Every state along the Appalachian Trail has its own personality, quirks and peculiarities that are often a source of pride and reverence for the locals.
Georgia is where most sensible folk start off, and so therefore doesn't really have to be all that spectacular or challenging in order for people to feel good about it.1 North Carolina and Tennessee, of course, have the Smoky Mountains, but are also the second and third states one enters, which is exciting in and of itself. Virginia has the Grayson Highlands and Shenandoah National Park, but is also famous for having the longest section of trail of any state. West Virginia, on the other hand, is notable for having the shortest. Maryland surprises all by being relatively easy and gorgeous. And then there's Pennsylvania. And it sucks.
Pennsylvania has nothing. There is literally nothing good about Pennsylvania. And that's the entire state. And the people in charge of routing the trail through Pennsylvania knew that. Whoever they were—geologists, politicians, or, more likely, deranged sociopathic lunatics—they didn't want their state to pale in comparison to their rivaling neighbors. Unfortunately, they seem to have overcompensated for their homestate's drab mediocrity by making the trail there as aggressively unpleasant as possible.
The Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania apparently runs through one massive, continuous Superfund site that stretches from the Maryland to New Jersey borders. As an added bonus, the path itself is a mess of razor sharp rocks lined with toxic raspberries, venomous snakes, cannibalistic hillbillies, and ravenous bears. If hikers don't break their ankles, suffer food poisoning, get eaten, or get eaten, they might still be bored to tears, but usually consider themselves lucky.2
Knowing that was what I had to look forward to, I took an hour and a half lunch break at PenMar Park, a scenic area just south of the Mason-Dixon line. I was very relieved to have escaped the Ensign Cowall Shelter unscathed. The atmosphere inside the shelter had been so toxic from the chain smoking, grunting, snoring, rude, inconsiderate, scary, and generally evil southbounders that I had actually packed up my things and left to tent around midnight, startling some of the others. But I didn't care. Merf had backtracked to a hostel just off the trail to pick up a mail drop that morning. Now I was dragging my feet, hoping she'd catch up. And PenMark Park seemed like the place to do it.
A group of senior citizens was having an impromptu party and elaborate alfresco meal just beside the trail.
Never one to pass up an opportunity for Yogi-ing, I made a big show of collapsing on a nearby picnic table, dramatically doffed my pack, and then lay about wheezing and coughing and trying to look as sad, hungry, and helpless as possible. Of course, the kindly old folks could hardly help but notice me writhing around in front of them, whimpering and making puppy dog eyes. It wasn't long before someone asked me if I was thru-hiking. Yes, I responded, perhaps too enthusiastically. Then they asked me if I was hungry. Score.
Iced tea. Salad. Pasta Salad. Potato Salad. Egg Salad. Fruit Salad. Soda. Cake. Soda. They had it all. And they didn't want leftovers. I told them I was writing a book about my experiences.3They teased me for going to NYU and for being a liberal, and told me just how ineffectual President Obama was being in response to the then-ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf. After I had composed myself—their barbs had hurt me deeply, to the point that I had ran off to cry in the bathroom—I jokingly threatened to take away their Medicare and Medicaid checks, and they, realizing their own hypocrisy, begged my forgiveness. Then we all laughed about it and continued eating. Because if there's one thing that transcends age, gender, race, religion, and political affiliation, its shared enthusiasm for pasta salad.
I kept hoping that Merf would show up before the old people left, or before I ate all their remaining food, whichever came first. Tragically, she never made it. And, eventually, I had to give up the pretense of waiting for her and move along.
Southern Pennsylvania is actually quite beautiful, and contains some of the best maintained stretches of trail anywhere. The shelters were pristine and tidy. Even the privies were ridiculously nice and accommodating, coming pre-stocked with toilet paper, and with a paucity of grime, heinous smells, and scary dark corners filled with cobwebs and beady little insect eyes peering out at you while you did your business. Of all the ways to go out—and in Pennsylvania, there are many—being bitten by a Latrodectus while taking a dump in an outhouse in the woods is probably the least dignified.
It was drizzling by the time I arrived at the Tumbling Run Shelters. Yes, plural. There are two shelters there, one for "snoring," and the other for "non-snoring." I wasn't about to take my chances, and tented. Ridley and Panther were there. A younger guy named Dreamcatcher was there. I knew him from his registry entries, and also from his nice habit of making dreamcatchers from scratch and leaving them hanging in shelters. Merf arrived later with Cubbie and Dilly Dally, whom I disliked immediately for the sole reason that they started hiking the A.T. after me. I always resented people who were faster than I was. It would continue to be a problem until I finished.
We had a nice night there, at Tumbling Run. There were no obnoxious southbounders to ruin everything this time. Dreamcatcher and I built a fire. Or someone built a fire, I forget who. Maybe Cornpatch, if he was there. We all got to talking, and it was like old times. Even though I had just met half of them. Dreamcatcher was surprised to find out I was eight years older than him. He had just graduated high school. I was flattered to think I could still pass for a teenager even with my creepy porn-mustache.4
And then we all went to sleep, doing our best to ignore the angry rattlesnake that lived under the shelter.
1. For me, Georgia may not have been all that special, but it was first, and for that reason alone I will always look back on it with fondness. In that respect, it's sort of like my first girlfriend. Sure, she may have dumped me after a three days, but she taught me so much in that time about life and love. For example, if a woman ever approaches you and says, "Can I ask you a question?" the only proper response is to run away screaming with your fingers in your years. Okay, terrible analogy. That's why this is a footnote.
2. The worst aspect of Pennsylvania, however, is that it actually makes one look forward to New Jersey, the existential ramifications of which are too horrifying to contemplate.
3. Okay, technically that wasn't true at the time. I was thinking about writing a book, however, even if I wasn't actively writing it. Anyway, they made me promise to remember them well in my memoirs, if not actually cut them a percentage of my royalties. I dutifully wrote down the name of their group inside my Thru-Hiker's Handbook. The same Thru-Hiker's Handbook I would ultimately lose somewhere in New York state. Oops. Sorry, kind old people!
4. Note: not a picture. Just an alternate account verifying its existence. There is no photographic evidence that such a 'stache ever existed. That you know of. Even if such photos were to exist, I would have had them destroyed long ago.