The Boulder Field

No one wishes for fewer perfect hiking days; banner days with bright blue skies, mild temperatures, well-groomed trail, and incomparable views are savored both in the moment and for years to come. However, it’s often the less-than-perfect days, the days filled with “Type II fun,” that we think about first when we recall our time on the trail.

Type II fun was definitely the only variety of fun had at a boulder field in Pennsylvania.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers often call Pennsylvania “Rocksylvania,” since its rocky treadway is generally unappreciated by northbounders, who’ve previously walked on the softer trails of the South. Hikers complain of the 52 miles of northern Pennsylvania “where your feet never touch soil.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does often appear that all of the rocks from the surrounding countryside in PA were dumped on the trail. And, those rocks aren’t just lying there; they’re all arranged in such a way that hikers walk on the rock’s points and spines. I’d worn a pair of boots for 1442 miles, but Pennsylvania destroyed them. Rocksylvania is where boots go to die.

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Chapstick’s feelings after catching sight of the Boulder Field through the trees

Now, I must confess that I’m of the unpopular opinion that walking on rocks is kind of (Type I) fun. It doesn’t slow me down; I’ve routinely done “marathon days” (days of more than 26.2 miles) in PA. But, the friend of mine from college who hiked in Maryland and Pennsylvania with me in 2011 couldn’t have disagreed with me more.

Chapstick, as my friend was known on the trail, were hiking along one day with Trauma, a section-hiker from Germany that we met in the woods. Because we were walking on a rocky trail, I let Chapstick dictate the pace and just fell in comfortably behind Trauma and him. We were exchanging stories and laughing when, all of a sudden, we popped out of the trees and into a boulder field. I heard Chapstick’s groan before I saw the rocks.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Stretching out in front of us was a 0.2-mile by 400 foot clearing that was filled with what looked like God’s rock collection. There were rocks balanced on rocks wedged between rocks squished under rocks, and the rocks were each the size of pieces of furniture.

Chapstick mustered his strength and set off across the boulder field. Trauma and I followed, each choosing our own paths through the rocky scramble, since we couldn’t find blazes anywhere.

Out on the rocks, the Pennsylvania sun beat down on us as we moved slowly, Chapstick sore and Trauma ill. The sun reflected on the grey rocks, and I squinted my eyes against the brightness and the sweat.

Halfway across the boulder field, it struck me as odd that I still couldn’t find blazes. I’d already hiked Huntington Ravine and other crazy trails in the White Mountains; I felt like I knew how to follow even unusual trails. While neither Chapstick nor Trauma was finding blazes either, we determined this might simply be because we were not able to see them from our vantage points (e.g., perhaps the blazes marking the trail were just on the opposite side of nearby boulders); moreover, we thought we could see where the trail met the boulder field at the latter’s north end, so we kept moving forward.

Exhausted from balancing on, jumping onto, and scrambling over boulders under the summer sun, we were grateful when we were able to duck back into the trees. I got a drink and looked around furtively for a white blaze, so as not to upset either of my hiking companions who were having rough days. We had a problem: The trail was nowhere to be found.

Certain that we weren’t far off the trail and would be able to wander back onto it, we climbed down from the boulders and started looking around for the treadway. All we found were rattlesnakes, lots of rattlesnakes resting coiled under rocks and at the bases of trees. Hearing more rattling nearby, I lost my patience with the whole endeavor.

I assumed a motherly role: “Okay, we’ve gotten off trail. It’s no one’s fault. Just relax on the boulders, and get some water in you both. I’ll head back across the boulder field, find the trail, and see if there’s a way for you to get back on it without crossing the boulder field again.”

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I have no idea why “Boulder” is in quotes

Sure enough, on the south side of the boulder field, I found the Appalachian Trail, where a sign pointed down the short side trail I’d just come from, marking a “Boulder Field,” as though it might be a point of interest. I called Trauma, and we figured out the best way for her and Chapstick to get back to the trail.

After hiking over the Boulder Field, Pennsylvania’s rocks couldn’t scare us. We’d seen the worst the state could possibly throw at us, and we’d lived to tell the tale. As we continued northward, I thought, “Bring it on.”

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