Saturday, June 21, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the AT in Pennsylvania

Second in a series

May 26, 2014

The Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania is known for its abundance of rocks. When I’d read that in book after book, I had pictured a long valley with the mountains wide apart, the way they were in my hometown of Glen Ferris, West Virginia, with the Kanawha River running between them. In my mind, the floor of this long valley would be littered with rocks and little else. Some would be boulders; others would be the size of footballs or what one hiker called babyheads: rocks the size of a baby’s head. But the section we hiked in Pennsylvania wasn’t the way I’d imagined it. That was the reason I had wanted to hike the AT in four states: to see it for myself.

Our group of twenty-plus assembled outside the conference center at 8:30 a.m. After an hour-long van ride, we stopped for a nature break at the Caledonia State Park visitor center and then were driven to a trailhead in the park, where we met our guides for the day. I would not see most of them again until lunch, a result of our group becoming spread out during the hike.

To me, hiking from Caledonia State Park to the town of Pine Grove Furnace was like walking in a creek bed for eight and one-half miles. The Trail led us up and down mountains where the rocks were slick and the ground was muddy. Wet tree roots curled in our path like snakes. Training yourself to be alert for wildlife, take in the scenery, and look for white blazes on the trees while watching your feet is a good skill set to develop on the trail. Most of us carried trekking poles to aid our walking.

Along our stretch, the AT ranged from two or three feet wide to the size of a two-lane road. The forest was unbelievably green. Sometimes the vegetation in the woods was so thick that we would have missed a bear in the bushes ten feet away. At other times, we could look off to either side and see the tree line past fields dense with ferns. We passed sections more reminiscent of autumn than late spring, thanks to thousands of fallen leaves.

We didn’t have to worry about getting left or lost. The last guide in the group was called the sweep, and his job was to make sure everyone made it to the end. If we had to go into the woods, we were instructed to leave our pack beside the trail so the sweep would know to wait. Fortunately for my goal of avoiding critters, I did not have to answer nature’s call off the trail.

Wildlife spotted: None

The official halfway point of the Appalachian Trail is marked by a sign. I would have liked to have my picture taken there, but I couldn’t reach my camera without removing my backpack.

Tip: The side pockets on a backpack are still behind you.

I didn’t want to take the time, as ours was a fast-moving group. Besides that, I would have had to explain to everyone who saw the photo that, in fact, I had not hiked halfway from Georgia to Maine.

The thing about hiking is the relentless nature of it. After the first four miles my pack felt heavy. My boots felt heavy, and I had begun to stumble. We were going from Point A to Point B, and I felt the need to maintain a certain pace. The climbs were hard, however, and I was forced to stop and allow others to pass. Supposedly thru-hikers get their “hiking legs” about three weeks into the trip, and that wasn’t going to happen to me after a half-day.

We stopped at mile 4.5 for lunch at Tom’s Run Shelter, which also boasted a roofed picnic area, flat spots for tent camping, and a privy. It was the first shelter I’d ever seen. It was made of wood, raised a few feet off the ground. Tom’s Run, located in a valley, is one of the better shelters on the Trail, according to a NOBO (northbound) thru-hiker we met.

Several young thru-hikers joined us for lunch. I sat by the bearded guy in black who had politely passed me on the Trail. Thru-hikers have a reputation for strong odors, the result of hiking for days in the same clothing, but his tuna fish smelled stronger than he did. He had left Springer Mountain toward the end of March and hoped to make Katahdin by the 4th of July. Most hikers are only halfway there after three months.

At lunch I had a chance to examine one of my trekking poles. The lower lock wasn’t holding, and that had caused a section to collapse repeatedly while I was walking—not a good thing when you’re using the pole for support. I figured out a screw had loosened and used the screwdriver head on my new knife to tighten it, but I did not have time to check the remaining three screws until the hike was over. I told you this was a fast group.

Pine Grove Furnace is a pretty town and home to a hostel, a general store, and the Appalachian Trail Museum. The store is known for the half-gallon challenge, in which thru-hikers try to eat a half-gallon of ice cream. I paid no attention to that, interested only in a bench and my delicious cone of Cookies and Cream. The museum display includes a bust of Earl Shaffer, the first man to thru-hike the AT, and  one of Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to do so. Her hiking shoes and one of her homemade duffel bags were in a glass case, along with a collapsible cup and a few other items she had used on the Trail. Emma Gatewood was about my age when she completed that first hike, and I felt a kinship to her.

A couple people fell asleep in the van on the long trip back, but no one complained. I was pooped, but I wasn’t going to be the one to crack.

I shed my sweaty clothes as soon as I got to my room. You would have thought I’d been on the Trail for days; the thought of a shower, a couple Tylenol, some foot powder, and a change of clothing was simply entrancing. I showered and washed my hair after checking myself for ticks (none found). I noticed red marks on my shoulders from my pack, though I had not felt pain or known that the straps were digging into my skin. I changed clothes and hand-washed the ones I’d worn on the hike. If I were backpacking instead of sleeping indoors, what would I do with my wet bra, underpants, shirt, socks, and liners? I knew that one: I wouldn’t wash them in the first place.

Before going to dinner I put on a little makeup. I was going to skip it, but the mirror told me to think again. I had hiked in full makeup, but after my shower I was so tired that I reduced the process to the barest necessities for the remainder of the evening. Vanity was falling away.

I ate like a hiker who’d been on the Trail for two months. The “hiker hunger” I had read about came early, but I was still recovering from my stomach trouble. I had vegetables and tortellini in cream sauce. The other people also had bread, salad, and fruit. The zucchini and summer squash were especially delicious that night, and I went back for seconds and then had peach cobbler for dessert.

We had another program after dinner. I was so sleepy I was afraid I’d nod off and fall out of my chair.

Every evening our program leader posted a weather report for the following day. The latest: 40 to 60% chance of thunderstorms for our second hike. I hoped I could start the second day as energetic and physically ready as I had the first.

Next: Hiking Maryland


  1. Jane, this blog was especially interesting. I felt I was walking with you during this adventure and your vivid descriptions put me along side you (or perhaps behind you) in my mind's eye. Thank you again for giving me a true and intriguing glimpse into hiking, which I dearly love (day trips) but have never truly had the courage to do on this level myself. Who knows, you may have pulled me into the "fold."

    1. Thanks, Betty. These trips are educational for me, too. Mainly, I've discovered that there will not be a time when I am unafraid. Ironically, that pushes me closer to a commitment. I could waver for years, but it would not change anything.