“Sometimes we spend so much time and energy thinking about where we want to go that we don’t notice where we happen to be.” – Dan Gutman
The car ride up to our latest Appalachian Trail section hike was an entertaining one. From stopping at a gas station called “Fill’er Up” next to “She’s Got Crabs” restaurant to sticking gum to our foreheads, we all had some good laughs. James bought a pack of Big Red gum, and Ken told the boys about how he and his friends would stick “it” to their foreheads to see who could hold out the longest, because it would burn. After the second attempt wherein James told us there was no burning, we realized he had been sticking the gum on his forehead, not the wrapper. So when he did lick the wrapper and stuck it against his forehead, it did indeed burn, and continued to do so after he peeled it off. He had been warned it would hurt. Next Charlie decided he wanted to try it and again, started to complain after he took the wrapper off that his forehead burned. We laughed, but I thought about this moment on the hike when my feet were torn up by blisters and I was hobbling forward the best I could. I knew this would hurt, but yet I wanted to experience it anyway. This trip is notable since it was a PR for the kids and also our first bear encounter on the AT.
We met Mike at PA 443 (mile 11 early Saturday morning and he took us north to our drop off at PA 183 (mile 1205.5). The parking lot was packed, and we chatted with a camper for a bit before starting our hike, who warned us about a rattle snake up the trail a bit, and offered us some smoked trout. Starting the hike, Charlie complained about his back hurting and we wondered if the boys would make the full 13.3 miles we had planned for the day. There was always the option to hike less, but I worried a bit about the availability of campsites since it was Memorial Day weekend, and a gorgeous one at that. I immediately noticed how rocky the trail was. We were all tripping and the kids kept saying “stupid medium rocks.” The forest was lush with fields of ferns. It had been a while since we had all gone out hiking, let alone backpacking. James mentioned a few times that he kept having deja vu, which I also experience on these trips. So far many parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania have been very similar.
About three miles into the hike we took a wrong turn, following a different path down to an old damn, or maybe quarry? There were several rope swings, a small waterfall and man did Charlie want to jump into the water. Two young men we ended up seeing a few times throughout the day had gone in and said that the water was cold. Fearing relentless complaints, blisters and other discomforts, we passed on letting the kids take a dip. We continued on back to the trail and towards William Penn Shelter. The trail was pretty flat along the ridge of Blue Mountain. We saw more hikers than we have ever passed before, including a group of Amish men and boys. Charlie said, very audibly, “they look like leprechauns.” I was mortified and remembered the time I pointed to a man with a turban on his head, which I pointed to and said “Mommy, why is that man wearing a towel on his head.” Oh the importance of exposing children to different cultures, religions and individuals.
My feet began to form hotspots from the rocky terrain, which I ignored. What I couldn’t ignore was the fact that my blood sugar went under 40, twice while we walked along. Charlie and James both went low too. I was a little nervous about the fact that 3 of the 4 of us are now Type 1 diabetics, and knowing that exercise, heat and stress can all impact blood sugar control, I did the best I could to try to mitigate the lows by adjusting our insulin levels. It didn’t work out perfectly. On top of that, we didn’t have time to do a proper shake down before the hike, so as I kept shoving gummy bears down my throat, I began to worry that we didn’t have enough low food on us. Being the only non-diabetic, Ken offered to not eat anymore of his protein bars in case we needed those to treat low blood sugars.
Shower Steps is a beautiful vista with views of the valley to the southwest. We stopped there around 1 to eat protein bars, and various snacks for lunch. At this point I should have put some moleskin on my hotspots, or tape, or something, but instead I put my feet up and enjoyed the rest from the foot pain. To prevent blisters I use a thin layer of toe socks under thicker wool socks. After this trip I will be returning my new hiking boots to REI in search of a better fitting boot. Aside from that, I need to do more research since I am prone to blisters and with diabetes I need to pay attention to my foot health. I didn’t know that there is a certain way to lace hiking boots either before I stumbled on this website. The steps are just past the 1,200 mile mark, which was decorated when we passed by with white stones.
“Success comes from having dreams that are bigger than your fears.” – Bobby Unser
Eleven or so miles into the hike, the kids started to slow down some. They were tired, their feet hurt too, and they were ready to be done hiking. There is a small 2 spot site about a mile from the William Penn Shelter, and I considered stopping there for the night, but we had consumed almost all of our water, and the shelter site had a marked water source. We would need to find water, plus I was worried about the possible lack of enough low food to get us back to the truck, so we pushed on. I knew we needed to get back to the truck by the next evening so that we would be safe. Charlie, who is 10 and was carrying about 10 pounds, started to cry and he was really upset. I offered to take his pack for a bit, and we talked about the feeling we get after accomplishing something big. He knew that 13.3 miles was just over a half marathon length. With that extra bit of encouragement, he took his pack back after only a few minutes of me carrying it and we made it to the campsite. Some warmed up, hydrated camp food did the trick to bring all of our energies and spirits back up.
Saturday evening I had logged about 340 miles on the Appalachian Trail in under 2 years and I had yet to see a bear. We got a little overly confident, in fact, that we wouldn’t see any. I was more worried about the rattlesnakes and copperheads. Around 1 am, all 4 of us packed like sardines in the same tent, I half woke up to hear what I thought was someone messing around with their freeze-dried meals. Then I heard Ken assembling the airhorn next to me and I realized that I was hearing a bear. There were 2 other hikers at the campsite, and a handful more at the shelter nearby, so I felt relieved that we were not alone, but the bear sounded close. As we began to whisper about a bear being nearby, Charlie’s phone alarmed loudly. He was dangerously low. I had to get him food, and fast. We had put all our food, save for one pack of glucose tablets in a bear bag. Armed with an airhorn, bear spray and a knife, Ken and I got out of the tent and shone the flashlight around. The bear had started to leave the proximity, but it was still about 30 yards away, and it was looking back at us. I grabbed a handful of the glucose tablets, and I went back to the tent while Ken watched as the bear turned and kept walking away. I woke up Charlie and told him to eat as fast as possible, suddenly terrified that the bear was going to come after the sugar that was being fed to my son. I licked my hand incessantly desperate to get off any participles of orange-smelling sugar powder. Charlie went right back to sleep, totally unaware. Ken and I stayed up awhile longer, waiting for the adrenaline to leave our systems. Eventually Ken started to softly snore and I said prayer to the universe to protect us, and fell back asleep.
Sunday we ate a lot of food. We knew we would make it back to the truck, only 10 miles to go in the day. I had also discovered that we did have plenty more low food in our packs, so I was less concerned about running out of life-saving carbohydrates. We incentivized the kids with promises of donuts at the end of the hike, but that meant we had to get going since most donut shops close fairly early. A night’s rest was good for my feet, and while I had hot spots, no blisters had formed yet. I put some glide all over my feet and opted for one pair of socks and we took off at a really good pace. James, who will be 12 in July, was the leader of the pack. Knowing that my feet might become an issue, he already carried the second portable charger and some of my food. James and Charlie got into a sibling argument, so I sent James up ahead to walk with Ken, while Charlie and I hung back a bit and talked about the relationship he has with his brother. Charlie is a sensitive kid, a bit of an empath, so we explored the idea of vulnerability and how the people we are closest to, we are vulnerable around. That does mean that we can be more easily hurt by them because they know us so well. As we talked, we completed a slight incline before getting to Little Mountain Overlook. James and Ken already had their packs off, and were eager to tell us about the morning routine James had worked out for himself for this summer. As Ken watched me hobble up the hill, he knew my feet were in bad shape. My hotspots had turned into blisters, I was missing a toenail, and “Rocksylvania” was living up to its reputation. The boys enjoyed the views while I patched up my feet as best I could. We were cruising just over 2 miles an hour, but we still had about 6 miles to go and I was already cursing the trail in my head.
“Thoughts come and go. Feelings come and go. Find out what it is that remains.” – Ramana Maharshi
James took more weight from my pack. Later, Ken would carry Charlie’s pack for a bit near the end of the 10 miles. It was amazing for me to watch us all take turns carrying each other’s load. In the chaos of divorce, being the head of household, teaching during and right after the pandemic, I went into survival mode and rarely did I stop to look up to see if anyone else needed help. Coming out of that state, I am way more aware of who around me needs a hand, especially those who don’t even think to ask for one. The feeling of someone coming along and, quite literally lightening your load just when you’re about to give up, is one of such genuine human connection. Eons ago humans traveled in packs together, we needed one another, and we still do.
The last six miles went like this for me – cursing rocks in my head. Finding a stick to use as a hiking pole. Cursing the fact I had at least 5 items in my pack I never ended up needing or using, but not one of those things being a pain reliever. Stopping to talk to two fellow section hikers who told us about “Two Weeks and Three Days,” a guy who had thru-hiked and is still hiking sections. He is in his 80s now and when he set off for his thru-hike his wife told him she bet he would return after “two weeks and three days.” More cursing of rocks and my feet. On more than one occasion we passed other hikers who complimented us on how polite the boys were, and how cool it was to see young kids out there. Oh and we stopped and sat on a bench under Interstate 81 and crossed a pedestrian bridge over Swatara Creek. I hung back and cried a few times when no one was looking, but I knew I had to finish the trip. In the end we wrapped up our 10 miles in just over 5 hours, with enough time to stop at Duck Donuts in Hershey for some warm, gooey, not-so-diabetic-friendly treats. By Sunday evening the boys were outside throwing the football, and undeterred by blisters and bears, Ken and I got to planning our next section hike.