do if I ever got the nerve (and found a hiking partner) to do a thorough-hike.
The cloggers had black dresses with white crinolines and huge pink bows. They were amazing. And so was the beer.
Day 5 – Heavy fog and that chilly/misty rain, so I check out and decide to head on back a few hours early, not thinking that driving along the twisty-turns of Skyline Drive in the fog means little to no visibility. Still no bears, but what did I see heading out of the park, but a bobcat.
A bobcat. (stock photo here because I was too shocked to get my camera). He ran across the road in front of me. I thought “that’s not a raccoon, or a fox, and there aren’t any huge domestic cats up here.” He stopped. I stopped. We stared at each other for a moment while I realized that on a foggy Friday the 13th morning, I’d actually seen a bobcat. Then he sauntered off into the woods.
And I’m already planning for next year. Who knows, maybe this time I’ll actually see a bear.