One step at a time. One rock at a time. Slow and steady on the creek crossings. One foot in front of the other, one mile at a time.
Set a goal, get there. Not making a goal by nightfall? Improvise and camp early.
These are the paces and norms of any backpacking trip. So when you introduce someone new, it’s special when they hit that stride like a natural.
In June, we set out for the next ~20 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Pine Grove Furnace State Park to Boiling Springs, Pa. And going with us was my brother-in-law Mike Magill and nephew Tyler. It was Tyler’s first time backpacking.
I’ve seen grown men who couldn’t take a mountain trail as well as Tyler did. I think I can count his total complaints on a single hand, and even then, I don’t think I’d use more than three fingers.
We left from Pine Grove Furnace on a Friday evening and made it up into Michaux State Forest before dark, strung up our hammocks at a campsite and settled in to relax around a campfire. It wasn’t long before we were nestled in our hammocks, staring at the stars through the tree tops.
The second day, we started with simple breakfasts and got on the trail. The first stop was a little side jaunt to Pole Steeple for a panoramic view of Pine Grove Furnace State Park below.
And then it was time to put your head down and make miles. Those are the days (planned 10 miles) when you expect to hear some complaints from newbies. But not Tyler. For a lot of the first day, he walked with his cousins, Chipmunk and Toadstool, and they talked about video games and other stuff. On the second day, we were a little more spread out with Mike and I taking turns at the front and back of the line and the boys walking their own paces. Being the most experienced hiker among the kids, Toadstool often took the lead and I had to call ahead to him: “Slow down and let the rest of us catch up!”
We took our time eating lunch at Tagg Run, knowing we had some of the toughest trail ahead of us, including a steep climb followed by the Rock Maze.
No matter how hot the day was, nor how the miles seemed to drag on in the humidity, Tyler just plugged along. Just be thankful it’s not raining yet, I thought. Although, with the June heat, a little rain shower probably would’ve felt nice on that Saturday afternoon. It never came. It was one of the few dry weekends we had in 2018.
After lunch, we hit the only major climb of the trip: more than 400 feet straight up Rocky Ridge in less than a half mile. It was a beast. From behind me, I could hear Mike guiding Tyler up the trail, helping him find the best footing. We rested at the top, but not for long. I looked at the map more closely and we were behind schedule.
And then came the Rock Maze. I love these features along the AT. It’s fun to snake in and out of the stone fissures, up and over boulders, under slabs and chock stones. I was worried about these parts of the trail because Tyler has eyesight that is far more challenged than my nearsightedness. He performed fine, even if he was cautious coming down off the rocks, sitting to descend a few places where the rest of us just hopped down.
When we reached Whiskey Springs Road, it was evident we should stop for the night. I originally estimated we could make it to Alec Kennedy Shelter before dark, but I had the miles wrong. It was more than 11 miles from Friday’s camp to Whiskey Springs. If we tried for the shelter (another 2 miles), we’d be walking in the dark.
Everyone was slow and tired, the day was waning, and we were hungry. So we strung up the hammocks, and made dinner. Tyler’s only major complaint of the trail was about the mosquitoes that night biting him. But that was fixed with some bug spray. Tyler also was introduced to the real threat of the trail: ticks. A big dog tick had found the fresh trail meat and latched onto Tyler’s eyebrow. Mike plucked it off and gave Tyler a DEET bath.
I’d say Tyler earned the trail name “Tick Bait.”
The next day, we had 6 miles to hike into Boiling Springs. It seemed never-ending, punctuated by the climb up to Midpoint Knob. And that’s when the rain began. We started moving down the mountain as fast as we could. The trees keeping the rain off us, but when we hit the treeline, we had no choice but to get the rain gear out.
The sky opened up. Torrents rained down as we stepped out into the open farmland. Soon we were soaked. The ponchos and jackets helped a little, but our boots waterlogged quick. In hindsight, it was probably the most enjoyable 2 miles I’ve hiked in a while.
As we slogged through the field, I let out a whooping, ridiculous laugh. Tick Bait and Chipmunk, turned and looked at me like I was insane. “What are you laughing about?!” they asked incredulously. Not a drop of rain all trip, but we get buckets in the last hour. Literally, a flood of irony. With the car just on the other side of the fields, we had no choice but to push through.
We made a game of catching the hiker in front of us, but we never did. Over the Yellow Breeches Creek, we’re there. At the parking area, a woman had a little tent set up and was offering drinks, cookies, candy bars and chips to hikers. She was waiting for her daughter, who was thru-hiking the AT. She bubbled up when she saw the boys with their packs, drenched and hoofing it with the rest of us.
We were all grateful for the snack as we quickly dumped our gear in the truck. A round of high-fives went around our group and a hearty congratulations to everyone.
For me, Tyler’s resolve was a symbolic answer to a prayer I said nearly 14 years ago. In 2005, Tyler was born prematurely and spent months in Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The world stood still with fear in those days. I asked whatever powers-may-be to take care of him.
I don’t believe in answered prayers. But today, Tyler is a smart, strong teenager, initiated in trail misery, and a lot tougher than some adults. I’m not surprised. He’s also the kid who comes over to Uncle Jim and slugs me in the arm, or needles me with smart-ass comments. Until I grab him and toss him into a pool, to equal amounts of laughter from he and I.
[If you want to finance neonatal medical research and help babies born prematurely to grow up strong like Tick Bait, please donate to March of Dimes by clicking here.]
No, Tyler is strong. Given the chance for a lifetime experience, he said yes. He took the ticks, blisters, mosquitoes and toe-stubbing, knee-jarring rocks like a man. He came out on top.
And he’s been begging to hit the trail again for months. Uncle Himmy is always game, Tick Bait.