Pennsylvania is not as bad as they say.
“Worst state on the entire Appalachian Trail.”
“The rocks! They kill your feet, your spirit. Ruin everything. They’ll eat you alive.”
And what they say isn’t entirely untrue. The trail is rocks for hundreds of miles: sharp rocks, flat rocks, grapefruit sized rocks, rocks like refrigerators turned on their side. Black rocks slick from afternoon rain and slimy rocks all algae-green that sweep your feet out from under you with a bruised tailbone and a thud. Venomous rocks with fat rattlesnakes sunbathing across them, copperheads coiled tightly in the spaces between. Rocks spaced haphazard in intervals just so that you must step awkwardly across, preventing any sort of rhythm whatsoever; jumbled heaps of rocks stacked atop jumbled heaps of rocks that you must scramble up and over, trekking poles thrown ahead of you and “fuuuuck” muttered under your breath.
And water? That’s not a thing around these parts. Twenty miles between sources, dried up springs. Nowhere near as bad as it was on the PCT, but there you expected it. Out here, where trail is river and cold clear water flows through creeks and streams and bursts forth magically from springs in the side of every mountain, you needn’t worry about running out of water. Except for when you do. For when this dry expanse seems to appear out of nowhere, catches you off guard with glazed over eyes and a cotton-ball tongue.
So sure, maybe I’d heard this was coming, knew these long dry stretches were just around the bend. But water’s heavy, you know? And there’s this game I like to play sometimes: what’s the least amount of water I can carry and the most amount of miles I can go. It’s stupid, no doubt, an irresponsible test of limits. But thousands of miles have taken me to the furthest reaches of my discomfort, taught me that I can endure a hell of a lot more that I ever thought possible. And that I can go quite far on quite little water.
But what they don’t tell you about Pennsylvania is that it’s flat. Every 25 miles or so the rocks descend steeply down to a road, but once you’ve climbed back up the other side of the gap, the trail glides across the ridge line with no notable change in elevation to speak of.
So we take advantage of the long June days and heavenly flatness, hiking from sunup to sundown in the sticky mid-Atlantic heat. Most days we’re able to cover more than thirty miles and set up camp while there’s still light in the sky. Other days it never stops raining, so we walk until dark and pitch our tents on the flattest surfaces we can find. Take refuge inside our vestibules and cook dinner on a bed of mud and saturated leaves. Still wet, nonetheless, because being dry on the Appalachian Trail isn’t even real.
But still, Pennsylvania is not as bad as they say.