Overtaken by the Spring: Week 2 in Pennsylvania
Day One: Earth, Wind, and No Fires
We took an easy day out of our first town stop in Boiling springs, 6 miles to the Darlington Shelter, arriving just as the snow flurries began. Yes, snow. Spring is fickle, right? Darlington Shelter is 3-sided like most shelters, but had a partial loft, so I claimed that in hopes of catching some rising heat. The temperature was hovering around 37, with winds at 25-30 MPH, so even if the signs all over the area hadn’t announced that fires were prohibited until late May, the wind precluded the kind of toasty bonfire we really wanted. But at least the shelter was oriented against the prevailing wind. Sort of. John and Gail had hung their hammocks in the shelter, as much for protection from falling trees as anything, and I could see John’s hammock swinging back and forth. We had a couple of companions, Dylan (and his dog Quinn, who could have powered a generator with her energy if we had only had one), and a fellow who shall remain nameless. Well, not entirely nameless: based on the nocturnal slapping and squealing emanating from his bunk at midnight, we’ve taken to referring to him as Peewee Herman. Really, dude? In a shelter with other people? Do you do that when you take the boy scouts out? Because I bet they know what you’re doing, too.
Day Two: According to Doyle
We had great plans for Saturday, our first fifteen-mile day, through the town of Duncannon and up a hill to the Clark’s Ferry Shelter. That was before we met the rock steps going down into Duncannon.
Here’s how you know you’re getting old: you look forward to uphills and dread downhills. And let me tell you this about the Duncannon steps: after you drop 800 feet or so, and are in sight of the parking lot for the trail, the AT gets routed up again for about 300 feet, then comes down to a spot half a mile away from the parking lot, and hikes along a bridge to reach it. Non-purists, take my advice: when you see that parking lot, go for it….
We’d been planning on grabbing a burger in the iconic Doyle Hotel, but the faint sewing-machine treadle tremor I was feeling in my legs led us to inquire about rooms. We had heard that the Doyle was representative of Duncannon as a whole, and that Duncannon as a whole had little going for it. It’s not like we’re nothing-but-the-Hilton types, and we’ve all travelled through some rugged parts of the world, so we decided we would ask to see the rooms before booking, but would apply Third World standards. And really, I have stayed in worse places in Nepal. The Doyle has flush toilets, down the hall from the rooms. That’s something (although we didn’t check to see if they worked). But in Nepal I had no choices, and here we did, so we thanked the owners, got a burger, and called Trail Angel Mary for a ride to the “upscale” choice in town, The Stardust.
The Doyle Hotel: Nothing that $2 million dollars couldn’t fix.
In my experience, places called The Stardust are at least a couple of notches better than places called The Thunderbird, and this seemed to be no exception. True. the 18-inch box TV only got one channel, “Live Police TV,” which was currently featuring a slow and boring exchange between two Phoenix cops and residents of a two-story complex that was probably a Thunderbird Motel. But the bathroom was spotless, the fly swatter was conveniently hung from the coat roack, and I slept soundly until it was time to meet Mary for the return trip to the Trail. So Mary, as I said, is a Trail Angel, someone who has taken it upon herself to help out hikers: shuttles to hotel, doctors, grocery stores, advice in the case of emergencies, just about anything, and usually without pay (although that may vary). Generally they’re hikers themselves. Mary is not a hiker. When I asked, she told me that she had found herself “unexpectedly and unpreparedly homeless” a few years back, and so had taken up residence in the Riverfront Campground, where a lot of hikers pass by. She’d never heard of the AT, but it captured her imagination, and at some point she determined that when she got back on her feet, she’d devote herself to helping hikers as a way to thank God for helping her. When she’d dropped us at the hotel, John had given her a folded twenty, which she pocketed with the swift skill of a New York City parking valet. But she’s the kind of person you just want to slip a twenty to.
Day Three: Things That Go Bump in the Night
We figured we’d make up miles today, but the trail beat us again, first with a 1000 foot climb, then with a rock maze, which came just a couple of minutes after we congratulated ourselves on the climb, and turned to admire the view of the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers meeting at Duncannon.
At about the 9 mile mark, we started running into people with day packs, and some with only a water bottle, which told us we were nearing some kind of attraction. Finally a guy with a lot of body art asked us if we knew where he’d find “Shock Rock,” which, as he explained, was a big rock covered with colorful, vulgar artwork (although we overheard a couple of passing teenagers saying it wasn’t especially well-done, and a couple of women were objecting to the, umm, “arrows” that were chalked onto the rocks that led the way to the site. So for anyone who has ever thought that pictographs and petroglyphs are just ancient graffiti, it seems to have a point: here in Pennsylvania, rock art has a whole different meaning but, it seems, the same sort of appeal.
We got to Peter’s Mountain Shelter at mile 12, a good 5 miles short of our goal, but my knee was tightening up, and I had that feeling you get when you know that even if you could go further, you shouldn’t. We were joined by Trail Dog, who we’ve run into a few times, and settled in for what should have been a quiet night. What I learned today? When you come to a shelter with a bunch of small rocks piled in an inside corner, at some point during the night, there will be something you want to lob rocks at. One good thing about a lifetime of backpacking and sleeping on the ground is that you get pretty good at doing noise=size calculations in your head, without even waking up. I remember one night in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, walking up because there was something really really big outside my tent. When I finally burst out of my tent to confront it, arms waving and headlamp blazing, it turned out to be a small, and quite terrified, cottontail rabbit. But this night, the rustling in the leaves said “raccoon” or “porcupine,” not even worth picking up a rock for. They puttered around the outside of the shelter for awhile to see if we’d dropped anything (John says one growled near him, probably in disgust due to our clean camp), and then sidled off down the hill.
Day Four: Bombs Away!
We got an early start out of Peter’s Mountain, down to the road. We took a little break at one of the plentiful springs that spurted out of the mountain to fill our water bottles. I have a filter with me, but have used it haphazardly. Of course, I have done this all my life and probably have a suite of intestinal flora and fauna that protect me, so I’m not advising everyone take this approach,
We crossed a couple more streams where I lingered behind, watching the shadows under the water and wondering if I should send for my fly rod, and then started up an old road bed, which was steep, but a good grade.
But as we climbed, we could see and smell smoke, and the sound of dual-rotor helicopters. In the distance, I could hear small planes, and it started to seem like we might be getting a little too close to an active fire. The noises got more intense as we climbed, and at one point I could hear a thudding sound, which I convinced myself was the opening of the fire-fighting bucket that carries chemical retardents. But as we got further uphill, the thudding sound turned into a blasting sound, and the airplane noise intensified. John thought it was some bizarre aerial quarrying operation; I started wondering if perhaps Syria was retaliating for the US strike on its airfields by bombing the bejesus out of Lickdale, PA. But finally we came across a couple of day hikers who told us there was a military base nearby, and that the sound of bombing and machine guns wasn’t that unusual. So except for a fleeting concern about some young pilot with a poor aim (these things have to be under some sort of remote control, right?), I relaxed into the environment, enjoying the hemlock-rhododendron forest community until we arrived at Rausch Gap Shelter around 6:30.
Day Five: Rolling Rock is Not Just A Breakfast Drink
We’d made up the miles on Day Four with our 18-mile hike, so we set out on a rolling up-and-down course for the last leg of this week’s hike, to William Penn Shelter. Spring is definitely catching up with us in the low-lying areas. The trees are leafing out, and I came on some Sanguinaria (bloodroot) on the hillside north of I-81.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing. My knee was bothering me a lot, and I wasn’t getting much help from any of the remedies I’d tried: a horse bandage, duct tape, an Ace bandage I’d picked up from a through-hiker at the shelter. And then, as I was moseying along minding my own business, the trail suddenly took a turn and deposited me at the top of a field of rolling boulders.
I accepted it as the beginning of “the rocks” and made my way dutifully through it, then found myself redeposited on the exact same meandering path I had been ambling along before. This white-blazed detour was no more than the work of an especially sadistic trail planner, who was the object of considerable vitriol on my part. If you can’t curse out loud in the woods, where can you curse?
An hour or so later, I came across John and Gail sitting on a log a few hundred yards from William Penn shelter, where an area around the privy was marked with “keep away: contaminated by human waste” warnings. This was enough incentive for them to propose that we add another couple of miles to the day, get to the road we were planning to hit on Day 6, and check into a motel a day early. Amazing how your belief that you will collapse in a few more seconds can morph right into a second wind when the promise of a shower and a beer gets dangled in front of you….. and so here we are, in lovely Pine Springs, PA, taking a true zero.
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Thanks for bringing us along, this is excellent!