Singin’ The Blues: Surviving Pennsylvania
I was taught that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. By following that rule, however, this would be a very short post about our time in Pennsylvania, which can basically be lumped into three categories: flat and boring; rocky and ridiculous; swampy and swarmy. But first, let me back up to where I last left off.
From Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, we had a great time, despite daily downpours. Because, in order to meet up with my friend Allison, we only had a relatively short distance to cover in several days, we were able to take it slow and easy, which was a change of pace for us–a pace that Rico is quick to accredit to yours truly, the overachiever half of this relationship.
We enjoyed long, leisurely lunches while waiting out storms and were treated to showers and a dinner at the Blackburn ATC center, courtesy of the caretakers. As we descended into Harpers Ferry, our spirits were very high. We bee-lined it to the ATC headquarters to get our picture taken for official record keeping purposes, receiving our thru hiker numbers–704 and 705—awarded to those who have come through Harpers Ferry so far this year. Thereafter, we immediately went to our hotel, for which we had splurged a fine dime. We stayed for a full 20 hours, even opting for dine-in delivery in order to minimize movement. The next day, we packed up and did our errands before going to hang out at the downtown park with fellow hikers– in true hiker trash fashion. It being high tourist season, there were swarms of people, and we soon felt like we were part of the attraction. Countless people stared as they walked by, and a few tourists, brave enough to walk close to the stench, stopped and asked us the typical questions: Are you thru-hiking? Where did you start? How long have you been out? When do you think you’ll finish? By now, we have these answers down pat. We were also warned repeatedly about the looming severe weather that was due to come in that evening. Our original plan was to hang out with Allison, then hike out about seven miles to the first shelter, avoiding a total zero day and saving some money in the process. But as the weather forecast continued to worsen, we started looking around for a Plan B. Not wanting to shell out another large sum for a hotel room, we were delighted to hear about a hostel just a few miles up the trail that happened to be hosting a free dinner and also included breakfast. We were sold. We had an awesome time catching up with Allison, while sipping down some beer, before checking into the hostel that evening. The storm that blew in lived up to the hype, which is rare out here. Torrential rain is an understatement, highlighted by constant flashes of lightning that seemed to be almost too close for comfort. We were never so relieved to be in a safe shelter.
The day out of Harpers Ferry was long and uneventful. We did see one hiker, Sharkbait, attempting the four state challenge–the 46 mile stretch from the edge of Virginia through West Virginia and Maryland to the edge of Pennsylvania. We thought about attempting that for about one second…and promptly decided to “save that for the next time we thru hike,” said with as much sarcasm as you can imagine. We were eager to get to the actual halfway point, Harpers Ferry being the unofficial, albeit recognized as the very significant psychological, midpoint of the trail. As we crossed into PA, and crossed the Mason Dixon line, the actual halfway point awaited, and with it, the half way, half-gallon challenge– a thru hiker ritual that entails eating a half gallon of ice cream in under an hour. The couple of days out of Harpers Ferry were nice, in large part due to the beautiful parks we walked through and the stops at snack bars along the way. We didn’t pack enough food for this stretch, so we were incredibly thankful for the availability of extra sustenance at Caledonia State Park. We also had an awesome stay at the Tumbling Run Shelter in PA. The caretakers of the shelter left sodas and pretzels there, a welcome treat after a 25 mile day. The night before we hit the halfway point, we stopped early because of another storm blowing in—do you sense an ongoing theme here?! So much rain out here. Luckily we had already managed to get 18 miles in before 3pm, so we quickly found a spot to set up the tent in which to shelter while it blew over. Not five minutes after we made camp, the rain came, fast and furious. While it wasn’t as bad as we expected, at least not by our standards, we realized the next day that it had left its mark by way of downed trees and debris everywhere.
Finally, we made it to Pine Grove State Park and its infamous general store. We were ready for our ice cream challenge—or so we thought. For his gorging, Rico chose cookie dough, his favorite, and I chose mint chip, one of my favorites. I figured that if I were going to eat a whole half gallon of ice cream, it might as well be a flavor I enjoy. Rico downed his half gallon in the first 15 minutes as I sat there staring at my seemingly bottomless container of ice cream, trying to will it down my throat. In order to complete the challenge, you have to eat another pint after eating the “half gallon” because, ounce-wise, the current size of a half gallon is a pint short. Rico opted for a raspberry to change up the flavor. As the 30 minute mark passed, I somehow managed to get to the bottom of my mint chip selection, feeling terrible and questioning a lot of my life decisions that had led me to thinking this kind of challenge was a good choice. Rico had slowed down considerably, but was almost finished with his final pint, and he assured me that raspberry was the way to go. I followed his lead as I watched in horror as the server scooped the last pint. Rico finished triumphantly in 35 minutes, as I started to bite into my last pint. While the raspberry actually was very tasty, I wasn’t sure my body could handle anymore dairy for the day, even month or year. Changing positions from sitting to standing, walking around as I ate spoonful after spoonful, I finally managed to finish just under the gun at 57 minutes. Even recalling this experience makes my stomach turn. Needless to say, I’ve sworn off ice cream for the foreseeable future. After showers at the lake’s facilities, we somehow managed to haul ourselves seven more miles past the park to a campsite. Suffering from a lactose and glucose overdose, it was definitely not a pleasant night’s sleep.
The following day we did our first marathon day, 26.2 miles, thanks to the flat farmlands of PA through Boiling Springs up to Darlington Shelter. We even almost managed to make it one day in PA with no rain–almost. With about two miles left, the rain started. That’s often how it seems to go–we just about get to our destination, but never quite make it there fully dry. We weren’t too bent out of shape about it though because we were going into Duncannon the next day where laundry facilities awaited. It was a quick and happy 11 miles into Duncannon and stopped in at the famed Doyle Hotel. Duncannon is a trail town, so the trail goes right through it. The Doyle is hilarious. It’s been standing for over 100 years, and boy does its age show. Known for its food and cheap beer, not its lodging– a point the owners are very quick to point out–the rooms are rickety at best and condemned at worst. Each of the floors shares a communal bathroom. There’s no wifi or TV, and one single outlet in the room, half of which is used for the fan which is connected by an extension cord. I kid you not. Yet, it’s kind of charming in its own way and endearing because of its no frills. When we got to the Doyle, we decided to zero the following day because of…can you guess? Rain? Yep. Not just a shower here and there, but wicked storms–rain from sun-up to sun- down, with the highs barely in the 60s. Knowing there was no way we were going to coax ourselves out of town in weather like that, we accepted our fate and cozied up to the bar for the night.
We had a great time connecting with hikers we hadn’t seen in a while as well as meeting new ones. We even caught the women’s World Cup quarterfinal game, thanks to the one TV in the bar. Our zero day consisted of spending most of the time in our room with lots of napping. The weather outside really was nasty, and we were very happy with our decision to stay put. Add to that, copious amounts of fun at the bar with numbers of hikers we got to catch up with, and Duncannon really outdid itself. Come morning, we were ready to get back on the trail and put the rest of Pennsylvania behind us. This is where shit gets real—for real.
Over the last three weeks, I had been experiencing some tummy troubles but it was mild, and it came and went pretty quickly, so I didn’t give it too much thought. I kept Rico abreast of how I was doing, and we decided that if there were any other signs of ill-health, we’d address it then. Well, those signs came during the climb out of Duncannon. I found myself simply exhausted on a decent, but certainly not daunting, climb. Every five steps, I’d keel over panting. I was nauseous and a little dizzy. Rico sounded the alarm and demanded that we turn around and go back to town to try to diagnose the problem. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty stubborn–I wouldn’t still be out here if I weren’t! When I don’t want to do something, especially something I’ve deemed unnecessary, I dig my heels in. I assured Rico that my tummy troubles would probably pass. I’m not sure why I thought hiking it out was the solution, but I refused to turn around, not wanting to lose another day after having already had to do so with the recent spate of storms. There were road crossings up the trail at 9 and 18 miles, so I figured we could reassess at either of those points. But the hiking was not fun, and for some odd reason, I found myself reduced to tears, sitting on a rock, trying to catch my breath, while refusing to turn back. This continued for five miles. At the first shelter out of town, while Rico was getting water, I pulled out my phone, and realizing I had service, I called my mom. Yes, I am a grown adult and married woman, but sometimes I still need the wise counsel of my mom to put my mind at ease. Sobbing into the phone, I explained what was happening, and, wisely, she and my dad both insisted that I go back to town and get help, reasoning that another missed day or two now could save a week or more if I let things get worse.
By the time Rico came back with water, I relented and decided to go back to town. As we headed south, and passed many of our hiker friends, who were confused about the direction in which we were hiking, I still wasn’t convinced we were doing the right thing, but the damage was done. I had given in, and Rico was not going to let me change my mind. There was a clinic in town that opened the next morning. This being a Sunday, of course, it wasn’t open, so our best option was to go back to the Doyle and rest until morning, which is exactly what we did. First thing the next morning, I was up and ready to go, filled with anxiety over whether I could be seen by a doctor, how much it would cost, and what they would say—if they could even do anything at all. The list of doubts went on. This was a very small clinic–think annual sport physical and routine blood pressure checks–so they didn’t have the setup to do actual testing. But the doctor was nice enough to see me, and after hearing my explanation of the symptoms, made an educated assumption that I probably had Giardia. She promptly wrote me a prescription for antibiotics. Even better, she called the pharmacy and asked them to fill it right away, then had one of the office workers drive me to the drug store about a mile up the road. This kind consideration, on top of what was a very inexpensive visit, was such a welcome surprise and so much appreciated; it was stellar trail magic in its own right. Truth be told, I have a very, very mild case of Giardia, if that’s what this is, as I know of other hikers who have had to be hospitalized and have been put on crazy strong meds to kill the parasite. With meds in hand, we laced and strapped up and headed back for the trail, ready to go once again. I will acquiesce that I probably could have used another day of just resting and letting the meds kick in, as evidenced by my struggle in our climb out of Duncannon for the second time, Rico at the end of his wits with me. The good news is that I survived, and while my mother will now be disappointed to read that we did an 18 mile day, I’m no worse for wear. Stubbornness dominates our family gene pool. What can I say!
At this point, we were so incredibly ready to be out of PA, but the fun was just starting. The next few days, to put it bluntly, sucked. I hated it. Unfortunately, Rico wasn’t in great spirits either. We were behind all of the people we knew and whose company we enjoyed, seeing only one hiker over the next two days. When the days suck, seeing familiar faces and having human distraction can make all the difference. Not having that uplift was a major downer. To top it off, it rained. A lot. The trail became a swamp that we needed to figure out how to navigate around. Making matters far worse—was that even possible?—with all the rain, the mosquitoes and gnats were horrendous. If anyone knows how to tune out five mosquitoes going to war in each of your ears simultaneously and continuously, please let me know! I felt like I needed an extra set of hands just to swat the bugs away. Hiker-friendly hint: one thing that helped me was taking my orange bandana, used to dab my brow- – and by dab, I mean try to wipe off my sweat drenched face–and putting it over my head, covering my ears. Function and fashion meet again. When the trail isn’t swampy, the notorious rocks of Pennsylvania are out in full force, making you question every step, assuring your head is always down looking for your next safe footstep, all the while trying valiantly to not sprain an ankle. I warned you that I didn’t have anything nice to say about this state!!
We were really incredibly blue as the 4th of July morning came, and with it, more rain–of course. We trudged along forlornly until we saw a sign that said “Hiker Picnic.” Who would set up a picnic for hikers, in the rain, on the 4th of July? An angel, that’s who. A woman named Knitting Bull has been throwing July 4th picnics every year for 8 years. Even though we came upon it at 9:30 in the morning, the hot dogs were ready; there was iced coffee and snacks and tents and chairs– everything we could want, almost. After sitting there for several hours, we decided to move on, only to also decide to go into Palmerton, a town about a mile from the trail, for some food and comfort on the dreary holiday. There was no place to stay in town, but a local bar owner offered to let us set up our tent in their backyard. That, and a 24 hour laundromat to dry out our socks, saved our holiday. The next day, we packed up and headed out with the intention of doing a 25 miler, but about a mile from Wind Gap, 20 miles into our day, we ran into hikers, Zen and Huckleberry Thug, who were going into town to watch the Women’s World Cup. They had been told that the bar also lets you set up camp behind it. Sweet! We were in. As you can tell, this stretch necessitated lots of town comforts and we were glad to indulge whenever necessary. Turns out, the bar had to change their rule because of liquor licensing, but we still enjoyed a good meal and awesome game (Go, USA!!) before heading back to the trail and stealth camping just out of the parking lot. Before we knew it, we were on out last day in PA, just a few miles from Delaware Water Gap, where a free shower at a church-run hostel awaited us. As we crossed into New Jersey, showered, fed, and relieved to put PA behind us, we were incredibly hopeful that, even though the forecast was calling for storms the next few days—because, as has been par for the course, why wouldn’t it– any and all blues are behind us. We are hereby declaring nothing but sunny skies ahead!
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