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|©1996 George Steffanos|
By noon, I was hoofing down the long, steep incline of Washington Street towards the Potomac waterfront. Walking through Harpers Ferry, you do not need to be a military genius to see why it changed hands so many times during the Civil War. It has to be one of the least defensible spots on Earth. All the attackers needed to do was place artillery on the brooding heights encircling the spot and pound the crap out of the peninsula until the defenders yielded.
Today those nearby heights were ghostly apparitions viewed through rancid layers of steam and muck. The foulest air mass of the summer season had settled over the mid-Atlantic states -- a stagnant gray blend of water vapor, tropical heat, and industrial poisons. This is the type of weather in which people are advised to stay inside and avoid exertion. Yeah, right.
As I neared the river, I found myself walking among the tourists past the old buildings in the heart of the historic district. A somewhat anachronistic touch to this scene from out of the nineteenth century was provided by the cheerful red and white glow of a sidewalk soft drink vending machine. I actually managed to pass it without stopping. As I have previously said, I always hate to depart a trail town. However, once I do, I am all business. Sometimes. . .
I climbed a short flight of wooden steps up to the B&O railroad bridge over the Potomac. This was the unofficial section of the AT's Harpers Ferry side trail -- unofficial because the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad posts the walkway against trespassing in order to absolve themselves from legal responsibility in the event of a pedestrian accident. The official AT avoids Harpers Ferry and this long detour west and crosses the river on a highway bridge a few miles east. Having owned the deed to this railroad through many games of Monopoly, I felt entitled to bend the rules a bit.
On the Maryland side of the river (five states down, nine to go), I crossed the remains of the old Chesapeake and Ohio barge canal. It was a main artery of trade between Washington, D.C. and the interior for a time after its construction in the mid-1800's. Badly damaged during a Potomac River flood in 1924, it was never reopened. Today, the National Park Service administers 185 miles of the route as a linear National Historic Park. Much of the canal itself has been filled in, but its towpath still exists and has been made into a walking and bicycling path.
The old towpath was wide and flat and lined with tall shade trees whose intertwined branches formed a solid green canopy high overhead. That roof provided a valuable break from the relentless July sun and probably kept the air temperature beneath several degrees cooler. I turned onto the towpath and followed it east. Eventually, I passed the highway bridge and the Appalachian Trail joined the towpath for a while. I was once again following its white paint blazes.
I had been informed by southbound hikers that the shelters in Maryland are all armpits. While on the canal path, I passed Weverton Shelter. The sight of that shelter made me glad that I would only be in Maryland for two nights. Directly adjacent to the towpath and easily accessible from a nearby road, it looked like it had been receiving heavy use from the local kids as a party spot. It was dirty and in a state of imminent collapse, with garbage strewn everywhere. If that was any indication of what is to come, my tent will come in very handy for a while.
From northern Virginia to western Connecticut, the Appalachian Trail runs very close to the western fringe of the developing megalopolis which stretches from Washington to Boston. Although it avoids the dense concentrations of humanity, the steady suburban flight of the previous twenty years definitely impacts this portion of the trail. A lot of people now live very close to the AT, and the old shelters which were built on or near roads during an era when these areas were the boondocks are now easily accessible to a considerable population. Vandalism and simple carelessness have led to the destruction or removal of many shelters and the degradation of many that remain. The results speak for themselves.
Not far past the shelter, the Appalachian Trail left the canal path, crossed the B&0 Railroad tracks, passed under US 340, and began the ascent of South Mountain. That is the long ridge which I will be following throughout Maryland and into southern Pennsylvania. The climb was not all that bad. On a nicer day for backpacking (for instance, a mere ninety degrees with only eighty-percent humidity), it would have been a snap. Today, that climb was a death march. The air was heavy and useless, scorching my lungs and filling my blood with toxins. My body's cooling system was totally inadequate for the task. I became lighthearted twice in one mile and had to sit for a few minutes each time in order to allow enough sweat to evaporate for the system to recover a bit before I could continue.
The views from Weverton Cliffs of the Potomac and the Virginia Blue Ridge beyond were impressive. My vantage point also made it painfully obvious just how humid it was. I could see steam hanging lifeless in the air like the inside of a sauna. Still, I was mighty happy to have that climb behind me, and the view perked me up a bit. I was beginning to encounter the famous South Mountain mosquitoes, so I covered myself liberally with repellant and resumed my hike.
From the cliffs, the AT followed the crest of South Mountain along woods roads and trails, eventually descending into Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park. The park is located on what was once the ridgecrest estate of one of the newspaper correspondents who covered the Civil War. Today, a number of stone buildings in various states of disrepair survive. The centerpiece of the park is fifty-foot-high stone arch dedicated as a memorial to Civil War newspaper and magazine artists and correspondents.
I was planning to spend the night in Crampton Gap Shelter, less than a mile north on the Appalachian Trail from the park. While passing through Gathland, I met two men traveling southward. They told me that the shelter was a miserable hovel and its spring was stagnant from the effects of a prolonged drought. Time for a new plan.
There is a picnic area in the state park, adjacent to a small building equipped with water fountains and rest rooms with flush toilets. I spread my sleeping bag on top of one of the picnic tables and set out in search of my own true love.
"The Philosopher's Guide to the AT" had told me that she would be here. Relying on instinct, I looked around and noticed that the building housing the rest rooms looked to be a little larger than necessary. I walked around behind it. Sure enough, there she was: the most beautiful coke machine that I had ever seen, and right on the Appalachian Trail. She was a stuck-up, high-priced little b____ (50¢ a can), but I succumbed to her charms and bought three. I do not usually carry the weight of coins between trail towns, but I lugged some out of Harpers Ferry just for her. I have enough change remaining to pay her a quick visit when I hit the trail tomorrow morning and grab one more for the road.
I spent more than a month grinding through the massive Virginia chunk of the AT, but, in spite of my short day today (less than ten miles), I left West Virginia behind and am only thirty-one miles from Pennsylvania. Maryland is a great morale booster in that respect. The states begin to go by much more quickly, now.
WEDNESDAY, 7/13/83, MILE 1013.6 --- A mob of young children camped nearby last night kept me awake past 10:00. One in particular. He became frightened while walking alone through the woods in the dark and ran back to his group screaming at the top of his lungs. One of the adults apparently decided that the best way to help him to overcome his fears was to walk around with him in the darkened forest. The boy resisted this therapy with two more loud screaming fits. Either they finally gave up, or the kid recovered from his phobia just about the time that I was contemplating strolling over there myself and smacking Mr. Child Psychologist around a bit.
I awoke at about 5:15 this morning, but did not get started on the Appalachian Trail until 6:45. That was not an unusual time frame. As I have said before, I am not a morning person. Leaving the picnic area, I passed a sign informing me that payment of a four-dollar fee was required for overnight camping. No one official was around at that time in the morning, and I has already wasted far too much of the coolest part of the day, so I bowed to unofficial thru-hiker tradition and left Gathland as an illegal camper and an outlaw.
I decided to pass up that coke for the road and save my change for my next true love, which according to the Philosopher's Guide was up ahead in Washington State Park. I had only 95¢ remaining, but I figured that I could flash that thru-hiker look (you have seen it in C.A.R.E. commercials), weasel a nickel out of some tourist, and grab two sodas.
I climbed out of Crampton Gap, leaving the state park. The Appalachian Trail followed the ridgecrest along a combination of woods roads and paths similar to yesterday's route. At some otherwise insignificant spot along the trail between Crampton Gap and Lambs Knoll, the highest point on the AT in southern Maryland (1772 feet), I passed the 1000-mile mark on my thru-hike. One thousand miles. I still cannot comprehend that I have walked that far.
Just before Lambs Knoll's summit, I dropped my backpack and took the 300-foot-long side trail to White Rocks. My guidebook said that the view from there should not be overlooked. I wish that I had overlooked it. The bottom half of the view was screened by treetops and the distant views provided by the upper half were nonexistent due to the haze. It would not have been bad in winter, but it was a bust today. On the summit of Lambs Knoll were a Maryland State Forest firetower and a U.S. government installation. Both were fenced in, but I could have climbed the firetower illegally, had I wished to. I did not bother.
I arrived at Dahlgren Campground at 10:15. Once a private campground, the place went out of business and is now owned by the state of Maryland. Bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers are available to backpackers free of charge. I filled up my water bottle, but passed on the showers. Huge swarms of mosquitoes buzzed and fluttered about the shower stalls when I opened the door to check the place out. Those showers would have been irresistible yesterday, but the weather had moderated considerably. I hardly broke a sweat all day. The thermometer never rose above the lower eighties, and the humidity dropped like a stone as the morning progressed. There was a great deal of shade along the trail, and I was caressed by the first real breezes in days.
I passed through Turners Gap, where my Data Book listed meals right on the AT at the South Mountain Inn. My Philosopher's Guide said that the place was fancy and expensive, so I reluctantly passed it up. I did spend ten minutes reading a series of plaques which described the troop movements during the Battle of South Mountain. The main action of this Civil War engagement was fought in and around this gap, as the U.S. Army of the Potomac under General George McClelland struggled to break through the confederate screen on South Mountain and engage Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the valley to the west. This battle was the prelude to the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the entire war.
Two miles past Turners Gap, I entered Washington Monument State Park and fell in love again. My new sweetheart charged only 40¢ a can, so I was able to buy two sodas without the necessity of whining and crying and holding my breath for another nickel. I took them over to a nearby picnic table and sat down to lunch.
At the summit of Monument Knob in the park was a thirty-foot-tall observatory dedicated in 1827 as a monument to the father of our country and. It was rather odd-looking: a bottle-shaped stone tower. I took a walk to the top after lunch. The stale smoke and steam had moved off out over the Atlantic, leaving just the normal light haze of a July afternoon and sweeping panoramic views of a series of narrow parallel ridges and valleys.
The Appalachian Trail traversed some gently rolling terrain along the ridgeline after the monument. With the exception of a very few viewpoints, walking the flat, densely-wooded crest of South Mountain is indistinguishable from basic woodland hiking. After three miles of this, the AT broke out of the forest, crossed a road, passed through a narrow right-of-way between two houses, and crossed over Interstate-70 on a concrete footbridge. That was different. Through the wire fencing on either side I could see streams of heavy traffic roaring past just below. After weeks of slow crawl through southern forests and small villages, that flying crush of steel and chrome seemed like another universe.
I wondered what all of those people made of me as I walked above carrying my simple life on my back. Probably, they envied my freedom and individuality as they rushed along through their miserable maggot existences. At least, that is the color of the sky in my personal universe. I strode along, mean and macho. Mean and macho.
On the other side of I-70, the stiff climb up Pine Knob was a harbinger of things to come. I had been told, and I could see for myself from scanning the elevation profiles on my map, that the AT becomes much more rugged in the northern half of Maryland. I stopped at Pine Knob Shelter in order to get water. It was another real dump -- filthy, decrepit, and generally falling apart. Chunks were missing from the walls. Past the shelter, the arduous climb continued, now on a badly eroded old woods road covered with rocks.
Once I had reached the ridgecrest the footway became much easier, following wide old grassy roads across a broad, flat plateau. The views from Annapolis Rock and Black Rock along the western rim were the best in Maryland and blew away everything since Hogback Mountain and Mount Marshall in Shenandoah National Park. Above each of these massive cliffs, hawks turned lazy circles in the afternoon sun, while below me others soared over a vast, green farming valley stretched out towards the blurry gray line of the Alleghenies in the misty distance. I spent a great deal of time at each spot, feeling lucky to be there on one of the rare clear days this summer.
Less than a mile past Black Rock's cliffs, I came to a junction with a side trail leading down the flank of the mountain a bit, past the ruins of an old hotel to a beautiful, cold spring which gushed out of a pipe just below. I decided to make my dinner there, fill up my water bottles, and go on to find a good place to camp.
The spring was located on a steep, rocky slope. Cooking and eating was a difficult juggling act. I had just removed my boiling soup from the heat and set it on a towel balanced on top of my knees as I started to pack my stove away. With wonderful dexterity, I managed to spill half of the scalding soup all over my right thigh. I am now sporting a large, impressive burn.
While I was eating what was left, a stocky man who looked to be about forty came by and asked me if this was the spot where the spring was located. He left and returned a few minutes later with his wife. We talked briefly while they got water. They told me of several good campsites a few hundred feet up the trail. Too bad I did not think to check this out before making dinner on that awkward shelf, but what's one more scar on this adventure?
When I had finished I reloaded my backpack and walked to the campsites. The couple I had just met were there pitching their tent and fixing dinner. They kindly offered me a hot dog, which helped to make up for some of my lost meal. The man had just quit his job and was going to spend the summer getting in shape for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike he and a friend are planning for next year. His wife, who was remarkably good-humored about this radical life decision, said that when his elderly mother heard about the plan, she told him that he was an a_____e and his friends were all bums.
We sat up for a while, talking and laughing. I passed on much of what I had learned thus far on my own hike. Before I went to bed, the lady asked me if I like Pop-Tarts. Well . . . kind of. She gave me an entire box that they had bought for the trip on the advice of a friend, but did not care for. Thus ended the terrible Pop-Tart withdrawal through which I have been agonizing since Harpers Ferry. Cold soda right on the trail, and now, these two generous people. I guess that you could say that Maryland has been very good to me.
Things are beginning to break incredibly fast now. On Monday I finally polished off Virginia. Tuesday took care of West Virginia. Today, Wednesday, I passed the 1000-mile mark. Tomorrow I will enter Pennsylvania. No big milestones are on tap for Friday, but on Saturday I will cross the halfway point of the entire Appalachian Trail.
THURSDAY, 7/14/83, MILE 1034.5 --- I did not get out oh the trail today until 7:15. I had been doing a good job of getting early starts back in Shenandoah. It definitely pays to get in as much of your mileage as you can while it is still relatively cool when you are backpacking in July. However, personally, once I get into a cycle of getting to bed late and waking up late, it is almost impossible for me to break that cycle unless I take a short-mileage day. I do not have any of those planned until Monday, when I head into Duncannon. I like the schedule I have already set up. I guess I'll just have to live with late starts in the meantime.
I followed some seriously rocky trail today. I was less than a hundred miles from the infamous rocks of central and eastern Pennsylvania, but their cousins have already begun to appear here and there along the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. About two miles from my campsite, I traversed a dangerous section in which underbrush (much of it briars and stinging nettle) covered a footpath liberally strewn with loose, shifting stones. It was difficult to make decent time over this stretch, where I often could not even see the uneven footway. Being too pigheaded to slow down, I was lucky to make it through at all without spraining an ankle.
Later in the day, I passed a solitary mail box set on a post next to the trail in the middle of a forest. I opened the door to see what the hell it was, and I found a register left by a local man who was a 1982 thru-hiker. He wrote that there was a soda machine on the front porch of the South Mountain Rod and Gun Club a couple of miles ahead, right on the Appalachian Trail. I was psyched. Yesterday's cool spell had ended after one day in a row. It was sweltering in the nineties once again and the humidity was soaring.
You might say I was slightly disappointed to find that a brand-new relocation now took the AT around the gun club. The trail dipped abruptly, almost straight down the mountain, along a pile of rocks, then immediately climbed straight back up the mountain. Almost out of water, I was counting on an ice-cold coke for a big lift. Instead, I nursed a few ounces of blood-warm water along the steep, rocky climb up Buzzards Knob which followed.
Fortunately, the spring I found near the summit was cold and tasty. I chugged water until I almost threw up to prepare myself for the seven-mile stretch of waterless trail which was on tap. My body can handle long, dry hikes now, but they still take a lot out of me. I needed to be strong for the infamous High Rock relocation which would soon follow.
The Appalachian Trail descended into Raven Rock Hollow before climbing steeply along some cliffs. It continued to climb, more gradually, along the ridgecrest. Then, it left the crest and slabbed the western side of the mountain. The footway was extremely rocky, but the going was fairly easy. I soon came to the start of the High Rock relocation. This new trail now left the ridge 1/10-of-a-mile before High Rock, so I dropped my backpack at the junction and followed the old trail up.
High Rock had excellent views north and west of the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania and a takeoff platform for hang gliders. One was airborne as I arrived. I sat and watched for a few minutes and shot some pictures of the views. The stifling humidity limited visibility, but the enormous valley lay dreamlike beneath the mists.
Finally, I decided not to postpone the inevitable any longer. I walked back to my pack and started down the new trail. The old AT had followed the asphalt road from High Rock down into Pen Mar. The relocation was a mess. More than a mile longer than the road and very rough, it scaled down the faces of huge boulders, descending about four hundred feet in a half-mile, then zigzagged back and forth across the face of the mountain a few times over masses of loose rocks. Next, it climbed for a short distance over fields of loose boulders mixed with smaller stones before finally following smooth woods roads past several heaping piles of garbage. This last section was very lovely if you are an ardent admirer of landfills.
Entering Pen Mar Park was a relief. In the years around 1900, this spot was billed as the Coney Island of the Blue Ridge, with seven hotels and about one hundred boarding houses. After years of slow decline, the amusement park was forced out of business by World War II gas rationing in 1943.
Washington County, Maryland had taken over this long-neglected spot and transformed it back into a thing of beauty. The rides were gone, but numerous attractive pavilions and picnic areas were scattered along its grassy slopes overlooking the Cumberland Valley to the west. Scores of picnickers were enjoying the warm mid-July afternoon.
The couple I had met at that old hotel site last night told me there might be a snack bar in the park. I was too overheated to be feeling very hungry, but a cold soda or two would have definitely hit the spot. The contents of my canteen had long since turned to bath water in the oppressive heat. Each drink I took from it almost made me gag.
Not seeing anything resembling a snack bar as I glanced around, I asked an elderly lady passing by if there was a soda machine or a snack bar where I could pick up a cold drink. No dice. She took one look at my sweat-drenched tee shirt and quivering lower lip and offered to get me one of hers. Before I could say, "Please don't bother," she was off and I was chatting with the elderly gentleman who was her companion.
He told me that they entertain at convalescent homes in the area and gave me a sampling of his corny old jokes. I did not mind. He was a nice old guy, and I would have listened to Lawrence Welk right about then for a cold drink. I even laughed at the jokes. He had a nice sense of comedic timing and a good delivery, and I was probably a little delirious from heat and fatigue.
The lady returned with two cold sodas, for which she refused to accept money. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes as they gave me some more of their personal history and some of the park's. Eventually, they excused themselves to continue their stroll and I resumed my hike. I soon left the park, crossing the state line into Pennsylvania a couple of minutes later. After almost two-and-a-half months of hiking, I was finally back in the Northeast. Six states down and eight to go.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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