Day 5: A Soggy Return to the Trail
Tuesday, September 1, 2020 9:00 pm
Location: Jim & Molly Denton Shelter (47.8 miles)

By taking an extra rest day, I’d hoped to skip the rain. It didn’t work.

A relatively uneventful drive from home back to Sky Meadows State Park got me to the trailhead just after 9:30 am, earlier than I expected, to grey, overcast skies. I’d hoped the day would be dry, since that’s what the weather forecast said, but, the weather wasn’t quite so kind.

I made my way up the Piedmont Overlook Trail from Sky Meadows’ parking lot, going from a grey cloud overhead to being inside the cloud. Rather than nice views of the surrounding area, I instead saw the whiteness of fog. And ghostly cows.

Ghostly Cows
Ghostly Cows

I knew there were cows in the park, but I wasn’t actually expecting them to be on the trail, eating the grass. So I had a bit of a cautious hike, as I was trying to move slowly and deliberately, and also somehow reassure the cows that I wasn’t going to bother them. Or take their food. If that’s a thing cows worry about.

I passed a second set of cows; this time a bunch of them were hiding in the tall grass alongside the trail, so a number of them actually did surprise me.

Not long after the cows, the trail climbed into forest, and it started to rain. I hoped this would be brief, and then done. The weather app on my phone seemed to suggest this, and knowing that I’d. E shortly exiting the forest and going back into an exposed meadow, I waited underneath a tree for about fifteen minutes for the rain to stop, which it mostly did, and by the time I’d left the woods and reentered the meadow, it had stopped completely.

Including that wait, it took just over an hour to make it back to the Appalachian Trail.

For the most part, the day was a series of gentle climbs and descents, with the occasional steep climb thrown in for good measure. But importantly, it was much less rocky than prior days had been, and I was able to make fairly rapid progress for being only five days on the trail. It wasn’t cool enough to keep me from sweating, though, but the lack of sun did keep the temperature to a reasonable level, so it wasn’t miserable like when I was going through the Roller Coaster.

As was tradition for the morning, spiders were out with their webs crossing the trail, though fewer than before, likely because many webs had been damaged or destroyed by the rain. I did pass by a few still-standing specimens, accentuated by raindrops along their strands.

A Wet Spider Web
A Wet Spider Web

With the sun hidden behind the clouds, it was occasionally dark and foreboding, especially when the foliage crowded in on the trail.

Dark Trail Corridor
Dark Trail Corridor

I passed by three shelters today. On my way to the first, Dicks Dome/Whiskey Hollow, another hiker, “Captain America” passed me, also going south. He’s the first thru-hiker this year I’ve met. Going slightly faster than I was, I let him take the lead, mostly hoping he’d knock some the water off the plants next to the trail so I’d get less on me. My shoes were getting soggier them I’d prefer, and I knew there would be a good chance my feet would be unhappy with me tonight. We talked briefly, until we arrived at the trailhead to the shelter. A little further off-trail than I wanted to go, I opted to sit down on a tree stump placed next to the sign for a short break. Captain America hiked on.

Almost an hour and a half after I left the shelter trailhead, it was clear the weather was not going to improve quickly. It was still foggy with a light drizzle, and the cloud was going nowhere. Off in the woods, trees were dropping heavy water-soaked branches with cracks and thuds.

Shortly before 2 pm, I made it to the Manassas Gap shelter. I was quite happy with the pace I’d maintained, hiking just under ten miles (from the Sky Meadows parking lot) to the shelter in about five hours, excluding breaks. A little slow, but not bad for not having trail legs yet.

Captain America was there, though I first saw “Notebook”, hanging out in a hammock strung up under the overhang of the shelter’s roof. Notebook, I found, had attempted a thru-hike in 2016, though we never met, since I was a month ahead of her. Today, she was out for a short day hike and lazy afternoon, since she lived very nearby. I also learned (from the cap he was wearing) that Captain America has also hiked the Pinhoti Trail, a few-hundred-mile trail from Flagg Mountain in Alabama to the Benton MacKaye trail in Georgia, as a prep hike for his AT thru.

We chatted for about a half hour, and Notebook shared with us some extra food she brought, before it became time to move on. Captain America said he was hiking into town for a resupply and offered to pick up some beer for the two of us tonight since we’d be staying at the next shelter; Notebook graciously offered Captain America a ride from the trailhead to the store, since, as she said, she lived very nearby.

The afternoon brought more drizzle, but at some point, the fog lifted. I thought I’d be able to make it to the shelter before Captain America caught up, but the ride saved him a lot of time, and he was able to catch up to me on the steepest uphill of the day.

That steep uphill brought me to another ridgetop meadow. For the first time ever while hiking, I saw (what I could clearly identify as) a buck, with a pair of antlers still in velvet.

A Buck
A Buck

I made it to the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter just before five, giving me 14.8 miles in 7.5 hours, including breaks. Not a bad way to restart the trail.

The shelter is one of the few that has a spring-fed solar shower. I opted not to use it (since I really didn’t want to get more wet than I was), but I did use the drain valve to collect water for dinner and tomorrow.

The rest of the evening was low-key. Captain America and I drank the beers he brought, ate dinner, and swapped trail stories.

Tomorrow: the “plan” is an ambitious 18.6 miles to the Gravel Springs Hut in Shenandoah National Park. It’ll require me to get up and get going early tomorrow, since it’s going to take almost all the daylight hours to get there. Unfortunately, the only place to stop before there is just eight miles from here, so it’s going to be either a short day, or a really long one.