“Squatches and chupacabras and puckwudgies, oh my,” I sang out in a voice that was meant to be a humorous one. How was I to know that my own words would be used against me?
On that evening, it was rapidly getting dark as I descended from Clark’s View on Jack’s Mountain, which is the true blue view that is situated way up above the Thousand Steps, and I was looking for something to amuse myself while I wound my way down through the switchbacks and across the dinkey trails.
So far, it had been a relatively short hike, at least as far as time was concerned up until this point. The hike itself was a little bit longer and heartier though. Getting to the top of the Thousand Steps is most of the work on this trail. For me, it took 32 minutes and 8 seconds to push .53 miles from my car to the top of the steps, which include the steps that do and don’t count toward the totals. Considering that I was doing this hike with the remnants of allergies congesting my chest and considering that this was my best time ever for the steps, I felt pretty good about the whole journey that I had made – despite the sweat, my red face, and a very exhausted feeling that was being exerted from my lungs. In addition, while reflecting on how this was about 800 vertical feet of roughly 1,700 feet of solid rock and piled up dirt of this mountain in the middle of Pennsylvania, I knew that the worst was behind me, and I could just push myself out the rest of the way to the catbird’s seat that I was looking to trek up to.
On this particular evening, my time spent meeting with some of the guys from the Standing Stone Trail went longer than expected, so I was consciously aware that I was competing against the sunset when I went up the mountain. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dilly dally, so I pushed it at hard as I could. With my Runkeeper on to tell me my 5 minute intervals, I acknowledged how I was doing well – a fact that the sun still shining in the sky confirmed. Before turning it on at the side of the Macho Dude, the moniker for my trusty Yaris, the girls’ cross country team, who had been running the trail before me, informed me that they did the steps in 23 minutes. This was faster than the trail runner that I knew who had accomplished this feat back in December, but it was slower than the marathon people who were conquering it in September. As it turned out, it was almost 10 minutes quicker than I could accomplish it.
My hat’s off to them.
Standing on the ledge looking down, I took my victory photo of my exhausted self, and I knew that I had a decision to make: “Do I go on or do I turn back?”
I opted to go forward.
I would at least get to the part of the trail that ended the middle belt on the mountain and turn around if it looked to be getting dark.
By this point in my life, I had plenty of experience with the Thousand Steps. This effort would be by 8th trip from the bottom to the top. I had been to Clark’s View on 3 of these trips. However, I wouldn’t see it until my 3rd visit to the mountain due to some poor understanding of what it means to hike a “marked” trail.
On that third trip, my wife H was spending time with her family after getting laid off from work. The loss of her job wasn’t totally unexpected, but at the same point, it was something that was now causing chaos in our lives because all of the worry about it happening had finally happened. As I was busy during the week with working at 2 different schools, it was decided that it would be better for her to go and be with her family than to spend the days alone at home. This way, she would have people to be around, and it wouldn’t feel so lonely during the day. The days are always the worst time when things aren’t going the right way, so she didn’t mind going to be with her family at all, nor did I mind giving her the green light to go off to the wild blue yonder since it was just as easy to have a computer to work with there as it was to be here. Thus, it became a no-brainer of a decision.
For me, I was going to take the time to work on my writing, which was something that I always did when she went away to see her family. However, this time through, I wasn’t really inspired to write. Sitting down at the computer, the white screen stayed pure, and I just couldn’t motivate myself to get back to any of the writing that had filled the end of my previous year. Instead, I felt inspired to really get out and hike for the first time in ages, so after the first weekend at Angel Falls, I chose to go back to the Thousand Steps Trail in Mount Union.
While not a waterfall park, which was most of what I was obsessed with at the time, the Thousand Steps Trail near Mount Union, Pennsylvania, was a relatively dry mountain (save a stream at the bottom and some permanently wet steps at the top). I had hiked it before, in 2010. On that first journey, I found the trail as a result of looking for information on Indians Steps, another trail that featured manmade steps up a huge Central Pennsylvania mountain. However, the Internet gave me the search result that was these particular steps on the Standing Stone Trail, and I went there instead.
What can I say? It just worked, and frankly, it seemed fated to be.
The Thousand Steps are divided into sections of steps. Some of them are about 50 steps. A few are about 100 steps. That said, there are a couple really long sections of steps that seem to be about 200 steps. The last section before the final steps has the aforementioned water hazard, which gushes through it during the wetter seasons. This is something that always takes my mind off of the fact that there are 36 more steps after the 1,000th step. After this, things level out for a time so that the hiker who looks to accomplish it can walk over to the Dinkey House and “marvel” at the idiocy of the graffiti that was left by the local drunk kids.
When said hiker ascends past the Dinkey House, the trail winds around the mountain after going up another 50 or so stairs. Those steps feel steeper than the original ones, but in all honesty, it’s just the exhaustion and effort that is filling the legs and chest from the most serious ascent up the mountain.
On the first day that I hiked it, there was a lot of fog and mist kicking up into a consistent and annoying rain that was getting worse and worse. It wasn’t pouring, but it was a steady pissing kind of rain. Despite this, I could see a view of Mapleton sitting behind the Juniata River from a viewpoint that was located just over the vertical middle of the mountain. Of course, at that time, I had no idea how much higher that the mountain went, but the truth was that from the top of the stairs, I had only ascended 50% or so of the mountain. To be honest, the Thousand Steps weren’t even 40% of the mountain. A good hundred and fifty or so vertical feet of that was just walking up to the sign that says that hikers are about to step onto the actual steps, which is different than the non-actual steps that a hiker has to go up before them. Getting to this vista meant going up another little hill, and pushing across a long straightaway through the orange wisps that were painted onto the trees.
At the very end of this straightaway is a double blaze. However, behind it is what looks like a trail. In fact, it probably was a road to get rocks out of the quarry that had originally been situated at the top of the Thousand Steps Trail. If you were to go hiking up said mountain, you would see a lot of these dinkey grades, which are cut into the mountain’s various boulder fields. The ones above the Thousand Steps are quite an image to look back on, at least if you ask me about their impressiveness. Nevertheless, throughout the mountain, there are other remnants of roads that appear to lead to places, but in actuality, they just lead to brush piles of debris and new growth. Other dinkey grades do make up the pathways of these Central Pennsylvania trails.
Since this section of the Standing Stone Trail really did look like a trail, I took the double orange as a sign of “really, really!” for what was the trail and what wasn’t. I can’t say why, but it seemed to make sense. As a result, I proceeded through the wet forest world in search of whatever I could find on that day, which was a very wet boulder field.
Since that time, I’ve come to learn that the double orange blazes are actually markers to redirect a hiker to where he or she really, really needs to be, but I would challenge some of the people who paint the trees to really think about how and why they are redirecting things with a double orange blaze because sometimes, it just veers a few degrees off of where the trail seems to flow (especially when the mountain has been pre-carved by miners). That said, other times, there seems to be a drunken yak trail across sections of the rocky mountain top that is logically twisted and rambling in its inability to hold a straight line while racking up miles on tired and aching feet.
For the most part, all that a hiker has to do is stop and stare and contemplate where he or she will see the next orange (yellow or blue) mark on the trail. If said person pauses and stares long enough, these marks are generally within 10-50 yards of each other. Most of it is depending on the clear view that a hiker has up through the trail. On that note, most of the concept of a clear view is how long and hard that the trail was used to break it into a thoroughfare as opposed to what looks like a well-used deer trail.
In this case, I should note that it’s clear that there had to be a double orange marker because it involved spinning in some ballerina move to find the other orange marker that was shifted off to the right, higher in the woods, resting comfortably, though hidden, on a switchback that led up the mountain. On that day, that’s why I never noticed the switchback up the mountain, which was located at about 60% of the way up Jack’s Mountain. Buried in the leaves, it doesn’t even register as the supposed path pushes forward and around to scenic images of rock piles that cover acres and acres of the backside of the mountain. Nevertheless, while stomping through saturated leaf-covered floors of the mountain, I realized that I hadn’t seen any bright orange wisps in quite a while. This meant that I needed to find my way back to the path with the rain pouring down through the tree canopy. To be honest, being this far from the trail wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun day, but on that day, getting back to the actual trail was a very real problem. This debacle got all the more real while I watched as the sky darkened to reflect that this rainy day spent lost in the upper mountain was coming to a close and that what was passing for daylight on a rainy day was almost over. With it, the chances of finding the trail again relied on “being here now” and clear thinking that would help me find the trail again as based solely on the logic of where things should be in respect to where I was, which if the truth was known, was a couple hundred feet from the level that the trail was on. In addition, since I was still back further than where the actual trail went up the mountain, I wasn’t anywhere near where the quasi trail that I walked onto met the real trail.
The loose translation of this was that getting back was going to be a problem.
And on the day that I had this dilemma, I eventually pushed back my worry and focused on going back up the mountain so that I could gradually wind my way back to the trail.
After about 10 nervous minutes, I smiled happily as I saw the orange wisp on the dinkey grade, and from there, I wound my way down the Thousand Steps to make it back to my car without being trapped on a rainy mountainside over night, but if truth be told, there was an anxious stretch there as the Xeroxed pages and prints out disintegrated into wet ink and nasty paper that wasn’t even possible to read.
A year later, when I went back on a sunny day in late spring, the switchback hid quietly in the upper reaches of the mountaintop. Perhaps, a self-righteous idiot might say, this is more the fault of the person painting the trail markers than the guidebook. More likely, it’s the hiker’s own dumb fault since he or she didn’t have his or her stuff waterproofed and protected enough, and he wasn’t totally aware of everything that he needed to know to ascend said mountain properly.
Either way, with that lack of ability to identify the trail, getting stranded became a potentially serious problem since the paths that looked exactly like the trail did when I was going in except they were changed to something unidentifiable on the way out, and to put it honestly, that’s always a problem.
What’s more is that this is with watching where my wife and I were coming from to avoid a similar mistake!
Only when she and I came back from said rock pile and found the trail did we see how the trail pointed back to where it came at a very sharp 135° angle. At that moment, I knew that the next time that I headed up to the highest heights to see it properly, I wouldn’t get lost, but this didn’t do us any good on this trip. Sure, we saw the rocky backside of the mountain, and sure, I spooked a snake that moved very quickly to get away from me, but the fact is that we didn’t get to the real destination on the trail on that given day. As a result, things felt incomplete, for at the end of our picnic lunch by the rock pile on that late spring day, wanting to go to the very top of the mountain seemed like adding a lot of extra steps after an already long journey. I knew at the time, and I know now that it wasn’t a wasted day, but sometimes, when I’m trying to find my way through unmarked trails, the fun of the hike is lost on the effort to make sense of my surroundings, and for this, an adventure that should be fun is actually dangerous work.
I resolved to learn from this and be more careful the next time out.
To that end of completing the uncompleted journey, something in me chose to go back to this trail in very early May of 2013. I can’t say for sure why I went to it when I could have gone to any other trail in the state, and I can’t say what I was feeling driving up Route 322 to get myself to Route 522 and then onto 22. Sure, I had my copy of Scott Brown’s Pennsylvania Vistas book. I had been to a few of them. Well, actually I had hiked to the Pinnacle and the Loyalsock Canyon Vista at World’s End State Park, but I didn’t drive to the top of that one. I did walk to the top of the Pinnacle, which I didn’t really remember other than the vista, but there were a lot more real mountain tops that I was led to believe that I could be entertained by. I had been to Bear Rocks and Bake Oven Knob as well, but I never looked at Bear Rocks as a vista. Rather, it was a rock pile like Knife’s Edge located down from it. Bake Oven Knob was just a drive to a parking lot at the top of a manicured dirt road. It had a pretty view, but it wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t bad, but it was never “AWE INSPIRING!”
However, that view, which I will take any day of the week, was still a couple of months away. On this day, I was going for a view that I never knew had a name until it blew me away with the obviousness that it was for Joe and Betty.
“Squatches and chupacabras and puckwudgies, oh my!”
“Squatches and chupacabras and puckwudgies and gray aliens, oh my!”
If I thought hard enough, I could add other cryptids of the great American wilderness to the mix, but this group seemed to be enough. I was moving and journeying quickly enough. My Keen boots were very kind to me at helping me get through the woods in comfort and safety despite the presence of rocks and branches jutting out here and there.
Nevertheless, the only thing that my boots could do when I saw those 2 reflective white “eyes” was to move me forward with excessive speed in the shortest amount of time possible! I looked again, and they were still there. Were they some kind of hellhound or bear or deer or other nocturnal creature on the mountain? Were they some evil monster that would come and devour me? I never turned around again to see. I just chose to assume that they were the remnants of some marker to private property or the like.
I listened for the rustling of leaves, but heard nothing. Perhaps, the monster wouldn’t need to rustle. Maybe it could fly or leap and devour my chubby ass!
But nothing came.
All the same, I didn’t like my odds, so I kept moving down through past the view of Mapleton and on to the top of the path above the Dinkey House, which led me back down the makeshift staircase to the final path to the top of the Thousand Steps.
As soon as I hit them, I knew I was safe even if it was still dark as can be. The trees that I thought would open up above the stairway were nowhere to be found. Instead, it was a tunnel down through to the bottom. However, it was a tunnel that I would carefully travel and feel in my upper thighs as I took each stair step by step.
Eventually, almost 700 steps later, the staircase did open up, and as it did, a million stars shined above the town of Mount Union. Each one of them was in perfect place, and the ghosts of the ancestors of old would have been able to tell you what these arrangements were as they identified the constellations as the Gods and the monsters of myth. To me, they were just a perfectly illuminated end to a great hike up into the sky.
Being there in that specific world made me wish I had a camera that could take pictures that would reveal the stars to an audience who was at home, an audience who was wondering what the heck I was up to since I wasn’t there. Since I was hiking AGAIN. Nevertheless, I had no such camera to justify my reason for wanting to be there. It wasn’t like I needed one, but sometimes, I just liked to explain it so that she would know what being in a place like this means to me. On many days, pushing the mountain path and ridgeline was the only thing that I was in control of. It was the only thing that made sense. It was what it was, and when I was doing it, things were good. When I wasn’t, I often felt out of control. She knew this, and so she understood my need to be in this world.
And while I wanted to share it with her more than I did and often do, this memory, like so many others, would have to go unpreserved in digital history.
It would just have to be a story for tomorrow morning.
I took the last of the steps on the Thousand Steps and confidently fist pumped my victory until I began to descend the final stairs. That’s where it occurred: my foot kicked through leaves that covered a hole that grabbed and shoved my foot around so that I could feel it – hard. My trekking poles balanced me from falling on my face, at least until I fell near the bottom of these steps, but that first fall hurt like a “bad dawg” (as a former Air Force friend from Louisiana might say), and with it, I hobbled the last of the distance out of the trail, still smarting, still cursing, and that’s what caused the second fall. Nevertheless, I made it to the car and contemplated driving home late into the night. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it was part of the task if I wanted to go hiking up in this neck of the woods.
Do what you need to do… and go to Sheetz and get some Gatorade and something to snack on. Cinnamon rolls sound damn good.
A few weeks later, I was on the Appalachian Trail at Lehigh Gap. The trail out of Pennsylvania from there goes over a bridge that crosses the Lehigh River. From there, it shifts right to turn up a street and switchback into a slightly rising trail that goes up a steeper trail. The bridge stands high above the water, and for someone like me who is not a fan of heights, it’s a disconcerting feeling. However, after walking the river trail to it, I pushed to the middle of the walkway, which was lined by a cement wall. I stayed away from the edge because I don’t like edges. Being near the edges makes me feel a welled-up sense of nervousness. On this particular bridge, I had to talk myself forward because to refuse to go over it might make the several hour journey worthless, so I did what I needed to do, and I wandered up and through the trail, pausing momentarily to talk to 2 through hikers who were sitting out with a camp stove while waiting for their female companion to make it out of the rocks to join them.
I knew about the rocks. That’s why I was here. Hand over hand is what the Facebook groups and guidebooks promised. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to ramp it up a notch. I hadn’t done much hiking since the trip to Oregon fell through. Sure, I did 3 15+ mile days in Ohio, but that was Ohio. That was flat. The bugs bit like a “sum bitch” (as another Air Force friend from Tennessee would say). A lot of mosquitos died on those treks. A lot of them got through and bit me.
Nevertheless, I wanted to hike without bugs. I wanted to hike with vertical ascent to promise me a trip up through to something really good. That’s why I was here. That’s why I didn’t think twice when the girl appeared and warned me of my need to climb on the rocks. She had a backpack. I just had a daypack. I had poles. I could do it.
This was going to be a nice long hike, unlike the 2 mini hikes up to the top of the Thousand Steps. I was going to hit the ridge and push on. I was going to see the American flag that was painted on the rock high above the river.
Even if it was graffiti, it was a more artistic form of vandalism. It wasn’t phalluses or swear words or names of love or nicknames given to some wanna be thug 15 year old kid. It may have damaged the natural surroundings, but it was a statement of patriotism – whatever that means, and I had seen the picture, so I wanted to see it in person.
So off I went up the mountain.
The beginning part of the trail was a typical wooded Appalachian Trail ascent. There were rocks. There was some good elevation fairly quickly, and there was me, walking up it without my trekking poles. Walking like that made me realize how much they help me, even if they are annoying to carry over flat sections of local trails like the Horseshoe Trail or on any trail in northern Ohio, which would have to really try to be flatter than it is.
Eventually though, after some breathing and sweating, the woods opened up and the rocks appeared, but soon after they did and I shifted myself over them, the trail’s wisps vanished, and the question became “right or left.”
I went right. It looked like the rocks went right because they formed a path through to some place that looked like I could ascend it. As I ventured in that general direction, I found my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them. I went and went until I saw no wisps and the rocks seemed to dead end without a way up, so I turned around and went left. As I did, I retraced my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them. Occasionally, as necessary, I went through brushy sections, too. Eventually, I found a painted arrow that said to go left, but as I did, I stopped when I saw a vulture-looking bird sitting on the rocks in front of me. However, this bird didn’t have the typical ugly red head. Instead, it had an ugly white head. I took my pictures to send out to other people so I could figure out what this bird was in the hindsight of having Internet assistance. When I did this that night, most people seemed to want to say that it was a turkey vulture despite the lack of red head and my constant statement that it didn’t have a red head. In the end, the answer was the only other vulture in Pennsylvania: a black vulture. Nevertheless, as with identifying snakes and critters in Facebook groups, the conclusive answer was that many people have an opinion, but not everyone’s opinion means anything.
Some people are really good, but other people… I’m just saying.
To go left, I moved forward to get the bird to fly back to rocks that were further away from me. This technique worked, and I found my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them. The rocks went up, and they also went down. Here a rock, there a rock, everywhere a rock rock… I thought about going up, but there was a wall of rock in front of me, and I wasn’t going to ascend there because the path had to be one that, even if it were climbable, would have to support dudes and gals with serious backpacks.
This wasn’t that kind of trail, so I went down, and as I did, I found my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them. As I repeated this same process, I was starting to get tired and sweaty, and I was wondering if I missed the wisps. There had to be wisps, even if there was a Leave No Trace policy in effect. This was the frickin’ Appalachian Trail. It runs over 2,100 miles from Maine to Georgia. People need to be able to move through it fairly consistently without getting lost, but here I was, and even though I knew where I was, and even though I could look down and see that bridge that I was nervous to cross, I didn’t see a path up to the top of the mountain, even if I went down to find something that humped back up.
Simply put, there were no wisps to guide me.
And what’s worse, I had now left the trail behind me. I couldn’t see where it went down into the woods. I knew what kind of limits I had on time. My Runkeeper was telling me how far I wasn’t moving every five minutes. Sure, I was finding my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them, but you see, I was in the same hundred yard or so stretch at the top of the mountain. I could see the top of the rock pile above me. I could see the start of the forest below me, but I couldn’t figure out how to get up or down, and for some reason, I wasn’t thinking about going down to go up, which seemed like the way that it would have to be, the place that I had to get myself. Instead, I was calling it a day. I was contemplating how to get down, and I was ripping up my legs and arms and hands while moving through the rocks and the brush.
And as I was finding my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them, I was feeling the futility of the moment when I heard voices up on top of the rocks above me. I listened closely, and there they were again. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was clear they were there.
I yelled up the only word that I could think of: “Hello!”
I yelled again and again.
I heard them say something, but I was reflecting whether I was feeling the sensation that Aron Ralston did, the realization of fear in my voice, as I yelled out for help that I couldn’t provide for myself. However, they were going to be my guides, so I needed to yell something different, and so I yelled to them again.
“I’m down here!”
I could see them looking over the edge.
I could see them looking over the edge.
“Can you see which way the trail goes?”
They said something, and I shouted that I couldn’t understand them.
They responded a little bit louder, shouting, “It’s to the right.”
I took their advice, and I found my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them as I saw a path down to the bottom of this maze of rock that I was stuck in.
“Is this it?
“No. It’s to the right.”
I kept moving, and eventually, I really did see it, the real, clear, marked trail that went to the bottom. When I arrived there, I realized that, apparently, the first time that I moved to my ascending right, I had really moved significantly further away from the trail, which was over on the left, than my prior guesstimate told me that I did. The discarded beer cans that I saw while moving around looking for the trail were just a sign of drunken kids partying at the top of the local mountain. They had nothing to do with the trail. I should have paid their presence no mind whatsoever.
They were simply here because the trail guided people to a place to party undisturbed in the woods, but they weren’t necessarily showing that the place that they were at was a specific place that was designated for anything other than teenage inebriation.
And so I moved down the mountain, confident that now, I could get back over the bridge, but as I moved down the mountain, I was exhausted, and I somehow found a side trail to the bottom of the mountain, which wasn’t the trail I went up, but it was now the trail that I was going to be going down. It was overgrown, but it was one of a hundred trails that seemed to wind around this place in some way shape or form, so it would have to do, and as I kept pushing through it, it brought me out to the bottom, eventually, where I wandered to the highway and crossed the bridge, taking pictures of the river and the bridge as I did. As the sun started descending and the shadows cover the area, I got to the car, and finally set myself off to drive home before it got too late.
The drive home wasn’t as long as the drive up, and I even got to see a doe bound across the winding country road in front of me. That was one more deer than I had seen on the mountain. Any wildlife that is encountered is always a good thing, and it keeps me awake, which is more than a lot of music can do, even rawk tunes to vibrate the car’s interior sound world with the power of loud guitars, drums, and shrilled out vocals.
Yeah… it’s all good, even if I didn’t reach the top. The pain in my legs, the learning experience, the sweat poured into my shirt, and the feeling that I just wanted to be at home, with my wife, in my house, not on the mountain… I was going home.
And then I was there, and when I went up the stairs and into the house, sweat all over my shirtless form, I saw my wife, and I went over to kiss her. When I moved back to talk to her after the fact, she looked at me.
“What happened to your shorts?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re ripped in the back.”
Somehow, when I found my way over the rocks, climbing them, balancing on them, sliding up and down them, and walking on them, I had managed to shred the part of the shorts right dead red in the center rear! This gave us both a good laugh as we talked over the other details of the trip.
And it should be noted that I shredded them big enough to leave a huge hole there, too. Anyone driving on that road could have seen it, but fortunately, I didn’t know any of them, so it’s not like they could try to embarrass me with the details.
Nevertheless, to that, I owned it and laughed at it while I thought to myself about the lesson I learned with the climbing as I posted them to my Facebook wall, and while I did, I took to the message boards and asked about the trail.
“It’s not where you think it would be.”
I took that as a sign that it wasn’t just me who had trouble navigating the Appalachian Trail at that spot.
Other people responded that they hadn’t done that section because of the difficulty involved. For me, even in the aftermath of defeat, I still felt good to have been up there, but a part of me began to think about getting back there in the spring or maybe the early winter when the trail isn’t as hot and nasty.
And as I did, I realized that there are many things I have learned, but I still have more to learn. I don’t think I’m a danger to myself on the trail, but I do realize that the consequences and places that we, and especially I, go can bring danger to the self.
We don’t go looking for it, but it finds us.
We learn how to deal with it when we find it, but it can still do a number on us.
Lesson learned for next time.