“Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”
Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns moved me in ways few books have. Reading Caste, her second book, was a different but no less profound experience. While the former was about the past, albeit a past that is all too resonant, Caste is a challenge to the present and the future. She challenges all of us to find stark parallels between the racial caste of the United States with the grave injustice of India’s historical caste system and the systematized anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. While I originally raised an eyebrow from an amateur social science perspective at some of the parallels she draws and how she choose these two specific examples to pair with the United States, it didn’t take more than a couple chapters for me to go, “I get it.”
This is more than just a work of non-fiction and it’s more than a challenge. Wilkerson’s message is transcendent. Her writing is lyrical and it is penetrating. It has the force of music. It is a tone poem weaving the melody of fact with the harmony of analysis; with the chords of social imperatives and the syncopation of structural racism. The vivid notes of her own life strike the reader as profoundly as the resounding gong clash of the historical references she employs.
One such reference stands out with such profundity that I ended up slowly coming to my feet while reading it. Once I came to, I remember looking around the room with revulsion. With intimate, in-the-room detail she recounts Nazi Germany efforts to study and incorporate legalized Jim Crow racism into mid-30s anti-Semitic laws. Most harrowing were the pieces of American racism too extreme for Nazi Germany. This is a good example of historical record somewhat known and previously published that Wilkerson expertly wends into her overarching narrative with precision.
This is a necessary work at a necessary time. There is appropriate destiny in its release after the onslaught of racially cruel COVID-19 and the resounding call for equality and equity unleashed following the murder of George Floyd. She had already been researching and writing for several years, admittedly against the backdrop of the race-baiting, dog-whistle blowing recent U.S. politics. Her attention to detail and her power of the English language serves not just her but everyone who experiences her writing and thoughts well. This is a book that is far from a rehash of well-known anecdotes and critical race theory. It is fresh. It is grounded. And it is important.
If you are reading this and find your hackles raising in internal defensiveness, I suggest you examine that closely. I greatly appreciate that Wilkerson gives us new vocabulary to confront an old evil. She even deftly discusses the use of the word “racism” itself, noting that it does not serve society as a lobbed end to a conversation or career but rather the basis to start talking and delving deeper to actually effect change. I get all too well how awkward and daunting it is to read, confront, and discuss racism from any demographic perspective — personally as a white cis heterosexual eldest child middle class male. But I sure as hell also know it’s much worse for those who are defined by it against their will. This is on all of us. Reading is the least we can do.
Warning: This post requires some knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying to understand its myriad references.
I can’t remember the exact year. Probably 1993. I do remember the basements, however. Plural. We were forced into multiple dark corners for this particular hobby, it being the time when some parents still worried that we were enacting satanic rituals. These were the places where epic fantasy came alive and we got to star in it. It probably goes without saying that we were all fantasy nerds back then. In those days it was a steady diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tad Williams, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan. George R. R. Martin came along for us a little later. I distinctly remember trying to hide a copy of Game of Thrones under my jacket in the high school hallway so my junior prom date wouldn’t see it in passing as she walked past my locker. Lord, I wish I could tell 17 year old me that in 20 years it would be the coolest damn thing around.
Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying brought the epic fantasy we read to life. Several of us dabbled in creative writing and being DM (Dungeon Master — the story architect and rules tsar who runs the game for their friends, a role that is both inspired and confrontational) but in those days it was our buddy Brian who had the mind to make it all work. We still remember those early player characters fondly. Heck, Brian revived them as ancient heroes in a current campaign he has run for over five years. I can say that the wild mage I played then, who had a penchant for using a Wand of Wonder to create elephants out of thin air ten feet above adversaries, still rankles him as a rule loop hole. (You should never have given me that wand, Brian.)
Part of the fun back then was that there were a couple rule books and maybe an adventure setting guide or two to build off of, that’s it. No internet to search and double check rule debates. No Reddit to get lost in the weeds. No Twitter to directly ask the game developer what they had in mind for a certain spell. We were left with our imaginations and the need to argue out any rule differences ourselves. 60 foot Fireballs and katanas that could attack six-times a round were a memorable result. As for those books, it turned out acquiring them was an adventure itself. In a memorable moment, Brian and I fell $1 short (taxes!) when buying our first Player’s Handbook and resorted to begging strangers for a buck in the mall. It worked, though I remember the benevolent donor following us back to Waldenbooks to make sure we really did intend to spend it on a book. (You can say we made our Persuasion check.)
Fast forward 20 years to 2015. The old crew was now in our mid-thirties. We had outgrown Dungeons and Dragons around the time Bill Clinton was reelected. But a new, fifth edition of D&D had just been developed and released by Wizards of the Coast. Fantasy, thanks to Hollywood, was cool in a mainstream way we had never seen before. All of a sudden, folks of our age cohort were playing again. Not just the nerds this time, either. Spouses, significant others of all stripes, and straight-laced acquaintances joined ad hoc groups of old school gamers. DMs were recruited or anointed. Recurring game nights became standard. And for those of you who don’t really comprehend what I’m talking about, this is a commitment. Most games last months if not years. Some are weekly game nights, others monthly or even less frequently — though usually hours long each time. All involve the unique backstory and particulars invented by the player of a character created who joins with others in a quest that sees them grow from a newbie adventurer to a world-conquering hero — or anti-hero, as murder hobos go. It is collective story telling and requires all the “authors” to do this together. The stakes are trivial and monumental at the same time. Characters face death; their players are often heartbroken to have to create a new one after calamity strikes the campaign.
I personally went from not playing in decades to 1) playing a Human Barbarian with a group of DC UL Backpackers and friends; 2) DMing a monthly wine-infused Friday night campaign with a few couples whose nerd men taught their ladies the roleplaying ropes (with Jay and Colin added to the mix for good measure); and 3) playing — I kid you not — a saucy female Halfling Pirate/Fighter in a weekly group of “Ambassadork” men with female player characters we nicknamed the Spicy Girls (Sergio put up with some crazy stuff from us as DM; and Marcus, god bless him, brought us into his lovely home each week to host these antics; and Gary, god bless his soul, played with us as one of the last joys of his life before passing unexpectedly).
Over the years other groups came and went, including a memorable crew of wife/work friends/backpacking friends/HS friend/and cousin who joined me on a year plus campaign using Roll20, an online platform, when I moved to Haiti. A group emerged in Haiti itself, appropriately nicknamed “Dungeons and Voodoo.” A later group, DMed by Jerome, even allowed me to recreate my childhood wild mage as a sorcerer in the last in-person crew I was part of . . .
Which leads me to the crescendo of this story: roleplaying in 2020 and the COVID-19 era. What was already a mainstay in my life — and many others too according to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the USA Today — exploded as a virtual game night in households worldwide. I’ve never played more in my life, almost exclusively on Roll20. We couldn’t go out so we made the best of staying in.
My friend Jay leads a gallant weekly crew through the vampire horrors of the Curse of Strahd. He even got us up to 9th level already. My original crew of high school friends has joined up for not one but two regular weekly sessions. On Friday nights the OG early 90s crew gets together, Pete – a sharp witted lawyer – DMing, to take on a pirate-themed quest set amidst the Ghosts of Saltmarsh while we talk about wives, kids, work, and whatnot, and another midweek game night, Pete also DMing, involving a few extras, like my wife Cheryl, Pete’s sister Josie, and Justin’s friend Andrew. In one notable week both crews unrelatedly decided to take on — and lose dramatically — to two different dragons. We now know not to mess with Pete’s dragons.
Roleplaying is spontaneous. It’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s also acting and escapism. Most of all, it’s a great way to spend hours bonding with friends. What could be more necessary in 2020?
Hats off to the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. None of this would have happened without a well-crafted and balanced set of rules and background to create vivid player characters set amidst fantastical worlds. And it wouldn’t have worked as well virtually without Roll20 (and Pete’s Zoom account). But it definitely wouldn’t even be possible in the first place without great friends with creative minds.
You might ask how I accidentally ended up with a DC UL Backpacking crew. In this case, what started as a Purple Lizard map hike that I intended to do as yet another solo adventure in this time of socially distancing ended up being shared by email to a few backpacker pals just in case someone wanted to join me. The OG plan was to form a “pod” and car shuttle together for a point-to-point 50 mile trip along Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek gorge, the so-called Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Brian said, “Sure!” Sophie too. Michael and Jen were all of a sudden free for the weekend. Heck, Kylie and Karan decided to stop by to camp Friday night. Claudio planned to join for Saturday. Things went from solo to a pseudo-DC UL group outing in the blink of an eye. Turned out that Pine Creek Outfitters preferred to shuttle our cars for us — rather than physically transport us as hikers. This meant we could all ride up on our own, keep our distance in the woods, and not even risk proximity by cramming in a van together. We just needed to have faith our cars would magically be transported . . .
(Once I thought of “Accidentally DC UL” on the trail, I couldn’t get my Gen X ear worm of Counting Crows out of my head. You’re welcome.)
You might also ask what a Purple Lizard map hike is. The amazing folks of Purple Lizard stepped into the information void of the Mid-Atlantic by producing detailed trail maps, mostly of Pennsylvania and West Virginia so far. With exhaustive maps like this, it’s easier than ever to creatively link established trails and notable areas to form extended outings. The first such trip by me was our June “Mid-Stone Loop.” For this trip, I realized that the 10-mile Golden Eagle Trail could be connected to the 30-mile West Rim Trail by hiking 11 scenic miles of the Pine Creek Rail Trail. Et voila, a Purple Lizard map hike. We joked about calling it the Eagle Pine Rim Trail. Trademark pending.
On Friday evening we made our way separately after work to a campsite Jen reserved near the Black Walnut Bottom camping area along Pine Creek. It was just a short drive from the Golden Eagle Trail parking area, where we would leave our cars for Pine Creek Outfitters to deliver north the next morning. Brian and I arrived late and randomly shared a beverage with a dad in the parking lot who happened to be biking past me as I offered a beer to Brian. (“I’ve had a few already but why not!” said Chris, our new friend.)
With the DC UL crew snoring already amongst the pines, Brian and I successfully roused Karan for a night cap before bedding down. Karan broke the news to us that he had recently suffered a freak shoulder injury and would not be able to do the whole trail with us, just the Golden Eagle loop in the morning.
We got up early and parked our cars with keys carefully left according to instructions negotiated with Pine Creek Outfitters. Claudio appeared after having driven overnight. In true Tarzan fashion, he had already made himself a full breakfast in the back of his pickup with a portable grill and shook off his two hours of sleep. He laughed when he saw me and realized I didn’t have any phone signal overnight. He had — now ironically — left me a stream of messages over whether or not he would make it. We all set off on the gorgeous Golden Eagle Trail, a ten mile loop known for being one of the best of its kind in Pennsylvania — thanks no doubt to views extending into the Pine Creek gorge. We met a day hiker who joined our group for the morning and encouraged her to become a DC UL regular. Sadly, after completing our ten miles it was time to say goodbye to Claudio, Kylie, Karan, and our new friend. But not after a beer together in the parking lot! Our cars had yet to be whisked off.
Jen, Michael, Sophie, Brian, and I started north on Pine Creek Rail Trail, a 62 mile former railroad along Pine Creek. Our 11 miles on it took us past lovely scenery, sandwiches at Wolfe’s General Store (where Kylie, Karan, and Claudio yet again stopped by for lunch), and the Cedar Run Inn. Bikers passed on with smiles every few minutes. Though 60 miles of flat terrain would be a bit much to backpack, sharing this short segment felt perfect. We like deep woods but we love Pennsylvania rustic hospitality. In the late afternoon we finished on the rail trail and hiked into the forest to camp for the evening and start the West Rim Trail the next morning. I grabbed some water from Pine Creek itself. Seemed appropriate to drink some of it if we were going to be either walking along it, staring at it from lofty heights, or otherwise experiencing its geological impact all weekend.
Our campsite was spacious beneath a thick grove of pines. Sophie had a bit of a shock, however, when she realized her tent poles had begun to snap. Jen and Brian helped her MacGyver a fix for the evening with some tape and a trekking pole. We got a little roaring fire going and enjoyed our whiskey supplies whilst catching up with each other. Come the morning, Sophie realized our fix had made things worse: her rain fly was now punctured. Expecting some rain for our final night on the trail (thanks to Cheryl, who relayed the weather report to me through my Garmin GPS satellite connection) we made notional plans for Sophie to sleep under Brian’s hammock tarp if we couldn’t patch her tent up.
The West Rim Trail, one of the jewels of Pennsylvania’s hiking crown, is a 30-mile point-to-point hike that follows the Pine Creek gorge. On a long holiday weekend in peak foliage season, we anticipated it would be crowded. It was. But by us starting it northbound on Sunday rather than Saturday with our unique itinerary, we both smiled at other southbound groups on the trail as we passed but otherwise still felt as if we had the place to ourselves. The only folks hiking our direction were a pair of day hikers who started at 7:00 a.m. with us and kept catching up with our crew when we took breaks. The five of us enjoyed grand vistas of autumn gold and orange. All of the red sugar maple leaves, unfortunately, had just fallen. I guess this is what was meant by “starting to fade.” The red forest floor was pleasant enough of a contrast.
At our mile 14 for the day, we regrouped at the Bradley Wales Picnic Area, a spot that promised a water pump and bathrooms. The two day hikers finished up behind us and were done for their day. When I walked up to the picnic area, Sophie was chatting with two other backpackers waiting for a ride. They had accidentally left their keys behind and needed a friend to come shuttle them. Despite their mistake, they were friendly and full of smiles as we hung out together and discussed living in Pennsylvania. Sophie informed me glumly that the water pump was locked. I was a little sad — even mad for a second. I thought it irresponsible for the forest service folks to lock a water pump during such a dry time of year in which water sources on the trail were few and far between. I walked over, noted the lock attached to a side pipe on the rusted pump, and then started to pump. Oh hey, it wasn’t actually locked after all! The pump itself, pulling water from 250 feet below (per the sign), was a doozy. My little arms weren’t quite up to the task on their own so I had to do a little jumping action to put my weight into it. The water was delicious.
Sophie decided to use the serendipitous meeting of the two backpackers waiting for keys to call an early end to her hike. She was worried about her shelter in the coming rain and would simply hail a ride and go back to her car to drive home. We said goodbye and the four of us finished out our final four miles for the day to camp at a high and dry vista site. I was now the only ground shelter of the group. I set up on a nice patch of moss. Michael, Jen, and Brian slung their hammocks in the trees. In no time, a fire was roaring again. Twilight fell in the lovely Pine Creek gorge. Sadly, our lengthy evening the night before had drained our whiskey reserves a little more than desired. Michael declared it “The Great Whiskey Shortage of 2020.” I felt personally responsible as the party member nicknamed Whiskey Fairy. Usually I bring a lot so folks can share. But in this time of social distancing I took half my normal amount and was unable to provide golden libations for our crew.
As Cheryl had accurately relayed through my Garmin, the rain started up in the middle of the night. Though threatened as Hurricane Delta remnants, all that reached northern Pennsylvania was a light drizzle. We packed up in a pleasant mist and enjoyed the clouds throughout our final 12 miles of the day. Near the end we had a little dance party at Barbara Rock.
We met a couple pairs of backpackers from DC on the final stretch. Turns out the DMV is well represented in the north woods! We finished out our hike with a road mile or so from the northern terminus of the West Rim Trail to Pine Creek Outfitters itself. We were relieved to see our cars right where they were supposed to be.
I would say that this was yet another Purple Lizard map hike for the win. I think all of us took turns perusing our maps during breaks and dreaming up other trail combinations in the area. The Mid State Trail, Black Forest Trail, and other notable day hikes are resplendent in greens and blues on the high quality map. We got a great lead from a local trail maintainer (hi Peter!) for a side trail to a little gem of a backcountry spot nicknamed “Little Italy” to inspire some future ideas. Next time, PA.
“Come on, come on Hike a little faster Come on, come on The world will follow after Come on, come on ‘Cause everybody’s after trails . . .”
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.
Note: This is a review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series. While I avoid overt plot points and specific spoilers, it’s impossible to write a review like this without delving into the dynamics of this work of art. I very much enjoyed reading the series — even in 2020, a couple years after publication of its final volume to much fanfare — knowing as little as I could about it. You have been warned.
I knew after finishing Jemisin’s first volume, The Fifth Season, that I was dealing with a creator already at the pinnacle of the genre wielding some of the most deft writing craft I’ve read in a long time. I was also learning from a writer of tremendous insight into the human condition. And I was certainly encountering an artist of the 21st century able to incorporate vital elements of our world experience today seamlessly into her craft. The second volume, The Obelisk Gate, employing evolving technique to unfold the world build and story, solidified that I wasn’t dealing with a fluke. Much to the contrary. I decided to slow down and transition my own reading style from “brisk genre read” to a more literary fiction mode. Coincidently, I was at the beach to read much of the final volume, The Stone Sky, which meant more dedicated time for reading in general. While finishing the series, I realized how important it really was. I’ve read tens of thousands of pages of fantasy novels. The Broken Earth stood out in ways and impact that I haven’t felt in a contained trilogy* since the Lord of the Rings**.
*For better or worse, I need to make this critical distinction in the fantasy genre. I won’t get into a stand-alone novel accolade (yet) but there is a big difference between a fairly short — hey, this is fantasy we’re talking about — trilogy and the longer multi-volume series we often encounter. I do put Lord of the Rings in the former category, despite the existence of the Hobbit, the Silmarillion, and reams of published notes. This is the same category of The Broken Earth. I have no doubt that if Jemisin had spent much of her creative life on this one series, we too would have a prequel for kids and published lore/notes. But the truth, which I’m going to experience soon, is that she is already a prolific writer at the beginning of her career. That’s quite the Tolkien difference. The best is probably yet to come, though I doubt that this trilogy will be expanded upon. She has so much more to write. That is mind boggling.
**I have never compared another trilogy to the Lord of the Rings. Well, not like this at least. Tolkien has been at the center of my reading world since my father read LOTR to my siblings and I as single-digit beings. I later read it annually for ten straight years. I emblazoned my body with a Tolkien tattoo (so did my siblings). I absolutely acknowledge his impact with LOTR to spur a new and colossal genre. Jemisin isn’t working from scratch the way Tolkien was, but I can’t help feeling that her impact will be commensurate to the 21st century.
The Good. Jemisin’s technique is stunning. In addition to the believable, inspired, unique, and penetrating characters, Jemisin’s world build and point-of-view elements of craft are spot on perfect. All throughout the trilogy I had moments of euphoria brought on by how she came about the actual telling and showing of this tale. But this would feel stale and clinical were it not for the humanity she brought to the characters and the thematic material. For the latter, there will be dissertations written about this one day. The Broken Earth is too much art to be reduced or defined into any single element. It’s not a book about race and enslavement. Or revolution. Or conservationism and humankind’s impact on global climate change. Or family. But the truth is that Jemisin blends these powerful themes into the trilogy as companion musical lines to her three-movement symphony. She also weaves in aspects of sexuality and identity that have been ignored or avoided by most other writers of this (or any) genre. And by weave, I mean she incorporates it so matter-of-factly that she is able to bestow respect and grace to the spectrum of humanity that the reader is left wishing for this normalcy in the real world. As a final note here, as a cisgendered white male heterosexual reader I have read about myself in almost every novel since I was seven. Jemisin centered the story around a mother and a daughter. Their points of view and the heartbreaking rift (pun intended) between them felt new, almost sacred to me. I did not know when I opened the first page that I was reading the story of two intertwined females and the end of the world. I am better for it in so many ways.
The Nitpicking. What, you thought I would even have such a section? I don’t need to. But there are a couple things that did flit through my mind coming from who and what I am as a reader. I love epic medieval worlds of swords and sorcery. I don’t prefer mixed sci-fi/fantasy world builds over the former. But I certainly read and enjoy them. I don’t mean this much more than noting being surprised at a favorite movie that happens to be in a sub-genre I don’t typically seek out. Jemisin avoids pure medieval fantasy for a complicated time-spanning world that includes high-technology civilizations, though the main tale is set in a low-technology and high-magic epoch. It’s probably the magic element that saves this for me and indeed could have me making a case that The Broken Earth’s technology is anything but. The other thing that I’m still processing in relation to the trilogy is the “art of not-telling” in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Much of what I love is often what is not spelled out for me. Things that are left to vague impressions and leading lingers of depth speak to me. Jemisin does this with aplomb throughout much of the first two books. In the third, she chooses to close a lot of loops with well-crafted but still mostly defined exposition. It’s possible the series would not work without her specific process, I admit. It’s highly likely the trilogy would not be as accessible to an audience not on the same wavelength as me with this point. But I thought it worth mentioning since this is ultimately my review.
Go Read The Broken Earth. If for some strange reason you read this and haven’t added these books to your pile or list or audio playlist, you know what to do. You’re welcome. I’m excited for time and history to elevate this trilogy to the top of pantheon. It has subtly yet powerfully changed the genre. Jemisin’s only threat here is to herself were she to continue to write and grow and evolve with all of us as solemn and eager witnesses to her craft. She probably will do just that. But I have a feeling The Broken Earth will always be special.
July 2010. One of my early backpacking outings was a trip to hike the 60-mile Loyalsock Trail with a crew led by hiking guru Doug (who, as a side note, is as accomplished on the trail as he is a witty mensch in personality, though now out in the PNW instead of the DMV). Back then we unwisely went at my urging on a very hot weekend in a similarly paced three-day version that I thought I had in the bag as a spry 30-year old who had just completed a similar 70-mile trail. Well, I was wrong. The high 80s heat, the rocks, the myriad ups and downs, and — probably the worst thing — our 24+ daily mileage plan got to me and a buddy who couldn’t keep up with Doug and the vanguard hikers. My buddy and I made it as far as World’s End State Park and around 44 miles on day two and called it quits on the final 15 miles or so. Fast forward ten years. Never finishing the Loyalsock Trail stuck with me. I had never bailed on any other hiking trip, then or since. But though I returned to the mid-Atlantic and continued to hike the exquisite trails of Pennsylvania over the past several years, the Loyalsock remained elusive. It was my white whale, always on the horizon and out of reach. Even when others in DC UL Backpacking planned to hike it, I was always somehow busy and couldn’t join.
Labor Day Weekend 2020. My wife and I chatted weekend plans and settled on me taking Labor Day for a backpacking trip. Neither of us overthought the date, we just figured we would use Columbus Day for something else. Almost as an epiphany, the Loyalsock Trail came to mind and became a fixation. I was finally ready to complete it. Typically I would gather a DC UL Backpacking crew and plan a little adventure with friends. But COVID-19 was still a threat to planning and people. The group deemed it unwise to carpool up and shuttle cars from end-to-end as a formal outing. Undaunted, I arranged a shuttle service to get me to the far end of the trail — just me safely distanced in a ten-person van — and focused on a solo outing. Figured that if Captain Ahab had simply been able to go after Moby Dick all by himself, it would have spared the others on the Pequod the consequences of his own personal obsession.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have an opportunity to take time off of work for this trip. This made it so that I would have to get the 4.5 hour drive up to the Williamsport vicinity of Pennsylvania from Alexandria, Virginia after work on Friday and back home again by Monday evening. And oh yeah, almost 60 miles of hiking in between that drive. Instead of trying to shuttle and hike on Friday evening, I opted for a 6:00 a.m. Saturday shuttle pick up in Dushore at the eastern end of the trail to drive me to the southwestern trail head. I made reservations at the truly lovely Pavilion in the Park B&B in Laporte for Friday night, minutes from the trail. Though normally I try to maximize my nights in a tent, this felt right. I arrived in Laporte, a small resort area embedded in Pennsylvania’s deep history of hunting, trapping, logging, tanning, and mining, and let the DC hustle and everything else slip away as I sat on the pavilion’s broad porch and welcoming breeze, Yuengling in hand. The temperature that evening, and indeed over the entire weekend, was truly ideal: I would never be hot, cold, wet, or otherwise uncomfortable the entire trip. Not a drop of moisture and blessedly low humidity. Sunny days in the 60s and 70s and crisp nights in the 50s. The trail gods would smile upon this whaling expedition — mostly.
Day One. 23.5 Miles from the PA-87 SW trail head past Angel Falls.
I slipped quietly out of Laporte around 5:30 a.m. and made the short drive to the northeastern Dushore trail head. There my perfect shuttle service picked me and drove me to the other end of the trail. They were awesome, punctual, and even gave me a little understanding of the area from a local perspective. By 7:00 a.m., I was heading straight up the side of the ridge in the morning light for what was probably the most strenuous uphill portion of the trail. I was treated to several vistas over the first few miles itself and the appearance of hemlock glades and exotic sandstone formations that came to define the natural splendor of the trail. Look, I love PA hiking trails. I’ve done the Mid State Trail, the STS, the Black Forest Trail, Chuck Keiper, AFT, Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, the Standing Stone Trail, and Quehanna. So I know from experience that Kodak-worthy scenic spots defined by vistas, waterfalls, or similarly notable landmark are few and far between in the commonwealth. Not so with the Loyalsock. This is an area where it really stands out compared to its trail peers. Despite ridges topping at a little over 2,000 feet with no chance of a tree line, the Loyalsock creek and tributaries had cut dramatic reliefs throughout the area. While 2,000 feet is not high by anyone’s mountain standard, the trail rarely remained level. I was constantly ascending and descending 200-500 foot increments every mile or so.
I met my first fellow backpackers around 9:00 a.m. when we both stopped to refill water. They were from New York with a cute trail dog and a five day complete trail itinerary. I could tell already that they were doing it right. I signed the trail register and off I went to explore new vistas and enjoy some amazing trees along the way. The oak, maple, birch, and hemlock forest gave way increasingly to beech groves too. I saw a few ash and elm trees mixed in and marveled at their tenacity to hold on despite the loss of so many of their fellow species. I passed another solo hiker going the opposite direction who was aiming to hike into the night to complete his final 14 miles of trail. He had a big smile on his face and was enjoying the weather and sights as much as I was. I was thankful to be the one who had 45 miles to go.
Around mile 16 for the day I came off the ridge proper and followed the Loyalsock Trail to a country road for a few miles. As I came closer to humanity, I was serenaded by a fascinating medley of gun shots: black powder cracks, semi-automatic medium caliber barrages, a few shotgun blasts, and a couple explosions that sounded more like cannons and grenades to me than anything else. I never did see a range but passed by close enough that I was nervously watching the surrounding trees for any sign of bullets. The first few miles of road walking were forgettable except for some fun-loving ATVs roaring past. The last couple miles, however, were a real treat as the road and trail passed some modern civilization in the form of hunting clubs with festive long weekend crowds and some pieces of history as well. The remnants of the Wind-Whistle Inn and a former casino and resort cabins hearkened back over one hundred years to when this area was a haven for at-play loggers and their entourages while every tree was stripped from the region for lumber and tanning (hemlock bark being a key ingredient for 19th century leather tanning).
I left civilization late in the afternoon, making slower time than I had anticipated. My plan was to get to Angel Falls before sunset for a good view and then onward to find a suitable camp. I pushed on as golden hour transitioned to twilight as I reached the trickle that is late summer Angel Falls. I wasn’t disappointed, however, since the dramatic cliffs around it were stunning in their own way. I dangled my legs and sipped a little whisky to take it in. Then I moved on to find a flat spot for my tent for the evening. Hiker midnight came at 9:00 p.m. for my eight hours of sleep before hitting the trail dark and early for another 20+ mile day.
Day Two. 22 Miles of Hiking from Mile 23.5 to World’s End Vista. Not the Plan. Read On.
I was up at 5:30 a.m. and hiking by 6:00 a.m. — necessary for me to put in the miles at a somewhat leisurely pace. I do like to hike all day but I’m not trying to break speed records and I just want to take it all in. This section of the Loyalsock Trail was truly spectacular. There were waterfalls everywhere, despite the relatively dry season. Vistas too. There were amazing, towering sandstone features. As noted above, this aspect of the Loyalsock Trail made it feel to me like a greatest hits album version of Pennsylvania trails. Rarely did I go more than a couple miles without seeing something else of striking note. I took a particularly long break at one of the Ketchum Run waterfalls to enjoy a leisurely lunch and a cigar. I met a great Philadelphia area backpacking couple who knew the trail well. We talked theoretical linguistics and living in Morocco for a bit while also sharing trail recommendations.
Once I began to push on, I realized that extended waterfall and vista breaks were going to cut into my late afternoon hiking plans. I knew in the planning phase that my approximate mileage-based campsite for this second night was unfortunately in the middle of World’s End State Park — off-limit to backcountry backpackers like myself for about seven miles of the Loyalsock Trail. Early on in my pre-trail planning, I played around with camping just short of the park boundary or even carefully planning to hike away from the park along one of the creeks for the night. But as the hike was about to begin on Friday, I realized that Monday, September 7 was my wedding anniversary. Somehow when thinking of “Labor Day weekend” it had slipped both of our minds. But once I realized it, I knew I needed to be back home for at the very least an anniversary dinner together. This meant I couldn’t pull up short on Sunday and lengthen my miles for Monday. I set my goal to hike past High Rock Vista to end up past World’s End State Park for a legal camping area. This would have been at approximately mile 47 on the Loyalsock mile markers and about 23.5 miles for the day.
I made it to the expansive views and purple hued skies of the Loyalsock Canyon Vista at about 20 miles for the day around 6:45 p.m. and thought about having an early dinner to keep up my energy for a hike into the evening. The view was excellent and I reminisced about hitchhiking from here in 2010 during my failed outing. This was the exact spot where my previous attempt had ended in ignominy. But there was a bunch of folks at the overlook heatedly debating presidential politics and I just couldn’t stand to be around it. I had fled DC to the woods for a reason. I pushed on, down into World’s End proper along Rattlesnake Switchback and a series of scenic stream crossings.
The so-called Link Trail came in to join the Loyalsock for a hot sec and confused me a bit in the twilight. At one point I ended up on it and its similarly featured metal medallion blazes before realizing I was off the Loyalsock Trail. I briefly considered just taking the shorter Link Trail down to the state park but then turned around in the dark to backtrack to the Loyalsock Trail proper and my hike back up the ridge to meet “Pioneer Road,” a stretch of trail that followed an old wagon road before bridges were built over Loyalsock creek. I was not going to come all this way to skip a single yard of the Loyalsock Trail, I grumbled out loud in my best whaler captain voice. Night came on fast and I was pretty beat. I made it as far as World’s End Vista at about mile 45.5 and looked at the sharp descent down toward the visitor’s center. I also thought of the likely straight shot back up the High Rocks trail portion on the other side of the state park creek side area. I did not want to do either of those two things in the dark. And so I looked at a relatively flat “Pioneer Road” trail spot and set up my tent for the night. No fire, no impact or trace, and a spot that I seriously doubt anyone had considering sleeping on past the 19th century. Yes, this was not technically permitted. I regret it and would never have taken a group to this spot. But I was solo and I was back up and hiking by 6:00 a.m. the next morning. I didn’t see a soul. Apologies to the state park and fellow backpackers for this breech of regulation and etiquette.
Day Three. 14 Miles from World’s End Vista to the End of the Loyalsock Trail.
As noted, I was up again early and hiking before the sun at 6:00 a.m. There was light soon enough that I could make my way through the pavilions of World’s End State Park without an issue. Once over Loyalsock creek and the lowest spot of the trail, I picked my way up the rocks up toward High Rock Vista and was glad I made the decision not to attempt this exhausted and in the dark. I hiked on in the morning, soaking in the views and reveling in the hemlocks that made this part of the trail really special. I saw another couple incredible waterfalls and surprised a few campers emerging from their tents in the morning as I strolled past. By the time I hit the Sones area, I was so absolutely smitten with the Loyalsock Trail I was actively planning how and when I could come back. There is just too much beauty and history out here. I called and wished my wife a happy anniversary while imagining us camping among the hemlocks on the banks of scenic Sones Pond. As I completed the trail along the creek, enjoying both hemlocks and rapids in the water, as well as a stretch of pleasant railroad grade trail, I was already regretting doing the trail in such a tight timeframe. I hugged the tree for mile marker 59 and signed my final trail register at 1:00 p.m.
Coda. Finished But Not Forgotten.
As noted, the Loyalsock Trail is special. Everyone should hike it. They also should do it in four or five days if they can, avoiding my second night campsite faux pas and taking in the trail for what it’s truly worth. Hiking the trail at a hefty daily mileage total made its “greatest hits album” feel a little less satisfying than enjoying the actual “albums” cover to cover. Because of this, I would still rank the quirkiness of the Mid State Trail or the profound remoteness of the STS or Quehanna Trail above the Loyalsock Trail, at least in terms of how I felt when I hiked them. I’m not a fast hiker by DC UL Backpacking standards anymore and I don’t rush through any trails for the sake of it. But I do like to complete trails and am mindful about the drive and taking too much time off of work. I got in a celebratory beer and lunch at D&D Brew Works and their cool terrace before leaving the area. I was a little sad that I missed rendezvousing with some DC ULers in Williamsport after they completed hiking the nearby Old Loggers Path Trail. I will assuredly be back to the Loyalsock area. I won’t wait ten years. I won’t have the whale of a failure from my first attempt hanging over me either. Not anymore.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Once I picked up and started to read Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns I put down all other books. It’s difficult to describe the particular power of this book’s information, story, history, research, and writing. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. I wish I had read it years ago. I wish everyone read it. I know that it is again on bestselling lists thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and an awakening to the cruel past and enduring present of racial injustice in the United States. I’m included (sadly, after some soul searching) in the broad swath of U.S. society previously unmotivated to be stirred to daily action by the type of social movement stirring the Zeitgeist now. Like many, I had not previously been inspired to actively address these issues by working toward meaningful change as a matter of urgent need. This comes with no small amount of self-criticism and guilt. Why did I take so long to wake up to something so obvious and damning? More importantly, what do we do next? I share the skepticism expressed by many, particularly Black Americans, that the protesting and social media professing underway in 2020 isn’t enough and doesn’t constitute action in and of itself. Also like many, I don’t have a good answer for what action does need to come next. Not exactly. I have some ideas though. I’m open to anything, I think, and want to put that to the test.
I want to analyze what The Warmth of Other Suns means to me. I can’t remember being so affected by a book before, fiction or nonfiction. I didn’t want to put it down. I woke up in the night shaken, haunted by Jim Crow. I’ve gone 40 years, some of which were spent as the product of homogenous neighborhoods in Massachusetts and Ohio but some other years were spent in proximity to non-white populations as neighbor, coworker, and fellow citizen, without feeling this pressure before. First and foremost, Wilkerson’s majestic and informed prose links the legacy of slavery — a continuous and defining factor in North America since 1619 — with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the continuity of systematic racism deep into the 20th century. While she doesn’t overtly link the continuation of these horrors to the present day, at least in this book, my mind immediately made all the connections necessary for me to be shook. It is now impossible for me to think about the police killings of recent years as anything other than on the same spectrum as Black inhumane treatment as slaves and widespread lynching commonplace in the United States in the 100 years following the Civil War.
It is evident that the justice and equality improvements fought for and earned in the 1950s and 1960s would not have been possible without mass protest. The type of mass protest that made a great percentage of white Americans uncomfortable and led them to criticize the very tactics that effected change while notionally admitting problems existed. Those sentiments are present today, woven into the fabric of our current political reality.
As a personal note, part of my self-analysis is focused on how and why I have lived so blind to modern racial injustice until this year. I think part of it is a general individual focus. I’ve written about that elsewhere in the blog and will probably explore more later too. Part of it is generational. Part of it upbringing. A large part personality-based too. I’m not someone generally unaware of the plight of humanity around me. But I think throughout my life I’ve thought that appropriate laws were in place to continue to make a difference and/or a critical mass in the population was committed to change to let things naturally progress. That shocks me to think about now that my eyes are opened. The Atlantic’s Jennifer A. Richeson published a must-read piece capturing a lot of these elements: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/the-mythology-of-racial-progress/614173/
I want to contrast some elements of my upbringing with this personal orientation toward keeping my head in my own bucket of sand (a significant part of my privilege). I was born in Massachusetts and lived there my first two years in the all-white and lightly populated countryside of central New England. My dad joined the Navy, however, and we moved first to Guam and then to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. I’m sure I was exposed to a more diverse set of Americans in those areas but I can’t remember many specifics. We moved back to Massachusetts when I was six and my homogenous upbringing continued. At eleven we moved again to Northeast Ohio and settled in a suburb between Cleveland and Akron. While our town itself lacked diversity, I was struck as a teenager by some parts of the area that were predominantly Black. I even remember thinking and asking why there were so many Black people in Ohio as my little mind tried to puzzle what I knew of slavery, the South, and population movement in U.S. history. The Great Migration wasn’t evident to me until later in my history classes and even then didn’t resonate the way it should have. I honestly don’t know what was more to blame: the curriculum, the teachers, or myself. I graduated, returning to Massachusetts and matriculating to a college described in a review as “diverse as a box of nails.” I took a Black History course as a senior there and remember being energized by some of what I learned. But it didn’t resonate in such a way that I saw injustice and racism around me. It felt like, well, a history class. I have to blame myself. I focused on me: my career, my hobbies, my life, my progress. Maybe it took being settled in career and family to open my eyes, selfish as that is to admit (there’s that privilege again).
As a career federal member of the DC federal workforce and representing the United States abroad on occasion, I’ve had the honor to work with diverse, brilliant colleagues who inspire me on two levels. Their success and personal attributes always stood out as they worked alongside me as amazing human beings. But the concerns and the challenges they continued to face on a daily basis also serves as powerful motivation. Many of these people — and a world that needs them as leaders — are foremost in mind as we face the next era of change together. Change, like it always does, needs to be at every possible level of life and government. That’s daunting but it’s also clear. I know I can do something at work. I hope I have the courage to risk more and face real consequence in the workplace to effect this change. Things need to change. There should be new “winners and losers” throughout a process built over generations to be conducted one way, at least in the short term. Around town and with regard to government, well, let’s see what happens next. I’m open to suggestions and will keep my radar up. I know that general protesting and slacktivism won’t be enough. Voting should mean something, of course, but there are many variables outside of our control that perplex and scare me.
Inevitably, this “What I’m Reading” update turns into a review of what I actually just finished. So be it. I finished two memorable books this week. N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is an astounding work of sci-fi/fantasy that I’m ashamed took me this long to start reading. Jemisin is a generational talent and I’m so thrilled to have started my relationship with her as a writer. The Fifth Season appealed to me not only as a genre fan (which I am) but in every reading sense too. Cheryl is going to read it next and I’m curious about her reaction. There is an extensive and intriguing world build. I wonder how Cheryl, not typically a sci-fi/fantasy reader, will take to that aspect. I assume well but if a reader isn’t used to a mystery world build full of questions as a full companion to characters, plot, and other stylistic elements this is something new. In any event, Jemisin is a master. She could have excelled in any genre. I’m so pleased and gratified she choose this one.
Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife was a great read. For me, it was a return to both his writing in general and comparative religion in specific. It did not disappoint, though I’m sad it ended where it did. Ehrman is a scholar of early Christian history and texts so I don’t fault him for ending in the 4th century CE. But this “story” most certainly doesn’t end there. In fact, I would say the medieval purgatory/Original Sin developments of the Roman Catholic Church, the fire and brimstone hell elements to American revivalism, and the modern afterlife quirks of 20th/21st century protestant evangelism deserve some exposition.
Now, on to the main event.
Category 1: Non-Fiction. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book has been on my radar to read for ten years. I think I own a Kindle version that I never started. Here it is in true book form and I’m so excited to read it. The Great Migration, the decades-long migration of black U.S. citizens from the South to northern and western cities in search of a better life, has long held my fascination as someone who grew up in Massachusetts and Ohio. I can’t wait to delve into the stories and history Wilkerson has here. I feel like this book won almost every award possible.
Category 2: Fiction. Had to immediately pick up and start N. K. Jemisin’s sequel to The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate. Can’t wait to delve and jump in. It’s the second book of the trilogy.
Category 3: Reading with Cheryl. Still on Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness. We might even finish this week. It’s a great book. It’s just a joint read so we approach and savor it.
Day One: 5 Night Miles to the Decker Shelter and 19 Miles to Rt. 30/Walat’s
When Claudio hit me up to join him on a complete hike of the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT), I smiled. Just like him, I had the LHHT on my list of must-hike Pennsylvania trails. I had also been a little scared off logistically of taking a 8-10 person DC UL group of backpackers on the LHHT because of the need to make shelter area reservations, even for hikers with their own tents and hammocks. Claudio’s timing was excellent. I didn’t have anything planned yet for July and was itching to get a long weekend trip in to break the COVID monotony. Tarzan (Claudio’s a 2017 AT NOBO 2K thru-hiker who earned his trail name for crazy stunts and sounds in the woods) and I had last been on the trail together in an amazing Shenandoah National Park cabin hike, during which he showed up and made potato pancakes, bacon, hummus, and drinks for the whole team in one of the most generous and delicious displays of trail magic I had ever encountered. Why yes, I would happily hike with him again.
Claudio/Tarzan made our official LHHT shelter area reservations with PA’s Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR). We settled on three full days of hiking, capped by a bookend late night and early morning of hiking to finish off the two main climbs up and back down the Laurel Highlands ridge. Come game day on July 15, we drove ourselves out from Northern Virginia after work. We met initially at the southern trail terminus in Ohiopyle to drop my car off and drove ourselves up to the northern terminus near Seward, PA. Let the trail begin, we said to ourselves as we cheers-ed our first beers, packed a few more in, and signed into the trail register at 9:00 p.m. to begin our southbound hike.
Darkness fell and we hiked up the ridge and into the woods together. The coronavirus, work, family, and everything else faded away as the fireflies came out and the town lights twinkled 2,000 feet below. We completed our first five or so miles to reach the Decker shelter area at around 11:00 p.m. Along the way we took in a late twilight view at the first power line clearcutting and tried to figure out what power source the electricity plant down below was fueled by. Hydro seemed a good choice with the rivers in the area but we were also in coal country. We turned left off the ridge and the LHHT proper with its yellow blazes and stone mile markers and onto our first blue-blazed connector trail, careful not to disturb any sleeping hikers as we de descended into the shelter area. We realized that we had the entire place to ourselves after a quick inspection. Not too surprising for a Wednesday evening, we thought, but we hoped for more neighbors as the days went on. Tarzan and I are pretty social dudes.
Each shelter area on the LHHT consists of half a dozen or so 2-4 person Adirondack three-sided wooden buildings with close-up fireplaces designed to keep them toasty in the chillier parts of the year. Firewood was provided so no need to hack or disturb the forest. Seeing as how we were facing 80s heat for much of our trip, we were happy to grab tent spot reservations for our hike instead. The shelter areas were also luxuriously equipped with bathrooms, water pumps (despite being a bit rusty in coloration and taste), trash cans, and an abundant supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Look, this isn’t quite normal for trails we hike. But we would take it and we would appreciate it. Each night, we were all too happy to set our beloved UL shelters up. Tarzan rocked a new Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid (with inner net/floor). I opted for my Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform for my choice. Both, of course, are made out of Dyneema Cuben Fiber for weight-conscious folks like us who also want complete weather and bug protection. We should have gone straight to bed, seeing as how it was late and our plan was to be back up at 5:30 a.m. But no, we had beers and whiskey to drink. And some catching up to do. We hit the sack – quilt, really – close to 2:00 a.m. . . .
5:30 a.m. came around and we leapt up to greet the trail despite the lack of sleep. We were a bit nervous about water sources for the day and took advantage of an unknown trail angel who dropped some water bottles off at the LHHT intersection with the connector trail, which we had spotted the evening before. Once on the trail in our hiking groove, Tarzan was moving a bit faster than me but happy to stop along the way to let me catch up. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have seen him until camp each day. The ridge forest of the trail was a feast of fascinating sandstone rock formations, an expansive open fern understory decorated with sassafras and young bushes, and a wide-range of mature trees, including several oak and maple species, beech, and the towering tulip poplar. There was also the occasional ash, Cucumber magnolia, hickory, and young American chestnut (the latter destined to die as it grew thanks to the blight), as well as thickets of hemlock, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. It was all second/third/or even fourth growth forest, with some logging still going on in the area, but it was well-maintained and forested at this point in time. The trail itself was clear and well-marked throughout. Thanks DCNR!
We came upon our very first hiker on the trail mid-morning and discovered it was none other than Georgetta, an area local who is very active hiking and maintaining the LHHT. She had connected with Tarzan on the LHHT’s informative Facebook group page and came out to meet us out-of-staters in person. Trails in general are amazing places to meet like-minded people. With Georgetta, we went from complete strangers to friends in a matter of hours. Not all the virtues of backpacking in the woods are provided by mother nature. Good folks are tough to come by in general but easily spotted on the trail. Georgetta was an excellent ambassador for the LHHT. Her accomplishments on the trail include a three-day complete hike with gear and even a 36-hour fastpack version. After a dozen total miles or so, Georgetta said goodbye and hiked back to her car. Not before giving us some great advice to make sure we used the shelter access road that night to sneak over to a little bar on the side of the road a short distance from camp.
That same the morning we crossed paths with an extended family heading north for their hike of the LHHT – and with quite the story. They should have been high in the Alps hiking together on the Tour du Mont Blanc. But no, the coronavirus-ransacked world had other plans for them. The LHHT was their vacation runner up spot. They wouldn’t be the first or last to turn to it when grander plans fell through. A father and son we met on our last night should have been in New Mexico with the boy scouts.
Georgetta must have been our good luck weather charm. As soon as she left the sky grumbled with thunder and turned grey. Then the rain came, light at first but increasing in intensity. Tarzan wetted out his rain jacket in the heat and marched happily along in the storm. I pulled out my hiking umbrella and gave myself a little extra reprieve. I knew for sure that with summer conditions I didn’t want to put another layer on while continuing to hike, though I did pack a rain shell as important emergency gear. The umbrella was just about perfect for me.
We pulled into the Rt. 30 shelter area in the afternoon and, inspired by the idea of a bar, quickly set up our shelters and marched off along the access road. We saw one other group in a nearby shelter drying their gear and invited them to the bar but they politely declined (we are gentlemen and did not want to keep this information all to ourselves). Though we came out to the woods to get away from it all, we absolutely couldn’t dream of passing up a beer at a bar if the trail gods so desire to put one within striking distance.
We walked into Walat’s and had the time of our lives for a couple hours. Walat’s, you see, is a great old school biker bar with pool tables and the lived in feel that makes all such establishments welcoming. But Walat’s takes that up a notch or five with the liveliness and spunk of its owner/operator, Marty. We were welcomed into R-rated banter with Marty and the regulars at the bar within the first few minutes. I’ve been in more than my share of trail bars before. Walat’s is up there with the best of them. Claudio/Tarzan even attempted to eat the whole portion of one of their famous ham sandwiches and failed spectacularly. After several beers and shots, we said goodbye and went back to camp. There we took advantage of an empty Adirondack shelter to make a fire and dry our stuff out too. We figured if someone showed up with a reservation for that particular dwelling, we would simply welcome them with a roaring fire and head back over to our tents. But like the night before, the shelter area was mostly empty. The rain started again as we drank our trail whiskey, smoked cigars, and enjoyed the evening.
Day Two: 22 Miles to Grindle Ridge (And Bonus Evacuation Mile)!
5:30 a.m. again. Our longest trail day before us. Blessedly, this one also crossed a road with some drinking and eating options in the afternoon, which we would not pass up. Sure, this meant that I over-packed food for the trip (Tarzan was smarter about it and anticipated our stops). But it was sure bound to taste good by mid afternoon. On the trail we hit the amazing stone cliffs of Beam Rock mid-morning and began to explore a bit. We even picked up some trash left by some naughty day hikers. When departing the area, Tarzan spotted a side trail to the summit. In a major trail mistake, I urged us forward instead of going to the top. I should have known that you never pass up a summit opportunity on the trail. Ever. Yet there I was blowing it. And blow it I did. We found out later that someone had hiked up to the top with bagpipes around that very same time and played a little concert at the top. I shake my head now as I type. I cost us a summit AND bagpipes. Unforgivable.
We enjoyed the miles of the day, particularly some really gorgeous hemlock and rhododendron forest in bloom, and eventually crossed the aforementioned road and the Highlands Market in the high heat of the afternoon. While not a bar or restaurant per se, the Highlands Market was an upscale deli and store selling beer and wine for the nearby ski resort of Seven Springs. We got sandwiches and a few beers to enjoy in yard. I even packed some beer out for the evening too. I was more than happy to keep lugging extra food weight for such goodies.
With that, we hit the trail again and the several miles through the Seven Springs resort and ski slopes. This ended up being one of the most fascinating sections of the trip. Seven Springs has horse stables along the way, not to mention ski slopes themselves literally on the trail. It was pretty empty for our summer hike but I can only imagine how cool it would be to stroll through in the winter dodging skis and snowboarders. We took a little break at the top of the resort, at their “Lake Tahoe” and thought a little bit about jumping in for a dip, though signs warned against it. We ended up behaving and boringly chatting about whether or not we had kept up our Wilderness First Aid certification. Tarzan had. I needed to take a refresher course. We also noticed on our map that we were at the highest point on the entire trail. Good place for a ski resort!
We smiled and set off to finish our last couple miles of the long, sweaty 22-mile day. After being alone on the trail for most of the day, we bumped into two groups right before the shelter: a mother and son and a young couple from Pittsburgh both out for just a night or two. The young couple, I thought, gave us an odd look as we passed them. The mother and son, on the other hand, were gregarious and friendly from the start. We would all end up staying at the same Grindle Ridge shelter area that night, but not before a startling event that brought all of us together.
Tarzan and I spotted a body collapsed on the rocks on the steep slope of the trail heading out of the narrow Blue Hole stream gulley. We also saw a strange mechanical device next to him. We raced over, the oddity of us talking about Wilderness First Aid only an hour before flitting through both of our minds. We thought he was dead when we first got near him based on the awkward angle of his body plus his pale and still face. I was thankful to hear a slight snoring sound upon closer inspection. We woke him up and got him sitting up after a quick check. He was in full helmet and padding. If he hadn’t have been equipped like that, who knows what would have happened. As it was, he was in bad shape. He was pale, dehydrated, and clearly concussed. It took him about half an hour of talking before he stopped repeating himself. He also had no memory of his accident. The contraption turned out to be a Back to the Future-looking motorized skateboard that the guy himself had built. This trail was absolutely not made for such things and it exacted its revenge with some well-placed rocks to fling him from his board.
The mother backpacker went ahead after we got the injured guy’s father’s cell number. We debated whether or not to get rangers and medical professionals out to him but once we determined that we could walk him the mile or so to a nearby road we thought it probably better to get him to the hospital with family. The plan was to get reception at the ridge and call to arrange a pickup on the forest road. The young couple sheepishly noted that they had seen him on the trail before we got there (they had been coming from the shelter area direction on a day hike out and back) and just thought he was sleeping. Tarzan gave them a little grief for that, because it was more than obvious that he was not sleeping. But that’s for them to deal with and hopefully make a different decision in the future. They were young. I gave the injured guy my remaining water, charged his dead iPhone, and began to get him ready to walk out. Tarzan grabbed the heavy machine skateboard and I took the dude’s arm and kept his balance as we made our way out of the valley and eventually to the forest road. There we met his family and gave them details of how we found him. Our best guess is that he was unconscious for an hour after getting lost on hiking trails when they intersected the Seven Springs resort trails. It wouldn’t have surprised me if dehydration led to the decision making and crash. Tarzan made use of his time to check out the board. He confirmed that it had quite the zip to it.
Once back at the shelter area, Tarzan and I set up near the others on a couple flat tent spots and enjoyed our hard-earned beer and whiskey. Later in the evening we heard back from his father that he went for a cat scan that revealed the concussion but no serious or internal injuries. Lucky dude! A couple DCNR rangers stopped by as well to check camp reservations. Our papers were in order and we told the two rangers, who could have stepped right out of central casting with burly physiques and big beards, about the injury situation. They took his and our info to check in on him. One of the rangers was about to move away when he looked at Tarzan’s Duomid and said, “Is that a Zpacks shelter?” Close but no cigar! We informed him of the glory that is Mountain Laurel Designs and Yama Mountain Gear. He responded that he could talk gear all night. We know the feeling, ranger dude!
Day Three: 18 Miles to the Ohiopyle Shelter Area
Guess what? 5:30 a.m. again. We were a bit slower getting out of camp because of the trip totality of heat, extra miles, and extra sips. Also, we only had 18 miles for the day and no beer establishments to be rushing off to. In another surprise, we crossed paths with Georgetta again, who was out with a group of friends for the weekend but heading the opposite direction. Brand new in the area and already bumping into old friends!
We were greeted by our very first spectacular vista of the trip in the morning. This one was complete with scenic rock formations below and the sweep of valley and ridges out before us. The rock of the outcrop was even naturally molded by centuries of wind and rain into seat-like hollows to sit on. We excitedly glanced at our map and saw a couple more potential vistas later in the day marked with scenic picture markers. If they were going to be like this, we thought, we were in for a treat! As we hiked we passed a lovely pond that was just a bit too mucky for an appealing dip but worked for a quick break. It was right after an interesting bit of recently logged forest that was left with hand-selected trees to build back the area. I’ve become really fascinated by forestry lately and this definitely struck me as a well-done project.
We continued on in the elevating heat (our hottest trail day so far), eager to hit the view points on the map. Tarzan left me messages in the dirt to encourage my progress, including his new catchphrase I helped to supply him with: “Hey, I’m Italian!” But we were saddened in the end by the lack of actual viewpoints at the noted spots when we arrived there. Lovely forest, sure, and a bit of a slight view. Nothing to write home in the report, alas, nor a place to extend our hike and afternoon before heading into camp. We scooted along and hit the steep decline linking us with the Ohiopyle shelter area connector trail and settled in for a relaxing evening. We had plenty of whiskey on us, thank goodness. We also were excited to stay at a shelter area that we knew from other hikers was fully booked for the night.
The Ohiopyle shelter area had a good reputation, though maybe more for proximity to the scenic southern end of the trail than for anything else, but we struggled to find ideal tent spots despite being among the first backpackers there. The shelter area was dispersed along a creek valley that made for lovely ambiance but more sloped ground than is desired for most ground shelters. We occupied a couple central spots right on the connector trail and took over the picnic table. It was an excellent spot to greet fellow backpackers arriving over the late afternoon. We met a group of young guys from St. Louis, a couple father/son duos, and a pair of hammockers who had no issues with the inclined ground. Some were doing the entire trail heading north and just starting off. A few others were just out for the night. One walked over to Tarzan’s Duomid and said, “Zpacks?” No, we laughed. In a twist later, another asked if my hiking umbrella was made by Six Moons Designs (another fine UL company). We laughed again. Turns out that the umbrella WAS actually Zpacks. To be fair, all hiking umbrellas seem to be the same design.
Day Four: 6 Miles to Ohiopyle State Park and the Youghiogheny River Gorge. The End.
I won’t lie. As much as I like long multi-day hiking trips, I love short final days. The terrain of the final southern six LHHT miles were the most difficult of the trail because of high elevation gains and losses. Most of the rest of the LHHT, in contrast, was fairly flat for PA standards. But six miles is six miles. We finished up before 10:00 a.m. even while enjoying some rock vistas along the way. We also got lapped by a mountain marathoner sprinting by us. Once back down in Ohiopyle, we were reunited with civilization. Most of the folks we saw were getting ready to hit the river on rafts and kayaks. Others were enjoying a scenic trail town at the intersection of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage. From here, one could cycle or hike all the way to DC in the distance or finish up in the middle of Pittsburgh going the other way. It certainly appeared that Ohiopyle has something for everyone. Heck, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater home is right up the street.
Sadly for us, the bars weren’t open yet. We settled for delicious breakfast sandwiches and an amazingly refreshing dip in the fast, cold current of the river. I drove us the hour plus drive north to Tarzan’s car. Along the way we tried to find a beer but our booze luck wasn’t with us. Instead, we stumbled upon great “Southern Yankee BBQ” in Seward and got our meal to go so we could eat it back at our starting point on the LHHT at Laurel Ridge State Park. Good food and company could take the place of a beer in a pinch.
The LHHT was a great trail. Despite high heat forecasts for most of the region, it was pleasant at the top of the ridge. A cool breeze, tree cover, and 2,000 plus elevation took the edge off the sun. I would recommend our south direction and splits for other backpackers, though I would note that it wouldn’t have been hard to add the final six miles on to the third full day (or the first five to the first full day). A big thanks to Claudio/Tarzan for inviting me. I would hit the trail with him again any time. The only problem with him is that he regaled me with some truly inspiring AT thru-hiking stories on our trip. More than ever, I want to rush out to hike for four months instead of settling for four days.
I don’t usually spend a lot of time planning gear and food for a three-four day trip because my gear list is pretty set and dependable. I want to get the weight and selection right on this, though. Usually summer trips in the mid-Atlantic are straightforward and this one, 70+ miles in Pennsylvania on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, isn’t an exception. Unnecessary or uninformed choices could lead to mistakes out there, so I’ll just run though a few things here to “talk” it out.
Shelter: I had been using a small cuben fiber MLD tarp and bivy my last couple summer trips because, well, it’s so darn light and also fantastic for staying cool when the humidity at night refuses to drop. The problem with the setup is that it simply doesn’t provide a lot of storm coverage if I get hit hard in the night. This is a low risk of sorts but with four nights on a trail I don’t know if I want to risk it. I’ll bring my beloved Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform 2-P, also cuben fiber. Light and fully protective. It’s definitely heavier and bulkier than the tarp/bivy combo and more difficult to fully vent during a hot night, but it will protect me from elements and bugs. Worth it for ease of mind out there.
Backpack/quilt/pad: No hard decisions here. I have my trusty MLD CF Exodus, which is my go-to year round. Also, I don’t need anything more than my 9-oz. 40 degree Nunatak quilt and Thermarest Neoair Uberlite. Glad I have those items for my summer trips. This is their appropriate temperature range. Also, I’ll have a very small Caldera cone titanium setup for an alcohol stove and other small and necessary backpacking items, including headlamp, charger, medical kit, toiletries, etc.
Clothing: Been fussing about this a bit. I was considering bringing the kilt out for a trip but I’m a little concerned about having my legs exposed for the duration of the hike and also catching the locals eyes as an oddity. I think I’ll go with traditional hiking pants that convert from shorts to pants. That should help with ticks too. I’ll take my normal hike free or die BPL shirt too. Since we have a couple bars/markets to hit up on trail, I’m also tempted to bring a change of shirt in the attempt not to smell the place up. I don’t usually do this. For insulation, this is also a tricky question. I skipped anything but a wind-shirt on my last three-day trip and was a little unsure of the choice after a storm rolled through on the ridge. I ended up being fine but I didn’t like the slight doubt and risk. I’ll take a full shell instead this time. I’m on the fence about a microfleece but leaning toward it. I also think the umbrella comes too, both for rain and sun protection.
Food/Water: The only question is not overpacking since there are two eating spots along the way. That being said, were something to interfere with hitting those spots, backup food is necessary. Probably no-win on this. Take the food. Risk overpacking. Same with water. I’ll have capacity up to 6 liters and hope I don’t have to hike too often or far with that full complement of water. I also will have lots of hydration tablets too. And whiskey.
Looming final question: do I bring my little chair?