by Phil Cole Part 6
Shortly after passing the 1000 mile mark we came to a sign directing hikers to the Blackburn Shelter. Kellyn and I traversed several switchbacks down into the forest. At one point we both wondered if we missed it somehow. We continued further along the path until we came across a large structure that resembled a large estate home. The two story shelter was huge, with a large screened wrap around porch, garage and a series of stone retaining walls. There appeared to be no one there until we had heard some movement inside. I peered into what appeared to be a large kitchen, with dozens of stainless steel pots and pans hanging from the walls. A young girl was in the middle of it all peeling a mountain of potatoes that lay before her on a large wooden table. She looked up, greeted us and asked if we would like a complementary soda. Kellyn and I shed our packs and sat sipping store brand wild cherry soda, while we waited for Penguin. By that time the sun had burnt away the morning fog and we scrounged for lunch. It was slim pickens, for me by that point. I had ate most of my food ration and soon became very interested in what was left of Kellyn’s. “I got some soggy pepperoni rolls and a pop tart,” Kellyn said as he noticed my browsing looks. “Sounds better than a couple pulverized crackers and a half packet of jelly.” We were there for awhile occasionally glancing up into the forest for an incoming Penguin, but saw nothing. We wondered if Derrick said to himself “the hell with this” after walking forever down a steep side trail to the Shelter. As we were getting ready to head back to the tail, out emerged Penguin from the woods, humming a tune I couldn’t identify. We stayed while Penguin rested and then, for the first time this trip, the three of us hit the trail together. It was mid day and we had some 15 relatively easy miles ahead of us into Harper’s Ferry, where Kellie was to meet us. While we walked, I wondered how Kellie’s past five days were touring around Virginia and visiting family in Maryland. I was excited to share my trail experiences with her. The three of us were cruising, probably 3 or 4 miles per hour, which is relatively fast for trail hiking. The trail’s slopes were gentle but somewhat rocky.
The sun filtered through the thick tree canopy in patches of light on the forest floor and Derrick and Kellyn conversed as I began to realize that my journey was nearing an end. I was exhausted but at peace. I think it takes several days to detox oneself from the rush of the daily grind and I was feeling I may have been getting into a groove. I began wondering why must I return to that 40 hour week of deadlines, perpetual critiques, phone calls and frankly, arrogant professionals. It seemed that when one removes oneself in such a drastic way from an environment of criticism, the glancing blows begin to bruise and show themselves.
We had reached a road that indicated that we were within a couple miles of our destination and I decided to turn on my sleeping cell phone- which seemed like a foreign object- and called Kellie to let her know we were nearly there. She told me she would start walking south, towards us and meet us. The closer we got to Harpers, the more worn the path had become from day hikers coming from town. Soon the woods gave way to the vastness of the Potomac river valley and the trail began to switch back swiftly down the slope. The trail appeared to have been rerouted several times due to severe erosion from over use. The side slopes along the trail were stripped bare of their vegetation and have become exposed to the heavy rains, washing most of the topsoil across the trail and down to the river. We had came around a bend to a vehicular bridge that crossed the Potomac. We had reached historic Harper’s Ferry, WV. Although the “true” half way point is just beyond the Pennsylvania border, Harper’s Ferry is considered the “psychological half way point” for thru-hikers and is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy; the foundation that raises money and oversees all the individual A.T. districts. It is at this point that many hikers stop. Others might choose to “flip flop“; where a north bounder would leave Harper’s Ferry, fly or drive to Maine, then walk south bound back to Harper’s Ferry for better weather conditions. There’s a little more of a rush on the second half of a North bounder’s journey because Katahdn closes yearly on October 15th before the major snows bury Baxter State Park.
Kellie greeted us at the bridge and the four of us crossed into town and stopped at our parked car. Kellyn and I ditched our bags in the trunk of the car and the sudden weightlessness was a breath of fresh air to my shoulders all the way to my feet, which were a mess. My prehike size 10 foot had swelled to at least an 11 causing severe irrigation of the outside of both feet. My three smallest toes where blood red and tender to the touch. I again reminded myself that I have done so little and yet have many aches and pains to go home with.
We walked on the trail that skirts along a ridge overlooking the Potomac to Jefferson Rock, a truly majestic view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It was here that T.J. commented that this vista was “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.” We gracefully entered town by a series of flagstone steps that reminded me of an Italian villa, meandering around old stone and brick buildings and down to the cobble stone road. The town was bustling with visitors, reenactors and hikers. We grabbed an outdoor table at a busy pub/restaurant in downtown and ate like kings. After dinner, Derrick gathered his bag and we walked him to the main street.
My journey on the A.T. had ended. Derrick’s was now only half complete. We all shared goodbyes and like a cheesy spaghetti western he walked off into the sunset, north to Maine.