It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve had a good hike. The last one was 7 miles of fun in the sun. Then I got sick, which really slowed me down. Today I got back into the swing of things with 6 miles on the AT. I’m trying to connect two sections I’ve done recently, and I got pretty close. It felt great to back out there huffing and puffing up a mountain.
As usual, I spent most of my time watching my step. A little after a mile of walking the outer perimeter of the National Zoological Park Breading Center (eerily like Jurassic Park) I turned a switchback and came upon the above down tree. I had an instant connection and had to stop. Something about the smooth ripple of its trunk struck me. I placed my hand on it as I noticed the thin lines that made up a pattern. I admired the skewed rings of its life and wondered what had caused it to grow so far off from center. I imagined what it may have seen in its lifetime. I felt my breath pumping through my chest. I felt connected to the earth and to myself.
In that moment of reflection I realized how lucky I am. I am free to grow in which ever direction I please. My happiness is tied only to me and the trees.
I have been watching, listening, and smelling the signs of spring. Every bit of green that has popped up through the forrest floor of my favorite places is engrained in my brain as bits of springtime happiness and joy. It began before the official vernal equinox, which just so happened to take place on the day the above selfie was taken. That’s right, it snowed a heavy wet snow that day. I pushed myself out the door and into what started as a cold rain, to do a hike I had never done, on rocky terrain that was moss covered and slick, with two dogs in tow, and the pay off was worth it.
Since then I have had the fortune to hike in warmer temps, increasing hours of sunshine, and blooms of native flowers. I thought certainly Buzzard Rocks was the last cold weather challenge. I began planning to push myself in distance for warm weather challenges. Little did I know that we would be hit with a cold blast the first weekend of April.
It began simple enough, my camping companion and I discussed a mutual desire to spend a night in the woods. We picked a day and time to meet, packed on our own without discussion of weather. Our only concern was that it might rain. I was bringing my dogs for their first back country camping experience, and I was nervous for so many reasons. The last thing we needed were two wet dogs in our faces all night. When we met up I asked what he was bringing to keep him warm. He said a fleece. We chatted briefly about the possibility that it might get below 30, how it was forecast to rain for an instance at 11pm, and how our elevation would probably mean it would snow briefly at 11pm. And we left it at that.
We started on our way in the Shenandoah National Park, registered to back country camp, got a few miles up the drive when I realized that I left my cell pad at home!!! Having to turn back meant delaying us by an hour. He asked what I would use in place of it. As I responded, “I’ll gather leaves” I turned the car around realizing that gathering leaves would make me miserable. So home I went, and it turns out to have been the best decision ever.
We make it to the parking lot and begin our descent. It was a gorgeous day! It must have been in the upper 60s. By the time we sought out and decided upon a campsite I was out of my fleece and down to a tank top. We made sure to set up in a spot that provided some shelter from the wind, because we had heard that it would be a windy night. I wish we had paid more attention to HOW windy it was going to get. The dogs had done great with their packs, but it took them a while to settle down while we made camp. Up went the tent, and up went the hammock! A first for us both. If you haven’t tried the Eno hammocks, you should. They are super easy to put up, and being suspended above the ground after a hike with a heavy pack on is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world. (See hammock behind tent in image below.)
There we were, perched just above the falls at Big Devil Stairs. This spot was perfect. It had the sound of rushing water, trees to break some of the wind, and an amazing view. Just steps away was a large concave rock wall that could be used for shelter if needed. We had a little rest in the hammock, then went out to explore for a bit.
The view from the cliff.
You can see the falls below if you squint and blink rapidly.
We sat around for a while eating dinner and chatting. We discussed our sleeping strategy. I would sleep with my dogs in the tent. He would give the hammock a try, and if it got too cold he would join us in the tent. The wind started to pick up around 9pm, and the gentle sound of a waterfall was no longer audible. Not long after, the rain started, so we took shelter. The dogs, who I worried wouldn’t be too keen on sleeping in a tent, were happy to huddle in place and fell asleep immediately. It took me a few minutes, but exhaustion got the better of me and I was out like a light…until 1am. The wind started to get wicked. I checked on the dogs. They seemed fine, although the blanket I brought them was soaked. Did they pee in the tent? 4am rolled around and O.M.G!!! The wind changed directions and picked up. I could hear my friend yelling expletives and something about snow. I asked if he was okay. He said yes, and he was going to stick it out. I think we are both hard heads when it comes to being safe vs. pushing ourselves to the limit. Turner, shivering, snuggled up next to me. I put my winter coat on top of him, and he fell back asleep. Lilly never budged. Lucky dog. I was mostly awake the rest of the night. The wind never let up. I emerged at 7am to get the dogs a pee break. We went for a short walk as my fingers began to freeze. Then we headed back, and curled up in the tent again. Finally, at 8am, it was time to get up for realsies. The wind was still obnoxious and the sun had yet to warm anything up. It had definitely snowed, and I was having a tough time making my hands work. Oh yes, I finally realized that the dogs hadn’t peed. The wetness came from the condensation resulting from the warmth of their bodies against the cold ground. What a relief! Also, poor puppies…
Side note; my camping buddy is the best. He put up the tent with little help from me because I was dealing with my fur monsters. He did all of the cooking. And, he did most of the packing up because I couldn’t feel my hands. Spoiled I was.
We started our hike out as the sun really started to make the outdoors feel livable again. During our hike back I stated that waking up to that kind of cold, or the cold we dealt with on our prior camping trip, is what makes me second guess being able to accomplish a through hike. I’m glad to have had the cold weather experience to be realistic in my future endeavors.
It turned out to be another beautiful, albeit windy, day. We were both so tired from being up for much of the night that we went to our respective places, took hot showers and napped. I eventually heard there had been gusts up to 65mph recorded in the park. I hate thinking about what could have happened, and I’m definitely feeling lucky. So, when is spring getting here? I see snow in the forecast this coming Saturday. I think I’ve had my fill. Or should I go for one more cold weather challenge?