This Trail Report is part 1 of Joe’s latest update covering June 15 – July 3.
When I left you last, I was using the computer in the tavern at the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, PA on June 15 to send you an email. This delayed my departure out of town until 3:00 in the arfternoon, my latest hitting the trail time for the entire trip. I hiked through residential Duncannon for a mile and crossed the Juniata River on a bridge. I could see the swirling waters where this river joins the larger Susquehanna. Almost immediately, I crossed the wide Susquehanna on a pedestrian walkway next to the traffic lane. Cars and semi trucks barreled past me. This was a strange juxtaposition to my quiet life on the Trail. I am unnerved but keep walking. Before this bridge was built here, a long covered bridge occupied this spot, one of the longest covered bridges in the country.
I crossed railroad tracks and began a steep ascent away from the river, the tracks, and the highways. It was a hot afternoon, and I huffed and puffed my way to the top where the trail turned into a large boulder field. I carefully picked my way through the rocks. I made it to the cut off for the Clarks Ferry Shelter by 5:30, but didn’t want to stop. I had a quandary. It was seven miles to the next shelter where there is water, but my predicted arrival time would be 9:00, right at dark. I’d rather camp somewhere in between, but I didn’t have enough water to cook supper and have breakfast the next morning. I hiked past a road crossing and a parking area. Just past the cars, I spied a jug of something by the trail. It’s a jug of water! I smell it, and it smells good. I transferred a good bit of it to my water containers and purified it for good measure. I hiked until 7:30, two miles shy of the next shelter. I found a rare, flat and non-rocky place on the side of the trail and made camp: pitch tent, hang bear bag, and make supper. I love solo camping like this! I feel so independent. I feel taken care of my the Creator.
One thing happened here that unsettled me. A loud siren sounds from the valley below. This in no ordinary siren. It’s an end of the world kind of siren. At first, I think maybe there’s been a coal mining accident, but I think this through, the coal mines are up in the mountains, not by the rivers. Then it dawns on me. The famous, even infamous, Three Mile Island nuclear plant is only about four miles up the Susquehanna from Duncannon. It was in 1979 that this power plant lost cooling water to one of its reactors and almost melted down. The movie “China Syndrome” came out the next year. These two events changed the way many Americans regarded nuclear power. That siren I was hearing was likely coming from the town of Halifax, just below the ridge I was on. I prayed that it was just a test.
The rest of my night was peaceful. I was challenged right at dusk by a buck deer, though. He came to the edge of my camp and started snorting at me. This is the way deer declare their territory and also clear their nostrils for bettering their sense of smell. I actually snorted back, and the buck went away.
The next morning, June 16, I climbed Stony Mountain for a long four miles. A strange thing happened as I started the climb. The large rocks that covered the side of the mountain started talking to me! No kidding, it was a sound like, “bop, bop . . . bop, bop, bop.” It would repeat in random sequence. I immediately went back to my Boy Scout days and attempted to figure out what the rocks were saying in Morse Code. But it didn’t make any sense. It translated something close to, “Go back while you can.”
As I gained elevation, the sounds from the rocks became clearer. The sounds were coming from machine guns. There was some kind of war going on in the valley below. I stopped, took off my pack, and got out my maps. Fort Indiantown was just below me. I knew that a ring of forts existed in this area back during the French and Indian War. This was the time before American independence from England. England and the English colonists were fighting the French to determine who would control America. Indians came into the picture because some Indian tribes thought their chances were better siding with the French. Fort Indiantown was now a military reservation. Obviously, there were war games going on down there. The higher I got, the more distinct the sounds became. By late afternoon, I could hear jets coming in for bombing runs.
This chorus of war escorted me to the Rausch Gap Shelter after 19.2 miles of hiking. Here, I found a host of thru hikers friends awaiting me: Highlander, Freeze, The Kid, Gritty McDuff, Grommet, Matt and Wendi, Bus, Motor, and Rolling Stone and his dog Coal. As I was cooking Saigon Noodles and Chicken for my dinner, a hiker came in even later than me. This was Hot Pants. I found that Hot Pants was from North Carolina like me. He ran a middle school in the High Point/Greensboro area. I found from talking with him that his name came from his tendency to wear down pants at the beginning of the Trail. Not what I expected. I got the last available spot in the shelter. Lights out a 8:15.
The next morning, June 17, I was up at 5:30 and on the Trail at 7:30. I hiked through the area of the old Rausch Gap Coal Mining Community. Little remained. An old cemetery lay just off the Trail. An old railroad bed that served this community led me up toward a crossing of the Swatara River on an old iron trestle bridge and then an underpass of Interstate 81. I climbed a ridge away from the sounds of traffic and hiked through several miles of the most intense poison ivy I have ever seen. No trail maintenance here. Steady rain started mid afternoon.
That night, I ended up after 17.4 miles at the 501 Shelter, called such because it is located right off PA Highway 501. But something comes with this roadside location: pizza delivery! That night I feasted on pizza in a very crowded shelter. I slept on the floor. The tin roof and plastic skylight of this shelter told me that the rain never stopped. It poured all night long.
It took a lot of discipline to leave this dry place the next morning. In steady rain, I headed out. In no time I found the Trail to be a running stream. At first , I tried tip toeing around the puddles to keep my feet dry. When the puddles became continuous, I just plunged right in. I hiked at least four miles through ankle deep water. Sometimes the water flowed in waterfalls toward me. At one point, I actually saw a fish swimming toward me in the middle of the Appalachian Trail!
In the middle of this, I ran into the section hiker from Georgia who had lost his camera. I proudly produced his camera from my pack, protected in a zip lock bag, and handed it to him. I felt so good. I made it to the Eagles Nest Shelter after 15.1 miles and shard it with Matt and Wendi for the evening.
The next day, Friday, June 19, I had an easy 8.6 mile descent into Port Clinton, PA. I worked my way through a railroad yard. On a plaque in the yard I read about the town. The place was originally called Schuylkill Water Gap (Pronounced School Kill. Current and former students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, don’t get any ideas from this!) because the Big and Little Schuylkill Rivers come together here. It was later named after Dewitt Clinton who helped establish the Erie Canal and came here to build a canal for transporting coal to New York. Eventually, the railroad in town won out over the canal for reliability, speed, and cost. I walked up to the Post Office to get my supply box. The postmaster was friendly. He had a surprise box for me. It was from Al Huffman back in North Carolina. I had served several years as Faculty Council President back at NCSSM. Al was on the Board of Trustees. I remembered him as a calm voice and understanding ear in often challenging situations. I opened the unexpected box to find two pair of wool socks from his family’s knitting mill in Granite Falls, NC. How thoughtful! Now Al will be with me on the Trail every day!
I went to the Port Clinton Hotel on a busy four lane highway that ran right through the business district. The sign said 35 mph, but the trucks and cars didn’t seem to mind going 55 and above. Jack, the bartender at the Hotel, checked me into a room and filled me in on the town. The highway out front was originally a stage coach route, connecting Port Clinton to Philadelphia. It was called the Philadelphia Pike in the old days. The canal and river moved hard coal called Anthracite to the cities in the east. Anthracite burns better with less pollution than the soft cal mined in western Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Mines in surrounding towns would use Port Clinton to distribute their coal. That’s why it is called a port. One of the surrounding towns, Centralia, had its underground mine catch on fire around twenty years ago. It has burned underground ever since. Jack tells me the last resident of Centralia recently left, leaving a modern day ghost town in the hills.
Jack seemed friendly enough toward me as a hiker, but that night I invited my thru hiker friends O.G, Iron Man, Chele, and One Pint to the hotel for supper at their nice restaurant. We actually voluntarily ate in the bar since we were dressed in hiker clothes. Ed, the night bartender, was as mean as a snake to us. Unfortunately, some hikers in the past have given us a bad name through their ways of loud partying. We were well behaved and spent more than $100. We were very disappointed in the way we were treated.
Originally, I had worked with a lady named Patti from the Ephrata Hiking Club, to meet me and other thru hikers at the first shelter north of Port Clinton for some “trail magic.” When I hiked out that morning, Saturday, June 20, it was pouring rain. I called Patti, and we cancelled the evening’s festivities. But we set up an alternative plan for the next town north, Palmerton.
It only took me two days to get to Palmerton. I crossed the Lehigh River outside of town, stuck my thumb out, and immediately got a ride for the two miles to town. I was let out in front of the police station. The mayor of Palmerton, Brad, happened to be walking his dog close by. He introduced himself to me and, together, we walked down to the old town jail. It was here that I turned myself in to the Clerk of Court. Now, don’t get me wrong. I hadn’t done anything wrong, at least in the recent past. The town of Palmerton actually lets thru hikers stay in their old jail. The clerk showed me to the bunk room, the shower, and explained the simple rules to me. No intoxication, and you had to be in the jail by a 10:00 curfew.
I was joined late that afternoon by thru hikers Gritty McDuff and Grommet, both from Maine. At 5:15, Patti rolled in with food for the evening. This was definitely going to be some high class trail magic. Patti brought her three children with her: Mark in the 10th grade; Josh, a little younger; and Rebecca, ten. After supper of potato salad with bacon, fruit salad, and an Amish delicacy, whoopie pies, for dessert, Mark got out his guitar, Josh his drums, and me my harmonica. We jammed on a couple of improvisational songs, did my “I am a Hiker” song, and closed with “Blowing in the Wind.” I felt good exposing these kids to this protest song from the sixties. Now, Rebecca didn’t play an instrument, but she contributed mightily to the spirit of the occasion with her contagious smile and laughter.
The next morning, a local pest control guy, Dwayne, picked me up outside the jail to give me a ride to the trail head. On the way, I started asking him about the history of Palmerton. Generously, he gave me a tour of the surrounding towns. He explained that the Lehigh Canal connected Palmerton to Walnutport and on to Philadephia by way of the Delaware River. The canal was unique because it used the Lehigh River as a part of the canal. When rapids or turns in the river were encountered, the canal would leave the river and provide a quieter, safer route. Dwayne took me through close by Slatington and explained about the state mines there. He then told me about the tragedy of Palmerton. For years, Palmerton has been home to a zinc mine and smelter. Dwayne said that when he was a kid, the sulphur from the smelters killed all the vegetation on the surrounding mountains. The skies glowed orange! It is now a Superfund clean-up site.
Dwayne took me back to the Trail, I offered him some gas money, but he refused. I climbed out of the busy highway onto the steep wall of Lehigh Gap. My previous experience with rocks on the Trail was nothing like what I how experienced. I collapsed my hiking poles and strapped them to my pack. Hand over hand, I climbed huge boulders to the top of the mountain. It was here I experienced the environmental destruction caused by the zinc mine. There were very few trees and, at places, it looked like I was waling on the moon. The Trail has been relocated away from the most devastated areas. One plant that seemed to flourish in this environment was the blueberry, and they were loaded with ripe berries. Problem was, I was so paranoid about sulphur and other zinc byproduct pollution, I wouldn’t let myself eat any.
I reduced my mileage over the next three days because of the extremely rocky trail. Sometimes the rocks manifested themselves as huge boulders stretching as far as the eye could see. Other times, smaller rocks on the trail made for tricky walking where you had to watch every step. I did try making a mental shift in the way I approached the Trail. Instead of regarding the Trail as my adversary as I had many times in the past, I took the Trail to be an ally. In the spirit of that great book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I became one with the Trail, rocks and all. I found that, in this state of mind, my feet knew right where to go. I didn’t have to think so much. I did 15.8 miles the first day, June 23, and stayed at the Leroy Smith Shelter. 13.8 miles the next day, and stayed at the Kirkridge Shelter. I had an easy hike the final day of 6.4 miles into Delaware Water Gap, PA.
But all was not well. I had removed a wood tick from my leg several weeks back and a very small deer tick attached to my arm a couple of days ago. On my first day out of Palmerton, I started feeling weird. My head hurt, I had body aches, cold sweats, indigestion, and the muscles around my neck and shoulders ached intensely. These are some of the symptoms of Lyme Disease. While at the Hiker Center operated by the Church on the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, I made an appointment to see a doctor in nearby East Stroudsburg. The next day, Dr. Fuentes agreed that I had all the symptoms of Lyme. He said the blood tests were unreliable and advised that I go on the 21 day antibiotic treatment for Lyme. A benefit, he said, was this medication would take care of any bacterial infection in my body. I walked to a CVS Pharmacy, filled the prescription, and took my first pill in the parking lot. I wanted to attack this thing, whatever it was!
I stayed an extra day in Delaware Water Gap. I found that it was a prime tourist destination in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. At one time there were over 50 stately resorts, hotels, and boarding houses lining the streets. A few remained. The Deerhead Inn right next to the church hostel was magnificently preserved. My appetite started coming back just in time to participate in a hiker feed put on by the church. Local members came and brought pot luck dishes. It was a feast that included cranked ice cream for dessert. I enjoyed visiting with the locals. They all wanted to hear my story. I could tell that, for some of them, I was a hero.
this long Trail Report is continued in PART 2 to July 3