By Nathan Borchelt
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
I blame it all on my friend Toby Gohn, a fun, freakish nature lover who spent five months of 2003 hiking the Appalachian Trail, the 2,175-mile route that stretches from Georgia to Maine. The Maryland stretch happens to cross the state's skinny panhandle, running only 41 miles over the backbone of South Mountain, from the Potomac to the Mason-Dixon line. Through-hikers (folks walking the whole length of the trail) consider the Maryland portion so tame and short compared with other state stretches that they've invented the Maryland Challenge: hiking every foot of it in one day.
Toby had mentioned the challenge once while we were hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, and in a blink of illogic that echoed some middle school game of truth or dare, two months later we were heading out of D.C. one Friday evening in June, to take the Maryland Challenge.
If the ambition was delusional, the logistics were straightforward, if cumbersome. We'd drop one car in Harpers Ferry, the West Virginia town at the point where the Appalachian Trail crosses from Maryland, and then drive to Pen Mar Park, a scenic spot on the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line. We'd carry only day packs, stop only to eat and see who would be the first to go crazy or twist an ankle.
We'd climbed into our sleeping bags at 11 on a Friday night in June; the 4 a.m. cry of the alarm came far too early. Dexterity and awareness are in dangerously short supply that early in the morning, and I managed to spray Toby with stove fuel in a sleep-deprived effort to make coffee. But as the sun rose, delivering a crisp dawn absent of clouds, we were successfully caffeinated. We packed away protein- and sugar-rich foods (almonds, dried mango, bite-size Snickers, spicy tuna in foil packets), filled our 4.5 liters' worth of water containers (we also carried a water filter for the copious springs and refill spots along the trail), and were off. We had camped a tenth of a mile inside Maryland, so our first leg was a short march north to the Pennsylvania line and the true start of the challenge. At the marker for the Mason-Dixon line, we shook our heads in disbelief that we were hiking at 6 a.m. -- and would still be hiking at 6 p.m. -- and turned back south toward West Virginia.
For the first hour, it was just the two of us, a profusion of wildflowers and a welcome lack of humidity, but soon we encountered a slow parade of through-hikers.
The first thing you notice, before you even see the through-hikers, is their earthy, potent body odor. But get beyond the pungent smell, trail-weary gear, sweat-stained clothes and crazed eyes, and through-hikers have an almost supernaturally healthy glow and infectious smiles.
"Your body's exploding on endorphins," Toby recalled of his through-hiking days as we passed through a field of wild mountain laurel and geraniums. "Hiking each and every damn day, you feel like you can do anything." He trailed off, then said, "I was in the best shape of my life," his tone awash in a heady mix of nostalgia and envy.
The miles ticked off at a steady clip. At Mile 13, I'd hiked farther than I'd ever gone in a day and took quiet comfort that each step beyond that point would be a new personal record. Just past Mile 16 we crossed by Annapolis Rock, which affords spectacular views of the countryside. At 18.6, we bounded across the footbridge over Interstate 70. As the day progressed, we met more day hikers and overnighters covering this stretch of trail at a more reasonable pace. (You can comfortably walk across Maryland on the trail over three or four days.) The terrain shifted from fern-carpeted mountaintops to ankle-twisting rock gardens.
At 21.5 miles we reached Washington Monument State Park, home to the first tribute built in honor of George Washington. The 34-foot tower looked like a stubby, stone milk bottle; day-trippers ascended the stairs to take in the views. We found a shady stretch of grass, ate lunch, then closed our eyes for 20 blissful minutes underneath clouds that floated like downy cushions -- after hiking 21 1/2 miles, almost everything reminds you of your mattress.
It was the only long break in the entire hike. We shouldered our packs, pushed up a series of switchbacks, looked over the quartzite outcropping of White Rock Cliff, then dropped down into Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park, where a 50-foot-tall arch honors Civil War correspondents.
The park marked our 31st mile. The sunlight was dying, but we stopped to refuel on the last of our tuna and replenish our water. We started the last ascent, reciting odes to the approaching first sip of beer and ruminating on the glories of Gold Bond, the anti-chafing powder of marathon runners.
Midway up, we came across a group of Boy Scouts splayed on either side of the trail.
"How much farther is it to the parking lot?" asked one, his face stricken with exhaustion. Obviously he'd been hiking for a few days, and he'd had enough.
"About 10 minutes," I replied.
"What if you've hiked 15 miles today?" he pleaded, convinced I was lying.
"We've hiked 31," I said without enthusiasm as I passed.
"Thirty-one?" he exclaimed. "Thirty-one miles?!"
At that point, as the trail climbed, all that was left to do was keep walking. The sun disappeared as we crested the hill and navigated down into the river basin. Toby trudged ahead as I fell behind. The hiking poles in my hand became walking canes, twice saving me from pitching off the trail. As we looped around the last switchback, the trail leveled out and spilled us onto a stretch of blacktop. We crossed the road and kept on until the Appalachian Trail reached the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath. That gravel path marked the beginning of the end: three miles of flat terrain straight to the edge of Maryland. After that last descent, which had tortured my ankles, knees and hips, walking on level ground was like floating.
It was just past 8 p.m. and a full moon was rising, casting the Potomac and the towpath in silvery light. To our right, a carpet of algae, glowing electric green in the moonlight, covered the canal. To our left, families set up camps on the river basin, their flashlights dancing in massive tents like surreal shadow-puppets as we slipped silently by. I was moving on, ready to be done with the damn thing already, when Toby called out "Stop!" in an urgent whisper. I froze -- earlier he'd told me a story about a massive rattlesnake he'd once seen stretched across the trail, and with less than a mile to go, I didn't yearn for a detour to the nearest emergency room. He pointed to a black lump 15 feet ahead. Skunk? Fox? Nope . . . just a beaver, as we discovered when the massive beast thwapped its tail on the path before sliding into the canal.
We left the C&O by crossing the Byron Memorial Footbridge, which carries the trail into Harpers Ferry. As we walked over the Potomac, the border between West Virginia and Maryland and our finish line, we were too stricken with exhaustion, too delirious, to do more than smile and keep on walking. We reached the car in the National Park Service parking lot, where we'd left it a lifetime ago, at 9:30 p.m., and drove to a nearby gas station craving every processed food imaginable. We got to the nearby Comfort Inn by 10.
And after 15 1/2 hours of hiking, the hardest part of the day was climbing three flights of stairs and trudging the five yards of carpeted hallway that stood between us and our beds.