In 1921, when planner and preservationist Benton MacKaye first conceived of his Appalachian National Scenic Trail, he couldn’t have predicted that nearly 90 years later, his 2,000-plus-mile footpath would attract between 3 and 4 million hikers annually, or that approximately 1,625 of them would begin at either Springer Mountain, Georgia, or Katahdin, Maine, the southern and northern termini, intending to hike straight through. (Due to drop-outs and injuries, only about 700 thru-hikers actually finish each year.)
One thing he may have known, however, was that the 550-mile Virginia stretch of the Appalachian Trail, as it’s now called, would serve as a sort of hub for section-hikers, day-hikers and flip-floppers alike, particularly as it nears the West Virginia border at Harpers Ferry.
It was this 50 miles of the Virginia section, between Front Royal and Harpers Ferry, that my four hiking partners and I contemplated on a chilly Monday morning in March a few years ago, at the start of the northbounders’ season, when we piled into Sawbriar’s pick-up in Harpers Ferry for the drive down to the Manassas Gap trailhead.
Sawbriar, or the Pack Nazi, as we would later (and affectionately) call her, was a five-foot-tall sprite with auburn hair, whom we had hired for a small fee to shuttle us down to our start. A veteran of two truncated thru-hikes, she could not resist the temptation to lighten our load of all non-essentials—a trowel, a novel, dog-eared New Yorkers—as we geared up in the hotel parking lot. Only later, late in the five-day slog, would we appreciate her packing wisdom, shedding a 28-ounce jar of peanut butter and gobs of gorp as we went.
Though we didn’t know it then, Sawbriar (whose trail moniker came from a tangle with a sawbriar thicket near Springer Mountain) was the first of many trail angels who would cross our path in those five days. In dispensing advice, cooking meals and offering small gestures of kindness, trail angels practice trail magic, acts of no-strings-attached generosity that, to bone-weary backpackers, seem just short of miraculous.
Two days in, and Sawbriar’s mantra was reverberating in my head. “Food. Miles. Shelter. Food. Miles. Shelter.” Stripped down, sort of, to the barest of necessities, and communicating only with your partners and those you meet in transit, you become both keenly focused on what you need to get you through the day and aware of all the excess that clutters your life back in the real world.
Late that afternoon, climbing our way out of a steamy valley, we experienced one of the perils of AT hiking: dramatic shifts in temperature that, especially early in the season, can necessitate frequent changes of clothing. The cool morning had given way to a humid 80 degrees, and with little leaf cover under the searing sun, we were exhausted and dehydrated. We collapsed on a paved trailhead parking lot and re-hydrated before rolling through Sky Meadows, a heavenly stretch of grassy pasture dotted with bluebird boxes and an occasional strip of weathered fence.
One foot in front of the other became our rhythm by Day 3. Taking your eyes off the path meant risking a twisted ankle or a fall over a ledge. A cold front moved in as we approached the Rollercoaster, a profanity-inducing stretch of steep ups and downs and occasional switchbacks, where the cumulative 5,000-foot elevation change rivals that of Katahdin, among the trail’s highest points.
A raw wind was ripping as we stumbled up the last hill of the night, in parkas, hats and gloves. In the dark, the climb had turned treacherous, and it was well after 10:00 p.m. and the temperature near 30 degrees when we reached the Bears Den hostel. Once inside the warm kitchen of this sprawling, 1930s compound, I leaned heavily against the wall as Queen Diva, the caretaker, recited the pizza-and-ice-cream menu and briefed us on hostel rules. When she finished, I felt my legs give way and slid down the wall. “Tombstone pizza will never taste this good again,” said Queen Diva. An affably maternal, on-again-off-again section hiker given to hosting “feeds” for hikers in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, she had earned her trail name due to her obsession with off-trail conveniences such as curling irons and hairdryers.
Before leaving us to our pepperoni and pints, Queen Diva handed us a package. “From Sawbriar,” she said. Inside the box, addressed in care of Bears Den Hostel and inscribed, “To the five Yankees from New York,” were five Zagnut bars.
On Day 4, we hit the last few miles of the Rollercoaster with gusto and candy. When we arrived at the Blackburn Trail Center at dusk, our spirits were boosted by thoughts of a finish line within reach. Situated atop a rocky spine on the Virginia-West Virginia line, the center is run by caretakers who welcome hikers to sleep on their screened porches or on wooden bunks in a cabin. That night, as on nearly 200 nights that year, Red Wing and Hopeful fed guests a spaghetti dinner with salad, garlic bread and brownies.
“Even if you’re just out for a week or longer, the trail offers an opportunity to be very real,” said Hopeful, who completed her first thru-hike with her husband Red Wing (his second) in 2005 and who said she has rarely met a thru-hiker not in the midst of some sort of transition in their lives. “You cut through the normal things that separate us—what you do, what you look like,” she said. “So you develop friendships that would never have been possible [off-trail], because you’re working or because of geography.”
This is the essence of the AT’s appeal—the reason, according to most who have hiked it and many who have studied it, that so many who spend time on the trail emerge from it changed in some way.
Day 5 brought a palpable impatience to finish. As we emerged from the woods onto a precipice overlooking the sweeping panorama of the Shenandoah River joining the Potomac, the Harpers Ferry church steeple in the distance, I broke into a gallop. Later, over burgers, beers and vegetables—a novelty—it was hard not to think about when we might tackle our next stretch. Mt. Rogers, anyone? Maybe Sawbriar’s available.
Don't miss Joe Tennis' Appalachian Trail experience, found here.