The Littlest Backpacker: Chipmunk’s Tale, The Finale

September, 2016 ~ I’ve taken too long to publish this second part to my youngest son’s first backpacking trip. It’s more than a year since we finished that trip, and before I tell the story of our next 10 miles on Pennsylvania’s section of the AT, I should finish this story. I feel bad about this delay, but life happens and unfortunately this blog had to take a back seat for a while.

August, 2015 ~ Previously in Chipmunk’s Tale: My sons — Toadstool and Chipmunk, who is on his first backpack — and I left High Rock along the Appalachian Trail in Md. to walk north into Pennsylvania and begin a grand journey to section hike the Keystone State, and beyond. After more than 3 hours hiking, we rested at Pen-Mar County Park before moving on.

Leaving Pen-Mar, Crossing the Line

PenMarVistaWe shouldered our packs. I had expected the boys to want to linger longer in the park, but that wasn’t the case. They were as eager to move on as I was. Our campsite for the night was less than a half mile away and it would be good to get there and drop our packs for the night.

Back on the trail.

As we walked out of the park, I had the opportunity to show the boys how to identify raspberry, jewel weed and poison ivy plants along the path. And then we came to the railroad tracks, crossed quickly and back down into the wood line.

And there it is: The Line. Named for the surveyors who standardized the border between Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware in the 1760s, the Mason-Dixon Line has been a symbolic threshold for hundreds of years. For escaping slaves, it was the first tangible sign that they had a chance at freedom. Francis Scott Key, writer of the “Star Spangled Banner,” crossed it so he could legally free his slave in Adams County.

For my sons and I, Mason-Dixon was a symbol that our grand Appalachian Trail journey was real.

Chipmunk and Toadstool crossing their first state line along the AT.
Chipmunk and Toadstool crossing their first state line along the AT.

For an adult, walking from one state to another across an imaginary line no wider than a foot, might seem anticlimactic. But it was a big deal for Chipmunk, who has been asking me about walking from one state to another for months now. A state — and what it takes to walk from one to another across hundreds of miles — is a difficult concept for a child. So I had to explain it many times and still never really impressed upon Chipmunk the endurance, resolve, and athleticism necessary to walk from one to another.

Now, after half a day of strenuous walking with several pounds of gear on his back, sweat pouring down his brow and a stomach begging for a large meal, Chipmunk understood the price of walking to another state.

Making Camp and a New Day

Home for the evening.
Home for the evening.

Soon we were at camp, and setting up our home for the evening. No biggie for the boys. They’ve helped me set up tents a million times. They explored the immediate surroundings and together we built a fire. I showed them how to hang a bear bag and how to boil water over coals from the fire. And I let them carve sticks with their pocket knives, although, I soon directed the boys to close and pocket them after a few too many safety transgressions.

However, there are other ways to amuse yourself in camp and soon we were devouring large bags of Mountain House chili mac. Which the boys loved so much, they begged their mother for chili with macaroni the next time we made it at home.

The Great Tin-Man Battle of the AT. It was a stalemate...
The Great Tin-Man Battle of the AT. It was a stalemate…

We sat up around the fire talking but the boys started asking to go to bed well before I was ever ready. So they shuffled off to the warmth of their sleeping bags, while I tended the fire and kept watch over the night, looking keenly into the trees for signs of wildlife. The embers of the fire died slowly and, at some point, even too slow for me.

As I snuffed the fire, yawned and gave one more check around camp for things that might attract animals, I reflected on how perfect the previous day had been. What would tomorrow bring? Would the boys endure over the next 7 miles?

Into Penn’s Woods

Toadstool and Chipmunk ready to hit he trail.
Toadstool and Chipmunk ready to hit the trail.

We ate oatmeal and packed our bags, even plus a few ounces of trash that others had left around the fire ring before us. It was time to move and I was already happy with the efficiency of the boys getting ready in a reasonable time frame.

The hike out of the glen below Pen Mar was fairly strenuous, but a good way to warm up for the day of climbs that we had ahead of us. And toward the top of the hill, just before the road, we found a few makeshift wood stools under an umbrella of grapevines where we snacked on the tart grapes. I could have stayed in that place forever, lounging under the grapevines, growing fat on their fruit, laughing, the beard growing long and white.

Long-gone were the minor complaints of the previous day. The boys toughed it out as we hiked up over the ridge, deeper into Pennsylvania and making our way toward our car.

I tried to stop as often as possible to give the boys rest, but we had 7 miles to conquer and we had to keep moving. There isn’t a lot of scenery between Pen Mar and Old Forge, but there was plenty of time in the trees. And plenty of mosquitoes to ward off with regular application of bug repellent.

The Home Stretch

Found this gargantuan dead beetle near a spring along the trail.
Found this gargantuan dead beetle near a spring along the trail.

It wasn’t long before we were hitting roads, including the Route 16 crossing, which should probably include a raised footbridge above the highway because it was a little like a game of Frogger to get across without being squished by a truck or car. As we edged closer, the boys started to understand the frustration of inexact trail banter such as, “oh, it’s about a mile, mile-and-a-1/2” or “I think it’s just over the next ridge.” I probably said those too often when they asked where’s the car or where’s the shelter we’re going to stop at.

For most of the trip, we had casual conversations with people we met. A group of day hikers was impressed the boys were backpacking 10 miles, but for the most part, other long-distance hikers were making tracks and paid us little attention.

Some very colorful fungus on a log.
Some very colorful fungus on a log.

Two women, however, stopped to speak with us and offered the boys some chocolate and trail mix. I’m sorry now, I didn’t get a photo with them. They were nice ladies.

[What follows after this point includes more than a year’s perspective and other adventures together, but I’ve tried to keep it as close to the thoughts I had at the time.]

When we stopped to eat the rest of our food at the second to last shelter before Old Forge, I began to see the exhaustion in the boys faces. They were ready to be done. At some point, all seekers want the journey to be over, at least for a prolonged rest. Toadstool and Chipmunk were no different. I didn’t blame them, especially since, the high points of our trip had come and gone, and now it was just time to go home.

Crossing one of our last creeks.

After our shelter lunch, we truly were in the home stretch. Even 9-year-olds and 6-year-olds know the difference between uphill and downhill. And  once we were taking a constant downhill, I knew it wouldn’t be long now. To their credit, the boys’ spirits were high despite sore feet and shoulders, maybe a few bug bites. But as we edged closer to Old Forge and the car, I had to start thinking about Chipmunk; this was his trip and it would only be right if he was able to lead us to the finish line. But Toadstool, now on his second backpacking trip, was surging into a young trail professional.

“Toadstool, hold up,” I said. He looked at me weird, and Chipmunk started to stop, too.

The finish line in sight with Chipmunk leading.

“Chipmunk, you can lead for a while,” I said. OK, he chirped and strode on along the soft trail now meandering along flat ground. I knew the car was just around the bend.

“Why’d we stop?” Toadstool asked.

“This is his first trip and the car is just up ahead. I want him to lead us to the finish.”

Toadstool understood and hung back with me. Up ahead, I could see the Old Forge pump house and the blazed trees. I shouted up ahead to Chipmunk to stop for a minute.

“So which way do we go?” I asked.

“Right,” he said, pointing to the blazes on the tree and the trail leading into the brush.

“Well, you’re right, the tail goes that way, but do you see anything else around here?”

He looked around, looked directly at our car about 30 yards away, across the field and back at me and said, “No.”

I chuckled, and said look again over there. He finally recognized our car and the picnic grounds where we had left it. He smiled and laughed and realized we were done and was happy. Me, I wanted to point him north and step in behind him and keep walking.  Another time

I was content that my son just wanted to keep walking off into the woods.

10 miles down, 223 miles left in Pa., 38 left in Md., and the rest of the AT awaits.

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