A.T. Day One P.M.
Gravel Springs Hut, A.T., VA - We arrived here somewhere near 7 P.M. after having
hiked for 11 hours. We had covered nearly 14 miles on our first day on the Appalachian Trail and were feeling fairly good about ourselves. Reaching this hut had been our goal, and we had made it.
Few other hikers had been on the trail. Maybe it was the driving rain and thick fog? Earlier in the day, about 4 miles into our hike, we had entered Shenandoah National Park. It was virtually indistinguishable from the trail outside the park, that is, it was steep and rocky. One of the first things you notice when hiking on the A.T. is that you spend most of your time under a canopy of tree cover. 90% of the terrain is either up or down. The only available views are of trees and rocks, and occasional wild life. However, the trail is well-marked with white blazes on trees at frequent intervals. Side trails in this section of Virginia are marked with blue, horse trails are in yellow, so it is virtually impossible to find yourself on the wrong path, unless you are hiking in a driving rain with thick fog. [See second sentence of paragraph].
The first named mountain we encountered was Compton Peak, with an advertised height of 2909 feet. Since we had begun the day at just under 1000 ft., we were pleased that we had somehow carried our 42 pound backpacks up nearly 2000 ft. of elevation in a few hours. We had carefully planned the contents of our packs, but having to bring a tent, ground cover, sleeping bag, food for 7 days, clothing, water purification kit, cell phone, plus 30 other essential items adds up in weight. The heaviest items by far were our drinking fluids which were in a hydration pack and two additional bottles. With temperatures in the high 80’s and with the 100% humidity, we were going through lots of fluids. By late afternoon we filled our water containers using the water purification kit in a stream which crossed the trail. Not only did the water come out of the filter absolutely clean, it was cold and refreshing. The kit is advertised to remove anything larger than 0.3 microns, which eliminates all bacteria and protozoans (such as giardia and cryptosporidium), so we felt fairly safe. With so many animals in the area, even a pristine stream may have been soiled by waste. But the kit added to the weight we were carrying up these mountains. Life is a series of trade-offs. Later we learned that a thru-hiker had to terminate her adventure due to a bad case of giardia.
The A.T. had crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway four times before we arrived at the trail which led down a steep hill to our rest stop for the evening, the Gravel Springs Hut. These huts are located every 15 miles or so along much of the A.T. for the convenience of thru-hikers. They are primitive affairs, usually simply three-sided log cabins with a picnic table in front and raised wooden platforms to sleep on. Often there is a spring nearby. Because we arrived late in the day, there were already 15 other hikers who had grabbed sleeping space in the hut. Often there are adjacent camp sites for tents; in this
case, the four tent sites were full, so we spread our sleeping bags in the small remaining open space. It was still raining.
Because there are plenty of black bears in this part of Virginia, it is necessary to hang all food items above the ground away from the camp so that the bears will not be attracted to your sleeping area. This hut had a large metal pole with arms from which to hang your “bear pack” containing all food. After a quick dinner, we put our stuff up there.
Most of our fellow campers were A.T. thru hikers on their way from Georgia to Maine. Most had been on the trail for over two months and were nearly half way in their journey. The majority were in their 20’s, and surprisingly, most were women. All were thin –
very thin! Everyone cooked a meal using small propane stoves with either freeze dried foods or ramen noodles. This evening meal appeared to be the only warm meal of the day for the hikers, as most left early in the am with only a granola bar and perhaps a quick cup of coffee. Most planned to hike over 20 miles daily. There is a certain “lingo” spoken among thru-hikers. Each person has a trail name, and the talk is often of “zeroes” and “near-o’s.” A zero is when a thru-hiker goes off the trail and spends a night resting
in a real bed in a hostel or even a motel. This is the supreme treat. Of course, too many treats and it becomes impossible to complete the 2100+ miles of the A.T. A near-o is any daily hike of less than 10 miles. In their world, this is essentially a day off! There is a log book in each hut where hikers can leave messages for those behind them on the trail, or can pontificate on any topic.
Trying to sleep in a crowded hut poses its own set of challenges. Although most hikers turned in when darkness fell, there were two young women and a guy who played a card game using headlamps for at least an hour. The light was not bothersome, but their frequent shrieks of joy, or groans of grief, during the game were not. Since this was our first night in a hut, I was uncertain whether flogging was an appropriate response to this incivility. There were also snorers – lots of them. Also mice are part of the hut culture.
They frequently squeak and run over your sleeping bag during the night. In spite of these challenges, most thru-hikers seem to prefer to use the huts, because they do not have to carry a tent, and thus have considerably less weight on their backs. But this does require careful planning and often long daily hikes. My preference is to carry the tent. At least I do not have to share my sleep with a gaggle of rodents, whether human or animal.
I thought you might like to know.