فصل 14

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فصل 14

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In the morning, I drove to Pennsylvania, thirty miles or so to the north. The Appalachian Trail runs for 230 miles in a northeasterly arc across the state, like the broad end of a slice of pie. I never met a hiker with a good word to say about the trail in Pennsylvania. It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place “where boots go to die.” During the last ice age it experienced what geologists call a periglacial climate–a zone at the edge of an ice sheet characterized by frequent freeze–thaw cycles that fractured the rock. The result is mile upon mile of jagged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles known to science as felsenmeer (literally, “sea of rocks”).

These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face–not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back. Lots of people leave Pennsylvania limping and bruised. The state also has what are reputed to be the meanest rattlesnakes anywhere along the trail, and the most unreliable water sources, particularly in high summer. The really beautiful Appalachian ranges in PennsylvaniaNittany and Jacks and Tussey–stand to the north and west. For various practical and historical reasons, the AT goes nowhere near them. It traverses no notable eminences at all in Pennsylvania, offers no particularly memorable vistas, visits no national parks or forests, and overlooks the state’s considerable history. In consequence, the AT is essentially just the central part of a very long, taxing haul connecting the South and New England. It is little wonder that most people dislike it.

Oh, and it also has the very worst maps ever produced for hikers anywhere. The six sheets–maps is really much too strong a word for them–produced for Pennsylvania by a body called the Keystone Trails Association are small, monochrome, appallingly printed, inadequately keyed, and astoundingly vague–in short, useless: comically useless, heartbreakingly useless, dangerously useless. No one should be sent into a wilderness with maps this bad.I had this brought home to me with a certain weep-inducing force as I stood in a parking lot in a place called Caledonia State Park looking at a section of map that was simply a blurred smear of whorls, like a poorly taken thumbprint. A single contour line was interrupted by a printed number in microscopic type. The number said either “1800” or “1200”–it wasn’t possible to tell– but it didn’t actually matter because there was no scale indicated anywhere, nothing to denote the height interval from one contour line to the next, or whether the packed bands of lines indicated a steep climb or precipitous descent.

Not one single thing–not one single thing–within the entire park and for some miles around was inscribed. From where I stood, I could be fifty feet or two miles from the Appalachian Trail, in any direction. There was simply no telling.

Foolishly, I had not looked at these maps before setting off from home. I had packed in a hurry, simply noted that I had the correct set, and stuck them in my pack. I looked through them all now with a sense of dismay, as you might a series of compromising pictures of a loved one. I had known all along that I was never going to walk across Pennsylvania–I had neither the time nor the spirit for it just now–but I had thought I might find some nice circular walks that would give me something of the challenging flavor of the state without making me endlessly retrace my steps. It was clear now, looking through the complete set, that not only were there no circular hikes to be had, but it was going to be the next thing to pure luck any time I stumbled on the trail at all.

Sighing, I put the maps away and set off through the park on foot looking for the familiar white blazes of the AT. It was a pleasant park in a wooded valley, quite empty on this fine morning. I walked for perhaps an hour along a network of winding paths through trees and over wooden footbridges, but I failed to find the AT, so I returned to the car and pushed on, along a lonely highway through the dense flying leaves of Michaux State Forest and on to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, a large recreation area built around a nineteenth-century stone kiln, now a picturesque ruin, from which it takes its name. The park had snack huts, picnic tables, and a lake with a swimming area, but all were shut and there wasn’t a soul about. On the edge of the picnic area was a big dumpster with a sturdy metal lid that had been severely–arrestingly–mangled and dented and half wrenched from its hinges, presumably by a bear trying to get at park garbage. I examined it with the deepest respect; I hadn’t realized black bears were quite that strong.

Here at least the AT blazes were prominent. They led around the lake and up through steep woods to the summit of Piney Mountain, which wasn’t indicated on the map and isn’t really a mountain since it barely rises to 1,500 feet. Still, it was challenging enough on a hot summer’s day. Just outside the park there is a board marking the traditional, but entirely notional, midpoint of the Appalachian Trail, with 1,080.2 indicated miles of hiking in either direction. (Since no one can say exactly how long the AT is, the real midpoint could be anywhere within fifty miles or so; in any case, it would change from year to year because of reroutings.) Two-thirds of thru-hikers never see it anyway, because they have dropped out by this point. It must actually be quite a depressing moment–to have slogged through a mountainous wilderness for ten or eleven weeks and to realize that for all that effort you are still but halfway there.

It was also around here that one of the trail’s more notorious murders took place, the one at the heart of the book Eight Bullets, which I had bought at ATC headquarters the day before. The story is simply told. In May 1988, two young hikers, Rebecca Wight andClaudia Brenner, who also happened to be lesbians, excited the attention of a disturbed young man with a rifle, who shot them eight times from a distance as they made love in a leafy clearing beside the trail. Wight was killed. Brenner, seriously wounded, managed to stumble down the mountain to a road and was rescued by some passing teenagers in a pickup truck. The murderer was swiftly caught and convicted.

The next year, a young man and woman were killed by a drifter at a shelter just a few miles to the north, which rather gave Pennsylvania a bad reputation for a while, but then there were no murders anywhere along the AT for seven years until the recent deaths of the two young women in Shenandoah National Park. Their deaths brought the official murder toll to nine–quite a large number for any footpath, no matter how you look at itthough in fact there probably have been more. Between 1946 and 1950 three people vanished while hiking through one small area of Vermont, but they aren’t included in the tally; whether because it happened so long ago or because it was never conclusively proved they were murdered I couldn’t say. I was also told by an acquaintance in New England of an older couple who were killed by a deranged axe murderer in Maine sometime in the 1970s, but again it doesn’t appear in any records because, evidently, they were on a side trail when they were attacked.

Overnight I had read Eight Bullets, Brenner’s account of the murder of her friend, so I was generally acquainted with the circumstances, but I intentionally left the book in the car, as it seemed a little morbid to go looking for a death site nearly a decade after the event. I wasn’t remotely spooked by the murder, but even so I felt a vague, low-grade unease at being alone in a silent woods so far from home. I missed Katz, missed his puffing and bitching and unflappable fearlessness, hated the thought that I could sit waiting on a rock till the end of time and he would never come. The woods were in full chlorophyll-choked glory now, which made them seem even more pressing and secretive.

Often, I couldn’t see five feet into the dense foliage on either side of the path. If I did happen on a bear, I would be quite helpless. No Katz would come along after a minute to smack it on the snout for me and say, “Jesus, Bryson, you cause me a lot of trouble.” No one at all would come to share the excitement, it appeared. There didn’t seem to be another person within fifty miles. I pushed on, filled with mild disquiet, feeling like someone swimming too far from shore.

It was 3.5 miles to the top of Piney Mountain. At the summit, I stood uncertainly, unable to decide whether to go on a little farther or turn back and perhaps try somewhere else. I couldn’t help feeling a kind of helpless and dispiriting pointlessness in what I was doing. I had known for some time that I was not going to complete the AT, but only now was it dawning on me how foolish and futile it was to dabble in it in this way. It hardly mattered whether I went on two miles or five miles or twelve miles. If I walked twelve miles instead of, say, five, what would it gain me after all? Certainly not any sight or experience or sensation that I hadn’t had a thousand times already. That was the trouble with the AT–it was all one immensely long place, and there was more of it, infinitely more of it, than I could ever conquer. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit. Quite the contrary. I was happy to walk, keen to walk. I just wanted to know what I was doing out here.

As I stood in this state of indecision, there was a dry crack of wood and a careless disturbance of undergrowth perhaps fifty feet into the woods–something good-sized and unseen. I stopped everything–moving, breathing, thinking–and stood on tiptoe peeringinto the leafy void. The noise came again, nearer. Whatever it was, it was coming my way! Whimpering quietly but sincerely, I ran a hundred yards, day pack bouncing, glasses jiggling, then turned, heart stopped, and looked back. A deer, a large buck, handsome and proud, stepped onto the path, gazed at me for a moment without concern, and sauntered on. I took a long moment to catch my breath, wiped a river of sweat from my brow, and felt profoundly discouraged.

Everyone has a supremely low moment somewhere along the AT, usually when the urge to quit the trail becomes almost overpowering. The irony of my moment was that I wanted to get back on the trail and didn’t know how. I hadn’t lost just Katz, my boon companion, but my whole sense of connectedness to the trail. I had lost my momentum, my feeling of purpose. In the most literal way I needed to find my feet again. And now on top of everything else I was quaking as if I had never been out in the woods before. All the experience I had piled up in the earlier weeks seemed to make it harder rather than easier to be out on the trail on my own. I hadn’t expected this. It didn’t seem fair. It certainly wasn’t right. In a glum frame of mind, I returned to the car.

I spent the night near Harrisburg and in the morning drove north and east across the state on back highways, trying to follow the trail as closely as I could by road, stopping from time to time where possible to sample the trail but without finding anything remotely rewarding, so mostly I drove.

Little by little the town names along the way began to take on a frank industrial tonePort Carbon, Minersville, Slatedale–and I realized I was entering the strange, halfforgotten world of Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. At Minersville, I turned onto a back highway and headed through a landscape of overgrown mine tailings and rusting machinery towards Centralia, the strangest, saddest town I believe I have ever seen.

Eastern Pennsylvania sits on one of the richest coal beds on earth. Almost from the moment Europeans arrived, they realized there was coal out there in quantities almost beyond conception. The trouble was, it was virtually all anthracite, a coal so immensely hard (it is 95 percent carbon) that for a very long time no one could figure out how to get it to light. It wasn’t until 1828 that an enterprising Scot named James Neilson had the simple but effective idea of injecting heated air rather than cold air into an iron furnace by means of a bellows. The process became known as a hot blast, and it transformed the coal industry all over the world (Wales, too, had a lot of anthracite) but especially in the United States. By the end of the century America was producing 300 million tons of coal a year, about as much as the rest of the world put together, and the great bulk of it came from Pennsylvania’s anthracite belt.

Meanwhile, to its intense gratification, Pennsylvania had also discovered oil–not only discovered it but devised ways to make it industrially useful. Petroleum (or rock oil) had been a curiosity of western Pennsylvania for years. It emerged in seeps along river-banks, where it was blotted up with blankets to be made into patent medicines esteemed for their value to cure everything from scrofula to diarrhea. In 1859, a mysterious figure named Col. Edwin Drake (who wasn’t a colonel at all but a retired railway conductor, with no understanding of geology) developed, from goodness knows where, the belief that oil could be extracted from the ground via wells. At Titusville, he bored a hole to a depth of sixty-nine feet and got the world’s first gusher. Quickly it was realized that petroleum in volume not only could be used to bind bowels and banish scabby growths but could berefined into lucrative products like paraffin and kerosene. Western Pennsylvania boomed inordinately. In three months, as John McPhee notes in In Suspect Terrain, the endearingly named Pithole City went from a population of zero to 15,000, and other towns throughout the region sprang up–Oil City, Petroleum Center, Red Hot. John Wilkes Booth came and lost his savings, then went off to kill a president, but others stayed and made a fortune.

For one lively half century Pennsylvania had a virtual monopoly on one of the most valuable products in the world, oil, and an overwhelmingly dominant role in the production of a second, coal. Because of the proximity of rich supplies of fuel, the state became the center of big, fuel-intensive industries like steelmaking and chemicals. Lots of people became colossally rich.

But not the mineworkers. Mining has of course always been a wretched line of work everywhere, but nowhere more so than in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. Thanks to immigration, miners were infinitely expendable. When the Welsh got belligerent, you brought in Irish. When they failed to satisfy, you brought in Italians or Poles or Hungarians. Workers were paid by the ton, which both encouraged them to hack out coal with reckless haste and meant that any labor they expended making their environment safer or more comfortable went uncompensated. Mine shafts were bored through the earth like holes through Swiss cheese, often destabilizing whole valleys. In 1846 at Carbon-dale almost fifty acres of mine shafts collapsed simultaneously without warning, claiming hundreds of lives. Explosions and flash fires were common.

Between 1870 and the outbreak of the First World War, 50,000 people died in American mines.

The great irony of anthracite is that, tough as it is to light, once you get it lit it’s nearly impossible to put out. Stories of uncontrolled mine fires are legion in eastern Pennsylvania. One fire at Lehigh started in 1850 and didn’t burn itself out until the Great Depression–eighty years after it started.

And thus we come to Centralia. For a century, Centralia was a sturdy little pit community. However difficult life may have been for the early miners, by the second half of the twentieth century Centralia was a reasonably prosperous, snug, hardworking town with a population approaching 2,000. It had a thriving business district, with banks and a post office and the normal range of shops and small department stores, a high school, four churches, an Odd Fellows Club, a town hall–in short, a typical, pleasant, contentedly anonymous small American town.

Unfortunately, it also sat on twenty-four million tons of anthracite. In 1962, a fire in a dump on the edge of town ignited a coal seam. The fire department poured thousands of gallons of water on the fire, but each time they seemed to have it extinguished it came back, like those trick birthday candles that go out for a moment and then spontaneously reignite. And then, very slowly, the fire began to eat its way along the subterranean seams. Smoke began to rise eerily from the ground over a wide area, like steam off a lake at dawn. On Highway 61, the pavement grew warm to the touch, then began to crack and settle, rendering the road unusable. The smoking zone passed under the highway and fanned out through a neighboring woodland and up towards St. Ignatius Catholic Church on a knoll above the town.The U.S. Bureau of Mines brought in experts, who proposed any number of possible remedies–digging a deep trench through the town, deflecting the course of the fire with explosives, flushing the whole thing out hydraulically–but the cheapest proposal would have cost at least $20 million, with no guarantee that it would work, and in any case no one was empowered to spend that kind of money. So the fire slowly burned on.

In 1979, the owner of a gas station near the center of town found that the temperature in his underground tanks was registering 172°F. Sensors sunk into the earth showed that the temperature thirteen feet under the tanks was almost 1,000°. Elsewhere, people were discovering that their cellar walls and floors were hot to the touch. By now smoke was seeping from the ground all over town, and people were beginning to grow nauseated and faint from the increased levels of carbon dioxide in their homes. In 1981, a twelveyear-old boy was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when a plume of smoke appeared in front of him. As he stared at it, the ground suddenly opened around him. He clung to tree roots until someone heard his calls and hauled him out. The hole was found to be eighty feet deep. Within days, similar cave-ins were appearing all over town. It was about then that people started getting serious about the fire.

The federal government came up with $42 million to evacuate the town. As people moved out, their houses were bulldozed and the rubble was neatly, fastidiously cleared away until there were almost no buildings remaining. So today Centralia isn’t really even a ghost town. It’s just a big open space with a grid of empty streets still surreally furnished with stop signs and fire hydrants. Every thirty feet or so there is a neat, paved driveway going fifteen or twenty yards to nowhere. There are still a few houses scattered aroundall of them modest, narrow, wood-framed structures stabilized with brick buttresses–and a couple of buildings in what was once the central business district.

I parked outside a building with a faded sign that said, rather grandly, “CENTRALIA MINE FIRE PROJECT OFFICE OF THE COLUMBIA REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY.” The

building was boarded and all but falling down. Next door was another, in better shape, called Speed Stop Car Parts, overlooking a neatly groomed park with an American flag on a pole. The shop appeared to be still in business, but the interior was darkened and there was no one around. There was no one anywhere, come to that–no passing traffic, not a sound but the lazy clank of a metal ring knocking against the flagpole. Here and there in the vacant lots were metal cylinders, like oil drums, that had been fixed in the ground and were silently venting smoke.

Up a slight slope, across an expanse of vacant lots, a modern church, quite large, stood in a lazy pall of white smoke–St. Ignatius, I assumed. I walked up. The church looked sound and usable–the windows were not boarded and there were no KEEP OUT signsbut it was locked, and there was no board announcing services or anything even to indicate its name or denomination. All around it, smoke was hovering wispily off the ground, and just behind it, great volumes of smoke were billowing from the earth over a large area. I walked over and found myself on the lip of a vast cauldron, perhaps an acre in extent, which was emitting thick, cloudlike, pure white smoke–the kind of smoke you get from burning tires or old blankets. It was impossible to tell through the stew of smoke how deep the hole was. The ground felt warm and was loosely covered in a fine ash.

I walked back to the front of the church. A heavy metal crash barrier stood across the old road and a new highway curved off down a hillside away from the town. I steppedaround the barrier and walked down old Highway 61. Clumps of weedy grass poked through the surface here and there, but it still looked like a serviceable road. All around on both sides for a considerable distance the land smoked broodingly, like the aftermath of a forest fire. About fifty yards along, a jagged crack appeared down the center of the highway and quickly grew into a severe gash several inches across, emitting still more smoke. In places, the road on one side of the gash had subsided a foot or more, or slumped into a shallow, bowl-shaped depression. From time to time I peered into the crack but couldn’t gauge anything of its depth for the swirling smoke, which proved to be disagreeably acrid and sulphurous when the breeze pushed it over me.

I walked along for some minutes, gravely examining the scar as if I were some kind of official inspector of highways, before I spread my gaze more generally and it dawned on me that I was in the middle–very much in the middle–of an extensively smoking landscape, on possibly no more than a skin of asphalt, above a fire that had been burning out of control for thirty-four years–not, I’m bound to say, the smartest place in North America to position oneself. Perhaps it was no more than a literally heated imagination, but the ground suddenly seemed distinctly spongy and resilient, as if I were walking across a mattress. I retreated in haste to the car.

It seemed odd on reflection that I, or any other severely foolish person, could drive in and have a look around a place as patently dangerous and unstable as Centralia, and yet there was nothing to stop anyone from venturing anywhere. What was odder still was that the evacuation of Centralia was not total. Those who wanted to stay and live with the possibility of having their houses fall into the earth were allowed to remain, and a few had evidently so chosen. I got back in the car and drove up to a lone house in the center of town. The house, painted a pale green, was eerily neat and well maintained. A vase of artificial flowers and other modest decorative knicknacks stood on a windowsill, and there was a bed of marigolds by the freshly painted stoop. But there was no car in the drive, and no one answered the bell.

Several of the other houses proved on closer inspection to be unoccupied. Two were boarded and had “DANGER–KEEP OUT” notices tacked to them. Five or six others, including a clutch of three on the far side of the central park, were still evidently lived inone, amazingly, even had children’s toys in the yard (who on earth would keep children in a place like this?)–but there was no answer at any of the bells I tried. Everyone was either at work or, for all I knew, lying dead on the kitchen floor. At one house I knocked at I thought I saw a curtain move, but I couldn’t be sure. Who knows how crazy these people might be after three decades of living on top of an inferno and breathing headlightening quantities of CO2, or how weary they might have grown of outsiders cheerfully poking around and treating their town as a curious diversion? I was privately relieved that no one answered my knocks because I couldn’t for the life of me think what my opening question would be.

It was well past lunchtime, so I drove the five miles or so to Mt. Carmel, the nearest town. Mt. Carmel was mildly startling after Centralia–a busy little town, nicely oldfashioned, with traffic on Main Street and sidewalks full of shoppers and other townsfolk going about their business. I had lunch at the Academy Luncheonette and Sporting Goods Store (possibly the only place in America where you can gaze at jockstraps while eating a tuna salad sandwich) and was intending then to push on in search of the AT, but on theway back to the car I passed a public library and impulsively popped in to ask if they had any information on Centralia.

They did–three fat files bulging with newspaper and magazine clippings, most dating from 1979–1981, when Centralia briefly attracted national attention, particularly after the little boy, one Todd Dombowski, was nearly swallowed by the earth in his granny’s backyard.

There was also, poignantly now, a slender, hardbound history of Centralia, prepared to mark the town’s centenary just before the outbreak of the fire. It was full of photographs showing a bustling town not at all unlike the one that stood just outside the library door, but with the difference of thirty-some years. I had forgotten just how distant the 1960s have grown. All the men in the photographs wore hats; the women and girls were in billowy skirts. All, of course, were happily unaware that their pleasant, anonymous town was quite doomed. It was nearly impossible to connect the busy place in the photographs to the empty space from which I had just come. As I put the things back in their folders, a clipping fluttered to the floor. It was an article from Newsweek. Someone had underlined a short paragraph towards the end of the article and put three exclamation marks in the margin. It was a quote from a mine fire authority observing that if the rate of burning held steady, there was enough coal under Centralia to burn for a thousand years.

It happened that a few miles beyond Centralia there was another scene of arresting devastation that I had heard about and was keen to investigate–a mountainside in the Lehigh Valley that had been so lavishly polluted by a zinc mill that it had been entirely stripped of vegetation. I had heard about it from John Connolly, who recalled it as being near Palmerton, so I drove there the following morning. Palmerton was a good-sized town, grimy and industrial but not without its finer points–a couple of solid turn-of-thecentury civic buildings that gave it an air of consequence, a dignified central square, and a business district that was clearly depressed but gamely clinging to life. The background was dominated everywhere by big, prisonlike factories, all of which appeared to be shut.

At one end of town, I spotted what I had come to find–a steep, broad eminence, perhaps 1,500 feet high and several miles long, which was almost entirely naked of vegetation.

There was a parking lot beside the road and a factory a hundred yards or so beyond. I pulled into the lot and got out to gawk–it truly was a sight.

As I stood there, some fat guy in a uniform stepped out of a security booth and waddled towards me looking cross and officious.

“The hell you think you’re doing?” he barked.

“Pardon me?” I replied, taken aback, and then: “I’m looking at that hill.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I can’t look at a hill?”

“Not here you can’t. This is private property.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Well, it’s private–like the sign says.” He indicated a post that was in fact signless and looked momentarily struck. “Well, it’s private,” he added.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” I said again, not appreciating yet how keenly this man took his responsibilities. I was still marveling at the hill. “That’s an amazing sight, isn’t it?” I said.

“What is?”“That mountain. There isn’t a scrap of vegetation on it.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’m not paid to look at hillsides.”

“Well, you should look sometime. I think you’d be surprised. So is that the zinc factory then?” I said, with a nod at the complex of buildings over his left shoulder.

He regarded me suspiciously. “What do you want to know for?”

I returned his stare. “I’m out of zinc,” I replied.

He gave me a sideways look as if to say “Oh, a wise guy, huh?” and said suddenly, decisively, “I think maybe I’d better take your name.” With difficulty he extracted a notebook and a stubby pencil from a back pocket.

“What, because I asked you if that was a zinc factory?”

“Because you’re trespassing on private property.”

“I didn’t know I was trespassing. You don’t even have a sign up.”

He had his pencil poised. “Name?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Sir, you are trespassing on private property. Now are you gonna tell me your name?”

“No.”

We went through a little back and forth along these lines for a minute. At last he shook his head regretfully and said, “Play it your way then.” He dragged out some communication device, pulled up an antenna, and got it to operate. Too late I realized that for all his air of exasperation this was a moment he had dreamed of during many long, uneventful shifts in his little glass booth.

“J.D.?” he said into the receiver. “Luther here. You got the clamps? I got an infractor in Lot A.”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m impounding your vehicle.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I only pulled off the road for a minute. Look, I’m going, OK?”

I got in the car, started the engine, and made to go forward, but he blocked the way. I leaned from the window. “Excuse me,” I called, but he didn’t move. He just stood with his back to me and his arms crossed, conspicuously disregarding me. I tooted the horn lightly, but he was not to be shifted. I put my head out the window and said, “All right, I’ll tell you my name then.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“Oh, for God sake,” I muttered and then, out the window, “Please?” and then, whinily, “Come on, buddy, please?” but he had set a course and was not to be deflected. I leaned out once more. “Tell me, did they specify ‘asshole’ on the job description, or did you take a course?” Then I breathed a very bad word and sat and steamed.

Thirty seconds later a car pulled up and a man in sunglasses got out. He was wearing the same kind of uniform as the first guy but was ten or fifteen years older and a whole lot trimmer. He had the bearing of a drill sergeant.

“Problem here?” he said, looking from one to the other of us.

“Perhaps you can help me,” I said in a tone of sweet reason. “I’m looking for the Appalachian Trail. This gentleman here tells me I’m trespassing.”

“He was looking at the hill, J.D.,” the fat guy protested a little hotly, but J.D. raised a palm to still him, then turned to me.

“You a hiker?”“Yes, sir,” I indicated the pack on the backseat. “I just wanted directions and the next thing I know”–I gave a cheerfully dismayed laugh–“this man’s telling me I’m on private property and he’s impounding my car.”

“J.D., the man was looking at the hill and asking questions.” But J.D. held up another calming hand.

“Where you hiking?”

I told him.

He nodded. “Well, then you want to go up the road about four miles to Little Gap and take the right for Danielsville. At the top of the hill you’ll see the trail crossing. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you very much.”

“Not a problem. You have a good hike, you hear?”

I thanked him again and drove off. In the rearview mirror I noticed with gratification that he was remonstrating quietly but firmly with Luther–threatening, I very much hoped, to take away his communication device.

The route went steeply up to a lonesome pass where there was a dirt parking lot. I parked, found the AT, and walked along it on a high exposed ridge through the most amazingly devastated terrain. For miles it was either entirely barren or covered in the spindly trunks of dead trees, a few still weakly standing but most toppled. It brought to mind a World War I battlefield after heavy shelling. The ground was covered in a gritty black dust, like iron filings.

The walking was uncommonly easy–the ridge was almost perfectly flat–and the absence of vegetation provided uninterrupted views. All the other visible hills, including those facing me across the narrow valley, looked to be in good health, except where they had been scarred and gouged by quarrying or strip mining, which was regularly. I walked for a little over an hour until I came to a sudden, absurdly steep descent to Lehigh Gapalmost a thousand feet straight down. I wasn’t at all ready to stop walking–in fact, I was just getting into my stride–but the idea of going down a thousand feet only to turn around and come straight back up held zero appeal, and there wasn’t any way to double back without walking miles along a busy highway. That was of course the trouble with trying to do the AT in day-sized pieces. It was designed for pushing on, ever on, not for dipping in and out of.

With a sigh, I turned around and trudged back the way I had come, in a mood neatly suited to the desolate landscape. It was almost four o’clock when I reached the car–much too late to try an alternative hike elsewhere. The afternoon was as good as shot. I had driven 350 miles to get to Pennsylvania, had spent four long days in the state, and walked a net eleven miles of the Appalachian Trail. Never again, I vowed, would I try to hike the Appalachian Trail with a car.

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