It’s true. Almost everyone I meet when they hear that I am hiking the Appalachian Trail they ask, “Are you hiking alone?” Yes. But, there’s a big, HOWEVER! I am hiking alone with the hundreds of other thru-hikers and section hikers on the trail. Most thru-hikers start out “alone” and acquire a trail family aka “tramily” along the journey. Being a friendly sort of person there’s a good chance I will be hiking with others along the way.
It makes me proud to be a solo woman attempting a thru-hike. Walking alone lets me dictate how far I go, how fast I go and if I even go at all. I alone make the decisions that impact my hike. That being said, there’s no one around to grab the snacks out of my backpack, consult the map with, or try to save me before I fall in a creek. It can be pretty nice to have a helping hand when needed.
These last few months I have found some amazing friends to hike with around Western New York! Now that Winter is here Outside Chronicles has announced a WNY Winter Hiking Challenge. Hikers are challenged to complete 6 of 9 trails around Western New York. I am hiking the trails along with Kim, Stephanie and Sara whom I met through the Allegany 18 Challenge I completed over the summer. I couldn’t dream of better hiking partners. These strong women inspire me, make me laugh, encourage me to push myself and they also bring good snacks.
Our first hike took us to Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park. The challenge landmark was the Eternal Flame. Being hardy hikers we decided to go the long way. Unfortunately, we became a little misguided, but Google set us straight and soon we were at the “Not so Eternal” Eternal Flame. The flame was out! I had my mini Bic lighter and Stephanie bravely climbed the ice-covered waterfall. She waved that little flame all over the grotto and could not get it lit. As you can see from the photo above, we were still all smiles. If you attempt this hike in the winter, I highly recommend microspikes.
Still feeling strong we headed to the Knox Farm State Park to find a little pond. We circled around the park and asked directions a few times. Finally, we found the right little pond for the challenge photo. Knox Farm was tricky as the trails were not well marked or at all.
We just didn’t get enough so we all headed out again a couple of days later (minus Stephanie) to Zoar Valley MUA. This was my first time at this amazing park. The trail took us down into a gorge along the Cattaraugus Creek. The challenge landmark was the confluence of the Main and South branches of the Cattaraugus Creek. It was amazing! I highly recommend this hike and again, in the winter, bring your microspikes.
Our second stop that day was to the Erie County Forest to find “A Bridge Too Far” for the next challenge landmark. This trail had a few footbridges to cross and was so beautiful. It was a really nice hike. “A Bridge Too Far” was just far enough.
After those two hikes, we eagerly drove over to Sprague Brook Park for the trifecta for the day! It was getting later in the day, but we were determined to find the challenge landmark of a “unique tree”. Unfortunately, we were all unfamiliar with the park and the trailhead eluded us. We wandered around for a few miles and called it quits before it got dark. We obtained better directions and a few hints and plan on returning to Sprague Brook to find that darn tree! All of these hikes were made immensely better by hiking with good friends. Maybe one of my friends will meet me for a few miles of the Appalachian Trail this year. Until then, I look forward to a few more hikes with them before I leave in March – alone!
Over a year ago I attempted to hike the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail. Things did not go as planned. I was under-prepared, physically unfit, and mostly inexperienced. It was a big blow to my confidence and made me really question if my dream was achievable. You can read all about it here.
Since that huge wake-up call, I have been hiking, hiking, hiking! I’ve lost weight. I’ve researched and bought new gear. I’ve read books about mentally preparing for personal challenges. But was I really ready to try again?
One piece of gear that I would like to upgrade is my shelter. I have a decent shelter, but it weighs over 3 pounds and there are tents that weigh in at a lot less. Speaking with my husband I expressed a desire to purchase my new light-weight tent and he made a case that I haven’t actually used my current tent on a trip longer than 2 days. Point made. Then he said I should really go back to Maryland. WHAT? That state HATES me! I understood his argument and said, “Fine, I’ll leave Monday.” Why did I say that? It was Thursday, I had three days to prepare! Panic mode, I researched food options (miserable fail), watched Maryland section trail videos and gathered my gear. I made a reservation at the Teahorse Hostel in Harpers Ferry, arranged to keep my car there for five days and then called to arrange a shuttle to Pen Mark Park from Trail Boss Chris. I even reached out to my trail angel, Alys, from last year just to let her know that I would be in her area again. This was getting real.
Monday – 0 miles hiked, 360 miles driving:
I woke up and left the house by 9am for the 6 hour drive to Harpers Ferry. I arrived at the Teahorse Hostel and was thoroughly out of my element. Only a top bunk was left. I never visited a Hostel before. Everything was very foreign to me. I walked around and visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters that was nearby. I had dinner with a hiker/wanderer named Garlic Salt who was a very unusual person. I slept well but was too nervous to eat the waffle breakfast.
Tuesday – 7 miles.
I woke up early and made sure my pack was ready. Trail Boss Chris picked me up at 8am sharp. We made the nearly hour drive north to Pen Mar Park. He dropped me off at the trailhead in Pennsylvania so I could walk to the Mason Dixon Line, which I missed in my last attempt. My nerves were on end as I remembered the rocky ascent to High Rocks Overlook. Before I knew it I was there! I took off down the trail towards the Raven Rock Shelter (I totally screwed up the name of this shelter in last year’s article about this hike.) I was so proud of myself when I hiked past the blue blazed side trail to the shelter. I was determined to get to the next shelter. Until I wasn’t determined anymore. There were three more miles to the shelter and I couldn’t continue. I made a quick call to my trail angel then resigned myself to stealth camping along the trail. My tent went up quickly and I slept well.
Wednesday – 12 miles:
When I woke up in the morning I hiked the three more miles to the shelter and met Alys at the Ensign Cowall shelter. There is a long, steep climb out of the shelter to the ridge. She was determined to help me and offered to carry my heavy pack up the half-mile climb. I was grateful. I huffed and puffed up that climb and rested every few feet. Alys was right behind me letting me set the pace. She’s a strong, amazing woman. I want to be just like her.
After we reached the ridgeline I put my pack back on. Alys made her way back to her car and promised to meet me later with turkey sandwiches! We had planned to meet at Pogo Memorial Campsite but I made good time and it was too early to stop, so I quickly texted her and made plans to meet at Annapolis Rocks campsite. I’m so glad I did! What a view! I spent the night in my tent at Campsite #3. Can you see my tent in the picture?
Thursday – 10.5 miles:
Fortified by TWO turkey sandwiches, oranges, gatorade, breakfast bars and Alys’ encouragement I continued on Thursday knowing I would be seeing some history this day along with the trail being relatively flat.
First, I became slightly emotional crossing the pedestrian bridge over I70. Having gone under this bridge in a car wishing to be on the bridge and now actually hiking on it was amazing!
Second, the original Washington Monument is on this section of trail. It was built in 1827 and just refurbished. I walked up the stairs to see the view from the top. It’s not an attractive monument, but remarkable when you think of what people had to do in 1827 to build something so big on the top of a mountain!
After filling up with water I continued on to Dahlgren Campground. This campground has the only free shower directly on the trail. Also, I had heard you could order pizza and have it delivered here. Additionally, there is a restaurant with air conditioning nearby. It was early when I reached the campground and I spent a long time taking my shower. It rejuvenated me and it didn’t take me long to decide that I was going to continue hiking to the next shelter just a couple miles more. (No pizza….) That night I stayed at the Rocky Run Shelter. There was a family of seven staying the night along with a few others sleeping in tents and hammocks.
Friday – 8.5 miles:
It was overcast and misty in the morning. I prepared by putting my pack cover on and having my raincoat handy. I made a rocky, steep climb out of the shelter. My motivation today was that Alys was meeting me again. It started to downpour. I decided that the Appalachian Trail was baptizing me; giving me a taste of what hiking in the rain feels like. I was drenched.
Everything from the top of my head to tips of my toes was waterlogged. While texting Alys she said she would meet me on the trail and bring with her more turkey sandwiches! Well, she outdid herself and brought me towels, dry socks, so much food, water and best of all her contagious smile that really encouraged me. We sat in a pavilion at Gathland State Park while I dried out and had some lunch.
Alys helped me find the blazes to continue on my way and off I went into the rain. Watching her drive away in a warm, dry car wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was excited to get to my last stop. Ed Garvey Shelter.
The Ed Garvey Shelter was vacant when I arrived. I changed into dry clothes, checked out the loft, the privy, found the bear pole, and made some ramen soup. Then a young man arrived to spend the night in his new hammock. Then two young women hung their hammocks, too. There was a campfire, laughing, talking and a great night’s sleep.
Saturday – 8 miles.
The sun was barely a glint in the sky when I awoke. I was eager to get packed up and down to Harpers Ferry. There was a long steep descent then a very flat section on the C&O Towpath. Unfortunately, my phone and battery backup both died so I could not take pictures. As I approached the pedestrian bridge that would take me over the Potomac River into Harpers Ferry I was shaking my head in disbelief. I was pretty amazed that I had actually made it. I hiked through Lower Town and up to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters, triumphant! I charged my phone a little and spoke with a hiker that had just completed her first half of a flip flop hike. She had hiked from Harpers Ferry to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. She was back in Harpers Ferry to now go South to Springer Mountain in Georgia. How I wished I could go with her. I put some of my left over food in the hiker boxes and then hiked on to the Teahorse Hostel where my car was waiting. I decided that I needed to go back to the Harpers Ferry National Park and take the bus shuttle to Lower Town Harpers Ferry and take the pictures I missed and have a bite to eat (and a beer).
I spent the night in a hotel about an hour away to be that much closer to home. The hotel had a king sized bed and a hot tub. Boy, did that feel good!
I am forever grateful to my Trail Angel, Alys. She made me feel like I was the most important person in her life for my whole hike. I made some mistakes with my food choices and she really helped by bringing me those turkey sandwiches, Gatorades and granola bars! Her friendship made all the difference for my successful hike!
By the way, all those hikers out there that say Maryland is easy….it was not easy. However, it may be easier than New Hampshire, Maine or other states.
In my last article I wrote about being afraid while hiking alone. The article was lighthearted and some called it cute and funny. I tried to make light of being afraid while hiking alone. Like my fears were not real.
THEY ARE REAL.
And those fears became even more real when Army Veteran Ron Sanchez was brutally murdered on the Appalachian Trail a few weeks ago. I do not want to put the incident in my own words; you can google it.
I have read that Ron Sanchez was thru hiking the AT to seek healing from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had served three tours in Iraq. People set out to thru hike the AT for different reasons. Therefore, on the trail I expect to encounter people like Ron, who are hiking the trail to find inner peace. On the trail I also predict I will encounter happy people, sad people, grumpy people, friendly people and yes, scary people.
Scary things can happen to you, me, and those we love – anywhere and at anytime. Recently I was speaking with my nephew, Matthew, about scary things and what does he do to come to peace with it. He said – when really bad things happen and I can’t do anything about it, I try to learn a lesson from it.
The lesson I learned is that I will be the friendly, cheerful, happy, kind person that others encounter on the trail. I will be the person that others can trust. I will “trust my gut” when I encounter suspicious people. However, I will continue to solo hike. I will also carry a Personal Locator Beacon in case of an emergency.
Most of all, I will not live in fear of the unknown. I will not let scary things control me or discourage me from my thru hike in 2020.