We’ve talked about a number of “Challenges” on the trail that prove to occupy hiker’s time with the delightful yet sometimes monotonous task for some that is walking everyday. These range from testing social norms (southern bell challenge – Men wearing dresses to hitch hike out of town), physically demanding (marathons, 30 mile days), delivery/sherpa (pizza delivery – carry a full pizza 10 miles and share with hikers; watermelon – hike with a watermelon for 12 miles then eat the entire melon), food based (half gallon challenge), blatantly reckless (24 24 24 – In a 24 hour period drink 24 beers and hike 24 miles) or a slew of many other creative diversions. The Four State Challenge is well known on the far end of the spectrum of physical challenges. The objective is to hike from Virginia to the Pennsylvania border, the Mason Dixon Line, in one day. It makes for a 44 mile day, though it’s terrain is more manageable than that of other sections of trail. West Virginia is less than 4 miles and is mostly paved through Harpers Ferry and Maryland making for some of the easiest 40 miles on the trail. It’s a long but seemingly manageable day.
The Four State Challenge was going to be my one day of exception where I hike like I’m racing to Katahdin.
I’ve never considered myself a “Fastpacker.” I have worked to make sure I don’t get too fixated on the number of miles at the end of each day because I think it blinds you from keeping your head up and seeing whats truly important. The Four State Challenge was going to be my one day of exception where I hike like I’m racing to Katahdin. I always planned on attempting the challenge if I was feeling well and strong enough leading into West Virginia. Alas the stars aligned positively and was time for nutting up.
As I turned to walk South away from Rockman and Ziplock it struck me that I was officially the last in the Thru Tang. Atlas has been in DC for a week with his girlfriend, Sambo and Rambo Four-Stated the day before and were gone. Patch Four-Stated the day before that and Snuggles, hiking with his mommy (his words) was in Pennsylvania, and Caboose and the rest of the Thru Tang were Four states ahead of me. Luckily cell phones take the nerves out of isolation. Everyone took breaks in the time I was at the wedding. Most took zeros in Harpers and/or DC. Patch, Caboose, Snugz, and Rambo went to the capital for a day. At one point Patch found himself next to a sign for the Smithsonian that fit him well. He didn’t notice the similarities he had with the picture until a tourist bus drove by and he saw a woman laughing her face off at the mirror reflection.
So my friends, true to their expert specialization, were enjoying themselves while I was still miles behind. If I ever wanted to see my friends again it would take extra effort everyday. What better way to start than with a 44?
Catering to an obsessive compulsive tendency of mine I made sure to clear the entire trail between Harpers Ferry and my camp
Hiking south back to my camp took much longer than it should have. The microburst tossed limbs on the trail every few feet, some the size of pencils and others that of pterydacktyl wings. Catering to an obsessive compulsive tendency of mine I made sure to clear the entire trail between Harpers Ferry and my camp even though it took an extra hour. I love thru hiker trail work and I would have done it the next day at 1 am if I didn’t do it in the last hours of dark. I hit my hammock around sunset and I watched it as I fell asleep around 8pm.
At 11:45pm my cell phone alarm went off and I hit snooze. It took another half an hour before I woke up mildly panicked like anyone with too much excitement waking up 30 minutes after their alarm. I skipped the midnight máte and ramen like I planned, packed up and started the challenge. Right before leaving camp I shoved two bars in my face, a 20 gram Protein Builder and a Nutrigrain, and some trail Mix. I had over 4000 calories for the day and planned on eating all of it.
The start was a little rockier then I would have liked but I continued. Within the first half mile, before I crossed into West Virginia, I notice a dull pain in my left foot where my arch meets my toe box. My feet had felt fine all trail and at the start of my biggest day a pain. You immediately start to brainstorm options but mixed with excitement and sleep deprivation things gets anxious fast. Should I stop? walking 44 miles does not make pain go away. The next moment I found a repair I did on my backpack came undone on my hip belt. It was load bearing and might have potential for catastrophic failure. I stopped 1 mile into the hike, before Harpers Ferry and stared at the moon for a minute.
I could spend the whole day fixating on these problems wondering if they’ll get worse or acknowledge both of them and close them out of my mind.
My pack was still secure and strong enough to last the day with a semi lighter load (I only had enough food to get 5 miles into Pennsylvania and had my summer gear that much lighter and tighter) and it didn’t seem to worsen. I committed to it not being a problem and if it got worse by day break I’d stop and stitch it swiftly. My foot pain was a dull ache that I decided to hit with some Ibuprofen (aka Vitamin-I). I planned to check back on both the problems minimally if they got worse and to not worry about anything except glory. A Snickers bar ended the break and away I went.
Crossing the Shenandoah River Bridge at night was spooky and exciting. The road was quiet and the river beamed back the light of the moon. I pushed through a dark and silent Harper’s Ferry keeping an eye out for John Brown’s Body. I crossed the bridge over the Potomac (3.3 miles) and into Maryland around 2 a.m., my lowest elevation of the day (I would later find out in true “one-upmanship” fashion that Patch did the West Virginia Section of his Four State completely nude).
Twilight hiking went fast and smooth. My pack hadn’t gotten worse and the Vitamin-I was working its magic so I continued at a solid pace for the first few hours of Maryland. Just after 4 a.m. I hit the Ed Garvey Shelter (8.6 miles) where Rockman and Ziplock were sleeping. Rockman offered to grab me two liters of water and treat it so I could save as much time as possible. This was the only spot to get water for a few miles and none of the water access was close to the trail. Rockman hiked half a mile down a mountain and back to get this water and it tasted special because of it. Electrolytes help hydrate you but love goes much further.
Electrolytes help hydrate you but love goes much further.
I ate 300 more calories and rambled on. I turned off my headlamp at 5:32am. The sun hadn’t risen yet but he morning glow was just enough to get by.
Maryland has a few features I didn’t know about that made the challenge a little sweeter. After 6 a.m. I found Gathland State Park (12.8 miles), a true AT gem. My favorite part was the flush toilet and sink 11 feet from the trail. I took full advantage of the water closet and free water. I slammed 250 more calories and checked my status. I was happy with my pace and away I went.
A few hours later around 9 a.m. I hiked up to the Dahlgren Back Pack Campground (15.7 miles) that had another toilet and sink very close to the trail. There I ran into Smooth D, another thru hiker from NC I hadn’t seen in a bit. Before breakfast I’d made big enough moves to start catching other thru hikers. As the day progressed I would fast forward through 3 days of hiking and catch a lot of Nobos that took time off in harpers that weren’t doing the foolish Four State challenge.
I loved running into folks after the past week seeing the trail like a ghost town. The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt like an ass telling people what I was doing. I’d done an impressive distance already and I didn’t want to come off cocky or self serving like a SOBO. I just wanted to see if I could do it and say hello but everyday on the trail thru hikers compare their day with the next guy’s leaving the opportunity for insecurity. As we say in thru tang, ‘Sorry bout it’.
Someone tried to talk to me and I mumbled my way in and out of a quick and awkward interaction. Good thing about the trail is that you can just run away, North.
I hit the Washington monument (21.8 miles) around 11am only to find a water spigot at the road. I stopped and binged on sweet sweet H2O before heading north and taking the side trail to see the monument. I was feeling like I’d been up all night so I didn’t try reading any displays. Someone tried to talk to me and I mumbled my way in and out of a quick and awkward interaction. Good thing about the trail is that you can just run away, North.
I stopped at Pine Knob Shelter (25.3 miles) around 1pm for a hot lunch and a máte. Feeling tired and confident, not in that order, I decided an actual break was essential. I had lunch with a few hikers including one guy, One Gallon, I hadn’t seen in all of Virginia. I sucked down the máte fast and ate the ramen as I listen to a thunderstorm approach. It rained on and off between 1am and 4am and was overcast all day. I left the shelter right before the storm was ready to hit at 2 p.m. I knew if I was there when it started I might think to wait it out which was unacceptable on Four State day. After 10 minutes the thunder was close enough that I dropped my pack and made sure everything was sound and water tight. I was glad 3 minutes later because the storm that hit Maryland that afternoon was the worst one I’d hike in on the Appalachian Trail.
It thundered for the half hour before but when it started raining it went high volume fast. No drizzle or in-between time necessary, the skies opened up and held a consistent downpour for 22 minutes. Such a short period of time when written but it felt like drowning in slow motion.
After 1 minute I was wet, after 2 soaked. After 8 minutes the drainage structure on the trail had a mass failure that turned the trail into the main drainage, a.k.a. ephemeral stream. 10 minutes into the storm I was walking consistently in 1 inch water. 15 minutes in it was closer to 3 inches and moving fast. I was climbing uphill the entire time taking the Appalachian trail that was a consistent roaring stream. With a smile I passed a few day hikers in jeans running towards a close parking lot, and hiked hard North.
With a smile I passed a few day hikers in jeans running towards a close parking lot, and hiked hard North.
I love the moment when nothing can stop you from getting completely wet. You don’t even think about putting on a jacket you just commit to the conditions. Some of my fondest moments outside were the nastiest storms I’ve ever been witness to. At the 22 minute mark the downpour was over but he trees still dripped water four another few hours. I got to Black Rock Cliffs (27.9 miles) right as the sun erupted, turning the day from overcast to a clear afternoon. I went out on the rock cliffs and undressed/dried off for 40 minutes. My “waterproof” shoes would remain saturated for the remainder of the day so I decided to save my dry socks for the night.
I got back on trail which was now a sitting stream. It would take the rest of the day to drain the water and a few days in some bad spots on the trail. I already had wet shoes so to reduce erosion impact on the trail corridor I stayed center tread of the trail, re-wetting them frequently.
Around 5pm I had to stop doing trial maintenance. I’d been taking big branches off after the storms and did over 30 minutes of work in Maryland (my minimum goal for each state). My pace was slowing down from 3 m.p.h. to mid 2 m.p.h.
I hit Raven Rock Shelter (38 miles) just before dark and saw a few more friends. I was good for a hello and a hug but was too tired and semi focused to stop for long.
I honestly didn’t have a problem with the distance or anything until mile 39. Nothing particularly difficult triggered the “breakdown” but there was a distinct moment where standard grinning and hiking turned into an exhausted grind. My feet had been growing exponentially more tender, my knees bruised and sore, and my drive to climb up and down hills had left.
My feet had been growing exponentially more tender, my knees bruised and sore, and my drive to climb up and down hills had left.
Every Northbound Four-Stater that I talked to brought up the same hardest part. The last 3 miles were very rocky and the worst miles on the Appalachian Trail (not really, it’s just that the last 3 miles of a 44 mile day are the worst miles on the Appalachian Trail). It started going down hill which is actually much worse than up. My pace slowed to 1 m.p.h. as stepping on these rocks in most ways hurt a lot.
I hope I never forget these 3 miles because I’ve never felt so exhausted in my entire life. At any time I could just lay down and fall asleep for the night. Pushing on those last miles was one of the harder things I’ve done.
I stopped and stared at the Hagerstown city lights at Pen Mar County Park (mile 43.8) around 10 pm. I pulled water from another faucet (4 in one day, new record) and pushed to find the end.
Crossing the final set of train tracks I knew I couldn’t be far away. At a distance I saw the shadow of a dark post and I knew I was done. In a delirium I rapped my arms around the Sign that Read Mason Dixon Line like an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. The completing my objective here marked the end of hiking in the South. To try and savor my last moments in my home region I crossed back and set up a hammock 10 feet short of the sign. One last good hang in the South.