AT Thru-Hike #65 – Bug Eyes

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” – Bernard M. Baruch

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” – Socrates

Day 114

Just a few miles into my morning hike, I arrived at Fox Gap and saw some guys setting up a Trail Magic station. After helping them pitch the tent, I sat down and had a Coke and some chips. While I was visiting with them, Terodactyle arrived and sat down. He told me that he stayed at yesterday’s Trail Magic stop for five hours drinking beer, and then headed up the hill on wet rocks after the rain. He slipped on a rock and fell, landing on his head. He sliced open the top of his head and blood started pouring out. He applied direct pressure and finally got the bleeding to stop. I took a look at it and gave him some Tribotic ointment to put on it. He’ll have a nice scar but otherwise should be able to continue hiking. I guess the lesson to be learned is not to drink alcohol and hike, especially on slippery rocks.

The Magic Continues
The Magic Continues

There were at least fifty day hikers on the trail today, out getting some exercise on the 4th of July weekend. Most were headed to or from the scenic Lookout Rock at mile 1291.5. Just north of Lookout Rock, I looked down and saw the strangest looking insect. From a distance it looked like it had huge eyes, but they are just part of its shell. Curious, I did some research and learned that the insect is an Eastern Eyed Click Beetle or Alaus Oculatus. God apparently designed this insect with large fake eyes as a defense mechanism to ward off potential enemies. In effect, it wears a mask to pretend to be something it’s not. I guess we all do that from time to time.

Alaus Oculatus
Alaus Oculatus

On the AT, I can’t count how many times a passing hiker has said, “How ya doin’?” and I’ve donned the mask and said “Fine,” rather than more truthfully respond, “Well, I have moderate chafing today because my shorts and underwear are drenched in sweat…my scalp itches because I haven’t washed my hair in a week…I can’t feel the bottoms of my feet…I miss my wife to the point of crying…and 15 minutes ago I smashed a sweat bee on the side of my head and I believe its remains are lodged in my ear. Thanks for asking!”

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I’m afraid too often “How ya doin’?” is just a greeting, something to say, without really the slightest interest in how the other person is doing. “Fine” is just something to say back and is hardly indicative of how the fellow hiker is actually doing or feeling. I’m afraid back in the real world I’m also guilty of this, both as the insincere questioner and less than truthful responder. Too often I’m nothing but an Eyed Click Beetle, wearing a mask and pretending to be something that I’m not.

Approaching Delaware Water Gap
Approaching Delaware Water Gap

So I’m going to work on that. I’d like to be more like my friend Jeff H. from Florida who is much more transparent about what he is facing in life as a husband, father, church deacon, etc. He’s less concerned with image and more concerned with genuinely telling it like it is. My new approach: After asking someone “How ya doin’?” and them answering “Fine” I’m going to look them in the eye and say, “Now tell me how you’re really doing?” I’m going to slow down life’s pace a tad and try to sincerely listen more and care more. I hope my family and closest friends will hold me accountable.

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After 9.3 miles I arrived at the beautiful town of Delaware Water Gap. This town easily places in my Top 5 trail towns so far. For starters, the AT runs right through town so there’s no hitching or long side hikes required. Next, throw in the Church of the Mountain Hiker Center, a church hostel which offers free bunks (donations accepted), a shower, hiker lounge, lemonade, hiker box, etc. As I walked up its driveway, a friendly church couple exiting in their car rolled down the window and said, “Welcome! Make yourself at home in our hostel! There’s a gentleman up there who will shuttle you to Walmart or a grocery store or laundromat if you need that. And there’s a 4th of July concert on the lawn tonight…hope you can make it!” I thought they would just say, “How ya doin’?” to which I was prepared to say, “Fine”.

Village Farmer and Bakery
Village Farmer and Bakery
Yes! Just Yes!
Yes! Just Yes!

After claiming a bunk, showering, and weighing myself (188, down 46.6 lbs), I walked down the street to Edge of the Woods Outfitter for a new pair of hiking socks, backup trekking pole tips, and electrolytes. My next stop was the Village Farmer and Bakery where they offer, among many things, a hot dog and slice of pie for $2.95. While tempted to get three of those, I instead went with the barbecue brisket with mac n cheese and baked beans. That would be quite filling for a normal human. I am currently an abnormal human so I went next door to the Water Gap Diner for coffee and apple pie a la mode. As I turned around to speak to Foxfire, my 67 year old hiking friend, I spilled my hot coffee on my lap and dropped the cup on the floor. It was embarrassing and made my hiking shorts and underwear smell like Folgers for the next five days.

4th of July Concert
4th of July Concert
If you can't be with family, be with total strangers
If you can’t be with family, be with total strangers

That night, my love affair with Delaware Water Gap continued as I dragged a lawn chair over to the pavilion and joined mostly older folks in listening to a local band put on a patriotic July 4th concert. At intermission I had two hot dogs, chips, a brownie, and lemonade. Towards the end of the concert they played a military medley. When the Air Force song was played, I stood (alone) and sang out like a proud Airmen. I got a few strange looks and a few laughs. That’s what happens when you take your mask off, show genuine emotion, and choose to be more then just an Eye Clicked Beetle.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #64 – An Unforced Error

“To be elated at success and disappointed at failure is to be the child of circumstances; how can such a one be called master of himself?” – Chinese Proverb

“Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.” – Thomas Jefferson

Day 112

After our incredible time together, Janet drove me back to the trailhead near Slatington. It was tough and emotional to say goodbye again, but I told her I loved her and would think about her every day until I see her again in Maine. She told me she loved me and would pray for me every day. We then hugged and kissed and I headed out over the bridge.

My sadness transitioned to bewilderment as I stared up at the climb out of Lehigh Gap that was ahead. The task was to climb 1000+ feet up the steep rockslide known as Blue Mountain, often going hand over hand. It was easily the most challenging rock scramble on the AT thus far, but it was also one of the most fun. I was glad the weather was clear, that I had long legs, and that my footing held on each precarious step.

Approaching Blue Mountain
Approaching Blue Mountain
Climbing Blue Mountain
Climbing Blue Mountain

From 1898-1980 the zinc mining industry took a heavy environmental toll on Palmerton, Blue Mountain, and the surrounding area. The New Jersey Zinc Company, our nation’s largest producer of zinc, left 33 million tons of slag (rocky waste) as a byproduct of their mining operations. The smelting operations also released heavy metals into the air and water, killing 2000 acres of vegetation on Blue Mountain and contaminating the Lehigh River and Aquashicola Creek. The Environmental Protection Agency added Palmerton to its National Priorities List in 1983 and since then there has been a concerted effort to grade and revegetate the land and clean the water and residences. As I climbed up and along Blue Mountain, I could tell it had taken a beating, but I was also impressed with the obvious effort underway to bring it back. Just to be on the safe side, I brought an extra bottle of Gatorade to avoid having to filter water from this area.

Still Climbing Blue Mountain
Still Climbing Blue Mountain
Still Climbing
More Rocks to Scramble Over

After summiting Blue Mountain, I continued along its mostly flat ridge for a few miles. At mile 1262.1, Little Gap Road, two former thru-hikers, Flapjack and Tunes, were under a canopy giving out Trail Magic! I was surprised to see a hiker named Black Bear sitting there. I shared a shelter with him a couple of months ago and know that he routinely does 20+ mile days. I’m going at a much more leisurely pace so it made no sense for us both to be in the same location. It turns out he got a severe back infection and had to get off the trail, rest and heal for two weeks and was now back at it. I also met Scarecrow, Hot Toddy, and Terodactyle. After having a cheese sandwich, some fruit and topping off my water from their water jugs, I thanked them and hiked on.

Little Gap Trail Magic
Little Gap Trail Magic

As I climbed out of Little Gap, a light rain began to fall. It made the rocks slippery but felt quite refreshing. I don’t like setting up or breaking down camp in the rain, but don’t mind hiking in it unless there is lightning.

A little later I passed a monument to Monmouth Air Flight 98. On October 24, 1971 a Beechcraft 99 crashed at this location, killing both pilots and two of the six passengers. The accident report concluded the pilot executed a nonprecision instrument approach in instrument flight conditions. The report also stated the pilots’ extensive on-duty time and resulting fatigue likely affected their judgement and decisions during the approach.

Monmouth Air Flight 98 Memorial
Monmouth Air Flight 98 Memorial

Late in the afternoon, the rain stopped but it was still overcast and dark in the woods. I stopped and relieved myself on a tree and then sat down to take a break and drink some water. About 20 minutes after resuming my hike, I saw Black Bear heading towards me. He said, “Fob, what are you doing?” “Hiking to Maine,” I answered. “Not in that direction,” he replied. “You’re going southbound!” I have read of hikers doing this before but never imagined doing it myself. Apparently during my last water break, I wasn’t paying close enough attention and headed out the wrong way. In a dark section of forest that all looks pretty similar, I just never realized my mistake. I thanked him for helping me out and mentally wrote “stupid” on my forehead before turning northbound and continuing my journey.

Blue Mountain Ridge
Blue Mountain Ridge

After this 40 minute mistake and a 10.2 mile day, I stealth camped near the intersection of the AT and the Delps Trail. I had only been away from my wife for six hours and was already missing her. I also thought about fatigue-induced errors and their consequences. My earlier error had cost me 40 minutes of time and unnecessarily hiking an extra 1.5 miles. The Monmouth Flight 98 pilots’ error, near the same spot as mine and for the same basic reason, had cost them their lives.

Day 113

Today was characterized by 16.8 miles of hot weather, endless rocks, two little snakes, and one deer. I felt fatigued throughout the day and saw very few other hikers on the trail in either direction. At various points I felt like a zombie, mentally checked out and just mindlessly churning ahead like a sweaty robot stuck on autopilot. It was that rare day on the AT that was void of fun. Some days on the trail are just like that. A bright spot was some unattended Trail Magic at Wind Gap, featuring several bottles of water and a container full of dehydrated food.

PA Lands a Blow
PA Lands a Blow

As I took off my socks that evening and stretched out in my tent on my air mattress, I noticed my first ever visible bruise on the bottom of my foot. The relentless pounding of the rocks all week long had left me battered and a little bruised. I was ready to be out of Pennsylvania and in ten miles I would be.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #63 – On Faith and Family

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” – Ecclesiastes 12:13

“That’s what a good wife does, keeps your dreams alive even when you don’t believe any more.” – Michael J. Sullivan

“Living the Christian life isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.”     – Sir Fob W. Pot

Days 109-111

I awoke, packed up, ate a pop tart, and was ready to hike in just thirty minutes. I was highly motivated because today was…(drum roll)…rendezvous with Janet day! This would be our third and final get together during my AT hike. We chose the town of Slatington as our afternoon pickup point which meant I had a 7.3 mile downhill hike and she had a four hour drive from the DC area. The most notable thing on the hike was the presence of thousands of gypsy moths along the trail. To pass the time, I tried to see how many I could step on and eventually killed nineteen of the hardwood eating pests.

I See You!
I See You!

There are basically three types of towns along the AT. The first are trail towns that the trail runs through that love and cater to hikers. Damascus, Virginia is an example of that. Hikers fuel their economy and they fuel hikers with their enthusiasm and support. The second type of trail town is off the trail some number of miles but still loves hikers and wants their business. They go out of their way to get hikers into town by offering free shuttles or posting the names of Trail Angels willing to offer rides. Franklin, North Carolina is an example from that category. The third category of town either doesn’t care or outright doesn’t want hikers in town. No attempt is made to help hikers get into town. I would put Slatington into this third category. The lady at the counter of the auto repair place at the trailhead was unfriendly and not interested in hikers using their restroom. If I were the owner, I would at least have a cooler of water outside for hikers or maybe a soda machine. How difficult would that be? No one offered a ride despite my hitching efforts. There were no signs about Trail Angels or town services. And to top it all off, the two mile walk into town was on a narrow, dangerous road to be hiking along.

The only friendly or helpful person I encountered was the manager of the laundromat who was interested in my hike and glad to have my business. I’m not suggesting everyone living near the AT needs to bend over backwards to cater to hikers. I am suggesting that towns, especially those in economically challenged areas, could make a lot of money on the thousands of hikers who travel through each year. It’s just interesting how some towns take advantage of their proximity to the trail and others seem pretty ambivalent.

Praying on My Tent
Praying on My Tent

After doing laundry I walked across the town to a Chinese restaurant and got a plate of General Tsao chicken and two spring rolls. During my hour at the restaurant, I made four trips to the restroom, which may explain why some trail towns would prefer hikers just hike on by. After my fourth trip, Zhang Wei, the owner, emerged from the restroom saying, “Nemo air freshna, some ting wong in air.” I quickly exited, crossed the street to a gas station, got an ice cream and a drink, and awaited the mid-afternoon arrival of my wife.

More Wildlife
More Wildlife

I just have to say that I have the best wife! When I think back over my half century old life (something I’ve had plenty of time to do on the AT), I think I’ve made five really good decisions that have impacted my entire life. First and foremost, I decided that God is real and I needed to become a Christian. So I did. That’s a decision you can’t afford to get wrong, as eternity is riding on it. Second, I chose a Christian wife who I love and who loves me. More on that in a minute. Third, together we decided to raise our children in a Christian environment. That meant a lot of things, including teaching our children about God, regularly attending Bible class and worship services, and being heavily involved in church work. That gave (and continues to give) our lives purpose and generally puts us around pretty awesome friends who share similar values. Fourth, I chose careers, in the military, as a teacher, and as a youth minister, that have intrinsic value and involved helping people. I’m glad I never had to grudgingly work just to earn a paycheck, although I would have done that if necessary to feed my family. Finally, together we decided that the best way to spend the next chapter of our lives is serving others, rather than accumulating and maintaining possessions. Whether that takes the form of RV-based domestic mission work, building houses with Habitat, doing disaster relief, or overseas mission work, it really is just about helping others and letting God’s love shine through us.

Schnitzel!
Schnitzel!

I say all that not to pat ourselves on the back…we are sinners and we struggle with issues as individuals and as a family. We need God’s grace just like everyone else. I say all that because I have run into a lot of young people out here, and a few older ones, who weren’t raised in that sort of environment. Many are searching for something. For many, God is sort of an abstract concept and the Bible is certainly not something that needs to be followed. The feeling is you just sort of believe in some higher power and be a nice person and that’s enough. Careers are often chosen based on income potential, with little regard to any larger purpose. Throw in a good looking spouse, a big house, fancy vacations, and “fun friends” and everything falls into place. Except that it frequently doesn’t, at least not over the long haul. A life with self at the center, rather than God, is a life which may eventually leave a person feeling disillusioned or empty. Some of them are hiking the AT for just that reason. I know that because they’ve told me so. Some are asking the same question asked by a Jack Nicholson movie character, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Peggy Lee expressed a similar concern in her song, Is That All There Is?

Pamela's Breakfast
Pamela’s Breakfast

Several millennials I’ve spoken to have given up on religion because they’ve had bad experiences with boring, inactive churches that are in maintenance mode and aren’t really engaging their community and world. I say try a different church. Go on a mission trip. Serve food at a homeless shelter. Focus not on what your church can do for you, but how you through your church can impact your community and world. If your faith is boring you’re not doing it right!

Hiking the AT and being out in nature for so long can and should point people to God and illuminate his creative power, rather than just be an end unto itself. My hope is that the many folks I’ve talked to on the trail who are searching for meaning will find it in a loving God and a relationship with Christ. If this post can help influence even one person out there to consider or reconsider a God-centered life, then it will have been worth it. If I could just convince one of these millennials, or anyone reading this, to give God and faith and church another try, then my AT hike will have been worth the effort. I pray that it will, and that God will help me to more fully and completely live the ideals I’ve just laid out. I’m still a work in progress.

 

Back to Little Miss Janet, she is just an incredible wife! I feel like I won the marriage lottery and chose to have the prize spread out over a lifetime. We have been through a lot together…a miscarriage, her major kidney surgery, a robbery, a flooded house, the spandex pants she wore on Kyle and Laci’s engagement day, multiple Air Force moves, my mom’s illness, etc. She has always stood right by my side and held me up when life was making me wobble.

How many wives let their husbands be gone for six months to hike the AT? She hasn’t complained once or even hinted that I should consider quitting. How many wives let their husbands  volunteer to deploy to Afghanistan for six months? How many are willing to be dragged all over the country and world, being uprooted every few years, as a military spouse? How many, when you ask, “Hey, what if we got rid of almost everything and lived full-time in an RV?” answer, “Let’s do it!” She has been nothing but good and loving and supportive to me, and that theme would continue with our little rendezvous.

After a wonderful gas station hug and kiss, she drove me to Pamela’s Forget Me Not Bed and Breakfast in Kempton, PA. Instead of wearing the usual yellow springy dress, she purchased a yellow nighty thing that made my jaw drop. (She wore it later that night, not at the gas station.) We spent three wonderful nights there, enjoying the jacuzzi tub, delicious breakfasts, and just being together. As with our previous rendezvous, she restored me and made me feel normal and whole again, if only for a short while.

Pamela's Pug
Pamela’s Pug

While out running errands, we went by a Pizza Hut and I remembered being at the Eckville Shelter recently, frustrated because we were unable to have a pizza delivered there. I checked the map and saw that we were just a 20 minute drive from the shelter. Figuring there were probably some tired, hungry hikers there, we got a large pizza, large breadsticks, and two liter Mountain Dew and headed that way. We also had the remaining cookies given to me by our friend, Jana Leasure.

All Mine!
All Mine!

Sure enough, there were several hikers sprawled out on the lawn as we pulled up. I recognized one of them, Tree, a hiker with whom I’ve shared a cabin and shelters. I got out of the car and, already knowing the answer asked, “We got any hungry hikers here?” In unison, they shouted, “Yes!” It was so cool to see the huge smiles on their faces and to be on the giving end of Trail Magic for a change. It was also neat for Janet to see a shelter and meet some of my fellow hikers. I started to take her over and let her flush the rare AT toilet, but then realized that may not be too impressive to her. We said our goodbyes to the hikers and headed back to the B&B for a final night of marital bliss.

I guess this particular hiking blog was more about faith and family than hiking. I’m okay with that. I write what’s on my heart. And besides, in the grand scheme of things, faith and family are a lot more important than hiking.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #62 – In the Eye of the Storm

“Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.” – Phillips Brooks

“Watch out for emergencies. They are your big chance!” – Fritz Reiner

Day 107

A few miles into my morning hike I traveled through Windsor Furnace, the site of a furnace dating back to 1768. This region of the Appalachian Mountains possesses limestone deposits, iron ore, and hardwoods. Consequently, furnaces sprang up to produce iron for the colonists and later for American Civil War combatants. Pennsylvania alone had over 500 furnaces or forges. Later, Americans discovered Home Depot and the furnaces were shut down.

View from Pulpits Rock
View from Pulpit Rock

At mile 1224.5 I reached Pulpit Rock, an outcropping with a pretty view and the Pulpit Rock Astronomical Park nearby. I stripped down to just my hiking shorts, hung my remaining sweaty clothes on a tree branch, and laid down for 30-minute nap. When I woke up and stood up, my body sweat had created an outline on the rock, like a crime scene. A mile later, several other hikers and I missed the side trail to The Pinnacle and its panoramic view. Surprisingly, there was no sign to indicate the turnoff to this scenic spot, as you find at many famous vistas.

Near Panther Creek, mile 1230.2, I saw my first AT rattlesnake! Yes! He was about 40 inches long and just off the trail. We respected each other’s personal space and thus neither of us felt the need to rattle.

First AT Rattlesnake!
First AT Rattlesnake!

After a 12 mile day, I arrived at the Eckville Shelter on Hawk Mountain Road. I decided to call it an early day because this shelter had a shower and flush toilet nearby. After 3+ months on the trail, I find it quite fascinating and special to be able to pull a lever and watch my waste swirl around and disappear like magic. It’s a luxury we take for granted in our society. Upon arrival, I saw the freshly showered Pocahontas hiking out to do some more miles. Long Strider, Torch, One Feather and a few others also stayed at or near the shelter that night. Torch is a recent high school graduate attempting a flip flop hike…Harpers Ferry to Maine and then Harpers Ferry to Georgia. He wants to study Aerospace Engineering and become a pilot or join the military or both. I shared some of my Air Force experiences with him.

Eckville Shelter
Eckville Shelter

Long Strider and I were hungry for pizza and set out to find a place that would deliver to Hawk Mountain Road. We called several places within a 20 mile radius and struck out time and time again. Bummed, I took a shower and flushed the toilet because I could. I also told myself that someday I was going to return and deliver a pizza to this shelter, like I so wish someone had done for me on my 107th night on the AT.

Day 108

Today was another long, hot, rocky day. Don’t even get me started on the rocks. I started to switch to my new Salomon trail shoes but decided to stick with my current ones awhile longer because I wanted to get through Rocksylvania on them and they were still minimally serviceable.

PA...Where Shoes Go to Die
PA…Where Shoes Go to Die

This desire to get that last ounce of service out of a product runs in my family. My parents taught my sisters and I how to be thrifty and hoard things. I have fond memories of my mom discreetly stuffing her purse with salad bar crackers before we’d leave a restaurant. I guess she figured that if you do that over a lifetime, you might have to buy one or two less boxes of Saltines. I once looked in the freezer belonging to Ellen, my oldest sister, and found frozen Halloween candy from six years earlier! Nothing satisfies the sweet tooth like a 6-year-old frozen piece of Bit-O-Honey.

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And then there’s my dad, bless his heart. I’ve never seen such a wide variety of stuff, ranging from junk to really nice antiques, in one house. He and my mom were masterful flea market, yard sale, and thrift store shoppers. Last summer I tried to help him clean out the garage, and the conversation went something like this…

Fob: So, dad, I noticed you have four new toilet seats in the garage.

Dad: Yes, got them at an auction several years ago. They were in a box of goodies.

Fob: In the interest of downsizing and cleaning out, I was thinking maybe we could get rid of three of them. What do you think?

Dad: Hmmm. Well, we have three toilets in the house, and these things can break.

Fob: Yes, but is it likely you would need to replace all of the toilet seats?

Dad: I don’t know, but if I do, I’ll have them, plus a spare.

Fob: But what if you just went to Wal-Mart and bought a new toilet seat whenever you need one?

Dad: That wouldn’t make sense because I have four in the garage.

Needless to say, we didn’t do much downsizing. And then there was the time our old toaster died when I was in high school. Rather than just go buy a new one, Dad went to his massive filing cabinets and came back an hour later with what appeared to be the Magna Carta. Unfortunately, the yellow, faded warranty had expired twenty years earlier and he was forced to get a new toaster. He placed the old toaster in the garage next to four new toilet seats. With this family history and genetics, I’ll be carrying my new hiking shoes until the current ones totally and completely die.

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Speaking of warranties, I stopped at the Allentown Hiking Club Shelter to make some phone calls related to gear issues. Thanks to Rocksylvania, one trekking pole tip was completely gone and the other was about halfway rubbed off. A nice lady from Leki’s customer support team said she’s send me new tips free of charge. Also, near the center hub on my tent frame, one of the extensions has started to crack. I can still set up the frame and tent using the emergency sleeve, but I’d rather not do that for the rest of my hike. So I called Big Agnes and they are sending me a new frame. Once you tell a hiking gear company you’re an aspiring thru-hiker, they will generally bend over backwards to remedy your situation. The only other noteworthy event at this shelter stop was meeting a friendly hiker named Calorie. He is the first African American aspiring thru hiker I’ve met on the trail so far, and earned his name due to a tendency to know and share the number of calories in his food.

Late in the afternoon, the wind started picking up and I heard thunder. I checked my weather app and sure enough, a big storm was heading toward me. I estimated I had 30 minutes before it was right on top of me. I was on rocky, uneven terrain, still four miles from the next shelter. Even worse, I was one mile from the dangerous, narrow rocky ledge known as Knife Edge. This was a really bad situation to be in. I was mad at myself for not having enough situational awareness on the storm while I still had good options. Now all of my options were varying degrees of bad. I just wanted to blink my eyes and be home next to my wife, eating popcorn and watching a Netflix movie. Or have it be a video game, where you just run your doomed character off a cliff, knowing you have three more lives. I only have one life to work with.

I decided to hike as fast as I possibly could on the rocks and try to get over Knife Edge before the storm hit. This decision fell somewhere between gutsy and stupid, but I couldn’t come up with a better one. I quickly approached Knife Edge just as the first rain drops started to fall. I didn’t panic, per se, but my heart rate was way up and I said, “God, please get me through this.” I scrambled over the narrow rock ledge as quickly as I could in those conditions. I took five minutes getting through a section that would normally have taken me at least twice that time in safe and careful hiking mode. Just as I cleared the worst part of Knife Edge, the rain began to pour. I sought refuge by sitting under a large boulder at the edge of Knife Edge, which kept the rain off my head but not my knees and feet. I never saw lightning, but there was plenty of thunder and very heavy rain. I took a selfie to capture the moment, although a picture won’t be necessary for me to remember this crisis.

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After sitting under the boulder in the rain for five minutes, I realized I was already completely soaked to the bone from rain and sweat, and was starting to get a chill from the drop in temperature. I decided my best move was to hike on in the storm, but to move slowly due to the slick rocks literally all over the trail. I was willing to risk falling in order to get to the shelter and not remain under a boulder getting chilled.

Just as I emerged, I heard, “What’s up, Fob?” Shocked, I turned around to see Hammer descending from Knife Edge in the downpour. I turned and said, “Hammer! Good to have somebody here to die with!” We smiled at each other, recognizing we were in a horrible predicament. Yet, oddly, we both felt a sense of relief knowing we were not alone. He said, “After you, sir…” and I headed out over the rocky trail, in a downpour, with Hammer just a few paces behind me. For the next hour, we hiked in heavy to moderate rain over all sorts of rock scrambles. We talked the whole way and, at least for me, that took some of the sting out of the situation.

The rain finally stopped just before we arrived at (Easy) Bake Oven Knob Shelter. Long Strider and a few other hikers were already there, seeking refuge from the rain under the shelter. Hammer and I made a really long and steep downhill hike to get water, and then set up our tents and hung up our wet clothes. Before sunset, a late arriving hiker stumbled into the shelter with a bleeding leg and some other scrapes. He made it through the wet and dangerous Knife Edge but then fell on a slick rock moments later. We helped him out with an antibiotic and bandage for his leg wound, after he rinsed it with contact lens solution.

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It had been a tough, physically and emotionally draining, 17.4 mile day on the Appalachian Trail. The phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” seems to apply here. Persevering and overcoming situations like this makes us mentally tougher and bonds us together. When the next storm comes, real or figurative, maybe I’ll be better positioned to overcome it, knowing I overcame this one. Maybe I’ll know to check the weather forecast more regularly. Maybe I’ll remember to ask God for help again. In life you and I can only dodge so many storms. Eventually, we’re going to be in one. Maybe you’re in one now. In the midst of the storm, when hope starts to fade, I try to remember that somehow, some way, God is going to get me through it and will use the situation to make me a better person.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #61 – The Boulders and the Beautiful

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18

“There is no more noble occupation in the world than to assist another human being–to help someone succeed.”     – Alan Loy McGinnis

Day 104

I awoke to the sound of rain, rolled over, and slept two more hours. After breakfast at Wendy’s, I grabbed a Subway sub for later and re-supplied at a gas station food mart. I really didn’t want to walk 2+ non-AT miles back to the trailhead. Fortunately, two Air Force Master Sergeants walked into the store. That was just the break I needed. Airmen have been helping me out since 1988 and I was about to call on them again. “Excuse me, MSgt Corl, I was wondering if there is any chance you and your friend could give a ride to a retired Air Force guy who is hiking the AT.” He replied, “Maybe…you’re not a mass murderer are you?” “I’ll be on my best behavior,” I answered. I enjoyed our short conversation as MSgts Corl and Lucas went out of their way to return me to the trailhead. In addition to being communicators with the 193 Special Operations Wing, they are now officially Trail Angels.

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The day was mostly overcast, weedy and, of course, rocky. I ripped a part of the fabric on the upper side of my left shoe, and the right heel continued to peel along the edge. After 11.4 miles, I hiked into the very lively and full 501 Shelter near PA 501. This shelter is 4-sided with a solar shower. The nearby caretaker’s house has a water spigot and outside electrical outlets. In addition to all that, a local pizza place delivers to the shelter. I arrived too late to order pizza, but accepted my fellow hikers’ offer to finish off some leftovers.

Rocks
Rocks

The shelter was full of hikers including Mountain Goat (the Aussie piano player) and Pinto/TinkTank (the daughter of my sister Ellen’s friend). I overheard one hiker say, “Poor Two Pack got Giardia. He went into town for meds but returned quicker than the doc recommended. That night he diarrhea’d all over himself, his tent, and his gear. The next morning he threw away everything soiled, gave away the rest, and quit the trail for good.” That shows how quickly a thru-hike attempt can end.

My 3rd Grade Teacher Tree
My 3rd Grade Teacher Tree

After taking a brutally cold “solar shower,” I set up my tent behind the shelter and called my beautiful wife to tell her I love her.

Day 105

Day 105 was all about rocks. Rocksylvania is officially messing with my feet…and brain.  Rather than curse the rocks, I started making up and rapping songs about them as I hiked.  A sampling….give me a beat…

Rocks
Rocks

I’m talking big rocks, little rocks, pointy rocks, and flat rocks.

Cracked rocks, mossy rocks, hidden rocks, and slanted rocks.

Crag and crust, minerals and ore,
I can’t take these rocks much more.

Wet rock, gravel, slab, and slag,
Trekking pole tips have lost their swag.

Chris Rock, Schoolhouse Rock, and cobblestone,
Rocky Balboa was Sylvester Stallone.

The Rockefellers, The Rockford Files,
so many rocks it’s hard to smile.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show,
can’t feel my feet, I walk real slow.

Rocks Anne, you don’t have to crush my soles tonight, those days are over, at least my Salomons put up a fight.

A little pebble, off trail, all alone,
Bet a fellow hiker passed a kidney stone.

Rock music, Rockabilly, and Raquel Welch, So much bouncing, gotta belch.

Rock, paper, scissors; and look, another boulder!
With each step my feet grow older.

Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble,
Lived in Bedrock, that spells trouble.

R-O-C-K in the U.S.A., dear Lord please take these rocks away.

Yeah, I probably need to take a zero day.

Rocks
Rocks

After 15.1 miles of…rocks, I tented near the Eagles Nest Shelter, along with One Feather, Long Strider, and a few others. I laid in my tent rubbing my numb, battered feet and listening to The Rolling Stones.

Day 106

Several weeks ago I wrote about some amazing Trail Magic provided to me and others in southern Virginia by Dave and DeAnn Werner. These are the folks whose daughter was engaged to an AT thru-hiker (trail name Jay-Bird) who died from cancer a couple of years after hiking the trail. He never got a chance to be a Trail Angel so, in his memory, the Werners provide Trail Magic each May in Virginia. After I wrote about them, DeAnn contacted me and offered to take me out to eat whenever I got to their home state of Pennsylvania. Honestly, I thought it sweet of her to offer, but doubted it would ever materialize.

Big Anthracite Rock
Big Anthracite Rock

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I’ve since learned never to doubt the sincerity or intentions of the amazing Werners. They tracked my progress across several states and offered to drive more than an hour to meet me at Port Clinton. I made a steep, waterfall descent into the town and walked across several railroad tracks. Next to them were the famous and massive Reading anthracites. I crossed over a bridge into Port Clinton and immediately saw Dave and DeAnn waiting for me. It was so great to see them and the cooler of cold drinks they had with them! Dave said, “This day is all about you. We have all the time in the world. Tell us where you want to go. And we have room for one or two more if you see any other hikers.”

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Port Clinton had a community yard sale going on and our first stop was at a booth manned by the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club. These are the trail maintainers for this region and they appreciated having an aspiring thru-hiker stop by. After eating a hot dog and Coke, we started heading out of town when I spotted a hiker on the corner. I didn’t know him but had a hunch what he wanted. With the Werners’ permission, I rolled down the window and asked if he needed a ride to Cabela’s. “Heck yeah,” he said and hopped in. We introduced ourselves and learned that his name is ET, because he has an extra toe. We headed to the largest Cabela’s store in the world in Hamburg where I purchased a new pair of Salomon XA Pro 3D trail shoes. Our next stop was Hoss’s Steak and Sea restaurant where the Werners insisted on buying ET and me a steak dinner, salad bar, and dessert bar. I was thrilled and ET was in a state of shock as this was Trail Magic of the highest order.

 

After stuffing our faces, we headed to a local grocery store to re-supply our food. As I was about to check out, DeAnn cut in front of me and paid for my groceries. She didn’t want to hear any of my objections. She said, “Fob, you hike the trail. We do food. We want to do this for you, so let us do it.” I wasn’t going to win that battle so I thanked her and accepted her generous gift. The Werners then returned us to Port Clinton where we thanked them again and said our goodbyes. As I reflect on the day, I can’t find the words to express how much their kindness meant to me. They made ET and me, a couple of stinky hikers, feel like royalty. My only regret is that I never got to meet and know Jay-Bird before he died. He would be happy to know his trail legacy lives on through Dave and DeAnn, two of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

ET
ET

I made the steep climb out of Port Clinton and camped with ET and a friendly, section hiking couple from California. Altogether, we had three tents, two cook stoves, and forty-one toes. I had logged 11.2 miles. More importantly, I had seen a real life example of a couple going way beyond the call of duty to help someone they barely know. I hope Janet and I can be that kind of couple in the years ahead.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #60 – Hike Naked Day


“He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.'” – Adam, Genesis 3:10

“If what you did yesterday seems big, you haven’t done anything today.” – Lou Holtz

Day 101

I was excited about the morning hike because I was headed to Duncannon, a trail town with a reputation of being hiker friendly. Unfortunately, timing is everything and Monday morning is not the time for a hiker to stroll into town. First stop was a popular breakfast place…closed on Mondays. Across the street was the famously run-down Doyle Hotel, a cross between a hiker hostel and a slum. I didn’t need lodging and their famously good restaurant doesn’t serve breakfast. Ice cream place…closed. Laundromat…doesn’t exist. About the only thing open was a little mini-mart where I grabbed a banana and coffee and did some basic resupply. I asked the manager if there was a place in Duncannon that serves breakfast on a Monday morning. He looked at me as if I had asked for the secret password to unlock all bank vaults worldwide. I’m pretty sure he’s the same guy who answers the phone when you call computer tech support.

The Doyle
The Doyle

The AT then took me down the main drag, a residential street with no hiker services. At the far edge of town I found a campground…with no vending machines and no manager (was out on a shuttle run). I did find a bathroom and got water from the sink. Needless to say, Duncannon was a huge disappointment, although most of that was due to my Monday morning arrival. At least there were no sharp pointy rocks on the sidewalks.

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As I left town and crossed over a river, I saw a gas station that had a Subway. Yeah! I went there for a foot-long Spicy Italian and five cups of lemonade. Hiking on, I arrived at Clarks Ferry Shelter and cameled up because the guide showed limited water options for the next several miles. At the shelter I met a hiker named Deuces Wild. He told me he got that name because he poops 5-6 times per day. Lovely.

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At mile 1157.6, after 15 miles, I called it a day at the Peters Mountain Shelter. I met and talked to Fresh Breath and two lady hikers, Eggplant and Parmesan. As I laid there in the shelter that night, I remembered that tomorrow was the Summer Solstice, the first day of summer and longest day of the year. That also meant it would be Hike Naked Day, another AT tradition! Leave it to Fob to end up on Peters Mountain in the Peters Mountain Shelter on the eve of Hike Naked Day! Realistically, I had no plans to hike naked. I couldn’t afford to have my swinging vine get poison ivy or get caught in my hip belt. Besides, hiking naked would be major eye pollution to my fellow hikers, including Eggplant and Parmesan who were tenting nearby. As an alternative, I decided to sleep naked, and so I did…on Peters Mountain…in the Peters Mountain Shelter.

Day 102

I awoke and got dressed, a little curious as to how Hike Naked Day would play out. In short, it was a bust…no pun intended. I didn’t see a single hiker that day, northbound or southbound, who was hiking in the buff. I learned later of one boyfriend-girlfriend team who night-hiked naked for a few hours in the dark.

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Today was a long, hot, rocky day. Rocksylvania opened up a small seam on the bottom of my trail shoes and I made a mental note that I would need a replacement pair soon. Near Rattling Run, mile 1168.3, I got some video of a deer as I walked by her, just a few feet away. My presence didn’t bother her a bit.

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Throughout the day I heard the occasional sounds of distant explosions. I assumed I must be near some sort of military training base, and that would turn out to be true (Fort Indiantown Gap, an Army post). At mile 1171, near Yellow Springs Village Site, an old coal mining settlement, I saw my friend Tree laying in his hammock between two trees by the side of the trail. On a trail where it seems far too many hikers are focused on obtaining big mile days and finishing the AT quickly, I love to see a young guy chilling in his hammock and reading a book in the shade in the middle of the afternoon. He’s enjoying the journey and hasn’t gotten caught up in the competitive mindset of who hiked the most miles that day or finished the trail the quickest.

A Lost Soul...Always a Sad Thing
A Lost Soul…Always a Sad Thing

After an 18.5 mile, Hike Clothed Day, I stealth camped near Rausch Creek at mile 1176.1. Rausch Gap was a coal mining town that began, flourished, and died between 1830 and 1910.  Today, all that remains are some building foundations and a small cemetery near where I camped.  With the exception of the occasional sound of mortar fire, it was a peaceful night in the Pennsylvania mountains.

Day 103

I decided to take a Near-0 day, hiking just 5.6 miles on the AT (to the sound of mortars) and then another 2.5 miles on a side trail to spend the night in Lickdale. On the way in, I got three different hotels in a bidding war for the cheapest military or hiker rate, which drove the price down considerably. Best Western won the bidding war, and was right next to a Subway, Wendy’s, and Burger King. This was going to be a high calorie stay! I ate at Burger King, showered and did laundry at the hotel, and then did second dinner at Wendy’s. It was good to feel full and clean again.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #59 – The Cleansing of Allan

“We cannot put off living until we are ready. The most salient characteristic of life is its urgency, “here and now” without any possible postponement. Life is fired at us point-blank.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

Day 99

Still a tad hung over from the ice cream challenge, I hiked out shirtless to face the heat and rocks. I once thought that Pennsylvania’s reputation for having excessive trail rocks was probably a little exaggerated. Surely it can’t be that bad. Well, it’s starting to get that bad. I don’t mind the climbs or scrambles over large boulder fields. My long legs are made for that. What is challenging are the sections with sharp little pointed rocks everywhere. There are several mile long stretches where every step is some sort of rock pointing up. This puts a beat down on your shoes and feet, not to mention your attitude and mileage. The other consequence is that you’re having to always look down to watch your step and choose the hopefully less painful rock to step on. So you tend to miss some of the trail scenery around you. I won’t continue complaining about the rocks as that affects my attitude and doesn’t change anything. It is what it is and I have to take the bad with the good.

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Towards the end of the day I broke out into a clearing and walked a few miles across pastures and corn fields. The sun was pounding down on me mercilessly. After 18.9 difficult miles, I stopped at the Backpackers Campsite on the outskirts of Boiling Springs. It’s cool that they’ve established this little campsite with a port-a-potty in the woods right outside the town. The only downside is that it is within an easy stones throw of a very active railroad track. Like a Bruce Springsteen song, I was going to wake up at night “with the sheets soaking wet, and a freight train running the middle of my head.”

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Ducks and Geese Protecting Boiling Springs From Enemy Aircraft
Ducks and Geese Protecting Boiling Springs From Enemy Aircraft

After setting up camp, I made two phones calls and left two messages to designated points of contact at a local church, hoping to get a ride the next day. Neither were ever returned. I then walked less than a mile into beautiful downtown Boiling Springs. I had driven through the town years earlier with Janet and it was every bit as pretty as I remembered it. I walked around the lake and stopped for a lasagna dinner at Anile’s Italian restaurant. I then stopped at Getty Food Mart to resupply my food stock. I returned to camp at sunset to the loud roar of a passing train. With my earplugs in, a tired body, and a belly full of lasagna, the occasional train roar didn’t keep me from sleeping well that night.

Day 100

I woke up and pulled out the sleeve of mini powdered donuts I’d purchased in Boiling Springs. After eating the first two, I noticed the third one was covered in mold. Bummer! It will be awhile before I’ll be able to eat mini powdered donuts again. I broke camp, hiked back into Boiling Springs, took a few more pictures near the lake, and then hiked out of town.

The next ten miles out of Boiling Springs were as flat a section as you’ll find on the AT. If the elevation profile in my guidebook was a heart monitor, the patient would be dead. About one third of the day’s miles were in open pastures and fields. I loved the change of scenery, but that also exposed me to several hours of continuous sunshine. By early afternoon, at mile 1131.3, I arrived at the Scott Farm Trail ATC Crew Headquarters. It provides hikers with a much needed water spigot, port-a-potty, and picnic table next to an old barn. I stripped down to my underwear, got down on all fours, and took a cold, refreshing 20-second shower under the water spigot. I felt like a dog but that’s not a bad thing sometimes.

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After a long afternoon battling rocks (which I’m not going to complain about) I arrived at the Cove Mountain Shelter. After hiking 22 miles, much of it in the open sun, I was completely exhausted. At the shelter I met Allan, a hiker from Colorado in his 70s. We were the only two there that night. After returning from my long downhill hike to get water, he told me about some of his many hiking adventures.

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I was sitting on the ledge of the shelter when Allan returned from getting water. As we continued talking, Allan began taking off his clothes by the picnic table, just ten feet from my position. As he contrasted the AT with the PCT, he shed his underwear and stood before me completely naked. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms and have seen plenty of naked men (myself included), but never one alone at a campsite in the Pennsylvania woods. It was awkward to the power of infinity.

He continued, “You won’t find pointy trail rocks out west on the PCT like you find here in PA. They won’t allow it.” He then grabbed a washcloth and his Nalgene bottle and began giving himself a sponge bath! It reminded me of what my 80-year-old Uncle Phil would look like naked and bathing himself in the woods, although that’s something I try never to imagine. As he spoke, he raised his privates with one hand and ran the wet washcloth under them with the other.  He took the unfortunate washcloth  to regions of his body I had only seen diagrams of in 8th grade Health class. I didn’t know whether to maintain eye contact (appropriate when someone is talking to you), or look away (appropriate when someone is determined to sponge off every single body crevice). I started to ask if he and his washcloth were enjoying the hike up Gooch Gap, but it was obvious they were. Ultimately, I decided to look down, pick at my feet, and respond with the occasional “Oh really? That’s interesting.”

The conversation and sponge bath finally and mercifully ended and we crawled into bunks at opposite ends of the shelter. I was tired and a little rattled. Allan was clean. Every single inch of him was clean. I’m sure of that.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #58 – Up For the Challenge

“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” – Henry James

“Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living.” – Henry MacMilan

Day 98

One of the neatest aspects of hiking the AT is taking part in longstanding trail traditions. Using a trail name, writing confessions at The Priest Shelter, hanging my feet off McAfee Knob and having my photo taken at ATC Headquarters are among the traditions I’ve participated in so far on my journey. By doing so, I connect myself in time with the hikers who have gone before me and those who will come later.

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Day 98 was special for two reasons. First, I crossed the official AT midpoint at mile 1094.5. I stopped for a picture, said a prayer, and ate a candy bar. That’s how I roll.

The even bigger event, though, was strolling into Pine Grove Furnace State Park…home of The Half Gallon Challenge! This was perhaps the AT tradition I was most looking forward to. I have read many, many stories of past hikers who have taken the challenge and either passed or failed. I was incredibly hungry. I had spent my whole life eating ice cream to prepare for this moment. And if that weren’t motivation enough, those who conquer the challenge get a tiny wooden spoon with “Half Gallon Challenge” written on it. I wanted that little spoon very badly.

There was also the issue of a recent hot dog eating contest at a minor league baseball game. My youngest son, B.W Pot, represented Harding University against a contestant from another school. With a crowd of supporters cheering him on, he not only took second (aka last) place but managed to consume zero (0) hot dogs! Apparently he started laughing and choking and couldn’t get a single hot dog down in 30 seconds. Not one. For a family with a proud history of overeating, this was not acceptable. Tears were shed and we considered cutting off his share of the inheritance. He’s a good kid, though, and will probably bounce back from this and have a productive life.

So I arrived at the General Store focused on restoring the family honor and earning a tiny wooden spoon. Surprisingly, of the nine or ten other hikers there, only two others attempted the challenge with one (Hawaii) succeeding and one (Long Strider) failing. I selected my first flavor, 1.5 quarts of cookies and cream. There’s no official time limit, you just have to do it in “one sitting”. Still, I wanted to complete the challenge in under an hour. I worked methodically as various hikers and vacationers looked on. About half way through, I belched and took a short breather. I struck up a conversation with five Pennsylvania teens who come to the park with their dads every year to celebrate Fathers Day (another cool tradition). One of the teens told me that his dad comes up with a challenge for them each year, and they earn money if they complete the challenge. This year his dad brought live goldfish in a tub and later that night the boys would be bobbing for goldfish. If they get a live goldfish in their mouth, they get $20. If they swallow it, they get $50. I said, “Dude, sounds like you have a pretty cool dad.” He smiled and said, “Yeah I do.”

Doin' Work
Doin’ Work

I finished off the 1.5 quarts of cookies and cream, belched loudly, and moved on to the .5 quart of raspberry ice cream. I was already beyond full and it had the look and consistency of Barney’s diarrhea. 35 minutes had elapsed and pressure was building on several levels. On my third bite of purple mush I cracked the little plastic spoon they give you and had to get a new one. With .2 quarts to go, I hit the 42 minute mark. I felt queasy and began to lactate from my armpits and brow. With just a few bites remaining, the teens and some of the hikers gathered around me shouting “Fob! Fob! Fob!” I dug deep. I put the team on my back. And I finished the ice cream! I conquered the half gallon challenge in 48 minutes! I restored the family’s overeating honor! Ten minutes later, I went back in and ordered a quesadilla and ate it with no problem. I probably could have eaten even more, but I wanted to save room for a goldfish.

As I sat there with my stomach tossing and turning, a young lady from Shippensburg University approached me and asked if she could interview me. She is working on her degree in Sociology and is doing a big research project on aspiring AT thru hikers. I agreed and she hit me with a wide variety of questions for about fifteen minutes. About every third question, I leaned forward in my chair and silently broke wind, without breaking my train of thought.  As she recorded my answers, a faint whiff of rotting raspberries permeated the air around us. Thankfully, “Did you just Barney fart?” wasn’t on her list of questions.

Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
Ironmasters Mansion Hostel

In no condition to hike, I called it a 12.6 mile day and decided to stay at the nearby historic Ironmasters Mansion Hostel. $33 got me dinner and breakfast, laundry service, a hot shower and a bed to sleep on. The mansion was built in 1829 for Peter Ege, the longest serving ironmaster at Pine Grove Furnace. Later, they believe the mansion was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The caretaker even showed me the secret trapdoor that leads to a basement where there are tunnels exiting the property.

Underground Railroad Trapdoor
Underground Railroad Trapdoor
Pic of Underground Railroad Basement Tunnel
Pic of Underground Railroad Basement Tunnel

Later, some late arriving hikers told me that Sam Squanch, the U.K. hiker I rode out a storm with in a concession stand, had just conquered the One Gallon Challenge, which I didn’t even know existed. The record for consuming a full gallon of ice cream had been broken the previous Sunday after standing for 12 years. The old record was 48 minutes and a fellow hiker named Legs did it in 28 minutes. Sam Squanch, determined to outdo his friend Legs,  broke it again with a time of 24 minutes! He basically ate twice as much ice cream as me in half the time. Afterward he went to the bathroom and vomited but they still gave him credit.  He’s probably the most accomplished Brit since Austin Powers.

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Later that evening, hikers were hanging out in the dining area, the parlor, and the bunk rooms. Mountain Goat, a 20-something Australian hiker, sat down at the piano and began to play. She was magnificent and the songs were mesmerizing. In fact, every hiker stopped what they were doing and listened. Some walked to the edge of the doorway to watch her play. It reminded me of the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy finds a record of two Italian opera singers singing The Marriage of Figaro. He locks himself in the warden’s office and plays the beautiful song on the prison’s loud speaker. The prisoners and guards alike stop what they’re doing and listen in awe. My fellow hikers and I were in awe listening to Mountain Goat play the piano. After being in the uncultured wilderness for so long, it was quite the treat to hear her play and feel normal for a change.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #57 – The Picture on the Box

“Today, this hour, this minute is the day, the hour, the minute for each of us to sense the fact that life is good, with all of its trials and troubles, and perhaps more interesting because of them.” – Robert J. Updegraff

“Each of us makes his own weather, determines the color of the skies in the emotional universe which he inhabits.” – Fulton J. Sheen

Day 95

Just a few miles into my morning hike I reached Washington Monument State Park. The 34-foot tall Washington Monument tower, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, honors our nation’s founding father and first President. It was also used as a signal station by Union forces during the Civil War. I climbed to the top for a terrific 360 degree view. As I hiked down Monument Knob, I met a hiker aptly named Trouble heading southbound. His backpack was busted wide open and, sadly, he was returning to Harpers Ferry to get a new one. At mile 1045.3 I crossed the I-70 footbridge and then US 40.

The Original Washington Monument
The Original Washington Monument

The temperature continued to climb throughout the day, as did the humidity. I was sweating as profusely as I can ever remember, and there weren’t even any major hills to climb. Then the gnats came, first a few and then in swarms. It became obvious to me that ear sweat is crack cocaine for gnats, and I was the AT’s biggest dealer. For the first time on my journey, I donned my head net and watched the flying pests circle my head in frustration.

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After a 20.2 mile day I stealth camped at mile 1060.5. I checked the weather forecast and saw that heavy rain was to begin around midnight and continue throughout the morning. Rather than break camp in a downpour, I decided to just sleep in.

Day 96

As expected, it rained much of the night and into the morning. I slept in and finally broke camp to clear skies at 11:15 a.m. A few miles into my day, I arrived at Pen Mar County Park. I glanced over at a pavilion and saw there was Trail Magic! Yes, some dear ladies and children from a local Methodist church were providing sandwiches, fruit, and drinks to us weary hikers. It’s interesting that I got trail magic (on the trail) twice in Maryland (40 AT miles), which is the same number of times I got it in all of Virginia (550 AT miles). The only negative at this stop was a rude park employee who was giving them a hard time for setting up there, even though no one was using it and there was only a handful of people in the park. Come on, man!

Pen Mar Trail Angels
Pen Mar Trail Angels

Shortly after exiting the park, I crossed some railroad tracks and reached the Pennsylvania border and the Mason Dixon line! I’m anxious to see how trail towns, trail magic, and people in general differ in the northern AT states. It didn’t take long to find out. Just 2.6 miles into Pennsylvania, at the crossing for PA 16, there was a cooler full of cold sodas and a box full of bags of chips. As I sat there eating Cheetos and drinking a Mountain Dew, it occurred to me that this was Pennsylvania’s way of saying, “I’m about to rip your feet and shoes to shreds with miles and miles of sharp rocks, so go ahead and have a soda and snack on me.” Then it occurred to me that states don’t actually talk.

Another State Down
Another State Down

Late in the day, at mile 1072.3, I stopped at the crowded, popular, side-by-side Tumbling Run Shelters. I saw a few familiar faces, including Brief Thief, along with several section hiking teenagers. The caretakers for the shelter were there talking to hikers and giving out cold, Trail Magic sodas! They live nearby and have been checking on and maintaining these shelters for more than twenty-five years. I got water at the stream that runs by the shelter. As I sat there on a rock, a crayfish surfaced, climbed a few inches on the small rock next to me, looked over at me, and then headed back into the water to tell his family about a Fob sighting. He would have been good boiled with hot sauce.

First PA Trail Magic
First PA Trail Magic

Since the shelters and surrounding tent sites were pretty crowded, I hiked on up the hill towards Chimney Rocks. About halfway up the hill, as I planted my foot on a rock, I slipped and fell on my side. This was my first fall on the actual AT with backpack on and trekking poles in use. Fortunately, I didn’t injure anything. I just got back up, called myself an “idiot” in my Napoleon Dynamite voice, and kept climbing.

Up at Chimney Rocks, mile 1073.6, I set up my tent after a 13.1 mile day. I hung my bear bag and then crawled into my tent at 8 p.m. At 8:40 p.m. heavy rain began to fall and was projected to last until mid-morning.

Day 97

After the Bible, the two books which have had the greatest impact on my life are Crazy Love by Francis Chan and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by the late Stephen Covey. I’ve read Covey’s book many times and have even incorporated it into a high school Leadership class I used to teach. For some reason, I just connect with the principles in the book and find them highly practical in everyday life. I have also found them useful out here on the AT.

Ribbit!
Ribbit!

Habit 2 is to Begin With the End in Mind. Whether you are starting a career, building an engine, or baking a cake, you start by visualizing what you want it to look like at the end. I illustrated this to my class by having them work together on a 1000-piece puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. It’s not very motivating sorting through puzzle pieces for hours when you don’t know what you’re making. Once the picture on the box is revealed, the students gain focus and intensity because they know what they’re working toward.

Covey also suggests closing your eyes and imagining being at a funeral. You look around and see your family, friends, coaches, co-workers, etc. You then realize it’s your own funeral. As each of them takes the podium to speak about you, what do you want them to say? Given that, how do you need to live your life now in order for them to be able to say those things one day? That’s beginning (even starting today!) with the end (of your earthly life) in mind.

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This principle plays out in at least two important ways on the AT. At the macro level, I have envisioned what it will be like to summit Katahdin and earn the thru-hiker title over and over again. That final prize is very motivating so I keep it in the forefront of my mind and think about it often. With that vision of the end firmly in place, I can work backwards to plan my rough timeline, gear that I’ll need, and many other things.

At the micro level, I begin each day with the projected end of the day in mind. If I want to get to x location, when do I need to depart? How much water will I need and where will I find it? Do I need to hit a trail town to resupply? Having a projected target in mind is more motivating to me than just hiking out in the morning with no plan.

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My target today…the end that I had in mind…was Caledonia State Park. It had several things going for it, including a public swimming pool, concessions stand, bathrooms, water source, etc. Focusing on it would make my 97th day of hiking more purposeful. I once again got a late start due to rain, but was on the trail by 10:00 a.m. It took me a little under four hours to make the soggy 8.7 mile journey to the park.

With a thunderstorm approaching, I arrived at the park just in time to hear the lifeguards blow the whistle to clear the pool. There would be swimming for Fob this day. Outside the concession stand, several hikers were already seated and devouring lunch. I met Count, Doc, Patches, Boss, and Sam Squanch. Boss and Sam Squanch are a 20-something adorable girlfriend-boyfriend team from the United Kingdom. I absolutely love their accents and would be very content just listening to them read a phone book out loud.

After ordering my cheeseburger, hot dog, French fries, and Mountain Dew, there was a long thunder roll and a heavy rain began to fall. The lady running the concession stand said, “We’re hiker friendly here. You all come on in to stay dry.” God bless her soul! We all entered the side door with our gear and food and spread out on the floor and some chairs. I was seated next to the ice cream freezer and ordered a large one after finishing off my food. As the rain continued to fall, we sat around getting to know each other and just enjoying the moment. After about an hour Tyler, the cook, told us it was time to close the grill and he had several hot dogs left over. “Do you want them?,” he asked. In unison we answered, “Yes!” and divided them amongst ourselves.

Taking Shelter Inside a Concession Stand
Taking Shelter Inside a Concession Stand

The rain eventually stopped and I made my way over to the swimming pool bathrooms to freshen up. There were several lifeguards walking around in red Baywatch swimsuits which was a little overwhelming for a guy who has been living in the woods for three months. After getting water, I got back on the trail heading north. I stopped by the nice, but crowded, Quarry Gap Shelters and visited with Tree Beard, Waterfall, and Training Wheels. A few miles later, after a 15.5 mile day, I stopped at the Three Points campsite, mile 1089.1. I set up my tent and ate some tortillas with pepperoni and Swiss cheese. Just after getting into my tent, the rain once again began to fall.

The day didn’t turn out exactly like I had planned it. The final puzzle didn’t match the picture on the box. There was no basking in the sun after a refreshing dip in the pool. And yet, eating leftover hot dogs and ice cream with other stinking hikers in a concession stand kitchen during a torrential downpour will always be a great, great memory. In fact, looking back now, I’d say it was even better than the picture on the box.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #56 – Blair Witch IV – The Abduction of Fob

“The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children or grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”     – Billy Graham

“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”     – Wicked Witch of the West

Day 94

Alicia filled me up with a delicious breakfast and then she and Darrell transported me back to Harpers Ferry to get back on the trail. I thanked them again for their generous hospitality and then headed northward. I entered Maryland, my 6th state, by crossing the Potomac River on the Byron Memorial Footbridge. Next up was the C&O Canal Towpath, a perfectly flat, 3.2 mile stretch that runs between the railroad and the Potomac River. During this stretch, I added one deer and fifty or so turtles to my wildlife total.

Great Friends!
Great Friends!
Bring on Maryland!
Bring on Maryland!

At mile 1029.4 I hiked past the Ed Garvey Shelter where, just last year, a dead tree fell on a 36-year-old hiker named Jason Parish, killing him. Jason was just about to leave the shelter at the end of a 3-day camping trip with two friends when strong winds brought the tree down on him. Like me, he was born in Dover, Delaware and had a love for the AT. It was another reminder that you just never know when your time is up, so make the most of the time God has given you.

John Brown Was Here
John Brown Was Here, Harpers Ferry

While the AT in Maryland has a reputation for being a tad boring, I actually found it pretty interesting. It has some terrific parks, campgrounds, and Civil War history. Today’s highlight was a visit to beautiful Gathland State Park, which sits on the former estate of war correspondent George Alfred Townsend. Townsend, who wrote under the name Gath during the Civil War, had the impressive War Correspondents Monument constructed in 1896. Still standing, it was the first monument in the world dedicated to journalists killed in combat.

Townsend's Mausoleum
Townsend’s Mausoleum

While the War Correspondents Monument is a fitting memorial and quite grand, I found my lesson for today at the nearby remnants of Townsend’s mausoleum. The sign outside says:

“During the 19th Century few people bought burial lots in public cemeteries as we do today. Instead, a small parcel of their own land was usually set aside as a private cemetery. If enough money was available, a mausoleum (tomb) was often built for certain family members. Gath, concerned with his own burial, built this lonely tomb about 20 years before his death, which came on April 15, 1914, in New York City. By this time his great wealth had dwindled and a near penniless Gath was buried in a Philadelphia, PA, cemetery instead of his own tomb as he had desired. Gath’s empty tomb mutely symbolizes the uncertainties of life, fame, and fortune and the certainty of death.”

The expensive, empty tomb of a once rich man who died nearly penniless reminded me of Matthew 6:19-21 which reads, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As I headed for the Gathland State Park exit, I stumbled upon a pavilion with…Trail Magic! A gentleman in a wheelchair from a local veterans group was serving hot dogs, chips, drinks and other assorted goodies. Well done, sir.

Maryland Magic
Maryland Magic

I exited the park and continued my journey along South Mountain, an area rich in American Civil War history. The Battle of South Mountain is considered one of the most decisive events in the war, as it was the key battle in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s failed first attempt to invade the Union. Had the Confederates won on northern soil, Great Britain and France may have intervened on the South’s behalf, and persuaded a war-weary north to negotiate a peace settlement.

General Garland Memorial
General Garland Memorial

So at Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Crampton’s Gap (Gathland State Park), I was hiking on the hallowed ground where approximately 6,100 soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in a single day. This reality was brought home as I stood in front of the memorial marking the spot near where Confederate Brigadier General Samuel Garland fell mortally wounded while leading his men. It’s interesting that the military general who valiantly and selflessly led his men in battle ends up with a nice memorial tombstone for all to see. Meanwhile, the fancy tomb set aside by a man to honor himself is now in ruins and empty.

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After a 17.2 mile day, I ended up camping near the Dahlgren Campground. A female camper about my age approached me and started watching me set up my tent.

Female: “I hope you don’t mind me watching you. I’m fairly new at this and I have a Big Agnes tent also.”

Fob: “No problem at all. I’ve set it up many times and I love it.”

Female: “So, you’re a thru-hiker?”

Fob: “I will be when I summit Katahdin. Right now I’m just an aspiring thru-hiker. You have to earn the title.”

Female: “My trail name is Ru. That’s 1/2 of Thru because I’m trying to hike half of the trail this year. There’s no way I can do the whole thing yet.”

Fob: “I’m Fob. My youngest son poops on trails.”

Ru: “Hmmm.”

Fob: “It’s a long story. So where are you from?”

Ru: “I’m a retired sheriff’s deputy from Riverview, Florida.”

Fob: “No way! My wife and I lived in Fishhawk for seven years, just down the road from you! You’ve probably given me a traffic ticket!”

Ru: “Wow! Small world.”

Fob: “And then you put in the final stake, at an angle, just like this.”

Ru: “I’m impressed. Your Big Agnes is so taut.”

Fob: “I get that a lot.”

As I laid there alone in my tent in the woods, I remembered that I was just west of Burkittsville, Maryland. Why does that matter? Well, it was in the woods near Burkittsville where they filmed parts of the original Blair Witch Project movie. Yes, folks, I was in the Blair Witch Woods! As it got dark, my initial inclination was to make a scary, Blair Witch Project-like video and post it on Facebook, so I did. For some reason the volume wasn’t on, so the video will mainly seem scary to those who read lips. I was a little spooked myself, and went to sleep that night wondering if any witches would bother me in the middle of the night.

That night I had the strangest dream…

Blair, a witch, hovered outside my tent, along with Sarah, her reluctant sister. How did I know she was a witch? Because she looked like one…she had a crooked nose. Sensing my fear and vulnerability, Blair ripped open my (tent) fly and snatched me. I was so scared. She and Sarah took me to their coven next to a Hogwarts looking castle owned by their rich father, Big Daddy Warlock. (These are the kind of dreams you have when there’s too much granola in your diet.).

Blair put me in a cage down the hall, gave me a handful of oats to eat, and left me alone with Sarah. “Watch out for my sister,” Sarah warned. “She’s gone, but she’ll be back, and she’s a man eater. Watch out, Fob, she’ll chew you up!” “Say it isn’t so,” I replied. “I can’t go for that. No can do. I need to get back on the trail.” Just then Blair, clearly out of touch, returned and hit me with a stick. One on one, I was no match for her. I said, “You’re a witch, girl, and you’ve gone too far, ’cause you know it don’t matter anyway.”

Blair left again to prepare her witches stew, which calls for the eye of a newt, a pinch of garlic, and a Fob. It’s a primitive recipe, but she’s never had any adult education. I looked at Sarah and said, “This is my last chance. Can you help me escape?”

{My dream was interrupted by an urgent need to pee in a bottle, so I did. I then returned to my dream.}

Sarah replied, “Helping you is risky. Even though Blair is gone, her private eyes are watching you. They watch your every move.” I said, “Help me escape, and you’ll make my dreams come true.” “But, Fob, I like having you around,” she admitted. “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you.” “Don’t worry, Sarah,” I said softly. “Your kiss is on my list for the rest of my life.”

With tears in her eyes, Sarah reached out her warty hand and placed it on my shoulder…

Sarah: “If you feel like leaving, you know you can go…”

Fob: “I feel like leaving.”

Sarah: “But why don’t you stay until tomorrow?”

Fob: “Actually, now is fine. I just heard a newt scream.”

Sarah: “And if you wanna be free…”

Fob: “I really do. I hear Blair coming.”

Sarah: “All you have to do is say so.”

Fob: “So.”

Just then, Sarah unlocked my cage and I made a run for it. As I exited the coven towards safety, I looked back over my shoulder at a crying Sarah and said, “It’s you…and me…forever! Sarah, smile…oh won’t you smile awhile for me, Sarah.”

I awoke from my dream in cold sweat. It had been a memorable night in the Blair Witch Woods, but it was time to eat a granola bar, put on some more 80s music, and hike on.

Fob

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