Third time’s a charm, Part 5

By Jim T. Ryan, Hooligan-in-Chief

Previously: Josh Stadler and I found out that Pennsylvania’s Black Forest Trail, adjacent to the lower part of the Pine Creek Gorge near Slate Run, is a 42-mile giant copperhead that bites with no mercy and eats the ill-prepared hiker for breakfast. For the second time in six months, we had to cut short our trek to complete the trail after knee injuries prevented us from hiking further. 

Josh surveys Slate Run, Day 2.
Long-tailed salamander saved from the fire ring.

The camp at mile 0 on the BFT is a nice one with two sites and enough room to accommodate a couple parties. But everywhere are downed trees from previous storms.

Memorial plaque at camp 2, BFT Day 2.

However, there’s a serenity to the place. The calm babbling brook that is Slate Run as it slams into a rock face of the mountain above and pools at the base before hanging a right turn and proceeding on to meet up with Pine Creek about a mile down stream.

My view as I nodded off in my hammock.

Josh and I spent a fair amount of time taking photographs of the area for posterity while we set up camp and prepared for what would be our last night on the BFT in June.

We also talked about how we might finish it at a later date. After kicking our asses two times, we decided it would be better to finish the second half of the trail first, so that we know what we’re getting ourselves into if we decide to attempt the entire thing at a later date.

Dinner was lazy and warm, our fire comforting and the hammocks gave our knees the needed rest they deserved. We just lounged. The night brought more cold and I found myself longing for a ski cap again. It was the only thing on this trip that kept me from sleeping through the night. That and stoking the fire somewhere around 2 p.m. to increase the warmth in our small camping area. It made a huge difference. The night enveloped us life a cold shroud.

 Mistakes and long walks

Josh crosses Slate Run (for the second time), Day 3.

Waking on Day 3 was casual, but we didn’t linger too long at camp. We still had a short walk to the village of Slate Run and then, as best as we could tell, we had close to 30 miles of road walking before making it back to the car. No need to spend too much time in camp. We packed up and headed out after a leisurely breakfast.

We found the trail and started walking until it curled back to Slate Run about 200 feet from camp. Does the trail cross the run before heading into town? Part of us said, Why, yes, yes it does, even though a closer inspection of the map (on the other side) said, no.

It was a horrible mistake. Even though the run was low in June, there was no way to keep your boots dry, even if they were waterproof. I made it across mostly dry. A quick map check and we realized our mistake. Back across the run we went. But this time, I wobbled, stepped in a hole and water ran up over my ankles and into my boots. My only dry socks suddenly became sponges.On the other side we had a laugh about it and I rang out my socks before heading up to the nearby road and continuing our hike down into the village of Slate Run.

View of the mountains from Pine Creek bridge at Slate Run.

 Crossing Pine Creek offered good views of the mountains, but it also signaled the end of the Black Forest Trail and the beginning of some long road walking. But first, we needed to take a rest and figure out how we were going to make this work. Walking 30 miles on a road may be slightly easier than 30 miles on the trail, but it would still take you two days, especially if one of you has a bum knee.

Josh takes in the scenery from the bridge.

We dropped our packs at the convenience store on the other side of the bridge. I rang out my socks again, put on my flip-flops and we bought some snacks while we talked over our options. Walking 30 miles was the last resort. Getting a store patron with a kind soul to shuttle us even part of the way back to our car was the first option.

We figured light conversation with the most curious souls would eventually lead to a ride. We were wrong. Not one of them offered us a ride. Not one, even if we engaged them in a 10-minute conversation. That was depressing.

Josh lounges on the store bench
My socks “drying” in the sun.

“This isn’t working,” Josh said.

“Yeah, I know. And we’ve been here nearly 45 minutes,” I said. “I think we should start walking and hope someone will pick us up. At least we’ll be that much closer to the car. How’s the knee?”

“OK. I don’t want to walk on the road, but I don’t think we have an option,” he said.

So we packed up our soggy socks and squared away our packs. In no time, we were on the road again. I tried to keep Willy Nelson’s “On the Road Again” in my head. I even started singing a bit. Josh laughed, but watching him hobble told me the song — nor the ibuprofen — was helping much with his knee. I checked on him occasionally.

Off we went along the road, making as good of pace as we could under the circumstances. The blisters on my feet were aggravated by the soggy socks, but walking long distances in flip-flops is not something I wanted to do. One foot in front of the other…

“Car…” I would say occasionally. We’d wave simultaneously and look over our shoulder to see if the car or truck was slowing down. In most cases, they didn’t. Selfish bastards, I thought to myself. But realistically, it’s hard to fault someone for not wanting to offer a ride to two disheveled strangers.

After a while — maybe a mile on the road — I noticed some cars would slow down, give us a look over and then speed away. I wanted to give those people the middle finger every time it happened. How dare you get our hopes up, only to dash them cruelly like that! Bastards, I thought.

Josh does his best to lead us down the road.

One foot in front of the other…check on Josh…he’s good, toughing it out, in pain, but good…

The long road ahead, Day 3, Slate Run, Pa.

And then there was confirmation of how far we had to go yet. A road mileage sign. Depressing. Seven miles to Cammal, 16 miles to Waterville. That was the waypoint we needed. Waterville. Our car was up the mountain from there, but how far we didn’t actually know. But we had to at least get to Waterville. There was a better chance of asking someone for a ride to the car if we could get there. Sixteen miles is a long day by any standard, but if that’s what we had to do, then so be it.

One foot in front of the other…check on Josh…Wait, why is he stopping? Why is he sitting down? Oh, crap. He’s calling it quits…

“What’s up, buddy?” I asked.

“Taking a little rest. My knee is killing me. Plus, I thought I’d make myself look injured, maybe we’ll get a sympathy ride,” he said.

Now why didn’t I think of that!? I thought.

“Good idea. Look pathetic,” I said.

I’ve never doubted Josh’s intelligence. And he proved himself with that little move. However, we sat in the same spot along the road for maybe 20 or 30 minutes before it became painfully obvious no one was going to pick us up, even if Josh did have a wrap around his injured knee and hobbled and limped as cars approached us. No sympathy at all from these people! Where’s the compassion and empathy? Hell, no one even beeped the horn or waived at us.

We started walking again. Hobble, wince and wave. The cars slow, pull up next to us and speed off. What the hell is wrong with these people? And then I noticed something. Strapped to the back of Josh’s pack was a sheath knife, clearly visible to anyone that slowed down as they approached us. By hunting, camping, regular outdoorsman standards, it was a normal size knife. But to the wary driver thinking of picking up two strangers for his or her good-deed-of-the-day, it was a risk they probably didn’t want to take. Again, don’t really blame them.

View of the knob (left) and ridge leading to the quarry on the mtn., start of BFT. To the left of that in the distance is an
angular ridge. That’s the “knife’s edge” on BFT. Center is Pine Creek and Slate Run bridge, looking northwest.  

“Hey, Josh, every one of these people that slows down, doesn’t speed off until they get to you,” I said. “I think I know why. Your knife is strapped to your pack and in plain sight.”

“So what?” Josh said. “That’s nothing to worry about.”

“I know, man. But they don’t know us.”

So I stopped Josh, unstrapped his knife and tucked it neatly into a side pouch of his pack.

And we’re walking again…one foot in front of the other…take in the scenery…check on Josh…look over the shoulder…try to flag a pickup truck…no luck… And so the cycle continued…

The Reluctant Samaritan

The road descended nearly level with Pine Creek, but it was a long way off. We passed a driveway and started around a slight bend. A red pickup truck was pulling out behind us from the road and Josh stopped toughing it out. I walked slow.

He pulled up alongside us, slowed and rolled down the passenger window. He was an aging man with white, thinning hair. Maybe mid 60s in age.

“Where you headed?” he said in this high-pitch, cranky old man voice. I contained the laughter that wanted to erupt.

“Waterville,” Josh said.

First ride of the day. A mountain knob in the distance.

“OK, I’ll take you. Get in,” the old man said. However, something in his voice — maybe it was the way it dropped and became serious — told me we were clearly putting him out of his way.

So we threw our bags in the back of the truck and climbed in. Soon, we were again speeding along at more than 40 miles an hour, wind whipping every hair on your body, the sun dabbing through trees. Cammal sped by in no time. Soon we were crossing Pine Creek. Wouldn’t be long now. The truck slowed on an incline and there we were back at the road we had come in on.

The old man opened the window to the cab. “Which way you going? Left to Waterville or right up the mountain?”

“Right,” I said.

“Get the hell out,” the old man said.

If you didn’t want to pick us up, you didn’t have to, I thought. But there’s no need to be a dick about it.

I said thanks and jumped over the side of the truck. Josh jumped out. We grabbed our bags and at the next chance he could, the old man gunned the engine and the truck sped out into the intersection, the trailer with the lawn mower skidded behind him. I wanted it to flip and drag the truck with it. I didn’t wish the old jerk harm, but wouldn’t have minded seeing his truck get a few dents.

Josh and I had a chuckle over how unpleasant the guy was. His demeanor had changed immensely from the time he picked us up. It didn’t matter now. That car did in 20 minutes what would’ve taken all day for Josh and I on foot.

Once more up the mountain, my friend

But now we had the tough part. Maybe 10 miles or more up hill on a road populated by cranky backwoods locals, motorcycle clubs out for a Sunday drive and worst of all: 18-wheel diesel trucks hauling lumber down the mountain, hauling water and equipment up the mountain to the natural gas drill sites strewn throughout northern Pennsylvania.

I could handle the backwoods locals and motorcycle clubs. Good people when you get to know them. But I wouldn’t trust those trucks any farther than I can spit… and that’s too close to an unmarked truck under contract from Halliburton or some other massive company where the trucker is instructed not to stop for anything.

Last winter, every truck hauling goods or men to drill sites were unmarked other than their license plates and Department of Transportation numbers. No company names, colors or anything else. Hell, they sped by so fast I couldn’t see if there were fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. Those guys drove on Pennsylvania roads the way you expect a Humvee to jet across open desert in Iraq. Get the hell out of the danger zone as fast as you can. Don’t stop for anything.

Relaxing in the truck bed of our second ride up the mountain to Josh’s car.

And we had to walk up the mountain, with almost no shoulder on the road. We started out and literally walked the white line. I ignored the urge to take out a camera and snap a photo at that moment. Motorcycles and a few trucks sped by us. The hog-riders gave us wide berth and waived as they went by. The trucks moved over, but not enough for my comfort.

We’d only walked for 10 minutes, maybe got a 1/4 of a mile up the hill, when a pickup truck slowed next to us, pulled in front and stopped 15 feet away. We ran as fast as we could.

It was a young kid, maybe 19 or 20, wearing black rimmed plastic shades, the kind Tom Cruise wore in Risky Business. He agreed to take us up the mountain. And so, we snagged our second ride of the day. Sit back and relax…

That kid drove fast up the mountain and before we knew it, we were at the T-junction. The kid opened the cab window. “Which way?” he asked, but he already had turned on the left blinker.

Walkin’ the last road stretch to the car.

“Right,” I said. The kid winced, turned on the right blinker and sped off down the road with us in tow. After a while, I could tell he was getting restless. He had intended to go left and we were putting him out. But he was nice about it and took us as far as he could before pulling off and letting us out. We thanked him and he turned back the other direction. Soon, his pickup was gone and we were again alone with the quiet of the forest.

We figured we couldn’t be more than a mile from the car. As it happened it was probably a little farther. The sun was hot, the road was scorching and it was cooking my feet in my soggy boots as we hiked along the road.

My head was cooking too. I sucked down as much water as I could. Josh was cutting a strong pace to the car. He wanted off the road.

“Just over the next hill,” I said. And then it wasn’t there.

“Next hill, I can feel it,” I said. I said it every time we started walking up, trying to keep our spirits high. By the third hill, I think Josh wanted to turn around and smack me. I wanted to smack myself for being a terminally ill optimist.

But after about five hills, finally Josh’s Nissan Xterra cam into view. We wasted no time throwing our gear into the rear hatch and cranking up the air conditioning as high as it would go. We made it after all. Off we sped back down the mountain, talking over our missteps and blunders along the trail this time. The hangovers, forgetting the map, the backtracking.

“World famous” Waterville Tavern Fries. 

 But in the background of my thoughts just two things were persistent: cold beer and a massive, sloppy burger with a heaping mound of smothered French fries at the Waterville Tavern. Soon it was upon us and we settled in, making jokes with the waitress and sucking down beer like it was the last one on the planet.

CHEERS!

Epilogue

It’s been more than six months since Josh and my trip. In fact, I’ve been on two other treks since then: a weekender with a writer friend to finish the West Rim Trail along Pine Creek Gorge’s northern stretch, and just last week to the Old Logger’s Path in Lycoming County for our annual winter trip.

Both great excuses to take some time off work and lose myself in the forests.

But every time I return to our semi-wilderness here in Pennsylvania, the Black Forest Trail gnaws at the twisted matter of my brain. At this point, it’s an obsession. Man against wild. A matter of pride that we finish it, and then go back again to tackle the entire thing.

I can’t ever really get the BFT clear of me. Ever now and then, I take out the map and guide book and go over details in my brain. One drunken night, I texted Josh to say we should get tattoos when we finish the BFT. He laughed, although he seemed agreeable to the prospect.

You never really get all the dust and rocks and thorns of the trail out of your blood. But if you’ve been beaten by the trail, the sharp edges grind away at your bones and cut into your mind at random points in the day. That’s when I find myself looking at my watch and out the window, yearning to pull off my tie and pull on a heavy pack.

Lace the boots super-tight over scratchy wool socks and just kick off…One foot in front of the other…one foot in front of the other…until the bars melt away on your cell phone, you can taste the sweet clean air and the heart warms like bath water filling it. And then everything is fine…One foot in front of the other…

Hemlock Mountain, Black Forest Trail, June 2012.

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