6/22 – 7/2
The rock formation on the side of the trail spelled out “1000 mi to go” with an arrow pointing down the path north. And though I only had to walk a mere fraction of that distance before I reached the William Penn shelter, the rocks seemed to have been laid out specifically for me – for the last 39 miles I had been walking on a particularly nasty case of poison ivy, and the ping pong ball sized blisters had in the last 6 miles begun to burst between my toes. 0.1 miles was all the more I could go, clocking me at a cool 241.5 miles of trail walked in a month’s time (Milam had just broken 300). But let me go back about 150 miles to when we entered our third state, Pennsylvania.
Lucy was wearing a spaghetti-strap tank top that once was white and spoke with a Marlboro Menthol stuck to her bottom lip (crinkled packs littered the foot of the passenger’s seat). We were hitching back to the trail from resupplying in town, and the thin, dark haired woman had pulled off the road abruptly, gesturing emphatically for us to get in. She asked if we were packing, and we learned that Nine may have been carrying (if she was the Nine that had hitched with Lucy). I’m not sure there was more room in the vehicle for even a small gun, as we had quickly filled the front and back seats with ourselves and our packs (usually, Lucy throws hitchers in the back of her truck). She knew exactly where to drop us off, and though the trailhead was only two miles away from town, it saved us at least an hour.
Pennsylvania soon showed its picturesque terrain of pine trees and footbridges – one of which lead us to Antietam shelter, and we had it to ourselves for the night – lullabied by raucous cheers from the ball field of the nearby Old Forge Park.
As we laced up in the morning, a portly hiker named Parks stopped by the shelter and asked if the logbook was around. The logbooks and registers housed along the trail help hikers keep tabs on one another and allow them to share pertinent information (or rant/rave about high and low moments). They are quite the artifact. Milam and I had not been participating or even looking at them as we still felt like outsiders, and had no context or connection to their contents without a hiker family. When the logbooks are full, it is requested they be sent to their maintaining trail club by the hiker who ultimately filled it (I’m sure logbooks have met other fates than being filled, though I’ve only heard of one: emergency TP). But as the trail clubs are unable to replace books on demand, occasionally a shelter will lack one. This was the case at Antietam, and upon receiving this knowledge Parks produced a clean composition notebook – complete with pen and plastic baggy.
“Do you happen to know if any other hikers stayed here last night?” he inquired as he labeled the new logbook – he carries extra along the way for exactly this situation.
“We were the only ones,” I replied, impressed by his stewardship. He thanked us and continued walking.
The clouds threatened rain all day, but we made it to Caledonia State Park in time to stay dry under a pavilion. Milam, who had gone ahead, greeted me with a Nalgene full of ice water and took my order for the snack stand. The sky darkened and split just as he returned with two seriously large orders of fries, chicken fingers for me, a hamburger for him, and ketchup – which I never truly appreciated in my life until that moment – and more Pepsi than I’ve consumed in the last two years combined.
Several other hikers had the same idea as we had, as it was only 2 miles to the next shelter and the storm was to be done in time to get there before dark.
Takeout, a lithe section hiker with a messy brown top bun and cat-like eyes, had been unfortunately named (in her opinion) on the event of her ordering food on her very first night as a hiker (she expressed her sympathy upon learning my name). A young mother of three in her mid-30s, she’s done enough of the trail in the last two years to shoot the shit and talk shop with the thrus.
She talked a lot with Shark Bait, a somewhat stereotypical Bostonian with a mouth bigger than the beast’s in his name. Seriously, this guy would not shut the fuck up. It wasn’t so much the amount or manner of his words that I found irksome, but rather the content. I was in pace with him long enough to hear him tell the same, stretched, embellished tale more than once – and each time it grew taller with the telling (for example, the origin of his name in relation to a run in with a shark). I believe some of his stories – or elements of them – to be true, and though I’m complaining he honestly wasn’t horrible; we all do our fair share of story stretching. But I’m pocketing Shark Bait as an example of an unreliable narrator for future stories – he belongs in a play (perhaps one written by David Mamet).
Parks was there, too, and we learned the reason behind his vested interest in log books – on his first day on Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the trail, Parks met a girl named Mooch, and she’d gotten and stayed ahead of him ever since (read: for more than a thousand miles). Upon hearing her description, I realized I’d seen her not long ago in Maryland (recently she’d been sporting a new teal tank top) and Milam had seen her name carved into various things. Parks was the first to leave after the rain, pushing ahead to headlamp it in to the shelter nearly 10 miles away (in order to gain on his pink blaze, who was much nearer than he’d thought).
But the shelter we would stay in for the night, and the one that would set a new standard for lean-to quality on the trail, was Quarry Gap. The hike up from the park lead us through a tunnel of Mountain Laurel, which, had we started in Maryland at the beginning of the month, would be in full bloom – though we did catch a glimpse of some late bloomers.
Quarry Gap clearly has a caretaker who loves it – the shelter area features two covered picnic tables, wooden yellow duck kitsch hanging in the rafters, potted plants, a picket fence, and a decorative water feature that leads you to the laurel-lined spring. The quality of a shelter depends completely on the caretaker or maintaining club, in a similar way that the behavior of a scout group is reflective of the attitude and ability of its leader. The often changing occupants of the shelter will treat the structure with more respect if the shelter is well kept; bad shelters are often treated badly.
The next day at Birch Run shelter we lunched and napped in the sun. Another section hiker and his three sons (ages 7 to 10) joined us – though the two eldest hid in the bunks of the empty shelter, not-so-subtley stifling their boyish giggles. The sons admired Milam, his guitar (and his playing of it), and their father appreciated that Milam was repping the vintage external frame pack (a rarely seen piece of gear on the trail, especially on a thru hiker). Milam’s pack, guitar, and brass Svea stove (manufactured exactly as they have been since the late 19th century) attract a lot of attention from trailfolk and townfolk alike.
At Tom’s Run we met another pair of Flippers: Trial and Error – He was named for his penchant for attempting new and sometimes silly endeavors; she for pointing out his mistakes and shortcomings (in the most loving way possible). The pair, who hail from Cleveland, clearly have a deep love for one another as friends and trail partners – after their longest day on the trail, they collapsed into a heap exchanging congratulations (“We did it, babe”) and digging through their packs for celebratory cigarettes. They are such a pleasure to be around, and they were the first semblance of a possibly-forming hiking family.
We all sat together at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where Milam demolished the half-gallon challenge (an ice cream feat taken by thru hikers to commemorate their halfway point – Milam did it just because, with a hefty helping of Mint Chocolate Chip). So entranced by Milam’s ability to put away dairy, I forgot to eat lunch (though I did eat a Krispy Kreme Fruit Pie) – and the calorie deficit lead to fatigue the next day – with no worries, as once the culprit causing my crankiness was identified, we hastily subdued my hanger. It was at Pine Grove Furnace that I first tended to some contact dermatitis caused by the adhesive on the Leukotape I had been using to prevent blisters on my feet, which was the first crack in the foundation of their wellness – but more on that later.
With more rain on the way, Milam sped ahead to Tagg Run to secure a spot in the shelter – we scored the last bunk, and the shelter was over capacity as it was rocked by thunder through the night, each sleeping bag scooting and shuffling to make room as yet another wet hiker arrived. Bunks in the lean-tos are not always wide enough for two people, but they are usually wide enough for two people who like each other a lot. The only trick is to not drop anything onto the platform and person below you – when Garnet Turtle accidentally kicked the wall in the night, Milam and I both thought we’d dropped a full Nalgene on her, and the three of us shared a quiet giggle.
Garnet Turtle, a retired woman with a sleek taste in neon clothing, was named for the rate at which she packs up in the morning – but in no way does it reflect her pace on the trail. She had just gotten back on the trail in a continuation of last year’s attempt, during which she completed 1300 miles. It was cut short after a sustained calorie-deficit lead to severe muscle degradation (I noted this, to remind myself that hanger has far worse repercussions than a foul mood and mild fatigue). Turtle was the next addition to our hiker family – she is good-natured and experienced (she’s hiked the John Muir trail as well) with a wide smile and warm laugh.
In the morning after the rain the Tagg Run shelter emptied swiftly as Boiling Springs, a quaint and tidy community, was only 12 miles away and held the promise of a public pool (and cafes, taverns, hotels, etc) – and more rain would soon be on the way. Turtle, Milam and I opted to stop at the shelter 4 miles before Boiling Springs to ensure a dry evening – as did three other hikers: Little Giant, Wallet, and Skipper.
The three hailed from Connecticut and had a composure that was simultaneously manic energy and super-chill vibes. Like Turtle, they were slow to pack up in the morning, but for a different reason – they would build a healthy fire (the lighting of it was almost instant – it was searching for the fuel that took forever, with much discussion on where to find the “good wood”), and maintain the fire for at least two rounds of breakfast – then crush huge miles after noon. On this particular morning, second breakfast was delayed by the discovery of Milam’s Washburn – Little Giant was carrying the Martin Rover guitar, and Wallet a blue children’s guitar (sporting an excellent starry decal, I might add). A between-breakfasts jam session was enjoyed beside the midmorning campfire.
The Connecticut boys consume so much food (Little giant was at least 6’6″ and Wallet, smaller and thinner, must have had a hollow leg in which to put away so much food) that they forgot they had mailed themselves a resupply at this location, and had just restocked in town the day before – Little Giant unloaded plenty of goodies on us (old news to his palate, treats to ours): fancy protein bars, nut butters, mashed potatoes with powdered milk and butter already added – the properly-seasoned potatoes were a welcome addition to our foodbag, as we had been experimenting with backcountry cooking and had just recently choked our way through a daunting dinner of potatoes poorly mixed with prepackaged taco-seasoning (Milam’s idea).
We all soon made it to Alec Kennedy, and Little Giant & Co. had soon found all the “good wood” and showcased their pyrotechnical abilities. Turtle felt guilty for still not having set up her new tent, but we assured her that it could wait another day as the rain was coming. Trial and Error eventually stumbled in, having come from the shelter before us, continuing to build their hiker legs. Milam and I walked down to get water from the stream and dip our feet – one could see the soft, sandy bed of the stream through the clear, cool water glistening in the lowering sun.
Even though we had done very short miles, it felt happy to be at this shelter with these people, enjoying a long evening in Hollywood. Everyone’s packs hung neatly in a row on the back wall of the shelter, the sun going and then gone, its ambient light replaced by that of the hot coals sustained by Wallet and the red glow of his headlamp, which neatly matched the color of his hammock, strung across the opening of the shelter. We laughed as we had stopped to avoid the rain that had been forecast as early and heavy, but it didn’t start till after dark. All in the group were, in a few words, cozy and content.
There was one addition to our group at Alec Kennedy shelter who was not content: an outspoken man named Gray Goat (named for his appearance and perhaps, we found out, his bleating). That morning he had gotten back on the trail after five days off – his water filter had cracked and he had gotten Giardia, a protazoan parasite that can contaminate otherwise clean looking sources, and he had needed to recover and get medication. Of course everyone was sympathetic towards his illness, but Gray Goat went on about his experience with Sawyer customer service, which for him had not been a positive one, and he repeated his complaint to the group several times (“Sawyer sucks”). Though he voiced (without invitation) his opinion on various other topics throughout the evening (including how Milam was hanging a bear bag – or hanging one at all), he was thankfully more amusing than annoying – Wallet and I shared many sideways glances of silent laughter.
I think Gray Goat may have had a different experience with his situation had he a different approach, but his rambling on didn’t sway us from the product. Companies are usually quite friendly to and accommodating of long-distance hikers, especially if the hikers don’t come across as entitled or self-righteous or big-headed. Little Giant had experienced IBF in his sleeping pad the night before (Wallet had explained the term: internal baffle failure – we all were amused at saying the phrase out loud) and after a conversation with the manufacturer a new sleeping pad was on the way to Little Giant, pending photographic evidence and his chosen drop point address.
The section after Alec Kennedy and Boiling Springs presented a logistical challenge, as camping is prohibited in the Cumberland Valley and the shelters that bookend the valley are 18 miles apart. Not an impossible stretch by any means, but it required a thought on our part as Milam and I had never together done that long of a day. The elevation was easy and the terrain said to be reasonable, so we went for it. In the rain.
The community pool at the edge of Boiling Springs was closed by the rain, just as the pool at Caledonia had been, but the thought of being even more wet was not attractive – instead, we dried out and warmed up at Caffé 101. Milam and I had more coffee, actual and good coffee, at the cafe than we’d had in the last three weeks – and I had a double espresso, pulled on the same kind of machine on which I’d worked at the cafe in Milwaukee. We sat there for over an hour, as the coffee would surely motivate us through the next 14 miles in rain and mud. I was encouraged by the many ducks and swans in the river – they seemed pleased to be out in the rain, why shouldn’t I?
And it was pleasing for the most part – the valley was saturated in mist and the cool weather was surely better than if it had been hot and dry, especially in the stretches through the farm fields outside of the green tunnel. We had more forest cover than expected, and it seemed a bird’s paradise with many berries to be eaten (we also enjoyed a taste or two… or three… along the way).
What wasn’t ideal was the flooding and muddiness of the path, but we both packed our boots to avoid a lengthy drying time and wet feet the next day. Sandals were worn, which seemed feasible as the valley had almost no elevation change – but the mud and flood caused my sandals, which were a good brand but a Goodwill find, to slip around (the velcro was also going, and a design flaw caused the straps to often come loose). At an unmarked private gravel road crossing, we paused to observe a deer – and it to observe us. She stood still, flexing the muscles in her thighs as if readying to run back into the mist – so we made the first move and continued on, feeling ambitious and encouraged by what we had already accomplished.
Turtle caught up to us after we stopped to snack at a railroad crossing, and it was nice to have the company as I was starting to near my limit for the day. Energized by a meal, we continued – but soon my morale dropped again. I really wanted to make all 18 miles, but it was getting late and I was getting really tired – and my sandals were not holding up. Turtle was getting off in Carslisle, 7 miles away from our goal of Darlington Shelter, to stay in a hotel (the only option to sleep in the Valley). Milam and I stopped on the overpass, and I reluctantly made the decision to bail and head to town, though I knew it was the best judgment call to make. It turned out to be the right decision, as my sandals broke inside the hotel room and had we been on trail when that occurred I would have had to walk either back to Carlisle or all the way to Darlington in the wrong footwear.
The hotel was run by an Indian family, the patriarch of which was the owner/manager, and he told us at the counter that there was only a king suite available, which he wouldn’t let go for their advertised hiker rate. All the area hotels were full up, he said, which was to be expected as Awol had warned us of it in the guide – a car show is hosted in town every other weekend, and the participants and attendees of this event in addition to the many tourists commuting to a weekend in Hershey, PA (a town primarily composed of an amusement park) fill all the hotels. Turtle had gotten a room across the street, which Milam mentioned to the patriarch, suggesting that we would take our business elsewhere. After a moment of reflection, he gave us the king room at the hiker rate (a rather significant discount), and I tried to keep a straight face – not only to mask my astonishment at Milam’s ability to finagle such a sick deal, but also at the man’s daughter, who had shot her father a disapproving look at his decision.
So for the night we had a king suite, and it was a strange shift from wet and sweaty to clean and dry. We unpacked everything to air out in the AC, and some items were washed in the sink (the change the water underwent while washing our underwear I will refrain from describing more elaborately than simply saying it did not remain transparent – or even translucent. We are seriously dirty). Hot showers were had (Milam had two), and I scrubbed at my ankles were the Leukotape had given me dermatitis, hoping this proper cleaning would remedy the affliction (an important detail in the accrual of my next rash; we’re almost to that part of the story).
The continental breakfast was bustling with large families, all of them Indian and Asian, fueling up before being shuttled off to another day at Hershey Park. The hotel patriarch surfed on their chaotic waves, balancing a carafe of coffee and a plate of bacon, ensuring everyone had a full serving of whatever they wanted. He looked very stern, and had come across as somewhat frigid when we were checking in – but as he gave the child at the table beside us an extra strip of bacon (“You’re a growing girl,” he insisted), it became clear that he not only loved his job but was totally in his element as overseer of the continental B. It was his dominion – his masterpiece. We snagged some bagels for the road.
Another hitching excursion was held to and from the big box development 4 miles away from the trail crossing. After two honks, one gesture of profanity from a high school girl, several waving families on their way to Hershey excited at seeing a real-life hitchhiker, and one guy who looked incredibly guilty and shrugged dramatically as he passed in his truck, Alexa and Bill pulled over. They were on their way to pick up their kids after staying in one of the Potomac Trail Association’s cabins and were very supportive of long-distance hikers. We barely fit into the backseat of their small vehicle, which was already full of their luggage, a car seat upon which Milam sat (his hips are thinner than mine), and their very friendly but very confused black dog Arwin who sat between Milam’s legs.
After we resupplied we went to Super Shoes, where I found a proper pair of Teva sandals and Milam found a wicked pair of neon green Adidas trail runners (the shoes are so ugly and obliterate his ensemble, but the contrast is very humorous). And here, we thought, we would also find a shoe that would work for my feet, but this again proved an impossible task after four hours and a near melt-down subdued by one of Little Giant’s fancy protein bars. My newfound sensitivity to medical adhesive required that my footwear fit exactly, a feat already known to be challenging, in a way that was not conducive to blisters or lacking in support in order to avoid a tendonitis flare. After leaving both store managers stumped and apologetic for being unable to outfit my foot, we hitched back to the trail with Joshua, a latino guy with little English who worked in the kitchen at the Middlesex Diner. He chuckled at the only way that I knew to describe our thoughts on our dinner there the night before – “mas o menos.” He nodded in agreement and turned up the volume on the Latin Pop radio station.
24 hours after we had gotten off, we were back on the trail, some sections so flooded that we were detoured (the purists, such as Gray Goat, noted their unhappiness at taking the blue-blaze). Turtle, Trial, and Error were all at Darlington but Little Giant & Co were undoubtedly 50 miles ahead by now, as Little Giant had informed the others they would be cranking out 25ers for the next four days in order to meet their girlfriends for the holiday weekend. While we were sad to not have a fire made for us, we were entertained by Detox, who showed us the joys of burritos stuffed with rice sides (made on his ultralight and ultracool Vargo alcohol stove, over which Milam swooned but knew it wouldn’t be functional cooking for two), and two lady section hikers we would later be in pace with – Second Wind and Mama Q. Five was there, too, and the only reason he wasn’t leagues ahead of us was because he had stopped in Carlisle for a long weekend with his wife (I wonder if he haggled his way into the honeymoon suite).
It felt wonderful to be reunited with our hiker family, but it was the last we saw of them. Milam and I were heading 12ish miles to Clarks Ferry Shelter past Duncannon, and our friends were either staying in town (and enjoying a beer at The Doyle, a legendary Duncannon dive) or stopping even earlier before. So by the time we made it to Clarks Ferry that night (after enjoying a waffle cone of Raspberry Truffle ice cream), we were one or maybe even two days ahead of our friends, depending on their miles and ours.
Before Duncannon was a particularly rocky section, in which Detox called back to warn me of a rattlesnake (I didn’t see it, for which I was both relieved and disappointed) and through which Milam sped ahead to reach the Post Office before it closed at four – we had a package waiting, which held Milam’s summer sleeping bag (he ditched his Polar Pod in Monson – it weighed 7 pounds), and some neat gifties from Milam’s dad (one of which was a titanium eating utensil, our first official piece of ultralight gear). We also said goodbye to our boots forever, as we had learned that backpacking boots are not actually useful for backpacking – our boots combined shed 7 more pounds from our shared load, and their total inability to dry out would not be missed.
After a fabulous view of the Susquehanna River as we walked on a footbridge attached to an interstate highway, we ate a can of chunky, hearty soup we had found in the last shelter (“one man’s trash”, “leave no trace,” etc). Milam mixed it with a rice side, and the combination was satisfying – his backcountry cooking skills were sharpening. After dinner I washed my feet in the spring – the rash had gotten worse and was spreading to places beyond where the Leukotape had caused dermatitis, which had been very contained. It was much more itchy and painful, and I realized I must have gotten Poison Ivy in the valley – probably when I went off trail to pee.
In the morning we waited out the rain, lounging in the shelter we had to ourselves. I wrote in the logbook to inform our friends of my feet and our mileage goals, hoping they’d catch up. At first walking was an itchy task, but as the morning went on I more easily ignored it. We snacked on a blown down tree, and made friends with some cave crickets – they happily posed for Milam, showing off their strange and spindly figures.
At Peter’s Mountain shelter we stopped for lunch, Rice Burritos a la Detox, bolstered with mayonnaise left as a present by a Girl Scout troop (we had missed a free hot dog dinner the night before). I checked in to the log book and found an upsetting development in Park’s romantic quest – he had somehow gotten in front of Mooch, with no indication that they had met. Some shelters and water sources are too far off trail in the opinion of some, and not all hikers stop at each.
The Hype Train, however, had chosen to stop at Peter’s Mountain just before we left. The group of three guys were abrasive, their conversation somewhat juvenile and demeaning towards women, and I was quiet as I packed up quickly, wanting to put them behind me. I didn’t realize who they were until after they later passed me. I had heard of the group, a part of a bubble of younger thru hikers treating the trail like a frat party, and I heard their approach before they were on my tail – the front of the train had a bluetooth speaker on his packstrap, and it polluted the peaceful forest with mindless mainstream music. I stepped aside to let them pass, more than happy to let them pass, and as they chugged by they bro-chanted “hype train, hype train, hype train!” I did not become their caboose.
Milam made quesadillas at Hollywood on top of the ridge, where I noticed that my poison ivy had begun to blister (remember how I had scrubbed my ankles in a hot shower? That opened up my pores to the oil, the nail in the coffin). But full of a tasty dinner, I slept without much anxiety, only to be woken in the night by an owl – directly above us and with a pronounced and rhythmic hoot.
A mother bear’s call roused me in the morning – she was far away but close enough to hear her scolding her cubs. It was time to take down Hollywood, and that morning as my poison ivy worsened it became more difficult to walk. But a few miles in we found some trail magic, which made me forget all my troubles – the gentleman sat us down in lawn chairs and served us many treats. The first offering nearly brought me to tears – “Do you like deviled eggs?” he asked (I had been craving one for a month). The extra food was welcome as we thought we’d had enough to get us to Port Clinton, which perhaps we would have had we been able to reach our mileage goals – these were my biggest mile days and the most consecutive big mile days, all on PI. Maybe I could have done it, with uninjured feet and proper shoes.
But as we entered Rausch Gap at the end of the day, it was clear that it wouldn’t happen. My feet were a wreck. We had split up for the day so Milam could enjoy side trails and I could comfortably move at my own pace – he was able to explore a coal mining trail…
and scope out a secret campsite across the stream away from the trail – my feet were happy to ford and later wash in the cold mountain water.
The campsite, clearly some hunter’s favorite spot in the world, was worth the pain of walking on Poison Ivy. It was expansive and welcoming, with beautiful mushrooms the size of my head, and the rush of the sizeable stream helped us relax in both its rinse of my feet and its sound through the night. A long day, one of the longest due to my circumstances, rewarded with an Eden.
I had to get off my feet to heal, but Rausch Gap was an inopportune place to Zero as we needed access to a resupply. We needed to get to William Penn so I could rest and Milam could go into Pine Grove. Much laughter was had at breakfast, and the levity was helpful in keeping our spirits high. Even though my feet were done for, I certainly wasn’t bored, and there was place I would rather be than hitting that trail.
I should have reminded myself of that later, after Rainbow learned of my ailment and pointed out the plant for us to more easily identify (she also learned the hard way, but in a way more horrid – in poison ivy she had set down her toilet paper; you can figure the rest). The entire ridge on which we walked that day was overgrown with poison ivy, and paranoia at worsening my condition made for an emotionally draining day. Milam stuck with me for most of it, going ahead after second lunch in a small rock scramble near some snake’s furry former dinner. I should say that I don’t at all mind hiking separately, as sometimes Milam needs to bust ahead at his topmost speed and I am happy to hike alone with my thoughts. It’s fun to trade stories afterwards, as well.
As I slowly made my way over Pennsylvania’s infamous rocks, I could see the fluid from my PI blisters soaking the bottom of my sock, which I had donned to protect my feet from not only the elements, but from the temptation of scratching (and consequently the risk of infection).
In that last mile I had to sing christmas songs to keep myself from crying, and in the last 0.1 before William Penn I could barely choke out the words (had I remembered them all). But then there was the side trail to the shelter, and there was the huge structure, constructed beautifully with a loft that would house my zero. And it would be a true zero – I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. Not even walk.