Day 3: Equipment Failure
Tuesday, August 25, 2020 9:13 pm
Location: Rod Hollow Shelter (29.4 miles)

There are few things worse on trail than having your equipment malfunction. I've occasionally had problems before, but never to this extent.

As I got out of my tent, I noted the relatively cool, nice breeze. I suspected it probably wouldn’t last. Still, it was a very nice way to start the day.

After a breakfast of pop tarts for me and electricity for my phone, I (attempted to) set out from Bears Den at 8:30. However, immediately upon putting my pack on, I knew something was wrong. Taking my pack off, I confirmed that the snapping sound I heard last night when I put my pack on the ground after returning to Bears Den was (probably) one of my pack’s metal support beams that had broken. This meant that instead of helping to support the pack, it instead got itself a new job: poking me in the hip.

Now, the sensible thing to do (as last night) would have been to not leave Bears Den and instead try to resolve the problem (probably by going off-trail and getting a new pack). But, I wasn’t ready to quit yet, since I felt I was able to wedge it back into a position where it would at least not poke me.

I did make one sensible decision, though: if today was as hot and humid as yesterday (it was), there was no way I was going to hike 18 miles to where I’d planned to be today. (Frankly, though, there was no way of that happening even if there was perfect weather. I was just not in trail shape yet to be able to accomplish that.) Today’s target would be just ten miles, to the Rod Hollow Shelter, just past the south end of the Roller Coaster.

With more daylight available, I easily found the correct turn where I went off-trail last night (turn right instead of left), and was on my way.

Heading down into a valley, it didn’t take long for the humidity to return, but at least it wasn’t hot — yet. I realized that the reason it was so much more agreeable at Bears Den was probably entirely that it was at the top of a hill. This theme held throughout the day: at the top of every hill, there was a nice, dry breeze, and descending into every valley brought lots of humidity.

The trail continued to be very rocky and slow-going; frankly, I can’t believe last night I thought it was a good idea to push on to Sam Moore Shelter shelter last night; I’d have never made it there. I made it to the first campsite south of Bears Den about a hour after I started today; this alone would have been well after sunset!

A little more than two hours after I started this morning, I made it the three miles to the Sam Moore Shelter. The humidity was awful, I was dripping sweat. Yesterday's ankle sprain and my pack weren't helping matters. But I did see a doe and her fawn on the short trail from the AT to the shelter, so that was nice.

I sat down on the shelter's platform, had a snack, and tried to dry off and relax. A little while after I got there, another hiker arrived to take a break on his northbound AT section hike, and get some water, and we chatted for a bit. He was a chef, from northwest Washington state, who had been laid-off due to COVID. So instead, he found himself hiking part of the AT. He quickly got water from the shelter's nearby spring, which was fairly muddy, and as he set up his water filter, I noticed that there was a salamander swimming around in his water bag. This reminded me of when that happened to someone else on the Long Trail a few years ago, though this time, the salamander lived.

Shortly after he'd gotten water, it started thundering, and then a heavy rain fell. I briefly considered stopping here for the day out of frustration and exhaustion from the heat, humidity, and the Roller Coaster, but decided that wasn't feasible since my pack wasn't going to repair itself.

The rain slowly tapered off, and the other hiker said, “Looks like it’s stopping.” Immediately, there was thunder, and the rain intensified to what had been falling a few minutes earlier. “Maybe not.”

It continued raining for a few more minutes before tapering off. We exchanged intel on the trail ahead; I recommended Bears Den and David Lesser Shelter as good places to stop on his way into Harpers Ferry; he said that water was not a problem, but that he had run into some large bears in Shenandoah.

On hearing of my pack woes, he offered some Leukotape from a very thick (but slightly soggy) roll. Unfortunately, the tape didn't stick so well to my pack, which was also quite wet from humidity and sweat. (Plus, it was also hard to jam the broken rod back into place and hold it there while manipulating the Leukotape in a way to fasten it to something.) I also opened a small packet of duct tape someone had given me on my AT hike, and was able to sort-of get the rod taped up in a way that, while it wasn't functional, it was at least not jabbing me in the hip. I spent almost fifteen minutes fighting with it, all the while quite aware that the cooler temperatures that had blown in with the rain were very quickly blowing out, being replaced with heat and humidity.

Finally, realizing that the tape wasn't going to hold, I stuffed my towel in the space where the road was poking out, and that worked, at least in that it provided me with several layers of towel as protection from being stabbed. I also got some water, at least enough to make it to the next water source. (Normally, I'd be happy to carry more water than necessary so I wouldn't have to take time to stop, but, I knew I was going to be stopping anyway just from the heat, and with the pack broken, why pile on more weight than necessary?)

I hiked on, continuing to struggle in the heat and humidity, and the Roller Coaster, and once I reached a high spot, got cell service and called my mom, letting her know that I would very likely need a pick-up tomorrow, on account of my pack being broken. She was understandably not happy about having to drive all the way into Virginia, but, there really weren't a whole lot of other options.

A mile and a half (and an hour and a half) from Sam Moore Shelter, I made it to Buzzard Hill, a used-to-be-a-view. (Trees below a rock outcrop had grown up, obscuring the view.) There, I took another break, and after looking for potential options, decided that a pickup tomorrow at Sky Meadows was in order. The towel-as-padding worked reasonably well, but it wasn't a fix, and I could feel my shoulders getting sore, as weight was not being efficiently transferred from the pack to my hips.

“View” from Buzzard Hill
“View” from Buzzard Hill

At that next water source, a small creek, about half an hour later, I crossed paths with another hiker heading north. He commented on how difficult the trail was for him, that it took him roughly four hours to get from Rod Hollow Shelter (my destination) to that creek. I hoped it would go a bit quicker for me, being a bit younger and the hottest part of the day now over, but even still, sunset was just under four hours from now, so I'd be pushing getting dinner cooked while it was still light out.

Two hours later brought me up one and down a mountain, past a creek when a nice campsite, and up to the summit of Piney Ridge, which itself had two nice campsites at and hear the summit. In retrospect, what I should have done was get water at that creek, and either camp there, or at Piney Ridge. But, as I drew closer to the south end of the Roller Coaster, the rocks had slowly started to dwindle, and I was starting to make better time. And, I had a "deadline" of sorts to get to Sky Meadows tomorrow; I didn't want to keep my mom waiting. At Piney Ridge's summit, the cool, dry breeze was relaxing and enticing, but, without water for dinner, I wasn't planning on stopping.

Creek and Bridge
Creek and Bridge

However, as I descended the mountain, the sky and clouds darkened, the breeze gradually picked up, and from a glimpse through the trees, it looked like rain in the distance. It would have been nice if the breeze kept blowing like that, but, quickly, the sound of the forest had changed, and from experience, I knew I was going to get rained on. Fortunately, on this penultimate downhill of the Roller Coaster, the trail was much less rocky, and I made good time.

I reached the bottom, another valley with a creek, and was greeted with thunder, so I quickly put my pack cover on. My shirt was already sweat soaked, so I didn't bother with my rain jacket (and if I had, I'd probably have wound up just as wet anyway from heat and sweat being trapped inside). I pushed on as quickly as I could, and made what felt like decent time. I hoped that, since I'd just missed the afternoon shower, I might be lucky enough to miss the evening shower. I wasn't.

I made it a good ten minutes up the last climb of the Roller Coaster when rain started; first light, and then gradually increasing in intensity as I climbed (partially due to there being fewer trees, and mostly due to the storm blowing in). Rain (and the darker skies) aside, the last part of the Roller Coaster wasn't bad at all, only occasionally steep or rocky. As the rain continued, no small number of frogs began hopping around the trail, which was in the process of turning into a small creek.

Part of my distaste for the Roller Coaster was the overly-smug signs (rather, a laminated paper notice stapled to a board attached to a tree) that had been installed on both ends of that section. At some point since 2016, the sign on the south end had been replaced with a large carved-and-painted wooden sign, overly-smug in an entirely different way. (It was hard to imagine why anyone would have wanted to carry that sign all the way out here!)

Finally, shortly after 7 pm, I made it to the Rod Hollow Shelter, where three other hikers were already in their sleeping bags. I had to solicit help from one of them to help me get my pack off — in the rain, and my haste, the broken support had worked its way out of where it'd been nestled, and forced my towel out of the way so that it was directly poking at me again, having ripped through my shirt to do so. I'd managed to make 9.9 miles in ten and a half hours, which was both depressing and highly exhausting. As quickly as I could, I went back to the creek on the side-trail to the shelter, now overflowing-with-runoff, to collect water to cook dinner. As soon as I got back to the shelter with the water, I realized I was entirely too tired to cook dinner. (This doesn't often happen to me on the trail, but today was definitely that tiring of a day.)

After eating a round of snacks instead of cooking, I hung my food bags on the bear pole adjacent to the shelter, with no small amount of difficulty. (I'm a hiker, damnit, not a gymnast!) For a tired hiker, having to use a very heavy pole to lift heavy food bags 20 ft off the ground to put them on a hook is just mean, en if it does help keep the bears away.

I switched out of my soaking-wet clothes and into dry ones, and climbed into my sleeping bag to warm up and relax. Drying off was a bit of a challenge, since my towel was now completely soaked, being that it was sitting behind my hip, soaking up sweat and moisture all afternoon. I had to use the extra buff I'd brought to use as a face mask in town as a towel. (It worked, though.)

Happily, the insects are considerably quieter tonight, though I can't tell if that's because of the rain, or the location. As I drifted off to sleep, I was reminded of something someone said during my AT thru-hike: never quit on a bad day. Today certainly qualifies as a "bad day". But, though I'm getting off-trail, I'm going to make sure it's for the shortest time possible: get a new pack, make sure it works, and and get back to the trail. As rough as it's been, the past few days, it's not time to quit yet!

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