Hiking the Appalachian Trail Through Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has a reputation of being one of the least favorite states of the AT. Unfortunately, we have to agree with this assessment. Overall, we were unimpressed, and at some points, downright ready to be done hiking in PA. Aptly named “Rocksylvania,” the northern half was covered in both little rocks that jabbed our feet with every step and massive boulder fields to climb over. Luckily, the terrain was quite flat so we could hike big miles, but our poor feet and ankles felt the effects. Additionally, there were so many unsafe road crossings and just general noise from trains, cars, planes, and gunshots that made it so much less of a wilderness experience. Although we did have some lovely interactions with locals, we also saw confederate flags for the first time on this hike, which made us supremely uncomfortable. Last, Stretch got stung badly by bees/wasps, not once, not twice, but thrice in one day. He took four more for a total of seven stings in the span of only a week. How is that possible?! All of that to say we are glad to have finished hiking through this state. Goodbye PA!
- In Atlas of the Heart, a book written by Brené Brown that Lotus listened to, one quote by Sherry Turkle stood out, “boredom is imagination calling to you.” Hiking all day on the same type of terrain can get really boring. However, there is beauty and benefit to boredom and not having something “exciting” to do. At these times, we often become introspective and most creative. We generate ideas. We make exciting plans. We reflect. And that’s been great for us on trail.
- Our tolerance for many forms of discomfort has grown exponentially. Staying in places that are less clean, accepting help from strangers, hitchhiking, being wet and cold, and dealing with ongoing physical ailments, have become more manageable. That’s a good thing because we’re dealing with all these things plenty often on this thru-hike.
- We really feel our trail legs. Thru-hikers talk a lot about developing their “trail legs,” which are often defined as legs that are able to hike long distances all day every day without injury or breaking down. That said, it is difficult to describe what trail legs actually feel like. Lotus compared her trail legs to her breath. Her trail legs move voluntarily and involuntarily. It is as though if she stopped telling her legs to walk, they’d pretty much move on their own. Stretch described his trail legs as always being able to hike further even if they are tired and fatigued. So they’re not superhuman legs, they’re just really conditioned for hiking big miles. In Pennsylvania with our trail legs in gear, we started hiking about 20 miles on average each day and felt good doing it.
- During this section, we experienced both drought and torrential rain. It felt like whiplash to go from carrying water for 12 miles because all of the natural water sources were dry to hiking in the rain for three straight days. That mental and physical adjustment was hard to handle. The first day of rain wasn’t terrible, but then putting on wet and smelly clothes the next day to hike in the rain again was miserable. Our feet were total prunes, blisters formed, and chafing started. Just a few more discomforts to deal with.
Day 76, 9/1/22: Delaware Water Gap to Wind Gap
15.5 mi, 2,300 ft elevation gain
Wow, it’s September! Time is flying. Stretch wasn’t feeling great this morning. His stomach was bothering him, but he decided he wanted to hike anyway, feeling that the fresh air and movement would be good for him. One of the greatest challenges of thru-hiking is that when you aren’t feeling your best, you can’t just curl up and rest on your couch. You still need to hike. And that’s just what he did. The rocks of Pennsylvania were apparent today with some sections that were fields of jagged rocks jutting out at all angles. It took so much concentration for each footfall so there was no easy cruising there even though it was pretty flat. Though other stretches followed wide flat woods roads which were really easy to walk down. Toward the end of the day, we got to one of the many unsafe road crossings in PA and luckily scampered across unscathed. After that, we made it to a motel that we planned to tent at. Initially, Lotus was reluctant to stay because it was a bit dirty and the owner was on the phone. But as soon as the motel owner, Satish, got off the phone, he was so welcoming. He brought out snacks for us hikers saying that we are “people truly in need” and that he wants to provide for us. He let us tent on the lawn for free and fill up water in his office. Even though it was right next to the highway, we were grateful for a free place to stay. Earplugs work! As we were getting in our tent for bed, Satish gathered all the hikers together outside and gave us Indian food! It was delicious and we felt so taken care of.
Day 77, 9/2/22: Wind Gap to George Outerbridge Shelter
21.4 mi, 2800 ft elevation gain
This was our longest day of hiking so far and overall, we felt really good. We didn’t really have a choice, though, because there was absolutely no water available through this over 20 mile stretch! There wasn’t very much elevation gain and most of it was in the morning climb so for most of the day we cruised along the ridgeline just listening to our books. The last few miles were extremely rocky (clear as to why Pennsylvania is known as Rocksylvania), which slowed us down a bit. The trail went across some open sections with views of the valleys and then descended steeply to the Lehigh River. The AT crossed a major road at a light with a “No Pedestrians” sign, so that didn’t feel particularly safe for us. We managed thanks to some nice drivers. Across the river, we climbed to the shelter and a nearby spring. It feels like a miracle to find flowing water in such dry conditions. Maybe it always is a miracle when we really think about it. We tented a little south of the spring and relaxed after a long day.
Day 78, 9/3/22: George Outerbridge Shelter to Dans Pulpit
22.1 mi, 2600 ft elevation gain
Today was our biggest mileage day yet. We hiked 22 miles! We cannot believe our bodies and what they are capable of. It was another nice day hiking a ridgeline with farmland views. In the middle of the day, we stopped at The Lookout, a hostel right off of the trail at a road crossing, for a light resupply of snacks and to fill up water. Afterwards, we ate at Thunderhead Lodge down the street for a real meal of salad and fish and chips that was delicious and a perfect mid-afternoon break. The terrain after this break was nice and mild. The trail was wide so we even got to walk side by side chatting for much of the afternoon. We got to a small spot near Dans Pulpit view, set up camp, and planned to cook at the viewpoint. Unfortunately, we found out that our stove no longer worked with our fuel canister. It just wouldn’t screw on and stay attached. Perhaps the metal threads on the old stove have gotten stripped? Regardless, we ended up eating cold mashed potatoes and cheese wraps. It could have been much worse and we were really proud of ourselves for just handling the curveball and laughing while doing so.
Day 79, 9/4/22: Dans Pulpit to Tentsite after Port Clinton
18.7 mi, 3300 ft elevation gain
Today was the first day we both hiked a lot of miles and did a resupply that required two hitches in the same afternoon. We got out of camp earlier than usual, probably because we didn’t have a working stove to make tea or coffee. The morning passed quickly over pleasant undulating terrain. We dropped down in elevation then climbed steadily on a wide gravel trail. As we came closer to The Pinnacle, a popular viewpoint, it became much more crowded and much rockier. We are noticing a pattern in PA: the flat and easy trail is punctuated with really rocky sections just around high points and viewpoints. Lotus was not feeling her best this morning. She realized that listening to a depressing book really affected her mood. Changing her audio to some upbeat music helped for the second half of the day. Stretch was cruising the whole day, feeling strong. We passed a couple who made comments about how they hoped to be as fast as us at some point and could tell we were AT thru-hikers. We cannot believe we are “those hikers” that can walk so fast now. How did that happen?! Stretch unfortunately got stung by something in the ankle, but it didn’t hurt too bad so he tended it and hiked on just fine. At the road next to Port Clinton, we got a hitch to WalMart to resupply. Sprawled out on the sidewalk, Stretch devoured ice cream, a sub, salad, fruit, chips, and a donut. We then hitched back to the trail and climbed an extremely steep mile out of town with packs that felt like lead. At least we had the other half of our subs for dinner!
Day 80, 9/5/22: Tentsite after Port Clinton to 501 Shelter
23 mi, 2300 ft elevation gain
It seems like every day we are saying that we did “our biggest mileage day yet.” Well, today that happened again! We weren’t planning to do so many miles, but knowing bad weather was coming in, we wanted to stay at a shelter to stay as dry as possible. There is little worse than sleeping in a soaked tent. Honestly, today was not very memorable. We were just so focused on moving and beating the rain as much as we could. The terrain was like the rest of northern PA, rocky but generally flat, so we were able to hike quickly. The rain began just about the time of the last climb of the day. Stretch donned his homemade rain skirt (aka a cut up trash bag with a slit up the back) for the last five miles or so. Unfortunately during this time, the bee sting Stretch got yesterday afternoon started swelling up and hurting pretty badly, making the last few miles tough on him. We got water at a spring off trail (it has been so dry here), then went to the shelter where we were immediately greeted by Beast, Wanderer, Boss Lady, and another hiker whose name we didn’t catch. Boss Lady is a shuttle driver and she gave us Chinese food before leaving. Trail magic like this, at times like these, when we are exhausted, is indescribable. The shelter was also one of the nicest we have been in. Fully enclosed, it has bunks, trash cans, a hiker box, fuel, a picnic table in the center, all under a huge skylight. The rest of the night was spent chatting with Beast and Wanderer, letting Stretch rest and elevate his ankle, and celebrating the fact that we were under a roof while the rain came pounding down.
Day 81, 9/6/22: 501 Shelter to Rausch Gap Shelter
17.7 mi, 2200 ft elevation gain
At 6:30am, we could hear the rain hitting the roof of the shelter and knew we could sleep in and relax. The rain was supposed to taper off around 9am, so we spent the morning leisurely getting ready. Alpine, a hiker we met the day before, came into the shelter for breakfast and we all talked before slowly filing out the door to start the hiking day. About two miles in, we officially got to the 1,000 mile mark! SOBOs already made the 1,000 sign out of sticks and left it there for the rest of us to celebrate. We cannot believe how far we’ve come and we rode the high of this accomplishment through lunchtime. After lunch, however, it started to rain again, Stretch’s ankle hurt from the effects of his bee sting, and Lotus was feeling strain and tiredness in her feet from the rocks. The rest of the day felt like we just had to get through it. And we did. In the last couple of miles, the rain stopped and our moods lifted. So much of the AT is acknowledging and coping with the highs and lows that come in rapid succession when hiking. Today was no different.
Day 82, 9/7/22: Rausch Gap Shelter to Peters Mountain Shelter
18 mi, 2600 ft elevation gain
Rain. Rain. And more rain. Today was a tough one that tested us. We woke up to rain, started hiking in the rain, and the rain just didn’t stop. Lotus’ thighs were chafing from wet shorts and Stretch was still dealing with a swollen and blistered ankle from the bee sting. While we could have taken out our general frustrations on each other, we were proud of how we handled ourselves, gave each other encouragement and space in turn, and dealt with the difficulties and discomforts as they came. At least Peters Mountain Shelter was really nice. We had a couple of hours to ourselves to put on dry clothes and drink tea before Rerun and Alpine got there to join us for the night.
Day 83, 9/8/22: Peters Mountain Shelter to Doyle Hotel in Duncannon
11.5 mi, 1100 ft elevation gain
The 11 miles into Duncannon felt long, not because of the terrain, but because of the swarming bees that stung Stretch. It was a hot and sunny day, just after the rain, and the yellow jackets were really out there on high alert. After a few stings, we decided we just had to move quickly to get down the mountain and to get more Benadryl. But this was incredibly anxiety-inducing for Stretch as he felt like he was running a gauntlet of aggressively patrolling bees. There were seriously hundreds along the trail. We had to dodge a couple every few steps, but we made it down. After crossing the Susquehanna River, the road walk through the neighborhood to Duncannon felt like the longest 2 miles ever. When we saw the Doyle Hotel, our home for the night in the center of town, we were so excited. We grabbed a private room and ate lunch at the hotel pub, whose food was actually really delicious. Unfortunately, a hiker we didn’t jive with well was also at the pub and sat with us, which we politely handled. We resupplied at the post office’s incredible hiker box which was full of candy and hiking snacks. Then, we spent the day sitting on the porch, eating ice cream, and letting Stretch elevate and ice his ankle. We ate dinner with Alpine and Sandworm before retreating to our private room for the night. It was too bad that it smelled so bad from our wet shoes and socks, but that’s part of trail life.
Day 84, 9/9/22: Doyle Hotel Duncannon to Route 641
21 miles, 2750 ft elevation gain
This was probably the flattest day of hiking we’ve had so far. If Stretch hadn’t gotten stung by bees (again), then this day would have been great! We started the day at a cute coffee shop in town, traversed some pretty farm fields, and stopped at a trail side farmstand for tomatoes and fresh ice cream. Then, we made it to route 641 where a trail angel who goes by Trail Magic picked us up. She and her husband contacted us and offered to get us off trail for the night. She drove us to resupply and then they treated us to a night at their home with delicious food, clean laundry, and good conversation. They really made us feel taken care of. It felt like visiting a family member’s home.
Day 85, 9/10/22: Route 641 to Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel at Pine Grove Furnace
23.5 mi, 3800 ft elevation gain
Trail Magic made us a big breakfast of bagels, fruit, blueberry cake, and coffee and tea before driving us to the trailhead. Stretch unfortunately got stung by another yellow jacket within the first mile. That’s three days in a row so something needs to change! The miles to Boiling Springs were really easy and flat and the walk around the pond when we got there was lovely. After that, we just focused on hiking and kept moving all day. Lotus’ headphones are on the fritz so she can only listen to music periodically, which is a trial. Toward the end of the day we entered Pine Grove Furnace State Park which was a huge milestone because it holds the halfway point of the AT. After about a mile of walking on a gravel path, we passed two key AT landmarks: the store (home of the half gallon ice cream challenge) and the AT museum. We popped into the store to gather some resupply materials, but decided not to do the ice cream challenge. Between Lotus’ lactose intolerance and Stretch’s general tummy issues, we made the safe call. The museum was also closed by the time we reached it. So, 0 for 2! We decided to stay at the Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel for $50 total. It sounds fancier than it was, but we were lucky to be the only hikers in the bunk room. We ate free food left by other hikers and curled up in bed watching movies on our phones to relax.
Day 86, 9/11/22: Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel at Pine Grove Furnace to Rocky Mountain Shelters
22.9 mi, 3700 ft elevation gain
Oh, we’re halfway there! Today, we passed the official halfway markers (there is one permanent one and one that moves every year because the trail changes slightly every year with reroutes). We cannot believe that we’ve hiked almost 1100 miles! Even though we hiked in the rain almost all day, we were so excited to have made it to this big milestone. The forest was moody, with its mist and fog, which was really pretty. Most of the day we spent just walking and listening to our own music and books. All day we looked forward to stopping at a BBQ restaurant about 0.3 mi off trail. We walked up to the BBQ place and had a sinking feeling in our guts because it looked very closed. A brown sign saying “SOLD OUT” confirmed our worst fears. We had banked on this for a hot meal. With our stove broken, we were on cold food until Virginia, where we would pick up the new one we ordered. Disappointed, we plopped down at the picnic tables outside and started pulling out all of our sad fixings for soggy wraps when the owner popped his head out of the restaurant and beckoned us in. He hates selling out of food for hikers and gave us three huge boxes of mac and cheese, potato salad, and wings along with ice cream and Gatorade. He was so kind and we could not believe his generosity. It filled us to overflowing with gratitude. Refusing to let us pay, we dropped a big tip in the jar and chowed down on our feast. With heavy bellies, we walked the 3 miles up a fair amount of elevation to get to the shelter to meet up with the Skogman Family, fellow flip flopper we hadn’t seen since Maine. We had an awesome reunion before retreating to our tent and finishing off our BBQ for dinner.
Day 87, 9/12/22: Rocky Mountain Shelters to Raven Rock Shelter
19.8 mi, 3300 ft elevation gain
Highlights of the day: WE MADE IT TO MARYLAND! Oh, we also started a “book club” for the two of us where we both listen to the same book while hiking then discuss it while hiking. Don’t judge. It’s really fun. Our first book is called “Portrait of a Thief” and it’s about art heists. But really, we are so happy to be done with PA. We started hiking around 8:30am and didn’t really stop for anything but lunch the entire day. At 2pm or so, we got to Pen Mar Park, filled up our water, and got ready to hike in the rain that started immediately as we started walking. And then of course it started raining harder 0.5 miles before we got to the shelter! When we got there, we were greeted with fist bumps and enthusiasm by CB and No Kiddin (two SOBOs we had met earlier) and SpongeBob, a super nice LASHer (long ass section hiker). We spent the rest of the day, as hikers do, chatting, snacking, and hanging out under the shelter to keep ourselves dry. Sandworm (another SOBO) rolled in later.