DISCLAIMER: This is a long read, but then again, this was a long hike. Also, this Trip Report was not endorsed by any sock companies or PB&J manufacturers.
Two weeks ago, on a long winter hike in the Adirondacks, a friend from high school who thru-hiked the AT told me about the Four State Challenge- a 45-mile trek between PA, MD, WV, and VA often tackled by thru-hikers in one epic day. That's when the idea hatched that I would take on the Challenge for the Spring Solstice. Having hiked a lot through the winter this particular Challenge would push me twelve miles further than I had ever previously hiked in a single day. A couple of weeks of planning and recruiting later, and me and seven others from DC UL Backpacking and November Project-Baltimore set-out for a long walk in the woods.
1) Hike your own hike.
2) Leave by 3:00 AM- earlier if need be.
3) Start at PenMar Park.
4) Travel south.
5) Don’t stop ‘til Virginia.
Leading up to the trip, I kept a vigilant eye on weather reports. Forty-five miles is a lot to log in perfect conditions- let alone in the haphazard weather of the Mid-Atlantic in March. As the number of days until the trip dwindled, it became increasingly apparent that regardless of hiking on the first full day of spring, we were going to face some inclement weather. From there, the questions were how much and when?
Jordan, Steve, and I met at Harper’s Ferry ahead of schedule to drop off two terminus cars (and a cooler filled with all of the indulgent beverages a person could desire). I was pleased to see that though the sky was slate gray, the ground was at most covered with a dusting of snow. Jordan drove our crew north to Gathland State Park where we met Brian, who’s FJ Cruiser was left stationed as a 75% resupply vehicle. From there, we drove northbound to PenMar Park to find Megan asleep in her car.
Having scouted PenMar the weekend prior, the group planned to camp at a site located a couple hundred feet off the AT just over the Mason-Dixon Line. During my recon, the tall trees surrounding the site creaked in the strong winds and caused me to do a preliminary search of the sky for widow-makers. Imagine my concern when reports the next week revealed that a hiker died from a falling tree at the Ed Garvey Shelter, a mere 35-miles from where we were sleeping. I know the best course of action is caution and the probability of such a tragedy happening twice is minimal, but I was still slightly apprehensive.
Steve, Brian, Jordan, and I began assembling our shelters on a couple of inches of fresh, wet snow amongst the thicket of trees. Megan started unpacking the pasta, pizza, and potato chip dinner she brought for the group. Three folks from the November Project joined shortly thereafter, two pitched their tent and the third, Garrett (Indian Blitzkrieg, IB for short) conferred with the group about sleeping in his car. Megan commented that she was going to sleep in her car so as to not have to pack a wet tent in the wee hours of the morning. IB replied, “I think I’ll join you.” Realizing the awkwardness of saying that he quickly added, “…in my own car, that is.” Everyone laughed uproariously.
Prior to bed, there was a general consensus that moving on the trail would be slow because of the snow and dark. We never could have guessed how much the trail conditions would slow our southward progress. Everyone planned to leave before the originally scheduled 3:00 AM start-time in order to give ourselves as much chance at success as possible. Around 8:30 PM, Garrett and Megan went to sleep in the PenMar parking lot (in their own respective cars) and everyone hunkered down for a few hours of sleep before an early morning and long day.
My phone began wailing a whining beep at 1:15 AM. Had it not been for Jordan asking, “Is that your alarm?” I would have been perfectly content ignoring the din and staying snuggled in my toasty warm sleeping bag cocoon with the brisk air cooling my cheeks. After stretching, packing, lacing on my freezing boots, and breaking down my tent, Jordan and I left camp for the Mason-Dixon Line. Either my alarm woke everyone up, or everyone was on the same timeline because as we left camp, the other three tents were emanating the dim glow of headlamps. We snapped photos at the PA-MD border and signed the trail log at 1:58 AM. Anyone who knows me knows I love to read, I love words, and I’m notorious for botching quotes. My trail log note was something to the effect of, “Some of the greatest acts are achieved by those too stupid to know they couldn’t.” (If anyone knows the actual quote or who said it first, please let me know).
Just as Jordan and I began to leave the mailbox that houses the trail log, our ears were assailed with the piercing screech of car tires on pavement in the distance. Another round of screeching and a car door slammed and the apparently stuck driver began spewing profanities. We waited- headlamps off- in the darkness until the noises of the hotheaded driver subsided. As we flicked our headlamps back on, we noticed a single bobbing light crossing the train tracks ahead. Megan was coming to the trail log to sign in for the start of the Challenge. Jordan and I agreed to meet her at PenMar Park after dropping our tent and bags off in the car. IB headed for the trail log from his car as we unloaded our overnight gear.
The four of us started south on the AT from PenMar Park at 2:23 AM. We almost immediately encountered the challenges of 4-inches of fresh snow and the darkness. IB lead the way seemingly effortlessly. He broke trail on the windblown footsteps of two guys who signed the trail log at PenMar the night before and flawlessly navigated the white blazes obscured by snow covered trees. Shortly after 4:00 AM, IB, Jordan, Megan, and I arrived at the Raven Rock Shelter junction- averaging a snail’s pace 1.3 MPH. Fighting the snow, darkness, and fog, the climb up High Rock was perhaps the most difficult part of the trip. The gentlemen who had left PenMar the night before must have stayed at the Raven Rock Shelter because their boot prints subsided. Jordan, Megan, and I were left following IB’s solo tracks and the frequent blazes. Truthfully, had it not been for IB blazing trail ahead, I can’t guess how I would have fared navigating. In an early morning delirium, I cracked the joke that most people don’t “White Blaze” at 4:20 AM.
At the first stream crossing of the morning, Megan commented that only a week prior she had crossed the stream on its icy surface. In the pitch blackness of early morning, we forded the gushing brook, hopping along rocks, and downed trees. The second stream crossing had a bridge and the water was gushing equally as much. Minutes before 6:00 AM, Jordan and I stepped into a field and we were elated to see a note written in the snow from IB: Garrett 0545. Following suit, we sketched our names and time into the snow and continued across the field. Fifty paces later, another note from IB: 30 Miles to Mordor -->, and at the edge of the field, a snow angel. I’m seriously not sure how this kid did it, but he beasted this hike and definitely had fun doing it. He certainly lightened spirits for me!
As we came upon the second field of the trek, IB’s headlamp was waiting for us. IB, Jordan, Megan, and I crossed the field together with headlamps off. The darkness was suffocating in comparison to light polluted nights in Baltimore. When the fog cleared enough to see, the stars were radiant. We picked out Betelgeuse, Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, and a few other notable constellations before continuing.
The ascent climbing out of that field was a taste of hiker hell- wet, slushy snow that didn’t allow for proper footing, steep, and long. Somewhere in the middle of the climb, in between peeling off layers and wiping off sweat, we began to notice the first hints of dawn. I cannot emphasize enough how much of a mental boost daylight was for all of us. We couldn’t have planned reaching the apex of that climb any better if we tried. Sunrise burst over the horizon to greet us at the top of the ascent. The first day of spring was in full swing- and we were still surrounded by a winter wonderland.
Despite our best efforts to capture the morning light on the snow covered ridges and trees, photos don’t do the beauty of a scene like the one we experienced justice. A misty fog encompassed the trail and engulfed the pink and orange colors of sunrise to the east in a smoky haze; it looked ominous and majestic, like a forest fire at a distance. Our “Wolf Pack” stayed tight through the night, but with daylight in full blast, IB was off to the races. Jordan, Megan, and I trailed behind- occasionally stopping for water and snacks, but mostly just moving. As we trudged southward, we began to notice something peculiar. We weren’t just following IB’s boot tracks anymore. Seemingly some four-legged creature was leading the way, walking with him, or trailing just behind. Having seen Reese Witherspoon’s movie, Wild, with Jordan a couple of months ago, I joked that the extra tracks must be IB’s spirit fox leading him down the trail. Apparently there was an actual fox trotting down the trail with him at some point during the morning.
Shortly after, we hit a stream crossing and whether I wasn’t paying attention or just lost my footing, I’m not sure. What I do know is my arm sank into cold stream water up to my elbow. Had it been a colder day this would have definitely been cause for crankiness (and I’ll admit, whining), but with moderate temperatures and a spare glove, we were back in action in no time. Jordan and I came across Black Rock Cliffs and wandered out to the vista which was worthwhile with the light dusting of snow and mist rising.
Stepping back on the trail, we were surprised by a little snow note from our pack leader- a game of tic-tac-toe. Jordan drew an X and I drew an O and we continued until we passed our first hikers from a different group. We were nearing 10:00 AM as a group of young guys, with no packs and Timberland boots passed us heading north. Not realizing just how slow we had been moving in the early morning, I was convinced that these guys were evidence that we were near to Turner’s Gap- our 50% mark.
Now, I will admit flat out, I looked at maps prior to going on the trip, but minor milestones on a hike (or run for that matter) don’t typically register with me. On Saturday I set out to hike to Loudon Heights from PenMar Park and I knew that I needed to follow the AT south until I got there. That’s what I knew. I also knew, 23-miles in there were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches waiting for me at Turner’s Gap and about 30-miles in, water waiting for me at Crampton Gap. From my previous weekend’s recon of Turner’s Gap, and by that I mean the breakfast buffet at Old South Mountain Inn, I also knew that there was a descent from Dahlgren Chapel into Turner’s Gap. From the time we saw the underdressed boys hiking until I stopped to look at my map after I-70, every ascent and descent we hiked, I was convinced, was the one. My timing couldn’t have been more off.
Shortly before the I-70 Bridge, Jordan and I talked with a group of three guys who were backpacking for the weekend. They mentioned that they thought Turner’s Gap was at least another 5-miles south. I was convinced they were wrong and was so adamant that one of the guys began to second guess himself. After nearly an hour of singing “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and dancing every fifteen minutes with the prospect of PB&Js inching closer, we decided to stop after the I-70 Bridge for snacks and a map check. A quick glance at the map confirmed what the three backpackers had said: we were only 18-miles into the trip and painfully behind schedule. While Megan, Jordan, and I took a 5-minute jerky and trail mix break, Steve came flying up the trail. He had passed two of the November Project kids while leaving PenMar Park and Brian was trailing behind him. Shortly after we finished breaking, Jordan and I passed Steve.
A few miles later, Jordan and I passed the Washington Monument which was swarming with people. I’m fairly certain every Boy Scout in the Mid-Atlantic was on the AT this weekend and with the temperature rising, day hikers were out in full, neon-clad force. We skirted around the monument and decided to come back another time, on a less grueling adventure, for a picnic. Descending the hill from the monument, I was pleased to see signage with a historical note about George Washington having been a surveyor. When you’re a [not so civil] enginerd, it’s the simple things!
In order to pass the time, Jordan and I placed a Price Is Right rules bet on what time IB had signed in at the 50% resupply vehicle; the loser had to buy breakfast the next morning at Old South Mountain Inn. Several thousand heavy steps later, Jordan and I crested a hill to the beautiful sight of the Dahlgren Chapel. I skipped and twirled my way down the hill knowing that the gooey, crunchy deliciousness of a PB&J and the comfort of fresh socks and boots were only steps away. To both of our surprise (and my free breakfast victory), IB was lounging in the trunk of the 50% car, chowing down on homemade chocolate muffins and slurping a mini-Gatorade. He had only arrived at the car minutes before. As we checked our watch to sign in, the three of us realized that despite leading the pack, we were only barely making the 12:00 PM halfway point sweep time. With heavy boots (mostly from the snow melt), we recorded our names, times, mental states (pensive and jaded), and estimated pounds of water in our boots (3 lbs – a f*ck ton).
While planning this trip I established sweep times for the 50% and 75% vehicles in order to prevent someone who is tired, caked in mud and dried sweat, and finished with the Challenge from having to wait too long at the terminus for others to finish. I based the sweep times on times from previous groups’ Four State Challenge ventures and added some cushion. Prior to the trip I told everyone that the sweep times were more of a courtesy guideline than a carved in stone deadline. I knew this hike was going to push my physical limits, but I never would have guessed I’d barely be making the first checkpoint sweep. As a group we had a game time decision to make: do we continue regardless of time or abandon our trip to Virginia? Psh! As if stopping was an option! IB, Jordan, and I gorged on delectable PB&Js and changed our socks and boots until we spotted Steve and Megan trekking into Turner’s Gap.
Steve blew through the resupply station barely taking time to breathe in the goodness of homemade muffins. He was a man on a mission and was not going to be hampered by an arbitrary sweep time. Megan continued on with him. Figuring we’d really need to take advantage of the sunshine and warming temperatures, IB, Jordan, and I left Turner’s Gap on Steve and Megan’s heels in an odyssey for the West Virginia-Virginia border. Mentally, this was a much easier segment of the hike for a multitude of reasons. First, the sun was up. Second, we were half way there! Third, in six short miles, there were New York Golden Delicious apples, cookies, dry socks, and more PB&Js waiting for us in Crampton Gap. Game on!
The six miles into Gathland State Park went by in the blink of an eye. The accumulation of miles was taking its toll. Jordan’s groin began throbbing (more information than any of us needed) and IB’s IT-band was tightening up. Minor tweaks aside, it was a perfectly beautiful, sunny day to be walking in the woods. I caught myself smiling at the day more than once. At one point when IB had taken a little lead on Jordan and me, we passed a familiar face. Knowing a DCUL group was going to be on the trail, Peter had started at Harper’s Ferry at about 9:00 AM and hiked northbound towards us. Though I had only met him briefly once before, knowing we had a supporter out on the trails was comforting and gave me good incentive to continue putting one foot in front of the other. Peter continued north to connect with Megan. THANK YOU, PETER!
We emerged from the tree line into the parking area adjacent to Gathland State Park slightly before 3:00 PM. As we had planned, we popped a team round of Vitamin I (Ibuprofein), refilled our water, swapped soggy socks for dry ones, and quickly got back to our muddy and slushy southward trek. But first, we took a photo opp in front of the War Correspondents Memorial. [Side story: The gentleman who snapped our photo hobbled over to where we were posed to have our picture taken looking like he had just finished the Four State Challenge. His comrade proceeded to joke that he was going to take a picture of his friend taking a picture of us- which turned out not to be a joke. Hobbley’s photo taking being photograph worthy in itself had me concerned that the photo was going to be of his index finger, but all turned out well! Hobbley’s reaction to us hiking from PenMar to Loudon Heights was also quite funny; he dismissed it at first seemingly having asked the question of what we were hiking more out of politeness than genuine interest and then the nickel dropped. “You know that’s more than 40-miles, right?!” Yes, Hobbley, yes we do!]
Back on the trail the trials of the previous miles seemed to subside. For as arduous as the first half of the trek was, the second half became a game. Could we push ourselves a little further a little faster? Fueled by muffins and meat sticks our feet carried us the six miles from Gathland State Park to Weverton Cliffs in no time at all. Excited that we reached another mini-milestone so quickly I loudly exclaimed (Warning: this is not to be read by your grandmother or my Mom), “We are the tits!” Of course we promptly crested the hill to the Cliffs to see a group of judgmental high school-aged kids right-swiping on Tinder with the backdrop of a spectacular view. We stopped briefly at the Cliffs to snap a few photos and eye ball the 340-bridge out of Harper’s Ferry to Loudon Heights. Though still distant, we could see the finish line and boy, was my mouth watering for an ice cold beer.
The descent from Weverton Cliffs was slow moving. The accumulation of miles compounded with hairpin turns on uneven terrain slowed Jordan and me. Despite hurting, IB continued to lead our pack. I began questioning if he was perhaps some sort of superhuman sent to Baltimore by the Russians…
To our surprise, we were greeted at the bottom of the descent by a familiar FJ Cruiser with Brian behind the wheel and Steve in the passenger seat. Because of slow moving in the morning and nursing a hip injury, the two had decided to tap out of the Challenge at Crampton’s Gap and were headed back to PenMar and Steve’s car at Harper’s Ferry. The pair informed us that Megan was trailing behind us by about 45 minutes. Her 75% sign-in read, “Harper’s Ferry or BUST!”
Bidding farewell to Brian and Steve, we were ready to finish the journey we had started almost fourteen hours prior. Approximately three miles of the hike is on the C&O canal and the flatness was a cross between a welcomed relief and utter annoyance. We must’ve looked like we’d been through hell in comparison to the families out with kids on trikes and the couples holding hands strolling down the rail trail. With IB leading the way, we pressed forward to the footbridge that crosses from the C&O to Harper’s Ferry- the location of our terminus vehicles. As we passed over the bridge in the now setting sun, IB exclaimed, “Taste that? That’s the last breath of Maryland, kids!” We had made it to West Virginia.
The walk from Harper’s Ferry to our terminus cars was quick in comparison to the ceaseless miles we had traversed during the day. We jaunted through Harper’s Ferry as I’ve done many times since moving to Baltimore from New York- perhaps with a little more hobbling and limping, this time. Making it to the overflow parking area at the base of the 340-Bridge was a big milestone. Jordan, fairly new to hiking, joked, “I set a thirty mile PR today!” Whereas we had previously thought about the finish line and even seen it, we were now within minutes of conquering it. Jordan, IB, and I stopped at the car to change socks and unload our packs to the barebones- headlamp, water, and beer.
A quick stroll across the 340-Bridge and down a flight of stairs, and we were on the final climb of our trip. As we ascended to the Loudon Heights trail the sunset was brilliant. The ascent plateaus at the junction of the Appalachian Trail and the trail to the Loudon Heights overlook. The crest of the ridgeline marks the unofficial border between West Virginia and Virginia. After a full day of hiking, from hours before sunrise to the grand finale of sunset, we finally reached our destination at 7:22 PM- sixteen hours and fifty-nine minutes after leaving PenMar.
45 miles, 16 hours and 59 minutes, 5 sock changes, 4 states, and 3 finishers. We did it!
To ensure we weren’t cutting ourselves short by a state, we continued to hike past the Loudon Heights trail, off of the AT to a large rock just in the Virginia tree line. Jordan, IB, and I hunkered down to crack open three bottles of New Belgium IPA and celebrate. I spotted an Appalachian Trail Survey Marker in the underbrush as we lolled around nursing our beers and assessing the physical damage of our bodies. It occurred to me that I should turn on my phone to check on Megan’s status. As soon as I clicked my phone out of Airplane Mode a text came through from her asking for our location. She responded: I’m just stopping at HF should be there in 20 min.
Now, in hindsight, I realize that this message can be interpreted two ways: 1) I’m twenty minutes from Harper’s Ferry and calling my journey quits there or 2) I’m in Harper’s Ferry grabbing this bottle of champagne and I’ll be at the top of the ridge in 20 minutes. I interpreted it as the latter, so we waited. Jordan, IB, and I waited until our beers were long gone and the sun had set and the temperature began dropping. We waited until we were more than tired and then made a decision to start heading back to the car. We figured when we crossed Megan’s path, we’d hold her pack, let her reach the ridgeline to celebrate, and then we’d be on our way. The further we descended the more apparent it became that she wasn’t coming.
We crossed the 340-Bridge in the dark with our headlamps on just the way we had started the trip nearly eighteen hours prior. I felt like we should be holding hands and an epic soundtrack should be playing. The only noise was the whir of the passing cars and the clack of dragging trekking poles.
IB, Jordan, and I arrived at the car to a note from Megan notifying us that she had gotten a ride back to her car at PenMar with Steve. A text to IB from the other two November Project kids confirmed that they had stopped, as planned, at the halfway point. With everyone accounted for and more than a long day under our feet, we packed into the car for the hour trip back to the Pennsylvania border.