Last month when I was doing a few days on the AT, I reflected that while one always hopes for an “incident free” and “safe” hike, the best stories come from mishaps and mistakes encountered along the way. In fact, “trail names” are often derived from when something goes wrong. Earlier this spring I met a thru-hiker whose trail name was “Wrong Way.” It doesn’t use up too much grey matter figuring out what happened to him along the way. He was good humoured about it, recounting to me not one but several times that he had stepped back onto the trail after a lunch break, or a visit in town. or just a pee in the woods, only to head back down the path in the direction that he had just traveled. Wrong Way.
Several years ago, now, when we arrived in Pennsylvania, we were given a number of gifts to welcome us to the Commonwealth. One of them was a book titled 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Harrisburg (PA). If you look it up, you will see that this is one in a series of books that details hikes and walks around major metropolitan areas. It’s a brilliant concept and a great way for new residents to discover trails and parks in their area. Spoiler alert: the phrase “several years ago” should serve as a tip for where this blog entry is headed. It is now 2022. The book that we received was published in 2006.
It is a bad idea to hike from a guidebook that is 16 years old.
And to be fully transparent, we have had problems with other hikes in this book for reasons of its age: a hike that we took on the 4th of July had us looking for “a piece of orange surveyor’s tape tied to a tree” as a trail marker. Guess what? 16 years later that tape wasn’t there, and we ended up scrambling down a super steep rock field for about a half mile, crabbing our way down and across the mountain like two old goats with shaky knees.
Yesterday’s hike brought some unplanned fun that included a rock scramble, a water crossing, a descent into a sunless forest and, best of all, a long passage of bushwhacking uphill through a tight thicket of mountain laurel. “Just keep climbing towards the sun,” I told myself, as I moved on all fours up and over and under and through wiry shrubs so dense that all but a tiny speck of blue sky was occluded by leaves and stalks and trunks.
In my years of hiking, I have been trained in the “Leave No Trace (LNT)” and the “Ten Essentials” principles. The first, LNT, is about good stewardship of nature, respecting the environment, and leaving the natural world as pristine as possible for the next traveler. (learn more about LNT at https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/ ) The Ten Essentials are geared towards hiker safety and making sure that one’s trip into the wilderness is as safe as can be. It is focused on traveling with what you need to assist with what you may encounter. The Ten Essentials include: Navigation device, Headlamp, Sun Protection, First Aid, Knife, Fire starter, Shelter, Extra Food, Extra Water, and Extra Clothes. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html On our various outings, I usually carry the 10 Essentials. (I’ve learned a lot from “Jester” who has a podcast for Section Hikers titled, appropriately, “Jester, Section Hiker” and an Instagram page on “Hiker Safety.” I commend them both to you!) Sure, a five-mile hike in Central Pennsylvania in the middle of the day that never takes us more than 3 miles away from a road should not require a shelter or headlamp, but to be honest, on yesterday afternoon- and other times that I’ve been lost- I was glad to know that if I had to spend the night in the woods, I was set. Yesterday- full transparency- I was only carrying 6 of the 10 Essentials. I did not have my headlamp, sun protection, fire starter or extra clothes. I did have my smart phone and my GPS tracking device, first aid, a knife, an emergency blanket (shelter), snacks and plenty of water. (Note to self: put the missing items in my pack.) What ended up saving us yesterday were our electronic devices and three apps: Google Maps, Strava, and Far Out. “Find my Car” also helped.
So what happened?
After all this build up, it had better be good! Bears! Cliff hanging! A groundnest of bees! Wild boars!
Nope. None of that.
It was really just a case of missing landmarks, going off trail and needing to forge a path back to the car that had not been trod by other humans- ever.
The day was sunny and bright. There was not a cloud in the sky. We had just arrived home after a week in California loving up our grandchildren, drinking wine, playing at the beach and wedding dress shopping with our youngest. We sat in our house on this beautiful day, each of us with our eyes fixed on our computer screens, tallying up the number of emails that we’d received in our week away. I don’t know whose idea it was, but we both came to the realization that we were still on vacation, and it was too nice outside to stay inside. And so, we ate a quick lunch, picked a hike from the aforementioned book (we’ve been working our way through the 60 hikes and have about 15 of them crossed off), and set off, later than we should have. The trailhead was about 50 minutes from our home. The hike was a modest 4.5 miles and the book said that it was “moderate.” It was a loop trail that went down along the shoulder of a ridge into a holler to a reservoir, and then back up another way on a gentle ascent through a mature forest. The guidebook entry started out by saying, “If you have any doubts about what mountain laurel looks like, this hike should alleviate those doubts forever.” Check. I got to see plenty of mountain laurel up close and personal on this hike. (For those who are keeping track, this was hike # 54, “Rocky Knob,” somewhere near Caledonia Park in Michaux State Forest.)
The fact that it took us an additional 30 minutes to find the trail head should have been our first warning. The directions in the book named a road that we could not locate. We drove up and down that very road twice looking for the alleged trail head giving up too soon both times, and only when Google Maps finally kicked in (no bars for most of the trip) were we able to see that we were, indeed, on the right road… it had just lost its sign. We started off on this short hike at 3 PM, about an hour later than we probably should have.
As we studied the map later that night, at home, it appears that we zigged early, when we should have zagged. None of the landmarks that the guidebook mentioned were evident, but the trail was so clear, and it was even marked with the same orange blazes that we had been told about. And so we traveled downhill to the west when, apparently, we should have been traveling to the east- something that sounds so obvious and easy to figure out but… it wasn’t.
This was one of those trips when we realized that we were lost when we were really lost. Really, really, lost. Like down in a dark forest gully crossing a stream with just a hint of sun peeking through the ridge waaaaay up yonder and a thicket of mountain laurel and a near-vertical rock climb away from what might have even been close to getting us on the right path again towards civilization. Did I say that there was mountain laurel? Growing up in CT where mountain laurel is the state flower, our father scolded us any time that we would sit on the back steps and pick at the leaves of the flowering shrub that grew at our elbow, as we were disrespecting nature- and the state. (My father was a state senator and took his vocation seriously.). He would not have been pleased to see me stomping over, wriggling under, and roughly pushing back large boughs of the stuff yesterday as I scrambled towards the sun.
Devotees of the Appalachian Trail, we knew that we were not far from the simple one-lane, well-blazed, hard-to-get-lost-on-friend-of-a-trail, and so, as we emerged from the thicket of mountain laurel and found ourselves standing under a power line tower on top of a ridge, I called up my Far Out app which showed with its GPS beacon exactly where we were: about a half mile from an AT shelter, two miles from our car, and within a few yards of intersecting the AT which would bring us back to the intersection- where we started- on the Rocky Knob Trail.
Yeah- no broken bones, no wild animal encounters, no new scrapes or scars to remind us of the 1st of September when we nearly hiked the Rocky Knob Trail, Hike #52. This could be, in fact, with a tip of the hat to the Bard, “Much Ado About Nothing,” but, thank God for that.
If anything, this is a cautionary tale to go prepared for anything- even when you think it’s going to be a “moderate” hike up a “gentle ascent” on a gorgeous late summer afternoon. And, it is also an urging that with the appropriate preparation, there is no reason not to go outside and explore God’s great creation. There are some marvelous trees, insects, wildflowers and forest creatures to study. Even the mountain laurel is worth a close-up view.
Until next time, be safe!
The Old Goats.
PS I ordered a new revised edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Harrisburg this morning. It is from 2016. Here’s hoping.
PPS There are no pictures of the sunless forest because… that was a little panicky moment and I wasn’t into taking pictures, I was into getting out of there.