|©1996 George Steffanos|
Transferring food from its commercial packaging into zip-loc bags created a large mess of garbage, which I carried down with me in a box. The lady cleaning the rooms was by no means feeble with age, but she wasn't all that young either. It did not seem right to leave all of that crap in my room for her to lug down. When I asked her where I could dispose of the trash and declined her offer to handle it for me, she seemed to appreciate my small act of consideration. We had a brief chat before I headed out the door to mail my return package home. I ran my package for home over to the Post Office and mailed it. I walked back to the hotel, grabbed my backpack, and hit the road out of town.
As I was leaving, I had a nice conversation with the lady I had met earlier. She gave me some of the history of the place. The hotel was built around the turn of the century by the Anheuser-Busch brewery. It was one of a string of similar hotels, each centered around a bar that spotlighted their products. When Prohibition came, they sold them all off. It has been a family business ever since ever since. They now rent most of the rooms on a monthly basis to local residents, and are fond of the Appalachian Trail hikers who provide much of their overnight business. She went into great detail about how they had kept all of the old furnishings to this day, except for the beds. These were a big part of the atmosphere of the place which I had felt as soon as I first walked in yesterday evening.
When I left, she told me to watch out for snakes and bad water. She was a nice old lady. She must have really liked me (yeah, that cuddly and lovable thing again) -- she paid me one of the highest compliments I have ever received. She actually told a man who had been in the woods sleeping with chipmunks for two-and-a-half months that she was sorry he could not meet her pretty nineteen-year-old granddaughter who was away at college. I am fairly certain that I managed to keep the feral gleam out of my eye when I said that I was sorry, too.
I felt terrific as I followed the Appalachian Trail along streets through the town. Duncannon was a small city with a downtown business district consisting of a few square blocks of mid to early twentieth century buildings like the Doyle Hotel quickly giving way to tree-lined residential streets. It was a fine, sunny summer day for most outdoor activities other than backpacking, and the locals were out in force working on their homes and yards. They were among the friendliest people that I have met on a very congenial trail. The people of Duncannon take pride in the fact that their municipality is the closest trail town to the halfway point of the AT, and they make a special effort to make backpackers feel at home.
The AT crossed two major rivers, the Juniata and the Susquehanna, on highway bridges along the roadwalk just past the town. The Susquehanna, in southern and central Pennsylvania, is a broad river with few bridges. The Clarks Ferry Bridge was almost a half-mile in length and packed with slow-moving automobiles belching more smoke and heat into the dead, sultry air. Reaching the hundred-degree mark was going to be a cinch again today, if we weren't there already. On the eastern bank, I had to run cross a busy four-lane highway, US 22. The Appalachian Trail paralleled the highway and the river for a quarter-mile along a set of railroad tracks. My good feeling was rapidly evaporating. The subsequent climb up Peters Mountain finished the job.
The trail up was a steep gully covered with loose rocks rolling around beneath my feet. Dense thickets of briars overgrew stretches of footpath and had to be waded through. A river of sweat was streaming down my forehead into my eyes. I almost stepped on a rattlesnake lying across the trail before I noticed him. He was reluctant to move out of my way until I picked up a long stick and goosed his little reptilian butt. The trail continued to climb, winding its way through fields of huge boulders on ground that was strewn with thousands of loose rocks.
After about three miles, the trail finally leveled out along the crest of the mountain and the rocks thinned out considerably. It was not bad hiking at all, and I began to make up in large chunks the time I had lost on the ascent. There were several superior views into the valleys below from points along both sides of the ridge. One remaining annoyance was the cloud of gnats that swarmed around my sweaty face as I hiked. I kept my bandanna in hand and was continuously compelled to use it to chase them away. Every time I ceased waving it in front of my face for a few moments, a gnat would kamikaze directly into one of my eyes. After sustaining about ten hits in each eye, my vision remained blurry for the remainder of the hike. Hours later, it is only just beginning to be restored.
I arrived here at Earl Shaffer Shelter at about 6:30. It had taken me six-and-a-half hours to hike ten-and-a-half miles. My schedule to Delaware Water Gap could be in trouble. I was aware that the time had come to face the famous rocks of Eastern Pennsylvania (which actually thus far have not been quite as bad as their reputation), but nobody ever mentioned the thorns. My arms and legs are a bloody mess, which no doubt is part of the attraction for the swarms of gnats, mosquitoes and biting flies who have been my steady hiking companions since Duncannon. I don't remember reading about them, either. And the record heat is beginning to grind me down. The thermometer has failed to reach the mid-nineties once since Shenandoah and has been topping one hundred for almost a week. I have been tapping into the reserves constantly lately, and the benefits of those few easy days in northern Virginia have been used up.
I have a splendid illustration before me of what I cannot allow to happen. There is a semi-thru-hiker at this shelter: a man who had started weeks before I did. I have already caught up to him, and I am just slightly ahead of the pace required to finish the Appalachian Trail in early October. He lost the will to pay the price to reach Katahdin somewhere, and now is just drifting along.
WEDNESDAY, 7/20/8,3, MILE 1137.4 --- I left the shelter this morning at 7:00 -- not a terribly early start -- and that dude was still in bed. I guess that I won't be seeing him on Katahdin.
The remainder of the trail over Peters Mountain was much like the last few miles of hiking yesterday. The rocks continued to be tolerable. There were but a few exceptionally bad stretches. Thus far, only about twenty-five percent of the trail since the Cumberland Valley has been particularly rocky. I was expecting much worse after all of the horror stories that I have heard concerning the Pennsylvania rocks, but I am not quite ready to begin my victory celebration. There is still a ways to go before I am out of this state.
The descent from Peters Mountain, in its steepness, was a replay of yesterday's climb, but it was shorter and thus was over more quickly. I stopped at an excellent spring a half-mile from the bottom. I did not know it at the time, but that turned out to be the last good water on the Appalachian Trail for almost twelve miles. Fortunately, out of habit, I "cameled up." I drank three pints of water on the spot to saturate my tissues and carried another three pints with me in my canteen.
The ensuing climb up Stony Mountain was a surprising throwback to the good old days of nicely-graded trails down south. The old woods road that the AT followed took more than three miles to climb about 1100 feet. My map showed a spring near the summit alongside a spot where a firetower once stood. The spring was dry.
There was a very slight descent and ascent between the crests of Stony Mountain and Sharp Mountain, and then it was all ridgewalk for the final seven miles of the day. The Appalachian Trail followed the traces of an old stage road for most of that distance, passing through an attractive wooded tract known as Saint Anthony's Wilderness. In the mid-1800's, it had been a prosperous industrial region with coal mines, a branch railroad, and several thriving villages. Later in the century, it was a popular resort area centered around the mineral baths of Cold Spring Station, a large village well off of the AT route at the base of the mountain. The trail this afternoon passed through the site of one of the other old villages. Nothing was left but a few crumbling piles of rocks: the remains of old house foundations.
I did the final five miles from the Yellow Creek Village ruins to the shelter in ninety minutes, barely winning a race with the massive thundershower which I could see approaching. Thanks to the impetus of that storm, I arrived at this shelter before 4:00 and had the day's hike done with early for the first time in a very long while. I hiked seventeen miles today in eight-and-a-half hours, with three long rest stops along the way. As it was only my second day out since resupplying in Duncannon, I was carrying an exceptionally heavy backpack. The rocks do not seem to be slowing me down all that much . . . so far.
The Rausch Gap Shelter is known to backpackers as the Halfway Hilton. It is a marvelous piece of work. The foundation is constructed of mortared stone, and the place boasts a courtyard tiled with smooth rocks and surrounded by stone walls. There is a tall hemlock rising from the center of the courtyard whose trunk supports and is encircled by a round wooden picnic table. The roof has a plastic skylight, and a long pipe brings water from a nearby spring to a trickling cascade at the edge of the courtyard. Extremely civilized. My guidebook said that the project required fifty-seven volunteer workers and fourteen months to be completed, and the results speak for themselves. It is one of the two or three finest shelters I have seen on the Appalachian Trail.
Several local short-term backpackers were staying at the shelter. One had a radio. The weather report called for no relief in sight from the record heat and humidity, and scattered afternoon thundershowers. That last part was especially bad news for me, because I am compelled to camp out tomorrow night. The next shelter is thirty-two miles away.
Still, after today, I am feeling a little more optimistic about my chances of staying on schedule and covering the remaining 116 miles to Delaware Water Gap in five-and-a-half days. And tomorrow, after I walk just over a mile, I will be exactly 1000 miles from Katahdin. New England looms close tonight.
I'm pushing hard lately because I feel a strong need to get back home and connect with my old life for a few days. I still cannot get over the manner in which the Appalachian Trail has taken me over. After weeks of living, talking, thinking, and dreaming nothing but the AT, I can barely remember my home and my friends as I sit here tonight, a few hundred miles away in central Pennsylvania. I simply cannot believe any longer in a world where you sleep every night in a bed, have running water constantly at your fingertips, and you need not carry fifty pounds around on your back all day. And I now feel as out-of-place in large crowds of people as a hermit in Times Square.
Time to go to bed. Connecticut is 279 AT miles away.
THURSDAY, 7/21/83, MILE 1158.5 --- The semi-thru-hiker I met at Earl Shaffer Shelter on Tuesday night showed up at Rausch Gap last night after 9:00 and regaled the local guys with some tall tales of hiking twenty-eight miles from Duncannon that day. Some other guys who were camped nearby stopped by the shelter and had a long, loud conversation with him. I finally chased all of the idiots away at about 10:00, but they made a ton of noise at their campsite all night long. I managed to sleep through most of it.
In the morning, I informed my shelter companions that Big Mouth had spent Tuesday night at Earl Shaffer Shelter with me, and advised them to be very skeptical of "thru-hikers" spouting wild stories. It seems like half of the thru-hikers I have met were b______t artists who skip sections of the AT and then tell tall stories about their exploits in order to impress the innocents and/or weasel food handouts. The ones that do most of the bragging are often the ones who are not even attempting to make a legitimate hike.
I left at 6:45. I soon passed through the site of another ghost settlement which had been known as Rausch Gap Village. There were a few old foundations and an overgrown cemetery with three or four gravestones. The AT was very easy walking along dirt roads.
Then came a prelude of things to come. The trail up and over Second Mountain was almost completely obliterated by the growth of small trees. Their branches overlapped each other across the trail in many places. The storm I had barely avoided the night before soaked me second-hand today, as I bulled my own path through the wet intertwined branches. The descent from Second Mountain was on wide woods roads, a fact I really appreciated after that overgrown trail. This was followed by a four-mile walk on paved roads. About a mile into the roadwalk, I came to a small store named Ron's Grocery.
The people who ran the store were very congenial, and made a special effort to cater to hikers. They carried all sorts of groceries appropriate for backpacking and had a policy of accepting and holding mail for hikers. They even kept a register notebook at the store for us. I ate a nourishing second breakfast consisting of a sixteen-ounce coke, some cookies, and a pint of ice cream. The only pints they carried were vanilla, but I have grown used to heartbreak and deprivation on this trip, so I handled it. I bought a box of Pop-Tarts as I hit the road. My munchies, as always, were running a little low.
The rest of the roadwalk sailed by; I was humming along on an intense sugar and caffeine rush. As it ended, I came to Swatara Gap and the climb up Blue Mountain: a ridge that the Appalachian Trail will be following all the way to the Delaware River and the New Jersey state line. I was in high spirits and feeling strong physically. Then I met Blue Mountain.
After a long, steep climb, I was greeted on the ridgecrest by endless ranks of shoulder-high weeds which completely engulfed the trail. Many brandished long, sharp thorns. Within minutes, I was bleeding from dozens of scratches on my unprotected arms and legs. That was a fairly constant experience for the rest of the day. At one point, the trail clung to the edge of a steep slope with a sharp drop only inches away. In order to stay on that narrow shelf, I had to wade directly through the briar bushes that projected out over it. I guess I could have worn long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. That was an appealing thought. It was another blistering day in the high nineties.
The rocks were the worst that I had yet seen: little rocks, big rocks, loose rocks, sharp rocks. I have short legs for my height and a low center of gravity. I tend not to lift my feet very high as I step; when I am walking fast I have a habit of kicking my feet forward. This is not the recommended walking style for a path which is studded with half-buried rocks, particularly when you begin to tire and grow careless. Nothing says pain like the fourth or fifth time you smash the same toe into a hunk of granite. To top off all of these wonderful experiences, Blue Mountain turned out to be home to swarms of gnats, flies, and mosquitoes. The gnats maintained a constant assault: biting me and flying into my eyes as I hiked. The flies hovered around me all day, crawling all over me in droves every time I tried to sit down. I was breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between meal snacks for the mosquitoes. I should have used insect repellent. It would have helped a little, but it never occurred to me. My mind was somewhere else all day, trying to find what pop psychologists call my "happy place." I don't know where that is exactly, but I am fairly certain you can't get there from here -- South Mountain, Pennsylvania in the heart of high summer.
I arrived here at Hertlein Campsite at about 6:30. I had just enough time to pitch my tent before a thundershower struck. It is now 8:15, and I think that I can finally go outside and make my dinner. The rain is tapering off at last.
The best thing I can say about today's hike is that I am twenty-one miles closer to Delaware Water Gap, where the Appalachian Trail leaves Blue Mountain. I am also eighteen miles from the village of Port Clinton, where I can get a room for the night and where some letters from home should be awaiting me at the Post Office. Perhaps tomorrow will be a better day.
FRIDAY, 7/22/83, MILE 1176.4 --- I hit the trail this morning at 7:00, determined to hike the eighteen miles to Port Clinton in nine hours in order to arrive at the Post Office by 4:00. You never know at what time the post offices in these small towns will close, but 4:00 seemed reasonably safe to me. The weather was cooler and drier today, with a welcome breeze. Three pints of water lasted me eighteen miles. The trail was fairly uneventful for the first eleven. It followed along the ridgecrest, crossing one paved road, Pennsylvania 183, three-and-a-half miles from the campsite. The closest thing to a point of interest that I passed this morning was located on a woods road about a half-mile before this road crossing. There was a historical sign marking the location of Fort Dietrich Snyder, a lookout post for one of a chain of forts built to protect settlers from the Indians during the French and Indian Wars of the middle 1700's. No traces of the fort remained -- just the sign marking the spot where it had once stood.
I took a quick break after six miles, and a fifteen-minute break five miles further at Neys Shelter. The place looked fairly run-down and was full of wasp nests. Many dire warnings were in the register about what happened to hikers who drank the water from Ox Spring, the shelter's water supply. Those "I spent four days sitting on a toilet" stories make interesting anecdotes later, but nobody enjoys living them out. Fortunately, as I said, water was not a problem today. The air was so much cooler and drier than on recent days I discovered that I had consumed just one cup of water during my initial eleven miles of hiking. I still had more than a quart remaining from the spring at Hertlein Campsite, so I was able to drink freely over the final seven miles.
The rocks had not been too bad for the first twelve miles. About a mile past the shelter, after a short steep climb, the rocks returned with a vengeance. I was beginning to see more and more of those razor-backed rocks that projected edgewise from the ground like shark fins. A few miles of walking on those puppies will quickly cure a man of the delusion that the soles of his feet have become virtually indestructible. I also picked up a dozen or so new deep thorn scratches on my arms and legs while hiking overgrown sections of the trail. Looks like I might need a transfusion by Delaware Water Gap.
I took my third and final break of the day about four miles past Neys Shelter at Auburn Lookout, the sole viewpoint from the Appalachian Trail all day. It was a rock outcrop hanging high above Port Clinton village and a long curve of the Schuylkill River Valley. In the 1800's, the Schuylkill Valley was the heart of an anthracite coal mining region and the site of one of the more violent of the early labor struggles. Things quickly got out of hand, and neither side was overly particular about the sanctity of human life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a very political Sherlock Holmes novel concerning the efforts of the noble philanthropists who owned the mines to defeat the evil striking workers. Sir Arthur would be very comfortable with the current political climate in America. The setting of that novel was a fictionalized version of a portion of this valley, as I recall. Today, "The Valley Of Fear" looked rather peaceful and bucolic. The low humidity gave my pictures of this excellent view an unaccustomed background of blue sky, and distant objects looked sharp and clear. I was way ahead of schedule, so I rested for twenty minutes, preparing myself for the final, sick descent into Port Clinton.
There were some unpleasant stretches along the route down, but I just took them slow and I made up the time on the tolerable sections. I still managed to arrive at the Post Office a few minutes before four. Unfortunately, the U.S. Postal Service was not able to match my on-time performance. The letters which my family and friends had mailed from Connecticut almost a week before had not yet arrived. That was a disappointment, but it still felt good to have a long day completed at 4:00.
The Appalachian Trail passes directly through the streets of Port Clinton, where the Schuylkill River cuts an impressive, 1000-foot-deep slash through the hulking ridge of Blue Mountain. At the point at which the AT roadwalk crosses Pennsylvania 61 is the Port Clinton Hotel. It is not unlike the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, a throwback to the early years of the century. I checked into my room and walked down the hall to the bathroom for a long, hot shower. Then, I went downstairs to the bar and drank some cold cokes while I chatted with Helen, the long-time owner and operator the establishment. We had a long talk which touched upon the topic of all of the b________ers on the AT, like that guy who spent the night at Earl Shaffer Shelter while I was there and then had told those guys at Rausch Gap Shelter the following night that he had walked all the way in from Duncannon that day. I have met so many like him and people that hitchhike or walk roads around portions of the trail that it makes me wonder just exactly what percentage of those who take credit for a thru-hike actually accomplished the feat. I have become somewhat disillusioned.
Helen said that she can spot the phonies a mile off, and I believe her. She has seen all kinds in her years of catering to backpackers. Her common-sense talk has really cheered me up. What matters to my thru-hike is the manner in which I approach it, and, anyway, there are still many other legitimate thru-hikers who believe in maintaining the integrity of the challenge. I have not met many of them simply because of my late start on the trail, several weeks after most of theirs. With several exceptions, I have generally encountered the slackpackers and the losers.
The weather forecast calls for the cooler weather and low humidity to hold out through the weekend. It may be time again for me to pick up the pace. If I can get any kind of an early start tomorrow, I would like to rip off a twenty-three-mile hike to Allentown Shelter. On the other hand, I will have to see how my shoe holds up. The sole of my left boot began to separate near the toe early today, and it was flopping around all over the place by the time I made it here. Helen gave me some good strong twine with which to bind it up. Hopefully, the repair will hold together until Delaware Water Gap.
SATURDAY, 7/23/83, MILE 1199.2 --- Last night, I took the set of clothes in which I have been hiking since Duncannon, brought them into the shower, and scrubbed them with soap. When I checked out of the hotel this morning, I put them back on. They were still a little damp, but a couple of miles of hiking took care of that. I carry one change in my backpack, but I do not like to wear them for hiking until the very last day before I hit the next supply town, if I can manage it. That way, I always have a set of clean, dry clothes for when I come into contact with civilization.
The clothes I wore for a few hours in Port Clinton after my shower are in my backpack, ready if I decide to spend the night in another town before I reach Delaware Water Gap. I would love to have several changes of clothing, but the extra pounds definitely make a difference when you are hiking twenty-mile days. Backpacking is an excellent method of learning the difference between what you would like to have and what you need to have.
What I did need was a very early start this morning, because I intended to hike twenty-three miles today over the most vicious rocks and the most strenuous climbs yet in Pennsylvania. I left the hotel at 8:30. Oh, well . . . My letters from home had still not arrived at the Post Office. I mailed some of my own and left a change-of-address card forwarding my mail to Delaware Water Gap.
As usually happens when I leave a town, my hiking level was abysmal this morning. I required ninety minutes to hike the first two miles. It was of no help to my cause that the blazing was so careless that at one point I thought I had lost the trail.
In Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Trail passes through many segments of State Game Lands. Their borders are marked with splotches of white paint. As I have previously mentioned, the AT route is marked with rectangular blazes of white paint. At one point on that initial climb out of Port Clinton, the AT blazes had been painted rather sloppily and sketchily, just as the trail was crossing a line of State Game Lands boundary blazes. The trail became overgrown and obscure, and after a half-mile I decided I must have accidentally lost the AT and started following the Game Lands boundary. I backtracked a half-mile before realizing I had not left the AT -- it was just overgrown and poorly-marked. That little mix-up cost me about a half-hour.
The remainder of today's trail was relatively well-cleared, but the rocks were brutal. Sometimes, I walked across fields of boulders. Often, I slipped and slid over piles of smaller, loose rocks. Other times, I trod over the famous sharp-edged shark fin rocks. The one constant factor was that I was walking on one type of rock or another all day long. They slowed my pace and crucified my feet.
As an added bonus, the trail route was fairly weird today. It began with a healthy climb out of the Schuylkill Valley. Then, the AT dropped back down off of the ridgecrest to pass by a spring located a good distance down the side of the mountain. The trail climbed all of the way back up to the crest and immediately descended almost to the base of the mountain, to a shelter beside a reservoir. It then returned to the ridgeline, followed the crest for a few miles, and dropped all of the way off the mountain in order to bypass a private sanctuary for hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey. The trail climbed back up to the ridgecrest one final time, and remained up there for the remainder of the day.
There were several good prospects from the trail today, and one great one along the few miles of ridgewalk between the reservoir and the bird sanctuary. The Pinnacle was the point of a long, narrow, wedge-shaped spur of Blue Mountain, perched atop a sheer escarpment of cliffs running along either side. There were better than 300-degree views of the surrounding valleys. I looked out over a beautiful patchwork of greens and browns. Farm fields tinted dozens of shades of green followed the undulating contours of the valley floor, occasionally broken up by the golden brown of fallow fields and the deeper greens of patches of woodland. It was 2:00 and I had managed just nine miles of hiking. I had given up all hope of making it to Allentown Shelter today and was planning to pitch a tent. I sat down to take pictures and enjoy the finest viewpoint on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.
Several other hikers wore there when I arrived, including The Spaceman, the thru-hiker who had witnessed with me the carnage at Birch Run Shelters. He was just leaving as I showed up. Later, while preparing to depart myself, I got into a conversation with a pair of day hikers who told me that the latest forecasts were now predicting rain for tonight. That figured. It was 2:30, and at most six-and-a-half more hours of daylight and twilight remained to hike almost fourteen miles if I was now to resume my endeavor of attaining the shelter. Knowing how I feel about tenting in the rain, you can be sure I had to make the attempt.
Giving up on the long day had been a sensible decision. The constant rocks and frequent long climbs made it impossible to build any steady momentum today. In my enthusiasm for reaching Connecticut, I had been overdoing it for some time. Other than the usual half days into and out of trail towns, I had not given myself a short hiking day since Harpers Ferry. My last day off was in Waynesboro, Virginia. This grueling stretch has coincided directly with a heat wave of historic proportions. I have been spending way too many hours hiking and not enough recharging the batteries. My wasted dash to make the post office yesterday had drained what reserves I had left. Nevertheless, probably as a holdover from the early struggles of this journey, I absolutely hate backing down from a single goal. I wasn't feeling good about scrapping the long day I had planned. I felt a slight tinge of warped excitement at the thought of another race against darkness and fatigue.
Soon after the Pinnacle, the Appalachian Trail made the long descent off of Blue Mountain in order to bypass Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the oldest wildlife sanctuary for birds of prey in the world. On the floor of the valley below, the AT followed dirt roads very briefly through something called Eckville, which consisted of a few scattered houses and little else. From there, it was a long climb, very steep towards the end, back up the mountain.
By the time I had regained the ridgecrest, I was no longer concerned about the probability of my packing out a wet tent tomorrow. I hardly took a step all day which didn't come down on at least one rock. The soles of my feet were beginning to feel as if an expert had worked them over with a blackjack; if they knew any secret plans, they would have spilled them hours earlier. Large purple bruises were forming beneath at least six of my toenails from being smashed repeatedly. I was so weary at that point I was barely lifting my feet as I walked. Staying in a shelter tonight and avoiding the rain was just not worth all of the crap through which I was going in order to get there. Contrary to the weather report I had heard two days earlier, the heat and humidity were on the rise again this afternoon, though not quite near the levels at which they had been earlier in the week.
I still pushed on stubbornly. Once I had accepted reaching the shelter as a another challenge to myself, I created a goal of which I could not let go. That would have been to much like the old me. I was no longer greatly concerned about the rain, but I just could not quit.
I passed The Spaceman about a mile-and-a-half from the shelter. He had pitched his tent in the forest beside the trail. I told him about the predicted rain and the nearness of the shelter and kept going, driving myself to the edge of my endurance. I roared into Allentown Shelter at 8:50, just as darkness fell over the forest. A long, rocky path led down the side of the mountain to water. I needed my flashlight for this trip. When I returned to the shelter, The Spaceman had arrived. I slumped down on the floor, exhausted, and said, "Now watch. After all of that, it probably won't rain." The words were barely out of my mouth when the sky opened up and rain began hammering the tin roof. I finally had dinner at 10:00.
SUNDAY, 7/24/83, MILE 1217.8 --- I woke up late this morning, tired and sore, and moved slowly through preparations for departure. I did not get out on the AT until 8:30.
The initial four miles of trail followed pleasant, relatively rock-free woods roads along the crest of Blue Mountain to Blue Mountain Summit, the floor of a shallow gap through which Pennsylvania Highway 309 crosses the ridgeline. A Bavarian restaurant known as the Gramibus Inn was located at the road crossing. I arrived at 10:00 -- just in time for a little mid-morning snack. The Spaceman was already there, catching up on his journal writing after having finished his own breakfast.
I was torn between two of the breakfast specials, so when it came time to order I compromised. I had a great breakfast: steak and eggs, home fries, toast, and orange juice. Then, I had another great breakfast of pancakes, sausages, more home fries, and more orange juice. It was a little bizarre while backpacking the Appalachian Mountains to be sitting in a Bavarian restaurant with German folk songs and polkas playing in the background, but I got over it. The place was a class act: spotless, expensively decorated, and popular. The food was excellent and the staff and the management of the inn were surprisingly cordial to backpackers. They were another example of those rare businesses along the AT which make a special effort to welcome thru-hikers, to the point of keeping a trail register -- always an excellent indication of our regard.
Had it not been so early, I would have broken the temperance pledge made to myself while sweating out six Bud Tall Boys on Peters Mountain in Virginia and sipped a couple of beers, but the inn did not begin serving alcohol until 1:00. They had an interesting and extensive selection of imported German beers on the menu, of most of which I had never even heard. One offering, called Berliner Weisse, was described as a tart yeast beer served with raspberry syrup. That sounded intriguing.
The ensuing two miles of the Appalachian Trail, like the first four miles this morning, followed relatively rock-free woods roads. This was a great break for my feet, which had absorbed a savage battering yesterday. The final twelve miles were virtually all on rocks, completing the destruction. I have smashed virtually every toe at least several times in the past few days. They are very tender now. The pain of each new collision is becoming so intense it is almost nauseating. I now have large dark bruises beneath nine of my toenails. Inevitably, some of them are beginning to fall off and the rest are loose. I would be very surprised not to lose all nine over the next week or so. I can feel them tear a bit more with each step.
There were some great viewpoints along the trail, but the cost was high. I encountered some memorably nasty rocks. The descent from Bake Oven Knob into the adjacent gap, where Bake Oven Knob Shelter was located, crossed an old slide covered with loose stones whose sliding days were obviously not yet over. They kept rolling and slipping beneath my feet. This section of trail was poorly marked, and I kept losing the trail.
The Spaceman had left the restaurant this morning while I was waiting for my first breakfast to be served. I caught up with him at Bake Oven Knob Shelter at 3:00. He was with another thru-hiker, code name: "The Sloth." We all spent an hour together at the shelter, reading the register and shooting the breeze. It was a decent shelter compared to the average Pennsylvania and Maryland hovel, but an unbelievably huge pile of assorted trash was crammed into a triangular space between the rear of the structure and a steep rise behind it. I have never seen anything like it in all of my years of hiking. It towered above the roof of the place.
A southbound backpacker from Quebec named Richard (pronounced REE-shard) stopped by to swap stories and valuable information about the trail ahead. The three northbounders -- the Spaceman, the Sloth, and just plain old me -- all left together at 4:00. The George W. Outerbridge Shelter was still almost eight miles ahead, but we made great time over the next five miles. We could easily have made it to the shelter by 7:00, but it just was not meant to be.
When we were still about two-and-a-half miles from home, we encountered the most insidious obstacle which Blue Mountain had yet thrown at us: a mile-and-a-half-long stretch descending through a scrubby area in which the path was bordered with a dense tangle of low bushes which slowed our pace to a crawl. It was not that the trail was overgrown -- as a matter of fact, it was well cleared. No, it was a more subtle factor that brought us to our knees: those shrubs were bursting with ripe wild blueberries. I have no idea of how many berries I ate as I crept along that stretch of trail. Maybe the squirrels and chipmunks who were lining up to flip me the bird as I finally departed could tell you.
My purple lips and I arrived at the shelter at 7:50. There was a gushing piped spring not far away -- a far cry from the usual grueling trek to water in this state. The Spaceman and I made our dinners while the Sloth (this is beginning to read like a bad spy novel) hiked on another mile to the next road crossing to meet some friends.
Today was not a bad day, everything considered. Tonight, I have a captivating view of the lights of the Lehigh Valley down below, an enormous full moon overhead and a stomach smiling with contentment from two huge breakfasts and a gallon or so of fresh blueberries. Just thirty-five rocky, buggy, thorny, sweaty miles of Pennsylvania remain.
My guidebook informs me that all of the streams and springs along those final thirty-five miles dry up in early June. Gee, this could be a small problem.
MONDAY, 7/25/83, MILE 1238.7 --- I got out on the Appalachian Trail at 7:30 this morning -- nothing to write home about (although, in a way, I am doing so right now), but a much earlier start than I had managed the past couple of days. The first mile concluded the long descent into Lehigh Gap which I had begun yesterday. Hiking through the gap was not your basic untouched wilderness experience. The AT crossed the murky Lehigh River on a highway bridge in the middle of a somber area graced by a large smoking factory, a used car lot, and a number of decaying houses. There was, however, one small glimmer of beauty amidst all of the squalor. Coming down the last slope, I caught a glimpse of the happy red-and-white glow of a flirtatious little coke machine. She seemed to be cooing, "Come on, sailor, drop that heavy backpack for a moment, and let me cool you down." I was a pushover for her charms. It was a very warm morning, with the promise of intense heat for the afternoon.
The ensuing trail was one of the most intriguing portions of the entire Appalachian Trail. It climbed out of the gap over a huge rock slide. There were several tough scrambles that probably did not belong on a backpacking trail, but the area possessed a certain unique charm. For the next mile-and-a-half, the AT climbed through a surreal wasted landscape of naked rock -- gigantic boulders covered with chunks of blasted rubble. Occasional black, broken skeletons of dead trees groped upward through the barren mass. There were continuous panoramic views into the smoky industrial valley below. It was not what you could call beautiful, but it was a fascinating change of pace along the long wooded crest of Blue Mountain.
Most of the five miles of trail from Lehigh Gap to Little Gap passed through similar scenery. The ridgecrest was a jumble of small rocks, piles of boulders, dead trees, and scrubby, blackened growth. The entire area resembled the aftermath of a mammoth bombing run. There were a few patches of ripe blueberries and blackberries, but nothing as extensive as those encountered yesterday, so I was able to maintain a decent pace.
The eleven miles between Little Gap and the LeRoy A. Smith Shelter were not nearly as interesting. The rocks were fairly tame for Blue Mountain, but they were a constant presence, taking a further toll on my already badly damaged feet. There was nothing resembling a view. The entire stretch was similar to one of those dragging, boring ridgewalks in central Virginia, only much rockier. It was The Wall with teeth.
A couple of miles before the shelter, I had another strange experience. I passed a southbound hiker wearing a suit and leather dress shoes, a hat pulled down low over his eyes. He kept his gaze pointed straight down at his feet as we passed, as if he was carefully preventing me from seeing his face. Just to see if he was for real, I said hello. He did not even glance up. He was either one very strange dude or simply somebody who could not afford to be recognized.
I had come almost seventeen miles when I arrived at the LeRoy A. Smith Shelter at 4:20. That was where I had planned to spend the night. It was a fine shelter, especially for Pennsylvania, but I was just too restless to stay. The weather had again turned tropical today, and I was hurting. I did not wish to turn tomorrow into another death march race against time by leaving myself with nineteen miles to hike by 5:00 in order to make the Post Office in Delaware Water Gap.
I rested an hour and then pushed my bruised and bloodied feet another four miles to Wind Gap. Once I knew for sure that I was going to make it, I felt chipper enough to make up a little song about what a terrific guy I was. I sang it while I hiked the last half-mile to take my mind off my feet. The song was repulsive, arrogant, and had no redeeming values whatsoever, so I will not burden you with it here.
I walked into the Gateway Motel in Wind Gap at 7:15, having hiked twenty-one miles on only three pints of water. For twenty dollars, I obtained a room for tonight with air conditioning and a television. The owner even threw in a free ride to the McDonalds located two miles away in Wind Gap Village. That policy was a smart move on his part, as hikers will advertise in the registers the businesses that treat us right. Little extras such as saving a backpacker a four-mile round trip walk to dinner mean a lot after a long, hard day on the trail.
Less than fifteen miles of Blue Mountain now remain. I should hit Delaware Water Gap fairly early tomorrow, although no doubt I will get my usual lousy late start from a motel or hotel room tomorrow morning. If there is a cobbler in Delaware Water Gap or Stroudsburg (a larger town located five miles from the village), I will lay over an extra day and have the sole of my left hiking boot repaired. I have used up almost all of the twine which Helen gave me for temporary repairs. The rocks have been chewing it up fairly rapidly. If I cannot find a cobbler, I may just have to buy some more string and make a sprint for Connecticut.
TUESDAY, 7/26/83, MILE 1253.5 --- DELAWARE WATER GAP --- I am writing this entry across the street from my motel in Delaware Water Gap inside a restaurant featuring the first the first all-you-can-eat potato bar I have ever seen. It is 9:00 P.M.
I arrived in Delaware Water Gap Village at 4:30 this afternoon. I hit the Post Office and staggered across the street with my supplies to check out the local hostel. It was a small hostel, but nice -- the finished basement of a local church. It was packed with hikers, some of whom had been there for several days. I did not relish the thought of spending two nights crammed in with so many people, so I walked across the street to a restaurant for directions to the nearest motel. For fifteen dollars I obtained a small cabin at the Delaware Water Gap Motor Inn with a large bathroom of my very, own and a small porch complete with patio lounge chairs.
The final battle of the Mileage Machine and Blue Mountain began this morning at 8:15. The rocks today were the worst I had yet seen. I probably encountered no more than two-and-a-half miles of decent footway all day, and virtually all of that was along gravel roads.
Over the course of the past few days, I have been barely able to hobble around the shelters at night on my smashed-up feet. The initial five or ten minutes of hiking each morning has been a continuing adventure in pain. After that, my feet would become desensitized from all of the pounding, and the pain would fade to very bearable dull ache for the remainder of the day. Except, of course, for those occasions when I stub one of my toes on another rock for the twentieth time in the past few days.
The initial climb out of Wind Gap was tough but short. Less than a mile out on the trail, my last piece of twine broke, occasioning much flopping around of my left hiking boot's sole and some coarse language from out of my usually civilized mouth (hey, this is my story, okay . . . ). I attempted to tie the boot up with a small piece of plastic-coated cord I had found lying in the trail, but the knot refused to stay tight. The cord slipped off of my boot five times in less than five minutes, leading to more uncharacteristic vulgarity on my part ( . . . and I can tell it any way I want).
I finally had a brainstorm. I cut off a short piece from the small coil of rope I carry in my backpack, and bound up my shoe with that. This worked fairly well. It was bulky and awkward to walk on, but it only slipped from off of my shoe three or four times over the course of the remainder of the day's hike. With all of the rocks along the trail, I may just have uttered one or two more mild oaths as I walked along, although, God knows, it is not like me to use foul language.
During the course of today's hike, the sole of my right boot began peeling, creating a nice rhythmic cadence with my left sole. It sounded like I was hiking in flip-flops. I need to find a cobbler. My frequent early stops to attend to the boots slowed me down considerably, but I made decent time once the more serious problem was straightened out. When I reached the Kirkridge Shelter at 12:45, I had polished off another eight-and-a-half miles of Pennsylvania. Six miles to go. I rewarded myself for this effort with a half-hour lunch break. As was the case yesterday, today's trail was bone dry, but I was able to tank up on fluids from a water pump at a private retreat about five minutes from the shelter on a side trail. I drank all the water I could hold -- well over a quart -- and put about a cup in my canteen for the trail ahead. That was more water than I would need for a six-mile hike after having just saturated my tissues, but sometimes you just have to live a little.
The next two miles or so of trail was one unbroken rock pile. Using mind control techniques which will be described in my next book, The Principles of Psychotic Backpacking, I convinced myself that Blue Mountain was throwing everything it had into one final vain attempt to destroy me, and just kept plugging away, ignoring the beating my feet were taking. Mercifully, I arrived at a gravel road, which the Appalachian Trail followed for the ensuing mile-and-a-half to the top of Mount Minsi. I took a ten minute break at the summit, drinking the last of my water, and began the long descent to the Delaware River.
Somewhere during the course of this final downhill it occurred to me that the first ridge I would be hiking in New Jersey was actually a continuation of Blue Mountain. They were segments of one continuous ridge, separated by a gap carved by the Delaware River (hence the name Delaware Water Gap -- duh). I would by no means be finished with Blue Mountain's rocks once I crossed into New Jersey. I filed this cheerful thought away for later and continued down. The trail was steep and rocky in stretches, but the most spectacular scenery since Shenandoah helped. The trail skirted a series of high cliffs overlooking the deep cleft cut through the Kittatinny Mountains by the broad Delaware River. A few miles below Interstate 80 and Stroudsburg's minor urban sprawl, the wild, wooded gorge could have been in another universe.
The trail slanted northward, descending across the Pennsylvania face of the gorge. A dense cloud of Blue Mountain's most persistent fauna swarmed escorted me off the mountain, leaving greasy smears of my own blood on my arms and legs as I killed them. These seemed to compliment the patchwork of thorn scars, so I left them. My long battle with Blue Mountain was a bloody one, but victory was near.
At 4:15 p.m. EDT, I stepped off of the footpath onto a gravel road. I soon hit a paved road. Crowds of cheering villagers lined the streets to hail my arrival . . .
. . . Well, maybe not. Across the river, New Jersey awaited with a new series of challenges. But first, a rest and a shoe repair.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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