Shenandoah in 2009

Now that I'm once again in Shenandoah National Park, I thought some of you might like to read my journal from my trip to the park in October of 2009. After this trip I began to seriously consider quitting my job, leaving everything behind, and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. 


I try to keep my life simple. I’ve managed to avoid most of the responsibilities that tend to ride shotgun with adulthood: marriage, children, a career with even the slightest potential of upward mobility, or any measurable role in the community. But even without those things, ordinary day-to-day life can still keep me distracted from the simple relaxing moments I crave.

Staying on top of requests at work and merely maintaining a clean healthy home and body, so they don’t end up like a post-Chernobyl event, is a daily grind. So even a simplified life can bring with it some short frantic days and nights where you don’t even realize you’re tired until your worn out body hits the pillow.

Often when I try to relax or spend time on something I enjoy, my mind drifts onto those chores and errands and a tiny pang of guilt seeps in for not working on them. I can't imagine how parents and people with more responsibilities handle it. You must have to be sick to get a guilt-free break from your to-do lists. Fortunately I have a solution that doesn't require being bedridden with the flu: a combination of solitude, a trail meandering through the natural world, and a bare minimum of necessities on your back.

Picture your own to-do list, and imagine for at least a week, that seemingly endless and ever-growing list has been simplified. Now it only contains (and when your transportation is miles away, it's noteworthy to say, it can only contain) one item: take another step. 

You don't think about laundry or mowing the yard. Nobody is going to call asking you for a favor, nor will a deadline at work even cross your mind.  No sense in feeling guilty about it, you are in the woods miles from a vehicle, there is nothing you can do but move forward. Soon you find that your mind unclutters and relaxes.  You can breathe easy.  The important decisions of the day are relegated to where to walk, where to eat, where to sleep, and where to poop. It just doesn’t get any simpler than that.

I know I often romanticize my time in nature and mostly remember the good things, but I want to be honest and not leave the undesirable moments out of my journal. John Muir once said it takes at least two weeks alone in nature to truly learn what it can teach us. I think I know what he was getting at, but for me, at least on this particular adventure, it took about five days. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed nearly every moment I spent in Shenandoah, utterly joyful and exhilarating moments, but there is a threshold. A threshold, that once crossed, it’s hard to imagine ever returning to that busy normal life.

But let me start from the beginning. Early in the trip, let’s just say, small mistakes were made and frustration ensued. It was most evident today.

Part 1: Saturday, the First Night

“Shit, I think I missed my intersection.” Nearly getting lost didn’t take long, always a good sign at the start of a solo backpacking trip. I’m on a trek through the Shenandoah Valley, paying more attention to the soggy autumn leaves under my feet and the parallel running creek than my location on the map.

I consider turning around, so pull out my map. Yellow highlighter ink zigzagged along to some of the best features in Shenandoah National Park, but I left plenty of opportunities to change course like this, or venture down side trails. Going ahead will only add a couple miles, so I continue.

This morning as I drove into the mountains, on the normally scenic Skyline Drive in the fall of 2009, the winterish conditions worried me. As my altitude increased, ice encased tree branches and thick curtains of fog concealed the turnouts’ views. I checked the weather daily before driving out and expected mid-40s for the low. I asked the man at the gate, who glanced over at the backpack in my seat, what the low was suppose to be tonight.

“They say about 29 degrees,” he said in a tone of “better you than me.”

The temperature concerned me. I wasn’t exactly prepared for it. Everything was frozen or wet, and the sun was behind thick gray clouds. I would be sleeping outside, in a thin hammock tent and sleeping bag that is far from cozy in freezing temperatures. I should have been better prepared. Forgive me Les Stroud, for I have forsaken you.

Back on the trail, my modified route proved to be more challenging than the one planned. The last three-quarter mile ascended over a thousand feet. I pushed as fast as I could to get on top of the chilly wind-facing hill before nightfall, but didn’t make it. With the sun almost set, I had to stop.

The last hour’s scramble covered me in sweat and the temperature fell below freezing. Even with good vapor-wicking clothing, the sweat didn’t help my comfort. I found two strong trees a good distance apart to hang my hammock. There wasn’t enough daylight left to setup camp properly, and my cold pale-purple hands refused to cooperate when tying the knots for my hammock and bear bag.

With the sunlight gone, I finally settled in for the night. I struggled to get into my sleeping bag, which isn’t easy to do in a hammock tent. It swings and you can’t lift much of your body up at the same time to get the bag underneath you. Until I nailed down a method, it was frustrating and exhausting like trying to take your winter coat off in the car while driving.

If you're having any trouble picturing it, I imagine it looked really similar to me being tazed while attempting to try on pants in a crowded bouncy castle. I hope that helps.

Finally I was settled in, then I realized I forgot to hang my toothpaste, deodorant, and other scented non-food items that bears often mistake for nighttime snacks. Shivering and irritated, I slid on my headlamp and got back out in the cold wind. I stuffed the items into a mesh bag tied to the end of a rope, and tossed it over a tree branch. I knew it would be easy pickings for a large bear with even a small amount of effort.

Strong winds rocked the hammock and whipped through creaking branches. Sharp undergrowth and thorns prevented me from lowering the hammock onto the ground for the warmth and stability. Now, I know none of this would hardly show up on any cable specials about harrowing tales of wilderness survival, but, the point is, getting adjusted to leaving the comforts of home can take a bit of time. 

As I lay in my hammock bed, mild paranoia swirled through my brain. Did I do a thorough enough job checking for dead branches above the hammock? Would the wind send one careening towards me? Is that bear bag high enough? Would it get even colder? I wanted to slip into a blissful unconscious slumber, but I was far from sleepy.

Ahead of me were twelve long hours before sunrise. I searched for my book to help pass the time. Dexter. Brilliant. To top it off, I brought a book about serial killers.

Part 2 >

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