(When April with showers sweet, the drought of March has pierced to the root…
And small birds make melody, that sleep all night with open eye
So goaded by Nature in their hearts, then folk long to go on pilgrimages)
For centuries, perhaps for all of Homo sapiens history, humans have made pilgrimages of one kind or another. Dictionary.com defines a pilgrimage as “any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage.” Wait a minute, what does that actually mean? A quest, as defined by that same dictionary, is a long and arduous search for something. I continue to rely upon the dictionary as I learn that a votive purpose can be an action performed in fulfillment of a vow, or in gratitude or devotion.
Long journeys, arduous searches, clinging to a purpose, these activities transcend customs and boundaries. Many cultures have their youth partake in a rite of passage, seeking inner enlightenment or a path upon which to direct their lives. Perhaps I am a late bloomer, only now beginning to think of my adventures in terms of pilgrimage.
I love how Chaucer describes Spring as being the time one most wants to begin a long journey, a quest, a pilgrimage. When I hear birds singing, and see flowers beginning to bloom, my feet long to tread woodland paths, searching for … what?
On March 22, as Jay and I begin the Pacific Crest Trail, I hope to keep this idea of pilgrimage in my heart, staying open to new experiences to stretch my inner self. In this, I will be joining about 6,000 PCT permit holders – those planning to hike more than 500 miles of the 2,650 mile trail. Many of these hikers know they are on pilgrimage, they are actively searching for answers in their lives. Others may not begin the hike as a pilgrimage, but will find, by the end, that their hike was performed in fulfillment of a promise, to express appreciation, or acknowledge a sense of new-found spirituality. I know I am blessed, to be able to participate in this grand adventure.
Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
-Psalm 84:5, Holy Bible, New International Version
Recently I overheard an acquaintance tell about sorting her garage. “Sort, declutter, simplify, clean out – they’re all just civilized words for an act of violence. I’m engaged in a yearly purge!”
Her description caught my imagination. For the last three months, Jay and I have been actively occupied with selling our house, the ultimate goal being to simplify our life. It sounded so clean and enlightened, to live a life uncluttered.
Reality has not been clean, simple, or tidy. We’ve lived in the same house for half our married life. Our worldly goods were collected there, along with 15 years of memories.
We sold a few items, we gave many things to our son, and we still had a houseful of belongings. Eventually we hired a U-Haul, filled it, and jettisoned it at the thrift store. The house was emptier, but required several more trips to the dump, the thrift store again, and gifting sessions to friends before becoming bare!
Just a few short weeks ago, Jay and I had completed eight months of hiking the Appalachian Trail, with all that we needed in a backpack and a box. I had naively imagined that it would be easy to go home and get rid of everything. Instead, I found myself beset with tempestuous emotions. I cried over souvenirs, books, pictures, dishes. I cried over the contents of the linen closet, for heaven’s sake!
In spite of my tears, the day to list the house finally dawned. The photographer arrived. I was happy. The house was empty, and we were so close to our goal! And suddenly, I was sitting in my son’s empty bedroom, tears pouring down my face. The problem with grief is that it often hits at very inconvenient times!
Many people talk of the joys of down-sizing. In three months, we went from 1500 square feet of possessions to a five foot closet and a car. It was painful, distressing, and traumatic. It was also liberating, freeing, exhilarating.
It’s been exactly one month since we finished our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Jay and I spent 2,190 miles living mostly in a tent, spending each day watching the scenery pass by at walking pace, challenging our bodies with continuous exercise. The transition to a more ‘sophisticated’ lifestyle has been interesting. Though I enjoy daily showers, my skin has rebelled against the increased use of soap. I can’t deny delighting in a warm bed, but I miss waking to the sunrise breaking across a ridge top. I find that I have totally forgotten how to cook. Our first morning home, I burned the eggs! However, seeing family and friends is the best part of being back in civilization, and I have enjoyed every moment of those visits.
Many people asked me why we did this long hike. After eight months, I can only conclude that curiosity was what kept me going. I was curious as to how my body would react to such a long trek. And I was curious to see new places, new faces, new sights each day. The path of the AT brings incredible variety to the traveler!
So, what is next? Jay and I will enjoy sheltering through the winter. We plan to pare down our belongings considerably. After living for eight months with just the contents of the packs on our backs, a houseful of stuff is overkill. I will be re-designing this blog, making it easier (I hope) to navigate. And next spring, we will don hiking gear and set out again, ready to enjoy this incredibly wonderful earth we inhabit.
With just 8.5 miles left of our AT thru-hike, the last day dawned to rainy gray drizzle. Once again we loaded packs into Edna’s van for the ride to Green Mountain Store, yesterday’s stopping point. There we ate breakfast with our hostess, enjoying cups of hot coffee and tea as well as delicious omelettes. As I hugged Edna good-bye, I could scarcely believe our hike was coming to an end. Our last two nights had been passed in comfort thanks to these wonderful friends. Now it was time to finish our quest.
Cold sprinkles of precipitation chilled our faces and slid down our necks as we hiked under slate-colored clouds. But the sunless day couldn’t dampen my feelings of anticipation. After eight months, our goal was practically in sight!
Water drops beaded across the backs of sassafras leaves and shimmered slightly on flame-colored maples and oaks. Their beauty reminded me to slow down and savor this last day.
I could scarcely contain my excitement as we reached the northern border of Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Our last half mile of trail was a delight – flat, wide, graveled, skirting a very scenic lake. Quite a civilized ending after the arduous hills, mountains, cliffs, and rocks we had traversed during our journey.
Dave and Edna surprised us once more by meeting us at the state park with a thermos of hot coffee. Such a thoughtful treat on this cold day! But even better than the coffee was the company as Edna walked that last half mile with us, then both our friends posed in front of the Appalachian Museum. Jay and I had last seen that building on June 21 – four and a half months ago! Four thousand fifty hikers registered their thru-hike attempt with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy this year. Only a quarter of those hikers finished. And here we were, taking the last steps in our 2,190 miles. Emotions threatened to overwhelm. We had done it!
Appalachian Trail Museum at Pine Grove Furnace State Park was a fitting end to our trek.
While hiking the A.T. in late October, a warm place to sleep is sometimes an extravagant luxury. We were very grateful for the offer of two nights in a cabin from our new friends, Dave and Edna. The cabin had charm, comfort, electricity, but no water. Sunrise this morning found us well rested and ready for another day of hiking!
A cozy cabin for the night.
The neighbor’s farm, Pennsylvania style.
We climbed into Edna’s van as the sun rose over the fields and drove to Boiling Springs, the end of our hike yesterday. This small town is the site of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, an excellent place for hikers to get information and relax in comfort while recharging electronics. Edna parked here and took us for a short walk to see the ‘boiling’ springs, millions of gallons of water forced to the surface via an artesian aquifer. We enjoyed reading the historical signs and learning about the area before starting our day’s hike.
It’s always hard to leave a trail town, and after saying good-bye to Edna, Jay and I couldn’t resist lingering to eat breakfast at the Caffe 101. While there, our trail friends, Gator and Not Yet, arrived. We dawdled over tea and coffee, chatting with the two of them, enjoying the unexpected encounter. Gator told of spending a cold, noisy night at the Backpacker’s Campsite, near very active railroad tracks. Not Yet had taken refuge at a convenient hiker hostel.
With “so long” and “see you down the trail”, we finally tore ourselves away and soon began climbing to Center Point Knob. This monument from 1937 marks the original halfway point on the Appalachian Trail.
Many people celebrate Halloween by navigating a corn maze with friends and family. We celebrated by traversing a “Rock Maze,” half a mile of impressive boulders arrayed along the top of a ridge.
From the maze, the trail led downhill to roam across streams and roads. Stomachs growled with hunger as we reached the Green Mountain Store off PA Rt 34, eleven miles from our morning start. We dined with Not Yet and Dave before climbing into Dave’s van.
As late afternoon darkened to dusk, our friend, host, and driver suggested we explore Gettysburg, 17.5 miles away. And so we ended Halloween with a visit into history, reading notices by flashlight, imagining the valiant characters depicted on the biographical signposts.
Monday dawned with cloudy skies, cold wind, and a crisp, fresh smell across the land. A fierce storm brought three inches of rain on Sunday, leaving the woods scrubbed clean.
The trail before us crossed the Cumberland Valley, eleven miles of gently rolling terrain, crossing rain-swollen streams, fields, forest, and swamp. Variety! The spice of the AT.
Conodoguinet Creek displayed the power of yesterday’s rain as brown water raced by, extending up the banks, flooding trees, carrying driftwood past at dizzying speeds. I remembered a snippet of conversation with our new friends, Dave and Edna, yesterday.
“I grew up near Conodoguinet Creek,” Edna had told us. “We called it ‘Cannot Go In It Creek.’ My mother made sure all of us children learned to swim, but even so we weren’t allowed to play in the creek by ourselves. It can get pretty big at times.”
The trail followed the creek for a time, with many branches blocking the path after yesterday’s storm.
I was also glad of the occasional boardwalk over particularly swampy sections.
A bit farther on, Jay and I noticed some osage orange seed balls, slightly larger than tennis balls and about the same color. This tree was highly prized by Native Americans for making bows. Colonial settlers used the wood for fence posts. Jay paused to play with a few seed balls.
Forest gave way to fields, and we passed wind-tossed corn crops.
At Trindle Road, a kiosk sign gave us a wider vision of the valley through which we were hiking. We learned that the Cumberland Valley is part of the Great Appalachian Valley, a giant trough, or chain of low hollows, stretching 1,200 miles from Northern Alabama to Quebec. It has been used as a travel route since prehistoric times. Geologically, the valley is a mixture of limestone bedrock and upwellings of igneous rock, creating some of “the richest topsoil in America.”
Near the end of our day, we came across another sign that invoked hearty laughter. After all the truly rough terrain we have crossed in our 2,190 mile trek, why did someone think this sign was important to place before these small bumps?
The evening brought us to Boiling Springs, PA. We were charmed by the beauty of this scenic small town, but too tired to truly appreciate it. When Dave picked us up, we gratefully climbed into his warm vehicle, ready for a snug night’s sleep after our lovely but cold day of hiking.
Zero day! What a wonderful tradition! During the past two weeks, Jay and I have often felt worn down, easily tired, without the energy we are accustomed to having. A day of rest is not only welcome, but very needed in order to stay healthy.
Last June we camped near a shelter full of eight Amish young people backpacking for a week in Shenandoah National Park. We enjoyed talking with them, and I have subsequently been corresponding with the leader of the group. Today she invited Jay and me to visit her family and home on Sunday! We are so excited! In order to accomplish this, we have decided to slack pack tomorrow (Saturday), coming back to the hotel tomorrow night, to the luxury of a hot shower. That way we will at least smell clean for our visit the following day, even if we only have hiker clothes to wear!
October 28, 2017 (Saturday)
The hotel owner provides a shuttle ride (for a fee) to Sherwood Road this morning. Our plan is to hike 13.5 miles back to Duncannon. We are on the edge of the Cumberland Valley, and our first landmark is a tunnel under PA Route 944.
The morning sky is a beautiful deep blue, with cloud wisps of mares tails across its zenith. The leaves on the ground are a mosaic of red, yellow, orange, purple, tan.
In the afternoon the wind picks up, bringing a layer of dense grey clouds to obscure the morning blue. As we pass the turn off to Cove Mountain Shelter, we meet four hikers in their twenties, searching for an elusive view of a river bend with a mountain rising from the middle of the watery curve. We can only tell them that we have not seen such a view in the last nine miles.
Two miles later we reach Hawk Rock, a very popular viewpoint for day hikers, crowded with people. A man and boy practice throwing a knife at a tree. A couple with a dog look at the view. Another small group is having a picnic. As we enjoy the scenery, the four young people we met earlier arrive, having never found their other view, but enjoying this one.
I ask a hiker, Beth, to take our picture. She talks with us for several minutes, very interested in our thru-hike adventure. She tells us that we are an inspiration. After 2,000 miles of hiking, I don’t really feel like a guiding light. We’re just hiking and having fun. However, perhaps our story will be a catalyst for Beth to make her own story.
We arrive in Duncannon just in time to eat a delicious bacon cheeseburger, then watch the last half of a Halloween parade through the main street of town. Back at the hotel, we watch the news, and hear a prediction for three inches of rain tomorrow! Yikes!
October 29, 2017 (Sunday)
Amanda, our Amish friend, arranged for a very nice Mennonite couple, Dave and Edna, to pick us up this morning in their van. Dave has thru-hiked the AT twice, and has a very impressive grasp of its geography.
Although Amanda’s family home is only 30 miles away, Dave tells us, “There’s no good way to get to Amanda’s house.” Before I can embarrass us all by offering the services of Google maps on my phone, Edna pulls out an atlas (paper!) with which to navigate.
We reach the home, and are greeted by the eight young hikers we had originally met in Virginia as well as Amanda’s parents and other siblings. There are about 20 people by the time we all crowd inside!
As we are seated, I suddenly realize that I am sitting on the male side of the room, with all the females an impossibly far distance away! What to do? … I start talking with the young boys sitting near me.
Then hymnals are brought out. “Since it is Sunday, we will have a hymn sing,” Amanda’s mother explains. I am delighted!
The first hymn is beautiful, with words about how if all the ocean were ink, it would run dry before it could finish describing the love of God. The second hymn tells the need of prayers from loved ones while on a journey – very appropriate, I think. I begin feeling at home, hymnal in hand, surrounded by people singing. In their hymnal, I notice an old beloved hymn, “This Is My Father’s World”, so I dare to request it. When we finish, Dave remarks, “That’s a good song for the AT!” After several more tunes, the hymn sing ends with a song in Pennsylvania Dutch. The chorus is about the love of God – Gottesliebe – that is the only part I understand!
After singing, lunch is served buffet style, and people begin mingling. The young people quiz Jay and me about our hike. In turn, they share a bit of their lives. Jay and I feel honored to be included in their Sunday!
After four hours of visiting, it’s time to leave. We climb into Dave and Edna’s van. Dave wants to take a different way back, so once again Edna pulls out the atlas. However, Edna falls asleep and we miss a turn. Suddenly, Dave exclaims, “Hey, this is where the Tuscarora Trail crosses Rt. 39! How can that be? I was on Rt. 850, following the AT!”
“Navigating by trails while he drives! That’s impressive!” Jay comments admiringly.
Edna wakes and gets us back on track. As we approach the hotel, Dave and Edna surprise us with an invitation to spend Monday and Tuesday nights at their home!! With the memory of cold wind last Thursday and all the rain that has fallen today, I am delighted to accept their incredibly generous offer, knowing we will have a warm place for our last nights on the trail! What a change in plans!