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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 22 - Side Trip to Hershey Park, Pennsylvania

Updated on August 3, 2013
When we saw the bus stop nearby, we all sprinted to see if we could get on.
When we saw the bus stop nearby, we all sprinted to see if we could get on. | Source

We looked at each other for an instant, then we all broke into a sprint toward the bus.

The Spontaneous Bus Ride

I opened my eyes and everything was strange. For one thing, I wasn’t sleeping on the ground, but I wasn’t on a bed either. After a moment I realized I was lying on a narrow cot and when I glanced around the dimly lit room, I realized I was in an enclosed porch. After a brief moment of disorientation, the events of the previous evening came back to me in a rush. I was still at the “Ice Cream Lady’s” house. Dave, Mark, and I had stayed up past midnight talking with our hosts and they had put us up for the night on some cots on their back porch. We rose quickly and packed our things. Not wanting to impose any more than we already had, we thanked our hosts for their incredible hospitality and hiked off into a misty, drizzly day.

The trail followed roads along that section and none of us felt like walking along them in the rain with passing cars whipping up road spray that coated us with damp grit. We came to route 11, a busy state highway. It looked like it might lead somewhere where we could hole up and get some hot food. We were considering hitchhiking and were deciding which direction we wanted to go when suddenly a big city bus came barreling out of the fog. It slowed down as it passed us and came to a stop next to a bus stop sign we hadn't noticed previously. It stopped about 50 yards past us. We looked at each other for an instant, then we all broke into a sprint toward the bus. I wasn't sure whether or not the bus was going to stay at the stop long enough for us to make it, but it did, and before I knew it I was shrugging out of my pack and climbing the steps toward the bus driver. I quickly realized that I had no change in my pocket. I pulled a dollar bill out of my pocket and not knowing what else to do, I started trying to stuff the bill into the coin slot. I knew that really wouldn’t work, but I must have wanted to demonstrate to the driver that I really did have money and that I wasn’t just trying to mooch a ride.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," said the driver, "hold up there fellas. Where are you guys trying to go?"

Dave, Mark, and I exchanged glances. We had no plan. After a moment of silence, Dave finally spoke up and said that we were trying to find a motel.

"Okay," the driver said, "this bus is going into Harrisburg and we won't be going near any motels, but I can give you a pass to use on another bus that will bring you to a spot where you'll have a lot of choices. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some tokens. He dropped three of them into the coin slot, and told us we could have a seat. We grabbed our packs and started lugging them down the aisle past all the other passengers on the bus. We hadn't really paid much attention to anyone else on the bus until that moment. Some smiled at us and others looked alarmed at the sight of the three of us – all grubby and shaggy, wet from the morning of drizzle and road spray, with our packs braced against the side of our legs as we clumped past them to the back of the bus. There we found a cluster of empty seats where we could sit together.

The bus took us into Harrisburg which we knew to be the capital of Pennsylvania. It drove around the downtown and people got off and on. With the big buildings, the traffic, and the mass of people all around us, it was like being back in Washington DC for a while. Finally at the end of the route the driver dropped us off at a stop, gave us some passes to give to the next bus driver, and he instructed us on which bus we should get on to bring us to the strip of motels at the edge of town. Before long we were on our way back out of town. We were dropped off on the shoulder of a state highway similar to the area where the trail had come out onto Rt. 11 earlier in the day. In the distance we could see motels and restaurants along the side of the highway. We didn't know where we were since it was a different highway than where the trail came out. As I had felt a few other times on the trip, it was like I was in a boat with no way to steer, being born along by a swift current to an unknown destination.

...we weren't about to let a few uncertainties keep us from our side trip.

From Wishful Thinking to Reality

We shouldered our packs and trudged toward the closest motel, a Best Western. We checked in and then found something to eat. Later we were back in the room, checking out the amenities. We noticed that the TV was combined with a radio. We turned on the radio to see what stations we could pick up. As we rotated a dial we suddenly came across a station playing a commercial for a John Denver concert that was going to be at an arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania only a few days later. Hershey, Pennsylvania was a town of interest to Dave and I for a few reasons. First, we knew that it was the home of the Hershey chocolate plant. Second, there was a well-known amusement park there with several big roller coasters. Third, Hershey had a minor-league hockey team, the Hershey Bears, that frequently played against our local minor-league team – the Adirondack Red Wings in Glens Falls, New York. Finally, Dave and I were both fans of John Denver.

After hearing the commercial, Dave and I started saying it would be really cool to go see the concert. At first we were talking as if it was wishful thinking but before long Mark spoke up and said that we should go. He told us that it was pretty close and the concert was only a few days away. Dave and I thought it over. A discussion ensued where we figured out how we would get there and thought about how we would pay for it. If we were going to Hershey, we wanted to go to the amusement park and see the chocolate factory, but if we were going to do all that it would cost a lot of money, especially if we stayed in a motel for the couple nights we would have to stay in the town. The more we thought about it, the more we wanted to do it, but it just seemed like it would be too expensive. After a while we started thinking about trying to do it without staying at a motel. That would mean finding a campsite and using the tent. The campsite would have to be within walking distance of the arena and the amusement park. Luckily all the attractions we planned to see were clustered together around the amusement park. We ended up calling and reserving tickets to John Denver on June 2. We called around and developed a plan where we would take a city bus back into Harrisburg, then go to the Trailways bus terminal to get round-trip tickets to Hershey. Once in Hershey, we would have to improvise where to stay and what we would do with our packs while at the amusement park and at the concert. Those kinds of "details" were potential problems, but we weren't about to let a few uncertainties keep us from our side trip.

"Hey, that looks like my watch!" Dave exclaimed, "Where did you get that?

The Watch Seller

We started early the next morning. We packed up, checked out of the motel, and hauled our packs back to the bus stop where we had been dropped off the afternoon before. Mark wished us well, but he was going to move on northward. We parted with the mutual understanding that we might meet up in Duncannon Pennsylvania a few days later. Once back in Harrisburg we found the Trailways bus terminal and bought our round-trip tickets. We lugged our packs through the terminal and out onto the platform where we had to wait for the bus to arrive. While we were waiting a kid came around – he looked to be around 15 or so. He was wearing a vest. He would walk up to people on the platform, and open his a vest to show them rows of watches that were hanging from the inner lining. He went to everyone asking if they wanted to buy one. It instantly caught our attention. I was intrigued. I'd never seen anything like it except in movies about street urchins or con man. I half expected to see a shadowy figure, like Fagan from Oliver Twist, lurking in a nearby doorway watching his young apprentice. Eventually he came to us. I just gave him the standard "No thanks" that everyone else on the platform was saying, but when he approached Dave to showed him his wares, Dave pounced.

Dave took a step towards the kid and bent in toward the rows of watches hanging from the lining of the kid’s vest. Suddenly he pointed at one.

"Hey, that looks like my watch!" Dave exclaimed, "Where did you get that? My watch is missing!"

Oh no, I thought to myself, this is all we need. Dave's going to get us into a fight with this kid and his whole street urchin gang. I could almost picture dozens of other kids like this one coming out from behind lamp posts, out of doorways, and dropping from rooftops to swarm us and steal our packs.

Instead, the kid closed his vest up and took a few steps back, "Hey, hey," he said, "everything is cool here!" Then he simply turned and briskly walked away from the platform.

Moments after the kid took off, a woman stepped over to Dave.

"Do you think those were stolen watches?" She asked him in a low voice.

Dave replied that he didn't know but the kid seemed suspicious.

She agreed and said to us that she didn't like being approached on the street by people selling stuff like that. Apparently it happened all the time around there and most people ignored it.

Finding a Place for the Night

The Trailways bus dropped us off at Hershey next to a shopping center about 2 miles from Hershey Park. We found a Wendy's nearby and we were able to get salads to eat. Salads were such a rarity on the trail that when we had an opportunity to get them we would jump at the chance.

Somewhere between the shopping center and Hershey Park we came across a campground. We stopped there to do laundry at the campground facilities, but we decided not to pay to stay there. Instead we figured we would try our luck at finding somewhere to hole up for the night where we wouldn't have to pay. We were following the plan we had formed for the sidetrip back in the Best Western. Since we were spending so much for the concert and the Park, we had to compensate by not spending to stay the night anywhere. This meant that we had to stay somewhere on the sly.

We weren't seeing any opportunities for setting up a camp on our way toward the Park. I'm not sure what we were looking for exactly. Probably a patch of woods were we could set up the tent without being noticed, but there was nothing like that. Everything we passed were either open fields or buildings. Things were spaced out. There were some farm fields and businesses, but no place where we could camp without being seen. Finally we started walking past a large open field of clover. Through the field ran a railroad track. With nothing else looking promising we swerved off the road, crossed a shallow ditch, and climbed a little embankment into the field. We walked well into the field until we were about 30 yards or so away from the railroad track which ran along a raised bed that bisected the field. The clover was thick and tall - a couple feet high. The sky was overcast, but it wasn't raining. If we had set up our tent we would have been noticed, so we simply laid our sleeping bags down in the field. When we got in them we were about level with the top of the clover. We laid our packs flat on the ground next to us and they were camouflaged by the clover as well. We made a dinner for ourselves and settled in for a long evening and night. We didn't want to get up and move around too much for fear of attracting attention. We had to hope that it wouldn’t rain. It took a long time for the light to fade from the sky and night to come. We had plenty of time to talk, read, and just think.

Mountain Men or Hobos?

I remember looking at the tracks and thinking to myself that hiking the AT held many surprises. When we had planned the trip and when we had first departed, we identified ourselves with the iconic American image of the mountain man. Now it seemed to me that we were more like a different American icon – the hobo. The reality is that the AT brings hikers to many places – some populated, and some isolated. There are times when one icon is relevant and times when the other is. Side trips tended to tip the scales in the direction of the hobo identity, since we were straying from the normalcy of the trail with the shelters, water sources, public lands, and corridor of forest. All our gear, not to mention our money supply, was chosen for that environment. When we got away from the trail, we had to improvise and find ways to sleep and eat in the midst of regular society which was set up for people with homes, cars, and jobs.

We were fortunate that the rain held off that night. There were only a few sprinkles that fell. We awoke early and fixed ourselves breakfast. Then we packed up, shouldered the backpacks, and trudged through the clover back to the road. It was another mile or so to Hershey Park. The day was overcast and a few sprinkles were falling as we hiked along the road shoulder toward the amusement park. There was a little bit of uncertainty for us as we approached our destination. We didn't know what we were going to do with our backpacks. We were used to leaving them unattended for short periods when we went into general stores for snacks or to resupply, but that was usually right along the trail, and it was only for a half hour or less. This time we were planning to spend the entire day in the Park and we didn't think they would let us bring our packs on any roller coasters.

The Hershey Chocolate Factory
The Hershey Chocolate Factory | Source

The Amusement Park

When we arrived at the ticket windows we bought our two-day passes for the park and then we asked for suggestions about what to do with our backpacks.

The lady in the ticket booth immediately suggested, "Why don't you go check at the pet sitters?"

Then she gave us some directions to a building a few parking lots away from where we were. With our tickets in hand, we trudged over to where the pet sitter facility was, hoping that they would let us leave our backpacks there for the day. We were met by a young lady not much older than ourselves. She was sitting behind a counter in a small anteroom with her nose in a paperback novel. Through another open doorway at the other end of the room we could see stacks of cages like you would see in a pet store and we could hear the sounds of a few cats and dogs moving around in their cages. An occasional bark erupted from the back room but otherwise it seemed like a peaceful little place. The lady listened to our predicament and shrugged her shoulders. She had no problem with us leaving our packs there, she said. She told us when the office closed for the day so we could pick up our packs before they locked up for the evening.

Dave and I were thrilled. Unburdened by our packs, now we anticipated a full day Hershey Park with no worries. We took advantage of our freedom. We went on every roller coaster we could find over and over. There were a few factors in our favor. First it was early June and a lot of kids were still in school. Second, it was Thursday, a weekday, and finally, it was an overcast day with occasional periods of light rain. All those factors together worked out to equal no crowds. Dave and I enjoyed all the rides without having to wait in any lines. We also took an interesting tour of the Hershey chocolate factory. Part of the tour involved sitting in a cart on a conveyor belt. The cart had speakers where a narrator spoke. The conveyor belt took us past several animated dioramas that showed various parts of the chocolate making process. It was a different ride than I'd ever been on before – sort of an educational ride. In later years I would go on similar, even more elaborate educational rides at Epcot Center in Disney World.

By the afternoon we had identified our favorite rides and we simply rode them over and over, running from the exit around to the entrance and back onto the ride with hardly anybody in between. In some cases, we were the only ones on the ride. We got to know some of the ride operators pretty well.

A roller coaster at Hershey Park, PA
A roller coaster at Hershey Park, PA | Source

The Cornfield

At the end of the first day we picked up our packs from the pet sitters and we started back the way we had come. It seemed like the rain was becoming more persistent. We didn't know where we could stay. The field of clover next to the railroad tracks worked only if it wasn't raining. We could see that we needed to set up our tent and we knew we would stick out like a sore thumb.

There had been some woods along part of the road we walked between the clover field with the railroad tracks and the amusement park. On our way back we examined them more closely. Luck was with us. We found a little dirt track off of the main road that cut through the strip of trees. The track was only fit for a tractor or a four-wheel drive so we had a feeling we knew what it would lead to. Sure enough, the track curved through the strip of trees that bordered the road and opened into a cornfield. The corn was new. It wasn't even a foot high yet. It was a big field and it was deserted. We walked a ways up the side of the field along the tractor track with the strip of trees now separating us from the road. We found a level spot about 10 feet away from the edge of the corn, and there we set up the tent. We loaded our stuff inside and had a dry place to sleep for the night. When we awoke the next morning, it was still raining. We considered our situation. We had another full day at the park ahead of us so we figured we could use the pet sitter again except that we had the concert to go to at night and the pet sitter would be closed in the evening. We weren't planning to go anywhere between our time in the Park and the time for the concert. The concert was in the arena that was right next to the park. We considered our options and we decided to take a risk. So often on our trip we had chosen to act on faith and trust. The cornfield had been a good spot for us for the night. We had been secluded from the road and no one had disturbed us. Sleeping in the tent had kept us and our stuff dry. Now we decided to leave the tent set up during the day and leave our stuff inside while we spent the day at the park and the evening at the concert. We knew that we were going to have to walk back from the concert at about 11 o'clock that night and find a tractor track in the dark, then pass through the little strip of trees and hope that our tent and other stuff would be safe, sound, and dry. We had to hope that the farmer wouldn’t visit his field that day, or that if he did, that he would just leave our tent and stuff alone.

We set up our tent at the edge of a cornfield.
We set up our tent at the edge of a cornfield. | Source

The Concert

Our second day in the park was basically a slow-motion replay of the first day. We did all the same things, even a repeat tour of the chocolate factory, but we didn't rush around the way we had the previous day. We spent more time sitting around on benches or at tables in restaurants or food courts just talking or watching the world go by. The day was rainy, but not as much is the day before. When evening came we ate some dinner then walked over to the arena. We got to our seats early and we relaxed as we watch the arena fill up with people. It was the first big concert that either Dave or I had been to. John Denver was at the height of his popularity during the 1970s, but he was still quite popular in 1982, especially among people in their 30s and above. Dave and I were younger than most there. Among our age group, John Denver was not considered to be cool. That was especially true for males in our age group. Dave and I didn't care. We had gone through high school disdaining what was considered popular. We had charted our own course, following the music and activities that appealled to us, regardless of how those things were viewed by our peers. Now, after years of listening to his music, we were finally going to see John Denver live.

We came away thinking it was great. Our measure was how close he replicated the sound the songs we knew from the albums we listened to. In that regard we thought he was very successful. John Denver had a strong clear voice that was very consistent. The songs he sang were all recognizable to us and they were sung with great energy. We were in a great mood as we filtered out of the arena with the rest of the crowd. As they all dispersed to their cars, Dave and I set off on our walk away from the hubbub and lights of the arena and its parking lots toward the dark, lonely road that would lead us back to our cornfield and hopefully our tent.

We came away from the John Denver concert thinking it was great.
We came away from the John Denver concert thinking it was great. | Source
Was the noise I was hearing in the morning trucks braking on the highway ...
Was the noise I was hearing in the morning trucks braking on the highway ... | Source
.... or bullfrogs?
.... or bullfrogs? | Source

The Bullfrog Debate

We had put out of our minds the fact that our tent was still set up next to the cornfield. Now as we walked down the road in the darkness, worries began creeping into my mind. I didn't have to worry for long. It was only about a mile walk back. We had carefully identified where the tractor track went from the road through the strip of woods so we found it in the darkness and we crossed the strip of woods into the field. Once again fortune smiled upon us. The tent was there, undisturbed, and all our stuff was inside just as we had left it. It wasn't long before we were tucked into our sleeping bags drifting off to sleep with the music from the concert still ringing in our ears.

I woke up early the next morning and listened to the noises of the breaking day. There were the usual birds, but also something else that kept repeating at irregular intervals. It was a loud grumbling or grinding noise away in the distance. Now I realize that it was the hydraulic Jake brakes of 18 wheelers that were coming down a hill on a nearby freeway. At the time though, I only had a vague idea that the noise was somehow connected to big trucks. I didn't know exactly what it was on the trucks that made the loud noise in the distance.

In my half asleep state I wondered aloud, "What is it that makes that noise? Something about some trucks?"

Dave was lying awake also. He must have been bored and was looking for some form of entertainment.

"Trucks?" He questioned, "what are you talking about? Those aren’t trucks. Those are bullfrogs."

I was silent for a moment. "No they're not," I said.

"Yes they are," he insisted.

It seemed like every 15 to 30 seconds the sound was repeated.

"They’re trucks," I said, "I just don't know how they make that noise."

"What truck ever made a noise like that?" He said, "Those are bullfrogs. There is a pond just down the hill from here."

"What pond, I didn't see any pond."

"It's just down the hill."

"The road is just down the hill."

"It's past where the track leads to the road," Dave said. Then he said with strong conviction, "I'm telling you, those are bullfrogs you’re hearing."

I had to admit to myself, the noise did sound a little like a bullfrog, except it lasted much longer than a bullfrog croak.

I sighed, "Okay," I said, "they’re bullfrogs."

"They are bullfrogs!" He repeated.

"I know, I just said that," I replied, trying to use reverse psychology.

"I can tell you don't believe me." Dave said in an offended tone, "You don't really believe they’re bullfrogs, do you?"

I sighed again. "Nope," I replied.

"Then what are they?" He challenged.

"Trucks," I said.

"How do trucks make a noise like that?"

"I don't know," I replied, "that's what I was trying to figure out in the first place."

Our trucks versus bullfrogs debate continued for about a half hour, while the sky slowly brightened. It was typical of the silly conversations we would have when it was too early to get up in the morning but neither of us was asleep, or when we were waiting out a rainstorm underneath the roof of a lean–to, or just any time when we had extra time on our hands and nothing pressing to do.

Finally one or the other of us got tired of lying in our sleeping bag and we got up to start the day. We made a quick breakfast then took down the tent and packed up. Our fun at Hershey Park was over and it was time to get back to the trail.

The Way Back to the Trail

We had experienced quite a week. On Monday, Memorial Day, we met the "ice cream lady", and stayed on her back porch. The next day, Tuesday, we took our impromptu bus ride into Harrisburg before getting a transfer and another ride out to a strip of motels on a nearby highway. That night in the motel we had heard about the John Denver concert. The following morning, Wednesday, we spent time on the phone reserving tickets to the concert and figuring out the bus schedules to get there. That afternoon we had taken the city bus back into Harrisburg and gotten some round-trip Trailways bus tickets to Hershey Park. Wednesday evening found us in Hershey. The next day was Thursday and we spent the first of two days at the amusement park. The next day, Friday, we spent in the park and attended the concert at night. Now it was Saturday. Our plan was to hike back to the Trailways bus station, catch our bus back to Harrisburg, then ask which city bus we needed to take to get back to the place where we had spontaneously jumped on the bus in the first place. We would simply take that bus back to that stop, get off, and start hiking the trail again with our sights set on the next trail town – Duncannon Pennsylvania.

Once again it was raining, but other than that our plan went off without a hitch. We hiked to the Trailways depot, turned in our return tickets, and after a little while, boarded the bus. We felt like kings, riding in reclining bucket seats with metal foot rests in front of us, looking out the big rain splattered window next to our seats. It was a fairly short trip between Hershey and Harrisburg. Upon arrival Dave and I waited while the bus driver slid everyone's luggage out from the luggage compartment. It was a relief when our packs emerged from the narrow space between the wheels in good condition, with all our gear attached the way it was supposed to be. With our packs on her shoulders once again, we drifted away from the platform, to find a city bus official.

Soon enough we found one and we asked our question: "What bus do we take to get out to route 11 near Carlisle?" That is where our plan ran into a brick wall.

"Sorry fellas," the answer came back, "that's a commuter route. City buses only go out there on weekdays. You'll have to wait until Monday before you can catch a bus out there."

My earlier worries turned into a sense of relief and almost euphoria.

The Great Feeling of Making the Right Choice

It was Saturday morning. That would mean spending two nights in Harrisburg before we could get back to the trail. We considered our options. First of all it was a rainy day and the thought of walking city streets and along state highways all day to get back to the trail was not very appealing. We considered getting a cab but we thought that would be too expensive and we would still end up in the rain. We figured that for the price of a cab ride, we could probably get a motel room for the night and hope the next day would be better weather for getting back to the trail. The last option is what we decided. Even though we had planned not to stay in any motels on our side trip to Hershey, we adapted our plan to deal with the circumstances. The rain and the uncertainty of how to get back to the trail made us want to hole up somewhere dry where we could look at our maps and guides and think for a while.

As it turned out there was a Best Western motel in downtown Harrisburg just a few blocks from the bus station. We went there and got a room for the night. My biggest concern was that we would get settled in the room and then in the afternoon the rain would stop, the sun would come out, and we would miss an opportunity for hiking in good weather back to the trail. As it turned out, the opposite occurred. The afternoon brought heavy rain. In fact there were long periods of time that afternoon as Dave and I lounged in the room watching movies on TV that I would glance over to the window and see that it was a obscured by a smear of water cascading down the outside of the glass. My earlier worries turned into a sense of relief and almost euphoria. I felt like we had dodged a bullet by deciding to take the room. To make things even better, Dave and I, while flipping through the channels, came across an unusual show, something we had never seen before. It was called Kung Fu Theater. Anything having to do with kung fu caught our attention. We were familiar with the TV show Kung Fu with David Carradine. Kung Fu Theater turned out to be like the TV show Kung Fu on steroids. The movie that was shown was called "The Kid with the Golden Arm". It was full of spectacular acrobatic martial arts and cool weapons like nun chucks, swords, spears, and other stranger things. It was just the sort of show that 2 18-year-old guys would love to watch on a rainy afternoon and Dave and I both prized our good fortune at being able to see it when we did.

After the movie, it was time for us to figure out what we were going to do the next day. We spread out our maps to determine our best course of action. We wanted to avoid having to stay another night in Harrisburg. When we looked at our maps, we realized that Duncannon was situated along the Susquehanna River just north of Harrisburg. It looked like a straightforward hike just to walk the roads that paralleled the river from Harrisburg to Duncannon. We realized it would be more efficient to do that than to hike to where we left the trail then hike the trail to Duncannon. Of course, the weather was the wild card. It had rained so much that week that we figured it had to stop before long.

We went to sleep that night with a plan. Hoping for a dry day, we were resolved to leave our motel on the morrow and walk down to the river. We would then turn north and follow the roads paralleling the river until they led us to Duncannon. Once there, we hoped to meet up with Mark and once again resume our long journey toward Katahdin.

A view of Harrisburg from across the Susquehana River
A view of Harrisburg from across the Susquehana River | Source

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