|©1996 George Steffanos|
The shelter in which I am staying tonight, Antietam Shelter, is four trail miles north of Mackie Run, located in the heart of a large Michaux State Forest picnic grounds called Old Forge. Antietam Shelter, like Mackie Run, is very close to a road, but this shelter is in excellent condition.
At least twenty tents were pitched in a large field just beyond, but the shelter itself was empty when I arrived. The waters of the nearby creek were polluted, but I was able to get water for dinner and breakfast from a drinking fountain a quarter-mile up the AT in one of the picnic areas.
While making this trip, I passed the large group of campers whose tents I had seen from the shelter. An older man was playing guitar and singing folk tunes. It seemed a fairly solemn event. He never came close to cracking a smile, and the group was listening in equally grim rapture. I managed to walk a short distance past them before I became helpless with laughter. Don't ask me why -- I have been on the trail forever now, and strange things are happening to my mind. I hope that no one was looking, because my back was shaking so violently it must have been obvious. I want this man to perform at my next party.
They turned out to be a church group on an outing. Later, another thru-hiker, who had been socializing with the group, joined me at the shelter. His name was Tracey, and his trail name was "The Spaceman." Having just returned from ten days off of the trail, visiting friends and relatives nearby, he was having a difficult time working himself back into shape. In two-and-a-half days from Harpers Ferry, I had covered the distance that he had walked in four days since his return -- an excellent example of what too many days off will do to your hiking. I'm sure to learn a lot more about this phenomenon when I make my own layover in Connecticut. He feels that he's over the hump now and plans to begin serious hiking again tomorrow.
I am feeling pretty good, myself. After two mediocre days, I finally hit my stride today, hiking twenty-one miles. My plan calls for three more twenty-mile-plus days in a row, followed by an eleven-mile half-day into Duncannon. I hope the weather cools down a bit. This could be a rough stretch if the days remain this sizzling.
FRIDAY, 7/15/83, MILE 1054.6 --- Last night was the most sultry yet on this hike. At 9:30 P.M. I was lying atop my sleeping bag in my underwear, sweating bullets. I knew then that today would be a memorably hot one. Sure enough, it was already around eighty when I hit the trail this morning at 7:15.
I passed through the remainder of the picnic grounds and began climbing Snowy Mountain. The Appalachian Trail from there to Chimney Rocks was like a New England footpath -- a rocky, deeply eroded gully which leapt straight up the mountain. I dropped my backpack at the junction with the side trail to Chimney Rocks. The viewpoint looked promising, but most of the views were invisible through air that was three parts steam and two parts smoke. I returned to the AT and resumed hiking under the dreary whitewashed sky.
The AT followed the crest of the ridge for the next few miles. It was very easy walking, but my tee shirt soon became plastered to the pond forming beneath my backpack. For the first time since Shenandoah, the trail attained an elevation of more than 2000 feet near Snowy Mountain's summit. I won't even see that altitude again until Connecticut. I skipped the side trail up to the actual summit and its firetower. After Chimney Rocks, I just did not feel the need to climb to another view of the murk.
The next few miles were mostly on a recent relocation off of roads. The trail proceeded through the woods along the side of Corls Ridge. I stopped for a few minutes at the Raccoon Run Shelters in order to read the register. These shelters were an example of a phenomenon that is almost unique to Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail. Rather than build one large shelter here to accommodate eight people, they built two small shelters, each sleeping four. There are several more pairs similar to this up ahead on the trail in this state.
My first glimpse of Caledonia State Park, about the halfway point of today's hike, resembled something from out of The Twilight Zone to a man who has spent most of the past two-and-a-half months alone in the woods. The trail ran directly past an large fenced-in public swimming pool, into which was crammed such an incredible mass of humanity that it appeared to be one single huge screaming, laughing, splashing organism.
It was as if a gateway into another universe had suddenly opened before me. Tracey, who had departed the shelter this morning almost an hour before I did, was part of this beast. He invited me to come in, but it was just too weird for me. Lately, being with ten other people in one place seems crowded. I would have been completely out of my element inside that mob. Even Tracey, who had just been off of the trail for a week-and-a-half, agreed that he was feeling a strong dose of culture shock.
It was 12:30, and I had hiked more than ten miles that morning, so I did brave the throng at the adjacent snack bar. The prices were ridiculous, but I bought two twenty-ounce cokes, two cheeseburgers, french fries, and an ice cream sandwich. That meal cost me more than seven dollars, but how could I look my stomach in its soft, brown eyes and say no? It had put up with so much on this trip. I lugged it all over to a table beneath a huge shade tree in the nearby picnic area.
I gobbled the meal and sat sipping my coke in the shade with my boots and socks off for well over an hour. As I was putting on my backpack, an older gentleman at a nearby table asked me to come over. He and his wife asked a lot of questions about my thru-hike, and we chatted for a few minutes. When I left, he handed me a paper bag which contained two large muffins, a cream donut and a candy bar. For some reason, he felt the need to apologize that they did not have more to give me. I was sorry, too, but I had to smash that cream donut into his face and grind it in with the heel of my hand. These people just have to learn to come prepared . . .
But seriously folks, I was touched by the generosity of those complete strangers. The solid food came in very handy, because my Data Book had shown groceries available directly adjacent to the Appalachian Trail in this park, and I had been counting on it. The only food near the AT turned out to be at that snack bar.
By the time that I actually left that picnic area it was 2:00, and I still had almost ten more miles planned, which began with one killer of a climb back up to the ridgecrest. The gentleman who had given me the food told me that the temperature today was in the mid-nineties. I could have lived without that little tidbit of information. Some things, you just do not need to know. I crawled up that slope, sweating like a pig. The trail leveled out for a short distance at the Quarry Gap twin shelters, where I stopped briefly to read the register and collect myself for the remainder of the climb.
The final six or seven miles of trail was fairly level hiking across a flat ridgecrest, but any type of backpacking was a death march in that steam bath. Frequent stops to dry off and gulp hot, dirty air only took more out of me in the long run, but my body's cooling system was unequal to the challenge again today. My brain was starting to cook, too. Less than two miles from home, I discovered I had left my guidebook behind at the last rest stop, and had to walk back a half-mile on the trail to retrieve it. Tracey caught up to me there, and we arrived together at the Birch Run shelters a few minutes past 7:00.
Tracey and I set up our gear in one of the twin shelters and started making our dinners. A very strange group was staying in the other shelter -- a mob of teens from some local church with one adult. He must have been the chaperon, but he did little to control them. Perhaps he had fortified himself for this task with just a tad too many valiums. I could see the need. The kids were running around screaming like young children wired up on Halloween candy. For some reason, couple of them dropped by to borrow a shovel. I told them I had foolishly left mine at home. They left, and we started laughing. We did not stop for hours.
One chubby fellow, who seemed to be the ringleader of the group, got one of the other kids all excited about taking part in a "snipe hunt." The lad was supposed to go off into the woods with a cloth sack and wait while the other kids "drove" the snipes towards him, at which point he could simply hold the bag open as the befuddled birds just blundered inside. Of course, the "snipe hunt" was one of the oldest gags in the book, and that kid was going to be in those woods for a long time, waiting for snipes or anything else to show up. He wandered off all fired up in anticipation of the great adventure in which he was about to participate.
When it began to grow dark, the kids got three large bonfires going in front of their shelter. Most people would have been content with one, particularly on such a sultry night as tonight, but I guess that these kids decided that this would be thrice as much fun. Maintaining three infernos kept them all hopping the rest of the night. Most of the group ran around in the forest gathering wood, which the blazes were consuming as fast as they could retrieve it. Their stalwart leader was standing by the fires, chopping the wood up with an axe and feeding the hungry flames. A few of the others were climbing all over the roof of their shelter, making strange calls and shining their lights out into the forest, on some arcane mission of their own (you are not supposed to stand on the tin shelter roofs -- it weakens their rainproofing qualities). The kid with the axe kept driving it into the wooden wall of the shelter to keep it handy when he was not using it. Tracey managed to gasp out between laughs that this was the most blatant case of shelter vandalism that he had ever personally witnessed.
Ordinarily, witnessing such flagrant abuse of the shelter system, on which thru-hikers such as myself depend, would have made me irate. These kids were simply too stupid to hate and so over-the-top with their complete disregard for trail etiquette that I just could not stop laughing long enough to get angry. It was like watching an incredibly stupid sitcom, with characters too dumb to be believed, actually come to life. Or perhaps The Three Stooges procreated. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!
Moe Jr., Curly Jr, and all the other knuckleheads kept us awake well into the night, but they also kept us laughing. A few of them stopped by our shelter to ask us if they could stand on our roof to spot deer. I managed to gasp out a no between laughs. They walked away sulking. Around 10:00, Tracey and I heard the sound of boards being torn apart. I laughed and gasped, "Oh, s___! There goes the outhouse!"
SATURDAY, 7/16/83, MILE 1075.5 --- I was able to drag myself out on the trail by 7:00 this morning. That was the closest thing to an early start I have managed in a while.
The first six miles today were similar to the last few miles of yesterday's hike. The Appalachian Trail followed the long, relatively flat top of South Mountain, paralleling a gravel track which ran for miles along the ridgecrest. Mounds of dirt almost as tall as a man bordered the trail at frequent intervals. They looked soft and inviting in the wearying heat, at least until I noticed the swarms of ants running in and out. I had never seen anything to compare with those enormous ant hills. They must have required countless generations of ant labor.
The South Mountain area in southern Pennsylvania is by no means pristine wilderness. The AT also crossed a number of dirt roads that ran east-to-west across the ridge. I also passed dim traces of several old circular hearths where wood used to be partially burned in order to create charcoal. In the late 1700's and the early 1800's this had been a major industrial area, these forests heavily lumbered for the blast furnaces of the old charcoal iron industry.
I stopped briefly at Toms Run Shelters just to read the register. Shelter registers have assumed a place in my life that newspapers fill in many ordinary lives. Freshly informed, I followed the AT as it descended along the banks of Toms Run into the valley between South Mountain and a parallel ridge to the east known as Piney Mountain. I crossed Pennsylvania Route 233, a bustling four-lane state road, and entered Pine Grove Furnace State Park. I came to the park's little grocery store at 11:30, just in time for lunch.
This store is the renowned home of the Half Gallon Club. If you buy a half-gallon of ice cream, finish it without puking, and display the empty to the store's owner, you too can be a member. You are presented a piece of construction paper and a magic marker, with which you can create your own little sign proclaiming your achievement to the world. The owner hangs it up high on one of the walls of the place, so that everybody will know what a pig you are. The whole concept is contemptibly childish, and I can only imagine the sort of immature imbecile who would actually take part in this silly farce.
I wrote a letter to home as I sat on the front porch of the stores polishing off a couple of cold cokes and my half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. My little victory sign read, "I came, I ate, I conquered, I ralphed." Victory was not without its costs. I did not feel well enough to resume hiking for more than an hour, and it took several more hours to shake off a bloated feeling of lethargy. As I left, I told the young man who owned the store that the club was just a vicious plot to ruin thru-hikers' mileage. He had a very evil laugh.
After this pleasant interlude, the day kind of went downhill. Temperatures continued to soar as the afternoon wore on. While still in the park, the AT passed Fuller Lake, the flooded remains of the old strip mine which once supplied ore to the old blast furnace for which this park is named. Today, the lake is a popular swimming area. For me, it was another strong dose of culture shock. The Appalachian Trail followed its sandy beach for a while past crowds of people in bathing suits. The bikinis helped me overcome my recent aversion to crowds for a while.
The remainder of the day was fairly uneventful -- just another long tropical trudge. Heat, steam and dust. This is where you pay your dues for a distant moment in the sun on a mountaintop high above cool October forests of northern Maine. The sometimes severe price to be paid can only sweeten that distant moment even more, knowing the hell through which you went to get there. I shuffled through my small stack of inspirational mental images and selected the one where I am climbing the last few feet to the summit of an anonymous mountain in northern Maine. As I break out on top, I suddenly catch my first sight of a mountain which had thus far existed only in my dreams. . .
I kept walking. There is no need to go into detail about the afternoon's death march -- nothing really happened. The Appalachian Trail meandered along near the crest of Piney Mountain through dense woods. I arrived at Moyer's Campground, a commercial establishment just off of the AT, at 7:00.
I walked into the building that housed the office and the camp store and found instant oatmeal in the small groceries section. This was the most crucial of the supplies which I had been unable to purchase in Harpers Ferry. I now had enough breakfasts to reach Duncannon. The girl behind the counter was gaping at me as if she was afraid that I was going to drop at any moment. I asked to rent a tent site for the night, and she called Mr. Moyer over to take care of me. He checked me in. He offers a very nice discount rate to Appalachian Trail hikers. The only restriction that he has is that we cannot use the giant swimming pool. I did not mind.
He was also staring at me like he was afraid that I was about to die on him, so I broke the ice by asking if he knew what the temperature got up to today. He replied that he had just heard on the radio that it was 104 degrees this afternoon. I told him that I believed it.
Mr. Moyer gave me directions to the showers and invited me to help myself to one. That sounded like a plan. I dropped my backpack off at the tent site and headed over with my towel, camp soap, and cleanest set of clothes in my arms. The first contact with that cool water was one of the ten greatest moments of my entire hike. I left the hot water knob turned almost completely off. The effects of that cool shower and a cold soft drink from the store had me feeling almost human again when I emerged a half-hour later. The shower building also had a coin laundry, so I threw in my small load of filthy, sweaty hiking clothes.
It was past 8:30 by the time that I had made dinner, but it was worth it. The shower and the clean, dry clothes were a great reward for sticking to my planned twenty-one-mile day in spite of unprecedented heat and humidity. I am becoming almost cocky lately in the face of adversity. Yeah, bring on the humidity. Bring on the bad trail. Turn up the furnace. Just try to stop me.
I wonder how cocky I will feel tomorrow. I have a long day planned -- almost twenty-three miles, including the dreaded Cumberland Valley roadwalk: fourteen miles of unshaded, treeless roads. More dues to be paid tomorrow. At 9:30 P.M., the temperature is still almost ninety.
Something interesting happened today. I have now hiked 1075.5 miles from Springer Mountain. Mount Katahdin lies 1063 miles ahead. I am more than halfway home.
SUNDAY, 7/17/83, MILE 1098.2 --- I did the best I could this morning to break the cycle of late nights and late starts in the mornings, hitting the trail at 6:30. As I walked the crest of Rocky Ridge about forty minutes later, steam was rising thickly from the valleys and the thermometer was already flirting with the eighty-degree mark. The AT really played games up there, threading through and over a maze of rock formations on a forested plateau. It probably would have been an interesting walk on a cooler day were I not wearing a heavy backpack, but it was tedious and exhausting today.
White Rocks Ridge, about four miles later, was a similar stretch of hazardous backpacking. Masses of huge boulders were strewn along the crest, and the trail climbed over many of them. Not long afterwards, the trail began a steep descent across the faces of more gigantic boulders. At the trail's Cumberland Valley crossing, South Mountain and Piney Mountain peter out, and the Blue Ridge is no more.
I broke out onto the roadwalk at about 10:30, and the real death march began. Temperatures were now in the nineties and humidity hung in the air so thickly that it resembled smoke. The initial four or five miles were the toughest portion of the valley crossing for me, coming at the end of a twelve-mile stretch of uninterrupted walking. The water in my canteen was blood warm. Just as soon as I would swallow a gulp of it my stomach would give me the finger and try to send it right back. In a haze of heat and fatigue, I managed to walk those first four-and-a-half miles of roads in less than two hours. I wanted to collapse on the ground and just lay there, but I told myself to keep plugging away, and soon I would be sitting in the shade of the Ice Cream Lady's porch with a glass of cold water.
The Ice Cream Lady is a trail institution. Her family owns a house in Churchtown, Pennsylvania right on the road which the Appalachian Trail follows through town. Hikers call her the Ice Cream Lady because she encourages them to rest on her shaded back porch while she feeds them ice cream and lemonade. All she asks in return is that they chat with her about their adventures and sign her register. One of the three southbound hikers I met at Three Spring Shelter in northern Virginia on July 9 gave me one of the cards she hands out to hikers who stop by. It said, "Thank you for stopping and sharing your adventure on the Appalachian Trail with us -- The Shipe Family."
I passed through downtown Churchtown (a church, a school, and a cluster of houses), and I continued north. Then, I saw the sign on a lawn next to the driveway:
I sat on the porch with Mrs. Shipe for more than an hour. I hated to hit that shadeless road again, but it was past 1:30 and I still had eleven miles to go by nightfall. Before I left, she gave me a goal to strive towards over the next four-and-a-half miles. She told me that the restaurant in the truck stop on US 11 near the interstate, which was closed down when my Philosopher's Guide came out, had reopened.
How can I describe the Cumberland Valley roadwalk this afternoon? The AT passed through a flat country of old farm fields and newer subdivisions. There were virtually no shade trees along the route. The humidity was like death. The tar was semiliquid on the roads, grabbing at the soles of my boots and releasing them only reluctantly as I trudged along. The whole valley around me was twitching spasmodically on shimmering heat waves. Each object's dance of death was slightly different from the others, dependent upon its distance from me and the composition of the ground between us. It was one tremendous glaring LSD nightmare. The thick, stagnant haze seemed to magnify rather than block the glare. One vast sun appeared to be beating down from every point of the white dome of the sky. The thought of a large, cold coke with beads of condensation running down the sides of the glass waiting for me at the truck stop pulled me through this hell. I walked that next four-and-a-half miles in one hour and fifteen minutes, even impressing myself.
The restaurant was heavily air conditioned. That was a help, because all of this heat has been playing havoc with my appetite. I am now down to 175 -- fifty pounds lighter than when I began this hike ten weeks ago, and twenty pounds less than my ideal weight of 195. All of these miles I have been hiking lately are beginning to take their toll on my undernourished body. Much of this time, I have been carrying plenty of food in my backpack, but I seldom seem to feel like eating very much. I made up for some of this at the restaurant. I had a twelve-ounce steak, two baked potatoes, a salad, and two large cokes. In the almost frosty air of that establishment, my appetite returned, and I wolfed that meal down. Then I hung out, sipping my second coke for more than an hour. The lovely waitresses were very nice. I always expect to be treated like a pariah when I walk into places like this all dirty and sweaty from the trail, but I never am.
Eventually, I had to return to the furnace and complete the roadwalk. The cold water with which I filled my canteen before I left the restaurant was hot twenty minutes later. Two miles along, as I was crossing the bridge over Conodoquinet Creek, a car pulled up and a lady called out to me. She had been in her kitchen, fixing dinner, and happened to glance out her window as I trudged by, dripping sweat. She told me that I looked miserable (I did not feel miserable -- I was cruising along on autopilot, and my mind was firmly switched to the off position -- but I can understand how I looked miserable). She filled a plastic container with iced tea and another one with ice cubes, jumped into her car, and came after me just to bring me these gifts. What can I say? Saying that this was a nice thing to do would be like saying that it was a little warm out today. This thoughtful act helped me to make it through the rest of the day's ordeal. The kindness of the Cumberland Valley people is legendary in thru-hiker circles. Everybody has one or two stories like this to tell.
There was a little more paved roadwalk. Then, the Appalachian Trail followed a steep jeep road up to the crest of Blue Mountain. I arrived at Darlington Shelter, my home for tonight, at about 7:00. Tonight, for the first time since Virginia, I have a shelter all to myself once again. I enjoy most of the company at these shelters, but I also like these nights of solitude. They allow me time to reflect.
I have a short 11.5-mile day into Duncannon tomorrow. The hard work is over for this stretch of trail. In Harpers Ferry, I figured on six-and-a-half days to hike the 122 miles to Duncannon. I could not factor all of this unforeseen heat and humidity into that plan. Nevertheless, I stayed on my schedule and stuck to the plan. Tomorrow, I get my reward: restaurants, grocery stores, a laundry, and a real bed.
My hike since Waynesboro, Virginia has been a nice change of pace from the constant physical and emotional crises of the first 830 miles of trail. It has not been all a picnic, but the fact that I have not needed to write words like, "my entire quest now hangs by a thread" for a while has been somewhat of a relief. My biggest physical problem lately has been the sweltering heat and humidity. The closest I have come to an emotional crisis is a touch of loneliness. I miss my family and my friends. That will be taken care of in a few weeks. Connecticut is about 320 AT miles away.
MONDAY, 7/18/83, MILE 1109.7 --- DUNCANNON --- Yesterday's heat and humidity brewed up a monster thunderstorm last night -- which thankfully struck while I was in the shelter, warm and dry. Lightning blazed across the sky, thunder rocked the mountaintop, and cold rain pounded down in buckets.
It did not cool things off any. Today was another steamy day in the middle hundreds, but at least last night's moisture helped keep the dust down as I walked. I have been choking in my own dust cloud for days. Now I know how Pig Pen feels.
According to the Philosopher's Guide, the dreaded rocks of Pennsylvania are first encountered in force when you reach Blue Mountain, but I found no remarkable concentrations of them along the first four miles of trail this morning. The Appalachian Trail descended off of Blue Mountain, climbed over a ridge of its foothills known as Little Mountain, and followed a dirt road for a half-mile into a narrow valley sandwiched between the long, parallel ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain. It crossed Pennsylvania 850, a small country highway, and followed gravel and woods roads for about a mile through thick forests. The climb up Cove Mountain to the ridgeline was short, but sadistically steep. The AT climbed 500 feet in 3/10-of-a-mile on a sick, rocky footpath.
Along the four-mile crest of Cove Mountain, I finally met the famous rocks. There were slippery, shifting piles of loose rocks along much of the trail. In many spots, sharp, razor-backed rocks projected lengthwise from out of the ground like the dorsal fins of submerged landsharks. (Candygram, ma'am!) Walking was tricky, but I struggled to maintain a decent pace even as those rocks did a number on my feet. The soles became bruised, my ankles sore and swollen, and I deftly managed to stub my toes with excruciating force several times. I did not even care. I just wanted to get to Duncannon.
Just prior to my final descent from Cove Mountain, I found a great viewpoint over the Susquehanna River Valley at Hawk Rock. It was, of course, hazy and humid again, but I could still see for miles up and down the river. Across the river, I could see the long gray ridge of Peters Mountain, over which I will be hiking tomorrow when I leave Duncannon. I spent fifteen minutes enjoying the view. It was my first rest break after nine-and-a-half miles of rocks.
There was a bit of very arduous descent, after which the trail crossed a quarter-mile of rock slides. The smaller rocks kept trying to roll around beneath my feet, but I managed to roll with them and stay on my feet. The trail then continued its descent along an old mine road which was fairly easy walking. A terrible relocation scaled back up the hill for a half-mile, scrambling across piles of loose rocks, and descended again, both very steeply. This eliminated a short walk on a gravel road, but came out on the paved Pennsylvania 274 somewhat further away from town than the old trail had; thus, it actually added more roadwalk. Unless there was some new development along the gravel road, or a section of trail was closed by a landowner, the relocation made absolutely no sense.
The trail followed paved roads directly into downtown Duncannon. I hit the Post Office to pick up my mail and supply package and walked over to the Doyle Hotel to get a room for the night. It was a dark, quaint old place out of a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiell Hammet novel. All of the rooms on my floor share a bathroom down the hall. There was no shower, but a nice long bath in lukewarm water revived me enough to go take care of my laundry.
The laundromat was a complete rip-off. The dollar changer was set to give back only 95 cents in change for each dollar, and the washers charged 85 cents a load. It was strange to find a joint like that in a friendly town like Duncannon, but my next stop helped me to get over it.
I found a pizza place run by genuine fellow Italians (I am half Italian), where I enjoyed the best pizza I have encountered since I left Connecticut. A couple of other backpackers invited me to join them. They were each hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in smaller segments over a period of several years, and were laying over in Duncannon for a few days waiting for the heat wave to break.
One of the men was a large, jovial Texan who had begun this portion of his hike traveling north from Damascus, Virginia a few days after I left Springer Mountain in Georgia. He had just returned from a guided tour of the nearby Gettysburg battlefield site. He had me laughing with a vivid description of how he had spent the whole tour rooting against all logic and hope for a Confederate victory.
I have about 144 miles remaining in Pennsylvania, and I am told that the rocks just keep becoming worse right up until the end. I would like to hike only a half-day tomorrow, but still arrive in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, my next supply town, in seven days. That will put me just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. Connecticut is so close now I can taste it. I can spend a few days at home and enjoy a small fragment of a normal summer with my friends. 310 miles to go.
After that, my main focus will return to Katahdin, and that haunting vision of a great granite peak at the end of a long hard road. 1028.8 miles to go.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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