“50 Miles on the Appalachian Trail”
I was a Boy Scout, actually, eventually, an Eagle Scout.
In 1960, I was thumbing through a Boy Scout merit badge catalog, which listed all the merit badges a scout could earn and in the back were listed other awards to include the “50-Miler” award. To earn this patch, a scout had to either hike or canoe for 50 miles in one session or outing.
Not sure now, how I knew about the Appalachian Trail (AT) at the time but (1) 50-mile hike and the close by, AT, equaled one 50-miler award to me. So I began talking it up at home. Mind you, I was 14 at the time and although my parents seemed to listen and approve, they really were doing neither.
With “their approval,” I recruited 2 other scouts, Joel Bradshaw and Eddie Spitler, and we set about making our plans. We would get on the trail at Paris Mountain, Virginia and hike the trail to where it crossed a road that led into Luray, Virginia and we would meet my parents for a pickup at the famous Singing Tower of Luray.
From researching AT information, I knew there was a shelter about every 7 miles and thus calculated that we could make 2 shelters a day or about 14 miles and thus it would, should, take up about 3 days to hike the required 50 miles.
Finally, at Wednesday dinner before the planned departure on Saturday, I went over my plans once again with my parents. “Go?” My mom said. “You mean you were serious about going out with 2 other boys for 3 days in woods?” “What?” I said, “I have talked about it for weeks and weeks and I thought you said it was ok.” “Well, 3 boys alone out in the woods for 3 days, I don’t know,” said my mother. “Well,” said my Dad, “They have had a lot of training in the scouts and Ron and I have hunted and been out in the woods plenty of times. I don’t think I see the problem. Luray pickup in 3 days? Ok, we will be there after 7 in the evening sometime.”
And so my mom and dad and 2 other scouts and myself packed into our car and they drove us to Paris Virginia and we got out, slung our packs and headed away from civilization for 3 days.
Of course, almost immediately, the trail began to climb and climb and although I had done some research on the trail, I really had not looked at any sort of elevations map and thus did not know that for the next 50 miles, we would climb and then go down to only have to climb back up again, over and over. Quickly, I could see that 14 or 15 miles a day, or 2 shelters a day was going to be a challenge, but we pushed on and after 2 or 3 hours, we began to settle into a nice hiking grove and the sounds, feel of civilization dropped off of us somewhere back down the trail.
The trail in those days was well marked or was most of the time. A tree would have a hatchet gash in it painted red or so I remember and occasionally, there would be a tin, triangular sign with the letters AT on it with the “T” as part of the “A”, attached to a tree. Also, there were signs now and again, saying private property and that the trail would be closed through this section or that, if the property was not respected.
Around 1 in the afternoon, we reached the first trail shelter, sitting right on the trail and we were more than ready for some food. The shelter was made out of logs, had 3 sides, and opened out to a dirt area hosting a fire pit. The shelter also housed a book and pencil and you could write you name in it, where you were from, where you were going, the date, and comments of any kind. As we had not planned on a hot meal for lunch, we sat inside the cool of the shelter, drank water, ate our packaged food, read from the book, and then made our own entries. Many hikers were on a mission to hike the whole trail, some 2000+ miles of it. We could not imagine such an adventure. Would take all summer to do such a hike. We also saw that there was only one hiker ahead of us, by a day, headed in the same direction as we were or North.
We stayed at the first shelter much too long but I think we wanted to just enjoy the small victory of hiking the trail to this point. We could do this hike and were going to do it.
With our entries made in the shelter logbook (I wonder if those old logbooks still exist somewhere?), we headed out again on the trail knowing we had another 7 miles to the next shelter.
As in the morning, the trail climbed up all afternoon but then around 3 or 4 pm, we broke out of the woods for the first time since we had began the hike in the morning and found ourselves hiking along a fenced pig lot and then down to cross a road and there right on the route 55, was a small grocery store. We could not believe it and headed straight for the store with all sorts of ideas as to what to buy, but mostly a cold, cold soda.
It was wonderful in that small country story. An old wooden building with old wooden floors, counters and shelves, we quickly got ourselves a cold drink and some candy and then sat outside watching the few cars there were, go by. Sweet: not counted on at all and just perfect. Then refreshed and ready to make the last of the first day, we went back inside and bought a dozen of fresh chicken eggs as we had not brought any along and the thought of scrambled eggs for breakfast was just too much to pass up.
From the road and the country story, the trail quickly lead us away and at some point, we became aware that we had crossed into the Shenandoah National Park. Only 2 more miles, I thought and told my 2 fellow scouts who were beginning to sag from the long days’ hike.
An hour past and we climbed and climbed. Then another hour and I began looking the trail ahead for the shelter and then another hour and I began to worry. What if there was not a shelter every 7 miles as I had been led to believe? We could sleep on the ground, out in the open, but that was not how we had planned it and I knew my fellow scouts needed that shelter to confirm progress.
As I have said, the trail would often climb up one ridge to only plunge down the other side and then climb back up the next. After a while, we were totally convinced that the American Indians who ran this route had to have been drunk as no sober person would have made, taken, such route.
Finally, as we reached the top of one ridge, there was sign saying “Shelter 1 mile” with an arrow pointing to a trail that lead down the ridgeline. “1 mile more?” My fellow scouts complained in unison, so we paused for a moment and then headed down the path to the shelter. At least it was all downhill or would be for this part of the trip.
Identical in everyway to the very first shelter we encountered, it was empty, and we immediately set about building a fire and preparing our dinner. Dinty Moore beef stew, served up hot and steaming and after dinner, sitting around tired but happy and full, we were quiet with our own thoughts and what we had accomplished.
Inside the shelter, there were some sort of bunks along the walls but I cannot remember exactly their configuration now. Know we did not have to lay our sleeping bags out on the ground inside the shelter. After the bags were down, we hung all our food from a tree, as we had been taught to do, so animals would not come looking in the middle of the night and get amongst us. It did not help. Sometime after we had fallen asleep, we were awakened by squeaking noises and turning on flashlights, saw at least 2 rats running for cover inside the shelter. Great! Rats! Needless to say, we did not sleep all that well the rest of the first night.
Not sure when we got up that second day as I am not sure now we even had a watch among us. Why did we need one anyway, out here in the woods?
Another nice summer day and we quickly built a fire and scrambled the country store eggs and some bacon we did have. It was a fine breakfast and once done, we packed up our stuff, put out the campfire, gathered firewood and placed it inside the shelter for the next hiker or hikers to use and headed back up the path to the AT.
Now in those days, there was no such thing as special hiking boots or packs with fancy aluminum frames. Honestly, I cannot remember what anyone wore for shoes but suspect tennis shoes as that are just about all anyone wore in the summer. As for packs, my 2 fellow scouts had the official Boy Scout pack, which were rather small and not water proof and which required your sleeping bag be carried, strapped on, to the top. In my case, I had read an article in a Boy Scout magazine how to make a pack out of a plastic trash can, which were just then coming on the market as plastic was a fairly new consumer product in those days. Anyway, I had this trashcan with shoulder straps on it and a canvas cover over the top and like the official packs, I had to strap my sleeping bag on top. Never swapped the plastic trashcan for a backpack as it always got a lot of comments at various Boy Scout mass campouts but was in fact, too heavy for a 50 mile hike, or so I found out.
Finally, after a rather steep climb, we reached the Appalachian Trail and set out going north towards Luray.
The morning was nice as it was rather cool under the tree canopy of the forest and about mid-morning we came upon 2 deer just off the trail that did not seem to mind our presence at all. Then, about 10 minutes later we came out the forest and crossed a road, which turned out to be the Skyline Drive, which runs through the Shenandoah National Park. It was the first time we crossed the Skyline Drive but it would not be the last. In total, we must have crossed the Skyline Drive at least 4 times and maybe more on our hike.
Across the road and then down and just about noon, we reached a sign saying “Cabin,” with an arrow pointing up an old dirt road. “Cabin? Not shelter?”
We had not walked very far at all when, sure enough, we came on a small cabin sitting in a clearing at the end of the old road. Perhaps no more than 30 feet by 30 feet, the single story cabin had a porch and stone chimney sticking out of the cedar shake roof. As we walked up to the cabin, the front door opened and a man and a woman, holding a baby, came out. “Hello,” the man said, moving to the edge of the porch. “Hey,” I said continuing to move towards the porch.
Well, it turned out that the National Park owned and operated several rental cabins in the park and this was one of those. This couple and their baby had hiked in from a Skyline Drive lookout and were staying the week. Had been there for some time but we were the first to come by and say hello.
Lunch, cool spring water from inside, some talk about where they from and we, sitting on the porch and just relaxing. It was all so very nice.
Then finally, I knew we had to push on if we were going to make the second shelter by nightfall and we said our goodbyes and we headed down the old dusty road back to the AT.
Once on the trail again, it was not long until we came to the first shelter of the day but we did not stop, as we had no need to as we had already stopped for lunch. Then about an hour later, we started smelling Bit-of-Honey candy. Crazy, out there in the woods but strong and persistent and after a while we figured it had to be a wild bees’ nest somewhere right off the trail and although I did not see the connection then or see it now, one of us began to see that old “I been working on the railroad” song and we sang it and sang it and sang it over and over and over for maybe an hour as we hiked along.
Always hiking single file, the AT is not a wide, multi-lane highway. Most of the time, the forest floor had little or no underbrush but other times there was nothing but a cut, cleared path, through a thick tangle of briars and small shrubs. In some places, the volunteers that maintained the trail had chain sawed a section of a downed trail that lie across the trail but had not cut up the whole tree or removed it. As we hiked along, we also removed dead limbs from the trail and picked up what little trash there was. Interesting that there was so little trash scattered along this trail, as it had been my experience with the woods, any woods that there was always human debris scattered everywhere.
Can’t remember how we rotated led but know we did and we always stuck close together, meaning like within 6 feet of each other. When my dad had ok’d my going on the hike, he had tried to get me to carry the single shot 22 caliber rife I had in case we were to come across a rabid fox or snake or some problem but I had refused. Didn’t want carry a gun for 50 miles. Probably would today as the Shenandoah National Park now has black bear but in those days, black bear had all been killed off.
Across the Skyline Drive we went repeatedly until just as the sun began to move down below a Blue Ridge mountain chain ridge, we came upon the second shelter of the day and were more than glad to finally be there. By now, after 2 days of hiking, our feet, and shoulders, both, were sore and after a quickly prepared dinner, we settled into our bunks and watched the fire go out. Rats or no rats, we slept like logs that second night.
We awoke bright and early that third and final day. Not sure why. Perhaps getting used to using the sun as a clock or perhaps we were getting anxious to get to Luray and back home where soft beds and mother’s cooking waited.
After a cold breakfast of cereal and some canned milk, we packed up, signed the shelter logbook, and began heading north again.
After 2 full days of hiking, we quickly found our hiking pace groove and moved quietly through the cool forest. The 3 days had been perfect. No rain, no nasty animals other than those rats one night, no other hikers sharing a shelter, it had been what I had expected and wanted other than the constant up and down the hills, ridges, mountains.
Around mid morning, Joel began to break down. In the last position in the single file, suddenly we realized that he had simply stopped and sit down. Back a hundred yards or so, we went back down the trail to him to see what was wrong. “I can’t do this,” he said, not looking up at us. “Ok, we will rest,” I said and we all sat down and took out our canteens for some water. “No, I mean I just can’t walk anymore,” Joel said, never looking up from the ground. “Joel,” I said, “Really you got no choice. I mean we are out here, still pretty far from any road and we can’t just leave you here, come back, and get you. It is not all that far now and we have almost done it. I know you can do it. Just one step in front of the other. Would it help if I carried your pack for a while?”
Joel finally looked up from staring at the ground. There were tears in his eyes and I could see he really was exhausted and had never faced this kind of situation before. We were out here, alone and no one was going to come fix it for us. We had to complete the hike, no matter how hard it was.
We sat there for a long time, waiting for Joel to say something or do something and finally he stood up and handed me his pack. I slung his pack over my one shoulder and placed Joel in the led so we could keep an eye on him and let him set the pace. After this one pause, the rest of the morning went by quickly.
Around noon or 1, we came to the first shelter of the day and there were 4 people having lunch there over an open fire. 2 men and 2 women in their early to mid 20’s. They were not AT hikers but had hiked up from the Skyline drive just to picnic. Not close enough in age for any meaningful conversation, we rested, ate most of the food we had left, drank some water, and moved on quicker than usual. For some reason, meeting these people on the trail was a disappointment. I had grown accustom to having the trail to ourselves and liked it that way. Some sort of adventure feel to it, out there all alone, hiking along as Indians had done for hundreds of years maybe.
With Joel still in the lead and I still carrying his backpack, we moved quietly and steadily through the afternoon, which became hotter than any day so far in our journey. Do not remember ever become soaked with sweat on any day, but if there was one, it was the last day. The humidity was high, there was no breeze at all, and the forest, the woods, was so quiet. I tried to get the old railroad song going but neither Eddie nor Joel would have anything to do with it. It was then I realized that Eddie was exhausted as well, although he had not said anything when Joel had broken down back down the trail in the morning.
From the first shelter of the day, I really did not know if we would reach a second shelter or the road that lead to Luray first. Guess I should have had a map with me, but I didn’t and the not knowing how much further began to mess with Joel and Eddie’s head. “How much further?” They would ask every 45 minutes, and then every half hour and then ever 15 minutes. My answer was always the same. “I really not sure, but can’t be much further. We will be there soon. Today is the last day and we have done it. Remember that.”
Around 4 o’clock, we broke out into the open and came to the road that would lead us down to Luray. Instantly, all our spirits lifted and we began hiking along the road moving towards civilization again. As we descended along the road, I watched the trail disappear behind us and wondered if I would ever hike it again? Wondered if it would continue to exist in the future with so much of it on private land?
The road to Luray was downhill and steep and the road curved this way and that way, sharply. And then around one turn, we came to a road sign that said “Luray, 8 miles.” “8 miles!” Joel just flopped down right then and there and began to cry for all he was worth. “I can’t,” He said. “8 miles more! I can’t.”
Exhausted myself from carrying Joel’s backpack most of the day, I sat down and rested but did not say anything to Joel or Eddie. It was my fault we had this long hike ahead of us this late in the day after hiking all day already and with it being 4 o’clock, were going to have to pick up the pace to make the Singing Tower close to or just a little after 7 in the evening.
Joel finally stopped crying and I took my opportunity. “Joel, it is only 8 more miles and it is all downhill from here. You know I cannot leave you here alone and we have no way to contact my parents to have them pick us up here. We have to do it. You have to do it.”
Joel did not say a word but simply got to his feet.
And the road to Luray was downhill but out in the open and as we hiked along the edge of the busy highway, the sun began to bake us like it had not done in the shade of the forest. Canteens came out frequently until with 4 more miles to go, everyone was completely out of water.
There will be a store or a gas station or something on the road we can stop at, I thought but dare not say out loud.
As he hiked along, people in the cars passing by would sometimes wave at us or call out their own car windows. Seemed to me that perhaps they had never seen three hikers before or at least not three like us.
4 miles to Luray and hot.
Finally, the road we were hiking came to a dead end with an arrow pointing to the left to Luray. We stood there. Was the 8 miles to this point? How much further to the Singing Tower?
As we stood by the side of the road, a car came up and stopped to make a left hand turn out onto the highway that lead into Luray. “Sir,” I said, “How about a ride.”
Looking straight at me, he said, “Walk, it will do you good!” We could have, could have killed that man that day, at that moment. If only he would have taken the time to hear my story and just give us a lift to the Singing Tower, but it was not to be. We were going to have the hike the whole thing and so after a while, we headed out on the edge of the highway headed into Luray.
Cow pastures, houses but not one gas station or place to get a drink or any food or even rest in the shade and it was getting late.
Finally, we came to a sign, which said “Singing Tower” and point down a city street. Although I tried to see the tower, as I knew it was a high structure and should have been able to see it if it was near but I could not.
How far to the Singing Tower? I just did not know and Joel and Eddie did not ask. We simply limped along now, getting close but not quite there yet.
Around a bend in the road and there was a White Castle hamburger stand! Hamburgers! A bag of 6 burgers for one dollar and cold drinks all around and it was like bread from heaven. Sure Joel and Eddie, wherever they are today can instantly recall how good those burgers tasted that day and how cold the drinks.
The “Singing Tower?” I asked the clerk at White Castle. “Just on down this road, maybe a half mile.”
It was 6:30pm.
The burgers and cold soda seemed to make all of us supermen, as Joel was the first one up and grabbing his pack, slung it and we all followed.
Sure enough, we had only gone a short distance when the Singing Tower came into view and then we were there, at its base and found ourselves a place in the shade to layout on the grass. We had made it: the whole thing. We had done it, the three of us.
Around 7:30 pm, my parents drove up and some conversation ensued about our hike but nothing was said about Joel or our problems. We had made it and that was all.
I think Joel, Eddie, and I all slept on the way home and when we dropped each off at their homes, we all smiled at each other but said no long goodbyes. A hot shower, more food, and a nice soft bed were waiting.
So now, it is some 40 years later that I write down this remembrance and although the trail still exists, I have not hiked it since. I have been on it now and again, for short jumps up to a picnic area but other than that, never had the desire to hike it all or even more of it. I don’t know, certainly when we were out there, in the middle of the afternoon and it was so still and we could feel no other human presence, it was a special place and time and obviously it made a lasting impression on me to write this now.
Would I suggest such a hike to anyone? Yes, I would: perhaps not 50 miles but at least a day. Living as we live now, crowded up against each other in cities, it really is refreshing to get out, away now and again and feel how the world, earth once was before man became such a dominate species.
“I've been working on the railroad, all the live long day.”