A winter dose of trail magic

They were, as my wife later pointed out, a dose of trail magic.
I had a narrow window o time — late Sunday afternoon thru Tuesday — and decided to squeeze in a long overdue backpack trip. I got out the maps, searched for the closest high country trail, and quickly determined I’d be heading to the Appalachian Trail just west of Lynchburg, Va., a little over three hours away.

The closing end of my window was dictated by two factors. Work, of course. And an incoming cold front that, initially, promised only the frigid temperatures that would test the limits of my 0-degree sleeping bag. Wearing three well-selected layers and carrying 35 pounds on your back, it’s fairly easy to stay warm — provided you keep moving.
I started paying closer attention to my window when I arrived in Lynchburg Sunday evening around 7 and checked the weather forecast before hitting the trail. Snow, 1 to 3 inches, was now in the mix. Starting Tuesday afternoon and continuing into the evening. My window had narrowed slightly: I made a mental note to get up extra early Tuesday morning for the 9.6-mile hike out from Monday evening’s planned lodging, at the Punchbowl Shelter.
Monday morning my window closed further. A mile into the day, I ran into a trail crew from the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club,  which maintains 90 miles of the AT in Virginia, from Tye River to Black Horse Gap.
“Storm’s moving in,” greeted Dave, the apparent crew leader.
“I heard,” I said. “Up to three inches.”
“Forecast changed,” he answered. “Now they’re saying four to six inches.”
“Starting tomorrow afternoon?” I asked.
“Overnight. Tonight.”
We chatted a few minutes about their day’s agenda, mostly manhandling a series of suitcase-size rocks below into a staircase, then I moved on.
It was hard to believe such a change was on the way. As I crossed Big Rocky Row, dropped into Saddle Gap, skirted Silas Knob and huffed up Bluff Mountain, I marveled at the brilliant blue sky and the mid-40s temperatures: it was a perfect winter’s day on the trail.
I got to my intended destination for the evening, the Punch Bowl Shelter, a little before 3. I dropped my pack, filled my water bottles at the spring, got out my map and contemplated the trail I’d just hiked in a half-foot of blowing snow. I called up the latest forecast on the iPhone: still four to six inches, starting around daybreak. My legs were fine with stopping for the day, my psyche not so much. I called home and bounced my numerous options — from staying put to hiking back to the car and leaving immediately — off Marcy.
“I like Plan B,” she said.
I thought for a moment. “Which one was that? I gave you so many I lost track.”
I had a good idea which was Plan B. I loaded my pack and headed back down the trail, looking for a suitable campsite closer to the car. That would minimize my storm exposure the next morning, but still giving me a chance to experience some true winter camping, provided the forecast panned out.
Ideally, I would make it to the Johns Hollow Shelter, less than a mile from the car. A nearby spring meant plenty of water to cook dinner and breakfast, the shelter meant I didn’t have to set up my tent. (Did I mention I forgot my tent stakes and had to improvise with sticks?) But when I got to Fullers Rocks around 8 p.m. and peered down the hollow some 1,600 vertical feet below, the soft glow of tiny moving lights suggested the shelter was occupied. I found some suitable sticks and set up camp for the night.
The next morning I awoke a little after 6 and broke camp in the blustery dark. I was on the trail 45 minutes later and reached my car about 40 minutes after that.
Just as the first flakes lit on my windshield.

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