Day 86: Where Are the Rocks?

Groundhog Day

Am I anywhere near Punxsutawney? Because I’m starting to feel like I’m living the same day over and over again. I woke up early, headed out at dawn to try to beat the heat and humidity, and spent the day in the deep green woods. I think I’ve done that before. At least once.

As a matter of fact, I did hike the first half of today’s itinerary before, in 2017, with my sister (Chompers), her husband (Cuddles), and Northstar, when we’d all come east for our nephew’s (Pincushion) wedding. Ok, I made up their trail names, because that’s the kind of thing little brothers do.

Except for my nephew’s – he earned his trail name when he and his brother (The Duke of Hurl) came out to Arizona for a little backpacking before he got married. It turned out he had an affinity for finding cacti with his feet. And his brother ate something that didn’t like him and wanted out. Collectively, I called them “The Nephewlim,” a reference to their gigantic size that some of you will get. But I digress.


I keep hearing that the notorious Pennsylvania rocks are just ahead. And I’d read online that the hike into Duncannon is one of the rockier sections in the State. I didn’t remember it as being particularly rocky the last time I hiked it, but at that time I’d been hiking in central Arizona in the months before I got here.

I suspect that my training trails back home are as rocky as anything in Pennsylvania, and that the soft trails on the AT south of Rocksylvania contribute to its reputation. Maybe Pennsylvania is only rocky compared to the southern AT. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

At this point, I’m halfway through Pennsylvania and haven’t seen anything that much tougher than what Maryland and Virginia doled out in their worst sections. At least the Pennsylvania trails have been pretty well groomed, unlike the rocky, overgrown trail near Pearisburg, Virginia.

What’s the Fuss?

At some level, the entire AT is rocky. I doubt I’ve walked a day without risking breaking a toe, twisting an ankle, or tripping over a rock. There have been plenty of boulder fields, rock rivers, rock outcrops, and rogue toebusters everywhere. But from what I’ve read, what separates Pennsylvania from the rest of the AT are long, continuous miles of rocky terrain.

On the miles-long rocky sections I’ve already walked, it’s been the cumulative effect having to constantly watch your foot placement, thinking about every step, ready to respond immediately if you slip, slide, or roll. It gives as much mental aasnd physical fatigure. Plus, trekking pole tips have a way of catching in between rocks, yanking your arm back, and throwing you off balance. And finally, all-day-long repeated jarring your foot bones on rock leaves your feet tender and painful.

A day of rocky terrain is tough. Weeks of rocky terrain can push you over the edge, especially if you’re trying to do hero miles to get north as quickly as possible.

But I guess that the “real” rocks are still coming. Today’s hike was rocky, but nothing I haven’t already seen.


I walked into Duncannon just before 9:00 a.m. and called Northstar to see if she’d like join me for second breakfast. She did, so I hung out at Veterans Park while she drove over.

The AT goes right through Duncannon, passing along Main Street through the length of the town, putting it in the same category of trail towns as Hot Springs and Damascus.

Duncannon is also the home to the Doyle Hotel, which once was a seedy, dilapidated dive famous for cheap beer and burgers, as well as truly awful rooms. The old timers told stories of five-dollar hotel rooms illuminated only by bare light bulbs you needed to check out from the front desk, windows and doors that wouldn’t shut properly, and bare mattresses on the floor for beds.

Those days are gone, but they aren’t that far gone. Duncannon tries very hard but doesn’t have the resources of other well-known trail towns. Like much of the rest of rural Pennsylvania, Duncannon is struggling.

But, to be honest, I felt more welcome as a thru-hiker in Duncannon than anywhere else on the AT. Our waiter at Goodies, a dumpy looking breakfast restaurant with excellent food (they gave me an extra egg and double home fries!), was friendly and took the time to swap travel stories. A complete stranger invited everyone at the free, always-open, Assembly of God Hiker Hostel up to swim in his pool.

I walked out of Duncannon fatter and happier than when I arrived.

Back to the Tunnel

The trail out of Duncannon crosses two long bridges over the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers, then crosses a busy highway and heads back up a rocky ridge into the woods. The climb up from the highway is steep and, according to online chatter, not well maintained, so many hikers take a blue-blazed short-cut that shaves off a mile of climbing.

The main trail promised several views of the river valleys, so I took the purist route. However, I discovered that the views were what I call “Realtor Views” rather than real views. Realtor views are what you read in property listings where “ocean view” really means that if you stand in the corner of the lot leaning over the neighbor’s fence and the wind blows just right, you sometimes catch a glimpse of the ocean through the trees. But such is the price of purity.


I’d heard from Psyops, who I unexpectedly saw at the church hostel, that someone planned trail magic at Peters Mountain Road this afternoon. Sure enough, as I crossed the pedestrian bridge into the parking area, Northstar and Gus were sitting in a group of hikers at the back of Twizzler’s SUV. She introduced me to Tiger, Hot Americano, Queso, Mystery Otter, Masters, and some others whose names escape me.

I’d seen all of them before, but not since April at the Icewater Shelter in the Smokies. I hadn’t met them then, but I remembered hearing Mystery Otter’s name. We all chatted some at the trail magic today, but I think the climb, the rocks, the humidity, and the prospect of more miles put everyone in a business-only mood. We ate, drank the cold beverages, and moved on.

After they left, I talked with Twizzler, a member of the local ATC chapter. When I told him of my plans for a 25-mile day tomorrow, he shook his head and said that the first nine miles to PA 325 would be a pleasant walk, but after that the rocks, climbs, and lack of water might make it unbearable. I briefly considered knocking out the nine-mile section tonight, but after learning from him that there was no parking or cell coverage at PA 325, I elected to stick with my plan and just tough it out tomorrow.

Boondocking at Peters Mountain Road

We planned to camp at the trailhead. Once Twizzler packed up and left, we had the parking area to ourselves. For an hour.

At 5:00, cars started rolling in until the parking lot was completely full. An older woman walked over to hint that we might want to leave as she was hosting a memorial hike for her son. She also said we shouldn’t be afraid of them. What? Why would we be afraid?

We passed on our condolences but elected to stay put, though the tough-looking crowd had Northstar (and Gus) on alert. Our daughter, who works in law enforcement, tells me that outdoor funerals sometimes get out of hand and have a surprising number of shootings and brawls. Looking around, I could see what she meant. I grew up around these guys.

But everyone played nice. Either the hike and humidity took the salt out of them, or they only looked rough. Either way, the parking lot was clear by 9:30 p.m. and stayed that way until 4:30 the next morning when the uber-hiker/trail runner crowd started showing up.

Odds & Ends

  • Our daughter’s health situation seems to have stabilized, which is a load off our minds.
  • I finished Book One (of ten) of the Cradle series. On to Book Two.

To combat the Meseta Blues, I’m thinking of ways to up the entertainment factor, but I’m not sure what that will look like. Every hiker I meet is looking a little strung out and I supposed I look that way too. Fortunately, the day after tomorrow is a zero day.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: PA 850 (Mile 1140.8)
  • End: Peters Mountain Road (Mile 1158)
  • Weather: Sunny, not as humid
  • Earworm: Somebody’s Gonna Hurt Someone
  • Meditation: Mk 8:35-36
  • Plant of the Day: Spotted Knapweed, Tickseed, Catchflies
  • Best Thing: Breakfast at Goodies with Northstar
  • Worst Thing (besides the humidity): Poison ivy and rocks

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Comments 8

  • Tom : Jul 14th

    “Nephewlim” — that’s a good one!
    Glad to hear that your daughter is doing somewhat better.

    • Jon : Jul 15th


  • Charlotte : Jul 14th

    So glad to hear you’re daughter is doing better. Must be amazing and stressful being a parent to a Doctor and a LEO….God bless both of them, especially your daughter (putting a badge on in 2023 requires a passion, and commitment to keeping the public safe 🙏🙏)…this post is wonderful! Your ability to share openly your experiences on the trail, in the van boondocking, and dealing with family emergencies in a somewhat remote and isolated environment, are inspiring! I still empathize with you on how so many on the trail have been non responsive, and/or vocally unsupportive of your “hike your own hike”. Cheering you all the way. (ps I too had a reaction to cacti. It’s hard to find a pleasant way to injest those buttons 😉)…

    • Jon : Jul 15th

      Haha. Thx Charlotte.

  • thetentman : Jul 15th

    Be very careful mocking the rocks, they will get you and they are next.

    Nice post.

    The only day that is bad for me is July 29. I am hosting some old friends for a Poker game at the Lake Clubhouse. You are invited if you play poker and have some money. In any case, I plan on too much fun that day and would be worthless to you.

    Have your feet ever felt like hamburger? They will soon.


    • Homeward : Jul 15th

      What the Tentnan said about the rocks. And by the way, they don’t end at the NJ border 🙄.

    • Jon : Jul 15th

      Lol. As a geologist, rocks must respect me.


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