The ice-glazed trail stubbornly resisted the tread of my shoes as we continued to climb in elevation. Every step took concentration and planning before execution to avoid being thrown off balance by my heavy pack. I had wanted to get away from schedules and civilization over spring break, and the Blue Ridge Mountains seemed like just the place to do it. My roommate Tyler had come along, rather reluctantly, to accompany me on this adventure. Unfortunately, the route we had been planning for a longer hike had become inaccessible due to the recent snowstorms, but I was still determined to make the best of it. At least I knew we would be virtually alone in the mountains. Around midday, after two miles of an inhospitable, frozen, uphill climb, we reached the first peak of our short hike on the Appalachian Trail, Mary’s Rock. We took this opportunity to eat a few pieces of beef jerky we had stuffed in our packs as we gazed out toward the vast stretches of peaks and valleys making up Shenandoah National Park. Patches of white snow were scattered throughout as if trying in vain to cover every surface, but were spread too thin.
This beautiful view was short-lived, however, as we needed to continue slipping and sliding to cover more ground before finding a decent campsite for the night. After a slight descent from Mary’s Rock, we came across “Bird’s Nest #3.” These nests are small hut-type structures used by long distance through-hikers along the Appalachian Trail. We stopped in to investigate the primitive three-walled stone hut and found a red logbook on a shelf above the fireplace. Inside, we found short entries written by the hands of hikers who had entered the nest under many different circumstances. Some were escaping storms, while others were experiencing a final night under the quiet stars before heading back to their normal fast-paced lives. It wasn’t until we wrote an entry ourselves that we felt we could leave the hut and continue on the trail.
We followed the white markers up and up until we had reached our highest peak yet, the summit of The Pinnacle. Being on the summit of a mountain poses some problems when trying to find a flat place to set up camp. After a game of hide and seek with a somewhat level piece of ground however, we pitched our two-person tent. (The fact that it is a two-person tent will definitely be an important piece of information later on in the story.) So, with everything generally set up for the night, we climbed up on the massive pile of boulders to watch the sun’s final rays of light kiss Virginia goodnight. Then began the adventure of cooking by headlamp. Even in the well-lit conditions of our college apartment I’m pretty sure our oven gets about as much business as a blind barber. Luckily, Ramen and a can of beans were simple enough to cook and therefore were the only things on the menu. Unluckily, we had forgotten to bring along a can opener. I figured that’s what knives were for, so I went to work on the poor can with my larger than necessary fixed blade knife. By the time I could finally poor the contents of the can into our pot it looked like a 12-gauge shotgun had been unloaded on it. Dinner tasted great all the same and soon we were ready to turn in for the cold night. Remember when I said the two-person tent fact was important? Well, two average-size college guys squeezing into a two (one and a half) person tent in full winter clothes surrounded by all their gear makes for some pretty close quarters sleeping. We began to be grateful for the body heat, however, as frost began forming on the inner walls of the tent. We talked for a little, our voices muffled by layers of sleeping bag, until the tent fell silent. Outside I could hear unidentified sounds of animals scurrying about to collect the scraps we had dropped during our clumsy dinner. Suddenly, I felt a peace come over me. As I lay there at 3,700 feet I knew I had accomplished the seclusion I had come out to find.
I awoke to a strange noise coming from Tyler’s side of the tent. When I poked my head out to investigate, he greeted me with a funny, weird, but not uncharacteristic expression. I laughed and felt the cold air enter my lungs. Both of us knew we had to get up and break camp, but our sleeping bags were so warm and entrapping. Eventually, we fought through and ventured out back into the wild to get back before the storms came. The clouds already appeared dark and ominous overhead so our trek back down the mountain began early. The ice covering the trail, which had slightly melted the day before, had all been refrozen and was more treacherous. Even though I used a stick for balance, I fell several times – often being cushioned by my pack. I am positive I looked drunk descending that mountain, but we eventually slid our way back down to our waiting cars. Although our adventure was cut slightly short, I’ll never regret venturing out into the unknown.