October 25, 2017
Wind blows up the ridge, tweaking my nose with a hint of frost, sending icy fingers down my neck, creeping under the edge of my coat. Though the morning had dawned with a glorious sunrise and mild temperature, the weather this afternoon as we hike the length of Peters Mountain is a different story. Relief blossoms as Peters Mtn Shelter looms through the trees. I have only one thought as I trudge up the path. ‘Please, oh please, may this shelter face away from the wind.’
The first shelter on Peters Mtn was built by Earl Schaffer, author of Walking With Spring and the first reported thru-hiker of the AT, in 1948. (That shelter is now on display in the Appalachian Trail Museum at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Pennsylvania.) The current structure was built in 1994, and is a virtual palace, sleeping 20 people.
Unfortunately, the shelter does face into the wind on this day, but it is so big, we manage to huddle in a shielded corner and eat an early dinner while enjoying the sight of rows of trees marching down the ridge.
About a mile farther, we come to Table Rock, serrated layers of sandstone tilted towards an astounding view. Below us, a flock of turkey vultures with distinctive red heads and V-shaped silhouettes, take off from a tree and soar skyward. To our surprise, another tree suddenly erupts with soaring birds – black vultures, identified by white-tipped wings and a straight wing silhouette. We watch, enthralled, as both flocks make graceful, ever-widening circles, eventually disappearing over the edge of the next mountain. For a few magical moments, the cold wind is forgotten as my imagination takes fire. What did the turkey vultures smell? The black vultures, having a less keen olfactory sense but a more aggressive nature, were obviously following the turkey vultures, probably bent upon exploiting the first group’s meal. What sort of carrion will they all descend upon? Standing on the cliff side, I want to spread my arms and take off, following to see the end of that story.
We continue hiking along the top of the ridge, giving our legs a workout as we negotiate the rocky trail. About 5:00 p.m., we come to PA Route 225. This very busy road makes a hairpin turn at the top of the ridge just where the AT crosses. I’m relieved to see a pedestrian bridge above the road, allowing us to cross in safety.
With darkness an hour away, and the busy road behind us, our next priority is finding a campsite. As dusk nears, tent sites have a habit of disappearing. This phenomena is so common, hikers call it, “sunset panic”. We hope for a flat, rock-free piece of ground on the lee side of the ridge. But the steep-sided trail continues stubbornly on the windward side, with a liberal covering of rocks. We cross under a power line, and Jay detours uphill, questing for a possible campsite just over the crest. I gratefully take a moment to rest, letting the exhaustion of the day catch up.
When Jay returns, his face shows apprehension. “It’s possible to pitch a tent up there, but it’s not ideal. We wouldn’t get much sleep. I know you are tired. What do you think?”
I am tired, but I know a good night’s sleep is important. “Let’s keep looking. We’ve got about 45 more minutes of daylight. And we can always use our flashlights and hike all the way to the next shelter if we need to. But surely there will be something before then!”
On we go, Jay ranging ahead, me following slowly. My legs are outraged. They can’t believe I just sentenced them to possibly two more hours of walking today!
Fifteen minutes later, the trail finally flips to the lee side of the mountain. ‘There must be a place along here. Oh, please don’t head back to the other side,’ I think furiously at the trail. Another ten minutes of walking, and I gratefully make out Jay’s figure in the deepening dusk. He has found a very old campsite, hemmed in with underbrush and covered in leaves, but with the required flat rock-free space for our tent. We are three miles short of Clarks Ferry Shelter. Very soon I am gratefully crawling into our tent, glad to be protected from chilling air currents, and so very glad to be horizontal after a long day!