Mid-Atlantic: Duncannon to Delaware Water Gap

June 6, 2004
I slept as late as I could, which was only 7:30 and then showered before leaving the Doyle for the cafe across the street. As much as I loved the previous breakfast at the Doyle, the joint is closed on Sunday's so I had to seek nourishment elsewhere. Jodies was small, but very tasty: Sausage and cheese omelet, homefries, toast, and coffee. Wild Horse showed up and ordered a set of blueberry pancakes, whcih looked so good that I had to add an order on to my bill. Not only was the food good and cheap, but Jodies is also the first restaurant that I've been in that actually had Freedom Fries. Fully sated, Wild Horse and I left town together in the mist and fog, although he quickly got out in front of me. The AT walks through town for a while, then crosses the mighty Susquehanna, before rejoining the forest on the other side. While pleasant enough, this was a little problematic for me as I had drunk about six cups of coffee at Jodies. I was very happy to get into the woods once again.

There were lots of annoying rocks on the trail and all of the recent precipitation had brought all the local vegetation low on the trail. In addition to getting wet, it made it impossible to avoid all the poison ivy that littered the trail. I had just gotten over my first case from Virginia, and there was no chance that I would not contract a second along this stretch. I passed a few trail crews working with weed whackers to clear brush, but they were a bit too aggressive with their whacking for my taste: Several feet on either side of the trail were decimated down to the ground. I'd rather have had to push through.

The mist and the struggling sunshine gave the woods a spooky, though highly serene, feel and I tried my best to appreciate it for what it was. Without the massive, obvious features of the PCT, the AT hiker seems to have to rely upon smaller, more subtle features. I stumbled by some hikers who were sitting in a shelter, but didn't stay for more than twenty minutes and promptly forgot all of their names. In the register it seemed that Rock Steady had stayed here the night before, when I was warm and toasty and dry and slightly drunk in the Doyle. Definitely a tougher hiker than I. I rolled on down the trail, without thoughts or much inspiration after the mist lifted, taking the spooky sunlight with it. Dull, bored, dreary. And no Wild Horse, or even hikers of any kind, to chat with. I reached Yellow Springs Village and decided to camp for the night. There was a tent already up, with a couple sitting out front of it, and I didn't want to invade their space. I said hello and pushed on, a little depressed with where I was. I set camp thirty yards or so further up the trail and cooked dinner and laid about. I didn't have anything to do, and this annoyed me. I couldn't think, couldn't reflect, and I didn't want to hike anymore today. Or, tomorrow even. Physically I was fine, but I felt that I was carrying around a massive weight on my mind and spirit, and this was troubling. I was in trouble.

Despite the depressing mood that I was in for most of yesterday, I slept deeply and soundly on the soft forest floor and awoke refreshed and ready to do some hiking, moving at the standard hour of 6 am. The early morning mist showed signs of lifting eventually, but for the first few hours I enjoyed my morning ritual of watching the sun tumble down through the canopy of green trees, broken and scattered in the trapped water particles. The mornings and their mist, I realized, had been providing the majority of the scenery thus far this summer. While not classical, the mornings were stunning nonetheless. If I slept in, I would have missed the best part of the day and I was glad for my early starts.

The rocks were getting rather ferocious and I was happy to stumble into the 501 shelter in the early afternoon to get off of them. The rocks are never dangerous or particularly painful. Instead, they would force me to stare at my feet in order to avoid falling. Thus, I spent most of my time hiking looking at the ground as it passed by at three miles per hour. Not a particularly good way to spend one's day. At the 501 I stopped to cook some lunch and found Wild Horse and another hiker sitting about. Wild Horse proclaimed himself done for the day as he didn't want to pull the long miles to the next shelter. This I found rather funny and asked him why he didn't just set up his tarp, which he had been carrying since Springer. "I don't know how to set it up," he confessed. We both got a good laugh out of this. The other hiker had left Springer some time in January and had a few interesting stories to tell. He, too, was done for the day. We sat and talked for an hour while I ate down some Thai noodles (which can only be so good as they come from Lipton) before pushing on. I didn't think that I would see Wild Horse again since he wanted to slow things down a bit and had to get off the trail soon for a week at home and a wedding.

Another afternoon passed without thinking of much, or even experiencing anything. I spent so much time watching my footing on the rocky trail that I missed much of what happened around me. Why the AT gets routed along the rocks, I'll never know. There are plenty of tracks, abandoned roads, and other smooth paths that the AT could take. Indeed, it follows them at times, crossing from one side to the other, though never taking the more enjoyable path. I suppose the builders had some sort of life lesson in mind here, but mostly I was just annoyed.

The rocks ended just in time to walk through a mud bog for a few hundred yards, and then onto what seemed to be an old ATV track, though one with enough downed trees that it couldn't be driven. As I strolled through the woods in the early evening light, I decided, very arbitrarily, that I was done for the day and should find a campsite. Off into the woods I went, though only for a 100 feet or so, until I found enough clear, soft, level ground to pitch my tarp on. Soft, pliable, enjoyable ground. On such terrain, I sleep better than even on my futon at home, and certainly better than on the hard floors of a shelter.

As far as I could tell I was somewhere near Black Swatara spring, but I didn't particularly care to know my specific location. It didn't matter anyways. I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 32 miles from my bedchambers of the night before, on soft ground, and with only the sounds of the forest to keep me awake. Sitting in the quiet forest, I realized how rare it was to truly be away from the sounds of man. It was a rare time that I hadn't heard a road, or the hum of transmission wires, or the voices of other hikers. It was rare, and it was delightful, to experience this pure sound of nature.

There isn't much to say. I woke up in a funk, walked through the woods for a while, and then reached Port Clinton during the early part of the hottest part of this dull Pennsylvania day. The rocks were bad and I grumbled alot, and upon reaching town I didn't get any happier. After dropping out of the woods, the AT crossed a wasteland that had some railroad tracks on it, along with a rather out of place sign indicating that this area was a wildlife sanctuary.

I stood and looked at the sign and then around me. Unfortunately there were people standing about, which meant I couldn't knock over or steal the sign. Or do anything to express how silly the whole thing was. Perhaps the resident bald eagle population could roost on top of the rusting railroad cars, or on the many light posts that dotted the area.

I retrieved my box from the post office and loaded up my pack with goodies before heading over to what the postmistress called the hotel. I left my pack outside and went in, all alone except for the waitress. The blasting AC startled me, and the cold iced tea soothed my sore spirit. I ordered some cheese sticks and a Canal Burger, and spent the pre-grubbing time watching country music videos and shaking my head at what some people view as desireable. The cheese sticks were about normal, but the burger was such a monstrosity that I was unsure how to attack it. Like the Jose Burger at the Paradise Cafe on the Pines-To-Palms highway on the PCT, this thing was a beast. The huge Kaiser roll was nowhere near large enough to hold it. Judging from size and weight, the patty alone was over a pound. With all the fixins piled on top, it was a monument to gluttony, and perfect for a hungry hiker. I ate solidly for thirty minutes, downing numerous glasses of iced tea, and generally enjoyed myself in the cold bar, despite the music videos.

I finished my food and rested my bulging belly for a while, when another hiker came in. I hadn't seen him before, and I was feeling friendly, so I introduced myself and we started chatting. He had been in town for a few days camping in the park (which is allowed, by the way), and waiting for something or other, but it wasn't clear what. Money from home or a package in the mail or something or other. The waitress was in the process of filling mustard bottles when he came in and didn't drop her task right away to bring him a menu. This he didn't seem to like much and asked for one in a rather unpleasant tone. She put down the mustard and brought one over. He asked how the food was and I gave it a glowing review. He thought for a while then declared that he wasn't going to eat anything. I shook my head, paid my bill, and left.

The heat was in full swing and I sweated heavily as the trail wound steeply up into the Pennsylvania hills. I encountered a local coming down from the top and stopped to talk briefly. He worked in town and everyday during his lunch break he climbed up to the top of the ridge for exercise. I thought this a rather grand idea and told him so before pushing on to finish my own hill. I was rather happy when I stopped to take a break at a spring where several section hikers were resting and washing themselves from the spring water. I got water from above them and sat down to drink it and rest. I promptly got a lecture on why I was foolish to drink straight from the spring without treating the water. I nodded and said nothing, and continued to drink the cold water. The section hikers ignored me for the rest of the break and talked amongst themselves about gear and mileages and other things that I could care less about. I was glad to leave the spring and get some peace once more.

The afternoon continued hot, but included some nice views of the farms in the valley from the Pinnacle, although the various bits of broken glass and assorted other trash made the place feel a little less serene. Dropping down old logging roads, I started to feel better as the day cooled and enjoyed the walk along the old road beds, all the way to a large road crossing, down which a shelter was located. I thought about stopping in for the night, but decided that I would rather push on and get up the next hill. Mud, slop, and general muck greeted me along the AT until it slowly began to climb to the next set of hills, following the rockiest course possible. Although I thought I might camp at Dan's Pulpit, or near the spring past it, I found delightful old road bed that had been softened over the years by an invasion of grasses and proclaimed it to be a wonderful, if viewless, campsite.

I was tired, and a little cranky, though comfortable for another night. The lingering feeling that had been dogging me for the past week or two was still there. I just wasn't in the right place at the right time, it seemed. The Mid-Atlantic was sucking the life out of me and I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. This is the worst possible thought to have on a distance hike, as it means you are after a geographic goal rather than enjoying the process of moving across the land. I couldn't care less about the land, except for the misty mornings. I was unsure how much further I would go on, and perhaps might cut my hike short by a week and spend a few extra days with my mother before heading to Canada for the Great Divide. My head just wasn't right, and daily I was growing weaker, despite my rapidly strengthening body.

I was really struggling to leave my nice campsite in the morning. Nothing was right, my mind and spirit least of all. I was forcing myself to walk forward, over the rocks, rather than enjoying the time that I had. I started to think that perhaps it would be best to get off the AT at the next town and take a Greyhound home instead of pushing on for another two weeks or so. I didn't even have the drive to utter a curse toward the trail. On the one hand I wished that someone was around so that I could vent to a person, rather than to myself or to the rocks, who usually got the brunt of my foul mood. Early in the morning I rambled by a shelter and saw some activity in it, but paid it no mind. During my first break, however, a hiker named Mountain Man came by and we started to talk for a bit. I ran into him, and another thruhiker, a bit later on at another break and, like Scuba in Shenandoah, they were the right people at the right time. Conversation turned to more pleasant things and I slowly began to recover from my funk. As much as I might like to think that I am self sufficient, the AT was demonstrating that I needed companions from time to time. More accurately, I needed the right people.

The day began to heat up considerably and, oddly enough, I continued to feel better and better mentally as my body began to tire from the considerable humidity. Thoughts of ending my hike at Palmerton vanished and I rolled into the George Outerbridge shelter feeling fine. To my surprise, Rock Steady was sitting in the shelter along with a woman thruhiker, whose name escapes me. I was happy to see him, and he me, but both of us pretended, jokingly, to be upset to find the other one. When I insisted that I was going to take the easy, winter trail up from Lehigh Gap, I got a stream of abuse from Rock Steady, which helped to further cheer me. Mountain Man and some other hikers showed up, and all were planning to go into Palmerton and stay at the hostel there for the night. With Delaware Water Gap not far ahead, I decided not to and said good bye to the hikers while eating down my dinner. I decided not to go anywhere until the heat began to pass, and so sat at the shelter for almost three hours.

When I finally emerged from the shelter, the heat had abated (though still strong), and I loped down the trail happier than I had been for several days. I had to cross the long auto bridge, then walk around a highway for a while, then finally start the steep climb up and out of the Gap. Steep, very steep. But, just as I started to get angry at the trail builders, something wonderful happened: The trail itself got interesting. Rather than simply having a steep grade, the last 200 or 300 vertical feet were more like a scramble than a trail. It felt good to be high and exposed, with the warm wind blowing on me and not a soul around. Even though it was decidedly harder than a normal trail, it was fun and interesting and different from the normal tunnel hiking of the AT. I sat on a rock near the top and rested, looking out into the flat PA farms and towns below. Even though it was the prototypical view for much of the AT, it was one of the prettiest resting spots I'd had this summer. The air was perfect, even if it was rather thick for my tastes. Palmerton is actually the site of an EPA Superfund project to recover the land from decades of pollution from a zinc smelter. The contrast was not lost on me.

After taking a long break on the rock, I continued the scramble to the top, at which point more fun ensued. Rather than simply going to the top and being done with the matter, the trail traversed along the edges providing another mile or so of exposure. I suspect a PCT hiker came out to design this part of the AT. Eventually I reached the plateau on top and was treated to even more joy. The pollution from the smelter had killed basically everything on the plateau and this gave the land an eerie, open look to it. And supreme beauty. As the smelter had been shut down for some time, the land was beginning to recover. Small plants and shrubs here and there, an occasional trash tree. Bits of green and life in a devastated land displayed the resiliency and power of the living world: We cannot kill nature. We can only make it impossible for us to continue as a species. We can exterminate ourselves (perhaps this is inevitable) by making the world unfit to live in, but centuries and millennia will pass and nature will recover and set things right.

I loped along in high spirits, overjoyed at my decision not to go into Palmerton and amazed at the difference in my mood between the morning and the early evening. I was thriving again. Except for water. I needed water, but there was supposed to be a spring up here, called Metallica. I kept my eyes open for it, but when I ran into a set of powerlines without finding a turnoff sign, I knew that I had gone too far and that no such sign existed. I turned around and walked five minutes back down trail until spotting some vegetation that screamed water. After spending a bit of time in the desert, you learn quickly to recognize when there is water about. I hiked off the trail through a scrub forest and came out to a ravine. I could hear the water and peered over the edge to see a gushing spout. While not super easy to get to, neither was it life threatening. The water was pure and sweet, and I sat in the ravine drinking my fill before filling up my water bag and climbing back out. I marked, with a rock arrow, the direction of the spring from the trail and wandered about for a campsite. I had another hour of daylight, but here I had a nice view and a place that promised to give me sunset. So, I threw up my tarp in a grassy field near an overlook and called it good. In between bites of food, I looked up to check on the sunset, happy as it is possible to be. It didn't take much. Only an EPA Superfund sight, cold water, and a campsite with a view. How simple it all seems.

For the first morning in a while, I was actually happy to wake up and know that I was going to be on the AT for the entire day. I packed quickly after watching the world light up and was moving down the trail as efficiently as I could, pondering whether or not I wanted to go into Delaware Water Gap today or tomorrow. I decided that I would, instead, hike to somewhere close by and then go in tomorrow morning, taking the rest of the day off. With the decision made, I began to tire again mentally, with the rocks of the AT providing a source of great annoyance. By the time I reached Wind Gap, I was downright salty. My beautiful day had collapsed completely, and to make matters worse it looked like a storm was coming in. I walked down the road to a motel where I might be able to cook dinner out of the coming rain, but found the facilities to be a little lacking: There just wasn't any place that was both covered and out of the way of the guests of the motel. Instead, I bought some sodas from the Indian family that ran the place and took a half hour rest and watched the sky get darker and darker. I suppose that I secretly hoped Rock Steady would roll up and suggest taking the rest of the day off. But, he didn't and I was too stubborn to let the threat of rain keep me from the woods.

I had a two hour dry window before the rain started pouring forth from the heavens, of course beginning right when I sat down to take a break. I sat under a tree getting wet, and then decided to speed hike the remaining three or four miles to a shelter. This means going flat out, almost running. Trying to get somewhere, rather than enjoying the time I had. I didn't care any more. I was cold and wet and more than a little irked, both at myself and the world around me. The rocks were bad and the trail ran out and along some minor cliffs, from which I am sure there were beautiful views of farms. All I saw was mist.

Moving hard, I was sweating even in the cold rain, tasting the salt as it ran down my face along the rain. I didn't care that the world was going by at an comfortable 4.5 miles per hour. I wanted to get somewhere, so I went. I rolled up to the Kirkridge shelter around 5 to find it inhabited by four other hikers, all hiding from the rain. They apparently had been there since the early afternoon, before it had even started to rain. I didn't feel like talking much and so sat on the edge of the sleeping platform and moped a bit. During a break in the rain I moved out to the picnic table and had a smoke, which prompted a lecture from one of the thruhikers about how I would never be able to hike if I didn't quit. I didn't bother to respond to him. I thought about leaving and hiking into town tonight and spending the cash for two nights in town, rather than one. In the end I couldn't justify the cost, nor did I really want to sleep in a motel room for two consecutive nights. I unpacked my stuff and cooked dinner, ignoring the other people in the shelter until I had some food in me, which would hopefully improve my friendliness.

After eating I talked with two of the hikers and found them to be pleasant enough. Even the one who had lectured me before seemed to warm up slightly, or rather I was in a more receptive, less defensive mood, and I chatted with him and his partner as well. It rained on and off for most of the early evening, but I didn't care much at this point. I was, more or less, dry and warm and out of the rain, which was all that really mattered to me at this point. I couldn't believe that I had ever considered hiking into town tonight. The emotional roller coaster of the AT was far more challenging than the physical aspect of it. I just didn't care for the constant highs and lows, particularly after last summer where I spent so much spiritual time up high in the clouds. I was done with the AT and knew it. It was just a matter of finding a convenient spot to hop off the trail and catch a bus to Chicago. Certainty was reassuring, as it relieved me of the responsibility of thinking for myself.

I was gone from the shelter early, although to my surprise two of the other hikers were up and moving, cooking themselves some breakfast before starting on the seven mile hike down to Delaware Water Gap. The rain had stopped a few hours before dawn and now all was mist. The cool morning air felt fine on my fine, even though yesterday it had prompted my speed hike into Kirkridge. Time passed, although I did not notice it, and I found myself standing on some rocks looking down into the valley that had to hold the town. New Jersey was in front of me, with New York somewhere behind it. A few thrust-up hills dotted the land, but mostly the terrain in front of my feet appeared easy and gentle, and, I hoped, rock free.

I sat on the outcropping for a half hour, trying to be as still as I could. Soft smells had been released by the all the rain and it was calming to simply sit for a while in the quiet of the morning. After I left this place I would be in town, and towns were rarely relaxing or calming. There were always things to do, logistics to handle, people to call, clothes to wash. In short, things that didn't matter much in the end, but could at least be pleasant. I eventually left my rock when my backside began to get too cold, although my pace was decidedly slow. Upon reaching town I started searching for a breakfast place, and settled into a fairly empty restaurant called The Trails End Cafe. I hated going into restaurants before getting clean as most other patrons would be offended by my filth and stench. The poison ivy I had picked up outside of Duncannon was truly disgusting, having progressed from merely irritated skin to the start of recovery stage that included pus and scabs. I left my pack outside and found a seat, as far from others as I could, and tore into the coffee and newspaper that the waitress brought me.

I spent an hour inside devouring one of the few outstanding trail meals that I had found on the AT. It seemed that everyplace off the PCT was a winner, but this just hadn't been the case so far on the AT. I had a plate of Sicilian eggs, which was composed of eggs scrambled together with onions, garlic, cheese, and pepperoni, accompanied by toast and hashbrowns. I ordered had a round of blueberry pancakes that put to shame any that I had had last summer, and I left the cafe feeling sated and pleased with my breakfast choice. I walked down to the Ramada Inn and got a room for the night, showered, and tried to take out as many chores as I could in the morning. Clothes washed, people called. I lunched and bought a few supplies from the gas station next door to the hotel, and swung by the local outfitters to buy some denatured alcohol for my stove. I barely noticed the stunning young woman working behind the counter, and found this rather odd after I was back in hotel. I was progressing into the same strange state that I had been in for most of last summer, which was a little reassuring and disconcerting at the same time.

I napped intermittently while watching television for a few hours, before setting out in search of dinner. I ran into Rock Steady and the woman thruhiker that had been at the shelter before Palmerton. They had spent the night at the motel near Wind Gap, reaching it just after I left. They were smart enough not to leave a dry place. We talked for a while and I told them about the motel room I had. They were welcome to split it with me, but they seemed not to want to spend any money and were going to camp behind the outfitters for the night. My stomach got the better of me and I went over to a pizza place for a large dinner and some beer, before retiring for the night with a six pack and a well fed, and rested, body.