I whispered the command to my son, who was hiking about three steps ahead of me with his head down, watching his footing along slippery rocks. He had not yet noticed the fawn directly in front of him on the trail.
We both stood still and waited while the fawn, seemingly without fear, approached to within a couple of feet of us. It put its nose up in the air and sniffed deeply in an effort to find out what had interrupted its breakfast of grass beside the path.
"Do you think it can smell us?" I asked. "Dad," John replied with a laugh, "we probably don't even smell human."
He undoubtedly was right. After several days of backpacking along the Appalachian Trail through Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, well-scrubbed and deodorized we were not. We were, though, happily nearing the end of an adventurous week in which we had seen lots of deer but surprisingly few people.
At this point on the trail, we were just a couple of hours from the Beltway but we couldn't have been farther away from crowds, and this was during peak summer vacation time in August.
Years ago a National Park Service ranger in Shenandoah had told me that the park is most heavily used only a few hundred yards from the parking lots along Skyline Drive, the two-lane road that meanders some 105 miles along the mountaintops of the park.
Our week in the woods proved the old ranger was right. It became obvious early in our trip that we simply weren't seeing anyone once we left the spots where the trail crossed or neared the main road. Then we started to keep a mental note -- in 6 1/2 days of hiking we saw no one more than about 500 yards from a place to park a car, except a few back-country hikers who took refuge, along with us, in emergency shelters during heavy rain.
We found the trail through the park's Blue Ridge Mountains an excellent woodland getaway, without the need to travel hundreds of miles from home. We also discovered we had a choice: We could be by ourselves in the woods or we could take advantage of the park's several developed areas and enjoy some tourist comforts.
If you are looking for a way to enjoy a hike in the woods -- and would appreciate some quiet along the way -- you can leave the crowds behind by venturing farther along Shenandoah's many paths than most people are willing to walk. You will be rewarded not just with the silence of the woods but with scenic views from vantage points that most visitors never encounter.
Our 80-mile backpacking vacation began west of Charlottesville at Rockfish Gap, the southernmost part of the park, on a sunny Sunday morning. We picked up the Appalachian Trail in the woods immediately above the park entrance station and headed north. This scenic, historic trail winds 2,135 miles along the mountains from Georgia to Maine. Inside Shenandoah, the trail, mainly a woodland path with some rocky sections at higher elevations and along streams, stretches 102 miles, crossing Skyline Drive many times and offering frequent overlooks to enjoy a view of the Shenandoah Valley on one side or the gently rolling Virginia piedmont on the other. In the southern part of the park some of those miles are outside the park boundary, but the trail is accessible from many points along Skyline Drive.
The trail through the park is maintained by volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. They keep it clear, remove downed trees and make necessary repairs along the route. In many places, the heavily shaded trail appears to be a tunnel carved through the hardwood forest. Club members also maintain an extensive network of side paths that link up with the main Appalachian Trail and care for a series of three-sided shelters in the back country that hikers can use in bad weather.
Our first day out, we encountered a club volunteer repairing an access point where the trail crossed Skyline Drive. We thanked him for his colleagues' volunteer maintenance efforts and continued north. John's 19-year-old, college-athlete legs set a heady pace, while middle-aged Dad found the going a bit tough, climbing up and down the many mountain gaps that the trail crosses. But we soon settled into a good hiking routine.
That changed quickly, however, when rain began to fall early on our second day. For the rest of the week, rain and fog were with us much of the time along the trail. We soon discovered that we weren't going to cover as many miles as we had intended. In addition to slowing down to keep our footing on the wet, sometimes rocky trail, we had to carve out some time for drying out our equipment.
So, for two nights we camped at the trail club's emergency shelters instead of setting up our own back-country campsite. Arriving at one shelter in the rain at the end of a long hiking day, we encountered a young couple making a six-month journey along the entire Appalachian Trail. They had interesting stories to tell as we spent the evening. A night later, 10 miles farther along the trail, our shelter mates were three college students from James Madison University, out in the park for a few nights before classes started.
We also camped a couple of nights in the established campgrounds in the central section of the park, once at Lewis Mountain and another night at Big Meadows. This gave us a chance to buy extra food and take a break from the back country. It also provided the opportunity for a restaurant meal, a real treat at the Big Meadows Lodge. After 60 miles on the trail, we enthusiastically enjoyed a hearty dinner, especially the blackberry ice cream pie. We were seated beside the windows of the big, old lodge dining room and noticed that the swirling mist that at the time engulfed the mountaintop was seeping right in around the door frames, a fitting memory for our damp travels.
After days of seeing hardly anyone else, we were surprised to find that not only was the dining room filled but there was a long waiting list, even on a week night. It made us particularly aware of the contrast between the bustling vacation setting of Big Meadows and the peace of the backwoods.
Our decision earlier in the week to slow down our hiking pace had given us more time to enjoy our Shenandoah surroundings. We could choose a pleasant spot for lunch without worrying that we were losing hiking time. One afternoon, when the sun had broken through after a rainy morning, we found a picnic table at one of the points where the trail crossed Skyline Drive. After our lunch of peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches, John napped on the tabletop in the warm sunshine while I watched butterflies flutter around late-summer wildflowers blooming in a roadside meadow. It was a pleasant change from our lunch stop two days before, when a driving rain forced us to seek shelter beneath the ledge of a rock outcrop immediately beside the trail. There was just enough room to set down our packs and eat lunch while leaning against the rock wall, with rain splashing on the ground just inches from our boots.
Ending one midweek hiking day early allowed time to set up a clothesline and dry some of our T-shirts and walking shorts. We also switched from our hiking boots to dry running shoes to give the boots some drying time in the sun. And it gave father and son a chance to talk about the summer that had passed and the plans for the college year that would be starting soon. Some of the most rewarding times outdoors happen when nothing is happening.
Along the trail, images both soothe and startle:
A hawk flying so close to the mountaintop that we could hear the wind roaring around its wings.
Out the open side of a trail shelter, a fierce summer thunderstorm putting on a light and sound display unmatched by any July 4th fireworks.
A box turtle resting in the middle of a rain-swept trail.
A cemetery suddenly appearing in a clearing in what had been a densely forested part of the trail, a reminder that once these woods had been the fields and homesites for generations of families.
Moss and ferns creating a separate, tiny world of brilliant green around a cool mountain spring.
And there were deer, far more deer than people. As we watched the fawn that was checking us out along the trail, I eyed the surrounding area to spot the doe it surely was following. Mom was casually grazing in tall grass about 30 yards off the trail and didn't seem at all concerned about us. The fawn's more bashful sibling was off to the other side of the trail, also unconcerned by our presence. In the background, still another doe and fawn lazily grazed in the morning mist.
We lingered a few moments and then once again pushed north. The deer had been frequent companions on the trail. We saw one in our first hour of hiking and another in our last, with more than a dozen in between. One morning a buck with a late-summer rack of antlers grazed barely 10 yards from our campsite.
The buck was a surprise because our camp that morning was in the Lewis Mountain drive-in campground. But this was a weekday, and there were only a few other people around. We found the Lewis Mountain area much less used, and more informal, than the larger Big Meadows area, where we spent the following night. At Lewis Mountain, for example, we signed up for our campsite by putting the night's camping fee in an envelope at a registration bulletin board. At Big Meadows a ranger checked us in with a computer.
Our overnight stays in the established campgrounds varied greatly from our nights in the back country. In the tourist areas, we could buy snacks, make phone calls home and eat at a picnic table. But we gave up the quiet of the woods. Our trail camps were very simple, though always in a delightful setting of trees and rock outcrops. Since, according to park regulations, we had to camp out of sight of the trail, our camps were set deep in the woods. A flat, small clearing served us well, providing enough space for our two-man tent and perhaps a fallen log or a smooth rock to support our backpacking stove.
Without light, other than an emergency flashlight, we found ourselves heading for our sleeping bags early during our back-country nights, with only the sounds of insects and the blowing wind in the background. In the campground at Big Meadows, however, we could hear traffic and other voices long after we would have been asleep in a back-country setting.
John and I have been hiking and backpacking since he was hardly more than a toddler. First he carried only a toy in a small day pack, and I carried the rest. Through the years our share of the load became equal. On this trip, for the first time, he sometimes carried the heavier pack. No longer was that a boy hiking in front of me, I knew, but a young man. Such are the thoughts that come in the solitude of a woodland trail on a damp, misty day.
As we left the Big Meadows campground, a man hailed us: "Are you hiking on the Appalachian Trail?" We stopped briefly to chat, while the man explained that some day he wanted to hike the trail with the two young boys beside him. As we turned to leave, I wanted to say to him, "Do it soon, Dad, do it soon. The time passes all too fast."
By the time we reached our Saturday afternoon pick-up point at Thornton Gap, we had camped in back country, in established campgrounds and in trail shelters, a mix that indicates the range of choices available for outdoor experiences in Shenandoah.
Even after a week in the park, plus many previous shorter trips, we still have many trails to explore in Shenandoah. For day hikes, overnight camp-outs or longer backpacking excursions, the park offers a wide range of outdoor choices a surprisingly short drive from the city. We found Shenandoah is a place where we could get away from it all, but have it close by in case we wanted it -- or needed it.
Occasionally, I stand along the shore of Chesapeake Bay and watch with admiration as sailboats catch the breeze and cut through the choppy waters. Looks like fun, I think. Perhaps I'd like to try that someday.
But I wouldn't consider trying it without the necessary training and background. And therefore I'm often surprised to see in the woods hikers and backpackers obviously unprepared to be there. From the comfort of a car, a group of backpackers on its way up the trail may seem as carefree as those sailboats seem to me. But woodland trekking, like sailboating or any other activity that puts you on your own in the natural environment, needs preparation, knowledge and common sense.
Before venturing beyond modest day hikes in public parks, every potential backpacker or distance hiker should be aware of these major concerns: First aid. Up-to-date knowledge of emergency first aid is vital to the enjoyment of an outdoor experience. This category includes not only treatment of common injuries but taking preventive steps. Good Red Cross-type training is important.
Physical conditioning. Happiness and comfort on the trail are directly proportional to the amount of work done ahead of time to condition feet, legs, back and arms. Check with your doctor.
Campcraft. This includes buying proper equipment and keeping it well maintained, knowing how to select a site and set up a safe camp, selecting proper food to take along and dressing appropriately for terrain and weather.
Land navigation. Maps and a compass are valuable outdoor tools. But they are useless if you don't know how to use them. A a back-country camper can get into real trouble by venturing out without this knowledge.
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and other local outdoor-oriented organizations, including the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, can be good sources of written and practical information about the outdoors. Libraries and bookstores have much material on the subject, but nothing will replace some initial hands-on experience with folks who know what they are doing. CAMPSITES: Campsites in the park may be reserved at Big Meadows Campground only, between late May and late October, through Ticketron's national park reservation service, 1-900-370-5566. All other sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. BACK-COUNTRY CAMPING: Permits are required for back-country camping and are available at visitor centers and entrance stations, and by mail from park headquarters. Permits are free, although there's a $5 entrance fee to the park. There are no designated campsites in the back country; hikers may camp anywhere in the park as long as their camps are:
Out of sight of hiking trails or other camping parties.
At least 25 feet from any stream or water source.
One-half mile from any developed area, at least 250 yards away from Skyline Drive and at least 250 yards within the park boundaries.
In addition, no open fires are permitted in the back country; no glass containers are allowed; campsites must be bear-proofed; and dogs must be on leashes at all times. INFORMATION: Some useful sources of information on Shenandoah National Park:
Shenandoah National Park (Route 4-Box 348, Luray, Va., 22835-9051, 703-999-2266 (a recording) or 703-999-2243).
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (1718 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, 638-5306), for maps and hiking information and to reserve PATC cabins.
ARA Virginia Sky-Line Co. Inc. (P.O. Box 727, Luray, Va. 22835, 703-743-5108), for information on park lodges and cabins.
-- John F. Cullicott