Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hiking north from Harpers Ferry

It's been a busy week and I haven't been able to get around to writing for my blog. This post covers my hike from Harpers Ferry, WV to just outside of Duncannon, PA in 1987. The photos are copies of slides. The shot of me was taken somewhere between Northern Virginia and Maryland. It looks a bit out of focus; I think I need to recopy the slide. For more of post from my journey along the Appalachian Trail, check out these post:
Hiking the AT in Northern Virginia (the hike before this one)Duncannon, PA (the hike after this one)Duncannon to Delware Water Gap
Getting to the trail in Georgia
Folks along the trail in
North Georgia
Folks along the trail in North Georgia and Southern North Carolina
Hiking the Berkshires, Massachusetts
Sugarloaf Mt, Maine
My Hiking Stick

I left Sandy Hook a little after noon. The trail headed east, paralleling the Potomac along the towpath of the C&O canal, the most level four mile section along the entire 2000 mile path. I stopped to take photos of the old locks along with snapping shots of several trains making the run from Harpers Ferry to D.C. A couple miles after Sandy Hook, the trail left the level ground of the former towpath and climbed steeply up the Weaverton Cliffs. After nearly two days off, it felt good to be back on the trail and I didn’t stop till I reached the top, a pinnacle overlooking the Potomac River. It was hazy and humid and after a few photographs, I continued along the ridge of South Mountain, flushing up two turkeys. Five miles later, I stopped at Gathland State Park and took a brief walking tour. The park is the site of an important Civil War Battle and the War Correspondents Memorial built by George Alfred Townsend in 1896. Townsend was one of the youngest war correspondents in the Civil War and developed this site, giving it the name Gathland, which he derived from his initials (GAT). Afterwards, I hiked another half mile to Crampton Gap Shelter where I spent the night. Although close to civilization, there were no other hikers. I’d done another 10 miles along the trail, not counting my roundtrip mileage from Sandy Hook to Harpers Ferry to get mail.

There was something eerie about Crampton Gap, as if a part of me had been here before. To the east, at the base of the mountain, on September 14, 1862, part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was caught off-guard by a much larger Union force led by General William Franklin. It was the Union’s second prong of an attack on the small detachment from of Lee’s army positioned along South Mountain to protect his flank. The rest of his army captured the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and collected food from farms around Western Maryland. The Army of the Potomac should have easily won the battle. Not only did they significantly outnumbered the Confederates, but they also had been blessed with a copy of Lee’s orders, in which had divided his forces into five parts. One of Lee’s officers had wrapped his copy of the orders around three cigars and dropped it into his coat pocket. Somehow, the cigars and orders fell to the ground and were recovered by Union soldiers, giving the north the superior intelligence for the upcoming engagements..

For some unknown reason, Franklin waited till noon to attack the southern flank along South Mountain. The Confederates, outnumbered 10 to 1, retreated up into Crampton Gap, where they were reinforced. After intense fighting and large losses, Lee pulled his troops off the mountain and sent out orders for his army to gather along Antietam Creek where, two days later, the bloodiest day in American history would be lived out. Lee’s first invasion of the North had come to an end. The Battle of South Mountain is overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg). But South Mountain played an important role. The delay the Army of the Potomac experienced allowed Lee enough time to reunite most of his forces. The North was unable to seize the advantage and decisively defeat South. Had the North been successful on South Mountain, the war could have easily been over three years earlier. The battle also played on Lee’s mind, making him second guess his tactics. The next summer at Gettysburg, remembering his fear of a divided Army, Lee refused the advice of his commanders to divide his forces and to attack the north from two fronts, deciding instead to keep them together and hit the Union’s middle, in what’s known as Pickett’s Charge. The ghosts of South Mountain led to the South’s greatest blunder and, in that way, hastened the end of the war.

June 12 was wet and misty as I hiked over land that fought over on that September day in 1862. I passed two groups of hikers and had a long talk I had with a man along the side of a road, who was taking a break from mowing, and another long talk with Cathy, a southern belle from Charleston who charmed me with her accent. Cathy was working as the park naturalist at Washington Monument State Park. Unbeknownst to me, the first monument for George Washington is in Maryland. Although not nearly as stately as the marble statue in the District of Columbia, the rough rock monument built early in the 19th Century is still a sight to behold. The trail was relatively level as it continued along the ridge of South Mountain, and I made good time, covering 20 miles. Once again, I camped alone, this time at Hemlock Hill Shelter.

The next day, a Saturday, I continued hiking north over Buzzard Knob. On the ascent up the Devil’s Racecourse, toward Raven Rock, I took a midmorning break and was amused by two chipmunks, obviously in a mating ritual, chase each other under my legs, unaware that I was even present. Even in animals, it appears, sex seems to drive them to take dangerous risks. I also noticed an ant carrying a dead beetle that probably weighed ten or fifteen times his size. Although I knew the answer, such display of strength got me pondering whether or not the ant sweated and what might be his reward for such effort. Continuing on north, I crossed the last road in Maryland and realized that my time in the state would be over by the afternoon. The next crossing, a road and railroad, was on the Pennsylvania border. Lunch was on high rocks, a bluff with views of the patchwork land to the west, each plot containing a farmhouse and barn. There was a platform here for hang gliding and a local told me that most weekends, people would be gliding off the mountain. But today, the air was unstable and I was kept comfortable in the heat by a steady breeze. Throughout the morning, I’d heard thunder. As I finished lunch, it appeared another storm was brewing. I put my rain cover over the pack and hoofed it off the rocks, hoping to make a park at the bottom of the hill, about two miles away, before the rain. I didn’t make it and was caught in a sudden thunderstorm about 20 minutes from the park. I hiked on, seeking safety under a picnic shelter, Soaking wet, I laid down on a picnic table and watched the lightning and rain for a few minutes, and then picked up my book, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and began to read. Although wet, the air was still quite warm.

When the storm let up, I walked around Pen Mar Park looking at the exhibits. Today, the park is a quiet spot for picnics, but early in the century, this had been a happening place with rides and music. The park had been built by the Western Maryland Railroad, as a way to boost passenger traffic. Even in the depression years of the thirties, the park was still successful. But with fewer people coming by trains with the nation’s new interest in automobiles, the railroad decided to sell the park. It continued on as an amusement park until the Second World War, when gasoline rationing and deployed soldiers caused a drop in attendance and the park closed. Today, only the large pavilion and a few picnic shelters remain.

my camp near Antietam Creek

With a break in the storm, I headed off and before long, was caught in another thunderstorm. I got to Mackie Road Shelter, a little over three miles away and took a break. I‘d thought about staying for the night, but the shelter was filled with kids from about age six to fourteen, who’d made the place their playhouse. Not wanting to camp with the Little Rascals, I pushed on . Soon, I was caught in another brief storm and then another, a total of four thunderstorms for the day. The next shelter, Antietam, was also filled, this time with Boy Scouts. They offered to make a place for me, but I decided to pitch my tarp and found a nice place to camp near Antietam Creek (This creek, in Pennsylvania, was different from the one in Maryland where the infamous battle occurred). I’d hiked approximately 19 miles.

The sun’s rays burned off the fog early the next morning and leaves on trees and bushes seemed to be steamed dry. I packed up and hiked on to a meadow, where I laid out my tarp and set out my boots to dry in the sun while I read about an hour from the Bible, the Book of Acts. I hiked on, over Chimney Rock, which had good views. Along the way, I met Ken and his partner Joanne, who were from Florida. We talked a bit. He showed me a small boot he was carving and then gave me his address, telling me that if I’d send him a post card from Katadhin, he’d send me a boot. To this day, that boot is one of my prized Christmas tree ornaments. I passed a number of other day hikers, the most memorable being a southbound woman wearing incredibly tight shorts and even tighter and undersized bra. For a moment I thought about changing directions, but then thought better of it.

I arrived at Caledonia State Park in time for lunch. Afterwards, I called home and learned that I have a new niece, who was born yesterday morning. I also called Debbie and caught up on what’s happening in Pittsburgh as well learning about her preparations for her brother’s wedding. Then, I took a swim in the pool. Afterwards, as I was packing my gear up, I realized I had lost my Appalachian Data Guide. For a few minutes I panicked, as I had recorded phone numbers and addresses on the back inside cover of the book. I looked back around at the phone booth and in the locker room and it wasn’t at either place. Then I thought about asking at the gate into the pool and sure enough, someone had found my book in the phone booth and turned it in. Relieved, I hiked a couple more miles, stopping for the night at the Quarry Gap Shelters, two small three sided shelters next to one another. I’d been an easy day. I’d only covered 12 miles, but it had been hot and I’d had taken time to dry my boots and gear and to rest.

I looked like I was going to be alone again. I fixed dinner and was eating it when a family of five came trucking in, the oldest child being six or seven. They had hiked up from Caledonia, hoping to put in five or six miles, but realizing that was never going to happen with three small children. They claimed the other shelter. As I cleaned up, the dad set about getting ready for dinner by assembling the stove. I listened and heard him curse and complain and try everything. Finally, I decided to offer a hand and found that out he’d been sold a Svea cook kit that included a windscreen for a Svea stove, but he’d also been sold the much more expensive MSR stove that didn’t fit his windscreen. The guy didn’t believe me at first, but then I showed him my stove and windscreen. I helped him rig a way to cook off his stove (as he’d left the parts of it that didn’t he didn’t think he needed at home). As we worked, I looked at his gear and figured that this guy was a dream come true for some sales clerk working on commission. In addition to his non-working cooking gear, that probably set him back $150, he had new packs and sleeping bags which cost him several hundred dollars more. The family was ready to abort this trip, which was going to make his night out pretty expensive. It was a good thing the man was a physician and seemed unconcerned over his cash outlay.

I left early on June 15. The hot weather was continuing and I wanted to put in some miles. As I hiked, I thought about the journey as a metaphor for life and if, in my journey, I was running away or trying to find something. It seemed to be the difference between a pilgrimage and just traveling. At 7:45 AM, I took my first break at a powerline, enjoying the mountain laurel growing in the clearing and watching a yellow finch perched on the laurel. Later in the morning, I took a break at Birch Run Shelter, where a bird had built her nest in rafters. The bird, obviously distressed at my presence, kept squawking at me. Below the shelter was a Potomac Trail Club cabin, which looked to be a nice place to stay. The trail wasn’t difficult and I saw a number of snakes, a couple of black ones and a ganter snake. I got into Pine Grove Furnace State Park at 3 PM. This is traditionally seen as the half way point along the trail and many thru-hikers use this park as an occasion to celebrate by eating a half-gallon of ice cream. Instead, I had a quart, as I hadn’t come directly from Georgia (having done most of the trail south over a few summers). I also enjoyed several glasses of lemonade at the hostel, where I decided to spend the night. The hostel is the old home of the superintendent of the iron furnaces from which the park obtains its name. Joan and Bob, the caretakers invited me to dinner, which I graciously accepted. As it wasn’t going to be for another hour or so, I took a cooling swim in the lake. Dinner was enjoyable, all the spaghetti I could eat. We were joined with Ken and Joanne from Florida, who I’d met along the trail the day before. I’d covered around 18 miles of trail.

I left the hostel a little before 8 AM on June 16. At the pay phone down by the store, I tried to call Eric to make sure that he had my mailing off to Duncannon, then left the park, climbing back up to the ridge. I took a side trip over to steeple rocks and, in an attempt to cut across country, got lost and ended up on the bottom of the hill, necessitating me to climb back up and probably adding another mile to my hike. I crossed Whiskey Springs Road and could imagine how that road obtained its name. Later in the morning, at White Rocks, I was treated with a great view of the valley I must cross to get to Duncannon. It’s sad to think, but crossing the valley I will leave the “Blue Ridge” behind.. There, I meet two Kiwi’s, the older man a retired civil engineer and the younger man, his son, a museum curator. I hiked on to Campbell Springs Shelter, where I arrived early in the afternoon. Knowing that I had a long road walk ahead, I decided to hold up and rest and take off early the next morning with the hopes of making Duncannon, almost 30 miles away, the next evening.


  1. You hike 30 miles a day????

    I've always wanted to see a reenactment. I know, it's kinda cheesy, but I think it would be cool to see that piece of history being played out, in a place where it happened.

  2. Forget the country...look at that baby face!

  3. TC, I don't think I could do it today, but there was a time!

    Yes, but the humidity in the air cuts down the visibility

    Murf, i might still have it if I'd shave my beard--at least that's why my mom use to tell me

    David, it was.

  4. Sage, like TC I'm very impressed by the number of miles you hiked per day.

    I imagine that there's a compensation for it: the feeling of being one with nature, the people you come accross on your way, the time spent your own with your thoughts and the peace of mind you get while hiking.

    I've trekked a lot less than you, but that's my experience.

  5. "As I hiked, I thought about the journey as a metaphor for life and if, in my journey, I was running away or trying to find something..."

    The whole of it was to make mountains shrink in your being upon them preparing you for the man you are. Call it a pilgrimage or a journey...the end result is the same.

  6. Leni, I was young! But even though I wouldn't want to attempt 30 miles today--I still find compensation for the work--I love being out in nature

    Walking Guy, thanks for the insight, I like that.

  7. Sage: I should also add as an afterthought that I enjoy the states you select to hike. I read that Morgan Freeman lives in Virginia and he said buying a home there was the best move he ever made. Beautiful areas!!!!

  8. I've always meant to explore that area of the country for its Civil War history, though the hiking sounds great, too.


  9. Awesome, especially the sights and people. Interesting monument to G.Washington, I would never have known. I have special ornaments for the tree as well... most I ever hiked in one day was 23 (up and down) miles. My knees were shot for a while after...

  10. I'm such a wimp; I cannot imagine walking that far in a week, let alone a day!

    I like the hiking boot ornament. How nice of him to send it to you!