Plan Your Dive, Dive Your Plan
At 6:30 a.m., the sound of the storm drags me from under the thin film of sleep I have struggled to wrap myself in all night.
In my sleep, I am in high school, legs and arms pumping as my teammates and I run laps up and down the dirt pit next to Brattleboro Union High School. Jog downhill to the supply shed, round the tilting corrugated steel structure, and go charging back to the top to slap five with Coach Dimick, then repeat. But a roaring wall of water blocks my path and I am jolted awake again.
I am in the bottom two-thirds of my sleeping bag in the Bake Oven Knob Shelter, some ten miles outside Palmerton, Pa. This shelter was built during the Roosevelt administration and nails hold the last of the chink in place between the splintering logs. Before going to bed, I placed old feed bags under my sleeping pad to protect against encroaching water on the floor. But despite the storm that chased me here yesterday evening, the roof never leaked.
I like it down here in my dark, warm, and dry burrow, but my bladder is screaming and so I unzip myself and shuffle out into the downpour.
The wind thrashed the trees all night. As I fell asleep, I listened to what sounded like a passing truck, a rumble indicating a tree’s roots losing their footing in the soil. The explosions of wood resounded through the forest like rifle fire and I waited for the trunk of some giant oak to come crashing down on the roof of my little cave.
Retreating back into the warmth of the down sleeping bag. Time for inventory and a plan, then breakfast.
Legs: Sore, stiff.
Feet: Dry, no blisters; calluses forming nicely.
Head: Sound; nose is runny.
I fish my phone up from the bottom of the sleeping bag to check the day ahead of me. There is a standing flood warning in place and the next shelter is a relatively flat seven miles north over the same Rock-sylvania terrain I’ve been cursing for the past week. I resolve to make it there and spend the rest of the day listening to podcasts, eating M&Ms, and writing in the notebook.
Seated cross-legged on one of my feed bags, I make tea on the stove and watch the rain blow in sheets off the roof.
If Maryland was the real shakedown, Pennsylvania has been the first real test. The Keystone State has had the first real lung-busting climbs and harrowing descents. The trail dumped me 1,000 vertical feet in the span of a half-mile with no switchbacks down to Port Clinton. Days later, I allowed myself to be fooled by a break in the weather and attempted both Lehigh Gap and the following distance to Smith Gap. What was supposed to be a seven-mile day became 20, and that afternoon the skies opened up and I was nearly washed off the mountain. By nightfall, my knees were screaming like someone was pulling them apart with pliers. My feet felt hammer-beaten.
Since then, my mantra has been that of SCUBA divers: “Plan your dive, dive your plan.”
I’ve learned how to manage my hips and knees during the days spent hopping from rock to rock. I’ve finally managed to get a handle on just how many calories I require to put in these long days with a pack teetering on both sides of 35 pounds. I’ve learned that a 22-ounce Yuengling at the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon qualifies as “hiker-sized” and that I can consume an entire container of baby spinach in one sitting like mulch through a chipper. I’ve reaffirmed my conviction that Vermont cheddar is the best cheddar and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
I’ve finally started to meet other thru-hikers like myself, some of whom have been hiking since as early as Jan. 1. I’ve heard stories of sickness, long days in foul weather, mishaps with bear mace, imaginative cooking, and more. We’ve talked about student debt and the latest military interventions in the Middle East. I’ve also been fortunate in my Pennsylvania experience to spend time with old friends and family.
Pennsylvania has been both crucible and baptism and I continue to walk, map in my pocket, following the blazes north.
Alright, New Jersey. Let’s dance.
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