Beard Length: Nick Offerman
Showers Taken: 17
Beers Drank: 69
Bears Spotted: 16
Zero Days: 5
The big highlight for me in making it into Virginia was being able to meet up with my good friends Garth and Lissa Callaghan. They would be the first friends from the “real world” to make the trip to come see me from there home near Richmond, VA. Lissa had mentioned to me early on that they had friends who lived near the trail and I would be able to spend the night with them as well. The caveat was that for the timing to work, I needed to pound out some HUGE mileage days.
Over arguably the hardest stretch of trail this far, I covered 104 miles in four days. But it was absolutely 110% worth it, because at the end of that fourth day, I met Mike and Sharon Eller.
Lissa had grown up with Sharon and they have been best friends for decades. She arranged for them to pick me up at the road crossing of VA 56 and had sent me Sharon’s phone number. I sent her a text introducing myself and told her that I would most likely be getting to the gap around 6pm. Honestly, I was quite proud of myself with the prediction and finished the 27 mile day at 5:54. Just as I sat my pack down on a rock, a blue truck pulled into the parking lot no more than 15 seconds after I had arrived.
A man and woman both stepped out of the truck, and the man yelled, “Handy Man?” And this was my first introduction to Mike and Sharon Eller.
After profusely apologizing for my horrid stench and muddy legs as I clamored into Mike’s immaculate Ford, we took off towards their home. They graciously did not inundate me with questions when I first arrived. It was like being in a wonderland when they showed me the guest bedroom I would stay in, handed me towels for a shower, and Mike went downstairs to put burgers on the grill; it was incredible.
Now clean and a stomach full of two burgers, homemade potato salad, fresh fruit, and Sharon’s phenomenal frozen strawberry pie, we began to talk about the trail. I welcomed all of their questions and enjoyed speaking about my experiences and daily routines. But what piqued my interest, was their immense curiosity on how they could help other hikers along the trail. Over the course of my stay with the Eller’s I learned more and more about what wonderful people they were.
When Garth and Lissa came the next day, I was over the moon. This is one of those days I had been looking forward to since the start of the hike. It was phenomenal to rest, relax, and catch up with two really great friends. After lunch we went to Devil’s Backbone Brewery in Rosedale, VA. This brewery features a delicious brew called the Mile 842 IPL (it’s at mile 842 on the AT), but that’s the least they do to cater to hikers. Additionally, they offer free onsite camping for thru-hikers and a massive hiker breakfast each morning. But I wouldn’t have to camp, because the Eller’s offered to host me another night; they even hosted Red Stripe for a night too.
When the two of us set off for Waynesboro, VA the next day we said our goodbyes to Mike and Sharon. As we hiked through the day, the clouds rolled in and it began to rain the hardest I have seen on trail so far. Lightning was almost directly overhead and the thunder was the loudest I have heard in my life. For the first time on trail, as the wind whipped and leaves blew off the trees around me, I was frightened of the weather on the trail. When we emerged from the woods to the road crossing to secure a hitch into Waynesboro, guess who was there: Mike and Sharon Eller. Mike had been watching the weather forecast over the area and began to worry that we were in the worst of the storm. So him and Sharon got in the truck and waited at Rockfish Gap until myself and Red Stripe arrived to make sure we were ok. They brought us towels to dry off and drove us into town.
And again as a reminder, I have only known the Eller’s for four days of my life. If you ever need to be refreshed on the kindness of humanity, go take a walk on the Appalachian Trail. However, I would argue that Mike and Sharon are exceptional, and if there was such an award, I would nominate them for Trail Angels of the year.
The next piece of the journey was through Shenandoah National Park. One of the major attractions of the park for me were the bears. Since hunting is illegal, there is an incredibly healthy and abundant population. Every South-bound section hiker I had met had plenty of bear tales from there journey through Shenandoah.
What actually happened, was that I was immensely disappointed for the first half of the 103 miles that go through the park. The first day it was pouring rain which raised the excitement by revealing lots of fresh bear tracks. It also resulted in me waiting out the rain in a roadside port-a-potty for a little bit. And by a little bit, I mean the longest amount of time I have ever consecutively spent in one.
The Shenandoah was aesthetically very different than the other main National Park (the Smokey’s) of the trail on the AT. The elevation difference is significant where the highest point in Shenandoah (on the AT) is Stony Man at 4011′ while Clingman’s Dome towers over the Smokey’s at 6644′. But where Shenandoah National Park lacks in scenic vistas and rocky prominences, it adds it’s uniqueness in the feel of a very old and ancient forest. Something about the way the moss hangs quietly over the incredibly large trees with an innate stillness in the air gives this stretch of trail an obviously prehistoric feel.
One of the truly astounding things was how bold the deer of the park are. Very often I would turn a corner to find a doe or a young buck grazing on the edge of the trail and pay no attention as I strolled by. Many times I could have even reached out to touch them. Early one morning, I awoke to loud noises outside of the tent which I had half-hoped would be a bear, but was just a friendly deer having it’s breakfast.
Little did I know, the day ahead would come to be known as, “Day of the Bear” on my AT hike. To date I had seen 5 bears over the first two months of the hike. On June 14th, I saw eight. Eight black bears. Shenandoah is also one of the first places I’ve ever hiked where some of the bears aren’t spooked when you yell at them.
Rounding a corner on the trail, I turned to the side to see a dark shadow staring at me. I snapped a few pictures while she continued to eat, but then she snorted at me and stood up. What I had not realized to notice were the two cubs no more than 5 feet in front of me in the tall ferns. After yelling my normal allegiance to Jim Gagne and clacking my poles, momma bear just kept staring at me. So I slowly walked away without anymore excitement. This was the only real “long” encounter, the other 5 bears I saw that day were mostly bear butts as they ran away. But my day ended the way it started, with a beautiful doe and fawn feeding while I hiked into twilight.
Early the next morning I quickly realized it would be another bear day when I rounded a bend to see one strolling up the trail ahead of me. After a minute of quietly following him, he suddenly turned around and spooked himself when he saw me. I honestly felt bad for ruining his morning walk.
It continued to be a day of critters with my first rattlesnake of the trail, laying quietly across the path. Although it would be highly unlikely for it to induce a fatal bite, I found it highly ironic that I was listening to a podcast on “How Cremation Works” when I stumbled across it. After a minute or so of a stand off, the snake slowly and silently slithered off into the trees.
As I sit here and write this post, I am the most happy and content I have been in the past two months. Today I hit the milestone of crossing 1000 miles.
But more importantly, my parents have come down to West Virginia to visit, and I get to spend this Father’s Day Sunday with my dad. They both even hiked a few miles of the trail with me this morning. Bob still needs to learn to check for poison ivy before he does his business though…
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, happy birthday to my Nana B, and happy 1st birthday to my beautiful niece Ellise! Lastly, HUGE thank you to Pat Laforge, Bryan Foster, and their families of Goffstown Fire Department who put together an absolutely amazing care package that they sent down with my parents!
Life on the trail is great and with my parents in town and a rental car at my disposal, my hardest decision for tonight, is where to go for dinner.
Harper’s Ferry, WV
June 18, 2018