AT 2011

Creepy Moments on the Appalachian Trail, Part Two

Inherently, hiking isn’t especially dangerous.  But, if you do it often enough, you’re bound to come across some weird/creepy/less-than-ideal situations.  If my memory serves, in 5,000 miles of backcountry adventures, I’ve been in exactly five human interactions that have engaged my fight-or-flight response.

Sometimes, they’re simple, as in the case of a southbounding, gearless, scowling day hiker who walked past me, seemingly unseeingly, Bible in hand.  Other times, they’re a bit more drawn out, such as the case of the feather-adorned lone backpacker who spoke to demons.  The story I’m about to tell (which technically happened near the Appalachian Trail) belongs to the latter category.

It was 2011, and I was on the AT for what turned out to be a long section hike (and my first backpacking trip).  I was hiking with a friend from home, Chapstick, and he and I had just enjoyed a night in Palmerton, PA, in a jail-turned-hostel at the base of what once was a zinc-smelting Superfund site.

The following morning, Chapstick wasn’t up to hiking, but I wanted to hit the trail.  As he stayed behind, pledging to find a taxi to take him to meet me at a northern trail town, I worked on finding my way back to the trail.

I am not sure what it is about the Lehigh Valley that creates a vortex, but I’ve had serious difficulties both times I’ve tried to hike out of Palmerton.  Legend has it that there’s a blue-blazed trail back to the trail, but it seems the trail gods would prefer it stays untrammeled.

In 2011, I’d heard that the blue-blazed trail could be most easily found if I walked along the railroad tracks, so that’s what I did.

It was a hot day, the kind of hot, humid, thick-aired day you can only find in the South and Mid-Atlantic.  There wasn’t an inch of shade over the railroad tracks in the middle of the day, but I walked toward the general direction I’d come from as the sun baked down on me.

After walking for over half an hour, I came to a construction site, where it appeared that most of the workers had left for lunch.  There were two guys left, but one finished his conversation and drove away as I got nearer.  The remaining guy watched me approach.

He was in his fifties or sixties and wore a white tank and jeans, with gold chains around his neck.  I was a couple days past 22 at the time, very new to the world of adventuring/hiking/hitchhiking, and something about this man alarmed me.

He wanted to know where I was from, where I was headed, and whether anyone was with me.  I tried to be evasive and just keep walking, but he had a truck; he pulled up alongside me and kept talking.  Playboy-type female silhouettes were stuck to his car windows.  Changing tactics, I tried to be calm and politely dismiss the conversation.  He suggested that he drive me to the trail.  I assured him that I was all right; that I was merely walking what was apparently the wrong way to catch up with my friend.

Eventually, he seemed to give up and drove off.  I ran, pack and all, tears rising to my eyes, along the tracks.  I could see houses near the fence, and I hoped that I’d find someone there who could help.

As luck would have it, there was a 30-something man doing yardwork not too far away.  The tracks ran higher than his backyard, so I word-vomited down at him:

“Can I please climb over your fence?  There was this man at the construction site who really creeped me out, and I think he’s probably somewhere nearby, and I just want to get back on the trail, and I don’t even know where it is.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I know that it was immediately comforting.  I climbed into his backyard, and he had me wait on his porch (probably thinking that I would freak out if someone invited me into their house just then) as he got the keys to his car.  As I composed myself, he told me that he was an army vet who’d returned to his hometown and was in the process of fixing up his house.  I thanked him profusely as he drove me back to the trail.

As we talked, he learned about Chapstick and vowed to drive him further north, and he gave me his number, to use in case I ran into any more trouble.  When he met Chapstick, he brought a collection of pressed four-leaf clovers for us, as well as a fortune-cookie proverb:  “Great things happen when men and mountains meet.”

Those lucky clovers still remain in my gear collection, a lasting reminder of the kindness of strangers and the importance of asking for help.

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.”

Shelter Pizza Triple Crown

A thru-hike involves several months of backpacking through beautiful places and meeting interesting people. It may seem counterintuitive that, when asked what they thought about in a given day, most thru-hikers mention daydreams or extended thoughts about food. One ubiquitous food craving among backpackers is that for pizza.

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Sunrise at the Fontana Hilton

Most of the time, pizza can only be obtained when hikers get off the trail and head into town; unlike a surprising number of dishes, it’s difficult to replicate pizza on a backpacking stove. However, there are a few shelters along the Appalachian Trail where hikers can get pizza delivered. Some of these shelters are familiar destinations for local pizzerias, but others are more unusual. Inspired by a supper of pizza at a shelter in Pennsylvania in 2011, I created the notion of the “Shelter Pizza Triple Crown” during my thru-hike. Always up for challenges and games, thru-hikers shared the idea and embraced the challenge. And, of course, I worked to earn the title of Shelter Pizza Triple Crowner myself.

The first pizza delivery was perhaps the most difficult to arrange. I’d read that some pizzeria delivered to the last shelter south of the Smokies, the Fontana Hilton, which I’ll describe in another post. As a result, I planned to spend the night at the shelter and looked forward to a cheese-less pizza topped with pizza sauce, broccoli, and spinach for days before arriving there. I was, therefore, more persistent than I might have been when I got to the shelter, called the pizzeria whose number was written on the shelter floor, and learned that they did not deliver to the shelter. I called a local trail angel who shuttled hikers around and asked him if he’d be able to pick up pizzas for the shelter. He seemed to think it would be a fun mission and, after some difficulties getting the orders right, pizza was finally, blissfully enjoyed around 8:00.

Because of the difficulties involved in arranging a delivery to the Fontana Hilton, I considered it a bonus shelter in the Triple Crown.

The first official shelter of the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Partnership Shelter in Virginia. Quiver and I arrived at Partnership amidst pouring rain in the middle of the day to find at least a dozen hikers inside. Uncharacteristically, they were unwelcoming (other hikers reported receiving the same feeling from that group of people), so we pressed on to the visitor center where pizzas would be delivered anyway. I shivered and tried to dry off inside the ranger’s station, where I looked at the books and taxidermy collection while I waited for the pizzas to arrive. When they did, the rain stopped, and Quiver and I lunched outside. While I’d only had a small pizza at the Fontana Hilton, I finished the greater portion of a large pizza near Partnership Shelter and packed the rest of it out with me for dinner.

Next up in the Triple Crown was the 501 Shelter of Pennsylvania, which is a sizable bunkhouse next to a home. The bunkhouse was once a pottery studio, and it has a lovely glass dome in the center of the ceiling, through which sun and moonlight stream. Several restaurants deliver to the shelter, and, both times I’ve stopped by, I’ve sincerely enjoyed the conversations and hospitality from the shelter’s neighbors. (Conversational blue blaze: When I arrived at the shelter in 2011, it was after some fast, big-mile days, and I was utterly exhausted. I collapsed on a bunk in the mid-afternoon and woke up to find a semi-circle of empty folding chairs assembled around me: Booksmarts, a thru-hiker who’d been hiking near me, had arranged them while I was sleeping as a practical joke. I have very fond memories of that shelter.) From the 501 Shelter, it’s only a few days and a few million rocks before hikers arrive at another pizza-friendly shelter in Pennsylvania.

The final jewel in the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Eckville Shelter, a shed-turned-bunkhouse on private property — private property that, I recently learned, once belonged to the author of Journey on the Crest (a book about the PCT). Getting pizza delivered to this shelter is as easy as getting it delivered to the 501 Shelter. And, so many hikers order pizza at Eckville that it’s easy to find people to share pizzas and delivery costs with. The picnic table and bathhouse feel like the perfect complements to any Shelter Pizza Triple Crown finale.

All that said, when I thru-hiked, I came across another shelter or two where I heard that roundabout pizza deliveries could be procured. Hikers, have you come across other shelters that I should add to my list?

Creepy Moments on the Appalachian Trail, Part One

Most of the time, the Appalachian Trail feels like a safe place.  To commemorate Halloween, I thought I’d recount the first time I didn’t feel safe in the eastern woods.

It was the summer of 2011, my first on the trail.  I was hiking solo in New Jersey, as my college friend who’d planned to hike to Maine with me had just decided that he didn’t actually like backpacking.  Alone, I was free to move at my own pace and had put in a marathon day; as a result, I was looking forward to reaching the Brink Road Shelter and collapsing inside my tent.

These days, I almost never camp near shelters.  I sometimes stay at those that are right on the trail, but I rarely do more than gather water or use the privy at the ones that are on blue-blazed trails.  It’s not that I’m afraid to go down the side trails to the shelters, but shelters are often populated; unless I know who’s going to be there, I suppose I do avoid them at the end of the day.

When I’ve met creepy people along the Appalachian Trail itself, I’ve generally taken solace in the fact that other hikers are likely in the vicinity; were I to stop for thirty minutes, they’d probably come along.  The problem with blue-blazed side trails is that they receive much less traffic.  Brink Road Shelter is located down such a trail.

So, as dusk was approaching and my feet were road weary, I saw the sign announcing the trail to the shelter and headed down the side trail, thinking about my imminent dinner and sleep.

As soon as the shelter came into view, I felt like something wasn’t right.  In the middle of the shelter sat a lone man.  As I got closer, I noticed that his gear was strewn all over the shelter, that he wore feathers in his hair, and that his eyes looked glazed over and distant.

I didn’t feel safe, but I questioned the validity of my fears.  Was I just jumpy because society had taught me to be wary when I was alone with a man I didn’t know?  I considered setting up my tent near the shelter and looked for a spot while I continued talking with the other hiker, working to get a better sense of the situation.  I learned that he was a hiking a section of the trail very slowly and southbound, but he gave me the creeps more — not less — as I talked to him.  And then there was this conversational nugget:

“You’ll want to set your tent a ways away.  I talk to demons in my sleep.”

I’d had enough!  But, I also didn’t want to hightail it out of there, in case that upset him.  Instead, I cited the mosquitoes in the area as my reason for moving on and said that I planned to go into the town six miles up the trail.  I gathered some water and hurried back to the AT.

At this point, it was very near dark.  I was walking as fast as my legs would carry me, but I was exhausted and scared and knew I’d never make it to town that night.  We weren’t supposed to camp away from shelters on that stretch of the trail, and I wasn’t yet brave enough to sleep completely alone in the middle of the woods in which I’d seen so many bears anyway.  I didn’t know what to do but keep walking, close to tears.

Cresting a hill and rounding a bend in the trail, I noticed the lights of several headlamps a few hundred feet off the trail in the valley below me.  Desperate, I called out.  Three male voices answered me.

I learned later that the hikers thought I was a ridge runner, coming to tell them that they shouldn’t be camping there.  When they figured out that I was another backpacker, they readily invited me down to their campsite and even helped me choose a flat-ish place on which to erect my tent.  I called my mother to let her know that I was set for the night; when I told her that I was in some random spot in the middle of the woods with three guys in their early twenties, she said she hoped they were gay.

The thru-hikers were the least of my worries.  They were carefree potheads, and we spent the evening avoiding the bugs by talking with one another inside our tents.  They led a sharing exercise called “Rose, Bud, Thorn,” in which we each described the best part of our day, our hope for tomorrow, and the worst part of our day, respectively.  And, they explained that they’d also met the hiker who’d terrified me, and that he was the reason they were stealth camping!

In writing this post, I Googled “Brink Road Shelter” and found that other hikers shared my unfavorable opinion of it.  You can read their notes here.  However, it looks like a new Brink Road Shelter was constructed earlier this year.  Here’s hoping it has better feng shui!

Happy Halloween!

A One-Way Ticket on an East-Bound Train

When I was a teenager, I wrote my bucket list.  Since then, many items have been crossed off as I’ve accomplished them, and I’ve added others as I’ve learned more about what I would like to learn, do, and see in my lifetime.  One of my favorite things to do is to string together the crossing-off of several items, so, when I had the opportunity to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail (a bucket list item) by riding a train (another bucket list item), I excitedly bought my one-way ticket east.

At Red River Gorge on a Pre-AT Hike

At Red River Gorge on a Pre-AT Hike

Soon after I learned about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I began researching and planning for a hike of my own.  Initially, I’d intended to set off solo, but the thought of doing so scared me.  When talking with my college friends in the wee hours of the morning one night, I mentioned my hiking aspirations, and a friend jumped at the opportunity to join me.  One thing led to another, and a few months later we started walking from Harpers Ferry, WV, the traditional halfway point of the trail, to Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus.

Getting to the trail was an adventure in and of itself.

Because we had a narrow window of time between my last day of college and the day my friend needed to be back for his RA duties, we determined that we should depart for the trail as soon as possible.  As a result, on May 24, 2011, I took the last final of my undergraduate career (in Field Botany), packed out my dorm with my family, stopped by the gear store for some last-minute additions to my already-bulging backpack, finished preparations for the summer’s adventure, celebrated my 22nd birthday at midnight, and caught the 3:00am train to Washington, DC.

I’m a morning person, but 3:00am wasn’t exactly my preferred time of departure; that was simply the time the only train eastbound from Kentucky to DC passed by.  The drive from my family’s hobby farm to the train station was roughly an hour.  And, I use the phrase “train station” loosely.  At that time, anyway, the Maysville, Kentucky, Amtrak station was an eerie, run-down building, with doors that wouldn’t close and lights that wouldn’t light.  The lights that did work cast a yellow-green glow over everything and, on top of the late-night hour and lack of sleep, made the start to the trip feel rather ominous.

Just as we were beginning to wonder whether we were actually in the right place, the train pulled up.  Without having our tickets checked, we were ushered aboard.  I hugged my mother and sister goodbye and waved to them as we rushed out of sight.

My friend, sleeping in Union Station

My friend, sleeping in Union Station

The rushing soon stopped, as can only be expected from quality American public transportation.  We ended up getting to DC several hours after the last west-bound commuter rail had left the station, and the next train heading to Harpers Ferry wasn’t due to depart until the following afternoon.  And, thus, a barely 22-year-old girl and her 18-year-old friend, neither of whom had traveled far from rural Kentucky since they’d stopped holding their parents’ hands, spent the night in Union Station.

I kept the first watch that night, and we switched roles every couple hours, allowing each other to get some shut-eye.  I remember almost nothing from the following day, save the ride in the commuter rail, during which another passenger instructed me at to how I could use my trekking poles for self-defense in the woods.

At some point en route, I learned that my mother had reserved a hotel room for us in Harpers Ferry, and I remember falling sound asleep soon after touching the mattress.  It’s amazing to think back on that night knowing what would await me beginning the very next day and realizing how little I knew what to expect and how much I would change.