Alec Kennedy Shelter to Hawk Rock
Aching Soles Camp to Here Come The Rocks Camp
AT miles: 27.5
Total miles: 1155.9
Elevation change: 3661ft gain, 3278ft loss
Pennsylvania has been a lot of things so far, but it has not been what I expected. Shifts in the weather and terrain have made each day feel new and unique. Changes in how my body feels have shifted my physical and mental challenges, my joys and hardships. I expected nothing but a huge field of terrible rocks, and so far those have yet to appear en masse. Instead, Pennsylvania has been the ultimate cruise of the AT so far. An extremely enjoyable pleasure cruise. And today was no different from the rest, meaning that it was very different from the rest, carrying on the chameleon status of the state. The rocks of “Rocksylvannia” are still coming, I’m not stupid enough to doubt it, but boiling down an entire state to a simple nickname washes over everything else. Like people, the trail is varied and changing. I hope that I can still remember the sweet days of PA, like this one in the Cumberland, after the rocks have had their way with me.
Ahhh, the day after a headache is always the best day, isn’t it? At least I think so. My head was as clear as the sky when I woke up this morning. The gray haze of dawn matched the fuzziness between my ears, but a few sips of water and handful of chocolate wiped out the cobwebs and started my brain revving. My great night had been aided by the cool air, just cold enough to necessitate bundling tightly in my quilt in that extra cozy way, yet refreshingly pleasant when I stepped free of my bedding. The others were gone by the time I started hiking, but I was still ahead of schedule on account of my head feeling ready to go, and I had the added bonus of there being no line for the privy. I took my time, looking at the day ahead like one might read the newspaper.
With jus a few crumbs of food left, my pack was at its lightest. My feet and legs also felt recovered, so I flew up the first hill, then jogged parts of the easy downhill that followed. My body and mind each felt ridiculously better than they did as I scraped into camp last night.
At the bottom of the descent, the trail exited the forest and made a sharp turn along the edge of a wide field. The near horizon was near, where the green made a shallow lump to meet the sky, and the far horizon invisible across the flat expanse of the Cumberland Valley. The trail turned sharply again, headed into its heart, headed north. Fifteen miles of flat valley walking awaited me.
The rich aroma of agriculture filled my nose as I struck out, leaving the safety of the hills behind, feeling exposed and free. Initially, I wrote off the ripe odor as foul, but then came to appreciate its sweetness. It wasn’t manure, it was corn. So rich and earthy that I had mistaken it for poop. Little bits of dried husk scattered about confirmed my suspicion. Corn country.
The first few miles of field walking brought me straight back to the CDT, which both suffers and benefits from sporting major sections of “in between” travel, the roads and empty space where no one would choose to walk unless they had already chosen to walk everything. Those parts get a bad wrap, but they are home to some of my favorite memories and are limited only by the minds of those who walk them. They’re blank canvases, devoid of distracting mountains and beauty, so paint whatever you want. They are what you make of them. This long traverse of the Cumberland Valley felt the same. Functionally, the only reason the AT had been routed this way was because there was no ridge connecting this one to that one. This flat, valley walking wasn’t ‘on brand’, but I didn’t mind. Actually, I preferred this landscape, at least for the day, and welcomed the change. It didn’t hurt that the weather was as perfect as could be. Sunny, breezy, and cool.
The town of Boiling Springs, of which the AT passes through the heart, was larger, more lively, and infinitely more charming than I’d expected. The old streets and town lake were bustling with townspeople and visitors such as myself, although the ducks and geese outnumbered us two to one. I stopped in at the gas station convenience store to gather supplies for the short, 30-ish miles to Duncannon and left with everything I needed to supplement what I already had. Some chips, Clif bars, Oreos, and trail mix. I also couldn’t refuse a CBD-infused iced tea, cold and mellow.
After filling my bottles at the closed ATC center, I fell into step behind Stealth who had chilled in town just long enough for me to catch him. He was also giving his digestive tract a little time to figure out what to do with the half-gallon of chocolate milk that he’d consumed. We fell into an easy, unrushed rhythm as the trail meandered along field perimeters and through narrow, foresty easements. The conversation meandered from rock climbing to the Sierra High Route, then all the way to theoretically mathematics, which is what Stealth studied in school. This kid looked and acted grounded, but his brain was in the clouds. My brain worked overtime to remember just enough from my distant linear algebra course to make sense of his “notions, groups, rings, and fields.” I think that I gained no understanding except for one of how little I understood. When he related math at the most basic level to philosophy, asking the famous question “how does one know that a chair is a chair?” I chuckled with awe at the human mind. With all this conversation, my brain was spinning with extroversion overload, and my voice husky with the fatigue of the neglected.
We flowed over stiles, next to a shooting range, and across many a highway. The trail tread was smooth, so we hiked easy. When lunchtime arrived, we plunked on the perfectly timed picnic table at the historical Scott Farm and got down on our gas station bounties. I crushed my chips, dried peaches, chocolate, and peanut butter. He ate a dry sandwich and pretzels, claiming to actually enjoy them.
A few miles later, we crossed our last field and returned to the forest. A new ridge loomed ahead through the trees and our uphill muscles presently got used in the way that they were most useful. A nice view back across the Cumberland was a pleasing reward for the effort, even though we couldn’t figure out precisely where we had come from on the other side. Down in the next small fold of the hills, I gathered my water for the evening while Stealth brought me up to speed on his recent interest in Formula 1, a sport that had always fascinated me in a distant, too-rich-for-my-blood kind of way.
After sweating up to the top of the next ridge with my renewed load, the fabled rocks began, or returned, depending on how one looked at it. Our progress slowed just as the sun seemed to speed its descent to the horizon. Each foot placement was chosen carefully, executed achingly, and not trusted entirely. Still the miles ticked by, smoothed over with conversation.
Stealth turned down a side trail to the next shelter, leaving me to finish the last two miles to my stopping point solo. Sort of. I gave SpiceRack a call for an overdue reconnect, and she accompanied me the rest of the way, and through dinner, until bedtime. She was close now, somewhere in Iowa, heading east at an alarming rate, and I would see her in less than a week.
The wind gusted at me from all directions on the narrow ridge. My tent shook, and I hoped that my dodgy stake placements would hold through the night. The bright moon negated the need for my headlamp as I got up one last time to pee. Another gust whipped my shirt and lifted my veil of fatigue for a few seconds, like a splash of cool water on my face. Then I lay back down, feeling my aches once more, grateful for the chance to rest. Grateful for the smooth and vaired walk across the Cumberland. Grateful for my legs and feet. Grateful for the opportunity to do it all again tomorrow. Grateful for the opportunity to do this at all.