So after a delightful week of work wherein my chair and derriere had merged into a chairrier and my face had spent an inordinate amount of time pressed close to this very screen, it was time to get out.
Friday night I walked from the hotel to Totaro’s Restaurant in Conshohocken for a a drink and a dinner that did not consist of one or more microwaved items from Trader Joe’s. I only mention this b/c I had a drink or two at the bar while eating fried rice balls in marinara sauce (surprisingly delicious), and somehow ended up talking to a really nice guy, a really nice bartender and some other really weirdly nice people. I have yet to have a negative interaction with anyone in Pennsylvania, excluding every interaction with my dry cleaner, who ends every sentence with a sharp “Good Bye!” that feels like a shotgun blast to the face. Aside from that guy, the people here continue to surprise me. Nicely.
This impression may have something to do with the bartender at Totaro’s. She was the first bartender EVER to notice that I took the straw and lime out of my first drink. The second one was limeless, strawless, and strong enough to stun a mule. I love this town.
I woke up on Saturday after one of those rare good nights of sleep when I actually sleep in, and suddenly realize why it’s probably a good that I have insomnia — I get really twitchy when I’m actually awake. Hard to sit still. Hard to tolerate things that move slowly. And people. I get…irritable. So I got out for a day hike.
Shawn Waxes Melancholy on the State of Old Media
Of course, it helps when you have some idea where the trails are. So first to a bookstore, which of course meant going back to The Second Largest Mall in America in King of Prussia, wherein resides the only regional bookstore. Well, for now. It’s a Borders, and going out of business like all or most of the chain. There is something horribly sad about walking through bookstore where the bookshelves are almost bare and the shelves themselves are for sale. It’s not like there’s another one around the corner. These are a dying breed, some of the last of their kind. Music stores are mostly gone, and video stores are falling away. Bookstores will soon follow into the digital abyss. You can almost hear the sound of the last printing press printing the last book spinning down, rattling slowly to a stop, forever.
The internet is an amazing place, and I’m sure that I’m better off with all the personalized music on my iPod, movies from Netflix, and books on my (future) Kindle, but the loss of bookstores feels personal. My children will never walk in these places. Never know what it likes to feel the weight of a book and wonder at all the sheer mass of it. Never smell the paper, or run their fingers along the binding to see if it will hold up over time. I feel old and archaic just thinking this way, but it’s not just the loss of books themselves that bothers me — it’s the homogenization of the whole experience. The Euro has taken away all the wonderful currencies of Europe, all the passport stamps, and soon the stink of unpasteurized cheese in French stores. Globalization has brought easy travel and endless franchised sameness to the western world. And the internet brings everything into its digital domain with the same bright and colorful sterility. Nothing to be smelled. Nothing to be tasted, held or shelved or dropped or shipped or proudly handed to a friend. Just things to stare at on pretty crystal screens like this one.
You get a feeling for my mindset. After getting the hell out of there with six heavily discounted science books, I still had no idea where to day hike. It turns out a good judge to what’s popular in a bookstore is what disappears first in a closeout sale. By the time I got to the store, the local travel books were gone, but there were plenty of science books left — not to mention an almost untouched diet section, which was strangely gratifying.
Shawn Buys Stuff
So of course I found Barnes & Noble, bought some really terrible local hiking books, stopped to pick up a daypack, and then finally and completely randomly headed toward the South Mountains and the Appalachian Trail. Which I probably knew I was going to the whole time. I’ve been itching to see the Trail since I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods — a strange but hysterical tail of his failed attempt to hike from Georgia to Main.
At one point he talks about all the bears on the trail and stories of their run-ins with campers thusly: “What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties–I daresay it would even give a merry toot–and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.” The man rarely swears, but when he does, he makes it count.
Shawn Finally Gets to the Fracking Trail
One of the things I love about Pennsylvania is how you see all these trees and farms and forests and it looks like nature and man are integrated in some kind of harmony. But if you look at pictures of the state during the steel boom or oil booms of the 1800s, when Pennsylvania was one of the richest places on earth, there was nary a tree to be found. Bald hills. Treeless rolling fields. When you hike through the woods of PA today, there’s a very good chance you’ll run into an old oil structure or mine equipment. The state’s currently forested look is testament to how nature can come back if you let her.
Which brings us to Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Like a lot of Pennsylvania, it’s named after an industry that used to be there, the trees they used to power the industry that used to be there, or the furnace they used to burn the trees to power the industry that used to be there. According the park recreation guide, the Furnace was founded in 1764 and helped produce iron and steel until 1895, a span of 131 years. On the cover of the pamphlet is a picture of a woman pointing up at the furnace and telling her friend, “See, Americans used to build things.” Her friend doesn’t look convinced.
Below a faded black-and-white picture of the steel mill in the same guide, the caption reads, “The men standing below the cliffs are standing in the rock quarry that is now Fuller Lake.” Which is also conveniently the trail head for the longer Pole Steeple hike. There is a much shorter route, which is just silly, so we’ll ignore that.
I’m on the Appalachian Trail!
The trail starts at the side of what I assume is a man-made beach alongside Fuller Lake, which today was lined with fisherman proudly casting lines in front of No Fishing signs. I can only assume there were exceptions to the No Fishing rule that I was not aware of. The lake drains at the east end, which is also where the Appalachian Trail picks up in the form of a well-kept gravel road. And so I stepped for the 1st time onto the famous AT, and it was…well, just a trail really. But it’s long. And that’s something.
I’m off the Appalachian Trail!
Now I should note that Bill Bryson, my girlfriend (two different people), and many others have told me — okay, Bryson told everyone, that slut — that the AT is not marked with anything like consistency. Other east coast trails are equally indifferent with regards to niceties like signs, blazes, kairns and other things that are displayed with profligate frequency on California trails. Come to think of it, the same seems to be true of PA roads, which I find strangely baffling at times. What’s up with exit signs for the next exit right in front of the current exit?
All of which is to say that I somehow missed the giant turnoff that marks the AT’s turn away from the wee stream connecting Fuller and Laurel lakes. Walked right past it. I even stopped at the sign right before the turnoff, but nowhere was it clear that the AT was going anywhere new or exciting. Apparently I was at the half-way point of the trail in its vast wanderings from Georgia to Maine, which would have been really cool to know at the time.
I should also note that I knew I had missed the trail pretty quickly — it’s not that long a hike — but figured I could just do the loop backward. So I run-walked along the gravel road until I hit Laural Lake and the short trail that lead up the hill to Pole Steeple. Blue blazes (marks painted 5-6′ up trees along the trail) marked the path all the way to the top and then, oddly right up and over the edge of the cliff. Not sure if someone got a little excited with the whole blaze thing, or if they took “getting blazed” a little too seriously, but I suggest stopping before the last blaze. The view of the valley and Laurel Lake is quite beautiful, and the fall would hurt.
I’m back on the Appalachian Trail!
From the back (south) side of the Pole Steeple rocks, a blue-blazed trail leads into the woods and back to the AT. Where it crosses, the AT is a wide, clearly marked trail marching into the woods with proud white blazes a-plenty. It was an easy 30 min walk back down to the where the AT joins the gravel road leading to Laural Lake. Just as I stepped onto the road, I noticed a giant sign facing back toward Laural Lake that indicated that this was the APPALACHIAN TRAIL and it goes from GEORGIA TO MAIN just in case you DIDN’T NOTICE. Coming the other way? No sign at all. Next to the same sign kiosk where I had stopped before was a nice fisherman who looked more than a little perplexed. “Isn’t this map backward?” he asked. Yes. Yes, it was.
Prehistoric Ice Cream, Blue Pens and Some Dithering
Apparently, as everyone knows, AT through-hikers stop at the general store in Pine Grove Furnace Park to have a half-gallon of ice cream and celebrate their accomplishment. Haven eaten more than that for dinner in college, often, it seemed to me that more celebration was in order, but since I’d gone just under a whopping 6 miles or so, I thought a nice ice cream bar would be nice. I bought it. I took it back to my care. I opened it. Did you know that ice cream could petrify? I didn’t. That officially marked the first time since a milkshake my mom bought me in Munich, Germany at McDonald’s when I was 12 years old that I could not eat an ice cream product. The German thing had something to do with a chemical-waste-like flavor. The second was just because I literally could not get my teeth through the rock-like ice cream brick object.
Not to be discouraged, I went to the visitor’s center to ask if there was a quick hike I could do before it got too dark, and a very nice woman suggested Sunset Rocks. “Great,” I said, “Where do I start?” At which point she kindly drew me directions on the previously referenced park guide / map in exactly the same blue color as streams already on the map. I thought about pointing this out, but it seemed rude, so I smiled and left. I checked the time. I checked the sun. I thought about driving to Gettysburg. Instead, I decided to drive up the access road to sunset rocks, bypassing the lower section, so that I could do the fun bit and get back before the woods got all spooky and weird on me. I didn’t have Petzel or flashlight, so wisdom was on my side. I am not a wuss. Really.
The AT Strikes Again
After a short drive to the end of Old Shippensburg Road, I parked and plunged into the only visible trail-like thing I could see. Within 20 feet I found the white-blazed AT, a beautiful stream, a great bridge crossing over said stream, a blue-blazed trail marking the path to Sunset Rocks and…and…one trail was missing. On the park map, the Sunset Rocks loop trail sort of bounces off the south side of the AT. One end of the loop was a two-mile round trip. The other six. It was getting gloomy — crepuscular as Jon Krakauer would say — and so the distance mattered.
I walked up the blue-blazed path for a few minutes, expecting to find that the other leg of the trail had just merged because of the map’s scale. Nope. Back to the intersection. Checked the guide book I had purchased in King of Prussia. No help there; the map was at such a scale that the AT was a vague gray line winding between darker gray topo lines. So I walked up the north branch of the AT back toward Fuller Lake where I had been hours earlier. The trail was quite beautiful but I have no idea how you would have followed it the rain or fog or snow. The blazes where there, as was the trail, but there was every opportunity to walk down some alluring trail-like path and vanish into the woods. Maybe you get a better feeling for it as you go.
In any case, I walked for a half-hour until the trail turned sharply downhill, and realized that this was also not the way to Sunset Rocks. So I turned and clicked a picture or two. The woods had taken on a Blaire Witch character, silent but for moaning trees, blowing leaves and the occasional woodpecker in the distance. I was suddenly reminded of how Henry David Thoreau had run back to Walden Pond like a scared little boy after wandering too far into the woods. It’s a great, enlivening feeling, but also humbling. I walked back to the trail intersection, looked around, and left. Sunset Rocks, it seems was not to be.
On the way back to Conshohocken, I stopped in Harrisburg for Vietnamese (God bless Yelp), and a quick trip down the riverfront. It’s a beautiful city that’s come on hard times, if the For Sale signs are any indication. The Susquehanna River is stunning in the evening light. It was a good way to end the day. But I wondered, why there aren’t any Vietnamese restaurants named, “Go Pho It?” Turns out there are. There’s even a dot-com. Damn it.