Our low-key but assured guides, Kyle and Ethan, had us unpack our backpacks and repack them more efficiently, removing unnecessary items like fleece gloves and long underwear.
Kyle handed out Ziplocs containing gorp and fruit leather and divided up the group food and gear like tents and stoves. As I dragged my outlandishly heavy pack to the van in the sweltering Virginia heat, I stifled a small, still voice that screamed, "Take your daughter and your gorp and get thee to an air-conditioned hotel for the weekend!"
Two hours later at the trailhead in Shenandoah National Park, we filled half-gallon jugs with water from a fountain and ignored rumblings that sounded suspiciously like thunder.
"We'll hike for three miles on the Appalachian Trail, which runs along Skyline Drive, and then detour for a mile to get to our campsite for the next few nights," Ethan informed us.
Five miles later, still not at our campsite, I was glad I'd accepted his offer of a hiking pole. Without it I'm sure I would have tipped over during several tricky creek crossings.
At the campsite, in the time it took me and Jenna to wrestle our REI-issue tent fly into submission, Gary had set up his state-of-the-art 11/2-person pup tent, inflated his mattress pad, and unrolled his ultralight sleeping bag.
The REI guides were tasked with preparing our meals, which that night was a tasty pad Thai. Later, Jenna and I tried to arrange ourselves in the tent, giggling as we kept rolling downhill. The roots pressing through my mattress pad, the hoots of screech owls, and strong gusty wind in the treetops kept me awake for hours.
"Jenna, wake up, there are eggs and hash browns for breakfast."
"You're just saying that to get me up!" Jenna groaned.
But the guides really had brought along scrambled eggs in individual baggies, which they dunked in boiling water to turn into our breakfasts. I may have been the only person in America that day eating eggs-in-a-bag with a spork in a skort.
Thankfully leaving our heavy backpacks behind, we embarked on what we were told would be an eight-mile day hike to a series of waterfalls, stopping at the Rattlesnake Point overlook for scenic photos of the park's famed ridgelines. Up until that point we were mostly encased in the Appalachian Trail's "green tunnel." We passed several AT thru-hikers, distinguishable by their long, ZZ Top-esque beards, determined strides, and hiker nicknames. One (the "Ambassador") had a small guitar strapped to his back.
To counteract the oppressive heat during our day hike, Jenna and I soaked bandannas in water and squeezed them over our heads. When we needed drinking water, we filled our Nalgene bottles in the creek, adding iodine tablets to kill the germs. Gary pulled out a wandlike gizmo called a SteriPen, which sterilized his water in seconds.
The scenery was decent enough (and probably spectacular in fall), but even more enjoyable was chatting with our fellow hikers. Tim, a wisecracking, self-described stay-at-home dad and scoutmaster, could have been a member of Monty Python's comedy troupe. Anne talked to us about why she and Tim had become American citizens. And it turned out that Gary had written several books on military history, including one about Vietnam that was optioned for a movie. Our head guide, Kyle, was a specialist in wilderness therapy for troubled teens in addition to being an expert beer brewer, rock climber, and barista.
I was proud that Jenna seemed so comfortable around people more than two or three times her age, occasionally changing places in the hiking lineup to chat with each of us.
Back at camp after what turned out to be a 13-mile hike (according to the pedometer), I passed around a flask of Irish whiskey, well worth the extra weight in my pack, while Ethan steamed pita pizzas and Jenna bandaged her blisters.
"By the way, if you see what looks like a black Lab in the woods, that's probably a bear," reported Kyle, returning from a call of nature. "There's one near our latrine area."
That night I took extra care to remove from my pack items with a scent, such as breath mints and toothpaste, adding them to the bear bag in which we stored food and which was hung over a limb of a tree.
Perhaps it was the Tullamore Dew-induced good night of sleep, or perhaps it was the adjustments Kyle made to the straps of my borrowed backpack, but our hike the next day seemed relatively effortless. We passed a picnic grove where we declined a Middle Eastern family's invitation to share their wonderful-smelling barbecue lunch. Kyle started a round of "celebrity name game" to help us pass the time, lifting our spirits as we hiked in a light drizzle.
Rain over, we made quick work of pitching tents as Ethan gathered kindling for a campfire.
"I see a bear!" shouted Jenna in alarm.
"Piss off, bear!" yelled Tim, clanging a metal bowl against a rock.
"Piss off, bear!" we all echoed, waving our arms around to scare it off.
There was no mistaking the creature for a black Lab. Staring at us from 50 feet away, the large black bear slowly ambled off as if to show that he had better things to do (like find some Middle Eastern barbecue). Later we saw another one on the other side of the camp. That night we hung the bear bag far away from our site and moved our backpacks away from the tents.
Our hike to Mary's Rock the next day gave us beautiful 360-degree views of the Shenandoah Valley's cascading green-blue peaks. Then we hiked back down toward the van, fog rolling in and our outing almost at an end.
At the bottom were several cans of orange soda.
"These offerings for thru-hikers are called 'trail magic,' " Ethan told us, gathering up our leftover baggies of gorp to add to the pile.
After climbing into the waiting van, we stopped at a restaurant outside the park, ordered hamburgers and ice-cold beers, and toasted a fun weekend. Jenna and I toasted a deepened friendship and great mother-daughter memories. And we agreed that our next trip together would be to a spa.
Debra Wolf Goldstein writes from Philadelphia.
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