1999 Fall Solo


Monday, October 11, 1999 52 degrees 

I left around 7:30AM and drove to my parents’ home. My mother had volunteered to drive me to the starting point. I must admit – I had second thoughts of going today. For about a month, I had been fighting the flu,  and was just beginning to feel better. The trip was planned but now I still find myself feeling achy and sore again. It would be hard to imagine a worse situation than becoming sick and alone out on the trail. But, I decided to go ahead anyway. My hope was that I could sweat the sick out of me. 

We arrived at northern end of the Trail, which is located off Rt. 56, just east of Armagh, Pennsylvania. Mom took a picture of me at the starting sign, but for some reason, it did not come out.  She then sent me off with a kiss. I turned into the woods and began walking south with my muscles protesting. I figured that if I began to feel worse, I could always return and call for help on my cell phone for help. 

I walked about ten yards into the woods and found the 70-mile marker. From here, it is seventy miles to Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. I have hiked into Ohiopyle numerous times from various starting points and found the 0-mile marker, but had never been this far north. 

A hard rain the night before left everything soaked. A cool wind occasionally shook rain from the leaves, causing sudden, but short-lived rain showers over me.  But, from what I could see, the skies were clearing and there was every promise of a good day. I just hoped my health would hold out. But as I continued hiking, I began to seriously question the wisdom of being out here. The first four miles of the hike is a steady climb. I had not been exercising like I should have in the preceding weeks and could really feel the affects of the flu. My muscle aches, the cold rain and chilling wind were really trying to convince me to turn around and call mom. But onward and upward I climbed. 

9:30AM, 54 degrees – I saw a rock outcropping to my left that appeared to be an overlook. I almost did not walk over to investigate because I was feeling weary. But, thankfully I left the Trail and stepped out on the rock to see the Conemaugh Valley breaking into breathtaking view. Wisps of fog like smoke clung to the trees in the valley below me. It was quite a sight. The trees were bursting in every color imaginable. The view was peaceful, quiet, and stirred feelings of melancholy as I thought of approaching winter. I took advantage of this stop to make some adjustments to my backpack. I also had to shorten my trekking poles. They are much like ski poles, but used for hiking. I’ve never used them before but have heard so much of how they help reduce stress to the knees. I was hopeful that they would give me some relief in order to hike farther in greater comfort. After making the adjustments, I downed some water that I carried and continued the ascent. 

A bit later I met a man appearing in his 50s. He wore a Steelers’ ball cap and a bright orange hooded sweatshirt, with a bottle of water was sticking out of the pocket. He carried no pack and was heading north when we passed. We exchanged greetings but did not stop to talk. 

10:30AM 55 degrees  You know, I hate when this happens. That’s right, I’m lost. Somehow the Trail left me. Just minutes before I was following it and moving steadily along.  Now I’m standing in a field with no sight of the Trail anywhere. Like most trails, the LHHT is marked with 3 x 5 yellow blazes painted on trees or rocks along the way. But if there were blazes in this section, they were invisibly painted because not one could be seen. I started to walk the perimeter of the field looking for a blaze. I walked and walked. I saw lots of colors and even some yellows. But no yellow blazes. I even walked backward looking for blazes that would be painted on the trees for hikers going the other way. No such luck. Any hiker going through this field would be as lost as I would. I circled the field going one way and then the next. During my second circling, a coyote bolted from the woods and ran along the path where I was walking. It was as brown as a deer and just a bit smaller than a dog. It ran in the opposite direction as I was walking. I made some clicking noises that I was sure would be intriguing to a coyote. My hope was to convince it to stop so that I could get a better look, but it paid me no mind. I noticed how it darted with much more grace than the famed Wile E. Coyote of both television and the silver screen.

I returned to the Trail where it entered the field. Backtracking to the last yellow blaze, I was beginning to become frustrated. The Trail seemed to go to the field and then just end there. I thought of using my cell phone to call my friend, Week Knees who hiked the Trail just a week ago, and ask directions. But I figured if I had to call him, then there would be no end to the harassment that would sure to follow. No, it would be better to continue wandering, starve to death, and have my bones picked clean by the scavengers of the forest then to call him and admit I was lost. 

Again, I returned to where the Trail led me to the woods. I took closer note of the last yellow blaze and noticed how faded it looked. Just then, I looked off to my left and saw what appeared to be a trail. I crawled through the brush and in a moment more, stood once again on the LHHT. Apparently, the Trail had been detoured and I did not see the new turn. The path I followed to the field was well worn and may have once been part of the Trail. With bright yellow blaze before me again, I set off at a brisk, confident pace.

At about this time, I began to realize how much better I was feeling. The flu symptoms were indeed alleviating and my pace was stronger. 

Minutes after I got back to the Trail, I caught up with the Steelers Fan dayhiker who I passed earlier this morning. He was now heading south like I was. As I caught up, we paused and chatted briefly. He revealed that he is a native of Johnstown and has hiked this part of the Trail many times. He often parks his truck near one of the logging roads that leads to the top of the hill, and then will hike the flat parts of the Trail that courses across the mountaintop. He told me it was much better than going to work and I had to agree. After a brief talk, we both pushed southward with me moving on ahead. 

12:10PM, 59 degrees The Trail led out of the woods to an area cleared for a powerline. I decided to have lunch here and try to warm up in the sun. Having climbed the mountain all morning, I had really worked up a sweat. The cool wind was cutting through my wet clothing and leaving me chilled. I was not shivering yet so I was not too worried. Still, I decided to change my undershirt for a dry one that I was carrying. Instantly, I felt warmer. I tied my wet shirt to my backpack hoping it would dry while I hiked. But if not, I knew I could dry it out with a campfire tonight. With lunch finished I picked up and continued south. 

3:20PM, 58 degrees  I arrived at the Rt. 271 shelter area. My hike had covered about 14 miles. My feet were sore but otherwise I was feeling fine. My only complaint was the constant chill that accompanied me. The fleece outer garment I was wearing proved to be a poor windbreaker. I made a note not to wear it again for that purpose. 

There are five lean-tos at the shelter area. I had a reservation for shelter number five. I found this humble abode clean and suitable for my nights stay. The shelters of this Trail have a sloping roof, two sides and a wood floor. They are also equipped with a fully functional fireplace.  It is an unfortunate thing that the chimney is not-so-functional. These chimneys merely suggests to the smoke which direction it should take. But most of the smoke funnels back into the shelter.  Perhaps the designers of the shelter believed a good fire should be inhaled to be really enjoyed.

As I was just sitting down in the lean-to and having a drink, I heard a loud noise. I thought to myself, “Well, here we go with the strange forest noises.”  As I peeked cautiously around the lean-to, I saw a man walking out of the privy. The noise I heard was the heavy door of the privy being slammed shut. The man must have been dayhiking since he carried no pack. I watched him walk out of the shelter area. I don’t believe he knew I was present. 

Relieved that the noise was not a prelude to my being torn asunder by a horrid beast, I turned my attention to my first chore of the evening   gathering firewood. Although cut and split firewood made available by the Park, it is never brought close to the shelters. I first inspected the other shelters for leftover firewood and was rewarded with a few pieces. But the remainder had to be carried from the wood pile located about 75 yards from my shelter. As I was carrying some wood a man, appearing in his late 60s, and a small dog walked into view from somewhere behind the shelters. I’m not sure from where he came since he was not walking from the Trail. We exchanged greetings and then he walked off in the same general direction as the other man I had just seen. 

I next sat down to start my fire. I was anticipating a cold night and was looking forward to the warmth of a blazing fire. Carefully lining up broken twigs around some newspaper that I had brought, I placed a match to the center and watched in excited expectation as the fire grew. All day long I had been thinking of this fire. I needed it to dry out my shirt and also to keep myself warm overnight. But more importantly, I had hoped for the lively company of a good fire while alone in the woods at night. Allow me to make it clear that I am a brave man as long as there is still light in the forest. But as the sun sets and the darkness closes in, I pull out my cowardice and wear it like a badge. My hope was that the crackling of the fire would drown out my occasional whimpering. 

5:43PM, 55 degrees  I just finished my supper of beef stew. It was a dehydrated meal that is cooked in its own package while boiling water is added. I am always impressed with the pleasant taste of these meals.

The fire is really going now and both my undershirts are completely dry. It is still light outside and I can occasionally hear some traffic from Rt. 271, which runs nearby. I feel very rested and wonderfully relaxed as I sit in the lean-to and watch the fire. 

7:30PM, 50 degrees  It is completely dark now save the light of the fire. This is the point of the Trail experience where I miss most the companionship of other hikers. There is something about sitting around a fire that stirs the mind. Fire seems to inspire conversation. It also has a hypnotic effect on those gathered around. With eyes locked on the burning embers, the tongue can suddenly be loosed to say all sorts of things and to tell all manners of stories. It is little wonder our forefathers who lived in primitive settings became excellent storytellers. No doubt it was the fire. 

While laying atop my sleeping bag and looking at the fire, I spotted a mouse run from the chimney base to beneath the floorboards of the shelter. A few minutes later, it darted out again and scurried around the dirt between the chimney and the lean-to. I’m not at all a fan of these rodents but there was little I could do to prevent it from running around all night so close to me. I was a visitor in its’ world tonight. My camp was clean of food and there was not a crumb left on the ground. So, I hoped the mouse would give up and return to whatever home it had in the stone chimney.

At around 8:30PM, I stoked the fire and set the remaining wood nearby. I did not take a temperature reading, but could tell it was starting to become very cold. Crawling into my bag, I snuggled down for an uneventful night. 

Tuesday, October 12, 1999 

6:57AM, 45 degrees  Only a shred of light was noticeable as I woke. Twice during the night I had gotten up to feed the fire. It really kept me warm and I had slept comfortably. As I woke, I stirred the remaining ashes to create some light and heat. Breakfast was coffee and Poptarts. I gathered my things and, in one hour, was walking toward the LHHT, located about a mile from the shelter area.

The first hour of walking was absolutely the most beautiful part of the day. There is a cold stillness about the forest in the morning. The early sun casts the fall colors into a different light. The absence of the wind this morning, punctuated the quietness of the morning. Though it seems the forest was just waking up, in reality it had been very much awake all night.  Four deer, searching for morning feed, crossed the Trail in front of me. I paused to watch them but as I moved forward they gave a snort and then took off at full steam. 

About two miles down the path I paused to grab a drink. At this point, I removed my snookie (a toboggan cap used for sleeping) and tucked it into my sternum strap to dry. It was not until several miles later that I discovered it had fallen off. I turned around and walked back the Trail for a short distance but did not find it. This left me frustrated since I had purchased the cap for this trip and now I had nothing to sleep in tonight. But I did not want to add several more miles on my day by going back to look for it. Therefore, I hoped that maybe I’d come across another hiker who would find it for me. 

10:05AM, 55 degrees  I just found the front paw of a bear track on the Trail. It caught my eye because the dirt was all dug up around the Trail. Apparently the bear was looking for insects, berries or the bones of some hapless hiker. Relying instinctively on my hiking and outdoor experience, I keenly noted that the bear who made the track was no longer in it. That brought a measure of relief, but for the next 10 minutes, I changed my inner monologue to an audible one so that I would not sneak up on the beast. Fortunately, I did not happen upon another hiker while talking loudly to myself.

12:00PM 57 degrees  I stopped just beyond the 48-mile post for lunch. I had hiked about 11 miles so far this morning. I was surprised and well pleased as to how easy the terrain for walking. Most of it was flat with only small hills to climb or descend. Not at all like the southern portion of this Trail.

While stopping for lunch I changed into a dry undershirt. I was still getting chilled because of the continual dampness of my shirt and the cool temperatures. I also put on an elastic wrap over my left knee because it was starting to hurt. I stopped only about 20 minutes and then continued south. Just before the 49-mile marker, I came across the first switchback this far north. Switchbacks are zigzag turns of a trail, as it leads up a mountain side. Without them, a trail would move straight up a mountain, and therefore, become too steep to ascend.  The southern end of the trail is pock-marked with switchbacks. 

1:00PM, 60 degrees  I crossed Rt. 30 near the top of the mountain, just west of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania. It was enjoyable walking across this very familiar road. I made my first human-sighting of the day while going across the road. It was a male human operating a truck. 

About one half-hour later, I met a husband and wife who were dayhiking. They were heading north to the Rt. 30 shelters that were located just on the other side of Rt. 30. They said they camped there over night and were just out for a day hike. The man was interested in my trekking poles and other equipment. He said he would like to do some backpacking on the trail someday. I asked how far north they were going and if they would look for my snookie. But they were only walking back to their vehicle before leaving. 

A short time later, I noticed that the wind ceased to blow. I removed my fleece sweatshirt and could finally hike in comfort. 

Several miles later, I saw an animal that I believe was a fox. I also saw a deer fleeing from my presence. 

The walk continued through some beautiful spots. One area was completely red because of the red leaves on the trees and those that had fallen on the ground. Everything was so red that the air itself seemed to take on a red hue. I also walked through a densely populated pine section. This area was as green as the other one was red. The air was filled with a pleasant pine aroma. Both were very beautiful places and were enjoyable to my senses.

4:00PM, 60 degrees  I reached the Turnpike Shelter area. Even though the terrain was not difficult, I was becoming very tired. It was a 20-mile day and my feet were hurting.

Nearing the shelters, I heard the voices of children. As I came into camp, I found the number one shelter, that I had reserved through the park office, filled with packs and gear. I had asked for this shelter because it is closest to the firewood. I went next to the number two shelter and found it empty. Before setting my gear down, I walked down the hill to the water pump where a young man was drawing water. He was one of the counselors who had brought about 12 kids to camp for the night. They were from a church-school in Farmington, Pennsylvania. They had hiked this afternoon from Rt. 31 and were going to hike to Rt. 30 the following day. I asked if they made reservations but he did not know. I really did not care which shelter I stayed at, but carrying the firewood an extra 25 yards after a twenty mile hike was not an inviting thought. 

As we talked I pumped water from the hand pump into my coffeepot. I then proceeded to filter the iron-brown water this shelter area is known for. The man and the several children who then gathered, seemed fascinated with my filter. Well, jealous might be a better word. They were pouring their water through cloth and then boiling it to make it clean for consumption. I simply pumped. Had there not been so many in their group I might have volunteered to filter their water in exchange for having firewood hauled to my shelter. But, it takes several minutes to filter one liter of water and I would have been there all evening filtering water for this large group.

Retiring to my shelter, I made camp and searched for firewood. I was able to find a number of logs nearby at a tenting fire ring. But the remainder had to be carried from the wood pile. It was an exhausting job. I then started my fire. I call it mine because I would like to think I owned it. I carried the wood, gathered the kindling, and lit the match. Therefore, I laid ownership claims to that fire. I did not name it or anything, but did develop a certain kinship with it through the night. 

After supper I caught up with my journal and listened to the sounds of the kids playing nearby. It sounded like they were playing the game red rover. At 6:50PM, I called my sister-in-law, Jennifer, and made arrangements for my brother to pick me up on the morrow. 

8:00PM, 50 degrees  Even though it is getting chilly outside, my fire kept the shelter nice and warm. I gathered the wood for easy access during the night and then crawled into my sleeping bag. The combination of the fire and my sleeping bag kept me too warm overnight. 

At about this time I noticed all of the noise from the kids died down. I did not hear a peep from them for the remainder of the night. I slept well that night, getting up twice to feed the fire.

Wednesday, October 13, 1999  

6:50AM, 50 degrees  It was still rather dark. I ran out of wood during the night and had no more to stoke up with. Breakfast was Poptarts and coffee. I could hear others in the camp being roused and beginning their day. 

At 7:45AM, I stopped at the water pump to fill up for the day. I met a young woman counselor there who said she was originally from Connecticut and had done some hiking up in Massachusetts. She was very friendly and also seemed fascinated with my water filter. After I replenished my supply, I then set off.

Within 15 minutes, I reached the Pa Turnpike. I had been looking forward to crossing the footbridge that extends across this highway. I drive under the bridge several times each week and always thought about walking across it. And now I was. A trucker passed beneath me and waved.  Perhaps he was wishing he was standing where I was standing, and doing what I was doing.

9:00AM, 63 degrees  I stopped at an opening in the forest where a powerline was erected and drank some water. The wind wasn’t blowing and I found it comfortable to walk in just an undershirt. Some of the clouds seemed dark with rain, but most of the sky was deep blue. It was a splendid day to be here! Everywhere I looked, I saw either bright reds, deep oranges or golden yellows. I even saw some colors that have no names, yet I swear I have seen them in the crayon boxes of my daughters, Hannah and Emily. 

A bit later I came to the 35-mile post that marks the halfway point of the LHHT. Just beyond the halfway point was a mailbox along the Trail. Its presence caught me off guard and I had to laugh at the sight of it. Inside the mailbox was a notebook where hikers could write their thoughts (and complaints). I made note of the loss of my cap and left my name and email address to anyone who might have found it. 

10:45AM, 65 degrees  I rested on a rock just before Rt. 31.  Being a bit ahead of schedule, I stopped for a break and snack. My feet were hurting badly.

Ever since crossing the Turnpike, I’ve noticed a significant change in the terrain. The hills were becoming more frequent and steeper. I had originally planned on going 20 miles today but was very glad that I elected to walk only ten. 

12:10PM, 67 degrees  I made it! Upon reaching Copper-Kettle Road I officially have hiked the entire LHHT. For, it was from this point, several years ago, I began to hike with Week Knees as we walked south to the end of the Trail in Ohio Pyle, Pennsylvania. 

I made it none too soon. About 100 feet before reaching the road, the belt stitching on my backpack tore. I tried several times to rig it up but it did not hold very well. If I had to go much farther, I’m afraid my back would really be hurting from the way it was leaning. 

My brother, Kyle, was to pick me up at 1PM. I sat at the roadside and had lunch while catching up on my journal. At about 12:45PM, I decided to set off along the road in the direction he would approach. I walked about 2 miles when he came. Putting my pack in his van I crawled into the seat and ended my walk. I rode there quite content with having completed the LHHT and making my longest solo hike, all in the same effort.

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