Ever since a high school friend hiked the entire Appalachian Trail after graduation, the nation's most celebrated footpath has held an almost magical allure for me. ¶ More than 30 years later, I finally decided to hike a section of it. But first, a few words about the training. ¶ I set out with my good friend Don to hike 8 miles in the Withlacoochee State Forest, just north of Brooksville. It was wintertime, temperatures were low that day, humidity was nonexistent, and his dog was kind enough to carry my water bottle in her dog pack. It was surprisingly easy for someone who hadn't hiked since college. ¶ The following weekend I decided to hike again, unfortunately ignoring the now 85-degree temperature and high humidity.
Six miles into a 10-mile loop trail, I hit a wall. Dehydration and heat exhaustion were the victors that day. My poor preparation (think not enough water and a trail lunch of Frosted Cinnamon Pop-Tarts) almost killed me. Luckily, a serendipitous encounter with a woman on a white horse helped extract me from the wilderness and get me to the trailhead. Many lessons were learned that day.
I continued to train and condition myself as best I could on relatively flat land. In May I met up with my 24-year-old son, Ryan, and we began our hiking adventure on an early Monday morning in Front Royal, Va.
Finally on the AT
We passed through the northernmost entrance to the Shenandoah National Park on the aptly named Skyline Drive. This twisting road snakes over 100 miles along the ridges and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains, paralleling the Appalachian Trail most of the way.
We picked up our first trailhead at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at Mile Post 5. Ryan and I crossed a small meadow and were quickly immersed in the green canopy of the Dickey Ridge Trail. I wasn't quite on the AT, but close enough! It was warm and a little slow-going due to the rocky path. A fire road led us to the Snead Farm Loop Trail.
Ryan had no problems with the elevation gains and losses. I quickly discovered, however, that even the gentle ascents and descents in Virginia weren't like anything I had experienced in Florida. We spotted stone walls and the occasional rusted farm implement lying among the trees, and after an hour of hiking came upon the abandoned Snead Farm. Occupied until the 1950s, the farm now consists of the only barn left standing in the park, along with a spring, cistern and the foundation of the main house.
Shenandoah National Park was created in the 1930s, with most of the land obtained through eminent domain. Remnants of old farms still can be found throughout the park, and Snead Farm is probably the best and most well-preserved.
Eager to finally hike at least a portion of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, we continued our Skyline Drive journey and stopped at a small parking area. There we saw a concrete pillar emblazoned with the AT logo; to head south would take one to Springer Mountain in Georgia, north to Mount Katahdin in Maine. We headed south, though with supplies only for a day hike we were content to stay within the confines of the park.
As I took the first steps on the trail I knew I would never thru-hike the AT, though just being on the same storied path as my long-lost high school friend seemed to connect me to my past in a profound way. Wildflowers abounded as the trail wound through the thick woods. Marking the way, the ubiquitous white blaze, about the size of a dollar bill, appeared on trees every hundred yards or so.
Rocks and roots along the trail required a lot of looking down at your next step instead of enjoying the scenery. We climbed a long hill and rested at the top. Our sudden appearance frightened a white-tailed deer from the path into the brush. Animal life was abundant, from birds to squirrels and chipmunks. Large black millipedes littered the trail along with the occasional snake and salamander.
With no arrangements to get back to our car, we simply turned around after several hours on the trail and returned north. We continued our drive through the park and soon came upon a small, heavily wooded valley between the peaks. The light took on a green cast as we descended and stopped on the broad shoulder. Large trees towered above us, and the ground was covered with emerald-colored saplings. Ryan found an unmarked trail beyond the drainage ditch to explore.
The trail did not appear on our map and there were no blazes, but that didn't stop us from heading a mile or two into the forest. The valley floor was crisscrossed with unmarked trails, and this would have been a good time to leave some Hansel and Gretel-type bread crumbs, especially when Ryan ran off beyond a ridge because he thought he heard rushing water, leaving me huffing and puffing to catch up.
After spending our second day underground exploring the vast Luray Caverns, we were ready for something other than the "green tunnel" of the AT. We decided to tackle Hazel Falls, near Milepost 33. Most of the 3 miles to the falls is an easy descent; a wide, rock-strewn trail leads to a narrow dirt path that crosses some small streams.
An hour and a half later we could hear rushing water and knew the falls were close. Off to the right was an unmarked trail that obviously led to the base of the falls. To my dismay, the incline I was now facing was dangerously steep and filled with large rocks and boulders.
Frankly, I was ready to turn back. There was no way this 51-year-old, out-of-shape guy could make it down to the bottom, let alone back up, I thought. But Ryan encouraged me to keep moving. I watched with envy — and a little disgust — as my son jumped from rock to rock. Showing no fear, he made his way to the bottom with ease. I remembered my own carefree hiking days when I was his age, but knowing my present-day body's limits, I was reluctant to follow in his footsteps.
With Ryan urging me on, though, I lowered myself carefully, relying heavily on my trekking poles. At first the 20-pound pack was a hindrance, but when I fell three times the pack acted as a wedge between the boulders. The 45-minute, knee-shaking, teeth-rattling, white-knuckle descent was rewarded by a spectacular view of the falls. Ryan was right. It was worth the fear and exertion.
The return climb proved to be grueling. My backpack affected my center of gravity and I always felt like I was going to fall over backward. Ryan mercifully offered to carry the backpack — probably because he knew it contained the car keys, in case I plunged over the cliff.
An hour later we were back at the top and hiking to the trailhead. Apart from quivering legs of rubber, I was okay. No, I was more than okay. I had conquered this trail … and any fears about it.
Moment of trail magic
We spent our nights in the rustic cabins at the gorgeous Skyland Resort, in the heart of the park on Skyline Drive. The cabins were furnished nicely with comfortable beds, full electric and a small bathroom. Breakfast and dinner were served in the lodge dining room, where the food was tasty and the valley views magnificent.
On our final day, we hiked to the summit of Stony Man Mountain. It took about an hour's gentle climb to the top of the second highest peak in the park, at 4,011 feet, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. The trail leads to a rocky outcrop just below the summit, and Ryan and I sat there for more than two hours — partly, it must be said, because of Christine, a young woman Ryan met at the top of the mountain. She and her dog Ringo were exploring the area for the week.
I played the role of wingman, busying myself with taking panoramic photos of the valley or closeups of lichen and moss.
Christine joined us for dinner that evening to further compare hiking notes. When the conversation turned to trail magic, where strangers leave water or food along the AT for thru-hikers, we all agreed that it also applied to simply enjoying the solitude of the trail itself and appreciating the beauty and serenity of one's surroundings.
As we said goodbye to Christine and headed back to our cabin, I knew I would return to hike other sections of the AT. Most of all, I realized I had experienced my own trail magic on this first journey with my son.
Bob Harrison is a digital advertising strategist for the Tampa Bay Times and author of "The Onyx Seed."