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.


Bud-Wiser said...

hey ..what happened to the 'thrash thief',,,??any updates??;-)!!

gawker said...

Since my trash receptacle is safe, it seems he was apprehended and put behind bars.

Swathi Sambhani aka Chimera said...

coincidences galore!
Someone recently gifted me this book and since then 'am hooked, though I do not think I can hike the AT without a partner.
Any takers for being my Katz???
Can't wait to hear your account of Centralia (sounded erie to me)

Anonymous said...

The question is, was Bryson following you??

- Anand

gawker said...

Chimera : You should definitely do it. The PA section of the AT is relatively well-stocked with fellow hikers so you'll have a number of Katzes with you.

Anand : I don't think so. Unless he's been tearing holes in the space-time continuum while hiking.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Dude, tell you what, choose some other Bryson book to live through.
"Notes from a small island" would be my choice. It has scones and clotted cream. And Cornish pasties!


gawker said...

JAP : Just reading "scones and clotted cream" makes me feel twenty pounds heavier.

Vetirmagal said...

For my Indian mind, your blog is more interesting than Bill Bryson's book.

Thanks. :-)