PENNSYLVANIA (Easy Part)
* Today’s post is brought to you by my Mom, “PokéMom.” *
Thursday, June 17
Hey, this is “Pokemom.” (Thank you “Maple” for the trail name.) I drove to Gardners, PA, along with our dog Luna, to meet up with Seany (aka Hokey Pokey) and spent a fewdays on trail with him. We met at the General Store in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where Seany undertook the “Half Gallon Challenge” — a 40-year-old AT tradition where hikers down a half gallon of Hershey’s ice cream – in one sitting — at the midpoint between Georgia and Maine. Seany rose to the challenge consuming 1.5 quarts of chocolate bliss followed by 1 pint of mint chocolate chip. While physically shaking from the excessive cold of the ice cream, he clocked in at an impressive 24 minutes, 15 seconds … and later reported freezer burn on his gums.
Who wouldn’t be envious watching someone who burns upwards of 5,000 calories a day being encouraged to eat a half gallon of ice cream. I was jealous.
We spent the night in the 1829 Ironmaster’s Mansion next door – currently functioning as a hostel and wedding venue — where I treated Seany to a private bedroom and bathwhere he was able to take a long and overdue shower, and we slept in a bed adorned with vintage pillows and comforter. Despite the shower, he still smelled. Sorry, Seany. I think he’ll need a long soak in a chlorinated pool when he finishes this incredible journey. I am assuming when the thru hikers refer to themselves as “hiker trash,” it references their appearance and odor and not actual trash. In fact, after spending four days amongst this community, I was so impressed with their respect for the trail in their cleanliness and efforts to keep the trail immaculate at all times. For example, did you know when you poop on the trail, you’re supposed to dig a hole and bury your “droppings”? (Even animals don’t do that.) Getting things to land in the hole creates its own challenge.
Friday, June 18
Today we put boot to ground and set out on our journey. Seany helped me organize my pack the night before; he is an expert. He didn’t prepare me (nor did I prepare myself) for the weight of carrying a backpack nearly my height on my back for hours. No one prepared Luna, either, for having to carry her own saddle bags. But what’s the worry?! We were just so excited to start out on this adventure!!
The 11.2 miles we did today were gorgeous. The beauty of the forest is amazing over and over again. You can’t help but marvel at the expansive variations of the color green. Even a mound of moss is captivating, imagining a whole biome for microscopic beings.
Oh, and did you know rocks breathe? I didn’t either! As Seany would search behind himself to see how I was fairing crawling up a hill, he’d call back to me that there was a “breathing rock” ahead – a big rock I could back myself up to and rest my pack on so “I” could breathe. Needless to say, I soon recognized breath in rocks, trees, fence posts, and bridge trusses … regarding them with the same level of respect and thanks one holds for the HVAC repairman on a 100-degree day.
Seany is an excellent outdoorsman and hiker, but even more so, he is a wonderful human being — full of patience, encouragement, kindness. Not only did he wait patiently for me as we made our way up, down, and all around the trail this first day, but he encouraged me and made me feel so welcomed into his world. When we set up camp, Seany did all the work – setting up the one-man tent (for me and Luna), filtering water from a stream, and cooking me a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai for dinner. At 6:30 p.m., Luna and I crawled into our tent for the night, drained and bruised and filled with the weight of “How do we do this again tomorrow!?!?” Seany, who planned to “cowboy camp” (sleep outside under the stars) stayed up and fraternized with some nearby thru hikers who hauled in a case of PBR.
At 2 a.m., the rain joined the party, and our one-man tent quickly became a one-man, one-woman, one-dog tent. Luna, whose space was reduced to the size of a placemat, knew to just curl up and shut up. The next morning, Seany: “I slept great.” What?!?! How??? Must have been the PBR.
Saturday, June 19
Again, Seany did all the work – packing up the tent, cooking breakfast (oatmeal in a bag), and refilling our water supply. I was way too busy trying to figure out how to stand up. Today’s trek, though only 7.7 miles, would prove grueling. Hiker vocabulary defines this segment as PUDs – pointless ups and downs. Going up, your cardiovascular system in taxed; going down, your knees turn to spaghetti. The summit brought a hiker highlight:“The Rock Maze” – a labyrinth of tight boulder climbs and crevices. I imagined these geological wonders were of fascination to Seany, the Geological Engineer. To me, they were an oxymoron: nightmares and breathing rocks.
When I bought some supplies back home at REI, the cashier commented, “Oh, you’re going to hike in Pennsylvania? There’s a lot of rocks there.” What an understatement, and okay, now I get it. He wasn’t talking about places like The Rock Maze; he was talking about the miles and miles of today’s trek (and others like them) where you are walking on trail on top of rocks – big rocks, little rocks, medium rocks. Think of putting your feet through a meat grinder. Got that visual? My fantasies of food and getting horizontal at day’s end quickly were replaced with the fantasy of taking off my boots.
With Seany’s quiet charge, though, we made it through the PUDs and out of the maze, where the trail opened up to the most gorgeous, expansive views of rolling corn and wheat fields dotted with far-off barns and old farmhouses with crooked front porches and American flags waving in the wind. It dawned on me then that not only are these thru hikers experiencing Mother Nature, they are also walking through small town America – our nation’s backbone. At this point, I feel extremely blessed and half dead.
We make it to an AT campsite, set up our “home” (okay, I didn’t help, really) then walked another half mile into the adorable town of Boiling Springs, PA. Boiling Springs (one of 23 designated AT communities) is also part of the Network to Freedom, a series of noteworthy sites along the Underground Railroad. The town gets its name from the natural artesian well springs located in and around town – in fact, 30 of them dotted across 2 acres that produce about 22 million gallons of water per day. The water is not “boiling,” but its temperature in Children’s Lake stays at 55 degrees Fahrenheit 365 days a year. All fascinating, especially to a geological engineer; I soaked in the Americana quaintness and kept my sights on Café 101 and dinner on a plate.
Luna and I were “in bed” by 8:30 p.m. while Hokey Pokey lingered at a nearby picnic table with Simba (okay, he just looked like Simba) and Monkeytoes (she could tie her shoes with her toes). We didn’t quite realize the campsite was positioned within a gum spit of an ACTIVE railroad track with freight trains barreling through, blowing their whistle, and screeching their brakes All. Night. Long. The blessing: Every time a train came through, the guy sleeping in the hammock three feet from me stopped snoring (momentarily) and Luna (out of fear) would start licking my toes. The closest thing to a bath yet. The next morning, Seany: “I slept great!” Must have been his ear plugs. The things I’m learning too late.
Sunday, June 20
Today was going to be our longest stretch – 14.7 miles. We needed to cross the Cumberland Valley … where the next water source loomed 13 miles away. It doesn’t take a genius to realize every day brings its own challenges. Maybe there’s no rocks or PUDs or rain today, but there’s scorching 90-degree sun melting your clothes as you walk unprotected through the amber waves of grain. (Think crayons under a 500 volt hair dryer.) Your pack is way heavier, too, because you have to carry a lot more water. Oh, and you fall and sprain your ankle and bruise your rib and tear your shorts and yell obscenities you’re hoping your 24-year-old son didn’t hear … four miles in. Someone asked me after this hike if Seany and I talked a lot. Hmmm. Not really. There’s an unspoken language when you are defeated, dehydrated, dehumanized. Take, for example,when you reach a crossing in the trail with a sign that reads “Concession stand with beverages and food at sports fields 800 yards this way!” The unspoken language: “Are you kidding? Add another 1600 yards to this daunting day?!?Why didn’t you just bring the cool drinks and food to the trail for us???” Hence why Trail Magic is provided truly by Trail ANGELS.
As Luna reached her brink, trying to find slivers of shade amongst the corn and wheat (impossible), God and Mother Nature combined forces and produced a river, a flowing, big beautiful river. Seany and Luna lowered their body temperatures by double digits and rehydrated their skin, soul, and minds.
I couldn’t go in for fear if I took off my boot, my ankle would swell … and we still had a good many miles to go to reach camp. Instead, wonderful Seany made me an electrolyte cocktail. Refreshed and alive again, we carried on to the base of a ridgeline – only 1.5 more miles … uphill. But the thought of getting horizontal and another dinner in a bag can motivate even the feeblest amongst us to trudge onward.
By 8:30 p.m., we and about 10 others all nestled into our tents and a shelter … just in time for the deluge that fell from the sky along with the clapping of thunder. Did you know you can eat dinner from a bag lying completely horizontal? Yes, you can! Then you lick your spoon, simply roll over, and sleep.
Monday, June 21
We needed to wake up early to trek two miles to a pick up point by 9 a.m. Here was my salvation – Dana the volunteer shuttle driver who would take me and Luna 40 minutes back to our car, a shower, Dunkin Donuts, air conditioning, music, and a real toilet. It was nice hiking in the morning and watching the sun light up the forest floor and the intricate handiwork of Charlotte (see web below).
After Dana arrived and I hugged Seany good-bye (holding my breath; again, sorry Seany), he carried on – at a much faster speed – and caught up in Duncannon with fellow thru-hiker buddies he had not seen for a month. And so it goes: Seany and the others will continue putting one foot in front of the other … for another 1,000 miles.
• Under the canopy of the forest lies a world without television, politics, pandemics, bills, cars, traffic, microwaves, etc. It is a truly magical place. These thru hikers are seeing, hearing, absorbing a richness that doesn’t include decimal points and dollar signs. We all can experience such wealth by investing in the great outdoors.
• Wow, kudos to those incredible AT volunteers who maintain all 2,193 miles of this world-famous trail! As you hike any part of the trail, you can’t help but appreciate their efforts and try to figure out how in the world boulder steps are built on top of a mountain or footbridges constructed miles into a trail. Who carries all those supplies?!? Well, the largest organization of volunteers in the world spends 240,000 hours a year building and repairing shelters, managing rare plants and invasive species, building those footpaths and boulder steps, moving fallen trees off trail, clearing natural overgrowth to protect, maintain, and celebrate the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. Anyone can volunteer!
• These thru hikers are a puzzle of many different adventurers hiking for a myriad of reasons (or no reason at all) who together make up a unique and beautiful community. I was so privileged to be able to step into their world and witness the camaraderie and support and understanding they all share. They are individuals and a collective group simultaneously.
• At this stage of the game, they are fast, fast, fast and fit, fit, fit. They walk and walk and walk and eat and eat and eat. By the end, it’s said the men reach Mt. Katahdin in Maine as skeletons and the women as goddesses. They ALL arrive heroes.
• I am proud of all of them — those I met, those I never met, those who came before, and those who will come afterward. I’m especially proud of Seany (hard not to be as Hokey Pokey’s mom). He is brave and kind, patient and thoughtful. Every ache and pain was worth the very special opportunity to join him. Seany is taking this journey for his own reasons but not without trying to raise awareness and funds for others. Everyone is on some kind of journey, and those walking with mental health or fighting thoughts of suicide need our support … and some breathing rocks.