Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Hitting the Appalachian Trail, Pine Grove and Harpers Ferry

When I was figuring out the itinerary for our trip, the Appalachian Trail was one of the first things I thought about as a way to structure it. It might not be typically known as a road trip, but the internet has everything, which is how we ended up at the Red Caboose Motel in the first place.

Most handily, I discovered that the halfway point of the Trail was in Pennsylvania and there was a museum nearby. This seemed perfect for sampling this bit of Americana, so we headed to Pine Grove Furnace State Park once we left our caboose behind.

The Appalachian Trail is over 2,100 miles long, stretching from Georgia to Maine. The Appalachian Trail Museum is built next to Pine Grove General Store which is usually taken as the halfway point (the actual halfway mark is apparently three miles south). It is traditional for hikers to celebrate by taking on a challenge of eating a half-gallon tub of ice cream. The children were very interested in this challenge, but I firmly told them that it was only for thru-hikers (hikers doing the entire trail in one trip) who had completed 1,000 miles.

Sure enough, as we arrived, a couple of hikers were already there, digging into their tubs at a picnic table. Over the next hour, while we ordered and ate lunch from the store, we watched more of the hiking party arrive, greeting and teasing each other. The sign out front said the record for the challenge was twelve minutes and fifty seconds. None of these hikers seemed interested in breaking it, eating their ice cream at a much more leisurely pace. We asked where they had come from—they had started in Georgia, two and a half months earlier, and they hoped to finish the trail in September.

Ice Cream Challenge Site

The museum was small, asked for donations only, and had a very nicely laid out children's section downstairs... though by its nature, it was providing information displays rather than hands on exhibits, and while my nine year old son read them curiously, my seven year old daughter soon got bored.

I also liked the upstairs section, which went more into the history of the trail. (I was particularly gratified to learn about Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, who took up hiking at the age of 67 by becoming the first woman to thru-hike the trail, and then proceeded to hike it two more times before her death at 85. Never too late, indeed!) The kids however found it more fun to play outside, on a lawn landscaped into a switchback ramp.

A quilted map showing the Appalachian Trail in the children's section of the Museum.

For the children, watching the hikers at the General Store (the trail is busy enough you should find some there most summer days) was a better illustration of the trail than any museum exhibit. From them, they got a feel for the camaraderie of the Trail and learned the distinctive features of the thru-hiker: massive backpack, hiking poles, shorts, beards for the men, easy-going smiles and muddy, clompy, hiking boots. We would be on the trail for the next two days, and we saw a lot of people who, like us, were sampling a few miles of it as tourists, but my daughter confidently pointed out every actual hiker we saw.

As has been noted before, my children aren't hikers and are wary enough of their mother's ambulatory ambitions that my daughter will freak out at the mere mention of the word 'mile'. So while I was determined to hike some of the Trail, I had chosen my sites carefully: I invited the kids to come and do some "rock climbing."

For this, I needed to navigate to Whisky Springs, which would have been easier if I had a phone signal so Google could do it for me. However, remembering my success at Ohiopyle State Park, I nevertheless figured out a course from the cached maps, and we set off. At the point where we found ourselves plunging into the woods on a single lane gravel track, I began to suspect this was not the route Google would have recommended. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't.) My kids, however, were delighted with the journey: "We love it when you freak out!" I choose to believe that this is because they want me to challenge myself and grow in self-confidence. It's probably not filial sadism... right?

I spent a good five minutes dreading an oncoming car which thankfully never came, before we finally came out onto Whisky Springs Rd, found the pullout I needed to park the car and the bridge marking where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road. Inspired by the hikers, the kids found themselves hiking sticks and bounced eagerly up the trail for a good five minutes before they began asking how long until we got to the rocks. The above link suggested it was a quarter mile. Admittedly, it's always tough to judge distances when walking with the kids as their pace is so inconsistent, but it certainly felt longer.

The Trail crosses Whisky Springs Rd.

We passed a few small boulders. One crop of them was sizeable enough that the kids decided we should eat the fruit picnic we'd brought and play hide and seek, but it didn't seem remarkable enough for me to believe that this was the place I'd read about online. I let the kids rest while I climbed higher up the trail and finally I found the spot: it was certainly obvious enough once I did!

I was worried the kids wouldn't care enough to go any further uphill, but they were eager to see it, and not at all disappointed for their pains. My daughter wanted to play the Lion King, my son wanted to do more hide and seek and I just wanted to see how far I could climb. There was some squabbling over exactly what game we were playing as we explored, but overall we had fun—despite me thoughtlessly telling my daughter that she was standing on a spider's foot (it had long legs) causing her to jump off her rock with no thought for where she might land. Luckily, she did not fall to her doom, and the spider scurried off quickly enough that we assume no damage was done.




Afterwards, we headed on down the road to a phone signal and then a petrol station. I encouraged the kids to clean the bugs off the windscreen as I filled up the car. This distraction was sufficient for me to completely forget to put the cap back on my tank, and it was still dangling on the side of the car as I drove out of the station. Thankfully, somebody else noticed and tapped on my window before I turned onto the road.

The lesson here is that to make it as an independent adult, I will need to rely on the kindness of others. (I'd feel inadequate if I wasn't pretty sure this applies to most people.)

Over the rest of the afternoon, we left Pennsylvania behind us and even Maryland, before spending about two minutes in Virginia to cross into West Virginia and Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry is on the point of land where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac (which marks most of Maryland's southern border.) The Trail passes directly through the town, and it's traditional to take a picture at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Center there (though it's not on the trail itself and we only figured out where it was when it was too late to visit it.) Harpers Ferry is also a surprisingly historic little town, as George Washington established the US armory there, which made it a strategically important location in the Civil War.

However, Harpers Ferry is mostly closed on a Monday, as was the case when we arrived, and we were hard put just to find a restaurant open to serve us dinner. Still, I was very taken by the town, which is built on the steep hillside leading down to the rivers, and as such was reminiscent of every Cornish town of my youth.

A waterfall that diverges down somebody's front steps is the most Cornish thing I've seen outside of Cornwall.

The kids were not nearly as enthused by the steep streets as I was, and were reluctant to do any exploring after dinner, although I did coax them to walk along a disused railtrack near the station on my quest to find the footbridge that took the Trail across the Potomac into Maryland. This ended when my daughter tripped over, getting a nasty cut on her hand. I then compounded the accident by pushing my son lightly, at which point he took a dive worthy of any World Cup player and skinned his knee. We gave up, and drove back to the hotel.

It'll end in tears...
I had picked the hotel, a Quality Inn, on the basis that it was right next to the stretch of Trail leading into town. This apparently wasn't reason enough for there to be an official footpath from Hotel to Trail, but the following morning I led the kids along the far side of a crash barrier next to the road for several yards to find it. We found a painted rock and then what looked to be an entire, if disassembled, skeleton of some luckless roadkill (I believe a deer, but I'm no expert) and finally the Trail itself, my son delightedly pointing out the white blazes that proved it was the Appalachian Trail.



It was going to be a scorchingly hot day, so we had started early—we even saw a live deer as we went—but the trail was steep and uneven, and we were hot long before we got into town. However, I had motivated my son by telling him about Jefferson's Rock: the third president had passed through town in 1783, and climbed upon a boulder to view the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. He declared it was "one of the most stupendous scenes in nature" and "a view worth crossing the Atlantic for," so people took due note of that rock—to the point that it had to be given sandstone supports in the mid-nineteenth century.

I traveled the wide, wide world, and came back to this...

It was predictable, but to our disappointment, you're not allowed to stand on the rock today. We consoled ourselves by standing on the rocks nearby, confident that Jefferson must have scrambled around these as well. The view was very nice, though I wouldn't go to Jefferson's hyperbole. Perhaps there were fewer trees obstructing his view... or perhaps he'd never seen Niagara Falls.

From there, we continued downhill into town, descending the Appalachian Trail Staircase (which was ridiculously uneven, so brought me more Cornish nostalgia). Again, I would have liked to explore. The town is on the Lewis and Clark trail by virtue of Lewis getting supplies here before the expedition started. It's most famous for the abolitionist John Brown's failed attempt to seize the armory in order to arm slaves for an uprising throughout the south. There was another African American museum here, so we had a chance to learn what we had missed in Philadelphia, if we were willing to stay in town until it opened.

One historical event; two memorials with two very different (though not mutually-exclusive) takes on it.
Except it was already so hot. It was 9:30am, nothing would open until 10am and just hiking the mile and a half in had taken a lot out of us. I promised the kids they could have ice cream, so we set out to find some. Luckily, my son remembered seeing a coffee shop the night before and reasoned that that should be open this early. He was right and it sold ice cream. Once we'd purchased it, I decided to just start back as we ate.. on the return trip, a lot of the uphill part would be in full sun and it was only going to get worse as the day grew hotter.

Besides, we had a tubing trip booked for 11am. This was perhaps the one thing that would have been better on a Saturday. I had put us down for the Antietam Creek Tubing, long before we left for our trip. At the time, I had been advised that three people were not enough to confirm the booking, but the girl on the phone was confident that other people would sign up and said they would be in touch. I never heard anything, and when I checked the evening before, I was told that nobody else had joined in, so it couldn't take place.

I switched to the Shenandoah River tubing which was cheaper, but a shorter and less exciting trip. I then screwed up by remembering our time as 11:30am instead of 11am, though it proved to be a quiet enough day not to matter. We set off with one or two couples and a summer camp group. No guide... just instructions on where to get out. (It was hard to miss anyway.)

While something of an anticlimax to my planning, this mellow hour and a half worked out very well for this late in our trip and for this hot a day. Depending on where you hit the currents, the tubes went downriver at wildly different paces, and we lost track of my son all together. My daughter and I spent a lot of time discussing crocodiles, crabs and the fearsome Shenandoah piranha, before she got bored and left me hanging onto her tube while she went for a swim in her lifejacket.

At the end of the tubing, we found my son waiting at the shore for us, tossing rocks into the river. We splashed around a bit longer before heading out to buy lunch.

After lunch, it must be confessed, that we went back to our hotel room and indulged in a/c and electronic education. All the historical intrigues of Harper's Ferry went unexplored because we were too tired and too hot. It's a shame because there's a lot to unpick, and on a different kind of trip, this would have made a great companion excursion to a Philadelphia tour.

Come the cooler temperatures of the evening, we dragged ourselves back out to dinner and afterwards I informed the children that I, at least, wanted to follow the Appalachian Trail to Maryland. (Rather wonderfully, only four miles of the Appalachian Trail are in West Virginia.) They agreed to this on the grounds that they could wait for me on the WV side of the bridge.

The far side of the bridge: the track continues after the footpath heads down.

It's actually a railway bridge with a footpath alongside (and a chain link fence dividing the two because people can't be trusted). It allows for a nice view of the two rivers and the columns of old bridges that once spanned them.

And numerous options for padlocks declaring your love.

At the far end was a spiral staircase that practically begged me to go down it and take pictures. I walked along the trail for a few yards—it coincides here with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail, a now dry throwback to the rivalry between boats and trains—and found my way to a beach where hikers were cooling off in the river. From here, I could photograph back the way I had come (and see the diminutive figures of my children, patiently sat on a wall).

This was once one of seventy-four locks along the canal.
 That done, I returned to the bridge, but as soon as I started along it, I saw my daughter running towards me. We caught up to each other, I hugged her and, in agitated fits and starts, she told me that they couldn't see me and they freaked out. I consoled her pretty quickly by telling her she could get down to the water on the Maryland side at which point she rushed off to see and I faced up to my son's nine-year-old wrath as he crossed the bridge at a more sedate pace.

Apparently, they had not realised I planned to leave the bridge and spend a few minutes on the other shore. Wondering what was taking me so long, my son had got up to look down the bridge and discovered I was gone. He told his sister and in great concern, she decided to run across and see if she could spot me. If she couldn't, my son had planned to call the police.

As embarrassed as I was by the misunderstanding, there was something very touching in the responsibility the children had taken when worried about me. I apologised to my son, but I also thanked him and told him he'd been very sensible about the not-quite-crisis. By this point, we had caught up with my daughter, as she scrambled down the rocks to the water under the bridge, so my son's reward was to endure our insatiable desire for paddling. (We later looked into it on the West Virginia side of the Potomac, but this is both very muddy and a lot more exposed to nasty currents; not recommended!)

Having "hiked" the Appalachian Trail in three different states, we were ready to leave it. We only had one more day, and we were all looking forward to going home.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Sarah!
    How exciting that you've taken your children on such a fun trip!
    So happy to hear you enjoyed finding out about Grandma Gatewood. If you'd like to find out more, please check out our website at http://tinyurl.com/gatewoodproject We've been documenting her life and there's even a DVD if you want to learn more. Also, check out Michelle Houts' book When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike for the kids. It's really good.
    Keep hiking!