Been running the Horseshoe Trail now pretty religiously for going on two years and have been itching to venture out onto more of its 120+ miles. I've also been anxious to go beyond the 50K distance in anticipation of taking a shot at 50 miles later in the year.
With my 37th birthday arriving on July 25th, I set my sights on running the last or first (take your pick) of the Horseshoe Trail the day before said birthday.
Lindsay had to work a shift at Lancaster General, but my mother and stepfather agreed to watch the kids until I could get to them. Jefferson selflessly agreed to shuttle me from a car drop in Campbelltown to the Clarks Valley of the Appalachian Trail, the nearest access point to the yellow blazes of the Horseshoe. The week prior brought one wicked heat wave and I considered calling off the run, but Sunday's weather report was a little less ominous with temperatures dipping back down below triple digits. The humidity was still going to be an issue, but the plan was a go.
Things got off to an inauspicious start when I couldn't find the Locust Street the Horseshoe Trail guidebook told me I needed to travel in Campbelltown to drop the car. I ended up flagging a police officer who was as sure as he could be that there wasn't a Locust Street in town, but, thankfully, he did guide me to where I wanted to be in spite of the missing road.
With the van parked, I jumped in with Jefferson and we headed north. Clarks Valley is situated in a natural gap between Peters and Stony Mountains and the trailhead put us 3.2 miles from the summit of Stony and the junction with the Horseshoe Trail.
We snapped a quick photo in front of the AT sign at the Route 325 crossing but my fat head managed to block out all but the arrows. Notice the haze hanging in the distance. It was right around 7:30 AM.
There's a solid 1,000 feet of climb up to the top of Stony Mountain and I enjoyed the heck out of every step. Jefferson and I chatted as we climbed the rocky track, making good progress but managing pace to hopefully keep me from bonking later in the day. I wasn't planning to "race", not by a long shot, but I still intended to be running (shuffling, at least) late in the day.
I was having such a good time, I couldn't believe how quickly we seemed to cover those initial miles. Jefferson snapped another photo of me standing in front of the initial blazes of the Horseshoe and the Cyrus Sturgis Monument.
The run down from Stony was super quick and I wrestled over whether to open the throttle and blast down the ridge or put on the brakes to save the legs. I compromised somewhere in between and had soon covered two miles of downhill and started down the unpaved Ellendale Stagecoach Road which seemed to go on forever (somewhere around 3 miles, per the guidebook) since I wanted badly to be back on singletrack.
That was going to have to wait. Much of the 4 mile climb up from Stony Creek to the top of Second Mountain followed a wide abandoned logging road. Tantalizing narrow trails shot off in all directions and I made a note to come back here to backpack and camp. The sun was still behind the clouds but the day was beginning to warm up. Though the inclined grade wasn't too severe, it didn't offer many breaks either. I was caught from behind by one fiercely fit mountain biker and passed a single trail runner headed the opposite direction who looked spirit-crushingly fit. I was somewhere around 10 miles into the trip and fighting the first wave of doubt.
Within a mile of the summit, the trail switchbacked against the logging road and transferred to extremely steep singletrack. I couldn't make out the top and, like it has too many times before, my stomach began to raise protests. Thankfully, those rumblings never turned into anything, but for a moment they did add to my concern. Shaking them off, I power-hiked to the summit and sat for a moment to catch my breath, down a gel and consult the book.
It was cool to be doing this solo, but without aid stations waiting down the line, the only water I could count on was what I had in my pack. The early sections of the route were proving really remote and I wondered where I was going to fill the emptying four bottles (two handhelds and another two in the side mesh pockets on my pack) that I had with me. A peek ahead at the trail directions didn't look terribly promising. I decided to start rationing and concentrate on just getting further along the route.
The next six miles were pretty sweet, weaving through mature woods on a slow clamber down from the summit of Second Mountain. When things leveled off, the path fluctuated between singletrack and logging roads. There was still little sign of civilization and the few structures that did appear were either in states of disrepair or spartan in their design. Heavy tree cover coupled with the continued cloud cover to keep heat manageable.
In Manada Gap, the trail vanished into road but showed no sign of a place to replenish fluids. The guidebook suggested that a mere 3 mile detour (one way) would get me to a convenience store but that mileage tack-on seemed really foolish and the whole idea of leaving the Horseshoe felt really unappealing. I ignored the offer and stuck to my yellow blazes.
Less than a mile later, the trail reappeared and followed what the guidebook had referred to as a "beautiful trout stream on a splendid woods trail under old beeches and hemlocks". The trees were still there (though I suspect in fewer numbers) but there wasn't enough water to support trout and the trail itself appeared to be woefully untraveled. Bummer.
Another bummer was being completely out of water, especially when the trail vanished again and the blazes migrated from trees to telephone poles. I was back on the road again and less than thrilled by the exposure to the sun. The New Balance MT101's that I was wearing were spot on for the trail, but not ideal for extended road work. Wah-wah.
I decided I would offer cash to the next human being I saw in exchange for cold water in my water bottles. Over the next 3 miles, however, I saw plenty of homes but not a soul outside. The whirring of air conditioners and the periodic appearance of undrinkable backyard swimming pools mocked me and my bone dry bottles. Help would eventually come in the form of James who was outside braving the heat to deliver water to his landscaping.
James wouldn't hear of my offer, turning down the cash while kindly taking my bottles to fill me up with water on the house. Perhaps because I mentioned that I'd come the whole way from Clarks Valley, he even filled me up on ice. I couldn't have been more grateful, though I'm not sure I properly conveyed this, as stopping at last made me acutely aware of how parched and hot I'd become. Looking back towards the distant aridgelines from his front yard, I got my first sense of how far I'd come.
I said my thanks and offered goodbyes before chugging back down the road. My spirits soared for a few minutes until I started to get the feeling that I may not find dirt under foot for a good long while. I was 21.5 miles into my run but feared it might be road the rest of the way. The sun was now unimpeded with the clouds having melted away and I was taking a pounding. I realized I'd only had James fill up two of my bottles despite his offer to top off anything I had. Dumb. Those two bottles were only going to go so far.
As I reached Route 22, I hung a left in hopes of soon finding somewhere to get more water. My confidence was wavering, my left foot was hating the road surface and I was really starting to dread the idea that the trail running portion of my day was over. Stumbling upon a closed-for-the-day garage that had a stunningly beautiful soda machine parked right outside, I sat down to drink an ice cold Pepsi and ponder the possibilities.
I fished my cellphone out of my pack and attempted a call to my cousin, Chad. He didn't answer the phone. I replied to a text message from Jefferson asking how I was holding up and asked him yet another favor, this time hoping he could Google Route 22 East and tell me where it ended up. While waiting for his response, Lindsay called and gave me an earful about a minor calamity at home. I raised my voice back at her before we both calmed down, offered deserved apologies and traded "I love yous". From there I placed a call to Mom who confirmed for me that 22 wasn't going to take me where I wanted to go.
I collected my thoughts, scoured the various maps in the Horseshoe Trail guidebook and decided it was time to quit mucking around and get back to what I'd set out to do in the first place. Yes, I was hot and was looking at a lot of roadwork, but my legs felt pretty good and my stomach was fine.
I finished the last of that oh-my-god-good Pepsi and bought a number of waters from the machine to refill all four of my bottles.
I texted Jefferson to call of the Googling and confirm that I'd gotten my head straight. Sending that text was the final push I needed and I was back on my feet, heading west to reconnect with the Horseshoe. It wasn't long before I'd managed to do just that.
I covered another 6 miles before the blazes again got me off of the road, dumping me into a farmer's field somewhere around 27 miles into my day. There was a confusing twist shortly thereafter when the trail seemed barred by a tall cornfield. That proved a good thing because it forced me to again consult the guidebook which encouraged me to look back across Swatara Creek toward the Blue Mountains for "one of the most remarkable views along the trail". I haven't seen enough of the trail to properly validate that claim but it sure was lovely. The camera failed to capture a proper image through the afternoon haze, so I did my best to save the view to memory.
Turning back to the task at hand, I plowed through the cornfield and came out running on the other side. A bright yellow blaze was waiting for me and waved me down the trail. Sadly, that lovely bit of trail lasted little more than a mile before depositing me back onto roads just north of Hershey. Before it did, however, I was offered one last look back at the mountains and this time the camera cooperated with a fairly nice representation.
I passed by Hershey Cemetary (the venerable Milton Hershey is buried here) and endured a rather frustrating bit of "where now?" in an old inactive quarry that added a few hundred unnecessary yards to my journey. Emerging finally on the other side of that stretch, I had less than 10K to go.
That was good news because I was tiring. I threw a pose at the sun to see if I could spook it back into hiding but my bluff was called.
There was one last bit of confusion to muddle through before I got where I was going. It could've proven disastrous.
Per the guidebook, I'd soon arrive in Palmdale, cross 422 and then make my way to Campbelltown. I'd never heard of Palmdale but hadn't given it too much thought. At this point, though, I had a pretty good idea where I was and where I was was Hershey not Palmdale. A bit more searching in the book uncovered a reference to Palmdale being a "western suburb of Palmyra". Palmyra I knew and Hershey I knew. I couldn't tell you where one ends and one begins but I do know there isn't a Palmdale in between.
Upon reaching 422, I flipped a mental coin and hung a right. A mile later, I began to doubt my decision AND discovered that I was again out of water. I backtracked a bit and ducked into a restaurant/bar. Evidence of my running out of gas is the fact that I never even took any notice of the name of the establishment. Poking my head inside, I pleaded with anyone available to clue me in on Palmdale and the seemingly fictitious McKinley Avenue. No one knew what I was talking about and, frankly, I soon realized how insane I must have looked, sporting a cavemanish beard, wearing a sweat-drenched backpack, clutching empty water bottles and babbling on about a town that didn't exist.
A young guy named Dustin came to my rescue, throwing my beard a compliment and fetching me a Coke. He also filled up one of my other water bottles which was huge and even retopped off my Coke after I downed it in about 3 seconds. I bounced the Palmdale/McKinley question off of him but he too did not find either of those references familiar. When I mentioned that I was heading to Campbelltown, he felt pretty certain that I needed to head east and hang a right. In terms of getting me to Campbelltown, he was correct but I actually needed to push a little farther in the initial direction I'd headed to pick up the Horseshoe Trail. Honestly, it mattered little at this point because I was looking mostly at roads regardless of which way I went.
Long story short, Dustin gets props from me for getting me exactly where I asked him to get me and for just being down to earth and cool at a moment when I benefited from that at least as much as getting the "right" directions. No props for me in failing to snap a proper documentary photo.
And so I made it at last to Campbelltown, though I was approaching the van from the wrong direction and from off the "trail". I'd been pretty sloppy with the GPS throughout the day, often turning it off when I took breaks but not always and sometimes forgetting to rehit "start" when setting off again. I'm certain that I'd gone at least 37 miles by the time I opened the door, but the Garmin said 36.55. I put my pack and bottles on the passenger seat and kept on running, heading out along the Horseshoe Trail along the route I should have just been on. After about a quarter mile, I spun on my heels and returned to the van. My day was done and my MT 101's could wait for dirt.
Happy Birthday to me.