The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Springing for a room at the Microtel in Hamburg, Pa. was a smart, if expensive, move on my part after my ordeal with Lyme disease. I ate heartily for the first time in many days, watched a great movie I’d never seen before (Goodfellas) and slept. A lot.
I even ordered another new pair of Altra Olympus 2.0 trail shoes. While I loved the shoes — the wide toebox and hefty cushioning had greatly reduced the pain of sesamoiditis — the rocks of Pennsylvania had eaten the first pair for lunch, splitting both shoes on both sides after only 350 miles. And while I have my issues with Amazon, the fact that the shoes would arrive just 20 hours later testifies to the astonishing convenience of our online world, whatever its down sides.
Accumulating evidence from hikers and shelter logbooks, I would soon realize that Pennsylvania kills not only shoes and boots, but also many hiker dreams. So many people got sick, suffered serious injuries among the rocks, lost their mojo or simply got bored somewhere along those 229 miles of trail.
I slept until 9:30 a.m., nearly missing breakfast at the hotel, but feeling better already after the first two doses of antibiotics and a handful of Ibuprofen. After repacking, I walked across the road for a resupply, then waited in the lobby until mid-afternoon until the shoes arrived. I caught a hitch back to the pavilion in Port Clinton.
“But the doctor says it’s OK, and I’m on antibiotics,” I explained to Jody, who (understandably) thought I was being stubborn — nay, stupid — to continue. “I’m going to gather a day or two of evidence, see how it goes. If I still feel crappy, then I’ll quit.”
And while I felt better, I was all too aware how exhausted I felt after only minimal activity. But the company that night at the pavilion gave me back a little pep. I ordered a pizza with a smell-the-roses young hiker named Ninja Turtle; Toastybuns had yellow-blazed to Port Clinton; Olive and Olive’s Human showed up; and I met Rumblejunk, a correspondent for the Sounds of the Trail podcast — who, despite my nifty Lyme horror story, was not moved to put a microphone in front of my face.
That night I tried to moderate the argument running through my mind: Going to be hot and humid again tomorrow. I should be taking it easy. There’s no rush, I wrote. Except I hate sitting around! I really want to do a 16-20 day tomorrow.
By morning, I felt a little feverish, but impatience had won the debate during the night. I woke up, packed up, gave Olive a pat, and headed north.
On the advice of Dr. Chun, who said further exposure could result in reinfection, I had resolved to put up with a little discomfort in an effort to ward off ticks. So I tucked the cuffs of my zip-off Columbia pants into a pair of calf-high REI socks, donned a loose, long-sleeve button-up shirt and doused myself with DEET. I also had sprayed my clothes with permethrin from the hiker box at the pavilion the night before.
But just a half-mile into the steep, 700-foot climb out of Port Clinton, I dumped my pack on the ground and ripped off of all that clothing as if I were a man aflame. Re-outfitting myself in my good ol’ Brooks Sherpa running shorts and a short-sleeve shirt, I made a miraculous conversion to DEET-ism, placing all my faith in the miracles of modern chemistry. Still hot, but no longer on fire, I continued up the hill.
In Pennsylvania the basic pattern of the AT is as follows: Steep climb to a ridge, long ridgewalk in a northeasterly direction, almost always on rocks, steep descent to the next road or river, repeat. That day alternated stretches of decent tread — if I could see dirt, I was thrilled — with big, chunky, gnarly rocks.
In early afternoon, I gave myself a break and walked two-tenths of a mile down Hawk Mountain Road to the unusual Eckville Shelter, located behind a caretaker’s house and featuring a solar shower. Cloudy skies meant I was in for a gasping, Navy-style session behind the curtain, but I scrubbed every crevice of my body vigorously with Dr. Bronner’s, muttering triumphantly at any ticks I might have picked up.
An 800-foot climb brought me to the Pinnacle (mile 1226.7) and Pulpit Rock (mile 1224.5) — Clambering over everything from refrigerator-sized boulders to basketball-sized blocks for mile after mile, I wrote. But at least those spots offered long, lovely views of the Lehigh Valley, including of the virginal rain curtains trailing down from sky to the west.
For my first day back on trail, and considering all the rocks, I was pleased at my progress. After slipping and sliding two-tenths of a mile downhill to fill up at Dans Spring, I finally looked at Guthook’s and was thrilled to see I was just 1.5 miles from the Allentown Hiking Club Shelter — a half hour more!
Five minutes later, I was completely drenched after the sky’s cup ranneth over. I spent the next mile splashing and grumbling. Then, as if I were in a ridiculous cartoon, the torrent stopped a minute before I reached the shelter, which was already crowded and draped with wet gear. I snagged one of the narrow, shelf-like upper bunks and set about making dinner and preparing for the next day.
I am, I confess, an unregenerate “pack exploder” — once I’ve got my pad out, whether in a tent or shelter, I can’t seem to help but haul out virtually everything in my pack. I am downright ritualistic when it comes to placing items back where they belong — as thru hiker and ATC ridgerunner Miss America says, “You should be able to find anything you need in total darkness” — but I view every day as a new opportunity to achieve Packing Perfection®, that elusive state of hiking nirvana in which everything comes out of the pack precisely in the order needed. For this reason, and no other, I can’t see myself ever using a hammock — I love sleeping in them, but there’s no place to safely explode!
My fellow travelers that night included chatty Chef Ducky from Indiana and her friend Monarch, a woman of few words from Utah, and Tapeworm, a quiet, good-looking younger guy. Later, those on the floor scooched and made enough froom for a soaked SOBO couple that burst around the corner in a hail of noise. Bonnie and Clyde immediately turned on music and began the lengthy project of rolling cigarettes on clumsy, hand-cranked machine that had to weigh two pounds, at least.
There was something off about the pair from the get-go. I heard Bonnie tell someone she was a former medical student who had recently spent time in a mental hospital. And when Clyde couldn’t find his cell phone, he began muttering immediately and audibly that someone in the shelter had stolen it.
“We’re thru hiking SOBO,” Bonnie announced. “We started at Killington, Vermont. We’re from up there so we don’t need to do the Whites and Maine.”
Clyde complained bitterly about the misery of the “boardwalks in New Jersey” and railed against the exposure and difficulty of the Knife Edge (mile 1246.4), blasting an unnamed “they” for so callously forcing hikers to traverse a rock formation so insane you could easily fall to your death.
“They’re gonna get sued some day,” he proclaimed, cigarette embers flying from his emphatic hand.
It was one of just two times on the AT that I was uncomfortable with people at a shelter.
“I wasn’t too thrilled about that crazy couple,” Monarch said a couple days later. She thought they might be on meth.
At the bottom of the hill the next morning I saw a hand-written note from someone who had found a cell phone on the trail: Call your number and I’ll get it back to you! But Bonnie and Clyde were headed SOBO and I doubt they ever saw it.
I’ve traversed another feature called the “the knife edge,” on the way to the summit of one of Colorado’s more challenging 14,000-foot mountains, Capitol Peak. It’s extremely exposed (check out this video) but not, in fact, very difficult if you know what you’re doing. I couldn’t imagine Pennsylvania’s version was anywhere near as exposed, and I was right. It was a rocky ridge that required the use of hands here and there, and a little slippery in the rain, but it seemed no more dangerous than many other places on the trail.
I spent much of the day walking with Old Spice, a speedy, 51-year-old Pennsylvania guy who was hiking the trail with his son, Axe. His son was (for reasons I can’t recall) off trail that day, so Old Spice was slackpacking. Our conversation made the time and miles pass swiftly. But once again, the skies burst asunder 1.5 miles from the nearest shelter, unleashing battering deluge. It poured for a solid half hour, but by the time we reached Outerbridge Shelter, the clouds had moved on and the sun was out as if it had all been a dream.
Reclining in the shelter was a group of six battered-looking but cheery young people on a SOBO section hike. When I found out that two of the girls had horrific blisters, I rummaged for my trusty roll of Leukotape and played trail doctor. I could not believe what I saw when one girl put her feet in my lap: the aqua-painted nails on two middle toes of one foot had been pushed up by pearls of white blister, giving them the appearance of googly Gollum eyes. After lancing them with a clean needle to reduce the pain and pressure, I taped her up. Then I cleaned and taped ragged, bloody blisters on the other girl’s feet.
“Your trail name should be Doc,” said the girl with the blue-eyed toes.
In a most welcome impersonation of Rocky Mountain weather, the rain had yielded to way to a warm, breezy, surprisingly dry afternoon. Despite our soaking, Old Spice and I were thoroughly dry by the time we hit the bridge across the Lehigh River. His cousin arrived to pick him up 15 minutes later and they gave me a ride to beautiful downtown Palmerton.
Palmerton was long notable to hikers for two things: the Sunny Rest nudist resort on the edge of town (I didn’t go, but The Dude told me it was fun) and the Jail House Hostel, literally a bunch of unused jail cells in the basement of a government building. After the jailhouse closed following the 2015 season, the enterprising owner of the excellent Bert’s Steakhouse & Restaurant rigged up a shower off the alley, set out a bunch of cots in a cinder-block garage and, voila!, a low-key, cheap hostel was born.
During a short after-dinner walk — I did mention I can’t sit still, didn’t I? — in the park across the street, I was baffled to see dozens of people, young and old, wandering around at dusk staring resolutely at their smart-phone screens. Finally, while dabbling my feet in a small stream where two more sensible boys were fishing, I asked their mother what was going on.
“Oh, that’s Pokémon GO,” she said. “I can’t believe you haven’t heard of it.”
This cultural wave — some sort of interactive game where you seek out and collect Pokemon characters and items in something like a game of virtual geocaching (I think) — crested in a few faddish weeks in July, then crashed and receded just as quickly. Thankfully, I never saw anyone playing on the AT.
Tapeworm also took a $10 bunk out behind Bert’s, joining me and a kid who was waiting to be picked up the next morning. The kid (I neglected to write down his name) was abandoning the AT for good after contracting a painful-looking case of cellulitis on one leg.
“I was going to just get off for a week or two, until I got better,” he said. “But then I started thinking. I’m not having that much fun, so what else could I be doing with my time?”
PA DESTROYS DREAMS, I wrote that night.
But every time I truthfully answered a local and said their state was the armpit of the AT so far, they cheerily agreed, often taking it as a compliment on their “toughness.” Well, tough is one thing, but miserable’s another. The trail had been plenty tough all along but there were rewards. Pennsylvania’s many physical miseries were, for me, compounded day after day by the mental drudgery of an endless, steaming green tunnel that only occasionally coughed up a view or glimpse of wildlife.
Having said all that, the next day — the next morning, anyway — was a highlight. Tapeworm and I rose early and caught a swell hitch from an old local guy who took us all the way up to the trail. I reveled in the rocky scramble from Lehigh Gap up to the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund site, which is, according to some geeks at WhiteBlaze.net, the 32nd steepest half mile on the trail. This was my kind of hiking.
Just like shootin’ womp rats in Beggars’ Canyon back home, I wrote in my journal.
And, thanks to the ongoing mitigation of the environmental contamination atop the ridge, the next four miles are a lovely stroll along a grassy hillside. I sang out loud and stopped every few minutes to eat ripe blackberries and raspberries like a bear, not caring even a little whether they might be loaded with toxic chemicals from the EPA site just up the hill.
Views! Berries! Open air! No rocks! I wrote.
But then, after a few miles of this pleasant ambling, you come to a gravel road used by vehicles working on the Superfund site. Following the road would be a blue blaze, so in good conscience, you follow the white blazes into the woods, and you are soon back to the grind, painstakingly picking through a jumble of granite blocks and rocks for several miles. It appears to be perfectly flat in Awol, but only because the scale of the elevations can’t pick up the constant hopping up and down from rock to rock, boulder to boulder, crag to crag. It’s not just tiring and tough on your feet, but also mentally exhausting — lose focus for one second and you might well sprain an ankle, bust a wrist or knock yourself silly.
Halfway through the obstacle course, I caught a tantalizing glimpse of the Superfund service road through the trees. All I’d have to do was scramble 50 yards down, then walk it out on a smooth gravel track … ahhhh. But no. I’d blown my purism several times over, but I wouldn’t feel very good about myself in the morning if I skipped part of the trail for no other reason than it was a pain in the ass. So I turned away from temptation, and several miles later, feet throbbing, tears springing to my eyes, stared at the utility road where it met the trail…
It pissed me off because that day demonstrated, in theory, that designers could have built the trail along the flanks of all those Pennsylvania ridges, instead of sadistically forcing hikers across all the endless, brutal, rock-strewn miles that geological history has scattered like broken glass across the top. It’s almost as if “they” said, “We’re going to make this MoFo as hard as we can possibly make it, no matter what….”
But, as if in reward for my refusal to blue-blaze, I saw bears No. 5 and 6 on that rocky ridge. I heard a cub yowl, then turned to see it tumble out of a tree and join mama. I got a nice view before they barreled down the far side, but once again, no photo.
After another long, hot, mind-numbing march through the green tunnel, I decided to hike a full mile down into Wind Gap on the promise of a good meal. But here was a town that didn’t cater to, or particularly appreciate, hikers. I ate some greasy high-priced food at a sports bar, where the server squinched her face in disgust each time she approached and pinched up the cash I laid upon the bar as if it were used toilet paper; she probably went back and put it in the microwave.
Tired and cranky, I considered knocking on a door to ask if I could pitch a tent in one of the big yards along the road. But fearing I’d be greeted with a shotgun, I hiked a mile uphill back to the trail. Two full sideways miles for a crummy, expensive supper.
After mounting the 500-foot climb to the next ridge, I found a flat spot off in the woods and pitched my tent. As I was cooking dinner, Monarch came rolling by, planning to hike into darkness to complete her first 30-mile day. She wanted to get within 10 miles of Delaware Water Gap — the end of PA! — where she planned to take a nero.
I feel sad, hot, tired and lonely, I wrote. Pennsylvania sucks. So glad it’s almost over.
In a reflection of the exhaustion the Keystone State had wreaked upon my body and soul, from the time I left Duncannon until the day I crossed into New Jersey, I took a grand total of four photos, averaging just one every two days.
Fortunately, I was only 14 miles from the end of Penns(hell)vania myself. I pushed hard through more dastardly rocks and a very long, hot downhill slog, arriving at the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain Hostel — the oldest continuous hostel on the AT — just after noon the next day. Monarch was there. Tapeworm arrived later, as did a yellow-blazing Chef Ducky.
An old guy hanging around the hostel offered resupply rides for tips, and on the way back, I had him drop me at a barbecue place up the road. My thrill at putting Pennsylvania in the rearview mirror was tempered somewhat by unsettling news about my mother in Colorado and a nasty email connected to a business relationship I’d severed before I’d even set foot on the AT.
I also spent 45 minutes on the phone with Laura Richards, a former Scotland Yard investigator and co-producer of a new documentary who wanted to talk to me about my work on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case as a journalist. I wasn’t in the two-part movie, and haven’t seen it myself, but it was widely panned as exploitative, and the producers later were sued by the person they chose to finger for the murder based on irresponsible speculation.
Still, my spirits were high. I enjoyed a peach ice-cream cone from the parlor across the street with Monarch and Chef Ducky, and Monarch later gave me some cheese sticks, Cutie oranges and an avocado she couldn’t fit in her food bag. For the remainder of my hike, I would carry an avocado whenever possible.
And once more, the trail schooled me in the folly of judgment. Upon first meeting Monarch I had made up a story in my head — standoffish, snooty, East Coast city type. Talking to her, I saw that she was reserved, but no snob, and we had a great conversation. Far from being the entitled, snooty city slicker I’d imagined, she was a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who had been widowed at 23 when her spouse committed suicide.
My judgment of Monarch was — surprise! — wrong, I wrote. When will I ever learn?
At 6:20 the next morning, I crossed the Delaware River.
The best thing about Pennsylvania, I wrote, is that it makes fuckin’ New Jersey feel like the Promised Land. Free at last! Free at last! Thank you trail gods, I’m free at last!
Not that I believe in trail gods.