The hike up to Birds Nest from Thornton pass the day before proved to be difficult and long, but in retrospect a "cake walk" compared to what we had in store for day two of our adventure.
Our objective was to hike 11 miles to reach the Rock Spring campground before the end of the day. Eleven miles is not really a long distance for an all day hike, until you start to consider the "roller coaster" this stretch of the Shenandoah really is: from 3279 feet to 3673, down to 3085, and up again to 3851... with several smaller elevation changes (in both directions) in-between.
By the time we reached the Pinnacles picnic area, my legs and knees were feeling the pressure and I realized that, for me, going downhill was far more difficult than going up. We decided to stop at the picnic area for a short break and as soon as we got started again, both my legs "locked" (literally) with the excruciating pain from leg cramps. I couldn't take a step forward or backward and Soylamar, who once again surprised me with her endurance and determination, had to come back to help me get rid of my pack.
Among all the items she was carrying, Soylamar had a jar of ointment that we ended up calling "la crema milagrosa" (the miracle cream). She massaged both my legs with this "stuff" and after a few minutes of rest we were able to get started. Given the time and the possibility of additional leg problems, we knew we weren't going to make it to Rock Spring before nightfall and decided to take a detour towards Skyland, a resort area that we hoped had a campground we could use to setup our tent.
By 5:00pm, 7 miles from our starting point, completely exhausted and in pain, we arrived at Skyland. We struggled all the way up to the restaurant only to find out that burgers were close to $20.00, rooms were north of $180.00 and a place to setup camp was nowhere to be found. My legs were in so much pain that if Soylamar had said let's stay here I would have gladly paid the price. She was, however, determined to make this a truly remarkable experience and we hiked back down to the trail to find a place we could use to setup a camp.
After some looking around, we found a spot that didn't require a lot of clearing to make room for our tent, and two trees close enough to hang up a hammack that Soylamar had purchased in Hilton Head before we left. Unfortunately, the spot was at an incline steep enough to make us slide down the moment we put our sleeping bags on top of our air mattresses.
By 6:30, Soylamar had a chance to enjoy her Hilton Head purchase, our tent was up, and we were ready to get started with dinner... right around the same time that two black bears decided to come close enough to spoil the fun. I scrambled to put all our food in a plastic bag and hang it up from the farthest and tallest tree i could find. Though I was convinced the bears would be more interested in the $20.00 burgers half a mile up the hill, Soylamar didn't want to take any chances and we settled for something quick: noodles and a few candy bars for dinner, not exactly the best choice considering we had freeze-dried steak and mashed potatoes inside the bag hanging from the tree!
By nightfall, we were laughing our heads off as we kept sliding down our beds to the entrance of the tent. By not getting into our bags and simply using them to cover up, we managed to have a relatively restful night... although we did wake up several times and Soylamar said she heard steps around our tent at around 3:00am. I got up to make noise and scare the bears away, but in the final analysis of our amazing adventure we realized the steps she heard were the result of a far more special visit... but that's another topic and one I won't cover in this post.
By early morning the next day, we decided we'd have breakfast, hike up to the restaurant without our gear, and determine if hiking to the next campground would be feasible from another starting point. We both had agreed that going back to the trail we had taken the day before was far too treacherous to do it again. Even an 18 year old we'd met along the way refused to go back the same way when we caught up with him at our camp.
While the resort didn't offer a place for hikers to pitch a tent, it did have a couple of welcome amenities: tables with an amazing view should you wish to have a very expensive hot meal, and clean bathrooms... a must when you've been in the woods for a couple of days. I have to say that I could have gone for one of their expensive burgers (or at least their buffet breakfast), but Soylamar didn't want anything unless it came from our packs. After struggling up the mountain with so much weight, I had to agree.
Leaving with unfinished business is never a good idea but by the third day Soylamar was also feeling the pain in her knees and she agreed (but not without first giving me a few alternatives to consider) to give up on the last section of our trip.
As we rode down the mountain in the comfort of our ride, we promised each other we'd come back. Next time we'll tackle the trail from the opposite end, with less weight on our backs, more experience about hiking at our age, and more determined than ever to finish what we'd started.
I left the Shenandoah, as we say in our countries, "con la cola entre las patas" (with my tail between my legs) and with a new-found respect for my amazing hiking partner whom, without any prior hiking experience of this magnitude, not only rose to the challenge but redefined the meaning of will and determination.
Soylamar, if you can do this, you can do anything and I'd hike with you anywhere anytime. As soon as I recover, we'll head back to Virginia to let the Shenandoah Mountains know we aren't easily dismissed or discouraged.