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Foot Forward: First Time on the AT

IMG_1717It rocks your feet inside your boots. That’s what I told myself six miles in, sitting in my hammock at the Dahlgren Backpacker’s Camp after my first time on the Appalachian Trail. I was so proud of my Merrell Moab Ventilator hiking boots with green Superfeet inserts and merino wool blend socks, and while I have no blisters to report, I have to give the first round to the AT. I lay in that hammock, listening to the wind rolling up the hills and swaying two trees that rubbed and brushed together making a sound like laughter, and fell asleep like a baby in a cradle.

The excursion began with the traffic jam that is the beltway in the afternoon. It took two hours to get to Frederick, Maryland from my room south of old town Alexandria, but I finally rolled into the trailhead and changed out of work clothes and into hiker trash attire in the front seat of the car. It was a quarter after six by the time I stood in front of the hiker’s overpass on I-70. I entered with a sense of excitement and reverence, disappearing into the wood line atop the flinty rocks that would remind me that I had feet.

I still tend to over-dress at the beginning of a hike, such as the unnecessary black jacket I was wearing. As I started to climb Bartman Hill on the west side of I-70 in South Mountain Environmental Area, a trail running couple and their dog passed me in the opposite direction. The man seemed military by his haircut and demeanor, plus he was carrying a coyote military day bag. We passed so quickly there was only time for a short greeting. I don’t aspire to trail running, but I was swinging my trekking poles at a pretty good clip. I wanted to get in as many miles as I could on this my first on The Long Trail. Bartman peaks out at 1400 feet, and my GPS told me at the halfway point that I’d gone up 1000 feet and descended 1200. That is enough to blow the cobwebs out of your lungs, and make you pull off any odd jackets that might be covering your torso and stuff them in your pack.

The woods were thick with deer, and they looked huge. Three of them skirted me on the IMG_1728east at one point, followed by another a minute later. It seems that everyone wants to see bears, or in Bryson’s case he didn’t want to be molested by one. I would have been at a loss had I encountered one at that point because my back was pressed tight against a tree as the remains of a McDonalds lunch ran into a cat hole between my shaking white legs. I could partially blame it on my excitement of finally being on the AT, but that’s a crappy symbolic present to leave behind for the Maryland wildlife.

Bartman descends to a road crossing, and you pick up two more hills before the trail places you on Monument Knob in Washington Monument State Park. Earl Shaffer mentions the “original” Washington Monument built by the people of Boonboro and later restored by the CCC. It was recently struck by lightning and they’ve got it engineer fencing around it until they can make it safe again, so I wasn’t able to climb the staircase to the top.

Washington Monument was a decisive place for me. I stood in the parking lot drinking water and plotting out my next move. I wanted miles, but in the gloaming, all by myself, I had no idea where I’d lay my head that night. My hands went to the top left pocket of my pack to grab my head lamp, which I put on and turned on. And I walked.

I walked up another hill and switchbacked down the other side into Turners Gap. The cool air felt good on my skin as I hiked through the darkness while my little lamp searched out the white blazes. Head lamp hiking seems to be a skill acquired by much practice, and though I never fell, I did roll my ankle once. My poles saved me. When it is dark and your legs are getting tired, you don’t pick your feet up as high, and you kick rocks. When you do that, your toes make you say bad words. My advice to you is that when you night hike, you make a concerted effort to pick your feet up and place them carefully. Even with shoes or boots on, sometimes kicking a rock on the trail is like stubbing your toe on a bedpost.

At the bottom of the switchbacks, the woods opens up into a grassy field and the blazes are on brown, six-foot high stakes. The light from my headlamp bounced off of a structure. It was the back side of a stone church. Across the street, a couple was leaving the Old South Mountain Inn (Food and Drink for All). There were still a few people inside, so I stowed my pack in the bushes by their stone patio and went in to the bar and asked if I could get a beer and a trip to the privy. Even though they were technically closed, they served me and allowed me to use the facilities.

People on the east coast are tickled because Bell’s Two Hearted Ale is available there now. It’s always been one of my favorite brews. It tasted especially magical sitting there chatting with the bartender at an establishment that serendipitously appeared at the edge of a big woods which you have just night hiked through.

I picked up the trail again wondering how far I’d have to hike until I came to a shelter. I found out in two-tenths of a mile, which is exactly where I found Dahlgren Backpacker Campground, already occupied by three tents and a hammock. I added a second hammock and crashed until I got the urge in the middle of the night to wet the port-o-john. I tried to fight off the urge until sunrise, but keeping pee warm really saps your body heat. I got up, did my wet work, and climbed back into my nest and instantly fell back to sleep.

The occupants in the tent across the lawn from me began to stir at sun up, simultaneously cooking breakfast and tearing down. I broke out my JetBoil to brew a double coffee and munched on maple bacon Pop Tarts while chatting. The older one said he’d completed a thru hike in 2003, and he was shrinking the learning curve for his younger friend. They’d come from Harper’s Ferry and were continuing northbound. They cleared out as I was finishing my breakfast. I broke camp as the rest of campers began to stir, but caught up to them again near a huge rock outcropping. The younger hiker was directing his friend to look around the biggest rock.

“Geocaching?” I asked as I stopped for water.

IMG_1680“Yeah, I was explaining it to him as we were hiking, he’d never done it before.”

“He’s going to get hooked and really slow your pace down, you know” I said, laughing.

He scrambled up the hill to help his friend look for the cache and I hiked on.

On the return to Monument Knob, I shared a water station with a Papa Sprout, a hiker who has completed from Springer Mountain to Front Royal, with plans to complete to Katahdin in sections. I wished him happy hiking and enjoyed the level grade until the trail left the confines of the park. I still had a lot of energy to burn up on trails when Bartman appeared ahead and I realized that my first go on the AT was coming to an end. I crossed the residential road where the trail continues between two houses and down a small erosion control stairway constructed of landscaping timbers and back to the hiker’s overpass across I-70. I stood there defiant, not wanting the excursion to end, but it did.

I tossed my pack into the back of the car and as quickly as it had begun, it ended.

I’ll be back.

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  • aagarlits April 1, 2016, 8:29 am

    Reblogged this on Free Range Hiking and commented:
    The first of the original Free Range Hikers is on the AT today. I’ll be meeting up with him in the morning to hike another 20+ miles from Newfound Gap to Cades Cove.

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