Location: Bank of the Potomac River, Harper’s Ferry, WV
I woke to an alarm clock this morning. I had 38 miles to reach Harper’s Ferry, WV, where I needed to be by 7:00am on the 29th to catch the commuter train to DC. I left early and with haste. I knew I was in for a long day. I had never hiked so far before, and I was coming off three consecutive marathon days, with two days in the thirties.
I passed the shelter where Not Bad had slept the night before and I didn’t even check the register as I rushed passed. An hour later, just across a pedestrian bridge over a highway, I found Not Bad signing a register. He had slept late after his forty mile day, and had only just begun his hike today. We both decided that we would go to DC in the morning, so together we would hike to Harper’s Ferry.
After another 20 miles or so on the trail, we came to the road that led into Boonesboro. Not Bad and I decided that we would go into the town and eat a hearty dinner before hiking through the night to reach the Harper’s Ferry train station by 7:00 am. We hitched a ride quickly from a man in a gray VW Jetta. He dropped us off in the middle of town around 4:00pm.
Not Bad and I walked around to find a suitable place for dinner. In our first few blocks of walking, we encountered a group of teenagers who gave us some trouble. The boys and girls could not have been older than 15, but there were several of them. They sounded like they were from rural North Carolina. They sat on small BMX bikes and wore camouflaged pants and white wife beaters. One of them told Not Bad, ‘It looks like it’s gonna rain, you got your poncho?’ Not Bad said ‘No, man, you got one I can borrow?’ I’m not sure what poncho means in western Maryland, but it set the one kid off as if Not Bad had kicked his dog or insulted his mother. The girls immediately said to the boys, ‘Just let it go.’ The guy kept yelling this and that about wanting to fight, Not Bad didn’t back down. The situation only diffused when the girl poured her Coke on her friends head to stop him from arguing and I returned to tell Not Bad to keep walking. I wasn’t particular scared. I firmly believe that two thru-hikers are strong enough and fit enough to outlast just about anyone in a fight, but I didn’t want to test our abilities.
We went to the gas station to pig out on junk food. The storm that had caused the confrontation let loose a hellacious downpour. While we waited under the awning at the gas station, I half expected the older brothers or the fathers of the kids that Not Bad argued with to show up and continue what had been started. They never did. Although I dislike Subway, it was the only place to eat dinner in town where we could get a meal that wouldn’t weigh us down before our twelve mile walk to Harper’s Ferry.
After finishing dinner and checking our email at the public library, we decided that we would not return to the trail to hike to Harper’s Ferry since the rain would make the walk exceptionally difficult and likely too dangerous in our tired condition. We decided that we would walk the road from Boonesboro, MD to Harper’s Ferry, WV.
The walk was miserable. We were both exhausted. It rained throughout most of the walk. There was no shoulder on the road, so every car that passed sent a spray of water into our faces and many honked as they zoomed by us. We probably didn’t stand out in the dark and in the rain, so cars came quite close. Miles in the woods seem like a long way, but miles on the road can be incredibly boring and painful. My feet struck the hard pavement each time, so my heels bruised quickly. I strained the back of my knees with long strides. My hips bled around my waist strap, and each time I tried to readjust the pack I only increased the agitation and pain. Not Bad struggled much more than I did. He seemingly always wanted to rest. I encouraged him to walk just a few more minutes each time and then we could rest. Since he ate the ice cream two days ago, his stomach has been bothering him, which in turn has taken a toll on his energy and morale levels. Over the twelve to fourteen miles to Harpers Ferry, we often rested on guardrails along the highway. Once while we were resting, a man in an old pickup truck slowed to ask if we needed help. I told him that we didn’t, but he offered to let us camp in his field, which was right behind the rail where we sat. He left us in the rain before Not Bad could ask him to take us to Harper’s Ferry. I’d rather walk than ride. If we are skipping some of the trail, even if it’s difficult, I’d rather walk to do it.
After the long and painful road walk, we finally came to the Harper’s Ferry exit. We followed the road towards town. The AT coming into Harper’s Ferry follows an old canal. Hundreds of years ago animals walked the path, yoked to barges in the canal. Having walked the road, we ended up on the wrong side of the canal, and we couldn’t get to the AT although it was only a few feet away from us. I nearly walked out onto the algae covered water, thinking that it was grass. Only because I slipped and sent a rock tumbling into the canal did I realize that I was so close to water.
We continued to walk on the road, and then at a road crossing we decided to follow the train tracks. Since we needed to catch the train in the morning, we figured that the train tracks would take us to the train station quicker than any other way. Walking on the tracks hurt more than the road, because footing was hard to find on the rocks and the spaced railroad ties. After several minutes, we came to the entrance of a long, narrow train tunnel. We could see the end, but that didn’t comfort us. Everything in us said don’t walk into that tunnel, but we did anyway because turning back would mean too much time and energy had been wasted. We hurried through the tunnel and came out on the others side without ordeal.
The track led us to a train trestle, which again forced us to act against common sense. We hurried across, but we startled a fat possum hunkered between the ties. He hissed and slowly fled, slowly walking in front of us and blocking the way. He turned to hiss when we came too close. We followed several yards behind him across the entire length of the bridge. A pedestrian bridge paralleled the trestle, and once we reached solid ground again, Not Bad and I threw our packs over and scaled the fence, relieved to find a white blaze and a bench on the other side where we rested for a few minutes as 4:00 am came and went. In my fatigue, I started hallucinating, seeing colors and shapes in the black night. After a quick exploration of Harper’s Ferry while looking for a place to stealth camp, Not Bad and I decided to return to an area by the train tracks where we had rested on the bench. There was a cleared area on the top of the cliffs where visitors could look over the Potomac River and another river that joined it there. We walked down a long flight of stairs that put us at the bottom of the cliffs on the edge of the river. In the open, we laid out our sleeping bags on the wet ground and tried to sleep for an hour before we needed to get on the train. As I lay in my sleeping bag, weary from a 38 mile day in which I walked through almost all of Maryland, my quads and calves still fired as though I were hiking. My muscles would tighten and my legs would kick while I tried to sleep. I couldn’t control them. My hips still bled and stung, but I finally fell asleep around 5:00am.