Editor’s note: This is a reprint (with Jim’s permission) of an email from Jim Heaney sent during his “through-hike” of the Appalachian Trail.
If you are keeping track at home, I walked into Delaware Water Gap, PA yesterday afternoon; on the Trail, I’m now 0.2 miles from the Delaware River, and about a mile more from landfall in New Jersey. Mothmom was kind enough to pick me up from there to take a few days off (“zero days” for you lingo nuts).
So, I have survived Pennsylvania. I have to say that my days spent covering the 230 miles of PA were some of my favorite. Among the highlights:
- The early stretch featured concession stands almost daily; I was able to buy hot lunches three days in a row. I think I mentioned that, but it’s worth repeating.
- Coming out of Boiling Springs, a little resort town, there was a 13-mile valley walk that featured cornfields, three highway crossings, almost no elevation change—basically the opposite of the climbs, descents and ridge walks we normally have.
- The towns of Duncanon, Port Clinton, and Palmerton were quirky and exceptionally hiker-friendly.
- I mentioned the half-gallon challenge and my time of 48 minutes. What I did not know at the time was (a) the actual record is under 10 minutes, from some past year; and (b) a few days later, Fenix (his spelling, not mine) did his in 17 minutes. Fenix, mind you, is about three inches shorter and fifteen pounds lighter than I am.
- While the deer and bears sightings have been mostly absent, and I made it through the state without seeing even a single rat snake (most hikers saw rattlesnakes, and some saw copperheads), I had two interesting animal sightings: an eagle landed in a tree above me, and I followed a porcupine on the AT for about a tenth of a mile.
- The wild blueberries are out, and they’re delish. Also tasted mulberries, black raspberries and wild horseradish.
- The climb out of Lehigh Gap featured a 1000-foot up including a rock climb/scramble where I put my trekking poles away and resorted to using my hands. This put me on a stark and barren high ridge overlooking the valley, beautiful in that zinc-mine-turned-EPA-Superfund-site sort of way. There was no potable water for 15 miles starting with this climb; some combination of the mining operations destroyed any natural springs, and any water that you did find might still be contaminated. However, that is part of the history of this area, and like the valley walk, I found it fascinating.
- In addition to the occasional Coke and snack, I was a beneficiary of just about the best Trail magic I’ve heard of so far. The day after my last message, I was sitting in the “lobby” of the tenement called the Hotel Doyle—later this day, a pigeon would fly into my room through the wide open window I was hoping would cool the place off a little—chatting with Stripe and contemplating breakfast (coffee and beer were the same price), when Jack On A Mountain returns from his breakfast with a sister-in-law and her husband, rushes to our table and asks, “Hey, are either of you interested in flying over the AT in a Piper Cub?” The husband is a pilot for American Airlines and an owner of the Duncannon International Airport (it’s real name). Sure enough, twenty minutes later I was taking aerial pictures of a rock overlook I had been on the day before. What was best was that there were some day hikers on the rock at the time, and they ran into some thru-hikers coming down the mountain, and told them of the fly-by; so when these thru-hikers came into town, some were talking about this plane flying over the AT; and Jack, Stripe and I were able to sit back and say, “Yep, we were in it.”
However, the last 70 miles of the state were the hardest 70 miles of the state, and it’s because of the rocks. It’s not like a normal rocky trail; it’s rocks on top of rocks, where even the most stable-looking rock may move when you step on it, and when the rocks are not moving, they are pointed straight in the air. This is a stretch that earned the state the alternating nicknames “Painsylvania” and “The Place Where Boots Go To Die.” It is like this for a few feet or a few tenths of a mile, over and over again, for that 70 miles, with one exception: yesterday we covered five or six miles of just rocks. The trail maintenance clubs like to joke that they sharpen the rocks for the thru-hikers every spring.
And that leads me to this week’s lesson: who is in charge of the AT? I don’t want to go too much into history—there are good summaries at www.appalachiantrail.org and in several books on the Trail that surely benefit from more research than my emails—but at a high level, I think it’s interesting to know this. The AT was first proposed in the 1920s, realized in the 1930s, and thru-hiked in 1948. However, the early Trail went through privately-held land and over some roads. By the 1960s, the threat of development on some of this land prompted Congress to pass the National Trails System Act, which put restrictions on what could be done with land crossed by the AT or other designated Scenic Trails (there are several—the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Florida Trail are the three I know of off the top of my head). I believe the act also authorized a committee named the Appalachian Trail Conference (or ATC), which had overseen the creation of the Trail in the first place, specifically to manage the AT. This management required both the acquisition of land within something like 30 feet on each side of the Trail itself (the “corridor”), as well as the upkeep of the Trail. Some of the acquisition of the corridor involved invoking “eminent domain” and reclaiming land from landowners apparently, but the less controversial way was to acquire nearby lands, and relocate the Trail.
Since the AT has always been 2000 miles or more, the ATC delegated Trail upkeep to local volunteer hiking clubs; today there are 30 or so of them. If you’re from the DC area, you may be familiar with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC); they maintain not only 240 miles of the AT from the Shenandoahs in Virginia to about half of Pennsylvania, but also the trails in Rock Creek Park and other local parks. From my perspective as a thru-hiker, the PATC distinguished itself by preparing well-graded trail with sensible switchbacks for climbs, clean and some new shelters, appropriate blazing of trees and signs notating vistas and water sources (which I promise to discuss one day), and evidence of involvement of “caretakers” (who are responsible for a small section of trail or a shelter), “croos” (singular “croo,” pronounced “crew,” who actually perform the trail maintenance), and “ridgerunners” (who are ombudsmen, walking stretches of the Trail to review trail conditions and make sure the hikers are ok). The PATC also has a lot of money. Other clubs worth noting are the Georgia AT Club (who love their trail but lack resources), the Roanoke AT Club (creator of evil, evil steep ups and downs but otherwise had well maintained trail), the Nantahala Hiking Club (not the cleanest shelters in the world), and the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club (which is responsible for a series of pointless ups and downs or “puds,” some unnecessarily steep climbs with no views, and a 17-mile relocation where we went about 4.5 miles north and otherwise just looped through a river valley—this is the Club I’ve asked all of you to remove from your Christmas lists).
I’ve spent the last few weeks with the likes of Pace, Stripe, Seabee, Blaze and Face, Shifty, Ace, Cornpatch, Lion King, Kodiak, Jug, and two other neat young people whose Trail handles I simply can’t publish in a family-friendly email. I also met up with Last Minute, a.k.a. Mark, the guy I met in backpacking 101 at the REI in Bailey’s Crossroads, VA. When I get back to the Trail after a week or more of slackpacking, resting, and maybe day hiking, I’m not sure who I’ll be around, but I’ll let you know.
One note about the last email: I mentioned that my sleeping bag “stopped working 12 degrees warmer”; I switched over to a “summer bag,” rated to keep you warm in temperatures as low as 55 degrees, so the 43-degree night required a little creativity (e.g., pretending I was warm, etc.) I have a 20-degree bag as well, but sent it home when it got warmer, saving over 1.5 pounds of pack weight. It’s all about saving weight, if I haven’t made that clear.
Shoutouts to Gene, who weekended with me in the southern Shenandoahs, and Deb and Peter, who day-hiked with me for the northern 10 miles of Maryland.