Halfway to Katahdin

Mile 1018 – 1366

July 8 – August 3, 2017

The shortest state on the Appalachian Trail is West Virginia with a whopping 6.4 miles of trail. At the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters located in Harpers Ferry, staff took our pictures and added them to the official registry. The ATC uses this to track the number of hikers on the trail each year, as well as the 2,000-miler hopefuls. Markus had convinced his brothers to visit us again and they were due to meet us in town the next morning. Though, we didn’t time our departure from the town well, and were in need of a place to crash for the night. There is no camping allowed around Harpers Ferry, so we sat outside the ATC with another hiker reviewing our options. Many places were closed, but there was one place we could try. As a last ditch effort, the three of us called up a ride to stay the night at the local Stoneybrook Farm, which has bunkhouses available for hikers. Our hesitancy stemmed from the knowledge that the commune was the home of the local cult: the Twelve Tribes. Unsure what we had gotten ourselves into, the three of us climbed nervously into the van that pulled up. Overall, they were quite pleasant, in a slightly cult-ish way. I was thankful to be staying with them as a group rather than on my own. We arrived just after the sun had set, but were graciously given an evening meal before going to bed in our separate male/female designated bunkhouses. I was a little nervous to be sleeping by myself, but the night passed with no incident and we spent the following morning helping to pick blueberries with the children and a few stray chickens.

8 July 2017 – Markus and my pictures at the ATC

Zack and Ethan picked us up from the commune and returned us to Harpers Ferry. We hung out in town for the day and said our goodbyes after spending the night in town. Later, I learned Markus had seriously considered going home with them. At the time, I didn’t understand how difficult it was for him to stay on trail. Although he did remain behind when they left, it had not been an easy decision and each day grew harder for it.

Through West Virginia and Maryland, the trail turned into a historical tour with monuments and memorials every few miles, and we made an effort to stop at each landmark. Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line on July 13, we entered Pennsylvania, the state made infamous for its rocky trail conditions. The rest of the trail seemed practically smooth sailing compared to Rocksylvania, though in all fairness the southern half of the state wasn’t too terrible. The northern half, however, caused me to continuously roll my ankle and sent jolts of pain up my legs with every step.

Early on in Pennsylvania lives the official halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. It varies a little each year due to the mileage changing from route additions and alterations. In 2017, it was found at mile 1,094.9, about 4 miles south of the 2011 official midway sign. We crossed that line just a few days after entering the state and it felt incredible to be halfway finished already. We celebrated at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where Markus participated in the famous Half Gallon Challenge, a competition where a hiker must eat a half gallon of ice cream within the confines of an hour. He succeeded, and then promptly fell asleep in front of Pine Grove General Store.

After his nap, we took a gander at the Appalachian Trail Museum and I went for a brief swim while he rested his bloated stomach on the crowded beach. The next few days out of Pine Grove, terrain-wise, wasn’t very challenging, but the trail was rubbing both me and Markus the wrong way.

We were hiking into Duncannon and had been bickering along the way. I can’t remember what started the disagreement, but it was one of the hardest days for both of us. All I can remember was being exhausted. My legs had been hurting all day and my feet were killing me on the rocky trail. 

The sun was sinking rapidly and I wasn’t moving fast enough to keep pace with him. He likewise was becoming resentful at my sloth-like pace, which I angrily insisted was the fastest I could move. With tensions high, we hostilely agreed for him to go ahead of me into town, which both annoyed me and pleased me to be temporarily rid of his urging to pick up the pace. 

As I watched him quickly become smaller, I called after him in spite, “You better come meet me after you get there, so I don’t have to hike alone in the dark!”

Part of me felt guilty after I said it, sincerely hoping that he wouldn’t, but the larger half of me was still so irritated with him that I didn’t care. I took my time hiking into town, working out my feelings alone on the mountain and by the time I reached the road into Duncannon, I had managed to get my previous foul mood relatively under control. I was walking slowly down the lamp lit side street, when I saw him walking toward me.

“Why did you come and meet me?” I blurted out without thinking, exasperation and shame muddling my thoughts.

I could see that my words hurt him. He was just as tired as I was, but had walked back despite that to make a kind gesture. He didn’t say anything before turning to walk with me into town. I was so mad at myself for telling him to come back earlier and snapping at him just then, and also irrationally irritated that he even listened to me in the first place.

When we got to the local church that hosted hikers in its basement, a crowd of thru hikers were already inside watching a movie on the projector. Markus crawled into his sleeping bag and I set up mine beside his. In the dark, I could just see the expression on his face.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” he whispered, his voice breaking.

I stared at him, feeling terrible and not knowing what to say. 

Any thru hiker can tell you that there is just as much suck as awesome on trail, and we had experienced our share of it through the first half of our hike. Many people think going with a friend makes the trip easier and in some ways it does, but it is also incredibly demanding. Every day they are your sole company, during the good and the bad. Hiking together forces you to make sacrifices and compromises, which can become exhausting when hiking styles are different. Nearly every duo we had met that started the trail together had lost half of their team due to injury, personal differences, or one of them losing heart.

I laid there next to my friend of nearly six years and felt awful that I had played a part in breaking his will to finish the trail. Truth be told, he hadn’t started the trail for himself. When I told him I was going to hike it, he immediately volunteered to keep me company and to ensure I stayed safe. Finishing the trail wasn’t his mission, it was mine. But in that moment, I realized how terrified I was to go on without him. 

“When we started,” I said softly, taking extra time to process my words, “you told me you would go as far as I would. I’m going to Maine and I would like you to finish this with me. For you to finish this for yourself. Please… just give it a few more days and if you still want to go home, I won’t stop you. Don’t quit on your worst day.”

He didn’t deserve how I treated him today and I apologized to him for my actions. I hadn’t realized before then just how different our intentions on trail were. Even that day, as challenging as the trail was, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Markus, however, yearned to be home.

Despite the fatigue, it took a long time for me to fall asleep. The next morning, Markus still seemed intent on leaving, but was willing to give it a few days. Sprinkles and Dirtbag had joined us in Duncannon, and we spent a zero day at the church orchestrating a tournament of foosball, air hockey, and ping pong between the remaining hikers. In the end, Markus and Sprinkles were the last two to compete for the title, with Sprinkles taking home the gold: a trophy of a random toy I found in the hiker box.

The next few days I kept my distance from Markus, giving him space to hike his own hike and work out his feelings. A day outside of Port Clinton, it started to rain heavily and we retreated inside our shelters to escape the brunt of the downpour. My mom had brought Markus my ENO double hammock with her to Virginia, which he was now using in place of his emergency shelter, and he greatly preferred it. I quickly dove inside my secondhand REI Quarterdome, but found it was no longer holding up against the rain. A fountain of water cascaded from the ceiling of my tent, the fly essentially nonexistent. Grabbing my pack and sleeping bag, I bolted from my failing tent and dove under Markus’s rainfly to escape the downpour.

The rain passed quickly, but it had turned the trail into a river. Sloshing through the cold water and tripping over hidden rocks, we made it a bit further before setting up for the night, hoping the river would abate by morning. It did not, and we started the day with wet shoes and socks. Arriving in Port Clinton that evening, we found Sprinkles again and spent the night in the local pavilion in town.

From here to Palmerton, PA, the rocks became much more intense. The trail was littered with fist-sized stones, rock piles, and mounds of boulders meant to be scaled over. With my bad knees, this section of trail was terrible and my feet hurt every single day from the uneven pressure of the jagged rocks. We had traveled 600 miles since I last received a new pair of shoes, so with our resupply my mom sent a pair of Altra Lone Peaks ahead to Palmerton. I moved as quick as I could with the hope those new shoes would provide some much needed relief. Arriving, we stayed at the hostel behind Bert’s Steakhouse for the night to nurse our wounds.

Markus’s mood seemed to improve with each passing day and his resolve was strengthening again. His mentality had shifted from going along for the ride, to getting us off trail as quickly as possible. Hardening his mind against the toil, he made extra effort to ensure we managed as many miles as we could each day. During the stretches that were harder and slowed me down, he offered to carry my food bag to lighten my load and increase our mileage. His mission became to see me to the end of the trail for the simple reason that it meant he got to go home. No matter the reason, I was glad he decided to stay and for that I was happy to oblige to his desire to finish as quickly as possible.

The rest of Pennsylvania was a mess of loose stones and rock climbing that abruptly stopped a few miles south of the New Jersey border. From there, it was smooth sailing on soft dirt and pine needles before we crossed the Delaware River Bridge and entered our 8th state.

30 July 2017 – Crossing my 7th state line!

The mood in New Jersey was vastly different to other parts of the trail. Every person we met from town seemed enthralled with thru hikers and eager to help out in any way they could. To replace my leaking tent, my mom sent one of her 3-person Wal-Mart tents that weighed about four pounds. After receiving a hitch from a very friendly townie into Unionville, I picked up our resupply and the new tent from the post office, and sat outside to wait for Markus to arrive. While I waited, several of the locals made conversation with me, including the local fire chief. When Markus arrived an hour or so later, we mailed back his tarp and hammock, and split the weight of the tent between the two of us. We shared that tent until the end of trail, repairing the cheap tent poles as they wore and broke from overuse with excessive amounts of duct tape.

We were preparing to leave when one of the elderly men I had talked to while waiting came up to us. We chatted with him a bit before he offered for us to stay with him and his wife that night. This was the second time that day a random stranger had offered for us to crash at their home. Had I been alone, I probably would’ve declined, but with Markus there we agreed and he took us out for dinner at the local restaurant before taking us home to meet his wife.

That night, as we sat in some rickety armchairs and played with his dog, he told us when he was in the Navy, he used to put up dozens of strangers who needed a place to stay. He loved helping people, but we were the first he had helped in a really long time. We encouraged him, if he enjoyed it so much, to offer a place to stay for the local hikers passing through. Thousands do each year, and a bit trail magic never goes unappreciated. When I mentioned to him that my dad was in the Marines, he gave me a silver dollar, a piece of his ample collection, to pass along to him. After spending the night in their RV, they took us back to the trailhead and we said our farewells.

We finished New Jersey on a high note, crossing the painted state line on the top of a slab of quartz. Markus celebrated the ending of another chapter. Six more states to go.