The Keystone Mission (+video)

On the map. AT between Caledonia and Pine Grove Furnace state parks.

In 2017, I did something I haven’t done in about 22 years: went backpacking with my father.

He joined my sons and I on our continuing mission to section hike Pennsylvania’s chapter of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a journey we started four years ago when the boys and I walked across the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania and continued on in subsequent years.

Last year, we hiked the 20 miles between Caledonia State Park and Pine Grove Furnace State Park. In this section of the trail, you’re not going to get expansive vistas, gorges and other such scenery, but that doesn’t mean it was any less interesting.

Enjoying the three days with my sons and father, just walking the trail, being lost in the quiet of the forest and meeting some new people was interesting enough. The first big hill out of Caldedonia was certainly an eye-opener for everyone. I hike through the winter, so I took the lead. The boys and my father had to adjust, but by the top, they were certainly warmed up.

Starting out on the AT in Caledonia State Park.

Nor was it any less of an adventure.

On our second day, we had fallen into a pattern of grouped hiking. My father was walking ahead with my younger son, Chipmunk, following close behind. Chipmunk carried the least gear in his pack, so most of the time he was stepping out a quick pace. Toadstool (my oldest) was a bit slower as the day wore on. For the first time, he was carrying a regular pack and was shouldering more weight than in years past by carrying most of the tent. So, I hung back to walk with him, to chat and try to keep his mind off the increased weight. Certainly, that can get into your head and drag you down, if you let it.

My father disappeared around a bend about 30 yards in front of us and let out a yelp, “WOOOOAAAA-EEE!”

I chuckled and urged Toadstool to run and catch up to his grandfather. “Go! Go! Go!” I said, knowing exactly what was in front of us. “What is it? What’s wrong?” asked Toadstool. “You’ll see,” I said, laughing the words out.

We closed the distance on a jog, came around the bend and there was my father stopped in the trail. In front of him and Chipmunk, a long, thick snake was winding back and forth along the trail.

“I nearly stepped on him,” my father said, pointing at the timber rattlesnake about 10 feet in front of us. It was the first time the boys had seen a rattlesnake, and only the second time I’d seen one on a trail in 18 years. Soon, a small traffic jam formed. We advised a southbound hiker that she should be careful. Behind us, a couple of other hikers soon caught up, including a thru-hiker who was trying to make time on this section.

We waited for a while, but the snake could’ve cared less that we were there. Eventually, he moved off to the side of the trail for the thru-hiker to risk passing on the right. Next, I shepherded the boys through and we continued on our way. The other hikers thought about doing the same and then they were stuck because the snake came back onto the trail.

Taking photos at the midpoint pole.

Many people are fearful of rattlesnakes, but if you’re careful and respectful, there’s no concern. Keep your distance, don’t screw around with it and then go your separate ways. Live and let live.

There will always be a special place in my heart for our “Keystone Mission,” for helping my sons pursue a starry-eyed vision they had years ago to walk the whole of the AT in Pennsylvania. And I know there will always be a special place in my father’s heart for returning to visions I had when I was a new hiker. It was one 30-miler in the mid 1990s when I remember saying, “Let’s hike the whole trail.”

I think back to those days, when I was about the same age as my sons. Not just to the hikes — sometimes sprung on us kids with little notice for a humid day’s walk to stand under a waterfall — but also to the stories we heard around camp fires about adventures from my father’s youth. It seemed as he and his cousins were always sneaking away to go fishing, scale a mountain, encounter rattlesnakes, or rescuing a friend from a cliff after a sleepwalking incident.

A fondness in the heart for adventures and misadventures. I hope I’m giving that gift to my children so their life will be as full as mine has been.

Here are some more photos from our hike:


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