This is not a declarative statement, but rather a noun and its adjective. It is a description of my views for the last week on the trail. During the weeks leading up to the state of Pennsylvania, I heard from a lot of other hikers, whether first hand in person or through the journals, that PA was their least favorite state, and that it is rocky. I tried to find the optimist in me (believe me, not an easy feat) and told myself that I would make that decision rather than let others decide for me which state was my least favorite and if the state in fact lived up to its rocky reputation.
Let it be known, PA is my least favorite state so far and it is in fact rocky beyond comprehension. I knew I was in trouble as I read a journal entry of a Southbound hiker at the border of MD and PA, “Goodbye boulder fields of PA!”, along with a couple of other complaints about the PA portion of the trail not worthy of being called a trail. As I sit here at the Pocono Inn, .4 miles from the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in Delaware Water Gap, PA, I have to say that I agree completely with this hiker. Optimist and I tried to get through the state as fast as possible. We crossed its border on the morning of 5/16 and basically finished the state on the morning of 5/24 and each day in the state was one day too many. We could not get through it fast enough and we did 25-30 miles each day.
In all fairness, Pennsylvania was mainly a terrible experience because the weather was so awful. It has rained 10 out of the last 11 days, and on the one sunny day, it in fact drizzled for 5 minutes, but I’m not counting that day. So it rained each day in PA. My shoes and socks have not been dry for the entire state, and I got about five blisters on my feet, the first ones ever for this hike, from walking with wet feet for days on end. I also have bruises on my lower back from slipping on a wet rock, which added to the chafing I already had on my lower back, which also got worse with the rain.
PA is also the middle state, in a way. The midpoint of the trail is in PA, so it’s like the Wednesday of a work week. Once you get through it, you’re really on the downhill of the work week and cruising into the weekend, but it’s still a hump to get over. Now that we’re headed into NJ, it feels like we really are making some ground going North and quickly moving into the New England states. Something about PA just doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress, but to say we’re in New Jersey and soon New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and then Vermont and beyond, feels like the thru-hike is in fact possible. I would imagine that a lot of people quit during the state of PA because it feels like there is just still so much to go, and the rocks (and in our case rain), just don’t help make it easier to get through.
Now to the rocks. I think the AT is rocky to begin with, much more than the PCT, so it was hard to imagine they could get any worse, especially to the point where one state can be depicted as rockier than normal. But they did. There were in fact fields of boulders, and add in rain, and it’s like walking through fields of slippery bowling balls. These parts of the trail felt a little more dangerous than I would have liked, but I hated them most of all because they slowed down the pace. It’s just not possible to take a normal stride or keep a normal 3-4 mile per hour pace when rock hopping through fields of wet boulders or even when walking through a rock laden trail. After a while, I felt myself going crazy because I couldn’t take a normal stride for miles on end. These past few days of PA, we had planned for bigger mileage days above 30, and just ran out of time and energy and could only do 27-30 miles. The rocks and rain are the reasons we’re even staying the evening in town, as we arrived later and much more tired than expected. It takes so much physical and mental energy to stay focused on not falling, on taking careful steps to not only stay upright but to keep up a decent pace, and to just look down all day. I found myself running into branches overhead because I was so focused on my feet!
Make no mistake, I know that crossing the PA/NJ border will not be magical. The rocks will not simply disappear, and I imagine I have plenty of boulders and rock laden trail to come. But at least I’ll be out of Pennsylvania, and I hope it stays my least favorite state because I’d rather not have anything worse.