Monday, May 20, 2019

PA Appalachian Trail 10 Mile Honor Hike

I am very lucky to have the Appalachian Trail (AT) a short drive from home, so when word got out via social media that an honor hike was in order I was in. Thru-hiker Ron "Stronghold" Sanchez, a young combat veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan, was murdered on the trail last week by a knife-wielding mentally ill person who had been threatening hikers for weeks in Virginia.  AT enthusiasts - in fact, all long trail hikers - were asked to hike a few miles this past weekend in his memory. I took my two-year old coonhound hiking-partner-in-training ( a work in progress) for a ten mile trek from Whiskey Springs and the terminus of the Mason Dixon Trail towards Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

Boulder garden on the knob near Whiskey Spring. 

Every year I re-read a favorite hiking diary to welcome in the thru-hiker season and this year I chose to read again Earl Shaffer's classic Walking With Spring (1981). I'd already finished the book back in March but packed it anyway into my day pack along with snacks and Amos' collapsible water bowl thinking I would stop somewhere and read some of it to him. He does enjoy being read to!

Starry False Solomon's Seal 

Earl Shaffer a WWII combat veteran and a fellow York Countian was one of the first to thru-hike the AT and to document his walk thoroughly. His goal for the hike in 1948 was to "walk off the war" and seek the healing only a long trail experience can offer.  "Civilization is a sham," he wrote when he neared the summit of Katahdin in Maine six months after starting in Georgia. He wound up thru-hiking the AT several more times and devoted his life to the upkeep and fellowship of the trail by getting deeply involved in the Appalachian Trail Conference and the Keystone Hiking Club.

Ridging running towards Pine Grove Forest.

Shaffer served in the Pacific during WWII, a radar combat specialist with the Army. He and his best friend from York, PA, Walter Winemiller, entered the service together and promised that when they returned they would walk the AT from Georgia to Maine. Walter was killed on Iwo Jima. "Those four and a half years of army service, more than half of it combat areas of the Pacific, without furlough or even rest leave, had left me confused and depressed. Perhaps this trip would be the answer."  Like Earl Shaffer and thousands of other veterans who come home to confusion and the emotional-mental multiplier effect of untreated PTSD, Ron Sanchez also took to the trail to find meaning and direction in his post-war life.

This way to Georgia...

I stopped at our half-way point at a campsite in a nest of ferns to have snack and water while Amos plopped down in all his coonhound glory to take a snooze. I scanned the book for my notes and many highlighted passages. I noticed that Shaffer didn't escape the effects of the war as so much found it everywhere in the people he met and the land he walked. He met fellow veterans who were rangers, fire tower lookouts, shop keepers, and farmers.  One farmer asked if he could talk to his adult son, a shell-shocked survivor of fierce fighting in Italy who could do little more than speak barely above a whisper. He noted the  old battlegrounds where the Cherokee fought the U.S. Army and Civil War sites where thousands died. He wrote about crossing the undeclared war zone of  the Mason Dixon Line and into the landscapes of the French and Indian War and American Revolution. Throughout the book Shaffer connects with others who have suffered war, but instead of bitterness and detachment, finds community, connection, and compassion. This is the trail community to this day.

Swainson's Thrush. 

I met three other hikers out for the honor hike. Two were day hikers from the Army War College in Carlisle, who enjoyed the botany along the trail.  I met a section hiker on her way to Pine Grove Furnace for the night's camp. She was walking 20 miles for the weekend and carried a small hand-made pennant with "Stronghold" painted lengthwise, hearts in place of the o's. A combat veteran herself, she talked about her annual "big hikes"  doing sections of the AT until she will have completed it over five years.

The poet's rest. 

 I also met a group of trail poets who had started in Harper's Ferry and were headed to the Pallisades. They were writing about their excursion in a shared journal full of poems and sketches. They'd found a delightful place to rest in a bear hug of boulders. They loved Amos and spoke quietly of what had happened in Virginia while one of them sketched him. "The AT trail community is tight. A loving, moving family of hikers all out here for their own reasons, but always safe and supported by each other," one of the poet-hikers said. Violence is very rare on the AT so the attacks and Ron's killing had shaken these women - as it had the entire AT community. They read a few poems that included Ron and the sense of violation they felt - a kind of emotional disarray.

Pink Lady Slippers

Ron Sanchez had discovered that long distance hiking was key to his recovery and for making sense of life after service. As I came across birds and flowers and spectacular rock formations I was sad that these were some of the things Stronghold would never experience in my home state.  Thrush song, some of the most beautiful Appalachian bird music, filled the forest. In the distance someone was running his coonhounds and their baying caught Amos' attention. 

Amos listens to coonhounds baying on a run.

As I stopped to read aloud again from Walking With Spring  a chorus of birdsong rose around me and a light breeze buffeted the canopy overhead. Chestnut oak leaves rattled and maples swooned. A light shower passed over but not a drop made it the ground, intercepted by the forest. Two section hikers came by and petted Amos. "Where are you headed?" I asked. "To the Delaware Water Gap, maybe in a week's time," one hiker answered while the other snuggled into Amos' ears. "Then we head back to Andrews Base until next year when we'll go from the Gap to the Whites." Andrews Air Force Base is in Southern Maryland and they had the look of military men.

Rock gardens of quartzite and lichen in the misty green light of late spring. 

The Appalachian Trail has produced its own genre of travel-adventure writing and nearly all of it pertains to the trail as a path for finding answers or healing. On my shelves at home I have all the AT classics from Grandma Gatewood's Walk to Becoming Odyssa and all are inspirational. I wondered about all the untold stories of finding purpose, redemption, healing, or transformation that the AT keeps to itself for the trail really is a parable of life, full of difficulties and hard choices, that most of us don't know another is dealing with.

Finishing with a bridge over Whiskey Springs!

When I returned home and posted my honor walk to our women's AT hiking Facebook page I was one among hundreds doing so. Other social media sites dedicated to the AT were full of honor walk pictures and the hashtag #ATSTRONGHOLD in remembrance. It was a great day for a hike with thousands of others around the country doing the same in honor of a hero.

Whiskey Springs to the Carlisle Road, 10 mile out-and-back.  


Earl Shaffer. Walking With Spring. (First Edition, Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  June, 2004). Fourth reprinting in paperback.

Katherine Miles of Outside Online featured this beautiful bio of Ron Sanchez: