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!