Day 76 – Tuesday, May 24; Byrd’s Nest #3 Hut to Stealth Camp (Front Royal, VA), 31.4 miles, 969.6 total AT miles.

I was up early, jogging to use the privy (with a “defensive” trekking pole in hand) at 5:00am. On the way back to my tent, I grabbed my bear bag and ate a quick breakfast as I silently packed up.

The sun was just starting to rise – it was bright enough to break camp without a headlamp. I walked over to Black Santa’s tent and asked if he was up – he told me he’d be ready to hike in 20 minutes. McDoubles was still sleeping.

Sure enough, by 6:00am, just as the sun was starting to peek over the horizon, Black Santa and I set off. His plan was to make it to the Front Royal Hostel, but he didn’t intend to stay – he needed to pick up a mail drop. (Most hostels will accept packages for hikers – if they don’t end up staying, there’s usually a small holding fee involved).

I felt great – before leaving, I told McDoubles to meet me in Front Royal. I was ready to push 30-plus today.

We hiked out of camp at sunrise – what a beautiful (and warm) morning.

As we made our ascent out of camp, we took the short side trail to the summit at Mary’s Rock, hoping for a decent view. It was hazy, but still a great way to start the day.

Black Santa and I descended into Thornton Gap before climbing Pass Mountain to have a quick snack. As we were finishing, McDoubles hiked up – I’m pretty sure we were equally surprised to see each other. When I left camp just hours ago, he was sleeping in his tent.

The three of us agreed to meet at the Elkwallow Wayside eight miles away for our next break. I hiked quickly, but soon fell behind (although not as far as usual). The trail was relatively flat and very pretty. I followed a ridge line and enjoyed views of the Skyline Drive all morning.

I hiked into the Elkwallow Wayside right at noon – I’d already covered 14 miles on the day. Not bad, but if I wanted to make it to Front Royal, I’d need 17 more before day’s end. I grabbed some snacks from the wayside and set off by 12:30. McDoubles took the lead, only out of an abundance of caution – he was still a little leery to push 30 miles in a day (he’d come close many times, but hadn’t hit that milestone yet).

Leaving Elkwallow, the AT ascends 1,000 feet to the Hogback Overlook before making a gradual decent to the Gravel Springs Hut. I hiked steadily, eventually reaching the hut at 2:00. McDoubles and Black Santa had just arrived and were gathering water when I hiked in.

After a hot lunch, I set off again – I had 14 miles to cover before hitting the road crossing for Front Royal. Thankfully, it was all downhill. I started flying down the trail – at times jogging when the terrain suited me. My pack was light – I was only carrying my emergency meal and the snacks I had just purchased at Elkwallow.

I cleared Compton Peak at 5:00 (a tough little push – maybe I was just tired though) and officially left the Shenandoahs at 6:00pm. I only had four miles to go, but I was starting to slow considerably. It was my unofficial goal to make 30-plus miles today in the daylight only. I started hiking this morning at sunrise and wanted to see if I could make it to Front Royal by sunset, right at around 8:00pm.

As I was hiking by the Tom Floyd Shelter, I heard a “Cool Dad?” come from within. I stopped and spoke with another hiker who informed me McDoubles was just minutes ahead and I could probably catch him if I tried.

I hiked on and caught him about two miles from VA 522 – the road crossing for Front Royal. I heard the ping of emails coming in to my phone and checked to see if I had service – sure enough, I did. I also had a text from Black Santa – he was at the hostel picking up his package and would be leaving shortly. I told him we’d grab him something to eat from town before hitching back to the trailhead to camp. He told us he’d find a campsite.

While we were hiking over our last little ascent for the day, we saw a bear – or rather, got to see it as it ran away from us.

After a short walk over a nice boardwalk, McDoubles and I emerged from the woods at 7:45. We immediately crossed the street and starting thumbing it west to Front Royal. In time, a local picked us up and dropped us off at the Food Lion.

It was difficult to stay focused – I was really hungry, but knew I only needed dinner for tonight. It was too late to do a full resupply and I knew we’d be in town tomorrow morning. I went to the deli and grabbed a few things before checking out.

McDoubles and I walked through the parking lot and across the street to try to hitch east again. It only took a few minutes, but a nice lady (and avid section hiker) picked us up and dropped us back at the trailhead.

By this time it was dark – no sign of Black Santa. While I was shopping, he sent a text with cryptic directions telling us how to find camp. McDoubles and I hiked north along the AT, eventually finding him in a small clearing just off-trail.

I quickly pitched my tent and the three of us sat down and feasted. We were all tired and made our way to our tents as soon as we were full.

* * *

I feel great about today. I’m a little sore, but really like knowing I cranked out another 30-miler. And I did it during the daylight hours – no night hiking required.

There’s a few things I need to accomplish in Front Royal tomorrow before hitting the trail. It’s only a three day hike to Harper’s Ferry, so my resupply will be light.

While Black Santa’s at the post office, I’ll be at the barber (and McDoubles will be at the McDonalds next door). Today was warm, not even hot, and I was still sweating a lot. It’s time I let the floppy mohawk go. It’s treated me well – it will be missed.

I’d like to be up early tomorrow, but no promises.

Yesterday’s encounter with the bears was awesome. I, and it seems like a lot of people, thought that black bears might be aggressive or super-protective when their cubs are around. While mama bear did start acting a little hostile when her cubs came out of the woods, she was far from aggressive. For the most part, she was skiddish. I wasn’t even that close (maybe 30 or 40 feet), when she bolted for the woods.

I think the setting had a lot to do with it. She came into OUR camp and the ten or so hikers standing around taking photos probably kept her from getting too close.

I know how this sounds, but I’m not as afraid of bears as I thought I’d be. They’re kind of like giant mice. I’ll still be cautious – I promise. I’m not going to be the hiker that gets attacked because he wanted to pet a bear or something dumb like that.

Breakfast: 20 gram mint chocolate protein bar, one Nature’s Valley Sweet and Salty almond bar

Snack: one apple, handful of peanuts, eight peanut butter crackers

Lunch: Mac and cheese with luncheon meat (I grabbed the meat from the wayside) and instant mashed potatoes, sour gummy bears

Snack: two NV S and S almond bars, 8 peanut butter crackers, sour gummy bears

Dinner: three pieces of fried chicken, fresh baked bread, Sriracha hummus and pretzel chips, Gatorade

Day 75 – Monday, May 24: Luray, VA to Byrd’s Nest #3 Hut, 15.7 miles, 938.2 total AT miles.

I woke at 6:30 and shuffled over to the bathroom to take a shower – I was still in a bad mood from the day prior. I just couldn’t seem to shake these bad feelings I’d been having about hiking. I didn’t want to get off the AT or anything like that, I just wasn’t excited about hiking out today like I normally would be.

After a long shower, I returned to my bed and updated the website. By 8:00, everyone was up. I finished uploading pics at 8:30 and joined Black Santa and McDoubles in packing up. We called for a shuttle back to the trailhead and were on the road by 9:30.

The gentleman who picked us up was actually the president of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Instead of taking the winding Skyline Drive back to Big Meadows, he took us up a service road, handing Black Santa keys to unlock numerous gates along the way.

He dropped us off at the wayside – after a few quick purchases, the three of us set off in the fog, making our way back to the AT. McDoubles took the lead – Black Santa and I lagged behind.

I started hiking, slowing at first, but then picked up my pace within a few minutes. While it was still foggy and cold, I felt my mood improving with each step. The prospect of hiking today didn’t seem bad at all anymore. In fact, I was beginning to have a pleasant day.

I felt good – I mean, really good. My legs felt strong, my feet felt great. I was making great time too, arriving at the Rock Spring Hut at 12:30 for a hot lunch. McDoubles had just set down his pack and looked a little surprised to see me (I hadn’t been hiking this strong in a while). Black Santa joined shortly and the three of us ate.

We were back on the trail by 1:30, heading for Skyland Restaurant four miles away. The Skyland Restaurant supposedly has the Taproom, a pub that’s friendly towards thru-hikers. I lagged behind, talking on the phone as I hiked, trying to organize a mail drop for Harper’s Ferry.

By the time I made it to the Taproom, Black Santa and McDoubles were seated at the bar. Black Santa was enjoying a pint and McDoubles a lemonade when I arrived. Earlier in the day, I spoke with a day hiker who’s planning to attempt a thru-hike next year. While I was using the bathroom, he apparently gave the bartender a wad of cash, telling him to cover our tab (which was admittedly small). I gulped water, tea, and then lemonade as I waited for Black Santa to finish his celebratory pint (I’ll get to that).

The bartender asked if we were hungry – always. He returned with bowls of soup – it was delicious. We left at 4:00, admiring the blue skies (finally) before setting off for the Byrd’s Nest #3 Hut.

I hiked strong – the weather was great and the trail was beautiful. About two miles from the hut, it started raining. I threw on my pack cover and starting making the climb up to The Pinnacle, hoping for a decent view. When I arrived at the summit, the rain had stopped and I was able to enjoy a stunning view of the valley to the west of the Shenandoahs – first great view I’ve had in a while.

I made it to the hut at 7:00 and quickly set up my tent. I walked over to the hut to cook dinner on the picnic table. I chatted with a few other hikers – got a chance to catch up with Bombadil and Gold Berry (I’ve been seeing this couple intermittently for at least a month now – really nice folks).

After dinner, I walked back to my tent to stow gear and returned to the hut to find hikers pointing off into the distance. I turned to look and there it was – a bear in camp. Awesome!

I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures. The bear ignored me for the most part – I did start to get a little too close and it made snorting noises before scurrying off. She returned a few minutes later, this time with cubs who stayed largely out of sight. I backed off.

After the bears left camp, I made my way to my tent to write.

* * *

What a great day! Not only did I get to see bears, up close and in the flesh, but I felt really good about hiking again. They call it the “Virginia Blues” and it happens to most hikers. Virginia is a long stretch with few things to look forward to. For me, the blues hit because of the weather. I can speak for Black Santa and McDoubles as well – hiking in the unseasonably cold and wet weather really took its toll on us.

According to the gentleman from PATC who drove us in this morning, 2016 is shaping up to be a record-breaking year with regards to the weather – it hasn’t been consistently this cold in decades nor this wet since 2012 or 2013. Good to know it’s not all in my head.

I neglected to mention that I did visit an outfitter while in Luray. I bought a new Thermarest Z-lite sleeping pad – the Coleman “space roll” stayed behind in the Best Western.

My plan for tomorrow is to hike as close to Front Royal as I can get. It’s about 30 miles away – I’d like to wake early on Wednesday and hitch into town for a quick resupply. Harper’s Ferry, home of the ATC and the symbolic halfway point, is only 54 miles past Front Royal – I hope to arrive by Saturday.

In Harper’s Ferry, I’ll hopefully get to take a commuter train to Washington D.C. From there, I’ll have an opportunity to return my tent to REI. Black Santa was able to get me a really nice tent for a good price through his brother.

I spoke with Moon Boots today – it was great hearing from him. I miss hiking with the guy. He’s nursing a sore ankle in Waynesboro and hopes to enter the Shenandoahs tomorrow. Canuck is still plugging along, apparently a day or so behind Moon Boots.

Savage is only a day behind – if I don’t see her sooner, we’ll definitely meet up in Harper’s Ferry. And Push is already in Front Royal – I’d like to catch up to her before she hops off trail at Harper’s Ferry for ten days.

So why is McDoubles now McDoubles? That’s my fault. He started the hike and received the relatively common name of Shaggy because he eats so much – McDoubles has consistently eaten like a champ since day one.

McDoubles sort of became a secondary trail name while we were stealth camping near Hampton – it was the day before the Watauga Dam wildfire. After meeting a day hiker who offered a ride into town, I asked (then) Shaggy if there was anything I could grab for him. I assumed he’d want a couple burgers or an ice cream. When he heard there was a McDonald’s in town his face lit up.

He wanted me to grab a Big Mac meal, 10 McNuggets and five McDoubles with Big Mac sauce. Sure thing Shaggy. I returned with his order (over $22, I remember) and watched as he ate. He was down to his last two McDoubles when he threw in the towel. It was a chilly night, so he placed them in his bear bag to have for breakfast.

Sure enough, I woke up the next morning and found him heating his McDoubles over his camp stove. And that’s when it popped out. He initially thought the nickname was hilarious and supremely fitting. But he was still Shaggy and would continue being Shaggy until deciding to change his trail name while at Trail Days.

And on Black Santa’s celebratory pint – while it’s been in the works ever since he decided to continue his section hike and finish the AT this year, Black Santa officially quit his job. Congratulations buddy!

I’m really glad to be back out here in the woods.

Breakfast: 20 gram store brand protein bar (mint chocolate chip)

Snack: 2 Nature’s Valley Sweet and Salty almond bars

Lunch: Parmesan Pasta Side with tuna, handful of peanuts

Snack: Golden Grahams cereal bar (awesome btw)

Dinner: The other dehydrated meal I won at Trail Days – mushroom risotto. I spiked it with a can of Chilee flavored Beanie-Weenies.