“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
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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