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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