(Although I finished the A.T. over a month ago, I’m reliving my trek in these blog updates. The following post is a continuation of this entry, which I published on January 31st.)
I continued walking south into the deepening fall. I sensed a new kind of solitude. The few southbounders that I felt connected to were now far ahead. I would not be able to catch up. I acknowledged the loss, knowing this was a defining aspect of the trail. Hikers literally walk into each other’s lives and share a few, or many, miles together. Some hikers make a unique connection and find they’re compatible in terms of pace, schedule, and trail lifestyle, and may decide to stay together for as long as they both remain on the trail. But many (perhaps most) partnerships that form are short-lived. The variables that make up a successful hiking duo or group can be too disparate, and eventually people separate, decide to hike alone, or connect with others.
As I began my hike, I felt an unexpected liberation. In the midst of this three-month journey, I was beginning again. All I had to do was walk, as fast or as slow as I wanted. My body had recovered from the half marathon and I had renewed focus. From here on, all I needed to do was hike south to Springer Mountain. I was ready to go.
The only thing I was racing was the weather. It was mid-October and fall was intensifying. As if I needed a reminder, snow flurries and attention-getting temps welcomed me back to the trail on my first night out. Here we go, I thought. As it turned out, it did not get that cold again for several weeks, but I was on alert. I was hiking in the Appalachians in the fall and it was supposed to get cold. Hike faster, winter’s coming.
The hiking was solitary and exhilarating. My days were mostly clear. Occasionally I’d pass another hiker – a section hiker or day hiker – but I did not pass or get passed by another southbounder. The last northbounder I had met was “Scrabble”, in southern Massachusetts. I wouldn’t see another nobo until I got to North Carolina, when early starters were beginning their 2016 thru-hikes.
Pennsylvania is one of the flattest states on the A.T., although very little of the trail is actually “flat”, as most people perceive “flat” to be. It’s also the rockiest state on the trail and is thus called “Rocksylvania.” Hikers will always have something to worry and complain about on the trail. In PA, it’s the rocks.
Certainly, they can be annoying. In some places the rocks are big and it takes long, stairstep-like strides to move over them. Most of the time the rocks are small and pointy, making it easy to turn an ankle or trip. It’s often difficult to find a good hiking rhythm. A hiker must always carefully watch for the next step. Because if the rocks won’t get you, that snake hiding just beneath them might.
Rattlesnakes, copperheads and black snakes are prevalent on the trail and especially in Pennsylvania. I’ve hiked approximately 7,320 A.T. miles since 1994 and have encountered one rattlesnake and about a dozen harmless black snakes. The rattlesnake that warned me off in 2010, was occupying trail real estate near Rice Field Shelter in Pearisburg, VA. I think I’m one of the few hikers who has never even seen a poisonous snake in Pennsylvania.
I talked to other hikers on this trip who saw several snakes among the rocks of PA, and I was always watchful, but never saw one myself.
Lehigh Gap is one of many iconic places along the A.T. There is a long ridgewalk which eventually begins a steep descent down a rocky precipice into the gap. Some hikers think this is one of the most dangerous areas of the trail due to the exposure along this section. In bad weather this scramble could be uncomfortable. The weather was on my side the day I went down to the gap, and step-by-careful-step I made it to the bottom. The trail crosses the Lehigh River and gradually gains the elevation back on the other side.
The fall colors were becoming quite spectacular. Locals said it wasn’t a good year for the colors due to the lack of rain in previous weeks, but I was in awe every day. I loved hiking in the fall and this was one aspect of a southbound hike that I had been looking forward to before I started.
Looking down to Lehigh Gap.
One evening, I stopped by a spring to get water near Eagles Nest Shelter. As I was finishing, another woman hiker, “Shelob”, walked up to also get water. She was going on to the shelter which was .3 miles west of the trail, too far to go, in my opinion, when there was water and plenty of camping available right where I was. After chatting a bit with Shelob, I went back to the camping area, and began to set up my tent. I invited her to camp with me if she didn’t want to stay at the shelter.
A while later, just as it was getting dark, Shelob came back to the campsite. No one else was at the shelter and she seemed more comfortable tenting near another hiker. I made a fire, we ate our dinner and began sharing our stories. She had started at Springer and was walking north as long as the weather would allow. This was not her first time on the trail. Shelob had hiked southbound a couple of years earlier, and I asked about her experience hiking south into winter. I was daunted and impressed by her answers. She told me stories of crawling on all fours when the trail was too icy to walk on. She said there were many mornings when her boots were frozen and she could barely get them on. She and other southbounders would hike four days at a time, then find lodging to wait out another storm. Still, she was able to log 20-25 mile days on a regular basis. I took these markers as my guide and accepted that the conditions she described would be repeated for me.
“Anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
If one keeps walking, day after day, eventually they’re going to cross big milestones. My first big milestone was getting to the 500-mile mark way back in Vermont. That seemed like ages ago. Then, at another quiet place on the trail, I was suddenly reminded, by these rocks, that I had walked 1,000 miles. That felt like something.
* * * * *
Two days later I walked into Duncannon. I must admit, Duncannon has never been my favorite trail town. It’s a popular one because the trail goes right through town, and past the Doyle Hotel, an easy and almost unavoidable stop for hikers. The Doyle is an old hotel that was one of the premier lodges in the early part of the century. Now it’s run-down and in need of some upkeep. The buzz on the trail is that it’s not a great place to stay overnight, but one of the best places for hiker food.
Early in my trip, Ben, a social media friend and fellow 2010 hiker whom I’d never met in person, contacted me to say he’d like to possibly meet to help in some way, and maybe hike a few miles with me. Our schedules never coordinated, but he sent me a message telling me to check at the Doyle for some trail magic he left there.
When I arrived, there was a card for me with $20 and a note from Ben, saying to enjoy a meal at the Doyle, his treat. We’d never met, but we shared a common bond through the trail and I was happy that he could be a part of my trip in this way. His generosity was so appreciated and I had one of the best burgers I’ve ever enjoyed!
I was well into this feast before I remembered to take a picture.
My stop at the Doyle was important because it was here that I would meet another dear trail friend, Michele, or “Mitch”, as we know her in the A.T. tribe.
Mitch and I have known each other since our ’98 thru-hikes. Along with our friend, Hawkeye, she was one of the first people I met that season. For the last several years, Mitch has been a caretaker at the Scott Farm Trail Work Center, which is an A.T. property. (I stayed with Mitch here on my 2010 section hike as well.)
Mitch met me at the Doyle and took me to the Farm for the usual luxuries that mean so much to hikers – a bed, a shower, laundry facilities and good conversation. We have many common friends and shared experiences and it’s always good to reconnect with her. It just doesn’t happen as often as it should.
Since the Scott Farm is on the trail, staying here allowed me to slackpack in this section. I took most of my gear out of my backpack, kept only the things I’d need for the day, and set off to hike about 24 miles. Mitch would meet me at a road crossing later that evening.
Toward the end of my hike that day, I came upon some people during a photo shoot, who were definitely not dressed like hikers. I quickly realized I had just photobombed a couple getting their wedding pictures taken! There was a sharp turn in the trail and I had suddenly walked upon them from behind. I apologized and tried to move on. But they got so excited and asked me to be in their pictures with them. They said they were hoping a hiker would come by. The best part: the bride and groom were wearing hiking boots! They were just about to leave for their wedding, but took time to take extra pictures and asked what my trail name was. They were so fun and sweet and loved the spontaneity of it all.
I was afraid to get too close to her beautiful dress!
The photographers get photographed.
A few miles later, Mitch met me at the place we agreed upon and took me back to the Farm for another night of civilization. It was wonderful to spend this time with my friend!
There are a few “halfway” points along the A.T. The psychological halfway point is where the ATC’s (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) main office is located in Harpers Ferry, WV, and where I’d be in a few days. There is the actual halfway point, which can change year-to-year, due to relocations along the trail. And then there is Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where hikers can take part in the Half Gallon Challenge at the general store. To mark reaching the halfway point (generally speaking), hikers buy a half gallon of ice cream and eat it in one sitting. A lot of hikers are successful in this endeavor. I have not done this in the past, and didn’t get a chance this time, because the store was closed the morning I came through.
I had camped nearby but didn’t have enough water for breakfast, so I took a break here, got water which was available from a faucet, and ate breakfast before moving on for the day.
Pine Grove General Store
This is also the location of a hostel called the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel. It was built in 1829 and was the residence for the ironmaster at that time. Apparently, there is a room in the mansion that was used as a way-station for the Underground Railroad during the slavery era.
Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
Another interesting building here is the Appalachian Trail Museum. It contains many artifacts related to the A.T., including some gear used by early thru-hikers such as Earl Shaffer, Grandma Gatewood and others. It was also closed this day, so I didn’t get a chance to visit.
Appalachian Trail Museum
Finally, later that day, I reached the actual halfway point for 2015. It was at the unfortunately-named Dead Woman Hollow Road. Fortunately, there were no dead women to give validity to the name.
I gave the sign a high-five, snapped this picture and realized that from now on, there would be fewer miles in front of me than there were behind me. I had walked 1,094.6 miles. Only that much left to go!
I was almost finished with all 229 miles of Pennsylvania. Most hikers believe this is the hardest state because the rocks can really beat up their feet. I didn’t mind the trail here. There are other sections that I’ll be happy never to go through again (like Mahoosuc Notch in Maine). Pennsylvania, I like.
28 miles later, I said “Goodbye” to PA and “Hello” to Maryland.