Sunday, November 25, 2012

Journal: 234 Miles: Stage Two: Hike Like a Madman

If you missed Stage One, read it here.

Stage Two: Hike Like a Madman

It's late in the day at the Allenberry. Elvis and I have eaten dinner and now we're each on the phone. Several days ago I made phone calls and let folks know that I have decided to complete my thru hike in Harpers Ferry. Sweet is going to meet me in Harpers on Wednesday and we'll celebrate.

But I have an itch. A two part itch. First, with my cell phone out of commission and without regular internet access, I can't meet up with my mid Atlantic friends. Second, my friendship with Sweet is such an integral part of my hike and of my life that I want her to be there when I stop. She's agreed, but it sounds like there may be scheduling complications. 

I look at the mileage. Ninety-seven point nine miles to reach Harpers. And that doesn't include the mile I have to walk to get back to the trail. If I break all my hiking records I can make it in three days for a Saturday arrival. I call up Sweet. She can make it; the timing works better. I call my parents and let them know I have gone insane.
These days have given me a long sought opportunity. For a while I wanted to see how far I could hike now that I am at the peak of my fitness. Illness, ridiculous fog, slippery conditions, and the lack of a goal have all kept me from saying go. But now I am fully recovered, have mostly dry trails, and a great goal. Let's see what legs that have carried a backpack for 2086 trail miles can do!

Thursday morning, I get up at six to walk to town and resupply. Did I mention I still have to resupply? The gas station in town is fairly comprehensive and I get almost every quick food item I want. I even buy Snickers this time, something I have avoided for a while. I don't want to cook much for these three days. The only missing item is bread. I pop over to the cafe and ask the lady if they have any bread for sale. They don't, but they're willing to check their supply to see if they have any extra. They do, and I also score four scones for breakfast. There is no more dilly dally, it's past 7 AM and I have miles to hike.

When I first come up to the rock maze midmorning I am a bit nonplussed. I thought the hard parts were over! Already this morning I have seen great views from pastures and passed the original center point of the AT at the aptly named Center Point Knob. I have also helped set straight a pair of surveyors who were out on the AT trying to find a side trail. They were looking in the wrong direction because they didn't realize that white blazes marked the AT. But the rock maze, oh that rock maze was a little bit frustrating because I couldn't follow the trail. I would follow the blazes, the blazes would disappear and I would follow the path until it petered out. Then I would backtrack, climb up and over the biggest rocks I could find - standard procedure for finding the AT - and there it would be. It was frustrating nonetheless.

I take the luxury of a long lunch at James Fry Shelter to rest and check in with Sweet. It's been twelve miles by noon and I am roughly on schedule. My provisional goal for the day is Toms Run Shelter for a twenty-three mile day. The next day would be forty plus and the final day twenty. By the time I reach the AT Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park the light has started to fail. I prepared for this; knowing that I would be hiking for hours at night I purchased two sets of AAA batteries for my headlamp. But I still delay turning my headlamp on for as long as I can. Still in the dark, I reach the marker for the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail.  But there's a problem: Toms Run Shelter is north of the AT midpoint and I just passed the AT midpoint. Since I missed the shelter I make up my mind that I will hike on. If I can knock off thirty or more miles tonight then the next two days will be easier. I can even arrive at Harpers Ferry earlier on Saturday.

Appalachian Trail Midpoint Marker.
Passing Toms Run Shelter five minutes later . . . wait a minute! That was the shelter I missed! It turns out that the midpoint marker is located at 2011's midpoint, not 2012's, and in the dark I missed that detail. Nevertheless, my mind is made up. I chat with the SOBOs and eat a quick dinner at Toms Run before pressing forwards. It's only six miles to the next shelter.

Headlamp dark starts before 6 PM nowadays and the long periods of headlamp use change the nature of the hike. Hiking for this long in the dark is almost surreal. The temperature is cold enough that I am not sweating and I am therefore carrying very little water. My food bag is light. My feet are quick and responsive. The headlamp lights my path well. At deserted road crossings I turn my gaze skyward to see all the stars. It's beautiful. My legs are in the zone where there is no effort and no pain. Time passes differently. The legs simply turn over again and again because that's what I want them to do and that's what they are accustomed to doing from fourteen almost continuous hours of movement.

I reach Birch Run Shelter after 8 PM, tallying twenty-nine miles hiked for the day. I have now tied my record for longest hiking day. As I pull up, I see that there is a pack hanging in the doorway. Silly is here! I finally caught him. I chat with him for a bit and tell him what I'm doing. He thinks I'm nuts to go for three huge days in a row. We catch up on the doings of the last few days while I cook. I'm happy that I still have a macaroni and cheese dinner as I take a break to cook it on the remains of Silly's fire. My gas canister decides its a good time to figure out it's empty so I am forced to use the fire. I waste a bit of time bringing the fire back to life; I give the rest of my cookable food to Silly. I don't want to carry the dead weight. I can't stomach much of my delicious dinner and that's a bad thing because I have decided to hike farther. The new goal is Quarry Gap Shelters seven miles farther.

It is a virtually flat trail and very easy hiking. As I become more and more tired in the deepening night I start feeling punch-drunk. Seeing red flickering light ahead I wonder who has a fire going this late at night. There are an awful lot of fires visible for a campsite at 10 PM. I cross a road and the picture clicks into place - the light is from the windows of a house right next to the trail and they aren't reddish at all. I think it is the Milesburn Cabin but in the dark I can't be sure. A figure watches me from the doorway as I hike past. I wonder what he thinks of me as I wander on into the woods late at night.

I don't have to wonder what the hiker at Quarry Gap Shelters thinks of me as I waltz in at half past midnight. "Bear, bear!" he groans. Whoops. I tried to not wake him but it sounds like I failed. I walk thirty feet to the second shelter which is thankfully empty. Dropping my pad and sleeping bag, I drop myself inside. After thirty-six and a half miles, I drop off to sleep immediately.

Quarry Gap Shelters

My alarm goes off at 6:30. Here it is! The big day. I want to get as close as I can to Harpers because I am a little worried about reaching my destination on time. Yesterday showed me how difficult it is to stay awake to cover long distances. I know that today will be the keystone day and that I am unlikely to see any SOBOs. It's a solo day, just me and my thoughts.

I make good time starting out, helped along because I find potable water. The big milestone for today is the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. I reach that in the early afternoon and take a break at Pen Mar County Park. Sadly, the concessions are closed and the vending machines off. There won't be any sugar boost here. I eat some chia seeds, bread, and cheddar and hike on. Partway up a 600 foot climb I stop for a break; I am feeling a little tired. I call up Sweet to check on our arrangements. She's a go and I'm a go. I make a rash promise to arrive between 3 and 4 PM Saturday. She worries that I won't be getting any sleep and I secretly agree but will do it anyhow. I calculate that I will get four hours of sleep.
Only forty-one miles to go!

Pen Mar Park
Feeling renewed by our chat, I hike on. I skip Raven Rock shelter because it is off the trail. The trail down to the next gap is fairly rocky and slows me down a bit especially since night has begun to fall again. The area starts to look familiar which is a shock. I thought I would not cover familiar territory for a few more hours. Digging deep into my memory I recall an aborted hike two years ago. That forgotten hike was the first time I ever saw an AT shelter. Suddenly I am excited to reach the next shelter to revisit that beginning.

Ensign Cowall Shelter does not disappoint. This is a Friday night and the shelter is hopping. Day hikers, section hikers, boy scouts, and rangers, this shelter has it all. I sup here with the section hikers and am the gracious recipient of filtered water. Yet again I dodge the time loss from water treatment. Before I leave, the folks at the shelter tell me I am crazy to night hike over the rock jumble coming up but also assure me that another thru hiker has made a similar beeline for Harpers Ferry today. 

Buoyed by a meal I hike on. Night has fallen completely. I'm slow on the climb out of the gap, careful to not overexert and wear myself out.  I have covered over thirty miles already and am therefore a bit wary of the rock jumble that I was warned about.

 My legs are in good shape; as long as it's a motion my legs are used to, they move endlessly and effortlessly. But a new motion or extra exertion to climb really tires them out. The only difficulty I have is occasional pain in my left achilles caused by tightness in my left calf. Every once in a while I stop to massage the calf to prevent cramping. I reach the rock jumble and move at a deliberate yet quick pace through it. I'm still moving well.

The ridge is fairly narrow and I can see most of the way across it for a long time. Off of one side are city lights - I think those of Frederick - and off the other side it is very dark. I see eyes reflecting in the dark. Deer watch my progress. One doe doesn't even stand up from her prone position, relying on camouflage but her eyes give her away. The bear is not so calm. He hears me walking rather belatedly and runs away once I am already heading away from him. It's the first bear I have ever seen at night.

I pass through Pogo camp site through dark and silent tents. I feel like an interloper here. For what reason am I sweeping through like a ghost? A good one. I hike on. I am now on familiar territory, having once hiked this section and I am making good time. Annapolis Rocks flies by; I'm on the trail to Pine Knob Shelter. I think I want to press on to Rocky Run Shelter, it's only seven and a half more miles and it is only midnight. But first I take a break and assess my body. My legs are fine despite a slight increase in the need for calf massages. I am not punch drunk as I was last night. But I don't feel all that spry. My nostrils are raw and various little muscles in my body are worn out. It feels like my body has stopped repairing everything except my legs. After eating my body still feels the same. Because I still have twenty-three miles to hike I make the call to get some rest. The final tally for the day is thirty-eight and a half miles.

I walk towards the shelter to find a place to crash. This shelter is close to the road and very easy to access. All the tent sites are full. The shelter is full. I pull out my pad and sleeping bag and collapse on the side of the trail. At 2 AM and 4 AM I am woken by hikers heading to the shelter. I can't fathom why they are out on the trails at that time, but I refuse to turn my brain on to figure out why and instead go back to sleep. I am up before sunrise and am on the trail before 7 AM. I feel recovered and pretty spry, which is good because I have to cover twenty-three miles in nine hours. 

Bridge over Interstate 70 lit by sunrise.
This morning I focus on speed. Long hikes will no longer avail me because I have a deadline and it's today at 4 PM. I set my pace and then relax into it. The trail is easy and pretty. I pass the original Washington Monument and fill up water from the spigot. As arranged, I call Sweet to let her know I am still on schedule. 

I pass the trailside restaurant - it's not open yet. I pass the boy scout groups who spent the night at Dahlgren Backpack Campground. This area is steeped in Civil War history so I take the time to read the signs. I am saddened by the willingness of humans to kill each other but I have a life to live so I do not linger.

I skip Rocky Run Shelter because it's off the trail and I don't need water. However, I was not expecting the shelter so soon. I might be ahead of schedule. I stop at White Rock cliff with the family up for the weekend and say hello to the husband and wife team hunters. I am getting close to Gathland State Park; I have been here before on a hammock hang and am very excited to be able to get a soda from the vending machine and fill up my water. I descend into the field, walk across to the restrooms and vending machines, take out my wallet, and find out that all I have are five dollar bills. Calamity! Calamity is averted when I find someone who is able to change my five for ones. I buy two celebratory sodas.
War Correspondants Memorial at Gathland State Park

Drinking one soda, I check the time and mileage. It's noon and I have only ten miles to hike. The rest of the path is super easy; it is very close to actually being 'all downhill from here.' I can afford to take it a bit easier so I chat with the day hikers and eat a small meal. I can't finish one soda much less start the second so I pack it out. I bring it to Ed Garvey Shelter where I write my last register entry. I leave the soda as trail magic for SOBOs behind me.

Ed Garvey Shelter has two stories with a separate entrance for the upper.

I am asked how I feel to be finishing my thru hike today. For the first time, I really think about it. I am content. I would be happy hiking south. I am happy where I am. The completion of a trip that is two thousand miles long and involves such a transformation of body and spirit cannot be a bad thing. Life is good and I am living it whether I am on the trail or off the trail. The trail taught me that.

As I make my final descent I start running for the sheer joy of running. This is life. Tonight I will celebrate with someone who is important to my hike and important to me. Tomorrow is tomorrow.

Weaverton Cliffs. The last cliff before Harpers Ferry.
Completion photograph with Sweet the day after completing the trail.


  1. I find it interesting that a nondescript bit of trail can be that familiar from so long ago after thousands of miles of trail. (Says the non-hiker).

    1. A small trigger such as a photograph or elevation profile really brings just about any day on the trail to mind. Although with the small things each person tends to remember one part and forget another. For instance, I forgot brushing teeth on the side of a cliff and hanging a troublesome bear bag on the side of another cliff. But I remember each vividly when my friends give me a small clue.

    2. And now I see that the formatting somehow was destroyed on the blog. And one paragraph is out of place. I'm fixing it now. My apologies.