The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Here is a piece of advice for anyone considering an Appalachian Trail thru hike: If at all possible, avoid hiking the mid-Atlantic states — Maryland through Connecticut; some people say West Virginia through Massachusetts — in high summer.
Northern Virginia was plenty hot in late June and early July, but starting at Front Royal, Va., the trail dips below 2,000 feet in elevation for the next 600 miles, half of it below 1,000 feet. So not only are you walking through the frying pan of the AT, but Ixodes scapularis — the primary vector for Lyme disease in the eastern United States — flourishes in warm weather at elevations below 2,000 feet.
Despite getting out of camp at 6:15 a.m. and reaching my destination at 2:30 p.m. with minimal climbing, my first full day in Pennsylvania was tough. Amid temperatures bumping up against 90 and a dew point above 70 (“Very humid, quite uncomfortable,” per the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration), my sweat glands went into overdrive. But in the airless confines of the green tunnel, nothing could evaporate. Soon, my clothes were soaked and my skin was coated with slick, suffocating membrane of sweat. My hips, upper legs and armpits were raw with chafe.
But there were compensations along the way. I passed the actual 2016 mid-way point (more than 70 miles beyond the “spiritual” halfway point in Harpers Ferry) and, shortly thereafter, the 1,100-mile mark.
All downhill from here, right? I wrote later.
Fortunately, my stopping point offered multiple therapies to soothe my raw body after the day’s scalding. First, I reveled in the sting of soap and cool water at the historic Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. After starting a load of laundry, I wandered over to the Pine Grove General Store, home of the “half-gallon challenge” — hikers are encouraged to buy and consume an entire carton of ice cream. Seeing no particular benefit — a stomachache seems to be the most common reward — I declined to participate, instead ordering a grilled cheese and fries, downing two quarts of Gatorade, and mowing through a Snickers bar and an ice-cream bar.
Then, defying the advice of nannies and mothers the world over, I immediately walked a half-mile and plunged into the clear, cool, ferrous waters of Fuller Lake. Walking back to the hostel, I stopped by the store, where I talked to a super-fit 62-year-old hiker from Denver named Weather or Knot, who was not happy with the AT.
“I’m totally unimpressed,” he said irritably. “All you’re doing is walking through trees all the time. It’s not like Colorado, where every time you look up the view is spectacular.”
He was right, of course. Compared to the Rockies or Sierras, the Appalachians do not offer nearly the bounty of sheer, jaw-dropping natural beauty.
The ABCs of the trail: adventure, challenge, beauty, I wrote later in my journal. I’m looking for all three, and it’s true there is less B on the AT than the CT. But that just makes me more eager to celebrate every little change, border, or milestone. The next shelter, a 100-mile mark, a state line, a town, a railroad, a view, wildlife — I appreciate them all on the AT.
When I got back to the hostel, I saw I wasn’t the only one who had suffered in the heat. The Dude, who had straggled in with Alasdair from England, looked like he’d been dropped in a pot of boiling water; his skin was a bright, angry red wherever it had been in contact with his salt-soaked clothing. I tossed him my tube of Vagisil, which he applied liberally to good effect (but told me later it was still one of his worst nights on the entire trail).
That night we had spectacular views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, enhanced by the dance of lightning bugs around the foliage and across the lawn.
Pancakes, orange juice and coffee at the hostel propelled me out the door by 7 a.m. and I was thrilled that I could maintain a speedy pace over relatively level — and not particularly rocky — ground. Maybe Pennsylvania would turn out to be like the Roller Coaster, its reputation for difficulty comically overblown.
For much of the day I leapfrogged — passed and was passed by — Dragonhead, a young engineer who was working in Denver but had grown up in this corner of Pennsylvania. I loved walking through cornfields the last two miles into Boiling Springs, a pretty little town that isn’t very hospitable to hikers. Besides a camping area on the edge of town, there was no affordable lodging, and lunch with Dragonhead was pretty pricey at the Boiling Springs Tavern, which gave off a kind of wood-paneled, Rat Pack — or maybe it was more Mafia — vibe.
I’m sad to say that the staff at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy office in town didn’t seem any happier about their jobs than the people in Harpers Ferry; it’s a great organization, but based on my brief experience, it doesn’t seem to be the greatest place to work — or maybe it was just the heat. Following their repeated warnings not to camp in the narrow corridor of AT right-of-way leaving town, I decided to put in a 27-mile day and find a motel in Carlisle.
Walking in late afternoon through mildly undulating hay fields, dells and pastures was extremely pleasant, despite the oppressive heat and the continual appearance of chafe in truly novel regions of my body. As usual when I went into town — one reason I’m not big on zeroes — I spent too much on food and lodging in Carlisle. But I rose the next morning for my 60th day of walking feeling rested, my chafe calmed by women’s yeast-infection cream, and chortling over all those bogeyman stories about rocks. So far, other than the brutal heat and humidity, Pennsylvania was turning out to be breeze.
After six more miles of pleasant pasture walking, the next day presented a couple of short, but stout, uphill slogs. This time, the mercury percolated past 90 and the dew point was even higher. Thankfully, by mid-afternoon thunderclouds had begun to gather and as I walked a long ridge atop Cove Mountain, rain began to fall, dropping the temperature by 15 degrees.
But by the time I stood on Hawk Rock (mile 1144.6) the storm clouds were loudly announcing the coming apocalypse and the wail of an emergency tornado claxon was wafting up from tiny Duncannon, 700 feet below. Despite hiking only 15 miles, my feet were battered from the 115 miles I’d done over the previous five days. But I hustled down that mountain, fretting over what to do if a twister should actually appear.
Duncannon, with its many desultory buildings and boarded-up windows, is a sad reminder of the Rust Belt’s former glory days. But it’s home to a rather famous stop on the AT, the Doyle Hotel, which is just as run-down as the rest of town, maybe a little more. The Doyle is the kind of place that forces you to ponder the history behind all those stains on your mattress, and where you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Tom the junkie priest from Drugstore Cowboy hovering expectantly in your doorway. The high ceiling above the shower on the second floor hung down in moldering shreds that looked a little too much like skin sloughing off a rotting corpse.
On the other hand, Vicky and Pat, the owners, run a pretty good kitchen and make a very fine cup of New England clam chowder, indeed. As the rain slashed down outside and the claxon continued to howl — Vicky explained it was for a car accident, not a tornado — I ate heartily and drank an excellent brown ale.
I met a couple of interesting hikers, including an older guy walking with his black Labrador retriever Olive, aka Olive’s Human. He was driving his own vehicle a few days up the trail, hiking back, then hitching back to his truck to drive to the next segment, mixing in SOBO and NOBO days. I also met Refill, a happy-go-lucky young German who, like several other of his countrymen I’d met, had decided to walk the AT after seeing a documentary on German TV.
I was jawing with Vicky and finishing a truly decadent piece of chocolate cake when I looked down to see what was tickling my left knee. It was a tiny tick, no bigger than a sesame seed. I yield to almost all living things and will save spiders and ants and worms, but I have no patience for dog-tormenting fleas or ticks. I pinched it between my thumb and forefinger and dropped it into the dregs of my beer.
“That’s better than you deserve, you little fucker,” I said.
At least it wasn’t embedded. And though small, I hopefully observed that it was larger than the poppy-seed-sized juveniles most associated with Lyme disease.
“You tell yourself what you have to, honey,” Vicky said, eyeing me over half-moon glasses on the tip of her nose.
Crossing the long bridge across the Susquehanna River early the next morning, I walked atop the concrete barrier between the roaring traffic and the “trail” to avoid the myriad fluttering webs woven by spiders during the night.
Spiders, I like. Ticks, no.
By the time I pitched my tent near a spring after just 17.4 miles that afternoon, I knew that dreaded “Rocksylvania” was not mere hyperbole, as I’d hoped. There was still some decent tread, but where there wasn’t, the trail was a craggle of shattered boulders and smaller, knife-edged rocks.
It made for slow going and battered feet. Still, I couldn’t fathom why I felt so beat up after a relatively short day.
A strange day, worst on the AT so far, I wrote that evening (worse than Cinco de Freeze-o?). I sweated like crazy all day, muggy, mix of clouds and sun. Maybe I got heat prostration? But my veins were full all day and I know I was drinking enough. This afternoon was a serious goddamned slog and my whole body is just too fucking HOT.
It was only 3 p.m. by the time I’d made camp and found water. But I didn’t even have the energy to eat, even when two SOBOs told me there was magic less than a mile down the hill at the next road. Flopping back on my Z-lite pad, I fell asleep for several hours until two hikers, King of the Freaks and Toastybuns (she had fallen into a campfire) came around after dark offering weed and some rather potent, pinkish (?) moonshine. I declined the weed, but told myself the booze would “burn out” whatever was ailing me. We talked about The Lord of the Rings and laughed, but soon I had to return to sleep.
I woke at my usual time with the birds the next morning, but forced myself to stay down, hoping more sleep would put a stake through the murderous ache thumping through my head. The night had been miserable, a maniacal oscillation between extreme heat and shivers, accompanied by constant sweating that literally left my sleeping bag sodden.
Maybe I’m just overall weak and vulnerable to sickness because I’m not eating enough? I scrawled in my journal, the last entry I would make for several days. It better not be motherfucking Lymes (sic).
Those next days were a nightmare blur as I dragged myself a few miles — looking back, my longest day was 11, the shortest around 6 — to a shelter or someplace where I could throw up the tent and collapse. Now, besides the constant thrumming in my head and fever, with its whiplash swings between teeth-chattering chills and brain-poaching heat, my joints creaked with jagged pain every time I moved. I had zero appetite.
Evidently I did not accept the obvious until several thru hikers — including Dragonhead — and Pennsylvania day hikers convinced me that I should go to a doctor. If it was Lyme disease, letting it go could permanently jeopardize my health. And so I got a ride from a local guy (Eric?) to a Subway restaurant where I called a number for a shuttle (though where I got that, I have no idea).
And then I sick-blazed, skipping 24 miles of trail. A nice older woman named Joyce drove me to Port Clinton (mile 1,217.2), where I dumped my pack near the hiker pavilion sponsored by St. John’s Church, pulled out my sleeping bag — despite a high of 95 degrees and a dew point above 70, I was shivering — and slumped once more into an uneasy sleep.
Had I been smart, I would have had Joyce drive me straight to a doctor, but the stubborn part of me was still hoping this would pass. The next day, feeling worse than ever, I got a shuttle to a doc-in-a-box about 15 minutes away. I called ahead, but when I arrived, the nurse looked at my temperature — 103.5 F — and said I needed to go to an emergency room. The shuttle guy drove me to Reading and dropped me off at St. Joseph Medical Center.
After an hour’s wait, a nurse brought me to an open bay, where I would lie for the next five hours. She took blood and vitals, covered me with a blanket, and left. When Dr. Deborah Chun finally came around, she told me my white blood count and platelets were low, indicating infection. Given my symptoms, and the fact that I’d come off the trail, she diagnosed and “presumptively” treated me for Lyme disease with a three-week course of doxycycline.
(Studies have found that the oft-cited calling card of Lyme disease, a “bullseye” shaped rash around the bite, is in fact present in only 40-70 percent of cases. Dr. Chun found a mark under my waistband that may have been a sign of this “erythema migrans,” but it definitely wasn’t a bullseye.)
Feeling only a tad better, I staggered out into the early evening sunlight and called Joyce again. Her husband Lance picked me up after about an hour and hauled me back to West Hamburg, where I got a hotel room instead of pitching a tent at the hiker pavilion five miles up the road.
Between three shuttle rides and the hotel, that tick had already cost me $400 — plus whatever the ER visit would end up costing — and put me through the most miserable stretch of my hike so far. I had hit rock bottom. When I called from the hotel, Jody said it was time to come home.
But I wasn’t about to let the joys of Pennsylvania — the heat, the humidity, the chafe; the endless, airless green tunnels and monotonous miles of brutal rocks and shitty ticks — defeat me.