Hawk Rock to Stony Mountain
Here Come The Rocks Camp to Evening Showers Camp
AT miles: 23.1
Total miles: 1179.1
Elevation change: 4370ft gain, 3819ft loss
A lot of hikers like to bag on the long road walks of the CDT, and to some extent, the road walk detours of the PCT. To their credit, most of these people probably dis the rocks of Pennsylvania as well, but I feel the need to get on record as saying that I find road walks immeasurably more pleasurable than the extremely rocky trail sections of the AT (except for the busy, paved roads, which can be stupidly dangerous). I love rock hopping and scrambling as much as the next hiker, probably more, but not when I’m trying to push 25 miles that day. The slow, shuffled balancing act kills the hiking rhythm, and the intense pressure of a full body weight concentrated onto a single, variable point on the sole, leaves the feet worn and aching in a deep way. Rock hopping is physically arduous. Road walking, on the other hand, is physically easy and mentally dangerous. The miles fly by with thoughtless speed, and the mind can wander freely, which can be good and bad. The hard ground, usually packed dirt/gravel or pavement, is punishing, yes, but at least the load is distributed across the whole foot rather than sharply focused. With good friends and the right attitude, a long road walk, like the section from Grants to Pie Town on the CDT, might actually be a highlight of a thru-hike. Rocks though, no one says that the rocky trail in Pennsylvania is their favorite part of the AT. At least I don’t think so. There we go, I’ve said my bit. Roads rule, rocks suck. And I don’t even think that I’ve gotten to the worst of the rocks yet, if I believe the rumors.
Rocks were far from my mind when I woke up this morning. My feet didn’t ache anymore, and even felt fresh. The morning clouds spit a few drops in my direction, but overall, I was optimistic for the day ahead. A few day hikers jabbered on by, then Stealth stopped briefly to say hello. I finished my granola, trail mix, and chocolate, then packed up. I was back on the trail a little earlier than usual, feeling the FOMO and the gravity of town.
The short distance down to the road was a mess of stone, but my morning freshness and empty pack were at the forefront of my brain, and I focused on those positives more than the tricky stepping. After a mile, I turned left on the pavement and followed it through the outskirts, and then into the heart of Duncannon.
My two points of business were charging my external battery and resupplying. First port of call was Kind Of Outdoorsy, the outfitter/hostel in town. It was inconspicuous and next door to a hip coffee shop that already had live music going for the Saturday morning patrons. The greeting was warm, and I deposited my things in the hiker lounge and plugged in. Stealth, and a few other section hikers were hanging around, and I shared some conversation while pushing through my list of chores. The food available for purchase did not quite cater to my dietary choices, so I stepped back onto the road, after playing hopscotch with the local hopscotch fiends, and stuck out my thumb for a ride to the grocery store.
A hitch was easy to come by both ways, so I made it back to the hostel in good time, with a pile of goodies. The store had been confusing and expensive, and I overcompensated for the lack of Clif bars by buying way too much of everything else. My bag of chips had a resealable ziplock on it, which says everything. I powered through a banana, booch, can of refried beans, and pint of Ben & Jerry’s while consolidating my food and packing up. Too full to cram in another morsel, I donated an avocado to another hiker, and strapped my salad to my pack for later consumption. My battery hadn’t charged as much as I’d hoped, but the hostel was getting more crowded than I felt comfortable with and the trail was calling. Around noon, I bade everyone a fond farewell and returned to the streets of Duncannon.
The miles walk through town was pleasant and beautiful. All the blossoms were out and the smell of fresh cut grass lingered in the air. A variety of homes, from quaint farmhouse to big and beautiful porchy ancients, scrolled by, and I shared a few waves with the locals. When the last home faded away, I crossed one big river, then the even bigger Susquehanna alongside screaming cars and trucks. From the river, I was afforded an intimidating view of the ridge ahead. I was sure that the trail to the top would be steep. But first, I needed to climb between the train cars that were parked blocking the trailhead. That was fun, and harder than any rocks out there.
The trail was steep. And rocky. I used an interesting phenomenon noticed in the trees to distract me from the grueling grind. For some reason, the oak trees halfway up the ridge were budding new green while the trees above and below remained bare. I’d noticed this stripe from the bridge, and had formed a hypothesis by the time I panted to the top. The green trees sprouted on a level lunge of earth, whereas the adjacent slopes were steep. I guessed that extra water collected on the flat, favoring the trees that grew there. Who knew if I was right, but I felt kind of like the great John Muir theorizing about valley formation in the Sierra. Our works were equally important.
The rocks for the next few miles were atrocious. I felt like I was back on the Sierra High Route, when hopping 10 miles felt like a good day. My progress slowed, which was disheartening considering that I had just made plans with my aunt to meet in Port Clinton, 70 miles north, in two and a half days. I wouldn’t make the rendezvous if the trail was like this.
However, as Pennsylvania has demonstrated again and again, it is merciful and tries hard to make up for the rocky sections with some of the easiest walking imaginable. After crossing a buzzing road, the trail grew significantly wider and smoother. Following along the top of the ridge, it was already flat, so my hope was rekindled. I passed bunches of day hikers, wafting perfumes left in their wake, making me wonder what was wafting in mine.
The crowds thinned and graffitied rocks faded away as I sped with all of my haste, using the good tread to make a full day, even with the stop in town. It was here, during the many hours of mind wandering that I fomented my opinions on rocks vs. roads. With that settled, I finished up the audiobook I’d been listening to, Double Star, by Robert Heinlein, which for a book I knew nothing about, was quite good.
My feet hosted a deep ache and my snack and water supplies dwindled precariously as afternoon faded to dusk. It had been a dry 17 miles of trail, but the cool breeze and clouds had made the stretch bearable and not overly dehydrating. Still, after over seven hours of hiking continuously, I was feeling worked. After dropping off the ridge, a brief stop to filter water provided a little recharge and chance to target a stopping place. A pleasant night seemed imminent on top of the next ridge in four miles, so I scarfed a bar and got my uphill legs ready.
Light showers kept me cool as I churned up the easy trail, trying to beat the approaching darkness to camp. I was grateful for the easy terrain, as tired as I was. A mass of rocks would have ended me. A final splash of rain made sure that I didn’t waste any time setting up camp on a rocky patch of dirt, and I dove into my tent damp, but warm, feeling good about that salad and my mashed potatoes. The rain came and went as I consumed both greedily. Then, as I lay back, considering my aching feet, the bright moon switched on as the clouds began to clear. I opened up a door to let the farts out and the fresh air in, already feeling good about tomorrow. There would be no ice cream, and maybe there would be rocks, but the weather was looking fine.