Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, May 2008

Day 5

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Thursday morning began at 9:00 a.m. with a brisk temperature of 42 degrees, an overcast sky and a forecast calling for more rain. The cool, damp weather kept us moving quickly to stay warm and we had everything ready to go by 9:55 a.m. I spoke with Dave for a few minutes at the water pump while topping off my bottles. We talked about some of our recent hikes and he told me about his six-month through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2000. I wished Dave well and said goodbye as he took off for Grindle Ridge. We made last minute checks and adjustments of gear and started down the trail a few minutes later. We really didn't want to wear rain gear again but we knew better than to leave it packed away, especially with the way the weather had treated us thus far.

It wasn't so much that I had to wear wet-weather gear that bummed me out, it was the thought of having to keep my camera packed deep within my backpack. We had traveled to a new hiking locale this year and had passed a lot of awesome sites, but I wasn't able to take many photos because there had been so much rain. Unfortunately, that's the way things sometime go.

It didn't come as much of a surprise when within the first half hour we were once again pounded by a heavy rain and hail mix. It was the constant, steady type of rain that didn't seem like it would be passing over very quickly. It rained for quite a while, but remained windy, cloudy and cold even after the rain finally stopped. The weather forecast called for a high temperature of only 50 degrees today, but the thick clouds and wind gusts of 30 mph made that seem highly unlikely. On the way out of camp we passed a single male hiker coming in the opposite direction. We figured he must have been up and on the trail somewhat early to have made it to this point by now.

It seemed like the first half of today's section of trail was even rockier than the previous couple days. But, then again, maybe it was just my loss of patience with the rocky condition of the trail. Much of the trail was peppered with fist-sized rocks. Some were smooth, some were jagged and most of them were embedded in the ground. With every stride my feet would twist and turn in a direction opposite from the previous which played havoc with my feet. The terrain hadn't been kind to my left knee either which had been sore since the end of the second day. I don't know what caused the injury, a bad step, the constant twists and turns, an aging joint or maybe a combination of everything, but every step was now accompanied by a pretty intense ache which, by the end of the day, would turn into what I considered to be searing pain.

Just past mile 35 and before crossing Tunnel Rd we came across a mailbox next to a tree about half-way up another hill. The mailbox contained a spiral-bound notebook and a pen inside of a Ziploc bag. I contributed a short entry to the trail registry, read a couple other entries and then replaced the items before pushing on to the top of the ridge.

After crossing Tunnel Rd the trail remained easy-going without any appreciable rises or falls in elevation until approximately 36.5 miles when the trail dropped roughly 200 feet over a fairly short distance. Suddenly we were able to hear the distant hiss of quickly passing vehicles as they drove perpendicular to our direction of travel. As more ground passed beneath our boots the noise became louder and louder until we exited the dimly-lit forest and were deposited into a bright, albeit, cloudy opening. The secluded dirt path we had traveled for so many miles had given way to a cement and steel walkway over the busy Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-70/76). We walked onto the pedestrian bridge, stood at its apex and peered down on the passing cars, minivans and tractor/trailers flying down the roadway beneath us. The road below was still wet from all the rain so as the vehicles sped along a fine white mist materialized from the juncture of the rolling tires and the soaked cement surface. The spray trailed behind the vehicles and hung in the air for a short time before falling back to the roadway where it mixed with the rest of the standing water only to be set aloft again by the next passing vehicle. Occasionally, a passing motorist would notice us standing on the bridge and would honk their horn and wave as they drove by. We always returned the friendly gesture. It was rather breezy out there in the open so a few minutes of traffic observation was enough for both of us. We continued on to the opposite end of the bridge in hopes that the trail would quickly remove us from the sights and sounds of this modern phenomenon called an interstate highway, and take us back into the great outdoors where the only sounds we would hear were the soft pitter-patter of rain falling on the leaves and the rhythmic cadence of our boots on the muddy trail.

We stopped for lunch between 1:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. near a couple large boulders next to an unnamed gravel road south of Laurel Summit Road. Not long after our break we came upon the giant, 80-foot tall formation named Beam Rock. It appeared out of nowhere and almost seemed out of place in these surroundings as there was nothing else I saw like it in the area. It appeared to be a popular place for rock climbers and people with a daredevil spirit because there were large signs at each end of this natural formation warning people that climbing here was to be done at their own risk. As I discovered after this hike, there were two people who fell to their deaths at this very location only two months before we passed by this giant chunk of rock [Link 1, Link 2].

For approximately one mile, beginning at roughly the 42-mile mark, we hiked through a dense pine tree forest. The familiar yellow blazes which adorned tree trunks periodically along the entire route increased to literally one every couple yards to prevent hikers from losing the trail through this area. We had roughly a mile of decent travel before coming across a section of trail that I considered, by far, to be the most annoying section of the entire trip. The trail between miles 44 and 45 was very rocky and twisted and turned in various directions, for no apparent reason, through a thick, gnarly growth of what I believe was Rhododendron bushes [Link 1, Link 2]. I quickly surmised that this must be what it is like to walk through one of those giant hedge mazes, only tens times worse. The growth was so thick that the branches and leaves were literally rubbing against my face and catching on the straps of our backpacks as we fought to push forward. To top it off, even though it was a rather cool day, I really began to work up a sweat in here because the plants did not allow any breeze to reach us. This area quickly left me disoriented and without even the slightest hint of our compass heading because the only objects visible were thousands upon thousands of these trail-choking clusters of broad, dark green leaves.

What I nick-named the "rock maze" appeared just after we passed the 45-mile marker. The path twisted between numerous house-sized boulders sitting on both sides of the trail. It was another one of many incredible sights. Too bad my camera was still buried inside my backpack! After exiting the rock maze the trail descended yet again before climbing a final time and depositing us in the parking lot where I had left my car. From here we crossed Route 30, picked up the trail on the other side of the road and began another ascent, albeit, a gradual one. We crossed a small dirt road (which we later discovered was the park service access road to the shelters) and eventually came upon the camp area within another several tenths of a mile. It was now about 5:30 p.m.

Shelter #1 was at the opposite end of where we hiked in from and after passing the other shelters, we realized that this entire area was devoid of people. Our shelter was centrally located between the water pump and the wood pile. The wood appeared to have been recently dropped because it still had its light, just-cut appearance and was only slightly damp. I quickly changed out of my wet clothing and began to gather wood for a fire while Ken took a short nap. I managed to get a fire going after a couple attempts and immediately began the routine of drying my gear in front of the flames. It was still pretty windy at this point and the strong breeze constantly delivered a healthy, or should I say, unhealthy dose of smoke into the shelter. As I had come to discover several times before, the authentic stone masonry seemed to be more of a token structure as opposed to a properly functioning chimney because we always seemed to get more smoke inside of the shelter than what was funneled up and into the sky above.

Around 7:30 p.m. I went down to wash my hair in the icy-cold liquid that poured from the rusty lip of the old-fashioned hand pump. I also refilled our bottles and guzzled several mouthfuls of water. The water had a slight aftertaste, but it was absolutely nothing like the water at the Route 31 shelters. That water had such an iron taste that I added powdered Gatorade to my bottles to help disguise the taste.

It didn't take much discussion before we chose to forgo cooking dinner and eating on the hard wooden floor of the shelter in the quickly chilling night. From our research prior to the trip we learned of a small restaurant not far from the shelter area called Walat's Tavern. Walat's supposedly served up some pretty mean hamburgers at a fair price. After a couple days on the trail the thought of passing up hot, juicy hamburgers, which were only a couple minutes walk away, was hard to pass up. The small gravel access road we crossed on our hike in appeared to be only yards away, straight out from the front of our shelter. Shortly before 8:00 p.m. we walked this gravel road out past a simple padlocked iron gate and a few minutes later emerged on Route 30 just down the street from Walat's Tavern. We entered the building to discover that it was a lively, smoke-filled bar with quite a few interesting characters. We took a seat near the back of the bar at a table next to a window, placed our orders and waited for the food. Several minutes later when the food arrived I looked at our personal smorgasbord and was amazed. Ken and I looked up at each other at the same time and just laughed. We couldn't believe the size of these burgers. Believe it or not the hamburgers were almost as tall as our standard, restaurant-sized beverage glasses. The burgers had an excellent flavor and were cooked perfectly.

While we were eating a guy approached our table and introduced himself as Marty. He said, "I'm sorry, but I'm pretty bad with names. Have I met you guys before?" We explained that we were from Michigan and this was our first time hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail. It seemed to immediately strike a chord with Marty because his expression became even more cheery as he recounted his excursion to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for grouse hunting and his plan to do some more hunting up in Grayling. Marty asked how we liked our food and we told him it was very good. He told us to enjoy the burgers because they were made from prime meat which had been butchered locally, not far from here. He shook our hands, said he didn't want to keep us from our dinners and then yelled to the bartender as he walked away, "Give these two guys a cup!" She leaned over the bar and handed us two small plastic cups, the kind that restaurants normally bring to your table you when you ask for extra salad dressing or BBQ sauce. When we asked what the little cups were for she said, "That means Marty just bought you a drink. Turn them in when you decided what you want from the bar."

We finished eating and sat at the table for a while absorbing the sights and sounds of the little bar and did some people watching. And what, you may ask, was the total price for two ¾ lb. hamburgers, one pound of french fries, two cokes, a rum and coke and a large beer? About $12.00! The patrons and staff seemed pretty friendly and the word must have spread about us because we had a couple people stop to talk to us about our hike. Before we left the cook came out and asked how we enjoyed our food. We told her it was very tasty and that we were not even the slightest bit hungry anymore. She recommended that the next time we stop in we should try their famous 24oz. ham sandwich -- regular price, $4.25.

We left Walat's around 9:00 p.m. and walked back to the shelter in the dark. As we approached the camp area the faint odor of smoke filled the cool night air. The small fire we left burning had been reduced to a pile of white ash and a few glowing embers. It took some new pieces of wood and a little coaxing, but flames soon filled the fireplace again and began to radiate much welcomed heat into the shelter. The flames cast a dim, flickering light into the shelter as we sat in front of the fire discussing the long day which now history and the experience that was Walat's Tavern. The forecast claimed the temperature would reach a low of 37 degrees overnight, and from how it felt at this point, I believed it. More importantly, there was no rain or hail anywhere in sight!

Final count for the day: One other hiker, some small birds, a couple chipmunks and a few deer prints in the mud. There were no bugs either, but no wonder, it has been too cold for them to be out.

Miles Covered Today: 14.0
Total Trip Miles: 47.1
Elevation Change Today: 3500 feet
Total Elevation Change: 13,900 feet

Day 6

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:26 AM