Part 27: Appalachian Trail (AT)—Maryland (Mile 2,961.5 to 3,002.8) Day 139

The picture-postcard railroad bridge that crosses over the Potomac River into Maryland had a pedestrian walkway appended to it called the Goodloe Byron Memorial Footbridge. Retrofitting a “side bridge” as an appendage to the old Winchester and Potomac Railroad Bridge involved engineering cast iron arms that were bolted onto the original structure. There was a chain-link separation between the footbridge and the railroad bridge, presumably to keep young children and local inebriates from meeting their end. The night of the Four-State Challenge (FSC) was mostly calm as I walked to the Maryland side. Maryland was my eighth state since leaving Florida on December 1st. Hiking along the Potomac on the well-groomed dirt path was most enjoyable; however, I knew I had to remain in motion since inclement weather was forecasted. I took a swig of my Black Label boxed hiker wine to commemorate my entrance into yet another state. Perambulating in the wee hours of the morning provides the chance to have the trail all to oneself. Since I was crushing big miles to achieve the FSC within a limited 24-hour period, a hikerless trail fostered the appropriate environment for such a pursuit.

At dawn’s early light, I came upon stony ruins of a nineteenth century estate in Gathland State Park. Gath’s Empty Tomb was also located within the park grounds. Then, right before dropping down in elevation and crossing I-70, the trail takes the hiker through Washington Monument State Park. Now many, if not most people today, haven’t the foggiest idea that 58 years before the famous Washington Monument in Washington D.C. was erected in 1885, there was another original stone obelisk built in 1827. There is a side trail leading up to the first-ever Washington monument. The park preserves this 40-foot tall tower that was once built by the citizens of Boonsboro on July 4, 1827 and dedicated to the nation’s first president—George Washington. The Odd Fellows Lodge of Boonsboro sponsored the tower’s restoration in 1882 after the tower fell into disrepair; however, it would be members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who rebuilt the tower in its present form. Within Washington Monument State Park, there were also several wood signs along the pathway with routed-out facts about Washington. As one continues along the footpath, a chronological timeline of the president’s life is presented.

As soon as I passed over the interstate, the weather turned. What came down was not April rain showers but fluffy white snowflakes! Of course this was a wind-whipped snow, and the temperature was dropping at a rapid rate. Water vapors were freezing into ice crystals right before my frustrated eyes. Visibility was getting worse, reducing to about ten feet. In the blinding snowfall, I found much relief under an overpass bridge to bundle up; also, I had a chocolate pick-me-up before resuming the hike. Knowing that the weather would continue to deteriorate, my plan was to book it from one shelter to the next, engaging in what one may call “shelter-hopping.” In so doing, I had the chance to dry off every few hours and warm up from the blustery snowstorm. My hands and toes kept getting tender and going numb; frozen stiff, I feared frostbite. Often, I would stick my hands under my armpits just to maintain sensation and reduce exposure. The white blazes became next to impossible to see as the wind blew snow onto the bark of the tree trunks where the blazes would typically be painted. Navigation would be done with periodic checks on my phone. Unfortunately, an iPhone touchscreen has an annoying “fiddle factor” as the snowflakes fall onto the screen, melt into water, and blur the trail map of the navigation app. The headwind that day was something fierce, and I battled even walking in a straight line. My nose turned a ruby red.

By the time I reached Ensign Cowall Shelter, I was numbed to the core by the bitter cold. What had begun as sleet turned into a winter weather event! As much as I wanted to complete the FSC, I did not want to put myself in a dangerous situation that could lead to severe injury or death. At one point during the trek, I thoughtfully considered calling off the FSC altogether. On my cellphone, I texted Pitstop (Dave) and Buckeye Blazer (Scott) to get their informed opinion on the matter, as I did not want to proceed in a foolhardy manner. There was a road crossing nearby (Wolfsville Road) and so, if it came down to it, I could arrange a shuttle to evacuate off trail.

Right then it occurred to me, “Wait a minute, wasn’t this supposed to be a challenge?” After all, a challenge is not something that should be mitigated or lessened; rather, it is something which is to be faced head-on. Besides, having hiked sixty miles in a solitary day on the “Shennies Challenge,” I needed to make the 47.6-mile FSC more challenging to even things out! Mustering some courage, I cowboyed up and got a hold of my senses. One way or another, I was going to finish what had been started. It was 9.8 miles from Ensign Cowall Shelter to Pen Mar Road on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. With the thought of frostbitten fingers and toes still on my mind, I remembered a technique from my training as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR). Having gallon size Ziplock bags in my food sack, I put one bag over each socked foot. This created a vapor barrier which promptly warmed up my feet by reducing water penetration through the shoe and simultaneously trapping generated heat, thereby causing a sauna-like steam effect. After warming my hands and feet, then putting on every article of clothing in my possession—some five layers, the fear of frostbite to the extremities was assuaged and I proceeded back into the cold white wilderness.

Walking at a swift pace as though there were no tomorrow, I slipped and slid my way atop rickety boards that went across numerous small streams. Proceeding onward, I learned that northern Maryland is far rockier than one might expect! The rocks had a frozen slush and were slick with a clear coat of ice; hopping from one rock to the next proved hazardous. One miscalculated move and the self-challenge could be over in a painful instant. Foot placement became crucial within the boulder fields because the snow filled up the voids between the rocks, boobytrapping the landscape; therefore, one mis-step could result in a sprained or broken ankle. Trekking poles, acting as another set of legs, aided in reducing clumsy spills. The poles could also be employed as probes, feeling for hard ground with each step. There was one point when I did fall on my buttocks and, due to the slick texture of my rain pants, slid some fifteen feet down a snow-blanketed hillside. In retrospect, it was actually good fun! Laying flat on my back as a result of the nature of the slippery derrière-first fall, I looked up at the storm clouds. In an unforgettable moment of embracing the otherwise negative circumstances, I moved my arms and legs in a fluttery motion along the snowy surface, creating a snow angel as one commonly does in his youth. I had left my mark!

After much scrambling upon the snow-slickened rocks, I somehow managed to get to the Mason-Dixon Line—a demarcation that separates Maryland from Pennsylvania. Snapping a selfie in front of the Mason-Dixon sign, I felt a tremendous release; I had arrived at the fourth and last state of the FSC. Walking just a short distance to Pen Mar Road, the self-challenge was over and had been completed safely and successfully within the allotted timeframe. Although incapacitated by the bitter cold conditions, I had persisted. It was by this time getting dark, and I was ready to get someplace dry since all of my clothes and gear were sopping wet. Feeling an uncomfortable lack of warmth for so many hours, my body had taken a tremendous toll.

Exhausted from the wintry hike, I was shivering and shaking with the chills. At 7:57 pm ET, I finished the 47.6-mile FSC in just under twenty hours. In those last few miles, I had unknowingly hit 3,000 miles on the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT), which was also a feat! Soon after my completion of the challenge, a local shuttle driver named Dennis picked me up at the Pen Mar road crossing as had been previously arranged. The driver, cranking the heat on full blast, took me to a church-run hostel that, despite being booked with other hikers, accommodated me.

Understanding the forces I was up against in the challenge and my willingness to endure that day, Scott sent me the lyrics to a most pertinent song, containing words that spoke to my situation in a penetrating manner. The ballad, performed by Don Williams, is entitled Stronger Back, and the chorus hit home; indeed, the song conveys a striking message about the nature of accepting a difficult and strenuous challenge:

I pray for a stronger back.

I pray for a bigger heart.

I pray for the will to keep on walkin’ when the way is dark.

I follow that windin’ road just tryin’ to stay on track.

I don’t pray for a lighter load, I pray for a stronger back.

My burden was neither lightened on this long and tiring day nor was it made easy, but I did receive the strength, heart, and will to endure and carry on to the end.

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1 thought on “Part 27: Appalachian Trail (AT)—Maryland (Mile 2,961.5 to 3,002.8) Day 139

  1. Another pure masterpiece! You write in such a way that I could almost feel that cold snow!

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