Before Darkness Lifts: Pre-Dawn Hiking the AT
Harrisburg, PA. The Hampton, a few hours before sunrise.
My alarm buzzes a few minutes ’til four in the morning. No alarm sound, just the vibration; everyone else in the room sleeps—or tries to. The two little ones are out like lights; Heather had to wake me because the alarm wasn’t doing its job. She’s probably mad but doesn’t say anything. I role out of bed, dress as quickly and quietly in the dark as I am able and wake Logan, our oldest, as he said he would join me on the AT this morning: a quick hike: a little over four and a half miles from Clark’s Ferry Bridge to Clark’s Ferry Shelter and back.
Having dressed and collected the items that we put together the previous night for the day’s hike, we creep out as quietly as the bulky hotel door and heavy-duty lock allow, in the process flooding the room with light from the hotel hallway: dang it! That can’t be helped. We take the stairs and I stop and take a moment on a random step to make sure I have everything: fruit, check: water, check: contacts, check: bandana, check: socks, check. I’m currently barefoot as I opt to leave my boots in the car, along with the other necessaries I keep in my hiking pack such as first aid kit, compass, headlamps and trekking poles—always. I read somewhere that ‘it’s a dangerous business stepping out your front door. You never know where you might be swept off to.’ We head down to the lobby and I pour myself a cup of steaming black liquid from the urn labeled “regular”. The other urn says “decaf”; by the taste, temperature and consistency I figure this must be coffee. I don’t really care; it’s caffeine. I’ll take it any way I can get it, especially when it’s free. We load ourselves and our things into the van, plug the coordinates in to the GPS on my phone, and off we go.
Roughly twenty minutes later we arrive at Clark’s Ferry Bridge. The GPS took us over the bridge into Duncannon proper, making us perform a U-turn on the opposite side then brought us back over the bridge for some reason. I’m pretty sure if we had exited just before the bridge we could have pulled right up to the parking lot. The lot sits across the street from a set of railroad tracks, sandwiched by the Susquehanna and Rt. 322 on one side and the tracks on the other. The parking lot was poorly lit, and sat partially under the overpass. The gloom of early morning—the fog, the stillness, the dark—added something… a something I-don’t-know-what to the atmosphere. Despite this, and the fact that it was still more than an hour from sunrise, the lot had about a half dozen or so vehicles parked in it. I figured this had to be the right place; only hikers, or the insane, would park in such a shady spot in the middle of the night. So we parked, climbed out, got our boots on, grabbed our headlamps, the single back pack we had between us and headed toward the trail.
Across the street and acting as the border between the railroad tracks and the AT stands a granite-block wall. The wall terminates in a set of steps that leads up to the Appalachian Trail. I probably had more of a sense that we were about to step into history than Logan, but nonetheless, we both stopped to consider the moment. Or maybe I stopped to consider and he simply waited. I don’t know, I didn’t ask. We both snapped a pic or two: he of the sign and the steps leading up to the trail, and I of my boot and my first step on the AT. This should rank right up there with the great hikes of all time: Mallory, Hillary, the conquering of the Shark’s Fin on Meru. This will be one for the record books, or, at least this record book.
Entering the woods, the dark becomes ever more palpable. The morning sky was overcast, the air heavy, silent, and thick with fog, thick enough that you could practically swallow it as you inhaled. Once in the forest proper, the fog limited visibility to several meters, perhaps ten or fifteen feet at best. The trail is fairly narrow at this point and begins to climb immediately. The path meanders between the uphill slope on the left and the downhill slope on the right. While falling down the hill at this point wouldn’t be life-threatening, you wouldn’t want to lose your footing or step off the solid path onto the much more supple ground of the forested floor. You’d definitely tumble a good ways before gravity and friction stopped your momentum. One has to step carefully and take their time in these conditions. I found myself consciously being thankful that I had a pole to stick in the ground along the way to provide traction and stability. Even though, between us, we only had a single pair, they provided an essential aid on this hike. Conditions made for slow going at first, with me in the lead setting a pace of probably three miles per hour, but definitely not faster than that.
In addition to the overcast sky and dense ground-clouds, it had rained the night before; everything was still very wet and there were more than a fair share of puddles to either walk through or around. Thankfully, the trail widens slightly as you make your way deeper into the forest, growing to a width of perhaps four feet while remaining relatively clear of forest growth, which made sticking to the trail a no-brainer. Although, there were a number of points where a tree or trees had fallen, obfuscating the path. Our headlamps were focused on the ground closer to our feet for safety, rather than out ahead into the forest for line of sight, which means we hiked pretty much the entire first hour with our heads down, plodding along, paying more attention to where we were stepping than to the wildness around us. However, this did not mean that we did not stop for a moment or two here and there to take stock of our surroundings, even in the murky vastness. At some point you suddenly realize that you’re “in the woods”. I’m not quite sure how to describe this. It’s as if you cross an invisible line where you leave the world of man and enter the natural world. There is no portal, line or doorway, so there’s no way to mark this passage the moment it happens. You stop, perhaps to adjust your headlamp, or take a quick look back at your companion to make sure they’re okay, or simply to take a moment to appreciate your surroundings, and there you are. There you are. Just, there.
In retrospect, this probably happened at the point where the trail suddenly became the stream bed. The rain from the previous night made distinguishing one from the other pointless and impossible; they were, at that point, one and the same. If there was a gateway, I like to think this was it. It’s the perfect metaphor: the hard rock and gravel path of the “civilized” world seamlessly giving way to the smooth fluidity of the ebbs and flows of the natural world. And while the run-off wasn’t very deep, perhaps no more than four to six inches in the deepest portions, it was steady and moving swiftly. So much run-off was moving along the trail that we were forced either to walk in the tall grass, mud and dirt on the edge of the trail or walk directly in the water’s flow. At times we did both, first making our way through the mud and grass using our poles to test the depth of the mud, then moving back to the middle of the stream balancing on and jumping from rock to rock, or simply splashing in puddles where the stream lacked the depth to thoroughly soak our feet. So on we went, until the union of path and stream disentwined just as seamlessly as they had conjoined, almost imperceptibly. That is the way with Nature. She is subtle. We must learn to see, and be willing to learn.
A spell of enchantment permeates the forest at this time of day. As you move deeper into the dark of the forest, you can’t help but think that the ground on which you are walking predates all of recorded history, all living things, and that somehow, for some reason, you are some small part of that. That’s the fairy tale come true. That’s the magic. But we’ve forgotten. We must learn to remember.
About a quarter of the way up the hill we turned our headlamps off and stood silently. At first the dark is as black as pitch; you see nothing. Living in or around cities it’s difficult to grasp exactly how dark it can get in the woods on a moonless, starless night. I reached out to see if I could scoop a little up and put it in my pack to take with; it’ so dark that the lack of sight is the only thing you can focus on in that moment. Gradually, though, as your eyes adjust, the dark lifts. First, the trees appear as broad black lines in a Bob Ross. Then you notice the depth of the forest as more and more black lines appear in your line of site as the forest swells around you, like a lung expanding upon the intake of breath. The forest floor remains impenetrable. A short while later you begin to notice the sky, a stark gray canvas on which the trees are painted. And for a while that’s all you see, degrees of darkness. We rely so heavily on our sight that we forget our other senses. The darkness aids the memory. After two minutes, perhaps, cricket-song, tree frog calls, and the sounds of buzzing insects become apparent. But it’s not a cacophony, more a delicate fullness of natural sound that fills the thick air around you. It’s also not the case that these sounds weren’t there before. Rather, because you suddenly lack the ability to see, you gain the ability to listen. The forest converses with itself, and you overhear. Everything is suddenly very present to the mind and ears. You are so in this fucking moment. Soon you notice the sounds of the forest proper. In the moment pleasant, deep and meditative; in retrospect, a beautiful, spontaneous symphony. Condensation of the saturated air collecting on leaves falls from the canopy to the floor, keeping time. Also, like the insects, while water droplets fall as consistently as rain they lack the volume, though they possess the fullness of a steady rainfall. The wind in the trees aids in the shedding of their diluvian cloaks, knocks and pulls loose branches to the ground. In the movement of the trees, the falling of the branches, and the incessant drip of condensation, all in the strangeness of night, it’s easy to see how one’s mind might interpret the signals from one’s ears in the absence of light as a predator. I also noted a conspicuous absence of daytime sounds: the scurrying of chipmunks and squirrels rummaging for nuts in the leafy debris, or even the sounds of the never-far highways and byways. (I’ve personally never been to a spot so remote and wild that civilization does not, in some way, intrude. Here in the darkness of pre-dawn is as close as I’ve come.) We are visitors here; this place is not ours.
Hiking at night compounds and multiplies any one of the hundred typical problems that may go wrong on even the most routine of day hikes on a hill or mountain: injuries: running low or out of food and water: bad weather: getting lost. On a night hike, the last of these should probably concern the hiker most. As we approached the ridgeline the climb vacillated between navigating several series of boulders and ever narrower foot paths. Due to the dark, the limited visibility and the fog, and because I was paying more attention to the ground only meters in front of my feet rather than what was coming up ahead, I missed the double-stacked blazes indicating a turn or switchback. We began to make our way slowly across a difficult, boulder-strewn landscape: the rocks were not only wet but also covered in moss and lichens making them extremely dangerous—I would fall on one of these later in the morning scraping my leg, but it wasn’t serious, and the fear comes in knowing you’re going to fall but not being able to do anything about it; in an instant you reconcile yourself to that fact and hope that you don’t fall too far or too hard. In addition, I discovered that the white lichens growing on top as well as the side of many of the boulders look remarkably like bright white paint when an artificial light source shines upon their dew-bespeckled surface. For a brief moment I thought I was following the trail someone had painted on the rocks, not unusual particularly at higher elevation where trees become scarce or scattered. It slowly occurred to me, though, that nobody would paint on that many boulders so close together, and that there were also plenty of trees nearby. So we turned back, found the trail, and continued on our way. Though, to be fair, even if we had lost our way so completely that we were unable to find the trail proper we had compasses, plenty of water and snacks, and the GPS on my phone was still working with plenty of charge left; I was also tracking our path on the Samsung Health app, making it that much easier to retrace our steps. Moreover, we were not more than a couple miles of hiking from the nearest roadway. Yet, and while I realize that this is not the wilds of Alaska or the wilderness of Maine, I’m compelled to mention that in John Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, he reports that before his death, Christopher McCandless was only about two miles from the nearest town or village. In part, he died because he had either failed to take or had thrown away a map of the local area. Closer to home, in May of last year (2016), the body of Geraldine Largay was found zipped in her sleeping bag, in a tent, with a note telling those who would eventually find her to inform her husband and daughter of what happened. Apparently, she kept a journal until the very end. She had been hiking the AT when she got off-trail in Maine. She survived for about a month in the wilderness. When rangers found her nearly three years later, she was only about two miles from the trail. Getting lost in the woods is life and death.
As dawn broke, or tried, through the dense morning clouds, the darkness lifted, the air cleared and we reached the ridge line where hiking leveled out around 1,300 feet. From here it’s a stroll across the ridge out to the trail loop and back down to the parking lot. The original plan was to follow the loop out to Clark’s Ferry Shelter on the AT, but time didn’t permit. Once we reached the option to loop back immediately, or continue and then loop back later, it would have put a little over a half a mile on the hike, and we were already pushing the clock to the limit. So we put a pin in it and saved it for another day.
The down-hike in the light of day was a much easier affair and for the most part uneventful; we even ran parts of the trail. Logan saw a couple of deer in the woods, which I missed and was too far ahead to see anyhow. We got some great pics nonetheless and had a great hike. At the end of the day we hiked a little over four and a half miles, and climbed to a modest 1,300 feet with an elevation gain of 1,251 feet. The hike took almost exactly two hours, not including water breaks and the occasional stop to make sure we were still on-trail.
Over all I feel like I’m getting a little stronger. The hills in PA are definitely not as rigorous as the White Mountains in NH, but they are a challenge in their own way. This trail, and the trail I soloed on Sunday, the H. Knauber Trail that shoots off the AT not far from the Rausch Gap Shelter, are more gradual but more consistent in their gradation to the top. Where a summit such as Mt. Major in Alton, NH may have sections of the climb that are more gentle, sloping, the majority of the both trails I hiked this weekend in PA were relatively consistent in grade until the top of the hill.
The journey continues. Get out there.