Winter camping does not come easily to me, though it tempts me endlessly just the same. Perhaps there is no such thing as bad weather, as our Nordic friends like to say, only the wrong clothing; but there is a certain baseline coldness that just comes with the territory during winter, no matter how good your gear.
The siren call of the woods knows no season, however, and while a day hike might be more physically comfortable it is an overnight trip that best allows the spirit to settle. I opted for the middle path this year and rented one of the primitive cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (primitive = no electricity or plumbing). There was a wood-burning stove that would exact its share of sweat equity, an outhouse down a short path behind the cabin, and a spring 20 yards away. Everything we needed.
We arrived at Shenandoah National Park late on a Friday afternoon, and stopped first for a out-and-back jaunt on the ridge of Neighbor Mountain. Then a short drive down the road to the Piney River ranger station, where we parked our car, strapped on our backpacks, and headed just a mile down the Appalachian Trail to reach the one-room Range View cabin, built in 1933.
The first order of business was to get the stove going, and though the cabin was slow to warm, once it did it stayed toasty throughout the night, with regular stoking. We hung our collapsible, battery-powered lantern (perhaps not quite in the primitive spirit of things), unpacked, and organized our gear. Then we settled into the glorious rhythm of nothing in particular to do, nowhere to go even if you wanted to, and the meditative crackle of the fire.
One of the best things about backpacking is the sunrises and sunsets. The cabin was situated over a small cleared area with a view down into the valley, and the first light of day through the cabin window promised a kaleidoscopic sunrise. We went out to watch the entire performance, and were well-rewarded:
We then packed up our day packs and headed out to play in the woods. We traversed the Appalachian Trail to the Piney Ridge Trail, all the way down the mountainside, then crossed up into the Keyser Run ravine via the Hull School Trail before hitting the Little Devil’s Stairs trailhead. Here, Keyser Run beckoned us all the way back up the ravine.
We’d hiked Little Devil’s Stairs two springtimes ago, when the wildflowers were unfurling, the breeze was gentle and kind, and the water made a joyous riot. On this midwinter day, the landscape was barren but for the burgundy hepatica and still-brilliant green moss, and the cold wind showed no mercy. If every landscape reflects the state of one’s spirit, the soft murmur of Keyser Run on this day was echoing a somber yet deeply peaceful interior, much like the woods around us.
Back up the mountain and 14 miles later, we returned to our temporary home. The fire was stoked and the lantern hung, as we sat down to feast on curried pumpkin soup and quinoa with roasted vegetables. The next morning, cloudy and grey and definitely smelling of snow, we swept and tidied the cabin before turning back to the trail, and away from this humble refuge. Though we’d initially planned more hiking for our last day, the sky boded otherwise; and as it turned out we left a few hours before Skyline Drive closed due to snow and ice.
Two nights of primitive luxury gifted us with everything we needed and then some: still, quiet warmth while a brutal wind whistled outside; absolute solitude in the winter woods; a transcendent sunrise; and a profound sense of place to revisit and draw upon time and again.