Pennsylvania: Testing my mettle
I believe an apology is in order. I haven’t posted in a month! How has a month already gone by? Probably because walking in the woods every day gives you a slightly warped sense of time. Trying to catch up on everything that has happened since my last post would be impossible, so today we’ll focus on the last week or so…it’s been a doozy. But before that, let’s take a moment to recognize an important accomplishment – we made it past the halfway point! This includes three major milestones:
- Getting a photo at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters in Harpers Ferry. This also includes getting our updated “hiker numbers”. When we started at Amicolola, we were numbers 463 and 464 to start a NOBO thru-hike. In Harbers Ferry, we were numbers 144 and 145! That means we’ve passed a lot of people.
- Passing the halfway mile marker (1,094.5 miles)
- Limbo and I each successfully eating a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate. For those who may not know, this is a tradition to complete at the general store in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, which is just after the halfway point. I’d like to point out that a half gallon of ice cream is actually more than the normal grocery store size tub, it’s actually that tub plus a pint. Limbo’s flavors were Moose Tracks (2,500 calories alone), and then a pint of Black Raspberry and Superman. Mine was Mint Choloate Chip (only 1,900 calories), and then a pint of Black Raspberry and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
Now, since we’ve reached the halfway point here’s our normal set of data plus a couple extra numbers thrown in. I coudn’t supress my engineering side during our zero in Hot Springs and consequently created a spreadsheet to track all sorts of metrics throughout our hike. Here’s a taste:
Days on trail: 78
Total miles: 1193.1
Current location: Pine Grove, PA
Average miles per day: 15.4 including zeros, 17.4 excluding zeros
Number of zeros taken: 9 (including today)
Maximum miles in one day: 30
Now that we’ve got all those numbers out of the way, let’s get up to speed on the hike itself. In my last post, I said it wasn’t cold anymore. That was a false alarm. While we thankfully haven’t experienced anymore 30 degree days (or nights), it’s still been in the 40s many nights. We stupidly sent our cold weather gear home when Limbo’s excellent parents came to visit the first week of May.
That was our first mistake.
Our second mistake was twofold – (1) we did not research our summer gear choices before the trail, so (2) we went to REI in Richmond and made an admittedly hasty decision to try what we’ll call an “emergency bivy sleep system”. This entails getting a sleeping bag liner and putting it inside what is essentially a fancy emergency space blanket. It’s super super light, and theoretically should be plenty warm, since you would usually use one of those blankets/bivys for emergency cold situations. It’s also extremely inexpensive compared to purchasing a sleeping bag or quilt. However, the very first night back on the trail with this system, it poured rain all day and was about 42 degrees that night. We arrived to the shelter soaking wet and my hands were almost numb. Our tent was soaked so we decided to sleep in the shelter. This was also a mistake, as it is usually much warmer in the tent than it would be in the shelter. We skipped dinner and got straight into our “sleep system”. Since we sent home our cold gear, all I had was my soaking wet hiking pants and a pair of short athletic shorts. Moonbeam, the female counterpart of the hiking duo Two Peas, took mercy on me and lent me a pair of pants. I don’t know how I would have made it through the night without them. It was a cold and miserable night and we quickly learned the major limitation of the emergency bivy sleep system – because the bag isn’t breathable, it develops condensation like crazy. By the end of the night we were soaked. Which is exactly what you don’t want to be when it’s 40-50 degrees out.
One misearble night was enough for us, so the next morning we shivered on the porch of the Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park (which wasn’t open for the year yet) and used my 4G to overnight ourselves a couple 50 degree Sea to Summit quilts. We chose them because they were reasonably priced for their weight, only 13 ounces! We also ordered from REI because we knew we could get them fast and could return them if we ended up hating them. Once again, doing some research would have been smart. To make a long story short, we got the quilts in Front Royal, VA and were much happier until we made it to Harpers Ferry and took a few days off.
Harpers Ferry to Pine Grove: Trial after trial
Timekeeper Jack and Junco Jill are another thru-hiker couple that I would consider trail family. They gave me and Limbo the amazing opportunity to spend a few days off trail at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. It was totally gorgeous and a very welcome break. Aside from the visit from Limbo’s parents, we hadn’t taken a zero since Damascus (mile ~470)! We got back on the trail feeling refreshed and optimistic. This was eight days ago. The first night out, we got to fulfill one of my desires for a “car camping” experience on the AT – a nice picnic table, tent pads, running water with real toilets, a shower, a faucet and sink, etc. This was at Dahlgren Backpacker Campground. We had noticed it seemed like there were a lot more people out, but we figured it was due to the gorgeous weather. Then we talked to a trail maintainer that explained the reason…we were in the thick of hikers starting their flip-flop thru-hike from Harpers Ferry. This was trial #1:
I think flip-floppers are awesome. They are helping to decrease the burden of people starting in Georgia, and being around them is a great reminder of the magic of the trail. They are all so fresh and excited and eager to make friends. Full disclosure, though: Limbo and I really don’t enjoy hiking in a crowd. Even a crowd as small as the flip-flop group is. In the following days, we started to feel a self-imposed need to rush through our hike every day to make sure we got a tent spot at our planned stopping point. I again had to start being more cautious about where to take a pee break. We went from seeing only a couple people each day to leapfrogging a group of people every day. I started to really miss the solitude I had come to enjoy every day, but decided to try to embrace the opportunity to meet some new people. Then, trial #2 hit.
Our second day out from Harpers Ferry, we pushed for a 24 mile day and hit up the grocery store in Waynesboro, PA for a resupply. After this long day we went to set up our tent and the zipper on one of the vestibules kept gapping. We had researched that gently crimping the zipper slider was one way to fix this, so we borrowed some pliers and started to work on the slider when…it totally broke. The zipper was about halfway up, so we had to use our medical tape to tape it together in an attempt to keep the rain out. I was able to pretty quickly get ahold of Tarptent and get some new zipper sliders sent, but the soonest we could get them was here in Pine Grove. That meant almost a week with only one usable vestibule, but we didn’t have any other options. So we went to bed and decided to make the best of it until about midnight when we were introduced to trial #3:
I’ll spare you the details of trial #3, but essentially the zipper slider on my quilt also broke. The same night. In the middle of the night. Keep in mind, this is after using the bags for 5 nights.
The following days were not very fun in terms of the hiking itself. People aren’t kidding when they say Pennsylvania is rocky. I’ve felt the most exhausted the entire trail during this past week. To be fair though, we also did 150 miles in the last week. We also did it in the rain, which is what I would consider trial #4: my feet are destroyed from the rain and rocks. My feet have never hurt this bad! Damp socks and wet shoes mean the bottoms of my feet are a pruney mess and I’ve got all sorts of weird blisters on my toes from sliding around more than usual.
To top it all off, we experienced trial #5 on one of the top three rainest nights on the trail. Somehow, we got soaked while sleeping. Water was streaming down the mesh sides of the tent and pooling on the floor. Our best guess for the reason was poor seam sealing around some of the attachments to the tent (velcro pieces to roll up the vestibules). That’s on us, since we seam sealed the tent before the trail, but disappointing regardless.
Needless to say, there’s been a lot weighing on me in the last week and I’ve started to slip into a bit of a negative attitude. Taking this somewhat unwanted zero in Pine Grove has been a much needed way to hit my interal “reset” button. We spent most of the day today fixing up our tent: we put on new zipper sliders, patched a couple small holes that had developed in the tent, and did another seam seal. Having that taken care of has already eased my mind, and my feet are starting to look like normal human feet again. I look up at the green hills where we’ve been hiking and remember how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to take up this adventure. We’ve met a lot of people who have something in their life that makes it impossible for them to embark on a journey like this, so I don’t want to spend this precious time feeling sorry for myself because my feet hurt or we’re having some gear issues. I’m going to choose to learn from these trials, and to appreciate that these trials make completing the trail that much more of an accomplishment. And you know, even though it’s been a rough week and I was pretty grouchy, I’ve never wanted to throw in the towel. I think that’s a testament to how great thru-hiking is: even when I’m wet, sore, tired, and worried about my gear, I still truly enjoy waking up and getting to walk every day. I like our weird little tent house and feel more comfortable on my sleeping pad than most hotel beds. So I guess the conclusion is, whatever else Pennsylvania (and onward) has to offer me, I’m ready for it!
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