Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail
Pennsylvania - Pen Mar Park to Delaware Water Gap
The morning after the Maryland Challenge, we awoke by the Mason Dixon line, tired, but satisfied with our accomplishment. I pretty much refused to hike until I had eaten something I could stomach. Still queasy - all I could think about was hot savoury food. We waited for what seemed an eternity for a local delivery place to open and then ordered huge strombolis. Eating them made me feel worse, but at least I had no more excuses to give Billy why not to hike on.
The trail through the mid-Atlantic is far from ‘remote’. It seems that almost every day you are walking through another park or town and eating another town meal. This is good in a way, but it’s easy to have too much of a good thing. Sure enough, the next day we were to visit Caledonia Park in the daytime before making it to Pine Grove Furnace Park – home to the traditional ‘half-gallon challenge’ – for the evening. We might have had a go at the challenge, but we had only been back on trail a couple of days and it seemed unnecessarily greedy even for us. I made use of the phone to call Will, who planned to come out and join us. It proved to be good timing as he was getting ready to take the Grayhound to near Boiling Springs that very evening. He would be arriving the following afternoon. It was getting late so we looked for a spot in the park’s camping area to lie down for the night – though popular with campers, it’s a big park with plenty of space. There were some large groups out, including a boy scout troop numbering about fifty who had pitched huge army-style mess tents and were making a lot of racket. We found a decent space amongst some trees – a little closer to the noisy group than we’d like, but we’re tolerant types - and were just getting our groundsheets out when the father of one of the children blustered over to us and told us that we couldn’t stay there. We tried explaining that we had no designs to infringe on their party and were just going to quietly lie down and fall asleep on the ground. This was obviously unacceptable and we were informed that hikers had to camp on the other side of the park. We decided not to try and pursue reason and so just packed up and walked across to the ‘hiker’ section. This appeared to be an RV park and we were just twiddling our thumbs figuring out where we could lay our heads when a ranger pulled up in a truck. It was made quite clear to us that to stay in their park we’d have to hand over some hard-earned cash. It’s simply not in our nature to pay to lie down for a few hours on a 7’x10’ patch of mud, so we elected to eschew the park’s hospitality and hike out. We asked where the park’s boundaries extended to and said farewell to the helpful ranger. The ranger’s manner didn’t indicate much faith that we would actually leave their precious park. We made it to where we believed the park ended and looked for a flat patch of ground. In doing so, we stumbled (quite literally) into a fellow hiker who was fast asleep near the trail. We hiked on a little further and resolved to apologise for our blundering in the morning.
Our camp spot turned out to be mere yards from the ‘halfway’ marker – a wooden post that once marked the halfway point of the trail, but which due to years of trail relocations is 100 miles south of the real halfway point. No matter – it was enough of an excuse for us to have a mini photo shoot and generally lark around like imbeciles.
A few miles before reaching Boiling Springs, the trail begins a long stretch through the Cumberland Valley across flat farmland. This section sees some of the easiest hiking of the entire trail. The only challenge came from the heat – long shadeless sections made for warm going. Boiling Springs itself is an odd little town –picturesquely situated on the river and very popular with anglers – it just doesn’t quite feel like a real town. It is home to a regional office of the ATC and it was on their porch that we waited for Will to arrive from Savannah. It was very good to see him when he finally pitched up in a cab and we all headed over to a local Italian restaurant for a celebratory meal. We stared at the waitresses and other female clientele, ate our fill, picked up a six-pack of Yeungling and made ourselves at home at the ATC campsite in town. It was very much like the YMCA campsite in Waynesboro – a grassy field with a Porta-John situated near some railroad tracks - this time the train was much noisier and much more frequent and the grass longer and more tick infested (we assumed). Predictably (for anyone who knows him) Will hadn’t gotten quite organised before coming out to hike. He’d come away without a sleeping bag or a groundsheet, but with my old tarp. Will doesn’t make a fuss though – we just shared the tarp as a groundsheet and he wrapped himself in my sheet of Tyvek house-wrap. Who needs a $300 sleeping bag?
Our first day hiking with Will on the team was mostly over easy terrain – though it got pretty rocky towards the end. However, we were keen to reach Duncannon that evening – some 26 miles away. Most hikers gradually build up their mileage – often achieving their first ‘twenty-miler’ somewhere in Virginia. Will wasn’t going to get that luxury. The man who can’t say ‘no’ accepted the challenge and put away the miles like a pro – albeit one who was understandably flagging a little by the end. Along the way we stopped off at Scott Farm – a hub of trail maintenance – for a break and received some very welcome trail magic. While we rested, a couple pulled up in their VW and foisted cold beer upon us. In an act that I like to think was premeditated; the girl also foisted big eyefuls of her ample bosoms on us. It was all very gratefully received.
Duncannon is a small town that I guess has lost the industry that once made it viable – it seems to have been in decline for a long time. It is home to the Doyle Hotel – an Appalachian Trail institution. Originally a grand old palace – now it’s a run-down relic. The only business it seems to do is with the hiking and down-and-out communities – a lot of the ‘cleaning’ seems to be performed by folks who ‘work’ for their stay. The current management are, apparently, renovating but it’s an uphill struggle. Still, all this adds somewhat to the appeal - a stay there is an event in itself and most hikers love the hostel atmosphere. By all accounts the downstairs bar is a lively venue with good food, though we made the cardinal mistake of arriving in a town on a Sunday so this and most other eateries were shut to us. After finally tracking down the Doyle’s owners, we checked into a pair of rooms at a grand cost of $13/head. The rooms were far from clean and the electrics didn’t inspire confidence, but they oozed a certain ramshackle charm. Billy didn’t sleep much and spent the night at his window – fascinated by the goings-on of the townsfolk. He surmised all he had observed in the course of the night by the statement “rednecks living in the city”. He was especially taken the next day by the laundromat’s business model. The machines take quarters and a change machine is provided. However, for every dollar inserted, one receives 90 cents back – two quarters and four dimes. If you need three dollars worth of quarters, you’ll need to feed the machine six dollar bills and take a 60 cent hit. You’ll also end up with 24 dimes to dispose of. Billy was further amazed by the detergent dispenser that ate his dollar. When he later complained to the owner, he was informed that it was “just for looks”… Whatever we might say about the rest of the town, it is home to a fine ice-cream parlour – we somehow fitted in two very indulgent stops during our short time in town. Will was getting a crash course in hiking Ben & Billy style – way too much food and just the right amount of lechery…
Will’s second day was a ‘mere’ 14 miles, but this was followed by a brutal 28 mile march. I have no idea how he made it, but he did so, and without complaint - amazing considering that he began the day still in pain from his first outing and almost every step was agony for him. That night we slept on the second story of the very nice William Penn Shelter. Shortly after midnight, the sleeping Will gave a cry and sat bolt upright. He didn’t respond to my questioning, but, still asleep, slowly lay back down.
Next day we elected to take it a little easier. We trotted down to the 501 shelter – this is a ‘caretaker shelter’ – a plush bunkhouse adjoined by a house in which an ATC appointed caretaker lives. We bumped into the caretaker and he was good enough to drive us into town. On the way he explained his duties to us: the sum total appeared to be looking after the shelter and performing the odd litter patrol of the two mile stretch of trail around it. - It sounded great. We loaded up on more greasy Italian style food and resupplied at the grocery store. The hitch back to the trail was in the back of a closed-cab pick-up and very cramped. Both Will and Billy picked up injuries – Billy getting his hand slammed between a tool box and the tail gate, and Will banging his knee due to the awkward positions we were forced to adopt – this was to make his progress even more challenging.
Next stop was Port Clinton and the excellent Hotel. Pam and I had enjoyed a few meals there the year before and the proprietor – the formidable Chunkie – recognised me and even remembered what I ordered. We all put away huge burgers and plates of fries, before heading next door to the huge candy store to load up on goodies. North of Port Clinton, the going begins to get very rocky. The rocks come in various shapes and sizes – each variety presenting its own challenges. The small sharp rocks are hard to avoid and hurt the feet, for the next size up you have the choice of stepping from rock to rock or treading in the gaps between them. Finally, the fields of boulders require jumping between and down from. All of them require extra concentration and make life that much harder going.
We celebrated 4th of July at an upscale restaurant and enjoyed the change from bar snacks and pizza. It would have been nice to see some fireworks, but we made do with listening to them in the distance from our campsite. We were excited by the prospect of a bowling alley in Slatington and looked forward to continuing the festival atmosphere there. The walk to Lehigh Gap from where we would be hitching was very slow going though. Will’s ankle was the latest in the long list of injuries he’d (unsurprisingly) picked up over the previous few days. It made negotiating the rocks very difficult for him, but as usual he soldiered on rather manfully and we made it eventually. Before long a pick up of young guys picked us up and we were speeding to town. We were sorely disappointed when they informed us that the bowling alley had recently gone out of business. Instead we were left to gorge ourselves at yet another Italian restaurant – watching the Adam’s Family movie on the TV as we did so.
It was clear that it would be wrong for Will to try and hike anymore for a while, so we formed a plan. He would hitch to Delaware Water Gap – 36 miles ahead – and we would race to try and meet him there for lunch the next day. From there we could catch a bus into NYC and do some sightseeing. We said goodbye to him in the blistering heat at the roadside and began our ascent of Blue Mountain – an area extensively deforested by pollution from the Palmerton zinc works. The climb up onto the ridge is a straight-up scramble over boulders. We would get no shade from the scorching heat until nightfall and, because of the pollution, we could expect no more drinkable water until the next shelter - 16 miles away. The lack of foliage did make an interesting change from the Appalachian Trail’s ‘green corridor’ though and we enjoyed the unobstructed views. We made very good time to the shelter – arriving as it was getting dark. There were many others staying there, including (oh joy) Ridgerunner Gizmo. We minimised our contact with the others and went in search of water. This proved to be located a long way down a steep slope and all the more difficult to find in the pitch dark. We made it up early the next morning and carried on where we left off – making great time over the rocks. I was lucky to get away with one spectacular error of judgement though – reaching a four-foot high drop down to the trail from a boulder, I should have taken the safe option of clambering down. Instead, I spied a section of branch about 18 inches from the ground that I judged would make a suitable intermediate step down. The step was rather more of a controlled fall – controlled at least until I passed straight through the rotten branch as though it wasn’t there. I landed very heavily and for a few seconds thought I might have ended my hike. Billy strolled back to appraise my crumpled figure on the floor. Through gritted teeth I explained the problem and how I’d need to rest up a while before even thinking about hiking on. He looked at me with a hint of disdain and pronounced the Billy solution to everything, “Hike it off”. There was no arguing with him, so I scraped myself off the floor and hobbled along. Gradually the pain subsided – the system works! Or at least did until I got to the outskirts of town, failed to spot the kerb and went over on my ankle again. Still, we were in town and minutes later the three of us were reunited. Will had spent the night in the shelter behind the church hostel. How he had got to Delaware Water Gap proved to be the best story I’ve heard told over any lunch in my life.
New York City Vacation
With Will and I both carrying injuries and all of us fancying a trip to the Big Apple, we got ourselves a room at the Ramada and made our plans - Billy’s cousin Keith and friend Nicky headed out to join us and we took the bus from DWG to Port Authority to meet them in the city. We all took in the sights and Will, Keith and I took in the beer. Nicky brought along some civilian clothing for Billy to help him blend in. I remained in my short-shorts and looked like a freak. After an all-to-brief, yet-all-too expensive vacation, we were back at DWG’s Ramada Inn and preparing to get back on the trail.
Continue on the Appalachian Trail: New Jersey & New York