Luray to Harper’s Ferry

Into each hike some rain must fall. That’s what’s happened to us on this section, both literally and figuratively.

We had enjoyed our rest day in Luray, even though it wasn’t the most restful – at least I got the antibiotics I wanted for my nasty insect bite (in case of Lyme’s disease), and we ate some good food and enjoyed relaxing in front of the TV with our host, Alison. But we were looking forward to getting back on trail, and after Alison dropped us off at Thornton Gap in thick fog, we happily knocked out 21 miles before camping.

Alison at the Open Arms hostel in Luray – a laid-back and comfortable place, we felt at home straight away

The next day however, all was not well with Neil. He was dizzy and feeling sick, with no appetite. We made it as far as the Tom Floyd shelter, just 4 miles down the trail, before he needed a good rest. He pulled out his sleeping mat and quilt and slept soundly for two hours. Clearly he was coming down with something – possibly norovirus, there’s a lot of it about on the trail – so rather than keep hiking until it got worse, we decided to go as far as the next road crossing, just 2 miles away, and go into Front Royal, a popular stopping off point for hikers, and book into a hotel.

Front Royal was a lovely town, with cafes, restaurants, a mead bar, a great outdoor equipment shop, and some fine historical buildings. The weather was hot and sunny, but we spent a lot of the next couple of days in our hotel room while the norovirus took its course. Thankfully it was only a mild dose, and after our third night in town we were ready to hit the trail again.

We hitched back to the trail, quickly scoring a lift in spite of the fact it was pouring with rain. Just half an hour after setting off, we caught up with another hiker going in the same direction. I lifted my head to call out “Good morning!” and the next thing I knew, I was flat out on the muddy trail, pinned to the ground by the weight of my rucksack, with appalling pain in my right hip and knee. In a moment’s inattention, I had tripped over a slim branch lying across the trail. Neil and the other hiker rushed back to see if I was ok, and help me unclip my rucksack and sit up. The pain made me feel sick, but soon the hip pain subsided and I realised that it was my knee that was the real problem. I had given it a pretty hard whack, and within minutes it started to swell.

What we should have done was turn around and go back to Front Royal. But we were both impatient to get on with our hike, so in a spirit of optimism I took some ibuprofen and carried on along the trail. Walking on the flat was fine, uphills were OK if I placed my feet carefully, but rocky sections and steep downhills were excruciating. And as the day went on it got worse. The rain continued on and off all day; even when the rain stopped, we still got drenched  from the wet bushes and grass overhanging the trail, or from the wind blowing rain off the trees. I was going slower and slower, and even though it wasn’t exactly cold, by the time we’d done our agreed mileage (15 miles) I was pretty chilly.

We pitched our tent and cooked our noodles as quickly as possible, eating hunched over our bowls to keep the rain off our food. My knee had swollen up a whole lot more, and as I got into the tent and climbed awkwardly into my sleeping bag, I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to hike the next day.

Colour starting to come through the morning after my fall

But after a few hours of rest my knee felt a whole lot better, even if it looked a whole lot worse – it had turned purply brown, with the colour spreading down towards my ankle. The rain which had been drumming on the tent all night lessened to a light drizzle as we packed and got on our way. The drizzle and fog continued for most of the day, making the trail muddy and the rocks slippery. We had 18 miles to cover to get to the Bear’s Den Hostel. It was located about a hundred yards from the trail, and I figured a hot shower followed by an icepack on my leg might improve matters.

A bit of sun filtering through the trees and fog
Flat muddy trail

We made good progress while the path remained relatively flat, but then we came across this sign:

I’d heard about this feature before – a notoriously brutal series of steep ups and downs over 14 miles – but I hadn’t realised that we would be embarking on it quite so soon! But the hostel was 9 miles into the rollercoaster, so if we wanted to stay there, I would just have to get on with it.

Half way through the rollercoaster we came across another, more welcome sign, marking 1000 miles from our start point at Springer Mountain! I had expected to feel pretty jubilant at this point, but when we got there my knee was killing me and I just wanted to get the day’s hiking over and done with.

It took a long time, and pain for me and patience from Neil, but at 6.30 we dragged our bedraggled selves into the hostel. There were only top bunks left by the time we arrived, so I was very grateful to Mountain Goat for giving up her lower bunk so that I didn’t have to climb up into bed. A hot shower, a lie-down with an ice pack, and some pizza made me glad I’d pushed on through the pain to get there.

The next day started with fog and a steep, rocky and painful downhill. It was just 20 miles to Harper’s Ferry, the “half way town” of the AT (actually a few miles short of the real half way point), where I was very much looking forward to taking a break from hiking. That would have been a standard day’s hiking before my fall, but a very different prospect with a stiff and bruised knee. Still, the rain had stopped and the sun came out, and the woods were wet and glistening in the morning sun.

And then we experienced the most amazing moment of good fortune serendipity or true “trail magic” – however you choose to interpret these things. We greeted a Korean couple who were resting on a log at the side of the trail. They lived locally and were out for the day; they asked where we had come from and where we planned to go that day. I explained we were aiming for Harper’s Ferry, but weren’t sure if we would make it on account of my bruised leg. After taking a look at my leg, the husband introduced himself as a taekwondo instructor, hence something of an expert at dealing with bruises! He pulled a bottle of lotion out of his pack, and insisted that I rub it into my leg, making sure to massage the sides of my knee as the muscles would be stiffening up around the joint. And he insisted that I must take the bottle with me. Just half an hour earlier I’d been saying to Neil how I could really do with bumping into a hiker who was a doctor to get some free advice about my knee – this was a hundred times better! Good luck, a blessing, an amazing example of the hiker’s adage “the trail provides” – whatever, it made me very happy. And it might have been purely psychological, but my knee did start to feel a bit better afterwards.

After a few more ups and downs we finally escaped the rollercoaster. There were a few flat and easy miles to lift my spirits, and by 5.30 we came to the top of the final descent of the day, and a view down to the broad Shenandoah river. Harper’s Ferry lay on the other side, across a busy road bridge. An hour later we’d checked in to the Quality Inn; showers, laundry, more pizza, beer, and best of all, a pint pot of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate cookie dough ice cream for me. It had been a long 52 miles since my fall, and I couldn’t have been more relieved to get to Harper’s Ferry!

Shenandoah River

9 Responses

  1. Roz Savage
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    Owwwww. Sorry to hear about the banged-up knee. Looks really painful. And love that story of serendipity – what a nice man! I hope the lotion is working its magic. ✨

  2. Tanya Savage
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    Owww! That could have been so nasty, bad bad sheep! Glad you’re (mostly) ok. Yes there’s lots of good folk out there, just a shame when the mean ones shout louder …

  3. Toby Chilton
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    Sounds like a tough few days for the pair of you, enough to have really discouraged people with less determination! Well done both for keeping positive. Really hope you’re back to fully fit soon.
    So many times I’ve been amazed at the kindness off strangers when things have got tough, there are some wonderful people on this planet. I’m reading this immediately after an appeal aimed at helping children in Gaza. Suffice to say the contrast between those who’ve helped on your journey and the comments from some on the Aid Appeal is massive. Keep on meeting the nice folk!
    I got led into a “booby trap” by 2 sheep today, I’m sure they did it deliberately. They avoided a collapse on a river bank by squeezing through some horizontal wires on a fence. I decided that, what with it being their field and all that, it would be a good idea if I took the same route. The swines had (deliberately ‘cos sheep ate like that) crossed an undercut area, I’m heavier than they are. Yep, bank gives way and it’s the first time in my life I’ve been grateful to grant a handful of barbed wire. Luckily the way the barbs were facing meant I only got 3 very shallow holes in my hand and, despite having my whole weight hanging on one hand, there was no tearing of skin or flesh. Good luck does happen!
    After I’d finished fishing and walked back into the sheep field on my way back the entire field of sheep and lambs came rushing over. They may have hoped I was there to feed them but I think they’d come for a gander at the stupid human their mates had made a fool of.
    All sheep is bastards. And no, I didn’t catch any fish.
    Best wishes, TnJxx

  4. Sandra & Johnny
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    Oh my word! You’ve both had a rough few days.. hope the knee recovers quickly and Neil is feeling well again.. how lovely of that gentleman to help with medication for you.. you really are experiencing the trail’s good and bad sides.. onwards and upwards..

    • Tanya Savage
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      Thanks Sandra and Johnny! Knee is improving slowly. When I said I wanted a bit of colour on my legs, I wasn’t really thinking of purple, green and yellow …

  5. Andy Hall
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    Well done. No pain, no gain. Hope knee recovers

    • Tanya Savage
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      Thanks Andy! There’s a saying on the AT: “No rain, no pain, no Maine” – we’ve definitely had the rain and pain, fingers crossed we get to Maine!

  6. Doug Grandt
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    Glad you’re able to deal with the trials of the trail, I feel your pain. Had my knee go out on the descent from Half Dome on the Muir Trail back to Happy Isles as the sun set, hearing “mountain lion” relatively near down-slope as the shadows in the random stands of trees on the granite talus horse trail grew darker and darker. Met up with three others who also had knee and ankle ailments and we hobbled out together with only headlamps to light the way.

    B&J’s is the universal cure … stop in for a factory tour in Waterbury VT and von Trapp brewery & bierhall if the trail takes you through Stowe. If not, I’d meet you and chauffeur you (Rozzie will vouch for me) 510-432-1452

    • Tanya Savage
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      Hi Doug, that sounds like a scary situation with a blown knee and mountain lion nearby! Thanks very much for the kind offer of a tour,I’ve just downloaded the map that covers Vermont and it looks like we’ll be a very long way to the south of Stowe – the nearest we get is about 10 miles south of Rutland. What a shame, would love to meet you!

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