Kurt and Gail Rheinheimer
Kurt and Gail Rheinheimer
It's a little like hitting a 350-yard drive as a series of two-foot putts.
Or ripping the phone book in half . . . one page at a time.
Still, walking the 546 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia – from the Potomac River just outside of Harpers Ferry, W. Va. down to the Tennessee line below Damascus – is still 546 miles. Even if you do walk it all in day-hikes. Without even once sleeping on the ground.
My walking partner/wife Gail and I didn't set out to do it. We set out to take a walk for something different to do on Valentine's Day, 2004. We did the Cornelius Creek/Apple Orchard loop, including that big 1.1 of the AT. The next week we took another walk, and then another, as it turned out. And the Appalachian Trail, running as it does through Roanoke's back yard, was of course the perfect anchor for what turned out to be 104 weeks before we took a weekend off, with maybe 150 miles of the great trail behind us. The added lure of the AT was that we had some background with the trail, going back to my father walking on it as long ago as 1937, when it was brand-new and he was 21. And a son who walked home to Roanoke from Mt. Katahdin in Maine in 2000, and most of the way home from Springer Mountain in Georgia in 2001.
You learn a few things when you do something – a day hike pretty much every weekend – for years on end:
1. Let the Great Trail build up on you. We started out – just to have new hikes – doing scores of: Park the car at a trailhead, walk in five miles, eat lunch and walk back out. We used that method to cover most of the miles between I-64 at Afton Mountain and where the trail crosses I-81 down near Marion.
2. Treat yourself to the stuff that makes for full walks. Wildflower and mushroom books for Gail, AT books and maps for me, a hiking pole, good day pack and ice water for both of us.
3. Do lunch right. On the Priest/MauHar loop, say, there is nothing better than completing that multi-thou-foot climb with a bunch of tasty, salty, sugary, fatty stuff you shouldn't eat. Jerky and cashews! Cheese and Cheese-Its! Chardonnay and Dove Chocolate! And almost as important as getting the food right: planning the hike so that once you get up from it, it's all down hill back to the car.
In fact, we didn't really much think about finishing the Virginia AT miles until we got up toward 300 miles. Suddenly that stuff up in Northern Virginia and down there by Tennessee seemed more worth driving to. More worth building a few multi-day trips around.
And maybe the best part of hiking with a girl on those multi-dayers – in the form of a 54-year-old woman – is that it is she who insists on a meal and a bed after a day of walking. Or more specifically: "I'll walk as far as you want, Kurt--just make sure there's a gourmet dinner and four-star accommodations ready afterwards."
Then you – even geezier man - can go oh, ookay, only because you insist. Your dignity is protected and you get a great evening with your honey after a great day of walking with her.
Regarding "as far as you want," while we did a dozen or so 15-mile-plus days and six or so in the 18-19 range, we never did do quite an official 20-mile day. From Snickers Gap at Va. 7 north to the West Virginia line was our longest and hardest at about 19.5 – it was cold and rainy that late-December day – but then a hot tub awaited in the funky Hilltop House in Harpers Ferry.
And once you do put the end in your sights, the getaways to get it done get more and more fun. Not just the Hilltop, but visits to historic Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland in Shenandoah National Park. And, best for last, a little cabin just outside of Grayson Highlands State Park to do those majestic Mount Rogers-area miles. Our last day's lunch was on a pinnacle as you walk north from the Mount Rogers Trail. You're past the shelter and its pony collection, and you're on a rock looking down on Rhododendron Gap and more ponies; you're looking off to layers and layers of blue mountain for the full 360. And knowing that once you get up from lunch, it's all downhill for the last few of the 546 – on down to the Wilson Trail back into Grayson Highlands State Park.
It was along here that the The Greatest Day Hiker Of Them All and the old man with her paused a second to exchange a high-five of congratulations. She beamed in full exaultation. He who had followed her up and down the mountains from the little 2,000-footers in NoVa to the mile-highers had to work to hide his tears.
December 2, 2008