Beard Length: Leif Erikson
Showers Taken: 23
Beers Drank: 80
Bears Spotted: 16
Zero Days: 7
Right after my last post, I checked into the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Head Quarters in Harpers Ferry, WV. This famous building for thru-hikers is the psychological halfway point of the journey. There, you check in, have your photo taken and are given the number thru-hiker you are that has gone through this year. The photo with your information is stored in one of the many books that will line the shelves filled with similar photos of thru-hikers from the past. In Georgia, I started off as #2135, and when I checked into Harpers Ferry as #861. For the past two months I have either passed a bunch of people and additionally, many people have dropped of the trail.
Through the end of Virginia, across West Virginia, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania I had the best time with my parents. Getting them out to hike a few miles on the trail was fantastic, and I think they really enjoyed it too. Before they left Mike and Sharon Eller came up too and they all did Trail Magic together. It was amazing to see all of them together in one spot, like two separate lives merging together.
Although it was hard to say bye to my parents, it was also strange to think that the next time I’d be seeing them, they wouldn’t have to get on a plane. That means I really have walked a long way.
Red Stripe’s mom and sister also came to visit her the same day that my parents were leaving. They were gracious enough to host me for a night at a beautiful B&B they rented in downtown Harper’s Ferry and treat me to some meals, just as my parents had done for Red Stripe. This truly was like an on trail vacation, and a much needed one at that.
Additionally, I got to celebrate Hike Naked Day on June 21st, summer solstice and the longest day of the year. All hikers are invited to strip down for the annual holiday and celebration, but it seems to be much more commonplace amongst thru-hikers. Unfortunately, I did not see any thru-hikers that day and would like to publicly apologize to all the fully clothed day hikers that were lucky (unlucky) enough to witness my spectacular tan lines that day. Even though I consider this a family friendly blog, please see a photo my friend took of me below.
Finally, retreating back to the woods, the glamour was over. Except it wasn’t. Twenty miles into the hike as it was getting close to dinner, the smell of bacon wafted through the woods. One could say that it was calling to me. With a new spring in my step I quickened my pace and emerged at the next road crossing to find four guys from Ohio with chairs, a tent, a lot of food, and a grill. Rookie, Norm, Andy, and Mert were down for a few days at the start of Pennsylvania doing some of the best trail magic! Rookie served me up a massive double bacon cheeseburger to go along with the soda, homemade whoopie pies, and chocolate chip cookies they had already given me. After sharing over an hour of great conversation, I walked on with a full belly and content mind.
Pennsylvania is notorious for it’s rocks and the consistent agony they provide to hikers. The state is infamously known as “Rocksylvania” on the trail. But for me, PA had a more important claim to fame: The Half Gallon Challenge. For thousands of years thru-hikers have made the stop at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store to attempt the feat. With the store always being within a few miles of the geological halfway point of the AT, they decided to challenge hikers to eat a half gallon of ice cream. I feel that this is something I have been training my whole life for. Arguably, it is a task requiring more mental toughness and physiological adaptivity than hiking the trail itself. Back in Virginia I was discussing the challenge with a former thru-hiker who strategically suggested choosing Neopolitan as your flavor. Thus containing variety and providing a smooth experience in comparison to other flavors that contain chunks. The challenge is two parts where you get one 1.5 quart container and when that is finished, an additional pint is ordered. So after slugging through my 1.5 quart container of Neopolitan I proudly marched back in to finish off an additional pint of cookie dough for a total time of 33 minutes. I signed their hiker book and received my mini “Half Gallon Club” wooden spoon, but my accomplishment was overshadowed greatly by this years record time of 12 minutes and 45 seconds.
Honestly, the start of Pennsylvania had been the easiest section of trail. Mind numbingly flat, it actually hurt my feet more to not have the variety of rolling hills and mountains. Crossing through farmland and thick corn field truly contributed to a sense of traditional America unlike any other piece of the trail to date. And it really was beautiful.
While still awaiting the challenge of rocks, Pennsylvania decided to throw another challenge instead: a flash flood. My tent had been pitched for about an hour and I lay inside reading my book when the rain first started. There’s something so peaceful about rain drops on your tent fly that instills almost a zen-like feeling. Then it began to rain harder, and harder, and harder to the point where it was now not so zen-like. Impossibly loud thunder harmonized with the pounding rain and lightning was so constant that it was almost like a strobe light. Wind howled over my little tent and the force of the rain began to drive the water inward, dampening the inside. Never before have I felt the wrath of such a rain storm.
The next morning, the birds chirped and the sun shone through my dampened rain fly like nothing had happened. But little did I know, the Appalachian Trail had now become the Appalachian River. For the majority of the 23 mile hike that day the trail was covered in knee to ankle deep water. Unfortunately the golden rule of keeping your feet dry was now just a laughable concept.
At it’s worst, one part of the trail that lay next to a large river now had water on it that rose almost to my chest. As myself and other hikers stared out at the newly formed body of water wondering what to do, we were surprised to see someone wading through heading towards us. This would be the first South-bound thru-hiker I met that had started in Maine this year. But instead of an exciting conversation, his only words were, “watch out for the snakes.” So I stripped down, put my pack over my head, and did the only thing I’ve done for the past two and a half months; walk forward.
If the flash flood and abhorrent trail conditions were not enough to make me hate Pennsylvania and it’s stupid rocks, the heat wave sealed the deal. From Friday up until even now it has been no cooler than 96 degrees during the day with humidity greater than 90%. The heat index for Sunday and Monday was 102 degrees as I walked over feet crippling rock fields with the sun pounding down on me, draining me. The climb up and out of Lehigh Gap in the middle of the scorcher was probably one of the most challenging pieces of trail thus far. Scrambling up the exposed boulder field carrying extra water weight because of the horrifically timed dry stretch was not exactly fun. There are no bad days on the Appalachian Trail, just good days and hard days. These are the hard days. And although I try to take something away from each piece of the trail, I really can’t wait for Pennsylvania to be over. F@&! you Pennsylvania and your Philly Eagles too.
Inevitably, the question of, “why?”, has followed me incessantly the past few years when setting off on different adventures around the past few years. The Appalachian Trail is no exception and I get asked it more times than I can count by friends, family, and hikers on the trail for the day. Now that I am on the trail in Rachel’s home state of Pennsylvania, I feel more of a duty to share that story as my source of inspiration, but I still struggle telling it to strangers and I’m unsure why. In part I think it’s due to not wanting to bring negativity into their day; and also because it still hurts a little bit. And although Rachel plays a large part in my hike of the AT, she’s certainly not the sole reason. Because as I stated in a previous post, the only humans I would ever walk more than 500 miles for are my mom, nana, and Tom Brady.
So why? It’s the question I’m frequently frustrated and bewildered by because I can never answer it. Or let me rephrase, I can never answer it in a way that might seem to make any sort of rational sense. Why run the seven continents? Why Ironman? Why the Appalachian Trail? All justifiable inquiries that leave me either providing a textbook, prepackaged, and practiced answer. Or conversely I stumble upon the truth in my own words for a minute or two before giving up and reverting to the former.
My hero is a polar explorer named Ben Saunders. He has given three of the most important and influential TED talks on my life that I listen to regularly. They are downloaded onto my phone and I have replayed them over and over again on the hike thus far. In one of his talks, he answers the question “why?” with a quote from world renowned mountaineer George Mallory. Mallory was last seen disappearing into the mist just below the summit of Mount Everest some decades before Sir Edmund Hilary, and was possibly the first person to summit Everest. He is also credited with coining the phrase, “Because it’s there.” But in the quote that Ben shares, Mallory answers the question of “why?” in a much more polished and eloquent way which resonates perfectly with me. By no means am I comparing myself to great explorers such as them, but in this instance I am happy to steal the words of Mallory.
People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.
Each and everyday out here I am experiencing life as I want to. And to me, that is an invaluable treasure.
I wanted to extend a huge thank you to my parents for visiting and being a source of entertainment and most importantly being so supportive and loving. I had such a wonderful time with them. Thank you to LouAnn and Lydia McLaughlin for their hospitality when visiting Red Stripe. Thank you to Marie Callahan for a great care package. Another important thank you is to Dave Dickinson for the great beer and for his major assistance in other on trail matters. And as always to Jim Gagne for yet another care package and for being a constant source of inspiration to me.
Happy to only have 24 miles left of Pennsylvania, I’ll be in New England soon enough!
Wind Gap, PA
July 2, 2018