Friday, July 31, 2009

Following Bryson

A couple of months ago, I read Bill Bryson's awesomely funny book "A walk in the woods" for the very first time, in which he describes his attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail, or, as lazy folks like to call it, the "AT", is a 2200 mile long north-south hiking trail that runs throughout the length of the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. The AT, along with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) of the Western Mountains and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) of the Rockies form the Holy Trinity (HTNT) for long-distance hikers (people who have way too much time on their hands, or SOBs).

After reading this book, I made the spontaneous life-changing decision of dedicating the remainder of my time on earth to hiking the AT and retracing Mr Bryson's journey along this trail. That decision turned out to have a very limited lifespan, the end of which, curiously enough, coincided with my wife coming to know about it. Only after changing it through the addition of various legal amendments such as, "only on weekends when nothing else is planned" and "subject to absolute spousal veto that may not be appealed" was I able to revive it and get it approved.

A significant chunk of the AT passes through Pennsylvania. Bryson has not been too kind to Pennsylvania in his book. As he describes it (or cites someone else describing it, I forget which), the Pennsylvanian portion of the Appalachian trail is where hiking boots go to die. And I realized the truth of this statement when I did the Delaware Water Gap section of the AT some weeks ago. My right shoe passed away soon after, leaving behind a widowed left shoe, a couple of orphaned shoelaces and a large credit card debt that I'm still paying off. I had no idea the fucker was living beyond his means.

So last week, continuing on my mission, I decided to do a section of the AT that lay closest to me. Through a Google maps research session, I discovered that there was an AT trail-head with parking facilities about 60 miles from here where it crosses PA Highway 309 on the summit of the Blue Mountain Ridge.

View Larger Map

As we were pulling into the trail-head parking lot, I spotted the white blazed trail entering the woods from the highway. I showed it to my wife.

"Look, there's the trail", I said.

My wife, after observing it through the window, replied, "That's the trail?"

"Yes, there it is", I replied.

"But it's going into the woods", said my wife. "You didn't tell me we would be hiking in the woods. They look scary".

I realized that I had been somewhat secretive about the exact location of our hiking trip. I also realized that I had made a good call.

"What's wrong with hiking in the woods", I said. "Where else would you hike?"

"I don't know, a mall?" said my wife. I observed her closely to detect any signs of intended humor. I found none.

"Ah, don't worry", I said. "It's just trees. Luckily for us, the woods in this part of America lack any major predatory species, other than the black bear".

My wife, who was just about to place a foot outside the car, pulled it back in. "Bears?"

"Oh come on, the possibility of us happening upon a bear is extremely small", I said. I tried to mentally wish away the sign I had seen by the side of the highway at the base of the mountain that said "Bear crossing, next two miles". There, no more sign. It wasn't there anymore.

I had actually decided to hike the AT in the opposite direction, going towards Hawk Mountain, so we drove around, looking for the other trail-head. At the top of Blue Mountain Ridge, just across the AT trail-head lies the Blue Mountain Summit restaurant. I decided that I would have a beer there after the hike. Perhaps watch the Phillies game. It was then that I spotted white blazes descending down the mountainside on the other side of the highway.

"There, that's the side of the trail I want to do", I said to my wife.

"But we'll have to climb back up. How about we do the other section across the road that doesn't involve any climbing?", said my wife in a tone that seemed to suggest a distaste for gravity-opposing activities.

"Okay", I said. "Hey, look, an apple tree". We appeared to be parked right under an apple tree. "Do you want to pick a few apples?", I said, knowing through scholarly research that apple-picking is an activity women seem to harbor an inexplicable fondness for.

"Sure, why not", she replied, "The bear's gonna be hungry, right?"

We drove to the trail head parking lot without picking any apples. Finally managing to leave the car before sunset, we entered the woods. It was a nice day, not too hot, not too cold and not wet at all. The trail, in its initial section, was very narrow and I was a bit apprehensive because I had come to know from this guy on the internet that this section of the trail was pretty well-stocked with rattlesnakes. "Large" ones, he gushes on his website with considerable enthusiasm. Luckily, there were very few rocks on the trail, which rattlers are known to hide under. Nevertheless, I was happy when the narrow trail joined another larger, better maintained trail.

The AT travels along the top of Blue Mountain Ridge through dense woods. Even though you are about 1200 feet above sea level, there are no scenic views of the valley below simply because you are constantly surrounded by trees. Nevertheless, it was a great hike with the woods smelling flowery fresh and the air slightly muggy but replete with summer fragrance.

The trail was heavily populated with mushrooms. Lots of different varieties and a whole lot of different colors. My wife was mesmerized by them. Often, she would walk all the way back just to take another look at one of her favorite mushrooms that she had passed on the trail. Sometimes she couldn't find it, in which case we would spend a few minutes looking for it. Blueberry bushes were abundant as well, although blessed with very few berries. However, we did manage to snag a few. Even though I was pretty sure the animals that left those berries untouched had a very good reason for doing so.

We passed a number of places on the trail where thru-hikers had obviously camped and enjoyed a roaring campfire, although AT rules strictly forbid it. Bill Bryson never mentions starting any campfires in his book, although he did use a propane stove for cooking his noodles that were a dinner staple during his hike.

After the initial anti-bear remarks, my wife did not appear to be showing any significant bear-anxiety on the trail. I was pretty impressed. She had either lost all of her fear or was doing a good job of hiding it from me, both of which I found to be accomplishments of a highly commendable nature.

"Aren't you afraid of bears anymore?", I asked her as we walked along the path.

"Actually, I'm terrified. But this stick is providing me with a little bit of confidence", she replied.

I looked at the stick she was holding. During ancient times, in the absence of warming massage gels and edible lingerie, our forefathers would have used a comparable sized stick to tickle our foremothers as an act of foreplay. But I did my part in urging her confidence skyward.

"Good, I'll stay behind you then", I said, also expressing a hope that if a bear should happen upon us at the same time as an attractive mushroom, first preference kindly be given to bear destruction rather than mushroom inspection. I then pulled back, now wishing I had eyes in the back of my head. On the way back, we passed a dung-covered stone on the trail. I expertly analyzed it to be of ursine origin. Look, berries, I said. It means a bear did this. We spent about five minutes staring at and marveling over supposed bear shit. Then, we moved on.

On the way back, we passed a female hiker impressively equipped with hiking poles, correct hiking attire and humongous backpack. As she passed us, I asked her, "Hiking thru?" She stopped, looked back, smiled and confirmed my suspicion by saying yes. I said all the best, hope you make it to the end. She laughed, thanked me and moved on. Apparently less than 25% of thru-hikers complete the 2200 mile long trail. I'm hoping I did my bit to add to that number.

After we made it back to the parking lot, I decided to cross highway 309 in order to check out the southbound side of the trail. It turned out to be a highly dangerous place to test your road-crossing skills. For one, I don't think anyone's even aware that the AT crosses the highway at that spot. Also, because it's on the summit of a mountain ridge, cars in both directions, having made the slow climb up the ridge, are now looking forward to speeding all the way down. Nevertheless, having made it to the opposite side of the road in one piece, I looked down at the southbound trail. This section appeared to have more possibilities with regard to scenic views and so, I decided that I would return someday soon and do this section of the trail as well.

Bill Bryson recounts an amusing anecdote during his Pennsylvania AT hike. He traveled to a city called Palmerton, which is just off the trail, more famous for being a US government superfund site, which appears to be code for "ecologically super-devastated". Apparently an old zinc smelting facility, located at the base of the mountain has fucked up the area soil to such a horrible extent that the entire north-facing slope of the mountain is now defoliated, allowing nothing to grow there anymore. And considering how lushly forested the rest of the ridge is, I can see why Bryson would have believed such a place to be worth taking a gander at.

So Bryson appears to have walked onto the property of this zinc facility, and just as he was gazing up at the devastated mountain, a guard walked up to him and asked him what he thought he was doing, trespassing on the property. Bryson's reply of being out of zinc appeared to have infuriated him and after some more humorous back and forth, was just about to arrest him when Bryson was saved by the guard's supervisor appearing on the scene and directing him to the nearest AT trail-head.

Since I was intent upon retracing Bryson's steps, I thought we should drive the 14 miles to Palmerton as well and take a look at the famous treeless slopes of Blue Mountain. It turned out to be a gorgeous drive along PA Route 4024 West along the southern base of the ridge. The road passes through woods, farms, meadows and tiny villages while the dark green mass of Blue Mountain Ridge looms constantly to your left.

Palmerton is an average American town with a wide main street that is mostly devoid of humanity and lined with shops that, from the outside, offer very few hints as to the possibility of being occupied by humans on the inside.

As I drove down the main street, I was looking for this famous barren mountain slope Bryson speaks of, but I just couldn't see it. To the left I could see some strange shaped rock formations on top of a hill, which I pointed out to my wife.

"Look, rocks. Over on that hill", I said.

"Why are you showing me rocks?", she replied.

"I don't know, this could be the barren hillside Bryson was talking about so I don't want you to miss it", I said.

"Alright then, I see them, thank you", she said.

I was still skeptical that those rocks were what Bryson was talking about so I drove on some more. Finally, a large shabby evil-looking factory building came up to our right and a signpost indeed confirmed that it was a zinc recycling plant.

But there was no barren mountain slope. Bryson traveled here in 1996 or so. During the ensuing decade and a half, the mountain soil appears to have shedded all its zinc and tourist potential in favor of luscious green grass. It certainly wasn't wooded like the rest of the ridge, but it didn't look substantially toxic either. I have a feeling that the factory guard today would be much less averse to letting people gawk at his mountain than he had been in the 1990s. But anyways, I wasn't interested in finding out. Disappointed at all the greenery, I turned around and began the long drive home.

Coming up next on the "Following Bryson" tour, Centralia, PA.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Green Ribbon Trail 1

The first time I became aware of the existence of the mighty Wissahickon was during a massive rainstorm in the winter of 2003. It had snowed heavily a few days ago and it was now raining heavily and as I stood on my apartment balcony contemplating the overabundance of water in this country, I noticed something curious. A pool of water was slowly creeping towards me. Some indeterminate body of water that had previously occupied the space at the end of the parking lot was now advancing towards my building at the speed of, say, a frightened turtle. Holy fuck, I said to myself, what is this indeterminate body of water that threatens to engulf me and my rental property on this sad morning? It turned out that this water body was the Wissahickon Creek, in a state of flood due to the lethal combination of snow-melt and rainfall. It appeared that all this time, I had been dwelling on the banks of the famous Wissahickon Creek of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

The Wissahickon is legendary. It is lusciously pretty and an aquatic heavyweight in these parts. Before it enters the city of Philadelphia through the steep ravines of Fairmount Park, it meanders along the rural countryside of Montgomery county, forming a ribbon of green running through Philadelphia's northern suburbs. Poets have admired it, authors have written about it and old colonialists from the 1700s and post-revolutionaries from the 1800s have forged iron by harnessing its hydro power. Native Indians, impressed with the yellowish tinge of its water, named it "stream of yellowish color", or "Wissahickon". That was before they stopped urinating in it.

When we purchased a home in this area last year, we did so after being hugely impressed by its natural beauty. Also, the close proximity of an Indian grocery store. And, a beer distribution outlet. Plus, a Burger King. A mall. And an Indian restaurant. But mostly its natural beauty. And little did I know at that time that this place had an additional treat in store for me. A treat in the form of the Green Ribbon Trail.

The Green Ribbon Trail is a hiking path that follows the wooded banks of the Wissahickon Creek for twenty miles as it commutes through the suburbs, originating in the burrough of North Wales and forging right into the city of Philadelphia. Imagine, a trail with historic implications beginning virtually in our own backyard. Well, I don't really have to imagine it, do I?

After a year of being aware of this trail's existence, I finally decided to hike it this summer. I realized that I would have to do it in sections because of all the sore feet involved. I began my hike in the North Wales burrough park where the trail starts, armed with a water bottle and legs of steel.


The trail began quite innocuously, with a paved, tarred path, running beside a residential neighborhood. Notice the chimney in the distance.


The trail then turned left into a powerline right-of way. So far, so good. The trail was marked with green blazes throughout, so it was quite easy to follow.


To the right was the immense industrial complex of the Merck pharmaceutical company, to which the aforementioned chimney belonged. I could feel my arteries being drained of cholesterol and my prostate reducing in size, just by breathing in that lovely fresh Mercky air.

The trail then turned left and took its leave from the powerline right-of-way. It turned into a tunnel through the bushes. Things began to get interesting.



Here's where the trail actually came in contact with the Wissahickon creek for the very first time.


Soon, I came to my first wet stream crossing. The Green Ribbon Trail is liberally endowed with these. Either due to a lack of funds or a desire to keep the trail environmentally as less intrusive as possible, there are no pure pedestrian bridges on the trail. Whenever the Green Ribbon, for no rhyme or reason, decides to leap to the opposite bank of the creek, the hiker needs to either wade through the water, or as in this case, walk over some very unstable-looking stepping stones.


After crossing the creek, I paused to take a picture of some strange but pretty flowers that begged me to. I heard them sing. And so will you, if you stop texting and twittering for a moment.


I had barely overcome the trauma of my first wet stream crossing when, after crossing North Wales Road, another, wetter crossing presented itself to me. Here, not only was the stream wider, but the stones were also farther apart and partially submerged in water. Additionally, the creek appeared to be swift and I could also see faces of dead people on its bottom.


Then, I came across something strange. A random concrete bridge across the creek. No road, just a bridge. A bridge to nowhere. I crossed the bridge to see what nowhere looked like in order to describe it to my grandchildren.


Tiny blue wildflowers on the side of a wooden boardwalk on the trail. Somebody had thrown a plastic bottle onto them. You will die, son. And you'll come back as a tunafish in your next life, swallow a plastic bottle and die again. You'll keep dying through various plastic bottle-related mishaps and keep coming back. And I would feel sorry for you, were it not for the fact that you threw a plastic bottle into the woods.


Soon, I came to a crossroads. Apparently, the trail had decided to turn right. I followed it without questioning its motives. The trail knows best.


Here, I came across my first fellow hiker, a running woman. I wondered why she was running. But once the undergrowth began closing in on my feet and nipping at my knees, I began to run too.


After outrunning the shrubbery, I came to the third wet stream crossing on the trail. Pthooey. I did this one with my eyes closed.


I finally opened them after falling into the water for the third time.

Much of the Wissahickon's passage through Philadelphia city is through a deep narrow gorge. Here's where it gives you just a slight hint of what it will be doing to the landscape later on in its route.


As I was walking through a section of the path enclosed on all sides by high bushes, one of them suddenly groaned. It sounded like a cow that would really have liked to moo, but was just too tired.

"Groan", said the bush.

After I had descended back to mother earth, I addressed the situation. I peered into the bush.

"What?" I said.

"Groan", the bush replied.

"I'm sorry, I did not wish to disturb you, I shall be on my way soon", I said to the bush.

"Groan", said the bush, apparently satisfied with my explanation.

I fled. I did not wish to partake of groaning bushes.

But then, I crossed a sweet idyllic meadow and all my fears soon left me.


Here's where somebody had planted trees on the trail and encircled them with wire so they would be protected from the deer (I assume). I don't know any hikers who like to gnaw on trees.


Here is where my other great fear, that of snakes left me. I saw this small dead mouse lying on the ground. If a dead mouse could lie unclaimed on the trail, it meant that there were no mouse-eating predators around. No snakes. Alright, high five.


A great blue heron roosting in the creek flapped its wings mightily and flew away.


Here's where the heron was. Right there. It was right there, I tell ya.

Finally, I emerged from the wilderness onto Swedesford Road. An elderly couple in an SUV gave me a puzzled look as I emerged from the bushes and drove away.


After inspecting the Satan's maw-like entrance of the trail on the other side of Swedesford road and inspecting my watch, I decided to turn back for now and come back another day.


The groaning bush awaited me. I wanted to tackle it before nightfall.