Medium Rocks: Harper’s Ferry to Bear’s Den

Last weekend I completed my second section hike of the Appalachian Trail, from Harper’s Ferry to Bear’s Den, 20.1 miles.  It had been three weeks since my last backpacking trip and I was eager to get back out on the trail with everything I needed for the weekend in my pack, camp in the woods and log some more AT miles. We began the hike Saturday morning and went about 12 miles to the Blackburn AT Center, and then finished the last 8 miles to Bears Den Sunday.  The word of the hike was asunder, thanks to Thomas Jefferson and the spirit animal was the walking stick bug. 

Originally the plan was to start in Harper’s Ferry late Friday afternoon and hike a few miles to the first campsite on the trail, the 4 mile campsite and stay there for the night.  Maria had expressed interest in camping with us that night, and since she and her friend Billy don’t have backpacking equipment, I booked a place to stay in Harper’s Ferry Friday night.  I thought there was camping at the national park there, but that is not the case.  I got a site at River Rider’s campground and was glad that the plan had changed.  I had finished my second week of school that Friday, and the first few weeks always take me some time to adjust.  Despite my anticipation of the trip, I was not feeling as fresh as I had been on the first section hike.  I met Ken at his house and we took some time getting going, hit some traffic, and didn’t get to the site until the evening.  We set up camp, built a fire and cooked some impossible burgers and green beans on a cast iron skillet.  I brought tzatziki sauce, sliced cucumbers, pita bread and arugula to make healthy Greek-inspired burgers.  The green beans were so delicious and I was thankful to have one warm meal on a skillet before we had to leave that little luxury behind.  

I woke up early Saturday morning, not having slept well at all.  I am borrowing an inflatable pad from a friend and I could use an upgrade.  It is pretty thin. The train also ran through near the campsite a few times in the middle of the night, and startled me out of a very deep sleep the first time it rumbled past.  But I was excited to get out on the trail and climb back to Jefferson Rock, one of my favorite places in Harper’s Ferry.  We packed up, drove to the train station not far from the John Brown museum, where we had sat down and high fived at the end of our last trip.  I decided to get a real cup of coffee since we were in a town, but it was not quite 8:00 and it seemed nothing was open yet.  We wandered up High Street and came across The Town’s Inn, a quintessentially historic stone building with a second story porch. 

The climb up to Jefferson Rock was much shorter than I had remembered.  I have walked that part of the trail many times before, but often it is after hours of hiking, so even with my full pack, which probably weighed about 25 pounds at the time, I was energized despite my lack of sleep.  I read Jefferson’s quote on the plaque, “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Potomac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea … This scene is worth a trip across the Atlantic.”  I misunderstood what the word ‘asunder’ meant and from that quote I thought it was coming together, but it’s the opposite.  Asunder means to separate; apart or widely separated.  

Crossing the Shenandoah River

After crossing the river, we crossed a road and then the leg warm-up began.  We passed a  man going in the opposite direction, who smelled so amazing I have to note it here.  The climb was shaded by foliage, which was a good way to get trail legs ready for the long haul.  I noticed that we say a lot of day hikers, and remembered that now I am section hiking on weekends, so there would be more people on the trail.  We paused at a sign for Loudoun Heights view, talked to a few day hikers about our backpacking trip, but miscalculated how far the overlook was and decided to skip it and stay to the right to follow the white blaze.  The path between that fork and a spot where power lines create a bit of a view felt like a jungle.  The wide leaves of a plant I can’t identify, plus the humidity (it was cool at least) created more of a primeval forest feel than any other trail I have been on.  It is always fascinating how the forest changes throughout hikes.  I am currently reading the book How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley and being more attune and maybe one day being able to identify trees beyond the point of evergreen versus deciduous is a goal.  Until then, I told Ken every bush was a rhodendtrum and that I did not see any catalpa trees (one of the few I can identify).  Today I read a part in Gooley’s book about how plants react to the colors we wear and my appreciation for the intriatness of every living species is growing leaps and bounds, particularly as I step outside of my own bullshit and notice all the amazing things in life. 

The trail leveled off for a stretch and Ken and I both noticed that there were a lot of “medium rocks” on this part of the trail.  I had mentioned on our last hike how the medium ones are the trickiest ones for me to navigate, especially as I get tired.  Small rocks are slippery, but manageable with balance.  Large rocks you see coming, slow down and scramble over.  Medium rocks stick up, half buried, and trip the tired hiker who isn’t picking their feet up high enough anymore. I stumbled a few times throughout the weekend, but didn’t fall.  A few hours into the hike we got to Keys Gap and ran into a group of kids getting ready to head out.  We noticed that their packs were the same size as ours and admired how young kids were about to venture out to do what we were doing.  There was also a very well maintained bulletin board (the teacher in me notices these things) which announced this fact: “This year the A.T. is 2,189.8 miles long.”  The trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.  I know the reason that the length changes is due to side paths, detours etc but it is fascinating to me that something so concrete can change.  Each hike is different, and for the thousands of people who hike it, each person’s experiences are different, even down to the length.  Not far from Keys Gap, about 9 miles from Harper’s Ferry is the David Lesser Memorial Shelter.  We stopped here for a while to rest, I turned on my phone and checked in with my family and made sure my kids were alright.  

The shelter had a covered area with a porch swing that we rested on for a bit.  Sitting on a swinging bench feels amazing after a few hours of hiking, I can imagine thru-hikers must appreciate the hell out of such luxuries.  There is part of me that wishes I could thru-hike and feels like what I am doing isn’t “”good enough,” but as we sat there we both reflected on how lucky we are to have employment that allows for enough money and time to take weekend trips, but I am still anxious to get a stretch of several days and nights and more miles in.  As I write this, a week after the hike itself, the thought of how peaceful a quite forest, resting after physical exertion and talking about gratitude brings a sense of calm.  We watched a skink with a bright blue tail run around a log, and eventually decided to sign the trail book and head back out before we got too comfortable.  

David Lesser Memorial Site

The last three miles of the day brought us to Buzzard Rocks, with more skinks, Laurel Springs Boardwalk and at 12 miles we got to Blackburn AT Center.  The campsite is a little off the trail and feels very much to be “in the middle of nowhere.” There are many campsites, and we were the only ones there so we got our pick.  We put our stuff down, and climbed down to the Center itself.  I can only imagine how fun that place must be when it’s full.  There is a wrap-around porch, sweeping views, picnic benches and an old payphone. I am glad that I brought a long sleeve layer with me, because it was relatively cool that evening and the sun goes down earlier and faster.  I love the fall and I am ready for the cooler weather, but it’s a reminder to soak up the daylight hours while they last.  That night I woke up a few times, but slept very deeply between being woken up.  My blood sugar went high and I had to get out of the tent and pee in the middle of the night, which scared me.  This campsite was the most remote one I’ve ever been to, and I was convinced a bear was going to try to get in the tent because I have to sleep with at least a little bit of sugar near me in case I have a low blood sugar in the middle of the night. My current audiobook is Michael Easter’s The Comfort Crisis and he talks about how important it is to get uncomfortable and push ourselves.  Even without a book, I know instinctively what I am doing out on the trail is making me a better person, but in that moment I kept asking myself why I am out here?  I peed.  I got back in the tent.  I was not mauled by a bear. 

The view from Buzzard Rocks

The second day we decided to stay and rest a bit since we only had 8 miles to finish. The day started with a flat ridge walk, the a descent to Wilson Gap (where I “jumped” over a trickle of a stream, landed on a rock, slipped and nearly took Ken out).  About 4 miles in we got to the sign that reads “Hiker Warning: You are about to enter the roller coaster.  Built and maintained by the trailboss and his crew of volunteers.  Have a great ride!!!”  This is why we came out to this section, to try out the roller coaster and get a challenge in.  My hiking boots were nicely worn in, I was ready to go.  About half a mile into the Roller Coaster is Raven Rocks, a beautiful spot to stop and rest and take in the views.  A beautiful Sunday in the fall brought out a ton of day hikers, more than I had ever seen on the AT.  There were families, dogs, friends, etc.  After Raven Rocks, there is a steep descent with not many switchbacks, and we watched as a parade of people struggled on their way up to the view.  I made a mental note to do that day hike with my kids soon.  We crossed a stream that was under rocks and then up and down several times we went riding the coaster.  Sunday’s hike felt more like the hike in Maine than anything else, because of the inclines, the few spots of rock scrambling and the overall “feel” of the woods.  As we descended down into Snickers Gap, we could hear the traffic, and Ken thought the road was a river.  It is always a little sad for me to enter back into civilization, and I knew the end of this section and trip was near. We spotted a walking stick bug on a railing (another weird thing to see on the trail after only a few days out there) and snapped a picture. The walking stick “Focuses on patience and camouflage.  Reminds me to wait for the universe to line things up for me (no instant gratification! Ha) – and to not show everyone, basically, what I am up to until it is ready to be revealed.”   (source).  I am not a patient person, and I tend to try to bite off more than I can chew.  I have not seen many walking sticks in my life, so this was a good sign and reminder to slow down, things will come when they are supposed to come.

The parking lot at Snickers Gap was full and we came across another billboard and took a picture of a shuttle service to call from Bears Den.  From there you have to cross Route 7, which was a bit like frogger, the cars fly down that road.  A brief walk along the side of the highway made me a bit anxious and I hoped no one coming up behind me was texting and driving.  The trail cuts right off the road and back into the woods, and we got to our last climb of the day, up to Bears Den Rocks, another nice vista. The Bears Den shelter is a sight to see itself.  It is an old weekend home that was built in the 1930s to look like a European castle.  

On the last section hike, we had met “Trouble” who raved about the brewery near Bears Den, so we decided to go there and have a celebratory beer.  We called Sawbriar, who was less than thrilled to pick us up at a brewery but agreed to do so after determining that we were in fact “real hikers.”  The location was so amazing, we instantly started planning the next section hike to end there and meet up with friends.  Sawbriar drove us back to Harper’s Ferry and explained that Bears Den has become a party spot, and she’s had some trouble with drunk people wanting rides into town to get beers and drinking at the hostel.  She thru-hiked in 2003 and explained that she started out with four people and was the only one to finish.  She seemed “over” backpacking, but we still asked her tons of questions to try to learn everything we could.  Back in Harper’s Ferry we got to the AT Conservation Center just before they closed to get our pictures taken in front of the building to be added to the book.  

In the week since the hike ended, I have had a very busy work week.  I took on mentoring a new teacher, I got my French club and Honors Society back up and running and I got to two different classes at my gym in the evening for a second workout.  I kept coming back to Jefferson’s words.  I wondered what he meant because it was unclear until I realized he meant that the blue ridge mountains were the “it” being rendered asunder.  The power of the rivers split apart the mountains. Not only was my family unit rendered asunder as it were, my own life can feel like a dichotomy at times.  Having a trail moniker even separates “trail Liz” from “real Liz,” though I am just as real out there.  I decided to bring some of who I am in all aspects of life into the classroom this week and started Monday with a listening activity where I described my weekend in French and they had to illustrate what they could understand.  Then in French 2, they are learning reflexive verbs, so I added a lesson on morning routines and was very honest with them about how waking up at 4 am, journaling, meditating and then working out has made me “the best Madame I could be” and even admitted to them that I was on anti-anxiety medicine before I adopted meditation in my life.  It is apparent how detrimental not having school in person has been to kids and I am pouring so much of myself into work this school year. Like the walking stick reminded me, I have to be patient and the universe will help kids, teachers and parents heal from the chaos that Covid created.  The trip included a few miles of “The Roller Coaster” but not too much technical hiking. The medium rocks were the things that got me the most.  Like in life, small rocks and a nuisance, large rocks you slow down to get over, but the medium daily struggles that pop up and catch the top of your foot can trip you up if you’re too focused on getting somewhere in a hurry.  My hikes and growing gratefulness for nature are helping me balance out work/life teacher/mom and realizing that there is in fact only one me. 

-LGF

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