Sunday, April 3, 2016

AT Day Hike: Pine Grove and POW Camp Michaux

My hiking plans were changed when I drove down Furnace Road and found bumper-to-bumper traffic parked everywhere for opening day trout season. There was no way I would be able to find a parking space to do another section of the Mason Dixon Trail. So I headed west to the Appalachian Mountains! I'm very lucky to live in York County, PA - just an hour to the mountains I love so much - and so close to my favorite trail.

My new destination up in the mountains!

I decided to visit Pine Grove State Park, a wonderful place to visit any day for any reason. I pulled up to the Appalachian Trail Museum to start. I had to catch my breath as I spun around and looked at the hug of hills that holds this valley. Pine Grove SP is one of several state park embedded in the vast Michaux State Forest. The Appalachian Trail (AT) comes right through, so it's an easy day trip to park here and get right on the trail. The museum had just opened for the season, however, so of course pay a visit!

Appalachian Trail Museum

There were a lot of volunteers inside having a meeting about how to tend the register, wecome visitors, help hikers, and mind the museum. I quietly squeezed around them and visited a few of my favorite people. First up was Grandma Gatewood who holds a special place in AT history. She did her first thru-hike from Georgia to Maine when she was 67 in 1955. She did it again in 1960 at age 72. And again in 1963 at age 75! She made her own shoulder sack, wore Keds sneakers or fish-head high tops, and carried her first aid kit in a metal Band-Aide box.

Grandma Gatewood's hiking gear.

Grandma Gatewood, thru-hiker legend.

Northern terminus sign for Mt. Katadyn, Maine - it gets replaced every ten years.

Earl Shaffer, the original walking-off-the-war thru hiker - from York County, PA!

Earl Shaffer, a fellow York Countian, became the first to thru hike the AT as he walked-off-the-war  coming home from combat duty in the Pacific. He also did the trail several times and was a great writer whose books and articles I've read over and over. I credit him with my own passions for the AT. Today the Appalachian Trail Conservancy sponsors "Warrior Hikes" for groups of veterans each summer. At least once a summer I head out here to leave trail snacks and treats at the AT hostel at Pine Grove specifically for the warrior hikes when I know they are coming through. My own trail angel duty gratefully done to help these heroes heal.

Benton MacKaye, designer of the AT.

After paying my respects to Benton MacKaye, who makes a cameo appearance in my dissertation I am soon to defend, I slipped through the gauntlet of AT Museum volunteers and hiked up to the road crossing of the AT into the park. Finally, back on the AT - even for just a day hike, it makes me so happy to follow the white blazes! Benton knew the trail would become a popular recreational trail for generations to come, but I wonder if he ever imagined how important it would be for helping heal broken souls? Just as I was thinking this, a young man came down the trail towards the hostel with his heavy backpack. I asked how he was enjoying his hike and he smiled broadly. "This trail saves my life over and over. I'm glad and thankful to be home." On his bare forearm was a U.S. Army tattoo.

On to the AT!

Tom's Run, a bubbly Appalachian crick.

White blaze bliss.

Almost to the halfway point on the AT

After two miles of rocky, steep trail and crossing Tom's Run, I came to a decision point. Continue on to the halfway marker near Tom Run's Shelter or take a left turn at Michaux Road and roadwalk to visit the old barn I remember having lunch in front of back in 1995. I decided to visit the barn and on to Camp Michaux, the site of a WWII P.O.W. camp hidden in the hills. I've never seen the camp, so now was the time.

Left turn on to beautiful Michaux Road.

Was I surprised to see the old Hessian Barn collapsed! According to a display of photos stapled to the "Keep Out" fence, the last remaining wall tumbled down just a few weeks ago in the middle of the night. My lunch spot of long ago was buried under tons of stone. The barn and the farm it supported was built about the time the Pine Grove furnace began operations in the late 1700s. Like many of the farms in these mountains, the forest reclaims all. 

Oh No! The old Hessian Barn!

It fell just a few weeks ago!

A few yards further down the pleasant road was the kiosk marking the site of the P.O.W camp. With all the political rhetoric of late, blathering about torture and carpet bombing and hatefulness, visiting this site was for me and a crowd of folks on a walking tour ahead of me, a bit sobering. There is barely anything remaining of the dozens of structures that were secretly built and occupied by German and Japanese prisoners. So secret was this camp that locals had only heard rumors about it. Lots of interrogation took place here. One can only wonder what was learned and how.

Kiosk marking the WWII P.O.W. camp site.
Compare the photo from the AT Museum below, with how the camp stone looks today, above.

Photo from South Mountain Conservancy.

Many of the sites are marked with numbered posts that correspond to a downloadable guide to the camp. See Notes, below.

Ruins of the interrogation building.
Base of one of the guard towers.

Barracks sites are now just cement support posts. The barbed wire fence that encircled the barracks area are just rusty poles stuck in old concrete bases. The guard towers had only cement foundations to mark their locations. I walked a perimeter road, now shrouded by forest that didn't exist at the time of the camp and imagined the armed guards and their war dogs making rounds. It was a bit depressing.  I found my way back to an old fountain built by the CCC, the original builders and occupiers of this camp before the U.S. Army took control. Bright blue slag glass from the furnace were impressed into the cement. I could imagine the fun the CCC boys had decorating the fountain with their finds.

Perimeter road, where guards with dogs would patrol.

Post that once held barbed wire fence.

I joined the tour group for a few minutes as a local historian for the camp pointed out different structures and their uses. The camp has been filled with Japanese and German naval officers, one of only three such interrogation camps in the country during the war years. Prisoners were pre-screened for knowledge about weapons development. Then they were interrogated. Those who were deemed to know more than others were forwarded on to tougher interrogations. The researcher stressed how secret the site had been. It would be years after the war before the Army acknowledged the camp's existence and mission. 

Blue slag placed in fountain base.

After a nice snack break and a chat with an elder hiker on his way up to Tom's Run Shelter, I made my way back down the road to the park. The loop was almost five miles to the hiker's hostel and I noticed a few hikers had checked in for the night. They were relaxing on the open porch, laughing, and relaxing. I waved up to them and they waved back - "Come along!" the young combat veteran hiker shouted. How I miss this - and I would join them if I could - but for this year, my big hike on the Camino de Santiago awaits. 

 Hostel at the Iron Master's House. A nice rest for tired hikers.


Cumberland County Historical Society offers walking tours of Camp Michaux.

Self-guided tour information for the P.O.W. camp can be downloaded here. There are several period photographs of the buildings and installations included.

A visit to the AT Museum anytime in the next few months may involve limited hours and some construction disturbance as they expand into the ground floor and third floor of the old restored barn at Pine Grove State Park. Best to check first before making the drive.

A great park nestled in an Appalachian valley, Pine Grove SP has something for everyone, and features many very beautiful trails, many with long views but steep climbs!

Earl Shaffer's books are popular with conservation historians and AT hikers.

Who won't love a read about Grandma Gatewood?