In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight. I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?