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I was back on the Appalachian Trail last week hiking a 50-mile portion that meanders through Northern Virginia into West Virginia near Harpers Ferry.
After a six-month layoff, I expected the hike to be tough on this old out-of-shape body. It was, and was made even more so by crummy weather. The first two days were unseasonably cold, followed by two days of constant rain and fog. The fifth day out was beautiful, but unfortunately was followed by yet another cold rainy one.
My idea of a perfect backpacking trek is one that includes great weather, scenic vistas and encounters with interesting people. The weather obviously wasn't perfect and any potentially notable vistas must have been hidden behind the curtain of fog and rain that seemed to follow me up the trail. Fortunately, I encountered some very interesting people, who made the trip worthwhile.
I encountered the first of them just five minutes after hitting the trail.
A group of about nine college students from New Tribes College in Jackson, Mich., was starting a 100-mile jaunt of their own. After brief hellos, we parted company on a day so cold that I had to wear wool gloves and a black watch stocking cap to stay warm. I didn't expect to see them again, but was pleasantly surprised to chance upon them several days later at the Sam Moore shelter.
A couple of them greeted me like a long-lost cousin, but that's not unusual on the AT. I learned a little something about them as we chatted while they packed their gear.
None of the college kids had ever before been on an extended backpacking trip. By the end of the first day, some regretted deciding to go backpacking during their spring break instead of joining friends at the beach. But five days into their hike, opinions had changed.
"The first 10 minutes were horrible," said Laura, adding that the first day they hiked 14 miles. "But now I feel it was a good experience. I learned a lot."
"We are training to be missionaries" said Seth. "At least some of us will be going into jungle areas to translate scripture into the people's own language. I think this trip will be good training for that."
Two of the college hikers had a reason all their own for especially enjoying the outing.
"We got engaged on the first day of the trip," said Katie, snuggling near a campfire with her beau Josh.
Josh explained that he popped the question as soon as they reached the crest of a nearby peak.
On day two I only met one group of hikers.
After watching a helicopter that seemed to be hovering above me for about a mile, I noticed a group of four men walking toward me. They introduced themselves as members of a local search and rescue squad that was searching for Jose, a Portuguese man who had been missing in the mountains for the previous two days.
I hope they found him safe. Given 20-degree nighttime temperatures, he would have a tough time surviving unless he found shelter and was equipped to build a fire.
After two days in the woods, I decided to escape the approaching storm front and forgo sleeping out in the woods. Instead, I hiked to my car and headed to the Bears Den Hostel where I arranged to be shuttled north 15 miles and hike back to the hostel over a two-day period.
The Bears Den is an 8,000 square foot stone mansion located about 100 yards off the AT. Built in the 1930s as a private residence, it became a hostel in 1985. Now it is owned by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and operated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). For $15, hikers can get a shower and spend the night in one of the hostel's bunk beds. What a deal, especially after a few days of no-shave and no-shower!
The hike back to the Bears Den was made even easier as Scott, who with his wife Marie manages the Den, offered to drop my pack at another hiker-friendly establishment, the Blackburn Center, which is located about half way back to the Bears Den. So instead of carrying my backpack, I just had to haul a snack and a bottle of water.
Built in 1910, the Blackburn Center consists of a rustic main cabin that includes a fully equipped kitchen and sleeping facilities, a carriage house, and a free hiker's hostel, where I slept. The center is owned by the PATC, and day hikers and long distance hikers inundate its facilities during the late spring and summer.
But last week, Isabel and her adult son Jonathan were the only other hikers at the place. Showing the kind of hospitality that makes the AT experience so special, the Center's new caretakers, E.T. and Tina, invited the three of us to share their meal inside the warmth of the main cabin.
Isabel is a retired school teacher from London, England. Like many other people I've encountered over the years, she decided to hike a section of the AT after reading "A Walk in the Woods," by Bill Bryson.
E.T. and Tina had met on the trail during a thru-hike they completed on Dec. 14, 2007. Both had decided to give up their pre-hike existence and devote themselves to staying close to the trail.
"I had just received a degree in fine arts," E.T. said, "and Tina was a technical writer."
"We both started our thru-hikes in Maine and met on the trail in the Shenandoahs," Tina added.
Most thru-hikers start in the south and hike north. But E.T. and Tina decided to do the opposite.
"Each year about 2,500 (thru-hikers) start in Georgia and about 250 complete," Tina said as she started to explain her decision to start at the trail's northern terminal. "Only about 250 start in Maine and 25 make it. I thought it would be interesting to be one of those few.
"I also like the idea of heading south where it's warmer. I'd been living in Tennessee and I'd never been up in New England. I liked the idea of going from the unknown to the more familiar."
The next day, I didn't meet anyone on the trail as I headed back to the Bears Den. However, after arriving at the hostel, folks with interesting stories just kept on coming.
Scott Wheaton thru-hiked the AT in 1999. Six years later, he did it again with Marie whom he married after his first hike.
"We knew we wanted to find work in something having to do with hospitality," Scott explained. "Also, she needed to have her own experience, unless she wanted to have to hear me talk about it all the time."
Since completing their thru-hike in 2005, the Wheatons have been living their dream. First they managed the Blackburn Center for two years, and since November 2007, have been in charge of the Bears Den where they live with their 16-month-old daughter Lydia.
Rob and Tori McConnell operate the Baptist Children's Home in Mt. Pleasant, Mich.
The home provides a safe haven for children whose lives are in turmoil. Some of the children are from the U.S.; others are foreign nationals.
When I returned to the Bears Den, Tori, along with her four daughters, was keeping house at the hostel while Rob was on a four-day hike trail with their four "sons," Aaron from Lansing, Mich., Deisius from the island of Jamaica, and Michael and Abraham from Liberia, Africa.
When the boys returned, the exuberance and love displayed between the little girls and their adopted brothers was extremely moving.
Pete Peterson also spent a night at the Bears Den while I was there.
Peterson is not your typical AT backpacker. Maybe that is why I came to respect him so much. He doesn't own special light weight hiking boots, so he was wearing his work boots. He also doesn't own a sleeping bag or pad, cooking kit or water filtration system.
Never having earned more than $15,000 in a year, he said he can't afford that kind of gear. He carries four quarts of water and assorted food in an army surplus knapsack and relies on finding some kind of shelter and bedding each night. He just makes do with what he has.
But then Peterson is used to making do. He doesn't own a car and reached the AT by taking a bus to a point close to the trail and then hiking 8 miles.
Back in Baltimore, he makes a living by digging and pouring foundations under 100-year-old row houses that are being renovated. He rides a bike or pushes a wheel barrow to the work site.
"One time I had to push it loaded with my tools seven miles one way," he said.
I've never met a friendlier or more upbeat guy than Pete Peterson.
My most unusual encounter was with Rita, a 5-year-old black lab mixed breed dog. She was traveling with Steve, a handyman and outdoor photographer, who hopes to sell his photographs in communities along the trail.
When Rita was just a pup, a fellow named Teddy told a story about Mr. Bojangles and sang a few bars while telling it. Since then, when someone says Bojangles, Rita perks up her ears and gets ready to sing. When someone says the word "Teddy" and/or starts singing a few notes, Rita leans back and "sings" with a forlorn lonesome howl that sounds a bit like an old Hank Williams number.
In June, I leave for a two-month sojourn on the AT. Hopefully, I'll have some nice weather, and beautiful scenery would be nice. But if I can't have it all, I'll gladly settle for interesting people (and critters).