1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I head to the ATC headquarters as soon as it opens the next morning. The building lies on the edge of town, easy to miss were it not for the handful of colorful backpacks slung over the front porch. Appalachian Trail memorabilia and souvenirs line the walls inside, and a small side room functions as a hiker lounge, complete with refreshments, a hiker box, and photo albums of AT hikers through the years.
I flip through the 2017 album, looking for familiar faces. I quickly find my trail family, their photos just a couple pages before mine. I turn another page: Ian, 84, Scallywag, Ty, and Giggles. No sign of Tenacious or Nighthawk. For fun, I grab the 2016 album and find Woody's photo among the 2016 March hikers.
Easy Goin' and Logjam, two thru-hikers from Connecticut, tell me that Tenacious and Nighthawk should be arriving soon - within an hour or two. I join them for breakfast and a CT hiker picture in front of the ATC headquarters; minutes after our return, Tenacious and Nighthawk walk through the door.
For the rest of the morning and early afternoon, I wander around town, sampling the wild wineberries, visiting the historical candy shop, and enjoying the views. As I eat a late lunch on a bench by the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, Carter hikes past me; he ends up doing over 20 miles that afternoon! I finally, reluctantly, hoist up my pack and trudge out of town shortly before 3:00 pm.
West Virginia contains only 4 miles of the Appalachian Trail; I soon veer into Maryland, home to an additional 41 miles.
My feet ache more than usual the next day. The insoles in my new shoes seem uncomfortably high as they press into my arches, distributing the brunt of my weight to my toes. I find myself taking unscheduled breaks throughout the day just to loosen my shoelaces and stretch out my feet.
I pass Gathland State Park and the Washington Monument that morning. At Pine Knob Shelter, I string a length of rope between the shelter and a tree, and hang my tent - still damp from the Shenandoahs - to dry. Tenacious and Nighthawk arrive at dinnertime. We talk excitedly about crossing the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, located just past Pen Mar Park, tomorrow. My Guthook Appalachian Trail app mentions pizza delivery and running water at the park.
When I reach the park, I find Nighthawk studying a menu for the local pizza joint, Rocky's.
"I figured since we're short on food, we could solve our resupply problems," she says.
"I'd be down for that." I pull out my phone and and type in Rocky's website address.
We order subs and a large cheese pizza to share: enough food for dinner and an additional day of hiking. In about 45 minutes, a man pulls up and delivers our food in a zipped black bag. Delicious!
At dusk, we finally hike out, camping just beyond the MD-PA state line. I attempt to throw my bear line as the sunlight rapidly fades. Again and again, I cast my line. Tenacious and Nighthawk try their hand at throwing, to no avail. Half an hour later, my line is hopelessly tangled in the branches.
Ah, well. I borrow some line from Tenacious and try again.
My insoles continue to plague me; my hiking speed decreases markedly over the next couple days; by the end of each day, I'm sitting down for at least 15 minutes every hour in a futile attempt to alleviate the sharp pain driving up each toe.
Pine Grove Furnace Is coming up soon, I tell myself. I can zero there.
I push on, trying to ignore the pain. There are moments where I succeed: Once, around mid-afternoon, I notice a traditionally dressed woman sitting on a bucket by the side of the trail. Further along are more young men and women, all perched on buckets, all gazing contemplatively into the woods, all wearing clothes that make them look as though they time traveled from the early 19th century. The men wear suspenders and trousers. The women, full-length dresses and bonnets. Some carry journals. Others, sketchbooks. An older bearded man paces back and forth in the distance, keeping an eye on the youths.
Great, I've gone mad, I think drily. Or walked into a portal. Like a TARDIS in the middle of the woods. Then, incongruously, I bet this is how it would feel to be a hobbit meeting a group of elves.
In the middle of the group is an unconventional encampment, which does little to reassure my rising doubt as to my sanity. Huge piles of firewood dot the camp, sandwiched between tall tents and Oregon-Trail-style wooden carts. I later find out that the campers are Mormons reenacting the trek to Salt Lake City; I wish I took the time to speak to them.
The day I reach Pine Grove Furnace State Park is the day I pass the geographical halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. Though Harpers Ferry is known for being the emotional halfway point, the actual halfway mark lies some miles to the north, near Pine Grove Furnace, at mile 1094.5. Pine Grove Furnace is also known as the home of the Half-Gallon Challenge, in which thru-hikers chug down half a gallon of ice cream in exchange for a wooden spoon that marks their induction into the 'half gallon club.' There is no time limit or monetary reward; hikers pay the sole camp store $10 for each attempt.
Tenacious takes the challenge, chooses her flavor, and digs in.
More members of my trail family arrive. As we eat at the camp store, a man from the local newspaper photographs us for an article on thru-hikers at the halfway point.
Tenacious, Nighthawk, and I decide to zero the next day, go canoeing, and stay at Ironmaster's Mansion, a hiker hostel at the park.
Tenacious fears water. Nighthawk, heights. Down south, they'd struck a deal: If Nighthawk went up a fire tower, Tenacious would go canoeing. And so, we find ourselves walking (or hobbling) down a road to a lake 2 miles away in search of the canoe rental stand shown on park maps.
We leave our packs at the park's AT museum, promising to return by 4:00 pm: closing time. Partially to save time and partially because we're feeling rather lazy, we decide to try hitching a ride down the road.
The first car we see stops for us.
The same thing happens on our way back, saving us a couple hours of walking!
Before heading to Ironmaster's Mansion, Nighthawk successfully tackles the half-gallon challenge with half a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream.
The inkeeper, Jeff, a portly, impeccably dressed man with a trimmed mustache and beard, makes us pizza for dinner. He tells us there is a secret compartment in the mansion, a room used as part of the Underground Railroad. He also talks about his extracurricular pursuits:
"I'm a demonologist-angelologist," he says. "They're the same thing. They have the same hierarchies, the same abilities..."
Well, this is turning into quite the interesting evening, I think.
Jeff regales us with tales of his exorcisms. He carries a black doctor's bag full of herbs and holy water. A church official took notice of his activities and contacted him, asking him to join the Franciscan seminary.
"I said, 'Forced celibacy for two years and choosing that for the rest of my life are two different things!'" Jeff laughs. "He said, 'I'll tell my wife!'"
Franciscan priests can marry. I had no idea.
Later that evening, a few of Jeff's friends drop by: a tattooed woman with bright red hair sporting a Ghostwarepro T-shirt, a man in a red shirt, and their son-in-law. They own a ghost shop in Gettysburg. The Ironmaster's Mansion is rumored to have a ghost of its own: a lady in white.
"I think God has a sense of humor," the woman remarks.
"I think a lot of things wouldn't be here if God didn't have a sense of humor," Tenacious responds amicably.
"Hello-oo!" Jeff waves his hands in the air. "Like me!"
"You're the coolest member of the clergy I ever met," Tenacious says.
"Can you show us the secret area?" Nighthawk asks.
"No! You'd never come back!" the man in the red shirt responds, guffawing.
Jeff takes us to the secret compartment, located beneath a trapdoor in a room beneath the stairs. A wooden ladder leads down into what looks like a small stone room, barely large enough for one person. I can't imagine hiding down there while journeying along the Underground Railroad.
Wow. You never know what you'll run into on the Appalachian Trail! I think.