Among Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Pennsylvania has the reputation of being a trail with punishing, boot-shredding rocks. Hannah and I have no reason to doubt that reputation, but we’ve hiked in Pennsylvania before, once near the Delaware Water Gap in the east and again near Gettysburg to the south at Boiling Springs, and found no such mean-spirited rocks.
It’s a nasty Patriots Day on a mid-April Monday in New England as we travel by way of Pennsylvania to Virginia for Will and Laurel’s wedding. In Boston, the steady rain is pelting the marathon runners similar to what our daughter Molly experienced running into 20 to 30 mph headwinds from Hopkinton to Boston in 2007. Today we hope the drenching rain abates and our ponchos will deflect the light rain.
Crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York State and heading to Jersey on I-287, we pass the senior living complex where my Mom and Dad lived after moving from their home of more than fifty years in Radburn, NJ. Dad died three years ago while Mom passed on last year; they each lived rich lives into their 90s. As I get nostalgic, I do think how much they enjoyed hearing about the lives of their grandchildren. I miss not being able to call up and talk about Robyn’s recent college degree, Will’s new job, and Molly’s new house. But damn, I had so many good years of calls and visits; we all had a great run together.
As we cross into Pennsylvania, we learn that this area is called the Slate Belt. That is an ominous sign for today’s hike. Thanks to my Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Companion, we find the trailhead at the far end of the little town of Wind Gap. With the rain now just mist, we pack our ponchos in Hannah’s backpack as I big-heartedly carry our water bottles.
Heading under Route 33 to the white blazes of the AT, we are set to climb to Hahn’s Lookout, a mile south on the AT. Here the AT is a trail of finely designed switchbacks with the usual run-of-the-mill rocks; but no rockier than other trails that we have hiked up and down the AT.
It’s like we have stolen a day of hiking since it was iffy whether we would be on the trail at all, given the morning’s drenching rain. But no two ways about it, we are hiking in a cloud. Arriving at Hahn’s Outlook there is nothing to see of the valley below. Mist goes from light to heavy; with a wet trail, we step carefully among the rocks.
Rising to the ridge line after a modest 400 to 500 feet gain in elevation, we start to see that the rocks are having baby rocks. Protruding from the ground like the fins of a shark or the scales of a stegosaurus, they make our foot plants uneven; we find ourselves hiking with swiveling ankles adjusting to the varied, moist rocks from the rain over the last 18 hours.
With little to see hiking in a cloud, we set a goal of finding the Kirkwood Shelter 4.6 miles from the trailhead. The rocky trail is very well-marked as we walk single file; we don’t expect to see anyone. Who’d be hiking in the mist of early April but Maine-iacs? Northbound thru-hikers starting in Georgia are only a month into their hike, spending nights somewhere in North Carolina or Virginia. Southbound thru-hikers cannot even start til next month (May) because of the snowy conditions at Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Still buoyed by the thoughts that this is bonus hiking, we see no signs of the shelter 90 minutes into our ridgeline hike. Due to the rocky terrain, we are hiking at best 2 mph. This is no trail for sneakers, but our hiking boots provide us with modest protection. Over the next 20 minutes, we find no blue blaze trail (side trail) to the hoped-for shelter. The rocks are more than annoying as we start to feel it in our knees due to the many angled steps we have taken on the wet rocks.
At a clearing of high tension wire towers, Hannah has had enough. She takes off her socks to revitalize her feet, but she says, I’ll go ten minutes more if you want. (We’ve been out nearly two hours.) But I don’t want to and am ready to turn back. A full afternoon of exercise is what we wanted; and in that we have succeeded. There is no reason to subject ourselves to the rocky landscape anymore.
Turning for home, we still have nearly two hours of rocky trail hiking ahead of us. We are now firm believers in the legend of the rocks on the AT in PA. We are, in fact, disciples. Three hours of rocks has us swearing we will never return to Pennsylvania to hike. Ever. The Land of Brotherly Love? Not on the AT near Wind Gap!
The mistiness has stopped, but the trail remains wet and as you might have guessed, quite rocky. We have no way around the rocks but through them. The rocks rule. I bow to their majesty. I will never trespass their sacred realm again.
Tomorrow, it’s off to Maryland where we will find some of our favorite trails on the AT. Rocks? Sure, but not so sharp, unforgiving, or numerous. This part of the AT in Pennsylvania is the kind of hike that could make you hate hiking.
Hannah’s final words to others: Don’t Do It. We’ve done it for you; you don’t have to beat yourselves up.
Do I hear an Amen!