I know that “hate” is a really strong word, but please take the title of the post in context. In my past two weeks in Pennsylvania I’ve experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows on the trail to date. I’ve had moments where I felt in the groove – “on” – bounding from boulder to boulder, skillfully dancing among the rocks. And I’ve had moments of genuine fear – bordering on despair – where I’ve had to stop dead in my tracks, close my eyes, and force myself to breathe.
When one looks at the state’s flatlined elevation profile in the AT Guide, one might think, “This is going to be a walk in the park.” But do not be deceived, no! The aptly named Rock-sylvania will have a few surprises in store for you. Or at least it had a few surprises in store for me.
The moment I passed the Mason Dixon line, it seems, the terrain changed – and for the better, might I add. The trail in Maryland is short, but the last five miles or so are steep and rocky, which made me excited to move on. And remember I said I was in a bit of a rut, so that probably didn’t help.
And ya know what happened when I got into Pennsylvania? Not only did the terrain level out and become scattered with easily manageable rocks, but also the shelters started to improve (not that they weren’t already good…).
One night Lentil, Techie, and I came upon Tumbling Run shelter, which had two matching huts, one for snorers and the other for non-snorers. Can you guess where Techie ended up? I slept so soundly that night (giggle, just kidding, Techie….kind of). Another night I hiked onto Quarry Gap shelter, which was decorated with hanging flower baskets, a sundial, and an entry gate painted with ducks, not to mention the deck of cards and board games for hiker use.
As I progressed through the first half of Pennsylvania, I plodded along slowly. Looking back at my log, there was a solid week and a half in which I neither took zeros nor hiked more than 15 miles in any given day, dependent mostly on the soggy weather. It was really relaxing and helped shake me out of my slump. Techie, on the other hand, pulled ahead and once again ended up apart. And Lentil spent a day here, a day there zeroing (in an attempt to dodge rain drops) and then hiking big miles to catch me.
Ultimately, after having hiked through easily graded wooded trail, rolling fields, and painfully flat farms, and even taking in a play (Happy Days, the musical. Whoa!) at the Allenberry Playhouse in Boiling Springs, we made our way to Duncannon.
In Duncannon, we stayed at an AT institution known as The Doyle. This place is an old hotel and restaurant/bar that’s definitely seen better days. The building is more or less falling apart, the roof badly water damaged and the walls and floors cracked. Generally that didn’t bother me. However, my mattress was comparable to sleeping on a bed of spikes, the springs painfully poking into the center of my back. I spent the night curled into a ball in the corner of the twin mattress trying to avoid the torture device. Lentil compared the place to the scene from the movie Big where Tom Hanks’ character spends his first night in an adult body. I, on the other hand, thought it was charming.
The following day Lentil and I hiked out and crossed over what I can safely describe as the ugliest patch of the trail I’ve seen to date. Right out of town we walked over the Susquehanna River, paralleling harried commuters and screaming sixteen-wheelers. The mid-afternoon heat combined with car exhaust and a shadeless concrete path to make for a much-to-be-desired experience.
After hiking ten miles to the Peters Mountain shelter, we hunkered down and waited for monsoon-like rain to bare down on us. In truth, I’d planned to zero all along because it had been a week and a half since I’d had a day off. So it didn’t bother me when the rain never came. However, all the following day we saw hikers coming through hemming and hawing over the overcast skies.
This resulted in a full shelter of sixteen people, and almost all of them were thru-hikers! Not weekenders. Not section hikers. I think that warrants repeating: sixteen thru-hikers in one shelter. I hadn’t experienced such a crowd since the Smokies. And the best part is that I reunited with people I hadn’t seen in days, weeks, even months. One guy had even taken my picture on top of Springer Mountain on Day 1. Pilgrim, Finder, Tug Boat, Life Raft, Fatty, Boone, Doc, Spider Mac, Fables, among others. I got to see them all…rewarded just for taking a little break in the woods.
The next week was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Thus reenergized from our break, we put in consistent days averaging about 20 miles per.
At first I was pumped and excited to push the heavy miles. The terrain was getting interesting (rock hopping, boulder climbing), and the sites diverse. One day I jumped over a rocky crevice to sit and enjoy a view. Suddenly, Lentil said, “Can I borrow your camera? My phone is dead.” I responded, “Sure. Why? Do you want to take a picture of me surrounded by poison ivy?” (Lentil is allergic to poison ivy. I am not, so this exchange happens semi-regularly.) “yeah, yeah, that’s why.”
After a minute or two, Lentil casually said, “Don’t move too quickly, but there are three rattlesnakes behind you.” It turned out they were copperheads, but either way, we didn’t linger long.
A couple days later during a snack break I was bending over stretching my hamstrings when Lentil said, “Come over here right now. I’ll tell you why in a second.” Coming directly toward me – and my pack – was a large sluggish timber rattlesnake.
So see? Even though the hills had leveled out and the views had diminished since entering PA, there was still plenty to hold our attention. I couldn’t complain.
But then something happened. Somewhere in the last hundred miles or so, the terrain became increasingly rocky and the weather warm and humid. My body slowly started to resist, and I had a hard time holding it together. I don’t have any of the standard phobias: heights, spiders, snakes, etc. But there were several ascents and descents that completely stopped me dead in my tracks and brought me close to tears.
The first one was the last descent into Port Clinton. It was a straight shot and the downhill so sheer, and by then my legs were exhausted from the lengthy pounding. All I could do was stop, bow my head into the handle of my trekking poles, and let out a private wail. I then collected myself with a few deep breaths, talked myself down from panic, and slowly tiptoed down down down into town.
This same irrational near-panic happened several more times in the following days, a couple times on random uphills and a few times on steep downhills that required climbing over boulders with the strength of my entire body. And let’s be clear: I do not have much strength in my entire body. I kept finding the muscles in my legs shaking and my arms feeling like Jello. And I shouldn’t forget to mention how easily my arms and legs were bruising and scratching/bleeding. In retrospect, I was pushing my body beyond its limit.
I’m not sure if you can tell from this picture, but it got to the point that any time I brushed my skin against a rock or shrub, it began to leave a pretty painful reminder.
Point being, quickly the flavor of my motivation morphed from excitement over the terrain to desire to be done with Pennsylvania. I want to reiterate, though, that I really enjoyed the state. It was the most challenging I’ve experienced so far but also a bunch of fun. I mean, for goodness sake, the AT climbs the Palmerton Superfund site, and it definitely puts the fun in Superfund. Really what I’d love is to hike the state again without my heavy pack. It’d be a blast as a series of day hikes.
Ultimately, I made it to Delaware Water Gap. When I described my symptoms to a couple of relatives, I was informed I need to eat more dark leafy greens and take a multivitamin.
OK, got it. Considering how I’ve been feeling, you don’t have to tell me twice. And ya know, for good measure, as long as I’m at it, it might help to get the heck out of PA. Onto Joisey.