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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 21 -"Free Half-way Popsicles" and "The Ice Cream Lady"
"Finally, it seemed that our dreams had come true."
Our first full day of Pennsylvania started off drizzly just like the day before, but it cleared off by noon. We met many Memorial Day weekend hikers, and we ended up staying at Quarry Gap Shelter. We found that the ridges that the trail followed, though rocky on the ascents, were flat on the tops. The climbs were short and the ridge running was level, dry, and often the trail was covered in a soft carpet of white pine needles. Dave and I had often discussed our ideas of what the perfect trail for hiking would be: level, dry, free of roots and rocks, and wending through a white pine forest with a soft carpet of white pine needles covering the ground. Finally it seemed that our dreams had come true. About the time that I became aware that I was "living the dream", I noticed that the perfect conditions that we had envisioned couldn't be maintained. A sudden rise, a patch of rough surface on the trail, a length of trail that was suddenly bare of pine needles – all these and more occurred to disrupt the "perfection" almost as soon as I noticed that I was experiencing "perfection". Two things occurred to me, and both of them have been proved out over the rest of my life:
1) It is often possible to attain someone's vision of what perfection is. The trouble is that it is so fleeting that you often don't realize you've been there until it's over.
2) Since perfection is so hard to reach and so fleeting when you get there, it is best to appreciate getting close and to enjoy attempting to reach it.
"So many times we found ourselves witness to something, and then we moved on, never to see the resolution ..."
We made a supply stop at a general store in the Village of South Mountain during the day. We were walking down a road toward the store when we witnessed something that gave us a start. Some kids were walking along the road and they had a young puppy running alongside them on the shoulder of the road. A car drove slowly along the road past them and as it went by the puppy suddenly frolicked out into the road right under the tires of the car. The car hit its brakes, but it couldn't stop in time and the front passenger side tire ran over the puppy's body. The puppy let out a high pitched squeal, but then amazingly, he got up and scampered away. I went from cringing at seeing the puppy run over, to being relieved to see him apparently okay.
We continued on and got to the store. As we were inside buying snacks and a few groceries, someone came into the store and started talking to the young guy behind the register. He told the guy that his new puppy had just been run over by a car a few moments ago. The guy behind the register's face fell and the shoulders immediately slumped.
I wanted to reassure him so I spoke up. "We saw it happen," I said, "the tire went over him, but he got up and ran away. I think he'll be all right."
The guy behind the register gave me a surprised look and I don't think he really believed me, but there was a little bit of cautious hope in his eyes. Later, after we left the store, Dave came up to me. "You don't really know if that puppy was okay," he told me, "just because the puppy got up and ran away doesn't mean he was going to be okay. You shouldn’t have told that guy his puppy was going to be all right."
I just shrugged my shoulders. Dave was probably right I thought, but I didn’t promise the guy anything. I just told him what I saw and tried to give him some hope.
We moved on down the trail and we never found out how things turned out. So many times we found ourselves witness to something, and then we moved on, never to see the resolution, or just how a situation turned out.
Pine Grove Furnace State Park
That night we met the first of a string of people that were completing the second half of the trail after doing the first half the previous year. Due to time constraints many people break the Appalachian Trail hike into a two year endeavor. They take a couple months to hike the southern half one year, and then jump back on a year or two later and finish with another couple months trip. Harpers Ferry and some of the small towns in southern Pennsylvania were popular breakpoints, and early June or late May was a popular starting time for those hikers. We stayed at the same shelter as one of those hikers. His name was Tom and he had hiked Georgia to Waynesboro Pennsylvania in 1980.
The next day we went 24 miles from Quarry Gap to Tags Run Shelter. We also found time for four hours of breaks. Three hours were at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where we got to eat our “free halfway popsicle”. In 1982 the mid-point of the Appalachian Trail was considered to be Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania. The State Park had a snack bar that was known along the AT for giving out free popsicles to thru-hikers. The practice had been dubbed "the free halfway popsicle". Of course we got our popsicle and spent some relaxing time at the park, including a swim in the lake, which turned out to be our first swim of the trip. After our time at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, we continued hiking for another 7 miles and went to Tags Run Shelter.
"...certain people become known along the trail as people who provide a special treat or service to all long-distance hikers that pass through. The "Ice Cream Lady" was one such person."
"The Ice Cream Lady"
The next day was Memorial Day. It was overcast and muggy. We were in a good mood due to our anticipation for an encounter we had been hearing about since almost the beginning of our trip. This day was to be the day we would meet the "Ice Cream Lady".
There are many friendly people who live along or near the AT that offer kindness to through hikers when they meet up with them. Dave, Mark, and I had already benefited from many situations like that. Usually the folks we met helped out with some spur of the moment assistance. They would give us a ride when we needed it, provide some directions, treat us to a little bit of food, or something else. All thru-hikers come away from their hike with stories of that nature. In some cases though, certain people become known along the trail as people who provide a special treat or service to all long-distance hikers that pass through. The "Ice Cream Lady" was one such person. She had become famous during that time for putting a sign next to her driveway that simply read "Watering Hole". The AT followed roads through some sections of Pennsylvania as it did through just about every state. Usually the roads followed by the trail were country lanes and in some cases state highways. Along roads the trail blazes were often painted on telephone poles, trees, guardrails, and sometimes on the pavement of the road shoulder.
For the first time on our hike the white blazes took us into a suburban subdivision and we knew we were getting close to the "Ice Cream Lady". We knew it from reading one of our unofficial guides that we had picked up at a hostel along the way. We knew to be looking for a blue blaze with a sign that said "Watering Hole", we didn't know what the neighborhood would be like or what the "Ice Cream Lady's" house would look like. Most of the houses we had passed so far on the trail had been older homes in small-town settings, or newer ones along a busy road. Late in the day of Memorial Day of 1982, we found ourselves walking into a relatively new neighborhood with wide, quiet, newly paved streets, driveways with kids bikes and toys laying on them, and open grassy lawns. One of the things that really stood out was the lack of any big trees. Here and there were some small trees that had been planted within the past few years, but overall the neighborhood seemed strangely open. The houses were all built within the past 10 years. They were mostly big colonials.
It was not the sort of neighborhood we ever expected the AT to travel through, and it wasn't at all where we imagined our meeting with the "Ice Cream Lady" would take place. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon when we finally saw the small sign attached to a short stake stuck into her yard next to the driveway entrance. Sure enough, the miniature blue blaze rectangle which ordinarily signaled a side trail branching off from the AT, usually to a shelter, a spring, or a viewpoint, was painted on her sign alongside some block lettering that said "Watering Hole".
We started up the driveway when we saw that there was a couple sitting in some lawn chairs on the front porch of the house. A woman rose from her chair and briskly walked along the path to the driveway and then down the driveway to meet us.
The first thing she said to us was "You’re the Double Dave's, right?"
We told her yes we were, and then she turned to Mark and said you must be "the SlackPacker".
Mark said yes as well. We were instantly amazed. The woman was in her early to mid 40s and was dressed in a casual dress and slippers. She didn't look as if she had spent a single day of her life hiking the AT other than the short portion that happened to run through her neighborhood. How, we wondered, could she know our trail names before she had met us? Not only that, it was as if she was expecting us. We didn't even get a chance to express our surprise because the "Ice Cream Lady" started telling us all sorts of things. She walked us over to the porch, showed us where to lay our packs, and had us sit down in some empty lawn chairs that had been set out for visitors like us. She gave us each a small ice cream cone and filled some glasses with lemonade for us. She told us all about the people she knew who maintained the trail and hiked along the various sections. She was in contact with them every day it seemed – either over the phone or they visited her in person. They read the journals at the shelters and talked with hikers they met along the way. They then told her who was coming her way, described them if they could, and gave her their best judgment of how many miles away each long-distance hiker was. Basically the "Ice Cream Lady" was far more than a simple lady that handed out ice cream cones to sweaty, smelly hikers. She was at the center of a far-flung Appalachian Trail intelligence network.
We sat on the porch listening to all the stories about AT hikers that had come through both in the current year and previous years. We asked questions about hikers whose trail names we had seen in the shelter logs – was Dizzy and Rosebud really a guy who carried a banjo strapped to his pack? Answer - yes, he really did. He was a thru-hiker that carried a banjo and he was a very good player. What about the two guys from England who seemed to be moving so fast. Answer - they were really nice guys that had to plan a fast trip because they had to finish before their visas ran out. Mark asked about hikers from the year before that he had hiked with or heard about. Mostly we just listened to the "Ice Cream Lady" talk. It was clear that she was a people person with the love of conversation, and that she was fascinated by AT hikers even though she made clear that she wasn't into hiking and camping herself. As much of a talker that she was, her husband was the opposite. He was a great listener. He was content to sit in the chair and listen to the stories that his wife and the hikers swapped back and forth while he slowly sipped on a can of beer. When he did speak up it was generally to agree with something his wife said or to give a succinct answer to a question.
We talked through the afternoon and into the evening when a sudden coincidence occurred. A car drove up and parked in front of the house. A man got out and walked up the driveway. When the man came close Mark suddenly burst out, "I don't believe it!"
The man paused for an instant, then he greeted Mark in surprise. He was a guy that had hiked the trail the previous year. His name was John and Mark had hiked with him for a while. While John had hiked the trail the year before, he had missed meeting the "Ice Cream Lady" and since he was in the area for the Memorial Day weekend he had decided to stop in to say hello. John stayed for about 20 min. or so comparing notes with the "Ice Cream Lady" and reminiscing a little with Mark. Mark had been in a good mood before John showed up an afterward he was flying high. Usually fairly reticent within a group, on that evening he was more talkative than we had ever seen him. The hours slipped by as the conversation went on and before we knew it, darkness was falling. Our hosts had leftovers from a cookout earlier in the day. They fed us dinner with those leftovers and told us we should stay for the night on the back porch. This we gratefully agreed to since none of us wanted to try following the trail blazes along the roads in the dark until we could find a good place to camp. By the time all the conversations were over for the night it was 12:30 in the morning. I didn't know it was possible to sit and talk so long about the AT even with a few side topics added in. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I had no specific thoughts. I just remember feeling an impression that the earth was populated with good, helpful people and that usually things turned out for the best if your intentions were good and you believed in people. Further life experience would temper that impression, but there can be no doubt that my experiences along the Appalachian Trail in the spring and summer of 1982 laid a foundation of a positive view of human nature that has lasted with me throughout my life.