When someone looks at me, they don’t immediately think, “That’s a hiker.” Hell, immediately or ever. I’m overweight by nearly 100 lbs if you believe “doctors,” I’m diabetic, and I have a spinal condition that has fused most of it. One good fall, and I’m looking at paralysis or worse. So, naturally I decided that for my mid-life crisis I’d start backpacking.
I don’t mean that tongue-in-cheek, I was quite serious. I chose that as my “finding my youth” moment, and with good reason. Two years ago this Christmas I had a pretty decent medical scare. I was hospitalized, I underwent several rounds of testing, including stress tests, and basically I was told a) I’m now diabetic, b) I didn’t have any heart disease, yet, c) and if I didn’t start loosing weight and taking better care of myself I would and I wouldn’t live to meet my grandchildren. At the time, which was the heaviest I had ever been, I weighed 319 pounds. It was time for a change.
So I began, and now I’m down to 281, as of this writing. And one of the ways I became more active was getting outside for walks, and naturally that led to hiking. I’ve hiked before, but never like I have in these last few years. I’ve walked hundreds of miles around Maryland and Pennsylvania, but one thing I had never done was backpack overnight on a trail. It was always a day hike, and I realized if I didn’t do it soon, I wouldn’t be able to. So over the past year, I prepared.
I’ve been hiking all over, including trips to Colorado and Montana, and while I was in Bozeman, Montana I discovered Oboz hiking boots. They have been, without a doubt, the best hiking boots I’ve ever owned. They may not be the best boots, but I’ve never tried better. I had purchased the Oboz low-rise Sawtooth boots while in Montana, where we hiked dozens of miles, but they were all well kept, and graveled in some cases, but for Pennsylvania I knew I’d need a higher boot. I purchased the Bridger Vent Mid. It worked well, and while as not as comfortable as the low-rise Sawtooth, it performed great. It’s waterproof, but my feet never felt like they were suffocating like in many waterproof boots I have owned. And they were extra wide, an option I can’t find in many hiking boots. Since I over turned my feet at least a dozen times clamoring over the endless rock fields of the MST, the solid bottom and ankle support kept me from twisting an ankle or worse, but gave me better flexibility for the scrambling up rocks and mountainsides we did. I am curious how the high sided boots would have done, because my right foot was bruised by the time I finished.
I also purchased a Teton Scout 3400 internal frame pack. I knew I’d obviously need something more robust (see what I did there) than my daypack, but since I’d never done anything like this, I did a bunch of research on gear and found this one. It was reasonably priced, but well-reviewed and it seemed to have all the things I could want on it. A pocket and access for a water bladder, a large open area inside, a number of attach points, adjustable strap height for where the shoulders set because I have a long torso, and it has an attached waterproof fly in a small pouch. But perhaps most important, it would fit a larger person. I’ve tried on too many packs where I couldn’t get the chest or hip straps to close, but with this there was room to spare. My only complaint was that to get anything in the outside pockets, especially the top zippered ones, I had to have someone else get them, or take the pack off, which was more a lack of planning and flexibility on my part, and less Teton’s design.
I also got a Featherstone 2 person tent. Again, not top-shelf gear, because I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on something I might not use more than once or twice. But even if I go a dozen more times, maybe a hundred, I’d be happy with my purchase. The tent was great. Just under five pounds, it provided more than enough room for me and my gear without being cramped, and if I wanted to bring my kids along on an adventure like this, I’d have room for one of them with me. Maybe one of the small ones. Anyway, it was easy to assemble and I wouldn’t have to crawl around a lot to either set it up or to get in, though nobody besides a kid or someone shorter than 3′ 6″ could stand up in it. It was also easy to tear down and refold the next morning. I missed the gear pockets from my larger family tent, but when you’re trying to minimize weight, luxuries like that go away. I found the footprint came in handy due to the ground where we spent the night, but I think if we planned better, or gotten to the site earlier, it would have been unnecessary as the tub on the bottom was very thick and high.
All the rest of my gear was pretty standard: first aid, collapsible cook stove, mess kit, Trailshot water filter, three liter water bladder, etc. The one thing I do wish I hadn’t skimped on was cook fuel and the food. The stove worked with either wood, a fuel pod, or a sterno, but I figured we’d be in the woods, it wasn’t supposed to rain and hadn’t in days, so dry twigs and branches would be plentiful. They were, but it was a pain to keep the stove going. It went out several times and had to be rekindled. Also, I highly recommend not bringing heavily seasoned tuna and salmon into bear country and on a strenuous hike. I felt like I was sweating fish oil and cajun seasoning, I was probably delicious. But also, the flavor was too much on day two and I ended up barely eating the second day, and according to my watch we had burned nearly 4000 calories on the first day. That was not good. Speaking of, now onto…
After a year of preparation and buying material and taking hikes and losing weight, I decided I was ready. Well, I thought I was. Living in PA, there are thousands of miles of trails. Not only the MST, but the Appalachian runs through PA, the Horseshoe Trail and hundreds more spread across the Keystone State. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading reviews, talking to other hikers, and from hiking a fair amount myself, it’s that God had decided to drop all of his spare, extra jagged rocks in Pennsylvania. Also, spiders. I took 27 spiderwebs to the face. Yes, I counted. Pro tip: if you’re hiking with someone make sure they’re taller than you and put them upfront. Anyway, I’m certainly not the only one who feels the trails in PA are unreasonably treacherous, Bill Bryson, in his book, A Walk in the Woods, has much to say about the PA section of the Appalachian Trail. Or at least the part of the section that he completed. He focused on the rocks, and while I didn’t love them, there was a lot more to the trail than the 2-3 miles of rocks we slowly, oh so slowly walked over. But that was 2-3 miles over the 13.5 miles we completed. That’s not a small percentage. It certainly didn’t feel small at the time, but there was so much more to the trail.
For example, there were miles of Rhododendron forests with a stream burbling happily next to us. It was both mystical and nostalgic of a war movie that I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch. Despite a fair number of water sources being dry, there were still plenty of streams and springs that we found in the valleys. It made for a lovely spot for lunch on day one.
Also, despite that one of the best vistas on our hike was smack dab in the middle of a boulder field, it was absolutely gorgeous. While we were making our way across about 150 yards of rocks, we came across a photographer taking pictures of it. The fact that someone lugged about 40 lbs. of camera gear, which costs hundreds, probably thousands of dollars, plus water and lunch, at least two miles from the nearest “road” is a good indication of how beautiful that expanse was.
The hike itself wasn’t all beautiful vistas and Tolkein-esque forests. I went with my brother and we started at Penn Roosevelt State Park and immediately started an assent that was nearly a mile long. We each had about 40 lbs of gear and supplies, and I can tell you with absolute certainty I didn’t need about 5l bs of that. I regretted each of those 5 lbs multiple times throughout the hike, but none more so than that first climb. We probably averaged about 1 mile per hour because I had to stop so often. I was seriously considering suggesting we turn around and spend the night in a comfortable hotel when reached the top. After that, I’d like to say it got easier, but at least I knew I could do it, and with my typical stubbornness, we soldiered on.
We stuck to the MST and headed Southbound. The trail sticks mostly to the ridge-line, which gives us those views, but the rocks slowed us down a lot more than we anticipated and we knew we weren’t going to make our selected campsite, so we opted instead to head back down the mountain and camp in Bear Meadows. This turned out to be a blessing because there was a spring right next to campsite, but the nearest one on the trail site was nearly a mile away. And while it was called Bear Meadows, there wasn’t a sign of a bear anywhere, just a lot of deer droppings. But after dinner, which for me consisted of couscous and garlic salmon (if there was a bear, like I said, I was well seasoned). My brother had one of those freeze-dried Mountain House meals, and I was jealous. It was so easy to make and smelled decent. Mine smelled great, but took a lot longer to cook. It was full dark before I ate.
Sidebar: Mountain spring water is no joke. Like it’s not just an advertising gimmick, it was legitimately some of the best water I’ve ever drank. It probably helped that we had run out of water an hour before we reached the site, but I had some left when I got home and we all thought it was amazing. My Trailshot water filter worked quite well, though I found it’s claim of 1 liter per minute was a bit of an overreach. and it’s tube wasn’t quite long enough to prevent you from squatting in the mud awkwardly.
The next day, my oatmeal and peanut butter breakfast paled in comparison to my brother’s Mountain House breakfast scramble, though I had far less trash to pack out. My coffee was out of this world, however. Thanks mountain water! Breaking down my tent went smoothly and we were on our way, with yet another mile uphill. Dammit. By the time we got to lunch, I was done. I couldn’t choke down my cajun tuna and I was starting to feel hypoglycemic. As a diabetic, that was a real danger, but the rest did me well and I doubled up how much water I was allowing myself. But between our pace over rocks, and my feeling terrible, we made the decision to take an earlier trail down to Galbraith Gap and take a Lyft to my van at Musser Gap parking area. I didn’t feel bad about it in the slightest, but the mile downhill over loose rocks this time, made the decent very interesting.
A lot of people didn’t understand why I decided to do this, and thought that after I did it, I’d probably never do it again, that I’d gotten my fill of it. They’re wrong. I can’t wait to do it again, and let me tell you why. I spent time, real time with my brother that I hadn’t had the chance to do in well over a decade. That is time we wouldn’t have gotten almost anywhere else. We also met a few people on the trail and they each were friendly, there to also enjoy nature, all with a kind word and encouragement for two dudes clearly out of their depth. Even the lyft driver who picked up two very ripe, sweaty men in the middle of the country in his once clean Prius was so very kind and funny. And the memories. No they weren’t all great, I could never nearly twist my ankle on a loose boulder again and it would be too soon, but the good stuff was really good. And while I didn’t make the 16 miles I wanted to, I still made it. And will make it down to 250, and 225, and 200. And I hope to see you on the trail.
But I will never hike the MST again. Probably. Stupid rocks.