Monday, March 7, 2011

Chapter 68: Welcome to Shenandoah

Nestled in an forgotten, shadowy corner of the Shenandoah Valley, Waynesboro, Virginia is a lovely little town primarily known for being the site of a deeply humiliating Confederate defeat during the waning months of the Civil War. Its humble and good-hearted inhabitants have ever since been searching for an alternate identity, anything to set them above or apart, through which to transcend their history. Knowing Waynesboro will never be an acclaimed or noteworthy center of culture or commerce, the locals' consensus strategy seems to have been to make their home the best trail town south of the Mason-Dixon line, and quite possibly anywhere. And they may very well have accomplished that goal.

With apologies to the Green Mountain House in Manchester Center, Vermont, the ridiculously accommodating hiker hostel at the Waynesboro Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church might just be the best such facility on the entire trail. The local YMCA – conveniently located right around the corner from the hostel and across the street from the public library – offers hikers complimentary showers and a gratuitous gift bag full of swag: toothbrushes, toothpaste, and some perfunctory proselytizing pamphlets that make for rather poor privy reading but prove surprisingly useful as fire starters. The Ming Garden is the most lavish, diverse, and reasonably priced AYCE buffet in the state. That said, the town's greatest strength probably lies in its well-organized network of "trail angels" willing to drop everything at a moment's notice to schlep innumerable smelly, insufferable, ungrateful hikers about town on errands or to wherever they might wish to go.

It was with one such trail angel that Caveman, P-Nut, Redwing, Lil Dipper and I got a ride back to the trail. Bandito had decided to stay behind, mainly to finish reading Harry Potter, but also to check out a martial arts dojo he'd stumbled across on a jaunt to the laundromat the day before. I made him promise to catch up post-haste, however. We were only nine days from Harpers Ferry, and although I didn't want to acknowledge it then, our time together was fast running out.

With its omnipresent burble of traffic from Skyline Drive; the ready availability of refreshments at any number of concession stands, waysides, campgrounds and lodges; and the sheer mass and volume of clueless sightseers, the experience of hiking in the Shenandoahs is nearly indistinguishable from a rather average day in Central Park. Well, except for the conspicuous, shameful lack of any minorities. Maybe that's to do with the park's geographic inaccessibility. But no, it's only about 90 miles outside of Washington D.C. Maybe it has more to do with the latent racism of rural Virginia. Either way, it's sad, and not particularly encouraging.

For most rational Americans, hiking in Shenandoah National Park is probably considerably less appealing than driving it on Skyline Drive. However, with the price of gas skyrocketing, most rational Americans probably have better things to do than take an aimless three hour car trip. Like racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt buying porn subscriptions and alcohol, updating their blogs, collecting belly button lint, and writing their Senators to protest the insidious influence of politicians on our political process. 

On my bucket list – the one I just made up for the sole purpose of the following joke – "hike the Shenandoahs" was preceded only by "go over Niagara Falls in a barrel," "attend Oktoberfest in Munich," and "seduce Daniel Radcliffe." So far I'm two for four. And sorely disappointed. 

Somehow I let Caveman and P-Nut convince me into hiking the whole way with the group instead of hitching to McCormack Gap, where I had gotten off the trail the day before. I thus found myself in the unenviable position of not only redoing 3.7 rather unenjoyable miles, but reliving my anguished experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of my companions. This is where I screamed for 13.786 seconds straight, freaking out Bandito. This is where I punched a tree and hurt my hand. This is where I threw my trekking pole over my shoulder and drop-kicked my guidebook. 

Even P-Nut had the gall to laugh at me. 

Two hours later we crossed a fire road at Jarman Gap and entered Shenandoah National Park proper. We were all slightly confused, since we thought we'd already been in the park for three hours. It took us a while to get over this. Imagine running a race, only the stewards keep moving the starting line back. It was like that, only more annoying and drizzly.

P-Nut eventually blazed ahead in some impertinent fit of impatience. I found myself hiking with Caveman, just behind Redwing and Lil Dipper. And then it happened. The air in front of me filled with the mysterious and unpleasant odor of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

Unfortunately – since we were going up a steep incline – my face happened to be right at the level of Redwing's ass. However, I knew it couldn't have been her; Redwing was far too dignified and stuffily British to have committed so egregious an offence.  There was only one inescapable conclusion.

I would later write the following in the registry at Blackrock Hut:
stealth fart | stel θ - färt | informal
verb [trans.]
when leading a party of three or more uphill, to fart in a way so as to make the last person in line blame the person in front of them
: Lil Dipper is a stealth farter.
By late afternoon, we had hiked 19.7 miles and crossed Skyline Drive no less than eight times. My guidebook informed me that Blackrock Hut was 0.2 miles off the trail to the right. What it didn't say was that it was also down a couple hundred feet in elevation. It was a ridiculous slog just to get there, and –when we arrived – we found the shelter packed.

Of course P-Nut was there and had already claimed the last empty spot. He was chumming it up with the interloping section hikers when we arrived, and pointedly ignored our entrance. I wasn't particularly hurt by his betrayal, however. With a few notable exceptions, section hikers are the worst sort of people – after southbounders, day hikers, day hikers who don't offer you trail magic, and Nazis – and are invariably rude, inconsiderate, and horrible snorers. I wouldn't have been able to sleep in the shelter.

But, as it turned out, I wouldn't be able to sleep in my tent, either.

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