The heat, the bugs, the rocks
By now I was no stranger to heat, but as July approached the heat became more and more oppressive. I was now accustomed to my clothes being constantly dripping wet, but without rain. My shirt smelled putrid; like rancid sweat. There was just no way to keep anything dry, what with the humidity. In addition, I had large clouds of gnats following me wherever I went. They would hover right in front of my eyes, diving inside whenever they got an opening. Sometimes I would have to stop and pick out a tiny gnat carcass. I was told later that apparently our eyes are just the right viscosity for egg-laying… Awesome!
Grizz and Moose and I woke from our eventful night of the porcupine and continued on. Their goal was to make it to Lickdale, PA by the end of the week to meet their girlfriends. I really enjoyed their company, and if they were pulling large days I figured we would run into Fun-Size and Bottle Cap by then.
We enjoyed a fairly uneventful day of walking, stopping to watch some rock climbers deal with a local rattle snake, and a long break at Peters Mountain Shelter. Toward the end of our day, we got caught in a thunderstorm and the trail became a giant puddle. After a while, I just gave up trying to keep my feet dry and sloshed through the standing water. We finally came to the Yellow Springs Village Site to camp. It was interesting to think that the spot used to be a coal mining village, and that people used to live up here where the trail is. We were totally soaked, but in good spirits as we cooked dinner and set up our tents.
Hitting bottom no. 1
The next morning we set out for Lickdale, which was ten miles away. It wasn’t raining, but my shoes were still wet. This was a problem because I had swapped shoes at my mail drop in Duncannon, and my new shoes were Goretex. The problem with waterproof shoes is that they work too well. Breathable shoes will drain the water, but goretex keeps water in. Not only that, but I discovered that the shoes were creating very painful hot spots on the tops of my toes. My feet got both soggy and raw.
As the day wore on, I discovered that my phone had been water damaged again in the storm the day before. I could not listen to any music to help motivate me through the pain in my feet. I also couldn’t use the earpiece in my phone when I made a call. Several times while I was walking and trying to get my phone to work, I went off on a side trail for a little while and had to backtrack. The stress and frustration were mounting.
Finally, we made it to the side-trail to Lickdale. This unfortunately meant that we needed to hoof it another two miles into town. I was already short-tempered from a stressful morning, and now I had to continue walking on soggy, blistered feet for another two miles, before I could get out of my waterlogged boots. I was in a sour mood when we finally walked into town, but the promise of four McDonald’s double cheeseburgers and all the soda I could drink kept me motivated. My spirits were up after consuming something like 3,000 calories, but I was still down. I decided to treat myself to a night of comfort at a nearby hotel. I said good-bye to Grizz and Moose and their girlfriends I had just met, and holed up in a hotel watching movies for the evening.
And then there was one
I awoke feeling better the next day, and took my time leaving the hotel. I briefly tried to hitch a ride back to the trail, but resigned myself to walking back. When I made it to the trail head, I was met by an older couple doing trail magic. They handed me some food and gatorade and told me that they’d be at the next crossing later that day. The man was a trail maintainer, and told me to watch out for the abundance of poison ivy up on the ridge. Woo hoo. There were some other hikers there, among them were Mellow Johnny and Roadrunner, who was German.
Up on the ridge I saw Grizz and Moose again with their girlfriends. I hung out with them for a bit and pressed on. At the next crossing I came across the same couple I met at the beginning of the day and stayed there for a while. I ended up that night at the 501 shelter, which was a larger shelter with a skylight and bunks instead of your normal shelter.
The next morning I awoke and realized my phone was about to die. I got a quick glance of the terrain for that day, and decided that I ought to push for Port Clinton, PA, which was 24 miles away. It was a haul, but I needed to charge my phone since I was keeping my guidebook on it.
During the day, I walked through two consecutive thunderstorms. The sun was even shining during one of them. But along the way, I was able to hang out with Barbarosa and Pitchouli off and on at least.
I made it to Port Clinton that evening. The town consisted of one street corner and a major highway. The cool thing was that hikers could stay in a pavilion for free! But first, I needed to resupply. Alone, I began the futile act of hitchiking into Hamburg, PA for a trip to the store. I stood out on the sidewalk next to the highway with my thumb in the air for about 40-45 minutes before a woman in a little red car turned around and picked me up. She seemed genuinely interested in the hike, and a little eccentric. She went into the store with me as I loaded up my shopping basket, and then gave me a ride back to Port Clinton. I entered the small Port Clinton Hotel in search of sustenance. I sat down next to Kokopelli, and indulged in a routine massive calorie intake.
After a full stomach and charge in my phone, I started my walk to the pavilion. I looked down and noticed that my boots were still on my feet. I removed them, but I was not prepared for the level of pruning I would experience. It was painful. Every step felt like a few daggers being jabbed into the bottom of my feet. I was really starting to hate my shoes. I met Big Yankee, who was pacing about and talking on the phone. He showed me where to get water at a spigot on someone’s house, and I rolled out my pad and sleeping bag and attempted sleep; at least until the entire Fun Patrol rolled up from the Firehouse bar and did their evening rituals. Despite this, and the ever oppressive heat, I eventually fell asleep.
The next morning I had to pick up mail at 8 am. It was raining, so I had no problem waiting around, and then no problem continuing to sit out of the drizzle for a while longer. I had gotten a care package from my friend Kristin (thanks buddy!) and a replacement Sawyer Squeeze filter bag from home. As I was reading, Barbarosa ran up to the pavilion and asked if anyone needed a ride to Hamburg. I made the split-second decision to go with him, and had the monumental task of consolidating all my spread-out gear. I threw my stuff in my pack a little too quickly and ran to the car. Barbarosa, Pitchouli and I spent the afternoon hanging out at a huge Cabella’s, rife with taxidermy. So many exotic animals were affixed to some replication of their natural habitat, making the store a giant diorama of “who-would-win-in-a-fight”?
The next day we walked back to Cabella’s to try and grab a ride back to Port Clinton. The shop sometimes gave shuttles to hikers, but not this day. We decided to hitch, and a friendly gentleman pulled over in his pickup and yelled, “where’m ah gonna put yas?” We answered him, “uh, the back?” He stopped for us, and we hopped in the covered bed with his tools.
I walked a while over more ridges, and through the flatness and rockiness of Pennsylvania. My goal was still to catch Bottle-Cap and Fun-Size, but they were still just as far ahead as when I started killing myself trying to catch them. After several 20+ mile days, I was still no closer to them than I had been previously, and it was starting to get discouraging. Not only that, but the rocks were getting more and more obtrusive. As I leapt across boulders, I became painfully aware of how long it was taking me to do my miles.
By the time I got to Bake Oven Knob Shelter, I had done two of the famous rock hazards of PA. The Knife Edge was exactly as it sounds. I had to tread carefully on the points of rocks as the trail got narrower and narrower. On either side of me was wet rock face. Bake Oven Knob was also an irritating rocky section, but it was also vandalized. Some of the blazes were covered in red spray paint. This made me angry, but the trail wasn’t that hard to find anyway.
My plan was to get to Palmerton by the afternoon of the next day (which was the 4th of July), and continue on to try and make ground. There was an inkling in the back of my head that this was a bad plan, but I hadn’t learned to trust my trail instinct yet. I still thought I could easily catch my friends. I had to walk a total of three extra miles off trail to get in and out of Palmerton. By the time I was under way, it was after 4:00pm.
I knew that the next section would be steep and rocky, but I was not prepared for what followed. The climb out of Leigh Gap was the most strenuous climbing I had done on the trail thus far. It was fun, but it was difficult. The payoff was great, though. I stayed at the top for an almost 360 degree view of the Leigh River. It was beautiful. I talked with some former thru-hikers out for a reunion hike, and was on my way through the super-fund site.
That whole area around Palmerton was deforested due to zinc smelting for 82 years. The trail used to go through it, but is now routed around it. Because of this, one gets a terrific view of Palmerton for three miles, as well as some truly flat trail. This scene was fantastic in the light of the late afternoon sun. An added bonus is the abundance of blackberries you can eat on the side of the trail (we later called them zinc berries). I was in good spirits for these three miles. I was happy and completely satisfied with how the day was turning out.
However, I started to think. I remembered that it was the 4th of July, and that I was alone. This bothered me because I made the conscious effort to leave a town that I knew had friends in it, to be by myself. They must be having a lot of fun, and here I am trying to make miles. I wouldn’t even be in a spot to watch the fireworks that night! All of a sudden, my mood backslid into depression. I was now under the impression that I made a bad call to leave Palmerton. I crossed a road and looked up the hill to my immediate fate. Another steep rock climb. I filled up with anger and cursed Pennsylvania as I started the climb. I became so angry that I couldn’t keep going. I found a little outcropping and sat down, barely able to see straight.
I knew right then that I’d hit bottom. I had never been this frustrated on the trail. In one day, I had made so many poor choices, and that infuriated me. I was alone on the 4th, and I knew all my friends in the hiker bubble were in the town I just left. I was now far enough away that I couldn’t go back, and I was still no closer to my friends ahead. I hadn’t even made enough ground to make leaving town worth it, but I was still stuck. I sat down, pulled out my phone, and called my family.
They were all happy to hear from me. My family was relaxing at the beach (jealous), and I was stuck here in stupid PA, scrambling over rocks, dodging bugs, trudging through monsoons, and literally sweating my butt off. I told them about my poor decisions, and how I was alone, and how I was sick of Pennsylvania.
Thankfully, calling them did the trick. They took my mind off the immediate frustration, and reminded me that I had come so far. My dad said, “you knew it was going to be difficult. If it weren’t, everyone would do it.” I had lost sight of that. The challenge was part of the reason for doing this. I had become so comfortable with being on the trail, that I had started complaining about the little things.
I hung up the phone with a plan. I was going to hike until I found a good camping spot, and then I was going to stop. Simple. I won’t be getting as far as I want, but that’s okay. I realized just how much of my hike was being defined by other people at that moment. I wasn’t okay with just being where I was, enjoying the experience I was having. I found a nice spot to set up for the night, and I listened to the fireworks boom as I drifted off to sleep.
I think because of my Palmerton blunder, I learned a little more about what Hike Your Own Hike actually means. Whenever you try to make your hike conform to a preconceived notion, someone else’s schedule, or because of insecurity, you become miserable. You aren’t hiking for yourself anymore, which I think should be the principal reason for hiking in the first place. I remembered that my vision of what my hike would be like and my actual experience were different things. Instead of letting my experience define my hike, I wanted my hike to play out my fantasy of the journey, based on books and blogs that I read.
The next day was an 18 mile stretch to Wind Gap, PA. I knew I was going to stay at the Beer Stein, which was a local restaurant that my guidebook said allows hikers to camp in their backyard. I wasn’t going to miss a free place to stay, especially one that was in the backyard of some local business.
I spent a frustrating day walking on uneven, rocky ground, and going a mile off the trail to get water. The unfortunate thing about PA is that the water sources were sometimes very far off the trail, but they were very good. Crystal clear springs can sometimes take the edge off the annoying uphill walk back to the trail.
I finally made it to Wind Gap, and went straight to a laundromat. I ordered myself a pizza, which I ate happily as I waited for my clothes to finish. When I headed over to the Beer Stein, I noticed that quite a few other hikers were there set up on the lawn. As the night wore on, I noticed that there was a drunk, rich man who was fascinated by the hikers. He hung around us all night, paying for things that we ordered. Somehow I was coaxed into buying a steak dinner, which made me feel horrible. To be fair, I was caught off guard by the overbearing niceness of the man, who in fact suggested I order a steak. Not wanting to seem rude, I did. After the awkwardness wore off, I realized that I just ordered one of the most expensive things on the menu. It’s not like I was the only one he was paying for; he spent hundreds of dollars that night. I just felt like I took advantage. My fears were assuaged when I was told that Rooster’s dog, Bangarang, also received a steak. Funny, that.
The next morning we were all treated to the famous Beer Stein breakfast, or rather we treated ourselves. The coolest thing about the Beer Stein was that the owner lets the hikers raid his commercial kitchen for breakfast. Anything you can find that you want to cook yourself, go for it. We all got eggs and pancakes and bacon.
Then I was texted by Lady. She had met up with my elusive friends, Bottle Cap and Fun Size, in Delaware Water Gap. DWG was the last town in PA, and literally on the border of PA and NJ. They had been there for a couple days because of the heat, and they made me an offer. Since I was so close, they offered to wait for me if I yellow-blazed there. I was a little surprised. I wanted to meet up with them so badly, but I did not want to yellow-blaze on my hike. I tried to get them to wait for me as I walked the 15 miles to them, but that wasn’t going to be part of the deal. A decision lay in front of me: to compromise the integrity of my hike or not?
Well, I really wanted to be with my friends. I decided to hop in a car for 15 miles with Mellow Johnny and Samba, who were conveniently calling a cab for DWG that morning. I felt weird. I made the conscious decision to skip a section of trail. I would continue to feel weird for a while. The weirdness was put off when I finally met up with my friends, and we relaxed in the air conditioning of a nearby mall while watching a terrible movie. We all discussed the consequences and justifications of yellow-blazing.
In my mind, I don’t have to justify anything to anyone. The further along I went, the less I felt like I needed to prove, within reason. I knew I was not going to make a habit of this, but I shouldn’t beat myself up over 15 miles. Circumstance is a wild card, which can enhance or ruin your plans and your entire adventure. I felt that with my recent frustration, a day with friends would be very welcome, even if it meant skipping 15 miles. So I relaxed, and I enjoyed the company of good friends.