How Low Can We Go? A Not-So-Fun-Week on the AT
- If you’re hoping for an upbeat post about thru-hiking, this isn’t it. This is an honest assessment of the rather brutal week we’ve had. Here’s why our trek through the northern part of Pennsylvania hasn’t been too much fun.
The rocks. Everything you’ve read about Pennsylvania is true. Every blasted word of it. There are dozens upon dozens of boulder fields. There are miles of jagged rocks that leave your feet so battered and blistered you’d swear they’d been beaten with meat tenderizing mallets for hours on end. And I don’t know how many times we struggled, gasping and panting, up the side of a mountain, only to be greeted by a ridge strewn with huge slabs of tilted rocks — with the AT routed right over top.
And here’s the thing. The AT takes you over these knee-shattering boulders on purpose. Often there’s a perfectly nice path running alongside, but the AT veers off onto the boulders, as if the planners were averse to missing a single one. And let’s be honest. Does anyone actually enjoy walking on rocks? I mean, come on! Not only are they boring to look at, but you can’t take your eyes off your feet for a second to admire the view or risk a fall (which John and I have both done).
Given all that, it’s hard to pinpoint the nadir of the week. A strong contender was one of our 17-mile days, when after eleven straight hours of hobbling over boulders (including the infamous Knife Edge), we staggered like zombies into camp only to find it full of dope-smoking locals. So exhausted we could barely stand upright, we headed down a steep, rocky trail to filter water while the locals, thankfully, took off. Then, with a rain storm closing in, we spent the last bit of dwindling daylight setting up our hammocks on a hill so precipitous it took all our effort not to fall. Sweaty, exhausted, and hungry, with the wind gusting and ripping out our tarp stakes, we finally managed to get our hammocks in place and gulp down a few bites of beef jerky before the rain set in. That night, not even putting on a pair of clean socks could improve my mood.
Things weren’t much better the following day. Despite our daily cocktail of ibuprofen/Aleve/naproxen, we knew there was no way we were going to make it up the thousand-foot rock scramble out of Lehigh Gap. Not with Linda’s knee screaming with pain. Not with my muscles so depleted of energy that the very idea of hauling myself hand-over-hand up an exposed cliff made me want to weep. And not carrying loaded packs, including enough water to get us through the next 15 miles (the streams in the area are contaminated thanks to the Palmerton superfund site).
So we took the winter route around the cliff (John and I will drive back and scale the white-blazed version at a better time), then made plans to slack-pack the next few days (slack-packing is when someone holds your gear so you can hike with a lighter pack). Which is how we found ourselves sleeping in a depressingly musty garage in Kunkletown for the next two nights, listening to strangers snore. (But on the positive side, we did get to shower and eat at the Kunkletown Pub).
Of course, the week wasn’t all misery. I’m continually amazed by the generosity of the people we’ve met:
– The post office employee in Port Clinton who ran outside to offer us water.
– the Warbonnet hammock people who mailed John a replacement part free of charge.
– Billy at the Wolf Hollow Country Club in Delaware Water Gap who drove us into town multiple times.
– And most of all, John’s cousin, Al, who arranged for us to spend a couple of nights in this wonderfully historic hotel. Thank you, Al!!!
But all in all, northern PA sucked. Sure, we’ve managed to laugh. True, we’ve found humor in the absurdity of the situations we’ve been in, such as trying to evade a hostel owner who wouldn’t stop regaling us with stories, even while we were trying to sleep. But this last part of “Rocksylvania” has been brutal. It took most of the fun out of hiking, demoralizing us at every turn. Here’s hoping that a full day of rest and several great meals at the DWG Pub will bring it back.
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