2002 Fall Hike

Thursday, Sept 26, 2002

I really need to start checking the weather forecast before hiking.  It’s my guess that the weatherman had at least an inkling of Tropical Storm Isidore, which today was ravaging the south, and sending ripples of inclement weather up the eastern coast.  But, of course, I knew nothing about this since I don’t watch much TV.

I loaded my backpack and drove to the home of Week Knees, who would be my hiking companion for this short trip.  On the way, I tuned in to a radio station and heard, for the first time, that the rain pelting my windshield would mark the skies for the next two days.  Oh well, I always carry rain gear.

Because I was running late, Week Knees wondered if I was canceling due to the weather.  Not a chance.  We had planned this hike for about two weeks and it would take more than rain to stop me.  We would later joke that nearly all summer our county had faced drought conditions, and on the occasion of our hike, we got the heaviest rain of the past months.

Week Knees’ son, Brandon, drove us to Rt. 271, where the Laurel Highlands Trail emerges from the woods to venture across the highway.  Entering the nearby parking area, we stepped out of the vehicle into a light rain.  I decided to put on my rain gear right away.  Week Knees figured the canopy of the woods would provide him some protection, and so he opted to wait.  Rain or no rain, it was a great day to be out.  Saying goodbye to Brandon, we pushed off around 9:45 a.m.

Tributary paths of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail are marked with blue or red blazes.  The color blue leads from the parking lots to the Trail, and then waits to welcome one off the Trail to the shelter areas at night.  Bright red invites one off the Trail to walk the merry paths that playfully twist and turn beside the LHHT, like a young pup dancing at the feet of its mother.

We followed the blue markings from the parking lot until we reached the LHHT. Here the blazes turned yellow.  We turned south and followed the yellow marks while the rain continued to fall – whetting our want for walking.

There is a certain delightful smell in the forest that is stirred by rain.  Everything radiated that smell, and it felt good to draw it into our lungs with each breath.  Our boots kicked up no dust, but instead felt the cushioning step of saturated soil and softened moss beneath them.  The rain, we discovered, was the best insect repellant we had ever used.  Continually being doused with the refreshing spray, the mosquitoes and other pesky, flying insects gave us wide berth, allowing us to move audaciously through their domain.

11:45 a.m. – We were ready for lunch, but did not know where to eat.  I was reminded how backpacking can quickly alter one’s perspective.  Yesterday, I had eaten lunch from my comfortable office chair, hardly noticing the contents of my sack lunch, or the soft light cast from florescent bulbs, neatly tucked into the squared drop ceiling tiles above my head. Now, Week Knees and I were quite conscience of the food we brought for lunch, and were searching for a refuge from the rain so that we might eat in relative comfort.

Finding a small tree, Week Knees had, as he put it, a brainstorm.  Spreading out his rain poncho he pulled it overtop the branches, creating an umbrella-like shield from the rain.  There was no dry place to sit, but at least we could eat somewhat protected from the elements.

The thermometer had been struggling to maintain the 50-degree mark all morning.  Coupled with the rain, the temperature became like a wet blanket on our bodies.  We dug into our packs and found dry clothing.  I had a synthetic sweater that would not absorb water, and was instantly warmed by putting it on.  Week Knees pulled out some flannel, and wore it like a dinner jacket while we ate.

We stood eating beneath our temporary shelter for about 45 minutes, and then continued south along the trail.  The rain went with us.  Soon, we both complained of cold hands, and I made a mental note to bring gloves the next time.

The afternoon walk went well.  We moved around and through some interesting rock formations.  The only wildlife we saw was a deer, whose telltale white tail marked its wake as it bolted from us.

Having put on some extra clothing, we decided to slow down our pace to keep from sweating too much.  Sweat would only add to our problem of keeping warm and dry.

Most of the leaves, tenaciously hanging onto their summer green, seemed to be contesting the mandatory change of color.  But the small ferns that covered the forest floor were already surrendering to the change of seasons.  Their lush green had become a rusty brown and, bending over as if being gently pressed by an unseen hand, they no longer reached sunward.

The last two miles of our walk became the most difficult.  We had not sat down since climbing out of the vehicle nearly eight hours before, and were ready for a break.  We were also soaked by the rain, and had been anxiously looking forward to a warm fire.  We kept hoping that as we rounded yonder bend in the Trail, we would see the shelter area sign, signaling the end of our day.  Finally, we reached the welcome sight of the sign, and the blue-blazed trail that led us to the RT 31 Shelters.

When making reservations the previous day with the Park office, we were told someone had reserved Shelter #1.  No one was there when we arrived, and no one else would arrive during the night.  We had reserved Shelter #5, but decided to look around first.  We selected Shelter #4 because it had a small stack of firewood, apparently left behind by the previous guests.  We then went from shelter to shelter and collected as much dry wood as we could.  We were able to gather enough for the night and avoid making tiresome trips to the firewood pile.

Week Knees started the fire, and I coaxed it along by carefully stacking the wood, and blowing on it until I was nearly faint.  Soon, we had a welcoming, roaring fire.  As we started to dry out, Week Knees confessed that he had become so cold he was concerned he might not be able to finish the hike if he could not dry out.  But, removing each article of clothing, and holding or hanging it near the fire, we soon were able to be and feel completely dry.

The increased tempo of rain during supper was not a bother or threat.  Rather, we enjoyed its music as we stretched out in our shelter, before our fire, relaxing tired muscle and drying wet bones.

7:20 p.m. – Checking my voice mail, I found a message from Moocher.  He was planning on meeting us in the morning at Rt. 31, and finishing the hike with us.  However, in light of the dismal weather prediction, he decided to remain at home, and left a message telling us so.  At the time, it seemed his choice was a wise one.

8:30 p.m. – With plenty of wood for the night stacked near by, we crawled into our sleeping bags and settled down for the night.  Waking only to feed the fire, or listen to the rain, we spent an uneventful night, deep within the woods, atop the Laurel Ridge.

Friday, September 27, 2002

 7:00 a.m. – We awoke with intermittent rain showers splashing down around us.  With a few pieces of wood left, we stirred the fire and it soon warmed the air in our shelter.  We then fixed our breakfast and packed our things.  Week Knees told me that he thought the previous night was one of the coziest nights he had ever spent on the Trail.

9:00 a.m. – we broke camp just as the rain seemed to cease.  Occasional gusts of wind would send short-lived rainsqualls upon us as we walked, but not enough to soak us.

The day’s walk was quite pleasant.  The Trail along this northern section has few challenging parts, and is mostly level.  It twisted and turned, rolled leisurely up and down, and carried us through the forest with very little effort.  According to the official Park Map, we were supposed to have some hilly sections.  These didn’t materialize.

11:30 a.m. – We found a couple of logs stretched across the Trail that seemed suitable for sitting.  So, we sat and had our lunch.  It was a very nice section of the forest that was open enough to see for over a hundred yards in each direction.

During our lunch, we realized we were much drier than we expected ourselves to be.  We began to joke, at Moocher’s expense, his decision to not join us – for the day was really turning out nicely.  However, Week Knees said that Moocher knew how to get to the Turnpike Shelter area via an access road, and that he would be surprised if Moocher didn’t show up tonight for a visit.  We immediately began to envision what toppings he would put on the peace-offering pizza that he would surely bring with him.

After about an hour lunch break, we picked up our packs, and continued our southbound trek.  We were somewhat surprised to have not met another hiker on the Trail, but guessed the poor weather conditions were keeping everyone indoors.

Sometime around 2 p.m., the sun peeked through the clouds.  Although we were pretty certain the sun had been around all day, this was our first sighting of it.  My thermometer registered 58 degrees, and convinced me to remove my sweater.  We decided to keep our outer rain gear on to protect against the sudden rain showers that fell from trees occasionally harassed by the wind.

About two miles before reaching the shelters, I moved ahead of Week Knees on some steep ascents.  Reaching the Turnpike Shelter area first, I began to seek out a suitable place for the night.  We had the Shelter area to ourselves, and wanted to pick the Shelter with the most and driest firewood.  Unfortunately, we didn’t fare as well as the night before.  Not only was there no dry wood, but it looked like we would have to carry all of our firewood from the wood pile down over the hill.  There’s nothing more tiring after a day’s hike then to lug armload after armload of firewood up the hill to your Shelter.

I chose Shelter #1, which seemed closest to the woodpile. About 20 minutes later, Week Knees arrived, and with him came the rain.  It poured down in torrents, and swept into our shelter on gusts of wind.  We needed to collect firewood, but didn’t want to venture out until the rain stopped.  But after waiting nearly one half hour, and seeing no end to the deluge, we put on our rain gear and ventured out.  The wood was wet, and we soon became so, too.  Week Knees started working with the fire, but with no dry wood, it was off to a slow start.  Still, we managed to get a small blaze going.

We ate our supper and continued to wonder what goodies Moocher would show up with – if he showed up at all.  And, just as it seemed we wouldn’t see him, I glanced down the bank from the Shelter, and saw Moocher making his way toward us!

Hunched forward with a sack of over his back, he approached like a Santa Claus on his day off.  Reaching our shelter, Moocher lowered his “pack” to the ground, revealing a bundle of dry firewood.  Knowing how hard it had rained, he figured we would be in need of it.  It wasn’t pizza, but we were still pretty thankful for it.  Casting his dry pieces on the fire, we soon had a blaze to write home about.

Moocher regretted not meeting with us as originally planned, but seemed glad enough to visit.  We sat around the fire, now sparking with new life, and talked Trail talk.  Darkness settled in, and the wind whipped up with new passion; and on we talked.

At around 8 p.m., Moocher decided he should go.  With Week Knees’ flashlight, I walked with him to the access road.  He said he could find his way back to his car alone.  It was pretty dark outside, and I had to admire his willingness to walk alone through the woods without a light.  I then returned to the Shelter and soon bedded down.

The night was to become one of the most memorable nights I spent on the Trail.  Listening to the cold wind whip the tall trees, while the rain fell with alternating determination, the shelter became for me much more than just a destination at the close of a hike.  Its rudimentary design became lost in a measurable transformation, from crude structure to quiet sanctuary.  As if kept at arm’s length by an unseen sentry posted outside of our shelter, the forces of nature could only snarl in objection, while I snuggled deeper in my warm sleeping bag and fell soundly, and contently asleep.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Nothing quells a storm like a long night.  It was sometime during the black hours of darkness, that the howling winds of the disturbed tempest gave way to the quiet reveille of a forest, already brimming with forgiveness from the previous night’s occurrence.  All was at peace.

Week Knees woke up sometime around 6 a.m., and spent the quiet morning in solitude, walking about the camp.  I emerged from my sleeping bag around 7:30 a.m., and he joined me for breakfast in the Shelter.  We then packed our things and set out at around 9 a.m.

Our rain gear remained packed for this walk.  The sun melted away the dampness, and kept us comfortably warm as we continued south.  It also seemed to bring out the hikers, who we met frequently throughout the morning.  We spoke with two Boy Scout groups moving north, several dayhikers, two trail-runners, and two gentlemen who were on their annual hike.  The shelters would be busy tonight.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was the walk across the PA Turnpike Bridge.  Each time I drive beneath it I look up, and feel the desire to escape the hectic pace of day-to-day life, and take a leisurely walk.  As Week Knees and I crossed the bridge, we paused to watch the traffic pass under our feet.  Several drivers waved, and we returned their kind salutation.  I also attempted to gain access to a wooden cross that someone erected on the side of the embankment, near the north side of the bridge.  But my passage was barred by a wire fence, and I could only admire it from a distance.  After a short recess on the bridge, we continued moving south.

The Park map seemed to suggest that a rugged Trail lay before us.  In reality, the Trail was much smoother.  Perhaps they designed the map with the intention of making the Trail conform to it, but never finished the project.  Whatever the case, we were relieved to find the going easier than anticipated.

11:30 a.m. – we stopped for lunch in an open area of the forest.  We were able to sit down to eat, and relaxed in doing so.  We both noted a strong taste to the water we carried, which had drawn from the Turnpike Shelter pump.  Even though we filtered it, the iron-rich taste still remained.

1:40 p.m. – we reached RT 30, and considered waiting at the side of the road for our ride, but became concerned that Brandon might not see us, so we crossed the highway and walked toward the Parking Area where we originally planned on meeting him.  Near this section there are bicycle and snowmobile paths crisscrossing the area.  We were just about to cross one such path when I spotted two bicycles heading on a collision course with us.  I stepped across the intersection and then warned Week Knees who did not see the approaching bikes. After they safely passed, I shared with Week Knees that it would be hard to explain how a pedestrian/bicycle accident might have occurred out here in the woods.

2:20 p.m. – we reached the parking lot and took off our packs.  Brandon was to pick us up at 3 p.m., and so we had time to stretch ourselves and relax before returning to the “real world.”  I slipped out of my boots to give them, and my feet a break.  Week Knees keeps with himself small greeting cards, about the size of business cards that he likes to give out to people.  He pulled these out of his wallet and placed one on each of the car’s windshields in the parking lot while I watched.

Autumn had just begun, and its beauty was only beginning to peek through.  As I pondered the changing forest, I was reminded that in three days, I would be turning forty, and would begin the autumn season of my life.  This became an overwhelmingly exciting thought as I considered the beauty that comes with fall.  Unlike the changing leaves around me that know nothing of the brilliance they will display, I have received enough grace to recognize that beauty comes with maturation.  I smiled to myself as I wondered what colors I will show.

3:00 p.m. – we heard the sound of a vehicle moving quickly in our direction.  Week Knees judged that it was Brandon, based on the apparent high speed of the vehicle.  It was.  We loaded up our packs and bid farewell to the Trail that had brought us along, once again, safely and happily to our destination.



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