Car Camping Shenandoah National Park- How We Became Campers

My fiancee and I have been doing outdoorsy stuff since the beginning of our relationship.  Her family has a large plot of land in the Catskills that they used to go to for weekend escapes from the Hudson Valley.  This was legit camping as well- no bathroom, just a privy and LOTS of bugs.  So it came naturally for both of us to use our free time together outside.  In fact the first time I met her father was on a trip to his property.

We had arranged for a large group of our friends to spend 3 days there over 4th of July weekend.  He met us up at the property so he could prepare- mow the grass, top up supplies and water, stack the Playboys.  The plot has a small clearing on it maybe 75yds x 20yds.  On that is a shelter known affectionately as the Shabin- it is a shack they converted to a cabin… genius.

Well when he met us up there, in his American flag bandana and cut-off shirt with an eagle on it, I knew this was going to be important.  First time meeting her dad and I needed to impress.  I had just graduated medical school, so I had the doctor thing going for me.  But all that wouldn’t matter out here.  This was Man Territory.  One step into the Shabin and you realize what you are dealing with.  Each wall is adorned with its own deer head, staring you down to remind you what goes on up here.  So of course within 15 minutes of arriving and meeting him, at about 4pm in the afternoon, SOMEHOW we decided we should get a fire going.  Correction, we decided I should get a fire going.  Awesome.

In the history of mankind there have been few fires stoked that were of such extreme importance.  Probably the first fire ever made, maybe one by those Mexican guys in Alive, and probably the one where S’mores were invented.  Since then no other important fires until this day.  This was big.

As a guy dating someone’s daughter all that her dad really wants to know is that you can provide and won’t hurt her.  Pretty simple.  We can show them that we are capable of dating their daughter a number of ways.  Having a job says a lot.  Of course what the job is will be subject to scrutiny.  We can be preceded by a positive reputation- affirmation from other judges of manliness that you are okay.  Or we can do manly things to prove such skill.  This was that opportunity.  I’m sure a similar experience happened somewhere back in the time of pre-historic man.

Now as I said before, I have some outdoors experience, but I am far from an outdoorsman.  More importantly, there is NO guarantee that if I set about to build a fire that it is going to work, even if I have lighter fluid.  (FYI this is a skill I hope to improve before the AT).  So I’m working with a fair amount of anxiety going into making this fire.  God knows how, but I get the fire raging.  A perfect, contained, warm, well-fueled fire.  It was a total Tom Hanks in Castaway moment.  I had made fire, I could date his daughter.

The fire that saved my ass

We actually didn’t do a lot of hiking/camping until we moved to Maryland.  Our first real experience was in Shenandoah National Park over 4th of July weekend.  We managed to make it up there last minute and stay at Loft Mountain.  While we were amazed by Skyline Drive, we were actually quite disappointed by Loft Mountain initially.  We had passed up Matthews Arm, the more remote site as we didn’t think we could handle not having a toilet with running water.  Its amazing to think about that now that we are professional in-the-woods poo-ers.  Being last minuters to arrive to Loft Mountain, we had to pick from the limited available first come first serve sites.  I was amazed at how close the sites were together.  It was England all over again- this place wasn’t about being in the woods, it was about sitting in your RV.  I love RV camping but that’s not where we were at the time.  We managed to find a single site that was removed from the others and surrounded by foliage.  It was on a pretty good/bad angle and right next to a water tower, but it was as remote a feeling as we were going to get.

I really wish I could go back and watch us set up our campsite knowing what we know now.  It was a spectacle.  We got our tent up fine- the Kelty Gunnison 4.1 is made for car camping.  (Gear review coming!) There was clearly a storm coming in so we knew we needed to get up a tarp.  I can’t even remember what ridiculous rigging we set up for that thing.  All I know is we had three separate ropes arranged to attach it to trees and really needed a fourth.  We had lines running across the entire campsite, waiting to clothesline you in the night.  To this end we justified the ridiculousness by hanging clothes from it.  We also hung a lantern from the end nearest the car.  Being cut off from the road, the site had a 10 ft walk down a path back to the car.  Of course that meant we needed a lantern over there because God only knows what fate could befall us on the walk over.  We had heard the stories of SNP and its bears.  Basically I had decided any area without light would be overrun with bears and lead to certain death.  In retrospect I may have confused my research on bears with my research on vampires, gremlins, or orcs.  Adding to the challenge was the fact that we had brought up our bikes in hopes of doing some good miles on Skyline drive.  Those needed to stay bone dry, making our tarp’s integrity of the utmost importance.

Coffee mug? Bacon? Scrambled eggs? We must be car camping

Liz actually had a much better grasp of tarp setting-up-ing than I did.  My initially plans had it bunching in the wrong places and not creating low points in the proper spots for rain run-off.  I was also mercilessly pulling the grommets out from the tarp  with some over-the-top means of applying force to the tarp to keep it where I wanted it.  Later that night, the wind would pick up to what I assumed to be near hurricane levels.  But my reasoning for that was not without merit.  Our tarp design was less a tarp than it was a sail.  Therefore we spent the whole night being woken from sleep by the screaming of the tarp under the force of the wind.  I swear there were a few times I thought a helicopter or airliner was above us.

Our first go at a tarp… note the multiple lines going in the same direction

As only the outdoors can, we awoke to a perfect day.  What had previously been a typical day in the DMV- hot, muggy, no breeze- was instead crisp, cool morning with a perfect blue sky.  I guess the mystical gods of weather fronts had done battle over night and the cool one won.  This actually was perfect because TODAY we would hike the Appalachian Trail.

I could wake up to this every morning for 6 months

For me this was a big moment.  The AT had always been this mystical thing my roommate in Arizona had talked about.  He was from Boston and knew it well.  As far as I was concerned it was Mt Everest.  There’s no way a mortal like myself could ever do that.  It wasn’t even the logistics that stupefied me.  I didn’t think I could physically do it.  But I was still intrigued by these wayward  journeymen that basically recreated General Sherman’s march.

As the opportunity presented itself to set foot on the fabled AT we were very excited.  Taking almost a celebrity status we actually passed up on other more scenic trails in SNP just to say we’d been on the AT.  Really I hoped for one thing, to see a thru-hiker.  In my mind these guys were a cross between hipsters and hippies.  All the elective servitude and illegal substance use, less of the occupying ROTC facilities and protesting.  Actually I should probably do a post comparing the two at some point.  Hmm.  Anyway, as afar as my naive perception took it this is what was the difference between me, Day-Hiker, and them, Thru-Hiker.

Day hiker- clean, happy, baseball cap, sunglasses, thumbs-up!!!


Gristled thru-hiker, covered in dirt, lover of peace, embracer of walking sticks

Truth be told the section of the AT we were on was all manners of boring.  I know… every thru-hiker reading this just lost their breath at such a brash claim.  There were no vistas, no real ups or downs even.  The blazes definitely stood out to me as this was a pretty novel concept.  I had only ever hiked on fire access roads or just by going up a hill (bushwacking I’m told now).  To have the path lit up for you all the way was great.  The firmness of the pack on the ground beneath our fee was also remarkable.  A LOT of people had walked here.

However the most impressive part was that as we walked, northbound, and looked ahead of us we knew that this trail didn’t stop.  It just kept going for months and months.  We took a side trail (blue blaze! now we’re talking) to an actual vista.  From there we could really see what we were surrounded by… green.  I come from Arizona so to me miles and miles of expanse covered in green was something reserved for Europe.  That was the only place I’d seen it before.  Now before us was an ocean of green.  Actually beautiful in its homogeneity, it looked soft, almost fluffy.  And you could see far, very far.

That was when it hit me.  The people hiking the AT today could walk to this point we were at and look to the horizon and say, “yep I’m walking there”.  And then you could point out a large mountain, “yep walking over that, and the one’s behind it”.  This was always what amazed me about stories about Lewis and Clark and other explorers.  At some point they climbed to a ridge to get a view of their course.  The view was probably equal parts beautiful and depressing. Looking out, everything you see ahead of you, you must cross. That is what the AT is and that is why I really respect it.

Finishing up the day we returned to Loft Mountain and prepared for another evening.  We tweaked our tarp to just wrap it around the bikes and put everything else in the car (brilliant idea!).  We rinsed our clothes out and hung them from the paracord we still had strung up.  Then we set down for dinner.  This would make our third straight meal involving ground beef and cased meats.  We resolved that day to find a way to eat lighter while camping.  The combo of processed meat with a high fat content and unfamiliar surroundings does not lend to the most comfortable bowel habits.

That night we slept like kings.  No sleeping pads, no air mattresses.  Just a sleeping bag and the ground.  We woke up again to a nice breeze and clear skies.  No matter how much I’ve ever paid to go on a fancy vacation or how many miles I’ve travelled to get there, nothing ever beats the feeling of waking up outdoors after having slept well and having great weather surround you.

I unwrapped my bike and took off to do a 20+ ride on Skyline Drive.  I won’t dwell on this point as this is a hiking blog but holy crap!  This was the best ride I’d ever been on.  Nice easy progressive hills that let you know they were there but didn’t kill you.  It was the closest I’ve ever felt to being a real cyclist- dropped down to the lowest gear I could handle while still keepign momentum and just rode.  It didn’t hurt but I was climbing constantly.  Going maybe 9-12 mph I was able to take in everything and really enjoy the beauty of SNP.  If anyone wants a multi-day touring ride of their lives ride Skyline Drive.  Its about 100 mi long, has multiple spots for camping, full of wildlife and rest stops.  Probably too hard to do as a century for the average person but with some skill sure.  Someday I will return and do that.

Driving back to Maryland at the end of the day we were remarked by a number of things.

1.  We had grossly overpacked- far too many little things we didn’t NEED.  This was the first step in a long evolution of learning what NEED meant.

2.  We spent less money than any other vacation we’d been on.  This was a very pleasant trend as we would get more into backpacking later on.

3.  It felt like we were on vacation LONGER than any other vacation we’d been on- 3 days, last minute, lots of driving and still it seemed like we were there for a week.

4.  We had more fun than MOST other vacations we had done.  The combo of physical exertion, outdoor scenery, and mild self-sufficience was perfect.

You know you’re having fun when you buy SNP socks with DEER on them

5.  We were less tired Monday morning than any other vacation.  So many times we almost lament our time away from home because it ruins the following week.  Tired, loagey, and just drug out.  You know the phrase- you need a vacation from vacation.  We’ve never felt that after a weekend backpacking or camping.  Really weird.

And for the record, we did run into a group of thru-hikers.  They were dirty and they ate a TON at the shack at the base of Loft Mountain.  But they were super nice and seemed to be very happy.  Must have been more on the hippie end of the spectrum than the hipster.

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1 Response to Car Camping Shenandoah National Park- How We Became Campers

  1. Pingback: How the Good Badger Made Us Hike the Appalachian Trail | Off the Couch and On the Trail

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