Contrary to popular belief, Pennsylvania (PA) is not all bad. There’s much to be celebrated in this state, and much to be missed.
To start, PA gave me a warm welcome as a Hiker and swiftly supported me and my hiking brethren in all the challenging times. Here, I learned that being a “Trail Angel” is not a title just assigned to an anonymous stranger performing random acts of kindness, but also to those who take supporting Hikers very seriously. For example, Mike the Trail Angel can consistently be found stationed outside the Half-Gallon Challenge, in Pine Grove Furnace, with his laptop open so that hikers may check their emails and such, as needed. Another example comes from the many community members who run shuttle services. If you need to get something, or somewhere, these lovely people will happily give you contact information to anybody they know who will be able to help you in the event that they can’t. Last, but certainly not conclusively, is hostel owners and AT volunteers. From people letting you crash on their couch to garages made into bunk houses, it’s clear that people here really want to support every hiker they can.
My most heartwarming community experience came on an exceptionally challenging day. On Friday, May 6, Smugness and I woke up to a sopping wet tent, rain, and wind. Unfortunately, we had kicked a pack in the night which caused the tub floor of the tent to jut out past our tarp, acting as a water collection point. Consequently, all of our things were wet. We were cold and slightly alarmed at the state of things, given that the rain wasn’t due to let up for another day or so. Despite the circumstances, we packed up our things and hiked the 15 miles to 501 Shelter. It was a godsend.
Unbeknownst to us, this shelter was a rare fully enclosed shelter! Four walls, a door, six bunks, and a large table. On the table sat a menu… That’s right, a menu. As it turns out, 501 shelter is close enough to the highway and a town that pizza can be delivered to the shelter. The trail really does provide, but wait, it gets better. After waking up the next morning to find the weather continuing to be absolutely miserable, with no signs of letting up, we took a zero in hopes that our clothes would dry. Before we knew it, a trail angel had pulled up with fresh greens, hot soup, dry clothes, and the means to make a fire so we could dry our things. They even offered to take us back to their house for laundry and a hot shower. I never got their name, but thank you, Trail Angel!
As expected, hikers look after each other. Whether it’s lending people a sewing kit, or sharing extra food, fellow hikers almost always have your back. One particularly pivotal part of this experience has been participating in the social media on Farout. So often, Smugness and I have changed our plans due to intel a hiker has posted on a shelter or water source. Although each hiker may not be there to physically guide you and share their wisdom, Farout allows them to be there by proxy.
People are great, but let’s get down to brass tax: the trail itself. Honestly, PA gets a bad reputation for being painful and rocky. On the contrary, PA has a relatively flat elevation profile, and the rocks are not as prevalent as people might have you believe. When it comes to the mountains, your big ascents and descents are happening every time you climb down the mountain into a town or “gap” and then back to the top for more ridge running. The elevation changes are steep and grueling, but thankfully few and far between. As for the rocks, they really don’t happen consistently until after the 501 Shelter (heading NOBO). Moreover, the most challenging section happens right after Palmerton in the boulder scramble to summit Blue Mountain. Even then, there’s a blue blaze you can take to bypass the scramble if you aren’t feeling confident. Overall, PA is mostly flat and not as rock-filled as most would have you believe.
Pennsylvania, I’m sorry, but you’re kinda boring… Your lookouts all look the same, and your trails all look the same (mostly because I have to spend most of my time looking at my feet). Smugness joked that PA is the Derek Zoolander of the US… Le Tigre, Blue Steel, Magnum… They’re all the same!
This complaint is minor, but as compared to Maryland shelters, and those in PA close to Maryland, the later shelters in PA feel slightly neglected. Many don’t have outhouses… If there is an outhouse, it’s likely full—as a side note, this is particularly frustrating given that digging a proper cathole in PA is nearly impossible as the majority of the ground is rocks 2 inches down. I swear you would have more luck digging for gold than a 6-inch cat hole… I digress. Additionally, many of the shelters had budding wasp nests or had various amounts of holes and such. I know, shelters are bougie extras, but I’m just saying, I’ve seen better.
Yes, it’s time to talk about the rocks. First, let’s talk about the small ones: the sharps and the babyheads. The sharps, although solid underfoot, significantly shorten the life expectancy of your shoe. I bought my shoes in Duncannon and they are chewed up within days of needing replacement. Now, the babyheads; if the rocks underfoot aren’t jagged and solid, they are the size and shape of a baby’s head, rolling about atop other similar rocks. Both of these present a possible ankle-busting hazard. Second, the big rocks. The big rocks in some ways are a respite from the ankle-breaking small rocks, with a few exceptions. Exception the first, stepping down from one big rock to the next, really takes a toll on your knees. Exception the second, these rocks will often sway or wobble even if it seems like it would be impossible. Exception the third, the Knife’s Edge. This is a feature, close to Palmerton, that includes large jagged sections of exposed rock for you to navigate, or alternatively fall to a perilous death. Luckily, it seems most people take it seriously and exit unscathed. Overall, the rocks do suck when they happen.
Although 98% of people surrounding the Appalachian Trail are amazing, there are always a few that are out to ruin it for others. We had the displeasure of meeting another hiker who boasted of being a purist and shamed smugness and myself for being Flip-Floppers. Like anywhere in life, not everyone is going to be awesome all of the time. The only other ugly experience came from the town of Port Clinton. The town has a small gazebo that welcomes hikers to stay in for a small fee overnight. The residents living just beside the gazebo have a large sign titled “Hikers Not Welcome.” Farout also explains that people have been known to drive their cars up and down the street, while honking their horns, by the gazebo all night to dissuade hikers from staying.
Pennsylvania is not the crazy state that people make it out to be. Its relatively flat, with some rocky chunks, but it holds beautiful people and beautiful nature.
PA, you’re not without your challenges, but you’re not so bad… Though my shoes will be glad to say goodbye to you.
Bonus goat facts:
no matter how much you rock hop, you’ll never feel like you got any better.
Trust them goat feet!
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