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

Author: Chris Kummer

Hey y'all - Cool Dad here. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to thru-hike the AT. It remained a nagging thought for nearly a decade - then it got loud enough to warrant my attention. So I quit my unfulfilling job(s) in Seattle and commenced hiking north from Springer in the spring of 2016. And I'm exceedingly thankful I did. The people I met, the things I saw, the gross foods I ate - not a day goes by without fondly remembering life on the trail. If you've already thru-hiked a long trail, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you're thinking about tackling a long-distance hike, do it. Do it now. I'm probably gonna do it again...

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