opinion

Matt Haines, Part 8: Making History

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

For part one of Matt’s Appalachian adventure, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here. For part four, click here. For part five, click here. For part six, click here. For part seven, click here.

9-1-1

I ran over to the body and fumbled for my phone.

Blood was on the side of his head. His eyelids were open, but his eyes were rolled back. “9-1-1,” I announced as I dialed, hoping it would cause him to respond.

But he laid there, motionless, sun setting over his body, splayed out across several large rocks.

“Hello, this is 9-1-1. What is your emergency?”


Between 480 Million and 200 Million years ago, the Earth’s continents slammed into each other, creating one supercontinent, and forcing the planet’s surface to fold up — forming the Appalachian Mountains, a towering range of active volcanoes.


Grandma Gatewood

The child, Emma, who would (much) later be known as Grandma Gatewood was born in 1887 to a farm family of 15 children in small-town Ohio. Nineteen years later, still practically a child, she was beaten often, and — nearly to death — by her husband, Percy Gatewood. Broken ribs and broken teeth were common, and Emma described the woods near her home as the only place she could go for peace.

She was able to get a divorce in 1940 and raised the last three of her 11 children alone. In May 1955, now a great-grandmother, Gatewood told her children she was “going for a hike in the woods.”

Grandma Gatewood on the Appalachian Trail.

What she failed to mention was that, on her second attempt at 67 years old, she would become the first woman to solo thru-hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail.

You Have a Bee In The Hive

I’d just hiked the six miles from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to the top of Maryland’s South Mountain in the hottest part of the afternoon. The trail started out as what was basically a wide and flat dirt road sandwiched between the Potomac River on one side, and the 185-mile long C&O Canal on the other, but soon narrowed to a series of switchbacks, winding up the side of the mountain.

The sweat began there and never really stopped. During the climb, I heard what sounded like a helicopter, a constant drone of noise, slowly approaching. As it got closer, the helicopter was actually six girls — all loud, all college-aged, and all staring down at their phones — little specks, several hundred feet away, and sounding more like hens clucking. When they were within 50 feet, I could make out actual words. The equivalent of six dancers stepping on one another’s toes.

“Ohmygod, I LOVE being outside!” one announced, to the group and possibly the entire trail, barely peeking up from her phone. She was wearing a pink t-shirt with “American University” blocked out in white letters. She donned a white baseball cap with a pink “AU” in the center.

“Yeah, we should DEFINITELY do this more often,” another — sporting pink “AU Crew” lettering on a sky blue tank top — proclaimed, either to her phone or her friends.

“Who — ELSE should we invite next time?” the girl with tie-dye shirt and white letters yell-asked.

“Oh,” the first girl jumped in, “I think this group is PER-FECT!

They all nodded in unison, amazing considering they never lifted their eyes from their phones.

Another girl — with a sparkly AU phone case voiced her agreement. “Yeah, I’m really glad we didn’t invite JENNIFER. She always whines.”

“Yeah, and, like, I can’t IMAGINE her hiking anyway!” gray t-shirt / red “AU” / pink phone case scoffed. They shared a laugh at poor Jennifer’s expense.

By now they were right in front of me. I stepped to the side of the trail to let them go by. “How’s everyone doing?” I asked as they passed.

They all looked up from their phones as if emerging from a dream, and the chorus began, almost, but not quite, at the same time.

“Good!” pink AU on white t-shirt said when she passed.

“Good!” blue AU phone case said when she passed.

“Good!” tye-dye AU tank top said when she passed.

“Good!” purple AU t-shirt with the sleeves cut off said when she passed.

“Good!” white AU visor said when she passed.

“Good!” AU rugby t-shirt said when she passed.

It was like a modern version of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. “Where are you hiking to?” the pink t-shirted leader-dwarf (Is that Doc?) asked. I feel kind of bad for making fun of them, because her big smile made it obvious she really was enjoying the hike with her friends, despite having a cell phone for a hand.

Soaring high above Maryland.

“Oh, I’m hoping to get to Maine, but still have a long way to go.”

“OH MY GOD! Did you start in Georgia?” her mouth is wide open. Her friends are continuing their conversations behind her.

“Yup! On April 23rd.” I’m used to people asking me when I started after they ask where I started.

“Oh man, you’re a thru-hiker? I’d love to do that. You don’t smell too bad for a thru-hiker,” she laughed.

“Well,” I searched for a response, “I use deodorant every few days. Maybe that’s it?”

“Ha, whatever it is, keep it up!”

As I’m talking to Doc, two of the other dwarfs are huddled under a tree, around a third’s phone. “Oh my gosh, why do guys always have fish in their pictures?” one asks, and they all laugh.

“He looks kind of dumb, but — ” the second one was interrupted.

“He’s kind of cute, though.”

“Yeah, swipe right!” The three girls are in agreement and are laughing. The girl they’re huddled around swipes, and they begin examining the next guy.

“Are you guys using dating apps in the woods?” I cut in, trying not to sound judgemental while definitely being judgemental.

They all look at each other and laugh. Then there is chorus of affirmatives. “Yeah, we use it all the time!” one owns.

“Maybe Rachel will find you on here,” one of them says, looking at the girl whose phone they’re surrounding. “I bet there aren’t a lot of Tinder guys on the trail.”

“I don’t think I’ll find him,” Rachel shakes her head. “I don’t have my age range set that…” she searches for the euphemism but never finds it, “…old.”

Fuck you, Rachel. “No, I’m not on Tinder anyway,” I answer more diplomatically. “Just Bumble, but I don’t really use it out here.”

“Yeah, I think Bumble might be for older people,” Rachel says because she’s untactful and a moron.

Another girl makes her voice deep like a dude’s and stands like she’s trying to look muscular. “Gotta fire up that Tinder game, bro.”

They all laugh at their friend’s impression while I imagine pushing Rachel into the canal.

Gotta Fire Up That Tinder Game, Bro

Swipe right.

Swipe right.

Swipe right. Definitely swipe right. Like I’d be so lucky.

Swipe right.

Swipe…left.

Swipe right.

Swipe right.

Swipe…hmmm. I obviously took the drawfs’ advice. It’s 4pm and I’m sitting on a log taking a break after the climb. I stare at my phone and the choice it presents me. She has a typo in her profile and there’s something strange about her smile. Swipe left?

I had just hiked up a mountain and am pouring sweat. My shirt is saturated. My pants are saturated. My beard is saturated. Technically my beard is over-saturated, sweat dripping from it onto my screen, which mistook the drops for my fingertips. My perspiration reopened a Google search for “Best Ice Cream in Harpers Ferry, WV”

I’ll never forget you. Ever.

I flip back to the Bumble profile in question, but remember the ice cream sundae from last week fondly.

Swipe right or swipe left? She went to Columbia University. Check. She made a funny joke about guys always having shirtless pics in their Bumble profile. Check. Her job is not “Aspiring Model.” Check.

But why is she smiling so…hard?

When I was a kid, despite not being Christian, my sisters and I would hide Easter eggs. Just like all the other neighbors on the block, we’d hard boil them and paint them. Then, when all our friends were at church, we’d pass the time taking turns hiding the eggs for each other to find.

One time I had the bright idea of hiding an egg in my Mom’s shoe. She found it before my sisters did. And by “found it” I mean she put her foot in the shoe and crushed it. The smell was horrendous and memorable.

That’s how I smelled. Horrendous and memorable. Actually, if my Mom had taken the shoe without cleaning it and left it in the sun for three months…that’s how I smelled.

I also haven’t shaved in 85 days. I’ve worn the same shirt for all of those days. I wash my face in streams and springs. I survive on Pop-Tarts, Honey Buns and Ramen. And I sing gibberish to myself in the woods to pass the time.

When I walk down the street, horrified mothers pull their children closer to them, but I’m judging this woman for a typo and a brow that furrows a little when she smiles? Come on.

Swipe right.

The next decision pops up on my phone, but I’m distracted by the world around me.

“Tweeeeeeet — deet-eet-eet-eet-eet!” announces one bird.

“Twee-deet! Twee-deet! Twee-dee-dee-dee-dee-deet!” another cleverly retorts

I know I should give the birds my full attention. I’m out here in nature and I feel guilty when I’m not appreciating that, but I’m craving technology in a way I haven’t since I began hiking three months ago. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what it means, but I’ve noticed I pull my phone out a little more often than I used to. I don’t like it.

But I’ve given the birds plenty of attention over the last 1,300 miles. A little mindless dating app swiping won’t hurt anyone, right?

But it’s hard for me to do anything mindlessly. I overthink everything.

I’ve resisted dating apps for years. I think they give users the impression they have unlimited options, and I think when someone feels they have unlimited options, they are more likely to treat those options like shit. Why not? If this doesn’t work, there are a limitless number of other possibilities. I don’t want to act like that, but I’m also afraid of being treated like that.

I also felt like signing up for a dating app was admitting defeat. I’m an outgoing guy and it’s been a long time since I was shy about approaching a woman to talk. I’m outgoing, but also apparently insecure, because I didn’t want people to think I needed a dating app.

But why can’t I meet people in “real life” and on dating apps?

Well, which dating app should I use? I had a friend using Tinder who complained he’d put all this effort into getting to know a woman and setting up a date, only to have her flake on him at the last minute. I decided to go with Bumble instead. For all you dating app newbies, with Bumble, it’s up to the woman to take the initial steps. Before I even have a chance to message her, she has to 1) “swipe right” on me to show she is at least somewhat interested in my pictures and short profile, and — if I also swiped right on her — she has to 2) send me a message.

I figure if she swipes right on me and sends me a message that is nominally more involved than “hey…” then she’s at least a little invested.

“Tweet-eet! Tweet-eet! Twee-dee-dee-dee-deet!”

Swipe right.

Swipe right.

Swipe left.

Swipe left.

Swipe right.

I sat on a log, half-listening to birds and half-paying attention to my swiping. I was on a log that was almost definitely here — at least in the immediate vicinity of here — when Grandma Gatewood walked by 62 years ago. She probably listened to the same types of birds making the same types of sounds. But 62 years ago — even five years ago — no one was swiping.

History Is A Big, Smelly Onion

One of my favorite walks in New Orleans starts at my house on France Street and heads up that street, toward the Mississippi River. I pass one of my favorite neighborhood bars, J and Js, and as I make the right off France Street to Royal Street, the two parallel cracks in the road, following the same path as me, is a reminder that, inches below the asphalt on which I’m walking are the remnants of a streetcar line that — from 1920 to 1948 — ran from Canal Street, down Bourbon and Dauphine, before tracing this same France to Royal route I’m walking, back to its origin.

The Desire Streetcar rumbling down Bourbon Street in 1940.

Like that line, I head up Royal Street, passing shotgun homes in every color combination imaginable — and some that I’m not sure how anyone could have imagined — through a neighborhood that has revitalized (or gentrified — you choose the word you want) itself over the years I’ve lived in it.

It takes me 20 minutes to get to Press Street, and when I do, I see the railroad tracks that freight trains use to deliver everything from cars to coffee around the country. I see the dividing line between the Bywater and its neighbor, the Marigny. I see the performing and visual arts high school, NOCCA, along with its red brick restaurant, Press Street Station, in which the school’s culinary students hone their talents. And I see a long stretch of green space, often used as a staging ground for downtown Mardi Gras parades.

But sometimes when we close our eyes we can see a lot more. I peel back one of Press Street’s layers and I see all the way back to 1892. Homer Plessy being pulled off a train headed to Covington for being a black man riding a whites-only train car.

I peel back another layer and I can see the Levee Steam Cotton Press, completed in 1832, sitting where the street meets the river. With the capacity to produce 200,000 bales of cotton per year, it’s the largest of its kind — so large that a railroad was needed to transport in materials, as well as to transport out the final product.

Old Orleans along the river.

I peel back another layer to the late 1700s and I can see a plantation owned by Pierre Dreux — the first in the area — called La Brasserie. It’s producing rum, vegetables, citrus, grain, sugarcane and cotton, but subdividing it was more profitable, which is why that’s exactly what happened to it in 1806.

A street grid is added and one of those streets is the one we’d later call Press. That street would house a building that would produce cotton so efficiently, it would require a railroad line. That line would one day carry passenger trains. On that train, a black man would be arrested for riding in a car not open to him, sparking a case that would uphold that separate but equal facilities for black and white Americans were okay in the United States. That decision would invigorate the civil rights movement that would one day overturn that premise. A historical marker would be placed there to commemorate the passenger. Along a freight line, on a street that houses an art school, and acts as a staging ground for Mardi Gras parades.

There’s not an inch of earth on this planet that doesn’t have layers. And there was still a lot more onion to peel.

From above Harpers Ferry, the Potomac River heading toward a meet-up with the Shenandoah.

Harpers Ferry

The Appalachian Trail spends a modest four miles in West Virginia, by far the least of any of the 14 states through which it travels. A large portion of that is spent in and around the historic town of Harpers Ferry. It was the early evening and I was meandering around town, taking in the sites and enjoying an ice cream sundae. One scoop of chocolate-peanut butter moose tracks, and one scoop of peanut butter pretzel, both covered in hot fudge, peanut butter sauce, marshmallow sauce, and whipped cream. Plus two cherries, because eating fruit is important.

It was 8pm and nearly everything in town was closed. Whatever wasn’t — a pizza place, and a bar and grill — were closing at 9. I’m surprised a town attracting so many thru-hikers, day-hikers, and admirers of the town’s role in our country’s history wouldn’t have at least a little more of a nightlife.

The town, flush with beautiful but expensive Bed and Breakfasts, also was abnormal for a trail community in that it didn’t have any cheaper accommodations for thru-hikers. In most towns you can usually find a church that lets hikers stay and shower for a donation of a few bucks, or a hostel that will let you tent and shower for $10. Not in Harpers Ferry.

A few other hikers and I had decided we would walk across the bridge to the other side of the Potomac River and “cowboy camp.” Cowboy camping just means we are camping in a place you’re not supposed to. I don’t do it often — because a lot of States don’t have many restrictions on where you can sleep — but when I do, I try to be respectful. I pick a spot obviously used by other tenters in the past, I don’t leave anything behind, and I stay out of view of roads. We found a great location along the river and then I went back into town for some ice cream and a walk-around.

The John Brown monument with old-timey Harpers Ferry behind it.

It was a strange place and felt like an amusement park attempting to freeze a 19th century town in time. The main street, High Street, was lined with multi-story brick buildings sloping down a hill toward where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. The shops, all decked out in American flags, sold wares like old-fashioned candy, antiques, and jewelry. I understand the appeal of these places: an opportunity to feel like you’re traveling back in time.

But, in my opinion, a place like Harpers Ferry didn’t need to sacrifice an opportunity to remain a dynamic and exciting town to turn itself into a museum. I walked down High Street to the confluence of the rivers, the Shenandoah cutting through mountain from the southwest, and joining the Potomac, roaring from the north. Together they’d flow east beyond Washington, D.C. and into the Chesapeake Bay.

I savored a spoonful of ice cream. Mostly peanut butter sauce. Godddd, I love peanut butter sauce!

Where I was standing was called “The Point.” In 1733, this is where Peter Stephens, a squatter (like I was tonight), created a ferry service into Maryland. In 1747, Robert Harper recognized the potential of this location for trafficking travelers across the rivers, but also for the industrial power the confluence could produce. He paid Stephens for squatting rights and then purchased the land legally from Lord Fairfax. “The Point” became a town.

To my right was the rock on which Thomas Jefferson stood in 1783 — presumably ice cream-less — looking at the same rivers as me. He called it “perhaps one of the stupendous scenes in nature.” We now call that rock, “Jefferson Rock.” The town grew.

To my left was the site on which President George Washington ordered a new armory built in 1794. It was one of only two in the nation. The town grew.

That armory is also where the Lewis and Clark expedition was outfitted with their weapons for their famous journey westward. It’s also what John Brown raided in his attempt to spark a revolution against slavery in 1859.

My ice cream was melting. I spooned some ice cream soup into my mouth. Holy moly, the cold ice cream mixed with the hot fudge. This is the best.

During the Civil War, the Union burned the armory to the ground, and General Lee sent Stonewall Jackson to retake the town so his army would have protection when attacking the North.

I love the idea of Meriwether Lewis, a tourist, admiring the words of Thomas Jefferson spoken at the same overlook on which he was standing. Or of General Lee sending a portion of his forces to capture an armory General Washington authorized.

I wonder if some descendent of mine will read what I’m writing and come to the place that King Cake ate his ice cream soup. I wonder if she’ll remember me and if I’ll be included in her walk through time. All the way back to when two rivers met millions of years ago.

Or if I’ll be forgotten. Like a cemetery neglected.

220 Million years ago, as Pangea began to drift apart, the Appalachian Mountains stopped growing.

King Cake, the Gatherer

This is one of my favorite parts of hiking the trail: all the common experiences thru-hikers share with one another. Grandma Gatewood and I both passed George Washington’s armory. We both passed Jefferson’s rock. We both crossed the Potomac at the confluence. So did every single other thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail.

Most key points on the trail, such as shelters, hostels, major lookouts and a host of other places have logbooks for hikers to sign. For hikers, it’s a great way for us to keep track of where one another are. We’ll leave a little message. “Seven more miles until I eat ice cream in Harpers Ferry for the night!” (Who would write something so stupid?) And we’ll also date it. So I can see, for example, that Steely Dan is hiking like a madman and is now a full day ahead of me.

In the log book at the Appalachian Trail’s midpoint, I was flipping through the book and saw this message: “Hiked the trail 27 years ago. Different names, same shit.”

I didn’t like his grumpiness, but I liked the sentiment. There’s so much about the trail that remains the same from year to year.

For example, while Grandma Gatewood didn’t have the option to complete the Half Gallon Challenge, every thru-hiker for at least the last 35 years has. The challenge takes place about 10 miles beyond the 2017 Appalachian Trail midpoint at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Hikers walk along the trail, almost directly into the store and choose the “half-gallon” Hershey’s ice cream flavor they want. Because “half-gallon” containers of ice cream have actually been reduced in size over the years, we then choose an additional flavor (or more of the same flavor if you prefer) to make up the difference and get to a true half-gallon of ice cream.

Most hikers choose flavors like vanilla or peach. Flavors that might be a little easier to finish. King Cake doesn’t fuck around with ice cream.

Emerging from the Half-gallon Challenge victorious!

I chose Chocolate Moosetracks for my main flavor, and Salted Caramel Bananas Foster for my secondary one.

If eating ice cream was the measure of a great hiker, I would be in the Hall of Fame.

But not everything on the trail stays the same. There are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. Sometimes the route is altered. For example, when Grandma Gatewood hiked the trail, the southern terminus was at Mt. Ogelthorpe instead of Mt. Springer. It was changed because of the heavy traffic around Ogelthorpe.

Experiences vary over time. The trail wasn’t always so clearly marked. On Grandma Gatewood’s first attempt, she got lost within hours and was forced by concerned rangers to quit.

For another example, the black bear population has fluctuated since the trail was created in 1937, and after a dip due to over-hunting, is now back on the upswing. Lucky me.

Tree populations have always varied. Billy Bryson, in “A Walk in the Woods” talks extensively about the disappearance of the diseased American Chestnut Tree. He explains how they once covered the region, and I can’t help but feel that my experience is just a little less rich without them.

A family next to an American Chestnut Tree in the Smoky Mountains.

But it works the other way, too. There is vegetation that is here that hasn’t always been. Invasive species. Which are bad. But can also be delicious.

I was walking along a ridge, mostly cleared of trees, in northern Virginia one afternoon, nearly to the West Virginia border and in a rush to fit in 10 more miles in the four hours of daylight left, when I came across two 20 or 30-somethings off the trail, picking berries deep in the brush. Matching dark-washed skinny jeans. Both wearing flannel shirts in summer. She wore stylish, black, cat eye glasses. He had a beard that made it look like he had lived in the mountains much longer than me.

“Good afternoon!” I shouted over to them from the trail.

Her head swiveled in my direction. His stayed focus on the berries he was harvesting. “Hi,” she offered back.

I walked over to the edge of the brush, maybe 15 feet away from them, to see what they were picking. The fruit was deep red and each berry was a cluster of a dozen or so tiny orbs. They looked delicious, but knowing very little of botany, I can never tell what’s edible and what will plunge me into a violent fit of vomiting. “What are they?” I ask what I think is a reasonable question.

“Rubus phoenicolasius” he jumps in without looking up from his task, shaking his head with disdain at my lack of knowledge on the subjects of botany and Latin. What kind of moron walks into the woods without a healthy knowledge of rubus phoenicolasius?

I stare blankly.

“Wine berries,” he adds. “Invasive species.” He pauses between every characteristic, as if to see if I recognize any of the combination of vowels coming out of his mouth. “In the family of the raspberry. From Japan.”

“I,” I stutter, trying to figure out if I have a role in this conversation. “I like raspberries.”

“Cool, man.”

Asshole. “Are they edible?” I ask what I realize is a stupid question, but one that I have to ask to give myself piece of mind. I’m starving on a mountain covered with wine berries.

Rubus phoenicolasius, mmmmm!

He looks at me and shakes the large plastic container holding hundreds of the berry clusters they’ve already collected. “We’re not washing ourselves with them, dude.”

I imagine myself saying, “It doesn’t look like you wash yourself with anything.” His girlfriend would say, “Oh shit” and maybe give me a high five. He and I would fight. He’s taller, but I’m stronger. Plus I’ve been hardened after months of living on the trail. I am made to fight in the mountains.

But, instead, I keep the insult to myself.

“Do you want to try some?” the woman holds out her container toward me, restoring my faith in the kindness of man.

“Sure!” I cup my hands together and she shakes a few into them. I pop them into my mouth and bite down, triggering a sweet juice explosion. “These are incredible!” I’m chewing faster now. “How do I get more?”

She laughs, and I wait for her to give me the name of a store, and possibly the aisle in which I can purchase more wine berries, but instead she gives a broad gesture around me. “They’re everywhere. The darker they are, the less tart they’ll be. Just pick away!”

Just pick away.

I look at my watch, and figure I can spare a few minutes for foraging. My diet on the trail is not high in fruit, unless you count the cherry Pop Tarts I start most days with. You shouldn’t count those.

I take my pack off and walk to the nearest wine berry bush. I pick a few ripe ones off the plant and savor their sweetness. So good. When I finish the ripe ones, I move to the ones of questionable ripeness. Then I find the next bushel of them. A little deeper into the brush.

I’m insatiable. How many of these can I eat? Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

The air cools and I’m in heaven. I try to decide how I like eating these best. Sometimes I’ll eat them one at a time. Sometimes I’ll go two at a time. And sometimes I’ll pick a whole handful — about twenty berries — and eat them all at once. I decide that’s my favorite way. Berries by the mouthful.

I jump from bushel to bushel, carefully counting out twenty berries and shoveling them into my mouth, tastebuds covered in my new favorite food. I close my eyes and imagine a life of foraging. Could I subsist on a diet of wine berries? As I consume handful after handful, it feels like something I could never get tired of.

“Hey! How’d you get back there?” the lady hipster yells, snapping me out of my daydream, mid-bite.

I look around and see that I’m now 100 feet from the trail, surrounded by wild grass up to my chest. “I don’t know!” I cry, wine berries shooting from my mouth. I wipe rogue juice from my face and look at my watch. Somehow I’d been stuffing my face with berries for more than 90 minutes.

Dejected from realizing I won’t hit my mileage goal today, but buoyed by an insane sugar high, I bound out of the brush toward my pack. But not without stuffing my pockets full of berries on the way.

By 66 Million years ago, as plates pulled apart the Appalachian mountains had been reduced to almost a completely flat plain.

A Merry Land

A beautiful state with the worst nicknames.

Maryland gets a pretty good rap for being one of the easier states to hike through on the trail. After my initial trek up South Mountain where I met the Six Tindering Dwarfs, I spent the remainder of the state’s 41 miles walking along a ridge. A sign near the southern end of the state’s portion of the trail admits “The Appalachian Trail Conservancy rates us a 3 out of 10 in difficulty. We don’t have climbs as steep as most other states, or trail that is as rocky.”

Please, Maryland, no need to apologize for that. I very much enjoyed strolling along your tree-covered mountaintops.

[Note: To avoid using the word “Maryland” a hundred times in this section, I looked up the State’s nicknames, assuming I could use one or two as synonyms. It turns out Maryland has the worst nicknames in the country. But I won’t shy away. Please, enjoy.]

‘Ol “America in Miniature” not only has some of the easiest trail — it also has the most generous amenities. While state authorities are strict on only allowing you to camp at one of a few designated campsites they make available, the campsites are some of the best on the trail.

Showers. Check!

Outlets to charge electronics. Check!

Poles to hang food out of reach of bears. Check!

Flat spots to set up your tent. Check!

And here’s the best one of all: spigots from which to quickly get potable water. Check!

Why is a spigot with potable water such a commodity? Because filtering one’s own water from a stream or spring takes a very long time. Twice a day I have to find a stream or spring near the trail with enough of a flow to easily fill up my “dirty water bag.”

My guidebook points out where many of the water sources are, so that helps. Once I get to one, I have to find a part of the stream that will funnel water into the small mouth of the dirty water bag. This is most often a spot where rocks or leaves are redirecting the stream. Then I find a place to sit near that spot — usually on a rock jabbing into my butt — and begin the filtering process. This includes pushing the contents of the dirty water bag through the filter into my clean water pouch, which functions like a Camelbak in my hiking pack. Think of pushing out toothpaste by rolling the tube if the mouth of the tube was an eighth of its current size.

The dirty water bag is 16 ounces, while the clean water pouch is three liters, so I usually need to go through this process six or seven times to finish with a full bag of water. That takes about 35 minutes.

And I usually have to do that twice a day. 70 minutes.

Filling my water from a spigot takes less than a single minute.

There are faster ways to filter water than the method I settled on, but I won’t bore you with that here. All you need to know is none of them are even close to as fast as Maryland’s spigots, and I love “The Free State” for providing said spigots.

After a 15-mile day — which is a pretty light day in Maryland — I was determined to follow it up with a bigger one. Twenty-five miles was the goal for the next day, and in a state as flat as the “Old Line State,” this should be possible. The problem is Maryland is full of my weakness: historical markers. It’s hard to walk five miles without seeing a handful of them.

Monuments for two Generals, opposing sides, who died in the same battle.

I was off to a late start because I had to edit the previous article I submitted. It was also a beautiful, 70-degree morning, and I was in no rush to leave a campsite full of unlimited electricity and water. At 11am I had finished the article and was on my way, determined to hike a full and productive day.

I made it about two-tenths of a mile, or five minutes, before I hit a small road, surrounded by open fields and markers with text. My kryptonite. Most the markers I found along the trail were related to the Maryland Campaign of the Civil War, which found its way to many of the gaps, mountains, and passes the Appalachian Trail intersects.

During the 16 days of the Maryland campaign, from September 4 through 20 in 1862, General Robert E. Lee hoped to bring his army through this border state to recruit new members for his forces on his way to attacking the North for the first time on their home soil, destroying the Union’s faith in Lincoln and his war in advance of the upcoming election.

The signs informed me that in the places and along the routes I stood, Lee made the decision to split up his army so Stonewall Jackson could take the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. Lincoln’s general, George B. McClellan, accidentally intercepted a note outlining Lee’s plans to split his forces and used this information as an opportunity to attack his smaller force at a camp I’d be at the next day. Marylanders didn’t flock to the Confederate army’s side the way Lee had hoped. Lee’s fragmented army was badly outnumbered and defeated at South Mountain, but held off the Union long enough to reunite his forces in Antietam, for the single bloodiest battle in American military history.

I looked at my watch. Geez, it was almost 1pm and I’d hiked two-tenths of a mile. And I was hungry. A few feet down the road, close enough for me to read that the sign said, “South Mountain Inn and Restaurant,” was a place for me to satisfy that hunger.

Don’t do it, I thought.

You’re hungry. You’ve got to do it, I also thought.

You wanted to hike 25 miles today. You won’t be able to do that if you stop here.

You’re not going to be able to hike 25 miles anyway. You had might as well enjoy the day.

It’s going to be expensive.

Just check the website and see.

That seemed reasonable. I googled “South Mountain Inn and Restaurant” and quickly learned the restaurant had a brunch buffet on Sundays. And it’s Sunday! I was already walking in that direction.

No, it’s going to be expensive!

Shut up, you’ve lost.

I take a seat at the bar, charge my electronics out of habit, order a beer, and head to the buffet. Eggs, bacon, sausage, salmon casserole, steak with an au jus sauce, three kinds of potato, fruit salad, vegetable salad, a juice bar, and all the desserts in the world. I got to work.

On my third trip up, an older lady, dressed much better than myself, stopped me. “Are you a hiker?” she asked.

“Hi, I sure am,” I said, eyeing the french toast while I prepared for a round of what we call “Hiker Celebrity,” which is when someone you don’t know comes up to you and treats you like a superstar for hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“Wow, you don’t smell like you’re hiking,” she replied with what has become a popular refrain in Maryland.

I responded with my go-to deodorant line.

“I’m Marcine,” she introduces herself and then apologizes, even though she doesn’t have to. “You have to excuse me for my bluntness. I’m French. You know how we are.”

I smiled politely and nodded, but I’m pretty sure I had no idea what she was talking about. Maybe the French are known for being blunt at breakfast buffets? I guess that’s a thing.

“Oh, you’re French?” I asked. “Your English is incredible. I don’t hear any accent.”

“Oh, no,” she laughed. “I’m not from there. I’ve actually never been.”

I’m trying to do the math in my head, but I can’t figure out how she’s French without ever having put a foot in the country.

They say it would take longer to read every plaque abut the Civil war’s Maryland campaign than it would take to just reenact it. (Actually, I say that).

“Young man,” she interrupts my thoughts, “I’d like to buy your brunch. I admire what you’re doing.”

It feels shameful, but this is always kind of what you’re hoping for in a Hiker Celebrity situation. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does. I still don’t quite understand why people are so nice to hikers. As I have to remind my Grandmother, who sometimes takes to Facebook to demand my friends prepare a celebration of my accomplishments upon my return, “Grandma — I’m not off fighting in Europe. I’m voluntarily walking.”

But I’m not complaining!

I tell her that her offer is extremely kind, but that she doesn’t have to. She insists, and asks if I’ll come over and talk to her family in a little bit. I say, of course, understanding this is my part in the unwritten Hiker Celebrity agreement. She heads back to her table, and I go back to the french toast.

After the french toast — which was phenomenal in case you were wondering — I go back to scope out the dessert bar and, with a cup of mousse and a piece of cheesecake in hand, I make my way over to my audience’s table. I introduce myself, make a joke about how New Orleans has no mountains, and then answer their questions.

“Why are you hiking?

“When did you start?”

“How long will it take?”

“What’s the scariest animal encounter you’ve had so far?”

For some, it might be annoying to answer the same questions over and over again. For me, I appreciate that others are interested in the trail and feel like I have a part to play in encouraging that interest. Also, I’m probably a narcissist, and like answering questions about myself.

Once I’m excused, I head back to the bar to eat my first of several rounds of dessert.

Marcine’s husband comes over to make sure my bill is paid and, like many father’s would, he brags to me about his son who works for NASA.

I thank him again for him and his wife’s kindness.

“She’s French, you know,” he reminds me, eyebrows raised. “And of course you know what that means.”

I want to insist that I have no idea, but I just smile and try to suppress a series of confused blinks instead.

I gather my electronics, tip the bartender, and head out the door to get my pack. Marcine’s son is outside, smoking a cigarette, as I imagine the sons of fake French people do.

“So you come out here every year?” I make small talk as I put on my pack. “You must enjoy it, huh?”

“Oh yeah, it’s beautiful,” he says after a drag on his cigarette. “But,” and he nods through the window toward his mother.

“You know how the French are,” I take a shot at the game.

“You have no idea,” he shakes his head solemnly.

He’s absolutely right.

Pennsylvania Rocks…

Like “Little America,” Pennsylvania also comes with a reputation for hikers. The Keystone State’s (see, Maryland, that’s a nickname!) isn’t so flattering, however. What is its reputation?

Rocks.

Big rocks. Little rocks. Sharp rocks. Piles of rocks. Seas of rocks. Rocks that will break your ankles. Rocks that will destroy your shoes. (Some hikers actually buy a separate pair of shoes for Pennsylvania, only.)

Pennsylvania strike so much fear in hikers, it’s the one State you hear being asked about hundreds of miles before you get there. “Are the rocks as bad as people say?”

Every night I check the elevation map in my guidebook for the next few days, spending extra attention on the following day. That can give me an idea of what my pace will be, how I should ration food, where I might thinking about resupplying next, and where I’ll sleep. Pennsylvania’s misleading, though.

For comparison’s sake, here’s what the elevation map looks like in many parts of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina:

And here’s what it looks like in much of Pennsylvania:

Not so bad! Except here’s what that Pennsylvania section looks like in real life:

Doesn’t look that bad? Yeah, you try it for three weeks!

So, what looked on the elevation map like an easy three mile-per-hour pace, is actually much slower, probably two miles-per-hour.

Inconvenient and time consuming are one thing, but dangerous is another, and slippery rocks concern me then most. The day after an eight-hour rainstorm, that’s where my head was at.

It was about 7:30 in the evening, and I was getting pretty close to where I was camping for the night. I was finishing a short, moderately steep climb up a rock pile and, because it was so wet, I was moving with extreme care, making sure each trekking pole had a firm hold before I took my next step.

As I rounded a corner, I saw a pair of feet stretched out from a pile of rocks that were obstructing my view. They were on the trail, about 20 feet away.

“Hello!” I called. Nervous.

No response.

“Hello! Everything ok up there?” I stopped for a moment and listened.

Still nothing.

I moved as quick as I could up the pile to see what had happened, and as I got around the pile I saw a body laying there, a little blood dripping from the side of the man’s head and his elbow. He was in his 20s and I was really scared to move him, afraid of what the back of his head, which was against the rocks, might look like.

“Hey! Are you ok?” I yelled.

Still nothing.

Fuck, I thought. I fumbled for my phone and turned it on. “9-1-1” I said, loud enough for the man to hear, as I dialed.

I could see his eyelids, a little more than half-closed, flutter. It looked like his eyes were rolled up in the back of his head.

“Hello, this is 9-1-1” the operator confirmed, “what’s your emergency?”

“Hi,” I tried to catch my breath, “I’m hiking on the Appalachian Trail, just north of Duncannon, Pennsylvania.” I explained the situation.

“Do you know the nearest road crossing,” the operator asked.

“Yes,” but then the hiker flinched, “I’m sorry, hold on, he’s starting to move,” I told the operator. “Hi, I spoke to the hiker. Are you okay?”

His eyes were open but he wasn’t saying anything.

“Hi, I came across you on the trail and you were laying here on these rocks. Are you okay? Did you hit your head”

Still nothing. He didn’t move. He was just looking at me.

“Sir,” I redirected the conversation to the man on the phone. “His eyes are open, but he’s not saying anything. I’m not sure if he hit his head badly on the rocks. Maybe he slipped.”

“Okay, one moment,” the operator said.

“Don’t worry, I called 9-1-1, they’re going to be able to help you out,” I told the hiker.

“Wait, what?!” the hiker yelled. He sat up, groggy. A miracle! “No, I’m fine,” he slurred. “I was just tired. I appreciate that, but I’m fine. Just tired. Just tired,” he trailed off.

“You sure?”

He nodded.

“Okay,” I talk to the operator again. “He says he’s okay, so what do you think?”

“Then, unless you see anything different, let’s leave it at that. If anything changes, don’t hesitate to call us back and we’ll help you guys out. Have a good, safe evening.”

“Thanks,” and I hung up the phone and put it back on power-saver mode as I checked in on the guy laying on the ground. “Hey man, I’m sorry about that. You were just laying here on the trail and had some blood on your head. I wasn’t sure what happened.”

The Knife’s Edge in Pennsylvania. Not unlike where I found Rocket.

He pushed himself up to a sitting position. “No man, it’s fine. I appreciate you looking out. Do you have any booze on you?”

Ah, I get it. Drunk. “No, I don’t. Do you need any water?”

He shook his head.

“Do you need any help getting to the next shelter? I was going to set my tent up by it. I think it’s about a mile-and-a-half away.”

“Nah, I’m fine,” he sat on the ground with his face in his hands. “Thanks, though. Have a goodnight.”

When I got to the campsite, there were two other hikers discussing the same man, Rocket, they also found, drunk and passed out in the middle of the trail.

Approximately 50 Million years ago, the Cenzoic Era included the regional uplift that recreated the Appalachian Mountains closer to the image we know now.


Pennsylvania Rocks!

“I’d like to make a toast,” I raise my glass in the dimly lit bar, and the five people around me follow suit. There’s Pleasure House, Calories, Miss Frizz, Stoop, and Banana Split — who got his trail name because he’s had a massive tear in his yellow shorts since at least Tennessee, possibly earlier. The bartender watches us curiously, cigarette hanging from her lip. “I’d like to make a toast to the greatest bar on the trail!” We hit our glasses together and each take a solid sip of beer, before passing the drink in our hand to the person to our left.

The toast wasn’t an exaggeration. The “bar” is actually a club within the Port Clinton Fire Department, and is one of only two drinking establishments in the town of 288 people. The club is technically members-only, but members can sign in non-members, though there is a member-to-guest ratio that cannot be exceeded.

This was a problem because the Yuengling Brewery is one town over in Pottsville, and many hikers, myself included, had congregated in town with the plan of going to the brewery the next day. Many of us had hiked through the rain all day — or stayed in the bar an extra day to avoid the rain — clustering even more hikers in town trying to get into the bar.

Walking into sweet, sweet Port Clinton — one of my favorite towns on the trail, in part because it doesn’t even require a panorama to capture it all in a pic.

The good news was that an annual membership was only $12 your first year. Renewal each year after was $9. We all got in the bar.

“I’d like to make a toast,” Pleasure House announced from her barstool with the torn seat. “To upholding our responsibility as board members of the Port Clinton Fire Department Bar by attending all monthly meetings here in town!” All players cheered, clinked our glasses together, took a solid pull of beer, and passed our glass to the person to our left.

The game’s called “Pass the Beer” and was invented by my friends and me, eight years ago, while teaching band camp at UCLA. I could spend an entire installment talking about how such a simple game is the greatest ever invented, but I’ll spare you. Just play the game with me sometime.

A tight fit on the way to the Yuengling Brewery.

The game ended the only way it can, when all the beer is done. And then someone else bought he next round of beers, which is no problem, because draft beers (including Yuengling) are $1 each during happy hour, and $1.25 all other hours.

I ordered a few slices of pizza, delivered from the town pizza place, which were about $1.50 each and walked over to Steely Dan and Ghostwriter.

“You guys coming to the brewery, tomorrow?” I asked.

Steely Dan, laughed, “I’ve been here since 1pm this afternoon — 10 hours. I need to hike tomorrow.”

“Alright, Steely,” I put my hand on his shoulder, “how about this? If I hit a bullseye, you drop this stupid notion of hiking tomorrow, and come to the brewery with us?”

“Absolutely not,” he smiled, “but there’s no way you’re going to hit that bullseye.”

Listen, I don’t expect you to believe me. I am absolute shit at darts. Though, maybe Steely can confirm for us. I swear to you, on me getting to Mt. Katahdin in one piece, I put that dart through that bullseye on one try.

Steely, somehow, was still gone the next morning before any of us even woke up.

In The Game of Thrones, You Either Watch Or You Die

After the Yuengling Brewery tour the next day, Pleasure House and I sobered up (then, for some reason, drank a few more beers), and then finally hiked out of town at about 7pm. We didn’t get a ton of miles done, but it was enough to do the big climb up out of Port Clinton so we wouldn’t have to suffer through it the next with the sun beating down on us.

The vertical climb out of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. I’m afraid of heights. This is stupid.

That was the reason we gave, but more importantly, since we were on top of a mountain, it also gave us the best service to live stream the season premiere of Game of Thrones, which we had been talking about for at least six weeks.

I’m not a monster and won’t give any spoilers here, but I do wish there was someone around to take a picture of us, sitting on the log near our tents, huddled around my phone in pitch blackness save for a few lights from homes in the valley below us.

After the episode we went back to our tents to get some sleep and, before I powered it down, I noticed I had a notification on my phone: “You have another bee in the hive.” That’s Bumble’s way of telling me I matched with someone. And for those of you that don’t speak dating app language at all, that’s my way of telling you someone I swiped right on also swiped right on me.

And she sent me a message, “Hey Matt! Congrats on making it this far on the Appalachian Trail.”

Smooth move appealing to my narcissism with an interview….which was conveniently never mentioned again.

I looked through her profile and it was immediately clear she was more impressive than me in every way that isn’t long-distance hiking. She owned her own animal-care company, and her pictures were all doing adventurous things in foreign cities, surrounded by foreign people. My pictures are mostly of me hiking or wearing Mardi Gras wigs.

I thought for a moment.

“Hi Ashley — thanks! Your profile says you like to hike. Have you hiked any of the AT?”

That regional uplift, approximately 50 Million years ago, also created the streams and rivers we see cutting through the Appalachian Mountains. This erosion — which exposes the rock we’re hiking on in places like Pennsylvania — will reduce the size of the mountains until it is once again a plain, or until another geological event reverses that trend.

Rock On, Pennsylvania!

“Hey — good trail magic coming up!” was the text message I got from Pleasure House. She was a few miles ahead of me.

I wasn’t quite sure where it was, but word was spreading up and down this part of the trail. Almost everyone I saw, heading north or south, had it on their tongues and mind. “I heard there’s trail magic up ahead today.” Or, “Hey, trail magic in a few miles!”

Almost every time I got to a road crossing, I imagined the smell of hot dogs. I began to wonder if there was a plant that smelled like hot dogs. But I think I was just really eager for food.

Finally I got to a parking area near a river and there was a big family reunion-style tent set up with a grill burning and snacks packed so high on a table, they were falling off it. Hamburgers, hot dogs, donuts, chili, cookies, muffins, Gatorade, chips, danishes, jumbo marshmallows dipped in chocolate ganache and sea salt, and so many other delicacies impossible to procure on the trail. And it was all provided by a woman from Philadelphia (and her boyfriend) who has never thru-hiked, but who hikes every weekend. And, on the day she isn’t hiking, she said she provides some kind of magic like this one for other hikers.

Thru-hikers tend to hang around a little bit longer when there’s trail magic, so there were a handful there when I arrived. Several I hadn’t met before, but a few I had. The conversation was oscillating back and forth between two conversations: one was the guy who claimed he hadn’t pooped in the woods the entire trail; and the other was about Rocket, the drunk I found passed out on the rocks, who had left this spot 15 minutes before I’d arrived.

“He looked like he was shaking,” one young hiker noted.

“Yeah,” another answered, “he told me he accidentally broke his bottle of whiskey and it was the first day he’d gone without booze in years.”

The boyfriend of the lady who was providing the trail magic, a burly guy with an impressive beard, suggested, “You’ve got to give him tough love. If you see him out there drinking, you’ve got to just knock the bottle out of his hand.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” one of the hikers responded politely to the man who was grilling us burgers, “but that’s easier said than done. I don’t know if he’ll respond violently to that. And, I want to help support him, but it’s also already a lot to even look out for myself out here.”

Trail magic dance party! It’s a different trail magic than the one I’m writing about, but you get the idea.

Thirty minutes later I leave the Trail Magic, belly full and phone recharged, and hike on. Today the trail was going near what used to be a thriving coal-mining town in the 19th century, but now was a ghost town. I was excited to check it out.

As I sped along, I saw a figure lumbering ahead of me. My heart sank — it was Rocket. I didn’t want to have another conversation about how he needed alcohol, and I also didn’t want to look after him. I had my own agenda for the day.

When I caught up to him, he was staring at something I couldn’t see.

“Hey man, whatcha looking at?” I asked.

“Snake.” He pointed, “Right there.”

And sure enough there was a really long, black snake. Not poisonous, but still intimidating. I gave it some space and walked around. “Thanks for the warning!” I said with a smile.

“No problem,” he returned the smile. I started to walk away, but he stopped me. “Hey!” he called, “Do you mind if I walk with you for a little bit? I’m feeling a little lonely out here.”

It was the first interaction I’d had with Rocket in which he wasn’t passed out on a rock in the middle of the trail. “Yeah, I’d love the company. But I’m heading toward the old Yellow Springs Village ruins if you want to join me for that.”

“Yeah, dude, anywhere sounds good to me.”

Nighttime in PA.

As we walked up the side trail, overgrown and not nearly as maintained as the Appalachian Trail, Rocket told me about how he grew up in Washington, D.C. He told me about how he started his own lawn care business. And he told me about how the stress from managing all his clients was making him crazy.

“I was afraid I was going to do something bad to myself if I didn’t get out of there.”

He told me how one day he called his Dad and said he was going to go for a walk, and how he left his cell phone in his apartment and hitched a ride to the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. “I didn’t tell a single client. I feel bad — but I needed to get out. I know you guys are trying to get to Maine, but for me, I don’t care where I physically end up, I just need time.”

The trail leads into an area that’s more open, but still kind of overgrown, and I start to peel back the layers on this town that, in the 1850s, had a population in the multiple hundreds. Greater than Harpers Ferry.

165 years ago, a town was here.

Maybe this clearing over here, with logs rearranged in a rectangle, is where a group of miners took their lunch to chat on their break about their families, or their hobbies, or their future. Maybe this trail over here is how the coal was transported to the railroad tracks leading down the mountain and into the bigger industrial cities of Pennsylvania. And maybe this foundation over here — with what looked like the last bits of a chimney — was a home. Maybe this was the front yard, where the kids played — doing the same kind of kids stuff that kids in Brooklyn were doing, and not that much different than what I was doing when I was their age 140 years later.

I imagine a group of children dragging their sleds along the snowy trail I was standing on toward the hill behind me. One child would slide down the hill while the others would pelt her with snowballs. They’d be laughing.

If someone told them no one would be here 75 years later, they’d think it was a joke. That 150 years later, there would be almost no evidence they — or Yellow Springs — had ever been in this world.

But if you took the time and looked close enough, there was still some evidence.

I looked next to me, and saw Rocket, silent, eyes closed, thinking about something.

And then I felt ashamed for the way I saw Rocket, bleeding on that rock, and judged him. That’s easy to do, but I don’t know anything of this man’s history, except that — like Harpers Ferry, like Press Street, like Yellow Springs Village, and like everything else in the world — he had a history. Something got him to this point. I don’t think life is predetermined, but there’s no denying outside forces push us in a certain direction.

Rocket was no different.

And at one point, not that long ago, he was no different than the now-imaginary kids playing in front of these now-imaginary-houses in these now-imaginary-yards. And if I can feel empathy for them, why is it so hard to feel the same for him?

We’re Movin’ On Up

“Yeah, he’s gotta get off the trail,” the older man with the purple bandana explained to me. He was talking about his friend with a green bandana, who was limping around, on the phone trying to call for a shuttle to pick him up. For both men, in their late-60s or older, the bandanas were probably the most substantial piece of “clothing” they wore. No shirt, and shorts so short they might have also been bandanas. I tried not to look directly at it.

“I need an udder!” I heard the man on the phone yell. “An ubber, sure!” he kind of corrected himself.

“You’re trying to get an Uber?” I asked the man sitting next to me.

“What’s it called?”

“Uber” I said.

“Oh,” he shook his head, “we thought they were saying udders at first. But he can’t buy it on his phone or whatever, because it’s not smart enough. I don’t know, something like that.”

“Okay, I think I know what you mean,” I said while I flipped to the Uber app to see if there were any available drivers in the area. We were in a gap between two mountains in rural Pennsylvania, so I wasn’t surprised there weren’t. “Yeah, it won’t work out here anyway,” I told him. “Not enough people.”

I walked to the road to try to grab a hitch for these guys. The old man who was injured, with the green bandana, hobbled over to me as I stuck my thumb out and smiled at the cars zooming by me.

“Thanks, buddy,” he said, “I appreciate the help. It’s hard for two shirtless old men to get a hitch.”

I laughed, “Yeah, I can imagine.” I looked back out to the road and saw no cars coming. We were silent for a few seconds. I wasn’t sure how to breach the uncomfortable subject of someone having to leave the trail. “I’m — I’m really sorry to hear about your injury. What happened?”

“Oh, these damn rocks,” he began like so many people do. “I twisted my ankle on one, and it’s been bothering me on every stone since. Your foot is never flat on the ground in this state. I gave it a two-week rest, and my buddy over there waited with me, but it’s still a problem.” He looked down and kicked at and stick with his other foot, “Guess it’s time to go home.”

I could see his eyes welling up. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I repeated awkwardly, unsure of what else to say.

“Yeah,” he wiped his eyes, “I appreciate that. It’s just hard not to feel like I failed.” I don’t think I’d ever seen a 70-year-old man cry. My eyes started to well up, too, and I put my hand on his shoulder, trying to think of something I could say.

“I know it might not be any consolation now, but you’d have a hard time finding many people who would say walking 1,200 miles was a failure.” He sniffed. I could see him thinking about it. “I don’t know your story at all, but I do know that seeing you make it this far inspires me to rethink what is possible for me as I get older.”

I don’t know if it made him feel any better, but it was the truth. And, as the car that would take him off the trail pulled away, I thought to myself, “If you failed, it’s only because you set your goals so high, and that’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.”

I wish I would have told him that.

I hiked on into Palmerton, Pennsylvania — site of my much-anticipated Bumble date. (Don’t even ask. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. Or…doesn’t not kiss and tell. I can’t tell you which a gentleman doesn’t do, because then I’d basically have told you….and a gentleman doesn’t do that.)

I was moving with a little more care over these rocks; a little more aware of my mortality. Not mortality as in death, but how this whole adventure — which seems to be going so well right now — could end with one wrong step. With one loose rock. With one twisted ankle.

But a twisted ankle isn’t failure. It’s life. And I hope it doesn’t happen, but I also should prepare not to judge the last 13 weeks on something that is — in large part — out of my control.

Now we’re getting somewhere! As always, thanks to Aaron Luther for the map.

Now I’m at Mile 1422 and — thanks to my sister, the math teacher — have been informed I have 36% of the trail left to go. I’m through Pennsylvania, and then buzzed through New Jersey and am now well into New York. In my next installment, I’ll focus on my time in this, the most populated corridor on the trail. It’s a very different adventure with some very different challenges.

And for those of you that have enjoyed reading about my adventure, please consider donating to my fundraiser for the Live Oak Wilderness Camp. It’s a nonprofit summer camp which teaches campers — all students from the greater New Orleans area — leadership skills, as well as an appreciation for the outdoors. It’s an incredible organization, and so far we have raised more than $3,150 from 68 donors. My goal is a donation of $4,380 — $2 for every mile I’m hiking.

Campers at the Live Oak Wilderness Camp!

Donations of every amount are so helpful, and you can make the donation here.

Thanks so much for your support on this, and in every other way, whether it be reading, sharing, commenting, or anything else. I appreciate it a ton.

Follow me on Facebook here. Or, now, on instagram! I’ve never posted on instagram and only have one because it was the only way to find out where my favorite doughnut delivery truck was going to be each day. (I wish this was a joke.) But my social media team — the Six American University Dwarfs shamed me into using it for the hike.

After announcing to her friends, unsolicited, that we wouldn’t find each other on Tinder because I’m…”old,” she offered, “What’s your Instagram? I’ll follow you there!”

“I don’t use Instagram,” I admitted.

“Oh…” she looked at me with the mixture of pity and disdain you offer an octogenarian who just soiled them self. “That’s ok.”

So follow me on instagram (IG, as they say) and I’ll post updates daily-ish starting today! I’m @haines1983, and here’s my page.

Thanks again for following along, I please reach out with questions or suggestions!

Evening over the Lehigh Valley.

Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City which meets at Treo every other week and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *