Day 92: Rocks

A Good Decision

As we drove away from Hawk Mountain Road yesterday on our way to a motel, Northstar reached over and absentmindedly put her hand on me. She drew it back immediately and said, “How’d you get so wet?” “Sweat and humidity,” I replied. Then she gave her hand a sniff and grabbed a towel for me to sit on. Good call.

I have no regrets about taking the afternoon off yesterday. I took two showers – one long hot one and another icy cold one, then cranked up the A/C and took a nap while my hiking clothes took their turn in the heavy-duty cycle. This humidity really makes them stink. Well, I provide the stink, but the humidity makes it last.

If I had any regrets about my blue blaze yesterday, it was not seeing the views from Pulpit Rock and The Pinnacle. But then I saw the outlooks from below on the drive back up to the trail this morning. Let’s just say the views in Pennsylvania haven’t been spectacular, and these looked like more of the same, but with low clouds to obstruct them.

Today’s Plan

I set out from Hawk Mountain Road planning to log 19.8 miles the Ashfield Road crossing. The hike included the usual 1,000-foot climb out of the gap, followed by a long, rocky ridge walk. Despite active bear and ground hornet warnings posted along the trail, I saw nothing but the occasional doe and heard nothing but invisible birds.

We weren’t sure if Ashfield Road was drivable in the van, so Northstar jetted ahead to check it out and reported that the road was passable, and the crossing offered both good camping and decent cell coverage. All I had to do was get there.

What If

Shortly after setting out, my phone notified me that my flight from Fairbanks to Newark had boarded last night. If Alaska hadn’t let me out of my summer field work, I’d have missed the last two weeks of hiking and would be driving back to Harper’s Ferry this afternoon. I’d be just starting Pennsylvania tomorrow and would have to push hard to make Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes for the winter.

I really do not want to have to flip flop and finish my thru-hike at some random road crossing in southern Maine. I want to stand on the Katahdin sign, climb down the mountain, and drive home. Thank you, Alaska, for supporting my dream.

Pennsylvania’s Rocks

With every step north since Pine Ridge south of Duncannon, the trail has gotten rockier and rockier. The rocky sections are intermittent and variable, but they have either been getting longer and nastier, or I’m getting crankier about them. Or both.

So far, I’ve catalogued the following types of rocks:

  • Loose softball sized rocks. These are the trickiest to navigate as they can roll like loose softballs when you step on them. Fortunately, they are the least common.
  • Imbedded softball sized rocks. These are the most common rock feature on the northern Pennsylvania AT. Don’t be fooled by the word “softball,” as they are neither soft or ball-like. They are usually pointy-edged slabs imbedded immovably in the trail. They frequently stick straight up to maximize tripping and toe-stubbing hazards. And after a few hours walking on them, the sharp edges seem to come straight through the soles of your shoes. Sometimes, the AT includes miles-long sections of these kinds of rocks. These rocks give Pennsylvania its evil reputation.
  • Rock rivers. These geological phenomena leave massive blankets of boulder-sized, angular rock slabs on hillslopes. Rock rivers require some straightforward boulder hopping to cross, unless they’re wet from rain, in which case they can be tricky. And unless the trail planners aligned the trail downslope (which they occasionally do in PA), rock river crossings are usually less than a hundred meters long and are more of an annoyance than an impossible task. I’ve walked across rock rivers in every state since Georgia. Either more of them exist in Pennsylvania, or the Pennsylvania trail planners didn’t try to avoid them like they do in other states. I lean toward the latter explanation.
  • Bedrock outcrops. A few of the rock sections lead to or include large outcrops of the underlying bedrock which require some scrambling to ascend, traverse, and descend. I think these are the most fun as they usually lead to a view, or at least the possibility of one. Less fun is the number of FarOut comments saying that copperheads and rattlers like to sun themselves on the outcrops.

The rocky sections seem to come in pulses, with a normal trail in between. Every one of the rocky section types will slow you down and require your full attention be directed at the trail. Who knows what scenic beauty, wonders, and wild beasts I’ve missed while staring at my feet for hours at time? Pennsylvania may be the AT’s most beautiful state, but no one would ever know.

An Ever-Changing Cast

It occurred to me today that I rarely see the same hikers day after day. I can’t tell if I’m outpacing the people I pass, or they’re leaving me behind after I stop in the mid-afternoon. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone more than two days in a row since the Shenandoahs. Maybe everyone is escaping to air-conditioned motel, throwing our itineraries out of sync.

Old People Hiking Alone

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people my age tend to thru-hike alone. I doubt I’ve seen more than three pairs of people over 50 thru-hiking together, unless they are part of a larger multi-generational tramily. I definitely haven’t seen a tramily composed entirely of older hikers. Today, I met three solo thru-hikers in my demographic.

The first one was Sun Treader. I met him on the first climb of the day. He was friendly, but seemed preoccupied with the rocks and the climb and encouraged me to not wait for him and I happily obliged. Before I hiked on, we exchanged names and the usual hiker stuff. When he heard my name he said, “Oh, I think I’ve heard of you.” As I walked away, I realized I should have asked how and what he had heard. If I see him again I will. Why would someone have heard of me? This can’t be good.

Next, I passed Mosey, a friendly gray-haired woman from Florida. We chatted for five minutes about our hikes and, of course, the rocks. She told me that the trail listens to your thoughts. Whenever you start to think that the rocks might have gone away, it hits you with another batch. She also said they come in 45-minute pulses. I’m not so sure about either theory, though I firmly believe in the Pennsylvania AT’s inherent malevolence.

As I approached Bake Oven Knob around noon, I stopped to help a day hiker who’d tripped and fallen on some imbedded rocks. She asked about my thru-hike and mentioned that a guy with a long white (Gandalf) beard just ahead of me had started on April 10th, the day after me. I caught that guy about 30 minutes later when he stopped for lunch.

He waved as I passed, so I walked over and mentioned that some folks had told me he’d started April 10th, a day after me. He corrected me, saying he’d started April 1st, and then started offering excuses why I’d caught up. It was as if I cared about his pace, instead of just being curious whether I’d seen him before. I think everyone feels some level of pressure to meet some vague collective performance standard. It’s hard to hike your own hike without feeling judgment.

One of his reasons for going slow was that he’d taken yesterday off. He said he just couldn’t take the humidity, rocks, gnats, and the prospect of more rain anymore. Now we had common ground, so we commiserated on the hiking conditions for a few minutes until I left him so he could finish his meal.

I think I know why we older thru-hikers frequently go solo, but I think I’ll mull it over for a few days before writing more about it. Feel free to weigh in with your own ideas.

Thigh Massage

I cruised on toward Ashfield Road, stopping briefly to chat with Soul Diver, a masseuse who travels the AT giving free massages. I guess he’s an AT fixture, though it’s the first I’ve heard of him. He offered to work on me, but he already had someone on his table and another scowling young beardie in line behind her. I declined, hoping to finish my near-20-mile day before it really heated up.

As I left, I looked back and realized my brain had read his “Thai Massage” sign as “Thigh Massage.” I’d had so many questions about why he only did thighs. Glad I kept my mouth shut.

Boondocking at Ashfield Road

Northstar had picked out a shady spot at the crossing where we could watch hikers pass through with our feet up and hand out lollipops and cold drinks, but no one came by. Around dinnertime, a group that had been sitting in the woods across the road came out and said hello. They’d been supported by their father for the last few days. He was about to head home, but he wanted to talk vans before he left. He’s retiring next year and wants to travel in a van.

Odds and Ends

  • I passed a thru-hiker wearing a bug headnet yesterday. Oddly, he wore no shirt and very short shorts.
  • I finished Book #2 of the Cradle series. On to Book #3. I think I’m more compelled than enthralled so far.
  • The Canadian wildfire smoke is back. Northstar says she can smell it, but I can’t.
  • The humidity dropped a bit this afternoon. Blessed relief.
  • The trail followed an old forest road for a few miles after Bake Oven Knob. More blessed relief (from the rocks).
  • Only two days left in Pennsylvania. I’m counting every mile in happy anticipation. New Jersey may be worse, but I need to move on. Pennsylvania has not been kind to us.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Hawk Mtn Road (Mile 1235.1)
  • End: Ashfield Road (Mile 1254.9)
  • Weather: Hot, clear, haze from Canadian wildfire smoke
  • Earworm: Hosanna (JC Superstar). I don’t like this song. Why won’t it leave me alone?
  • Meditation: Mk 10:27
  • Plant of the Day: Mushrooms
  • Best Thing: Being well rested
  • Worst Thing (besides the humidity): Rocks

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Comments 18

  • thetentman : Jul 20th

    NJ has rocks but they are all nice rocks. And it is all downhill too.

    Nice post.

    • Jon : Jul 23rd

      Loving NJ so far.

  • Homeward : Jul 21st

    I don’t like that song either, but it has been my earworm too many times.
    I think that it truly is the combination of heat, humidity and rocks that make up Rocksylvania.
    I only noticed the rocks in NJ for the first 25 miles or so.
    Hike on, my brother!

    • homeward : Jul 21st

      Oh, and the next time you hear “Always thought that I would be an apostle…” you might overwhelm it with “Day by Day” from Godspell 🙂

    • Jon : Jul 23rd


  • GearNerd : Jul 21st

    Probably decline in plasticity, neuro- or otherwise, making collabs more fraught.
    Being a little farther along in the demographic than yourself, I recognise this.

    • Jon : Jul 23rd

      Yup. That’s got to be some of it.

  • Lulu : Jul 21st

    Age differences-Not much in common besides the trail and is that enough to hold? not really Section hiking up near the ponies, we were greeted by younger hikers mockingly saying, “Hi Mom, Hi Dad” and comments about our age and what were doing out here, as if we had no right to be on the trail. Ageism is alive and well even on the AT. It’s the young’uns gap year for many and they fiercely defend their territory. They’ll be polite, but god forbid they hike with you. If you don’t have a tribe your age on the trail, it’s usually tough going and solo.

    • Jon : Jul 23rd

      So sad. Sorry you had to endure that but thanks for sharing.

  • Ronnie : Jul 21st

    I wonder if the the age difference in solo hiking has more to do with experience levels. I’m about to hit my 40s but am a fairly new hiker and a little too nervous to overnight or long distance on my own. There’s so much I haven’t experienced (like seeing a bear!) that it makes me nervous to go alone. Safety in numbers and all. I find folks my age who have been doing this since they were in their 20’s or older more experienced hikers are more confident in their abilities and feel more capable solo.
    Thanks for sharing, looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this.
    Food for thought – the hiker blogs I prefer are all older hikers 60+ and hiking solo this year.

    • Jon : Jul 23rd

      I think you’re right.

  • CB : Jul 21st

    Good post. Thank You.
    “Birds of a feather flock together.” The highest represented demographic on the AT is the twenty-somethings, so naturally they have more options to group up. Also, even if there were more options for the older hikers to group together, people of ‘a certain age’ tend to be more set in their ways and less apt to be willing to adapt to other’s peccadilloes? Would be interesting to find out what effect hiking alone has on the greater rate of failing to finish for the older generations.

    • Jon : Jul 23rd

      Good question. Agree.

  • Meander : Jul 21st

    My introduction to hiking was Pulpit Rock and Pinnacle. Both provide good views especially in the fall with the leaves changing, but in the summer, it’s just a small break from the green tunnel.

    • Jon : Jul 23rd

      I’ll bet fall is fantastic.

  • KateB : Jul 26th

    I wonder if that was the shirtless Witch Doctor you passed (short shorts and bugnet). Your itineraries have been similar, and I remembered him saying he picked up a bugnet hat on his last Cabellas stop. You two should meet.

    • Jon : Jul 26th

      I’ve met two “Witch Doctors,” but neither was the shirtless guy. We gave a ride to Witch Dokter with a k back in VA. Nice guy.


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