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The Calm Before The Storm
¤
The fury of which will defy all imagination.

Panorama (Shenandoah Park) - Linden VA


In the real world, with ground school and simulator training complete, all that remains before my elevation to DC-10 Captain is the ordeal known as OE (Operational Experience - an evaluation in the actual airplane). I should be home studying, but it seems better to take a rest before the whirlwind I know to be coming, both before and after my qualification. A storm is brewing less than two months over the horizon however, and none of us can possibly imagine its severity.

7/14 Panorama - Compton Springs campsite (21.0 miles)

"Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly."
Proverbs 17:12

With one car left at Linden we're off for Panorama to secure our backcountry camping permit - now a. computerized process. A few restrictions have changed though, so the ranger gives us an extensive brief, ending with the credo that all human waste be deposited at least 10 yards from any water source. Telling him that I intend to deposit my human waste in the adjacent bathroom at Panorama doesn't elicit the expected laugh, and probably doesn't show appropriate sense of awe for our wilderness nor the ranger's profession.

Still, he gives us the pass, and we're afoot at 9:46 heading around the west of Panorama to cross 211 and Skyline Drive. We're immediately struck with this trail's ease (the words "AT Lite" come to mind), and with such light packs we're flying. At Beahm's Gap we take a break, with Coleen needing a bathroom - my suggestion being the adjacent stone culvert, deep enough to crouch within, totally unseen from the road. Returning to the trail, we find the frequent blueberries and raspberries ripening and only a little tart for the occasional snack. Elkwallow Gap provides our town-food lunch (so frequent in the park during summer), and on arrival we pass a deer staring at us tamely before darting out inches ahead of a passing car. The picnic tables are full of tourists, and the grill inside has typical burgers at inflated prices - what more could we need? I tried to negotiate with our server to "super-size" our drinks, but the concept was beyond her, so we added a couple cans from the machine. Outside, we ravenously consumed same, the object of much staring from the tourists crowded around.

Bob & Coleen in Shenandoah
Looking verytrail-worthy
The afternoon's entertainment offers several treats. I hear Coleen faintly calling from behind, having seen a bear to our right. Before I see him, he's already skedaddled into the brush, although the upended rocks and holes dug here prove this a prime feeding ground. The route winds over the Hogback Overlook, crossing just a few feet above the road, and yet unseen to the many tourists just a few feet away, all peering off into the valley below. Returning to the woods comes our next animal encounter - this time a small bear cub ambles across the trail from right to left, and as we stop to get the camera out, we next hear a thrashing in the brush to our right - obviously Mama Bear. The cub hears it too, as he comes flying back across the trail to Mama and in seconds, they're long gone. The cub had been digging under a tree ahead (full of ants), and a few steps later we see a rotten tree that they'd broken apart and hollowed away - a good testament to their power. It was a cute distraction however, and soon we'll be treated to another doe with her fawn munching away on the trail - quite tame, but not willing to stand around for a pix.

Passing Gravel Springs Hut we find our speedy pace is slowing, with Coleen tiring considerably. We'd signed up to stop at Hogwallow Springs, but we arrive earlier than we'd like to stop, and the spring isn't even a trickle anyway. It's only another 3 miles to Compton Springs, and we make surprisingly good time listening to the News From Lake Wobegone per our Sat evening ritual. We pull up to the clear-flowing Compton Spring at 8:18, and hope that the path off to the right will lead to a perfect campsite. It doesn't though, and I head uphill in further search, finding a fair site just up the hill; though as we drop packs, I soon find a far better collection of campsites just a few steps past - grassy, out in the open, and with huge sitting logs all around. We quickly move across to these, Coleen heading back to bathe and fetch water as I set up the tent.

Cat Food Stove Lying down to test our perfect site for level, I look straight up to see a dead tree with a huge branch ready to crash down upon us at any moment. It's far too windy to risk it, so I decide to move the tent, unable to find another site quite as good. I settle on one a little further off the trail under a tree, and though not quite as open, it'll do just fine. Coleen returns, irritated by my choice (of course on our last hike, it was her who was worried about a branch falling on us as we were hiking). It's fine though, and with our sandwiches we have hot drinks from our latest experiment - the Cat Stove. Made from two cat food cans and fueled with alcohol, it's become the rage on the trail due to its light weight and low cost (though we already know of a couple hikers badly burned while using them). With the wind out, it takes almost twice the expected amount of fuel (though Coleen's put in almost 4 cups of water), but eventually we've got tea and cocoa, and we're treated to a beautiful starry sky. With all our bear sightings today, we fly the food bag carefully, turning in at 10:30.
Sgt Rock's Cat Stove
Cat Food Stove
7/15 Compton Springs - Linden, VA (15.1 miles)

"Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling. . .let us go."
Robert Service - The Call Of The Wild

Our site proves popular spot for deer, who awaken us periodically rooting around our tent. We're up for good at 6:47, needing considerable effort to get Coleen out of the sleeping bag. The cat stove performs flawlessly in the still air (though my spilled alcohol starts a small fire on the dead log it's perched on, requiring a dousing). We're packed and on the trail in an hour, making good time in the early morning, though Coleen's feet hurt immediately. We're entertained by several deer, one doe jerking her head back and forth from behind a tree at us, even though we both see her almost in her entirety. Some weekend section hikers who stayed at the Tom Floyd shelter ahead chat with us endlessly - once we break away, we head on to the shelter ourselves to catch up on the register. The weekenders could hear the kids at the 4H swimming pool yelling yesterday, so we suppose it'll only be a few minutes' walk, but it seems an eternity, finally reaching VA 602 for a long break at the nearby 4H camp. 4H Camp picnic shelter
The immaculate camp contains a public swimming pool and snack bar (though the pool won't open for another hour), although we're happy just to find bathrooms, water, and a pay phone. With my work schedule in total limbo, I'm anxious to check our answering machine, although it takes a long walk up to the summer camp dorms to find a phone, Coleen staying behind with our packs. We have a quick lunch before resuming the trail, with a steep and hot climb over the hill to US 522, from which many hikers hitch into Front Royal.
The occasional meadow walk At the road a trail angel has left a pile of water bottles and even some snacks; and a couple yellow Labs here play together - one from a day hiker and another from a northbound thru-hiker. Our route follows the fence of the National Zoological Park, though the main sight of interest is the Fuji blimp slowly cruising overhead westbound. We look in vain for the "No Tresspassing - Violators Will Be Eaten" sign, but never see it, and soon we begin our 2nd big popover climb for the day - a full 900' in height, but extremely well-graded. The Mosby campsite on the other side signals our descent, and with Coleen slowing rapidly, we take our pm break at the Jim & Molly Denton shelter (another well-kept shelter, though the shower and potable water are inop). From here we launch our final assault on the car, with one final small hop over an adjacent hill. The sun bakes us as we climb the meadow on the hillside, but at its summit we're treated to more of the raspberries, abundant and fairly ripe. Soon we're over the hill and the final descent begins in earnest, hearing I-66 long before our arrival. It seems to take and eternity, compounded by a rocky descent, with the trail planners here seeming to love switchbacks with minimal gradient, prolonging the agony as much as possible.

Epilogue

Finally we're back at our car at 2:16, back to the same point from which our AT adventures began some 21 months ago (looking slightly less pitiful than our Trial hike in Oct 99 - compare the pictures). We love reflecting on all the experiences we've shared, and how this pilgrimage has changed us, but we've still over 1000 miles left to go. How could we possibly know what lies ahead - how all our lives will be irrevocably altered in an instant on that cruel September morning, or how close to the tip of the spear we'd find ourselves? We will not walk our beloved trail again for a long while.


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