Ken and I were able to squeeze in a short section hike of the Appalachian Trail this week, adding another 30 miles to our total, and working towards closing the gap we have between northern Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Our section hike starting points are now about 3 hours from where we live, both south to Virginia and north to Pennsylvania. Starting from Maryland and spreading out has been a great way to start this whole adventure, but soon we are going to have to figure out logistics to be able to spend more days on the trail. It’s becoming a lot of driving for only a day or two hike. This particular trip was juxtaposed with a celebratory dinner in DC on a river boat cruise. Our attire went from chic to smelly. “People are complicated. That’s my radical message for you today, America. People contain their opposites.” – Ira Glass Ken and I covered a 30 mile section of the infamous “Rocksylvannia,” hiking southbound from Hawk Mountain Rd in Eckville to PA 183. We met new shuttle drivers, walked against the current of NOBO thru hikers, climbed, descended and reflected a lot about what we learned over the last 2 years together.
We got a ride early Tuesday morning from the parking lot off of Route 183 to Hawk Mountain Road in Eckville from Manipedi, a shuttle driver new to the game. He was very excited to tell us about the section we were going to hike, including the peanut shop in Port Clinton and the bed and breakfast there. Although he said we were already on the mountain when he dropped us off, the elevation is only 690 feet, so we had about 900 feet to climb to get to the ridge. I could tell it had rained the night before because everything was slick and had a sheen to it. I could also tell that I need to get back to the gym more regularly because I also quickly became slick and had a sheen on me. It was a pretty steady climb up and at the top we found The Pinnacle which is a large pile of rocks near cliffs that overlook farm valleys below. I climbed to the top of the pile of rocks, took some pictures from the vista and then we took about 20 minutes to find the trail again. The Pinnacle is a popular day hiking spot, and there are several trails that will get you there, so it is almost like a traffic rotary and I felt like we went round and round it a few times. The AT trail makes a V shape, so once we confirmed with FarOut that we were on the right trail, we spotted the next blaze and we were off.
“Without rain, nothing grows. Learn to embrace the storms of your life.” -Unknown
We set out to hike about 15 miles each day, and about halfway through day 1 at 7.5 miles there was another good lookout worth pausing for, Pulpit Rock. And then rocks it was after that. The last section hike we did I got terrible blisters which ruined the trip for me. Prior to this trip, we made a stop at REI to get some more dehydrated food, and I got a new pair of socks recommended by the salesman. I went with synthetic socks this time, and I meant to stop and get nylons to go underneath, a suggestion from someone who has backpacked in Nepal, but we ran out of time. I also wore my old pair of boots that I had purchased just before our first section hike. It is always funny to think back to when we started this journey, literally and metaphorically. The boots are kind of ugly, and back then that mattered to me but I couldn’t afford anything else that fit well, so those were the ones I purchased. Luckily with the new socks and old boots my feet did ok on the rocky terrain. Our communication, however, did not fare as well.
A friend of ours recently told us that the thing that attracts you to a person at first often becomes the very thing that annoys you about that person once the honeymoon phase has worn off. The example we used is that I am more spontaneous than Ken so we’ll say jokingly “oh great, spontaneity again, yay.” The ridge continues for a few miles before a steep descent into Port Clinton and during this time Ken took some work calls. He is very ambitious and that is one of the first things that attracted me to him… so we know where this is going! I started to hang back a bit, annoyed that I was listening to him talk about work during our time out on the trail. My first blog about that first section hike we did together is titled “Life is better in airplane mode” and working during backpacking was so counterintuitive to me that I got upset. I went cold. After some prying I explained why I was upset, which annoyed Ken and we did not speak for the 1,000 foot descent into Port Clinton, both fired up. I thought about Ira Glass’s quote about containing our opposites. I am understanding, but also demanding. I am a good person who has done bad things. I am passionate about a few things, but more so complacent about minutia. We are complicated humans and occasionally we are going to butt heads. By the time we got to the road, I did what I don’t typically do, I caved first. I kissed Ken so that the ice between us melted enough for us to have a productive conversation.
The trail crosses under a highway and there is a flat walk along a small river on the way into Port Clinton. We set a schedule for off airplane mode time and both agreed that the rocky terrain and the last descent had made our feet sore. We were both also out of water. The whole town itself is about a mile long, and our first thought was to maybe stay in town, but nothing was open except the Port Clinton Peanut Shop where we grabbed some snacks and waters. Air conditioning felt amazing as the temperatures both days were in the low 90s. The shop has every type of candy. Ken asked if my blood sugar was going up just being in there, and actually it was! The owner explained that her family had been making peanuts since the 1970s and that store itself dates back to the 1800s. We purchased a bag of the brown peanuts and sat outside on a bench tearing into them listening to cars on Route 61. Sleeping in Port Clinton was not going to be an option between the traffic noise and the train. The closest spring was 4 miles away and a climb back to the ridge seemed daunting so we once again called a new shuttle guy, Brain who showed up in a classic 1968 Ford Galaxie 500 to drive us to shuttle and most importantly water.
“Sometimes to create, one must first destroy” – Prometheus
The second day of the hike we returned to Port Clinton loaded down with water and ready to climb back up onto the ridge. Just before the climb you cross over the Schuylkill River and approach a train station. We saw large boulders of the shiny stone we had spotted the day before. We had picked up small pieces and it feels so smooth we actually wondered if it was plastic. A sign around the boulders reads “Famous Reading Anthracite” which is actually a type of coal. We had picked up small pieces, one black, blue and green to bring back to show the kids. “In the early 20th century US, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad started using only the more expensive anthracite coal in its passenger locomotives, dubbed themselves “The Road of Anthracite,” and advertised widely that travelers on their line could make railway journeys without getting their clothing stained with soot. The advertisements featured a white-clad woman named Phoebe Snow and poems containing lines like “My gown stays white / From morn till night / Upon the road of Anthracite”(source). It was used for its smokeless qualities by the Confederate blockade runners, and used again during World War II as “fighting fuel.” I found out that the blue piece was actually painted that way to distinguish it from other manufacturers. On the railroad tracks we also found a piece of metal shaped like a J and Ken put that in his already heavy pack for James right before a climb.
The climb out of Port Clinton going southbound is steep. The elevation gain is only about 1,300 feet but the majority of it is at a 13% grade. So slowly we lumbered our way up to the ridge, reassuring ourselves that this was the only real climb of the day, the rest of the 14 or so miles was pretty level, albeit rocky. Auburn Lookout offers a nice spot to stop and rest after that climb, which we did. I’m not sure if it is from looking down more to navigate the rocks, or if the blazes really are more spread apart, but both days we found ourselves off the trail a little bit. About 7 miles from Port Clinton we came to a stream with a campsite next to it and decided to stop there for lunch. There were several campsites along the trail not marked on FarOut, which made me wonder if the rocky terrain is what forces a lot of hikers to opt for shorter miles? We passed more thru-hikers than in any other trip, and they were all going north bound. They all seemed to share this sentiment, “Let’s be honest. Pennsylvania is not the most popular state. For most thru-hikers, it ranks 14th out of the 14 states they pass through, and it is the most commonly skipped portion of trail. If the Appalachian Trail were high school, New York and New Jersey would dump pig’s blood on PA after Virginia innocuously asked it to prom.” (source).
After lunch we crossed into Pennsylvania State Hunting Grounds with a sign that says “hikers welcome.” Um, I hope so! We have just under 62 miles of the state left, but so far Pennsylvania has been a lot of gunshots, bridges, animals scaring us at night and I’m pretty sure we both have plantar fasciitis from the one 24 mile day. Below the sign that welcomes hikers to hike in hunting grounds, there was also a sign explaining that the area we were walking through was part of a prescribed burn. Controlled burns are good for forests, ridding them of dead leaves and limbs. It rejuvenates growth by allowing nutrients back into soil faster than regular decomposition. We could tell that the undergrowth was happily saturated in sunlight from the waves of green ferns and grasses. It felt more like walking through a marsh than a forest floor. Some types of pine trees even need fire to reproduce, it is what opens the cones to release the seeds. But like any fire, it has to be controlled. Not far from the AT is the town of Centralia, PA which has a population of 5. It has always been a small town, but certainly not that small. A fire broke out in a mine there in 1962 and burns today.
“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” -David Bowie.
I should lie and say I thought about the concept of burning over the last few miles of the hike, but that was not the case. We talked about Elon Musk, things we got from reading the book Stolen Focus, and then we went a little crazy. We listed all the countries in Africa (we missed Eritrea), then Europe (we missed Iceland), North and South America (we missed Venezuela) and finally Asia (we missed East Timor and Qatar). But since the hike I have been reflecting on the concept of burning. Early on in our relationship, Ken and I talked about the importance of a slow burn. There was a lot of attraction, connection and excitement, but we didn’t want to burn out too fast. Two years and 380.3 miles of the AT later we are still burning slowly. Sure, there are times when we go from fiery to ice cold. We have moments when we don’t stop talking, and moments where we are both silent because we are taking the time to reflect ourselves. From Michelin star restaurants donning some healing scrapes on our legs, to meals on the trail with still freshly painted nails (well for me at least) our spontaneous, “yay” and ambitious, “yay” adventures continue.