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.