Treachery and Beauty: Life Lessons from Hiking in Pennsylvania
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Pennsylvania rocks. It rocks in the figurative sense of being super great, and it rocks in the sense that there are literal stones, boulders, and glacial erratics strewn about the landscape as if a giant rock-eating dragon flew over the state chewing with its mouth open. The rocky reality of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania has inspired hikers to dub the section “the Hardest Part of the Trail,” “Rocksylvania,” “Where Boots Go to Die,” and “Where I Had My Psychological Breakdown before the Halfway Point.”
I have always loved hiking the trail in Pennsylvania. I am proud that my birthplace is known to be more treacherous than beautiful. I feel like it is a reflection on who we are as people, us Pennsylvanians. I’ve also never been that bothered by the rocks when I’ve done overnight backpacking trips. Jumping from boulder to boulder makes me feel like a ninja princess, and all I have ever wanted is to feel like a ninja princess. Last weekend, however, my feelings changed ever so slightly. I took a 30-mile solo trip along the trail, and 6 miles into my journey, the soles of both my boots fell off.
Perhaps it was a long time coming. I had these boots for a long time. I didn’t take particularly good care of them. They were from a French big box store. They had seen their fair share of Pennsylvania’s rocks, and it was finally time for the rocks to do what they were put on this Earth to do: disintegrate the soles of my boots until I was forced to change into my campsite shoes.
You guys. I did 22 miles over the endless fields of rocks in off-brand Tom’s.
Needless to say, my feet are a bloody mess and they will probably never be the same. I made it out alive, though, and here on the other side I have a few life lessons to share with you. Life lessons bestowed upon me by the rocks of Pennsylvania.
1. The destination always sounds closer than it actually is
The Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania follows a ridge that is dotted with villages and crisscrossed by highways. It’s not particularly wild in the sense that you will not feel removed from human impact on the landscape. You will get to experience the cultural, industrial, and environmental heritage of Pennsylvania as you climb over boulders and trip over rocks. You will also have the opportunity to use the highways that intersect the trail as landmarks as you walk. Knowing your campsite is only 2 miles past Route 183 feels great when you get to Route 183. However, much like life, it is often harder than you expect to reach your goals, and white noise along your path will make you think you are closer than you actually are. You will start to hear the humming of cars mother fucking miles before you are anywhere near the highway. The taunting of distant trucks will drive you insane. You know you are heading in the right direction, but you have no way of knowing how many more miles you have to travel to reach that highway. Much like life, you just have to keep walking and try not to let the uncertainty ruin the moment in this beautiful place. That brings us to our next lesson:
2. You have to be still to appreciate the beauty If you don’t look at your feet when you are hiking in Pennsylvania, you will trip, you will fall, and you will end up as a crumpled mess with bruised feet on the side of the trail. This might happen even if you are looking at your feet, but it will definitely happen if you are looking up at the beautiful forest that surrounds you. At the same time, if you don’t look at the beautiful nature that is around you when you are hiking in Pennsylvania, then what is the point of hiking in Pennsylvania? If you keep moving forward, you are going to have to make a decision about, as Mother DiFranco once said, missing all the good stuff or tripping over things. Hiking in Pennsylvania forces you to stop and be still to appreciate the beauty. Sometimes in life, you have to be still and not worry about how many more boulder fields await you, which leads to our next lesson:
3. There will be time when you have to step onto the rocks
Growing up hiking, I always learned not to step on rocks. Engaging your glutes to go up and over tires your legs out faster than simply side-stepping the obstacles. Even if it’s not the most direct route, going around the rocks will conserve your energy. That’s what you’re taught, at least. When you are hiking in Pennsylvania, however, stepping on the rocks is often unavoidable. The trail sometimes disappears and you have to follow the blazes across a boulder field. Yes, it is going to be challenging, and, yes, it would have been easier to go around the whole thing, but you have no choice. In life, as on the trail, you can’t always sidestep the obstacles that pop up along the path. Sometimes you just have to expend the extra energy, risk twisting your ankle, and walk through that boulder field of things you don’t want to deal with. And it might not get better! The boulder field might rip up your boots and leave you sole-less and vulnerable for the rest of the hike. But that brings us to the next lesson bestowed by the PA trail:
4. The most meaningful moments come after the most excruciating pain
Some of these rocks jut out of the ground like goddamn daggers that were put on this Earth to impale your feet by a jealous god. Others are hidden chastely beneath a layer of leaves and wait in the quiet of a damp autumn evening for you to smash your toes on them because you thought the path was clear. No matter what type of rocks you meet along your journey, you will stub your toes on them. You will stub your toes over and over again until you are worried about the structural integrity of your toenails. Eventually the pain will become so excruciating that every time you kick a rock you will release a sharp, angry yelp into the dusky silence. When this happens, you will startle the white-tailed deer that you didn’t know were nearby, and in their panic, they will prance across the trail mere feet from where you are standing in pain. You will hear their hooves lopping across the forest floor and watch the flash of their white tails wiggle through the trees and see the doe look back at her fawn to make sure that he’s followed her closely. Their beauty will be so close to you and your bloody toes. The pleasure of experiencing their loveliness will make the pain that brought them across your path completely worth it. This brings us to our last lesson:
5. Quit on a good day
This is the most important advice I have ever received. It came from a dirty, northbound through-hiker that I met at the 501 Shelter when I was leading a group of Girl Scouts on a 3-day trip. We had just finished our journey and were waiting out a summer cloudburst before hiking back into camp. We were unloading our uneaten protein bars and my scouts offered them to the through-hiker who was continuing onward after his break. He politely accepted them and followed me over to the stash. Out of earshot from the girls he revealed, “I didn’t want to freak out your scouts, but I haven’t eaten in days. I am starving, and this is a god-send. Thank you.” After accomplishing the protein bar transfer, we went back to where the scouts were sitting, and they began asking him questions about taking on a through-hike. When asked what was the best piece of advice he had for potential future through-hikers, he said, “Don’t quit on a bad day. There will be days when you are hungry and cold and tired and it’s raining out and you twisted your ankle and you spent the night sleeping in a ditch by the side of the trail. You are going to want to quit, but if you quit on that day, you will regret it for the rest of your life. But there will be other days when the sun is shining and you are witnessing breathtaking views and you are hiking with friends who have become family and you are sleeping at a campsite with a roaring fire and your heart is full of the beauty of this world. If you still want to quit on that day, go for it. There’s no shame in letting something go if that’s what you truly want. But you have to quit on a good day.”
He was probably delirious and dying from starvation and had no idea what words were coming out of his mouth, but I consider that dirty man’s words key to coping with the shit life throws at you. Whether he made it to Katahdin or quit on a sunny autumn day in upstate New York, I’m glad I met him among the rocks of Pennsylvania.