The other day someone asked me if I’d ever camped alone before. “Sure,” I said breezily, even thought it had really only been a couple of times. And the last time had been a pretty big bust. That same person asked if I ever was scared. I answered yes, but the reality is I was often more scared of being judged for being alone than I was of physical danger. Weird, I know, but that’s my psyche for you.
Anyway, by this point in 2020, I should have gone on at least one or two adventures– with other people! – but we all know what 2020 has done to best laid plans. These are strange times, the kind of times that, oddly, lend themselves quite nicely to a lone woman taking herself on a camping trip for a couple of days. The change of scenery was tantalizing, and after my last Shenandoah adventure, I couldn’t wait to go back.
So, I headed back up to the Park, this time without a canine wingman…er…wing-dog…er…you know. With no pooch to fret about, it was just me, my tent, and however many miles my flatlander legs could manage.
The adventure began with a smooth and zippy drive in my new car and its blissfully functional air conditioning. Having bought my last car in 2009, even a 2017 model feels like piloting a spaceship to me…the touch screens, the back up cameras, the USB ports that work…it’s all magical. I won’t say the hours flew, but they at least had good tunes and a comfy seat and no dashboard indicator lights to shine tauntingly in my face.
Checking in to the campground, when asked how many were there for my reservation, I caught myself before I said “oh, just one.” Instead, a simple “one” was all they needed to know. This is a small thing, but getting rid of that “just” is a powerful thing for single gals. I urge you to try it.
One thing I adore about traveling is the period of time just after arrival, when I get to nest. If I’m at a hotel, that means unpacking my suitcase and putting my toothbrush in the bathroom. At a campsite, it means setting up tent and hammock and getting to know your food canister (it’s bear country, after all). After seeing that it was all just so, I jumped back in the car and headed for a popular little trail to Dark Hollow Falls.
See, on my last trip, I’d hiked the Rose River Loop – backwards, as I’m often want to do, and found myself, after the first mile of that hike, at the base of the Dark Hollow Falls trail. But, pets weren’t allowed up there, so I had to skip it. This time, sans Sadie, I started with the masses at the top of the trail.
Unfortunately, the popularity of this trail meant I spent most of the time dodging other people, a mild annoyance in normal times, and more so during a pandemic. The payoff, the big pretty falls, were so filled with people swimming that I barely got a look at it before I felt the need to escape. But I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t far from the base of the trail, so I left the hordes to their shrieking and kept going down. Sure enough, I wound up at a familiar sight, all alone.
Despite the giant sign warning of the danger of climbing on the rocks, I found a perch at the base of the falls and sat for a few blissful, quiet moments, feeling smug that I was wearing my Keens and could soak my feet in the cold fresh water. Up above, I could see a few teenagers cavorting, but the sounds were drowned out by the falls. And I guess all I have to say about this is that a waterfall is wonderful therapy for a tired and stressed-out soul that’s been living in a pandemic for 5 months.
In what turned out to be a genius move, I decided not to hike back up Dark Hollow Falls Trail, and took the Rose River Trail back to the main road. It added about 2 miles to the trip, but it kept me away from people and gave me a gradual uphill to get back to my car, rather than a steep one. I saw a bunny on the trail, along with a bunch of butterflies and some lovely westerly views.
Back home at the campsite, I enjoyed my hammock for a bit, then came to the most exciting part of my evening – trying out my new camp stove for the first time. You see, every other time I have ever camped someone else has either made the campfire or cooked on their stove. I’d never done it myself.
I spread out the instructions carefully, with the knowledge that I didn’t want to blow myself or the campsite up if I could avoid it. I laid out the pieces, checked and rechecked my setup, and reached for the matches…oh crap…I’d forgotten the matches. Thus began a frantic search for a hidden stash I’d sworn I’d kept in my pack, but when that came up empty, I introduced myself to my neighbors at site 27, who kindly gave me matches and a strip for striking them. That little obstacle overcome, I lit the stove, boiled myself some water, and ate my chicken and rice with the greatest of satisfaction. It’s the little things, people.
That night was one of the few moments that I missed having someone with me; I’ve always enjoyed the little ballet of passing car keys back and forth while cleaning up after dinner, and quiet conversation around a campfire is one of my favorite things ever about camping out. I wasn’t exactly lonely, but sleep didn’t come easy that night…it never does when I’m in a new place.
But the next day dawned with promise, and that lovely feeling of waking up in the woods. Now a pro at my new stove, I made myself some tea and had breakfast, and was joined by a family of deer – a mom, dad and, I eventually noticed, a little spotted fawn who plonked down right on the edge of my campsite to nosh on the plants. Mama Deer had to come over and poke the baby with her nose to get it to move. How do I know it was a Mama Deer? Because I saw her squat to pee before rounding up her offspring. You didn’t know deer pee like girl dogs, did you? Well, now you do.
The plan for this day was a 13 mile hike into/out of a canyon, with a little ridge hike and a mountaintop thrown in for good measure. It’s an example of how I’ve changed that I saw a hike labeled “difficult” and didn’t flinch from it; in fact, I wanted to see how I would do against it.
The verdict? Mixed. Issue one – locating the proper starting point for this hike – all the descriptions are very blasé about the fact that the recommended trailhead is outside of Shenandoah National Park – and I got confused. Eventually I realized I could jump onto the trail from the Skyline Drive, but it meant I started later than I’d wanted to, and the heat was rising.
Leg one of this hike took me from the Hawksbill Gap parking lot down the Cedar Run Trail – a steep and rocky trek that sucked the life from my legs pretty quickly. I began to regret that I was carrying the weight of my camera – since all my attention was on climbing down safely there wasn’t a lot of desire to take pictures – and that I hadn’t brought my trekking poles. But, it was a gorgeous descent into the lush greenery of the canyon, following along next to waterfalls and little swimming holes. A much larger swimming hole and natural slide was at the bottom – this was the first time I wished I’d planned to bring a bathing suit as the water was cool and the kids were having a blast splashing around. Getting to flat ground was blissful after the descent, and a brief jaunt through a beautiful forest on soft, root-free terrain was a welcome break.
Then, I reached the junction of the White Oak Canyon Trail, and sat with my feet in the water while refueling. I had probably about 9-ish miles to go (my Garmin was having issues tracking so I’m not sure exactly), and I was pretty tired already, so I started to consider if I would take the shortcut out and not do the 13 miles. A decision for later, but doubt was setting it as the temperatures climbed.
The White Oak Canyon Trail is no joke; it’s steep. There are waterfalls, granted, but I have to admit I didn’t have a lot of energy to give them – although the lower falls had a swimming hole that made me wish I had friends with me…it would have been a blast to go swimming in there. Pretty quickly I realized that getting to the top of the trail was going to be a major challenge – my body, used to flat trails and sea level, didn’t appreciate the calf-burning uphill. There was a lot of stopping and more than a little swearing on my part. A few times I questioned if I’d even make it, but there was really no option to turn back – my car was several miles and several thousand feet of elevation away.
Anyway, eventually I did make it to the top of the falls, and faced the crossroad – continue on for about 5 more miles, for a bit of a trek on the AT and up to a mountaintop, or “bail” and take the fire road back to my car. By this point, there was really no choice – I and my wobbly legs took the fire road. It wasn’t steep but it was still uphill and I was plodding along, dreaming about a nice dinner, when suddenly I felt a few raindrops on my head.
There was no rain in the forecast when I’d checked earlier, so I figured it was just a sprinkle. Then, a few more drops, and I decided to, just in case, put the rain cover on my pack to protect my camera. That turned out to be a good choice, because a few moments later the heavens OPENED and a monsoon struck. I’m talking sheets and sheets of water, soaking me from head to toe, and turning the fire road into a muddy stream.
In my state of exhaustion, I found this all a bit of a lark, as it washed away the miles of sweat and cooled me off. There was no shelter to be had, so all I could do was keep walking and accept the soaking. I passed a pack of teenage boys on their way to a swimming hole; they whooped at me and I just laughed at them. Eventually the rain ended and I made it back to my starting point, where I stood dripping, unwilling to put my wet self into my new car, until I realized I had a towel in the trunk. Overpacking for the win!
Then it was back to the campsite, where the joys of traveling alone kicked in – I changed clothes and stretched blissfully out in my tent, feeding myself all the goldfish I wanted and drinking my Nuun, and dozing as my body did a little reboot. Then, I decided that 9 miles, 2300 feet of elevation (twice! down and up!), and hot/humid conditions meant I’d earned a dinner cooked by someone else. So I headed to the Big Meadows lodge, bought a pizza and a cider, and sat reading and eating while the sun went down over the mountains.
It was a cool, breezy night, and I sat alone among people, with noisy kids running about and conversation swirling all around me, and I felt completely content with my book and myself. What a delightful and rare feeling.
That night, I really, really wanted to stay up late enough to go stargazing, but my sleeping pad was way too comfy, and so I drifted to sleep as the campground quieted around me. I woke the next morning and listened to the birds chirp, then reluctantly packed up the campsite. It was time to go back to real life, with just my sore muscles to remind me of what I’d done the day before. And believe me, they did. This flatlander needs to climb some more stairs!