Virginia

Shelter Pizza Triple Crown

A thru-hike involves several months of backpacking through beautiful places and meeting interesting people. It may seem counterintuitive that, when asked what they thought about in a given day, most thru-hikers mention daydreams or extended thoughts about food. One ubiquitous food craving among backpackers is that for pizza.

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Sunrise at the Fontana Hilton

Most of the time, pizza can only be obtained when hikers get off the trail and head into town; unlike a surprising number of dishes, it’s difficult to replicate pizza on a backpacking stove. However, there are a few shelters along the Appalachian Trail where hikers can get pizza delivered. Some of these shelters are familiar destinations for local pizzerias, but others are more unusual. Inspired by a supper of pizza at a shelter in Pennsylvania in 2011, I created the notion of the “Shelter Pizza Triple Crown” during my thru-hike. Always up for challenges and games, thru-hikers shared the idea and embraced the challenge. And, of course, I worked to earn the title of Shelter Pizza Triple Crowner myself.

The first pizza delivery was perhaps the most difficult to arrange. I’d read that some pizzeria delivered to the last shelter south of the Smokies, the Fontana Hilton, which I’ll describe in another post. As a result, I planned to spend the night at the shelter and looked forward to a cheese-less pizza topped with pizza sauce, broccoli, and spinach for days before arriving there. I was, therefore, more persistent than I might have been when I got to the shelter, called the pizzeria whose number was written on the shelter floor, and learned that they did not deliver to the shelter. I called a local trail angel who shuttled hikers around and asked him if he’d be able to pick up pizzas for the shelter. He seemed to think it would be a fun mission and, after some difficulties getting the orders right, pizza was finally, blissfully enjoyed around 8:00.

Because of the difficulties involved in arranging a delivery to the Fontana Hilton, I considered it a bonus shelter in the Triple Crown.

The first official shelter of the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Partnership Shelter in Virginia. Quiver and I arrived at Partnership amidst pouring rain in the middle of the day to find at least a dozen hikers inside. Uncharacteristically, they were unwelcoming (other hikers reported receiving the same feeling from that group of people), so we pressed on to the visitor center where pizzas would be delivered anyway. I shivered and tried to dry off inside the ranger’s station, where I looked at the books and taxidermy collection while I waited for the pizzas to arrive. When they did, the rain stopped, and Quiver and I lunched outside. While I’d only had a small pizza at the Fontana Hilton, I finished the greater portion of a large pizza near Partnership Shelter and packed the rest of it out with me for dinner.

Next up in the Triple Crown was the 501 Shelter of Pennsylvania, which is a sizable bunkhouse next to a home. The bunkhouse was once a pottery studio, and it has a lovely glass dome in the center of the ceiling, through which sun and moonlight stream. Several restaurants deliver to the shelter, and, both times I’ve stopped by, I’ve sincerely enjoyed the conversations and hospitality from the shelter’s neighbors. (Conversational blue blaze: When I arrived at the shelter in 2011, it was after some fast, big-mile days, and I was utterly exhausted. I collapsed on a bunk in the mid-afternoon and woke up to find a semi-circle of empty folding chairs assembled around me: Booksmarts, a thru-hiker who’d been hiking near me, had arranged them while I was sleeping as a practical joke. I have very fond memories of that shelter.) From the 501 Shelter, it’s only a few days and a few million rocks before hikers arrive at another pizza-friendly shelter in Pennsylvania.

The final jewel in the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Eckville Shelter, a shed-turned-bunkhouse on private property — private property that, I recently learned, once belonged to the author of Journey on the Crest (a book about the PCT). Getting pizza delivered to this shelter is as easy as getting it delivered to the 501 Shelter. And, so many hikers order pizza at Eckville that it’s easy to find people to share pizzas and delivery costs with. The picnic table and bathhouse feel like the perfect complements to any Shelter Pizza Triple Crown finale.

All that said, when I thru-hiked, I came across another shelter or two where I heard that roundabout pizza deliveries could be procured. Hikers, have you come across other shelters that I should add to my list?

A Plague of Locusts

In Kentucky, it seems as though we’re forever hearing that each coming summer will be a big cicada year, a year when an uncountable number of the adult insects, which have lived underground for 13 or 17 years as nymphs and are often called jarflies or locusts (the latter erroneously), will emerge and flood the summer breezes with their “song.”  We hear about cicadas so often because several colonies of the insects have ranges that overlap in our state.  As a result, I am almost fond of the insects and think of them as an essential part of summer.  However, my interactions with cicadas in Kentucky don’t begin to come near what I experienced of them on the Appalachian Trail.

The year I thru-hiked the AT, 2012, was expected to be a big cicada year in Virginia, but I found that I could not have imagined what that meant before I found myself in Virginia when billions of the adults emerged to moult, mate, and lay eggs.  These cicadas were members of the Blue Ridge Brood, which won’t return to the surface until 2029.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t been warned.  I had.  But, I’d paid so little attention to that news that it wasn’t until I’d been hearing moderately loud cicada song for a few hours that I remembered the warnings.

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Cicada carcasses under a tree in Virginia

You see, the first of the cicada song was familiar and brought to mind images of summers on my family’s farm.  Then, the brood really started its so-called “congregational singing.”  As I walked through the forest south of Troutville and Daleville, Virginia, the cicada song grew to an almost-deafening volume.  At first, it seemed possible to discern the location of each singing swarm; in time, the entire forest seemed to vibrate with the sound.  It was like walking past incredibly loud, buzzing power lines all day.  There were moments when the sound would recede into the background, but there were other times when it seemed to be the primary sensation I was experiencing as I walked.

As I continued to walk north, this sound persisted in the air for a week or so.  Then, just as quickly as it had come, it dissipated.  In its wake, carcasses of cicadas littered the ground, creating piles beneath the trees of southwestern Virginia.

I’d never seen anything like it.  But, to be honest, recollecting that biological event makes me want to return to that section of the trail in 2029.

The Captain’s Party

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Trailside signs indicated that the Captain’s was near.

The transmission of information along the Appalachian Trail is fascinating, a topic worthy of a sociology student’s research project.  Most of the time, information is passed along in the shelter registers or through word-of-mouth by exceptionally fast or slow hikers.  And, then, sometimes, news is conveyed by flyers and signs stuck to signposts or trees in the woods.  All of these forms of communication were used to announce the Captain’s Party.

The Captain’s Party is a beloved tradition on the Appalachian Trail.  The Captain is a hiker who lives just off the trail in Virginia, and once each year he throws a celebration for the thru-hikers who stop by his yard two weeks after Trail Days.  From what I can discern online, it seems that 2014 marked the 10-year anniversary of the hiker feast, which always includes lots of food, alcohol, games (the “Hiker Olympics”), and a campfire, where live music may be found.

DSCF1196I don’t know whether I would have stopped by the Captain’s Party, were it not for Quiver’s fond memories of the event from years past and his insistence that we join the celebration.  As it was, my then-19-year-old sister decided she could spend a week on the trail, and we arranged to meet her at the Captain’s Party because, weeks out, we were able to tell her exactly when we’d be there.

There is always something comical and a little uncomfortable about the collision of our various lives and identities, and the night my family was introduced to my trail world was no exception.  Suddenly, my little sister, who, as she joked the next day, hadn’t before been to a boy-girl party, found herself in the middle of the woods with a bunch of stinky, hairy people who were devouring everything in sight, smoking quite a bit of marijuana, and drunk on moonshine.  There was even a naked hiker walking around, trying to clothe himself in aluminum foil.  (Because, you know, what party is complete without an aluminum foil-clad man?)

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In the late afternoon, a miniature Tent City was erected in the Captain’s yard.

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Rapunzel attaching her pack to the zipline

I’d definitely attend Trail Days again, if for no other reason than the chance to catch up with old friends, but it’s grown into something that I think feels a little too large and unruly.  Meanwhile, the Captain’s Party seems to serve the same function that Trail Days once did:  It gathers a bunch of friends together on the trail and builds community by allowing everyone to share in a joyful celebration.  I was very glad I was able to attend.

My sister was, too.  She said that she loved how quickly she was welcomed into the trail community that night.  (While she didn’t partake, she enjoyed the flirtations and invitations to smoke pot that were directed her way.)  The next morning, as she approached the zipline leading from the Captain’s onto the Appalachian Trail, a young man helped her across and, eying her long braid, christened her “Rapunzel.”  And, thus, she became one of us.

My Human Audiobook

On the Appalachian Trail, there aren’t too many stretches of flat terrain, as we’re generally either going up or going down.  I’ve often heard section hikers complain about the trail’s elevation gain and insist that the footpath would be better if it were to pass primarily through the valleys.  I disagree.DSCF1578

The Shenandoah National Park is one of the areas of the easiest walking on the whole trail.  The treadway is smoothly graded–free of rocks and roots and never very steep.  And, while I didn’t dislike that section of the trail, I must confess that I found it horribly boring.

Luckily, Quiver, my hiking partner, agreed.

Our opinion of the Shenandoahs greatly improved when we found Even Cowgirls Get the Blues at a shelter in the Park.  In part because we appreciate the principle of reciprocity and in part because we don’t like carrying “heavy” books longer than we need to, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have a casual sort of library in the shelters along the trail.  A book or two could probably be found in most shelters at any given time, and hikers are welcome to take them and encouraged to leave others in their place.

(Except in the case of Glenn Beck books.  When those are found on the trail, they’re just used in the privy or as kindling.)

We’d stopped by a shelter for a water break when Quiver found a worn, cover-less copy of Cowgirls in the corner of the shelter, with a note from Shine (another hiker) on the title page:  “Read this book!”   Familiar with author Tom Robbins’ works and Cowgirls itself, Quiver cheered and couldn’t resist bringing it with us.  And, because of the monotony of the Shenandoah treadway–and because I had a tendency to fall asleep as soon as he started reading to me unless I was walking–Quiver decided that the best way to enjoy Cowgirls would be for us to read it as we walked.

DSCF1563Thus, I led the way, sounding the warning about any potentially hazardous (and rare) branches, rocks, and roots–and about approaching families–and Quiver walked behind me, trekking poles collapsed and book in his hands, reading aloud in this perfect reading-aloud voice of his.  And, just like that, I had a personal audiobook.

If you’re familiar with Tom Robbins, you’ll understand that my letting Quiver know about families hiking ahead wasn’t just so he didn’t crash into them.  Tom Robbins writes with a unique style that is alternately high brow and low brow.  You’ll be reading along about philosophy and the human condition and then, wham!  Potty humor and sex.  It took me a little while to figure out how it worked–and to not need the innuendos explained to me–but I loved his style right away.

One day, Duke, a conservative Freemason from Oklahoma who was a trail friend of ours, was leap-frogging us while we were in the middle of Cowgirls.  Quiver decided to keep reading as we approached him, just for fun.  We were in the middle of this cathartic lesbian sex scene, and I’ll never forget Duke’s “WHAT are you reading?”  There was lots of laughter all around.

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