What I’m Reading, July 27 – August 2

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.

The LHHT: Four Days, 70 Miles, Several Beers, and One Wilderness First Aid Evac on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

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.

Trip Prep for the 70-Mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

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?

What I’m Reading, July 5 – July 11

While I haven’t been updating this feature weekly, I certainly have been keeping up my reading! I won’t lie, it’s been a real positive aspect to the COVID-19 era for me. Combined with going through the New Yorker weekly, the Atlantic monthly, and the newspaper daily, reading the written word on real paper has meant the world to me. Then I can use devices for moments like this to share what I’m up to.

I’ve winnowed down to three books this week, though I wouldn’t be too surprised if another book or two slips in.

Category 1: Non-Fiction. I just finished American Canopy by Eric Rutkow and I’m really glad I read it, despite it being both more general and more dry than some of the other non-fiction works I’ve read lately. His decision to go through U.S.history by epochs but weave in ecology, deforestation, economy, and conservation is necessary. It does, however, make me want to read more about certain aspects of it. I’ve long wanted to find the right book on John Muir and his writings, for one. I’ve also wanted to delve more into the Civilian Conservation Corps under FDR too.

What I am reading, however, is Bart Ehrman’s latest work, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. This sends me back to my college roots and my religious history fascination. With Bart Ehrman it literally sends me back to my freshman year at Holy Cross, in which his text books infused and eroded my faith in the perfection of the Bible and the evangelical take on scripture and Jesus. It’s great to return to this.

Category 2: Fiction:  Finished: Cory and Amy Rose‘s Sword in the Stars was so damn good. Just go read it – and Once & Future. They’re the same book. If I were the publisher I’d probably want to release them as one masterful volume. I came for the eye and life opening take on LGBTQ+ heroes and stayed for the jaw-dropping story and twists. They did the Arthurian legend and time loop quantum physics a great service.

My abundance of fiction riches is growing too. Finally and belatedly started N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I waited too long start reading Jemisin and now can’t wait to read every word she has written and has yet to write. For no specific reason, I started with a completed trilogy of great acclaim and will work from there. The opening world build was as compelling and striking as anything I’ve ever read before. That’s saying a lot with my sci-fi/fantasy background.

Category 3: Reading with Cheryl. We’re still tenderly making our way through Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindess, though we need to have our “book club” chats for the last couple profound chapters we read together. This is a treat to read and discuss with Cheryl.

[If somehow you’ve stumbled here. Go buy real books. From Old Town Books.]

DC UL Backpacking Trip Report By Yours Truly

This was a fun trip to plan.  Sharon, Karan, and I looked closely at maps of the Mid State Trail (MST) and Standing Stone Trail (SST) confluence in Rothrock State Forest a few weeks back and designed a loop with no car-shuttling required to make for an epic little return to one of our favorite hiking areas of Pennsylvania.  Then we assembled a fine team of DC UL veteran members, took proper COVID-19 planning precautions into consideration, and launched our three-day 53 mile “Mid-Stone Loop” on Thursday night, June 18.


We hope this loop gets some use in years to come.  It removes the need to car shuttle, which is endemic when hiking the end-to-end MST and SST.  It also puts together some really great sections of trail, complete with excellent camping options for groups willing to arrange a motorized campsite permit and state park reservation.  Plus it’s only three hours from DC.  For our particular adventure, an early dramatic driving challenge, a powerful Friday afternoon storm, and the surprise inclusion of several family members on our final, festive night together made for a memorable time.

Mid-Stone - 07

We arrived separately (for the most part) to our prearranged campsite for the evening not far from Hunter’s Rocks in the Rocky Ridge Natural Area, a popular climbing location resplendent with groovy rock formations.  To make sure we camped legally and comfortably, I called ahead to the ranger station a few weeks prior to arrange a permit for “Motorized Campsite #7.”  It should have been a no fuss first night.  Google maps intervened to present a little water hazard, however.  Most of us were routed to a dirt road with a swollen stream running across it.  Others found another road to the campsite.  I decided to test the water-crossing skills of my Jeep Renegade.  It started fine with only a few inches of water.  I dropped into low four-wheel drive and slowly made my across.  Dramatically, the stream deepened by a couple feet in its final few yards and I found myself pushing through water that splashed over the hood.  Fears of what my wife would say about this misguided decision aside, the Renegade pulled through with high marks and no issues.  Phew.https://video.wordpress.com/embed/3PE3ENcJ?hd=0&autoPlay=0&permalink=0&loop=0

Once at Motorized Campsite #7 at the end of Frew Road, we greeted each other warmly and settled in for the night.  Greg, the only hiker I hadn’t met prior to this adventure, was the accidental recipient of a full, normal handshake from me.  It was the first such greeting of a stranger for both of us in months.  It was not planned nor wise.  It just happened.  Karan had a lovely fire going.  Even more amazing, Sophie pulled out a 40 year old bottle of whiskey (seriously) and cupcakes to mark the 40th birthday celebration she had intended to surprise me with in late February before the world fell apart.  The team even sang.  Let’s say a bit more about this 40 year old bottle.  When Sophie first said she had it, I thought 1) she must be kidding or 2) I hope she didn’t spend $10,000 on such a bottle.  Turned out that Sophie had procured from her father-in-law’s spirits collection . . . a bottle of Tullamore Dew purchased in 1980.  It was an excellent relic of another era of labels and just as good as when it was acquired.  We capped the night with some classic midsummer traditions such as leaping over a roaring fire.  Brian jokingly decided it was “a weekend of bad ideas.”



I yelled us awake at 5:30 a.m. the next morning with a full-throated “Make DC UL Great Again!” and off we went for our day of hiking.  We hiked northbound on the SST through the Rocky Ridge Natural Area and marveled at the rock formations and blooming mountain laurel for a couple miles.

Mid-Stone - 09

We turned off of Frew Rd on Martin Gap Rd.  Thus began our 10ish miles of road walking across a couple narrow valleys to connect with the Stone Valley Recreation Area and Lake Perez.  (Full route:  https://caltopo.com/m/D02L)  We feared featureless highways and a sun baking our will to live.  We actually got scenic rolling farmland hills and cooler than expected weather.


Nearby the street intersection with the actual Standing Stone Road we invited a local on her porch to join us.  She politely declined.  A particular highlight for us was Brian’s memorized rendition of Dr. Seuss’ the Lorax while we walked along and caught up with each other.  We enjoyed a lovely scenic view next to to a Penn State Experimental Forest area working on blight-resistance American Chestnut.


We rolled into Lake Perez earlier than anticipated and settled in for a couple hours of lounging by the water and avoiding a few drops of rain by snacking in one of the pavilions.


We then picked up the Ironstone Loop trail and excessively hydrated as we hiked up the ridge in increasingly hotter afternoon sun.  Shane dropped back and surprised us with an announcement when he caught back up that he was lugging seven liters of water.  We intended to camp dry on the ridge and he wasn’t taking any chances.  The final ascent to the MST and Tussey Mountain ridge was up a somewhat vertical climb on a stone step slope nicknamed the Indian Steps.  Thunder rumbled ominously across the heavens as we completed the climb.  At the top I rejoiced, happy to finally be on the MST again after a few years away from its rocky, quirky beauty.  Tussey Mountain welcomed us back with rocks galore and even a rattlesnake rattle in the nearby bushes.


The thunder, unsurprisingly, ushered in a few drops of rain that cooled the late afternoon.  Then it steadily picked up and had most of us scrambling for rain gear or an umbrella.  Then it really picked up.  Trees were blowing sideways, rain was coming from all directions, and for about 15 minutes we endured a pummeling blast of wind on the ridge.  In the end, the timing of the storm at the conclusion of our approximately 22 miles of hiking was fortuitous.  If it had hit while setting up camp or even after our shelters were already up, it would have been tough to keep our belongings dry (particularly for me and my spartan tarp/bivy combo).  But it didn’t.  And though it would rain steadily for the rest of the evening, everyone was able to set up on and make dinner under our tarps.  No fire, sadly.  But still a bit of camaraderie as we chatted over dinner.  The last thing I remembered as I drifted off to sleep was Greg yelling out for a patching kit for his punctured air pad.  The always ready and reliable Shane offered up a spare set within seconds but Greg was not able to salvage much of his pad.  The rocks of the MST had struck again.


5:30 a.m. came around again and greeted us with a misty landscape.  So misty that we were inspired to play Misty Mountain Hop as we packed up and hit the trail.  Unlike the road walk of the day before, this day was all about the MST and the SST.  This section was why we picked these trails for the weekend.  Most of us had hiked all or part of the MST as part of DC UL’s various section hike weekends a few years prior.  We reminisced and enjoyed familiar terrain.  Unfortunately, Jo Hays Vista and several other viewpoints were pretty clouded in but the surrounding landscape was still lush and worth it.  When we reached the other Ironstone Loop intersection with the MST we noted a pretty magnificent campsite.  (Were someone to hike this loop again and didn’t mind skipping part of the MST by staying down on the Ironstone Loop or instead continuing on to lengthen the day’s hike by a few more miles, this would have been a better site than on the rocky ridge.)  We followed the MST off the ridge for a few miles and then back up and eventually to Little Flat Fire Tower.  There we enjoyed some leisurely time together under the spruce glade at the foot of the tower.  On the way up Greg said to laughter that he “would do yoga for love.”  It actually was an appropriate comment for our conversation.  But I guess you had to be there.


We paid our respects at the Tom Thwaites memorial, thanking him and all the many trail maintainers for the amazing Mid State Trail.  We strolled on and enjoyed hiking through the Thickhead Mountain Wild Area and Bear Meadows Natural Area.  Eventually we descended off the ridge and made our way down to Detwiler junction and the intersection with the SST.  It was sad to say goodbye to the MST after so short a reunion (28 kilometers total).  We met a day hiker and a couple thru hikers and wished them well as they turned left on the MST and we turned right to hike southbound on the SST’s Greenwood Spur.


When I last hiked the Greenwood Spur as part of my section hike of the SST in 2018, I noted then that I longed to come back.  The deep rhododendron and hemlock of the Alan Seeger Natural Area were just as amazing the second time for me.  We took another long break by a perfect stream site and made sure to refill our water containers for the afternoon’s final climb and miles.  And what a climb it was.  The ascent up to Greenwood Fire Tower was our longest of the weekend at one of the hottest times of the day.  Lest we feel particularly proud of our little march up, a mountain marathoner lapped us a couple times going up and down the slope as he did his training rounds.


At the top, Greg and Karan scampered up the tower and the rest of us took a break.  We were able to marvel at both the serene landscape around us and also the gaggle of shirtless 20-something dudes setting up tents and carrying in large coolers of beer.  Interestingly enough, Bryan (Wolverine) and Shane were nowhere to be found even after our second long break of the afternoon.  We figured they’d be fine and began our descent into Greenwood Furnace State Park, our destination for the night.


The miles were pleasant, idyllic even, and we finished the day with fields opening up around Greenwood Lake.  I had promised the gang a place to swim at the end of our day.  Though it had been kind steamy at points, it ended up not being quite hot enough for a particularly pleasant swim.  Brian and I jumped in for a quick dip anyway.  While lounging by the pond and waiting for Bryan and Shane to show up, several amazing things — planned and unplanned — unfolded.


First, Uncle Ed showed up with ice cream sandwiches and other tasty treats.  Uncle Ed, you see, is Greg’s uncle and a definite friend to the woods and hikers as an outdoorsman himself.  His appearance was a planned trail magic surprise.  He might have even visited us the evening before on the ridge had it not been for the storm.  We enjoyed his provisions and companionship throughout the night, including his assistance in helping us haul some purchased firewood to our forested tent site far in the back of the park’s camping area.

Mid-Stone - 23

Second, Brian’s laugh caught the attention of a completely serendipitous family walking by, and soon enough Brian celebrated an impromptu encounter with his sister and her family, who live two hours away and had no idea that Brian was even in PA for the weekend.  They joined us off and on throughout the evening, including at our festive fire area later that evening.  Shane and Bryan eventually showed up too.  Shane had made a wise personal decision to road walk around the Greenwood Tower climb when he realized he was behind.  Bryan was a bit beat up from the day of summer hiking and needed a night to refresh and recuperate.  He would be fine come morning.

It’s not normal for DC UL to avail itself of a campground in place of the rustic woods themselves but Greenwood Furnace State Park ended up being perfect.  We all had pleasant places to set up our shelters and enjoy the evening together with family, fire, and food.  As the previous night’s bed of rocks to sleep on reminded us, this area of PA is great for trail but not necessarily equipped with tons of adequate group backcountry campsites.  I would recommend it — and tent site 18B — to any future hikers.


5:30 a.m. again.  This time we could smell the barn.  We sauntered out of Greenwood State Park in the early sunlight and nearly ended up turned around before Brian nudged us in the right direction southbound on the SST.  We enjoyed the jaunt up to Stone Valley Vista, where Sophie shared some catchy TikTok music, and then continued on the increasingly rocky trail.  This part of the SST is gorgeous.  Hemlock, ferns, mountain laurel, mulberry, beech, ash, maple and birch were all around.  This part of the SST is also rocky.  Really rocky.  The views throughout, particularly from the hawk viewing platform, were worth it but our feet were definitely taking a little extra damage after a weekend of marching out dozens of miles.


We decided in the end to not re-hike the Rocky Ridge Natural Area on the SST and simply continued down Frew Road to our cars to complete our 53 miles for the weekend.  We even walked past the same day hiker we encountered on the MST the day before (different day hike for him) and noted how lucky he was to live in such a great place to enjoy the woods.  We nicknamed ourselves Frew hikers as we concluded our final road walk and journey.  I had to admit to a little bit of apprehension about whether my Jeep would turn on but it started up without an issue.


We celebrated the Mid-Stone Loop the only way one should:  with a trip to O.I.P. in Huntingdon.  There we ordered entirely too much food and made ourselves at home under their outside porch.  Bryan spied a Taco Bell across the street and even helped himself to a walk-thru drive-thru taco while his pizza cooked.  A weekend well-hiked and a trail I’d certainly do again.  We recommend this adventure to anyone looking for a PA hiking experience that doesn’t need a car shuttle.  Give the Mid-Stone Loop a try.  Join us Frew hikers!

*Addendum:  Despite using Permethrin on my clothes prior to the hike and using normal tick prevention checks on the trail itself, I pulled two itty bitty buggers off me on the Tuesday following the trip.  They were so small they could only be identified after partially filling with blood.  The doctor prescribed a one-time dose of Doxycycline for good measure.  I’ll be on the lookout for any Lyme symptoms.*

F82502AB-6D31-4C6F-AF73-1837049E742C 2
810B8FF9-7E3C-4099-888F-E1D0CFCB171B 2
EACD1D46-4321-4CCD-BC26-D06520029008 2
05DA0F46-3A9F-4161-8D22-96DF369D12A0 2
0EC24746-7847-4DC5-B16F-E98711CDB91D 2
A42D4F3C-6714-44EA-B0A1-81DEFA5DBDDA 2

What I’m Reading, June 7 – June 13

Week two of this little feature. Not going to make the progress this week I’ve been accustomed to this spring thanks to being back in physically at work in the office and also taking Friday night and Saturday for a little backpacking adventure. Oh, and newspapers and magazines vying for attention.

Category 1: Non-Fiction. [Finished Orlando Figes’ The Europeans. What an amazing, intimate read. History, including factoids from the 19th century you never knew about, coming to life using three cultural figures, principally Ivan Turgenev.] On to American Canopy by Eric Rutkow and a continuation of a tree theme in reading that I began about six months ago when I picked up the Overstory and didn’t stop. This work is pure nonfiction. But it weaves in a history of trees/forests themselves with the scope of U.S. history.

Category 1: Fiction: Having a blast reading Cory and Amy Rose‘s Sword in the Stars. It’s the sequel – and really it’s the second half conclusion of the story – of Once & Future. It’s mesmerizing and truly fun and I’m so proud of them for these books. I’m also learning and challenging myself a lot with the young adult queer characters. We need new heroes. Especially young people growing up and looking to others in real life or fiction that resemble and inspire them. One-third of the way through and I can’t wait to see how this story sets the epic conclusion.

Category 3: Sports: Jesse Dougherty‘s Buzz Saw. I love the Nationals. I love Jesse’s beat coverage in the Washington Post. I love recapping last year’s championship. One-third of the way through. This book will always be on my bookshelf. It will be picked up to remember and relive.

Category 4: Nature/Religion/Philosophy: Thanks to Cheryl, I grabbed Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor. I’m very close to finishing after a short time. I have been loving my introduction to western-styled Buddhist techniques in mindfulness and related books. This book, on the other hand, helps give a different angle on the life of the historical Buddha through the eyes of a western-born erstwhile monk. Erudite. Necessary.

Category 5: Reading with Cheryl. We’ve taken to our own household bookclub by reading a chapter at a time and discussing. This book club started with Sharon Salzberg‘s Faith. It has continued to Lovingkindess. We are 50 pages in, and together reading and discussing.

Realizing that my book selection isn’t a very diverse offering. Working on that with a few purchases that should help expand my hand-selected horizons for upcoming reads.

[If somehow you’ve stumbled here. Go buy real books. From Old Town Books.]

Saturday Afternoon Protesting

For me, the urge to protest began on Thursday. Reading about demonstrations and nationwide movements by newspaper, I looked out my window at the serene cityscape of Old Town Alexandria. Why wasn’t there anything happening here? I wondered. I did an admittedly cursory search of social media and Google to find any events to join locally. Nothing in particular came up. I shrugged, assuming nothing was planned, and went about my day. On Friday I began to see social media posts from King Street, the main thoroughfare of commerce and life in Alexandria. Protesters. Thursday evening. What the hell? I thought. I even tried to find an event such as this and failed. How were protests both widespread and underground? I don’t think I’m the only one who struggled that week with guilt, a call to some type of action, and also a sense of helplessness. I was and still am trying to address those issues in my life.

Pressure was clearly mounting everywhere. On the streets of almost every city in the United States. Many across the world too. On my couch, in comfort, I didn’t want people like me to do what they so often do and sit out. I asked on Facebook about how to get information on such events. Quite a few friends direct messaged me Black Lives Matter DC Google docs (with instructions ) and posted informative links. Probably not coincidentally, public articles began to appear as well. Thousands were expected to gather in DC over the weekend, without central organization even. On Saturday morning, Cheryl and I sat down to our morning ritual of tea and newspapers. I was agitated sitting there. Cheryl could tell. She wasn’t pleased, not being a big fan of an antsy Evan. We talked and I agreed to take the Metro into town, without a plan. The heat and personal medical issues were enough for her to sit today out. One of the odder things about this was that I hadn’t taken the Metro into DC in over three months thanks to COVID-19. I masked up, made sure to take a little hip belt with water and snacks. It was 90 degrees, after all. I speculated briefly that if there were issues I wanted to be ready to walk home from DC.

(COVID-19 Aside: I have to admit that despite wearing the mask throughout the day with 95% of everyone else, I didn’t care or consider much more for social distancing efforts or any other COVID-19 concern. Fair enough, I felt like I should somewhat stick to myself and not try to intentionally join with friends out and about. Felt good to be out in the city surrounded by people even as a stranger. I will say, however, that the mask gave an odd sense of being isolated and autonomous. I felt cut off from people. Unable to smile and share. This sense lasted the entire day for me.)

On the Metro, I texted back and forth with Cheryl about where I should head. A young BLM sign-bearing person got on in Crystal City. I asked her where she was headed and she didn’t know either. Another group of protesters got on a couple stops later. The train wasn’t crowded and it was easy to see who was there for what. Another couple got on in suits with bouquets of flowers. Funeral seemed a likelier destination for them. The protesters seemed to have a group and a plan. I briefly considered following them when the train stopped at McPherson Square. Felt right to simply get out and head toward the White House and the freshly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza at Lafayette Square and 16th Street. Overnight, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had the city paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in yellow paint down the street well within sight of the White House. I stepped out into DC. The city was eerie. Streets I’ve spent countless hours on over my 16 years as an off and on DC-area resident were devoid of cars. People wandered here and there. Away from the crowds downtown had a zombie apocalypse feel to it.

Sure enough, at Black Lives Matter Plaza, crowds surged. It looked and felt more like a festival than anything else. Various groups were handing out water bottles and free food. Bathrooms were even flagged here and there. I was in luck that a new protest was forming as I arrived, spearheaded by a foursome of African-American leaders equipped with bullhorns and surrounded by cameras. The main spokesperson was a charismatic, gender-nonconforming person. In the swell of the scene I couldn’t tell if they were trans or in drag. I joined as we marched in the hundreds first within view of the White House and then along city streets to Chinatown. There, we took a knee in silence. We listened to speeches. Polite quasi-uniformed officers emblazoned with DOJ and DEA patches on their black vests and national guard members in ACU standing next to beige HMMWVs blocked the crowd from leaving the closed off pedestrian area of the city. We turned south on 7th and continued to Constitution before kneeling again for a longer ceremony of silence near Archives with more chanting and speeches. When the crowd started up again down the 9th street tunnel, I peeled off to head back over to the White House and Washington Monument. Others milled about in similar fashion. When I read later that protesters casually picked up movements throughout the day in a plethora of locations, it didn’t surprise me one bit. Eventually I ended up back at Black Lives Matter Plaza and McPherson Metro Station to return to Cheryl and Alexandria.

Despite scenes of aggressive police presence from earlier protests during the week, downtown DC was devoid of much official presence. I found the lack of “normal” uniformed police a little surreal. Scattered throughout town were the same “DOJ” types and a handful of National Guardsmen I had directly encountered in Chinatown. They were friendly and engaging to the protesters. At one time I saw them clapping along. At others smiling and taking selfies. In Chinatown, the agent who appeared to be in charge opened up a vehicle and handed out water. It struck me that we were vulnerable as protesters to being hijacked by anyone attempting to incite violence from within our ranks, but nothing remotely odd happened while I was walking around town — or reported in DC after the event. The civilian officers out and about seemed like the older (35+), seasoned special agents across federal agencies with whom I’ve worked and trusted over my years in the government. The city had the right people on the streets this weekend.

The crowd I marched in was between one-third and one-half African American. Protesters seemed polite to each other but also didn’t seem to engage much individually. I don’t have enough experience with protest movements to know how the COVID-19 version differs. I don’t know what I expected when I headed out. I’m heartened that whomever was making crowd control decisions for the weekend made the choices they did. They didn’t look ready for a fight and that helped set a peaceful stage. The crowds lacked the anger and vitriol captured at earlier events for all to see nationally. But they were serious and determined crowds all the same. 2016 reminded all of us that the professionals and others of the DC area constitute a bubble out of touch at times with parts of the United States. That bubble joined ranks across income, age, and social brackets in Washington, D.C. on this Saturday to march together. I have no doubt we will vote and stay engaged. I don’t know what more than that means, though, for the times to come. Like many, I too hope that this movement generates genuine change, reform, and a sustained call to action.

Turning to Paper. Away From Social Media.

It’s time. Recent events have taken my social media fixation — addiction? — and forced me to recognize the impact and the limits of the medium. On one hand, the allure of breaking news and video seemingly direct from people and sources makes a compelling case that to be in the know means being actively engaged on social media. On the other hand, I don’t know what to place value on or not and in what percentage. I have no desire to get into the believe/disbelieve dichotomy or, god forbid, the fake news rant. Information in all forms has always been written by people and disseminated by corporations. That is what it is. Let’s not get too excited about it. Companies worth sending money to for their work make money on the perception of the attempt at accurate reporting and the apparatus to fact check, edit, review, respond, and apologize for reporting. That’s enough for me to give their information the time of day. My head will stay discerning.

Therefore, I intend to stay informed without being stuck on social media to waste my time and sway my intake of information. I’m going old school.

Rather, I started going old school a few months ago. It started with a 2020 resolution to give myself a phone break while commuting. In addition to the hard and paperback books I began to buy and read exclusively, I picked up a subscription to the New Yorker. I get excited for my new edition to arrive each week. I read through it religiously and in the same week of publication. Next came a renewal of the weekend (Friday-Sunday) New York Times. It felt great to absorb articles and reporting in a leisurely, focused manner. Helps me to read articles I wouldn’t otherwise click on. Also, it helps to focus on a paper in front of me and not be distracted by the myriad alerts of the phone or computer. Recently, I added the Atlantic to my magazine subscription. Long form journalism is amazing. More so now than ever. The final step today was making sure I was getting a daily print newspaper. I choose the Washington Post for a second option to the Times and also to help keep me attached to the region I live in. Also, there is definitely going to be news I will want to read daily. I’d take a more boring world at this point. But nobody gave me that option.

No more http://www.washingtonpost.com or http://www.nytimes.com throughout the day. Certainly less Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The news can wait until I can consume in a more purposeful manner. Social media can be used to laugh, share, and communicate.

What I’m Reading, May 31-June 6

I posted the image of my slate of books on Instagram. It’s probably better to categorize and describe them here. This helps keep me on top of it. It also helps me make the most of what I’m reading.

Category 1: Non-Fiction. For this we have Orlando Figes’ The Europeans. I tend to read one chapter a week, no matter how long. This book, thanks to its length and content, is a slower read than my others. I’m loving it. Then again, Figes has been important to me as a writer since my Russian history days. Here, he takes on how European cosmopolitan culture came together in the 19th century using three cultural figures as the back drop. I’m loving it. But I’m not racing through it.

Category 1: Fiction: Having a blast reading Cory and Amy Rose‘s Sword in the Stars. It’s the sequel – and really it’s the second half conclusion of the story – of Once & Future. It’s mesmerizing and truly fun and I’m so proud of them for these books. I’m also learning and challenging myself of lot with the young adult queer characters. We need new heroes. Especially young people growing up and looking to others in real life or fiction that resemble and inspire them.

Category 3: Sports: Jesse Dougherty‘s Buzz Saw. I love the Nationals. I love Jesse’s beat coverage in the Washington Post. I love recapping last year’s championship. Savoring this book.

Category 4: Nature/Religion/Philosophy: Thanks to Cheryl, I grabbed Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor. I’m one-third of the way through after one day of reading and enthralled.

Category 5: Reading with Cheryl. We’ve taken to our own household bookclub by reading a chapter at a time and discussing. This book club started with Sharon Salzberg‘s Faith. It has continued to Lovingkindess.

[If somehow you’ve stumbled here. Go buy real books. From Old Town Books.]