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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.