“YOU CAN’T CAMP IN THE PARKING LOT!” screamed a voice from a nearby house.
We had pulled into the Old Rag Parking lot outside of Shenandoah National Park (Skyline Drive was closed, as usual, during foul winter weather) seconds before and were accosted by our unknown heckler immediately after stepping out of our vehicles. Sophie, David, and I arrived at about the same time as Max, and our plan was to head up the roughly four miles to the cabin to get a fire going for the later arriving crew.
“We’re not going to camp in the parking, ma’am,” I said.
“YOU CAN’T CAMP IN THE PARKING LOT!” she replied.
“We’re not going to camp in the parking, ma’am,” I repeated, more forcefully.
“I’M WATCHING!” she said.
Luckily, those were the last words of this welcoming conversation. The three of us set off, having bundled up all already, and figured Max would fly by us in a few minutes. He didn’t, but moments later, Christy, Brian, and Jeremy appeared in a Mini Cooper, having made incredible time escaping DC, and informed us that most of the late arriving party was already assembling. They turned around to park and we continued on.
It was dark and cold but we had bundled up excessively and had plenty of extra food, drink, and gear for the cabin with us. We made our way up the ridge and found the dark cabin waiting for us right where we expected it to be. There was wood aplenty thanks to the instructed diligence of the previous renters and we were able to get the fireplace going right away. The others filtered in steadily and before no time all ten of us were safe, sound, and accounted for. Sleeping locations were determined and we set to the task of getting the cabin as warm as we could for the cold night. We got the wood stove going next and soon two rooms were livable as the temperature dropped below zero outside.
Earlier in the week we had watched with a mix of amusement and concern as the forecast for our weekend in Shenandoah National Park continued to worsen. For the second year in a row, my January outing would likely be the coldest weekend of the year in central-west Virginia. But having a cabin – the PATC’s Corbin Cabin to be exact – made a big, fun difference. We dropped our anticipated 20 mile hike for Saturday out of fear we would get frostbite on our face as a result of the severe wind chill expected on Hawksbill and Old Rag, and accepted the fact that just being together for the cold weekend was more than sufficient.
The next morning, possibly to the surprise of some on the trip and others reading this now, there was no early wake up call. Hell, there wasn’t even the pretense that we were going to move before everyone was up, finished with their coffee, and warmed up in our cozy cabin. We chopped wood, some like Dave Shook, Erik, and Gen giving good advice and making lumberjacks and jills out of the rest of our city-dwelling team, and others were happy to get their first taste of rustic cabin life. We assembled a very big pile of wood for us and the next crew of cabin renters. Erik barely escaped with his life as a flying metal wood splitter soared past him courtesy of Darth Maul (Jeremy).
Around 11:00 a.m. we made plans for a hike up to the AT and the Stony Man viewpoints (around five or six miles total) , and bundled up. I appreciated that everyone packed a daypack or full backpack with warm layers and other survival essentials. Though it was planned to be a short outing, nobody was taking any chances and we stayed closely together throughout our day hike as well.
After successfully traipsing around the ridge for a bit and snapping some family photos, we returned to the cabin and promptly set to keeping our fires and stoves warm, our bellies full, and our tongues wet with the significant supply of beverages carried in.
Max, outdoing himself yet again, unveiled a 3 liter box (wood box, mind you) of Cotes du Rhone wine on Friday and a selection of cheese to accompany it. It was delicious. Others brought a variety of different whiskies, and Sophie even brought some vodka in a little plastic jar – which she began pushing on us at 11 a.m. with an impish grin. I’m not sure it ever actually got consumed.
The evening proved festive indeed. Dave Shook took off earlier that afternoon but left a lovely present for us: homemade butternut squash soup. We feasted. We played a stirring game of Picolo thanks to Erik, and then, as the cold and starry night set in, we began to yearn to find an old cemetery nestled in the woods approximately 200 yards from the cabin. You see, Corbin Cabin was the sole remaining livable edifice from a family settlement in the area more than one hundred years and thirty years old. And as settlements go, not everyone survived to have their bodies returned to more civilized churchyards. Five of us ventured in to the night and spent the next half an hour going back and forth on the trail and up little side trails (with a little bushwhacking) before Erik stumbled upon a path that finally, and somewhat accidently, led us to a few stones in the ground inscribed with words. It was a touching moment and not at all filled with darker cemetery feelings. We thanked the dead for living out here in the first place and then returned, star-gazing along the way, to the cabin.
For the second night in a row, Christy vanished to bed earlier than most without prompting and the merriment went on past midnight. Gen kept the fire going most of the night and we distinctly felt a heat difference in the upstairs loft every time a new log was added. I don’t think we ever got the cabin over 40 degrees or so, and kept it closer to 20-30 degrees even during the day, but that was a big, big difference from the subzero temps outside.
In the morning we began packing and cleaning up and the final challenge came with how to empty the still red hot ashes from the fireplace and stove without any water. Our little hole in the frozen river had awkwardly frozen back up and it took some pounding and searching to find and open it again.
Upon leaving our saving grace cabin that morning, I was thankful and honestly a little surprised that we had escaped wood chopping and fire tending injuries for the weekend in addition to escaping the cold. We were healthy and warm. We waltzed down the ridge, had a lovely lunch in Culpepper, and returned home dreaming of getting out again for a real hike. Cabins are nice and all, but heck, this is DC UL.
by Evan “Whiskey Fairy” McCarthy