Pennsylvania & Maryland: No Room to Wander
After visiting the ATC headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, I decided to zero. I did laundry, resupplied at a 7-Eleven, and stopped by a wine bar to grab a quick sandwich. While I was there, the father of a girl who was working behind the counter started talking to me. He was an avid backpacker, he told me, and had always wanted to hike the AT.
This happens a lot. I’d say that 70% of the people I meet, who talk to me about thru-hiking, express a desire to do the hike themselves. The other 30% are a little dumbfounded by the whole affair, but wish me well.
The Bostonian I talked to that day was older, slated for retirement within the next couple years, and brimming with enthusiasm as we spoke. I told him what I was told almost a year ago, when I met another thru-hiker on a shakedown hike: If you’ve ever thought about doing it even once, do it. You owe it to yourself to do it.
He thanked me and went on his way, leaving me to the beer he’d bought for me. I sat there staring into the glass for a while, feeling pensive as a fan overhead wobbled and clicked against the ceiling, as it swirled warm, humid air around the bar. After experiencing a brief, celebratory high when I finished the state of Virginia and made it to Harper’s Ferry, the blues had settled around me once more like a dense blanket. The man I’d spoken to had sincerely told me that I’d inspired him, and had thanked me. I wondered why it was easy for me to inspire others, but feel so uninspired myself – when I was in the midst of the journey so many other people dream about.
On day 98, I hiked out of Harper’s Ferry, stopping briefly to swim in the Potomac. Through the end of the day, a light drizzle followed me as I hiked a nero out of town. I decided to delete social media from my phone for the week and weekend and enjoyed the break.
On day 99, I decided to go with a “fake it till you make it” approach, popping the valve open on my sleeping pad at 5am to deflate it and inspire me to get moving faster, despite feeling fatigued and cranky. When the rain arrived, I found a shelter and took a midday nap. In total, I hiked a little over 20 miles despite taking many breaks. The trail through Maryland was gorgeous – well-maintained and mostly well-graded.
On day 100, I hiked 19 miles and crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. The last few miles of Maryland were a rock scramble: a precursor of what was to come. The weather was beautiful, so my mood was improved.
On day 102, I woke up to a cool morning and stayed in bed till almost 11am – too cozy to get up. When I did get going, I moved pretty quickly – crossing the official halfway point, then 1100 miles. I stopped by for the half gallon challenge, but after a few minutes of watching everyone who attempted the challenge look absolutely miserable while doing it, decided to grab a burger and a reasonable amount of ice cream instead.
On day 103, I hiked a short day since my partner was picking me up the next day from Boiling Springs. On this section of trail, I took approximately 20 breaks, saw a porcupine, and took one really long break at a grocery store to wait out a rainstorm.
On day 104, I nero’d into Boiling Springs to wait on my partner. While I sat at a cafe, I saw a handful of hikers I hadn’t seen since the Smokies, and they stopped by my table to chat a bit. Then, after 8.5 hours of driving, my partner pulled up to the curb and we made our way to Harrisburg for the weekend.
Days 105 & 106 were zeroes. My partner and I splurged on a “fancy” hotel, and when I asked the front desk about coin laundry, the attendant looked at me blankly and then recommended dry cleaning up the road. The mental image of me dropping off my filthy, Walmart hiking outfit at a dry cleaner’s was hilarious, but I opted to do laundry in the sink in our room instead. We stayed in the heart of the city, and I never really got used to the noise of passing cars and streetlights and hustle & bustle. It made me wonder how exactly I was going to assimilate myself back into civilized society when the hike was over.
On day 107, I hiked from Boiling Springs to Darlington shelter, through a long water carry and 14-mile no camping zone.
On day 108, as I passed Duncannon, the famous rocks of Rocksylvania began. I fell more times in one day than I had in all the previous days of my thru-hike combined.
Over the next few days, I learned how to scramble over loose boulders, how to tiptoe through fields of tiny, sharp stones, and tried to appreciate my surroundings. But Pennsylvania was ruthless. Most days, I hiked with my head down and eyes trained between my toes. Every once in a while, a blooming thicket of rhododendrons would catch my eye, but all in all… Pennsylvania was pretty miserable.
I passed 1200 miles and perked up a bit knowing that I officially had less than 1000 miles to Katahdin. Despite my fatigue and the rocks, I was able to do my first back-to-back 20-mile days.
On day 112, I decided to hike into Port Clinton, grab a ride to Hamburg, and stay in a bed & breakfast, get a shower, and sleep in a real bed. Over the course of my many rolled ankles, trips, and falls, I’d wrenched my back in a way that had me hobbling very slowly down trail.
On day 113, I woke up, packed up, then went to the local library to write. I didn’t make it back to Port Clinton till late in the afternoon, then ran into my friend Wyred (who I hadn’t seen since southern Virginia.) We went on a side quest to find beer and real food, and both of us got on trail around 5pm, hiking only 3 miles. Despite the low miles, I fell asleep early and slept through the night.
On day 114, I woke up after sleeping very well, and tackled the rocks of the day with renewed energy. My back was still hurting, though not as badly as the previous day.
On day 115, I watched the sun rise and got on trail fairly early, hiking to a hostel to grab a snack break, then up and over the Knife’s Edge ridgeline. Those rocks were fun. Then I hiked over the much-more-dangerous Bake Oven Knob. Those rocks were way less fun, but I made it!
My final few days in Pennsylvania were a string of low miles days and long water carries. I stayed in another hostel, ate a lot of town food, and hobbled over tiny, pointy rocks, then scrambled over large, precariously-balanced boulders, and repeated that process endlessly. The exposed climb out of Palmerton really tested my nerves, but afterwards, I enjoyed a long, flat ridgewalk. I saw 4 rattlesnakes, and took the time to write a few essays for my personal website.
During this time, I mostly hiked with a group of people I’d met off and on since Maryland – and I think that’s why my mood about the trail is improving.
I knew that in a couple weeks, I would likely be walking into Massachusetts – since the next 200-mile stretch of trail would knock New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut off the list. After the purgatory of Pennsylvania, I knew it would feel nice to get across more state lines.
As I walked, I thought about how each state has presented its own challenges and lessons. Pennsylvania was one of the most difficult states for me – because there was no chance to stop and take in the scenery. Most of the time, I was staring at the trail, making a million micro-decisions a minute about where to place my feet, how high I should lift my foot, and whether or not that pair of rocks would wedge and snap my trekking poles.
Mentally, it was exhausting. There was no room for my mind to wander. I would try to listen to podcasts and music, but I found that it would distract me and I would trip more often. So most days, it was just me, and the trail. Which is exactly how I thought this journey would be – no distractions; a daily walking meditation.
It’s funny how, even when you get exactly the experience you were expecting, it’s just slightly different from the way you’d imagined it would be. It’s humbling, and kind of amusing, to realize that I’m not nearly as zen as I’d anticipated I would be out here.
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