An Adventure Begins
Day 1: Wednesday July 19, 2017
Starting time: about 10:00am
Our starting point is about halfway between mile mark 36 and 35, counting down, and moving south towards Ohiopyle. This is the closest drop off point we can get to the halfway point of the 70 mile trail, without overshooting it. We are determined to hike exactly half of the trail. At only 3 miles, this will be our shortest day. We are excited to be getting on the trail and getting our journey started. After my backpacking trip last year, I knew I wanted to get my kids on the trail with me, but so many things were happening in my life this summer, that I wasn’t sure how it would work out. This trip ended up being thrown together quickly when I got an opportunity to have some extra time with Kai.
About a half a mile in, we find what looks like a black mailbox attached to a boulder. It is filled with a few notebooks with years of entries from hikers passing through on the trail. We have a bit of fun reading them, and they range from silly to philosophical. I think it will be fun for us to add our names. Kai just shrugs and says, “eh”. I guess he doesn’t care to add our names to the books. Our adventure gets real when we start to climb our first hill with our heavy packs. We start to wonder how we are going to make it 35 miles when our first hill is such a struggle. Actually, last year, I thought “holy shit!” “How am I going to hike 70 miles, if I can barely stand in this thing?” So, I gave myself an internal pep talk and said, “if I can make it to the first mile, I’ll know I can do this.” And, I did make it. This year, I learned from my mistakes last year and was able to create a better food system, so that this year, my pack is heavy and uncomfortable, but bearably so. Still, this year I am not in as good shape physically as I was last year. And, Kai has been lazy too this summer. So, we are trudging through and stopping frequently for breaks.
Eventually, we cross a road and two shiny white SUVs drive by. The people in the passing cars stare at us. Kai insists that he is going to hitch a ride to Ohiopyle. I insist that this is cheating. As we pass over the road and up into the woods again, Kai says, “I just missed my ride.” I reply, “At least they are no longer staring at us like we are lions in Pennsylvania.” As we trek on, I am grateful that we have a 3 mile day to ease us into our trip. Each incline has me huffing and puffing (try hiking with a 40-50 pound pack before you judge), and I come to deep realizations. Like, “I now have depths of compassion for pack mules.” Kai is amused by my thoughts. And we banter on about starting a petition to save the pack mules.
The length of our days are determined by the distances between shelter sites. There are eight shelter sites along the Laurel Highlands Trail between 6 and 12 miles apart. Each one has 5 primitive shelters, both a men’s and a women’s bathroom, space for tent campers, a water pump, a pile of firewood, and scattered firepits. The shelters have 3 walls and an open side with a stone fireplace, and they can hold about 4 people. The bathrooms are really only outhouses with a few toilet stalls. The water pump has a sink basin, but only has non potable water, and it takes a good deal of pumping to get the water flowing. To the point, where it is almost not worth the effort, and it is just easier to get water from streams and runs. There is a dirt access road into the camp for the park to bring in firewood or for the park rangers to check in on the sites. Campers are supposed to reserve the shelters and campsites ahead of time, but not everyone does. To keep things simple we have reserved shelter number 3 at each site along our route. Our first shelter site, Route 31, is nestled between mile mark 33 and 32. We reach camp somewhere around 1 pm, just in time to have a lazy lunch and a well deserved nap. This is the only day we will have so much time at camp. We are the only people at this shelter tonight.
Kai, of course, is eager to build a fire, and takes off to collect kindling and firewood. It is still early, so I manage to convince him to hold off for a few hours until we get closer to dinner. For dinner, we have a classic campfire meal of roasted veggie dogs with whole wheat buns (mustard and ketchup provided by GetGo*), roasted corn on the cob, and upgraded s’mores (Michel et Augustin chocolate coated cookies with vegan marshmallows.) When backpacking, most of your pack weight is actually food. You have to find foods that will keep in your pack without refrigeration for days, but that are also light enough to not add too much weight to your pack. So, planning backpacking meals is an art. Many backpackers will use freeze dried meals because they keep forever and are lightweight. I chose to forgo the freeze dried meals, opting to create my own simple meals. I chose to compromise and take on some extra weight to make more wholesome meals. I have included some fresh foods in everyday, balanced out with lightweight and quick cooking foods like pasta.
We enjoy slowly cooking and eating our meal over the fire. I tell Kai about how I have been asked before if I feel afraid when out here alone, but it is so incredibly quiet, and so incredibly peaceful, that I actually feel the opposite–incredibly safe. Kai feels the same. Of course, there are moments of fear here and there, but they are no different than the moments of fear here and there in our ordinary days.
As we settle into bed we hear a car drive up. We go to investigate and see that it is the park rangers checking in. They randomly make stops at the shelters to be sure everyone staying has permits. Since everything checks out with us, they don’t stay long.
In bed, I tell Kai about how on the Appalachian Trail people will sometimes intentionally leave things for the hikers. And that, they call this “trail magic”. Kai takes to this terminology, and every time we do something or leave something for someone else, and every time we find something cool left behind (intentionally or not), we start to call it trail magic. Today our trail magic is to leave some dry wood for some future backpackers. In each shelter area, there are little covered niches besides the bathrooms to keep firewood dry. We noticed they were empty (they often are), but there was a big pile of firewood out in the open. Since we had such a short day, and we know a storm is expected to roll in sometime this weekend, we decided to restock these. We also found a good quality spork someone left behind, and it turns out, this is an item we need.
*Thanks to GetGo for unofficially (and unknowingly) sponsoring our trip by providing perfectly proportioned condiment packets.