mercredi 27 mai 2009

Swatara Gap

Clark Creek, 19 september 2008

The jolly hiker I met yesterday at Peter Mountain Shelter warned me of an impending cold night. Indeed, it is only 48°F (9°C) at dawn. Nevertheless it has been a rest sleep in the tent; it is probably the best since Harpers Ferry. A beautiful campsite with its pristine water is no stranger to that happy event. Well rested, I am eager to start hiking. Fingers are numb in cold morning. I am wistful for that last day of summer: another season is gone.

The stage starts with a thousand feet climb toward Stony Mountain. Half way the ascent, I catch up with the boy scout at his campsite. He is lighting a wood fire for his breakfast. He is dirty and disheveled.
“Hi there, did you sleep well last night?”
“I am fine” answers the scout.
Is it an attitude? His camping is not appropriate: waterless, rocky and not flat. In darkness it is impossible to choose a good campsite.
“I’ll catch up with you later”, he adds between two blows toward a vacillating flame. In his answer, I detect more than a surprising confidence for his young age but rather brazenness. I don’t answer back. He won’t listen. Yesterday, he didn’t follow my advice to stay at the beautiful campsite and its nearby spring.

At the top of Stony Mountain (1688 ft) I take off gloves and windbreaker jacket. The soil is karstic now. I move cautiously on a treacherous field. There are many hidden holes where I could wrench an ankle. That section deserves its name of “devil’s racecourse”. After a mile of struggle, the trail reaches a forest of tiny white oaks. The path is less difficult now.

I resume my pace in a long downhill toward the ruins of Yellow Spring village. Coal mine was closed in 1859 when its veins were depleted and its owner, the Dauphin & Susquehanna Coal Company went bankrupt. In that ghost town I am surprised to find a genuine mailbox. Who is getting mail nowadays? How mail is delivered without any road access? I am clueless.

While snacking with tuna and cheese, the boy shows up. He doesn’t seem interested by my presence, neither do I. He also seems uninterested by the ruins of Yellow Spring Village. He keeps moving at brisk pace. Speed seems to be his only interest on the trail…

Around noon I reach a beautiful creek. The trail follows it for a mile. I envision several excellent campsites alongside Rausch Creek. The magic is spoiled by a sharp pain in the lower section of my left calf. I slow down for no avail. In the vicinity of Rausch Gap Shelter I decide to stop. I rub vigorously the tight calf. When the muscle becomes soft again, I pick up a pain killer pill inside my tiny pharmacy. I pray the Lord to let me walk again but I would not be angry to stay here the rest of the day.

The surrounding area is odds and sods with a crumbling water-mill towering two waterfalls downstream. Despite its pristine appearance, water is heavy with sulfur from old mines. There is a signpost at a former railroad bridge. It is in honor of Stony Valley Wilderness. Thanks to a committed fisherman, the construction of a dam, which would have flooded the upper valley, was thwarted. In 1970 a handful of anglers lead by “Doc” Fritchey started a fight, which was illusory against a powerful utility company. Doc never gave in. Slowly he enlisted the support of various associations. Ten years later, the coalition of more than fifty associations he was leading, was successful in having the river designated as part of the Pennsylvania Scenic Rivers system by legislators. After that victory, the company gave up the battle.

The example of Doc reinvigorates me. I won’t give up! I intend to reach Swatara Gap where I could hitchhike to a nearby motel where I might ice my calf… If! if! if! Keep the faith in any circumstance, I said myself. According to the data book, the gap is five miles away. I resume hiking at a slow pace. After thirty miles in a thick forest, the trail reaches an open field. I am glared by the sunlight. Just after a county road, I meet a young South-African. He is hiking a section of the trail. He asks me if there is a phone at the road. He wants to call a friend in Philadelphia to come to his rescue. He is suffering too much from his knees. I told him honestly that I did not see a phone at the crossing. Swatara Gap is not far away. I don’t understand his decision to not bail out when he was there. I pursue at a slower pace. My leg is tightening again…

With tear-filled eyes I reach the gap. I don’t wait too long before a car stops. A young couple offers me a ride to the next hotel. The left leg of the lady is in a cast. “I broke it while running”, she said hilariously. Is it an omen for myself? In the rush to put my backpack in the truck, I forget to store the data book into a zip pocket. At Best Western hotel entrance, I thank warmly my trail angels. I will realize the loss of data book only the next morning.

Since Harpers Ferry I am hiking with a single pair of socks, a ski pole with a loose handle which needs to be fixed as soon as possible, and no maps or global positioning system to guide me through thick forests. Today I have lost the
data book which mentions only distances. How long can I keep track of the trail?

While icing the tight calf in my bedroom, I read the Wall Street Journal, courtesy to the hotel’s manager, a nice black lady who is doing anything to please the banged up hiker. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers is making headlines. My world is falling apart today…