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.

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!