Sand and gravel crunches beneath my feet as I cross the parking lot. It's about eleven o'clock in the morning, but it's already blistering hot out. Merf and I were delayed getting out of town, due to the logistical difficulties of resupplying and then hitching a ride out, but I'm glad to be putting Palmerton behind me. What with its overpriced soda machines, overabundance of drunken ass-holes, and prison-like accommodations.
Oh, but that's right. We'd spent the night in jail. Or, well, a former jail, that the town had thoughtfully converted into a free hiker hostel. Which was certainly very nice of them. But still, too many drunk people. All two of them were super annoying. Or maybe I'm just irritable.
Merf and I follow a railroad bed for a while, then turn a corner and look up, and there it is. The mountainside before us looks like something between a vertical cliff and a shattered, vaguely Martian boulder field. It was as if Satan himself had given M.C. Escher a protractor, and a bag of methamphetamine, and told him to go design the most alien and amazingly inhospitable landscape he could imagine. If Godzilla had gotten drunk and spent the night eating rocks, and then thrown up in his shoes, Lehigh Gap might have resembled the giant pile of festering puke that would have greeted him in the morning. Needless to say, it was awful. And scary. And ugly. And evil.
And apparently contaminated with near-lethal levels of toxic zinc tailings from a nearby mining disaster. That the federal government apparently declared a Superfund site, and promised to clean up by sometime in "early 1987." Oops.
It takes Merf and I an hour to hike the next mile. I want to say that this is because the trail is steep, incredibly difficult, and nearly impossible to follow. But it's not. It's more to do with that I spend an inordinate amount of time bashing my knees into rocks, crying in pain, looking around in bewilderment as to where to go, and then crying some more.
Or maybe it's just because we keep walking past ripe raspberry bushes. And Major Chafage's 3rd Rule of Thru-Hiking (the first two being "Never leave a man or woman behind" and "Never pass up trail magic") is, after all, "Always stop to eat blueberries." Or, you know, raspberries. (I think the intent is more important than the letter of the law.) Anyway, whenever you pass a ripe raspberry bush—or blueberry bush, or mulberry tree, or whatever—you have to stop for at least five minutes to gorge yourself. It's almost your moral imperative. Because they're delicious, nutritious, and free. And, at least in this case, probably poisonous. But we don't let that stop us.
Before we get to the top of the ridge, the Traveling Circus catches up with and passes us by. I foolishly hope that we might be lucky enough not to see them again. But we won't be, and we will.
Reaching the height of land, Merf and I take a well-deserved break. We've climbed almost eleven hundred feet in a mile, over some of the worst terrain on the trail. It will remain our toughest climb until we reach the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But it will always be the least fun.
I collapse in the dirt and dust to catch my breath. I lean back against my pack, and look up. And see a line of grey-black storm clouds rolling towards us.
"Should I put my rain pants on?" I ask Merf.
"What?" Merf mumbles through a handful of raspberries. "No! No, you'll get too hot. Besides, it might not even rain, and if it does, it'll be refreshing!"
It's hard to refute her logic, even though she's wrong.
I put on my pack cover, just in case. It's—very literally—the least I can do. And I'm glad I've done so when it starts drizzling.
"I think you were wrong!" I castigate Merf later, as water trickles down my leg into my socks, until my boots are completely sodden, gushing and squishing soggily with ever step.
"You didn't have to listen to me!" she protests.
"I trusted you!"
"This is your fault! Don't push it off on me! I think you're just mad because you made a dumb mistake."
"How dare you..."
And then the steady drizzle accelerates into a lacerating downpour.
And I use a choice four letter word to describe what has clearly become my favorite state on the trail.