Day 93: A Tale of Two Trails (and a Marathon)
Hope and Possibility
What a great night for sleep! Quiet, chilly, and dark. I woke just as the stars disappeared, well before dawn, and lay in bed looking over the map for today’s hike. And contemplating the pounding my already-bruised feet were in for again today. Then I noticed some unmarked trails and forest roads that paralleled the AT. My feet tingled with hope.
Some of last night’s chill still lingered as I headed out the door at 6:00 a.m., though I knew it wouldn’t last. It didn’t, but it was cooler and less humid than it had been for two weeks, and it was lovely for an hour or two. Once again, I hiked into the morning sun, as the AT goes mostly east through northern Pennsylvania.
The Old Rocky AT
I reached the first alternate trail about a mile north of Ashfield Road. A wooden sign called the other option the “South Trail” and noted that it rejoined the AT in 1.1 miles. But it looked more overgrown and just as rocky as the AT, so I stuck to the official trail. My guess is that the South Trail was an old AT alignment because the current AT trail was well built and maintained. It had its share of trippy, pointed rocks, but had enough dirt to not pulverize my feet, and was a pleasure to hike.
The second alternative trail split off about a quarter mile after the AT passes hundreds of feet over the I-476 (Lehigh) Tunnel. Once again, the alternative looked rockier, narrower, and more overgrown than the official AT. The official AT was the better choice. This time, the trail planners managed to avoid the rock rivers and long stretches of imbedded softball-sized rocks, and had built a six-foot wide, sidewalk smooth trail. Obviously, someone with a little knowledge of geology and trail building got involved.
The New Well-Built AT
In fact, the trail from there to halfway down the descent to the Lehigh River was incredible, undoubtedly the best trail work I’ve seen on the AT so far. It avoided nearly all the worst rocky places, provided spectacular views of the Lehigh Valley, wandered through lush, fern-filled meadows and open forest glades, and had excellent dispersed campsites. Best of all, where it encountered rock rivers, they had placed flat rocks to make a smooth flagstone path over the worst spots.
I took a dozen videos, my narration gushing with praise and more than a little shock. Had I left Pennsylvania? Had some out-of-state trail builders snuck in and sabotaged the cruel, punishing original trail? Wow. Wow. Wow. By far, the best section of trail in Pennsylvania.
Does it Have to be Rocky?
As I floated through the lovely meadows and glades, a thought entered my brain. If someone could make a nice trail on this ridge, couldn’t the same thing be done on the rest of the Pennsylvania ridges? No, of course not. The geology must be different. There must be right-of-way or environmental constraints. The slopes, climate, aspect, forest cover, and land ownership must be unique in this section. Best not to think of such things.
The Lehigh Valley
I followed the trail down the steep rocky descent into Lehigh Valley and walked quickly over the Lehigh River Bridge passing a line of cars backed up at the traffic light. Then I headed back into the woods toward the next ridge.
What a climb, possibly the toughest climb on the AT so far. The ascent was steeper and longer than Albert Mountain, and much, much rockier. The trail crossed and followed several rock rivers and ascended a half dozen near-vertical bedrock outcrops. My trekking poles were almost useless, as I had to steady and pull myself up by hand multiple times. The views were worth the effort though and made for a nice excuse to stop and gasp for air while taking in the scenery.
The Non-Rocky Non-AT
Near the top of the climb, I found the junction to the third alternate trail I seen on the map this morning. This one followed a small, unmarked, very overgrown path through deep grass to a second turnoff that led to a forest road that paralleled the AT. A five-foot black snake blocked the trail, so I knew treasure lay just beyond. And I was right.
After a half mile, I reached a grass-covered two track road that had been recently mowed. The road lay within 100 feet of the AT for nearly 2.5 miles. But unlike the rocky AT, it was soft, wide, smooth as butter, and lined with blackberries and wildflowers. I almost felt sorry for the purists I’d passed on the tough climb up the ridge. It killed me to think they were now laboring through the pointy rocks a hundred feet away. You recognize sarcasm, right?
Ironically, the purist trail joined my idyllic road after a few miles and followed it until it branched off again at a major utility crossing. I wonder, did I become pure when the two trails joined, or did the AT become impure by following a forest road? I guess I’ll never know, but I’d guess my chances of finding hiking purity are slim by this point.
Bushwacking and Ultralighting
Engrossed in a making a snarky video, I missed the split where the AT left the road. I saw movement to my right a few hundred feet later and saw a hiker following the powerline. A quick look at FarOut told me I was off trail and that my wonderful road now headed the wrong direction. So, I bushwacked back to the AT, but when I got there the hiker had disappeared.
The AT made another sharp turn off the utility alignment, but this time I saw it. As I made the turn, the hiker reappeared coming back down the powerline trail. He’d missed the turn and told me I was his miracle, saving him from getting lost. I’d told him he’d just done the same thing for me.
As we hiked along together, I noticed his very small, school-sized backpack and asked if he was slack packing. “No,” he said, “That’s all my stuff. Eight pounds. I’m ultralight.” Awesome. I caught one. As long as I can keep up, I might get some answers to a few questions. So, I asked him what he doesn’t have in that pack.
He doesn’t carry a sleeping bag (he uses a fleece blanket), pad, tent (he has a hammock, but no cover), extra clothes, stove and fuel, rain gear, or smart phone. If it looks like rain, he stays in shelters. When he passes near restaurants or stores, he pounds down as many calories as he can so he doesn’t have to carry them. He said he only weighs 120 pounds, so he couldn’t really carry much weight anyway. As I pondered all that, he volunteered that ultralighters have to be willing to be uncomfortable in camp, but they can go much faster on the trail. That’s about what I expected.
Then I asked his trail name. “Cheater,” he replied. What are the chances? He got the name because he started out hiking with a large, leashed dog who pulled him up the hills. I told him my “Cheater” story, and he asked if I was a platinum blazer (named for people who pull out their platinum Mastercard a lot). Guilty, I guess. But he said, “Sounds great. I would if I could, but I can’t so I don’t.” We chatted a few more minutes before I slowed to record some thoughts and he slipped away.
One thing Cheater didn’t carry was the FarOut app. In the few minutes we hiked together, he lost the trail twice. Then, after he’d hiked ahead, I rounded a bend to see him hiking my direction. He looked shocked and I asked if I had started hiking south. “No,” I replied, “I’m going north, and I’m pretty sure I’m following the white blazes.” He’d gotten off trail again, then intercepted it, and had picked a direction he thought was downhill.
Another hiker, a German with limited English-speaking skills, showed up just then coming down a gravel road that crossed the AT. He too had lost the trail. In fact, FarOut had also lost the trail, which had obviously been relocated recently from what the FarOut alignment showed. Cheater and the German wanted to pull out maps and talk about it, but I was confident I had it right and started walking. They reluctantly followed, showering the AT trail builders with f-bombs and frustration.
Within ten minutes we started hearing cars speeding through Blue Mountain Gap and knew we’d made the right choice. FarOut had it wrong. The white blazes had it right. So did the trail builders, who once again had done some really amazing rock work building a nice, smooth trail in tough terrain.
To Smith Gap and Beyond
I had 7.2 miles left to go to Smith Gap, where I planned to meet Northstar and camp for the night. But it was still morning, great weather, and I’d avoided miles of rock, so my feet and legs were still fresh. What if I hiked another 8.1 miles past Smith Gap to Wind Gap, which would turn tomorrow into a 16-mile day instead of a 24-mile day?
Northstar had scouted the Smith Gap crossing and reported that there was no cell coverage and no legal place to camp. That settled it. I’d hike to meet her at Smith Gap, rest for an hour or two through the worst of the afternoon heat, eat and hydrate, and then hike to Wind Gap before sunset.
Back to the Rocky AT
Everything went according to plan. Cheater hiked past with a wave as I was resting but didn’t stop. I haven’t seen him since. I saw no one else the rest of the day. The eight miles to Wind Gap were another rock fest – miles of imbedded softball-sized pointy rocks. And they invited the gnats to the festival. I could hear them buzzing in every video I made.
Although I’d downed all the protein and electrolyte I could stomach while at the van, I wonked. My blood sugar dropped. I got a little woozy and a lot cranky. This time I recognized it and started eating Clif bars, which, by the way, are delicious but incredibly difficult to swallow with a dry mouth. It’s like peanut butter and epoxy got together and had a baby.
Voices in the Deep Woods
In the midst of my semi-delirium, I heard voices in the nearby woods. A man’s voice was saying “Hello? Hello?” I stopped to look and listen but saw no one and hiked on. A few minutes later, I heard it again. This time, I thought, “That voice sounds a lot like my son Sam.” But still no one appeared.
I took out my phone to record a video about it and saw that I’d pocket-dialed Sam multiple times. The touchscreen was so wet with sweat that it had come to life and was opening apps, making calls, and reading my emails. Unfortunately, it hadn’t written any blog posts for me.
I called Sam to let him know I wasn’t dying in the woods and there was a ghost out here that sounded just like him. He laughed and told me I’d pocket dialed him almost every day this week.
Done and Done
I walked into Wind Gap beat. My feet hurt, I needed food and water, I stunk, and I could barely stay awake. On the bright side, I only have one more day in Pennsylvania.
I’d also gotten my marathon: 26.5 miles.
- Start: Ashfield Road (Mile 1254.9)
- End: Wind Gap (Mile 1281.4)
- Weather: Blue sky, hot, humid but not as humid as yesterday
- Earworm: Hosanna (again. I really can’t stand it)
- Meditation: Mk. 11:23-25
- Plant of the Day: Fringed Bleeding Heart
- Best Thing: Trail above Lehigh Valley (south of)
- Worst Thing (besides the humidity): Gnats
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