After a zero day, Lady and I rolled out of Front Royal, VA. I was excited at the prospect of leaving my home state, and I reflected on why that was. I love VA, but it had been hard to get through. I loved seeing my family and friends, but there were too many opportunities to go home. Every time it got a little harder to readjust to life on the tail.
Leaving Virginia also meant I was committing to life on the trail for real. There were no other chances to leave. When I started at Springer, I knew that I could hop off the trail in VA at any time, and it wouldn’t be hard to get home. Now, each step I took would be a step further away; further away from home and comfort. I was fine with it.
The night that we left the hostel, Lady and I camped with Two Sox, DB Cooper and lots of boy scouts. I couldn’t help but compare my habits with theirs; it was fun. One troop leader just kept whining and whining about who was going to clean the dishes for the next day, and how he just couldn’t eat out of dirty dishes… While I was licking my spoon clean and rubbing my fingers in my pot to catch the leftover ramen. Their entire outing was inundated with rules and regulations and chaperoned.
The next day, we couldn’t escape them. Boy Scouts swarmed the trail much like cicadas: they were everywhere, and they were loud. Lady and I decided to have lunch at the entrance to a visitor’s center from the trail, and by the time we got there, Boy Scouts had taken over the entire spot. We went a little further to a road crossing. Boy Scouts! We squeezed around them and crossed the road, annoyed. When we finally reached the shelter we had our sights set on, we realized we’d be sharing it with two other scout troops we had met along the way. It’s not that I hate Boy Scouts, and we were in NoVA, after all. Lots of scouts, I’m sure. It was just a crowded couple days. Sort of felt like Georgia all over again.
The Roller Coaster
We came to a section of rolling trail. As we entered, we were greeted with a sign that read, “Warning! You are about to enter the Roller Coaster!” We chuckled a bit at the sign, and started our ascent. Soon after we were cursing Virginia’s name. It figured that the longest state would kick us in the butt right the second we tried to leave. Up and down we went, and it was kind of fun. At the same time it wore us out. There were even points where water ran down the trail as if it were a creek bed. The trail leaving Virginia was annoying, but a good last challenge.
We finally came to the Bear’s Den Hostel, which is an ATC owned and operated hostel. Lady and I were waiting for her dad to show up and treat us to some birthday magic, since it was Lady’s birthday. Two Sox, Lady, DB, and I, along with some section hikers, watched Star Wars, and Drop Dead Gorgeous while we showered and waited. When he showed, we followed him down to the cabin he rented, and enjoyed a good, home cooked dinner with wine.
The next day was Lady’s actual birthday, and we were also excited to be getting close to Harper’s Ferry, the mental halfway point. We crossed the state line into West Virginia, and were excited about finally reaching over 1,000 miles! Two major milestones in one day. We walked through the slightly different WV terrain. The forest was similar, but brighter in tone, and the ground was sandy instead of dirty. We passed day hikers (or, Daybos) who were having a date up on Raven Rocks. Things were different and we could feel it. Even the shelters were nice, as David Lesser shelter had a big porch and a swing.
It was a hot day, and we finally came to a highway crossing, where we could get some pizza and beer at a local restaurant. Before we walked there, however, some section hiking kids saw us from across the busy highway and asked us where the next water source was. Stupidly, one of the kids started walking out into the road to hear better. We yelled at him and he backed up to the other side of the street. Moron. After that we celebrated Lady’s birthday with pizza and beer before continuing on and stealth camping about 4 miles before Harper’s Ferry.
We awoke excited. We were getting to Harper’s that day! Not even the rain could dampen my spirits as I walked quickly to that huge landmark. I arrived at the ATC headquarters, had my picture taken, and just soaked it all in. I had made it this far. I signed my photo and placed it in the book, along with hundreds of other hikers. I was making my mark.
Soon after, Lady, Two Sox, DB and I walked to a coffee shop for lunch and to just chill out and dry off a bit. I noted that Harper’s was definitely a tourist town, but was also somehow beautiful and quaint. It seemed like it was built like a European city, with tiered streets and buildings. My friend Whitney also drove out to give Lady and me some trail magic food, and to take us to the hostel where we had made reservations. After that, she also gave me and some other hikers a ride to Wal-Mart All in all, it was a very good day.
Once we left the hostel, we entered Maryland. Yet another state line in a few days. After hiking through VA, it was a welcome sight. One of the best things about Maryland was that the terrain was pretty easy. Barring a few rocky sections of downhill, you could just blow through big miles per day. We were just getting used to being at low elevations.
The other cool thing about Maryland was the history. The AT winds through a few state parks and Civil War battlefields. You could spend a lot of time just reading about the troop movements and journalism of the Civil War. The trail also goes right by the old Washington monument, which is an old stone tower, nowhere near the size of the current one. It was cool to see a very genuine monument to one of the most influential people of our nation, built in the beginning of the 19th century.
Before I knew it, I was at Penmar State Park, where the mason-dixon line awaited. Lady, Moose, Grizzelle, Jabberwocky, Green Blaze, Lone Wolf and I sat and worshiped the vending machine before crossing it.
O vending machine, I humble myself before thee, and thy soda dispensing power. Please accept this unreasonable tithe of $2.50 for 20 oz of your magical, calorie liquid.
Finally, I crossed the Mason-Dixon and the PA – MD state line. To the north I went.
I did not know that I had entered the darkest chapter of my AT experience in southern PA, I merely knew that I was in a new state, and the terrain became easier and more beautiful. I rolled through a flat, fully green forest, which almost felt enchanted. The shelters were now all broken into two structures, and were very nicely kept.
It was getting dark as Lady and I came to Rocky Mountain Shelters, but we decided to bypass them and stealth camp in Caledonia State Park that night. As we hiked on, it got darker and darker until I decided that I needed my headlamp. It decided to cut out on me, so I went to change the batteries and *snap*! The battery case broke off. I was now becoming very visibly frustrated, and I soon realized that the light would not work without the battery case… Lady gave me some tape to wrap around it, and it worked intermittently. As the night progressed, I became more and more angry as the dark set in and my light had become so unreliable.
We couldn’t get to the park soon enough, and when we crossed the road to get there a dark figure with a bright light jumped out from the bushes and yelled, “RAAAAGH!” I was very startled, which further drove me to the depths of anger. It was Puppy, who had overheard us making plans to head to Caledonia and decided to do the same. She was waiting for us to show at the road so we could head there together, and since she had the best light, we told her to go first. We followed her for a while until I looked closely at one of the blazes we had been following… No. It was yellow! It seemed that this night was meant to make me completely furious. After backtracking about a mile, we finally found the park and set up in a pavilion. Finally, this night would be over.
The next day, I came across the halfway point for mileage. Someone had taken it upon themselves to arrange a bunch of rocks in a giant “1/2″. Lady and I hung around there for a bit before moving on. Hooray!
My first stop in PA was at the Pine Grove Furnace state park. This was the home of the infamous “half-gallon challenge” for thru-hikers. This consisted of eating a half-gallon of ice-cream. I made it to 1.5 quarts and was pretty satisfied. I then promptly ordered a cheeseburger and fries. That night I stayed at the Ironmasters Hostel, which was in a historical mansion. I picked up a mail drop from my friend back home, Sheila, which consisted of some awesome and encouraging nonsense. Thanks, buddy!
The next day, I had to wait for a food drop to come in, so Lady moved on. I was alone again, but that was okay. As I waited for the mail to come, I hung out with hikers just arriving at Pine Grove Furnace, and visited the AT Museum there. Once the box came, I loaded up with food, and was on my way. I rolled through the park and powered up the hill, full of energy.
After a little while, something strange happened. I began to think about death, and what I would do without my family’s help on this journey. That segued into remembering my grandmother’s death, and her last words to me. I was overcome with emotion and had to sit down. Just all at once, my mood turned. After a few minutes, I got back up and continued, wary of my own thoughts. Maybe the miles were finally taking their toll on me. I have so much time to think out here, and maybe at that moment, I had too much time. I camped around 8:30 or so, in a makeshift spot I made just a little ways off the trail.
The next day brought me to the rock maze, which was not very complicated. Then I entered an 18-mile stretch of flat trail in the Cumberland Valley. My first stop of the day was the town of Boiling Springs, PA. I hung around the ATC regional headquarters for a while talking to other hikers when Grizzelle and Moose showed up and said they were hiking out and doing big miles for the next few days. I decided to tag along with them with the hopes of catching my friends Bottle Cap and Fun Size within a few days.
The Cumberland Valley was flat, and it was also kind of boring. It started out fun, with corn fields and ponds, but it became old very quickly. At the end of the day we were joined by Pitchouli and Barbarosa. We weren’t allowed to camp in the valley because someone said so, but when storm clouds loomed overhead, we had to throw down our tents as fast as possible. We got our shelters up just in time for nothing to happen.
Our next stop was Duncannon. Grizz, Moose and I descended out of the woods, and walked through the sketchy side of town. We stopped at a local pizza joint and each had a whole pizza to ourselves. We then headed to The Doyle hotel and bar to get some mail and drinks before heading out of town.
We became lazy and didn’t leave until after 6. It was five miles to the next shelter, including a 2 mile roadwalk out of town. We crossed the bridge over the Susquehanna river and headed up the mountain. It was a tough climb, full of sweat and rocks. We were rewarded with an excellent view of the sunset over the river, as we wrung about 2 cups of our sweat out of our shirts.
We didn’t know what was in store for us at the shelter that night. We spent some time eating and hanging out before going to bed. Shortly after committing to sleep, we started hearing a scratching noise on the back of the shelter. “Did you guys hear that?” I asked. Grizz lay motionless, but Moose agreed that he heard it. We decided to ignore the problem and it would go away. But it didn’t. When we heard it again, Grizz and Moose sprang into action. They tag teamed whatever it was on both sides of the shelter, yelling profanity. “Holy porcupine, Batman!” Grizz yells from behind the shelter. Apparently a huge porcupine had just been working the back of that shelter for a long time. After that, I went to sleep pretty easily.