Brandon can drive with his eyes closed.
On the Appalachian Trail in Southern Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland, May 29 – June 6 2021 — Memorial Day weekend broke windy, cold and wet, the trifecta of misery for those who tramp around the woods with their house on their back.
Nobody likes to walk in the rain when the temperatures are hovering around 40 and the wind is popping. It is a recipe for hypothermia at worst and guaranteed discomfort at best.
Branden and Kaela shuttled me to Pennsylvania’s Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The park is the northern boundary of the 240 AT miles that the Potomac Appalachian Tail Club maintains. There I would meet Darrel Decker and we would hike southbound to the Mason-Dixon Line where his responsibilities terminate.
After leaving Darrel, I planned to hike solo another 20 miles to my car at Washington Monument State Park in Maryland. From there, after a zero day, I’d return to rendezvous at Raven Rock Shelter with Kaela who would be hiking in from the Mason-Dixon Line at Pen-Mar Park. We would then hike south to where my car was stashed. The net AT mileage for me would be about 80.
This is the official halfway sign between Georgia and Maine. When I reached this point in 2014 I recall my emotions deflating as I realized that after months of punishing effort I was only half done. By then I understood the enormity of repeating the challenge. Pulling up my socks and getting my head in order for another long march was not a small challenge. In that single moment, I understood why so many people give up and quit.
Darrel is a repeat customer. He was a ridgerunner in the Michaux State Forest for the club in 2009, 10 and 11. That experience and time between service is rare and valuable. He will be able to tell us what’s changed since he was last here. One thing he noticed right away is the expanded sprawl of tent sites associated with the shelters.
Veteran ridgerunners know how to find and haul trash. He found a bunch.
The rain was mostly light and intermittent. The tread conditions were good though wet rocks are always slippery.
Damp camp at Burch Run. I like the patter of rain on my tent fly until it’s time to pack up a wet tent.
Lunch break at a campsite. Needless to say we found plenty of trash, especially in the fire pit. It amazes me that people think that foil among other things is combustible. Truth is that they don’t think. They just do.
Recording a blowdown on the smart phone app we use for reporting. Not all of them are conveniently located next to a road.
Quick stop to clean up the Rocky Mountain Shelters. The sun was welcome; the cool weather even more so.
Spent the might drying out on a tent pad at Quarry Gap. One young hiker was reminded of the Hansel and Gretel story. This place was too good to be true, he reasoned. Would the witch eat him? I told him I thought he was safe because I heard that the Inkeeper had a freezer full of hikers left over from last year.
Tumbling Run. Snoring or non-snoring. Strictly “enforced.”
The mountain laurel are ready to pop.
Welcome trail magic at Old Forge picnic area courtesy of a former thru hiker. I scarfed two hot dogs, a Gatorade and a bag of chips.
After our mid-morning snack we marched on to the Deer Lick Shelters and then to Pen-Mar where I continued northward and Darrel reversed course.
Once across the border into Maryland, adjacent to the AT there is an municipal park known as a graffiti hot spot. Not Banksy is spreading up and down the AT which is spitting distance away. Maintainers will remove this with a product called Elephant Snot which essentially is jellied acetic acid formulated to eat spray paint.
I rarely get to hike solo. Hiking with someone tends to focus attention on conversation and away from nature. Hiking alone tunes the senses to your surroundings. Also, as someone who maintains trails, I pay a lot of attention to the tread, weeding and developing problems.
This year I’ve noticed hikers by-passing even the smallest inconvenient rocks, rises and roots. They are creating social trail by-passes in the process. It matters because erosion can develop and what is supposed to be a narrow pathway can become a dirt autobahn in no time. We have ways of deterring social trail development with stacked rip rap or brush. Just another job to put on the task list.
Of course the cicadas are out in force. I can attest that the world’s largest orgy is LOUD! Of note, some areas are chock full of them while others have none at all. Can’t come up with any correlation as to why.
After four days with Darrel and one by myself, I welcomed a zero day with Sophie the shedding lap cat. Zero stands for zero miles hiked, by the way.
Here we are, off the grid, hiking to Raven Rock from Wolfsville Rd. The waving fiddleheads were soothing in the rare absence of cacophonous cicada pick up lines blaring from the branches overhead.
No, that’s not an IV line. It’s a water purification system.
Kaela struggled into Raven Rock hauling 30 lbs. of trash gift wrapped in a cheap green plastic camping tarp she found. She was daunted by the prospect of dragging that mess another 30 miles. She earned her ridgerunner challenge coin with this effort. I was reminded of my own travails as a Georgia ridgerunner where similar trash hauls happened.
This scenario is exactly why I like to hike with new ridgerunners. Call it OJT, spring training or what you will, the old guy knows a few tricks like the one where you take the trash to the nearest road and cache it to be picked up later. The spring was on the way to the road, so when we went to get water, the green tarp and its contents came along for the ride. I picked it up two days later and the dumpster is its new destiny.
Occasionally a little adventure. We cautioned a couple of very tired and reluctant thru hikers to relocate their tent which was pitched next to three dead trees. With high wind gusts in the overnight forecast, we were in no mood to medevac people in the middle of the night. We shared our concerns with the Maryland Park Service which can fell the potential widowmakers.
We ate dinner with four lovely ladies from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club who are hiking the AT in sections. Their accents, smacking of cheesy grits and buttermilk biscuits, reminded me of friends it turned out we share in common. After momma nature turned out the lights, they built a fire and talked well into the night. When I got up at six thirty, they had already beaten feet. You go girls!
People like to camp at an interesting rock formation about a half mile south of Raven Rock. In Maryland dispersed camping is illegal so we have to “clean it up.”
Three years ago Kiki Dehondt and I tossed about a million rocks into crevasses between boulders thinking we could eliminate the fire rings. (Kiki and his fiance will appear in this space soon.)
We were right and wrong. Now the campers build fires without the benefit of a fire ring. We bagged the ashes and scattered them in the woods before covering the area with leaf litter.
1960s vintage bike.
Water and snack break.
When we reached the Cowall shelter, I noticed Kaela was really hungry. Since my car was a quarter of a mile away and knowing the town of Smithburg was just down hill from there, I offered to buy Kaela , whose trail name is Pizza, an eponymous lunch. We couldn’t find an open pizza place so we refueled at a Mennonite grocery and deli. After hiker food, it was glorious.
Next I dropped Kaela to finish her patrol; then headed to Devil’s Race Course to snatch to cached trash and on to home.
In training we tell the ridgerunners that they are about to meet the dark side of the trail. That side has many forms from the often bureaucratic to the rarely malevolent. In addition to help search for a missing hiker who ultimately turned up in a Gettysburg bar, Darrel and I encountered a hiker who said he’d been bitten by an aggressive dog at the Pine Knob shelter in Maryland. He said he would report the bite to the National Park Service AT incident line: 866-677-6677. Later Kaela and I found the dog. It was not friendly and the owner was unconcerned about it. We moved on and notified the the right folks.
Protecting food from bears is important. A bear conditioned to human food becomes a safety problem and sometimes must be put down. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” the saying goes.
I’ve previously written about bear canisters and Kevlar sacks. I noticed the Georgia ladies were using Ursacks. The one depicted is properly tied to a tree. The problem is that bears can always crush your food and sometimes they can get in.
Fortunately every shelter in the PATC section has a bear pole, bear box or cables to help hikers protect their food.
The forest is a magical place. You never know what you’ll find be they witches, beasts or fairies.