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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 20 - Hiking Through Maryland

Updated on March 20, 2015

"After being in Virginia for what seemed like forever, we hiked through two new states in a matter of days."

An view from the Appalachian Trail in Maryland
An view from the Appalachian Trail in Maryland | Source

Overcoming Distractions

After being in Virginia for what seemed like forever, we hiked through two new states in a matter of days. The AT in West Virginia consists of the jaunt through Harpers Ferry and in Maryland, the trail travels about 50 miles across the narrowest part of the state.

On our first full day in Maryland we made great time. We ate dinner at Pine Knob lean-to and went on to Blackrock Cliffs for the night. There was a great view from Blackrock cliffs.

Earlier in the day, we had been cruising along when around noon two things distracted us. The first was a large old stone building that we could see through the trees. There seemed to be some activity around the building such as cars in a parking lot and some people's voices. Of course we were curious and we checked our guidebooks to see what it was. The books told us it was the Old South Mountain Inn and historic restaurant that featured fine dining. Our mouths started watering. It was just a few short steps away from us and right about lunchtime too. However, when fine dining is in the description, high prices are part of the package. We debated back and forth about cutting through the thin stretch of trees and undergrowth between the trail and the parking lot. We walked a ways off the trail toward the inn to peer through the trees and get a better look. I realized I was feeling some déjà vu. Just a few weeks before in the Shenandoah National Park we had come across Big Meadows Lodge and after quite a bit of discussion we had decided to get a room there. It had been a fun stay, but it had short circuited our hiking for the day and it had been expensive when the meal, snacks, and room were added together. The same discussion seemed to be taking place now, but this time I could sense it was going in a different direction. The effort to "talk ourselves into it" was falling flat. Somehow we all recognized that if we didn't learn to limit ourselves – to just say no to some of these temptations – we were going to end up squandering all our time and money, and we would fall short of our goal to make it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

With reluctance we finally admitted to each other that it was too expensive and we wanted to keep up the pace we had been hiking at during the morning. We turned our backs on the South Mountain Inn and kept on hiking down the trail. While we felt good about resisting temptation on this day, further down the trail other tempting opportunities were going to crop up and lead us astray and we would not always be so strong willed.

Just a short distance past the Old South Mountain Inn, another distraction appeared in the form of a beat up old lawnmower that someone had abandoned next to the trail. In this section the trail ran close to some housing developments. In much the same way we had seen the Old South Mountain Inn through the trees, we occasionally saw the backs of people's houses through the trees. It was in such an area where we ran across the old lawnmower. The engine had been removed, but all four wheels were still attached as well as part of the handle. Of course it was covered in muck and grease and the handle was spotted with rust. Our first reaction was to decide that we were going to haul the lawn mower out of the woods and throw it out properly. It was too heavy and awkward to carry, but we figured with the wheels still attached, we could just pull it along. The trail in that area was fairly level, so it seemed like a feasible plan. None of us thought about what we would do once we got it out of the woods to a road. It was too big to fit in anyone's garbage can or any littercan maintained by the state or a county, and there simply weren't a lot of dumpsters conveniently placed at trail crossings. As it turned out we never got the mower out of the woods anyway. We started out simply pulling it by the handle, rolling it along the trail. We were in a fairly level area so that worked well enough to make some progress. Pulling the mower like a wagon gave us an idea – why don't we stack our packs on top of the mower and pull them along? First we cleaned off most of the muck that was caked on top of the mower. We balanced the packs, Dave's on the bottom since it was the largest, then mine, and Mark’s perched on top. We used some rope to tie them in place. One of us pulled the mower by the handle while the other two walked beside the contraption, steadying it with their hands. Pulling the mower with the weight of the packs on it was more difficult. The wheels dug into the soft soil more, and every root and rock became a more difficult obstacle. We probably traveled a grand total of about 50 yards in that way before we halted to rearrange the packs which had shifted. It was then that we saw that the nylon tent sack had gotten entangled in one of the mower axles and had torn. It's not clear why we thought our experiment would work. I don't even think we did believe it would work, but I think we were just trying to find out how far we would make it pulling the packs as if they were on a wagon. It was basically just a diversion that went awry. After that we ran into a few larger logs and some rocks in the trail that required us to lift the mower. We soon abandoned our effort to haul it through the woods. We ended up leaving it next to the trail, hoping we had made things a little easier for a trail crew to haul it out and dispose of it.

The original Washington Monument was built in 1827 by the citizens of Boonsville Maryland. Now it is the main attraction of Washington Monument State Park.
The original Washington Monument was built in 1827 by the citizens of Boonsville Maryland. Now it is the main attraction of Washington Monument State Park. | Source

"It was proclaimed on a sign next to the tower that the edifice was the original Washington Monument."

The Original Washington Monument

After our aborted attempt to haul out the lawnmower, we had to get back into our hiking rhythm. In the afternoon we went over a footbridge that crossed Interstate 70 and then through the Washington Monument State Park where the main feature was a stone tower that had been built in the early 1800s in honor of George Washington. It was proclaimed on a sign next to the tower that the edifice was the original Washington Monument. It had been built by a group of citizens from the town of Boonsboro in 1827. The site of the tower was a beautiful overview of the Maryland countryside. The day ended with us eating dinner at Pine Knob shelter then pushing on in the evening light to Black Rock Cliffs where we had a great view before going to sleep for the night. The trail in Maryland mostly follows the long ridge known as South Mountain. Black Rock Cliffs and nearby Annapolis Rock were well-known rock outcroppings along South Mountain and the AT goes past both viewpoints.

This oblique aerial photo (looking north) shows the long ridge of South Mountain. The AT follows the ridge for a long way through Maryland.  I-70 can be seen bisecting the ridge. Also rock outcroppings along South Mountain are evident.
This oblique aerial photo (looking north) shows the long ridge of South Mountain. The AT follows the ridge for a long way through Maryland. I-70 can be seen bisecting the ridge. Also rock outcroppings along South Mountain are evident. | Source
Black Rock Cliffs was very similar to the nearby Annapolis Rocks which is shown in this picture. Both are viewpoints created by rock outcroppings along South Mountain In Maryland.
Black Rock Cliffs was very similar to the nearby Annapolis Rocks which is shown in this picture. Both are viewpoints created by rock outcroppings along South Mountain In Maryland. | Source

"The rocks were jumbled together like an overturned box of Legos. Footing was uneven and a few rocks teetered unexpectedly when we stepped on them."

Devil's Racecourse

When we woke the next morning the weather had gone downhill. It was a misty, drizzly day, and we got off to a late start. We went over Devil’s Racecourse and decided it was well named. It went straight up and then straight back down, only it went down over a jumble of sharp rocks. Our climb over Devils Racecourse, especially when we descended, gave us a first taste of the terrain that was to come in Pennsylvania. The rocks on Devil’s Racecourse were typically the size of shoe boxes or a little bigger. The rocks were jumbled together like an overturned box of Legos. Footing was uneven and a few rocks teetered unexpectedly when we stepped on them. There was no view from the top other than the side of an even steeper slope of interlocking oblong rocks descending like a bristling carpet below us. Here and there the rocks were painted with the white rectangular AT trail marker. There was no doubt that we were intended to rock hop our way to the bottom where we would be engulfed by the forest trees and the trail would return to its normal form of a packed dirt path. We gamely started down, carefully picking spots for our feet, balancing on corners of rocks while we searched for the next spot to step. Dave was in the lead, I was next, and Mark brought up the rear. The drizzly weather made the surfaces of the rocks slick so we had to be extra careful. About halfway down Mark announced to me that I had just stepped over a dead rattlesnake. I asked him how big it was and he said it was about 2 feet long.

"How do you know it was dead," I asked him.

"It wasn't moving," he replied.

I was trying to keep rattlesnakes out of my mind. I knew that Pennsylvania was coming up and that Pennsylvania had many rocky slopes like Devil’s Racecourse. I also knew the rock piles like Devil’s Racecourse were ideal habitat for rattlesnakes. There were plenty of holes and crevices for their dens and for them to get shade in the heat of the day. In the cool of the morning or the evening they could slide out of their holes and onto the rocks to absorb the warmth from the rock surfaces that had been baked in the sun all day long. The rocks provided them with both the cool shade and the warmth they required to regulate their body temperature.

I looked up that Mark picking his way down the steep slope, “Where was it," I asked him.

He pointed back over his shoulder, "Up there a ways," he said.

I decided not to go back to see. I didn't want to backtrack up the slope over the rocks, and I was trying not to think about rattlesnakes or any snakes in general. To go back and see one would have been interesting, but it also would have made it harder to keep them out of my head. When hiking, there is a lot of time to think. A hiker’s mind travels to many places and he considers many things as his feet find their way along the path. The thoughts can be positive and constructive, or they can be negative, fearful, and destructive. If I started worrying about a snake behind every rock or log the overall hike would soon become a bad experience. Overall, I was successful throughout the entire trip, with the help of Dave, Mark, Paul, and others along the way, at staying positive and having fun. The hours spent hiking, I focused on the interesting things to see, the anticipation of the intermediate goals that were coming up, interesting twists and turns the trail took, and various day dreams. I took for granted all the time there was for thinking about anything I wanted to while hiking the trail. I didn't appreciate how rare and precious that luxury would become later in life.

Starting the Northern Half

That night we camped at Mackey Run Shelter. We had crossed into Pennsylvania sometime during the day, and it was a significant milestone for us. It meant that we were entering the northern half of the trail. We thought of ourselves as northern boys, having grown up in New York State. After hiking for months through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and now Maryland, we felt like we were getting closer to home which gave us a surge of energy. It was a milestone for Mark as well. The year before he had gotten this far before he ran out of money and had to end his hike. From this point in, he was in new territory along the trail. We went to sleep that night feeling very good about our trip and how it was going.

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