Solo Backpack, May 22-25, 1998
Well, it’s spring and once again a young man’s mind turns to thoughts of thru-hiking the AT. However, being possessed of a job and school, such things are not in the cards this year. But the oportunities presented by a five-day weekend somewhat help sooth this craving. So I did my own little thru-hike on the Maryland portion of the Appalachian Trail (40 miles).
The AT in MD runs from PenMar SP on the Pennsylvania border down the length of South Mountain to Harper’s Ferry, WV, on the Potomac. It’s generally a pretty gentle hike through pleasent countryside and nice woods. Being the east coast, you’re never very far from roads and people and traffic noise, but with a little imagination, you can pretend that those cars you hear are just wind in the trees. There are a few places with stunning vistas and outlooks as well, so it’s not just a hike in the woods.
Friday: My buddy Mark and I headed out from Baltimore and left Rufus (my car) in the capable hands of the rangers at Harper’s Ferry. Then we drove north on rural roads to Cunningham Falls/Catoctin Mountain Park. The day was bright and clear with early-morning temperatures hovering around the chilly region. Mark is a great guy (see photo), but is encumbered by a wife and other trappings of civilized life and thus was unable to join me for a full weekend in the woods. Nevertheless, we were planning on a day hike before sending me into the woods for good.
First was a quick hike up to see the famous falls at Cunningham Falls State Park. There were people all up and down the 78 foot slope of this cascade-type falls soaking up sun and throwing things in the water. We found a secluded spot and had some lunch.
Seeking a more challenging hike and a more rewarding view, we set out for Chimney and Wolf Rocks, a 3-mile circuit into the hinterlands of Catoctin. After a steep climb through lovely azaleas, we emerged onto a ridge. As is typical in the area, there were large outcroppings of rock jutting from the ridgeline. Eventually we came to Chimney Rocks with an excellent view to the south and west. After another .4 miles, we took the side trail to Wolf Rocks. No view this time, but there was a great wilderness of pink stone blocks and great crevasses 20 or more feet deep. Geologically a fascinating place. By 4 pm we had arrived back at the car.
Friday, part II: By five I was on the trail at PenMar. It’s a lovely state park right on the MD/PA border with lovely views out over the farming country to the west. I shouldered my pack and headed out purposefully to the south. After two miles of easy terrain, the trail rose sharply through rough rocks to the height of High Rocks. This is a spot accessible by roads and popular with hang gliders. And for obvious reasons! There is a hundred-plus foot sheer drop to the lands below and good prevailing westerly winds. A large concrete pad marks the glider launching point and a few intrepid aviators could be seen wheeling and turning in the air above. The views were incredible but time was pressing. I hurried onward.
As I was still two miles from camp, I set off at a brisk pace to reach Devil’s Race Course shelter (one of at least two in the area by that name). Arriving before dusk had fully set in, I doffed pack and cooked dinner chatting with the shelter’s one other inhabitant. The Racecourse for which the shelter is named is a riverbed of chunky boulders in a clearing a little down hill from the shelter. Water can be heard gurgling in the depths, but the origins are mysterious. It reminded me a bit of the boulder field at Hickory Run SP in Pennsylvania.
Anticipating an early start the next day, I turned in and slept comfortably for a few hours when a large, noisy family arrived with prodding flashlights. Seeing that the shelter was occupied, they did have the decency to set up tents elsewhere, but it was a noisy time for a few minutes. Drifting off again, we were again awoken at 4:30 by a group of six extremely drunken, underaged local youths who apparently were hearing-impaired. The stomped through camp a few times and finally disappeared into the woods to the east where they proceeded to scream a limitted vocabulary of obsceneties at each other for half an hour. I figured that 5am was close enough to daylight for me and went to yell at the rednecks. A good example of why selective breeding might be a good idea…
Saturday: Heading out by 6:30, I covered ground at a good rate. A mile later, I stopped and investigated the lovely view from Raven Rocks watching the sun break through the morning clouds and illuminate the strikingly green slopes of South Mountain. After crossing several roads, I paced along another ten miles of fairly nondescript trail as the heat of the day developed. The Boy Scouts were out in force and made for loud, boisterous hiking partners. Traffic increased quite a lot in the afternoon as I neared the two famous views in the area. Black Rocks, the northern, is a popular rock climbing spot with a lot in common with High Rocks: sheer drop, westward view, etc. Buzzards were soaring in the afternoon thermals and a trio of rock climbers were being annoyed because their 50 meter rope was too short. Roughly a mile farther along was a short side trail to Annapolis Rocks; somewhat less impressive and humbling, but with campsites and a spring near by.
Beginning to feel a bit foot-weary and fearing that the insoles of my boots had been in some way permanently flattened by the travails of the soggy Smokies, I continued onward over Pine Knob to the shelter of the same name. I would have gladly called it quits here. It was around 4:30 and the location and shelter were lovely. The main distracting feature was the road noise from the nearby crossing with I-70. The purpose of this trip was to escape such things. Besides, there was still at least four hours of light to hike by! Never-the-less, I sat and had a second lunch and rested my feet.
While resting at Pine Knob, I met a north-bound thruhiker by the name of Del Doc. He was an older gentleman in his 70’s who had just that morning decided to give up on his third AT thru-hike; it was just too much of a hassle this time. Age, apparently was not the deciding factor for it turns out his previous two successful thru-hikes were in 1991 and 1994. If I can hike the trail once by the time I’m 70, I will be a happy man. Del Doc was fascinating. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Trail and could tell detailed stories of any place I mentioned. An hour of chatting with him left me invigorated, inspired and more determined than ever to make the AT pilgrimage before I die.
Parting ways at I-70, I sped across the footbridge and over the three miles of Mountain Laurel-enhanced trail to Washington Monument State Park. The monument is an interesting affair. After walking across a power line cut through the wildflowers and buzzing of high tension wires, you walk up a steep hill and emerge at a rotund, milk bottle-shaped stone tower built in the early 1800’s to honor George Washington (the first of several such monuments). There were about 2 dozen Costa Rican tourists flocking around snapping photos who gave me wide berth as I heaved my smelly carcass up the spiral staircase to the top. A good view was had of the westering sun and the lands to the north, west and east. A large and enigmatic boulder field covered much of the southern slope and presumably does not stem from failed construction attempts on the tower.
While it was tempting to end the days lengthy travels here, there is camping only for previously arranged youth groups. Regretfully and with an air of self-martyrdom, I shouldered my pack and headed out the final downhill mile and a half to Dalgren Gap and the backpacker campground there.
…which wonder of wonders has real toilets and hot-water showers! Oh a luxury I don’t deserve! I set up camp and chatted with the campground’s only other inhabitants, a young, recently married couple named Sam and Enoch. For those searching for proof of true love and marriages which work, here was a perfect example. We dined together on couscous with carrots and related the days experiences to each other. Then it was off to sleep under the starry skies. After 19 trail miles, sleep came with an admirable efficiency.
Sunday: The early start of saturday was not to be repeated. Dragging my mass of soreness out of bed at the early hour of seven, I limped around for a while and made breakfast. Backtracking a quarter mile to the road, I photographed the Dalgren Chapel in the morning light (the best for photography), and investigated the menu for Sunday Brunch at the Old South Mountain Inn ($12.95, 10-2). Not being dressed for the occasion or willing to stick around, I headed out and worked at covering the southern half of the hike in short order.
Unlike yesterday, the weather went from good to not good in short order. As I hiked up the rise to Lamb Knoll–a disappointing hill devoted to microwave towers and such hardware with only a minimal view from one location–the weather became cloudy and light rain began. My feet really had taken a beating on saturday and walking was a constant source of pain. I doped up on pain killers, put on the pack cover and headed out aiming for Crampton Gap Shelter.
But upon arrival at 2 pm, the prospects of staying were singularly unappealing. An unpleasant little shelter with no real water source and no view. The other occupants were a taciturn hiker who never said much and a big greasy looking fellow with a foul mouth and a big knife who looked like he had been there for some time. Despite foot pain and continuing depressing weather, I elected to press on and try to find a camping spot in the next few miles.
Crampton Gap itself is quite interesting. Part of Gathland State Park, it was, as far as I could tell in my limited perusal, part of a minor Civil War skirmish. There are monuments, foundations and interpretive signs. Being the last water source for ten miles, I filled all three bottles and set out. Fortunately the trail was five miles of straight and level and the weather was becoming more clement. I met a few people including Tombstone, a personable female thru-hiker headed north with vim and vigor having started the second half of her thru hike in Harper’s Ferry that morning. The foot pain continued with the addition of a bruised achilles tendon, but I sank into a contemplative trance and ate up the miles.
All things must come to an end, and South Mountain is one of them. At the southern terminus of this state-long mountain are Weaverton Cliffs, a spectacular set of rocks and scrub pines jutting out over the noise of US-340 and the flow of the Potomac. The time was about 6pm; time for one last push down the 22 switchbacks and through the highway medians to the C&O Canal.
The C&O Canal is an amazing structure in its own right. It travels 185 miles on the north bank of the Potomac from Georgetown all the way up to Cumberland. While the canal itself is now weed-choked and often missing–home to turtles and duckweed–the towpath is a marvelous place to ride bikes or walk. Well it didn’t seem too wonderful to hike at that point. I stumbled and limped into the Weaverton Campsite and set up camp on a sandbar jutting into the river. Despite the nearness of both a major road and set of train tracks, the river noise made them undetectable.
Life became much more bearable once boots were removed and I could squish sand between my toes. I made dinner, set up my bivy and watched darkness descend on the river. With the darkness came heavy rain, wind and a rip-snorting lightning display. The bivy bag and my skills at using it were put through their paces as I huddled inside the hot confines of the purple womb. Not for claustrophobes and probably not good for long-term foul weather. I could feel every raindrop hit, but everything was waterproof and my bag only became slightly damp on the outside as a result. Once the storm was over, the hooped bivy head shield was moved out of the way and I could again contemplate the distant lightning and the river. Lovely.
Monday: I arose with dawn and spent quite some time watching the Canada Geese and a pair of preening Black Crowned Night Herons (see photo at right). Fish and fishermen were in evidence. As the sun rose higher and cleared the morning river fog, it became hot and I sorted the sand from the gear, stuffed everything into the pack, re-donned my hateful boots and stumped out of camp. The final three miles of the trip would take me along the C&O Canal the whole time. Hardly a challenging hike. But the wildlife and the peacefulness of a sunny morning after a storm made life bearable. Turtles were seen by the dozens sunning on logs. Geese and herons were flying on the river. At one point I stood stock still as a pair of Canada geese and their twelve fuzzy, yellow goslings went browsing past clucking and peeping in the weeds not five feet from where I stood.
With a well-worn appearance, I trod across the bridge among the tourists to the lovely historic town of Harper’s Ferry. Proceeding to the Swiss Miss, I ordered up the lunch special and sat in the sun enjoying the carnal pleasure of meat and cheese grilled to perfection, served up with fries and birch beer and topped off with frozen custard (it’s like ice cream just with more eggs). Ah the joys of a trip completed and a pair of boots soon to come off.
Epilogue: While this trip didn’t feature many of the spectacular wild thrills and chills, it did give me exactly what I was looking for. I went into the woods seeking solitude and peace and a chance to be immersed in wildflowers and trees and rocks and water. Along the course of my travels I met quite a number of amazing, wonderful people, and a few terrible, hateful or simply taciturn people. After four days on the trail, I am amazed at my changed outlook toward life and goals. What must it be like after 40 days? After 4 months? I am reinvigorated and hope to find myself on the trail headed “that-a-way!” As far as equipment, the other half of the trip, things worked well. The smaller, internal frame pack (Lowe Alpine Outback 70) worked very well and was perfect for my needs. The weight was consistently under 40 pounds and never really became an issue and the capacity was always sufficient for my needs (A-). The bivy bag, as mentioned before, worked sufficiently to keep me fairly dry and with sufficient luck and skill, would probably do so in any reasonable weather (B). The additon of seam sealer (despite the taped seams on the inside) would probably help substantially. The circular polarizing filter did amazing things to the photos (or at least what things looked like in the view finder) and improves the colors tremendously in sunny photos (A). The foot pain speaks ill of either my socks or my boots. I hope to correct the problem by using different, puffier socks, and inserting some insoles into the boots.
- friday, 5 miles
- saturday, 19 miles
- sunday, 15 miles
- monday, 4 miles
- total, 43 miles.