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Walking into Pennsylvania was a treat: lush, piney woods, soft trail to walk on, and some of the best shelters I’d found on the trail yet. The caretaker at Quarry Gap Shelter (my first stop in PA) was anticipating a big crowd the night I arrived and left pizza in the bear box, but I was the only one to stay. I happily sat on a bench and began chowing through slice after slice as darkness fell. On my third slice I heard a rustling near my feet and looked down at what I took at first for a raccoon. Closer inspection revealed it to be a porcupine headed on a bee-line for my feet. As this was my first encounter with a porcupine hurried thoughts raced through my head: “Are they aggressive? Can they really shoot their quills?” I sat up straight, and my abrupt movement brought the porcupine to a halt. Unsure of what to say in this situation I spoke the first words that came to mouth, “You can’t be here.” The porcupine did an about-face and scurried into the woods.
I’d heard plenty about how rocky and hard the trail in Pennsylvania can be, but my first few days in the state were ideal. I passed the half-way point on the trail near Pine Grove Furnace, and I ate my way through the half-gallon challenge (a half gallon of ice cream consumed in one sitting). A tip to future thru-hikers: select a light and simple flavor for this challenge, not peanut butter cup. Just before the town of Boiling Springs the trail descended into corn field bottomlands, and I walked through a long afternoon of pouring rain and soggy trail. The first taste of rocks came before Duncannon, and a few miles past the Susquehana River things began to get things, as they say, serious. The trail through the last eighty miles of PA can feel like one long, dried-up river bed. Sometimes you walk across fields of large boulders, hopping from one to the next on increasingly tired legs. Sometimes the dirt path is peppered with sharp little rocks that wear down your soles (and soul). And there were snakes, plenty of snakes. One morning I saw two timber ratters and a copperhead before 10 AM.
As with most adversity on the trail, the challenge of the rocks drove us thru-hikers together. We bonded over the pain in our feet and the fatigue we felt from day after day of jumping our way down the trail. It felt like the most exhausting round of the lava game we had ever played–no touching the ground! Pennsylvania was beautiful in it’s own way, though, and I met some good traveling companions along the way. Coolie McJetpack and Ambassador kept the conversation going through the end of a long twenty-four mile day. Sugar Bombs and young married couple Atlas and Glover kept spirits high with their dry humor. Goose and All the Way were a duo of hikers from Ohio: a forklift driver and a Vietnam Vet who’d been hiking together for a while. All the Way had fallen and lodged his forearm between rocks bashing it black-and-blue. When I met him the arm was gingerly lifted in a sling, but he was upbeat and planning to continue his hike regardless, citing his trail name, All-the-Way, a motto he carried from his days in the military.
Yeah, Pennsylvania was pretty great, but something was compelling me to walk faster despite the tiredness in my feet. Sunshine would be joining me for one last visit on the trail (the last before Kathadin), and I wanted to get past these blasted rocks before she came. On a cool morning in late June I climbed a wide, shady trail into New Jersey, my seventh state on the Appalachian trail and a welcome change of scenery!