We pose for pictures at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy HQ. This is a right of passage for thru-hikers on the A.T. You have reached the celebratory halfway point. In fact, we aren't technically halfway yet. Hiking out of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, we view the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers from Jefferson Rock just as Thomas Jefferson had done in 1783. Making our way down into Lower Town, passing John Brown's Fort we cross the footbridge over the Potomac into Maryland.
Two days ago this very footbridge was closed due to flooding. We can see the massive accumulation of debris and trash on the banks of the confluence below. Maryland is unbelievably flat, gloriously pancake-like, in fact. I feel like we've been on a historic walking tour these last few days. It hardly seems like a thru-hike. Even the humidity and heat have been fairly mild.
Gathland State Park, the estate of Civil War correspondent George Townsend a.k.a. Gath is one of several historic sites along the A.T. in Maryland. His land is situated in Crampton's Gap, a site in the Battle of South Mountain. Today Gath's memorial arch stands in commemoration of journalists K.I.A. Five of us: Magic Pants, G.Wheezy, Willow, RamboJuice, & Stretch sit and snack under tulip poplars. I try to imagine the tumultuous past in this now peaceful place. We end our day at Dahlgren Campground. Its tidy, boxed tent sites and picnic tables make us feel like spoiled children.
Vanilla Gorilla Magic
The next morning we're breaking camp, and I'm having coffee fantasies again. I imagine a man delivering a box of Dunkin' Donuts Coffee to our picnic table. Then I realize there really is a man, wait no, an angel with a gorilla on his ball cap, placing a huge box of Dunkin' Donuts Coffee and a cooler of goodies on our picnic table. Meet Vanilla Gorilla on the Trail our favorite Maryland trail angel.
Now that Vanilla Gorilla has helped us start the day off right, we visit our next stop on the historic tour of Maryland, Washington Monument State Park. The story goes that most of the 500 inhabitants of Boonesboro helped erect this memorial to Washington in 1827. Today visitors can climb up its spiral staircase for a view of the surrounding hillsides. We make our way to the Raven Rock Shelter, an unusually clean and well-built two-story shelter with a covered porch. Usually preferring to a tent, we make an exception and all five of us fill up the top deck.
Late into the evening, Willow gets up to use the privy. When she comes back, she has her red headlamp on for some time. She seems to be having trouble with her sleep pad, and I wonder if she has a hole or just can't get comfortable. Also, RamboJuice seems to be moving around a lot. Eventually, I sort of fall asleep. In the morning, we get the story from Willow and RamboJuice. They both visited the privy in the night and afterward felt bugs crawling all over them. Apparently, the seat was covered with tiny ants. Then Willow's mat did go flat. Oh, boy! What a night! We reaffirm our commitment to tenting.
It's the weekend and hopes are high for, you got it, TRAIL MAGIC! We're not disappointed. Soon we see a sign "magic ahead" and "you have mountains to do but before then mountain dew". At Pen-Mar Park, a family has set up a spread with hot dogs, burgers, chips, veggies, brownies, cookies, and sodas. Yippee!! We hang out for a while and then scoot across the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania.
It's oppressively hot and humid. Sweat soaks our clothes as we make our big climb for the day. Tonight, we're going to camp outside the South Mountain Hotel in Fayetteville, PA. This local bar has good food and a bare-bones hiker shower out back. After a great night's sleep on their flat lawn, we hike 5 miles to the next road where we find a cooler of Capri Suns. It's lunchtime, and all the hikers say to go to the Timbers Restaurant. The moment we sit down and order it starts pouring rain. What good timing!
The rain is coming down in sheets. It lets up just long enough for us to book it to the nearby Trail of Hope Hostel. There we take over the sitting room upstairs and enjoy the afternoon visiting and eating. We pull out mattresses and cover the floor like a middle school slumber party. The phone is set up on a camera tripod, we all gather around the tiny screen, and we watch Guardians of the Galaxy as it continues to pour.
Junker, the owner of the hostel, loans us his car to run to the Wal-Mart. Junker has a big heart and a great personality. He has hiked the trail a few times in the past and is very welcoming. He has several awards on the wall for his service with the ATC, including volunteer of the year.
The next morning we begin back down the trail, as usual, the trail is wet and muddy. Right out of the gate, we come to a large puddle of water that covers the entire trail. We decide that there is no reason to delay. Our feet are going to get soaked anyway, so we wade in. Next thing we know, we are up past our knees in water and mud. Oh, well it's just another day on the A.T.
On the trail, you have two choices when it comes to water. You can choose to dance around all the puddles and attempt to keep your feet dry, or you just dive in and plow through the water. It's pretty fun to plow through without a care in the world. The reason we do it is that avoiding all the water will really slow you down, and you still end up having wet feet anyway. This is also why we wear trail running shoes. They dry out fast even after being soaked. Waterproof boots or shoes, once soaked, will take an eternity to dry out.
This afternoon our trail family is splitting up. Magic Pants, Willow, and G.Wheezy are going to meet Magic Pants' parents on the trail to go into town for a zero. It is always hard to keep a tramily together. You all have to make plans together, hike the same distance, wait for each other, hope that nobody gets injured, or has to take several zeros. As easy as it is on the trail to forget, life outside is still going on, and our families miss us and want to visit. As we make our way to the road, we can see Magic's parents' car. We get to meet them and watch as her mom begins to cry at the reunion.
We give everyone hugs and make our way down the path, knowing full well we may never get to hike with our new-found family the rest of the trail but extremely grateful for the time we did. That's life on the trail. Hikers come and go on a daily basis. Sometimes you get to hike with them a lot; sometimes you just see them once. It's great because you always have to chance of coming around a bend or walking into a town and being reunited with your friends, but it can be hard when you have to say goodbye.
Shortly after we part ways, we come to another great milestone on the trail. We officially hit the halfway mark on the trail. There are a trail log and a small monument. We sign the log and move out. This monument means there is also a restaurant with burgers and ice cream in our near future.
We walk into Pine Grove Furnace State Park and make our way to the store. At this store, hikers celebrate the halfway point of their journey by doing the half-gallon challenge. The hiker picks any flavor of ice cream and eats an entire half gallon in one sitting. In reality, you get to pick 2 flavors because it is not sold in a whole half gallon, so they sell you an extra side to make it a half gallon. We passed on the challenge today. I had my heart set on cheeseburgers and fries, and they were great.
Camping in the State Park is a treat. They have showers, and the campsites are sooo flat. In the morning, we enjoy an easy hike to the Green Mountain Cafe, which has good food and minor resupply. We hike until the woods lead to open pastures. The last few miles into Boiling Springs, PA is through fields of wheat. Boiling Springs is a pretty town, but it isn't affordable for hikers. We Uber into nearby Carlisle for a zero and resupply. Carlisle is great and has hotels, Walmart, a movie theater, and many restaurants.
The hike from Boiling Springs is gloriously flat but muddy from the previous day's downpour. Along the way, we meet Mike Burton, or Magic Mike, as we like to call him. Mike informs us that he has a red pickup ahead with a cooler in the back full of goodies. The day is hot, and when we get to the cooler, nothing sounds better than a cold soda. We set up camp at Cove Mountain Shelter and eat dinner with the Bee Ladies, section hikers from Florida.
The next morning, we make a beeline into Duncannon, stopping at Goodie's for breakfast. We notice Magic Mike eating in the booth next to us, and we buy him breakfast. Leaving town, we spot some peregrine falcons over the bridge. After climbing up and along the ridge all afternoon, we come to a footbridge and parking lot. And who should we find here but our trail angel Magic Mike with his fabulous cooler full of goodness?
Powered by Mike's Snickers and sodas, we hike on and on to find a campsite on the ridgeline. Here we meet Nancy Drew and Mr. Snickers from Jackson, MI. They hiked most of the trail last year and are here finishing up their last 400 miles. In the a.m., we hike a few miles to the road where we find more trail magic by former thru-hiker G.Q. We eat cream cheese fruit pies. Wow! Does the magic ever end in PA?
Port Clinton & Hamburg
We hike farther on what seems to be a very flat and well-groomed trail. As we stop for a snack, we meet PJ a ridge runner from the ATC. We hike for a couple of hours chatting with him. PJ was great to talk with, we got a little bit of insight into what it takes to patrol the trail. We ask PJ about other parts of the trail, as he had thru-hiked the trail a couple of years ago. We say goodbye as we split directions on the trail.
Later that evening as we hike up to our campsite, we meet Savage Beast and Hopalong. We had not seen Savage since Harpers Ferry. As we set up our camp and eat, we catch up on all things since we had last seen each other. The next day, we all hike together and make camp close to Black Swatara tent site. There are tons of mosquitoes.
We are trying to race to town the next morning because we are planning on taking a nero in Port Clinton. The weather is oppressive...stupid hot and crazy humid. We have only hiked 13 miles, but it feels like 25. The final descent is a super steep climb down to the city. Our knees are screaming as we climb down. As we reach the street, a local, Eddie, walks up and gives us his number in case we need a ride while we are in town. This sets the tone for this town.
We drop by the post office to pick up our mail drop as the Cabela's van pulls in. Need a ride to Hamburg? Why, yes. Yes, we do. Welcome to the largest Cabela's in the world. The people here have been great to us hikers, driving us around and letting us charge our devices in their store. We run in and buy some supplies before checking into a hotel to get cleaned up.
In the morning, Cabela's gives us a ride to Walmart for resupply. While we're waiting in line at the Subway, a section-hiker named Pappy G offers to give us a ride back to Port Clinton. We head over to the city-sponsored shelter to visit with our pals Tiny Bytes and Baygull before heading back out into the woods. The day is hot as we climb out of Port Clinton. The famous rocks of PA are starting to increase in number. Rocksylvania is upon us. We camp at the Eckville Shelter on the immaculate lawn.
The trail is a mixture of flat terrain covered in rocks and great piles of large rocks that you clamber up. We have to be careful with our water here, as it is harder to find. We work hard all day, and our feet are beyond sore. The campsite this evening is lovely with ferns surrounding us. It rains all night. The next morning we climb up a huge pile of boulders. Far below we see factories and homes. We hike late into the day with Savage.
Suddenly, the woods break and I see chairs ahead. Trail magic!! A group of former thru-hikers: Rockhopper, Grand Daddy Longlegs, and Just Greg are doing dogs, snacks, and sodas. It is awesome! They have comfy chairs for us. This was a stretch we remembered being tough and had wished for some magic here they explained, so we decided to come and do magic for a few days. The food powers us along for a while, and we stop to camp as the sun is setting on the ridge.
Bloodsuckers of New Jersey
We're up early to rush into Delaware Water Gap for a mail drop and shower. The weather is good, and we walk over rocks with Savage until we feel like our feet will fall off. When we get to town, the church hostel is full, so we get a ride to a hotel close by in the Poconos. It is pricey. The next day, we don't feel like sticking around, so we hit the trail by noon and cross into New Jersey.
Almost immediately upon entering the woods, the mosquitoes and flies are relentless. We apply the Deet and wear our bug nets. Once we've done the climb out of town, the forest opens up at times, and we are afforded some nice views. New Jersey is pretty, and we find a beautiful campsite in the forest. We set up our tent, and for the first time on the A.T. camp alone.
- Be cautious with your water in PA & NJ. Water is more scarce than in other areas. The climate is hot and humid, and you must stay hydrated.
- Drink a liter of water at the source and then pack out the amount that makes you comfortable.
- Deet & bug nets.
- Check yourself daily for ticks.
In the Spring of 2018, we set out to thru-hike the A.T. To hear our full story, click here.
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