Mid-Atlantic: Harpers Ferry to Duncannon

June 1, 2004
Such a wonderful morning can be had when one takes the time to let it happen. Rock Steady bolted from the hostel early in the morning, planning to hike for a while and then hitch into a town to resupply. I slept later and joined the other hostel dwellers for an AYCE blueberry pancake breakfast. An extra hour of sleep and the big breakfast started me off right, and when I stepped outside to blue skies and mild temperatures, I was happier than I had been for a while. I felt downright lazy leaving the hostel at 8:45. I was in Maryland now, and it lived up to its reputation as an easy state to hike in. The climbs were gentle and the forest seemed pleasant, rather than oppressive or boring, and there were occasional viewpoints from which one could look out of the forest and down to the farmlands below.

I suspect that my enjoyment had something to do with the fine weather, as when the afternoon rolled around and rains came, I became decidedly less happy. I was rained on only for a minute before I reached the safety of the Dahlgren backpackers shower/bathroom combo (a bit of AT luxury in the "backcountry"). Rock Steady was inside hiding from the rain as well and we sat and talked for the forty minutes of rain that poured forth from the heavens. The blue skies returned and we set off at a leisurely pace, stopping for a while at the Washington Monument.

This was apparently the original monument to the famous general and president, though the one in the Capitol is a little more impressive as a structure. However, the Maryland one has a nice view from it, again down into the farmed valleys below. With the good weather and company, my spirits soared again and I was happy to lope down the trail, even if it was at Rock Steady's fast pace. Chatting away, we quickly overtook another hiker, saying hello on our way past. The hiker called out, "Chris?" A little surprised, I turned around to see who had called my name. Squinting, I recognized him, but it took me a few seconds to place the face: Pabu, from my 2002 section hike!

I had met Pabu in Erwin at Uncle Johnny's and we hiked together for the next two days, including Pabu's first 20 mile day into the stunning Overmountain Shelter. We hiked along and laughed about various incidents from that day, including the very end, when Pabu struggled into the shelter and promptly collapsed, not on the various benches, but in a pile of dust. The dust and dirt coated his sweaty body and presented quiet the sight, which both of us remember in a humorous way. I hadn't seen Pabu after Overmountain, as he declared that he would never hike a 20 mile day again. He had hiked up to Harpers Ferry in 2002, and this summer was back for the rest of the AT.

The three of us rolled into Pine Knob shelter together, where I was going to stay the night, a little before 5. Without a functioning tarp, I had to stay here unless I wanted to put in a very long day or risk a night in the open, despite the fact that it was a few hours before I normally stopped hiking. Rock Steady ate dinner and then pushed on, but MonkeyMan and Sauerkraut rolled in to complete a nicely sized crew in the shelter. Shelter conversations had improved quite a bit, and there was no longer much talk of gear or other unimportant things. Today was the AT at its best, and I hoped for more of the same tomorrow, when I would cross the Mason-Dixon line and enter Pennsylvania with its much anticipated rocks.

What a beautiful morning! I was rolling at 6 am, trying as hard as I could not to wake the other shelter dwellers, and felt wonderful after two short days in a row. Easy terrain, with only minor climbs, led me to Pen-Mar park, which is directly on the border between North and South, and holds nice views of the farms in the area. Not wild, but pleasant enough for a thirty minute break on a bench at an overlook.

Directly past the park I crossed the famous Mason-Dixon line, which divided slave states from free states in the not-so-distant past. I was now quite officially in the North, which felt a whole lot like the South, only perhaps less scenic. Or, rather, that is what my mind told me at the time.

I hiked along, enjoying the easy walking and found myself at the Old Forge picnic in the late afternoon a little hungry. The large, front country attraction was empty of people so I had an entire picnic pavilion to myself as I cooked dinner and took a nap. With only a little under 8 miles to go to get to a shelter, and with the weather holding out, I assumed I would have a pleasant stroll in the early evening. Indeed, this was how things started. I even got to see a new snake from a rather too close perspective.

About two miles into the trek, the temperature dropped rapidly and I knew a storm was about to smack me around. Clouds blotted out the sky and the wind picked up, followed by rain, which was heavy and pounding at times. My mood dropped with the temperature and the shouting curses of two days ago returned in force. I was angry at the weather for spoiling what had been an otherwise wonderful day. Rather childish, but this was a general trend along the AT this summer. Of course, once I reached the shelter the rain stopped and it began to get nice again. Wild Horse and Rock Steady were at the shelter already, having been pinned down there when the rain came. Another hiker named Flash, and his aunt, are here as well. Today I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, and tomorrow the half way point of the AT near Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the site of the 1/2 gallon challenge. It was nice to see Rock Steady and Wild Horse again, but I was a little melancholy after getting further evidence that my enjoyment of the AT was directly related to the quality of the weather. I wouldn't have lasted two weeks on the AT in 2003. Those thruhikers had a lot more drive, it seemed, that I did.

Yet another beautiful morning on the AT. I got out and ran before Wild Horse or Rock Steady were stirring, hoping to get a bit of a headstart on these very fast hikers. The morning light, cascading down through the trees, was something else today.

The beauty of the early morning forest was not like the beauty of a high, wind swept ridge line, or a jagged mountain cloaked in snow and ice, or a deep, glacially carved valley running off forever. It was something more subtle, and had everything to do with atmosphere, instead of superficiality. The early morning mist diffused the light softly and presented the AT as an almost holy place, where one feels rather than sees.

However, all good things must end, and the early morning light eventually left me to become late morning, and then early afternoon light. I get up early and start hiking before others not because I want to put in big mile days, but rather because of the rewards that can happen only in those hours. Today, I was lucky enough to be out at the right time, in the right place.

Wild Horse blew by me, followed not much later by Rock Steady, although I caught up to him again shortly before Pine Grove Furnace. At the campstore were sitting a few other thruhikers working on their 1/2 gallon challenge. The idea is to eat a half gallon of ice cream as quickly as you can. I can do this at home, and had no desire to try it here in PA. Wild Horse had already finished his 1/2 gallon and was now working on some fried food from the store.

Rock Steady got his 1/2 gallon and started to work on it, while I bought four hot dogs, some soda, and some oatmeal cream pies for a treat. Rock Steady was able to finish his 1/2 gallon, but seemed to feel a little ill as a result of the almost 3000 calorie injection. No one felt much like moving for an hour or two, but eventually all us rallied and set out on the trail once more, crusing easily into the James Frye shelter, which had the great downside of a water source located quite far from the shelter itself. Having been warned about this, I had hauled water into the shelter and didn't have to go anywhere. Mainsail, Doug, and Just John were there, along with John's dog, who was extraordinarily excited by smoldering ashes. Even though there was still quite a bit of light out, it didn't seem to make much sense to push further along. I'd be able to hit Boiling Springs early enough tomorrow to lunch there as well as send out a food drop to Port Clinton, where there was little to buy in terms of supplies. So far Pennsylvania had at least been pleasant, if dull, hiking, with no traces of the terrible rocks that formed so much of its infamy. With the run of (mostly) good weather, I had had nice days and hoped for more to follow. In the back of my mind, though, I was annoyed at the lack of thinking that I had done this summer. It seemed that last year my head was constantly filled with things to chew on, and the lack of these things was standing out as a glaring problem. I held out no hope, however, for an improvement.

It was legitimately cold last night, and even this morning, making it hard to get an early morning start. Compounding the cold was the funk that I sometimes woke up in. The weather was good, however, and I was able to move along the sometimes awkward trail. The trail builders had deemed it wise to route the trail circuitously through some rock formations that weren't even interesting. Or, more accurately, they held no interest for me. However, as I dropped out of the woods and into the Cumberland Valley, my mood improved, and there was no ostensible reason for it to: The AT simply became a route through farmers fields. Perhaps it was the nearby presence of a town. Rock Steady caught me just before entering into town as I lazed underneath a large bush, resting in the last quiet place before entering Boiling Springs.

The trail ran straight into town past the ATC Mid-Atlantic headquarters, where we dropped our packs and ran into Wild Horse. A very quaint town, Boiling Springs is centered around a lake (manmade, it seems) and a creek, in which there were many fisherman. After wandering about town for a while, the three of us met up at Anile's, a local pizza place, and had a big lunch. My cheese fries and cheese steak were good, but I was jealous of Wild Horse's stromboli, which was the largest thing I had ever seen. And, he hadn't ordered the large. About the diameter of a medium pizza, and stuffed three inches high, it literally exploded with a river of cheese, sausage, pepperoni, salami, peppers, and mushrooms when he cut into it. For such a skinny hiker, he could really eat and had no problem finishing it (I secretly hoped for left overs). I bought supplies for Port Clinton from the gas station, along with a few treats for the night, before rejoining Wild Horse and Rock Steady at Theo's for some ice cream.

We walked over to the post office to send out various things, and got a huge laugh when the postmaster put Wild Horse's sleeping bag on the scale (he was sending it home): A few ounces over 5 lbs! My food box got sent out and then we retired to the porch of the ATC office to rest from all of our labors for a while. Eventually, however, we had to hike once again. Tomorrow is Saturday and I want to make the post office in Duncannon before it closes for the weekend. Hopefully my tarp pole will be there along with some goodies from Birdie and other bits of mail.

The pasture walking continued for quite some time coming out of Boiling Springs. Not a bad thing at all. Indeed, the contrast to the normal green tunnel walking was appreciated and it was with mounting sadness that the hills in the distance drew closer and closer. Darlington shelter, all of our homes for the night, was reached after a short climb into the hills and, despite being scheduled to be torn down in a week or two, it still seems perfectly usable to me; I just don't see the need for the palatial shelters located along the AT in places. Perhaps it was starting to weaken structurally. The spring for the shelter was quite a ways down hill from it, but it wasn't like I had anything much to do for the rest of the day. I cooked dinner and ate down a couple of double decker Little Debbie Fudge Rounds before calling it quits for the night. Again, the lack of thoughts, of development, began to gnaw at me once I closed my eyes. And, again, I held out no hope for tomorrow.

It had rained all night long, and was still raining this morning. If I hadn't wanted to reach the post office before it closed, I would have sat in the shelter until it stopped, even if it meant taking a zero day at Darlington. Along with the rain came colder than normal temperatures, which wasn't a good combination. The 11 miles to Duncannon would not be pleasant. I finally roused myself to hike at 6:30 and set off in my rain suit, hoping for the best. The hope was misplaced. Rock Steady passed me after only 10 minutes of hiking, and Wild Horse came by twenty minutes after that. The wind blew hard, and I found out that my new O2 rainsuit was hardly water proof. Paradoxically, it didn't seem to breathe well either. It was almost waterproof-breathable in reverse. The hood couldn't even begin to keep the wind driven rain out of my face. The PA rocks made an appearance, forcing me to go slowly across them when all I wanted to do was race.

In the foulest of moods, Providence intervened. After two hours of being wet and miserable, two bundled up hikers passed in the other direction. After they did, I heard a "Hey, did you hike the PCT?" A little startled, I stopped and had a closer look at the two hikers. They did look familiar, but I still couldn't place them. The man told me he recognized my bandana, which some members of the PCT class of 2002 distributed to 2003 hikers. He introduced himself as Free Radical and everything kicked in. The pretty woman beside him was Burrito. Both had thruhiked the PCT in 2003, although our time together was limited to a few places in Southern California. I had last seen Free Radical, I believe, at the Saufley's place in Agua Dulce, and Burrito a bit further north as she rested from the heat of the day under a tree in the Antelope Valley. Free Radical lived nearby and Burrito had flown out from Washington (state, that is) to visit and go hiking for a few days. And so, in the middle of the pouring rain and the unseasonable cold, we stood and talked for twenty five minutes. It was a chance encounter, and when I left them I was feeling much better, even if I was cold and wet.

This isn't to say that I enjoyed the rest of the walk into Duncannon, but at least I wasn't ready for murder. About two miles from town, i tripped over a rock and completely lost it. Yelling at the trail, the builders, the maintainers, myself, other hikers, and trail angels. I actually became creative in my outbursts, stringing together long rants with colorful language, combining literary references with historical quotations to try to vent some of the frustration I had been feeling. I felt much better when I got off the trail and onto the road through town, which was also the AT. Duncannon seemed to be a dying town, and it wasn't going gracefully. I found the Doyle Hotel, a legendary joint on the AT, and passed it up for the post office. Waiting for me there were some treats from Birdie, a letter from my mother, my tarp pole, and no bounce bucket. I set up another forwarding address, this time all the way to Kent, CT.

I retraced my steps and went into the Doyle to warm up and eat. Wild Horse was sitting at the bar and had been here long enough to eat breakfast. I ordered a cajun omelet, a coffee, and a 22 oz. Troegs Pale Ale. I couldn't believe how cheap the beer was. Troegs was as expensive as it got, and it only ran $2.75. I wolfed down the omelet, but the real star was the pile of homefries that came along with the omelet. Sliced rice paper thin, and fried up in copious amounts of butter and oil, seasoned to perfection, they were a masterpiece. Indeed, better than any I'd ever had in a restaurant, or made at home. I decided that I rather liked the Doyle, with its old time atmosphere, and got a room for the night, which set me back only $17.50. Yes, I liked the Doyle right away. A couple of hikers were milling about, getting ready to leave, including a pretty young woman named Indy. After she left, some other hikers made a sequence of disparaging remarks about Indy because she frequently took to roads, doing what AT hikers call Yellow Blazing. If happens a lot of the PCT also, particularly in Southern California, and hiker reaction is usually similar. After downing a few more 22 oz. Troegs, I wandered up stairs to get stuff dried out and take a shower. Wild Horse and I split laundry, which meant that I had to walk around for a while in my rainsuit and thermal top, which would have looked odd anywhere other than in a place visited by hikers.

The afternoon got even better, as some horse (Smarty Jones) was racing for the Triple Crown today, and I think it was from PA originally. A shuttle from the local grocery store was going to come by later in the afternoon, and in the evening there was going to be a local band. One of the owners was going to play some songs with them. Rock Steady hadn't shown up, which meant that he had either died on the trail (I probably would have seen his corpse) or, more likely,had pushed on outside of town. I downed a few more Troegs, and then went to the grocery store with the shuttle. It was nice to resupply in a big place, rather than a gas station, as I actually had something resembling choice in my food for the next few days.

Back at the Doyle I had some dinner and called home, before resuming my seat at the bar, which I would not reliquish until the late, late hour of 11 pm. Smarty Jones ran well, but lost at the last second, which disappointed everyone in the bar. The band came and played and played and I drank beer after beer, talking with a local named Jimmy about everything under the sun, from philosophy and religion to politics and morality. For someone who would be sneered at by academics (I am an academic) based on his appearance and mode of speaking, Jimmy knew a lot of history and much religion outside of the Christian tradition. I had yet to have such a deep conversation with anyone on the AT. A woman offered me a prayer card, which I politely refused, but I don't think I came through in the best of lights. Still, when I wandered off to bed, I was more than happy to be where I was. The Doyle, and Duncannon in general, had become my favorite town stops on the entire AT. The friendliness of the people, the great food, and the understanding environment summed up perfectly what I wanted in a town stop. I even pondered staying for a zero day, but only briefly. There was hiking to do.