Highs and Lows of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania (Aug. 30 – Sept. 12)
229 miles, 13 days
This was a hard state to compress into a length that would keep even my own attention span, but I tried nonethe-ess. Here it is—broken down, elaborating on the highs and lows (one day, very low). To explain the header–I passed the 1,000-mile mark. Woo!
Not to make this all about me or anything, but I entered Pennsylvania on my birthday. The trail goes right through Delaware Water Gap, where we found a church that put up hikers on a donation basis. After my shower I didn’t have a particular urge to don my dirty clothes so I wore an oversized rain poncho I found in a hiker box (probably equally as dirty as my own clothes now that I think about it). In what was scarily close to my birthday suit, Dreamer and I hitched to a town that had a laundromat. We then spent the afternoon at the library and made it back to the church in time for dinner. Sun Chaser rolled into town while we were at the library. It just so happened to be the last day of the hiking season when the church community comes together for a seasonal, weekly potluck dinner. Corn on the cob, five different pasta dishes, an equal amount of salad dishes, pizza, burgers – you name it, they had it. There was a whole other table with desserts, and of course the most important… cake!!! They requested only that we spread out and mingle, which was a really cool concept as it meant they were interested to hear about our experiences, and vice versa.
The night (my birthday) didn’t stop there since the oldest, continuously running jazz club in the country was just a block away. Normally a $20 cover, we headed on in free of charge because Thursdays conveniently are cover-free. Often I think the trail provides when you least expect it to and this was one of those times. Sitting there with a glass of red wine, listening to jazz music on a full stomach, with friends—however briefly I’d known them—to celebrate my birthday with was just such a wonderful surprise. I even got an AWOL guidebook from Dreamer that I’d definitely needed but was too stubborn to get.
Pennsylvania is arguably one of the toughest terrains. It’s nicknamed Rocksylvania due to the rocky nature of the trail, claiming to be the place shoes go to die. Maine and New Hampshire had rocks, sure, but those were big slabs that were navigated by climbing. These rocks are small jagged ones, protruding from the ground usually to a point, unavoidable because they are what the ground consists of… billions of rocks waiting to destroy your shoes.
Day after day walking on these things is tiresome. It doesn’t matter the lack of elevation because it takes just as long trying to place each foot down where it’s less likely to roll an ankle or pierce the bottom of your shoe. Constantly staring down at your feet takes focus and concentration that wears on the mind and prevents any opportunity to look at the view. Missing views weren’t such a problem anyway, as the trees blocked any sort of view. I’m afraid the days of going above tree line are behind me, but I’m certain there’ll be views farther south as the leaves change color and fall off.
Sun Chaser had duct tape on his blisters for the majority of Southern Pennsylvania, and Dreamer seemed to stub his toe on every protruding rock he could for some unknown reason. The rocky sections were really not enjoyable to step on, and by the end of each day it felt like the bottoms of your feet had been pummeled. It’s as if Mother Nature knew the rocks were a problem and a half, so she took away the bugs, and for that I’m grateful. (That was me trying to end the terrain on a good note so nobody is completely discouraged from hiking in PA, but if you do, good luck.)
Just a side note here. I think it’s crucial to point out the number of gunshots I heard in this state. I don’t know what the gun laws are like, but people seem to love shooting them. The trail passes by gun ranges daily; some so close causing goosebumps, in anticipation of a stray bullet or seven. My lack of orange clothing didn’t help any, especially when I came across signs that permitted hunting. Then I just prayed I was hearing a gun range, and the deer fleeing from me weren’t headed in the wrong direction.
The weapons were plentiful in town, too. Coming back from a Walmart resupply we had a kind man with a trucker mouth pull over to give us a ride back to trail. He wasn’t a beat-around-the-bush kind of person and highly recommended we all shower ASAP. He also whipped out his pistol for no reason. Never a dull moment on/off trail.
Labor Day Weekend
My friend, Halie, had been planning to come hike a section with me for five days over the Labor Day weekend, so aside from my mom, she was my first visitor. She and I hiked in the Adirondacks a couple of times previously, so this was right up her alley. I chattered on pretty much nonstop when she arrived, so although she stayed only two days, I’m sure she got what seemed like a five-day dosage of me. Her pack weight was minimal, and she had all the appropriate gear, but a blister problem formed and she couldn’t walk with the pain in her feet. Having already put a good amount of miles on her hiking shoes before this trip, it was frustrating more than anything else, I’m sure. It goes to show that you can never fully be prepared. Pennsylvania is known for its rocky path and maybe that had something to do with it. It could have been the material of socks she was wearing, or any number of combinations. Blisters happen to everyone out here at some point so it was sad for both of us to have her cut her trip short. It was a super rocky path that we hiked, and in the 15 miles we had it was nice to talk in a familiar way about life back home. I’m already looking forward to having someone to hike with when I finish. (Though that doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near close to wanting this hike to end.)
Labor Day weekend was an obvious one, because the trail became uncomfortably populated. It’s a great thing to see people out and about, as I’m definitely one to encourage a healthy lifestyle; however, when I’ve become used to communicating (caveman grunting) with Sun Chaser and Dreamer, it’s a little unnerving when someone I don’t know passes by close enough to smell me. Really, I’m a little jealous how fashionable everyone is, knowing the majority are questioning why I’m not as clean as them. I sat at a populated viewpoint and ate lunch one afternoon, marveling at their observations of the three mile-loop they were doing.
In a rush to get to the Eckville Shelter before dark that same day, I ran into what could have been the cast of Cheaper By The Dozen. I saw two parents and a bunch of kids, at least ten, I swear. It was dusk, and once the parents figured out I was a thru-hiker the kids burst into questions, each mouth firing off two each, from every which direction. I felt like an animal that was backed into a corner and wished I had the ability to dig a hole. These were just curious kids and I did the best I could addressing them all, happy (once I left) that they were actually interested. They were cute kids, so proud to have walked a whole mile to get there and I was excited from them too. When I made it to the shelter I was relieved to be the only one so I could wind down for the day in peace. Crazy to think one of those kids may remember the dirty hiker who passed them, and grow up to hike the AT one day.
Trail rumor had it there was to be a Labor Day barbecue at the Eckville Shelter, hosted by a trail angel, so I left the Eckville Shelter to meet Sun Chaser and Dreamer 15 miles farther in Port Clinton, having already arranged a ride to get to the barbecue and back. We hung around town for a long, hopeful while, only to have our ride fall through and our dreams crushed. Instead of pigging out at a barbecue, we trudged three miles uphill to a campsite. That marks the end of Labor Day, bring on the solitude.
Zero Day in Duncannon
We’d been doing over 20 miles for the most part, and two 30s, so we rewarded ourselves a zero day in Duncannon. On the way in I saw a porcupine (my first one ever) and arrived happily in town.
I stayed at the Doyle Hotel and the guys went over to stay at the church. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep on the church floor when the Doyle Hotel was priced as so. $25 for your own room, and a bed. The Doyle is a staple Appalachian Trail experience, so naturally I indulged. It has a not-so-tidy reputation, which I found to be better than the forest floor, so I was happy. The owners were interesting to speak to, so my zero day passed by all too quickly.
When I forgot my credit card there, Pat and Vickey were kind enough to send it ahead, with a note enclosed: “Sometimes wonder how ya’ll make it thru the woods, enjoyed meeting you! Be safe – storms headin’ your way.”
The Hardest Day Ever
Having rested our legs, we did 25 miles to Boiling Springs and called it a day, camping in a park behind a row of trees, pretty well concealed. We made a plan to wake up at 5 a.m. and cover some good ground. I woke up, heard the rain pounding on my tent, and went back to sleep. It was so cold. Dreamer and Sun Chaser manged to actually leave at 5 a.m. Glad to have picked some thick trees to camp behind as it was probably not allowed, I emerged from my tent about 11 a.m. It was still pouring rain and the coldest weather I’d experienced so far on the AT, temperature in the low 50s.
Completely soaked and muddy from packing up in a continuous torrential downpour, I went to a cafe instead of the trail. I had a milkshake, which didn’t make me feel any better, and loitered just long enough to leave before I was asked. On my way out a man stopped me to try to discourage me from getting back out there. He recommended a hostel or a motel so I could wait for better hiking conditions. He shook his head as I left. Exasperated at this point, caught between risking hypothermia and breaking what’s remaining in my bank account, I chose the former and got dumped on, trudging through water knee deep.
I got to a shelter four miles later and told myself I’d take a break and head back out. That didn’t happen. I curled up in my sleeping bag from 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. the following morning, eating anything and everything I had left in my bag—food is comforting. The shelters are all three-sided, and have nothing but a wooden frame normally. It provided little warmth and I shivered the entire time, wearing all my layers of clothes that weren’t wet. Completely shot of energy, I tried to convince myself I had Lyme disease so I’d have an excuse to get off trail. Three other SOBOs rolled in later, but I wasn’t in the greatest of moods so I went back to entertaining myself with the shoddy internet signal I had. My mind was filled with thoughts of how much worse it’s going to be when the expected hurricane hits, so what’s the point of even continuing if I can’t handle this, let alone what’s yet to come…
That may have been my trail low point, but it turned around the next day. Sugar Glider gave me a Pop-Tart, my friend Ida from Finland sent me some encouraging words, and others who knew the hurricane was coming offered their help, and places to crash if need be. My late start out of my sleeping bag that day turned into a 25 miler. The end was quite the struggle as well, but that was my own fault. It was 8 p.m. and I was determined to make it so far as the halfway point, so my awfully cheap headlamp and I were still walking. I passed through a stretch of the trail that intersects with Dead Woman’s Hollow, so I further freaked myself out walking by trees and creating 100 murder scenes in my head. The fog was thick, and I could hardly make out the white blazes. The important part is that I made it halfway, so I figured I may as well just push on to the closest shelter where I could dry out. I arrived at the shelter petrified of a murder, lying in wait, but thankfully my overactive imagination was wrong. It was not a murderer – but a mouse, and it chewed a tiny hole in my food bag. Mice and ticks—funny how they’re the animals to fear out here.
Twenty-three miles to a shelter in late rain was the grande finale that PA offered. I had my buff pulled up over my nose and my bandana halfway down my forehead because I’m no fan of the cold. I even wore my long-sleeve shirt that I wear to bed, risking it in the rain. Pennsylvania was a long, unforgiving state but I’m glad it had me questioning whether I could finish this thing or not. I feel like I’ve had it too easy this far, so to challenge my thoughts is something to have made it through. Well played, Pennsylvania.
If anyone ever has questions, my Instagram @jenniithomps is most accessible to me out here, so feel free to shoot me a message.
Bye from Spirit
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