So there I was, once again at the base of the Blue Mountain Ridge, this time about thirty miles west of Palmerton, near a small lake called Hamburg Reservoir. I was going to hike up the mountain on the Appalachian Trail to a place called "Pulpit Rock" and then push on to "The Pinnacle".
View Pinnacle Hike in a larger map
The Pinnacle is a scenic outlook on the Appalachian Trail that is said to possess some of the finest views the trail has to offer in the state of Pennsylvania. Through careful online research, I managed to uncover the following salient facts with regard to this particular hike.
1.> It usually takes about 3.5 to 4.5 hours to complete the 8.5 mile round trip.
2.> You may encounter copperhead snakes on the trail.
3.> You definitely need lots of water.
4.> You may encounter rattlesnakes on the trail.
5.> If you fail to follow the trail map posted in the parking lot with adequate discipline, you may get lost and find yourself in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
6.> The rattlesnakes that consider this trail their home are of exceptional quality, if what you look for in a rattlesnake is girth and bloodcurdling ferocity.
Armed with these helpful facts, two bottles of water, brand new leather hiking boots and a camera, I drove up to Hamburg Reservoir near the small town of Hamburg, PA, where you can hop on to the AT. To get to the AT from the parking lot, you have to walk uphill along a service road that leads to the reservoir. The AT intersects this road about a half mile up the hill and enters some woods after crossing a stream on a wooden bridge. Heeding the advice of online hiking reviews, I looked for copperheads sunning themselves on the creek stones but I saw none, which wasn't a disaster because I really fucking hate snakes.
I had decided to hike up the AT to the Pinnacle, then descend back down along the Furnace Creek (Blue) trail, which forms a loop to the parking lot. About half a mile into the woods, the Blue trail branched off the AT. Immediately thereafter, the AT began a steep climb up the side of the mountain. After an initial shock to my cardio-pulmonary system during which I aged twenty years within the span of twenty seconds, I settled into a nice rhythm.
About a mile into the hike, I ran across my first fellow hiker. She was twenty yards ahead of me, an amply proportioned woman, also climbing up the trail. As I caught up to her, I saw that she was arguing with somebody on the phone. Just as I passed her, she turned to me and asked me, "Do you know where we are?"
"We are on the Appalachian Trail", I replied, not hugely surprised by her question because she looked like somebody who had just stepped outside to get a cup of coffee and somehow inadvertently managed to end up on the Appalachian Trail.
"I need to get to the blue trail", she replied. "I've been walking all morning, trying to get to the white trail that leads to the blue trail".
"This IS the white trail", I said. "But why are you climbing up? To get to the blue trail, you would have to climb down".
"I climbed up the blue trail and I made a left on to the white trail and now I need to reach the blue trail to climb down to my campground, so I'm climbing up again", she said. "Do you see now?"
"I see", I replied, not seeing at all. "The blue trail meets the white trail at two different locations, the closest of which is a mile down this trail."
"Oh damn", she exclaimed in disgust. "Alright, thanks", she said, turned around and began to walk down.
After marveling for a moment at how anyone could get lost on such a clearly marked trail, I walked on.
A few minutes later, I came to a blue blazed trail branching off the AT to the right. Another blue trail? Perhaps the mysterious, mythical blue trail the woman was looking for?
Now here's my problem and it is a very general problem that I have faced many times in my life. I have a pathological desire to assist mankind through the generous dissemination of my knowledge. The problem is that frequently, I lack knowledge of any kind. In such a situation, I manufacture knowledge through the process of theorizing and deduction and in my defense, there have been numerous occasions when this method of knowledge manufacture has served me well and earned me accolades.
Apparently this wasn't one of those times.
"Fuck", I muttered under my breath because I had just been hit by a severe pang of hiker's conscience. Quickly, I did an about-turn and jogged back down the trail to see if I could find the woman and inform her that I had discovered a blue trail that might be the one she was looking for, but she had disappeared. I never saw her again. They say her spirit still wanders these woods at night, giving unwary hikers false directions in a fake Indian accent.
As I continued to hike up the AT, it continued to get rockier, with more and more boulders appearing on the path. As I mentioned in my previous post, Bill Bryson has called the PA Appalachian Trail a place where hiking boots go to die. After reading his description, my initial impression was that the AT in PA was probably akin to an old age home for footwear, where already decrepit boots would be allowed to die quietly with dignity, catheters being disengaged at regular intervals, culminating with the final unplugging of the dialysis machine.
And my experience on the Delaware Water Gap section of the AT had only served to confirm my hypothesis. After I returned from the hike, my old shoes which were already well past their expiration date, called it a day and kicked the bucket.
But this trail was different. In fact, for this particular section of the AT, a more apt comparison would be to Vietnam. Young, healthy shoes being sent off to battle for a lost cause and be slaughtered like sheep. I felt a deep sadness for my new Timberlands. They were not having the best of times. I could sense their muted suffering through my Dr. Scholl's insole.
It began with the appearance of a few rocks on the path. I snapped a picture, thinking hey, that's cool, so this was what Bryson was talking about. A few steps ahead, these turned into boulders. I snapped another picture, thinking sweet, I am THE MAN for doing this trail alone. And then, the path disappeared entirely, turning into a field of giant rocks, climbing up the side of the mountain like a stairway to hell and identifiable as the Appalachian Trail only by the white blazes painted on trees surrounding them.
My problem wasn't merely with regard to the technical issues involved in climbing up a rocky mountainside. I also knew (again, from online research), that the rattlesnakes of this region, displaying uncommon enterprise, often occupy the empty space between two rocks, staying still for prolonged periods of time and awaiting rodentia or human limb to succumb to gravity and fall in. Therefore, as I jumped from rock to rock, I could almost hear hollow fangs clicking away in anticipation all around my feet.
As I was standing on one of these rocks, trying to catch my breath, my cellphone rang. It was my dad.
"Why are you sending us money?", my dad wanted to know.
"Who else will I send money to?", I replied.
"We don't need your money, we are relatively well-off", replied my dad.
"Dad, I already sent you the money, so donate it to the poor or something", I said.
"Okay, I will send it back to you, then", said my dad.
"Dad, I have money now, I am no longer poor", I said, "But anyways, I'm standing on a rock surrounded by snakes right now so I gotta go, I will call you later, bye" and hung up.
After carefully leaping from rock to rock and making my way up the ridge for another twenty minutes or so, I finally emerged onto a flat area on the edge of a cliff with a nice view of the surrounding countryside. This was probably Pulpit Rock. I confirmed my suspicion by asking two women lounging around on a couple of flat rocks at the edge of the precipice. One of them was lying on her stomach, peering through binoculars at the birds of prey circling the cliffs around us.
"Is this Pulpit Rock?", I asked.
"Yes, it is", the non-birdwatcher replied. I walked up to the edge of the cliff to take pictures. Down in the valley at a distance, I could vaguely make out the "Blue Rocks", a boulder field supposedly deposited there by glaciers during the last ice age.
The woman who had replied to my question got up from her roost and at the same time, a skinny guy in well-worn hiking attire emerged from the trail. He immediately walked up to the rock the woman had been sitting on, carefully scrutinized it and then broke out in smiles as if he had just spotted an old friend.
"There it is", he said, "There's usually at least one in there".
"Where is what?", I asked him, puzzled.
"A copperhead", he replied. "It's coiled up inside the crack between these rocks you ladies are sitting on."
This revelation caused the birdwatching lady to temporarily suspend her ornithological activities in favor of leaping to her feet and saying, "AaaaA. Where?" I have never seen anyone transfer body weight from belly to foot with such agility.
The man pointed to the crevice between the two rocks. I stepped onto the ledge at the very edge of the cliff to spot the serpent. A sudden attack of vertigo hit me. Carefully, I backed off and tried to get to it from another angle. As I raised my camera and moved my hand towards the crevice to take a picture, I asked the guy, "Where is it"?
"Stop right there", he said. I froze.
"What?", I said.
"There's one right underneath your hand", he said.
I looked closely at the crevice my hand was passing over and sure enough, right there among the leaves was a curled up copperhead. It was quite difficult to spot due to its amazingly camouflaged skin. There were two of these snakes, in the very same crevice.
"Sometimes there are so many in there that they get stacked up on each other", said the guy. He had obviously made a career out of studying the relaxing habits of Appalachian Trail copperheads.
"That's nice", I said, thinking otherwise. "Are they venomous?".
"Yeah", he replied. "Also, the babies are more dangerous because they keep biting and inject more venom than the adults."
I decided never to hand-feed a baby copperhead. Sure they are all cute and scaly and all, but on the whole, it's just not worth the risk.
"We've been sitting here for a while now", said one of the women. "We never knew it was in there."
"You were lucky you didn't drop anything into the crack and try to retrieve it", I said.
"I know", said the woman, "My water bottle was right there".
After taking a number of copperhead pictures, I put my camera away.
"Anyone going to the Pinnacle?", asked Hiker Guy.
"Yeah, I am", I replied, "Why?"
"Watch out for rattlesnakes", he said. "People have seen big ones among the rocks there".
"B...B?", I said.
"Excuse me?", he said.
"I said B...B", I explained. "I was actually trying to say 'B..B..Big?' in a terrified voice."
"Yeah", he replied, "You might also run across them on the trail. I saw one the other day, moving through the leaves. Just make sure you keep an eye out for them."
And so, after taking some more pictures of the view from Pulpit Rock, I took my leave of these good folks and headed out towards the Pinnacle.