How Low Can We Go? A Not-So-Fun-Week on the AT

  1. img_20170416_113215845If 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.

img_1306The 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.

img_1274And 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).img_1237

In fact, we came across a trail maintainer who told us he knew easier ways across the rocks, but wasn’t authorized to change the route. So it isn’t as if the trail planners didn’t have a choice.

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.

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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).

img_1295So 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).img_1299

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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Comments 22

  • Sandy Parks : Apr 20th

    Sounds like one grueling week. Any ideas why they have to mark the trail through the rocks when there is an easier way around? Easements? Private land in the way? A year from now the pain memories will ease and then the completed challenge will feel good! Keep on trekking!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 21st

      I have no idea, Sandy. Hopefully they weren’t just sadistic and had a valid reason, although I can’t imagine what. Even through the boulder fields there are often easier routes.

      Reply
  • Bill R. : Apr 20th

    I’m just glad you keep writing about the AT, so I can kinda come along with you.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 21st

      Better to “kinda come along” rather than be here, Bill. At least this week! I sure hope the trail improves!

      Reply
  • Peter Maher : Apr 20th

    Your posts are not helping me convince Laura that we should come across to the US and do a couple of legs of the AT with you guys. Let me know when you get to the flatter bits.
    PS. The Nullabor track is absolutely flat (and straight) for 2000 kilometres with mostly soft sand to negotiate. Water is a bit of an issue though.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 21st

      I’m not sure which sounds less appealing, Peter, this or a hot desert trek. They both must be levels of hell. And I fear there might not be any flat bits on this trail.☹️

      Reply
  • Natalie : Apr 21st

    Jeeze

    Reply
  • Liz : Apr 21st

    Wow! This sounds incredible. I’m glad you’re both getting some rest. Very impressed your hanging in there despite these obstacles!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 22nd

      Thanks, Liz!

      Reply
  • Lisa : Apr 21st

    It’ll get better! You guys can make it through!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 22nd

      Thanks, Lisa. I hope so!

      Reply
  • stealthblew : Apr 21st

    The reason the trail designers route over rocks is to reduce the amount of maintenance required due to erosion. In other places the AT is constantly being rerouted due to overuse. This is most noted in the Smokies where reroutes are not as common.

    Aside from the obvious (pack wt reduction to no more than 20 lbs for the lady and 25lb for the gentleman with food – not base wt ) and using hiking sticks, consider slowing down your pace to no more than 10 miles/day until hiking without pain. (I am referring to an injury type of pain, not physical excursion). Then slowly increase daily mileage. The older we are the harder it can be for our bodies to adapt to the rigors to trail life.

    Please consider the spectrum of outcomes from this new lifestyle. One end -pushing too hard and ignoring the body’s signals can turn an acute injury into a chronic one. On the other end of the spectrum, hiking pain free by slowing down and allowing one’s fitness level to dictate the daily mileage. The real problem is that daily hiking does not offer the body time to recuperate between workouts. And by not over doing it, the body has an easier time adapting to these new conditions. There really is no way around this physiological condition (more pronounced with age). It is also important for the slowest, weakest or most injury prone person in a party to be the determining factor regarding daily mileage.

    This following statement needs to be taken in the context of one’s physical state of conditioning. NH and Southern Maine are far more difficult to hike than PA. The climbs are two to three times longer, often steeper and the rocks different. Picture traveling over sections of large granite slabs on steep hillsides followed by larger stones to navigate along the way. The good news is with proper conditioning everyone will be up to the task. However, the big drop-offs and climbs will really wear down an injured body.

    Everyone who travels through the woods of Northern America is exposed to a world or beauty and has an opportunity to experience what might be called a growing inner awareness of oneself. But these treasures are hard to notice when under the stress of an injury or hiking under painful conditions. (ie. Too much pack wt and /or too high daily mileage)

    In short, the hike should be more of a walk in the park than a death march.

    Please soak up every moment, because before you realize it your feet will be standing on Abol’s Bridge.

    Best wishes for a most enjoyable trip to Katadhan

    Reply
  • stealthblew : Apr 21st

    I did not intend to paint a dark picture for older hikers.

    Sticking with the program outlined above will lead to a feeling of a resurgence of one’s youth. There is no greater feeling in the world than to rapidly increase one’s fitness levels. In time, the body will come to expect a daily hike or other act of excursion and interestingly will be very upset when the hike is over. This is a major contributing factor in post thru hiking depression.

    Here is a bonus -An old adage regarding the trail is that a thru hike will add 5 years to one’s life.

    This whole thing is a bit like a painting. It is hard to see the outcome until the work is completed. One stroke of the brush or a step at a time is too little information for deciphering the final result.

    Please hang in there, slow down to avoid injury and revel in the changes of increased health and mental clarity that are most certainly headed your way.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 25th

      Great advice. Thank you!

      Reply
  • Bill Selvidio : Apr 21st

    Hoping the transition into NJs portion of AT…is less of a strain!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 22nd

      Thanks, Bill! It isn’t as bad as PA so far.

      Reply
  • stealthblew : Apr 22nd

    Here is a final thought regarding starting off on a big hike.

    The body will adapt to it environment as this is part of the human condition. However, it will do so at its own pace.

    There are two options. Either hike hard and recuperate in town or slow down to the point of consistently building up endurance (without injurious pain). Interestingly, both approaches cover relatively the same distance over the same time it takes for conditioning as the turtle (slower hiker mindful of injury) inevitably catches up and passes the resting hiker in town nursing his ailments. Eventually, after recuperating from a town layover (involving one or more zero days) the rabbit (hiker concerned with mileage) will overtake the turtle but not at the expense of a reinjury and need for recovery at the next town. Provided the rabbit does not hurt himself too much in between layovers, approaches will work.

    This said, while the early days may produce some dismal miles and thoughts of possibly not being able to hike the planned distance on the trail over time these thoughts diminish and the payoff from the newfound fitness level is truly priceless. By slowing down, it might take a little longer or the ultimate distance may not be as far. However, a wonderful time will be had by all with the additional benefits of an improved fitness level not felt in decades.

    I have been in your shoes and by taking the turtle route have had a wonderful time on the trail. On a side note I found taking smaller steps or a shorter stride seemed to help my sore knee. Eventually, within a month my legs had strengthened to the point of not having to worry about the issue. A month may seem like a long on a time day to day basis, but overall, it did not have a memorable impact on the enjoyment of the trip
    .
    Good luck and Hang in there. Needless to say, we are cheering everyone on and hoping you endure.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 22nd

      Thanks so much! We are hanging in there. It’s tough, but we will persevered.

      Reply
  • Mark Stanavage : Apr 24th

    I recognized every pile of rocks! I love PA (sorry) but north of Lehigh, even I find oppressive. Make a game of it, hopscotch from rock to rock. Works for most of PA. Seems from Wind Gap to DWG they are all pointy ends up. New Jersey has its share of rocks. Good news, in NY (first 4 miles) the rocks are huge. You’ll do wonderfully! Rooting for you!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 25th

      Thanks, Mark. So far NJ has been much better, including a wonderfully flat section yesterday. I know there are rocks ahead, but at least they are broken up a bit.

      Reply
  • Jim McNelis : Apr 25th

    You should have asked for some of that weed instead of scaring them off. Good for mind body and soul.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Apr 25th

      Very true!

      Reply

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