Our 5am Hike on the AT


Our thoughts were optimistic for this section of the Appalachian trail.  When I mentioned the hike, many people responded with, “Oh, that is the most beautiful part.  Really, you’ll absolutely love it.  I’m very jealous.”

The last experience left us a little broken:  we overpacked, and underestimated the distances.  We got lost during the very last mile, in a cornfield of all places.  We brought faulty equipment.  But it seems none of that was enough to keep us away.  Itching for more abuse, we packed our bags last minute and took off for a better, more organized hike.  Or so we thought.

A little after 9am Chuck dropped us off at the trailhead in Culver’s Gap, with some on point advice, “If it stops being fun, then you should stop.”  We heard him, agreed, and then tromped merrily along.

The hike started fantastic.  It was cool and a little damp, but none of this affected us as we hiked up up up, climbing to the top of a ridge which we would then follow up and down for around ten miles.  The paths were fairly rocky, our least favorite aspect of hiking in PA, but it didn’t matter as we were making great time and enjoying the endorphins.  Plus, how many people get to take a long weekend to hike!  I felt pretty quickly that this time would be better than last – our packs were so light and my endurance had obviously increased since beginning crossfit.  Spirits were high.

Around 1pm we began a descent off of a ridge where we had eaten a quick lunch.  The trail was soft, leaf-covered, with only a few embedded rocks that were easily avoided.  Down, down, down we went.  Over a swamp and small stream where we refilled our water.  At some point, I began to question the softness and width of the trail.  It seemed too…..easy.  Something was off.  I started looking for white blazes.  Every few minutes I would think I saw one until I got close enough to realize it was just lichen.  Finally I voiced what I was desperately hoping wasn’t true.  We were lost.  We promptly turned around and began hiking back up up up, thinking we had seen a blaze near the stream we crossed over.  Or maybe it was the swamp right before it?  Surely we had seen one near that funky tree formation?  We certainly could not have walked two plus miles out of our way?

We did.  Downhill.  Which meant the hour it took us to chat ourselves lost, was almost doubled on our hike back.  Michael, who was much farther ahead of me on the ‘trail’ and understandable aggravated, raised his arms and shouted a few obscenities.  He eventually disappeared around a curve.  While I was approaching the curve, I heard a man’s voice, much too deep and scratchy to be Michael.  Still, I asked tentatively, “Michael?”  No answer.  I stood quiet.  Again, a man’s voice, this time sounding like it was right behind me.  “Michael?!” I asked, my voice wavering with obvious fear.  Why was this person hiding?  “Michael???” I asked a final time, sounding so incredibly fearful and pathetic, that finally someone decided to put me out of my misery.  “Err, I think he’s a little ahead of you on the trail,” the same male voice said, which directed my vision through the brush.  I finally could make the outlines of a group of four men, who were sitting on a rock sipping from their canteens.  Embarrassed for acting like such a ninny, I quickly thanked them and continued on.  It was not until I was several paces away that I had realized they must have been on the AT trail, just slightly parallel but completely hidden from the trail we were on.  We had finally found it.  Then it started raining.

The soft rain didn’t bother us, but the cloud cover shrouded the ‘beautiful views’ we were promised.  We hiked on, through a forest still dead from the brutal winter.  We were slower and defeated by our mistake – we needed to keep hiking until late evening, if we hoped to make any sort of distance for our first day.  By 5:30 we were exhausted and ready to find a site and eat dinner.  Tent pitched, we ate pad thai while sitting on a rock fifty feet from our camp.  It was too chilly to sit for long and really enjoy a hot meal.

As I was hanging our food and food-tinged clothes from a tree, darkness began to set in, and with that darkness, fog.  A deep gray mist settled on the earth, basking everything in a creepy glow.  Our lack of movement began to make it clear that it was quite cold out.  And very damp.  We layered on the few clothes we had available and got into the sleeping bags, preparing for an early nights rest.  Within ten minutes it was apparent that the cold wet ground was seeping through the tent, and also right through our sleeping bags.  Michael pulled out the emergency heating blanket Cynthia gave me for Christmas, and laid it on the floor of the tent, under our sleeping bags.  Sweet warmth reflected back at us.  From the darkness of our sleeping bags we used my phone’s google map app, and routed ourselves to Delaware Water gap, knowing we could not handle another night of cold.  Especially since thunderstorms and heavy rain were predicted for the next evening.  We had to make it to town the next day.  Our little tent was no match for thunderstorms.  When the map determined it was 18 miles to town, I knew we were fine.  Last time around we hiked 18 miles our second day even with incredibly heavy packs and little experience backpacking.  It would take some effort, but we could definitely do it.

We spent the night huddling together in our small two person tent.  Or more realistically, I spent the night cuddling Michael as he snored softly.  His body heat was enough to help quell my shaking, but not enough to allow for peaceful sleep.  The heating blanket became covered in dew, making it ineffective at keeping me warm.  Plus our water proof pack covers were outside covering our boots, and every time the wind shuffled them, I pictured a bear sniffing out the pad thai.  Eventually I decided that if I were a bear, there would be no way I would be that far from town, where the apple pie shop and huge glorious dumpsters lived.  Fact about bears, they LOVE apple pie.

Michael woke us around 4am – I felt like I had bear-ly slept a wink.  I was resistant to leaving my sleeping bag, especially since it was pitch black out still.  Lucky me, Michael gathered the bear bag and our shoes so I could stay in the tent and pack up the sleeping bags.  We hit the trail not long after waking, our headlights tilted downwards so we could plan each step carefully.  The rocks were back in full force and had the added benefit of being slick with dew.  Once we were moving I warmed up.  We poured some instant coffee into a canteen and hoped that plus what water I had left would get us a good distance.

Late morning, we ran into Matt, a fellow we met at the apple pie shop the morning before.  He briefly complained about Mohegan Sun campground ($40 for a bunk filled with rat feces, $9 for a picnic table), and told us what to expect along the next section of the trail.  When we told him we were headed for town that day, he indicated it would be an easy hike.  I was relieved.  I knew we could hike 18 miles, but having someone who just walked it confirm it, really soothed me.

We continued on, passing Mohegan Sun camp around lunch time, reaching Sunfish pond not long after.  Everyone had raved about this particular feature, and maybe if I had the time (or desire) to swim I would have found it extra-beautiful, but otherwise it was just a pond with a squishy bottom.  Surrounded by rocks.  Which we had to climb over.  Ugh.  Not enjoyable.  We were so tired of the rocks, I had to pull out an emergency pack of honey-lemon cough drops to cheer us up.  At this point, we decided that we were, in fact, no longer having fun.  Thank you, Chuck.  I fear what would have happened had you not left us with that tidbit of advice.  At Del. Water Gap we would call it quits.  Eighteen miles in one day was adventurous enough, we had no need to hike the last 9 miles to our car the next morning, especially since it was still supposed to be cloudy and drizzly.

A few miles from town, we hit a lush down hill path that followed along a beautiful stream – Turtle Beach.  Hey, Turtle Beach, you were way more lovely than Sunfish pond.  Stream>Pond.  Why did no one tell me how beautiful Turtle beach would be?  Why did anyone bother with Sunfish pond?  Yeesh.  Here it is everyone:  Turtle Beach is WAY prettier, cooler (temp), interesting, etc.

Our last mile, which seemed to last forever, involved crossing a huge I-80 bridge from Jersey to Pennsy.  The ambiance of Turtle Beach quickly dissipated as we dodged gravel flicked up by the semi’s passing us at 65 mph.  Pedestrian section or not, I felt far too close to those eighteen wheelers.  Thankfully, humanity prevailed in this situation:  not one person honked their horn at us.

We finally ‘took an exit’ into Delaware Water Gap, and promptly found the ice cream shop.  I ate a bowl of chocolate ice cream with marshmallow sauce the size of my head.  You may not know this, but my head is quite large.  Does chocolate ice cream make me feel better?  Emotionally, yes.  We slept like old men in the soft folds of a hotel bed that night.  Hey, if you walk 18 miles of the Pennsy. AT then you feel you’ve earned the right to sleep in a comfy bed too.

That’s it.  That’s our story.  Hopefully one day we’ll have the chance for a redo, when weather is more permitting.

Obligatory couple photo.
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Obligatory awkward face selfie.
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We climbed down a crazy rock face.  Best part of the hike.
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So dead for April.  Trees were bare, no green but moss.  Still pretty, just vacant.
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Michael got to wear a cool bandana – his father wore it while climbing the White Mountains in NH.DSC01960

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