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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.