Hiking with Joaquin- Part I
We had been planning our hiking adventure for several months. The first weekend in October promised excellent weather for a three-day hike across Maryland on the 41.9 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The fall colors would be emerging, the temperatures would be cool and comfortable, and it would be a perfect weekend to camp out under the stars. I finally got around to purchasing a new hiking pack after extensive research and a desire for a carry-on eligible pack to make future international travel more convenient. The plan was to follow the full route of the AT over the course of three days, beginning in Pen Mar, PA on Friday, and finishing in Harper’s Ferry, WV on Sunday. That would give us plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, stop at scenic overlooks, and still set up camp with some daylight at our disposal. Alas, Hurricane Joaquin had other plans.
About a week out, the weather forecasts began to shift as a tropical storm in the Atlantic was quickly developing into a hurricane, with a projected landfall disturbingly close to our destination. There was plenty of rain in the forecast, and the temperatures were looking to be a bit lower than we had anticipated. However, plane and train tickets were purchased, time was requested off from work, and we were intent on converging on Washington, D.C. on Thursday (10/1) night for an early Friday AM departure. We made the decision to condense our trip into two days of hiking (approximately 20 miles each day), and to stay in a hotel in Harper’s Ferry on Friday night to allow us to spend more time on the trail and pack lighter for the journey.
I got my pack filled with the necessities, and hopped on the train Thursday night for the short ride to D.C. I was able to meet Stefan, Jamile, and Carla (who flew in from Iowa to join us) at Union Station, and we headed back to Stefan and Jamile’s house in Falls Church, VA for a few short hours of sleep. The 5AM alarm arrived much too soon, but we are all up and ready to roll by 6AM and we headed out (after stopping for some much-needed coffee, of course). The plan was to leave one vehicle at the half-way point, and take the other up to Pen Mar for the start. It was a relatively easy drive, and we even found a wonderful little cafe for breakfast along the way. We arrived in Pen Mar, and the AT trailhead around 9AM, and embarked on our journey for the day. The weather predictions indicated a strong chance of rain the entire day, but we were prepared and determined to enjoy the experience. A little moisture wasn’t going to get in the way of an amazing hiking trip!
As it turned out, we encountered some light rain and wind throughout the day, but the dense canopy served as a rather effective natural umbrella. The trail itself was absolutely gorgeous, and I found it quite easy to get lost in the moment and find my bearing again only to discover that a considerable amount of time had passed. We found several amazing scenic overlooks with breathtaking views, despite the fog and cloud cover hiding a good portion of the natural terrain from us. The trail had its share of rocky and rooty sections, some of which were a tad bit tricky due to being slick from the rain, but we slowed our paced and carefully navigated them without incident.
Although this was a supposed to be a relatively busy section of the AT, we saw very few hikers on this first day. I’m guessing Joaquin had something to do with that! For the most part, we had the entire trail to ourselves, and it was delightful. We were able to enjoy the natural beauty that much better, and soak in the sounds of nature as they drowned out the technological buzz of our daily lives. We stopped to eat and drink when we were hungry, paused to rest at several of the shelters along the way, and let our imaginations wander throughout the day. I couldn’t help but think about Scott Jurek and Heather Anderson traversing these same trails, and marveling at the speed and distance of their daily journeys. I also found myself with a new-found appreciation for Bill Bryson’s AT tale, A Walk in the Woods, and smiling at some of our observations as we ventured around a cascading trail of new experiences and sites.
More than the hiking, though, I had been looking forward to the time with friends to reconnect and create new memories together. The transition to Delaware has gone quite well in many aspects, but leaving behind our community in Ames has been by far the hardest aspect. Throughout the first day, our conversations meandered even more than the trail itself, and it was wonderful to realize just how easily you can fall back into comfortable conversation with wonderful friends. I can certainly appreciate the allure of a solitary journey on the AT, especially from a meditative perspective, but there is simply something about the experience that can’t be captured in journals or photos. You need to be with someone to truly catalog the essence of the AT and recognize the history hidden between the rocks and roots, ready to be uncovered and added to with each new footfall. I was happy that I had three wonderful friends to share those moments with, and to add to the history together.
We made relatively good time, and covered a bit less than 20 miles the first day, arriving back at the truck at our predetermined halfway point with daylight left in the sky. However, we had overlooked one small detail. The keys to the truck had been accidentally left in the other vehicle, which was 20+ miles north of us at our starting location. We considered several options, including running the 15 or so miles along the road back to the truck. However, the temperatures were dropping, and he wind was picking up, and we weren’t really in the mood to run for a few hours. So, we decided to give Uber a try. None of us had used it before, but this seemed as good a time as any, especially considering the potential cost of a conventional cab that far off the beaten path. As luck would have it, someone responded in less than a minute, and we were tucked into a Ford Explorer 15 minutes later on our way up to Pen Mar to retrieve the truck and keys to the second truck. It was a really pleasant experience, and our driver was quite nice as well.
After our vehicle juggling, we made our way down to our hotel in Harper’s Ferry, ordered some pizza, and enjoyed a much-needed shower and hot meal. We relaxed for a bit, but it didn’t take long before our eyes were forcing themselves shut, so we retired for the evening. Day two was still ahead of us, and we were looking forward to another 20 miles of memories on the AT!