6/16 – 6/21
The rabbi in the window seat shook his bag of cinnamon candies, inviting me to partake. Milam and I were on our third bus of the day, leaving Port Authority in NYC at 1am, arriving in Washington, DC around 6am – the last leg of about 20 hours transit time from Bangor, ME – and we still had a layover and train to Harper’s Ferry. I didn’t take the candy, so as to avoid a sticky mouth overnight. I sort of regret it. The rabbi put in his earbuds after that, and pulled up an ABBA playlist.
We got off the train in Harper’s Ferry and were greeted by a brick road and faded candy-colored buildings, all slick with a fresh coat of West Virginian humidity and mist rising off the Potomac River. The temperature had definitely risen compared to Maine, but the number of mosquitoes had declined – I only saw ten in all of Maryland, which we soon entered after crossing the footbridge over the river.
The terrain in Maryland is flatter and less gnarled with roots and bog rocks compared to Maine, and our first three miles as Nobos were almost perfectly level. After our full day of travel we kicked out 6 miles to get to the shelter, as our options for stealth camping up to that point were in ditches or on railroad tracks. I was moving much faster, though the both of us did feel a bit heavy-chested due to the humidity (and the oatmeal on which we’d been breakfasting).
The shelters in Maryland are the fanciest I’ve seen so far. They are more like cabins than lean-tos, with bunks and lofts, bear poles/lines/boxes, and some exceptional privies. And while we got a new tent from Poet when he shook us down in Monson (I also traded Vanessa for a smaller and lighter pack, Little Dude), the humidity soon turned to plenty of rain, making the shelters even more appealing. Our strategy is now to stay in the shelters as much as possible, not only to keep our gear dry but to maximize time trail, as packing up Hollywood in the morning can take a while.
As we went over the ridges of South Mountain we endured a thunderstorm, just after a sun-bath in Gathland State Park. Gathland, a civil war battleground turned massive estate of a war journalist turned museum, had not only running water but flush toilets and an excellent stone deck on which to nap in the sun – which we did, cashing in on a blue sky only to later be soaked. It was well worth it, in a way, as the rain brought out colorful mushrooms, happy toads (though I nearly lanced one with FrankenJames, the trekking pole I found in the free bin at Poet’s gear shop, pieced together from abandoned parts), and great comfort in dry clothes and sandals after the downpour.
On several occasions we encountered one of the Maryland Ridgerunners, Indy, who is employed by not only the Conservancy, but the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club as well as the state park authority. Currently studying to become a high school physics teacher, Indy is a former AT and PCT thru-hiker whose job for the summer is to go back and forth along the Maryland section (the smallest state section of the trail at 41 miles long), educating hikers on the principles of the conservancy, cleaning and maintaining the shelters, and noting where the trail may need maintenance. Indy is quite knowledgeable regarding his section, acting as concierge – recommending view and sharing anecdotes, as well as warnings of hornets nests and high waters. I told Indy that Iearned how to ford in the wilderness, and he advised I check my confidence, as even the most experienced hikers have fallen in. I talk a big talk, though – I still squeal every time I wet my feet in the shallowest mountain spring.
Maryland is a heavily used part of the trail, its short length attractive to section and day hikers, of which there were many – especially leading up to and during Father’s Day weekend.
For a few days we were in pace with a Father and Son who, for lack of learning their names, I dubbed Machete Sr. and Machete Jr. Clad in matching camouflage cargo pants, they had several of these knives in tow – and only once did I witness their use, which was an ironic one: Parkay, a wirey ultralight hiker who would otherwise scoff at the tool, used the largest of the weapons to pierce a hole in the bottom of his crinkling SmartWater bottle in order to create a gravity drip for his Sawyer Mini filter. Machete Sr and Jr were happy to be out in the woods, and checked in often with Mrs. Machete to state their location and thank her for the meals she had packed for them. What struck me most about them was their conservative nature – not in a political way, but at their modesty in the presence of a lady. Shortly after we arrived at a shelter after heavy rain, Machete Sr. asked if I would like them to take a walk (i.e. give me some privacy to strip naked). I declined their offer, but did later drop trou more discreetly than I had grown accustomed to, not wanting to embarrass the gentlemen.
Also out for the weekend were many groups of kid campers, who would (just as I imagined at the Antler Campsite in the wilderness) materialize en masse and, depending on the size and general age of the group (and moreover, the attitude of the chaperones), run amok. We were sitting at the Pine Knob Shelter, suited for five, with Laces and Cold Potato when, exactly as I pulled off my sweaty underwear (we had long since out-paced the Machete boys), Laces spotted the several children blundering down the blue blaze.
“We’ve got boy scouts,” she stated as though she was a militant commander, readying the troops to batton down the hatches.
But the boys who arrived (and arrived leagues before their supervision) were clearly not scouts, and at least the scouts would have possessed the skillset to build a healthy campfire (though there was one boy hellbent on borrowing everyone’s, anyone’s lighter to char some leaves). But the group of around 20 boys and their 3 adults were more entertaining than the fire they didn’t build (or start).
The boys climbed on the shelter roof and showered us with Cheetos and Slim Jim wrappers as their adults urged us to eat their snacks, as they no longer wished to carry the weight but feared feeding more sugar to their horde. There was the pyro, and of course one who was trying to convince the others that one can and should drink their own urine, and plenty of singular sentences that came through their chaotic conversation until well after dark –
“But I don’t like Mac n’ Cheese!”
“We have to do another seven-and-a-half miles tomorrow?”
“Mush is good, mush is energy.”
“You know, I really need some Vaseline.”
“Whatcha got goin’ on?”
“Well, I think I sweat too much around my privates and it’s really not good.”
“We got some stuff for that.”
In Maryland we saw an even mix of thru-hikers, section hikers, day hikers, and scouts (a generalized term for all the kiddo groups), and this varied population is what is common on the trail. However, our experience as long-distance hikers is somewhat uncommon, as we we will be unlikely to form a hiker family.
I learned the term from Nine, a young woman from Tennessee who had in her first 1000 miles been through infected blisters and norovirus, known at least two hikers to have gotten Lyme, and had lost her hiker family – those folks she had met on the trail and stayed in pace with, not necessarily walking together step by step but sharing shelters, meals, the occasional hotel room, the overall day-to-day. Nine lost them to zeroes, hers and theirs, some folks getting too far ahead or behind and some plain getting off the trail. So for a moment, she floated in our bubble, regaling us with her aforementioned horror stories as well as an account of her time working in the Smokies while being stuck in the snow.
Also in the bubble that passed us in Maryland:
Cold Potato and Laces were comparing guidebooks before the boyscouts arrived. He had the ALDHA guide while She had AWOL’s, and they were noticing the several discrepancies in distances, landmarks, and other information. Milam and I are carrying both guides, but only the northern half of each. Awol is more practical, though we’ve gained a certain chagrin toward his unpredictable and confusing taste in waymarks; the ALDHA guide contains historical facts and more thorough descriptions of established waymarks, but it is written in more eloquent prose not tailored for plastic baggy in a cargo pocket.
Fiddler, from Appleton/Green Bay – one of the handful of Wisconsinites we’ve met out here, who hung his hammock on the wrong tree at Falls Creek, nearly taking out himself and our occupied tent – though the fallen tree later became a handy place to sit and hang our things.
Slow Ride, who we heard about from Cold Potato, who earned his name from singing classic rock songs as he hikes. And while we didn’t catch him crooning, the last we saw him he was definitely taking it easy, hitching into town to curb a KFC craving.
Five, a bawdy old man who crushes huge miles but appears to take his sweet time along the trail, stopping to pick wild berries, chatting up the locals in town, smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit with the other old boys in his pace. I believe his secret to be his namesake – that he hits the trail every morning before the sun rises.
Neemor, who had ditched his ukelele to slim down his pack and played Milam’s guitar for the better part of an hour at Pine Knob, reminded of why sometimes the weight is worth it (Parkay the ultralighter had a very different reaction, humorously feigning crumpling under the Washburn’s two-ish pounds).
Dash, a speedy young teen member of a thru-hiking family of 7 (a la Von Trapp), in the final 10 miles of the Four State Challenge – touching down in VA, WV, MD, and PA in 24 hours. He stopped for a break at Ensign Cowall just before the hurricane remnants hit – and after a pep talk he rushed into the dark torrential rain accompanied by a chorus of our dry, sleepy cheers.
Food Truck and Pony Puncher, a pair of 60-something sister thru-hikers, who we last saw posing for funny pictures on the railroad tracks near the Mason-Dixon line.
But these people have a different pace, and while we may see them again I truly only knew them in this short manner. Nine had found a fox femur in the southern half of the trail – it is strung around her neck. As she reacted with joy and jealousy at Poet’s story about Packrat packing out a moose skull, I knew what I was collecting on the trail: stories.
On our last day and mile in Maryland we found ourselves in Pen Mar Park, full of picnicers, birthday parties, and music in the pavilion. It was Sunday, Father’s Day and the Summer Solstice. We sat in the grass, charging our phones from an outlet on a park structure, enjoying a lazy afternoon. A picnicer saw us and our packs and, as we clearly were exhibiting the signs of being thru-hikers, approached us with cake and bottles of water.
It was white cake with more frosting than I care to admit eating and a filling of strawberry jam – and for the second that the icing was in tact (before devouring) it spelled out my mood verbatim –