A Trial of Miles in the Shenandoah Wilderness

I do a lot of walking, and I'm a big fan of hiking. Since I define "hiking" as "walking under trees," I probably take a hike of some form at least once a week, in addition to daily walks around my neighborhood. A few weeks ago, I completed a hike that turned out to be one of the most intense physical challenges I've ever completed -- on par with running a marathon -- and in this post, I want to reflect on why I did what I did, what went well, and what almost went really, really wrong in the process of hiking around 50 miles in two days.

As I wrote in my previous post, I am on a sabbatical for the Fall 2023 semester, and in addition to the research I'm working on (a book), I have a goal of being outside: camping and hiking as much as possible. I have indeed been camping quite a bit, mainly in my capacity as Assistant Scoutmaster for my son's Scout troop which goes camping about once a month. What I've really wanted to get back into, though, is backpacking. In pursuit of another of my sabbatical goals to read more books, I've read several books this year that deal with camping and hiking in general and the Appalachian Trail specifically, so these have inspired me to start daydreaming about longer, overnight treks through the nearby parts of the AT. I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably never have an opportunity to complete an AT through-hike, but doing it section by section? Maybe.

My favorite books in this vein have been On Trails: An Exploration (2016) by Robert Moor, Trailed: One Woman's Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders (2022) by Kathryn Miles, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement (2022) by Phoebe S.K. Young, and The Appalachian Trail: A Biography (2021) by Philip D'Anieri. I've also enjoyed reading some classics of nature writing by Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Peter Wohlleben, Bernd Heinrich, Annie Dillard, etc. A shared theme that emerges in many of these books runs counter to the myth of escaping to the idylls of nature on a blissfully meditative pilgrimate among the sublime beauty of an unordered world. Instead, and perhaps more often than not, hiking and camping are uncomfortable, painful, or just miserable. In one memorable conversation recounted in Robert Moor's book, the Appalachian Trail -- sometimes referred to as "the green tunnel" -- is instead likened to the 2000-mile digestive tract of America, ejecting the desiccated husks of its ragged sojourners at the northern or southern orifices. I can definitely say that after two days of long distance hiking, I was feeling at least partially digested.

I have set my medium-term goals on completing the section of the AT that runs through the Shenandoah National Park, but before just launching into that, I wanted to do at least one test trip to try out some gear and the logistics of backcountry camping. I had a new pack I wanted to try out, and I wanted to make sure I understand the park's backcountry permits and regulations. I also wanted to test my fitness for hiking by seeing how many miles I could reasonably cover in a day so that when I plan the full Shenandoah hike I can predict how long it will take me to traverse the AT's roughly 110 mile through the park. It also occurred to me that it would be interesting to set an arbitrary goal of hiking every trail in Shenandoah (about 500 miles total). With all this in mind, I planned a one-night itinerary that would allow me to explore an unfamiliar area while checking off quite a few trails that I wouldn't otherwise have a reason to travel on.

The Area

See, the thing about Shenandoah is that -- thanks to Skyline drive -- the best views and points of interest are accessible by car, and most of the trails lead down one side of the ridge and back up. There are some definite points of interest, including some very nice waterfalls, but by and large, hiking in Shenandoah rarely conveys the feeling of a mountain conquered with a beautiful view as a reward. Sure, the view from Hawksbill is great, but so is the view from Skyland, and Skyland has a gift shop and a restaurant!

Photograph of a topographical map, a small section of PATC Map #10 focusing on the Nicholson Hollow area

So for this hike, I focused on a region of the park that held a bit of mystique as I'd never been there. Indeed, my PATC map labels the area as "wilderness" as an indication of its relative remoteness and lack of developed infrastructure, but this designation is a little ironic given the history of the area. Nicholson Hollow and the surrounding area was one of many areas where people -- some of them squatters, many of them entitled landowners -- had to be evicted from their property when the park was formed. The whole story is a fascinating rabbit hole that I've just begun exploring, but the TLDR is that in the early 1930s, back when eugenics was all the rage, the sociologist Mandel Sherman published a book with the haunting title Hollow Folk arguing that the intellectual development of these residents was being delayed by the isolation and poverty of their environment. This helped justify the relocation of these residents and seizure of their property because, it was argued, they would be better off somewhere else.

By the way, in an interesting connection with other things I've been reading recently, the primary data driving Sherman's conclusions are the results of IQ tests, an example of the problematic legacy, "intelligence," as a framework for "artificial intelligence." As Kate Crawford, Dan McQuillan, and plenty of others have pointed out, the concept of intelligence has a long history of being used as justification for relations of dominance and harm. Here's how McQuillan puts it in Resisting AI:

Screenshot of excert from Dan McQuillan's Resisting AI

As a crystal clear example of this in action, check out how Sherman attributes IQ variances between the three hollows to their relative social development and economic diversity. (side note: he uses pseudonyms in this 1932 article, but it's clear from the context that he refers Corbin, Weakley, and Nicholson Hollows, respectively when he writes about "Colvin," "Needles," and "Oakton" Hollows. He even slips and writes "Corbin" a couple of times.)

a screenshot of the text of Sherman's article a screenshot of the text of Sherman's article

According to research by Audrey Horning, the residents of Corbin Hollow (the worst off of the bunch) relied on employment and trading with the nearby Skyland Resort for their income. Ironically, a 1917 brochure for the resort leads with "intelligent companionship" as its primary appeal.

Scan of the 1917 brochure advertising Skyland.

Here, the hierarchy of intelligence plays out quite literally as the guests of the resort at the top of the ridge are served by the families residing in the hollow down below. This sense that the enjoyment of nature's noble beauty is a privilege of the elite is pervasive in the memoirs of George Pollock, founder of Skyland Resort, who first visited the area when he was 16 years old. Although he seems to have had good intentions in that he formed mutually beneficial financial arrangements with the local "mountaineers," it's easy to see condescension in the way he treats the people there almost as anthropological curiosities and examples of the "hillbilly" trope, however romanticized.

Pollock describes the residents of "Free State" as friendly but superstitious, illiterate, and wild. (Children "peek out of the brush like wild animals", women "chatter like magpies", etc.). The designation "Free State" for the area around the Hughes River evidently drew from the residents' lack of contact with outsiders, especially preferring to handle law enforcement internally rather than submit to the governance of Madison County. You can see a bit of the hillbilly narrative in this 1935 map of the Stony Man area, which labels the area I would spend most of my time -- just north of Free State -- simply as "Hazel Country."

Of course, these residents were descendants of settler colonialists or others originally drawn to work at the speculative, long-abandoned copper mines on the western slope of the ridge, but they were certainly not the first people to live there. Probably the first colonial explorer to visit this area of the Appalachian range was the mysterious John Lederer, who led or participated in three journeys in 1669 and 1670. The whole region of what is now the Shenandoah is the historical land of the Monacan Nation, but writing in On Trails, Robert Moor interprets Lederer's impression that the Monacan guides he had hired were also unfamiliar with the mountains themselves. I'm not sure if that's because other tribes lived there while the Monacan's kept to the Piedmont and valley, or if there was simply little value in navigating the mountain slopes directly, preferring to use the Shenandoah river or the lower-elevation gaps for travel and transportation. In any case, one thing that stands out to me from Lederer's narrative is that his third and final expedition began at the 'falls of the Rappahannock", which is where I live in Fredericksburg, VA. Following the Rappahannock River upstream probably would have led them farther north to the Front Royal area, but I am intrigued to notice that his main companion was a "Colonel Catlet." I camped on Mount Catlett, but I don't know if that's just a coincidence.

In any case, the point I am trying to make with this historical digression is that the area of the park that interested me is designated as "wilderness," but the idea of wilderness is a fraught and contingent appellation. Moor's gloss of Nash gets to the heart of how wilderness, like intelligence, is a concept that reinforces hierarchies of privilege and colonialism:

“Civilization,” wrote the historian Roderick Nash, “invented wilderness.” According to his account, the wilderness was born at the dawn of agro-pastoralism, when we began cleaving the world into the binary categories of wild and tame, natural and cultivated. Words for wilderness are notably absent among the languages of hunter-gatherer peoples.

Although I confess I wasn't thinking in these terms while I hiked, the concept of a contrived wilderness manifested in the number of home sites that I came across. I came across these with greater frequency, and found some of them in less advanced states of decay than what I have seen in other parts of the park. Despite many of the original dwelling being destroyed in a fire back in 2000, their relative density is evidence of this area being one of the last inhabited areas in what is now the park. In fact, this 1938 map of the park shows Catlett, Hazel, and Hot Mountain all lying outside the park boundary, so I'm not certain when these tracts were acquired. (The National Park Service provides a fascinating, searchable map of all of the tracts, but it doesn't list the date of their acquisition. For what it's worth, my campsite was in tract 206, 374 acres owned by "Henry A. Brown.")

All this is to say, despite being a "wilderness," the forests I hiked through were all relatively young, and the frequent home sites and several trails that were clearly once wagon roads made it easy to imagine a community that once lived there. However, the way that the prior occupation underlies the the area's current emptiness (I saw 12 people on Friday, and 9 of them were on the trail closest to a park boundary parking lot) made it feel a little spooky at times.

The Gear

As I said at the top, I wanted this hike to be a trial of several things, including my backpacking gear. I had a new pack, a newly found tolerance for hammock camping, and an inclination toward minimalism that I wanted to test. I sought to emulate the mindset of a through-hiker, and all things considered my gear all worked quite well. For shoes, I have found that trail running shoes work better on the rocky trails of the Shenandoah than do my high-ankled leather boots, so I opted for my bright orange New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro. I've had this pair for a while (I guess they were released in 2019), but since I pretty much only wear them for hiking, they still have plenty of foam, and the tread is still grippy. A few years ago, I learned the importance of grippiness in hiking shoes after a slip and fall left me lying passed out in a creek with a dislocated shoulder. Not recommended.

So the shoes were good. Since the weather was supposed to be comfortable (low humidity with a high around 80 for both days) I just packed quick dry shorts and t-shirts, wearing one full set of clothes (socks, underwear) and packing the rest. My mess kit was a tiny butane stove, small fuel bottle, a steel cup, and a plastic spoon. I also had my "10 essentials" that we always talk about in Scouts, but I took a bit of a risk by not packing any raingear. That was a risk worth taking, as it turned out, since I did not need it. Also brought a warm hat and flannel shirt, which I did end up wearing on Saturday morning when it got down into the 50s.

My pack is a Teton Explorer which I found quite comfortable with plenty of room if I'd needed it. My "shelter" is a Wise Owl hammock with a separate bug net, and I swapped out the carabiners it came with for a much lighter set that came with some replacement straps I had ordered. Again, I opted not to bring the rain fly, and I wouldn't have needed it if I had. Finally, I packed my a sleeping pad and my old Slumberjack sleeping pad, both which I've been using for something like 30 years.

And for water, I brought two Smartwater bottles, which I'd read somewhere are preferred by through hikers because they are lighter and easier to replace than steel bottles or Nalgenes. I refilled these bottles with creek water that I then purified with iodine tablets.

Thus fully loaded, my packed weighed in at about 27 pounds, which was pretty nice, since the rule of thumb is that pack weight should not exceed one fourth of your body weight. With my minimalist approach, weighing in at 10 pounds below that was pretty nice, though as I will explain in the next section, a few more pounds of food would have been nice. And since I was relying on my phone for navigation and mileage tracking, I also brought a battery pack. This was probably the heaviest individual item other than my sleeping bag, but I definitely needed it. I also splurged on some new Smartwool socks, which I really liked.

A photograph of my stick.

I don't think there was anything I brought that I wish I hadn't (except, maybe the bear bag ropes which were both far longer than they needed to be and, therefore, annoying to work with). The only thing piece of equipment that I wished I had but didn't was a hiking pole or two. I don't usually use one but one thing about hiking in un-traveled areas is that if you're the first person on the trail that day, you run into a lot of spider webs. And due to my meandering route (see below), I was the bearing the duty of spiderweb clearing pretty much all day. For this reason, I started carrying sticks and waving them in front of me as I walked. On Saturday, when there were more people on the trails to clear out the webs for me, I picked up a sturdy walking stick that I came to rely on for support during the frequent stream crossings and just to keep my hiking stride moving along.

It was a nice, straight piece of beech that fit well in my hand and that was the perfect height for gripping comfortably. I liked it so much that I took a picture of it, but in accordance with leave no trace principles and general trail courtesy, I left it at the trailhead for someone else to use.

So the stick worked well enough to convince me to try a legit hiking pole next time I go out, but I think because my stick was a hard piece of wood that I gripped tightly for 10 or more hours that day, I did some kind of nerve damage to one of my fingers so that even now, nearly a month later as I write this, it's still a little numb. Commercially-produced hiking poles, I assume, have squishier, more ergonomic grips to help prevent that sort of thing.

Ultimately, other than the aforementioned food shortage, my gear worked fine.

The Hiking

Since I didn't walk point to point or even in a single loop, it's hard to convey a sense of scale and distance here, and that challenge of not being able to intuitively compare distances is part of what led to the problems I'll discuss below. I was using my phone for navigation and step tracking, so here is what it recorded on September 1st and 2nd. You'll notice that there was some GPS glitch on Saturday which incorrectly placed me at Thornton Gap when I was, in fact, at the Buck Hollow Trailhead. The maps below are screenshots from the hikingproject.com website.

And for some reason, the app includes more data: the ascent and descent for both days.

While hiking, I liked that the displayed my current pace, and it also that it kept track of topographic information. I just wish the app made it easier to see that topographic within the map view. For some reason, the map layer would become less detailed as I zoomed in to my location. It also doesn't record accurately when my phone is in battery saver mode, so I had to keep my power pack handy.

So Hiking Project kept track of my movements, but I also have generic step counter app on my phone ("Samsung Health") which keep track of my steps and distance. It's interesting to compare and contrast these reports; even though Hiking Project's data includes one major error, Samsung Health still estimates my total walking distance as higher.

I have found that my phone's step counter is more generous in its reporting than my wife's phone (like, we walk the same distance together and my phone says I walked farther than hers), but even allowing for a generous margin of error, 66,014 steps (give or take a few thousand) is still a lot for one day.

Screenshot showing map of recorded steps.
Screenshot showing map of recorded steps.

The terrain offered the usual variety of pleasures and challenges, and on the whole, I found the trails generally easier and smoother than what I've encountered in other parts of the park. I think this is because many of these wilderness trails had been wagon roads at some point, and also many of them were going into the valleys and ravines instead of following the craggy or gravelly tops of ridge lines.

With only the birches and beeches turning for their fall color, the light under the trees took on a bright yellow hue, especially in places where the freshly fallen leaves dappled the ground with splashes of pale gold. Most of the time, though, the forest canopy was so dense that the woods took on a greenish glow -- turning bluer after the sun went behind the ridge -- that I didn't notice after being steeped in it for many hours. Early in the day, the sky was the bright, hard blue of early Fall, and since the sun went behind the mountains well before it truly set, the blue simply faded to white, gray, black.

Among the specific stretches of trail that stand out, the Hazel River Trail is probably my favorite, and I could imagine visiting there again some day with an extra loop to check out the amusingly named, but peaceful, "Dave Falls."

The area I enjoyed the least -- and this is due to my being quite tired and grumpy at the time, not to mention it was dark so I couldn't appreciate much -- was probably the Hannah Run Trail, which I thought would never end. Parts of it were nice and almost exhilarating as a blasted through the last miles. With my shuffle-jog stride confidently established and my destination in range of imagining clearly, I was regularly averaging a brisk 4.5 mph pace when not impeded by obstacles or uphills stretches which -- however brief -- slowed me down considerably, owing the problems I'll discuss below.

I did see an intriguing, possible, sign of wildlife (pictured below) on the Hannah Run Trail, but the encounters in this area were the other people, mostly as lights off in trails as they were setting up camp or maybe even settling in for the night. The few that were close enough for an exchange of greeting either didn't see me or pretended not to see me.

A photograph of a rock with several scratches.

Darkness comes early to the mountain hollows, and as I blasted through the final 2 miles along the Nicholson Hollow Trail in total darkness, grateful for the fresh batteries in my headlamp, I felt like a freight train barreling through a lonely wilderness.

The Problem

The reason I was finishing my hike in the dark stems from a series of miscalculations and mistakes in planning and executing my trip. On the planning side, my food was insufficient. It isn't that I was hungry -- if anything, I felt bloated from all of the water I was drinking -- but failing to include enough carbs and electrolytes pushed me into the early stages of heat exhaustion or maybe even hyponatremia. I realize that calorie counting is an imprecise measurement of consumption and exertion, but I estimate that I packed about 3,000 calories for two days of hiking. According to my step counter, I burned through around 7,000 calories. I realized this shortfall during the first day, so I tried to spread out my food intake, thinking that it would help keep my blood sugar up. However, much of what I'd packed was protein heavy (tuna, Clif bars, oatmeal), but the only source of the salt I was desperately craving were some pita chips I had brought to accompany my tuna.

I had some trouble with this on Friday, but it really hit on Saturday. The first thing I noticed was the profuse sweating: shortly after staring for the day, I was already drenched, which seemed odd to me given that the temperature was pleasant -- it had reached the 50s overnight so I needed my flannel shirt in the morning, and I don't think it ever exceeded 80. But I was far, far sweatier than the few other people I would see. I reasoned that I had not slept particularly well, and I was carrying a pack unlike most other people I saw.

I had relatively easy access to water -- one disappointing side trip to a spring that turned out to be too low for me to get anything notwithstanding -- and I had plenty of iodine tablets for purification, so I kept drinking and drinking. But I was exhausted, which meant I wasn't always making good decisions.

At the intersection of the Hazel Mountain Trail and the Buck Ridge Trail, I had a choice: I could turn right to follow Buck Ridge down toward the park boundary along Route 211 -- a popular alternative point of entry that I was curious about -- or I could turn left to go straight to the Meadow Spring parking lot, take that as my endpoint, and then head back to my car. I could also have turned around right there, since I was, at that time, already at the farthest distance I had yet reached from my starting point.

I turned right.

On Friday, I had noticed a repeating pattern with respect to trails that traversed hollows: one would go down the ridge of one side and there'd be another trail going back up the opposite ridge or sometimes along the creek at the bottom. Together, these made for nice loops: Pine Hill Gap + Broad Hollow, and Sams Ridge + Hazel River. Without checking the distance or elevation change involved, and with little consideration of my physical state by then, I assumed that the loop in and back and out of Buck Hollow would be similarly manageable. It was, but just barely.

Buck Ridge was a nice trail up to a point, and then the stairs began. So many stairs. Hundreds of stairs. And while going down that many steps is surely better than going up them, it was a mind-numbing, joint-jarring slog to get to the bottom. And once at the bottom, resting briefly as my water tablets worked, I did experience a moment of brief dread as the gears in my hiking brain shifted from "see what you can see" to "get back to the car as quickly and efficiently as possible." The number of intersecting trail segments made it difficult the total remaining mileage, but I knew it was far. The couple who asked where I was headed seemed not to believe me. "Good luck," they said, and I started to climb back out of the valley.

In other circumstances, I think the Buck Hollow Trial is probably quite nice. It's steep, sure, but not unusually so, and it tracks near enough to a creek to keep the air relatively cool. There was even an occasional breeze, which felt amazing, absolutely drenched as I was. But I was tired. Very tired.

I am typically a pretty robust hiker, but this section had me straining on my walking stick, hands on knees sucking wind, and just generally miserable. Eventually, I was counting my steps. Trying to make 100 before my next break -- or maybe I can get to 75 -- OK fine 62 this time. And then I'd lean against a tree or sit down, unstrapping my pack so I could gulp more air into my aching chest, heart rate through the roof, vision swimming. At one point I said out loud, "I might be in trouble."

Then, after minute or two, I'd slow my breathing down, strap back up, and try for another 100.

After a few rounds of this, I had enough clarity of mind do some quick math. It was around 2:30 in the afternoon, and I'd hiked about 12 miles by then. I'd eaten a pack of oatmeal, a Clif bar, and some instant coffee, which put me around 400 total calories thus far for the day, and very little salt. The thought of tuna was nauseating, but I ate about half of my remaining crackers and felt immensely better. I decided to ration my remaining 5 or 6 crackers and managed to eat my last Clif bar before resuming the slog. And slog I did -- 100 steps at time, then 150, and then I stopped counting as the trail finally started leveling out. I started licking my arms and hands to get back some of the salt that I was still losing.

I was nearly out of water again as I reached the top, so I decided to take a brief side trip to the Meadows spring, which turned out to be too dry to be of use. It was, however, adjacent to one of the most intact former dwelling sites I had seen, so that was interesting.

From there, it was still a long way, but mostly downhill, so I was feeling relieved that the worst part was behind me. I forced down some tuna and all but one of the crackers, and I started back.

The Aftermath

As I mentioned before, the last two miles of this trip were in total darkness, and I was curious to see the condition of the parking lot as I returned. It was still mostly full, and I saw another group of hikers arrive at about the same time as I did, but from the opposite side. This meant they had to have come down the Old Rag Ridge Trail, which is not something I would want to attempt in the dark. I assume they had been up there to watch the sunset.

Congratulating myself on the foresight to leave a change of dry clothes in my car, I changed in the bathroom there, and began the drive back out to Nethers, VA and general civilization. This was made somewhat difficult by the lack of GPS on a road that I was only used to driving in daylight, but I made it out, eventually. I did pull over at one point to check a map and get my bearings, and when I did, the vehicle with the other night hikers passed me. I decided to just follow them out, until they pulled over, I guess to let me take the lead.

Eventually, I made it to 522 and Culpeper, VA where I sought out the Taco Bell. Still feeling wobbly from dehydration and calorie deficit, I sought out the saltiest food I could think of. The combo I ordered included a Crunchwrap Supreme, a taco, and -- most glorious of all -- a 32oz soda. I still wasn't feeling hungry, but I ate it all while standing and stretching out my cramping legs in the Taco Bell parking lot.

The drive home was uneventful, and the shower was as glorious as I'd hoped it would be. The next morning, I weighed myself to find I was about 12 pounds lighter than the day before my hike.

All told, I had a great time, and I learned some lessons about the importance of planning and preparation. I learned that most of my gear works well, and perhaps most importantly, I discovered that my knees -- which both have endemic problems now that prevent me from running -- are still capable of carrying me for many hours over many miles.

Now, I just hope I have enough time to plan and execute the Shenandoah through-hike before time runs out on my sabbatical!

Word Count: 4992

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