Phew! I know this follow-up is a bit late, but let me tell you that I am the WORST. If you hadn’t already guessed that at least. I go on a trip and then I start right back into work and work and sleep and I pay very little attention to the internet world.
The Appalachian Trail. Yikes. Props to everyone and anyone who has done a segment or the whole thing through. I have decided to just give you a day-by-day type play since it’s the easiest way to explain our trip. Also please forgive any editing/POV/tense issues. I’ll resolve all of it, I just want to get it out there first!
Michael and I drove out to Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania to meet up with our driver, also named Michael. We met up at the trailhead parking lot there in Boiling Springs and caught a ride with him to the Caledonia trail-head thirty-some miles south-west. MDK and our driver bonded over folk music (Michael two is a folk musician and MDK worked for Folkway Records in DC) and then moved on to what kind of wildlife we would find on the trail, and if a ‘bear hang’ was truly necessary. We arrived at the trailhead around noon, said our goodbyes to our driver (who was prepared to come get us at the drop of a hat, if we experienced any trouble) and stepped onto the trail.
The air was cooler once we stepped inside the trees and as we appreciated the hush of our clodhopper boots hitting the soft pine needle trail, a bug flew into Michael’s eye. I could still hear the semi’s flying by on the highway and already we had a crisis. It will never cease to amaze me how weird people can be about their eyeballs. I know I feel this way because I wear contacts and have habitually touched my eyeballs and moved things around on them for over twelve years. But still, to break out in a sweat over the simple IDEA of touching just your EYELID. COME ON! I kept asking a panicked MDK to hold out his eyelid and blink. Couldn’t do it. He kept asking me to wipe the little bug out with my finger but would become so agitated at me approaching his eye I couldn’t get it before he started bugging out (pun intended). It finally ended up in the inner corner of his eye and after several attempts at swiping it away but only hitting his cheek, I finally was able to get it out. Poor guy. No, I do not mind touching my eyeballs. Yes, gnat’s squirming around your eyelid is discomforting.
By quarter to one, we were actually on our way following the white blazes, hoping to get in about ten miles before crashing for the night. The first mile seemed pretty mild and then we hit a super steady up-hill climb. Man-made gravel stairs two feet high led us up to a ridge we followed for a while. The sky became overcast and MDK, using his super-fancy awesome watch, predicted rain. Not long after that prediction, it began. We both pulled on rain gear and put the duck covers on our packs and kept on. After hitting a mile-marker we realized we were traveling about two and a half miles per hour which would put us at our first shelter by six. The rain falling quietly around us, chatter slowed and our heart rates picked up. We were getting tired so we were walking fast-paced, thinking the shelter would be just around the next bend. Or the next one. Or the next one? Please the next one! Our feet were exhausted, we were hungry, and out of water.
Finally we hit the shelter and found another group there as well. They showed us the water source and we hung up our things hoping they would find time to dry underneath the porch roof. Keith and his daughter were from PA and had hiked several parts of the trail before. Keith had, anyway. He asked us if we were considering a through-hike, which felt like a compliment but might have been more of a “your young, you could do it much easier than I” type thing. He became a life-saver when we realized our gas canister had a threaded neck, meaning the stove we brought for it wouldn’t pop on. (Let me also say that I had practiced at home with this borrowed stove several times to make sure I knew what was going on, but didn’t realize the subtle difference between the two gas canisters.) Quickly we realized we packed about five to eight pounds more than we needed to with a useless stove, gas canister, food we couldn’t cook, a sleeping mat we would use, etc. THAT PESTO CAME IN HANDY THOUGH!! We ate dinner (pasta & pesto & tuna) and then promptly climbed into the shelter and passed out.
Day Two. Part One.
I now understood the phrase “A fitful night’s sleep”. Sleep was……possible at best. No time to dwell though, we were prepared for an eighteen mile day and needed to accomplish it before night fall. Our goal was to hit Pine Grove Furnace by noon to put us at two and a half to three miles per hour. The first few hours were like frolicking through a wood! The trail was still covered with those forgiving pine needles and the sun was shining. We passed through the ‘half-way point’ marking 1,092 miles down and 1,092 miles to go for through hikers. We saw a snake: Michael stepped right over it not knowing. Toward the end of our morning hike, we hit a jungle-like section where you couldn’t even see the trail you were walking on, it was so covered in wild vines. I started hearing children laughing and dogs barking which fooled me into thinking we would be close to our halfway point, which promised ice cream. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending which way you were going) Pine Grove Furnace is a campground that offers several hiking trails, which meant the dogs and other voices did not indicate ice cream, but families on a day hike to Sunset Rocks. In another hour plus we finally reached Pine Grove Furnace and the general store. Full of bikers on a Sunny Saturday day ride. We ate a grilled cheese, drank a coke (the only time I ever want a soda is when I’m super fatigued and it’s only a coke that will bring me back!), ate two whopping cones of ice cream, and let a tear slip down our cheeks when we put the packs back on.
A brief but necessary interlude: Things you resent your pack for-
- Digging into your hips where the hip strap is, so that in front and back you have bruises
- Feeling impossible to put on after taking it off for longer than it takes to simply adjust straps
- How exact the ties must be for least pain possible. Shoulder straps, hip straps, top pack straps – all must be redone each and every time the pack comes off. As if getting it back on weren’t hard enough!
- Climbing steep rocks while balancing the weight on your back. Scary.
- How sweaty the clothing between you and the pack gets and never seems to dry completely. How itchy that can make everything.
Day Two. Part Two.
Our path out of Pine Grove Furnace led us up a steady incline for about three miles. Am I exaggerating? Was it more like two? It could have been, but that incline seemed never-ending at the time. Unless I’m on a bike, I always prefer a higher grade: steep but short is my motto! We had to hike eight to ten miles to the next shelter, and the first few were giving me some problems for sure. The path also became increasingly more hazardous. There were small rocks embedded in the path, which meant a lot of our energy was spent looking down at where you were stepping so you wouldn’t eat it. This only became worse the further we trudged. Every time we passed a sign for the next shelter, it seemed to leave out the one we were currently headed for, so we had no clue as to how many miles we had left. We could only guess based on our mph from earlier in the day, and that wasn’t spot on because it was much slower going with all of the rocks.
Once again, we ran out of water. We hit a spring thirty minutes later, thank goodness. MDK made a lovely little trek to the bottom of a hill (“Please please please do not make me go down that hill I do not think I will come back up!”) to refill our camelbaks and water bottles. On we went. It started to get dark. I started to get hysterical. We finally hit a sign that indicated there was something 0.4 miles off the trail. It was not clear if it was a shelter. Lucky for us, it was!
We met Larry, a knowledgeable man from Moorestown who was on a seven-day solo hike. The world is such a small place, we knew many of the same people. Furthermore, MDK and I had spent the day asking questions about the AT we knew neither of us had the answer to and buono fortuna brought us Larry. He presided on the Conservation Board for many years in the nineties, I think. Could have been the eighties. Either way. He was able to provide a plethora of information, including the tidbit that the Pennsy section of the AT is notoriously the hardest. For many reasons, (people can’t handle they are only half-way, it’s not as scenic with views of beautiful peaks and valleys,etc) but the one I found most important was that it is the rockiest. “It is where hiking boots go to die,” said Larry. Apparently, most through-hikers that end up quitting, do so in Pennsylvania. Another helpful tidbit, was his camping stove. A whitebox stove, which is a bit of a cult classic among hikers, might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I cannot even describe it, except to say that I am buying one and saying ‘farewell’ to any grand ideas of fancy snap together stoves or jetboils. I am probably forgetting all of the other awesome things that Larry taught us (there were many) but we were so exhausted we pitched the tent, ate Clif bars dipped in peanut-butter, and passed out.
We did it. We hiked eighteen miles in one day. But Sunday was a brand new day with another ten for us to get done to get back to Boiling Springs. Luckily, Larry started us off with some Via coffee made fresh from his WHITEBOX STOVE. What a guy, that Larry. So thankful to him! He also showed us a map of what we would be hiking that day and pointed out elevations, mileage, and springs so we were well-prepared. Our camelbaks full of water and our stomachs filled with coffee we started off. We were to climb and descend five ridges. They were STEEP! By the third we had to navigate some giant boulders, which the path cut directly through. Why put the path through the rocks when there is a perfectly good pine needle-ish path ten yards to the right? To prevent erosion. The more people who walk off of the trail, the more likely water is to follow the slight grooves you made which makes soil erosion inevitable. I can’t say much more about our day except that we went up up up and down down down.
On what we thought was the last peak, we ran into a few others who told us we had ‘just one more’ and Boiling Springs might be another hour or so. We ascended and descended the last peak, and followed the path into a….cornfield? I do not know why, but I never thought the AT would cut through cornfields. Or any farm fields. I mean, it has to if it goes through the state of Pennsy but it just never occurred to me. This is where it got tricky. Yes, we were now dealing with bucolic fields, but WHERE DO THEY PUT THE WHITE BLAZES? We ended up lost. In a situation, that were we not so exhausted, we might have avoided. I was almost in tears. My feet HURT, my legs were tired, there was no sight of anything resembling the small town of Boiling Springs, and WHY DID WE WALK SO FAR WITHOUT LOOKING FOR A BLAZE? I climbed five peaks that day and a farm field got me? We turned around, despite my cries of “Michael just go find the car and come pick me up!” and eventually found the path, parallel to the one we had been walking. It was literally on the other side of the field that we were on. And suddenly, bam, we were in the parking lot looking at my car.
In desperate want of coffee, we stopped at an awful truck stop off of I-276. You know the kind, Burger King, Starbucks, Roy Rogers, weird state paraphernalia you think no one could possibly want, and total weirdos. Well, this time, we were those weirdos. We smelled, we were dirty, and totally crazy-eyed. People in the line at Starbucks (I know, we were desperate) stepped away from us. Women in the bathroom watched in disgust as I washed my face and took a paper-towel bath. Michael and I cackled our way back to the car.
Back at the ranch we ordered obscene amounts of Indian takeout, watched TV and promptly ended our adventure, asleep at 8pm.
This trip was made possible by: Michael Two, Ruth, Andrew, Laurie, Alan, Cynthia, and Don. Thanks for all of the equipment lends, recommendations, and encouragement! MDK, thanks for being such a trooper. That last half-hour was a mean kindergarten teacher but you helped me get over it! Can’t wait for next time.