Sunday, January 16, 2022

PA Nottingham County Park: Chromium Barrens Cold!

Hike #2 of my 2022/52 Hike Challenge happened at Nottingham County Park in Chester County, PA, on one of the coldest days of the New Year so far. I was layered up fine but I was a little worried about short-haired ole' Amos but he did great - as long as we were moving. He did not like to stand still very long, even for a quick snap for a picture. A fast five miles over some rough roads kept us both warm.


I've hiked here before but usually when things are greened up and the rare chromium barrens plants can be found. Today though, was a special kind of bleak. Even so, the barrens prairie grasses bathed the hills in gold. The trails were iced over in many places but easily gotten around. Only one other (very cold) hiker was out today and by the sound of her hacking cough, was not someone I did not want to get too close to. I'm trying to avoid people and not get sick as I await the arrival of my grandson Sawyer, due anytime now. Please lady, don't ask to pet Amos...

Doe, Feldspar, and Buck Trails make for 5 miles.

But she did. I had to explain to her that I am trying to avoid close contact so that I can meet my new grandson. She was kind enough, even though hacking away with red eyes and runny nose, to wave okay and we went our opposite ways. I must admit that I have lost any shred of patience with how people are treating this latest turn of the Covid pandemic. To avoid any bitterness, I tried to distract myself as she hiked away and admired the hard work the park staff have put into repairing the old roads that have washed out repeatedly with our many torrential rainfalls this past year. It seems like a never ending job at one culvert in particular and it seems it is always washed out. The large flakes of serpentine rock were thrown from the flooded culvert bank into the path. Ravine-like gullies run like giant sword slashes from uphill to downhill. An old cement culvert pipe sits broken and battered on the edge of the stream. All around are tractor tracks and boot prints pressed into the frozen mud. 

An almost completed Figure-8 for five miles

Barrens habitats are rare in the Mid-Atlantic, but extra rare everywhere else. They harken back to the thousands of years of cold savanna that once covered the state after the recession of ice sheets, but these barrens are the result of heavy metal soils where only special plants can handle the mineral and environmental stress.  The work it takes the park to keep these short grass prairies from being overrun with greenbriar and pine woods is never-ending.  Managed by fire as far back as the Early Woodland Period (1000 BC - 1500 AD) these vast chromium hills were the much more extensive. Agriculture has carved them up and fire management practices once so important to indigenous peoples were long forgotten. Not until the 1980s when modern conservation re-discovered the use of fire to maintain important habitat for threatened plants, insects, and animals, did the practice return to this area.  

Staghorn Sumac - an important winter food for birds

I felt guilty every time we rounded a bend only to scare dozens of birds off abundant staghorn sumac stands. With the ground now frozen solid, birds are unable to scratch the earth for seeds and wintering insects so they rely heavily on dried seeds and fruits clinging to bushes and vines. All the Poison Ivy berries have been picked over. The delicate Black Birch fruits might still contain some small winged oil seeds but are mostly gone. I spotted a flock of Robins working over a small holly tree and near that, a small winterberry. We rounded another bend and frightened off a small hawk that had hunted and killed a songbird. Amos stopped to inspect the pile of feathers, likely a Towhee. 

Eastern White Pine

Eastern Red Cedar

Black Birch

Adding to the bleakness of the scenery, I observed nearly all the Pitch Pines were dead as compared to a few years ago (2017) when I did this hike in the early fall and made note of how stressed these trees seemed to be. The Southern Pine Bark Beetle has ravaged the Pitch Pines. White Pines seemed to be holding their own. But but at every major trail intersection there were log landings where forestry crews felled, piled, and de-barked the salvaged trees for lumber. This is a win-some/lose-some situation though, as the freshly opened landscape will quickly recover in native grasses and even in the heavy equipment scars, the grasses and rare plants will soon appear. Soil disturbance is one technique for managing barrens habitats, so it seems the bark beetle has helped manage the invading forest. 

Grasslands minus the once prevalent Pitch Pine

We circled the old quarry holes and were startled by a flock of Turkeys flying low to land in a stand of Scrub Oak. I swear, the sight and sound of wild turkeys coming in to roost is something like watching a freight train in flight. The sound of the crashing turkeys spooked a herd of twenty deer that bolted across the stony road in front of Amos who of course had to holler full-throat at them which in turn scared the turkeys who took off for another roost. The whole time, a Great Blue Heron stood resolutely on a maple knoll inside the flooded quarry hole. He or she must have felt safe on the inside of the chain link fence as compared to what was going on outside of it! 

One of two flooded quarries to be passed on the Feldspar Trail

The uphill frozen road with its jagged, flood-washed slabs of sharp rock and large patches of thick ice made for a slow slog. This section generated some heat and by the time we'd reached the top I was unzipping my jacket and pulling off my mittens. But the sharp wind soon had me zipping back up. The high for today was 16 degrees and who knows what the wind chill was. I breathed it in until my lungs ached with cold, cold air, which I am so grateful for. Down in the hollow crossing a creek near the quarry holes, the air was impossibly still. Here on the height of the barrens, it pushed me along and Amos, sensing my pace had quickened, decided to pull. The wind at my back, the coonhound in front straining against his rope, we jogged the whole way back to the trail intersection where come summer the rare Pinks, Asters, and Oxeyes will bloom in the ruts of the logging trucks. 

Victory Run - no wind.

On the hilltops - big wind.

As we cruised down the trail towards the parking area, I stopped to look back at one of the few views where pines still painted a swath of green across the brown and gold grasslands. White Pines stood higher and filled in some of the gaps where gnarled Pitch Pines once stood like a wall of twisted trunks and gnarled branches. The White Pine stood tall, straight, dignified and maybe even defiant.  I stopped at a dying Pitch Pine and pushed my pinky into a bark beetle hole. Warmer winters and hotter summers have allowed this beetle to decimate this pine forest, but were it not for the ravages of the beetle the Bluestem grasslands would not have expanded as they have. The look-back view was astounding in its width and breadth of native grasses in winter gold across the hills. 

Dying Pitch Pine with Bark Beetle holes in a red trail blaze


Nottingham County Park (Chester County Parks)

Stateline Serpentine Barrens, Nature Conservancy:

"The Aftermath of the Southern Pine Bark Beetle at Nottingham" (2019)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

AT Hike #9: PA - Pine Grove Furnace State Park: Pole Steeple/AT Loop

A climb up to Pole Steeple overlook in Pine Grove Furnace State Park seemed like a great way to ring in the New Year for First Day Hike (which was actually delayed a week due to heavy rain on the 1st) so the day after our first snowstorm, my niece Amy and I ventured out. We combined the Appalachian Trail with Pole Steeple Trail and the old Trolley Line bike trail for a seven mile loop.  Adding this loop to my hiking project to day hike the AT through PA, this sweet little circuit makes for hike #9 and #1 for the 2022/52-Hike Challenge. 

White blaze on white snow

From my last loop hike that started and ended at the Camp Michaux parking area, this hike picks up where I left off after completing the short leg of AT that continues a mile down to Pine Grove Furnace. We parked at Fuller Lake and got right back on the AT literally in the parking lot and hiked north from there. The snow was fluffy and not quite half a foot deep and we were among a small group of outdoorsfolk who had ventured down some icy roads to explore the park the day after the storm. Everyone was chatty. Dogs were friendly. The bathroom was open! Off we went following the white blazes along Mountain Creek and up the mountain at the gated forest road a mile upstream.

My niece Amy on the AT as it runs along Mountain Creek

AT cuts straight through Pine Grove Furnace State Park and offers AT hikers a few opportunities to take a break here. The hiker's hostel - the old iron master's mansion (see video below) now managed by the AT Museum at Pine Grove offers simple bunkbed accommodations, hot showers, and a shared kitchen. This time of year, though, the AT Museum and General Store which is the site of the famous AT hiker's half gallon challenge ice cream  challenge are closed. Tom's Run Shelter is south of us while northbound hikers look forward to the great little trail town of Boiling Springs that offers food and lodging options for winter AT hikers. 

Happy new sign!

Up and up we went through the sparkling snowy forest.  Blue cloudless skies overhead and not a hint of wind, the woods were bathed in the golden light of January sun.  It was on this section of the AT many years ago that I encountered my first Hognose Snake and I remember sitting right down next to him in the middle of the trail to sketch his phenomenal patterns while he had a hard time deciding whether to flip over on his back to play dead or continue lay still for a ten minute sketch session. I have always loved snakes and some of my best encounters have been on the AT sitting alongside them sketching. Timber rattlers, copperheads, black rat snakes, hognose, ring-necked, garter, racers, northern water snakes - all have had their portraits done on the AT. 

Amy navigates the snowy stone steps to the summit.

I wanted to take a minute and that thank the trail crews that maintain the trails in Pine Grove Furnace State Park - I've met a few of the great Friends of Pine Grove Furnace and staff - they are amazing. The new trail signage, well-kept kiosks and well-stocked map/brochure boxes, crisp blue blazes on the Pole Steeple Trail, and the incredible work on the heavy stone steps on the knob and trail show so much dedication. Thank you!

Double ledge summit of the knob

So much for a snowball toss - too dry!

View from Pole Steeple 

Our views included several lakes which are all flooded ore and limestone quarries that supplied the iron furnace operations at Pine Grove.  Looking across the low mountains was spectacular and the winter sun warmed us nicely on exposed ledges of quartzite. The knob of tilted ledge tilted skywards, its slanting stone blocks the result of the mountain-building crunch of continental collision that grew the Appalachians.  The knob, a familiar geological erosional feature of the Appalachian range, stood proud against the blue sky.  As we discovered, the promontory was claimed by a pair of ravens who made their presence known as we hiked down the approach trail to the road below. We wondered if they were near a nesting ledge that will hold raven chicks come spring?

Needle ice from a charcoal pit

We explored several large charcoal hearths, flat areas known as "pits" (but they are not pits).  We descended the winding Pole Steeple Trail and they were easy to find as great white disks of snow- covered flats on the steep slope. We used our poles to pry just under the snow and leaves to find needle ice extruded from the black soil below.  Needle ice forms when the soil temperature is above freezing while the air above soil is well below freezing. The soil moisture is pulled upwards in delicate columns through capillary action making beautiful curls and ribbons of ice. Needle ice here was black with charcoal dust.

An easy-to-spot charcoal "pit" or hearth on the slope (two tents had been here in the snowstorm)

The underlying geology of the Pole Steeple knob is quartzite, a resistant rock common along the AT and through the southern PA landscape. Knobs form when less resistant rock types are eroded out of place leaving quartzite ridges and boulder fields. Frost action was the main erosional process following the retreat of glaciers north of here, when the region was both wet and frigid. Frost shatter caused rocks to split apart as trapped water froze inside crevices and cavities. Frost shatter leaves a unique jagged appearance on quartzite that stands above the landscape in columns, dagger-like fins, or "teeth," often visible for miles atop the ridges in winter.

Quartzite exposed on the ledges showing the angular erosion patterns of frost action

Looking up at the knob from Pole Steeple Trail

Our descent to the paved road below was graced with the croaking ravens and the company of a very few fellow hikers, all pleasant and happy to see each other. This is one of the best parts of hiking for me - reconnecting to people as fellow explorers, nature nerds, and positive souls. Maybe this is one of the reasons I am devoted to hiking. I am always restored by the kindness. Everyone takes a few minutes to talk, share their stories (and their dogs!), and happy regards. Hiking connects us in deep ways to each other and the land and I always come home feeling uplifted by those I've met on the trail and by the places I've walked.

Forested swamps.

The road ended at the gated forest road and we completed our loop. We rejoined the trolley rail-trail and wandered past a forested swamp where the ponds looked like they were about to ice over. We stopped to pet some wonderful dogs and chat with their owners, all hikers. We had a great visit with a Boiling Springs High School teacher and her bouncy pup Buddy. She looked tired from teaching (virtually and in-person in this crazy second covid year) but she was positively glowing with happiness that she managed to get a few hours hiking in on this day. "Man, anytime I can get out here - especially in the snow - it's just the best therapy for me. There is nothing better for heart and soul."  Truth. 


Pine Grove Furnace State Park

Info for AT hikers in the Pine Grove Furnace area that includes shuttles, hostel, and area lodgings near Boiling Springs and Carlisle, PA

YouTube! Iron and Charcoal Industrial History at Pine Grove Furnace State Park:

Friday, December 31, 2021

Good Riddance, 2021

Good Riddance, 2021!  

Amos the Minor Prophet (Black and Tan Coonhound) and I took our Last Day Hike through the fog and drizzle along one of his favorite stretches of the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail. On his long leash, a 30' hunter orange rope, he loves to race ahead and race back, while I hike out and back seven miles to Safe Harbor Dam. It's a stretch we both like a lot - him for the joy of running (while not running away) and me for a fast walk pace generally unhindered by other people. It's still a section of the 30 mile-long ELG trail that is lightly visited, but as work progresses on both the Martic Forge and Safe Harbor trestle crossings, these days of having this isolated section to myself may be numbered. These repairs will make the entire rail trail connected for a thru-bike/hike of about 30 miles from Quarryville, Lancaster County, PA to just beyond Turkey Hill upriver. 

Climbing cliffs

For 2021, I recorded a somewhat dismal 300 outdoor miles for the year. My annual mileage goal for hiking is 500 and biking for 1000 for a total of 1500 trail miles. But this year it wasn't to be. I encountered a few obstacles during the year including some health concerns, profound exhaustion, and heavy work schedules (sitting in front of computer will kill us all).  My writing time took a hit as well as time for illustrations. With the help of my doctor and over six months of trying to figure out what has been going on, she discovered three interconnected issues of medications imbalance, muscular-structural injury, and family history. Big changes needed to be made. Good riddance, creepy health concerns.

Glow Sticks - American Sycamore

Despite an underwhelming outdoor year, I continued to keep my health and fitness diary - something I've done for over ten years now. Logging miles in addition to how I felt during and after each hike or bike has always helped me head off injury with targeted stretches and strength-building exercises. One consistent problem I came across this year, however, was how tight my hips and knees became after even a short hike or bike outing. After each hike I could barely bend at the waist. My knees locked. My calves screamed with muscle cramps at night.  Age? I wondered. 

Noble Amos

Again my (new) doctor chimed in. She really appreciated that I was able to share my log online with her and being an athlete herself, she was able to pinpoint a posture issue that I wasn't even aware of right there in her office. "Sitting is the new smoking," she said. She connected me via tele-health to a great physical therapist (who is also a hiker and cyclist) for a few sessions in-home to learn how to utilize my morning yoga sessions to correct and prevent posture issues. Not age related as it turned out, but was due to the amount of sitting and sedentary hours at computers, driving, etc. that caused both spinal and muscular issues, and, not surprisingly, even affected my digestive and intestinal health. She introduced me to an online hiking fitness coach who teaches dynamic stretching (see Notes) and the results have been good. Good riddance, sedentary work life. 

Remains of the 1981 Christmas train wreck

As a side excursion, Amos and I shuffled down a steep embankment to gawk at the twisted rails and metal beds of freight cars, the remains of the 1981 Conrail Christmas Train Wreck at Safe Harbor. Looking at the tangled mess left over from the 81-car accordion-like collision with a 3-ton boulder, I thought, yeah - a good metaphor for this year. No matter how hard I tried to "make it normal" this year, it wasn't. I doubt we'll ever get back to what we imagine normal was like. This pandemic keeps on rolling and the effects of people not taking it seriously impacted my own life and my family. Of all the things I lost this past year (house key, wallet, one hiking shoe, a set of hiking poles), my patience for humanity went out the door. I am done with people who continue to risk their own lives, the wellbeing and capabilities of our frontline health workers and health systems, and the impact they've had on those of us who are caretakers and for those we care for. After two years of "trying to understand" why all of this was so preventable until it wasn't, I bade good riddance to any shred of what remained of my pandemic patience. 

Last sunset (smudge) of 2021 - good riddance!

Walking briskly back, with Amos trotting ahead on his long line and then racing back to check my progress, I watched as the sun made a feeble attempt to brighten the dark skies in the west. With only a few hours of light left I decided to forego an extended hike into the Shenk's Ferry Wildflower Preserve and just hoof it on back to the truck. I was looking forward to a nice hip stretch at home. As we climbed aboard the truck, a bicyclist pushing his bike waved at me from the trail.  "Do you have a bike tire pump?" he asked. I actually did! His small pump must have jarred off the frame he said and was probably lying on the road somewhere. He inflated the tire with the idea to ride to the next parking area four miles away to his car and he hoped the slow leak would not become a fast one. Instead I gave him a ride to his car. He respectfully masked up for the ride, put his window down, and enjoyed Amos' kisses. At the car park he offered me a few dollars for gas, which I declined, and then he handed me his card. "If you ever need a shuttle, give me a call!" He was a doctor from Lancaster and his specialty was infectious disease! We both had a great laugh to end 2021 and I thanked him for his service during this crazy, train wreck of a year. "Good riddance, Twenty-One!" he said. Indeed!

Turn-around point at Safe Harbor Dam on the Susquehanna where trestle work is progressing!


The Enola Low Grade Rail Trail continues to be a work in progress as repairs are underway to restore the deck of the Martic Trestle Bridge destroyed by arsonists a few years ago. At Safe Harbor Dam, new work has begun to restore the decommissioned Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge, a project that will close a major trail gap  and will be of huge benefit to Martic Township which looks forward to welcoming trail users. The trestle and the valley below are so beautiful - very exciting!

Uncharted Lancaster tells the story of the Christmas Train Wreck of 1981 here and has some excellent historic photos to check out.

Chase Mountains offers dynamic stretching, recommended by Towson Sports Medicine physical therapist, Olivia. It's been good for my body and soul exploring Chase's "Injury Playlist" videos that I can easily add to my yoga routine in the morning and as stretch session after a bike ride or hike. No gym needed.  Thanks to Olivia, I am able to begin recovery from "sedentary injury" - yes, that's a thing. Back to the trails and pain free at home and at night! 

Happy New Year! 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

PA No. 9 Coal Mine: Going Underground

We visited the No. 9 Coal Mine Museum and Tours in Lansford, PA, for one of the last mine tours of the season on a November day when snow flurries floated in the air. Environmental history underground. Anthracite coal helped put Pennsylvania on the international energy map from the 1800s until the 1970s and many of the folks who traveled with us had relatives who had worked in the PA coal industry. 

 I was remembering with much fondness my Uncle "Mac"(MacDonald) who spent fifteen years working various central PA mines in after the war. His stories remain some of my most treasured memories. The mine tour and a long visit to the small museum helped me animate his stories of working as a miner. 

Photo credit: No. 9 Coal Mine Museum Collection

Uncle Mac loved smoking a pipe. In the mines he more or less clamped it between his teeth and worked with it unlit.  Many of the men chewed tobacco but he "never acquired certain skills" (spitting) and instead sucked on the aroma of fresh Prince Albert leaf until he had the chance to light up when the shift was over. In his elder years I knew him always to be smoking his favorite pipe, fragrant smoke swirling around us on the porch. I still love the scent of pipe smoke. It was fitting that one of the artifacts recovered in the 1990s restoration of abandoned No. 9  Mine was a pipe. 


The slow-motion end to Big Coal in PA came with the end of WWII and the loss of major markets in home heating, transportation, and heavy wartime industry. Coal was an energy king from the 1970s through the early 2000s as it became the  #1 fuel for producing electricity. Coal production for electricity, however, faced added social, regulatory, and economic pressures as the 21t century got underway.  Replacement technologies have made much underground mining obsolete. Concerns about air pollution and climate change shuttered generating plants. 

Lift for moving miners up and down many levels.

The origins of coal come from the vast peatlands that once covered what is now Pennsylvania millions of years ago in warmer, wetter times. Where my ancestors came from, dried peat bricks were used for heating homes. I've visited peat mines in Scotland and Northeast England to see hundreds of years of harvesting patterns on the land made by peat collectors. I've walked the narrow raised levees built to hold the peat carts pulled by ponies. Peat has been in use since before the Dark Ages there, but here there is no widespread history of its use. 

No. 9 Coal Mine Museum director, Zach.

Left to geological processes of heat and pressure, peat becomes coal which is hundreds of times denser. It burns cleaner, longer, and hotter. Compared to peat, it produces less smoke and burns evenly. Here in the States, there is no tradition of burning peat but coal was been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans as kiln fuel and heating fuel. By the early 1800s, coal was fueling the American industrial revolution and served as the nation's primary fuel for over a century. 

A foreman's room - he was responsible for every man in the mines.

As we toured the mine deep in the hillside, it was easy to imagine how stories of the  underworld evolved from these places. For pure storytelling grit, natural caves and canyons have nothing on excavated mineshafts and gangways that contain the primal elements of extreme danger, human misery, and darkness of our own myth-making. It is not hard to suddenly be superstitious. From places like this came the Bwca, Knockers, and Kobold of our mining ancestors - beasts and semi-human monsters that bedeviled the Welsh, Irish, and German imaginations. We peered a hundred feet down into the flooded lift shaft where two and three levels of water-filled mines were below us. 

Plastic Rat of the Underworld!

Water and darkness birthed humankind, according to Hopi, Navajo, and Lakota. This was the place where man began his journey upwards into the Four Worlds. The dark recesses of the earth are where life goes to wait until it is safe to emerge again. Bison spirits ran to the crevices and caves of the red mountains when white people drove the herds to their ends and they wait there still to emerge after the time of man has passed. Bears and other beasts hibernate in dark dens and caverns to replenish their energy for the next cycle of life aboveground.  It wasn't hard to fill my mind with stories from the underworld, especially when Zach turned off the lights and we were standing in complete darkness.  

Walking below an air shaft where mines were vented.

The walls were patterned with the chiseled bits of air hammers and exposed half-tubes of blasting holes. No one has carved a name or defaced a wall or ceiling with spray paint. Zach told us of the years of cleaning this mine required to make it safe for visitors, how they found what the miners dropped, what they left behind. It is one of two mines open to public tours in Pennsylvania and this one is treated like a shrine, a sacred space. It is a place where men toiled, where they were injured, and where they died. According to Zach, the mine claimed over a hundred souls as documented by company accounts but he was sure there were more. We stopped at the mine's hospital station where miners were "stabilized until evacuation," which could take hours or days. 

Mine company hospital 

Safety protocols were often secondary to profits and some companies were downright abusive in their treatment of miners.  A real danger in 19th and 20th century coal mining came in part from the company cutting corners. Miners organized Unions formed. Demands for better working conditions were often met with company indifference or violence. Uncle Mac was sure that the coal bosses, the men who worked in management "on the surface," were some of the most hated people in a coal town. He hated on a few himself. He was sure, too, that some distant relative from Scotland or Ireland had been involved in the killing of a coal boss. "Somewhere in our family history there was a Molly," he told me, referring to the legendary Pennsylvania coalfields' secret society, the Molly Maguires. 

Reinforced powder house.

Mining gear and Old Company sign.

I wasn't sure how the Old Company managed its mines but we know there were dozens of languages spoken among the shift crews and the over the year its work force was ever more diverse. Men came from Eastern Europe, Germany, Western Europe, Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal. From 1857 to 1972 the No. 9 Mine produced over 90,000 tons of coal and operated continuously from its opening to its closing, making it the longest operating anthracite mine in the world. Around it grew the mining towns of Lansford, Summit Hill, and Coaldale and each had its own hustle and bustle of main streets and social clubs and sports teams. These were good towns to be from. 


After an hour underground we loaded back onto the crew cars for a bumpy, loud ride up to the mine entrance. The light hurt our eyes and we squinted into a cold hazy sun that shone through a blasting north wind. I looked up to the top of the hill and saw the backyards of homes in Lansford and the old crisscross network of wagon roads still imbedded into  the wooded slope. The Panther Creek Valley yawned wide with a mix of woodland, stream, and surface mine still in use. Everything seemed so bold and open. 

Mule way.

People ran into the museum to escape the cold but we lingered and spoke with Zach a bit longer. He gave such a great tour and was keen to answer any question, share some stories, and spend that extra time afterwards even though our teeth were chattering! 


Though the Museum and Mine Tours are closed for the season, there is this excellent website for the No. 9 Coal Mine



Tuesday, October 26, 2021

PA Horse-Shoe Trail: Map 1 Valley Forge to Chester Spring - What is "Natural?"

When I first started this blog many years ago, I asked what is natural in the Mid-Atlantic? Given that this region has been so long settled and industrialized, and at one time, deforested to the point of unrecognizable, I thought what is natural about any of it? Twenty years ago when I discovered the Horse-Shoe Trail I began hiking it mainly as a connector to other trails and I honestly didn't care for it. Until I began to look at it through the lens of environmental history, however, it has since helped me detangle the idea of what natural could mean for this region. So here is my HST hike through Map 1.


Trailhead marker near Washington's HQ, Valley Forge, PA

What I don't like about the HST:  Some stretches of dangerous road-walking; cutting through housing developments and backyards - where clearly the neighbors want to keep you contained to the 24" wide path; the persistent threat of closure should a property owner decide they no longer want the path on their land. 

What I do like about the HST: The dedication of the organization and its volunteer trail crews for its maintenance and fostering good relationships with property owners;  its storyline of American industrial history-turned-natural natural history; its accessibility for everybody.

Parade grounds at Valley Forge - now Eastern Meadow and Shortgrass Prairie

This day I walked 15 miles from the HST official starting point near General Washington's HQ in Valley Forge near Philadelphia.  This is where the trail is most accessible to public transportation and visibility, where a lot of folks discover it and then say "Well darn! I'm gonna walk the whole thing!" (Somebody actually said that to me when I was crouched down taking a photo of the plaque.) Point of note, however, the best parking to walk this section is a mile further into Valley Forge National Park at the large car park under the watchful gaze of General von Steuben. But it's an easy walk and a great opportunity to observe the tremendous effort that the National Park System has invested in ecosystem restoration. 

Springhead that supplied the Colonial Bottling Plant.

Following the yellow blazes, I hiked up the steep old road that climbs Mt. Misery and observed  foundations and cleared flat areas where buildings once stood. The ruins of the bottling plant stand hard along the road, easy to explore. It faces faced a stream that has suffered terrible erosion from the recent flooding caused by Hurricane Ida. No matter how thoughtful the park service has been in allowing the mountain and meadows to return to more natural states, however, the human impacts that drive rapid global warming cannot be ignored. Every stream I crossed or looked at today was severely gouged and gullied. 

Bottling plant ruins and flood-wracked stream

Colonization and industrialization have transformed this land over hundreds of years but even before the first colonist set foot here, this land was managed by the Lenni Lenape, transformed with fire, agriculture, quarrying, and modifications to streams and rivers to funnel fish into pens and weirs. I stopped at the top of the mountain to give silent acknowledgement to them. 

Valley Creek, once industrialized and polluted, suffered heavy storm damage from Ida.

Yellow blazes mark the Horse-Shoe Trail

Refreshed yellow blazes and posts clearly marked the path all the way to my end point. I rarely pulled out the map. Even a detour was marked well enough all I had to do was follow a new set of (blue) blazes, unfortunately all busy narrow roads. When the trail re-entered the woods, I was reminded of the use of trees for charcoal throughout colonial period until the late 1800s. I tried to imagine the forests cleared of their great Oaks and American Chestnut, that in their charred state fueled fifty or so foundries, kilns, and forges that were on or near this path all the way to its terminus at the Appalachian Trail 120 miles on.  

The starting bell.

Crossing the Valley Forge NHS boundary on to private lands.

I didn't take pictures of the many fenced or gated backyards, posted with signs so that HST hikers don't stumble into private property.  The idea of privately owned land was something new to the native people who were pressed further and further west, south, even north to make way for new owners.  I passed a country club, a retreat, a private park - all clearly marked with keep out notices. 

Must make a tour reservation!

Past the Warton Esherick Museum, which I have always wanted to see. Wharton was a leader of the Studio Crafts Movement in the early 20th century. I studied his work when I was in art school and have always wanted to build/create my own studio as he did, literally carved from the woods around him. As I glanced back at his home and studio I couldn't help but notice the nicely forged strap hanger that holds the sign, a necessary piece of a blacksmith shop's forge equipment. Esherick and his wife split their time between this home-studio in the woods and a socially progressive community, Fairhope, in Alabama.    


Historical marker down the road from the museum.

They both held to the idea of common use resources and lived at Fairhope as a single-tax property that included studios, workshops, cottages, and schools. Of course, they were shunned for their beliefs in social progressivism by anti-communists (many Pennsylvania artists, writers, craftspeople were) in the 1940s and 50s. Many social progressives fled Pennsylvania to escape political pressures and suspicion during the McCarthy Era. I tried to keep one eye on traffic and the other on my surroundings. I wondered about the use of the forest by craftsmen and, whether making utilitarian objects or artworks, if Esherick's creative progressive process wasn't part of the regenerating woodlands he surrounded himself with. 

A small community land commons.

I think I love Esherick's  wood cuts more than anything and how they remind me of wood fiber and grain emerging as image and object. Wood grain on paper made of wood pulp, they feel as intricate as woven bark baskets.  As a collector of few wooden bowls and baskets, I know that these items do not survive well in the archeological record and as I add a Gullah-made saltwater marsh grass basket or a turned Sassafras burl bowl to the table for Sunday dinner I think about how carefully these items were made and by whom. 

What you need to road-walk parts of Map 1 of the HST

Small patches of community conservation land provided safe haven from the perils of modern transportation. Some of these are small woodlands are barely enough to sustain habitat for non-human residents. I moved a Box Turtle out of the road.  I saw plenty of White-Tail Deer both in people's yards and in the patches of woodlands. I know that the Coyote has made the transition to suburban life when I found a few well-placed piles of scat full of rabbit and squirrel fur. The maze of roads and yards makes for poor habitat connectivity.  

Skirting a farm to avoid a road-walk.

Skirting a field to avoid a road-walk.

Skirting a pasture to avoid a road-walk.

Connectivity to culture and ecology are two important threads in weaving together a sustainable landscape. I can't say that hiking this section of HST was my most memorable hike with the (sarcastic) bonus of extra road miles due to the trail closure and long road detour, or twisting my knee stepping off a curb in a parking lot. But I could see that the landscape holds variations of its human and natural history well though out of balance.  I thought about one of Walt Whitman's great celebratory poems Song of the Broad-Axe and the implications for our natural heritage he wove into and out of the poem his take on American "progress." The hills here hold all of this as landform, some degraded, some restoring. "The shapes arise!" Whitman calls - and the land responds. 

Woodcut book plate by Esherick (1924) for Broad-Axe

I read the shapes of grown-over tennis courts, ankle deep with leaves and fallen limbs. The lumps and bumps of old foundations and sunken hollows of cellars and well pits dimpled the land. An old railroad slid  through the woods. Stone bridge abutments and little dams peek out from under vines and moss. Even some of the homes, once posh and expensive in their day, sit abandoned in the woods seem to be overtaking any attempt at making order of it.  I passed the now closed Great Valley Nature Center (sad!) and the meadow scrub that is now its parking lot. Shapes are rising!

Abandoned railroad in the woods.

Walking through this tangled landscape of plants and pavements, the question of what is natural seemed even more elusive. Here in the Mid-Atlantic invasive species like Chestnut blight, Spotted Lanternfly, and Tree of Heaven threaten the fabric of native ecosystems. But native habitats were long ago radically changed by centuries of industrial and agricultural use.  I picked up ticks on a stretch of pipeline right-of-way thick with invasive Stiltgrass. It is late October and there has yet to be a killing frost. As I sat on a rail of the disused railroad picking them off a White-Tailed Deer wandered by fat from feeding in backyards and gardens. 

Lawn ornament in the woods. 

The road walking and a sore knee finally got the best of me just two miles from my meeting place with a friend who offered to take me back to my car at Valley Forge. I was creeping along and the afternoon sun was already long in shadow. I can walk for days on natural trail but I am no good after a few hours on pavement. I called and she picked me up from a construction site that will soon hold million-and-a-half-dollar mansions on what was once cropland, that was once pasture, that was once charcoal woods, that was once berry meadow grazed by elk. 

What do you think endures?
Do you think a great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the
best built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d'oeuvres of engineering,
forts, armaments?
Away! these are not to be cherish'd for themselves,
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them,
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance

- From The Broad-Axe, by Walt Whitman



Purock Spring Water/ Colonial Bottling Plant a brief history by Mike Bertram, Tredyffrin Eastown Historial Society:

A lecture on Wharton Esherick, presented by Mark Sfirri:

Walt Whitman's Song of the Broad Axe  from the Walt Whitman Archives: