Pennsylvania: Where Boots Go To DIE!

April 26 – May 4, 2003

Where boots go to die.

Where boots go to die.

“Pennsylvania,” say AT thru-hikers, “is where boots go to die!” I’ve always assumed that this was because, after a thousand miles of hiking, they’d worn out their boots when they hit this innocent-looking state of rolling farm fields and long, linear ridges…. Nope!

The big AT map on my wall has been staring at me, taunting me for the past year or two. Every time I do an AT section hike, I color in a little bit more of the trail. I’ve been at this for about five years now and I’ve built up two pretty good chunks in New Jersey and New York and farther south in Maryland and Virginia. But there’s this three or four inch gap in the middle which has thus-far eluded me; Pennsylvania! Inroads have been made into PA from either end in three, short, weekend hikes. But a huge 140 mile swath along the ridgelines was yet to be done. Thus Mike and I collaborated on our longest hike to date. The plan was to start at Lehigh Gap and head south hiking as much of the trail as possible in two weeks. Shouldn’t be too tough, it’s Pennsylvania, right?

The Short Version

Day 1: Lehigh Gap to Bake Oven Knob Shelter in cold rain and fog (7.4 miles).Day 2: Bake Oven Knob to the Eckville Shelter (17.4 miles). Hot sun and black flies. Rocks begin in earnest during second half of day. Lovely time at Eckville Shelter with Lazee.

Day 3: Eckville to Port Clinton (15.2 miles) in hot sun over brutal rocks. Great views from the Pinnacle and an interesting cave. Demise of first pair of boots. Amy saves the day with second.

Day 4: Port Clinton to bivy west of Hertlein Campsite (~19 miles). First night hiking of trip. Stiff climb in morning rain. Many blisters, fewer rocks. Afternoon reprieve from morning bonk.

Day 5: Bivy to Rausch Gap Shelter (~21.5 miles). Early rocks, two nice shelters, lots more sun and a whole lot of burning feet. Evening and night hiking through the lovely Swatara Gap State Park.

Day 6: Rausch Gap to Peters Mountain Shelter (17.5 miles). Foggy, boggy morning followed by heat. Scary lightening, ridgetop running and shelter confusion. Dinner with Zen Monkey and Arkansas Traveller.

Day 7: Peters Mountain down to Duncannon and the Doyle Hotel (11.3 miles). Showers! Mike’s hernia dilemna. Copious food and drink at the Pub and conversation with Sedentary Steve.

Day 8: Duncannon to Sunday Farm Campsite (26 miles). Six miles of rocky ridge walking followed mostly by gorgeous farm fields and river boundaries as we cross the Cumberland Valley. Extreme foot pain, three miles of night hiking and an exhausted stumble through tick-infested fields. And lets not forget the trains.

Day 9: Can we go home yet? Sunday Farm to PA94/Hunter’s Run Road (11.4 miles). Final slogging through fields and then several miles of tough southern-PA mountains. Closure of AT sections! Much rejoicing.

Total mileage: 146.7 miles / 8 full days = 18 miles/day

The Long Version

Day 1 (Saturday, April 26):  Mike and I rendezvoused at the trail crossing at PA94 in the rain, left Rufus, and proceeded north and east to Lehigh Gap in Joe. We hit the trail at 12:30 and hiked up the rocky hillside in a light but steady rain. The Outerbridge shelter was occupied by a trio of sleepy, wet campers and two dogs. We conversed with them for a bit, took a break and continued to the top of the ridge. Mostly easy walking with scattered rocks. Open ground above the I476 tunnel allowed us to hear, if not see, the 18-wheelers passing hundreds of feet below our feet.

We arrived at the uninspiring Bake Oven Knob shelter at about 5 and discovered seven Boy Scouts who had spread their stuff all over the place. They were planning on decamping to a tent site a hundred yards away which they did… eventually. We settled in for dinner and several hours of waiting for darkness. Big plans were laid for tomorrow and the Scouts made quite a racket.

Mike at Wolf Rocks, Day 2

Mike at Wolf Rocks, Day 2

Day 2 (Sunday, April 27): We arose at 5 am in the pre-dawn light and were on the trail by 6. The weather has improved and it promised to be hot. A mile of walking over challenging rocks brought us to the good view at Bake Oven Knob.
By noon we’d done eleven miles and made it to the Allentown Hiking Club shelter which is gorgeous. The weather was hot and the black flies were starting. After a short rest, we resumed our hiking and started to encounter more very rocky terrain. The blackflies and rocks only worsened and by the time we got to the turn-off for Hawk Mountain at the end of the ridge, we were both swatting, sweating and swearing continuously.

A long descent brought us through a piney valley to Eckville Road and, after some confusion and considerable exhaustion on my part, we discovered the Eckville Shelter about 0.2 miles east on the road itself. It’s a wonderful place! Lazee, a former thru-hiker lives in the main house and operates an old tool shed as a six-bunk shelter for hikers. Flush toilet and shower and other amenities definitely have improved the day. Dinner of gado-gado was cooked and we chatted with Lazee and a neighbor named Carl as they installed a bench seat from a mini-van outside the shed as a couch. Lots of good reading material in the shelter and a hiker box including a providential bottle of bug repellent! Things are looking up. Nearly 18 miles today, the last of seven of which was over phenomenally brutal terrain.

Day 3 (Monday, April 28): Got a late start from Eckville and headed up toward the Pinnacle. The Trail and ridge-line make a big S-curve here looping east to the Pinnacle and then west again to Port Clinton by way of a couple other prominences. The ascent was pretty easy though we wished we’d gotten an earlier start to avoid the heat. Rocky trail at the Pinnacle but spectacular views out over the vallies and farm fields. Mike removed his socks and instantly the number of vultures doubled! A group of a dozen high school students arrived and we explored a lovely, cool fissure cave on the cliff-tops. Quite a developed system with bats and other cave biota. Large rat snake seen as well on rocks.

In the next few miles of rubble, it became clear that my boots were not going to last the trip. The left one was already showing latteral separation along the midsole, but now there is a huge crack in the middle of the sole! A few more days of rocks and I’ll be barefoot. Options were discussed and finally we called (the wonderful) Amy. She agreed to fetch my hiking sneakers out of my car and bring them to us in Port Clinton. Did I mention how wonderful she is? That’s about five hours of driving she did just for me!

We were wiped out by the time we got to Port Clinton. Cute town with a nice B&B called the Union House. We dined on large pasta dishes and were plied with various free appetizers and such including a powerful home-made red wine. The wonderful Amy arrived with my shoes and I bought her dinner as well. Seeing her was very nice and it was tough not to climb in the car with her and head home. Instead, Mike and I retired to the Pavillion run by St. Johns Church and slept soundly despite the roar of traffic on PA61 about 50 feet away.

Day 4 (Tuesday, April 29): Nursing the accumulated aches and pains of three days on rough trail, we headed out of town. The weather turned grey and started to spit rain as we ascended the vigorously steep climb out of Port Clinton and we were in a dreary mood. New shoes worked well and the rocks weren’t as bad or as constant as before. The AT parallels a gravel road for a ways and we amused ourselves by blue-blazing for a while. Mike’s blisters were getting pretty bad so we put in at the Eagle’s Nest Shelter in the early afternoon for the day. Duct tape and moleskin were administered and, after a few hours, many bugs, and clearing skies, we set out again with renewed spirits.

Opting for speed, we blue-blazed again on the straight gravel road running through the State Game Lands instead of the rockier, twistier AT for a few miles. By 6pm we’d regained the trail and set a killer pace aiming for the Hertlein Campsite 18 miles from Port Clinton. By sunset, we’d attained Hertlein, filtered water and were busy psyching ourselves up for an additional five miles of night hiking to the fabled 501 Shelter. However, we didn’t make it far and after a mile of stumbling around, finally collapsed at a trailside campsite under clear, cold skies.

CD admiring the view near the US501 road crossing, Day 5

CD admiring the view near the US501 road crossing, Day 5

Day 5 (Wednesday, April 30): A nights sleep solved many problems, and we made good time in continued good weather the four miles or so to the 501 Shelter. I took a bucket shower while Mike tended his feet and relaxed. By noon, we set out again with the ambitious goal of making the Rausch Gap Shelter by that evening on the other side of Swatara Gap (21+ miles for the day). Four miles to the William Penn shelter passed quickly on good trail despite pounding foot pain. Another seven miles on more typical Pennsylvania rocks brought us down to the lovely Swatara Gap where I81 goes through the mountains.

We took another debonk break on the bridge over the lovely Swatara Creek before setting off again for the remaining five miles to Rausch Gap at 7pm. The heat of the day was gone and it was a gorgeous evening hiking through the Swatara State Park. The relocation of the trail in this region involves one highly annoying stream crossing by way of stepping stones. With the recent rains, all of these stones were three inches underwater and my low-top shoes were unavoidably sodden. @#$%@! By the time darkness fell, we were perhaps 2.5 miles from the shelter once more in rocky terrain. Completely burned, I hobbled after Mike in the dark through probably-gorgeous pine forest (from what I could tell in the dark). With a few spare calories of energy left to me, we finally collapsed at the wonderfully homey Rausch Gap shelter after 21.5 miles of hiking. It has a built-in spring and nice cooking shelf around a tree.

Day 6 (Thursday, May 1): There is a long gap between shelters on this part of the trail where it winds through the St. Anthony’s Wilderness, a series of ridges and folds full of abandoned mining towns, interesting swamps and mixed forest of all description. We set out in foggy weather up abandoned stage roads climbing over rocks and many fallen trees. It’s a wilderness area, so blowdowns are not cleared unless they’re impossible to bypass. After last nights marathon, we were feeling pretty bonked from the start and progress was painful and slow. Somewhere in there, one of my waterbottles came unscrewed and I lost half a liter of water into the insides of my pack, particularly things like clothing and sleeping bag. Ugg!

Our spirits improved after a bit when it became sunny and we started going down hill. Coming up from the “south” was the amiable Tadpole and his dog Twinkle-toes. I’d don’t have much respect for small dogs, but this micro-hound (all two pounds of her) had hiked over a thousand miles so far and was in good spirits. Wow! We took a mid-afternoon break at the bottom of the valley near the gorgeous Clarks Creek and I dried my wet gear. Mike bandaged his feet for the umpteenth time. He was also developing a hernia at this point which was definitely inauspicious.

Despite hernias, wet gear and blisters, we made it up to the top of the Peters Mountain ridgeline in 2.5 miles and had four miles to go to the fabled Peters Mountain Shelter. Mike had told me stories of this place with a beautiful covered dining area, two stories, sky-lights and other ammenities and we were both anxious to be there. Just as we gained the ridge-line and the rocks started up again in earnest, we started to hear thunder in the distance. A quick pace was set and we covered three miles in an hour on howling feet. With one mile to go, it looked like we might just make it before the storm hit. With half a mile to go, we were proven wrong! The lightning had been getting closer and closer and we were getting quite uneasy about being caught on the highest ridge around with metal hiking poles in our hands. It began to rain but we pushed quickly onward.

Suddenly, a simultaneous bright flash and hundred-decibel crack herralded a lightning bolt which had passed about five feet overhead (or so it seemed). We both screamed like little girls, threw our poles into the woods and started sprinting (over extremely uneven, rain-slicked rocks) for the shelter expecting at any moment to be vaporized by the first thunderstorm of the season. Thus motivated, we found a tiny wooden shelter big enough to accomodate perhaps four hikers at a time and dove inside gratefully. There was a big fire ring outside and a privy, but this micro-shelter certainly didn’t match the palatial description of Peters Mountain that I’d been fed. What was going on?

When the storm subsided, I stood up to reconoiter and found the promissed palatial shelter about a hundred feet away up the hill, as described, with two other hikers sitting there laughing at our soggy, diving antics. These were introduced as Zen Monkey, a north-bound thru-hiking Emergency Medicine doctor from Seattle, and Arkansas Traveller, a serial section hiking Southern Baptist Preacher from Tennessee. I limped back the quarter mile or so to retrieve our poles while Mike got the conciderably harder job of going a quarter mile down hill to fetch water. Dinner was cooked, stories told and a high time was had by all in the comfortable Peters Mountain Shelter. 17.5 miles today.

Finally crossing US22 at Duncannon, Day 7

Finally crossing US22 at Duncannon, Day 7

Day 7 (Friday, May 2): Nine miles of typical PA hiking brought us down to the Sesquahana River and it associated congestion. It’s a hugely wide river and we crossed on the side of the US322 bridge with much roaring traffic. Two miles of painful pavement walking, and we came to Duncannon and the Doyle Hotel. Duncannon is one of those rare Trail Towns which welcomes and revels in AT hikers. The Doyle provides basic housing and showers for $15/night and there are many local eateries. Zen Monkey had particularly recommended the Pub and their 1/2 pound cheeseburger and it was thoughts of this which had kept us focussed and mobile for most of the day. It was too early for such cuisine, so we showered, laundered and wandered the lovely town for several hours enjoying not having to carry a pack on our backs. Mike’s hernia was getting worse even though the blisters were getting better. We discussed various options of having him stay in Duncannon for a few days while I fetched the car and came back for him. Perhaps he could hitch a ride somehow up to Lehigh Gap and fetch his car in the time it would take me to get mine. Many options, none of them good.

When the appointed hour arrived, we occupied a table at the Pub and downed some serious sustenance. As advertised, the pub-burger was great and the place was crowded with friendly people. In particular, Sedentary Steve came by and we had three hours of fascinating conversation. Last year he compiled a pair of books of interviews with AT thru-hikers conducted at this very bar. We looked through the photos, read the quotes and talked about various topics. He’s basically a hiker groupie and has a pretty thorough knowledge of the lingo, the culture and the mentalities. “Did you ever hike the trail?” I asked. “Me hike? Hell no!” he replied.

We retired after nine. I packed up and discussed plans with Mike. Finally he said, “What the hell. I’m coming with you!” My feelings were mixed. On the one hand, it will be nice to have him along to keep me hiking and focussed. On the other, I didn’t want to make the hernia any worse, particularly three weeks before his honeymoon (sorry Melanie!).

Duncannon and the Sesquahanna River from the hill above town, Day 8

Duncannon and the Sesquahanna River from the hill above town, Day 8

Day 8 (Saturday, May 3): This was the big day. We got an early start from Duncannon though it was difficult to leave. I see how some people get sucked into the vortex permanently. A steep, rocky climb brought us to six miles of painful ridge-walking. By 11am, we’d reached a powerline clearing and could see the ridges and valleys to either side. Spectacular! We descended to the first valley, crossed a gorgeous field full of dandelions and goldenrod (?), took a poorly-worded environmental survey from a set of Chinese students, and ascended once again Blue Mountain to the Darlington Shelter. We were both pretty burned at this point despite the restful town day. But the Darlington Shelter is not too inspiring and it was still early so we elected to press on.

The Trail spends about 15 miles crossing the beautiful, flat, rock-free Cumberland Valley. This is a welcome change from the usual ridge-top hiking on rubble, but there are no shelters and no camping spots for a long way. We’d already done about 12 miles and the next shelter was 18 miles farther. We’d heard rumors of camping at the Sunday Farm south of Boiling Springs (14 miles farther) and decided to try for that.

The valley was a welcome change. The weather was gorgeous and not too hot. Foot pain was mitigated by soft dirt and grass along the banks of the Cononduiget Creek, dozens of farm fields and occasional bits of easy woods through residential areas. Road crossings happened at one mile intervals and provided goals to get us through the next bit. Fatigue and footpain from a week on the trail combined to make everything extremely strange and silly. We met several other groups of section hikers headed north. They all asked about the rocks. We smiled, nodded and said ominous things. By sunset, we were four miles from Boiling Springs and had made good time. The dogs were howling. Two miles later, if finally got dark and we donned headlamps for the final, painful push. The feet had settled down at this point into a pained whimpering full of sullen promises to retaliate later when I least expected it.

Sunset, still miles from rest, Day 8, mile 20.

Sunset, still miles from rest, Day 8, mile 20.

We arrived in Boiling Springs at about 9:30 and were underwhelmed by the welcome we received. From the small glances we got, it appears to be a pretty upscale town not catering to hikers at all. The people we talked to were completely unaware that a major trail goes through their town park. We rested on the porch of the ATC Midatlantic HQ and then pressed onward. A quarter mile south of town, we were directed across a field to a campsite near an abandoned stone house. We set up the tarp, I choked down some food while Mike succumbed to sleep unfed. Just as I was falling asleep, we discovered that a train track ran about fifty feet from us as a freight train came rumbling through. Mike came suddenly and spectacularly awake nearly taking the tarp down in the excitement. Several more trains came through in the night, but we slept soundly and thoroughly after 26 miles of hiking.

Day 9 (Sunday, May 4): Can we go home yet? We arose pretty early and discovered ourselves lying in the wet grass and covered in ticks. A competition was started and, despite taking an early lead, I ended up winning 12-6. Fortunately, none of the ticks were attached yet and all were quickly dispatched. Grateful that this was our last day on the trail and anxious to return to civilization, we shouldered our much-lighter packs for the 8.5 miles back to the car. A mile and a half of fields left us in mountains more reminiscent of the other southern PA hikes I’ve done than the killer ridgelines of the eastern part of the state.

We rested at the Alex Kennedy Shelter and had some breakfast. Food was running low, so I wasn’t left with many options. I discovered that in the foggy of exhaustion the night before I’d sprinkled powdered milk on my pasta instead of parmesagne cheese. Oh well. Powdered cheese, brown sugar and the remains of a battered granola bar made a meager breakfast. The miles rolled on and we passed over the surprisingly rough Rocky Ridge past some nice climbing and bouldering areas. Lots of people were out on day hikes and starting longer hikes as well. We provided a nice contrast being grimy, bearded and thoroughly exhausted.

We finally arrived at the car a little after noon and collapsed gratefully into its padded interior. Mike quit at this point, but my travails were not done. I had three miles to go to connect my northern section to the end of my hike of the Michaux State Forest a month back. Packless and carrying nothing more than my poles and a hat, I climbed Trent Hill and walked for a mile or two along gravel hiker/biker path surrounded by skunk cabbage and wild flowers. A perfect ending for an arduous hike. Mike was waiting for me at Hunter’s Run Road when I arrive at 1:30. We painfully drove to Mount Holly Springs, had a pizza and set about reorganizing the cars. After much driving and logistics, we arrived back in Baltimore at about 8:30.

Where boots go to die.

Where boots go to die.

Epilogue: It was a very interesting trip. Lots of miles, lots of pain, but lots of good times, interesting people and wonderful scenery as well. I can see now what ancient mystics meant by purity through suffering and I return to civilization leaner, more focussed and ready to have a go at post-doctorate life. It was also wonderful to see the dramatic change in seasons over the course of our hike from bare trees at the beginning to half-sized leaves everywhere by the end with plenty of wildflowers as well. Having Mike along made the entire trip possible and without his constant egging-on, I would never have been able to do the big-mile days we accomplished. Nor would they have been nearly as strange and interesting. 146 miles in 8 full days of hiking corresponds to about 18 miles/day and that’s a lot for us. I destroyed one pair of boots on this trip and Mike’s much newer, similar boots were pretty much destroyed as well. Even my light-weight hiking sneakers have developed some pretty big rips along the sides and will have to be replaced. On the plus side, I will never have to hike PA again!


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