In late May of 2013, my wife and I went away for the Memorial Day weekend to go and see Rickett's Glen and World's End State Park. While I had been at Ricketts Glen the previous year, it had been two years since she and I went there together, and it seemed to be just the time to go before we forgot all about what was actually there.
The day didn't start out very warm; in fact, it was one of those late cold gray and overcast days that looked like it would rain at any given minute. Despite that, we drove up anyway in search of the Memorial Day weekend opportunities that it presented to us.
The trip up to northern Pennsylvania was punctuated by a trip into Ashland's Pioneer Coal Tunnel. Driving north on Route 61, we wandered up the big hill that is Centre Street, and then back to the gift shop entrance to one of north central Pennsylvania's many coal mines. Getting to this tourist attraction is actually a trip through an aged Pennsylvania Coal Regions town and its old houses that have stood the wear and tear of the region's winter weather.
Going to a place like this during the "school year" means that it's a crapshoot on how often they have tours inside the mountain. Fortunately, we arrived just in time to catch the next train deep inside of the mountain.
Bundling up with long sleeve shirts, we drove through to the miner, donkey, and breaker boy mannequins and into another time and world. The long drive back into the coal mine was even more rickety than the train we were riding on, but it represented the struggle for some semblance of a living wage, albeit one that was tied to the company that paid the "living" wages. That being said, the mine showed the industriousness of the American working man who was firing up the engines of a country going through serious transitions and modernizations. Over the years and throughout the area, we had traveled to many places where the ghosts of these miners walked the streets and hillsides. Centralia, Pottsville, and Jim Thorpe stand out amongst the towns of a region that hadn't changed much since my mom grew up in Pottsville in the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, we still ventured into them to experience a part of our America that was still as much alive in 2013 as it was in the late 1800s.
Going to historic places like this is what Heather and I did and do.
Throughout our time together, we have traveled to many of the hidden gems and wonders of our country (and Jamaica) in search of knowledge and to pay homage to the past. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it. Those who have no sense and understanding of the past will never form a true world view or find a place in the universe.
And so we took the tour and learned about the life of a miner as we imagined ourselves back in time while trying to find out stories about the Molly Maguires, which is something that's usually done with reserve as the person giving the tour may have one opinion, but the attraction owner doesn't want to offend sensibilities of those on the tour. If you add the third part of the equation, the asker, you find that the asker generally wants to get off on their Irish / working class pride to hear something negative about "the man." It’s a never-ending cycle, but for those who aren’t asking or the children and their sensitivities, it’s probably best to leave out the "fighting words and deeds" that happened in times past.
Thus, the best bit of information we got was about the Hibernian House in Girardville, which is still something that we have yet to do, but there is still plenty of time to do it - if the accident will. Apparently, there’s a lot of Molly history there.
As for my knowledge of Molly history, I know bits and pieces of the story, mostly from what I experienced in Jim Thorpe. I'd like to know more, but for some reason, I've never delved deep enough into the whole thing... perhaps this should be a 2014 New Year's resolution. For now, I'll have to remember back to the trips to the Old Jail in Jim Thorpe and the image of hanging corpses as the desperate wife of James McDonnell unsuccessfully tried to save her husband from the gallows. She got the five-day reprieve that she wanted, but as she banged on the door to give him his chance for justice, the warden / sheriff announced that it was time to hang him anyway. The trap door flew open, and his feet swung with those of Charles Sharpe on that day, January 4, 1879.
Visitors like my wife still experience her sense of panic as she rushed in to save him only to find him dead. Other visitors have to focus instead on the mysterious handprint that just will not go away as it stands a proclamation of the eternal innocence of Alexander Campbell. If people are so inclined, there are ghost tours all over the town of Jim Thorpe, which is really the modern incarnation of the ghost town of Mauch Chunk and the memory of Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. It seems that ghosts are everywhere in this nook of the Coal Regions.
But the extent of that tour in Ashland wasn’t quite the tour in Jim Thorpe. They both told a history that needed preserved, but it’s hard to compete with mass exectutions and the Day of the Rope.
As a result, the tour ended, and we walked back to the card, and gunned the ignition both to get warm and to head north again. Pretty soon, we were driving through Centralia, stopping off quickly to see how many of the tiny plumes of smoke were still coming out of the random chimneys that led up from deep within the fire that raged underground. It wasn't like the old days where big clouds of smoke lifted high above the once thriving town, but the 50-year old fire was still burning underneath the ghost town that once stood on Routes 42 and 61 in north central PA.
Apparently, the fire was and is raging enough to last for way more time as the smell of sulfur permeates the mountain air as a testament to all that was lost there.
Our drive continued up past the windmills of Locust Ridge and up and down the hills and mountains of Northern Pennsylvania up through towns with names like Numidia and onto Catawissa and the Susquehanna River and past Nose Rock, which took us to Bloomsburg and on through to Route 118 where we eventually arrived at our hotel room for the night.
When we got to the tiny little mountainside hotel, we deposited our bags and headed out in search of adventure, but the nasty weather of the day continued as the winds kicking over Lake Jean made for an interesting drive into the top section of Ricketts Glen State Park as the menacing gusts whipped the usually peaceful waters into quite a mountaintop fury of sorts. It didn’t take long before we gave up hope of having nature in our day, and instead, we went for food and casino time in nearby Wilkes-Barre that night.
The next day, we chose to start out with the waterfalls of World's End State Park since we hadn't really ever taken them in save for a trip to Mineral Springs Falls a few years prior. We drove up through the winds to the top of World's End in search of Canyon Vista and any other sights that we could see, and as we did, we encountered more winds of a pretty serious nature as we took our pictures of Loyalsock Creek and the surrounding regions of the area from the top of World’s End State Park. The deep greens and tiny forest flowers were quite beautiful as we "toured" the other mountain roads that crisscrossed the top of the mountain.
Throughout the day, we hit the waterfalls that the park and the area around us offered. We went back to Mineral Springs Falls again, but we also went to Cold Run Falls and High Rock Falls, which were in the park. Then, we went to Angel Falls outside of the park so that my wife could see how easy it was to find once I actually knew got to get there. When our morning and early afternoon hike was over, we went to lunch at a bar / diner in Forksville called efficiently enough the Forksville Inn and Tavern. Sitting amidst the taxidermy mounts, my wife struck up a conversation with the woman who ran pretty much every aspect of the show regarding the menacing looking bobcat on the wall. It turned out that the barkeep shot it, and she recounted how exactly the hunt went down.
As we live in the flatlands of Amish Paradise, Pennsylvania, it's not like we get to experience the bobcat world very often (though my dad informed me that I did see one on the side of a Tioga County road prior to my time in the Air Force). Thus, when we get to hear about it, we sit with ears intently focused on what it takes to bring down this menacing cat of Pennsylvania’s northern woods. After eating our food, we took the travel guides that we picked up at the restaurant and went back for the final waterfall in World's End State Park, which was Cottonwood Falls.
It's important to note that despite World's End State Park being located in Sullivan County, it’s not near as mountainously steep when it comes to waterfalls as its "neighbor" Ricketts Glen. Coal Run Falls has 2 waterfalls that are 19 and 11 feet, and there is a feeling of going up the mountain to get to them and an additional feeling of elevation as we descended down to the forest floor to check them out properly. Should you try to go there, they’re located on the side of a dirt road that winds back behind the Loyalsock Creek. I’d definitely be taking the Scott Brown book of waterfalls since his directions tend to be very reliable.
Cold Run Falls is a roadside picture of a 9-foot drop that wouldn’t be worth hiking to, but in this case, it’s just about stopping on the side of the road and walking across the street to take a picture. Mineral Spring Falls is 25 feet of gentle drop that is picturesque, but in context, it’s another roadside waterfall with a little more room to breathe.
Now that we had knocked off those falls, we were looking for another 9-foot drop, which was christened Cottonwood Falls. Wandering through the trails, we were starting to wonder if we were lost because it felt like we traveled further than we did. Unfortunately, there were no signs, but there were people everywhere, it’s just that most of them were touristy families. After proceeding past hordes of them, we came upon a sweaty, muscular guy digging up sections of forest to turn them into trails for hikers. I asked him if he might know where the waterfall was, and he explained that it was down the trail beyond him. We talked more and he introduced himself as "Lakeland" (though his real name was Warren Renninger), which was the name that he took for his through-hikes on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail (amongst other long distance trails). As we conversed longer and longer, he started talking to us about some guy who was giving a presentation the next day at World’s End State Park. During the presentation, the speaker would tell about how he traveled 5,500 miles on the Eastern Continental Trail from Key West, Florida, all the way to Labrador, Canada, which is all the way up in New Foundland. My wife and I were amazed at what we had heard, and then the conversation took a turn for the revelation that he was the hiker, which filled us with admiration for what he had achieved..
We talked to him about the adventure briefly, and despite his humble nature, we were enthralled by everything that happened from the beginning to the end, and so as we wandered up through to Cottonwood Falls, we decided that we would forego Ricketts Glen the next day and instead go and see Haystacks, which is a series of rapids, and then go to Dutchman’s Falls, a 27-foot drop off the Loyalsock Trail that led between said destinations and on to many other destinations as well for its 59.21 mile length. Before we did that, we wandered back to Cottonwood Falls and another nameless falls that Lakeland really liked. Cottonwood looked vaguely familiar to other falls I had seen, but it was different in that 2 kids were fishing the pitch pool for fish that were just big enough to keep (if they were lucky). However, of what we saw, few of them were, but that said, they were just big enough to put on some kind of a challenge in pulling them out without losing them. It’s an image that reflects the PA backwoods way of life, and if you ask me, who is not a fisherman, it’s still neat to know that people like to spend their time doing this and living for the simpler pleasures in life.
The next day came quickly, and that Sunday, the wife and I traveled to both of these places. We wandered through the forest across tiny creeks that spilled out onto the forest floor as we pushed back to a section of rapids that was beautiful in close-up images, but that seemed too small to really allow for any kind of extreme kayak adventure. That would be much better for places like Hornbeck’s Creek, with its 10-15 foot drops that moved through to that grand 30-foot cliff that ended the rapids section. Nevertheless, it was still beautiful as is any day in Nature – whether you have it to yourself or there are a dozen or so people enjoying it with you.
If there are more than a dozen people, the ability to enjoy the Great Outdoors is back in question – especially if they’re annoying people littering up the trail, kids screaming, or adults smoking up the trail with either legal or illegal substances.
When our trek was over, we drove back to World’s End for the presentation, and we saw Lakeland as we walked into the visitor center. He was a ball of nervous humbleness, which seems counter to many of the hikers and climbers who tell their stories for novels, articles, and movies. Nevertheless, he had a packed house of friends and supporters who seemed as amazed as we were for the 5,500 mile trek that he had accomplished. While he wasn’t the first to hike this Eastern Continental Trail (that would be Nimblewill Nomad – a story told in Ten Million Steps), Lakeland upped the game and went out for a year, taking 11 months to start at Dry Tortugas National Park and to go all the way through to Labrador. When it was done, his house was still rented out, so he did more local hiking and the like to occupy his final 26 days of his 365-day adventure.
While he in no way comes across as Forrest Gump, there’s the image in said movie where Gump just runs and runs and runs until one day he stops. The solitary, nature lover in Lakeland still walks as he prepares to hike across America in the coming year. There are apparently lots of options for long-distance hiking depending on where you want to start, stop, and walk through.
And as I talked to him and listened to him and his presentation, there were many things that I thought of:
It’s amazing how clouds rolling off of rivers and lakes as they float gently into the sky can become an image of, "Oh yeah... I’ve already seen that like 30 times now." I can personally remember seeing it from the top of the Shenandoah Mountains when my wife and I went there in late summer of 2008 and thinking that this was the most amazing thing ever. With Lakeland’s slides, it was actually possible to rank the best cloud lift in much the same way that I feel about ranking waterfalls or vistas. I’m not sure where mine would rank for complete beauty, but as a life memory, it was a great one indeed.
The whole un-cool thing about John Denver may have some merit in that he isn’t current or in any way a hipster or hipster influence in the way that Neil Young is, let alone some clothes horse meant to adorn the pages of GQ, but there is something in his music and words that really says a lot of things to people who are willing to listen. "Looking for Space" was the song that Lakeland kicked off his presentation with, letting Denver’s lyrics as well as the words of the other singers and the images from his pictures say many of the things that he didn’t want to be the focus of. Being a writer and by that nature, a speaker as well, I don’t see this reserved nature in myself, but I do get it for him and others like him who stand in the woods like the temple that they are. In this way, there is a quiet in Nature that makes everything "clear." It’s what makes John Muir more of a lasting figure in what he offers to wilderness conservation than Bear Grylls and what he offers to the world when it comes to survival in the extreme conditions. Sure, Bear would be more of someone that you would want to have a drink with (I know I would), but for the unstated words and the one-line quotes of Muir, there is more of a grandfatherly wisdom that he offers, and while I truly do appreciate Bear Grylls for what he offers to the world, there’s something about Muir that just stands above as the grandfather that I never knew.
And finally, I realized that I’m really wasting my life not pushing myself to do and to see more than I actually am – even in the time that I have gotten back into hiking and the green beauty of spring having sprung everywhere.
As a result of this, I realized that it was time to push me to do something more, and this was really the way that I decided to accomplish the Standing Stone Trail. In that moment, I knew that I would spend the summer training to get myself into mountain shape, and I would push the 72 miles of mountains from Cowan’s Gap State Park to Greenwood Furnace. I would go south to north because I didn’t want to not hike up the Thousand Steps (even though the book’s directions would point the other way). I would walk through the Throne Room, and I would hear my own songs as I stood above the big valleys on both sides of me, and I would photograph these memories to take home with me. I would count my steps as I walked to the top, and I would take my backpack back down the sides so that I could do it again for all 4 of the big mountains that stood in the way of completing the whole trek.
It was a very humble and unstated beginning, but it was the genesis of all things.
It should be noted that to open up with ideas like this right away is to risk persecution. As Lakeland expressed about how he was insulted by some clueless Floridian at the beginning of his journey for having such a foreign idea as traveling from Florida to Canada by foot ("stupid people do stupid things."), he still went on. He completed everything, which in retrospect is everything. Unlike the woman on the video of his year on the Pacific Crest Trail, he kept going from California to Washington – not skipping Oregon like she did. He did everything. She didn’t.
She may feel that she was there at the beginning and the end, but the reality is that she cut corners, so the accomplishment isn’t hers to claim. The rankling that Lakeland felt about her tears of joy stated it all clearly. He bled for ever mile and took the time to persevere. She didn’t.
To sum up his intensity and commitment, at one point on the Eastern Continental Trail, he was still beneath the 100-mile wilderness at the end of Maine’s section of Appalachian Trail, and his knee was killing him. He didn’t know if he could go on, but he prayed for strength, and he got up and did the last couple thousand miles to complete his journey. From the fear of having to give up, he made it through. He pushed and ached and pushed some more, but in the end, the concept was that easy even if the walk itself was tough as nails.
If you want something, then you do it. If you don’t, then you won’t.
"Do what you need to do."
In the hindsight of that moment, Lakeland taught me that everything is about overcoming personal weakness and the barriers that are placed in our way to teach us what we need to know.
Randy Pausch wrote in The Last Lecture that, "The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people."
And while my days on the Standing Stone Trail weren’t what I wanted, they were a learning experience that I will retell in this journal as I seek to get back on them again this year. Sometimes, failure can be translated to success if it’s looked at properly.
Nevertheless, it’s not a trail that is kicked until I do every one of those miles day after day after day, sleeping in that tent with the stench of my trail-soaked body to let me know all of the weakness that I have pushed out of my body to achieve it.
That is the dream. Oh yes. That is the dream that I will work to achieve.