Who doesn’t love a good read? Or a bad read, really.* I certainly do and I spent a lot of my time in 2021 with my nose in a book or four. Here’s my little chance to tell you which of those books I loved the most in 2021. Maybe something will jump out at you. There are fewer things more intimate (and personal) than choosing the books you want to read. Welcome to my book world.
Methodology. 2020 was the year I switched predominantly to paper books again and began to give myself reading goals each month. 2021 was the year I put these goals into regimented practice. I set an annual goal of 50 books for 2021 and began each month by choosing three or so books from my To Be Read piles and shelves. The selection was typically fiction, nonfiction, and (my own category combining topics like Buddhism and ecology) “exploration.” Most of the books I purchased at the wondrous Alexandria independent bookstore Old Town Books, but I also had a handful acquired previously and sitting around for years begging to be read or pilfered from Cheryl’s collection. I also had an audiobook going as well for commuting, walking, hiking, driving, and chores. With very few exceptions — including a huge one I’ll get to below — I completed my monthly reading goals on time. My trick? Public social media commitment. I’m pretty sure the amount of people keeping track of my monthly reading posts was an integer between one and three. But one of those numbers was me. And I cared deeply about meeting the goals I proudly announced around the first of each month. So without further ado, from my first completed book of January 2021 (Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi) to my just completed December read (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), here’s what emerged from the year of reading as my top accolades and recommendations.
My Favorite Novel of 2021. I knew Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet was going to be the most amazing and affecting book I would read in 2021 a dozen pages in. Do you know those times when it feels like a book casts a spell on you and each sentence seems to float in your consciousness even when you put the book down? I don’t feel this often, but I felt it with Hamnet. O’Farrell’s writing is superb, her creativity mind-blowing, and her treatment of the source material — the few facts known about the life and family of William Shakespeare — sensitive and loving. This is fan fiction the way it is never been written before. It is a love song and an invention. But in that, it is also a gift to all who cherish Shakespeare, an oh so timely treatment of death in the midst of a pandemic, and a penetrating romance and struggle of a marriage. I know Hamnet made a lot of best of the year lists in 2020 and I was a tad late in getting to it. But I’ll never forget it. This is one I can imagine rereading with the same sense of wonder.
My Favorite Nonfiction Work of 2021. In a year in which I read Barack Obama’s The Promised Land and Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (among others), Les and Tamara Payne’s The Dead Are Arising stands out as the most memorable nonfiction read of the year. I had never read the Autobiography of Malcolm X or seen the Spike Lee movie, though I am very inclined to do so now. For me, The Dead Are Arising was my first serious introduction to Malcolm X and the times he lived in. What struck me the most about the book was the way the Paynes captured the era and the dynamics that produced and killed Malcolm X. It reads with both gripping, personal intensity and meticulous journalistic realism. If you are a person who ever wondered more about Malcolm X and his place in the 20th century, this is a necessary book to pick up.
My Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021. I read (and listen) to a lot of science fiction and fantasy. It’s a beloved and comforting genre for me and I can’t get enough. This year I started the Expanse series and love it enormously but will focus on it a bit more next year review-wise (as well as produce a write up of all the Star Wars: High Republic books I’ve been working through). For 2021, it was Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth that really caught my attention as some of the best speculative fiction of my year. Though pitched, somewhat in jest, as YA “lesbian necromancers,” these books and their title characters were so much more. I love it when I get to read something fresh and innovative. Better yet if the writing and character development is top notch — and funny. As you can imagine from such a superlative category, these books are both. What really helped earn Muir top billing is how stunningly different the sequel was from the first volume. No spoilers here. Just read them and get excited for more from her.
Runner Up. I waited for all three of Joe Abercrombie’s The Age of Madness trilogy books to be published before reading them together this fall. They easily could have been my top genre selection because they were just so damn good. So bloody “back to the mud” good. If you haven’t read any Abercrombie, go treat yourself to The Blade Itself and keep going. This “final” trilogy showcased the writing prowess, humor, and heart that makes the world he built, and the characters who make it spark to life, so special. Abercrombie somehow merged edgy, dark, sassy fantasy with a deft handling of political elements from both the French AND Russian revolutions.
In conclusion. When you read more than 50 books and select a few here and there to highlight, it feels like a great wrong to those you don’t mention. To all those books, I apologize. You were part of my 2021 too. I’m not sure how fitting it was that I closed the year out with Infinite Jest. I honestly started this 1,000+ page behemoth in August thinking I could get through it that month and stalled after 200 pages. It haunted me for the latter half of the year before I cleared my time to commit to finishing it in December. I finished it. It took a lot of willpower to do so. I am glad I read it, like a climber is satisfied to have bagged a difficult peak. It is a work of genius, no doubt. But the density, complexity, and ideology of it proved quite a challenge, even for a 40-something white cis male that is its likeliest target demographic. (Not that Wallace would have allowed the concept of target demographic to apply to his work.) I loved my reading challenge and enjoyed each month. I have a new goal in mind for 2022. Read and follow along to find out.
The Virtual Book Shelf of 2021:
*The worst book I read this year was hands down Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Ascendancy. Book II: Greater Good. Sure, you might be none too shocked to see a Star Wars book earn this demerit. But honestly, most are pretty decent. This one was so bad I barely finished. And I won’t read the final volume. But like I said, even a bad book is a good read.
For Ontario backpackers interested in a 50 mile (80 kilometer) trail, Algonquin Provincial Park’s Western Uplands Backpacking Trail is one of the few backcountry options available. I hiked it in two nights and two days October 22-24 with rough splits of 5 miles (8 km) on Friday afternoon, 26 miles (42 km) on Saturday, and 19 miles (30 km) on Sunday. In short: the lakeside campsites were amazing (as well as numerous) and the remote wilderness feel of the well-blazed footpath exemplary; actual trail conditions on the ground, however, were extremely wet and muddy — including a few challenging stream crossings. All of the available signage and official descriptions of the trail kept referring to it as “rugged” so I guess that’s what was meant.
The Western Uplands Backpacking Trail is configured with three loops and numerous trail options, including an out and back segment for those starting from the Rain Lake area. With these various routes at play, I wasn’t surprised to see a fair number of backpackers on the trail with me in late October, even with most of the bright foliage on the ground and freezing rain in the forecast. I opted for the longest of the three loop options (minus the out and back because I was starting from the south at Route 60). When initially selecting my campsites through the park’s mandatory online registration system, I realized that 50 miles was a tad too long for me to undertake as weekend outing with a four hour drive on either end without slipping off a little early from work on Friday. I chose a site near Ramona Lake for Friday evening, and a spot on Pincher Lake for Saturday, which guaranteed my long splits from the start. Without having the ability to shorten my trip thanks to the campsite reservations, I knew I was locked in for a couple long days on the trail. Bring it on, I whispered to myself, as I hit confirm for the reservation. I needed a big trail weekend.
As it grew closer to my weekend, I watched as the weather forecast worsened. Snow and freezing rain seemed likely. Undeterred, I simply made sure I had my four season winter gear with me. Well, at least that was my plan. It would be great to test out my winter tent and get my down camp layers ready to go. I usually have rain-worthy layers and a trusty UL umbrella as part of my normal gear, so I wasn’t too concerned about moving in the wet and cold conditions. But it’s staying safe and warm at camp that is the real trick with bad weather. Heck, I even made sure to get snow tires on my vehicle for the winter in time for the trip, just in case the driving was difficult.
On my appointed Friday, I slipped out of work at noon for the drive along very scenic Ontario highways and byways. Four hours later, I was driving through snow flurries in Algonquin Provincial Park and at my designated trail head. By 4:15 p.m. I was on the trail proper, enjoying my first taste of mud. These Friday trail evenings never get old: the real world of work and everything else fades away, literally, with the setting sun. There was only one little catch as I smiled to myself marching through the woods. About three miles in it suddenly came to mind that I forgot my sleeping pad. Mind you, I’ve been backpacking for 15 years and have never forgotten a pad before. Not once. And here I was solo in Canada with the chance of rain and snow. But, well, I was super prepared with a zero degree sleeping bag and other down layers that were far warmer than necessary for my actual conditions. I figured all would be well.
By nightfall I was pulling into my campsite at Ramona Lake and feeling like the woods were all mine for the weekend. Snow flurries continued to swirl sporadically but not with enough precipitation to actually stick. I heard a loud crack in the woods and paused, knowing immediately that it would take a rather large animal to make that kind of sound. When I turned my headlamp off and paused to take in the woods and listen to my surroundings, I eventually saw the telltale dot of light through the woods indicating another campsite. I assumed the crack was a human or two foraging for firewood. I myself opted for no fire. I was tired and happy to settle in after dinner into my robust full-service tent — a rarity for this UL backpacker accustomed to tarps and single wall, trekking pole-hoisted shelters. As I figured out backpacking in Ontario, my wife would be more comfortable knowing that my solo Canada adventures would involve me overnighting in a tent designed to handle serious wind and snow. I debated whether or not I would tell her about my sleeping pad oversight.
I was up dark and early on Saturday to start my day on the trail. It was chilly but no rain was falling yet. The night was surprisingly fine, despite the pad. I hit the trail but stopped to watch as the sun slowly rose to take in dawn across the lake and trail. I noted this on my first backpacking trip report in Ontario, but the lakes truly are the star of the show up here. They provide expansive views equal to many a mountain summit. The first backpackers I met on the trail were a pair of young guys waking up next to a lake and marveling at the mist drifting along its mystic surface. They wondered if people back home would even believe this. I smiled at their joy.
I needed to keep my pace up to complete 26 miles by evening but made sure to stop for breaks here and there to take it all in. In addition to the views and late autumn forest beauty, I encountered a couple challenges that brought the trail some fun texture: high-water levels, assisted by beaver dams, and lots and lots of mud.
Let’s start with the mud. As I encountered backpackers over my weekend, I would often smile and blurt out a “Hey, enjoying the mud?” greeting. It was a constant. At first I picked and danced my way over rocks and wood to keep from sinking in, but by the end of the outing I was often just walking straight through the middle of the trail up to my shins in mud. If this is the type of thing that would put a damper on your hiking weekend, I could understand. But it really is just mud. One of the keys to enjoying this for me was having a change of warm layers — including down booties designed to walk around camp in — to switch to at night. Then it’s just a matter of a little grimace to put the muddy set of gear back on in the morning. I also found that even when it was getting chilly with my wet feet, keeping my whole body warm and layered, as well as keeping up a brisk moving pace, kept things from actually feeling too cold. I have no idea what this trail is like in less wet seasons but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s muddy most of the year.
Beavers. I never saw one of them in the flesh on this trip actually but oh boy did I see evidence of their handiwork. Almost every stream had some evidence of their activity; many bodies of water had extravagant dams rerouting water and creating new ponds, marshes, and streams as a result. For me as backpacker this resulted in, yes, pretty beaver dam viewing. It also resulted in some higher water crossings than planned for on the trail. I also had to literally walk across two dams, which is not the most stable bridge substitute. I survived and it was fun. But I would certainly caution another backpacker to be prepared for such trail challenges.
I lucked out Saturday and avoided all precipitation. I even hit my designated campsite at 26 miles before the light began to fade, giving me time to set my tent up, collect a little bit of fallen debris for a small fire later, and enjoy the tranquility of my lakeside campsite.
With my little fire crackling, I took in a startling view of bright stars and the band of the Milky Way once the sun had completely set. On a whim, I even pulled my phone out and played Don McLean’s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” as I stared upwards and lost myself in the cosmos and music. To remind me of how fleeting these moments can be, I went to my tent for another layer and when I came out watched as fast moving clouds gobbled the stars up one by one as they moved across the heavens. Least my fire was still going. I sipped my whiskey.
On Sunday, I was up early again and experienced a spectacular dawn of purple hues across Pincher Lake. I had 19 miles to get to my car, and a four hour drive home as a reward. I intended to enjoy my hike, sure, but I can’t lie that my destination was far more present in my mind than on my rambling Saturday. I did end up getting some light rain for part of the day. I was almost thankful for it because it meant I brought the right stuff and actually got to use it.
There are so many fantastic lakes with perfect campsites on this trail that I felt like a prospective homebuyer checking out open houses each time I stopped to get a sense of a site and its views. It’s a blessed park in this regard and I can certainly imagine coming back to do a shorter loop configuration just to take in a night in one of these gems. Even deep into the day on Sunday, however, I felt I kept running into campsites still in the process of enjoying the morning or packing up. It’s a popular spot, no doubt, and the campsites closest to the trail head were certainly the busiest. This trail is for everyone — from the 50 milers like me to the go-heavy weekend warriors.
I was pleasantly surprised not to have been bothered much by the absence of a sleeping pad. This would/could have been more dangerous in lower temperatures or if I hadn’t brought ample sleeping insulation. For me, the campsites weren’t too rocky to necessitate the cushion of a pad and it was a blip rather than a threat. That being said, I won’t make this mistake again. Least not for another 15 years. I was not pleasantly, surprised, however, to get back to my car and realize my handy-dandy UL umbrella had disappeared from the straps on my pack. I’m guessing I lost it during my final scramble over stream-side boulders to get around a beaver dam . . .
Intro. No more weekend warrior section hiking for us. We graduated to whole week warriors for the final 115 miles of the Tuscarora Trail — and threw on another 10 miles on the Appalachian Trail to boot so we could rock out with thru-hikers on our last night (and, you know, get back to our car). It was fitting that Claudio, Kyle, and I, or, as we signed at trail registers throughout the week, Tarzan, Water Dog, and Whiskey Fairy — the Three Shakes Gang — completed this section hike together. The plan: an 8 mile Saturday and 10 mile Friday to begin and end the trip, and five days averaging 20 miles to zip along the various ridges of the Pennsylvania Tuscarora Trail. The highs: near perfect weather for late May/early June, great trail camaraderie and drinks (schlepped, cached, and procured en route), and a fine selection of nature, history, and PATC shelters to lift the soul. The lows: slippery, torturous, slow-going stretches of rock at times and an occasionally overgrown trail snarling at our legs and sense of direction — that and a couple stretches where we had to carry upwards of 6-7 liters of water a piece. The end: a glorious week of hiking and a completion of our 2021 Tuscarora Trail section hike. [Our trip corresponded to sections 1-10 as organized in the PATC’s Tuscarora Trail guide.]
Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, May 29 – Little Tonoloway to Licking Creek on the C&O, ~8 miles.
We started our morning at the Hilton in Harrisburg because why the hell not. We figured a night of bar hopping — and two fewer hours of driving up from DC on Saturday — was the best way to get the distractions of city life out of our system before a week on the trail. Come Saturday morning, after fighting through the Hilton peewee soccer tournament crowd, we dropped Claudio’s truck off at the Hawk Rock parking lot in Duncannon (our end point for Friday, June 4). Then we made a stop at Waggoners Gap to cache water and three liters of wine (box, duh) for our final day on the trail; stopped at the very lovely — and hospitable to hikers — Path Valley Market in Spring Run, Pennsylvania to leave three boxes of resupply for our walk through there three days later; drove to the Little Tonoloway Recreation Area parking lot in Hancock, Maryland to begin our 8 miles of C&O Canal walking to start our adventure; and grabbed a late lunch and beers at the always amazing Buddy Lou’s.
A note on weather — or rather, the expectation of weather. Sure enough, on our drive up on Friday a torrential rain had settled in over the entire region. Some reports had the rain lingering through Saturday and Sunday, which had me a little worried about being wet and cold on the trail. I had packed a full Gore-Tex shell and rain pants (plus umbrella) but I didn’t have a ton of insulation layers for staying comfy in an all-day rain. I panicked a little in Hancock and bought a light fleece at a bike outfitter just in case. Claudio grabbed a new base layer too. In the end, it didn’t really rain on us. Not Saturday or Sunday, at least. And it didn’t get very cold either. Our original packing selections were spot on. I grumbled a tad bit at the UL-defying overthinking and overpacking of my late purchase. Oh well. The cool weather also helped with something else: cicadas. Though evidence of Brood X cicadas surrounded us throughout the hike — dozens could be found on individual branches along the trail — it turns out cool and wet weather slows them down substantially. No kamikaze flyers or screaming choruses for us this week.
Our easy miles on the C&O Canal were picturesque and full of locks of history. The highlight of this pleasant stretch was running into fellow Tuscarora Trail section hikers Amethyst and Mishap (check out their video series on their hike!), who sadly for us were hiking the opposite direction. Claudio and Kyle bumped into them first and were surprised when I strolled up as an “old” Instagram acquaintance of theirs. Hiking in the age of social media is not a lonely place. With our eight miles done for the day, we settled in as the only hikers at the spacious Licking Creek Hiker-Biker Camp on the C&O, pulled out beers and sandwiches we had packed in, and started up a roaring fire. Life on the trail was good. And our legs were still fresh.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, May 30 – Licking Creek to Reese Hollow Shelter, ~21 miles.
It wasn’t raining on us as expected but it was pretty cool and overcast for much of the day. Our first nine miles of the day were “country road” scenic and flat until we began to ascend the dry and rocky ridge that would be our playground for many miles. On the ridge we got our first taste of overgrown trail. I was happy to have rain pants to act as shielding. Claudio and Kyle smiled as they pushed through briar with bare legs. Our home for the night was the very pleasant Reese Hollow Shelter, whose only flaw was being located a mile off trail with a steep descent. It was a brisk 21 miles for our day total. We started a little shelter stretching routine for the week, complete with official calming Max Richter piece I played on my iPhone while we loosened up our calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and we even all pulled out matching Rawlogy cork massage balls to give our feet some love. Not a bad little tradition. We also celebrated with another roaring fire and whiskey. I got a little giggly and couldn’t quite maintain balance while sitting around the fire . . .
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Three, May 31 – Reese Hollow Shelter to Burd Run Shelter, ~21 miles.
Do you know why we love coming to Pennsylvania, even though the mountains aren’t all that high? Because the trails often take us to watering holes along the way. And by that I mean bars and lakes. Day three was one of those great PA days. The night before we realized that the Mountain House Bar and Restaurant was only about 7 miles ahead on the trail, not 11 as originally (over) estimated. So we slept in a bit to make sure we’d roll through as they opened. It was sunny and fresh throughout the morning, and we got epic views of McConnellsburg — birthplace of President Buchanan — from a hang glider launch site. Then we, ah, did a little extra road walking to get there instead of taking an easy-peasy trail cutoff. Whatever, it was worth it. We grabbed some beers and food and, though I wouldn’t say we blended as such, made friends with the bikers at Mountain House. We felt pretty damn welcome basking in the deck sun with beers until we made the mistake of asking for some help with filling our water flasks before we left. The manager gave us a grumpy comment about it “not being their purpose” and we were like, “Okay then, time to leave.”
After a few miles on logging roads, we realized how active logging operations were along the trail. First, two massive terraforming monstrosities lumbered by us on the “trail”, then we caught up to these two enormous vehicles and attempted to pass. One behemoth was essentially a massive claw picking up fallen logs by the bundle and plopping them in its voluminous cart. It was polite. It stopped operations to allow Claudio and me to scurry alongside it. The second was far scarier. It was buzz sawing trees right before our eyes, and even swung in our direction when we attempted to sneak on by.
We pounded out another number of miles over the gorgeous, mountain laurel-blooming ridge tops near Cowans Gap State Park before rolling through its rather crowded lake swimming area. I showed up a bit later than Claudio and Kyle (which was the usual — I think they were hiking a half-mile per hour faster than me throughout the week) and nabbed Kyle’s — and our group’s — last $5 in cash to grab a chili cheese dog. They snacked on Caesar wraps. We all swam a bit and enjoyed the scene. But, alas, we needed to push on a few more miles to reach our shelter abode. We were feeling pretty beat when we got there. Fire, beer, and whiskey flowed and helped, though. Of note for Burd Run Shelter: there was so much scattered fallen wood debris around the shelter and fire ring area that it was crystal clear it had been a long time since the last campfire there. There’s an unused beauty to the shelters of the Tuscarora.
At some point along the way, we realized that our little trio needed a group name as we signed into trail registers and shelter logbooks. Kyle got us laughing at Good Charlotte’s “Three shakes you’re playing with it again” lyrics and the Three Shakes Gang emerged as an inside joke to go along with our little adventure.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Four, June 1 – Burd Run Shelter to Rising Mountain Backcountry Site, ~21 miles.
Resupply day! Sure, we had got a little extra feasting in the day before but this was the day we picked up our food and whiskey for the second half of the adventure. We started the morning climbing back up high on the ridge and enjoyed a pretty epic lookout point over Tuscarora Mountain and the Pennsylvania Turnpike making its way through a tunnel 2,000 feet below us. Then things got a little tough. Claudio and Kyle pushed on ahead and I didn’t see them until Spring Run. The trail entered Tuscarora State Forest land. While I would have thought this was a good thing for trail maintenance, this would not be the case. The ridge was thick and overgrown with underbrush. Blue Tuscarora blazes were sometimes sufficient to stay on trail, but not always. This was the first section — but not the last, oh no — where I thought, “Yikes, this is not a trail for folks who don’t know what they’re doing on a rocky, difficult ridge.”
But after a couple tough going miles, the trail merged into a dirt, then asphalt, road as we dropped into the pasture lands of Path Valley and Spring Run. I took a different route than discussed with Claudio and Kyle to go straight into Spring Run along its quaint Main Street and avoiding the state highways. I even tried to scrounge at a couple stops before hitting Path Valley Market to try and find some cold beer. Not only was I unsuccessful, a UPS guy later laughed at my futile attempts in Mennonite country. Speaking of which, walking through these farmlands felt like walking back in time. Horse-drawn buggies tilled the fields. I got to hear one farmer belting out church hymns while working his farm. Claudio showed off some cow-wrangling skills as well when passing by another farm. (He’d fit right in as a Mennonite farmer, it seems. If they allowed him some beer.)
Claudio and Kyle had hit Path Valley Market a while before me and were chilling with our resupply boxes out front like the hobos we in fact were. I rolled up and eventually they went inside to order some food. After a miscommunication where I thought I said I’d wait with the stuff outside for them to order and then come back out, I got grumpy after ten minutes or so and went in after them, whining. I got a little unlucky after my silly mistake to stay with our stuff in a town that assuredly wouldn’t have touched a thing and ended up behind a large group ordering from the deli. I opted for some pasta salad and a cold drink instead. Seemed fine for me as the afternoon heat was inching up and I realized I probably didn’t need a big meal in me before heading out to hit a few more road miles and a climb back up the ridge.
We split back up after the market resupply because I needed to back track to where I left the trail and the other two to a different location where they had left the trail. I’d need to catch up with them yet again . . . or would I? When I did my extra stretch and came back to the trail/road, I bizarrely saw Claudio and Kyle right in front of me. They should have been long gone. But Claudio had forgotten his phone charging out in front of the market (proving nobody was going to steal anything there!) and had to run back to get it. It was a good thing we regrouped because the trail wasn’t always well-blazed on the road turns and then we ran into a bit of a water situation.
You see, after leaving the valley we needed to ascend a dry ridge up Knob Mountain and another nine miles or so to get to our one and only true backcountry, dry campsite of the week. This meant carrying lots of water. Did we get fresh, bottled water from Path Valley Market to make this easy? No, we did not. The spring on the side of the road that we hoped to grab water from was a swampy, muddy mess. The cow streams in the valley didn’t look much better either. Yikes, we thought. Then I looked over at a nearby house and notice they had a “Welcome” sign out front. “Let’s see how welcome they are,” I thought as I headed over to knock on their door to ask to use their hose. We seemed in luck as Sarah, the very cordial proprietor, promptly led us to the side of the house. All three of us filled up and we went our way up the steep ridge. It wasn’t until we took a sip of the water — and gagged — that we realized we weren’t as lucky as we thought. We didn’t think it was poisonous to us but Sarah’s water was pretty rancid. And poisonous/rancid or not, we didn’t have any other hydration options until the following morning.
Knob Mountain was pretty, actually. And despite a number of blown down trees here and there — that fell pretty recent as a result of the same big storm — was blazed well enough. But it did seem to go up and up for the entire nine miles, which made little logical sense for a ridge that capped out at 2,300 feet on paper. Emotionally, though, it kind of felt like a 46er. But in the end our campsite on adjoining Rising Mountain was lovely, Claudio got a great little fire going, and we enjoyed another evening of whiskey and recovery. Our stretching/rolling of our feet ritual was really paying off — or so we kept telling ourselves as our beat up bodies were doing their best to heal up each night.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Five, June 2 – Rising Mountain to Wagon Wheel Shelter, ~20 miles.
We noted in a shelter log book that a previous hiker scribbled “this section of trail is TECHNICAL” to describe why he was cutting his anonymous 2019 hike short. We wondered what he meant. PA hiking is nice and all but with 2,000 foot ridges “technical” didn’t seem like the right word to use for anything in the region. We woke at our little mountain campsite and made our way first to a stream we all had to use a little creativity to find (the hemlock glade was great; we survived Sarah’s hose water!) We ended up completing a few miles that were supposed to be part of the previous day’s route we decided in advance to cut short to avoid a 24 mile resupply day. I am more than glad we opted not to do these miles tired and at the end of a long march. Technical became a thing indeed. The path down into Fowlers Hollow was impeded by enormous fallen trees. I’m pretty sure they were gigantic Ash trees killed over the last ten years by the Emerald Ash Borer and then knocked down by storms but I couldn’t tell for sure. Either way, they were huge and they were in our path, forcing “technical” bouldering skills to go over or under. At Fowlers Hollow Shelter itself we were in for another surprise: a big porcupine had decided to call it home.
Speaking of altering routes, we decided to end this day’s march a little shorter than planned to take advantage of staying at the Wagon Wheel Shelter instead of heading up the trail another few miles to get creative finding a spot to sleep. Rain was likely overnight and we felt like using the seldom-frequented Tuscarora Trail shelters seemed like the right way to hike the trail and avoid setting up tarps on dubious rocky slopes. After more hefty miles up and around ridges, with a pretty steep descent down to where the trail passes by Colonel Denning State Park and then back up hard another ridge (after filling up on heavy water), we were thankful for yet another perfect shelter to camp. Claudio’s knee was starting to bark at him but a steady dose of Ibuprofen kept it from being an issue for the rest of the trip. Plus, we had some good habits in place. Stretching. And whiskey. And a big ol’ fire. We even saw a couple day hikers heading out to Flat Rock for sunset. You know it’s an unused trail when seeing day hikers was notable.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Six, June 3 – Wagon Wheel Shelter to Darlington Shelter (AT), ~23 miles.
Sure, stopping short a few miles one day is all well and good. But those miles need to get added on somewhere. So we woke up and set out to do 23 miles on our last full day on the Tuscarora Trail. Sounds easy, right? Well, you see some of these miles were the most difficult of the entire week. After a lovely morning skipping alongside ferns, the trail got pretty rough. The rain of the night before — and some brief showers throughout the morning — made the rocks of the trail pretty slick for footing. And for several miles leading to Waggoners Gap and a few miles after it too, overgrown stretches of the trail combined with rocky, slippery footing to pose quite the challenge. Claudio and Kyle ended up far ahead of me as my pace slowed down dramatically to avoid smashing my feet into rocks or taking an unexpected tumble. I never fell per se, but my feet slipped and collided with a number of rocks, leading me to occasionally scream “red card!” to note my bruising displeasure. On more than one occasion I had to fully stop amongst the bushes and trees and look around me for several minutes to make sure I was on the trail. For a time, I fell into a Zen-like mantra of “stay upright, stay on trail” to push me through it. It was also an opportunity to remind myself that I took my only week of leave all summer to slam my foot into rocks as branches lashed my face. So I smiled in spite of it and kept on keeping on. Claudio and Kyle waited for me at the gorgeous Charlie Irvin Shelter (seriously, I don’t know of a better shelter with such a panoramic view) after the worst of the stretch to make sure I was still alive. I was. So were they. The only casualty ended up being one of Kyle’s trekking poles, which gallantly took one for the team shattering into many pieces to save Kyle from a fall.
Our mood picked up when we met up with our water and wine cached days earlier at Waggoners Gap, though we did have another 12 or so miles to go for the day. The trail eventually turned from a rocky mess back to a normal-ish trail. It even gave us another burst of fun ridge-to-town Pennsylvania enjoyment when it dropped into Sterrets Gap — including a significant descent down a powerline clearing — and forced us alongside a busy highway before eventually heading back up a ridge for the very final Tuscarora miles. After not seeing Claudio and Kyle since the wine cache, I was happy they decided to take a long break to dry their feet out and wait for me to catch up so we could finish the Tuscarora together. The final few miles were actually blessedly rock free along a pleasant grade. (We joked that someone starting southbound might smile with such a fine bit of trail and be in for a rude awaking on the rocky ridge waiting for them after Sterrets Gap.) What started for the three of us as a snowy, frozen slog in February ended as a sweaty, slippery mess in June. Which, in the mid-Atlantic, sounds just about right.
Some things really do come together nicely. We planned the daily splits for the trip around a few key areas: resupplying in Spring Run, hitting shelters when possible, and ending our final full day at the intersection of the Tuscarora and Appalachian Trail to stay near the Darlington AT Shelter. We knew we were likely to see a bunch of NOBO AT thru-hikers rolling through on their way to Maine — and we definitely wanted to hang with them and provide a little trail magic wine. Claudio, a NOBO AT 2017 thru-hiker himself, reminisced about the AT with folks as Kyle and I cosplayed and tended bar on a big stump. Our wine and whiskey were a hit. There were probably about a dozen thru-hikers and section hikers in or near the shelter joining the festivities. It was everything we hoped for. We met some great folks and had some fun conversations. (Note: talking about favorite snacks is a hit, but musing about Gen Z sexual predilections, not so much.) All was good, even though I inadvertently mixed whiskey with wine in Maverick’s cup while tending bar. I thought his titanium mug was empty!
Appalachian Trailing: Day Seven, June 4, Darlington Shelter to Hawk Rock Parking in Duncannon, ~10 miles.
Even though our 115 Tuscarora Trail miles were done, WE weren’t done. Our car was ten miles north on the AT in Duncannon. After being pummeled by rocks for days, the smooth tread of the AT was blissful. So was the rolling farmland we strolled through and the epic views of Duncannon and the Susquehanna we got at Hawk Rock before our final descent. I understand the AT gets pretty rocky north of Duncannon but this stretch was downright pleasant. The temperature began to skyrocket into the 80s, reminding us how lucky we were to do almost all of our miles for the week in cool 60s and 70s temps. As we finished up at Claudio’s truck, all that was left for us was a backtrack to Hancock via Spring Run and a successful search for a breakfast diner along the way after we realized that at 11:00 a.m. in Duncannon Goodie’s was already closed for breakfast and the Doyle didn’t open until noon. Never you fear for our hungry, thirsty team. We even found a final — and fitting — beer at Buddy Lou’s for the Three Shakes Gang. (There was a teensy accident involving me not closing my trunk before pulling out of the parking lot . . . but Kyle swears his backpack and bear canister survived the tumble . . .)
I moved to Canada. Now I needed to backpack. It’s been a number of years since I had to start from scratch to get to know an area. After some internet and trail guide perusing, I seized on Algonquin Provincial Park as a great place to start. Algonquin boasts three established backpacking trails with designated backcountry camping sites, all of which must be reserved in advance. At three hours away from Ottawa by car (and about the same from Toronto, interestingly enough), it felt like the perfect place to start. All I got in for my first weekend on the trail was a one-nighter but boy Algonquin Provincial Park did not disappoint.
Of the three backpacking trails, the Western Uplands Trail was a tad too long for a Saturday overnight at 60 miles and the Eastern Pines Backpacking Trail was quite short at 10 miles, so the Highland Backpacking Trail and its 22 miles seemed like the way to go. But 22 miles, even for just one night, is not quite long enough. I glanced at a couple maps and figured out a way to park at Cache Lake (more on that later), incorporate 5 miles of the Track and Tower Trail, and use a few miles of the Old Railway Bike Trail to connect the two. The result was a circuit of approximately 30 miles, give or take, based on my Gaia trip planning. With a few side trails and a short road walk on Route 60 to the parking lot, I ended up GPS-tracking 34 miles total.
I couldn’t depart Friday evening because of a quasi-work social commitment, so I leapt out of bed early and got on the road by 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning. It was new, scenic country for me to drive through, so I was looking forward to it for its own sake. The highlight of the journey out was not one but two stops for breakfast sandwiches at diners along the way. Downright hobbit of me. I also made sure to check out the Algonquin Provincial Park visitor’s center, which had a lovely park exhibition and a couple stuffed moose on display. Oh, I also pulled over on the highway to pose with a moose sign for old time’s sake. Much to my chagrin, those would be the only moose to make my acquaintance this weekend.
I hit the trail at 11:00 a.m. from Cache Lake. If you know the park, you might be wondering how and why I parked at Cache Lake. The answer revolves around the campsite reservation I ended up with. Not surprisingly, my late planning had me missing out on some of the primo backpacking sites. Not a problem, I thought, since there were a handful of canoe-designated sites available in roughly the same place (Harness Lake) . . . and I had a packraft! As such, the reservation mandated Cache Lake as my designated parking area for the trip. I had the packraft all set to go in the car but then thought better of carrying its extra bulk and weight if I didn’t need to. I figured I could bushwhack, if needed, to the canoe site on the lake.
Hitting the trail isn’t exactly right. The first mile was on a highway to get to the Track and Tower trailhead. I think Stockholm Syndrome has set in with me and backpacking along busy roads. I kind of like it. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks. Dodging cars, picking your way around debris and trash, and finding ways around and behind guard rails isn’t why I go to the woods. But there’s something charming in its lack of charm. And in no time I was on the trail for real. The first segment of the Track and Tower Trail introduced me to the new (to me) features of the woods up here. Lots of evergreen trees were mixed in with the deciduous mix of maple, beech, and oak. I love pine, spruce, and hemlock, so I welcomed them. The soil was lush and brown, and hilly and rocky in an odd way in comparison to the mid-Atlantic region. I wasn’t ever really going up or down for very long per se but I was rolling up and down riveted terrain all day long. Boulders and rock formations greeted me, reminding me of woods I grew up in back in Massachusetts. But the best feature was definitely the preponderance of lakes. After years in the aforementioned mid-Atlantic, I had grown unaccustomed to lakes and ponds in the backcountry. In Canada they’re the star of the show.
The Track and Tower Trail took me to a gorgeous lookout where an old tower used to stand (hence the name). I met a number of day hikers (lots, in fact) along the way, some of whom grumped at my hiking speed as I politely asked to pass. I didn’t stop and explain, but I had many miles to get done before nightfall and I started late! On the way down from the lookout, I met a friendly hiker who lived in Toronto but hails originally from Hyderabad. We chatted together for a couple miles about life and backpacking. I wanted to share email addresses to arrange a future trip together but didn’t get around to it before we went our separate ways. I need to get back in the habit of being on the hunt for like-minded outdoors people to meet up with up here in Canada.
My separate way had me veering off on the Old Railway Bike Trail to connect to the Highland Backpacking Trail. Though flat and graveled for bikes, the trail went through open lake and river land with expansive views that more than made up for the boring tread way. It was early for fall color but every once in a while a brilliant red sugar maple had already turned to offer a stark contrast with the green of the forest. I kept my pace up and hit the Highland Backpacking Trail proper at 1:30 p.m. From there, I first went east around Provoking Lake – and hiked up to another terrific overlook – and then back around in a counterclockwise direction to eventually hit my camping area for the night at Harness Lake. The miles were a bit longer than I had anticipated for some reason and ended up at about 18 total. As always, the late-afternoon stretch dragged on. At one point I felt I was caught in a time warp as I lumbered up and down small ridges, each of which had a nearly identical red maple nestled amongst evergreens at the top.
I reached Harness Lake around 6:00 p.m. and the sun was still shining brightly. I found my designated campsite without too much hassle or need to bushwhack and settled in for a brilliant evening in one of the best campsites I’ve slept in. I pulled out my little UL backpacking chair to enjoy the lake view. It doesn’t always make the gear list but for a solo journey like this, I knew I had a few hours in need of some extra comfort. I watched the sun set over the lake before lighting a small fire using just the fallen tree debris scattered around the site. I’ll admit to packing and consuming a tad more whiskey than I probably should have, because it was so perfect out there I realized it would have been better to take it all in and remembered with a sharp mind.
I was up and on the trail by 7:30 a.m. the next morning. I was emotionally prepared for a slightly longer trek out than initially thought but at 16 miles total and I was eager to both have a big day on the trail and also get home in time to have Sunday dinner with Cheryl. The weather was perfect throughout the weekend in a goldilocks not too hot, not too cold kind of way. There were remarkably few insects too, despite passing by scarily named Mosquito Creek and Fly Lake.
I finished up the Highland Backpacking Loop (minus the out and back stretch that connected to the backpacker parking lot) and backtracked along the Old Railway Bike Trail to pick up the second prong of the Track and Tower Trail to finish my journey. I marveled at the final lake of the weekend and returned to my car with a big smile. Canada is going to be a great backpacking refuge for the next few years, surprising no one.
Route Notes: Here’s my original Caltopo route plan. Not included on it: the out and back from Cache Lake along Rt. 60 to the Track and Tower Trail parking area AND the out and back to the Track and Tower Lookout in the lower SW of that trail. Also, a couple other side trails. All added up to 18 miles of walking (~29 km) on Saturday, moving from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and 16 miles (~26 km) of walking on Sunday, walking from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. I recommend this journey, though if you parked at Track and Tower you might have a better time skipping the car-dodging road walk.
UL Gear Notes: Though I have many UL shelters, tarps, and even some more traditional tents, I went with the incredible Durston Gear X-Mid 1. Lord, it’s a great shelter. I was also equipped with my beloved Zpacks Arc Blast 55 L and a combo of Western Mountaineering UltraLite sleeping bag and Thermarest Neoair X-therm to stay comfy. It was overkill for the lows but I succeeded in being comfy. And I had my chair. Judge all you want.
Intro. If this hike was a Coldplay song it would definitely be “The Scientist.” Andrew, Brian, and I said, “Oh, let’s go back to the start,” and reversed direction for our section hike to head southbound (really eastward) along the roughly 69-miles of trail and detours from the West Virginia/Virginia border on Route 48/55 all the way across both prongs of the Shenandoah River to the “start” of the Tuscarora Trail as it meets the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park (SNP).
[For the section hike finale in June, we’ll finish northbound at the “end” where the Tuscarora Trail meets back up with the Appalachian Trail just south of Duncannon, Pennsylvania, completing its (and our) 250-mile journey.]
Our trail this trip traversed some beloved tracts of land: Great North — and Little North — Mountain, the Massanuttens, and the SNP Blue Ridge itself. The Tuscarora Trail also wends across the wide Shenandoah Valley and narrower Page Valley to offer us scenic country roads as a change of pace. And you know what happens to show up in civilized valleys as opposed to rocky ridges? Wineries. Right by the trail . . .
Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, April 15 – Rt. 48/55 to the Halfmoon Trail intersection, ~11 miles.
“Going back to the start” had a number of figurative meanings for us this trip. For one, uniting Andrew, Brian, and I put together three of the original DC UL crew, hiking pals for over 11 years. Though this very same weekend our DC UL trail brethren were hiking the 71 mile Massanutten loop the three of us (plus Brett Maguire) started as a tradition in 2010, we were inclined personally to do something a little different. It’s awesome that that tradition lives on but for the three of us, our 24 combined Massanutten hikes were sufficient for the time being. Brian and I plotted a course to continue our Tuscarora section hikes. Andrew had hiked this already a time or two but was still more than happy to join. We met up in SNP Thursday afternoon, left Andrew’s car behind on Skyline Drive, and hopped in mine to drive an hour and a half to the West Virginia border.
By 4:30 p.m. the world slipped away for us as the trail undulated over the beautiful Great North Mountain ridge. We were treated to the scattered white flowers of serviceberry and pinkish petals of redbuds, among others, though high on the ridge at 3,000 feet it was still winter. That changed as we descended into lower elevations to the full, fresh green of spring. The weather was decidedly cool. But it was also dry and held up that way for the duration of our trip — not an easy feat for mid-April. For backpackers prepared for cold nights and days in the 50s, this was as good as it gets.
After about four miles we paused by the PATC’s Gerhard Shelter to chat with a proper Tuscarora Trail “thru hiker,” a big bearded Kentucky gentleman (also named Brian) who eagerly pulled out a little notebook to jot down ideas for his next hike when we regaled him with stories of north-central Pennsylvania and New York’s Northville-Placid Trail. He also gave us a dire report about the rocks of the Pennsylvania sections of the Tuscarora (he was heading southbound and had completed the northern stretch already). I take this as appropriate foreshadowing for our upcoming June hike, though I’d be lying if I said this was the first time I heard about how leg-chewing rocky the PA Tuscarora was rumored to be.
At about mile eight we descended to Waites Run and the Wilson Cove Deer Study Area. Speaking of “back to the start,” this was the parking area for DC UL’s very first ever trip in September 2009. Back then we did a loop that encompassed part of this stretch of the Tuscarora Trail, plus Mill Mountain and Big Schloss. Memories were everywhere throughout this section. If you’re a hiker or backpacker in the mid-Atlantic you too have likely spent a lot of time in this Wardensville, WV/Great North Mountain vicinity.
Our final three miles climbing back up to the ridge along Waites Run and its multiple stream crossings were done in the dark. The three of us chatted and caught up on life. We spread out in the large campsite at the Halfmoon Trail intersection as the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. Brian had camped in this very same site in back to back weekends. He had done a section hike starting at this campsite and heading northbound to Gore with Michael and DC UL the week before. We put a few drops of whiskey in our bellies. It was a chilly night down in the 30s. In my sturdy X-Mid shelter, my head hit my hiking pillow and my body snuggled into my Enlightened Equipment 20-degree synthetic quilt. I smiled. Nothing but trail for the next few days. Our evening jaunt of 11 miles would set us up well for the weekend, though two 25-mile back to back days were next for us.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, April 16 – Halfmoon Trail intersection to Doll Ridge, ~25 miles.
We hit the trail before seven a.m. and thoroughly enjoyed the brisk morning along the ridge. The views at White Rock were breathtaking, as were some of the views of the valley near Fetzer Gap. We met up with a fellow section hiker taking a midday nap (we nicknamed him Napster) and eventually dropped down into the Shenandoah Valley proper for some road walking. Though I wouldn’t want to spend all day traipsing country roads without some proper trail to offset things, a few miles here and there are perfect. Plus, there were goats.
The highlight for this section was actually a long-planned goal: hitting North Mountain Vineyard & Winery. Michael and Jen tipped us off that tasty wine was available near the trail. When we calculated miles on our original route and determined that hiking this section northbound would have us hitting the winery mid-morning before it opened, we opted to change directions for the entire trip to make the winery stop work better. And work better it did. We rolled in around 2:00 p.m., a little later than I had anticipated, received some leftover pizza from a couple who were delighted to share the winery with hikers, and settled into our tasting. We also ordered our own delivered pizza when we found out local provisions stopped at cold cheese and crackers. Brian bought a bottle of (cold) mulled wine to take with us.
Yes, we were full of wine and pizza. But we had a bunch more miles to go on bloated bellies and buzzed heads. Though satiated we kvetched for the rest of the day about it. We also skipped making our actual dinners that night because we were so full. I enjoyed going over I-81 and the Shenandoah River itself on the journey out of Toms Brooks and Mauertown. Eventually we were back on the trail, passing through a gorgeous farm as evening settled in. Just before sunset we found a flat spot at the top of Doll Ridge and settled in for the night. Brian’s spiced wine hit the spot. 25 miles of ridge, valley, and wine adventures in around 12 hours of hiking were in the bag. And we got to do it again the next day — minus the wine.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Three, Doll Ridge to Shenandoah National Park boundary, ~25 miles.
Another early start had us finishing up the last steep stretch of Doll Ridge and lovely Three Top Mountain before heading into familiar territory for most of the day as we met up with sections of the above-mentioned and oft-hiked Massanutten trail. Unfortunately, the DC UL hikers were all far south of us as we passed through the northern stretch. We caught up with Napster, who we had seen walking BY the winery the day before. He had found a nook among rocks on Three Top Mountain to camp. Andrew ended up far ahead after Brian and I stopped at one of the Elizabeth Furnace picnic tables for a leisurely lunch. I cooked what should have been my dinner from the night before (veggie korma).
The stretch from Elizabeth Furnace to Veach Gap was all double blazed as the Tuscarora and Massanutten trails. Though on my eight circuits of the orange-blazed Massanutten trail it was the blue-blazed Tuscarora that was the interloper for me; this time it was the other way around. Brian and I enjoyed the ridge full of fellow backpackers and the long descent into Veach Gap, eventually catching up with Andrew at Little Crease Shelter just as he was about to give up on us and carry on.
We climbed out of the gap and said goodbye to the Massanutten trail. Thus began our descent on a revolutionary-era road built by General Morgan for General Washington to serve as a worst-case fallback route to Fort Valley against the British. Though Washington wouldn’t have need of it, we were glad it was still around to get us off the steep ridge. I chatted with a few adventure racers on mountain bikes who asked if I knew anything about the area. When it comes to the Massanuttens, I would say I knew its trails pretty damn well. We examined maps together as they plotted how to race along on their merry way. I would end up seeing dozens more of their fellow combatants down in the valley itself as others completed their paddling section.
Our final Page Valley miles were lovely. I decided to pull out some whiskey as I strolled over the south prong of the Shenandoah River. History was everywhere around us, even of the unseemly Confederate kind. The only thing marring the scene was a host of flies swarming the air around us at times. These flies wanted nothing to do with us, however. No bites. Nobody even wanted to land on us. They had other things in mind. Sex. You see, most of these flies were attached to each other (literally) and pulling off the (to us) stunning feat of both fucking and flying. Andrew, a pilot himself, was most impressed.
Our day ended at around mile 25 right inside the border of Shenandoah National Park. We set up camp and out came the whiskey again. I furnished a couple cigars too. We enjoyed the pleasant evening. I even shared my libations with a few suicidal spiders.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Four, Shenandoah National Park boundary to Hogback Overlook Parking, ~8 miles.
Our final day was only eight miles. But it wasn’t without its challenges. From our campsite to the end of the trail high on the Blue Ridge was a good 2,400 foot climb. Also, entering SNP and its web of trails was . . . a thing. We spread out and when I got to the epic overlook of Overall Run Falls I found Andrew ready to move on after a break. I decided to stick around and wait for Brian. After about 20 minutes soaking in the view I too carried on the trail. SNP was full of day hikers per usual and it was also great to meet up with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail to complete the trip. Andrew and I waited at his car for a bit before looking at each other with a puzzled expression. Where was Brian?
Andrew and I strolled over to Hogback Overlook and got a great view of the entire Massanutten trail loop. It’s one of heck of a ridge. Brian did eventually show up. Turns out hiking the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail for dozens and dozens of miles had acclimated him to following blue. Problem was, in SNP, there’s a lot of blue blazes. Between that and a confusing SNP direction post, he had picked up some mistaken direction bonus miles. But really, all was well and Brian had a good story. For him, he had all but 10 or so miles north of Gore to complete to finish his Tuscarora Trail section hike. Andrew had already completed his. My eventual completion is waiting for me with one final 110-mile go in Pennsylvania.
But for this outing, 69-miles, 12,000 feet of ascent, 10,000 feet of descent, and a winery in the middle, I was just happy to go back to the start of the Tuscarora with Brian and Andrew.
Intro. Welcome back to the Tuscarora Trail! Claudio, Kyle, Brian, and I continued our 2021 section hike with 45 miles taking us through the tri-border region of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland and covering sections 11-13 (and a bit of 14) as described in the PATC guidebook. We finished in historic Hancock, Maryland after passing the trail’s official halfway point. For those preparing for their own section or thru-hike, this stretch for us was notable for spending time in scenic Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, evenings at two fine shelters (Shockey’s Knob and Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter), and for some serious country road miles that, with the glaring exception of dodging trucks on shoulder-less River Road, were pretty lovely. We lucked out with some great weather for most of the weekend until a storm rolled through Sunday morning. We also went out of our way to make our own trail magic by hiding some beer in a creek at the halfway point of our 25-mile Saturday. Oh, and unlike many other parts of the Tuscarora Trail we actually saw a number of backpackers and dayhikers out, including some fellow section hikers!
Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, March 26 – Basore’s Ridge Shelter to Shockey’s Knob Shelter, ~10 miles.
This trip report really starts with a B double E double R U-N. Brian and I left DC an hour and a half earlier than necessary to snake our way through Sleepy Creek’s jeep roads to cache a twelve-pack of Victory Brewing cans in a little stream at what would be our halfway point the following day. This itself was slightly eventful as strong winds knocked some trees down in our path. One was dragged out of the road by a park ranger in front of us; another we had to jump out to make some space on the road. But by 4:00 p.m. we had made it to Hancock, Maryland to leave my car at a C&O Canal parking lot and hop in Kyle’s car with masks on and windows down to shuttle to our starting point at Basore’s Ridge Shelter — the epic destination for our festival-like final night on the last section hike. We happened upon another group starting their car shuttle. One of the hikers recognized Brian’s DC UL Backpacking t-shirt and introduced himself as Shaf. Turns out the York Outdoor Adventures crew was hiking the same exact stretch going the opposite direction! We looked forward to passing them on the trail.
The three of us hit the road (literally, the trail shared the road for much of this stretch) at 5:15 p.m. and hoped Claudio arrived soon thereafter to catch up with us. Work had delayed his arrival. We spread out per usual and I enjoyed the stroll through Siler, Virginia and out of town. The pavement gradually turned to dirt as hilltop mansions gave way to collapsing abandoned farms. [Also, I love that we split up roughly 15 miles of road walking in two outings by stopping and starting at Basore’s Ridge Shelter. I highly recommend it or you might wear your feet out on asphalt.]
As an aside, I was a little unnerved by the number of confederate flags that adorned several houses on the road. What bothered me most about it was how deeply unsafe many POC backpackers I know would feel at that sight. I left the road as twilight set in and a supermoon brightened the evening sky. It was eerie and perfect. I even howled a bit in my best coyote impression a couple times to make the mood perfect. The high winds from earlier in the day had completely subsided. The woods were quiet, very quiet. I saw something I had never quite noticed before when my headlamp finally came out: diamond-like sparkles on the forest floor. Upon closer inspection, tiny spider eyes. Thousands of them.
I finished the climb up to Shockey’s Knob and greeted Brian and Kyle, who were already set up in the woods nearby the shelter. A shelter fire roared not far from them and giggles filled the night. While the history of shelter-sharing is littered with a few ugly tales, the pair of experienced lady backpackers who had taken up residence at Shockey’s Knob Shelter were more than happy to share some space around their fire and engage in a tale or two about trails and life. We warned them that our loudest and friendliest trail mate was due in anytime, and they could expect a short-shorted Italian-American to make their acquaintance ere the night was over.
The three of us said good night and strolled back to our campsite. Just as we were heading to bed I decided to call out Claudio’s name. It was after 11:00 p.m., but sure enough a happy reply echoed through the night woods. The short-shorted Italian-American had arrived. Turns out, late as he was, he too had a grand evening hiking by himself in the supermoon-lit woods. He also showed off how he managed to survive the road walk at night. It would have made a Reno bordello jealous. We drank a little bit together — I winced in panic and surprise as I struggled to down my bourbon (more on that later) — and shortly thereafter Claudio went over to meet the shelter ladies. Laughter filled the night. Brian and I went to bed, only to find out Claudio and Kyle had lingered until after 1:00 a.m. enjoying the evening.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, March 27 – Shockey’s Knob Shelter to Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter, ~24 miles.
I serenaded us awake at 6:00 a.m. with a loud “It’s okay, we’re Italian!” and hit the trail ahead of the guys. Sunrise was fantastic, particularly perched on some rock formations that looked out over the valley. The air was warm and pleasant. A far cry from a month before when we were nearby in a foot of snow. I enjoyed the pretty spectacular morning, stopped to chat with a solo backpacker who had exclaimed that he hadn’t seen a soul in 24 hours, and then came upon a dilapidated fire tower before descending from the ridge. Half of its platform boards had crashed on the ground. I was surprised it wasn’t somehow roped off or signed against trespassing. It looked completely unsafe to me. I went on my way.
After accidently exploring a very lovely logging road and clearing, I made my way back to the trail and caught up with the guys. I was surprised to find out ALL THREE had decided to climb up the collapsing fire tower — individually, mind you, because we were all spread out by ourselves — and take pictures. I chuckled and wondered what it said about our crew that I was the most cautious of the bunch. We enjoyed the time strolling together and made our way to the campground area of Sleepy Creek. Sure enough, the beer was crisp, cold, and right where we had left it. We divvied up the cans and made our way to the shore of the Sleepy Creek lake for a lunch happy hour. It was perfect in the warm sun. But we still had 12 miles to go for the day, so we hit the trail again with a nice buzz.
The four of us were split up for the most part for the afternoon again. Shortly after the break, I ran into Shaf and the York crew. I was particularly thrilled to meet Kristin and Kevin in-person, two folks who I recognized from Facebook photos from their assistance when I hiked the Mid State Trail. It’s a small, lovely world! We passed the official halfway mark of the complete 250-mile Tuscarora trail. I packed out a beer from happy hour and enjoyed it exploring the Devil’s Nose rocks, which offered really cool boulder scrambling and great views of the creek valley.
We finished the hiking for the day with a few more country road miles and ended at the fantastic Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter. We had started to joke with Claudio earlier in the day that his pack was huge [it wasn’t] and kept the shtick up for the rest of the trip. All of us piled on, much to his chagrin. Brian even snuck a rock in his backpack at one point. Claudio laughed heartily. We dragged a few logs up from the river nearby and had a huge fire roaring before long. Claudio, Kyle, and I slept in the shelter, worried about the expected storm coming in the next morning. Brian bravely hung his hammock in the nearby trees.
Back to my whiskey. The evening before I realized after one brief sip that I had put a liter of bourbon into a recently washed plastic platypus that hadn’t been fully rinsed of soap. The whiskey tasted awful. That didn’t stop me from drinking a fair bit on Friday, grimacing as I forced my swallows. And it certainly didn’t stop me from pranking the guys by pouring everyone a ceremonial shot. Got ’em, I smiled to myself as everyone gagged on the soap-whiskey as you might expect. We set it aside and focused on consuming Claudio’s Irishman whiskey and Kyle’s Woodford Reserve. We figured we would probably be affected enough later to force the soap-whiskey down. But no, it was too awful. I purged the rest of it in an alchemical blaze.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Three, March 28 – Spruce Pine Hollow Shelter to Hancock, Maryland, ~10 miles.
“Get out, get out of here!” screamed Claudio, sometime before dawn. “That was a damn bear,” he said to us. I definitely noticed a large animal running off into the night. Right after, lightning and thunder — and lots of heavy rain — erupted. My guess was the bear was trying to use the shelter similar to what we were doing to avoid the worst of the storm. Poor guy.
Luckily, the rain tapered off — though never completely stopped — for our final 10 miles, most of it expected to be on a variety of country roads. I took off from camp first, per usual, in the hope of getting ahead of the guys on the final day so the faster folks wouldn’t have to wait for my keys when they reached the car.
There were more actual trail miles than we had thought connecting sections of road. They were quite pleasant. But the final five miles were actually kind of rotten and highway-like once we hit River Road. The sad thing is that there was a great ridge right next to us and the Potomac River curling out across the road. But the trail was the road. And the road didn’t have much of a shoulder, let alone a sidewalk. I picked my way by tossed trash and marveled at trains going by with what seemed like hundreds of container-laden train cars. I crossed the bridge over the Potomac alone, wondering where the guys were. They usually caught up to me by now. Brian eventually did meet up with me just as I walked into Hancock. I asked him where the others were and he looked at me in horror. “They’re ahead of me. You haven’t seen them?” Nope, no I had not.
Brian and I enjoyed strolling through Hancock together. I grabbed a tea on the way. Then we changed and hung out at the car for a bit before Claudio and Kyle finally appeared. As you can imagine, they had managed to get off trail at some point. It was a good story, at least. A pit bull in a yard along the trail had taken interest in them and addled a bit by the dog, they had scurried past a turn. A turn, mind you, that Claudio had actually managed to stop and take a picture of before accidently passing by it.
We had a fantastic victory lunch at Buddy Lou’s (mandatory) and happily planned our next section hike of the Tuscarora. As one does. Then we reentered the real world.
January started with a significant reading list. I’ll spend the rest of 2021 trying to even equal the power of the two books I read to start the year. No, these two books don’t share much in common. But each on their own merit is worth a “stop what you’re doing and read” urge. Hear me out.
The Prophets. If it weren’t for my local bookstore, Old Town Books, I might not have purchased this masterpiece let alone immediately opened it upon returning home. But a good bookseller can help you find and even discuss a great book thanks to fantastic book clubs. (And the Old Town Books staff aren’t good — they’re great.) Such was the case here. And this is a tremendous book. I’m curious why it hasn’t received a bit more literary praise than I noticed so far in some of the publications I follow regularly. I’m confident it will — and will grow in importance as a book of its caliber.
The Prophets is a story of slavery and humanity and love and trauma and horror and sexuality and magic and legacy. It is a deep, personal gift to those who identify with what Robert Jones, Jr. offers to his readers. One of the most profound thoughts that came to me as I was reading was how soul-wrenchingly difficult and triggering this book must have been to write. Robert Jones, Jr. brings a cruel — though normal for its time — early 19th century slave-exploiting plantation to life (and death) in exceedingly real and perfect writing. There are two central characters, Samuel and Isaiah, in this story. Their love and connection to a meaning that transcends their setting serves as the keystone of the novel. But there is so much more, from point-of-view chapters representing all people present on the plantation — and I mean ALL people, from slaves to slaveowners to slavedrivers — to continent- and time-leaping parts of the story that bring the novel to a poetic, almost elemental, conclusion.
As I processed and discussed this book, several things came to mind. This is a powerful piece of historical literary fiction, written with the talent and message to be beloved for generations to come. For those who feel a direct sense of personal connection and legacy kinship to the queer love and slavery (and its modern vestiges), I think Robert Jones Jr. has given you something you’ve never experienced or read before. I dearly hope this book makes it to the hands and hearts of all who would be specifically stirred by it. I also stepped into an ongoing “debate” about movies and books depicting suffering Black people — as opposed to movies and books that approach Black Americans in a less visceral, no-less-profound manner. This book is a work of deep suffering. But it is a story that, difficult as it was to read and absorb, was the story of suffering I needed to read. I’m sure I’m not alone. Thank you, Robert Jones, Jr. You gave part of your soul to bring life to these characters and what they meant. They now feel as real as any who walked this earth.
Rhythm of War. My epic fantasy reading friends have listened to me talk nonstop about Brandon Sanderson for years now. There’s a reason for it. He’s the best in the business. And the Stormlight Archive, of which Rhythm of War is book four, is his masterpiece. It’s impossible to write more about it here without simply insisting and steering any potential reader to book one, The Way of Kings. If you read any epic fantasy, or if you’re even vaguely curious about fantasy as a genre, please buy these books and cherish what Brandon Sanderson brings to the table. The Stormlight Archive tomes are huge. You will wish they were even huger. I’ve re-read the first three books — something that I’ve only ever done in the genre with J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen R. Donaldson — and look forward to reading them again. The characters burst with life (literally) and key scenes bring together different dimensions of meaning and excitement (also literally).
What makes Rhythm of War (really, the Stormlight Archive) special? Sanderson puts the epic in epic fantasy through this work with kingdom-breaking, world-changing, universe-altering themes. But he also preserves the intimacy of each character and makes each plot development sing its own symphony. This is War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time plus western and action and philosophy. The key scenes reverberate and come to life as if they were directed by an Oscar-winning director. But here’s the thing: the world of Rhythm of War isn’t like anything you’ve read in other fantasy — it isn’t just a version of earth with different continents. I’d say it’s closer to science fiction in this aspect of its world build, but don’t mistake that for being science fiction. It’s not. Even the technology, so to speak, of this world is more magic than science.
And a little note on Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. Sanderson’s books and series do stand on their own. But many of them also link to each other in ways mostly captured in easter eggs but will eventually grow together for readers who follow the entire journey to future books. This is not daunting and it is not esoteric. It is a critical piece of what Sanderson’s magic is, how it is different across the Cosmere, and how the universe of Sanderson is ultimately understood in meaning and plot. It is absolutely worth any amount of investment. I read the Cosmere books in this order: Mistborn (series), Elantris, Warbreaker, and only then the Stormlight Archive and various works of shorter Cosmere fiction collected in Arcanum Unbounded. This worked for me but I don’t see any reason why not just starting with Way of Kings would take away anything from a reader. Enjoy. 🙂
Intro. I needed another trail section-hike project like I need some new backpacking equipment. Which is to say I absolutely didn’t but certainly took one on anyway. As far as section hikes go, it seemed everyone in my backpacking orbit was working on their own Tuscarora Trail version. And why not? At 250 total miles and close proximity to Washington, D.C., with lovely PATC-maintained shelters and traversing some beloved local terrain, more people should be hiking on it, not less. To boot: when we met Mike, a local landowner and PATC volunteer at Basore’s Ridge Shelter to end our trip, he noted only bumping into 4-5 folks a year using his gorgeous shelter! More on Mike later.
It started like it usually does, with a ping from Claudio to go out hiking. He, along with Kyle, were working on a northbound section hike of the Tuscarora Trail. They had in sight about 40 miles going from Dry Gap to Hampshire Road along Great North Mountain and adjoining roads. Why not? I thought. Then we began overthinking things as extreme weather reports filtered in. At one point it looked like we could get hit with a polar vortex blast with lows in the single digits Fahrenheit. Another forecast called for fresh snow piling up over the week. The truth, of course, is that things mellowed out weather-wise as we actually approached our weekend. (Really, we should all remember NOT to check weather until three-days out to spare ourselves overthinking and planning.) But questions remained about snow levels and we opted to shorten to less than 30 miles for our weekend. Ironically, we tossed snowshoes in our cars anyways to be ready. Then we decided to leave said snowshoes in our cars when we started hiking. More on that later.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, February 13 – Rt 48/55 to Pinnacle Shelter, ~13 miles. Claudio, Kyle, and I met up at our end point near Basore’s Ridge Shelter bright and early at 7:00 a.m. We put a cooler and luxury items in Kyle’s car and then hopped in Claudio’s truck to drive down to begin our weekend hike. It was snowy and chilly for sure, but none of us thought the snow merited snowshoes. Claudio dropped Kyle and me off at 48/55 to do a few miles he had already hiked. He drove off to get some breakfast and meet up with us in an hour up trail. Kyle and I enjoyed our first miles of winter wonderland on the ridge and didn’t think the few inches of snow were that difficult to traverse. We all met up again at Dry Gap to hike about 10 more miles on Great North Mountain to reach Pinnacle Shelter, our destination for the night. Normally, these are extremely low miles for a group of guys used to 20-mile hiking days. But lord, snow presents a beautiful challenge.
So we tackled the beautiful challenge. Kyle, trail nicknamed Water Dog for his summer water-carrying skills, earned our respect and a new name, Snow Plow, for his gallant effort breaking trail for most of the day. He claims he was just trying to stay warm but we know heroism when we see it. The dude was also pounding this out with a couple broken toes from a recent city bike accident and some spent legs from a week of downhill skiing. We should have brought our snowshoes. Despite not being super high elevation, Great North Mountain certainly retained its snow. Snow levels varied between six and 12 inches. Our feet were very much enclosed in an icebox for the day despite our efforts to stay dry and warm. But it was gorgeous with ice and snow coating the trees and ridge. After a few weeks of grumbling in the DC area about our lack of snow, I was certainly getting my fill.
Shoutout to the PATC for high-quality signs on the trail and blazes good enough to follow despite low foot traffic. Part of this section of the trail is a fairly recent re-route to maximize time on the Devil’s Backbone ridge itself. It was most welcome. Day hikers, we presume, enjoy the scenic out and back to Eagle Rock. We traipsed through snow and Kyle/Snow Plow let me break the final two miles to get to our sanctuary for the night at Pinnacle Shelter. (As a general water note if you’re reading this to plan your own hike: we brought our own and did not expect to hit — or actually encounter — a water source until the spring at Pinnacle Shelter. In fact, water was pretty scarce. But that shouldn’t surprise any Tuscarora Trail veteran.)
Though the Pinnacle Shelter is a gorgeous work of PATC architecture complete with separate eating and fire pavilion, I brought a new NEMO Kunai 2 tent that I bought more for eventual winter use in Canada rather than the mid-Atlantic but wanted to try it out. It was my first normal, double-walled tent in years, and more than twice as heavy as my next heaviest UL shelter, but I was curious. It was comfy but definitely overkill for this outing. We warmed up, built a lovely little fire, and settled in. Since we knew we had supplies waiting for us at the end of our trip, we let loose on our rye whiskey and apple brandy we had packed in and enjoyed some quality cigars. Claudio played around with a new alcohol stove keg can set up. Despite my words of alcohol-stove encouragement, I don’t think he was won over. Eventually we stumbled off to sleep and to do it all again in the morning.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, February 14 – Pinnacle Shelter to Basore’s Ridge Shelter, ~16 miles. In the morning, we slept in a bit later than our normal up-before-dawn style and hit the snowy trail. Claudio took snow plow lead for much of the day and was pretty much hauling ass throughout. The trail was gorgeous, of course, but we could tell that even without the underbrush of spring/summer to obscure the trail, it was tough going. Blazes weren’t always clear in this part, and the combination of picking over snow and boulder fields definitely upped the challenge. We were serenaded by some shooting range booms for a spell too to add to the scene.
The Tuscarora Trail gradually left the ridge near Gore, Virginia. At this point, some of our scenery incorporated some ingeniously placed trailer homesteads and couches. I was super thankful to make a pitstop at the Barclays Run Shelter before meeting up with Claudio and Kyle at Rt. 50. Claudio had stashed some water and beer for a midday pick me up. We needed it, as the trail took us through a water crossing as the final goodbye from the mountain hiking section. We had seven miles of road walking ahead of us to finish our day.
The road walking was kind of great, actually. It was scenic in both natural and man-made ways. It was also out of the snow. It had its own challenges too: there was practically no shoulder as cars raced by. We took care and enjoyed it. Claudio and Kyle chatted with a few locals and donkeys, including meeting Mike, who drove by a couple times in his truck before swinging back over in his Tesla to introduce himself and say he’d come visit us at the shelter later.
Once at Basore’s Ridge Shelter, a scant 1,000 feet from our parked vehicles, we grabbed our luxury items. I had brought a special edition bottle of Tullamore Dew, pastries from Buzz, and a charcuterie platter. Kyle packed in some brown sugar and butter sweet potatoes, and Claudio, in true Tarzan fashion, packed in ribeye steaks, coffee, s’mores, breakfast sandwich fixings, and much more. This was most assuredly not ultralight. Nobody cared. Soon enough, the whir of an engine announced Mike’s arrival with some seasoned firewood and a few beers. Mike is an amazing guy. He had lived in Europe and DC-area Maryland for years before having the good sense to move out to this lovely countryside. He joined forces with the PATC when they acquired the land around Basore’s Ridge to keep it maintained and watched over. We, and countless others, are enormously thankful for these efforts. We hope to see Mike again!
We enjoyed a long evening of pampered comfort around the fire and shelter. The atmospherics of the surrounding mountains and valleys came to life with some of the most distinctive and constant coyote wailing I’ve experienced in years. The local dogs weren’t too happy about it, though. With that, we packed up in the morning after some more feasting and began plotting our return to the Tuscarora. Since Claudio had dropped Kyle and me off separately, I didn’t experience the icy drive up to Dry Gap until I got to drive it myself to get Claudio back to his car. Glad I had 4×4 capability too!
In a final addendum, Claudio hunted me down at a roadside store I had stopped at for gas and tea to hand me a pair of snowshoes he had borrowed from Mike and Jen (my neighbors in Alexandria) to return. We laughed. We had all gone out of our way to bring snowshoes, decided not to actually use them, and lamented their absence as we post-holed through snow much of the weekend. Just another hiking adventure in the mid-Atlantic!
Future Planning Notes: Claudio and Kyle had done the 60-odd miles south of this section before; I would need to knock those miles out soon — and I’m thinking of doing it in a longish section one-shot in April. We figure there’s another 50 miles or so to get through Hancock and then onward to finish the Tuscarora Trail’s Pennsylvania miles in some large section hikes. Can’t wait.
Backpacking seasons come and go. DC UL Backpacking should know. It’s been around for 11 great years. Though I founded the original version of the group as — essentially — a personal backpacking crew for me to ring lead in 2009, it has grown beyond my wildest dreams. I bestowed a name, an ultralight orientation, and a few entrenched trip norms that endure to this day. I did not, however, enshrine a structure that would survive the test of time and change of command. Others did — with aplomb. DC UL turns over a new page in this new year, thanks to their efforts.
I departed abruptly as organizer in July 2011 to, well, focus on a personal backpacking crew. (Then in 2012 I went overseas for three years for work.) That crazy moment prompted the first DC UL transfer of power to Ryan Shauers. Transfer of power is a kind way of putting it. I mic dropped and Ryan scooped it up and began to sing. He continued on as organizer for a spell, and eventually left the DC area and handed over to Michael Martin. I’m not sure exactly how that process went down, but I’m sure it was more efficient than my departure.
Michael ushered in what, to me, seemed like a golden era of DC UL Backpacking. Michael created a set of membership ranks and trip rankings to allow for a diverse set of easy — “Low Mileage” — to hard — “Veteran Member” — trips in which newbie and vetted DC UL members alike sign up and participate at the right level. He also literally wrote the book on backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic. I can’t say enough about the “Veteran Members” of DC UL Backpacking. To a person, it’s a gifted, capable, fun, and responsible crew. I look forward to my backpacking trips with them every month.
At some point, Michael handed the organizer reins over to Jen Adach. Jen not only took DC UL up another notch with trips, social media presence, and major event planning, she brought DC UL into a new epoch touching on diversity and activism in addition to backpacking alone. She also masterfully guided the group through the onslaught and mitigation of COVID-19.
When 2021 rolled around, Jen decided it was time for yet another transfer of power. DC UL’s fifth organizer, Karan Girdhani, has just recently slipped into his new role, rocking and ready to go. I internally brimmed with pride. DC UL Backpacking really did show its strength by turning over periodically to new leadership. Part of this strength, as I noted above, comes from its key members. Few have been more active and important to the group than Karan. I’ve adored my adventures with him over the years. Karan will oversee DC UL’s emergence into the post-COVID era (eventually/hopefully!) and encourage a new flock of members to join the DC UL family. I’ll depart soon for another overseas assignment but I look forward to staying in close touch with the group to join — or lead — a trip here and there.
Cheers to 11 more years of DC UL Backpacking. And good luck, Karan!