Tag Archive | Appalachian Trail

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson is a humor author. More precisely, he is a baby boomer who first came into my consciousness when my book club read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about Bryson’s Midwest upbringing in the 1950s and 60s. It is laugh out loud funny, poking fun at the times, and reliving for his contemporaries the novelty of such innovations as the frozen dinner, and playing in the clouds of pesticide left behind by mosquito spray trucks.

A Walk in the Woods, while not as whimsical, still incorporates a healthy dose of humor as he tells the story of his decision to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that he has no experience thru-hiking, or backpacking, or even doing much day hiking or camping. I consider it the pre-cursor to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, only without the drug addiction and extremely self-destructive behavior. But Bryson has one thing that Strayed does not – a healthy (and amusing) fear of bears.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

The book alternates between telling the history of the Appalachian Trail; it conception, its development, its increase in popularity over the years, and Bryson and his childhood friend Katz’s long hike. He revels in details that include savoring a soda after a week in the woods, to Katz’s emotional outbursts that result in large portions of their rations being hurtled off the sides of mountains. He also goes into great detail on various bear calamities throughout the United States, providing a who’s who of bear casualties over the last several dozen years.

While reading, you can feel the weight of the pack on your back as you trudge along with Bryson and Katz, up and down hills, over stony trails, and finally collapsing in camp at the end of the night. At which point you sleep soundly… unless you can hear what you think is a bear. He also expresses the joy of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and the absolute peace in the woods. Any hiker can likely relate to these feelings.

A Walk in the Woods is a quick read – and I enjoyed the serious historical facts that complemented the tale of their excursion. The only part I disliked was when he retold the generalizations about the residents who were removed from Shenandoah National Park, describing them as uneducated and barely functional poor people who were far better off once the government swooped in to relocate them and save the day. But given that this book was written 20 years ago, before the true story was likely known, I’m willing to forgive him for the error.

The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you want to get a sense of what thru-hiking would really be like if you are not a serious distance hiker and camper. Just don’t feed the bears.

Virginia 2015: Compton Gap and Mary’s Rock Hikes

Day 4: Wednesday, October 7, 2015

We were going hiking! Hiking days are usually Jon’s favorites, but we were both excited to see Shenandoah National Park!

We drove into the park about 9:30 am, after packing up and having breakfast at the hotel (and Jon went for a run).  First thing as we drove in – my obligatory entrance sign picture.  This pic is one of my favorite pics of me! Our first stop was the Dickey Ridge Visitor’s Center, for stamps, postcards, and a t-shirt! We also talked to the ranger and got some advice on which hikes we wanted to do. We got a great recommendation on a couple and then set off to find the first one.

Me posing with the Shenandoah National Park Sign

Me posing with the Shenandoah National Park Sign

Our first hike was the Compton Gap Trail. The hike was two miles roundtrip (it would have been 2.4, but we missed one of the side spurs to another viewpoint, which ended up being ok, because we weren’t short on mileage that day).

We hiked along the Appalachian Trail for about a mile of this hike.  The Appalachian Trail is an approximately 2,200 mile scenic trail, that goes from Georgia all the way to Maine.  Hikers can hike sections, or  they can attempt to thru-hike, which means you hike the entire length of the trail in a season.  The idea of the Appalachian Trail was first conceived in the 1920s and was completed in the 1930s.  The first documented thru-hike was completed in 1948, and in 2014, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reported that 653 hikers completed a northbound thru-hike, with 76 completing the more difficult southbound thru-hike.  As intriguing as it sounds, this is not on my bucket list…

Jon hiking ahead (as usual) on the Compton Gap Trail

Jon hiking ahead (as usual) on the Compton Gap Trail

Back to our Compton Gap hike – about a mile up the trail leads to a wonderful viewpoint, with a vast tree canopy, and a river in the far distance. It reminded me of the tree filled views at home, only with deciduous trees instead of conifers.  Also rewarding was the fact that we were alone for the majority of the hike!  The total elevation gain on this hike was 835 feet, so it wasn’t too strenuous.  I enjoyed getting a taste of the rocky terrain; we passed by several huge boulders, and the trail was made up of rocks too!

The view at the top of the Compton Gap Trail. Trees, as far as the eye can see!

The view at the top of the Compton Gap Trail. Trees, as far as the eye can see!

There wasn’t much wildlife aside from birds who didn’t hang around long enough to be found or photographed, but I did find this caterpillar – I didn’t touch him. I guess their hairs can be irritating to your skin; we only have orange and black woolly bear caterpillars at home – I had never seen a white one!  We also saw a millipede, which is probably only notable for me because we don’t have them back home. 

The cute Wooly Bear Caterpillar I found

The cute Wooly Bear Caterpillar I found

After Compton Gap, we had lunch at the picnic area at Elkwallow Wayside, and listened to a few Appalachian Trail hikers swap stories of their experiences. There was a little store there that sold hamburgers and a few other hot food meals, so I’m sure it was quite a popular stop for hikers who had been in the woods for days!

Our next hike was Jon’s choice for the day – the Mary’s Rock Trail; it departed from the aptly named Mary’s Rock Trailhead at milepost 31.6.  It was a 3.7 mile hike up to the top of – you guessed it – Mary’s Rock. The trail was similar to the one we already hiked, with gigantic boulders and smaller rocks making up a lot of the trail. It was longer and steeper though, with a 1,210 foot elevation gain.  The rocky trail made for careful hiking, because you wouldn’t want to twist an ankle!

Me on the Mary's Rock Trail

Me on the Mary’s Rock Trail


Jon waiting for me to catch up on the Mary's Rock Hike

Jon waiting for me to catch up on the Mary’s Rock Hike

The Mary’s Rock hike had a lot of switchbacks, and was a little steep in places. However, the view at the top made it all worthwhile – it was amazing! There is a giant rock outcrop at the top that gives you a 360 degree view if you climb up on it. Despite my fear of heights, I scrambled up the rock, and was really glad I did.  We sat up there for awhile, and saw a couple of turkey vultures soaring over the treetops. 

Me embracing my inner nerd on top of Mary's Rock

Me embracing my inner nerd on top of Mary’s Rock


A Turkey Vulture Soaring above the trees at Mary's Rock

A Turkey Vulture Soaring above the trees at Mary’s Rock

Although we had already done two hikes that day, we had more we wanted to see and do!  I’ll tell you about the rest of the day in my next post! 




Virginia 2015: Harpers Ferry NHP

Day 2, October 5, 2015

Rarely do you get the opportunity to travel in 3 states before 1 o’clock in the afternoon! We left Gettysburg, Pennsylvania shortly after noon, and made our way to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, crossing back through Maryland along the way.

The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was established on June 30, 1944, and there are approximately 255,348 visitors that visit the park each year.  We stopped at the Visitor’s Center to get my stamps, then rushed outside to catch the bus down to the site. Harpers Ferry operates a shuttle service because parking is limited at the site. We probably didn’t need it on a Monday in early fall – it really wasn’t that busy.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park preserves the historic town of Harpers Ferry, the site of the federal armory, and of course, the site of John Brown’s Raid. Harpers Ferry was settled in the 1700s, and Robert Harper obtained a land patent in 1751 and established a ferry to cross the river.  George Washington began construction on the federal armory there. It was an ideal location with plenty of river water for facilitating the manufacturing process. Interestingly, a large part of the weapons and hardware for the Lewis and Clark expedition were manufactured here.


The Stephenson’s Hotel in Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is the site of the infamous John Brown’s Raid. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown tried to organize a slave revolt to take over the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. While a few blacks left their homes and joined the raid, John Brown did not get the large numbers of slaves that he wanted or expected to join his cause.


John Browns Fort

John Brown managed to hole himself up in what is now called John Brown’s Fort, originally a firehouse. He and his supporters waited, trapped by a hastily formed militia from the town of Harpers Ferry. A young Captain Robert E. Lee was the U.S. Army Officer charged with putting down the revolt. He arrived with his men, assessed the situation, and gave Brown a chance to surrender. When that didn’t happen, Lee’s men stormed the fort and put down the revolt. In less than three minutes…

We checked out the firehouse where John Brown sought refuge; it was fascinating to see after reading so much about John Brown’s Raid – it was much smaller than I imagined. It has been moved several times; the current site is actually its fourth location. I was able to see the original location of the Fort, and where Robert E. Lee mounted his offensive; we also saw the current location (they didn’t mark the interim locations). We also checked out the site of the armory that John Brown was trying to capture.  It is gone now, destroyed by fire later I believe, but they have the buildings outlined on the ground.


The monument marking the original location of John Brown’s Fort – with the current location in the distance.

Harpers Ferry continued its historical significance during the Civil War; it changed hands at least eight times. When Virginia seceded in 1861 (West Virginia hadn’t broken off yet), U.S. troops tried to burn the arsenal to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands; however, the townspeople saved the equipment from the buildings and it was moved closer to Richmond.

Jon and I wandered around the town and checked out the various buildings.  Jon and I both enjoyed seeing the impressive confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. They are both huge rivers, and it was neat to see where they come together.  Unfortunately for Harpers Ferry, these two powerful rivers flood – one of the buildings in the lower town has a marker showing the high water mark of several of the floods that have inundated the town.


The greener waters of the Potomac blend with the muddier waters of the Shenandoah to form an even mightier Potomac.


The flood marker is on the left side of this building. Those are some impressive floods!

Adjacent to Harpers Ferry is the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath, which follows the historic towpath where horses and oxen towed barges on the river. You can access it by taking a short footbridge across the Potomac River; we walked across the bridge and stood directly above the mighty Potomac.  The footbridge and the hiking trail at this point is part of the Appalachian Trail, the 2000 plus mile hiking trail that travels from Georgia to Maine.  It is considered to be the psychological midpoint of the trail; even though it doesn’t really mark the middle.


Me on the bridge at Harpers Ferry

Instead of taking the shuttle bus back to the Visitor’s Center, we decided to walk; the path takes you along the river, along the historic canal, and also onto Virginius Island, in the Shenandoah River. There, we saw the ruins of several structures; one interesting building was a pulp mill.  And I absolutely loved what we found in the water along the way – turtles! Painted turtles were sunning themselves all over logs and rocks poking up through the canal. We also saw one turtle that was much bigger than the rest; I’m pretty sure he was a snapping turtle. He was covered in algae, and kind of looked like an alligator the way he was mostly hidden under the water.


The remains of the Shenandoah Pulp Factory – built 1887-1888 – closed 1935 – destroyed by flood 1936.


The hike was quite enjoyable, with the last section being an uphill climb on stairs and a trail in the woods. I loved being able to compare the forest there with the forest at home – we have much more undergrowth in Northwest forests. It was a good chance to get some exercise and see a bit of scenery too!  Harpers Ferry was a wonderful place to visit!