Miles of Trials: The Appalachian Trail (Palmerton to Wind Gap)

This weekend marked the five year anniversary of my Papa’s suicide. For more than a month now I’ve anxiously awaited this weekend knowing the day was only 24-hours, but still a milestone in the life after my Papa. Weeks ago, I secured Brian for the weekend to go out on a hiking and camping adventure. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to remember my Papa’s life than enjoying a weekend outdoors.

Brian and I met at an Appalachian Trail parking area in Walnutport, PA at 7:30 pm; he drove from Maryland, NY and I drove from Baltimore, MD. We left his car at the parking area and I drove us and our gear north to the trailhead at Wind Gap. No sooner did we park in the dark, nearly empty lot and start unpacking our gear and the threat of rain that the weather forecast predicted began to sprinkle down. We hurried along the road by foot, packs and headlamps on, to find the trail head.

Our plan for the weekend was to hike from Wind Gap, PA to Lehigh Gap, PA- about 20-miles along the Appalachian Trail. As planned, we hiked the moderately steep ascent out of Wind Gap to the first lookout point along the trail. Within minutes of beginning the ascent, Brian stopped dead in the trail. As I trailed behind him and caught up to him, I quickly realized why- two pairs of green glowing eyes standing between us and the trail to Georgia. I unstrapped my pack and handed Brian pepper spray I had stored in my first aid kit. We began making loud noises, caw-caws, whistles, and claps. The green eyes retreated. We continued. After a short hike we arrived at Lookout Rock, the first lookout point on the trail. In the dark cloudy night we overlooked the lights of the nearby roadways and houses. With little searching we found a matted down patch of soft ferns and an established fire pit where we could pitch our tent. Once the tent was pitched we snacked on a freeze-dried crème brulee. Surprisingly, the pudding-like custard wasn’t half bad. We hunkered down for the night- cozy in Brian’s two person tent- to the sound of cicadas and the rain dripping down on the fly of the tent.

When we awoke the next morning, the rain had subsided but an eerie mist hovered over the trail and the valley below the lookout. After a great night’s sleep with our sleeping pads and Brian’s new sleeping bag, we bundled up and headed to the nearby lookout for breakfast on the rocky vista. Using the Whisperlite we made coffee and our first freeze-dried breakfasts: scrambled eggs with ham and peppers, and sausage gravy and biscuits. Though the scrambled eggs didn’t seem to hydrate perfectly as they still had a grainy texture, the flavor was good enough to have again. The sausage gravy and biscuits breakfast looked like an inedible, gluey mess, but was delightfully satisfying, filling, and warming. As we enjoyed breakfast, the mist rose and the sun began to poke through the remnant clouds.

No sooner did we pack-up our breakfast accoutrements to break down our camp and the clouds overtook the sun as the skies opened up. We huddled in the tent for a few minutes hoping the rain that dripped down was just a quick passing storm. It became apparent that we could sit in the tent all day and wait out the rain or get a little wet as we packed and begin hiking. We chose the latter. By 9:30 am, we were packed and on the trail.

In researching the hike, Brian and I repeatedly saw warning that the Trail in Pennsylvania was rocky enough to win the state the nickname of Rock-sylvania. Every warning was spot on. Though parts of the trail were hard packed dirt with sporadic rocks, most of the trail was littered with rocks that kept us perpetually alert to the ground and at risk for rolling an ankle. Of course, with my eyes so keenly to the ground, I at one point knocked my head so hard into a low-hanging tree I fell to the ground. After laughing it off, we continued on. Having never visited a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, Brian and I veered off the trail to investigate the Leroy Smith Shelter. The Shelter was a very sturdy lean-to with several springs nearby for refilling water. Hopefully in the future we can stay at one of the shelters. While the Shelter was not unlike the lean-tos in the Adirondacks, it was reassuring to see that it was a structure we could have feasibly stayed in.

Most of the trail, the climbs from the Gaps excluded, was exceptionally flat. In a couple of places the trail crossed power line easements offering vistas of the surrounding hills and farmlands. Walking through the damp, tall grasses was fun and relaxing. Shortly after crossing one set of power lines, Brian and I stopped in a wide spot on the trail that was well-covered by the tree canopy. Despite all positive thinking, the rain sprinkled down sporadically throughout the day and it was a nice momentary reprieve to enjoy our tuna salad pita sandwiches and apples in the protection of the trees. During lunch we planned to hit our next camping point at Weathering Knob, just before descending into Little Gap.

As Brian and I inched in on Weathering Knob, the rain that taunted us all day began to pour down. Though the weather was warm, it was undeniably wet. Around 3:00 pm we reached the crossing of the Blue Mountain ski area and shortly thereafter came upon a lookout with an adjacent campsite. Unsure of whether we would find a campsite closer to Weathering Knob or whether the lackluster viewpoint in fact was Weathering Knob, we decided to take a break and get out of the rain. In true civil engineering fashion, Brian and I fashioned ourselves a mini-shelter by draping the tent’s fly over a rope we strung between three closely-positioned trees. We laid the tarp we used as a tent footprint beneath the fly and found refuge from the incessant rain under the makeshift shelter. As I brewed tea with the Whisperlite, we took a better look at the map to assess our situation.

Referencing the map it became apparent we had not yet reached Weathering Knob. We toyed with the idea of staying at the site we were already positioned at and moving forward. Moving forward, we could have arrived at Weathering Knob and been unable to find a campsite, but staying would mean extra miles to hike Sunday and spending hours until dark huddled under the tarp. After taking off the chill of the rain with a cup of tea, munching on snacks, and a couple of kisses, Brian and I decided to pack the fly and tarp and continue to Weathering Knob. With any luck, we hoped, there would be a comparable unoccupied campsite before hitting the valley into Little Gap.

Most fortunately, the rain began to subside on the hike from Blue Mountain to Weathering Knob. Brian and I made it to the spectacular viewpoint and in good luck, there was a huge, defined campsite uphill from the rocky ledge of Weathering Knob. We quickly got to setting up our tent and campsite in anticipation of more rain. Fortunately, the rain held off for the rest of the night. After pitching the tent and tying a line to hang our wet clothes, we gathered fire wood, but were unable to successfully light the wet wood. With little else to do, we made our way across the trail to Weathering Knob to make dinner. The menu for the evening was freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini and spaghetti with meat sauce. Both proved to be palatable, but the turkey chunks in the tetrazzini were very tough and both meals were quite salty. We filled our bellies as we overlooked the brilliantly pink setting sun.

Brian and I awoke early the next morning to condensation and dew soaking our tent and a misty haze surrounding the area. Rain continued off and on as we made a breakfast of oatmeal, chia seeds, flax seed, and peanut butter. To shield ourselves from the sprinkling rain, we climbed back into the tent to eat our breakfast straight from the pot, in the comfort of our sleeping bags. After breakfast and a quick break down of camp, we were back on the trail to finish the last five-or-so miles of the weekend’s hike.

Within minutes, we were hiking down into Little Gap and passed a fellow camper still asleep in his bivy shelter. We hiked on through the rocky terrain and the sun began glistening down on us and the wet trees as the clouds broke and the mist rose. The slippery, sharp little rocks which plagued our journey made way into grassy, open fields reminiscent of cross country courses. We came upon an open ridge of power lines overlooking a little industrial town and snapped a few pictures. At this point, the sun was shining down on us and the breeze was catching our bodies to make for the most beautiful day. Based on the bare summit at the power lines, we surmised the spot was the EPA Super Fund site at Palmerton- our final destination. With only a couple miles left until reaching the car, we hiked on through another stretch of grassy meadow. Now, I know I’ve always been clumsy, but after hiking on wet leaf covered rocks for nearly twenty miles, I expected I was in the clear for risk of injury. I thought wrong.

I’m not sure if I was distracted or just not paying attention, but as Brian and I were walking along a grassy ridge, surrounded by wild flowers and butterflies floating along in the wind, my foot landed wrong, my ankle twisted, my body- weighted down with my pack- hurled forward towards the ground, and I ate shit. Brian’s shirtless body was at my side in no time as I lay on the ground. I have sprained and broken my right ankle enough times to know what it feels like. I knew right off it wasn’t broken; broken would entail grapefruit size swelling almost immediately. Regardless, my ankle was definitely sprained. Brian panicked a little. He asked if he could take my sockand boot off. “No, Brian! You can’t take my sock and shoe off! That’s about the worst thing you could do!” I know he was just worried and trying to help. After a few minutes, the initial twinge of the twist and fall wore off, I was on my feet, pack on my back and we were hiking at a much slower clip to the parking lot finish line.

The final descent to the parking lot first offered a vantage point of the highway and surrounding area. After hiking in the rain all day Saturday, perching on a rock at the highest point in the area under the beating sun was welcomed.

Climbing down to the trailhead from the overlook was a two hands and two feet work-out. Despite my ankle being tender and swelling, Brian and I made it down from the climb with ease. We hiked along the highway to the car and numerous passerby honked their horns at us and waved. I’d like to think people thought Brian and my scantily clad physiques were impressive or that people in Pennsylvania are really just that friendly, but I suspect that those who honked believed they were cheering on Appalachian Trail hikers and you know what, they were.

#AppalachianTrail #Pennsylvania #Backpacking #Hike

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