Stony Mountain to Hertline Campsite
Evening Showers Camp to Footburger Camp
AT miles: 31.1
Total miles: 1210.2
Elevation change: 4101ft gain, 4701ft loss
Sometimes, attitude is everything. Approach an objectively terrible task, like cleaning the toilet, with the right mindset, and it might just be kind of fun, or at least not awful. Eh, depends on the toilet. However, the mind is a powerful tool, and as both the wise and unwise like to say, “mind over matter.” That phrase sums up my day, from start to finish. I woke up expecting a fight, so when I got it, I was ready. The long fabled rocks of Rocksylvania, miles of them, made their grand entrance to the AT stage after a few days of watered down opening acts. They were as terribly unfit for walking as the rumors promised, yet I’d had several days to warm up to the challenge, and so hit them straight, fighting ready. I ended the day battered and hurting, but also satisfied and proud. That’s a good feeling. That’s a good day.
I woke up before my alarm, feeling rested and ready to go. My effort today would make or break my plans to be in Port Clinton, 50 miles north, tomorrow afternoon, and I think that my body knew that an extra 30 minutes might make all the difference. Instead of rolling over, I rolled with it, capturing that lightning in a bottle, and got my day underway.
Heavy tufts of snow parachuted from the glowing clouds above, but I was more enchanted than worried. The forecast was calling for clear skies later, so this display felt like camp’s parting gift rather than an ominous premonition. With the flakes still falling silently, I started up the trail, fifteen minutes earlier than usual. Where I had lost the other fifteen, I did not know.
Even in my wind jacket, I needed to hike fast to stay a little bit warm. The trail was smooth and flat, so internal heat was hard to come by. What was going on here? I thought I left Winter in Virginia. I cruised through thickets of mountain laurel, still far from their spring explosion, and around some old coal mining villages. Informational signs were the only evidence that I could see that they had existed, but the flat spots sure made good campsites. I passed a number of hikers who had used them as such.
After an easy descent to Raush Gap on some jet black gravel, I decided to stick to the AT as it slopped through a section flooded by beavers, rather than take the dry detour. I didn’t need to fight off any swashbuckling marauders as I crossed their dam like I had envisioned, nor did I even see a beaver or their dam. Nope, a thirty-yard stretch of trail was submerg under placid water, but I made it across with mostly dry feet on the bridge of limbs and trunks that pioneering hikers had laid down. Easy peasy.
By the time I had made it up and over the next ridge and into Swatara State Park, the sun was breaking through big time. Clouds scooted on by, but they were bite sized now, rather than a mushy gray covering. With the changing light, the fresh green buds sprouting from the mess of bushes and brambles flickered on and off along with the warmth. Winter, spring, winter, spring, winter, spring. A couple miles later, I crossed the large and languid Swatara Creek on an ancient road bridge paved with wood, and settled on a patch of pavement for lunch in the sunshine. Spring. With fourteen miles to my name by 1pm, I was feeling fine, although the blisters on each of my heels looked and felt a little angry. I ate a bunch of stuff, and filtered water, enjoying the warmth that had been in such short supply this morning.
With a full belly and full bottles, I saddled up and got back to walking. The strong morning meant nothing if I couldn’t back it up with a strong afternoon, so I was dismayed to feel the renewed pain in my heels. I should have treated my blisters and knew it. Obviously, the intelligent thing to do would have been to sit down and pop them right there, but instead I hiked on, confident, hoping that the pain would mellow.
A quick and rocky ascent put me on the crest of the next ridge. This one marked the edge of the mountains, so a vast expanse of green fields and pastures extended to the eastern horizon. Or was it south now? Trail east, at least. With the bright sun at my back and glowing greenery ahead, for a mile or two, I was held in the perfect balance of comfort. Just warm enough to relax my shoulders, and far from squeezing out the first drops of sweat. Distant enough from lunch that I felt adequately digested, not even close to needing a snack. Even with the pain in my feet and the uneven trail, I was hiking in bliss mode. Favorite moment of the day for sure.
Speaking with a flip-flop hiker named Jedi was an absolute joy, then I pushed hard, either because a massive field of rocks lay in my way, or because I felt compelled to make up for lost time when the trail smoothed out again. The rocks poked my feet in all kinds of unhealthy ways, but that sensation was better than the sharp bite of blisters that jabbed with each step on flat tread. Eventually I couldn’t stand my stubbornness anymore and sat down to do something about it. My right arch was feeling inflamed after a day of pain-avoiding, altered foot strikes, and that could lead to bigger problems than blisters. With my first aid kit buried deep in my pack, I snapped a thorn from a raspberry vine, sanitized it, then poked it through my thick heel calluses to the pools of rage below. I squeezed out the fluid, surprised by how well that had worked. The pain was not gone, just different when I started up again. Easier to ignore. The rocks also went scarce for a few miles, giving my deep tissues a breather as well. I turned on some tunes to drown out the echoes of discomfort.
After crossing a paved road, the rocks finally began to live up to their reputation, which was a sobering realization for someone who already believed that the had. Perhaps they will still get worse, but it was hard to imagine how. Fields of big rocks alternated with winding paths of smaller rocks. Each style required full concentration for every step. When the rocks were small, an ankle roll was the risk. When they were large, a slip could mean faceplanting into a sharp fin of stone. My steps were either short and plentiful, or long and lunging. Every footfall was irregular, each one unique. I was grateful for my ankle flexibility and balance. Both served me well here.
The rocks continued for miles as the sun dipped low behind me. Despite the lateness of the day and the accumulated miles, I felt sharp and strong. This was where that mind over matter stuff came in to play. I was fully committed, and had been mentally preparing for this for days now. Rocksylvania was not going to beat me, not today. With the help of my music, I hopped and skipped relentlessly through the trees, determined to make good time despite the aches and pains, despite the rocks. I groaned and grunted, gritted and furrowed. I knew what I had to do, so I did it.
I caught the tail-end of sunset from a cliffy overlook just a short distance from camp. It was a good opportunity to cool down a bit, push the mental reset button, and relax. The hard work was done. I’d pushed myself, held on, and made it. It felt good.
I pitched my tent, filtered water from the nearby brook while stretching the old legs, then finally, gratefully sat down on my pad. I squeezed more juice from my blisters and gave my arches a rub. How would my feet and legs feel tomorrow? Better than they felt during the last few miles this evening, that I could count on. That was good enough.