Four State Challenge

Pink sky at night, hikers delight.

Coming off the excitement of reaching the AT halfway point, my confidence level was high as I approached Pen-Mar Park on a Tuesday evening. The setting sun was shining warm orange and pink light across vibrantly emerald blades of grass. I thrust my pack down onto a bench, rummaged for my stove and began heating water for dinner. My mind drifted toward the epic day to come. Many hikers who reach this point have built up the stamina to hike long days and, given the proximity of multiple statelines, the Four State Challenge was born.

Plastic bag gourmet

To complete this challenge, willing participants start hiking in one state and end their day three states away in less than 24 hours. Close to 44 miles separate the Pennsylvania and Virginia borders with Maryland and West Virginia sandwiched in between.

Leafless trees allowed the full moon’s light to illuminate my tent the entire night making sleep a chore. Restless, I got up around four a.m. and began my morning stretches. I made my breakfast in the gazebo at Pen-Mar Park before walking back to the Mason-Dixon line to start my four-state attempt a little after five on Wednesday morning. A long day ahead of me, I clicked on my stopwatch, and then set off by way of my headlamp with the intention of not stopping until I reached Virginia.

Doesn’t this look inviting?

In the dark, quiet calmness of the early morning, my thunderous momentum startled many groups of bedding deer that lay in clusters a few yards away from the trail. Each time an eruption of crunching leaves and snapping twigs grabbed my attention, I would stop and survey the woods around me. Occasionally the noise would cease and, with my headlamp on its brightest setting, the deer’s reflective glowing green eyes would appear floating formlessly among the trees. Wanting to avoid becoming a “deer caught in headlights” myself, I put on some music and kept my eyes locked on the uneven trail in front of me.

Herd path

After two hours and six miles of rock hopping, the daylight was bright enough to shut off my headlamp so, right on schedule, I stopped for a second breakfast and water break by a flowing stream. With a Clif bar, meat stick, and peanut butter happily in my belly, I set a timer for another two hours and started up again. I knew that if I paced myself with water, food and short rest breaks, each chunk would feel more manageable and let me focus on little wins throughout the day.

A welcome sight

Meandering through some fields and void of any high peaks, the Maryland section of the trail was relatively easy hiking. The Mid-Atlantic states feel like the valley of the Appalachian Trail, nestled between Mt. Katahdin and the Whites up north and the Shenandoahs and Great Smokies to the south.

At around one o’clock, I stopped at the Washington Monument State Park to eat lunch and take a brief rest. Twenty-two miles completed and a similar amount remaining, I sat at a picnic table in the warm sun studying the map and planning out my next water stops when a golf-cart-driving man, who could have been Santa Claus’ brother, pulled up and said, “Hello”. Krispy Kreme, a former long distance hiker, introduced himself and explained that he is the caretaker of the area and was just checking in to see if I needed anything.

The best fuel available

As I added mustard to my second spam and tortilla sandwich, another gentleman walked up and sat at the picnic table with Krispy Kreme and me. His trail name was Otter and, sensing from the conversation that I was a thru-hiker, he inquired about the trail conditions heading north and I offered up a few interesting places for him to stop at along his section hike.

Lost in conversation with the two visitors, an hour quickly passed, so I started to pack up and get ready to leave. On the way back to the trail, Otter wished me well and handed me a twenty dollar bill, encouraging me to treat myself to a real dinner when I reached Harper’s Ferry. I thanked him for his kindness and proceeded southbound. The boost in calories from lunch and unexpected trail magic put me on cloud nine as I sailed on my way.

Can you feel it?

In two and a half months on the AT, I had over eleven hundred miles under my belt and had hiked on average seventeen miles a day. This fact dawned on me while trotting through sun speckled foliage shortly after lunch as I checked the map and realized I was at mile 25. Some quick mental math revealed that, even with the nine hours I’d already been hiking, I still needed to hike another full day’s worth of miles to complete the Four State Challenge.

Autumn in Maryland

Headphones securely lodged in my ear canals, my pace increased at the cost of my form. Desiring to finish the 44-mile gauntlet, I began rushing my steps, walking roughly on feet that had not yet fully recovered from the beating they took back in Rocksylvania.

At around five o’clock, the War Correspondents Memorial Arch came into view as I descended towards Gapland Road. Lumbering down beneath the shade of a large tree, I refueled on all the essentials (snacks, water, and vitamin I) while elevating my throbbing feet. My barking dogs caused the planned fifteen-minute break to become forty-five. Checking the time, I got up and headed down the trail again with a baker’s dozen worth of miles left to go.

Diva prevention

Riding on top of a six-mile ridge, the next two hours crept by with the sunlight diminishing as the day slowly blurred into night. Dusk was basically dark by the time I took out my headlamp. The city lights were getting visible through the patchy autumn forest and my excitement built during the quick descent down the switchbacks of Weverton Cliffs.

Goodnight sunlight

Spilling out of the trees on to the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath lost its charm rather fast. The wide smooth dirt trail leading three miles to Harper’s Ferry would appear to be a welcome site at first but my swollen tired feet hurt more walking on hard flat ground than they did back in the woods. Hovering over my shoulder, the moon cast a shadow of my form ahead. In the dark, without anyone around, it was a reminder that I am always on my side.

Nature’s night light

Moonlight glimmered on the Potomac like a river of flowing obsidian as I crossed the bridge into West Virginia, reaching the “spiritual halfway point” of the Appalachian Trail. Navigating through the dimly lit cobblestone streets lined with Civil War era buildings and walking ghost tour groups, I got a small sample of the town before linking back with the wooded trail paralleling the Shenandoah River.

Harper’s Ferry is a peninsula with two great rivers forming its northeast and southern borders. Anytime the trail crosses a waterway or enters a town, it usually results in a steep descent in and equally steep climb out. The effort is offset most of the time by the reward of a resupply stop, hot shower or town food, but I was on a mission with no stopping planned until I reached the border of Virginia, just a few miles away.

All downhill from here

Hiking up Loudoun Heights took all the energy I had left. My feet were screaming and my lower back and shoulders were sore from wearing a pack all day, but I kept pushing through pain and “embraced the suck”. Glancing at my GPS every five minutes to get a status update of my slow progress didn’t help and only made the last hour drag on. As the incline started to ease, I knew the end of my long day was near.

Nothing on the map signified the border but, rounding a bend, my eye spotted a brown placard with white embossed letters. Adrenaline and joy brought a tingling sensation that led to lone triumphant cheers. Pausing my stopwatch, I couldn’t believe my accomplishment. In exactly sixteen hours and sixteen minutes, I had hiked through four states, covering close to 44 miles. I had achieved my goal!

This must be the place.

After the elation of completing the biggest physical challenge I had yet faced subsided, the reality of life on trail set back in and I remembered I had not decided where I was going to camp for the night. It was getting close to ten o’clock and, with no energy remaining, I glanced around for a suitable stealth site, pitched my tent and crawled in. I longed for rest more than food at that point so, with a smile on my face, I lay down, closed my eyes, and instantly fell asleep.

Before starting my thru-hike, the Four State Challenge held a mythical status in my mind. The level of fitness and strength required to join the ranks of successful hikers who finished this test seemed unreachable. I proved to myself that I have what it takes. Determination and grit saw me through the challenge and I felt empowered to tackle anything the trail could throw my way next.

AT Week 10-11_Pennsylvania

Sometimes things don’t go exactly according to plan but we have to make the best of it. This was the case for me upon reaching Pennsylvania. When looking at the AWOL guidebook, it appeared that the small town of Delaware Water Gap (DWG) would be a great place to resupply and recharge after completing another state.

My excitement at reaching Delaware Water Gap quickly faded as I walked through town to my hotel and realized the bulk of the businesses were closed. Not knowing the area, I checked the internet and saw that the town’s numerous shops and restaurants, thanks to Covid, were only open on the weekends. Sadly, I had arrived on a Wednesday.

“Quality” lodging option
Almost ate the whole pie

Making do with what was available, I enjoyed some overpriced pizza and beer before retiring to my rundown hotel room for the evening. The place where I stayed had onsite laundry but the hotel’s dryer had apparently caught on fire and was not useable. So, taking life’s lemons and juggling them, I spent the rest of the night cycling my damp clothing in front of the room’s heater to finish drying all my wet gear.

Pennsylvania is referred to amongst the thru-hiking community as “Rocksylvania” due to the abundance of small rocks that make up the trail surface for much of the state. With over 600 miles of wear and tear on them, my tattered trail runners were ready to be replaced. Expecting this in advance, I had a new pair mailed to meet me in DWG along with a food resupply box. Due to a snafu with the postal service however, I received the food but not the shoes, so I left town with my old dilapidated pair of foam and rubber, feeling the point of every rock jabbing up into the soles of my feet.

Frambo leading the way most of the day

Knowing this situation required a change sooner rather than later, I studied the map to find a town close to the AT that would have an outdoor store. Two days further down the trail, in Palmerton, there was a retailer who confirmed they had “something you can hike in” available and in my size.

By chance, on the way out of town, I linked up with Frambo who had decided to spend the night at the local church hostel. We hiked together the rest of the day, swapping stories, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company while cranking out twenty miles to reach the Leroy Smith shelter. When we arrived, there was one other hiker, named Gary, setting up for the night who happened to be a fellow Mainer. The three of us ate dinner around the fire ring, discussing worldly topics, and then retired to our tents.

The foliage has started. It is early October here in Pennsylvania

With differing goals guiding our plans, we each left separately the next morning. Pushing through the foot pain, I hiked solo for the next 15 miles, mostly following along an open ridgeline. Looking down to my right, I could see the farmlands and factories slowly give way to my destination of Palmerton which was visible off in the distance. Stopping to survey the land, I snapped a few pictures before descending the steep and rocky Lehigh Gap then walked into town along the idyllic Main Street to reach “My Store”. With new shoes on my feet, I ventured around to fill up on town food, and stopped at the post office to mail home the old pair for my collection.

Palmerton coming into view
Lehigh Gap. Beautiful views thanks to toxic pollution. Oh what a world?
These “hikers” were only a minor improvement

Just outside of town was the George Outerbridge shelter where Gary had mentioned planning to stop for the night. We all had discussed our fondness and longing for New England style IPA beer the night before and, since it was a Friday night and a beer store was within a short walk, I grabbed a four pack, a bag of ice, and hand carried the boozy goodness another three miles through town and up to the shelter. Needless to say, Gary and Frambo were pleasantly surprised by my canned care package, and we all sat sipping cold brews as the sun began to set, listening to the competing sounds of chirping insects against the murmur of a high school football game announcer off in the distance.

Worth the weight

Having filmed myself while hiking some of the New Hampshire 4000 footers, I thought it would good to capture my AT hike the same way. Each day I had been recording bits of my journey to look back on in the future. Before the hike, I upgraded to a newer camera that captured better images but came with some annoying bugs. My frustrations peaked one afternoon when I pressed record but instead the camera turned off on its own. Slightly irritated, I got it to turn on again only to realize that the memory card had been corrupted and I had lost weeks of footage.

After multiple loud outbursts into the empty wilderness, my temper slowly subsided and I continued down the trail, swearing to myself silently as I blew past a pair of day hikers. All I could do was keep hiking and focus on moving forward. The anger, although an unpleasant feeling, added about a half mile an hour to my pace and made the rest of the day go by quickly.

into the fog I slog

Things improved that evening as I arrived at the Eckville shelter. One hundred yards away from where the trail crosses a paved road, you’ll find this shelter which is a private piece of land that is free for thru-hikers to use for camping. Running low on fuel, I was weighing my options for getting to a store to resupply the following day but at dinner Hoon, another south bounder, offered up his spare canister saving me the lengthy detour.

A light rain fell that night, and I awoke to another foggy drizzle filled day. The weather was a mixture of fog, mist, and “slow rain” for the bulk of my time in Pennsylvania. Most days I would walk right past any viewpoints because the lack of visibility meant the extra footsteps would be in vain. The tedium of walking along a loose stone covered trail made the hours drag on. Focusing on maintaining balance while keeping my eyes locked in front of me to avoid an ankle-spraining, hike-ending fall meant most of the day was spent looking down and six feet ahead at all times.

Before leaving to hike the AT, people asked me questions about my preparations and gear choices. I often was asked how I would handle a bear sighting but had always stated that people, more than animals, gave me a reason for concern while on trail. This fear was understood by more people this fall during the national manhunt for Brian Laundrie when it was thought he was using the Appalachian Trail as a means of evading authorities.

You decide. I needed that reminder

After a particularly long day of hiking alone in dense secluded woods, without seeing another person for hours, I ventured down a one-third mile side trail just as dusk was setting in. By cell phone light I approached the Eagle’s Nest shelter and noticed another person inside. I said “Hello” but knew instantly the figure in the shelter was not a thru-hiker. Rummaging through my pack, I grabbed my headlamp and took a few stretches, looking around with my light scanning to assess my situation. Noticing that the other guest lacked proper hiking attire, and given the incoherent nature of his conversation, I decided to make my exit.

The silver lining is wet things look greener.

Gathering my gear into my bag, I expressed the need to go find a more suitable tent site away from the shelter. In short haste, I silently proceeded back to the main trail. It was dark by now and the unexpected run-in had me startled and unsure where to go. Without an obvious option presenting itself, I continued into the night, hiking with the eerie feeling of being followed and stopping often to look behind me and listen for any noise beyond the worry in my head.

It was close to ten o’clock when I decided to stealth camp at a random foggy clearing set a few hundred yards off the trail. My tent was soaked from the night before and the stress of the evening zapped my appetite. I had been hiking for fourteen hours, making it my biggest day up to that point, slightly further than a marathon. After 26.4 miles on trail, I was tired and feeling defeated. I crawled into my quilt, and shut my eyes, waiting for sleep to take me away to dreamland.


Back home in Maine, my parents had been helping mail my food resupply boxes and tracking my daily progress on the map. Seeing I was near the fifty percent mark, we made plans to meet at Pine Grove Furnace State Park which houses an Appalachian Trail Museum and is roughly the halfway point of the AT. I thought it would be nice to have my family there for a big milestone but also to have them witness and cheer me on during the only challenge of my hike that involves sitting. I am talking about the infamous Half Gallon Challenge, which the self-enforced rules require that the hiker “must consume a half gallon of ice cream in under one hour” to successfully complete the challenge.

Nothing says America quite like farms filled with corn and soy beans

Before reaching the state park, the trail passes through Boiling Springs which gets its name from a prominent natural spring that feeds a lake in the center of town. The mostly wooded and rocky trail takes a delightful detour and, for roughly a dozen miles near town, the AT passes along massive open farmland. Hiking between fields of corn and soy beans as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, I stopped and savored the beauty, allowing the moment to imprint itself into my memory.

I started the next morning like any other, awake in my tent before sunrise, stretching briefly before rising to fetch and filter water. Water was destined for my daily “first breakfast”, consisting of instant coffee with breakfast powder packets and pop tarts, except that each bite into my maple cinnamon sugar pastry tasted different on this morning. The excitement of seeing my family after weeks apart and the upcoming achievement of hiking close to 1100 miles to get there brought me happiness and a sense of validation. Reassurance that I would be able to see this to the end.

The green tunnel is changing

The state park was bustling on Saturday morning with fall festival visitors bouncing between vendor tents but, through the crowd, I could spot two familiar outlines. Hugs and hellos were exchanged with my beaming parents before we walked together along the paved sidewalk the trail follows. We visited the museum before making our way over to the main event for the day, the Half Gallon Challenge.

It was about noon when I picked out my flavor choices from the limited options at the General Store. Due to rising fuel prices, ice cream servings are smaller than in the past, so contestants pick out a large carton plus a plastic party cup filled up to the top to make an entire half gallon. My large portion was a classic flavor, Neapolitan, but my small portion was something called “Blue Tornado” (basically cotton candy with cookie bits).

Y’all ready for this.?

A curious crowd formed as I drove my plastic spoon into the mostly frozen solid block of sugar and cream. I had planned accordingly and skipped out on my “second breakfast” and lunch so that my hiker hunger was sure to help out. My technique involved warming the outer edge of the carton with my hands and scooping in a circular manner to get at the softened deliciousness as it began to melt. My family/cheering squad proved their support by assisting with hot coffee delivery and being there for every bite.

Mmmm. That was easy.

Only forty-four brain freezing minutes later and to the sound of applause from passing onlookers, I finished the last spoonful and took a bow in front of my adoring audience. Grinning happily, I went inside the general store to retrieve my prize and returned with my tiny wooden commemorative spoon…it was totally worth it!

My prized wooden spoon and family in tow

Pine Grove Furnace isn’t the actual halfway point of the AT and, given it was only a few miles more to get there, I grabbed my pack, threw on my poncho, and hit the trail as the drizzle progressed into a steady rain. My parents planned to meet me at Shippensburg Road and, fueled by the 2500 calories of pure sugar I consumed only moments prior, I hiked the 8.5 mile distance in a little over two hours.

The Boston family spent the next 48 hours together in Gettysburg, sightseeing and shopping along the historic downtown before strolling through history on the reverent battlefield at sunset. It had been four weeks since I last took a day off from hiking and, over the course of those 28 days, I had hiked an average of eighteen miles a day. Without question, the zero day was well deserved and much welcomed.

I couldn’t have made it this far without these two wonderful people in my life

As a field tester for Hyperlite Mountain Gear, I have been providing feedback on new designs they’ve had me test during my thru-hike. Hyperlite wanted to see how a new type of Dyneema fabric would hold up in the wild so at the halfway point I swapped out my beloved black Windrider with a shiny new white Northrim pack.

So fresh and so clean, clean

It was bittersweet timing to exchange backpacks at the midpoint because I was at a crossroads with my hiking experience. My black bag represented the time on trail spent learning how to get this far. I shared blood, sweat and tears with that bag as we both got through the hardest part of the trail together. Now after reaching halfway, I could regroup knowing all the lessons learned up to this point. The new white pack was a clean slate on which to keep improving my methods. A blank canvas yet to be filled…and stained.

It’s not calories, they are called mile points.

Monday afternoon, I was returned to the road crossing after a scrumptious meal of biscuits and gravy. I hoisted my restocked pack from the trunk, saying one last goodbye to my parents as I set off down the trail, gloating on having reached halfway, and wondering what the next half would bring me. The time off spent with my family in Gettysburg felt like a major celebration. Even though there were still roughly thirty miles remaining in Pennsylvania, my attention turned to what lay beyond. I felt the difficulties already faced had strengthened my drive to see what else I was capable of doing.

The weather through most of the state was wet and miserable but during my zero day the air turned cool and crisp. I took my time and enjoyed the clear skies as I thought about the next difficulty ahead. In two days, I planned to do something I never believed I would be capable of attempting. The Four State Challenge, a twenty-four hour, forty-four mile test of a thru-hiker’s endurance.

Setting my sights on Pen-Mar park, I cruised through the rest of Pennsylvania so fixated on this next hurdle that I almost walked right past the Mason Dixon line. It was a warm Tuesday evening as the sun was setting when I reached Maryland. Happily leaving Yankee territory and setting foot back in the south, I felt like I’d walked home.

Cresting the grassy hill, I sat on an old wooden park bench underneath an American flag flapping in the humid breeze. I thought about the unpleasant history of our country represented by this spot and how, for me, it will become a place of pride. At this point on the trail, I had gone further than I ever imagined, and in less than twelve hours, this would be the spot where I continued on to go further than ever before. Taking it one step at a time while learning from the past.