Thursday, September 24, 2015

Day 7 - Off the Trail

Backpacking a long trail for an extended period is like stepping into a different world. After only a few days your expectations, rhythms, and perceptions shift. Thoreau captured the essence:

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Walden

Those "lowest terms" boil down to the essentials: the rise and fall of the trail you're treading, the rocks and soil under your feet, the miles ahead and behind you, sunshine and rain, water, food, and shelter. 

Touches of Fall were in evidence as I hiked south
I was fortunate to have hiked in the company of some kindred spirits on this trip, so it seemed only fitting that I met many of them when I arrived at the ATC office in Harpers Ferry. Hand shakes, fist bumps, high-fives, and even a hug were exchanged as I accepted congratulations and wished them well for the rest of their journey.

My day today was short, but not uneventful. I awoke to the sound of trucks in the distance, laboring up the grades to cross South Mountain on US 40. My camp mate, Waffle Tread and I both packed up quietly, trying not to disturb Rocky, cowboy camping on the ground next to our sites. Waffle Tread told me he'd arrived at Midnight. Hike your own hike, I guess...

Rocky catches some Zs 
Waffle Tread left before me, while I finished my coffee. We hiked at similar speeds, so I was pretty certain I'd see him down the trail. It was a great morning on a hike distinguished by wonderful weather. The sun slanted through the trees and across the Civil War battlefield of South Mountain, a major engagement in the Antietam campaign.
Spot where Union general Reno fell in battle, 1862. South Mountain., MD.

Soon I caught up to Waffle Tread, at a nice overlook that presented a great southern view of the ridge we would follow until we hit the Potomac River. In this distance I could see the fog that indicated the valley of the Potomac, which we'd follow into Harper's Ferry. 

The ridge the trail follow is in the center. To the right, in the fog, is the Potomac River, leading to Harpers Ferry.
At Gathlands State Park I took a short break for a snack, then pushed on towards the final stretch of ridgeline and the descent to the C & O Canal Towpath, the final 3 miles into Harpers Ferry. Waffle Tread and I hooked up and started hiking together, only to be joined by a beagle dog. I called the number on "Sammy's" tag, and the owner, rather nonchalantly, said he'd meet us when the trail came off the ridge. Unfortunately, Sammy the dog decided to run off after sometime before then. When we met the owner
Waffle Tread and I pose at Weaverton Cliffs
sitting in his car at the agreed upon road crossing he was rather grumpy and put out about the fact I didn't have his dog with me. Turns out that Sammy is a serial offender, and runs off to the AT all the time -- the next hiker down the trail brought him down. My advice -- learn to take care of your own damned dog, and quit leaving it up to us hikers to do it for you (just my opinion).

After an awesome view of the Potomac from Weaverton Cliffs, we trudged up the C & O towpath until we finally reached the promised land of Harpers Ferry. Being a Frenchman, Waffle Tread immediately suggested we stop for a beer. Being an American, I immediately agreed. After at a beer and sandwich at the Potomac Grille (formerly the Secret Six Tavern, but exactly the same as in 2010), we walked up to the ATC Headquarters, where I had a nice reunion with Gravity, Rockman, Highlander, Breezy, and Rocky.

"Spike" is officially photographed at ATC headquarters in Harper's Ferry!

After having my picture taken at ATC HQ, we backtracked to the town and caught the shuttle bus to my car. I drove Waffle Tread to the next trailhead, and hit the highway home, back to the world of fast cars, gas stations, mini-marts, and the the rest of the best of American culture. I can't wait for next year!

Following a white blaze into Harpers Ferry.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Day 6 - Smooth Sailing

Day 6 -- Campsite to Dahlgren Bacpacker's Campground
Distance - 24.3 miles
Time on Trail - 11:30
Speed - 2.1 mph

Yesterday had ended on a down note, sheltering in my tent from rain storms. But overnight the rain abated and I slept well until about 4 AM. By 5 I thought "why not?" and started packing my gear. At 6 AM, sans breakfast, I started off with only my headlamp to guide me.

It was eerie, walking through the darkness and seeing the eyes of owls/deer/raccoons/cougars/bigfoot reflecting in your headlamp's light (I think they were owls, actually), but soon I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line (no Trump wall yet) and struck south into MD.

Sneaking into MD.

At Penmar Park I grabbed a snack and admired the predawn lights of towns to the west. Proceeding south for 5 miles I stopped for my morning Joe at Ravens Roost Shelter. Knowing it was a big day, I also indulged in spoonfuls of peanut butter and trail mix - a simple but potent energy boost.

After some initial climbs and rough going, the trail smoothed out into long ridge walks on wide trails. I started making time, getting on schedule after a slow start in the darkness.

As I hiked, I heard a voice from behind - "Breezy", one of the small bubble of SOBOs I'd been traveling in sync with. She and I hiked along for a mile or so, shooting the breeze, then on a downhill she skipped away. Actually, literally, skipped away. The power of youth...

By now it was a glorious day, sunny but cool, with a touch of fall in the air. I crossed I-70, well caged in to protect the cars below. Beyond that was a quiet residential neighborhood. The oddity of passing well-maintained yards guarded by leashed dogs yapping at hikers was somewhat surreal.

Crossing I-70

A few more miles and I hit the original Washington Monument, a lovely state park (look it up!). Because of a lightning strike the tower was closed, so I admired the view and relaxed in the grass as compensation. 


Still a nice view!

45 minutes later I was in the Dahlgren Backpacker's Campground, a somewhat unique establishment. No fee, ample tent pads, and hot showers. Best of all it's 1/4 mile from a fine restaurant on US 40 (the old National Road) -- the Old South Mountain Inn, a fixture since the days of the French and Indian War. And they love serving hikers (assuming you shower first).

Yup - prime rib (the Tuesday special)

So having showered, eaten (prime rib) , and had some wine, I retired to my tent to catch up today's journey for you. The trail ends for me tomorrow - thanks for tagging along so far with me!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Day 5 - Trail Tag

Day 5 - Quarry Gap Shelter to campsite 
Total distance - 19.9 miles
Time on Trail - 9:50
Average speed - 2 mph

The AT has been described as a "linear community." It's a good description. Bonds form quickly between people traveling the same direction at roughly the same speed. Age doesn't seem to matter. The SOBOs I've met are in their 20s, but take a friendly interest in my daily destination, even encouraging me to travel to the same spots. And it works both ways - I find myself looking forward to seeing familiar faces at the end of the day -- safety in numbers, I guess.

Extended trail "families" have a keen interest in who's ahead and who's behind. Once this was kept track of in shelter registers, but cell phones and texts have taken over a lot of the work. Even after only 5 days on the trail, I have a good idea of the whereabouts of a dozen or so people, and a general idea of when I'll most likely see them again. 

Tonight I'm tenting away from my little bubble of hikers. A lovely spot by a creek, marred only by the fact that it's raining steadily outside. Despite a few raindrops I got in nearly 20 miles and even took an hour lunch break and siesta. And I was able to set up and eat dinner before the rain forced me in.

Day 5 selfie - Chimney Rocks, PA

Tomorrow I cross the Mason-Dixon Line and start crossing Maryland. I'm shooting for the Dahlgren Backpackers Campground. Free, right on the trail, and with hot showers. I'm betting I'll meet some people I know there.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Day 4 - Hitting my stride

Day 4 - Ironmasters Hostel to Quarry Gap Shelter
Distance - 17.4
Time on Trail- 7:15
Avg speed - 2.4 mph

My stay at the Ironmasters Hostel was pleasant and restful. Check-in started promptly at 5 - for $31 I got bed linens, towel, and washcloth; a frozen pizza and a coke. Continental breakfast in the morning too. Waffle Tread and I split the $3 cost of laundry, and soon I was showered, fed, and supplied with clean clothes for the morning. Time for some reading on the porch and blog updating.

At the AT midpoint marker

The plan for today was a 17 mile leg, giving myself a little more break-in time before I upped the mileage over the home stretch. The weather was cooler, traill conditions were good, with a smooth treadway and only a few significant climbs, so despite a 30-minute second breakfast and a nice phone call to Carmel, I rolled into the shelter about 3 PM. 

Wide, smooth trails were common today.

Despite the early hour I resisted the temptation to push on. The shelter was impossibly nice, and my pack would only get lighter as I ate through my food. 

The Quarry Gap Shelter.

A big group is here tonight - 6 thruhikers, including Float, who will complete his hike in Harpers Ferry in a few days. A congenial group, and it looks like a nice evening for sleeping.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Day 3 - Puttering across PA

Day 3
Alec Kennedy Shelter to Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
Time on trail - 8:10
Miles - 16
Avg speed - 1.9 mph

I'd thought I'd be alone at the Alec Kennedy Shelter, but just after dark a dad and two kids hiked in. The kids (boy 10, and girl 11) were delightful and the dad unfailingly polite, so it was fun to talk to them about trail life.

In the morning I described how my stove worked, what I ate, and how I packed my gear to a rapt audience and then hit the trail. 

Today wasn't a long day (about 16 miles) so there was no need to rush. Hike an hour, take a break, hike another hour, take a longer break. 

Seven or so miles in I took a short detour to the Green Mountain General Store; indulged in a Coke and an ice cream sandwich and talked to Waffle Sole, a Frenchman who's done several AT section hikes. 

Moving forward, I stopped for a lunch and nap at the next shelter, catching up with Bee Sting before he moved on.

Lunch and siesta.

After a putzy morning, it was time to make some miles. I picked up the pace and knocked out some solid miles to arrive at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, a lovely PA state park.

As proof I'm in the SOBO bubble I ran into a pod of SOBOs hanging out in the park, most of whom I actually had already met.

SOBOs - what's a 56-year old guy doing hanging out with them? From left: Rockman, Highlander, "unknown", Chill Pickle. Not pictured: Gravity, Breezy.

Tonight I'm at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel with Rocky, Highlander, Chill Pickle, and Waffle Sole. A very nice AT establishment. Showered, laundry done, resupplied, and fed with a frozen pizza, it's time for bed.

View from the porch at the hostel.

Breakfast at 7 AM tomorrow, then back on the trail!


Friday, September 18, 2015

Day 2 - Across the Valley

Day 2
Darlington Shelter to Alec Kennedy Shelter
Time on Trail - 8:30
Total hiked - 18.5
Avg speed - 2.2 mph

If you've driven north on I-81 into Pennsylvania, you've travelled up the Cumberland Valley. Corn and soybean field stretch to the horizon, with light industry, distribution centers, and trucking companies clustered along the Interstate.

Looking right and left, you'll see two green ridges. My goal today was to walk from one to the other.

A morning view of the Cumberland Valley

I got an early start from the Darlington Shelter, dropping into the valley and passing through a rural district and following a scenic creek for some miles. Soon the unmistakable sound of heavy trucks loomed and I moved onto trails though mechanized farm fields toward the monster of I-81. 

Even after crossing, it's noise shadowed me for miles, eventually receding into the background as I passed through rural districts of suburbs and family farms.

Hiking the corn fields

I finally hit my lunch destination of Boiling Springs, an impossibly cute town, complete with a duck pond. At the regional AT office I met SOBO thru hikers Rock Man, Highlander, and Gravity. I'm pleased to report that every thru I've met so far has assumed I've also hiked from Maine - I'm taking that as a compliment...

The "Children's Pond" in Boiling Springs

After a few more miles I was out of the corn and back into the woods. Despite a couple of invites from the SOBOS to go a bit further and camp with them, I bailed at my planned destination. 18+ was enough for me today!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Day 1 - Trail Legs

Day 1 - Duncannon to Darlington Shelter
Miles - 11.5
Time on trail - 5:30
Average speed - 2.1 mph

There's a term in training called "specificity." To wit, cross training can be valuable, but you need to practice primarily in the sport you want to gain mastery in. One day on the trail has been enough to remind me of that principle, as I've started to break in a whole new set of muscles, and the aches that go with them. But on the whole, a good start. 

The first half of the day was spent getting to the start. A 2-1/2 hour drive to Harpers Ferry, a two hour ride my shuttle driver, and I was at the doorstep of the Doyle Hotel, a tired old 1905 hotel in the tired little blue-collar town of Duncannon, PA. 

The Doyle is an AT landmark, epitomizing the somewhat scruffy reality of AT hiking (high-end trekking it's not...). But the hosts are friendly, and thy actually make a good cheeseburger, complete with fresh-cut fries. And a beer at 11:30 seemed OK too.

Fueled up, I climbed out of town and onto the trail. 45 minutes later I was rewarded with a nice vista of the town and the Susquehanna River. Then it was into the green tunnel.

After several miles of slow and rocky trail, things smoothed out a bit and I started to make some better time, stopping  on the hours to stay hydrated. I made it into the shelter around 6, in time for dinner and a little company, with a husband and wife who retired early, a couple of other section hikers, and two SOBOs - Rocky and Bee Sting. A little time by the fire, then off to bed in my tent.