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An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 19 - Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Updated on April 27, 2013
We found two kittens abandoned on the side of the road.
We found two kittens abandoned on the side of the road. | Source

"Suddenly we came across two kittens cuddled up against each other on the gravel just a few feet away from where the cars were racing by on the road."


We awoke on the morning of May 25th in our motel room. The sky was still overcast, but the rain had stopped. We were in striking distance of Harpers Ferry West Virginia, and we checked our map to find a route along back roads to get there from our motel. We ended up hiking 18 miles along the roads. At the end of the day, as we neared Harpers Ferry, we were hiking along a road with a moderate amount of traffic. There were some houses along the road, but no sidewalk - just a gravel shoulder and a ditch. Suddenly we came across two kittens cuddled up against each other on the gravel just a few feet away from where the cars were racing by on the road. We stopped and picked them up. There was no ID or collars and no indication of how they got there. We figured they couldn't have been there for long. The kittens were tiny. They must've just been weaned from their mother. Of course we stood there for a while, wondering what to do with them. We suspected that someone had just abandoned them there on the side of the road since kittens that small wouldn't have wandered to that spot on their own. There was no way to know for sure, so finally we decided to ask at the nearest house if anyone knew where the kittens belonged.

We knocked on the door of the closest house and a lady came to the door. We told her that we had discovered the kittens on the shoulder of the road in front of her house and wondered if they were her kittens or if she knew whose they were. She didn't know whose they were and she agreed with us that someone had abandoned them there. We asked her if she wanted a cat or two. No, she told us, she didn't need any pets. We weren't going to just leave the kittens there to die so we told her we would take them with us into Harpers Ferry. The lady turned out to be an opportunist. If we were taking the kittens, she said, there was also a little stray dog that had been hanging around for a while that she couldn't get rid of. Maybe we could take the dog along with us also, she suggested.She was certain that he would simply follow us without any difficulty. If we didn't take him, she added, she was just going to bring him to the pound.

This was an unexpected development. While we all looked at each other uncertainly, she stepped off her porch and went looking for the dog. Before we knew it she had located it and coaxed him over to us. Of course we all stooped to pet the friendly little dog as he wagged his tail. Within moments the woman was wishing us well on our trip and she went back into her house. There was nothing left for us to do except to shoulder our packs and start back down the road. For some reason I thought that the kittens would simply ride along clinging to my shoulders as I hiked. I figured they would grasp my pack or my shoulder straps with their claws and hang on. As it turned out they tried to walk around and ended up sliding around on my shoulder so that I was continually pushing them back into place or adjusting them somehow. Finally I slid them down inside my shirt. The hip belt of my pack was cinched around the bottom of my T-shirt so the kittens couldn't fall out. I felt two warm fuzzy balls of fur against my stomach but they seemed to be comfortable and they didn't try to get away. All I had to do was hike along as I usually did.

The dog was another matter. After the woman went back into her house, we started hiking again, not really sure what the dog would do. As the woman predicted to us, the dog followed. I was worried about him walking along the road with us. I thought he would wander into the road and get hit, so after it became clear that he was going to follow, and after I figured out that it would be easiest to carry the kittens inside my shirt, I tried to pick him up and carry him. He was a small dog, but still much heavier than the kittens. He was also wiggly. I soon found out that I wouldn't be able to carry him far. In the end I had to set him down and hope he was smart enough to stay out of the way of the cars. Luckily he did stay off the road. Mostly he stayed right alongside me. Often he crisscrossed in front of my feet and threatened to trip me up. For some reason he only stayed near me and pretty much ignored both Mark and Dave. As a result, I made slow progress while they got out ahead by walking unencumbered. Luckily they stopped from time to time so I could catch up before we lost sight of each other.

A Disappearance

We had to hike five or 6 miles with this arrangement before we got into Harpers Ferry. As we came into the town, the traffic slowed down, the number of houses increased, and we began encountering sidewalks. The hiking was easier and more interesting with more things to look at. Harpers Ferry is an historic town with many beautiful old houses. Our goal was to reach the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters, then decide where to sleep for the night. We also wanted to find someone or a few people who would be willing to adopt two kittens and one dog. The kittens were still snuggled inside my T-shirt, but as I hiked along the quaint streets of Harpers Ferry, I suddenly realized the little dog was no longer getting under my feet. I looked around and I couldn't see him. I looked around some more and I tried whistling. He didn't appear. I called ahead to Mark and Dave, asking them if they had seen the dog.

"He just disappeared," I told them.

We all looked up and down the street we had hiked in on and a few of the nearby side streets. After a while one of us suggested going on to the ATC headquarters and dropping off our packs. Then we could move faster and cover more ground as we searched. The ATC headquarters was closed by the time we got there, but we ended up leaving Mark there with the packs and the kittens. Dave and I jogged back the way we had come, going up and down every side street for a couple block radius. We tried whistling to no effect. We didn't even know his name, so we couldn't call. It was early evening when we reached Harpers Ferry, but still relatively light out. It was turning to dusk when Dave and I came back to the ATC headquarters empty-handed.

A few of the old houses in Harpers Ferry
A few of the old houses in Harpers Ferry | Source

"Mark told all the kids the story of how we had found the kittens and how we were looking for someone who would take them in. He let word-of-mouth do the rest."

Word of Mouth

Meanwhile Mark had been sitting on the front steps of the ATC headquarters playing with the kittens. He had attracted a crowd of kids that lived in the area who were out playing. Mark told all the kids the story of how we had found the kittens and how we were looking for someone who would take them in. He let word-of-mouth do the rest. Before long a young girl got permission from her parents and she said she could take the kittens off our hands. By the time we returned from our fruitless search for the dog, the kittens had found a home. The logical side of my brain reacted positively to the news of the kittens finding a home, but I just couldn't find a way to feel happy at that moment. I was worried about the dog, but there was nothing I could do about it. We had never asked for him and we hadn't even volunteered, but we knew that the lady we talked to didn't want him. See said she was going to take him to the pound, and when he followed us I didn't try to chase him away. In fact since I was worried about him running into traffic I tried to carry him for a while. As a result I ended up feeling responsible for him and now he was lost.

I was too bummed out about losing track of him to feel any elation about the kittens. He must have gotten distracted once he had gotten into town, causing him to run into someone's yard or down a side street while I just kept hiking and looking at the quaint old houses. Mark and Dave convinced me that it wasn't my fault and that we had done everything we could. He might turn up tomorrow, they told me, and that we had done well to find a home for the kittens.

Since we had arrived, we had been so busy with the animals we hadn’t tried to find a place to stay. Darkness was closing in and we didn't have a plan. We fixed a quick dinner on the steps of the ATC headquarters building and finally decided to wait until full darkness then simply throw our sleeping bags down on some grass next to the building. That is how we spent the night – sleeping out under the stars on the lawn next to the ATC headquarters building.

The Climbing Snake

The next day Dave and I spent our time wandering around town. We bought a few supplies and Dave bought a guidebook. We kept an eye open for the dog, but we didn't really expect to see him and we didn't. As we were walking along the quiet residential streets, Dave and I suddenly noticed something fascinating. There was a large tree growing in someone's front yard behind a white picket fence. The tree was a couple feet in diameter at least, and the truck was smooth and vertical. On the tree trunk, seemingly plastered to it, was a black rat snake slowly undulating upwards. We stopped dead in our tracks and watched the snake. It formed a vertical line suctioned to the side of the tree. It was about 2 feet long and its body rippled as it slowly ascended. We stood there and watched until it disappeared amongst the branches and leaves at least 15 feet above our heads.

After we could no longer see it, I turned to Dave and said "I didn't even know they could do that!"

He agreed. Neither of us had seen anything like it. Up till then I was always keeping a sharp eye out for where I stepped to make sure I didn't step on or close to a snake, especially a rattler. Now I was also going to be wondering about what was going on over my head while we were hiking through the forest.

Neither Dave nor I had ever seen a snake climb straight up the side of a tree.
Neither Dave nor I had ever seen a snake climb straight up the side of a tree. | Source

"...we fell asleep under the stars while the lights of Harpers Ferry twinkled in the valley below us."

Weaverton Cliffs

The last event in Harpers Ferry was visiting the ATC headquarters and having our picture taken by the staff there, so the picture could be added to an album of the people hiking the trail that year. The picture was taken with a Polaroid so we could see the photo developed before our eyes. We watched as they sealed the photo into an album marked with the year 1982. It would be 12 years before I saw that photo again.

We hung around town until late in the day. Then we shouldered our packs and walked across the bridge over the Potomac river and into Maryland. Once across, the trail took us along the river for a while and then it ascended a steep rise. A series of switchbacks led us to the top of a set of cliffs that overlooked the river. It hadn't been much more than an hour's hike from Harpers Ferry before we found ourselves perched on top of a beautiful overlook where the town, the bridge, and the river were spread out before us. The overlook was called Weaverton Cliffs according to our guidebook. We hadn’t gone far, but we liked the view so much, we shed our packs and hung out there until dinner time. We cooked our dinner and continued to sit on the rocks and enjoy the view and the pleasant evening until darkness started falling. Finally we simply decided to stay the night on the cliffs. We didn't bother with the tent since the weather was just right. We simply rolled our sleeping bags out on the sun-warmed rocks, we climbed in, and we fell asleep under the stars while the lights of Harpers Ferry twinkled in the valley below us.

A view of Harpers Ferry from the cliffs on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.
A view of Harpers Ferry from the cliffs on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. | Source


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