Leaving Hamburg, Pennsylvania put us in the last 75 miles of the state and in some of the hardest hiking we’d seen. Pennsylvania doesn’t have the high elevations or sharp climbs that we’ll find in the Northeast but it has an inconsistent terrain that is hard to plan around. By the elevation and slope the state should be the easiest, yet hiking I was frequently frustrated by periodic rocky, unstable trail as much as anything.
We left Hamburg before noon but only managed about 14 miles by 7pm. Luckily, we had a delightful shelter that was basically a free campsite around a caretaker’s home. Flush toilets, running (free) water, and watermelon slices were a nice and unexpected treat. Naturally our group stayed up late cooking and lingered longer the next morning. Rambo and Atlas decided to test their acrobatics and see if Atlas could stand on Rambo. You’d think the guy 10 inches taller and 25 pounds heavier would want to be on the bottom but that sounded too easy to the boys. I’m amazed we don’t get hurt more often. Eventually we left Eckville Shelter about mid-day for another strong afternoon of rocks.
I’m amazed we don’t get hurt more often.
Ever since Shenandoah in Northern Virginia a few invasive species have appeared regularly in the trail corridor. Invasive species are plants and animals that are not ecologically native but have found themselves in alien environments. Most problem species are vilified for being overly successful, throwing off the ecosystem balance while choking out native ecology. It sounds like survival of the fittest but it’s normally man made circumstances that bring the species to its new environment.
There are a few plant species that are of particular concern for the Appalachian trail. The main species that concerns me is Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum). It was originally brought to this country (specifically in Tennessee) in 1919 most likely as packaging material.
It’s amazing how successful they are and how one element taking over can so quickly imbalance the delicate ecology.
Unfortunately, we kept seeing more trail and surrounding areas blanketed with Stilt grass. The problem is not that it just exists in a few spots. It’s high success and widely dispersed microscopic seeds choke out everything in the under story of the forest. As the foundation of the forest cracks, tree regeneration will be stifled, less fruit and seeds will be available for wildlife, and we’ll see a large scale degradation of the land. Recent budget cuts for federal land coupled with over a decade of stripped down trail programs have kept our country from defending itself properly. Its hard not to worry about it when you walk from state to state seeing a problem that’s of a national concern getting worse as little seems to be done. This is a task we cannot ask the corp of volunteers that maintain the Appalachian Trail to be responsible for.
Rockman and I took pictures with the dense covering of some patches of Stilt grass. It’s amazing how successful they are and how one element taking over can so quickly imbalance the delicate ecology. Like everything else though, the hike goes on.
Its no secret that hiking everyday takes toughness. Despite grizzly exteriors and unrelenting stubbornness, a few aspects of hiking stand to shake the foundation of each wayward soul, occasionally bucking those who just can’t handle. Rain and cold are the first great challenges that come to mind. The second you step outside you have to deal with climate and get as comfortable as possible. Rockman told me about a man he met in Georgia who said he wasn’t going to hike in the rain so he allowed himself 30 rainy days to skip hiking. My first thought was that he wasn’t going to make it to Maine. It’s not that it was going to rain too much for him to make it, it was that hiding from one of the major difficulties in the woods keeps you marinating in negativity and fear. Paying way too much attention to something inevitable is exhausting. Going to sleep scared it might rain is too much weight to carry 14 states.
It was that hiding from one of the major difficulties in the woods keeps you marinating in negativity and fear.
After the weather the next challenge that comes to mind is bugs. It’s the smallest pain on the trail but things buzzing around you, nipping at your skin or drilling for your blood gets to you fast. No-see-ums, mosquitoes, and ticks keep a nagging annoyance and fear that is hard to ignore. When bugs are bad it’s the only thing you can think of. If your shelter isn’t bug proof, you will not sleep. You can plan on marinating in DEET but you’ll learn that its like having a knife in a gunfight.
One of the finer moments I saw on the trail was watching Rambo (we’ll stick to his nickname, Rambie) loose his cool when bugs pushed him to the breaking point at the Priest shelter. Snugz, Rambie and I where eating a quick lunch and treating water as swarms of bugs attacked us. Each of us had a large cloud of tiny black No-See-Ums that where attacking in their particularly devastating way. As opposed to Mosquitoes that apply local anesthetic and plunge to get blood, No-see-ums take a bite out of your skin. Rambo was a high school starting quarterback that still had a superman chest. He’s in fantastic shape and with small man’s complex leaving him eager to seem stoic and macho. After about two minutes at the shelter he squealed in a tone that a baby might use if its life was threatened and was particularly prone to screeching. A shrill “Are the bugs as bad around you guys?!?!?” came from his battered and bitten soul. Of course they were but he couldn’t see past his mutilation. Snuggles and I laughed about it for the rest of the day. It made it easier for all of us to tolerate the bugs but the point is that its impossible to hide behind pride at some point.
The final aspect and the one that kicks the most off trail is the actual difficulty. Hiking is always hard but when it gets harder than it seems it should or expected, it flirts with the breaking point. The rocks of Pennsylvania are feared for the 1000 miles leading to them and hated during the 900 miles after them. We’d finally hit the point in the state where the rocks where serious. The miles leading up to northern PA were characterized by small patches of talus fields mixed in throughout the day’s miles, but now all we walked on was rock. Uneven and angled foot placements exhaust ankles and rot your feet. What really breaks my spirit is trying to hike at an aggressive pace only to discover loose rocks and footing that will drop you hard and fast.
What really breaks my spirit is trying to hike at an aggressive pace only to discover loose rocks and footing that will drop you hard and fast.
Hiking over Bake Oven Knob was when I felt closest to breaking but it wasn’t just caused by the rocks. Hiking up to a great view often lets hikers gain some extra strength and perspective that’s impossible to miss when you look down at all the suckers working in the local town. It’s bad enough that the views were few and far between in the state but what hurts is how people ruined this one. Walking up the steep rocky trail, spray paint graffiti slapped you in the face. Every 10 to 20 feet for a half a mile was some pointless scribble that was impossible to ignore. Finally when I got to the top I found the worst of it. The 360 degree views were littered with names, poorly painted pictures, and visual pollution that boils my blood. I decided to power through, not stop and get out of the area before I started screaming at the painted rocks. I got to a boulder field on the other side of the knob where rocks the size of car engines littered the trail. I moved through quickly but perhaps a step too fast. I dropped my foot hard on the edge of one boulder that rocked toward me pinning my ankle between it and its larger brother and taking me off my feet. The falls I had before this one felt like giggly stumbles that leave your friends with a smile and you with nothing worse than a bruised ego. This fall was hard, fast and serious. In a split second my ankle was pinned between a rock and a hard place (sorry couldn’t resist) and my left foot a yard in front of it leaving me in a awkward split that looked and felt like the makings of a catastrophic injury. My left foot continued forward but my momentum abruptly stopped, dropping my left knee hard on granite. I felt fear surge through my veins before I felt a rush of deep pain. I couldn’t believe the ligaments in my ankle, knee, or groin weren’t snapped or strained. I was glad no one else was around to see me. The sight of a hiker contorted and in pain can be more scarring than the actual accident. After a few seconds of struggling to get my ankle free from the granite vice, I stood up and did an inventory of my lower half, making sure my hike wasn’t over. I was lucky enough to limp away with only bruises and aches but the mental weight of a hard fall slows you down immensely. Its great to escape without a lasting injury but now I felt closer than ever to ending a hike. I knew it only takes one bad step but it’s the kind of fact that doesn’t seem that serious until it hits you over the head.
I hobbled on and felt basically fine within an hour. Most of the state I’d try to tell the people that cursed the rocks that we knew this was coming and it was just a part of the trail. This event pushed my leanings over to “rock hater”.
We only got 11 miles done that day and it was my fault. I stopped to take a break and settle my mind as well as hiked drastically slower. We also had an obstacle of a 5 mile no camping zone in the middle of our day. We talked about getting to the other side and until I found my friends on the south side of it at 6pm. I was content with night hiking through it.
What made this area a no-camping zone wasn’t because of anything hikers had done, but the surrounding town, Palmerton. While the Appalachian trail seems like a tour of the finest gems in the east, it also is home to littered highways, old backcountry trash dumps, and a Superfund site. The Superfund List is a special collection of lands devastated by pollution in a number of different ways. This Palmerton Superfund site was victim to nearly a century of Zinc Smelting that pumped clouds of heavy metals into the hills killing everything and loading down the water and soil with metals that are still there today. Around 1980 the EPA was nice enough to force the shutdown of the smelting plants in the local town and in 1982 forced the company to start rehabbing the land. 30 years later a considerable amount of Zinc is found everywhere leaving the water poisonous and the soil heavy with alien metals.
30 years later a considerable amount of Zinc is found everywhere leaving the water poisonous and the soil heavy with alien metals.
I was not unsettled in the slightest by the fact we were walking through a pollution site but rather the contrast with the previous 250 miles. I’d been seeing Japanese Stilt Grass everyday since Northern Virginia that was choking everything else around the trail corridor. All of a sudden this revegetated and planted Superfund site was completely devoid of invasive species. Actually I don’t think I saw more healthy looking vegetation in a 5 mile stretch on the trail. Shimmering Aspen stood as an army on the hill side showing the difference of the leaves with Kelly green tops and silver bottoms that look like water in the summer breeze. Native grasses, sedges, bushes, everything that stilt grass had been fighting and winning against was there and thriving. It was beautiful.
Before you suggest injecting massive amounts of Zinc everywhere as a fertilizer I’d suggest taking a step back. It wasn’t the pollution that was helping each plant but the fact a company was heavily fined and held accountable for the damage. When very profitable companies are fined and a gun is held to their heads to fix something the result is can be quiet nice. More money had been put into managing this area in the past 20 years than the rest of the AT in the state.
Where most of the state and the trail in general are on public lands that have virtually no funding to manage vegetation correctly, the trail is falling victim to invasive plant species and over impact. Thus problems get worse over the years with very little accountability and a workforce repeatedly slashed by budget cuts.
When I first moved out of my parent’s house my standards for cleanliness lacked. If I spilled a beer I had all day to clean it up if I even wanted to. The previous 18 years of my life if I spilled a drink in my parents home I cleaned it up immediately because I was actually accountable and faced real consequences. The Palmerton site benefited from forcing management onto the hill sides of Pennsylvania. Luckily enough the EPA held some authority at the time and the result is a model for rehabilitating our public lands in the state.
The start of the Superfund site was aggressive hiking but absolutely fantastic trail. Where most of the trail is hiking, this pushed towards climbing. Rambo and I crossed over the Lehigh River and highway PA 145 to find out we shouldn’t be walking on the Appalachian Trail.
As we go into the site we fixed trekking poles to our backs because we had more vertical movement to do than horizontal. Hand over hand in Pennsylvania rocks feels so bad ass with your life on your back and adventure in your heart. The trail wasn’t super easy to follow but we didn’t have as much trouble as others. About halfway up we saw a cockier hiker traversing a hundred feet off trail. He left camp a half an hour before us after asking us what had taken us so long to get to Pennsylvania. He was lucky we called him over and showed him the real trail before he spent the day scrambling in a polluted playground.
We topped out to amazing views after half an hour and a bit of a photo shoot on a cool yet very easy climbing move.
Moving through the superfund site was utterly unforgettable. The hills were so surprisingly alive even to the point that it taunted us. I spotted a large patch of delicious looking blackberries that could not be touched. It took way too much strength to abstain from the certainly delicious yet zinc infused delicacies. I caught numerous hikers gorging on the poisonous berries with no worries about the long term affects. Mixing stubbornness with hunger makes for hikers feasting on poison if it tastes good enough. I assume the tumors wouldn’t appear until long after the hike.
Snuggles, Caboose, Rambo and I got to the North side of the Superfund site before 11 and pushed hard. We decided to pitch a 22 miler to make up for the 11 mile day yesterday and camp behind a hiker friendly restaurant in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania. It was ambitious but you should have learned by now that the goals that end in food are always completed.
Around 7pm we strolled into Wind Gap and straight to the BeerStein. There were already tents set up out back in a large field and even mobile showering trailers. Seems that this was a popular spot to spend the night because about 20 hikers were inside crushing pitchers and pizza. It was as nice a place as ever to sleep and after a big day, its easy to convince yourself you’ve earned a town feast (stop me if you’ve heard this before). I ate until I ached, drank around a fire out back, and fell asleep 200 feet away from a gas station in the middle of town. Noting beats first class homelessness.