31-May-2006 -- Yes, Virginia, there IS a confluence! These words, echoing the famous headline that appeared over an editorial in the 21 September 1897 edition of the New York Sun, echoed in my head during my successful finding of 39 North 78 West in Virginia.
As I was en route to a meeting in West Virginia at the organized by the National Association of Interpretation, focused on environmental education, a confluence visit seemed like the perfect way to begin this event. I left my last meeting at NASA in Washington DC by 3pm, and was soon winging my way west on Interstate Highway 66. "Winging" doesn't quite describe the pre-rush hour crawl out of the metropolitan area, and therefore, it was close to 4:30pm by the time I arrived at Paris, Virginia. My intent was to purchase some water in Paris, but alas, it was a one-street town, with an inn, but no store. Now I was quite unprepared for a trek on the Appalachian Trail, with only 16 ounces of water. Would it be enough?
After years of wanting to hike on the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia USA, a distance of over 2,174 miles (3,498 km), the most embarrassing thing about this trek was that I could not locate the Trail! After driving back and forth on US 50 and following a few side roads, I finally stopped in a taxidermy shop near the crest of the pass, at Ashby Gap. A huge fish lay on the floor, dead. A man in his 20s gave me directions to the trail, indicating that if there was no parking at the trailhead, I could park behind his building. I drove west once more, finally locating the tiny sign, and returned to the taxidermy shop, telling him I would take him up on his offer. There was no parking at the trail junction and I was amazed at how inconspicuous it was; after all, it was THE Appalachian Trail! It actually turned out to be a blessing, as I encountered absolutely no one along this section of trail.
I donned sunblock and noted that it was already 5:15pm. I was about 5 km from the confluence. I set off on a brisk pace around a pond and then wound up to the top of the ridge. This was about the fastest I've ever walked on a hike. I kept an eye on the sinking sun, and gathered plenty of waypoints in case it was dark on my return. As it turned out, I didn't need them as I returned before sunset. At the top of the ridge, I was treated to wonderful open spaces bordered by magnificent Virginia hardwoods. This would be a beautiful spot to return in Autumn, or actually, ANY time of the year.
With about 1.2 km to the confluence, I reached the 39th parallel. As the trail was still curving toward the southwest, the distance to the confluence was still decreasing, and I resisted the temptation to strike off into the woods and hike due west to the confluence. I'm glad I resisted, because about 15 minutes later, I was treated to a powerline clearcut. I had never considered these clearcuts in a positive light before, but on a confluence trek, it aided in a number of ways. First, it would reduce the amount of time I would have to spend off trail. Second, it would increase the amount of time I would have a clearer satellite signal, unobstructed by trees. I left the Appalachian Trail and hiked along the clearcut--nearly due west, up first, and then steeply down to a stream, until I was due south of the confluence with 520 meters to go.
I knew it would be difficult to hike off trail, but I was not prepared for how difficult it became. The thorny plants grow in perfect arcs before re-rooting in the soil, perfect for tripping a hiker. After crossing the stream, I kept losing trail and was becoming quite scratched, making extremely slow progress. It took me about 10 minutes to travel 100 meters. Fortunately, I then found a very old trail that had been traveled at one point by a vehicle, making travel a bit faster. At the end of one of these trails, about 20 meters from the confluence, I took photographs and video before plunging once more into the thick vegetation. I then hiked south-southwest, finding, to my amazement, a clearing about 5 meters from the confluence. It was time to depart before the sun became any lower, but taking a chance, I hiked around in the forest, and on my very last minute on the allotment I had given myself, I zeroed out the GPS receiver!
The confluence lies in a young part of the forest, with trees no thicker than a few centimeters around. It lies on ground sloping 10 degrees to the northwest. The temperature was 86 F (30 C) with a very light breeze under mostly clear skies. I saw several birds but no deer or any other ground animals. No houses were visible in any direction. I had been to 39 North numerous times, in Maryland, now Virginia, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado, and to 78 West in North Carolina. I think this confluence of 39 North 78 West was one of the most beautiful areas I had yet visited.
After zeroing out the unit, I wasted no time in leaving. I allowed myself a drink of water. Not desiring the thorny return trek, I hiked up the switchbacks on the ancient roads, finding an abandoned chimney 150 meters south of the confluence. Beginning to wonder at the wisdom of this route, I was relieved when I ended up at the clear cut. I made a note that for the easiest trek to the confluence, one should take the clear cut to this spot, and then hike down the roads. After the clear cut, I was once again on the Appalachian Trail, enjoying a beautiful sunset and not seeing another hiker. I reached the highway and then the vehicle at 8:15pm, three hours after my trek began. I had not stopped to rest at all because I wanted to return before sunset, and although I was pretty thirsty and sticky, I was also exhilarated and at peace there in the mountains.
In retrospect, approaching the confluence via Sky Meadows State Park and climbing the clear cut all of the way from the park would probably be the fastest route. However, I enjoyed every minute of the method I chose, as it was largely along the Appalachian Trail. I found the vehicle and drove west, crossing the Shenandoah, one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and the subject of several wonderful folk songs. About 20 minutes later, I purchased a bottle of milk, a bottle of water, and a bottle of tea, and drank all three, driving down the road, reminiscing about my wonderful sunset hike along one of the most beautiful trails in the world!