This Open Road

A season walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail

Tag Archives: hostels on the AT

Walking Through Pennsylvania

(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.

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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.

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Rocksylvania

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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!

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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.

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I was afraid to get too close to her beautiful dress!

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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!

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Halfway(s)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Pennsylvania (But First, a Half Marathon in Yosemite!)

Dear Reader, I finished my southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail on January 19, 2016! I hiked 2,189 miles from Katahdin to Springer in just under six months. I did not mean to leave you hanging, but I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the blog, conduct my online lessons and do everything I needed to do in town (laundry, resupply, rest, talk to people at home, etc.) and still hike. At the end of October I suspended my online lessons until January, and decided I would catch up on the blog when I finished the trail.

I knew that I would need to stay as focused as possible in order to finish the trail before it got too cold. As it turned out, it was a fairly mild fall and winter. I had some cold days, but not as intense as I expected and not cold enough to force me off the trail.

The Appalachian Trail is so much a part of my life and who I am. To have been able to hike it three times is a blessing and something I’ll always treasure. I’ve walked northbound (1998), section hiked (2010/2011), and now, hiked southbound. (I also began a thru-hike in 1994, going almost 700 miles before stopping.) Writing about this journey after I completed it will allow me to process what transpired, relive it and share the experience with you. Thank you for your patience.

* * * * * *

At the end of January 2015, shortly after I returned from Japan, and before I made my plans to hike the A.T. again, I committed to run the inaugural Yosemite Half Marathon with my good friend, Jannele. Some people from her job were forming a group and she invited me to join them. It took me about five seconds to make a decision. I was ready to train for another race, I’d never been to Yosemite, and I would get to spend time with Jannele, whom I’d not seen in several years.

Later, I realized a thru-hike was possible and although I’d have to leave the trail for a few days to go to the race, I decided to do it all. It would be an adventure within an adventure and I was ready for it.

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Back on the trail… After crossing into Pennsylvania, I walked to the Church of the Mountain Hiker Hostel in Delaware Water Gap, a hostel that has been serving hikers since the mid-70s. It’s located in the basement of the church, and has a bunkroom, shower and common area for hikers to use. One aspect of a southbound thru-hike, is that there are very few hikers still around at this time of year. The northbounders have long passed through Pennsylvania and most southbounders are well into Virginia. There was only one other hiker staying at the hostel when I was there. This was where I would leave the trail for the next nine days.

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Getting from the Appalachian Mountains to the Sierras was not as complicated as I expected. From the hostel, I walked about a mile to the bus station, took a bus into NYC, then a shuttle to the Newark airport, flew to Kansas City (by way of Atlanta), was met by Jannele and spent the night at her house. The next morning we flew from KC to Fresno, CA (via Phoenix) and drove a rental car to Oakhurst which is the nearest major town closest to Yosemite.

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The weekend was wonderful. It was fantastic to spend that time with one of my dearest friends, whom I’ve known since college. Ours is a friendship built on ease and gentle camaraderie. We can be talkative and we can be quiet. Our shared history, respect for each other and mutual sense of humor create the foundation of our relationship. And we both like to run.

Yosemite National Park was absolutely more astounding than I imagined. Even after seeing many pictures of iconic features such as Half Dome and El Capitan, I was still amazed by the magnitude and grandeur of it all.

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We both ran better than we expected. The morning was cool, the course wound down a curvy, tree-lined road and we glided easily toward the finish line. I had not run since mid-July, and was a little concerned about how I’d do. To my advantage, I had strong hiker legs and that helped me maintain my sub-two hour goal for half marathons (I finished in 1:53:02).

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Jannele also did really well, but we both paid for our efforts after the race. By the end of race day we could hardly walk. I had made plans to visit my family in Colorado after the race and I was glad for the rest days. It took several days before I felt normal again.

After the race weekend, I did all of the flying activity in reverse. By the time I was back on the trail nine days later, I’d been on 10 flights due to the stopovers each flight entailed. Not complicated, it just required organization, timeliness and a little luck (only one flight was late in this whole itinerary).

Finally, I was back in Delaware Water Gap ready to resume my walk south. I stayed another night at the church hostel, got a shuttle to Wind Gap and started hiking. It was a chilly morning and it was the first time I really knew the rest of the hike would be a race against winter.

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Back on the trail at Wind Gap.

 

The Last Blaze

Yesterday, September 7, 2011, I summitted Mount Katahdin with 3 other friends, completing my 2nd full hike on the Appalachian Trail. It was cold, windy and damp, but it felt great to once again touch the famous brown sign that marks the northern terminus of the AT (I will post a recap with pictures as soon as I have access to my own computer).

For 2180 miles, hikers on the AT make their way up and down the trail by following 2″ x 6″ white blazes painted on trees, rocks, sign posts, buildings and fences. The last blaze for northbounders is at the top of Mount Katahdin. After that we’re on our own.

A climb up Katahdin is equivalent to hiking one of Colorado’s 14ers. It’s considered one of the most rigorous hikes along the trail, going above treeline, over massive boulders along a steep path, but flattening out towards the end for a somewhat less stressful walk to the very top. It took us just over 8 hours to summit, take pictures, eat a quick lunch and return to the trailhead. There was little lingering at the top due to the weather conditions but there was still a sense of satisfaction and elation knowing this goal was complete.

I have been hiking off and on with another couple, Poncho and Nachita (trailnames!), who are from Atlanta. They are doing a “flip-flop” which means they started in the middle of the AT (in their case, Daleville, VA), hiked north to Katahdin, then will return to Daleville (after a quick trip to Amsterdam), and continue their hike south to Springer Mountain in Georgia. I’ve had a blast hiking with them and it felt great to end our trip with them.

So now I sit in Millinocket. This is the closest town to Baxter State Park where Katahdin is located. There is a great hostel here, run by 2 former thru-hikers, called the Appalachian Trail Lodge. It is the perfect place to rest, regroup and figure out logistics for leaving Maine.

I’ll take a shuttle to the nearby town of Medway, where I’ll catch a bus to Bangor and on to Portland. Then I’ll stay with my dear friend Jamie (who visited us in Gorham, NH a few weeks ago) for a couple of days before driving a friend’s car back to Colorado.

The latest inconvenient crisis is that sometime since yesterday morning, I lost my small money bag. Of course it had all my cards, cash, new friend’s email addresses, notes, etc. I’ve put out an APB to no avail. Fortunately, I have back-up and according to my bank, no one has used my cards (which have been cancelled). It’s annoying but a tiny blip in the whole scheme of things. People’s lives have been devastated by the effects of Hurricane Irene, friends’ family members are going through intense physical hardships, and a fellow hiker on the AT fell and broke his ankle last week, 88 miles from the end. I have been blessed then blessed some more throughout this last amazing year and a half and can deal with a lost money bag.

So what’s next? I don’t know, but I don’t sit still very well for long. I’m still excited about getting more training in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL), and I miss my family and friends and want to spend lots of time with them. Now I need to figure out how to do all of these things simultaneously.

But for now I’m quite happy to sit (no long walks!) in quiet spots (indoors!) eating fresh food (no more instant dinners!), knitting (with warm hands and good light!) or reading (not the guidebook!) and sleeping (on a bed with a real pillow!). It’s the little things.

Checking In From the Trail

Finally, I have a chance to post an update since I got back on the Appalachian Trail on June 30! Compared to last summer, I’m having a more difficult time coordinating computer time with hiking time. I can’t believe I’ve already been out for almost 1 month. The time is going by fast but I’m loving every bit of it. The hills are still steep, the days get hot, the flies and mosquitoes are always present but none of that hinders my love for this trail. I constantly feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to be out here.

Some other highlights of the last month:

  • I’ve hiked through New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and am presently in New Hampshire.
  • I’ve logged in 363 miles with 442 to go. I should be finishing by the end of August or shortly thereafter.
  • After 9 days on the trail, I made my way back to the Thayer Hotel in West Point, NY to give a couple talks to the teachers who will be going to China this fall. I spoke on “Living in China” and “Teaching in China”. It was great to see Margot again and to see the anticipation of these teachers as they prepare for their own potentially life-changing experience.
  • I made a stop at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA a few weeks ago to see the exhibit, “Pissarro’s People”, as well as many other wonderful features, including ones by Homer, Rembrandt, Remington and Monet.
  • I saw a black bear scurry into the woods, a porcupine, a few small snakes, some white tail deer and signs of moose.
  • I’ve stayed at a few hostels and inns such as the Green Mountain House Hiker Hostel in Manchester Center, VT, and The Inn at Long Trail near Killington, VT. I’m looking forward to other popular hiker haunts as the trail progresses.

Although the entire trail is challenging, the White Mountains in NH will be the most difficult part. But they are also spectacular and I’m excited to be getting closer to them. Glencliff, NH marks the beginning of the Whites for hikers on the AT. We should be arriving there in 2-3 days.

My days are defined by a rugged simplicity: I wake, eat, pack my backpack, walk, take breaks, make camp and eat again. There is time for reflection, meditation and anticipation. I’m thankful for this season and am excited for the new goals that may come out of it.

I will post again at my next opportunity.

“I See the Look in Your Eyes…”

More from Wood’s Hole

The day after Sly Jangles and I made our way to Wood’s Hole, we slackpacked* 10 miles from the hostel into Pearisburg with some other hikers. There we indulged in some greasy junk food at the Dairy Queen and bought groceries for the next several days on the trail. Neville met us in Pearisburg later in the afternoon with our packs and drove us back to the trail so we could resume our hike to the next shelter.

During our short time at the hostel, I’d asked Neville about her life there. She’d grown up helping her Grandma Tillie serve breakfast to the hikers and listening to their stories. She met her husband there too, when he came through as a hiker several years ago. Now together they ran the hostel and had made several improvements to the hostel. It was clear that both Neville and Michael had a deep regard for the property and the community of hikers to which it catered.

On our drive back to the trail I asked Neville if she’d ever thru-hiked the AT. With a wistful look she said, “No, and I need to and I want to. I see the look in your eyes (of the hikers) and it’s something I know I need to experience.”

At first I thought, What look? The look of exhaustion? The look of “why did I think this was a good idea?” But then I knew what she meant. I’d recently caught a glimpse of that look in my own eyes. I was tired, sore and covered in sweat and grime and desperate for a shower. But the look I saw was one of happiness and anticipation. I was living my dream. I was with new friends that shared this dream. I was more than willing to give up comfort and convenience for this experience. As difficult as this journey was, it was fulfilling a need that kept surfacing. The need to push myself physically, mentally, spiritually. The need for movement, growth and all the other more subtle, unconscious reasons that I could never clarify.

I understood the look that Neville was talking about. I saw it myself and in the eyes of those with whom I hiked. And it’s a look that is, of course, not reserved just for those who walk the trail. But one that is reflected in the eyes of anyone who takes steps in the direction of their dreams.

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*Slackpacking refers to hiking without a full pack, usually carrying just a small daypack (or not even that) with enough water and snacks for the time spent hiking. This requires help from someone who can babysit the backpack and meet the hiker at a predetermined point farther down the trail. Slackpacking is a great way to get the miles in and get a break from carrying a fully loaded pack. I “slacked” about 100 miles over the course of my 1375-mile AT trek.