What sounded like an acorn falling from one of the massive oaks behind us resounded through the night. I had an instinct to look over my shoulder.
“What was that?” asked Toadstool.
“Probably just something from the trees,” I said, yet I turned around and flipped on my headlamp to its first setting. And there in the black of night shown two piercing reflections. They blinked. Eyeshine from an animal, less than 50 yards from camp.
“Woah,” said Toadstool. “What’ that?”
“Where?” said Chipmunk.
I clicked over to the brightest setting on my headlamp and sure enough there were the eyes of a critter, just beyond camp. And a second set of eyes next to it.
“Over there, through the brush, those two glowing sets of eyes are animals,” I said, having Chipmunk turn on his flashlight in hopes the added illumination would provide evidence of what type of animal. “And they’re really close.”
The boys looked on in quiet amazement, devoid of visible fear at the prospect of an animal that close to camp. As a father with experience in the forests, I was at least a little nervous at which member of the critter community it was. A couple of bears? Unlikely. Raccoons? Too large. Coyotes? Possible. Deer most likely.
“Can we go closer to see?” asked Chipmunk, my 6-year-old son out for his first backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.
“No. You never approach a wild animal and certainly not at night when you don’t know what kind of animal it is,” I lectured.
To be safe, I yelled “Go on! Get out of here!” and we banged some pots and pans together; practical, and certainly fun for two young boys to make noise in the woods.
The animals walked up to the top of a small hill above camp, then slowly moved away from us with every clang of steel and aluminum. The boys soon tired of looking for eyes in the night and headed to their sleeping bags in the tent. I sat and kept watch over the fire, waiting for it to die down, my head on a swivel.
Animals don’t bother me. I look forward to seeing them on my treks, whether snakes or deer or bear or the occasional raccoon and opossum. Having my cubs along drives a cautious instinct.
However, I couldn’t think of a more eventful trail happening for Chipmunk’s first backpack than to see the eyeshine of critters on the edge of camp. He agreed it was pretty cool.
Nine Hours Earlier, Graffiti Rock
We left our home near Harrisburg around 10:30 a.m., dropped my car at Old Forge picnic area in Michaux State Forest, and I joined my wife and three kids to head farther south to pick up the Appalachian Trail at High Rock in northern Maryland.
Over the course of many day-hikes, my youngest son Chipmunk, had become enthusiastic about the Appalachian Trail. He started recreational running this year and earlier in the summer met ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek during his record-setting AT run. Chipmunk’s enthusiasm for the trail has only blossomed since then.
My older son, Toadstool — who two years ago went on his first backpacking trip — also looked forward to again hiking the Appalachian Trail. We agreed we would start in Maryland this year and section hike the entire Pennsylvania AT over the next several years.
So, my wife braved her phobias of winding mountain roads and her two oldest babies walking off into the wild, so that the three of us could begin our dream.
High Rock is a spectacular vista south of Pen-Mar, Md., at 1800 feet on Quirauk Mountain. And a beautiful place to start a northbound hike on the AT to cross into Pennsylvania. However, it’s apparent many visitors have no respect for nature.
Trash littered the ground. Spray-paint graffiti was everywhere, including the rocks, concrete steps, and trees. While we ate our lunch in the shade near the connector trail to the AT, a teenager took out a can of spray paint and added his name or tag or whatever to the long list of jackasses.
On the A.T.
It took us a couple of minutes to discern what was graffiti on the trees and what was blaze markings for the connector trail, but soon I realized there was a regularity to the blue splashes of paint. We followed it. Sure enough we ran into white blazes of the A.T. and its broad, foot-worn path.
The descent from High Rock on the A.T. is steep in places and winds itself through a boulder field. This was difficult for the boys, particularly because they were still adjusting to their packs, which were little more than overloaded (and slightly over-sized) day packs.
However, they performed well and boulder fields became a modest, level, snaking path through the woods. Chipmunk complained a little here and there, but overall he was handling the hike well. It didn’t take much to keep him happy.
I realized that I was a better hike leader this time, too. Two years ago, leading Toadstool on his first hike, I lost my patience a couple of times. This trip, I took it slower, allowing the boys to set the pace more often and take breaks when they needed to, even if I had to occasionally nudge them to go farther before a break.
It made for a more enjoyable experience. What helped is that we brought enough water capacity and planned our stops better.
A Balancing Act
By 3:30, we were closing in on Pen-Mar County Park. You could see High Rock Road through the trees, hear dogs from nearby homes, and the trail became wider. Clear signs you’re nearing some kind of destination.
The boys were tired and tried to drop their packs every time we stopped, only for me to urge them to pick them up.
“We’re really close to the park, guys,” I’d say. “We’re going to take a longer rest there to get water and have snacks.”
A groan would rise from Toadstool and Chipmunk, like steam from a tea kettle ready to burst. And then we’d walk on.
Little kids are tougher than most adults give them credit for. And you keep them going with praise and positivity. “You guys are doing a great job!” or “You’re already tougher than some adults I know!”
That attitude pushes a child to accomplish things. It makes them feel big, like they’re just another adult hiker on the trail. In many ways, they were, but they require more mental massage to push on.
And then there was Pen-Mar park on the right. A clearing with jungle gyms, swing sets, pavilions and restrooms. In the large vista-front pavilion, wedding guests were gathering for the reception. Children laughed and played. A mother and her cubs were swayed back and forth on the swings.
She smiled at us as we emerged from the woods and her children looked as if they’d just seen a bear.
“Are they hiking, mommy?” a little girl said, her mother confirming it with a nod.
They watched as we bounced over to a snake-like balance beam. Our packs suddenly felt weightless in our joy. I walked across first, laughing at myself and how silly I must’ve looked. Then the boys tried it, also laughing, giddy at finally reaching the park.
That beam was a good metaphor for the first three miles of the trail: a balancing act. We balanced the boys’ limited abilities with my experience. We balanced pace with rest. We balanced fun with serious trail business, like how to follow the easiest path of the trail through rocky sections.
(Backwoods Tip: look for the pulverized leaves, broken twigs and slight depressions in the ground to find an easy woodlands path.)
We rested for a good while at Pen-Mar. The boys needed it. I needed it, too. There’s effort in managing your pace as an adult. Slowing yourself — although it conserves energy — also causes you to linger in difficult rocky sections. That can be taxing on your joints. It requires an effort to keep from becoming careless and wrenching a knee or turning an ankle.
However, sitting there watching the boys play like every other child was a reminder this journey was worth the effort. Their joy is worth the effort. But joy earned through labor is not only that much sweeter, it’s also the best kind of joy because it comes through strength, and yes, even a little pain.
It’s more than just giddiness. I saw in their eyes, the same quiet, reflective joy that I experience paused on a mountain looking below and all around at a world teeming with wonder. I couldn’t buy that for them. I could only show them how to seek it.
[To be continued…]