Go Wild! Meet Pennsylvania’s Mid State Trail
I never met Dr. Tom Thwaites, but I have few doubts that we would have gotten along.
If you ask most hikers, Pennsylvania is the backup plan for the backup plan. You could go to Colorado or Utah and get big mountains and yawning blue sky.
If you wanted to stay on the east coast, you could get a worthy adventure fix in New Hampshire or Maine or Vermont. But Pennsylvania? Yeah. Okay.
Tom Thwaites thought so, too. That was before he moved to State College to start his new job as a Physics professor and discovered its best-kept secret: the mountains, hills, and valleys of the quiet Pennsylvania woods.
Thwaites spent the rest of his life leading hikes with Penn State students and introducing as many people as possible to the spiritual wonders of a long walk in the woods.
Hi, my name’s Yard Sale
Like Dr. Thwaites, I could have been more excited about coming to Penn State. I’m as lame as 21-year-olds come. I’m not a drinker, a partier, or a late-nighter.
But I am a hiker.
After spending my freshman year learning that college is made for extroverts and cool people (and that I’m not one of them), I’d had enough. From May of 2019 to August of 2020, I took a gap year.
For most of the year, I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club. Over the summer, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I gained some basic human competency. I got a shiny new self esteem. It wasn’t college. It was awesome.
And now I’m back in school, which feels a little less awesome. But because I lived in a coming-of-age novel for a year, I know and take care of myself better.
I know that I like early mornings, long mountain runs, and baking bread. I know that I like writing and playing any number of stringed instruments.
I know that I want a small gear company when I learn how to use that sewing machine collecting dust in the spare room.
I know that I’d like to walk from Delaware to California on the American Discovery Trail. I know that you probably don’t care that much.
So let’s get back to the Mid State Trail.
Meet the Mid State Trail
This past September found me scanning the old Mid State Trail guidebook that my dad gave me. I’d been flipping through it for several years and thinking about hiking it one day.
The Mid State Trail uses the metric system as “a patriotic measure designed to help end our cultural isolation and ease our chronic balance of payments problems,” according to the 11th Edition Guide To Pennsylvania Mid State Trail.
That means that the trail signs are in kilometers, as well as all measured distances in the guidebooks and on the maps.
Beyond being a squiggly line down the center of the state, the MST also plays host to the Great Eastern Trail, which stretches from Alabama to New York.
It uses cheerful orange blazes painted by cheerful, hard-working volunteers, which, unlike the white-blazed AT, makes it easy to find in the snow. That’s great, because unless you bring a hiking partner, you’ll be learning to enjoy your solitude.
The unofficial motto of the MST is that a hiker will see “more bears than people.” I haven’t seen any bears along the MST yet, but I haven’t seen many people, either.
And yeah, before you ask, it’s rocky as hell. Central Pennsylvania hiking is marked by powerline views and boulder field crossings. If you ever see anyone running these trails, give them a smile and a thumbs up.
And maybe an ankle wrap, if you’re carrying one.
Getting back on the horse
I decided that “one day” would be this summer. If you’ve ever flirted with post-trail depression, you’ll know why I’m drawn to a local long trail.
I’m lucky that I have a local long trail. The MST is my backyard and my sandbox. I play there almost every weekend.
I can take the bus there and go backpacking, and I bring my textbooks and my pepper spray and a big sigh of relief, which tastes a lot like cool mountain air. Maybe you can relate.
I hiked the AT to heal from trauma, and I can say that it fulfilled that function and more. And now? Why am I meandering from Maryland to New York?
School has a way of labeling your existence as “student” before anything else.
When I was thru-hiking, I could drop that label and be a human being with passions and opinions and worth that was measured in more than a GPA. I think I’m searching for that feeling again.
Or maybe this is just my way of extending a big thank you to Dr. Thomas Thwaites and the Mid State Trail Association.
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