Recently, I feel like my brain has been engulfed in the turmoil of a tornado-- churning, swirling, sucking up dirt and debris -- and I have been taking shelter in my silence -- hiding out, if you will -- waiting for the storm to pass. I want to first ask that you please forgive me for my silence over these last couple of weeks; I have been in a reflective and somewhat pensive mood as my mind has been ruminating through a large mass of emotions, experiences and information. So let’s throw open the shelter door now and see what remains of our surroundings, shall we?
When I left you, I was in south central Pennsylvania enjoying family over Mother’s Day weekend with plans to continue hiking and mingling other family visits until I would reach Duncannon. There I would make my last stop to visit a cousin who lives in Harrisburg and from then on it would be back to normal trail life.
So, on Tuesday, May 14, my mother drove me to the trail about 10 miles or so east of my hometown of Shippensburg. This day, I had known for months, was going to be an emotional one for me. I was finally going to return to the point where this dream first began. I anticipated there would be some excitement and probably a few tears of joy and relief of finally crossing this historic point on the trail – historic only to me, but that of course is what made this day significant…this was personal…my A.T. “birth place” revisited.
Originally, I had hoped to get a picture of myself standing next to the brown trail sign with the white words “Appalachian Trail” and an arrow pointing north where the trail crossed Stillhouse Hollow Road just about a mile from my original childhood home. A nice thought, but it wasn’t going to happen. The trail has since moved from where I knew it as a child and I discovered this when I received The A.T. Guide for 2013 in the mail. So, I had already resolved to take a picture where the trail crossed Stillhouse Hollow Road -- surely there would still be a similar sign at the road crossing -- and I would have to settle for that.
Additionally, I had planned to take a side trip to Long Pine Run reservoir, an old fishing area that which held some special memories for me. To get there, I would have to leave the trail, but I don’t often get the opportunity to visit such places when I’m home in PA because most of my limited time is spent with the more important matters of seeing family members, so I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity for this little side trip.
Once I was done at the Long Pine Run, I would take either an orange-blazed trail or the power line clearing back to the west and reconnect to the A.T. and spend the night at Birch Run Shelter. It would be an easy mileage day so that I could take as much time as I wanted to “hang out” around the reservoir. That was the plan anyway.
When we arrived at the top of the mountain where the trail crosses an area we know as Big Flat, there is a wide gravel area where Ridge Road, Stillhouse Hollow Road and the trail intersect.
There is no Appalachian Trail sign and even the Stillhouse Hollow Rd. sign is quite a distance from the white blaze marking the trail. (If you look closely, you can see the white blaze on the tree just above the hood of my mother’s vehicle.) So, I settle for this photo and say my good-byes to my mom who reminds me again of her concerns for my safety and I try, once again, to reassure her that all will be ok.
It's another gorgeous spring day with wonderful temperatures and a mostly sunny sky. I notice several sets of deer tracks and remind myself to be watchful for snakes sunning themselves. As I’m surveying my surroundings, I’m trying hard to remember when I was last on top of this particular ridge. Let’s see, that would be about 36 years ago.
There’s a saying, “don’t look back, you’re not going that way”, but going home to PA always brings back memories, both good and bad, of my earlier life there. As I hiked along, I thought about the drive up Stillhouse Hollow Road. We had passed the homes of previous neighbors and tried to remember the names of those who had lived there in earlier times. The home that was once ours has grown in size with an addition on the one side and the front porch has been enclosed to make another room.
Further on, the orchard where apple trees once grew is now gone and replaced with rows of houses. I pointed out the spot to my mother where the trail used to cross the road.
As the pavement gave way to gravel, we passed a dirt turn-out beside a small creek where my brother and I would catch salamanders and get a drink in the hot summer months. A small wooden foot bridge, tilted and twisted with age and missing a few boards, still lies across it.
Then there is the forested campground where busloads of children from the cities would come in the summer; their camp songs billowing from the open bus windows as they passed our home. I don’t remember the name of the camp and the old cabins are gone now.
The mountain is covered in blueberry bushes and mountain laurel that is just about ready to bloom. I smile and think about how nice it will be in another week or so to see the white flowers fill the laurel bushes again; it’s been a very long time since I’ve been able to do that.
My thoughts are interrupted when I notice a pick-up truck parked about 10 yards or so off the side of the road. There is a man chopping firewood. I am alone and for a brief moment I think about my imminent demise from this axe wielding mad man that so many have warned me is lurking in the mountains just waiting to hack up a lone female hiker.
I wave to the man as he sees me approaching and remark that it’s a nice day for cutting wood; “Not too hot.” He smiles and says, “Yep, and a good day for hiking as well.” Whew! Another near-death experience on the Appalachian Trail avoided, but still, I’d better keep an eye out, just in case, he sneaks up on me later in the day.
Not much farther and I have another terrifying experience and one that I worry much more about. I encounter my first snake which causes me to immediately freeze in my tracks. Fortunately, my fear passes quickly when I realize the snake is dead probably from being hit by a passing vehicle. On closer inspection—closer, as in, still several feet away, because dead or not, I tend not to get near snakes that aren’t behind a thick layer of glass – it turns out to be a roughly 2’ long garter snake. I gladly continue on my way leaving the snake to be eaten by the ants and fly larvae.
Then I arrive at the intersection of Stillhouse Hollow Road and Milesburn Road which I will take to the reservoir. This road follows the Long Pine Run stream that flows into the reservoir bearing its name. I stop here and enjoy watching and listening to the water for a while.
Just as I decide to move on, a gentleman in a colorful wind suit comes jogging up the road. We exchange “hellos” in passing. I’m a little surprised to see him as this area isn’t known exactly known for your jogger-type people, but then again, many new people have moved into the area since I used to live there and why not jog in the mountains? It’s quiet, beautiful, peaceful, and there’s very little traffic.
Quiet. Yes, it was very quiet. The only sounds were the rhythmic clicks of my trekking poles and the babbling water of Long Pine Run. Occasionally, a blue jay would announce my approach or a hermit thrush would rustle the leaves looking for bugs, but otherwise, I was alone with my thoughts and the silence seemed very loud that day.
For the first time, I could sense some loneliness creeping into my mentality and tried to fend it off, but I was missing my husband and wishing very much that he was by my side to share this part of my history. I also knew he would comfort me as I faced the memories that undoubtedly would bring tears.
As a approached the reservoir and intersection of Milesburn and Birch Run roads, a truck approached with the seal of the Borough of Chambersburg on the door. I exchanged a few words with the driver more to alleviate my feelings of loneliness than anything else and wondered what a Borough truck was doing up in the mountains well outside of the city limits. Finally I decided that it wasn’t my concern and that he was probably just enjoying the drive back to town and over the mountain from wherever his business had taken him that day. I almost chuckled at my country mentality of curiosity about such matters.
No sooner did I finish my chat with the driver than I was looking at water showing through the trees. I few steps more and I was on the shore of Long Pine Reservoir.
It was beautiful and better than I remembered. I stood there trying to get my bearings. I remembered an area along one bank of the water that was fairly flat and swampy. I remember walking through long grass and pine saplings to get to the water’s edge. The grasses hung in clumps over the edge of the water and frogs laid their eggs in the overhangs. If you stepped on the clumps of grass, swarms of little black tadpoles would swim out from under their protective cover. I remembered my brother and I repeatedly making the tadpoles appear and waiting for them to hide again while we were waiting for the fish to bite. It was a simple joy of childhood play.
But as I stood here now looking around the bank of the lake, I saw no such area. The trees seemed to line the entire body of water now, but the lake is roughly “J” shaped and I thought maybe the area I remembered might be along the other long “arm” that was out of view at the moment.
Off to my right and across the water, I could see a parking area with a car or two in it and I knew that was near the dam side of the reservoir.
I thought that was where the boat launch area once was. Only once did we put our little row boat, April Breeze, in the water here. That was when I saw my first and only wild loon. This was a perfect body of water for loons – lonely, isolated and those grassy areas make for good nesting.
The water was clear and calm. I noticed a forked stick planted in the bank used to support a pole and knew that people still fished the waters here. I smiled as I approached a school of minnows and they would scatter for deeper water then return as I moved away. I stepped closer to the water’s edge again and off they swam. It was like playing with the tadpoles all over again.
As I crossed the lovely Birch Run, another small parking area appeared. This is the spot. This is where we used to park the car and walk down to the lake. I looked at the path that I would’ve taken so many years ago to the water, but it was totally different now. Nothing but tall pine trees all the way to the water’s edge and gradually the realization sets in that all those sapling pines have become a forest and the long grasses have long died out from the lack of sun over the course of 36 years. What was, is no more.
I stood there a few minutes looking at the beautiful pine forest and began to cry. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed with loss and loneliness. I was grieving for and missing my brother who we lost to suicide 26 years earlier when he was just 19 years old. He left and I remain as an only child now.
After a few minutes, I pull myself together and walk on down the road to look for my connecting trail back to the A.T. “Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” I am upset that I’m struggling with so many negative emotions on this beautiful day. I am, after all, “living the dream” and I should be happy. My body is holding up and the only pain I’m experiencing is minor tenderness on the bottoms of both feet, but it’s certainly not keeping me from hiking. Why is today so hard for me? Why am I such an emotional mess today? I decide that I need to re-focus my attention on some positives and shake off all this negativity.
I briefly think of Katahdin. It seems so far away today. I think of Lady Grey, my Summit Sister, who will probably catch up to me in the next couple of weeks. I think of the other sisters who are out on the trail and wonder how they are doing. I think of those who are home and waiting for news and reports from the hikers on the trail. I think of my cousin who wants to hike a day with me. I think of my husband waiting at home. I think of those who are cheering for me. I think of all my family and friends who worry about my safety, some much more than others, and feel a twinge of guilt that my pleasure is causing them distress. I’m a whirling, churning, mass of thoughts & emotions.
A white pick-up towing a small box trailer approaches. The driver pulls off the road and parks. I approach cautiously and again, am alert to this potential harm-doer. The driver had gone to the back of his truck and was out of my line of sight. As I prepare to pass the truck, I see the driver in his bright spandex assembling his recumbent bicycle complete with a tow cart and once again, smile at this “dangerous” individual. I say to him, “Looks like you’ll be getting around these mountains faster than me today.” He smiles back and says, “Yes, but it’s slows me down quite a bit towing this cart.”
Once I pass the cyclist, it is quiet and I am alone again. Even the babbling of the brook is gone now. I notice a hornet’s nest high in the trees above and a hermit thrush hides in the pines to my right. There is a widening in the roadway as it curves to the right and on the left side of the road I see the orange-blazed trail that I can take back to the A.T. The markings are faded and there is a sign indicating this trail can be strenuous. I look up the trail past the metal bar gate and see a rocky path. I know that further on there is the power line clearing that also intersects with the trail. My mood is still a little sour and I decide to make it easy on myself and move on to the power line instead of forcing my feet to endure the rocks.
When I reach the power line clearing there is the electric hum of the lines above and a well-worn path leading to the west. Yes, this will be much better. The shelter is just a little over ½ a mile once I get to the trail and it’s only about mid-afternoon. I have plenty of time before sunset. I wonder what the shelter looks like as I head down the power line clearing picking my way across some swampy moss and skirting the small pools of water.
Then something bright red catches my eye. Could it be? YES!! Teaberries!! These small berries carry a slight minty, wintergreen taste and grow just inches off the ground. I always mentally associated them with the cooler winter months, since that was when we were in the mountains to scout and hunt for deer. I didn’t realize they would still be fruiting in the late spring, so this was a wonderful surprise and just what I needed to lift my spirits.
I pop several in my mouth and then hear a faint voice in my head reminding me not to eat too many as they may act as a natural laxative. How many is too many? I don’t know, but after about a dozen or so, I leave the teaberry patch happy to have once again enjoyed this treat.
I crest a small hill and see that I will have to descend again before climbing back up to the trail on top of the next ridge about a ½ mile away. It is not a steep descent or climb and I can hear the Birch Run coursing in the dell below me. Still, the foot path that I’m on is at its end, so I would be bushwhacking through shrubs and long grasses for a while if I continue forward and I would have to ford the stream below.
Upon assessing my situation, not knowing if there is a suitable stream crossing area below, the possibility of snakes hidden along the way and given the early time of day, I decide to turn back to the road and continue to follow it out to the paved Shippensburg Road about 2 miles away and bypass the Birch Run shelter altogether. After all, there is another campsite at Woodrow Road near the ½ way point of the entire trail which is just a few miles beyond the crossing at Shippensburg Road…OR, I could do something else…
When I reached the Shippensburg Road and started heading west toward the trail, the thought occurred to me that I could call my mother to come get me and I could spend one more night with her before heading out again. It would be a good way to show her how well I was doing after a day on the trail and maybe put her mind at ease about my safety. If nothing else, it would be a nice surprise, right? And maybe, somewhere in the back of my mind, I just wanted to be around family a little while longer and not spend the night alone.
Thru-hikers are warned about the “village vortex” which is when you arrive in town and just can’t seem to leave. The pleasure and comforts of food, bedding, entertainment and social possibilities keep drawing you into their grasps and before you know it, you have left the trail and have return to civilized life. I stopped and looked across the road at the trail heading north. There was the white-lettered brown sign I had hoped to see earlier. Should I cross the road and just keep hiking or should I head into town for just one more night with family?
A faint voice warned, “Beware of the village vortex”, but I brushed it aside. I wasn’t retreating for creature comforts. I was just tired emotionally and was sure tomorrow would be a better day. I listened, but I could not hear the mountain calling my name.
“Hello, Mom. I’m on Shippensburg Road. Can you come get me? Yes, I’m fine. I just thought I’d spend one more night with you, ok?”
As I continue to walk toward town waiting to spot her car coming my way, I wonder if I have made a mistake. I am physically doing ok, nothing but normal hiker pains, nothing to stop me, but this emotional down was really wearing on me. Maybe I should have doubled-back to the shelter or continued to the midpoint campsite. Maybe if I continued down the trail to the midpoint, I would re-ignite the feeling of the excitement and adventure and be able to shake this depressing mood that has darkened my day. Maybe I should have never stirred up those memories in the first place.
The mental storm continued to thunder as her car pulled to the shoulder. As I’m putting my pack in the back of her car, I see not relief, but concern on my mother’s face. She sees my weariness and questions my gait. I tell her that my feet are a little tender and my ankles a little swollen, but that it’s nothing to be concerned about as this is normal at the end of the day. She doesn’t buy it and questions my choice to put my body through such strains. The guilt of her anxiety strikes like lightening in my soul. Suddenly, Bugs Bunny comes to mind.
So, after another 50 trail miles had passed under my feet, I made the decision to end my emotional turmoil and made flight arrangements back to Oklahoma. I quit on a bad day; a classic thru-hiker mistake.
My mother and I did visit the A.T. museum together at Pine Grove Furnace State Park and I got to see a former sign from the top of Katahdin, ME as well as view several other fine displays. The museum is a work in progress and will continue to expand as donations are received.
I have completed a mere 5% of the A.T. and definitely have a much clearer perspective of the distances and challenges involved with accomplishing this task. I have no regrets about the time I have spent on the trail, aside from the distress that my journey has caused others.
I arrived back home to my husband who had been enduring his own tornadoes and who presented me with a dozen red roses. He’s quite a guy and I’m thankful to have him.
In addition, I plan to soon be finished with another video of photos from this portion of the A.T. that I hope you will enjoy viewing. I hope that you also will continue to follow some of the links to my fellow hikers that are still on the trail as they continue to attempt the completion of this awesome hike.
While, at this time, I have no specific plans to return to the trail for a thru-hike, I do suspect that there will come a day when I will be back out there hiking again. I also plan to continue writing on another, as yet untitled or established, blog, so be sure to check back here for the announcement and link to that site. Until then, I have plenty of other activities and responsibilities to keep me quite occupied until the mountain again calls my name. Thank you for joining in my journey.