When Kyle and I crossed the state line from Pennsylvania into New Jersey we were tempted to take a blood oath never to return. You may think I am being dramatic and many Pennsylvanians might protest, claiming that they live in a lovely state! That may be true but the Appalachian Trail tells a different story about PA, one that could have been written by Dante himself. As we traveled through PA we felt as if we were traveling through nine circles of hell.
First Circle: Rocks. Pennsylvania is most commonly referred to as Rocksylvania by thru-hikers but we didn’t quite know what to expect. How could rocks be that bad? Oh, the famous last words of the innocent. The most amazing thing about Pennsylvania’s rocks is the variety. You’ve got small sharp rocks cemented into the ground bruising the bottom of your feet, small rolling rocks slipping out from underneath you, basketball and microwave sized rocks with jagged ridges sticking up at weird angles, boulder fields, large slanted slabs, sheer walls… everything imaginable spread out before you for miles and miles. Every day, with no reprieve, you walk through this rock field ripping your feet to shreds and twisting your ankles. Not only do the rocks hurt and pose a risk to your hiking health but they slow you down. Normally Kyle and I are able to go faster if we want, get places sooner than expected, maintain a steady pace. In PA we actually found it was taking us longer then usual to get places and there was simply no way for us to speed up our hiking pace. This was extremely frustrating and drove both of us crazy.
Second Circle: Bugs. The bugs got worse in Pennsylvania (although they have reach an all time high in New Jersey… we hope). There were mosquitoes swarming you every time you stepped in and out of your tent and the no-see-ums just wouldn’t leave you alone! Before there would always have been a few buzzing around your face, occasionally flying into your eyes but I finally had to don the head net in PA. For some reason no-see-ums only want to blind you while you are walking… on the treacherous rocks. You may feel the urge to run down the trail to get away from the bugs but the rocks prevent you from moving faster than a crawl, making you the perfect target for the bugs.
Third Circle: Heat and Humidity. Summer really hit when we got into PA. With temperatures hovering around ninety-five degrees and humidity at one hundred percent there is no escaping the heat. Even at night it doesn’t cool down. You feel as if you have just stepped out of a hot steamy shower into your bathroom only to find you neglected to turn on the fan. You think you could almost part the beady curtains of humidity and walk right through them. But you can’t, there is nothing to do but sweat and pretend you are in a hot yoga class. It is so hot that even being hydrated and staying in the shade doesn’t help you avoid heat exhaustion and in Kyle’s case, heat triggered migraines (he’s had three since the start of PA).
Fourth Circle: Rain. You might be surprised to hear about the heat because the news makes it sound like the east coast is drowning in rain storms. We ARE drowning in rain storms, very hot, muggy, buggy, rain storms. They provide no relief from the heat and leave you soaking wet and uncomfortable, with no hope of drying out in the moisture laden air. It rained on us every single day we were in PA. One night in particular we stupidly left a shelter to do a few more miles despite extreme storm warnings and a tornado watch. We got to camp in some scattered rain drops and managed to get everything set up before the downpour really set in. Our tent is not exactly the best in the rain. We both sat inside it looking at each other in wonderment, the rain was so loud on the tent we couldn’t talk and rain splatter from the ground was bouncing back into the tent, getting everything inside it slightly damp. Then things went from bad to worse when we discovered we had set our tent up in a slight concave, which promptly filled with water and we were left floating on top of our sleeping pads in our (thank god) waterproof bathtub. Aside from our tent and sleeping pads being wet at all times the worst part of the rain is our wet feet. There is no way for our socks and shoes to dry out and nothing except a good wash can rid them of the mud we slog through all day. We both experienced our first blisters, lacerations, cuts, and bruises on our feet during PA. Not to mention every time we pulled them out of our shoes it looked like we had left them soaking in a bath tub for too long. Oh, and did I mention that the rain makes all the rocks very slippery and even more dangerous than they are on a good day?
Fifth Circle: Length. Basically PA is not a small state. It’s 220 miles long. It took us fourteen days to get through it. That’s way too many days to spend in PA.
Sixth Circle: Trail Building. There is some excellent trail work in the southern half of the state but when you get up north you start to notice things that just don’t make sense. For example when the trail diverts off relatively unrocky terrain into a boulder pile to take you up a rock jumble to the top of a hill to look at a view of, drum roll, farm land… Or better yet when it diverts you off the relatively smooth trail into rocks and then you are just paralleling where the smooth trail could be but for some reason you are in the rocks? Of course, every thru-hiker knows who is to blame for the awful trail work! The Blue Mountain Eagles Climbing Club, the club that is supposedly in charge of most of the trail through PA, as well as a number of extremely small and dirty shelters. I can guarantee their names have been cursed loads of times out on the trail.
Seventh Circle: Water. Despite all the rain in PA the water there is never easy to get to. It’s as if they found a nice spot for a shelter and they sent a bunch of people off in every direction until someone found water. At one point Kyle had to walk an extra 1.2 miles to get water and another time I had to go down three hundred stone steps to an unreliable spring. Many times we had to get water anywhere from a half a mile to three miles before camp and carry ten to twelve extra pounds of weight the rest of the way.
Eighth Circle: The Budget. Although this may be our fault it came at a bad time. As always we had spent the majority of our budget in the beginning of the month, leaving very little for us to work with at the end of the month… which happened to be how long it took us to go through PA. This meant that even though we were uncomfortable, bug bitten, hot, tired, bruised and broken we had to keep pushing on or find free places to stay to avoid blowing our budget. This only made a hard state that much harder.
Ninth Circle: Duncannon. I do not understand why Duncannon is a trail town. Well, I do understand, it’s because there are two very awesome trail angels there, Vikky and Pat, who put a ton of time and effort into trail festivals and trail magic and taking care of us hiker trash. However, although they are awesome and run an infamous establishment (The Doyle), Duncannon is not a good trail town. The only place to resupply is a 0.7 mile walk up a road with heavy traffic and no shoulder. There is no outfitter there. The Doyle is the only place to stay in town so if you want a place with AC and no bugs, for example, you have to go three miles out of town to the Star Dust Motel, located on strip club row (I mean that literally, there are five of six BYOB strip clubs near this hotel). When we got into Duncannon it was hot, there were loud cars zooming up and down the dusty streets, all the houses and buildings were decrepit and dingy. It’s just not the kind of place you want to be greeted by when you head into town.
Saving Grace: Trail angels and trail magic! Now you may think that this post is going to be all negative, all doom and gloom and PA sucks. But that’s not true, we’re still hiking (although we know quite a few people who left the trail in PA and have heard of even more). The reason we found PA bearable is because we had amazing luck with trail magic. We hadn’t had trail magic since Georgia, maybe a cooler of drinks here or there, but real trail magic, with trail angles cooking food and taking care of you, well our luck had been down. Until we hit PA, and we finally cashed in.
We had an amazing walnut and blackberry pancake breakfast in Caledonia State Park. We had a sit down protein packed lunch, complete with a menu and deviled eggs. We camped out back of a bar called the Beer Stein in Wind Gap, and the owner, Carrie, let us into the industrial kitchen the next morning and gave us full run of the walk-in, saying “I figure you’ve made it this far, you deserve some good food!” We got to a shelter one night after a grueling day only to find a grandfather, his sons and grandsons who fed us steaks, grilled onions and sausage, let us share their bourbon and cigars, and even gave us some glow sticks! We had a tourist on top of The Pulpit who had never heard about the AT offer us money. And on the 4th of July we were greeted on top of Sunrise Mountain with a cook out and apple pie, thanks to Treehugger, a past thru-hiker. Although PA was a hard state trail magic and the trail angels were there right when we needed them, to pick us up and save us from the nine circles of hell.
For those of you behind us or who are looking to hike the trail in the future I pray that you will have a better experience then we did but I also want to warn you that PA will be tough. However, if you are like us you are so excited to get up North you will power on through. And remember, on the trail we say: never quit on a bad weather day. Well Kyle and I quickly amended that to: never quit on a bad weather day or in Pennsylvania.