When I last shared my words with you, I had just arrived in Harpers Ferry, WVA. I took a “zero day” on Saturday, June 6, and wandered about the town trying to learn as much as I could about this place. Wow, was I amazed at the historical significance of everything around me! I found that the town was named after Robert Harper who settled here in 1747 and operated a ferry service on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. These two rivers come together here and flow on as the mighty Potomac to Washington, DC, and then eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. This mighty confluence made Harpers Ferry a strategically important place in the emerging nation of the United States of America. A parade of “Who’s Who in American History” made their way through Harpers Ferry. Thomas Jefferson stopped here in 1783 and had a rock named for him overlooking the two rivers. George Washington got his start by working as a surveyor in the area, and as President in 1796, persuaded Congress to purchase land at the the river confluence for a federal arsenal and armory to protect our new country. Meriwether Lewis stopped by in 1803 to purchase supplies, guns and ammunition for the now famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1859, John Brown led an attempt to seize 100,000 rifles and muskets to lead a revolution to abolish slavery. Robert E. Lee was ordered by President James Buchanan to put down the revolt. In the Civil War that soon followed, Thomas Jonathan Jackson (not yet known as “Stonewall” and in his first command in the Confederate Army) in 1861 captured the armory, dismantled it, and shipped the weapons producing machinery to Richmond, VA and Fayetteville, NC. Less than a year later, Stonewall returned to Harpers Ferry and captured the town and 12,000 troops in the largest surrender of Union troops in the War. I should interrupt myself here and say that my good friend Darry Wood brought to my attention that I erroneously reported the details of Stonewall’s death in an earlier email. With a little more digging around I found that Stonewall was out surveying the battleground at night after the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. His own troops mistook him for a Union infiltrator and shot him. The musket ball wound to his arm was so great that the arm had to be amputated. He died eight days later of complications from pneumonia and the amputation.
President Abraham Lincoln stopped by Harpers Ferry one month after Stonewall’s siege to review and energize the Union troops. In 1864, Major General Philip H. Sheridan of the Union Army used Harpers Ferry as his base to drive all of the Confederate forces from the important Shenandoah Valley. One of his officers, the flamboyant General George Armstrong Custer met his wife, Elizabeth, in Harpers Ferry.
After the Civil War, in 1867, Storer College was established in Harpers Ferry to educate African Americans who were forbidden to learn to read and write in much of the South before that time. In 1881, Frederick Douglas, a former slave and then a famous journalist and speaker, came to Storer to deliver an important address on the uplifting of black Americans. In 1906, W. E. B. DuBois, black educator and writer, came to Storer for the first meeting of the Niagra Movement in our country. DuBois and the Niagra Movement, 1909, helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Whew! After learning all this in one day and walking all over town to see all the places that figured in this history, I was exhausted!
I returned to my motel room after way too much socializing with other thru hikers, readied my pack for the next day, and hit the sack. I took the Trail out of town at 11:00 the next morning, a luxurious late start for me. I crossed the Potomac on a footbridge and followed the white blazes of the AT down the tow path of the C & O Canal.
That first day, June 7, I hiked out of West Virginia and into Maryland but only made ten miles to the Crampton Gap Shelter. I literally hiked through some of the battlefields of the Civil War. I am sure that some of the stone walls I came across were used by both Union and Confederate soldiers for strategic positions. I had the shelter to myself and thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of a low mileage day.
I made up for this slackness the next day by hiking 20.7 miles to the Ensign Cowall Shelter. This was a hard day for me because of intense heat and humidity. That day, I felt a lot of accomplishment. I hiked up to a monument on one of the highest points in Maryland. It was built by the people of Boonesboro, MD, to honor our nation’s first president, George Washington. It was the first Washington Monument, way before the one in Washington, DC. I climbed the spiral staircase to the top and took some pictures.
The next day, Tuesday, June 9, I hiked over challenging boulder fields to get to the border of Maryland with Pennsylvania. In a park on the border, the Pen-Mar Park, I drank two Cokes from a drink machine, ate lunch, took a nap, and headed into Pennsylvania. A railroad track marked the border. A thunderstorm late that afternoon made me take refuge for an hour in the Deer Lick Shelter before continuing on to Tumbling Run Shelter. I found myself in the land of beautiful shelters. Tumbling Run actually had two shelters, one for snorers and one for non-snorers. I stayed in the non-snorer one even though I have been told that I let out a snort every once in a while. I adamantly deny this.
The followed day, I hiked with David from Scotland, Ironman from New Jersey, and Motor from Wisconsin past the beautiful Quarry Gap Shelter to the Birch Run Shelter. We stopped at lunchtime at a road crossing and walked to a pizza restaurant. I live for food these days.
All these recent days, I have been getting up very early, 5:00 or so, and doing ten miles before lunch. I makes the afternoon much easier with foundation of miles established early in the cool part of the day.
On Thursday, June 11, something very important happened. i reached milepoint 1088.1 on the Trail. This is the halfway point from Georgia to Maine! I celebrated with thru hikers Highlander from Long Island, NY, and Shenanigans from California, by stopping in the store at Pine Grove Furnace State Park and participating in the Half Gallon Challenge. You see, at the halfway point, it has become a tradition for thru hikers to attempt to eat an entire half gallon of ice cream. Cookies and Cream was my choice. I downed it in one hour! Remember, my doctor said I could eat anything I wanted as long as I was hiking 15 miles a day.
That afternoon, I waddled around the park learning how iron ore was quarried nearby. The ore was combined with limestone (for flux) and charcoal (made from the plentiful hardwood trees from the mountains) to make high quality iron for use in construction, fireplace backs, and woodstoves. I saw the old furnaces and marveled at how they were able to heat the iron ore to 3,000 degrees. That evening, I stayed in the Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel on the grounds that was once the home of the family that owned the iron works. I was welcomed by two women section hikers from South Carolina, Little Dragon and Tree Hugger, who generously provided me with supper and a pancake breakfast the next morning.
It had been raining for the last two days. The trail had been a running stream for much of the way. I am always optimistic of what the next day will bring.
That morning, I ran into two thru hikers, Stretch and Tin Man Jr. both from New Jersey, who I had not seen since Springer Mountain back in Georgia. These young guys are fast hikers, and I was amazed that I was able to stay in front of them for the first half of the Trail. I hiked with them for eight miles before I realized I needed to take a break and a ten minute power nap. I hope to see them again. Hiking alone afterwards, I made it to the Alec Kennedy Shelter at 4:00 making this a 15.5 mile day. I was exhausted after hiking along a ridge of boulders for several miles.
When I woke the next morning, June 13, I realized that this was the one year anniversary of when I when under the knife to repair a double hernia in my lower abdomen. At the time, I asked my surgeon, Dr. Steve Wilson, if he thought I could do the Appalachian Trail in six months. He said, “Absolutely!” Thank you Dr. Wilson! Your work on me is holding up well! That morning, I hiked through the town of Boiling Springs, PA and then north through farmers’ fields to the Scott Farm by 2:00. I had a late hot lunch before continuing up a steep mountain to the Darlington Shelter. Thru hikers Highlander and Freeze from Miami blasted by me right before I got there. I got the shelter and found these two socializing with three section hikers from Pennsylvania. Patty, Glen, and Stephanie run a hiking club from nearby Ephrata, PA. Highlander and Freeze pressed on the next shelter, leaving me with the PA three and late arrivals Wendi and Matt both from Indiana. A hiker named Skip came in around 8:30, ate massive quantities of food, and headed out at 9:00. I call guys like this “maniac hikers.” I do not regard this as a derogatory term, I just am amazed at this type of hiker. I decided to tent on the hill above the shelter, but we had a great time visiting that night and sharing news of the Trail along with tidbits of hiker knowledge.
The next day, I made it 11 miles into the town of Duncannon, PA, and got a room at the famous Doyle Hotel. I got a single room on the third floor and felt like I was staying at my grandmother’s house in the 1950′s. The place was old, mostly unrennovated, but had all I needed. The bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities were just down the hall. I found out by talking to current owners Pat and Vickey Kelly about the interesting history of the structure. An original hotel existed on this lot and dated back to the 1700′s. It was acquired by M. P. Johnson in 1892 and named the National Hotel. It was sold to Adolphus Busch of Anheuser Busch fame for $5,500 in 1897. Adolphus tore down the building in 1904 and built it back in grander fashion with a ballroom on the second floor in 1905 and named The Johnson House. Jim Doyle bought the place in 1944 and used the name Doyle Hotel. The Kellys bought it in 2001 and kept the name. The Doyle has become a legend on the Appalachian Trail. I was living with history!
At breakfast this morning, June 15, I crossed the street from the Doyle and ate a magnificent breakfast of the biggest pancakes in the world at Goodies. Here, I learned that Duncannon was an early industrial center due to the fact that the mighty Susquehanna River is on the town’s edge along with a canal connecting the town to New York and a large rail yard. Steel and coal made its way down the river on barges and up and down the canal. Two dress factories were located in the town. A shoe factory, a foundry that made nails, and sled company that manufactured the “Lightning Glider” rounded out the local industry. The longest and oldest stone arch bridge in the world is just eight miles down the river. Robert E. Lee attempted to blow this structure up during the Civil War but failed. Much of the former economic activity has left Duncannon today, leaving a eight block business section with no stoplights surrounded by residences. I like the place.
I am composing this email from the downstairs bar at the Doyle, a bar that still has an entrance marked “Ladies Entrance” that leads directly into the hotel so that ladies could be spared the evil influences of the tavern. I have mostly avoided these evil influences myself and, in a few minutes, will be hoisting my pack to my back and heading north out of town. I have heard that many miles of rocky trail await me. I am a little concerned but have finally learned to take this journey one step at a time.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles
PS. A little belated news: I have seen my first bear! It was actually on my last day in the Shenandoahs. I rounded a turn on the trail and found a small bear in a tree above me. This one-year-old, 125 pound bear did not seemed too concerned about by presence. He slowly climbed down the tree and disappeared into a pile of large rocks. I have a feeling that more bears await me.