“Rocksylvania” is the term appropriated for the unforgiving Pennsylvania treadway of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a humorous portmanteau (i.e., blend word of rocks and Pennsylvania) that precisely describes the state’s hardened and jagged landscape. Littered with irregular wedge-shaped rocks and asteroid-like boulders, the trail becomes like an obstacle course through nature. Walking atop piles of rock and rubble, one feels as though he were a search and rescue worker in a disaster zone or perhaps a recovery worker in the aftermath of an apocalyptic earthquake. It was as if a fleet of dump trucks arbitrarily deposited bed-loads of the region’s rockiest debris smack dab onto the hiking trail. Maintaining balance on the tilted bedrock and “geological wreckage” was a challenge in itself, prancing about from one uneven surface to the next became my dizzying routine. Unlike Virginia where one rollercoasters mountain after mountain, a hiker in Pennsylvania is taken up to a rocky ridge where he remains for a substantial length. Ridgewalking the rock-scattered trail of PA involves the negotiation of almost every step. It is no exaggeration to say that I hopped and leapt through almost two-thirds of the state.
Admittedly, I was forewarned that a dedicated pair of rugged hiking sneakers would be necessary to complete the brutal shoe-beating PA portion. The bottom treads of one’s shoes wear down as the scissor-sharp rocks scrape away at the dense foam and glued-on rubber bottoms. If the “penny test” were applied to my shoes as it is on tire treads of automobiles, Lincoln’s head would not be touched! My Altras became as bald as tires on race day. To my dismay, a hole began to form through the worn sole of my left shoe. Without the usual shock absorption, each step was painfully felt. The trail is punctuated with enormous boulder fields, slabs of bedrock, and talus-scree slopes, all of which demand cautious foot placement and devoted attention. One must look down more than he looks forward due to the nature of a rock-covered path; tripping hazards are ubiquitous. In the final appraisal, one concludes that a hike through Rocksylvania is utterly exhausting. However, it is sensually rewarding, especially when periodically there are tree clearings which provide picture-window views of the green-hued Pennsylvanian farmlands below. The whole Rocksylvania episode was a balancing act and a painful test of patience; however, I made it through uninjured and persisted to the last mile.
The Pennsylvania section all began after the completion of the Four State Challenge (FSC). A hostel in Mount Union where I had been shuttled was operated by a hiker-supporting church, which also housed a community food pantry. The organization graciously allows AT’ers to help themselves to the food and liquid provisions stocked on the pantry shelves. There were numerous amenities for hikers, including a bunk room, two private rooms, and a shower/laundry addition accessed from the outside. Since there was also a commercial kitchen within the facility, I cooked a spaghetti and meatball dinner with contents from a resupply box Scott had previously dropped off. The church-run hostel provided a suitable place to take a zero day to dry out and warm up after my exhausting FSC event. The first night I stayed at the church the bunks were filled, but the host accommodated me after considering my circumstances and the inclement weather. In an act of resourceful improvisation, the host provided me with a mattress and pillow to sleep in a nursery room for the night. The children’s room was filled with pastel baby blankets, toddler playthings, and cotton-stuffed animals; none of this mattered of course since I collapsed from exhaustion in mere minutes.
Most of the thru-hikers staying in the hostel cleared out the following morning as weather conditions began to improve. There were two other hikers who remained at the hostel during my time there on the second day. One was an unassuming California woman whose trail name was Moving On. While sitting down at one of the eating tables, Moving On explained to me that she was a divorcée who recently came out of a failed marriage. While married, however, she and her husband had traveled around the world in one continuous trip. In a two-year period of time, the couple globetrotted to Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and Chile, along with numerous European and Nordic countries. Her eyes illuminated as she recounted her former experience traveling the world in one go.
A multi-country trip sounded appealing, and I fielded questions late into the day to get a better grasp of her international quest. Moving On, a retired city planner and loving mother, spoke about how she learned—at least at some elementary level—to dialogue in many of the world’s languages. Also, she often ate in the homes of local townspeople and villagers, becoming acquainted with their cuisine, traditions, customs, and particular way of life. It was not a passive visitation but a cultural immersion. Hearing about the multi-leg round-the-world tour covering all the major continents of the world stirred me. Multinational travel, it seemed, was far different than any domestic or conventional international trip. One could sojourn in China alone for months, walking on the Great Wall in Beijing, visiting the imperial palace of The Forbidden City, or viewing the Terra-Cottta Army assembled in formation as an “afterlife guard” for China’s first emperor. Yet in the same ongoing excursion, one might travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian, visit the ruins of Ancient Athenian society in Greece, or explore the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in a conical rice farm hat. Moving On had the true heart of a traveler with the will to become familiar with that which was unfamiliar. One may learn of the best that has been thought and said and also walk on the same grounds as the ancients. Opportunity seldom provides a courtesy knock; the furtherance of one’s experiences and achievements requires decisiveness of action and an unswerving commitment involving one’s whole being. The world is ours, but seekers must neither refrain from inquiry nor cease in their desire to know.
After a time of much rest and refreshment, a native Marylander picked me up and drove me back to Pen-Mar Road by the Mason-Dixon Line to start my hike through the Quaker State. The southern portion of the state was inviting with closed canopy pine forests and gentle rolling hills of grasslands. Eventually, I reached the AT halfway point, whereupon I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment.
Pine Grove Furnace State Park was a stop that I had anticipated with much enthusiasm as this was the location of the Ironmasters Mansion, the Appalachian Trail Museum, and the famous “Half-Gallon Challenge” held at the park’s general store. To my disappointment, I found out that the general store was closed due to limited seasonal hours. My hope of consuming a half gallon of Hershey’s ice cream to celebrate the halfway mark of the AT was dashed! By tradition, hikers who complete the half-gallon challenge are rewarded a small prize—a souvenir wooden spoon. The words “Member of Half Gal. Club” is stamped on each spoon. A man called Turtleman, whose name is on an honorary plaque inside the store, apparently holds the record for the challenge, eating the half gallon in just under six minutes (5 min 48 sec). The museum, up the street from the general store, was formerly a grist mill but now showcases AT artifacts, including hiking equipment once used by the thru-hiking pioneer Earl Shaffer.
The historic town of Boiling Springs featured a picturesque body of water called Children’s Lake. Ducks and geese populated the water’s edge. The Snow Goose was easily identified by its all-white plumage, elongated neck, pumpkin-orange bill, and unmistakable nasal honking sound. The paddling of webbed feet at regular intervals powered the waterfowl creatures briskly and efficiently through the water. Captivated by one particular drake (male duck) with its green iridescent head and colorful patches of patterns and speckled spots, I was moved to tears as I contemplated its sophisticated and majestic beauty. As the duck swam its routinized laps, occasionally dipping its rounded yellow bill into the water, I recognized the precious miracle of all that is living.
Duncannon was another town displaying much charm and character; its small-scale brick edifices lined the streets in a most timeless manner. Stopping in Kind of Outdoorsy Hostel, I purchased a canister of isobutane fuel and then hung out in the hiker lounge in the back behind the merchandise counter. For five dollars, the hosteler allowed me to take a hot shower and supplied me with shampoo and a towel. Zeiderelli’s Pizza across the street sold me “slicers” for lunch, which I ate in the pizzeria’s small dining space. The proprietor of the establishment had a glass-encased cabinet displaying trophies adorned with gold-toned baseball figurines in recognition of the town’s Little League victories. Walking out of Duncannon were pole-mounted banners honoring past and present members of the U.S. military. The town was visibly patriotic and my viewing of the faces of real soldiers who sacrificed so much reminded me that freedom came with much sacrifice. Even I was a beneficiary of that paid-for freedom. Duty is not a word that is employed much these days since it is more convenient to speak and demand “rights,” but one must not forget the source of those liberties and the incumbent responsibility for their preservation.
From Duncannon, I proceeded across the expansive Susquehanna River and climbed back up to elevation on the ridge. At one point further up trail, I came across a flooded portion of trail due to “beaver activity.” Although an alternate blue blaze had been set up around the beaver damming, hiking through it simply involved hopping on a few half-submerged rocks and balancing oneself while walking across a fallen trees.
Descending to the Port Clinton railroad, I mazed through the small hamlet but decided to pass it up due to the slim resupply options and questionable commentary of the area found on my hiker navigation app. Roadwalking a mile down the next highway, I conducted a full resupply at Wally World in Hamburg. This worked out well since it was raining in sheets and also because I was craving something beyond Easy Mac and Knorr pasta sides. Enclosing myself within the store, the offensive stench of my unshowered body began to make itself known. The open air breeze that normally offsets the bodily odor of “hiker trash” was absent; I felt the need for a good hosing! Other customers were giving me “the look” and the accompanying fake smile as they passed by me gasping for air. Social distancing became reinstated that day, only for non-COVID concerns! After ordering a submarine from the in-store Subway, the egregious smell forced me back outside. Out of basic respect for my fellow man and to prevent the health department from being summoned, I distanced myself well beyond the spacing stickers found on the floor tiles of COVID-compliant shops and chain stores.
Pulpit Rock and The Pinnacle were both remarkable “Kodak moments” to capture the Pennsylvanian mountains from above the treetops. Feeling as though I was on a castle wall, there was a commanding view of the expansive land below. In need of charging my electronics, I blue-blazed to the bustling little town Palmerton. Stumbling upon the town pub, I entered with the sneaking suspicion there would be oversized gourmet hamburgers. My suspicions were confirmed, and I sank my teeth into the weighty meat patties of a two-storied sandwich. Two Blue Moons later, I exited the Palmerton Pub with a fully charged iPhone and three more blue dots on the indicator of my Anker battery bank. Scrambling out of and above Palmerton up to Blue Mountain Ridge proved to be strenuous as this was the rockiest section yet. In my hiking experience, most trail systems use a mound of rocks called a cairn to demarcate a trail within rock fields where there is an absence of trees; however, on the AT, white blazes are painted onto the faces of boulders.
On the periphery of Bake Oven Knob Shelter, I was visited by the shelter’s resident raccoon. The characteristic rings around the eyes came to be recognized as I shone the light of my headlamp onto the furry food bandit. My food bag was in my tent but it was sealed, and I had no crumbs or wrappers out. Raccoons are called “trash pandas” for a reason, so I was grateful that I was not robbed by one of these ring-tailed raiders. With that said, I wanted to take one of these cuddly critters home as a pet. The last night before dropping down to the Delaware Water Gap and exiting Pennsylvania, I had an eagle-eye view of the Delaware River from a small tent site that hugged the edge of the mountain’s ridge. As has been described, the trail can be excruciating at times, but that is no reason to give up. One may recall the words of John Greenleaf Whittier:
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.
As I crossed the bridge the following morning, I snapped a quick selfie at the Pennsylvania-New Jersey state line. A painted message on the concrete surface at an intermediate point on the bridge indicates where a hiker officially crosses over from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. Rocksylvania was complete! I then made my way to Kittatinny Point Visitor Center, an agreed-upon location where I was to meet Pitstop.
For four nights after crossing into New Jersey I camped with Pitstop; the first two nights were spent in Sussex County, NJ and the next two nights in Saugerties, NY. The nero day and three zero days from April 30th to May 3rd were restorative and served to prepare me for my travels to Colorado for my graduation, what I call “The Intermission.” On my first day off, Pitstop and I took an enlightening sidetrip to the Catskills in New York to visit the historic Woodstock festival site on what was Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel. The “three days of peace and music” held in August 1969 was originally called Woodstock Music & Art Fair Presents An Aquarian Exposition but became known simply as Woodstock.
The night before my trail departure, Pitstop made a meal fit for a king. The calorie-loaded Italian meal included penne arriabata, tuna steaks, a side of caprese salad, and a mixed red table wine. Tea candles on the picnic table were lit to enhance our fine outdoor dining experience, even though we were camped on the grounds of the semi-dilapidated New Life Campground.
Setting our alarm clocks for 2 am on Wednesday, Pitstop and I resurrected from our slumber. Moving about as early-morning zombies, Pitstop managed to make a pancake breakfast before we left for the airport. A Café Bustelo espresso sweetened with dark muscovado gave me the alacrity to stay awake as we hightailed it to the BDL airport in Hartford. After the 737 landed in Colorado, I spent the rest of that Wednesday with my family, celebrating my graduation with a sheet cake and foil balloons.
On Thursday evening I attended a hooding ceremony, a tradition in which graduate students present their hoods to the deans who then honorably drape them around the students’ necks. As my name was called, I handed my name card to Dr. Waggoner—the dean of my specific college within the university; then I proceeded across the stage whereupon a scarlet felt-lined hood was placed over my head and hung on my shoulders. That night Dr. Sweeting, the president of the university, addressed the audience with a message about the meaning of success. What is “success” and how does one achieve it? Drawing from the Old Testament of the Bible, Sweeting spoke about Joshua’s Charge (Joshua 1:1-9) given after Moses had died; Joshua was to come out of the wilderness and conquer Canaan, the Land of Promise. God gave Joshua three instructions: 1) be strong and courageous, 2) be a meditator and doer of the Torah (His Word), and 3) remember that God is always with you. In other words, success is not bound up in the material life but in the spiritual one. I left the ceremony examining my own preunderstandings of success and began to think differently about the merits of my own actions.
The commencement ceremony was held on Friday morning. Having been selected as Outstanding Graduate Student from the School of Biblical Studies and Theology, I was designated to be one of the flag-bearers. During the processional, the other master’s students for that degree followed me in to begin the commencement exercises. Displaying much formality, the ceremony had the usual pomp and pageantry. The commencement speaker, addressing the body of both undergraduate and graduate students, spoke on the subject of courage. One important point that was brought out was that “true courage is not the absence of fear but the recognition of it and doing it anyway.” Since I was graduating with honors, a blue ribbon with an honors metal acknowledged the distinction and hung over my black silky robe. Wearing formal regalia was quite the change from the hiker garb I’d been wearing for the last five months since leaving from Key West! It was such a privilege to participate in the Colorado Christian University (CCU) graduate hooding ceremony and commencement in Denver, especially since I was selected to receive the 2022 Outstanding Graduate Student Award for the School of Biblical Studies and Theology. A special plaque was given to recognize this special honor.
After the hiatus was over, I flew back to Connecticut where Pitstop picked me up. Driving back to New Life Campground in Saugerties, NY, the two of us spent one last zero day together for me to rest and prepare for my upcoming section through New Jersey. The next morning I was dropped back off at Kittatinny Point at the Delaware Water Gap to resume my thru-hike of the Eastern Continental Trail. There was much hiking still to be done since the trail was far from over. A deep reassurance as I stepped back onto the trail that I had come to love. She is a mistress…a comforting companion for whom my heart had longed.