Days 86-90

Day 86: Rausch Gap Shelter to 501 Shelter

So the log was not kidding about raccoons at Rausch Gap. Wonderbro apparently did not do a real hang last night, just tossed his bag up in the crook of a tree, and it was shredded by raccoons. There was garbage everywhere. I had moved just a few days ago from an 8-liter food bag to a 15-liter, and I still had my old one, so I just gave it to him to replace the one that got destroyed. He didn’t seem too upset about it…they’d left his Jim Beam alone, so he figured it wasn’t a complete loss.

Sticks and The Girl both have Ursacks, which are built with Kevlar to withstand bears, and they just tied them together, figuring the weight would deter the raccoons. Apparently not. When I woke up and went to retrieve food bags, both of theirs were just gone.

After a search party went out, both bags were located, down the hill. Either it was the Godzilla of all raccoons or they led a coordinated assault, because the bags were a pretty good distance. And while the raccoons hadn’t managed to gnaw through the Kevlar, they had pretty thoroughly mangled everything inside. Thinking of it, I’m not sure it wasn’t a bear after all, although I’m sure it was a raccoon that took out Wonderbro’s bag.

The morning was sort of interesting…there were a few busy road crossings, and one fun moment where I crossed a stream on a slippery tree trunk. I was crossing the last road before climbing up to the ridge line and a car honked at me and pulled off to the shoulder. The woman who was driving it said she was on her way to a hiker feed, and asked me if I wanted to go along, promising to drop me back off in the same place in four or five hours. I said no thank you, with regrets, because that would make it really hard to get to the shelter we were all planning on staying at, and while I could probably have asked her to take me straight there (the 501 shelter is on a road), I didn’t want to skip any of the trail if I didn’t have to. She drove off and I started to climb, a trek that took me under an interstate overpass and into the woods. I think I took several breaks on that uphill because for whatever reason, I just wasn’t in the mood for hiking today.

Anyway, today was also about the first time on the trail I almost completely lost my mind because of bugs. I was in the worst mood thanks to all the mosquitos and gnats. The hiking wasn’t hard, just warm, and I was walking in the middle of a swarm of flying demons obsessed with crawling inside my eyeballs. Hate gnats. Hate them so much. To top it off, I was looking for a landmark listed in the AWOL guide and completely missed it (it was either completely overgrown or on a side trail) , so it felt like I was walking forever but not getting anywhere, which made me a even grumpier. I finally stopped and took a deep breath, and looked up from the rocks. It’s important to actually stop and look around every once in a while in Pennsylvania, to remind yourself that yeah, you do actually like the woods.

So pretty, right?  Sometimes you stop seeing it.

So pretty, right? Sometimes you stop seeing it.

After that, things were a bit better. A hawk followed me down the trail for a few minutes, making short flights from tree to tree, and I finally figured out how much progress I had made that day. The trail turned into a clear dirt path for a while that really helped me speed up and make up some time, and there was a spectacular view, right in the last half mile, which was energizing.

When I got to the 501 shelter, I met the caretaker, a really nice guy named Borderline, who gave us the rundown on the area and the rest of PA (it’s the real start of the rocky section, apparently). I met one of Councilor’s friends from home, and I got a shower in the solar shower outside. It was so cold! But also kind of nice after being so disgruntled all day. The cold shocked me back to a better mood.

Day 87: 501 Shelter to Eagles Nest Shelter

One of the things Borderline told us when we were talking to him was that the real PA rocks started north of the 501 shelter. There were certainly rocks. Not big boulder climbs, which are fun, but piles of rocks. Just rocks on rocks on rocks. Thankfully, that didn’t last two long, and I ran into a couple of women who told me there was a rope swing and a swimming hole at the Hertline Campsite a few miles on. Something to look forward to, on a nicer day, maybe, but the weather was looking ominous so I only stopped there long enough to eat lunch.

The forest, when I stopped to look at it, was lovely. There aren’t many big views in Pennsylvania but there is a lot to see if you don’t focus too hard on only the grand panoramas. The woods had a lot of light in them, considering how often I heard thunder during my walk: what sunlight there was seemed to reflect back and forth between the leaves and the ferns to brighten the whole forest floor.


At one point the trail diverged into two winding, interconnecting trails, and no matter which one I took, it always seemed to be the rockier of the two. Unfortunate luck on my part. I saw the biggest rat snake I’ve seen yet on my hike, and laid my trekking pole down next to it to compare; it was about two feet longer which made it almost six feet long.

Later in the afternoon, I stopped for a snack and some unexpected trail magic by the Fort Dietrich Snyder monument. The “fort” was, apparently, actually just a one story log cabin built by Dietrich Snyder and used as a lookout station to report to Fort Northkill. There are interesting stories all over the place! While I was sitting there a man doing some trail running stopped for a chat, and one of the things that he said about thru hikers was that he’d talked to some in New Hampshire when he was up there, and they were a pretty unsociable lot by the time they got that far, while everyone was still pretty friendly in PA. I guess everyone gets tired. Hopefully won’t be the case for me.

By the end of the day, I was racing against a thunderstorm, and probably hiking faster than I ever have before, practically running down the trail. I made it in to Eagles Nest Shelter before the downpour, barely. Sticks and Councilor were already there, having hiked past me earlier (and, in the process, made my “fast” hiking seem sedate), and Friendly Nate was in for the day as well. The Girl got in shortly after the rain started, soaking wet. It was a strong storm. While I don’t really love thunder, there’s nothing quite so nice as being under a roof with friends while one is going on. So it was a good night, all told.

Day 88: Eagles Nest Shelter to campsite by Pocahontas Spring

When am I going to learn? Hiking really fast made my shoulder ache again. I need to accept that I don’t need to push it like that. So, I wasn’t in the best of moods this morning when I woke up and felt the pain in my shoulder, mostly because I was mad at myself. Friendly Nate and I outlined some plans to go into Port Clinton to resupply and find a ride to the outfitters (Friendly Nate needs new trekking poles and The Girl needs new shoes) and cleared it with the others. He took off first. While I was getting ready to go, Sticks and The Girl went a little bit overboard with the Gold Bond, and ended up getting it all over everything. It was like watching a powdery food fight, and was funny enough to get my mood back up a bit. The hiking itself was irritating today. I’m beginning to understand why so many hikers dislike PA. The rocks aren’t big enough to be fun, and they are just prevalent enough to require constant vigilance while placing your feet. It gets old.

The downhill into Port Clinton was just stupid: steep as can be, and half the trail was eroded and washed away, or graded the wrong way, and my shoulder was really sore by then. So, you know, I was having fun. At the bottom, when I finally got there, I crossed the tracks at the depot and found Friendly Nate waiting for everyone at a picnic table there. We waited and waited for the rest to arrive, and they finally did, just before the rain started again. Nate and I were…not the happiest. I think we didn’t really make our plans that clear at the start though, so we were mostly unloading our own expectations on the others, and that wasn’t really fair. We ended up eating a really subpar meal for too much money in Port Clinton and then parted ways for a bit. I hiked on and everyone else got a ride to the outfitters. The ascent out of Port Clinton was challenging, rocky, and steep, but I picked a slow, steady pace and did the mile and a half uphill without resting. It’s the little things like that which remind me how far I’ve come, physically and mentally, since the start of the trail. I feel strong. And feeling strong makes me feel happy. So even though today was not totally awesome, by the time I stopped at the spring for the night, my mood was fully restored. Another day made awesome! I feel good about this hike again.

Home sweet home for the night.

Home sweet home for the night.

Councilor and Friendly Nate showed up at the spring, but apparently Sticks and The Girl decided to stay in town overnight while she took care of her feet because her blisters are still really bad.

Day 89: Pocahontas Spring Campsite to Eckville Shelter

Today had some really fun trail in it! The trail wasn’t too rocky at first, but that changed quickly, and the climb up to Pulpit Rock was, for me at least, really great. My pack felt comfortable, the uphill felt easy, the weather was hot but clear. I had fun, hopping over the boulders, and was immersed in just feeling good. Back when I was overweight and out of shape, this walk would have been really hard work. But one of the things I’ve come to enjoy about being stronger is just walking along and really feeling all my muscles working together. It’s such a simple thing, but I remember when walks up even gentle hills left me feeling breathless with hurting knees and feeling so humiliated about struggling so much. The fact that I don’t have to fight my own body anymore is tremendous.

As an aside, when hikers say they are done with PA rocks, this is the stuff most of us are referring to. Small but irritating for miles.

As an aside, when hikers say they are done with PA rocks, this is the stuff most of us are referring to. Small but irritating for miles.

Anyway, I was in a great mood today. Everything was fun. I stopped at a rocky outcropping to watch some turkey vultures flying around; they were gliding past me on updrafts, so close I felt like I could reach out and brush my fingers against their wing tips. I felt like I could have joined them.

This seems like a really popular section for day hikers, and about a mile and a half after Pulpit Rock I walked past a young woman who smiled at me and said, “You’re almost there!” I was so confused for a second. “To Maine?” I thought to myself, not sure what she could be talking about. But in under a mile I understood, because the rocks that covered the path disappeared, and the trail turned into a dirt highway. I hadn’t even thought about the rocks today, until they were gone, and I enjoyed the easy trail as much as anything else that day. I blew through the last five miles, loving the fact that I could walk and look around at the forest around me at the same time, instead of focusing only on my feet. I got to Eckville Shelter, which is essentially in the back yard of the caretaker right along a road, and rather than spend the night in the shelter Councilor and I decided to pitch our tents on the tent sites across the street. There we met Delicious and Dakini, who I had been introduced to very briefly in Damascus when I was sick, and Goose, who is hiking one of the most laid-back thru hikes I’ve heard of yet. Everything seems to operate on a “when I feel like it” basis for him. Friendly Nate was there as well, and all six of us had a pretty good time goofing around. Delicious, Dakini, and Goose had glitter with them for some reason (apparently it’s a hiking staple) and they had glitter-bombed Friendly Nate, who can now look forward to finding it on his gear and skin for the rest of the hike, probably.

Day 90: Eckville Shelter to George W. Outerbridge Shelter

Today was probably what people talk about when they talk about Pennsylvania being rocky, even though the worst stuff is more like the terrain in the last photo. There were some huge boulder sections, including the Knife Edge and Bear Rocks, followed by Bake Oven Knob, which I’m pretty sure isn’t an actual hill but just a huge pile of rocks dumped there by accident.

In the morning, on the day’s only real uphill, I passed an older gentleman resting on the slope, and asked him how he was doing. “This is hard,” he said ruefully. And it was, in a way, but I was still reveling in being strong enough to do this hike, and that joy made the tough parts fun too. I stopped briefly at Blue Mountain Summit for a root beer in the afternoon heat, and chatted with the woman working the bar. I asked her if all the hikers complained about the rocks when they came in. She has done some hiking, but never outside of PA. “Yeah,” she said. “But it just feels normal to us. What’s it like everywhere else?” “You can usually see more dirt than rocks everywhere else,” I responded. But there’s some food for thought, hikers. When we are groaning about Pennsylvania and complaining about how much it sucks, there are people out there who think it’s normal and no big deal. It keeps me from thinking I’m some sort of big shot for walking the AT! Perspective is pretty important, right?

The last 14 miles rolled along with their share of challenges. Knife Edge is certainly one of those sections that makes me think long and hard about my choice to go hiking when my sense of balance isn’t that great, but even when I was contemplating how to navigate the trail and avoid falling off the mountain, the challenge was a lot of fun. I barely made it to the shelter before full dark, and rolled into my sleeping bag as soon as I could. At 24.2 miles, I think this is one of the longer days I’ve done, and the terrain made it a full one. I loved every minute of it.

Just another day in paradise. Oh, yeah, that's the trail right there.

Just another day in paradise. Oh, yeah, that’s the trail right there.

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