Sitting on the edge of the lean-to, I watched the forest slowly awaken. The cacophonous symphony which lulled me to sleep hours earlier had transformed into the silence of the dawn. The morning gradually grew brighter and I grew more reflective and literary in my thoughts as I breathed through the soreness in my legs. Sitting cross-legged at the end of my sleeping pad, the tightness along the outside of my legs was familiar to me thanks to five years of endurance sport training — my IT band was tight. Not a surprise after five hours of hiking and two nights of outdoor sleeping. I left my meditative morning to walk around the shelter site and settle into a few yoga poses to loosen up my body in preparation for the hardest day of hiking.
It was at least six months ago when I was at Gear for Adventure and proprietress Sarah asked if I’d be interested in doing a backpacking trip with her. “Yes!” was my response, before I even knew where we were going or what it would entail. I’ve done plenty of day hiking and traipsing through trails (See my participation in the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon for crazy adventures in the woods.) I’ve done a small amount of camping including an eight-person tent fiasco (long story best told on the trail or over beers) and have learned some basic outdoor skills, but have never had the opportunity to actually use them. So this backpacking trip was going to be filled with plenty of firsts and plenty of adventure as Sarah and I took off to Western Pennyslvania.
We drove to Ohiopyle, Pa. on Thursday and set up our tent at the state park campgrounds. We fueled up with pasta and s’mores and then a few more s’mores and then the rest of the marshmallows. It was my first night in my new sleeping bag (one that was actually meant for use in camping rather than for elementary school slumber parties) and while I didn’t sleep through the night, I was toasty and rather comfy.
Friday we packed up the site, had breakfast and met my old college buddy Mary who lives in Pittsburgh and kindly agreed to be our transport to the trailhead for our two-day journey on the Laurel Highlands Trail. She not only took us to Maple Summit Road trail head but brought us blueberry muffins and a bag of granola her daughter had made for us. “My daughter asked if you would have snacks,” Mary said. “I told her that I didn’t think Amy went anywhere without snacks.” Truer words have never been spoken. We had plenty of food but gladly took the freezer bag full of granola which, in all honesty, could have fed us by itself for two days. We would not starve. That’s for sure.
Gear in place and muffins consumed, Sarah and I headed off on the trail. The Laurel Highlands Trail is 70-miles running between Ohiopyle and Johnstown in southwestern Pennsylvania. The section we decided to tackle was about 12 miles in total with six miles to cover each day. We did this on purpose, so that we could enjoy the journey and take our time and because we knew this section was the most difficult featuring the greatest elevation change. (And yes, I considered this to a “badass” fact.) As we hit the trail, we were struck with how beautiful it was. The landscape was dotted with rock formations and plenty of green. We took time to marvel at nature’s architecture and the uniqueness of the area.
Our plan was to stop at one of the vistas noted on the trail map for lunch. But alas, the vistas, signified with a camera on the map, became the mythical part of our hike. Either they were overgrown or mismarked. We missed half of them. However, after our lunch at own makeshift vista spot, we found one of the overlooks into the canyon and climbed out on some rocks. There, we sat for 20 minutes watching several hawks fly along the thermals. Two of them coasted within 20 feet of us. Vocabulary and descriptive power evaporated. “Wow” and “awesome” and “how cool” were about the only phrases that passed my lips. Eloquent I was not. But the beauty and majesty of the birds didn’t need words. It needed to be experienced.
Dark clouds were rolling in, so we continued on the trail and a steep decline toward our shelter site for the night. Along the way we ran into two guys heading the same direction on the trail. One was holding his hand against his chest. It was swollen to twice its normal size, the victim of a bee sting at the shelter they stayed at the previous night. Sarah went through her first aid kit and found an antihistamine to share with the hiker. We hoped they made it back to town and part of me felt good that we could help a fellow outdoorsman on the trail.
We came to the connector trail for the shelter area and continued our hike down. The area was beautiful … until you walked a few feet further and found piles of garbage at the water pump. In all honesty, it was pretty disgusting and spoiled what otherwise had been a beautiful ode to nature. It was mid-afternoon and we settled into our lean-to just before the rain storm came. Perfect timing. We had a snack then relaxed with some reading, writing and puzzle solving when two other hikers came into the site for the night. It was good to have company. Plus, any bear-like noises I thought I heard could now be attributed to them. (For the record, there weren’t any bears around. I did get momentarily spooked that I heard a bear because both Sarah and I heard footsteps. So it was either a bear or a ghost. And a bear sounded better to me.)
We had tried to build a fire at our lean-to in a old stone fireplace, but struggled with lack of dry kindling. As we peered around the corner, Sarah saw the guys had a raging fire going. At that point, it was on. Sarah was determined we were going to have a fire and off she went to search for kindling. We rebuilt our fire, tore out pages of her puzzle book to help kick-start the kindling and lit a page off the JetBoil to ignite the fire. We waited a few minutes and, YES! Something significant had caught. We had fire. And then we had popcorn.
The next morning we chatted with the guys in the other lean-to and discovered we had the better experience. They had to deal with snakes and mice in their lean-to and ended up setting up their tent. I saw a mouse earlier in our stay and Sarah was pretty sure a chipmunk ran across the outside of her sleeping bag. But all-in-all we were critter free. Or oblivious. Either way worked for me.
We had granola and pancakes and filled our water bottles with filtered water from the creek. (Another first for me. I’ve used a water filter before but never out of necessity.) Packed up and fueled up, off we went for what was to be the most difficult day of our hiking journey. The elevation profile was up and down and while down is easier on your cardiovascular system, it isn’t easier on your muscles. We climbed and descended and took frequent breaks for water. We missed another vista we had planned for our lunch stop, but took our break at Mile 4 and checked out some pretty cool vines in the forest.
There were more people on the trail on Saturday and we crossed paths with a few trail runners, some day hikers and a few backpackers making their way to the shelter site we just came from. While the entire trail was beautiful, we reached another amazing spot between Mile 4 and 3. The trail was a mix of roots and stones, but in an incredibly interesting and provocative way. There was a small waterfall to our left and then we came to a creek crossing that was spectacular. This section was unlike any we had ever seen before.
At Mile 3 came another vista, this one easily identified, with a great view of the Youghiogheny River and the ever-present railroad tracks of Pennsylvania. At this point our legs were getting tired but the elevation profile leveled off, so we could pick up our pace a bit, making up some time even as Sarah stopped to teach me how to use an acorn top to whistle. First whistle I ever did without a Fox 40. I nearly did a little dance. And by nearly I mean I totally danced on the trail.
The final two miles were pretty, but not as breathtaking as other parts. And the rocks on the trail became a bit loose and annoying. With one mile to go I suggested we take a water and small snack break. Frankly, I’d like to think it was a good suggestion. Here’s why: The trail leads to Ohiopyle, but there is a connector off the main trail that leads to the King Road Parking Area. That’s where our car was. Here’s where we made our mistake: We looked at the elevation profile of the trail not the topographical markings on the map. The elevation profile was for the main trail — the half mile or so that went into town, not for the connector trail that went to our parking lot. When we saw the sign for the parking area, both Sarah and I checked out mentally. Time to coast to the car, right? Wrong. We went up. Straight up. We climbed about 200 feet in, oh, a quarter to half a mile. This? Right here? This was the hardest part on our bodies. Mostly because we had turned ourselves off at this point.
But we made it. We hung out at the car for a while, changing our clothes and calling our loved ones back home. Then, we headed to the local pub where we enjoyed beers, cheese fries and sandwiches.
“We just came off the trail,” both Sarah and I said while at the bar. It was the coolest feeling sentence that I have ever uttered.