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.