AT Day 63 – How Do The Rocks Keep Surprising Me?
Route 309 to almost Delps Spring
Spring Snowbow Camp to Powerline Camp
AT miles: 24
Total miles: 1278
Elevation change: 3891ft gain, 3858ft loss
Pennsylvania and the AT surprised me again today by upping the stakes in both the rock ridiculousness as well as the gorgeous cruising departments. The contrast between the two was staggering. In the morning, even the scrambling was a joy, but as the fatigue set in during the heat of the day, I accrued that familiar, beat up aching in my feet and lost all juice in my legs. So while the rocks had their way with me, ultimately grinding me to a halt a little earlier than usual, there was enough of the sublime in the mix to flavor today as one of the best. The rough and tired finish doesn’t erase the good that got me there.
The season has advanced so much that, on this clear morning, I was awoken naturally with the brightening sky, rather than with the rude unnaturalness of my alarm. That didn’t mean I was ready to go, however. I snoozed, pulling my beanie over my eyes, extracting every last shred of rest from the night. It still wasn’t enough, but there were miles to hike and bars to eat.
The wide dirt road that had felt like a slog last night, treated me like a king this morning. It was amazing what a fresh set of feet could do. I cruised through the flat forest, admiring the delicate morning light and long shadows, feeling the warmth of a bonafide, and subjectively bulletproof, nice day.
The tread got a little rockier on the other side of a busy road, but again, the fresh legs and feet took care of it, letting my mind wander and enjoy the views when they came. There weren’t many, and they hosted nothing particularly novel, but a view is a view, and is better than no view. It was actually pretty interesting to see just how large local campers could build their fire pits at these spots. With so many rocks around, there was no lack of building materials.
I caught up with Old Blue just as the trail left the safety of flat ground for a dicey and spicey fin of rock, which was maybe called the knife’s edge (I think, maybe. Don’t quote me on that.). We shared some pleasant conversation as we scrambled up and along the steeply slanted slabs, but my mind wasn’t absorbing any of the details. It had more important things to do, like keeping me from smashing my body on the rocks below. Old Blue eventually admitted as much, and we let our feet and hands do the talking.
That fun part was over quickly, then I ran into Rabbit after a few more hops and lunges across big boulders and around some pine. Like Old Blue, he was happy to let my youthful zest dance by, but he was having a good time of his own, which validated the pleasure I felt from moving with conviction and grace over the rockiest terrain. Scrambling and rock hopping had always been a favorite pastime of mine. Even if the added stresses of a thru-hike sometimes strained that unbreakable relationship, the inner-child in me always delighted in seeing another pile of boulders.
I ate a bar and admired the graffiti spray painted all over the summit rocks of Bake Oven Knob. Disappearing into the distance was that single ridge that I would follow into New Jersey, bending like a bow out over the horizon. Everything else was the classic, Pennsylvania farmscape, humble and picturesque. I passed an older gentleman taking it slow down the treacherous descent. The blazes were painted directly on the rock for lack of suitable trees, and the way wasn’t always obvious. Even when it was, the path didn’t always seem believable. Presently, I made it to the bottom, gave the guy a wave of encouragement, and skipped along.
I filtered some water from the spring at Bake Oven Shelter, then soon passed through a cut in the forest where a new train of power lines was being installed. This was unremarkable except for the constructors’ solution to smoothing out the jumbled rocks. Acres of orange fishnet had been covered in a thick layer of pine chips. These filled in the gaps and smoothed over the points. The walking still wasn’t easy, but at least it was walking, not hopping.
This walking continued on the other side of the work site through some exceptionally pleasant pine forest. The shade was appreciated now, with the sun as high and warm as it was, and the sound of the breeze filtering through the long tufts of needles was comforting, reminding me of home. When I happened upon an epic fire ring and some stone chairs, I was happy to kick back and extend my stay. I pulled out all of my remaining food, and ate everything that I could afford to eat. It was plenty.
The next stretch of trail was my favorite of Pennsylvania so far. For a few miles, I swept along an open corner of the ridgeline, which offered tremendous views to the north and down to the two roaring highways that paralleled the Lehigh River. Stunted pine whispered, the tall brown grasses answered. The trail was flat and smooth, freeing up my attention to notice the landscape and appreciate its gifts. I hoped that tick season was still a few weeks away. An engaging conversation with sobo-traveling Keener, a sparkplug of a hiker, capped off my favorite portion of the day.
Rabbit caught me as I filtered a gallon of water for the long dry stretch ahead. He informed me that the day hiker I’d met on Bake Oven Knob had smashed his brow and obliterated a front tooth on the rocks. He was okay, but understandably rattled. That was tough to hear, and leant some credibility to that little voice in the back of my head that was constantly urging me to be careful. Okay little voice, I hear you. At least that’s what I said until I started hiking again. Going fast down rocks is just too much fun sometimes.
I matched the pace of the commute across the Lehigh River at Lehigh Gap, leapfrogging with some heavy beats pumping from an open window. As I flowed across the concrete, my gaze turned up to the climb ahead. I had been warned of what was coming, but it was hard to believe even after seeing it for myself. I scampered across a dangerous road crossing, then dove back into the forest, hoping that my eyes had deceived me.
Alas, they had not. The climb from the gap up to Blue Mountain Ridge was more of a climb than most of the things that I call a climb. It was also a much better representation of the Sierra High Route than any of the terrain that I have linked to that trip thus far. True hands-needed scrambling, and oh-shit-don’t-slip sections comprised just a tiny portion of the total, but they were no joke. A traverse of a talus field really was straight from the SHR. I was on the SHR. I focused on those good memories rather than my panting breath.
On top, the trail returned to business as usual like nothing had ever happened. Actually, it did its best to offer appeasements in the form of a perfectly smooth, grassy road. A dirt singletrack cut through the green, and it allowed me to catch my breath and cool down, all while making great time. I mixed a packet of lemon iced tea powder into a bottle, and sipped the good stuff while enjoying the cruise.
When the rocks came back, they came back for good. They were the small toe-trippers and ankle-twisters that require all of the concentration without providing any of the reward or satisfaction of their larger brethren. They killed my end-of-day feet and challenged my end-of-day brain. The last several miles to camp moved at a glacial pace, and I eventually called an early halt at the last known camping spot for miles. The spontaneous fire rings and rock chairs had dried up, and I didn’t want to get caught searching for a flat spot after dark. When I reached a run of power lines, I turned to the west and found the expected flat spot just a short way down the hill. I plopped on a large rock with my pack still on, mustering the energy to set up camp and get to bed.
Everything felt and seemed better after I had polished off my Oreos and downed a huge portion of mashed potatoes. The clear sky began to twinkle with stars as the horizon dimmed from orange to gray. Gunshots echoed in the distance and the breeze rustled my loose tent. Stake placement had been difficult in the rocky ground. I was over fighting with rocks for the day, so I fell asleep hoping that it wouldn’t get windy in the night.
This post was originally published on my blog hikefordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.
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