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Harper's Ferry to Duncannon
Volume 39: Thur July 17, 2003
I left you last with my arrival in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and now we shall continue with our heroic adventurer's journey through this historic town.
The town is cute. Harpers Ferry is built on very mountainous terrain where many buildings have more than one first floor depending on which side of the building you enter. Which is great, because it forces them to make strange little buildings with maze-like pathways to walk through, and there's nothing I love more than strange little buildings with maze-like pathways to walk through.
I wandered around reading those "points of interest" signs learning about the history of the town. I stopped at the building where John Brown's raid and attempted slave revolt came to a bloody end. Which had actually been moved 150 feet from where the building used to rest when the raid occurred. A marker now marks the spot where the building used to be. Or rather, above where it used to be, because the railroad piled a dozen or so feet of dirt on top of the location.
I ordered a strawberry shake at a nearby establishment to beat the heat, and finally headed back to my air-conditioned hotel room.
Amanda arrived later that night since she didn't want to miss me at the 'psychological halfway point' on the AT. The next day, we'd really see Harpers Ferry in depth. Or at least that was the plan.
The first stop the next morning was to the ATC headquarters where Amanda wanted to see my mugshot in the hiker album. Then we wandered into the main part of Harpers Ferry where we ate lunch and Amanda visited a couple of the shops. I stopped at the outfitters where I picked up a new backpack and a pedometer, a neat gizmo that counts how many steps you take and can tell you how many miles you've walked. It looked interesting—perhaps even cool—and I clearly didn't need it, but looks are everything on the trail, so I immediately had to buy it. Okay, maybe looks aren't everything on the trail, but I needed some justification for this total waste of money and extra weight I'd have to lug around, and it was a readily available excuse.
But ultimately, it was hot and we were lazy, so we really didn't look around too thoroughly.
Instead, we went to Charles Town. This is where John Brown was tried and hung for his treasonous activities, so we could justify a visit here on historical grounds, although we didn't go to either the courthouse where Brown was tried nor to the marker that marks where he took his last breath.
We found a hotel to stay at—in Harpers Ferry, hotels were in short supply and we considered the ones available unacceptably expensive.
Then we washed my dirty clothes and resupplied for the next segment of my hike. Harpers Ferry, for all its historical fame, really had very little beyond tourist shops, and most hikers need to get into Charles Town to resupply. I was no exception.
And by the time we finished that, it was starting to get dark, so we headed back to the hotel for television and microwave pizza. I think I even indulged gobbling down three Cokes. (I drink a LOT of water on the trail, and it's great to have a change of pace with things like sodas, juices, etc. It's hard to get enough of them in trail towns!)
The next morning I packed up my pack and we headed off back to Harpers Ferry where I planned to meet some more letterboxers. Amanda had to go back to work, though, so she left me there, where the Triple V Gang kidnapped me for the rest of the day.
We went to Frederick, where they have the most amazing bridge I've ever seen in my life. Until ten years ago, it was a boring—even ugly—concrete bridge, but it's been painted into a masterpiece. It now appears to be made out of colored stones. Ivy is starting to grow on the ends—or rather what appears to be ivy since it's actually painted on. And the most amazing feature is where it looks like there's a figure at a window, except at first look the figure looks smeared. You actually have to look at the picture from a nearby building and from it, the figure looks clear giving it a surprisingly 3D appearance. The bridge is nothing short of amazing. You can read all about this amazing project at http://bridge.skyline.net/history and I'd definitely recommend the site!
Then we proceeded to try losing ourselves in the process of finding a letterbox, but ultimately succeeded before they took me to their place to randsom.
The next day we headed off to Harpers Ferry. I would continue my journey heading north, while the Triple V Gang, partly inspired by myself, would begin their section hike through Virginia going south.
We said our goodbyes, and I headed through Harpers Ferry, taking in some sights in the higher areas I had missed before as the trail passed the cemetery, Jefferson Rock, then down to the building where John Brown's raid came to a dramatic conclusion.
Before crossing the bridge into Maryland, I walked a block or two up the street where I picked up an ice cream cone. By the time I walked back to the building John Brown would make famous, a guide—dressed in period costume—explained the importance of Harpers Ferry and the raid and what exactly happened.
I took off my pack and sat down in the grass, joining the group temporarily. My real goal was to lighten my load before heading off, which included eating a can of peaches and an orange. It would give me something to listen to while I was eating.
After finishing them off, I trashed the remains and broke off from the group. I rinsed my hands briefly at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers (oranges are sticky business, you know), then crossed the Potomac into Maryland. After over a month in Virginia, it only took a couple of days to get through West Virginia. And not a single local fit the West Virginia stereotype, thank goodness!
The trail followed an abandoned canal towpath for a couple of miles. It was flat, wide, and fun to walk. Then it curved up into the woods where I sweat grotesquely in the hot day.
Towards the end of the day I reached Gathland State Park, a wonderfully eclectic place with bizarre monuments and empty tombs.
The tomb was built by Gath 20 years before his death in the late 1800s with the expectation that he'd spend eternity there. When he actually got around to kicking the bucket, though, he was living in New York a broke and broken man, and never made it to this final resting place—which remains empty to this day.
There's also a strange but beautiful looking monument to war correspondents. (We're talking Civil War here. Much of the land in this area saw fighting during that time and Civil War markers dot the place like you wouldn't believe.) The monument has a large, prominent horseshoe-shaped arch and what looks like a castle tower at the top to one side. In fact, it looks like one wall from an ancient, stone castle. Very bizarre, but likeable.
Next to the restrooms sat vending machines, and I quickly took advantage of it by getting a 20 oz bottle of Coke. It didn't take long to guzzle down, but then I noticed the sign proclaiming the park as a "no trash park"—all trash cans from the park had been removed! I'd have to pack the stupid, plastic bottle out until I found a trash can!
It was all very upsetting. I'd never heard of anything so preposterous. They provide these machines that generate trash, then don't provide the receptacles to get rid of it. I was so upset I even considered littering to show my disapproval, but then saner heads prevailed.
Surely the restrooms would have a trash can for the paper towels to dry ones hands, right? Nope. In fact, they don't provide ANYTHING to dry your hands, paper towels or otherwise. What kind of crazy, messed up park was I in anyhow? It was like I had entered the Twilight Zone. Then I remembered—I was in Blair Witch country. Anything could happen.
Berkittsville was very close, and I felt sure the Blair Witch had something to do with the missing trash cans and wet hands.
Speaking of which, I know I mentioned the Blair Witch way back at the Sarver Hollow Shelter and I had a lot of you write back that the Blair Witch wasn't in Virginia but rather Maryland. *I* know that, but this area in Virginia had an eerie Blair Witchish aura about it that probably was what caused several references to it in the shelter's register. Who's to say the Blair Witch can't move to another location? I was happy to go along with it, which is what you saw in my journals, but yes, I know the movie version is based in Maryland—which happens to be very close to Gathland State Park.
Anyhow.... it was quickly getting dark, and I pushed on to the next shelter before it got dark—since I didn't really have a flashlight, it was doubly important to get a move on and leave this interesting park behind.
I pulled into the Crampton Gap Shelter shortly after the sun set—just before it gets really dark.
I didn't sleep well due to the world's loudest snorer being five feet away. I've heard some impressive snorers in my day, on and off the trail, but nothing comes close to what this guy let out. I could even feel the floorboards vibrate with each snore.
The next day I woke up and fiddled with my pedometer. I spent the day before trying to calibrate it. I didn't know the length of my stride, but I knew how far I had walked and how many steps I had taken, and determined that my stride was 32 inches. I punched it into my pedometer, reset the count to 0, and was off!
My first stop was at the Washington Monument—the original one. This was the 'first completed' monument in George Washington's honor in the entire country. It might also be the largest object in the shape of a milk jug in the world. During the Civil War, during the Antietam campaign, it was used by Union troops as a signal station. If you're ever in the area, it's definitely worth checking out.
The end of the day brought me into the Ensign Cowall Shelter. There was a message board there, and I noticed that someone left the phone number of Rockys New York Pizza on it. This shelter is about a fifth of a mile from the nearest road, which was a couple of miles from the nearest town. Could it be that they would deliver pizza to this shelter?
It was an interesting question, and I asked the others at the shelter what they thought. And they wanted to give it a try. One person had a cell phone and gave the pizza place a ring, but the line was busy.
Not knowing if pizza would be on the menu that night, I started on Plan B: I'd make my own pizza. I had the dough, two types of cheese, pepperoni, and beef. Even if nobody else had pizza, at least I would be feasting.
So I started making my pizza as the others continued trying to get ahold of Rockys. At last they made it through. They weren't sure exactly where we were located, but with the help of a map we finally figured out that we were in their delivery range and yes, we could order a pizza to have delivered.
Now that's what I call roughing it. Three shelter members walked down to the road to pick up the pizza. During this time, my pizza was baking away nicely and I traded baking tips with Skittles who'd also cooked pizzas in the wild before.
Another couple was tearing away at the latest Harry Potter book. Literally. It's a big, heavy book that many thru-hikers WANT to read (including myself!) but aren't inclined to carry. This couple, though, decided to lighten the book by cutting off the hardbound covers, then slicing out 50 to 100 pages at a time that they'd leave behind for other hikers to read after they finished reading the pages first.
I don't know how the book is fairing in the outside world, but it's already a best seller on the trail. This is the third couple I've met now who are reading the book on the trail—by far the most common recreational reading being done on the trail.
But back to the pizza—it arrived hot and steamy, along with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. We had consolidated our trash and asked the 7delivery driver to take it away for us—an unexpected bonus. I didn't actually eat any of the pizza since I had cooked one of my own, but I did partake of the Pepsi.
Later, another guy showed up at the shelter that had climbed Katahdin a few days earlier, which put the rest of us in a sense of awe. This man had seen the Promised Land—Katahdin, where all of us were headed.
Ironically, I think he thought the same of us. He had started from there in late March and hiked to the north end of the AT, but he hadn't hiked south of that point yet. The rest of us had seen everything to the south already, but nothing to the north. We swapped war stories, then he headed back down to the road where he had parked his car.
I slept well that night.
The next day was nice and non-eventful. I stopped at Pen-Mar Park for sodas and snacks, admiring the view overlooking Maryland and Pennsylvania. It's a great place for a photo op with an Appalachian Trail sign—with mileage to Georgia and Maine listed. The mileage is woefully out of date, but it's still a cool-looking sign with a flag flying behind it. Visitors left and right quizzed me about my hike so far.
Then I hiked another 0.2 miles into Pennsylvania, which is also where the infamous Mason-Dixon line was located. I had left the south and was now solidly in the north.
In hindsight, Maryland was a wonderful part of the trail to hike. The trails—for the most part—were wide and flat, with plenty of opportunities for acquiring food (either by buying or yoging for food) along the way. This, in fact, is what I imagined Shenandoah National Park would be like before reality reared its ugly head.
Now I was walking through Pennsylvania, where the trail continued to stay wonderfully easy. I forged ahead to Tumbling Run Shelters.
Yes, shelters. Plurl. There are actually two identical twin shelters at this location, one labeled 'Snorers' and the other labeled 'Non Snorers'.
I took my place in the non snoring section. Not that I don't snore, but I'd rather sleep with those that didn't. =)
It was a moot point anyhow, since only two other people ended showing up and claimed the other shelter for themselves, leaving the one completely unoccupied save for myself.
It would be the first time I'd have an entire shelter to myself, even though I wasn't actually alone.
The next day I continued my journey, stopping at Caledonia State Park for an atrociously over-priced cheeseburger (that wasn't even very good—and that's a hungry thru-hiker talking!), soft pretzel, and a small Coke.
There wasn't much interesting in the park, though, so I continued on.
I stopped briefly at Quarry Gap Shelter, and was so tempted to spend the night there because it felt so wonderful. Just like home. If I had one.
I've seen a lot of shelters by now—over a hundred, at least, and thought I'd seen it all, but then they throw something one to surprise even an experienced AT hiker.
This shelter sported potted flowering plants hung, one in each corner. Solar powered lights lighted the little rock-lined stream running along the front of the shelter. And there was even a wind break designed into the patio area. I've seen homes less cozy than this amazing shelter.
But alas, I had miles that needed hiking, so I continued on to Birch Run Shelter where I'd stay for the night.
The next day, July 3rd, would mark another important milestone—this time, the actual, honest-to-goodness halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. It moves around every year due to reroutes, and this year the lucky spot lies on Pennsylvania Highway 233, just before entering Pine Grove Furnace State Park. There's nothing to mark this momentus event, however there is a thru-hiker tradition at the campstore at Pine Gove Furnace: The half-gallon ice cream challenge.
Here's how it goes: You go in, buy your flavor of choice in the half-gallon container, and see if you can finish it before you leave. Then you get bragging rights for winning the challenge and being in the "half-gallon club".
Frankly, I think it's a marketing ploy to sell more ice cream, and I wasn't going to fall for it. First of all, I had to pay for the ice cream. And second of all, I get nothing more than bragging rights for completing the challenge? What kind of lame incentive is that? And finally, I still had to hike further that day, and a full half-gallon of ice cream digesting in my belly I didn't think would help with that goal.
So I immediately suggested the One Pint Club, which, as president, I bought a one pint container of vanilla ice cream that I washed down with a 1.25 pint bottle of Coke.
During which, I read the horror stories written by previous thru-hikers that took up the challenge—laid out unable to move for hours on end, except to puke or show other digestional upsets.
I finished my ice cream and Coke, and continued merrily on my way. I passed the halfway marker—contrary to what you may have assumed by my earlier comment, there IS a halfway marker, but it was erected several years ago and no longer is at the halfway point. I had passed the halfway point before, but now I would pass the halfway marker. Not the same thing.
I continued on to the James Frye Shelter.
Now there are three things that makes a man happy, and setting yourself on fire isn't one of them. I, however, went ahead and did so anyhow.
I was done cooking my spaghetti dinner, and rather than let the extra fuel in my McGyver stove burn off like I always did before, this time I was going to try snuffing it out and saving the extra fuel for later.
To say it didn't go well was a serious understatement. I accidentally knocked the burning stove into my lap where liberal amounts of burning alcohol splash about.
I've never jumped up so fast in my life. Assessing the situation quickly—my crotch was on fire—I immediately start slapping the flames with my bear hands to snuff them. Loser, another thru-hiker watching the excitement, stated several times, "Drop and roll! Drop and roll!" as I flayed about.
Fortunately, I got the fire on my crotch out quickly, then proceeded to put out the fire on the ground. It seems that when I suddenly stood up, I knocked the still-flaming stove to the ground, which also promptly caught fire.
I grabbed my water bottle and doused that little fire as well, putting an end to my little fire episode.
After all was said and done, I came out just fine. The shirt and pants I was wearing clearly show where the fire burned, but they were baggy enough where it didn't actually burn my skin at all.
We all laughed afterwards about the incident, and Loser led a push to change my trail name to Hot Pants. I've kind of grown fond of Green Turtle, however, and vowed to fight the name change. Other new trail names were suggested over the next several days: Flaming Hot Dog, Hot Turtle, Great Balls of Fire, and so on, but I've fought them all off—so far. =)
Loser asked what my next "trick" would be, or if I'd have an encore presentation. Neither, I replied, mustering up every bit of dignity I had left. Setting one's crotch on fire, I learned, doesn't leave much dignity left to muster up.
The next day I'd be hiking to Boiling Springs. First I stopped at the Alec Kennedy Shelter, where Trail Magic doesn't just exist, but thrives. Someone had left the first 58 pages (three chapters) of the latest Harry Potter book, much to my delight. You can't get more magical than that.
I immediately dived into it, although was sad when I turned the last page. I'd have to keep my eyes open for further chapters in future shelters.
Then I made lunch before continuing on towards Boiling Springs. I set up my camp a short way outside of town and walked in on that beautiful afternoon.
Actually, within ten minutes the beautiful afternoon became a thunderous storm pouring buckets of rain and strong wind gusts. The problem was, I hadn't expected such a sudden and dramatic change of weather, and I knew my tarp wasn't up to the challenge with the puny rocks I used to anchor it down.
I rushed back to the campground to see my tarp flapping in the wind and everything under it quickly getting soaked. It was a disaster.
First things first, though. I reset the tarp so it was covering everything once again, then searched about for heavier objects to tie the tarp down with. I also lowered the pitch of the tarp so less of it was exposed to the wind.
Tarp finally secured, I crawled under it to assess the damage. My sleeping bag and extra clothes were still dry, fortunately, the water was unable to penetrate their waterproof bags.
Next I wanted a dry place to lay down, so I pulled out a small towel that I used to dry half the ground sheet. Then I laid down and rested, pondering how stupid I was to leave without making sure the tarp could handle a sudden afternoon thunderstorm.
Within a half hour, the storm had stopped and the sun came out. I pulled out all my wet possessions and put them in the sun to dry out, which it all did rather quickly.
I set it all back under the tarp and once again headed into Boiling Springs. Now Boiling Springs does have some large springs—22 million gallons per day—bubbling up from the ground, snaking through the town creating a small, scenic lake, before heading off to who knows where.
And like Warming Springs changed its name to Hot Springs, I suspect Boiling Springs is a marketing ploy since the water is anything but. It comes out at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, if I remember correctly, but appears to bubble at the source like a hose underwater giving the spring and the town its name. According to my trail book, the local high school team is even known as 'The Bubblers'.
The town is very cute, though, and worth a short visit. Old homes sprout up near the tranquil lake that all sorts of birds play in.
For all its cuteness, though, there wasn't really much to do there. I dropped by the ATC offices where I got water, signed their registry, and made some phone calls. Then headed over to the Gettymart where I filled up on ice cream, Starbursts, Hawaiian Punch, and such. Then I crossed the street to a pizza and sub place where I ordered a large Italian sub before walking back to the campground.
Later that evening we would be entertained by Loser and Svensaw who had purchased fireworks at the Gettymart. And Loser learned a valuable lesson: smoke bombs are NOT impressive after it gets dark.
Even later, we watched larger and more impressive fireworks on the skyline and thousands of fireflies lighting up the fields of farmland. All-in-all, it wasn't a bad fourth of July.
The next day the trail continued through farmland—wonderfully flat and different with plenty of views along the way, but also under the hot, simmering sun with no shade protection most of the way.
But at last the farmland came to an end and the trail headed back up a ridge and into the forest where I camped for the night.
The next day I'd be heading into Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Most thru-hikers stay at the Doyle Hotel, a dive I've heard horror stories about for hundreds of miles. And I'd be meeting Amanda in Duncannon, although I wasn't sure when she'd be arriving.
As it turns out, she was waiting for me when I emerged from the trail with cold drinks and snacks—my personal trail angel. =)
I continued to walk into town and Amanda drove ahead and picked up a Klondike bar, then drove back to catch me walking on the side of the road and deliver it. Then she drove up further where she took the left over trash from the Klondike bar and switched it with a strawberry ice cream thingy that I continued to eat while tromping into town. At one tricky turn she waited at the corner to make sure I knew what direction to walk. Talk about your personalized trail angel service! =)
Finally I arrived in front of the Doyle Hotel. We figured we'd stay there at least one night since it's such a trail icon. It would be criminal not to! The building was built about a hundred years ago by Anheuser-Busch and most of the thru-hiking pioneers stayed there where "many a hiking tale has been told around the bar on the ground floor."
As promised, the place IS a dump. To say it's lost some of its luster is an understatement. The ceiling has water stains, spiders rule the corners. There's one bathroom (with a shower) per floor. The windows are old and creeky with signs warning to 'use at your own risk'—which seems to be the motto of everything in this place. One room we stayed in looked like bullet holes had been hastily patched up. The beds were old and rusty. The mattresses sagged.
I loved it! Yeah, the place is a dump, but it has character and charm. You can tell it once must have been THE hot spot in town like the Titanic once was a marvel in its day.
When we arrived, a former thru-hiker—Carolina Cruiser (aka CC) was filming the Doyle Hotel for a documentary he's making of the trail and asked if I'd do some acting for him. I'm not an actor, but it was an easy scene, so I agreed.
I was supposed to walk up to the Doyle Hotel and go in. So I put on my pack and did so. Or rather tried to—the bar on the ground floor was closed (it was Sunday) so those doors were locked. So he filmed me up to the point where I grabbed the handle of the door. If you ever see a documentary on TV about the Appalachian Trail, and they show the Doyle Hotel, look closely at the thru-hiker just arriving—it could be me! We did the shot a few times to make sure at least one of them turned out well.
After I was done with my acting job, Amanda and I got ourselves a room—after some confusion on our part about how to go about doing that. Normally one has to go into the bar on the ground floor to get a room, but the bar was closed and we couldn't find any employees to help us.
Eventually we found the maid who set us up with a room for about $20. Both Amanda and I were pleased with the dirt cheap prices.
I went off to take a shower and get cleaned up. Amanda—well, I'm not sure what she did. Later we went to the supermarket to do some grocery shopping then back to the hotel to eat dinner.
As it turned out, we decided to nap first. When I woke up next at around midnight, I decided to call off dinner and go back to sleep.
The next morning Amanda and I ate Hamburger Helper—our dinner from the night before—that I cooked on my MacGyver stove. Then we put on some packs and started to hike.
Loser, I learned, was setting up a trail cookout eight miles down the trail, and I asked if it was possible to get a ride back to Duncannon from there so Amanda could hike a portion of the trail with me. He agreed, and unknown to Amanda, I commited her into an eight mile hike out of Duncannon. =)
Amanda was all for it, though, so we woke up early, put on our packs, and continued on the trail that passed a block from our hotel.
The first mile or so went through town then headed over the Clarks Ferry Bridge that spanned the Susquehanna River. You may have never heard of the Susquehanna River (I hadn't!) but it's the longest river the Appalachian Trail crosses at 444 miles. Amanda would remind me of this fact several times throughout the day.
After crossing some railroad tracks, the trail headed uphill a thousand feet until reaching the crest of a ridge, at which point the trail is more-or-less flat the rest of the way.
Amanda took the hill surprisingly well—she usually complains most loudly while hiking uphill.
We reached the Clarks Ferry Shelter after an hour or two of hiking, which we stopped at so Amanda could check out an honest-to-goodness trail shelter. It was a typical, run-down shelter without much to note. Amanda also wanted to hike down to the shelter's water source—a spring—to see what that looked like and take pictures.
We also read the registry—also the first one Amanda had seen—and she made her debut entry into the shelter log writing something about my needing psychiatric help or something.
We continued on to where Loser and his friends were hanging out. They brought a grill and were cooking up hamburgers and hot dogs and also providing watermelons, salads, and more. It was a nice setup.
Loser required me to recite The Cremation of Sam McGee for his friends as a condition of getting a ride back into town, so I performed my duty (which I think amused Amanda greatly).
When storm clouds started coming in, the grill and associated items were put away and Amanda and I rode back into Duncannon, our hike now over.
We went back to the Doyle Hotel for the night. The next day, we'd begin our off-trail adventures and head out to Gettysburg, but that will have to wait until volume 40 is ready....
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