The trail meandered through an open field and headed downhill through waist-high grass. A couple feet on either side of the trail was mowed, keeping the grass from brushing against my legs. A deer walked out of the grass like Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams, just 10 feet in front of me. We startled each other and he took off down the trail. As I hiked out of the sun and under trees, I came across my first bear. He was plodding around the woods to my left, and we both froze as we became aware of each other. I fumbled for my camera and he just grunted and took off down the slope. I had hiked about 5 miles from Rockfish Gap and was now entering the Shenandoah's on a 98 degree day. I would have at least ten other bear encounters through the next 100 miles of trail. A lot of mama bears with cubs running around, jumping up trees and being goofy balls of black fur.
On my second day I came to Loft Mtn Campground's camp store, where I had an ice cream sandwich and a coke, followed by a 99 cent Yuengling. I could go to the bathroom and flush, take a shower, and do laundry if I desired. The Shenandoah's allowed me two of these visits to camp stores, a dinner at the tap room at Big Meadows Lodge, and a dinner at the Elk Wallow Wayside, complete with a delicious blackberry milkshake. My back kept reminding me I wasn't eating out of my food bag, but I didn't have to - food was everywhere.
The biggest climb in the Park was a half-mile of about 400 feet, but most of the time I strolled over long stretches of sidewalk flat trail. The trail was well-maintained and most of the footing was small gravel or soft dirt that felt wonderful underneath my feet. This was without a doubt the easiest hiking I had done on the Trail.
The trail crosses over Skyline Drive 28 times, I think, and at 5 or 6 of these crossings, I got iced cold drinks and snacks. "Pigeon", who had begun the trail as a thru-hiker and has since decided to just be a trail angel, met me and fellow hikers for three straight days at multiple road crossings and parking lots. "Wingin' It", who had attempted a thru-hike last year, had Pepsi's and Gatorade's at one parking lot and hiked more drinks to put in a stream by one of the shelters.
Despite all of these conveniences, this has been the hardest week on the trail for me. I left Waynesboro, after taking a zero, feeling exhausted and incredibly lethargic instead of refreshed. I did 20 miles my first day in the Park and went to bed at 7:30pm. I woke up with fever chills and a sore throat, and went back to sleep the next morning until noon. I crawled the easy trail for 7 miles over the next 5 hours to get to the Loft Mtn camp store, where I took cold medicine and hoped the ice cream would make my throat feel better. It was the first time I've been sick out here, and it was miserable. I'm a big baby when I'm sick. I get "man cold's" and I'm annoying and needy and miserable and that's when I'm at home, but now I was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
However, if there was any place on the trail to be sick, the Shenandoah's were the place to be. "Wingin' It" stayed in the same shelter as me on my second night, and he offered to drive me in to see a doctor the next morning if I still wasn't feeling well. I felt better in the morning, but by the afternoon I was a zombie and it was only getting worse. Luckily, "Pigeon" was there at Swift Run Gap and she drove me down into Elkton to the Health Clinic. I saw doctor Pete, who wrote me a two-week prescription for Docycline, an antibiotic to treat Lymes. He was fairly certain I didn't have it, but I had been bitten by a tick a week or so earlier and I was concerned, and he said it wouldn't hurt to take it. He offered me lunch and said I didn't have to pay the co-pay if I didn't have enough money, which I insisted on paying, and even drove me back up to the trail when we were done. Two days ago, I met Tina from North Carolina up on Mary's Rock and she shared her lunch with me. Her friendly conversation lifted my spirits and her vegan sandwich was delicious!
I cannot thank these people enough for their kindness and generosity. It has been a very tough week out here on the Appalachian Trail, but the civilization of the Shenandoah's and the abundance of support has kept me sane and got me through it. I'm in Front Royal now and I'm feeling better, just 3 or 4 days away from Harper's Ferry and Pauline. I cannot express how excited I am! Friday can't come soon enough.