November 11 (13.5 miles, 8.5 hours) AT PA Sections 1-6
We could see the mist hanging on the mountain as we approached the Lehigh Gap. The rain from the previous day had cleared out, and today’s forecast was for cool but overcast weather. My sister, Kathy, and brother-in-law, Gus, agreed to help out with shuttling today. On the way we passed through the charming village of Slatington, PA, another interesting glimpse of small-town America.
In the center of town, a colorful 12-foot-tall statueof a fireman carrying a child, is a prominent sight. Constructed in 1909, it recognizes the service and dedication of volunteers. It’s not a memorial to the fallen. After being damaged by a car, the statue was repaired and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
We left our car at a gravel parking area on the west side of the Lehigh River bridge, then drove to Route 309 for our northbound starting point. The first mile or so was a gentle walk through a level forest road. The lingering fog added an ethereal mood to our ramble. We understood that today’s trek would be rough so we cherished the easy start.
As we reached a pleasant campsite with spectacular views, the sun burst from the clouds. The raindrops dripping from the branches sparkled in the glowing sun. The trees radiated a jewel-like spectacle that lifted the gloom from the mist. We would have liked to linger, but we knew that we would be pressed for time to complete our slog by sundown.
It didn’t take long for the enchantment to fade as the trail became rife with our favorite things- rocks. This proved to be just a warm-up exercise for the most hazardous formation to come, aptly known as the Knife’s Edge.
This formidable obstacle stretched on for more than a quarter of a mile, but it took us at least 30 minutes to cross. It’s hard to describe the difficulty traversing such a imposing, and morale-busting formation. Huge table-size boulders crest the ridge. Stacked one upon another, they jut out in every direction. They’re tall enough to require you to bend up, down, and over to cross them. It puts a lot of strain on your knees and wears you out. To further complicate the situation, lichen-covered rocks, slippery enough in normal conditions, were downright treacherous after the rain. We both had repeated tumbles today, but experienced nothing more serious than a few bumps and scratches.
It does cause you to wonder how this landscape came to be. The short answer is that these are the remains of very old mountains that were formed hundreds of million years ago. These stubborn rascals refuse to disintegrate like the reset of the colossal formation above them did. Geologic uplift and freezing and thawing, cracked the rock and thrust it on every imaginable direction.
Continuing on the ridge, the terrain alternated between relatively smooth sections and rocky areas. We took a short break at the Bear Rock overlook. Farther along the trail we started to see burnt trunks and charred ground, evidence of forest fires. There was a short respite of a flat forest road that we greatly appreciated before hitting more difficult terrain. We encountered another rocky field before arriving at our lunch spot at the Bake Oven shelter at noon. It had taken us 4 hours to travel only 5 miles, and we weren’t even at the halfway point. Another rock strewn section after lunch led to a power line clearing. This cascading rocky rubble proved to be unmercifully difficult to cross. If there was an easy way to terminate our hike at this point, I’m sure we’d be temped to cut our trek short.
From there the trail stretches through a wide flat wooded area. With the leaves gone from the trees, daylight flooded the ground and you could see quite a distance through the open landscape. Others must have found solace here as evidenced by the tranquil rock sculpture constructed near a small overlook. Jane christened it, Namaste. If we had more time, I’m sure we would have stretched out for a little nap, before continuing on our way. But the westward sinking sun compelled us to continue on.
This section followed a wide, smooth forest road for a while with a few patches of rocks, small potatoes compared to the earlier obstacles. The died-back hay-scented ferns were adorned with a beautiful rust color that radiated whenever the sun popped out. There was a fascinating area of alpine plants, where the oaks, no more than 3 or 4-feet tall clung to their colorful leaves.
From the ridge, we could see the Lehigh River and the Pennsylvania Turnpike coursing toward us. The river bends around the mountain ridge, but the turnpike stubbornly continues straight and tunnels nearly a mile right through the mountain. On our return home in the evening, we drove through the tunnel. So we had the experience of both walking the crest of the mountain in daylight and driving through it at night.
We reached the George Outerbridge shelter at 3:30. With less than a mile to go, and over an hour’s worth of daylight still ahead of us, we felt confident enough to sit on a wooden bench and take a 10-minute break. Inscribed on the back were the words of Aldo Leopold, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.”
The final descent took the better part of an hour because small ankle-twisting rocks forced us to take it slowly. Off to the side of the trail we observed a ramshackle campsite, sprawled with a mat, buckets and trash. We think it was the lair of a homeless man who we noticed near a well. It just reminds you of the variety of people to be found on the trail. We learned this summer of a man arrested on the trail for some felony. While hiking the Appalachian Trail he managed to evaded authorities for several years.