My feud with the Black Forest Trail started with the burning of socks. It’s fitting that’s how it ended.
But, in order to burn socks, first they must be soaked through with water and placed by a fire. In January 2012, I first set foot on the BFT, and the trail didn’t like it, so it stomped back. The soles of my boots melted away in the first mile and it was like having sponges on my feet. Every puddle went right to my socks.
In drying my socks — everyone on that trip five years ago had to dry every item of gear — I burned holes in the socks and then promptly sewed them up. We did not finish the 42-mile BFT that year.
But I was determined enough to try it three more times.
Fast forward past the two other failed attempts to finish the trail (you can read the entire series here), to March of this year. My hiking partner Josh and I wanted to do an early spring hike. With just 12 miles left to complete the BFT, it was time to finish off this beast. Our friend Brian accompanied us this time, wanting to make up for his illness on the January trip.
It’s frustrating when you hike a trail, only to watch your hopes of conquest be clawed to shreds by extreme weather, injuries, and catastrophic gear failures that make the next 32 miles impossible.
The BFT has earned its categorization as one of Pennsylvania’s toughest trails for its sabotage, as well as for the punitive damage its topography inflicts on the body. Even “easy” sections are difficult for experienced hikers.
And despite all that (or because of failure’s bitterness), we went back for more punishment. Five years and three attempts later, we completed the Black Forest Trail.
Yet, that last 12 miles was rife with its own trials, including a nearly impassable creek. I’ve split up my photos into miniature albums, each with a narrative of that section on the western 12 miles of the trail.
Trail of the Crying Mountains
Maybe it was just the abundance of rain and snow over the past month, but setting out on the BFT (west from the southern trail head on Route 44) was as if the mountains were crying. Tears of joy? Melancholy tears streaking down the faces of the old men. Hiking along these spring streams was a treat. Waterfalls were plentiful until we reached the first major vistas for lunch.
The Halls of Laurel and Swamplandia
The western BFT has some of the greatest diversity of forest ecosystems I’ve seen in just 10 miles of trail. The scenery changed regularly, offering a broad experience. The rhododendron and laurel groves were impressive for early spring, and I can imagine they would be dark tunnels of sweet flowers, bees and hummingbirds in the summer. I’ll have to go back to see that.
Usually trails circumnavigate swamps, but BFT cut straight through this one. In summer, it would be a muddy field. Click on a photo to start a full-size slide show:
Old Bitch River
Up until this point, the BFT had been one of the easier sections. Certainly easier than the roller-coaster of 4,000-foot elevation gains/losses on the eastern half. But that’s the BFT. It lulls you into a sense of serenity, only to throw you down and stomp you. And just when you think it’s over, the Black Forest kicks you in the shins for good measure.
There are limited photographs from the next several miles of trail because it was such a pain in the ass. I concentrated on getting through it, which took as much mental strength as physical. We decided that Young Woman Creek is improperly named. It should be Old Bitch River.
And whomever laid out this section of the trail had a great laugh doing it. When you start out, it appears to be a pleasant walk along a creek. Wrong. It’s best described as rolling-hill switchbacks, with a river running through it, so that you have to cross 15 to 20 times in a 2-mile stretch. In summer, that’s no big deal. But just a few days after a week of rain, it means you’re going to get wet. Some portions were too dangerous to cross. Instead, we bushwacked through overgrown thickets and along 45-degree slopes to find appropriate crossings.
We rejoiced when we found our first safe crossing, balancing on a log and leaping the last several feet to dry ground. Twenty feet up the trail, it crossed the creek again. We played that game a couple more times until the creek became smaller and staying on the trail was faster. Suffer the waterlogged boots, embrace the misery. My boots were like cement weights. Every crossing sucked morale from your bones.
The words “Fuck you!” must have been uttered at least 20 or 30 times, aligning with the times you thought a creek crossing would be simple, only to step thigh-deep a hole, frigid water rushing everywhere you didn’t want it.
We were exhausted, cold and hungry when we finally rolled into camp. Here are photos from this section:
We had one strange event that night.
Relaxing around the fire, the stars came out, a good finale to a rough, wet day. At some point, I noticed what I thought was an airplane cruising low in the sky above the opposite ridge line.
Then I noticed it again going back the other way and stop. I watched it for several minutes before mentioning it to Josh and Brian. We deduced it wasn’t a plane, but another hiker’s headlamp walking on the ridge. Eventually, there were two lights moving through the forest. Over two hours, the lights grew closer and brighter. They moved north through the woods and we never saw them again.
We expected to have visitors. The way the lights zig-zagged down the mountain, it was clear they were using our campfire as a beacon to find their way and weren’t on a trail. At one point, we could hear them talking, and Josh said it sounded like a man and woman. We agreed it was likely a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend team who either started after dark and lost the trail, or got lost sometime during the day.
The next morning we found no indication they stayed the night. No cars were parked at the trailhead, nor any obvious tracks or camps. It’s a trail mystery. Who were they? What was their story? I would’ve liked to hear it.
Finish with a Limp
The next morning we set out to finish the BFT. Just 2 miles to say we hiked the entire trail.
We would finish with a limp. The previous day had taken its toll on my feet and Josh’s knee. Not much different from that first trip. The burned socks drying by the fire. Months later, I threw them out. As I said in the start, it was fitting the BFT was bookended by the smell of burning wool, socks with charred holes in them. In a way, that’s what the trail did to me, seared a hole in me.
The guys dropped their packs when we hit the road and hid them off to the side. I dropped some of my weight, but kept my pack with me. We came back to pick them up later. We cleared the next couple miles quickly and arrived at the place where the Di Shay trail diverged south and headed back toward the car. We stopped at the vista, marking where we left the BFT in January 2014. It was done.
Finishing the trail was a strange emotion. I was glad to be done with it, and I don’t want to go back anytime soon. It had the ability to drain any enthusiasm in an instant, to lacerate your feet, wrench your knees. So much biting, icy pain.
As soon as I walked away from that vista, something was missing. Driving later, it felt as if an old friend had died. Forty-two miles should take four days. It took more than five years of my life. I limped away from the Black Forest Trail. But it gave me so much more than it took. It brought me back to the forest, to those days as a teenager when a pack, a trail and a story to tell later was all I ever wanted or needed. This trail gave me balance, inflicted damage and pain, and reminded me that there’s so much more left in life to live.