Keep on Keeping On

Sunday July 20 – Thursday July 24. PA72, US206, Culvers Gap – NY17, Southfields, NY (Mile 1379.9 since Springer Mountain and only 805.4 miles to Katahdin)

There really ought to be a law that, when a motel or a hotel advertises that it has wifi, then it really ought to have a working version of wifi. The fact that it may work in the office of the motel isn’t really cutting it for me; I need it to operate in my room, not fade away with every step I take from the office. While I accept that a room for $41.45 a night isn’t likely to boast every modern convenience, the rash statement that it has wifi should be at least moderately accurate. You are probably getting the gist of my complaint that this particularly spiffing motel both boasted and lacked anything that could conceivably be regarded as working wifi. As luck would have it, the owner told me that it always works and that I was the only person who had ever been unable to get access to it. How unlucky am I?

Nevertheless, there I was on Sunday morning, trying to watch both the German Formula One Grand Prix and the last day of the British Open Golf tournament. There are few things that can really rile me, but I think I found one last Sunday. Every 45 or so seconds, just as Rory McIlroy was about to take a shot, or Lewis Hamilton was on the verge of pulling off a thrilling passing maneuver, the screen on my iPad would freeze and, once reset, the action had, of course, moved on without me. You will not be surprised to hear that my language became increasingly earthy and louder, so much so that I simply turned off the iPad, checked out and got the owner to shuttle me back to the steakhouse I’d gone to on leaving the trail the previous day. They actually had working wifi, so I got online until they opened, then got a seat underneath the TV, with the golf on, and spent several happy hours eating like a greedy hog and cheering Rory to victory. Happy Days!

Unfortunately, this didn’t do much for my hiking for the day and I limited my ambition to the first shelter, Gren Anderson Shelter, at only 3 miles away, as it was the only shelter that offered water for about 15 miles. As you’d imagine, getting water, whether from a stream or a spring, is one of the critical reasons for being at a shelter, and New Jersey has been a little lacking in water. Happily, several Trail Angels continue to go out of their way to provide water at road intersections, so we’re getting by.

As I say, it was only supposed to be a 3 mile hike, yet I managed to turn it into more like double that distance, as I completely missed a change of direction (double white blazes) and ended up going down a precipitous descent that landed me on a road which shouldn’t have been there, according to my guide. I instantly knew I’d gone wrong and also knew that I’d have to slog back uphill just to get back to my missed blazes. Eventually, I found the right route and got back into top gear, only to completely miss the blue blaze that indicated the shelter and I hiked at least a mile past the entrance. Realizing I’d messed up yet again (I used stronger language at the time), I had to turn round once more and waste yet more miles and calories in getting to the right place. I was thoroughly ticked off when I eventually got into the shelter and couldn’t even shout at anybody, as the place was deserted. I couldn’t be bothered to cook, so made myself a wrap and cup of tea, only to drag the entire cup into my lap. Not having anybody to shout at, I made do with the forest and unleashed a few choice words.  Shouting at trees can be marvelously restorative.

Despite my outburst, it was eerily quiet and I started to prepare myself for a lonesome night and found a spot to pitch my tent. A few people came in a little later, though just to collect water. As a consequence, and I’m sure it was because I was alone, I needed to use the privy at about 3.30am, so donned my camp shoes, my fleece, my underpants and my nightlight. I must have looked like Wee Willie Winkie, carefully padding over the rocks and trying to identify the path to the privy. With nobody else around, the darkness and the quiet eat into you and I made it back to my tent, now fully alert and listening to every noise that assaulted my ears for the next hour or so. Happily, there were no incidents and I fell back into a deep sleep, before gloomily waking and drinking my coffee and chomping my oatmeal in silence.

I was on the trail at 7.45, planning a 20 mile day, as I needed to make up for the measly 3 miles (6 walked, but only 3 official), the day before. The plan was to get to the High Point State Park HQ for lunch, charge my phone at their office, then move on to Unionville, where the mayor has started to allow thru-hikers to stay in a local park. Everything worked out as planned and the state park even had free sodas for thru-hikers. A cold Coca Cola Is always welcome. The hiking was still fairly tricky, with several rocks to slow our progress, but I found, as I often have, that the further you plan to travel, the easier it is. If you know you need to do 10 miles before lunch, then 10 miles after lunch, then that seems to be more achievable than having no real plan or aiming low. I even had time to shoot a short video at the High Point Monument.

Earlier, after about three hours on the trail, I saw my 9th bear and my first in NJ. It suddenly ran through the undergrowth to my right, it’s thick fur gleaming in the intermittent sunlight. Bears don’t worry me now and each sighting is a bonus gratefully received and enjoyed.

I made the road crossing into Unionville by about 6.30 and walked towards the town, which was only about 0.4 of a mile off the trail. Going past one of the gardens, I spotted Spider, one of the guys I’d been hiking with recently, sitting in a chair, talking with the owner as if they were life-long buddies. The owner, Blake, motioned me to join them and I could tell straight away that he was several Jack Daniels on the wrong side of the optimum amount. That said, he was perfectly affable, introduced me to his wife, Joy and young Blake, then divided their grilled meat into five, as opposed to their anticipated three. Once more, generosity seems to come to hikers out of all proportion to the normal actions of folks.

Once we’d had our fill of steak and chicken, Spider and I left Blake and his family and made it to the park, where several old friends were already set up, including Naturally Hob, along with his wife, Dos Lekis, Yeti Legs, Flea and several others, including a newcomer, Rogue, who I’d met earlier in the day. There was a very cordial feeling in the park, with all of us grateful for such a good facility (port-a-loo, free water and free tent site), so it was a little sad to hear the youngsters call a “safety meeting”, inviting the older hikers as well, before they sat around strumming a ukulele and relaxing fragrantly once more. Given the public circumstance, I thought that was a little thoughtless and could have jeopardized the park for future hikers. Nothing happened, but it could have. Funnily enough, this video the following morning mentions the event but I don’t appear to be too unhappy about it. I suppose I’ve thought more about it since.

As always, the park cleared out quickly in the morning and I was the last to leave, once I’d charged my phone at the general store, eaten two donuts and had two coffees, all of which was after I’d eaten my regular breakfast. I retraced my steps, listening to a podcast on my phone, and, yet again, totally missed the trail head, going a good 300 or 400 yards past. Cursing at myself again, a reasonably regular occurrence in the last couple of days, I got on track at last.

The 20 mile day I’d had the previous day had really sapped me and, in conjunction with some very tricky rocks, I stopped for lunch after only 5 miles, completely resetting the day for me. I had intended to get to the lusciously named Wawayanda Shelter, some 17 miles away, but settled instead for the church hostel in Vernon, NJ, after only an 11 mile day.

For a suggested donation of $10, you get a shower, laundry, a bed (or Tent site) and a recreation room. I found several fellow hikers, but only one, Senator, wanted to go for sushi. We had a great meal and finished off with a Blizzard ice cream at Dairy Queen. Guilt-free eating is going to be a tough habit to kick!

However, the day wasn’t over, as I showered and laundered my clothes back at the hostel and we had a late visit by a lovely couple, Dori and Tom, who asked if 3 of us would like to join them in the morning for a swim in their local lake, followed by breakfast and return to the trail. Me, Spider and Voodoo shot up our hands, so we arranged to be ready for 7.15 the following day…….

………which we were. Dori came to collect us and took us to her lovely community, giving is something of a guided tour on the way. She was utterly charming and everything was as she had suggested. The lake was gorgeous, though unveiling my new, fat-free body was a little embarrassing for me! We all swam for about 20 minutes and then headed back to Tom and Dori’s log cabin home. Ever the teacher (her profession) Dori gave everybody a task and put together a wonderful breakfast that included eggs, bacon, toast, fruit and yoghurt. We were back on the trail by 10.30 and marveled once more over the kindness of others.

Usually, I hike pretty much on my own, but Voodoo, Spider and I started the day together and eventually ended the day together, meeting up with the Maine Sisters, Navigator and Toots, along the way. Once more, the rocks slowed everybody’s pace, allowing us to trek as a team. This was the largest group I had hiked with since starting and it certainly helped the day as we chatted throughout.

I briefly left them to try to join a board meeting for the Family
Partnership Center, hoping to FaceTime the board for a quick chat, yet, while my signal in the mountains was fine, they couldn’t muster more than a single bar between them, so we had to make do with a telephone chat! By the way, please consider my Last 2000 Mile Challenge on this site, as I’ve only got about 800 miles to go and you can join in at any time.

It was getting a little dark in the forest by the time I restarted, so I chased down the group I’d been with and eventually caught them at NY17A, where they were heading for the creamery, a local ice cream shop. $6 each and huge banana splits later, we set up tents on the parking lot nearby, hopeful that this wasn’t a teeny bit illegal. The rain was coming and we hoped that might work in our favor if somebody spotted that we shouldn’t have been there. Nothing happened, other than rain and fairly spunky winds, so everybody got a decent night’s sleep.

Today, I got out fairly early and hiked alone for quite a while, though ran into a few new and one or two old faces. I also wanted to record my impressions of NJ and NY.

I was aware that I was running low on certain supplies and, with my speed still rather slow over the rocks, I asked Diane to book me a motel room after only about 11 miles. I’d just spoken with the cab company who was going to pick me up, telling them I’d be at the pick up point in 5 minutes, when I realized that the descent was very severe and over sharp rocks. Stupidly hurrying, I fell and, fearing the worst, I shouted out in an effort to mask the pain if and when it came. Amazingly, despite being virtually upside down on the rocks, I was relatively unhurt, with just a few scrapes and the odd laceration on my arms and legs. I got myself the right way up and continued on my way. I was very lucky.

Keep on keeping onTonight in my room  I had Chinese delivery and thought I’d share the fortune cookie with you. Believe me, sometimes you really appreciate a fortune cookie and this one couldn’t have come at a better time!

Falls Rush In

Thursday July 10 – Saturday July 19. PA72, Swatara Gap – US206, Culvers Gap (Mile 1318.0 since Springer Mountain and only 867.3 miles to Katahdin)

I haven’t posted for quite a while and have access to wifi at last, so there is quite a bit to catch up on. You can see from the mileage above that the distance to Katahdin is certainly ticking down and I continue to get through about 100 miles a week.

When I last posted, I was staying at the Days Inn, near Swatara Gap and, if you recall, I found it hard to find a cab driver who could get a great deal of enthusiasm about either taking me there or returning me to the trail. As a consequence, I dawdled a little the following morning, getting a few necessary items from the Hess Garage across the street. I had called the cab company from the previous evening, ordering, at about 7.30, a cab for 9am. The bloke at the other end was having none of it, telling me that I should call when I was ready to leave. “I’ll be ready at 9am.” I replied. “Well call me then.” was his response. I couldn’t be bothered to get all British on him and hung up the phone, fuming, and resigned myself to hitching the 3 or 4 mile return journey.

As luck would have it, the second truck to pass my way contained a human being with a love for hiking. He stopped, told me to lob my stuff in the back and we chatted about the AT for a very pleasant 5 or 10 minutes as he drove and deposited me in exactly the right spot. Sometimes it’s your day and sometimes it isn’t. I was so much more cheerful this morning and I shot a video of the early hike with news of earlier hiking pals.

Just after I’d finished the video, Bassman, who I’d met several days earlier, came upon me and we started chatting and hiking together for most of the rest of the day. He is a section hiker and we had got on well previously, so it seemed natural to team up with him once more. Indeed, he led us up a very hilly climb and, with the back and forth chit chat, the morning went by very quickly, yet pleasantly. We followed the ridge and replenished water at a shelter, then he reached his destination and I was back on my own. He did talk about hiking again in Maine in September, so we may well have the chance to meet up again.

I was only heading for an 11 mile day, having had such a late start, and I eventually got to the 501 Shelter, which is a bunk room with about a dozen bunks. Despite my fears of keeping everybody awake with my snoring, I opted for the shelter as opposed to tenting, as rain was due and did, in fact materialize. Bassman knew where I was heading, and turned up with some trail magic of his own, bringing Gatorade and other goodies. What a good guy he was.

We were also sufficiently close to the road to allow us to order pizza and pies were duly ordered and delivered. With such a large bunch of people in the shelter there was another convivial evening and, with that and my day with Bassman, my mood lightened considerably.

One of the items we touched on that evening was Lyme Disease, which one of the guys had as well as rabies, which three of the youngsters were being treated for as a precaution. One of the lads had been bitten by a skunk, while the other two were bitten by a sick bat. Chip, one of the bat bitten boys, woke to find that the bat was tangled in his hair and had crapped on his face. Charming!

The following morning, I was determined to get at least 15 miles under my belt, which is quite a long hike for rocky Pennsylvania at this stage. As a consequence, I managed to get myself motivated and out by 6.45am, something of a rarity for me. The rocks were tricky and tiring in equal measure and, by PA183, I was ready for a spot of lunch. I ran into Survivor and his twin brother, along with the enigmatically named James, which is apparently written with all capital letters. James was getting a shuttle to town for a Post Office drop, while Survivor and his brother were just catching a breather. Eventually, they all left me to my tuna wrap and, seconds after James had driven of, a guy pulled into the parking area and asked me If I wanted a cold drink with it. Trail Magic!! I’m normally the one just missing out, so I felt a little smug at my good fortune and tucked in.

There were plenty of people at Eagles Nest Shelter and I found a really nice, relatively quiet spot for my tent. The Maine sisters, Navigator and Toots, were there, along with their hiking friend, J-Rex, as well as Voodoo, Survivor and his brother and the rather under-dressed Yeti Legs. This young guy is very affable and entirely unselfconscious. He hikes in only a pair of underpants that are grey and often see-through when damp with sweat, which is pretty much all of the time. He apparently went to Walmart in that outfit, yet seemed not at all out of place. Extraordinary!

I left Eagles Nest the following morning after what is probably the most embarrassing incident thus far. I can’t even write about it, but I confessed later in this video.

Ugh!!! Say no more!

I was planning to meet up with Fran and Steve Davis in Port Clinton and they were kindly taking me on a tour of the Yuengling Brewery, which was fairly nearby. First, I had to negotiate a rocky hike and an incredibly steep climb down into the town itself. This was one of the steepest descents I had made and I would not want to have done it in the rain; it was really quite scary and tough on the knees.

I was a little early, so thought I’d catch breakfast, in the way that hikers do at every opportunity. Luckily, somebody pointed me to Port Clinton Hotel, which was about to open, so I sat myself at the bar and, with no eggs available, I went for a pint of Yuengling and a cheeseburger. It was bloody delicious and probably the best burger I’d had thus far. Steve and Fran turned up while I was stuffing my face and I could see that Steve was tempted, but settled on a beer instead.

The brewery was certainly worth a visit, though the high point were the free samples at the end. They then kindly took me to Cabellas, a huge sporting goods store, where I ditched my old hiking pants (size 42″ waist) and got something a little more appropriate to my new found figure (size 34″ waist). I haven’t been this size since I was about eleven!! Before dropping me back at Port Clinton, they took me to a food store, waiting patiently as I sprinted around the store in my version of supermarket challenge.

Returning to Port Clinton, I suggested that they take me to the town campsite, wait while I set up my tent, then I would buy them dinner at the hotel. I’m pleased to say that, even under the pressure of watching eyes, I was able to set up the tent in about three or four minutes and we headed over to the hotel. Steve was now able to satisfy his hunger and we all ate well, with another glass or two of Yuengling. Steve and Fran have been absolutely wonderful to me on this trip and lifted my spirit each time that I saw them. Thanks so very much.

When they left, somebody suggested that we go to the Fire Station Clubhouse, where we were informed we could get a drink. It was all a bit cloak and dagger (push the red button, tell the bloke who answers that you are thirsty hikers and were wondering if you could have a drink). I thought I’d buy a round for the two guys and one girl and pulled out a $20 bill to pay. Three beers and a vodka and soda set me back the princely sum of $5.50. Happy Days!!

Several people had turned up late and, by the time I woke in the morning and got up, people were strewn all over the field. I suddenly noticed young Beans, a guy I had met very early on and seen intermittently since then. He was now in tow with a young girl, Kat, which seemed to explain his lack of pace thus far. We chatted briefly and I left, hoping to make another 15 mile day. There were two photo opportunities; one at the Pulpit, which I pasted on Facebook and the other at the Pinnacle, at which I shot this video of supposedly the best view on the AT of Pennsylvania.

The rocks were, once again, terribly annoying, though the hiking after the Pinnacle was very smooth and a blessed relief for my feet, which had begun to feel like hamburger patties. I should also mention that my right boot had by now pretty much disintegrated under this assault and I sent pictures of both the left and right boot to Diane and she successfully argued with the company. Asolo, that this wasn’t down to wear and tear, as “my husband doesn’t hike with a limp, nor does he have any deformity.” This did the trick and Asolo acknowleged that a free replacement was in order, which they quickly sent. Excellent and realistic customer service, aided and abetted by my tenacious wife.

The Eckville Shelter, where I camped for the night, is an excellent facility, with a charging station for phones, a tap with what tasted like spring water and an excellent tenting site. Unfortunately it is blessed by what can only be described as a curmudgeonly attendant, who loves in the adjoining house and is responsible for the site. I noticed that there was available wifi, so asked him if I could have his password so that I could watch the extra time in a World Cup game. “No,” was his somewhat final reply, though he added, “because I’d then have to give it to everybody.” which explained nothing. Once more, I avoided the temptation to become British on him and contented myself by listening on the radio.

We had a bit of a storm in the night, but I stayed dry and snug and reflected once more what a good choice my tent was turning out to be.

I was a little under the gun, as I was hoping to meet up with two friends the following day. Mark Jeffrey had been holidaying in the Blue Ridge Mountains among other places and was hoping to meet up somewhere along the way, while Barry Gates, a more recent friend from Florida, had moved back to Pennsylvania a year or so before and was coming over to meet me as well.

It was a very, very rocky hike and I took on more lunch than usual to allow me to get the energy to put in a hard afternoon to get within striking distance of my planned rendezvous the following day. As often happens, the weather decided that it was going to limit my options, and I saw on my phone that a severe weather alert had been posted, so I had little alternative but to get my tent up quickly as the rain suddenly hit me. Lying sweatily in my tent, with my wet pack keeping me company, the whole place got very steamy very quickly, so I pushed myself into action and set up the tent for an all night stay. I’d been hoping the weather would pass but it seemed set for the night, though it turned out to be less intense than expected.

In my haste to set up quickly, I must have kept the bug net open longer than normal, as I was suddenly aware of something moving on my arm as I lay there, only to see a very large, very red spider making a run for it up my arm. Never a big fan of spiders, I whacked my own arm and squished the interloper, searching furiously for any friends that may have joined him, though found none.

The following morning was foggy and I recorded the rather atmospheric and calm scene.

There was actually an official campsite only about 100 yards away, so I filled up with water and met up again with Gizmo and met a Brit called St Rick for the first time. We chatted for a while, but I was in a hurry to make up some miles and hiked on, only to run into some of the worst rocks so far. I also met up with an older guy, RW, from Chicago and we tackled the infamous Knifes Edge together. He fell at one stage and cut his head, though not to badly and I, not having fallen for a while, had my 13th fall just before the rocks, then, as if to avoid the unlucky 13th, had my 14th about ten minutes later. The first one was innocuous, though the second gave me a whack on the hip.

I had told Mark where I hoped we could meet and was little surprised at how rural the road actually was when I got there. As a consequence, I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d be able to find it but, of course, I stayed there to see if he would.

Just before the road, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of Trail Magic that is replenished every day by a man and his dog (though I’m guessing the dog is more of a spectator than a replenisher). I helped myself to a drink, a banana, an orange and two donuts while I waited.

In the interim, a car drove up and a young couple came out and approached me with a free coke which, of course, I accepted. They were part of a support team for a southbounder who was trying to set a record for the trip and they were responsible for filming part of his journey. He was raising $100,000 for an orphanage in Uganda, after which, he was moving to Uganda with his wife and child and fostering two of the children. Now that is walking the walk.

The young couple who approached me were also interviewing other hikers for their documentary as background, so they asked me a few questions for their film. We were just finishing up when Mark and his lovely partner, Sue, drove up, with Sue’s two daughters. I was so delighted to see them and we had a great chat and had a couple of pictures together. They had bought me some snacks, pretty much most of which had been eaten before the day was over. Mark seemed to have thought that we could pop into a local restaurant and have a nice little lunch, though by the time he got to me, he’d realized that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Once more, I was humbled by the time and effort that people have taken in coming to see me and their continuing interest in my adventure. If that doesn’t lift your spirit, then nothing will.

I left Mark and thankfully had an easy journey to my meeting place with Barry at Lehigh Gap, luckily running into him as he and his son, Tyler, were hiking up a side trail that crossed the AT just in front of me. Two minutes later and I would have been past his trail, so things couldn’t have worked out better.

I had decided to stay the night nearby, mainly to get my clothes clean and Barry helped me find the wonderful Inn at Jim Thorpe, where both the inn and the town are named after the great Native American Olympian. We had coffee and a snack across the road, where Barry plied me with questions about the hike and I tried to give him thoughtful answers. It was great to reconnect with two friends and allowed me to think about something other than putting one foot in front of the other for a short while.

Alone again, I did my washing, used the Grille Room and had a few beers and tapas before hitting the sack. It had been a great day for me.

Resuming the following morning where Barry had picked me up, I crossed the bridge and gazed up at the climb out of Palmerton, reputedly the toughest stretch on the AT south of New Hampshire. Palmerton had been a Superfund site, seemingly polluted beyond redemption, yet it was now growing back and providing a challenge to hikers at its very beginning.

I absolutely loved it! There was plenty of rock climbing and hand over hand climbing that involved putting away my poles and simply hauling myself up over rocks. I tried to record as much as I could, but this short video clearly shows my exhilaration.

At the top of this little test, I really got into video mode, as the hike was absolutely stunning, along a gorgeous ridge with open views to the countryside and towns. It even provided me with what I’d always imagined the trail to be, with long, easy ridges, expansive views, plenty of sunshine and smooth terrain. I even referred to it as the trail that I had expected.

Then, yet another view that I had to film, with a new word to augment my normal stock of words. It really was a wonderful morning.

I even got a bit environmental on you all!

Then, of course, it all went wrong.

I was loving every moment and moving along effortlessly when, suddenly and without warning, I slipped on some mud that propelled me forward and onto my front, shoving my face into the ground but, more importantly, using my elbow to stop myself on the rocks. The elbow took a real thump and I struggled to my feet to see if any damage was done. The elbow had taken quite a cut and it was fairly deep, with mud and grit embedded inside. Fortunately, I have a first aid kit, so I tried to repair the damage as best I could, yet it was throbbing and all the wonderful momentum had been extinguished.

Diane always likes to know what is going on, so I called her to let her know that I had fallen and had cut myself and was a little shaken up. In circumstances very similar to those at Duncannon a week or so previously, I then totally missed a turn in the path while speaking with her and wandered at least a half mile down a hill, only to realize my mistake and have to slog back up the path.

I eventually came to a road and stopped for lunch, feeling a little sorry for myself. Through the trees, I spotted the word “resort” and wondered if they might have some peroxide I could put on the cut. I wandered about 200 yards to the entry, only to see that it was a ski resort and that there was at least a mile walk uphill to the resort itself. Just then, as so often happens on the trail, a guy in a truck pulled up and offered to run me to the top. His name was Jethro and he was an engineer working on the project. I told him what I was looking for and he led me to the first aid room, found peroxide, sprayed the wound, gave me several band aids then ran me back to where I had been having lunch. Wonderful. I was still there ten minutes later when he skidded to a halt and jumped out to give me back my Nalgene bottle that must have fallen out I the back of his truck. The capacity for kindness is found so often on the trail, yet often missing from everyday interaction.

While still eating lunch, I was joined by Wilderness Hawk and his wife, Cinnamon Girl, along with their friend, Tee Bird. They were very engaging and wanted a drink, which was fine by me, so I joined them when they spotted a guy in a truck who seemed happy to take us to find a bar. Unfortunately, we were still in pretty much a rural area and the best we could find was an ice cream shop, which was a poor alternative, though we all took that alternative gratefully.

Getting back to the trail head seemed just as easy, as two of the shop customers stepped up to drive us back and I spent the next three hours hiking with my new friends. I was eager to get to the Leroy Smith Shelter, so moved ahead while they took a break, encountering more trail magic on a road just before the shelter. Once more, just as a drink was needed.

The following morning, my arm was starting to worry me a little, particularly given my brush with cellulitis in late May, so I looked online for an Urgent Care facility to put my mind (and Diane’s) at ease. Fortunately, there was one in Wind Gap, so I bit the bullet and walked nearly two miles into town from the trail. The doctor decided, given that earlier incident, to treat the wound as if it might develop into cellulitis and gave me the same awful antibiotics and bound the wound more carefully. Never one to miss the eating opportunities inherent in a town, I quickly found a pizza joint nearby and indulged myself in this guilt-free pleasure once more.

Happily, I was able to get a lift back to the trail and met St Rick again and hiked for the rest of the day with him until we got to Kirkridge Shelter, just six miles short of Delaware Water Gap and the end of Rocksylvania. The Maine sisters and J-Rex were leaving as we got there and told us that there was a campsite with a great view just a third of a mile ahead. We considered leaving and seeing if there was space, but in the end we stayed and had a quiet evening.

The following morning, I quickly came upon that campsite and, boy, how I wish I had moved on to it. It was gorgeous and had plenty of room for many more tenters.

Oh well, some you win…..

Talking of winning, just outside Delaware Water Gap, we all ran into Sugar Mama, who hosts the best trail magic seen by any of us thus far. She had everything, from hot food, to fruit, to drinks to supplies and all of it was free to thru-hikers. Her daughter had tried the hike in 2012 and Sug, as she shortens her name, does this to give back to those also thru-hiking. It was glorious. However, I had a mission, which was to get to the Post Office and get not only my food drop, but also my new boots.

This turned out to be nearer than I had thought and, less than ten minutes later, I was standing in my new size 14s and pushing yet more food into my two food bags. A quick limeade in an Haitian fusion restaurant enabled me to recharge my phone and I was off into New Jersey, hiking up and out of town, eager to say goodbye to Pennsylvania and hopeful that the rocks would soon fade away.

I should also mention that I recorded my 16th fall of the trip and my 4th in about three days.

However, prior to making the climb, I was eager to let you all in on what I believe to be a very unlikely record that I had been keeping secret for the past 220 miles.

At the top, I came across this gorgeous pond and took time out to record it, as well as take a pic that landed on Facebook.

With my new boots behaving impeccably, I made good time and got to the Mohican Outdoor Center after a 17 mile day, setting up my tent next to a young couple, Mark and Sarah (how strange to be using real names!), who invited me to join them for proper food, as they were only camping for two days. It was delicious after night after night of pasta or rice. They were fascinated by the hike and pumped me with questions until it was dark.

This morning, in my haste to get 18 miles and into a motel to watch the British Open golf championship tomorrow morning, I set out early and discovered the unexpected beauty that is New Jersey. I hadn’t been expecting too much, but the sheer beauty of it all took me by surprise, continuing rocks notwithstanding. Given how industrial NJ is supposed to be, they have certainly kept some wilderness for people to enjoy.

I’m afraid that this post has gone far too long and I will certainly try to post a little more regularly going forward. However, it is a recap of the week or so since I last caught up and I had so many videos to include.

For those of you still reading, thanks for sticking with it. At the end of this trip, I’ll have an imperfect record of my adventure, but will also have my journal to flesh it out more if I need to. What I hope it reflects is an incredible voyage of discovery for me as a person in tackling things that had previously been beyond my experience, as well as giving you, the reader, a chance to see a taste of what I see and meet some of the kind, and not so kind, characters I’ve met along the way.

Until next time.

When the going gets tough

Saturday, July 5 – Wednesday July 9. Pine Grove Rd (Mt. Holly Springs) – PA72, Swatara Gap (Mile 1178.2 since Springer Mountain and only 1007.1 miles to Katahdin)

The two day hiatus caused by my own stupidity came to an end on Saturday morning, yet I spent a very restless night prior to hitting the trail once more. I was rather nervous, if the truth be known, that I’d be unable to get back into the swing of things with sufficient impetus to maintain my mileage. I was driven back to my previous finish point by the kind lady at the hotel and fell into a conversation with a couple of day hikers, about to start a hike in the opposite direction. By the time I started, I felt a little shaky, with the remnants of the ice cream still perhaps having their effect. However, once I got back into my stride, I felt strong enough for this little confessional.

The target for the day was a very manageable 12 miles, to Boiling Springs, where I had arranged to meet up again with the very kind Fran and Steve Davis. They insisted upon bringing me gas for my stove on the off chance that I wouldn’t be able to get any in Boiling Springs. As that turned out to be the case, I was doubly grateful for their efforts.

On the way, I was aware that the route was going to take me through more fields and less forest than usual. This is because the trail goes through highly populated areas around this part of Pennsylvania and the ATC wanted to keep the whole thing as rural as possible. To my mind, they came up with a great compromise, routing us through fields and the edges of forests to avoid using roads as much as possible.

The twelve miles, though very warm, was a delightful hike and I was grateful to get to Boiling Springs five minutes early to meet Fran and Steve. I took the opportunity to shoot this short video of the gorgeous lake, as it is your “welcome to Boiling Springs” sight as you come into town. This rather bucolic sight was very reminiscent of England in the early 1960’s and entranced me as I walked the length of the lake.

Steve and Fran had been there a little while and we took several With Fran and Stevephotos together, as well as had a drink in the tavern while I wolfed down another burger, my meal of choice. Afterwards, we wandered over to the outfitter, but it turned out to be a fishing outfitters, with a really interesting guy at the helm and we spent some time chatting with him. I still needed to charge my phone, so when they left, I returned to the tavern and plugged in the phone while watching the remainder of the World Cup game on TV, with Rambler and Dos Lekis, another couple of guys I’d recently met.

The only place to camp in this gorgeous place was a free campsite to the south of the town, so I retraced my steps and found myself back in the fields once more before coming upon the site, in which four guys were relaxing “fragrantly,” if you get my drift. They invited me to join them but I really wanted to set up my tent and felt that, while the ice cream was one thing, compounding the error with a new venture into enhanced smoking might be pushing the envelope a little too far. The guys warned me that the trains run all night and “can be quite loud.”

This turned out to be an understatement of massive proportions. I was just dozing off when I heard a rumble that seemed like it could be thunder, only to have it turn immediately and frighteningly into a rushing, roaring sound that passed so close that I actually ducked, lest it come directly through my tent. It was, at best, startling and was repeated several times through the night. Indeed, at 5am, I actually heard the rails rattle as a heavily laden cargo train hammered its way past my tent.

Despite this rather interrupted night, I actually managed to get a little sleep and got onto the road fairly early in the hope that Boiling Springs would be able to provide me with a breakfast. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in front of two fried eggs, bacon, home fries, plus a second plate of French Toast and syrup. Add a coffee to the mix, as well as the Times newspaper on my Kindle, and I felt very comfortable for the next hour or so.

Realizing that the miles weren’t going to walk themselves, I grudgingly left the town and quickly downgraded my estimate for the day to Darlington Shelter, 14 miles away. I’d originally intended to go on to the next shelter, giving me a short trot into Duncannon the following morning. However, my Starbucks moment back in Boiling Springs had thrown all the timing off, so 14 miles it was.

Funnily enough, there wasn’t quite as much field walking as I’d imagined, yet sufficient for any hiker to appreciate the efforts that these clubs make on behalf of hikers.

We were often walking right on the edge of forests, which gave us great sounds, with the cacophony of birds interspersed with the low sounds of trains warning the populace of some distant town. We seem to have heard trains a lot over the past couple of hundred miles, though not, fortunately, as close as those the previous night.

A deer ran out right in front of me and bounded away and, with everything so close to a more urban setting, it enhances your appreciation of the wilderness once more when you see such unexpected, yet delightful, examples of wild animals.

I had a good sleep next to the shelter and set out for Duncannon, which was less than 12 miles away. I had originally intended to have a zero day in Duncannon, though my ice cream adventure had put paid to that, so the intention was to get in, get my two packages (food from Diane and the replacement solar charger), have a burger and a couple of beers at The Doyle, a famous hikers pub, then head straight out to Clark’s Ferry Shelter, only four or five miles outside town.

This was going to be a 15 or 16 mile day, on a sticky Monday morning, so I didn’t do myself any favors when, talking on the phone to Diane, I completely missed a turning and headed on.further down the mountain, only to find myself in a community with not a white blaze to be seen. It is a remarkable aspect of this walk that the ubiquitous white blaze is so crucial to all hikers well being that we really miss them, with an anxious yearning to see one soon, when we haven’t seen one for a few minutes.

So it was now, as I reached a road, some half a mile after my phone call with not a blaze to be seen. In such circumstances, the only thing to do is to turn round and retrace your steps, however uncomfortable that may be. For me, it meant scrambling once more back up the mountain and continuing until I found a blaze. Eventually, I found my way back, only to get back to where I’d found myself half an hour previously. Still, I was back on track and had done the right thing.

The trail into Duncannon has been slightly re routed to avoid a now-missing bridge into town, but I soon found the Doyle, along with what eventually became a dozen or so hungry and thirsty hikers during that lunchtime. Reluctantly leaving, I picked up my packages, consolidated my pack and started the long, very hot trek out of town. This included a very lengthy, very boring High Street, two bridges and a climb to escape the horrendous noise of cars. Maybe it is because I never walk alongside crowded roads in my normal life, but cars are bloody noisy and I was actually shocked at how alien everything seemed to be. However, once I started climbing, the noise subsided and normal calm was resumed.

This was when I first encountered the difficulty of Pennsylvania rocks, with the last mile into the shelter being particularly tricky and challenging for all my fellow hikers. The shelter itself had no nearby tenting sites, so a bunch of us tenters (and hammockers) set up at a campsite a few hundred yards from the shelter and, most importantly, the water source.

The next day was one of my worst on the trail thus far, even though I did my distance of 13.3 miles. It was hot, it was rocky and, critically, I had totally unprepared myself for the prospect of twelve miles and no potential water source. You can see from this video that I knew that there may be difficulty in getting water, but I made the error of just taking two liters with me and hoping for the best. Once more, not a good decision!

The rocks seemed to sap not only my strength, but also my spirit, as I felt very down most of the day. However, one bright spot was this gorgeous view, so I want to include it to show that the day wasn’t a complete dud!

I’m aware that much of the world lives without water security, yet I had simply chosen to take an insufficient amount. Quite how terrifying the reality of not having the option to drink good water can be I could hardly imagine. When I eventually reached a good source, I greedily gulped down two liters immediately yet, for me, the day was as good as over.

The way the shelters are spaced out meant that the only realistic option was to pitch my tent just off a road and get ready for the storm that was due to arrive later in the afternoon. I slept for over an hour and woke to hear the approaching thunder. Nice and snug inside my tent, I heard a great whooshing sound as, first, the high wind then, second, the rain, pummeled my tiny tent. It was a little alarming at first, but I soon settled down and waited the storm out. Fortunately, it only lasted as violently as that for about thirty minutes, yet it reminded me how brutal the weather is capable of being.

This morning, I decided to head out early and was on the trail by 6.35 (an early morning record for me). I didn’t have breakfast and started to feel a little like the day before, so I flopped my pack on the ground, pulled out my stove and breakfasted right in the middle of the trail. I immediately felt better and, along with plenty of water, I hiked immeasurably better than the day before. I even had time to visit the immaculate Rausch Gap Shelter for a leisurely lunch of mashed potatoes and tuna before completing my day at Swatara Gap some six miles later. Below, just before Swatara Gap, I reflect on the day before and, looking at this now, I can see how, despite my normal upbeat nature, I knew that I had screwed up the day before and I look a little irked with myself.

Diane arranged a cab to meet me and I am now comfortably ensconced in the Days Inn Hotel in the basement, which is apparently the place that the hikers get for the hikers rate.

I must confess that this week has been something of a challenge for me, with the nasty memory (in so many different ways!!) of the ice cream debacle, along with my dehydration and poor choices made. I should also say that the hike is turning out to be a little lonelier than I had thought, with little human contact during the day, though evenings at shelters often provide that in some measure. This is something that I’m just going to have to deal with in the next few months, as there will likely be less and less hikers for company as others drop out, move on or are left behind.

I’ve always thought that there was a significant mental element needed to complete this hike and this is now coming to the fore. I’ve even started to listen to podcasts on my phone, though that seems to disconnect me from the trail in ways that I can’t readily explain, so I prefer just to hike most of the time with both ears free to hear what is all around. I’ll work my way through this temporary blip, yet it is certainly a new element to take into account as I push ever northward.

There’s no fool like an old fool

Sunday, June 29 – Friday, July 4. Turners Gap US Alt 40 (Hagerstown) – Pine Grove Rd (Mt. Holly Springs) (Mile 1106.0 since Springer Mountain and only 1079.3 miles to Katahdin)

This is probably one of the more embarrassing posts I’ve written, mainly because I did something so dumb that it makes even me shake my head in disbelief. However, that is still to come, so I’ll start with where I left off last time, having spent part of the day with my old mate Gilbo.

I got a cab back to Turners Gap early on and it felt great to be back on the trail. From the first moments I knew it was going to be a good day, with a warm sun and gentle breeze welcoming the early Sunday morning. It had something of an English feel to it, with an old church to magnify that feeling. So much so that I felt an early video was in order before I’d even walked 100 yards.

Once I’d moved through this almost soporific start, I found myself hiking at a comfortable, unhurried pace for a couple of miles until I came upon a side road to the first completed monument to George Washington. I normally don’t take side trails, preferring to use up my energy on the AT itself, but I was in such a relaxed mood, with only a relatively short day in front of me, that I wandered up to the monument to get another great view and a slice of Americana. At the top, I met up again with Naturally Hob, who always seems to know about his surroundings and he filled me in on the monument. It is lovely to see a monument in such a splendid setting, overlooking a gorgeous valley in the early morning sun. I knew I was dawdling a little, so left somewhat reluctantly and picked up the pace.

I have been using a solar charger, which Diane bought me for Christmas, to charge my phone on the trip and had noticed the previous evening that it was coming apart a little on one of the panels. Unfortunately this turned out to be the beginning of a catastrophic end, as it came apart completely at the Washington Monument and I took several pics of it before emailing Diane, asking if she could get a replacement from the manufacturer. Typically, she got onto it and one is on the way. Yet another example, as if more were needed, of the importance of my little quarterback at home!!

One thing about Maryland, and later, Pennsylvania, is that the trail often takes you through campgrounds or parks which allow you to fill up with water, a critical element in walking this trail. The hiking is very different, particularly in Maryland, as it is either flat, easy and springy, or hilly, rocky and downright dangerous. The latter hiking is damaging on the shoes and the feet, and certainly slows you down, yet I know it is simply a precursor of Pennsylvania and the rocks that are ahead. Having fallen down on a slippery rock for the twelfth time this week, I have additional reason to be wary of the rocks.

That night, I reached Ensign Cowall Shelter after 14 miles and ran into a couple of thru-hikers, Hobo and Caddyshack, as well as a group of section hikers and a terrific family out on a four day adventure. The dad was particularly interested in the thru-hike and told me the following morning, over a cup of coffee, that his 16 year old daughter was considering attempting it after high school. It constantly buoys me when I hear how inspiring such an adventure is and I’m reminded how lucky I am that circumstances have conspired to allow me the chance to do this.

Leaving camp the following morning, I had about an 18 mile hike planned, yet I was heading for Pen-Mar Park by lunchtime with a mission in mind. I’d heard that pizza could be ordered for delivery to the park and, never one to miss such an opportunity, I set out on that mission.

Before I got there, however, I decided to point out one of the features of the trail that I have hitherto not mentioned. I’d passed through plenty of these spots and had just ignored them, so I thought I’d point out these little blots on the landscape to show that everything isn’t as beautiful as I normally say that it is.

In case you didn’t get the reference, Essex is the county in the UK in which I lived for most of my life yet, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what these metal monstrosities were. Then it came to me. Doh!!

I got to the park and met up with Lumberjack and Nobody, two great guys I’d met on the trail in recent days. We ordered pizza and recharged our phones and, while we were waiting, I shot this lovely view from the park, majestically overlooking yet another valley and a really gorgeous setting in which to jam pizza into your face. Classy, as ever!

Soon after leaving the park, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, separating the south from the north as well as Maryland from Pennsylvania. We were in our seventh state and we really felt like we were motoring now. It is funny how the very act of moving from one state into another gives you the impression of progress, which is probably why the 550 miles in Virginia had us all feeling stalled and a little frustrated by our lack of progress. That may even account for the so-called Virginia Blues.

Hiking with a belly full of pizza (and calories) was great and I arrived at Tumbling Run Shelter at about 6.20pm, only to run into another set of recently-met youngsters, Turbo, Poho, Tomahawk and Doc, along with Lumberjack and Nobody. All good people and very friendly to the old guy, which is always welcome. I set up tent next to another, rather alone, older guy, with his dog, Lucy, who only had a right arm and a right eye (the guy, not the dog). His name was deliciously self-deprecating, Lefty, and we had quite a laugh over it, though I could see how tricky many of the camping actions could be quite a trial for him. However, he refused my offer of help but we had a nice chat and I went to bed thinking how tough life must be for him.

The following day, I had another park in my sights, Caledonia State Park, which meant another 10 mile hike by lunchtime. The terrain was fairly benign and I made the 10 miles in only 4 hours, joining my fellow hikers based around a bunch of picnic tables, with families frolicking in a public pool nearby. It was tempting to go in the pool, but I felt oddly out of place and satisfied myself with a burger and a rest on the grass in the sunshine, while the guy in the concession stand kindly charged my phone for me.

I still had 10 miles of this 20 mile day to go, so I set out after about an hour and a half, making good progress until I started to hear some threatening thunder in the distance. This wouldn’t normally concern me too much, as the noise reverberates from a long way away, but this was clearly coming my way and, with only about a mile or two to go, the storm finally hit me. The rain was absolutely torrential, and immediately utterly soaked me, as I trudged forward through the rapidly liquefying path. I arrived at the shelter completely drenched and had to strip into my only remaining dry clothes, a pair of swimming trunks and my camp shirt. Eventually, the rain subsided, so I set up my tent outside, along with about five or six other guys and gals. There were a number of new faces there, including a really funny Irishman, uninspiringly called Ireland, who kept everybody’s spirits up.

The next morning, I did a quick inventory of my remaining clothes and found that my sweat-soaked clothes of a day or two before were slightly less wet than my rain-soaked clothes, so I reluctantly wore those, along with my swimming trunks; not a good look.

I was heading for yet another park, Pine Grove Furnace State Park, and my mission for today was to not only pass the true halfway mark, but also to celebrate that event at the park by partaking of the Half Gallon Challenge. However, more of that later. Passing the halfway mark was significant, as it meant, for the first time, I was closer to Katahdin than to Springer and it felt like a real accomplishment. Life is full of small victories and deserve to be recognized as such. I was boyishly excited, as you can see from this silly little video.

So, halfway having been reached, it was time for the celebration. This time-honored tradition for thru-hikers is to eat half a gallon of ice cream in as quick a time as possible. I know what you’re thinking, dumb, right? Especially for a 61 year old. Times varied from 90 minutes, down to the best time of 52 minutes by one of my fellow hikers earlier that day. I polished it off in 27 minutes and boasted how easy it had been. I did a time lapse video, but I’m sorry to say that it didn’t upload correctly to YouTube. However, take my word for it, I certainly stuck to the task. Feeling a little smug about my effort, I hung around for a while, looking at the gradually worsening weather, before deciding to chance it and heading out, alone, for the next shelter, seven and a half miles away. My luck held and I made it without rain, meeting up with a young guy I’d met a few weeks before, Bilbo, and meeting for the first time a guy known as Big Sexy, a really friendly, red headed, smiling boy who, when I asked him why he was so named, just shrugged and laughed.

Then it started.

SPOILER ALERT – THOSE WITH SENSITIVE STOMACHS SHOULD SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH

That night, alone in my tent, I realized that I may have made an error by eating pasta on top of my ludicrous amount of ice cream. Indeed, this feeling was exacerbated when I turned on my side and my stomach let out an audible, and painful, groan. “Hmmm,” I thought. This quickly turned to “oh, my God,” as the evident conclusion became quickly apparent. Suddenly, I was scrambling to leave my tent as everything wanted to exit my body as quickly as possible from every possible orifice. It was pitch dark, I was barefoot, virtually naked and desperate and, well, nature isn’t to be ignored and a dramatic evacuation took place. Restored once more to my tent and to the warmth of my sleeping bag, the warning that I had twenty minutes later was far more sudden and even more urgent. I barely poked my head out as I retched and only managed to hold everything before eventually diving into the bushes for an even more intense purging. It was truly awful.

I spent the remainder of the night on alert for another “moment” but, thankfully, I was clearly fully purged and the daylight came without further incident. I was physically, and literally, drained and completely incapable of hiking. Fortunately, I remembered that there was an inn not too many miles away, in Mt Holly Springs, that provides shuttles to hikers, so I called them and asked if they would kindly pick me up at a road only half a mile away. This they did and I pitched up yesterday morning in a dreadful state, completely unable to eat or even drink, even though I was severely dehydrated.

Then, as so often happens on this magical trail, aid came to me in the form of the wonderful Fran and Steve Davis, friends who have been following the blog. They had intended to see me on the trail and, when Fran called and I told her of my predicament, they drove over an hour to not only help me with my laundry, but also to drive me around and try to find gas for my stove. They brought a bunch of supplies with them and were, frankly, just the tonic I needed at that time. Thanks Fran and Steve, you were real life savers. When they left, I still felt weak and decided to stay another night to let everything get back to normal.

This morning, having slept for a solid nine hours, I woke feeling so much better, it was startling. As an added bonus, I discovered that there were two World Cup games on TV today, so I followed through with the plan for another day off the trail and am watching the games while updating my blog.

So, I’ve learned another lesson, which you may think I should have learned by the age of seven, yet it was another lesson that had a happy conclusion and showed me once more that, in your darkest hour, there is always a way forward, albeit one which may not be immediately apparent. I’ll be hitting the trail again tomorrow morning and will stay away from ice cream for at least the next week or so. Hopefully, by then, yesterday morning will have faded from my mind!

….and I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more……

Tuesday, June 24 – Saturday, June 28 VA664, US522, Front Royal – Turners Gap US Alt 40 (Hagerstown (Mile 1037.0 since Springer Mountain and only 1148.3 miles to Katahdin)

With Shenandoah behind me, the first day out of Front Royal had something of an anticlimactic feel about it, yet it was nothing more nor less than a gorgeous walk through a mainly green tunnel, sparingly interspersed with the odd ray of sunshine. Indeed, after about three or four miles, I found myself in a meadow and found that rarest of things on the AT – a bench. I love to get that unexpected moment, so I took the opportunity to video my surroundings. While it is great looking around oneself on the trail, it is immeasurably better to do it sitting down.

No sooner had I sat there, unpacking my early lunch, than I was joined by a local guy with a small backpack. He uses the bench most days to eat his lunch and clearly wanted me to move, but I was having none of it and retained my squatter’s rights! He didn’t seem inclined to share it with me, so I let him eat standing up and bouncing about like a five year old in need of the toilet.

We spoke about the trail and he said that the only hiking he ever does is to come to this bench and eat his lunch. Eventually, I finished and packed away and, as I got up to move on, he homed in on HIS spot; it really was bizarre how possessive he became. Spooky.

I have become aware of how much this is becoming a rather lonely endeavor, so I was pleased to pitch up at Dick’s Dome Shelter after a 15 mile day, and meet up with a couple of new interesting characters I’d met briefly before, Daddy Long Legs and Rudy. Rudy is doing the trail in memory of his grandmother, who passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, while his old college buddy, DLL, is documenting his journey on film and in a journal. They have been burying a small piece of one of her dresses at various spots on the trail and plan to bury the last piece at Katahdin. Rudy opened up to me about her and I was struck once more how hiking with somebody, or talking in camp with a fellow hiker, tends to reveal more than one would normally expose in “regular” conversation. I was moved by his story and his obvious devotion to his grandmother.

It was an early night, however, and I found myself on my air bed , inside my tent at 5.55, intending to read for a couple of hours. The next thing I knew, it was 8pm and, after a desultory effort to read at that time, I passed out once more until the morning. Marvelous.

The next day was something of a test for all hikers at this point. If we were to make any real progress, it was going to be an 18 or 20 mile day, or it would only be an easy 9 or 10. The problem was the roller coaster, a dreadful section that contains endless ups and downs over rocky terrain and that come after a relatively benign beginning 9 or 10 miles. I decided to push on through, as the goal was the Bears Den Hostel, with the “hiker special” of $30 for a bunk, laundry, a shower, breakfast and, crucially, a pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. By the time I entered the roller coaster, I had committed myself, so pushed on, with the thought of the Ben & Jerry’s uppermost in my mind. The fact that, with about three miles to go, I could have stopped at a shelter, with thunder threatening to ruin my day, shows that the ice cream was definitely having an impact.

I got to the hostel about five minutes before the heavens opened and enjoyed my hiker special with an additional relish that always comes when you are able to poke one in the eye of the weather. This was a rare victory on my part, I should point out.

The day had really taken it out of me, as it had others, and my ambition the next day was very limited, only intending to go about 11 miles to a shelter within about 9 or 10 miles of Harpers Ferry, the town traditionally regarded as halfway through the trail. However, when I got to the shelter, Daddy Long legs and Rudy were there and I decided to hike on a further 3 miles with them to Keys Gap, where I discovered that more food was to be had about 400 yards off the trail.

Food has become something of a cause for me, as the infamous hiker’s hunger seems to have permeated my every thought and I am taking huge advantage of every opportunity to stuff my face as full as possible in a frenzy of guilt-free eating.

The 3 miles went quickly, chatting with and learning more about Rudy so that, by the time we arrived, another 14 mile day was under the belt. Another burger was ferociously dispatched, along with several candies and sodas.

A real landmark had been passed earlier in the day, as we passed the 1000 mile point in our adventure, so I got my camera out to record what I believed to be “the moment.”

Feeling fairly pleased with myself, I then proceeded to pass a further two 1000 markers within the next 500 yards, so I really don’t know when I actually passed that mark. I posted all three markers, with me in the picture, on my Facebook page “My Appalachian Trial”, along with several other pictures I’ve taken over the trip. This seems to be an easier vehicle for photos than WordPress, so I’ve rather abandoned the photos and videos page on this site in favor of Facebook. Please “like” the page if you want to see more pics.

Having gorged myself again, camping seemed to be restricted to the side of a busy road, so the three of us set up within 20 feet of this blaring highway, only to all sleep like babies and remark upon the fact in the morning. Extraordinary.

I knew that yet another highlight was coming the following morning, as I was about to leave Virginia, after 550 miles in the state. As a consequence, I was ready to snap another border crossing, only to find that no such marker exists. I couldn’t believe it. The state had been part of my life for nearly two months but let me go without so much as a nod. You can see my confusion as I sat down for a quick farewell in this video.

Harpers Ferry was a place I’d been looking forward to for several days but, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy aside, I was terribly disappointed in this disjointed little tourist trap. The ATC was a neat little place, with the chance to get water, sodas and pictures recording our journey and checking in at the conservancy as a sort of record. I was number 856 to have passed through and I took a look in the book at the friends I’d met who were now ahead of me due to my cellulitis. It reinforced some of the loneliness of the trip but strengthened my determination to continue my quest.

After a BBQ lunch at Hannah’s in the old village, I headed out and settled at Ed Garvey Shelter, some 6 miles out of town. There is a walk along the towpath next to the Potomac that was absolutely sweltering, with a gentle incline for about three miles, or so it seemed. Several people had taken the day to spend time on the fast flowing river in boats and rubber rings. Indeed, I saw my old friend Billy Goat, who called to me from one such boat as I crossed the bridge. He must have recognized my slow, lumbering trudge!

I had another excellent sleep at the campsite I chose and woke this morning with another limited agenda, as I had to go into Hagerstown to attend to some business. This was a very easy hike of 11 miles through Maryland, with a lot of the terrain flat and wide, even though there were a couple of climbs that brought rocks into play. I’m sure the rocks are there to soften us up for the next state, Pennsylvania, often called Rocksylvania by hikers.

I passed through Gathland State Park, a wonderful little area full of Civil War history and I was lucky enough to run into a woman who seemed charmed by the British accent once more and allowed me to charge my rapidly depleting phone battery in her museum. I was drawn into the displays however and spent a happy hour learning about this area from the very informative lady and the part it had played in the Civil War.

Diane had been particularly eager to know where I was going to spend the night over the past few days and I soon discovered why. Having hitched a lift with a couple of young lads all the way into Hagerstown, I settled into my room, only to have a visitor at reception. Who could it be? As I walked down the hall, a couple of things fell in place and I soon discovered that it was my old mate, Ian Gilland, who was visiting New York with his partner and had driven nearly 250 miles that day, in collusion with Diane, to visit me. THAT is a friend. I was delighted and we quickly went out and devoured about 40 chicken wings, chocolate fudge cake, ice cream and a couple of Buds. Gilbo then returned me to my motel and headed back to New York. What a guy.

It is things like this that remind me how much I must mean to some people and I am extremely gratified to have made so many great friends over the years. Diane has now met quite a few of my old mates and discovered how special they are to me and I am to them. From time to time, when we have so much time on our hands, it is incredibly satisfying to think about those we have touched and those who have touched us.

Gilbo may not know it, but his visit meant more to me than he could ever have thought.

Here’s to the next 1000 miles!!

Bear Necessities

Monday, June 16 – Monday, June 23, VA664, Reid’s Gap, Waynesboro – US522, Front Royal (Mile 965.6 since Springer Mountain and only 1219.7 miles to Katahdin)

It’s been about a week since my last post and it’s been a week dominated by the Shenandoah National Park. I’ll return to the park later, as I had to re-trace some ground after my stop in Waynesboro and actually hike from Reid’s Gap to the normal stopping off point for Waynesboro, which is Rockfish Gap. Billy Goat, with his mom and his aunt, had kindly dropped me off and I’d had a lazy Sunday in Waynesboro, gorging myself, before returning to Reid’s Gap last Monday morning.

I’d arranged a price with a cab company the previous evening for the trip and had various quotes of between $35 and $75. When the young guy came to pick me up that Monday, 20 minutes late, he started on about the cost per mile and I stopped him right there and told him it was $35. He thought about it for ten seconds and said “ok” but didn’t speak to me again for the entire journey. I wish I could use that trick on London cabbies.

The day started well, with a delicious bottle of Powerade left in a cooler by a Trail Angel at the start of the Trail, so I knew I was in for a good day. This improved when I ran into Rip Van Winkel, a nice guy (chemistry teacher) I’d met previously at another shelter. Being of roughly the same vintage, we hiked moderately well together at a fairly similar pace and fell into a chatty day.

Before I bumped into RVW, I found a lovely overlook and shot this video.

I’d planned to do about 15 miles, stopping about 5 miles short of Rockfish Gap, at the Paul C Wolfe Shelter. However, as RVW and I were coming down the steep descent from Humpback Mountain, we both heard voices below. More disconcertingly, these voices were many, loud and predominately female. Arriving at the shelter, the entire place had been overrun by a group from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, with three adults and 27 girls between about 13 and 15.

To be fair to the leader of the group, he had told the girls to leave the shelter free but there wasn’t a single tent site to be had. As far as I’m concerned, getting youngsters out on the Trail at a young age is a terrific thing to do, though leaders should consider the impact upon others and limit their numbers accordingly. Consequently, RVW and I moved on, now accompanied by Aussie, a young guy who had already walked 22 miles and was nearly out for the count.

We made Rockfish Gap, where RVW was being picked up by an old friend! while Aussie merely moaned and groaned in the rear. Having already spent a few nights in Waynesboro, I really wanted somewhere cheap and easy to stay the night, as camping in the vicinity wasn’t available. I spotted the Inn at Afton on the top of a hill and RVW’s friend kindly dropped me off. It was dreadful! There was no wifi, no laundry, the wallpaper was literally peeling off and the furniture had some clear and current termite activity. After sitting there for ten minutes, I found an alternative nearby and got a refund. A kindly local guy saw me walking and stopped and asked if I needed a lift. When I told him where, he said “that’s even worse than where you’ve just come from.” Fortunately, there was wifi and laundry, so, for me, it was almost the Ritz compared to the other place, so I stuck with it. However, it’d you ever find yourself at Rockfish Gap, don’t sleep local – go into Waynesboro!!

The following day, I was really looking forward to hitting Shenandoah National Park, though you can see from my first video in the park that I was really underwhelmed by my immediate first impression. It was so darn scruffy and unkempt and very disappointing.

You can see that it was a very hot day and we spent quite a bit of this day in the sunshine, leading to something over an over-reaction of my sweat glands, as I became completely drenched within thirty minutes. Not nice at all. It was also my second consecutive 20 mile day that ended with a lung bursting climb into Blackrock Hut. Indeed, I was anxious to start seeing some of the famed Shenandoah bears and thought one was chasing me up the hill, as I heard a pounding going on nearby. Imagine my disappointment, not least also my concern, when I realized that the pounding was my own heart, beating rapidly and noisily.

The following morning, I headed out from the shelter (referred to as huts in SNP) and up to Blackrock itself for an early climb. This was a gorgeous lookout that allowed me to pause and eat more food, a new and increasing habit of mine, while I shot another little video.

Young Amber, who you saw briefly in that clip, is married to a military man who was deployed seven times to Iraq and Afghanistan. When I asked here if he had got through it all ok, she said that he’d been shot several times but nothing too serious!! The fortitude with which our military families, both in the US and the UK, take their responsibilities, is nothing short of astounding.

My plan for the day was to get to Pinefield Hut, only about 15 miles away, as I’d read of the various waysides that exist in the park. These are basically places where the general public can eat like normal human beings, while hikers can fill their boots with abandon to assuage their ravenous hiker hunger. To reach the Loft Mountain Wayside necessitated a one mile detour (half there, half back), yet I felt it was worth it, along with Amber and a young guy called Gator. It certainly was worth it, so much so that I slept for about an hour after my blow out on the grass outside. Marvelous!

I still hadn’t seen a bear and I was hearing reports of them as if there were a hundred bears to every person in the park; it was starting to get a little embarrassing. Indeed, that morning, after Black Rock, I had stopped for a break when Amber caught up with me and commented that I must attract animals as I pass through. She said, “Did you see the two piles of bear” and here she hesitated, “excrement?” back there, she continued, having decided upon the mot juste and certainly the first, and only time I’d heard it referred to in this way. “A bear was right next to the first pile, only ten feet into the bushes. I’d missed it again, as I did later in camp, when somebody called out that a bear was on the hillside overlooking our camp. I was already in my sleeping bag and simply shrugged. If it wasn’t meant to be, then that was ok.

The following day was just an eleven mile day, as I had to get into Elkton to pick up a food delivery from Diane. On the hike, I stopped to record my second, revised impressions of Shenandoah and broached the subject of yellow blazing, the practice of taking short cuts on the trail and not sticking entirely to the proscribed trail.

I’ve had a chance to re-think this position, as I’ve spoken with a number of the lads and lasses out here and they are all here for the adventure. They may not necessarily be hiking “every flippin’ inch” like yours truly, but they are certainly hiking their own hike, many of them with issues that they need to resolve. While it wouldn’t work for me, I can see that they don’t stop overnight in motels as much as I do, so they are likely having it even tougher than I am. So my revised view of the Shenandoah’s remains, but I’m revising my view of yellow blazers. Just hike your own hike and don’t pay attention to what others want to do. After all, it is the journey and not the destination that counts.

In Elkton, I also hoped to be able to catch the England v Uruguay World Cup game, though had no idea how I could achieve this latter objective. Luckily, I hitched a ride from a friendly truck driver and he dropped me right by a Mexican restaurant, which is a big fave with hikers. Filling my face with fajitas, guacamole, tacos, nachos, all washed down with a couple of beers, I got into a conversation with a young waiter who liked football (soccer) and told him that I had an iPad and could watch the game on it if I could have access to wifi somewhere. He asked his boss and I was set up, with a complimentary beer, with more nachos and salsa, to watch the game. Even with this kind gesture, England still lost and exited the World Cup.  Again!!

It was now too late to return to the trail, so I found a cheap little motel and left my return till morning.

The motel owner shuttled me back to the trailhead the following morning at 7am, along with a couple of section hikers. It was a gorgeous, crisp day and I hadn’t been hiking for more than about 30 minutes when I saw and heard a disturbance off to the right in the trees. I could see a bear, about twenty five feet up in the tree and starting to move down. I quickly got my camera out and took a lousy still picture, then turned the video on. Imagine my delight when not one, but four bears jumped out of the tree in quick succession and ran further into the undergrowth.

You’ll notice that old big-mouth here doesn’t say anything at all on this particular video; I was an exhilarating combination of mesmerized and scared at the same time. This turned out to be quite the morning, as about twenty minutes later, I ran into a deer on the trail (below), then, when filling my water bottle at a stream, another bear, a big beast, simply emerged from the bushes only twenty yards ahead of me on the trail, didn’t notice me and waddled off down the trail before turning off. This was my clearest encounter and I couldn’t get to my camera, as my hands were wet.

I was having a terrific time and decided to stop and have a peaceful lunch at Bearfence Hut, only to be joined by a very friendly deer who had no objection to being filmed. There is good and bad about this as deers are carriers of deer ticks, possibly the most dangerous animal on the entire Appalachian Trail. These little ticks embed themselves in your skin and can transmit Lyme disease unless you remove them within about a day. Regularly checking yourself for these little blighters (ticks, not deer) is one of my new daily tasks, having found about four or five in Shenandoah.

You can tell I was happy about the day’ event, as I even stopped in front of another view to talk about it later in the day.

I had decided to camp at Big Meadows Campsite and turned up there as several of my new hiking buddies, Nobody, Lumberjack, Doctor, Tomahawk and a few others were leaving the campsite after a shower and laundry. I luckily ran into the camp host, Eileen, and her husband and she seemed to take a liking to the British accent, offering me a free camp spot on her own site. Perfect! The next morning, she came out of the huge RV that they share and offered me coffee, a banana and even some Off, to keep the ticks at bay. Being a Brit in the states is such a bonus sometimes!

I planned a 19 mile day on Saturday, ignoring Luray, a regular stopping point, and hiking on to Pass Mountain Hut. Leaving the campground, however, we got the first sign that we were in for a change of weather, with cloud drifting into the valley below us. It was a lovely sight, though I knew that the day was going to get a little more difficult.

I had yet another restaurant in mind, Skyland, and I was put in the corner when I arrived there. Nobody really wants to sit near us when we are hiking and I’m similarly happy with the arrangement. After all, who wants to be the source of a bit of nose sniffing halfway through a meal? We smell and we know it; why subject others to it if we can be tucked away? Mind you, once seated, they certainly didn’t mind taking my money and I woofed down some chowder, a huge burger and their specialty, a baked ice cream pie. This must have come in at about 2500 calories, which pretty much allowed me to breeze through the afternoon with my new found power. It really is a case of calories in and calories out and Shenandoah is certainly helping out with the calories in.

Bear number six became apparent when I caught up with Lumberjack, who was hanging out on the trail with no particular plan to move forward. He’d seen a bear in his path and the bear, similarly, had no particular plan to get out of Lumberjack’s way. Of course, I pulled out the camera to record this stand off.

At this point, the rain that had threatened had started and I was soaked to the skin, though there was no real alternative to simply putting in the miles until camp. Fortunately, the rain had subsided quite a bit when I got to camp and I was able to set up, albeit in rather damp conditions. The dampness pervades everything and it can be a miserable task to try to warm up and find something dry to wear. So far, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky with the weather. Quite what people do with, say ten days of consecutive rain, I really can’t imagine.

I knew that I’d like to dry off in Front Royal but that I couldn’t attempt to do it in one day, as it was 26 miles ahead and, with the way in which the huts are set up, two thirteen mile days beckoned. The first took me, as well as the little group I mentioned earlier, to yet another wayside, though I shot this great view while on a stop with Nobody. The wind was up and it would rain later, but it was a gorgeous morning.

At the wayside, we all charged our phones and basically hung out and were going in and out of the shop grazing, with burgers, candy bars, milkshakes (I had two) and fries. The camaraderie between the hikers is wonderfully friendly and, even though we all look like we need a wash, and we always do, all the visitors and bikers would stop and chat and were genuinely interested in our adventure.

Leaving the others behind, as I wanted to get to the shelter before the threatened rain, I ran into yet another bear, my seventh, up a tree. I filmed it but you can hardly see him, so it’s not included here.

Another soggy night and yet another bad choice by me for a site to pitch my tent, left me with a fairly sleepless night and I got up this morning very pleased with my choice to spend the night out of the woods. It was an easy 13 miles today, though I saw yet another bear shoot out of the undergrowth and simply cross the path in front of me.

It has been a joy to see these bears and my initial fears have been entirely removed by the clear indication that they are even more frightened of me than I am of them. Whatever I may have written previously, when I may have seemed a bit blasé, I have been bloody desperate to see a bear and now my count is eight in four days. They are stupendous creatures and I feel honored to have had the chance to see them on their turf, and not mine.

So the Shenandoah’s are now behind me and my last impression was that it was great to see the bears, but that the green tunnel was too prevalent and the best views to be had are often on Skyline Drive. It is certainly a magnificent park and one that I’m glad I’ve walked, though you can see in the video that I nearly got lost.

It’s a Kind of Magic

Friday, June 13 – Sunday, June 15, US60, Buena Vista – VA664, Reid’s Gap, Waynesboro (Mile 838.7 since Springer Mountain and only 1346.6 miles to Katahdin)

Buena Vista was a great stop, with plenty of food and a couple of beers to raise my energy level and recalibrate my enthusiasm.

I’ve slipped into a friendship with Billy Goat, as we seem to be walking at pretty much a similar pace and have ended in the same place for a couple of evenings. He is a quiet, modest guy who is actually a real life hero, despite his protestations, as an ER doctor in San Francisco. He was due to meet his mother and aunt at Reid’s Gap on Saturday afternoon at about 4pm and that tied well into my plan to get into Waynesboro that evening for the England v Italy World Cup game, as he offered to give me a lift.

Consequently, when we left Buena Vista that morning, we had decided to try to get to Priests Shelter, a daunting day of over 20 miles, especially as we could only get a shuttle back to the trailhead at 10am, so our day’s hiking couldn’t begin until 10.30. We knew that we’d likely be hiking nearly until dark.

This day turned out to be my best hiking day thus far, not least because we encountered three examples of trail magic.

The first happened over breakfast in the hostel/cafe we’d been staying in, The Blue Dog Art Cafe, the previous evening. We were having our fill of breakfast with a couple of lady hikers when the owner of the cafe brought in a basket that had been donated by a group of local women. In the basket, there were items for hikers and we were told to help ourselves. I chose a pack of hand wipes, always handy, so to speak, on this bacteria overload of a trip.

At the Trailhead, there was another large group of hikers, along with a lovely gent who was handing out all sorts of goodies to us. I opted for the baked beans and frankfurters, and took an apple for dessert. Two bits of trail magic prior to taking a step was a great omen for the day.

You may remember from my previous post that I cut short my day the night before to get some food inside me. It was also because I knew that there was a bloody great hill coming up and it was this hill that I was facing this morning. In that last post, I forgot to mention that I had just been thinking that the week back from my infection had been excellent, with good mileage and not a single fall. Within seconds of this daft thought I was on my backside again, for the eleventh time, only 200 yards from the road and the end of the day!

The hill I had been fearing was certainly tough, though significantly less so because it was the first, as opposed to the last, climb of the day. The beans and breakfast may have had something to do with it as well.

Once at the top, I relaxed and strode out confidently and was rewarded when a small deer burst out of the undergrowth in front of me, crossed my trail and settled in the less dense bushes on the other side, only about 30 yards in front of me. I pulled out my phone and shot this small video of young Bambi.

This set the scene for a joyous day that next led me through a couple of balds which are, as you doubtless now know, my favorite feature out here. I managed to FaceTime Diane and thought I may as well get yet another (two) shots of these wonderful features. The second was shot because a short walk through the first led to an unexpected extension through a little gap to the more expansive second. I know I’m a little boyishly enthusiastic about these things, but you really need to see how magnificent they are and I never tire of seeing them; I hope you feel the same.

Unfortunately, the only bad part of this terrific hiking day was the fact that we were constantly expecting rain, yet it never came and the Trail spent a lot of time either on balds or in direct sunlight on the edge of the forest. As a result, I missed the best opportunity yet to get my solar charger charged up, as it was packed away, under the raincover on my backpack. As we learned in a previous post, I’d never make it as a weather forecaster.

The third, and most spectacular trail magic came about 10 miles into the day. I had been running low on water and needed to get into my pack to get a few more protein bars, when I ran into Billy Goat and Mookie, another hiker who had shared the hostel with us the previous evening. They were looking rather pleased with themselves, next to two coolers. This often happens, as Trail Angels leave coolers regularly, though they are often empty by the time I arrive. Not this time! There was a regular cornucopia of treasures to be had, including Gatorade and REAL coke, as well as Snickers (the hiker’s favorite candy bar) and other tempting morsels. I confess that I really took advantage of the find, yet left tons of stuff for those who were following. Thanks Goman, a 2012 thru-hiker. These gestures are never taken for granted and appreciated far more than you might expect.

I eventually got to Priests Shelter at about 7.45 that evening, well satisfied with both the mileage and the day.

The following morning, yesterday, Billy Goat and I set out separately, though within about 20 minutes of each other, to hike to Reid’s Gap to meet his mom. The hike down from The Priest is a rocky, yet spectacular descent from over 4,000 feet to less than 1,000 feet. Every now and then, there are breaks in the trees to give expansive views of the valley below, as shown here.

To be honest, glorious though these views were, the descent and following climb, back up over 4,000, were tortuously hard work and I found the hike a little joyless, which is unusual for me. That said, there is a considerable feeling of achievement once you have “conquered” this challenge, particularly because of the preponderance of rocks in your path along the way.

I treated myself to lunch near the top of the mountain, mainly for the gorgeous view that I had in front of me. How bad is that?image

Despite this challenging hike, Billy Goat and I met up with his mom and his aunt and they got me to the game on time!! Sadly, England lost, but I managed to consume enormous quantities of chicken wings and a few beers, so not an entirely wasted day!

Today, in line with my plan, I am staying in Waynesboro for a zero day and luxuriating in a lie in, a breakfast of champions in Waffle House, followed by several coffees in Starbucks and expect to get on the outside of many wings again later in the same sports bar as I watch the culmination of the US Open Golf Championship. Not a mountain in sight for today, but looking forward to tons of them tomorrow.

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