AT Day 122: And The States Won't Stop (But I Might Here And There)

The days out of Front Royal passed more quickly than any others thus far. As expected, the handful of familiar folks I had seen through Shenandoah were now ahead of me, or surprisingly behind. Armed with my rover’s resolve and clear landmarks ahead, going came easily, but it took time for me to let go and let the trail take me as its wont, over my own.

Uncle Ya had returned from his trip home around the same time I got back on trail from Richmond, putting us in close proximity. Knowing he was only a day or two ahead of me made good incentive to push miles, and the terrain was forgiving, outside of the so-called “roller coaster” series of hills at the northern end of Virginia. The chase was on!

The passage through West Virginia is brief, taking hikers near the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters and one of three roads in Harper’s Ferry. This marks the unmoving “spiritual” halfway point on the trail, though it is South of the “nerd’s” halfway point that splits the trail exactly. Hikers stop at the conservancy to take a polaroid in front of its sign, which is then catalogued with all others from this year. The rest of Harper’s Ferry was overwhelming; I passed through on a Saturday and the place was abustle with tourists, historical site park rangers, reenactors, and a couple dozen hikers, as passersbys like myself collided with those zeroing in town. Thankfully West Virginia’s chaos passed into Maryland woods quickly, and then into Pennsylvania woods nearly as fast, with just a day or two between. Some attempt to complete this 42-mile stretch in 24 hours or less, dubbed the “four state” challenge: VA to WV to MD to PA. Still, I saw more day hikers in my short time in Maryland than the entirety of Shenandoah.

The Mason Dixon line marked an emotional turning point for me. After a lovely evening spent bowling with the good company of a very inexpensive pitcher of beer, my phone fell out of my pocket during my hitch back to the trail. Realizing it was missing, I stopped and waited at the road, hoping the driver might notice and return. She didn’t, and by dark I was setting up my tent. The next morning I had resigned to buying a new phone, and losing half the day getting to the library to set it back up. I took my time, enjoying a second cup of coffee at a picnic table since said library didn’t open till nine. I knew with this stunted day and the previous ones where I fell short of my “stretch” goal, I would be far behind Uncle Ya. No matter, I thought. I’ll just walk North and I’ll see him when I see him. Then, something spectacular happened: a familiar car pulled up and a familiar woman called out, “Boogerbear, is that you? I thought you’d be long gone.” I walked over and explained my situation. She hadn’t seen the phone - it was under the passenger seat - but was on her way back over the hill for another errand when she saw me. We exchanged surprise, and my more thanks, and we both went on our way. She was convinced it was an act of god. I say it was another kind of good magic: The Trail Provides.

My mood brightened, and my goal reverting from a chase to a stroll, the good kept coming. That afternoon I happened upon some trail magic and met some new hikers: the “Koozie Crew,” We hit it off like gangbusters (no surprise there), and I slowed a bit to hike with them through Southern Pennsylvania, including the traditional pit stop for eating a half gallon of ice cream. Unfortunately, one member, Crazy Moon, broke her foot not long after. Then, on the day other new recruit Beagle and I got our koozies, she and our fourth comrade got off trail while she recovered. Beagle and I pressed on, our hands dry and our drinks cold. We started with our first lengthy night hike, on Friday the 13th after a lazy day in town. We went some fourteen miles after dark, under a new moon and through the open farm fields that are common in central Pennsylvania. While sometimes spooky, the stars were incredible, and it was a new fun challenge.

I was told I would hate Pennsylvania. “It will be July when you are there. It will be hot! There are rocks you have to step on and climb and go around! You have to carry more water!” I protested: that sounded a lot like the spring break and summer backpacking trips of my youth, during drought times in central Texas. “Impossible!” they cried, “I was miserable, and you will be too.” Well, leave it to someone else’s experience to be totally unlike your own. Southern PA was like late spring back home: warm in the sun, but with an occasional cool breeze, and on easy-graded, well-cleared trail through state parks to boot. As we got further North, the trail roughened and the air warmed, but never so hot as one might expect from the hype. The rocks, too, were rarely more than annoying. Trail littered with small, sharp stones and hopping from rock to rock made the feet sore, and scrambles could be strenuous, but altogether the hike was as enjoyable as I imagined.

Then I hurt my ankle. And then it rained. And then it kept raining. Ironically, I think my bad twist came on the day I retired my sandals and donned my old mid-top boots, last worn in central Virginia. Soon after, my ankle swelled up and began to hurt a hot something fierce. I took a rest in the next town, to ice and elevate my injury and ease the mind with a continued flow of unbelievably cheap Yuengling lager; or as the locals call it, simply “Lager.” People say this is the part of the trail where our bodies begin to break down. Sure enough, Beagle also got off briefly after feeling fatigued for too many days in a row.

The injury slowed me down, and the rain was a knock to morale, a risk of blisters, and made the rocks all the more treacherous. I was thankful I found myself at the top of the state’s hardest and highest scramble just as that day’s first drop fell. I was also thankful to have run into an acquaintance, Par 3, and turn him into a friend. On my lowest day, drenched and aching, even considering zeroing again or skipping ahead to avoid more wet rocks, he assured me, “There are only 43 miles left in Pennsylvania” And so I put on a stubborn face and soldiered on. The next morning, my ankle no longer hurt.

Beagle, Par 3, and I have crossed into New Jersey, another short and flat state, so New York is just ahead, then on to New England. It’s wild to me how short this journey all feels now, even though there are hundreds of miles to go.

See you soon,

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