Realistic expectations are a good defense against disappointment, so when planning our thru-hike, we read as much as we could about what we should expect. Several previous hikers said that life on the Trail is constant misery, or at the very least mild discomfort, occasionally interrupted by moments of awe, elation, and satisfaction that make it all worth it. When you’re reading others’ experiences, it’s hard to fully understand the depth of what they describe: the physical sensations, their emotional responses, the experiences of tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, touching. Personal experience is indeed the best teacher.
So, as we neared the end of our first month, we were starting to understand what those hikers meant about misery and mild discomfort. You know how angry your feet feel at the end of a 12-hour day at an amusement park? That’s how ours feel each night, and we’re told by those who have gone a lot farther than us that this never goes away. (This is why we insisted on a hammock over a tent; at least our feet start each day in a decent mood.) There are the mosquito bites, the skin rubbed raw under our backpack straps, and the occasional headache from walking into a tree limb while intently staring at the ground to avoid stepping on sharp rocks. Some of the discomfort isn’t physical but mental, and just comes from constantly being on high alert: There’s a rattle snake sunning on the trail ahead, don’t step on it. Did you hear that rustle? Was it big enough to be a bear? Speaking of bears, did we hang the food bag high enough? Careful, you don’t want to spill any food and invite creatures to your campsite. Ugh, I forgot to apply sunscreen. UGH, we have to do a tick check. I have something stuck in my tooth, maybe I can use my fingernail– STOP! Do not put your filthy hands anywhere near your mouth! Oh, nice to meet you, Day Hiker. I’m sorry, I can’t shake your hand because we’re very cautious about the spread of germs out here. I didn’t bury my rain gear at the bottom of my pack, right?
And then there’s the tedium: set up camp, cook, sleep, cook, tear down camp, walk, set up camp. Trail life was getting pretty monotonous for a few weeks once we figured out our routine…but then came those moments of awe, elation, and satisfaction. Thank you, Northern Pennsylvania, for really livening things up.
We’ve come to think of the 229 trail miles in Pennsylvania as paved – not in gold, not in asphalt, but in rocks. Pointy ones, of every imaginable shape and size. As a local warned us shortly after we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, you’ll go miles in PA without touching the ground because you’re boulder-hopping. So, we were walking along, eyes pointed at our feet to navigate the trip hazards, when Travis stopped dead in his tracks and pointed to the right of the trail. “It’s a black rat snake,” he explained. “They’re really docile. I could probably pick that guy up. We had one at Camp Joy, and–” Before Travis could finish explaining that his job as an outdoor educator involved handling snakes to show the campers, the snake lifted its head high and wiggled its tongue at us. When we fell silent but didn’t move, it came charging forward. We backed away quickly, stumbling over the rocks, and it eventually slithered away. It didn’t go far, though, and then we heard….a trickle of water? Wait, is the snake… peeing?!
High alert, but then….we survived! And experienced something novel! (Ok, black rat snakes aren’t venomous, so we were going to survive even if it bit us, but it could have really upped the misery factor.)
We walked on, unknowingly making our way toward a rock formation known as Knife Edge Cliffs. (We try not to look ahead at the terrain to maintain some excitement for the unknown. Also, this way we don’t have to dread steep climbs.) We started scrambling up the southern end of what would become an incredibly high, narrow, long ridge of boulders. We’re climbing, Travis in front, when I see something fall off his pack. As it bounces down the rocks, I see that it’s his beloved coffee mug…and it just disappeared in a crack in the pile of boulders. Disinterested in leaving plastic on the mountain, and even less interested in losing a close friend (you become attached to the few things you carry day after day), we dropped our packs and started searching. A visual scan revealed nothing. The flashlights on our phones, still nothing. Then Travis says he thinks he can squeeze into the crack from a different entry point and look around with his headlamp. I’m not loving this idea, but as I debate the pros and cons, Travis straps on his headlamp and starts crawling in. After verifying there are no snakes denned up in there, he looks around for the mug. “I can see it! Buuuut, I can’t reach it.”
Meanwhile, I’m outside sitting on a rock and explaining the situation to all the curious hikers who keep passing by. One gentleman, a day hiker with narrow shoulders, offers to help. Travis has gone as far as his broad shoulders will allow and can’t reach the mug, so he backs out, and sure enough, this stranger straps on our headlamp, gets on his stomach and wiggles on in. After some time and finaggling, and no doubt some discomfort, the man announces that he has the mug in hand. Getting out took some time, and we were feeling bad about the guy being in this position on our behalf, but he waved away our concerns: “I love a challenge. This made my day.” He didn’t have a trail name yet, so we called him Spelunk. Spelunk, you made our day, too.
We safely stowed the mug inside a pack and continued ambling up the boulders. We hadn’t gone 50 feet when we got to the most impressive, intimidating ridge line we’d seen to date. With nothing but air to our right side and a steep jagged rockslide to our left, we walked along a narrow stretch of rock. The rocks were in jumbled piles in some places which required us to abandon our hiking poles so we could use our hands to climb over. In other places, the rock face was sharply angled, so we clung to the top edge with our fingertips and scooted along sideways, looking for crevices with our toes. It was exhilarating and oh-so-satisfying to make it across unscathed. Between the adrenaline rush and the physicality of the day, we were sure we’d sleep like babies that night.
Enter misery. (We foolishly let ourselves forget briefly that thru-hiking is a lot more discomfort than exhilaration.) That night, the temperature plummeted lower than any night we’d yet experienced, and it rained. We learned a few things. First, our rain tarp is awesome. Haleluia! Second, Travis is a hotbox who rarely gets cold, but when he does, it puts him all out of sorts: cranky and unfocused, staring blankly at nothing like he doesn’t know what he should do next. Third, we learned that there was a good reason that my sleeping bag was on sale: There is no filling in the panel that runs down the middle of my back. We both woke up a little cranky that morning.
While we try not to know what lies ahead, sometimes the terrain’s reputation precedes it. This was the case with Lehigh Gap. It’s a nearly vertical, mile-long climb up a bald, rocky mountain that was stripped bare when the area was home to a zinc smelting operation. (It’s now an EPA Superfund Site.) There’s no tree cover, no wildlife, no potable water — nothing but endless 360° views. We heard about it for more than a week as people planned how they were going to make it up and over. Take the bypass trail and avoid the worst of the climbing? Pay $15 to have someone drive your pack to the other side so all you have to carry is water? Or just eat a good breakfast, stretch, and muscle your way up? We chose the latter, and we couldn’t be happier. It was the most challenging, most exhilarating, most rewarding mile of the trek to that point, and nothing has beat that single hour yet. We started below the tree line, and the trail was steep enough that Travis’ boots were at my eye level when he was two steps ahead. As we broke through the trees, the trail turned into a towering pile of boulders. We stashed our hiking poles and switched from hiking mode to rock climbing mode as the white blazes (trail markers) zigzagged us toward the clouds. We stopped every few minutes to take in the view of the river and valley below, the defunct zinc operation, the tiny town where Travis witnessed a motorcycle accident the day before. The wind was wild and as it whipped around, Travis laughed just as wildly and hollered into it, competing with it to be heard.
We’d been hiking with a woman who paid for the slackpacking option, and she was given a Hannah Montana bookbag to carry her essentials. This inspired us, and when the three of us got to the very top, Travis pulled out his phone and we did a celebratory dance to Miley Cirus’ It’s the Climb. We were drunk on adrenaline, madly in love with the Appalachian Trail, and utterly forgiving of all the misery.
A few weeks have actually passed since Lehigh Gap, but it remains one of our favorite trail memories. We’re moving into New England and we expect that we’ll soon have several new experiences to compete for favorite status. In the meantime, we’ll keep trudging and sharing the micro-moments via Facebook and Instagram.
Lastly, our updated tally sheet: