“You coming to the party?” he asked.
I turned around on the trail and noticed a guy about my age. He was holding a scrub brush in his hand.
“No?” I replied sheepishly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I didn’t have much time to say anything else as he smiled at me and kept on walking.
“We’re cleaning the graffiti off of Wolf Rocks!” he proclaimed.
I shrugged and kept hiking. I was less than one mile into Pennsylvania’s John P. Saylor Trail. This one was much shorter (less than 20 total miles between two loops) than my usual outings and I intended to take it peaceful and steady. The first color of autumn was beginning to appear and the weather was perfect for a late September walk in the woods.
It didn’t take long for me to discover what my brush-wielding friend was talking about. I came upon a group of about twenty folks hard at work in the morning sun scrubbing and power washing a significant rock formation that was covered in decades of youthful vandalism. Then I even saw a friendly face: Georgetta, whom Claudio and I had met hiking the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, was the local inspiration and one of the primary organizing forces in this operation to clean Wolf Rocks. There were gallons of sophisticated and eco-friendly cleaning solution, gloves, snacks, brushes, and – truly amazing – portable water backpack power sprayers designed for forest fire fighting, complete with refill tank courtesy of the great folks of Gallitizan State Forest. I stayed for about an hour to help scrub and wash some rocks, then went on my merry way. My scrub brush friend, Dan, ended up being a veteran who, over one of his deployments, was located not far from me in South-Central Iraq in 2008-2009. Small world. What an inspiration these folks are to make a difference in this world. Organizing can bring people together and accomplish miracles. (Probably should have scrapped my hike and stayed to help for the day, alas.)
As for the rest of the hike, it was pretty damn nice. I soaked up the color and took several long breaks in open fields and bogs. The reds, oranges, and yellows of the heath and ferns complemented the maples beginning to turn bright colors. Most of the beech and birch trees weren’t quite yet ready to turn. Their green provided a pleasant backdrop. To cross Clear Shade Creek between the main loop and the Middle Ridge Loop, I carefully picked (and filmed) my way over a wobbly yet fundamentally sound suspended bridge as a bit of a highlight and continued on through hemlock to hike another few miles before stopping for the “evening” at 3:30 p.m. to exhale in solitude.
I had expected a bit of competition for my prime spot, located in an open field with small Adirondack shelter, picnic table, and fire ring. I had seen a few other backpackers along the way and it should have been peak backpacking season on a trail such as this. But no, I had the place to myself. One backpacker wandered through after I had set up for the evening and I was about to encourage him to join since there was plenty of space. He pushed on. I did run into him the next day, however. Luke was a serious backpacker from Baltimore with about ten trips under his belt and an ever increasing appetite to be out in the woods. I talked up DC UL Backpacking and hope to see him again.
My challenge for the evening was NOT moving. Easier said than done based on my usual style of hiking dawn to dusk. I set up my X-Mid in the field. I gathered firewood and situated my little camp chair. I examined the large open field and noted its features. Then I relaxed. For five hours I let the sun set and the clouds roll out as night came. One by one the stars appeared and the moon rose. I sat snuggly by my little fire to take it all in. I actually eschewed my normal ration of deoch uisce beatha for a perfectly sober night with a spot of herbal tea. I did pack a cigar. My substance-free hypocrisy only goes so far.
The next morning I slept in until 7:00 a.m. and then finished my last six or so miles back to my car parked at the Babcock Picnic Area. The sun was out with more brilliance and fewer clouds than the day before. The colors were brighter still. I mused about how fast autumn swept through a deciduous east coast forest like this. I planned to backpack again in a couple weeks. But I don’t know what I’ll find when I head out then. Could be that even over such a short span I but note the beginning and the end of such visual fall splendor.
A note on gear for those who care. I didn’t NEED to buy anything this summer. My UL gear list is pretty complete. But I couldn’t help outfitting myself with a new shelter, pad, quilt, and backpack for the rotation for gits and shiggles. This was the first hike I had all of the new stuff out together. My X-Mid 1P is pleasant but I miss my more durable and water-repellant Dyneema CF Yama Mountain Gear shelter. Glad I have the X-Mid just in case or to let others use it. It’s a well-made and super easy to pitch tent. It’s also very cost friendly for those on a budget. My Neoair Uberlight pad is exactly that: really light. This is probably the last trip I’ll take it out on until next May, however, since it’s doesn’t provide much insulation. I have a bevy of other pads to choose from for the fall/winter/spring, notably its Neoair Xtherm cousin. This was the second trip for my Zpacks Arc Blast backpack. I adore it. It’s comfy and light and water-resistant. My newest item, an Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt stuffed with synthetic APEX fiber and rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, seemed great on its first night of use. It doesn’t compress as well as my down bags and quilts but I’m happy to add it to my gear collection for when I want something that I don’t need to worry so much about getting wet and ruining its insulating properties.