Another Walk in the Rocks

Adventures of a lifetime come in all shapes and sizes. I’d say becoming a grandmother and a graduate student at the same time counts as two. For these and other reasons it’s been a year since I’ve backpacked and blogged, and I’ve missed doing both. So off I went a few days ago to meet a new section of the Appalachian Trail in legendary Rocksylvania to walk 40 miles in three days. And here I go, reflecting on what possessed me this time. Why here? Why does hiking every craggy bit of this trail continue to call? Inquiring, battered feet demand to know.

I was gratefully accompanied by my faithful partner in foot-crime who began her own backpacking practice with me (detailed here) on an even worse stretch of this terrain she so aptly dubbed ‘rock vomit.’ And after 14 miles of it the first day which included a rattlesnake sighting topped off with a two-mile uphill slog, we were pretty close to vomiting ourselves. Needless to say we claimed the first established clearing we could find near the top of the ridge as the sun went down. The highway was still very audible but who cared, and there was to be no chit chat by any fire that night. All that mattered, after setting up camp and rehydrating our food with the last of our water then shoveling it in our mouths, was getting horizontal.

 

All that mattered the next morning was getting more water. Good thing Appalachian springs are abundant in Spring. As is rain, alas. Limping at lunchtime onto the slabs of what is apparently the pinnacle of all vistas in Pennsylvania on the AT—the Pinnacle—we scored a panoramic view of nothing but the cloud we were in. After a handful of crackers and soggy cheese it was back to the rocks, which for all their boot-killing, foot-killing ways did have a haunting beauty in their lichen coats amidst the moist, greening trees. I have never seen such exuberant river birches living so large between all those rocks and hard places.

Just how on Earth did all those toothsome, loose rocks end up on the ridge if it wasn’t an evil-twin Eagle Scout project? Had they hitched a ride on a glacier like so many of the boulders of our ice-carved Hudson Valley? Nope—only the very edge of the ice sheets from the last glacial period reached this far south. Turns out the rocks ARE the ridge which broke into a billion pieces because it couldn’t make up its mind: freeze, thaw, repeat. That stuff will beat up any tender feet.

Our trudging on day two came to an end at a sweet spot on the ridge in the late afternoon—early for us. But we had already hiked 12 miles on feet still hurting from the day before and the thought of hobbling down to the likely-crowded, road-accessible Eckville shelter had zero appeal. We had just enough water for the night and the rain was on break again. It wouldn’t get better than this. While I doctored my feet, my buddy, bless her, prepared a fine stack of kindling and logs for what was always the holy grail of our treks: the campfire.

 

Of course a fire is by no means a guaranteed event, and while resting our aching bodies in our abodes awaiting cocktail hour, the skies opened up yet again as a stern reminder. “The wood!” I whimpered pathetically and half-audibly with half a mind to clamber out of the tent with my poncho and cover it, but no body part was budging. After an hour or so the rain abated and hunger called, so we boiled our water and enjoyed our ziplock meals by the wet wood. Then it happened: a miracle! My undaunted partner had some mad, fire-whispering skills up her wet sleeve, and there it glowed: our humble holy grail.

For me, nothing beats the primal comfort of a campfire after a long day of any kind of work. It has the uncanny ability to melt away the agony of previous hours while stoking the wondering mind. Mine often muses about fire itself. How humans are the only animals that have been able to put it to use. How this has shaped the evolution of human bodies, societies, and the lands on which they roam. Describing fire, environmental historian Stephen Pyne writes: “Although not itself alive, it breathes and eats; it warms, it moves, it sounds. It must be tended, bred, and trained. It must be sheltered (literally, domesticated). When left, it is buried”¹ While flames of fire can soothe the soul in one form, they scorch vast swaths of our Western states in quite another with increasing intensity thanks to global warming, thanks to humans. Moreover, most wildfires are sparked by humans. As sure as hell, fire is no toy.

Speaking of buried and burning, Northeastern Pennsylvania is home to the biggest bed of anthracite coal in the world thanks to the particularly crushing effects of Earth’s plate tectonics around 300 million years ago. After the native Lenape and Susquehannock tribes were driven out of these parts, the hardness of this particular coal and the brutally hard life that centered around its extraction literally fueled the American Industrial revolution beginning in the mid-1800s. When industries boomed and roared into the 1920s, Benton MacKaye proposed and developed his concept of the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye was a Harvard graduate, forester, conservationist, writer, educator, activist, and progressive thinker. He understood big pictures and planned accordingly.

 

MacKaye had long seen an inextricable link between labor struggles and resource management. His wilderness vision was not about preserving pristine playgrounds in which only the rich could afford to play, it was about bringing people laboring in regional fields, forests, mines, and growing towns together in a sustainable, cooperative network of communities for which the trail would provide restorative recreation and “a retreat from profit.” He hoped that when visitors viewed their homeland from atop the ridges, “[i]ndustry would come to be seen in its true perspective—as a means in life and not as an end in itself.”² Like all essential gear, I’ll carry that hope.

I began section-hiking the trail in 2009 because of a simple fascination with its astounding length and how it has been built and maintained by volunteers. Its white blazes and green tunnel beckoned like the wardrobe to Narnia. But my curiosity and reasons have deepened over time as I discover more about its history, its founder’s prescient concerns, and the yet-unrealized potential of his inclusive, integrative vision so sorely needed in this world today.

 

We broke camp before dawn on day three for the final 12-mile stretch. Near the shelter area we had to practically step over a couple of cheery dudes curled up in their bivy sacs like giant larvae next to a large battery-operated fan and bottle of booze. Humans are strange animals, and wilderness is a relative thing. Up on the misty ridge of Hawk Mountain was a world-renowned wildlife sanctuary with not even a whisper of distant traffic and a blessedly rock-free path.

We met a lovely box turtle and enjoyed a brief but spectacular bath of birdsong before hitting the rock vomit again. Benton MacKaye considered the automobile “an agent of physical sprawl and offensive commercialism,”³ and I agree, but oh how our feet cried with relief at the sight of ours.

 

There is much more than meets the eye, or the feet, on the Appalachian Trail. And if they were honest, my feet knew full well what they were in for on this trek after such a long hiatus, and now they have healed, skin armored up for more. Maybe they needed a walk in the rocks to remind the rest of me that I could do it. That a journey with various shades of pain is possible, one step at a time. That intentional time spent in elemental spaces can knock the driven mind off its high horse and restore a grounded balance, despite, or even because of the sharp and shifting rocks.

 

More to come around the bend…

 

Notes:
1. Stephen J. Pyne, Fire: Nature and Culture, Earth Series (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 45.
2. Paul Sutter, “‘A Retreat from Profit’: Colonization, the Appalachian Trail, and the Social Roots of Benton MacKaye’s Wilderness Advocacy,” Environmental History 4, no. 4 (1999): 566, https://doi.org/10.2307/3985401.
3. Sutter, 568.

6 Responses to “Another Walk in the Rocks

  • Being that partner in foot crime, I have to say–I’m rarin’ to go on another section wid ya! Less rocky, ideally. But your careful research into the reasons for the Vomit and your fantastic photography–and your unflaggingly excellent company, despite foot agony–lure me anew. Let’s go generate more tales for your grandchildren (and hopefully mine)!

    • Hell yeah. I already got more isobutane fuel and freeze-dried meals so I must be ready. Here’s to friendship, fire, and tougher feet. xo

  • Elsa Southam
    4 months ago

    What an inspiring blog account of your hike with Melinda 👍! Your feet were aching, but you carried on to complete your goal, and your active mind never stopped taking it all in 😍. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful reflections, photos, and interesting history about this challenging AP trail region. THANK YOU, from your adoring Mum and Dad. ❤️❤️

  • Dave Southam
    4 months ago

    What an awesome account of your amazing adventure!!! I hope you and your partner in crime are healed up now! 🤞🤞🤞❤️🧡💛💚💙💜

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