To complete the trifecta of our trip out East, Loonie, her sister Kristy and I did a slow stroll from Boiling Springs, PA back to Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The main objectives of the trip, completing Shenandoah National Park and filling in the gap up to Bears Den Hostel in VA, were accomplished. This hike was an opportunity to merely slow down and enjoy the beautiful colors of Fall. From what I gathered, it would be a reasonably easy stretch and considering how the first hike of this trip went, we chose to do the 19+ miles over four days. The girls would have PLENTY of time to stop often and relax. Should be a walk in the park and it turned out that that’s often how it felt.
Here’s how this one played out…
Day One: ATC Regional Office – Boiling Springs, PA to Alec Kennedy Shelter (3.9 mi)
There was a chance we would get some rain early on the day we set off but fortunately it never materialized. We got picked up at 10 AM and shuttled up to the ATC’s Regional office in Boiling Springs. Since it was closed when we came through town back in June, I was hoping the office would be open this time around. No luck. The girls went to the outfitter next door to pick up some gloves and by the time they returned and we started walking, it was well after 11 AM. I’m already thinking to myself that this is not getting off to a good start. Naturally, we took lots of time and pics as we made our way through the park and over the bridge at Yellow Breeches Creek.
The trail now moved out of town and across a series of fields, some recently plowed. This made for sweeping views of the surrounding landscape as we made our way towards our first climb up and into the mountains nearby. The walk up to this point was unlike anything I had experienced on the AT thus far but I knew it wouldn’t last.
Our flat, easy field walk behind us, we entered the forest and made our way up 500 feet over the course of a little over a mile to Center Point Knob. AWOL’s guide indicated this to be the original mid-point of the trail but gave no details beyond that. I’m not sure if that meant from the time the southern terminus sat atop Mt Oglethorpe in GA years ago or not. Oglethorpe served as the southern terminus from 1937 to 1958, at which time it was moved 13 miles to Springer Mountain due to encroaching development on the former. Regardless, all that stood here now was a weather-worn plaque affixed to a boulder. It was neat to think what it must have felt like to those first thru hikers, Earl Schaffer, Gene Espy, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, and others, as they stood at this point on their historic treks. Considering how disjointed my unfinished, years-long trek to the halfway point has been, my feelings couldn’t possibly match theirs but still, it was special.
There was now less than a mile and one small bump up between us and Alec Kennedy shelter so we took a break here for a late lunch before moving on. That out of the way, we mozied on to the shelter and checked it out. This would be home for the night so the girls set about starting a fire while I headed off to collect and filter water. A recent comment on Guthook indicated that the water source at the shelter was dry. Despite the rain we had gotten over the previous couple of days, I chose to head to the stream just down the AT. I was able to collect plenty from here but it seemingly took forever (the three of us used a LOT of water throughout each hike). Nearly ten liters of filtering later (I know, crazy), I returned to the shelter to discover that the girls had set a timer and were planning on setting off to find me if I hadn’t returned by the time it went off! Obviously, they were relieved that a search and rescue mission would not be required.
Now I set off to collect wood. While the girls were successful in getting the fire going, they were not so successful in gathering enough fuel to keep it going. As you can imagine, everything in the vicinity of the shelter had been picked clean. Multiple trips into the forest were required to collect a sufficient amount for the next few hours. I was spent by the time I said “enough”. Fortunately, they already had dinner and tea ready to go and we spent the rest of the evening relaxing and enjoying the fruit of our labor.
Day Two: Campsite at Stream (4.1 mi)
Breakfast out of the way and bags packed, we set off for the day, passing by some interesting rock formations on the 2 mile rolling walk to Whiskey Spring Road. The packs came off at this point so the girls could take a break while I topped off our water bottles from the spring. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and since it appeared that we would go no more than four miles or so for the day, we felt no inclination to rush our way down the trail.
Proceeding from here, the rock formations got real interesting. We worked our way through a maze of giant boulders and rock slabs over the course of the next 1-1/2 miles. This was a very cool area and we took lots of time making our way through here.
Once through the maze, the trail crossed the gravel Old Town Road. And once again the packs came off and another long break ensued. We weren’t setting any speed records and that was fine with us. We weren’t quite sure how much farther we would go for the day but I did know that we had a bit the less than a mile to go to a stream and campsite where we would need to decide. It was either call it a day there or collect and haul a crap-load of water further on up the trail. That didn’t sound appealing at all so it was looking as though we would have another very short day.
We eventually picked ourselves up and started moving again, arriving at the stream and campsite shortly thereafter. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that this was home for the night. It was a nice site right beside a stream that wasn’t dry! Couldn’t ask for much more. We set about the usual routine of pitching tents, collecting water, etc. Despite filtering, the water had a “brownish” tint as well as an “earthy” taste. It hadn’t rained hard enough the last week to muddy up the streams so I’m not sure what was up. Maybe tannins? If that was the case then it shouldn’t be harmful. Regardless, I ran most of the water through the filter once more. A few liters were then treated with Chlorine Dioxide. After that, we threw in some of the neutralizer that came with Kristy’s Potable-Aqua tablets. Looked and tasted much better but Kristy chose to stick with the water she had remaining from earlier in the day, at least for drinking. Fortunately, none of us got sick.
The girls got a a fire going again while I rounded up wood. Later, long after the sun had set, two owls started screeching back and forth. One was perched directly overhead and after a bit, swooped down right above us, moving to a tree further away. Very cool!
Day Three: James Fry Shelter (4 mi)
We were packed and on the trail a bit earlier this day. It was absolutely beautiful out and once again we mozied our way down the trail. The exceptional weather and colorful leaves left us content to putter lazily along. I was thinking to myself that I would be fine if it went on like this forever. We crossed Sheet Iron Roof Road, a power line cut and PA Route 94 all within 0.7 of a mile from leaving camp. It had been all uphill to this point but by no means extreme.
From Route 94 it was smooth sailing. It was two miles of gentle down all the way to PA Route 34. We had already set our minds to pulling off trail at this point and heading up the road to Green Mountain General Store for lunch. Upon reaching 34, that’s exactly what we did. The call of a cheese burger, soda and ice cream were too strong to continue on. Up the hill we went. As we drew closer, Loonie asked if this wasn’t the same place we had stopped off at for lunch with Michigan Millie back in June. Sure enough, she was right. Neither of us had put two and two together. This place is AWESOME! Great food at good prices. We ate WAY more than we should have and it took some time before we could work up the gumption to get up off our butts and start moving again.
Eventually we did though, heading back down the hill to the trail. It was a only a little more than a mile left to James Fry Shelter but after all of the food we had just put down, it took us a bit to get there. We stopped at the stream before the shelter to tank up on water and proceeded on. When we arrived, the shelter and surrounding tent spaces were empty and no one else would arrive during our stay. The shelter looked nice and with the prospects of rain moving in overnight, we setup inside.
Once again, the girls got a fire going and once again, I set off for wood. As a reward for my efforts, it was declared that I had exclusive rights to a patio chair someone had left in the shelter. That thing was sweet! Dinner out of the way, we sat back and enjoyed the fire, not heading for bed until around 10 PM. At this point, Kristy discovered a large spider lurking just above her bunk. She then found another. And another. And yet another. Eventually, she found what seemed to be 20 or 30 of them. I’m guessing Wolf spiders but I’m no Arachnid expert. This absolutely freaked her out, as I guess it would most anyone, and she couldn’t decide what she was going to do. We eventually pitched her tent and she moved to it. Loonie and I braved the spiders and fortunately were never bothered.
Day Four: Backpackers Parking Lot – Pine Grove Furnace State Park (7.2 mi)
A light rain fell briefly that night but stopped long before we were up and ready to leave. Still, it looked as though it may return at any time. It was an even earlier start time this morning. The first half of the day’s hike would be almost entirely up but it turned out to be a gentle grade. The sun kept teasing us, popping out from behind the clouds now and then only to quickly disappear once more. Thankfully, the rain left us alone. Excellent!
Not knowing if the rain would return, we maintained a steady, albeit slow, pace throughout the morning. We also weren’t sure when the store at Pine Grove Furnace would close. “Normal Food”, something that required more than merely adding boiling water to, was sounding really good at that moment. The thought of a hot shower was pretty appealing as well. At the top of our climb, the pace slowed even more as we made our way through a rocky section, but soon picked up again as we began the long descent to the park.
This was an easy, absolutely beautiful walk and we didn’t rush it. Gorgeous! We passed on the side trip to Pole Steeple due to the overcast sky but hopefully that will be a stop we’ll make in the future.
We arrived at the park sign and were rewarded with a walk along a wide, flat path beside a stream. Throw in the colorful leaves and it made for a sweet way to finish off the hike.
We walked on, passing by the lake and swim beach and onto a paved path that led us back to the parking lot and van. Trifecta complete!
First things, first. Food. The store was still open and we got those burgers, fries, sodas and ice cream. Amazing! From there we moved to the campground, got setup, took showers and enjoyed a fire before calling it a day.
The next morning, we stopped by the AT museum to see if it was open. It was closed when we were here back in June and I was SO hoping they didn’t let me down this time around. A sign on the door said that they were open 12 to 4 Friday through Sunday. Awesome! We had breakfast, killed some time and checked again at noon. Not open. We waited another 30 minutes and still no one showed. The park office informed us that the museum was operated by the ATC and was open only when volunteers were available. We were told to check with the hostel staff. The hostel is also operated by the ATC and they could find out if a volunteer would be coming.
The hostel was open but we couldn’t find anyone. Just as we turned to leave, a gentleman shows up at the backdoor. He explains that he’s looking for the caretaker as well. He too was trying to get into the museum, to drop off a bunch of t-shirts to sell. He said his trail name was “Bag Of Tricks”, or Tricks for short. Tricks was a talkative guy and proceeds to tell us that he knew Earl Schaffer, the first person to thru hike the AT. He shared all sorts of interesting facts about the history of the trail and then mentioned that Baltimore Jack had been one of his best friends. At one point, he choked up and said he missed his friend so much.
I was now reminded of my post back in early September where I mentioned the encounter Deep Woods had with Jack back in 2014. To quote myself, “he was a complete condescending ass”. I told Tricks about our experience with Jack and asked for his thoughts. Tricks didn’t seemed surprised at all and went on to say that Jack had probably ran out of Jack Daniels and been without a drink for some time. He said he was known to get this way during a dry spell. Things were starting to make a little more sense now. Seeing as how I had been through my own struggle with alcohol, I knew from personal experience what its like for someone in the throws of addiction to go without whatever they think will get them through the day and feel even remotely like a normal human being.
Of the countless forum posts about Baltimore from over the years that I had read, the vast majority told of how giving and helpful he had been. About how much he had given back to the trail community. Some spoke about his personal struggles. After all, he was a human being and had flaws like the rest of us. There were also accounts, as you might expect, that were not so glowing. Even downright nasty. I suppose those were the only ones that came to mind when Deep Woods told me about his experience with Jack. I made the mistake of not considering the whole story. Our encounter was just one tiny blurb in the long book of Jack’s life and it was wrong for me to paint with such a biased brush. There’s one thing I know for sure: when I was drinking myself into oblivion, I was often a complete condescending ass! And when I went without that drink I was often a complete condescending ass! Who am I to cast judgement on Baltimore Jack? So, to the late Baltimore Jack and those who loved him, my sincere apologies.
Tricks sold us a few of the t-shirts he had and we all went over to the museum once more. They were now open. Tricks took a seat and proceeded to tell trail tales to any visitor who would listen. Loonie, Kristy and I spent some time looking over the exhibits. Sitting on a window sill was a small memorial to Jack. Nice.
Before we left, I purchased one souvenir, a “Halfway” patch. Once back home, I put it in a ziploc bag and placed it in the wardrobe. Safe keeping until the day that I actually make it “Halfway”.
2020 Postscript coming soon.
More to come…