Brief but punishing climbs and descents sandwiched long, flat sections of vine- and pricker-encrusted rocks. To the left and right of the trail, brown earth and green undergrowth stretched out almost as far as the eye could see. Which admittedly wasn't that far on this day, considering the all-enveloping fog and steady drizzle. And the trail itself? Angular, misshapen, irregularly sized boulders jutting from the earth in random directions, like the collected pulled teeth from God's own dentistry office. There was nowhere flat to place your feet; I found myself constantly wedging my boots into the gaps between stones and just hoping that I wouldn't twist an ankle.
Why did the powers that be decide to take the trail over this terrain, when seemingly better ground appeared to surround it? Perhaps Pennsylvanians are strict environmentalists, and don't want even ideologically sympathetic hikers tramping all over their precious green stuff. Or maybe they're just sadists. There didn't appear to be any good reason.
Making matters worse were the apparently deplorable local standards of trail maintenance. Maybe Pennsylvania isn't the most trafficked section of the trail—it certainly has the worst reputation, and it is true that most prospective thru-hikers have quit long before they reach the state line—but there is no excuse for letting poison ivy, wild rose, and satanic raspberry bushes grow unchecked, so that they surround the trail on all sides and continually hound and harass all but the most agile passersby. I found maintaining forward momentum hard enough without all the thorns and pricker bushes grabbing at my pack, my arms, my clothes. My biggest fear, however, was having to stop to dig a cathole, and never making it back.
Caveman and I walked along together, for a variety of reasons. We wanted to give Merf and Dietrich some space, to do whatever it is that long-lost friends are wont to do, and also so as to not overwhelm them, to allow them time to properly catch up. Furthermore, I wanted Caveman to fill me in on all that I'd missed after leaving the trail: how Bandito had flipped out and started cursing and drinking and leaving offensive, gratuitously inflammatory notes in shelter logs and acting wantonly lecherous to random strangers without me around to act as his moral compass; how P-Nut had continued his bizarre descent into some kind of primordial madness, and had taken to boiling his shoelaces for dinner, grunting a lot, and snacking on pieces of bark and twigs and berries; how a talent scout had popped out of the woods to present Hobbes with a lucrative modeling contract; and how Redwing had shockingly revealed that she was actually Helen Mirren, and that Lil Dipper was secretly American. But the main reason I wanted to walk with Caveman was because he hiked too quickly on his own. Someone had to slow him down.
I filled Caveman in on everything that had happened to me since he'd left. How I had gotten trail magic every single day, sometimes twice. How I had met some scary southbounders, but had beaten them to death with their own trekking poles and then buried their bodies in PenMar Park. How I had met only one person trying to do the Four State Challenge—Hobbit—but had heard that he'd punked out just a scant few miles from the Pennsylvania border.
All through this I could hear Caveman struggling behind me.
Intrigued and amused, I just had to stop to find out what had happend.
Caveman rested his hands on his knees and chuckled morosely.
"One of the elastic straps on mah pack cover got caught on a pricker? And ah thought it was a good idea just to pull it free, and it snapped back and hit me—"
At which point he and I disolved into a fit of uncontrollable giggling. The stupidity of it all. The futility. The trail was trying to hurt us, maim us, kill us. It was rightly terrifying. How else were we supposed to react?
We continued laughing about it for the next five minutes, until we realized we were lost. In the middle of a vast boulder field, underneath a tree that had inexplicably grown out of the gaps in the rocks. During a lightning storm. For some reason, we found this new predicament hilarious, and only laughed harder. I may have actually sat down, just to catch my breath.
Eventually we composed ourselves and doubled back. The trail wasn't that hard to find.
And just so you don't think I'm exaggerating about the terrain, here are some of the landmarks, as listed in my Thru-Hiker's Handbook:
Fumitory Rocks (1360') ................................. 1147.8Oh, and somehow I got poison ivy on my arm.
Table Rock (1380') ........................................ 1148.0
Shickellimy Rocks (1320') on AT .................. 1152.3
Stony Mtn (1650') .......................................... 1159.0