I'd held out as long as I could. Except for a brief, relatively unsuffocating trip to the mall earlier in the month, I'd managed to steer clear of the mad swirl of Christmasing.
With time slipping away, I was going to have to venture into the fray. With a focused plan, a map through the maze, I hoped I could get my shopping done in one two hour operation of determined tunnel vision.
I pulled into the Target parking lot, the first stop on my consumerist binge. I should have laced up my sneaks because the closest parking spot was about a 1/4 mile away from the front doors.
There isn't much to tell of my time behind the wheel of the wobbly cart that greeted me at the front door. All went relatively well and the shelves kindly peddled many of the things on my list, saving me any need to check it twice. I didn't get everything I needed at that Target but expected visits to two more retailers addressed all remaining items on my list.
Time to purge.
To distract the girls while I was busy playing Santa, Lindsay had decided on a trip to Dutch Wonderland (a quaint little kid-oriented theme park for you non-Lancastrians) for holiday inspired amusement.
My inspired amusement would come from my beloved Conestoga Trail.
I have written about the Conestoga Trail on many occasions and those of you who read along have likely heard of or have had the pleasure of spending time on the trail. For those who haven't, the Conestoga begins near the southern end of Lancaster County and meanders roughly due north until intersecting the Horseshoe Trail just below the Lancaster/Lebanon County line. At its southernmost end, the trail serves up a jaggedy profile of elevation changes as it climbs high points and dips into hollows on the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River. The terrain is rocky and rooty and the scenery is absolutely stunning, especially considering its close proximity to the ever creeping suburban sprawl of Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The aptly (if not terribly creatively) named Conestoga Trail Run takes place here each September, beginning at Pequea Creek Campground and traversing "10 challenging miles" on its way to Holtwood Park. I love that race and had invited my good friend Kelly to join me there this year only to have him bear a grudge for what proved to be anything but the "totally runnable" course that I'd (admittedly) falsely promised.
What can I say? My want for Kelly to love the trail as much as I do had totally clouded my recollection of how punishing the Conestoga can be.
Long story short, I now cannot think of the Conestoga without also thinking of Kelly and I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing, considering the unlikelihood that he'll ever set foot on it again.
Anyway...back to my story.
With hours to blissfully while away, I decided to park the car just beyond the small riverside village of Pequea and jump on the trail at a point a couple of miles along the race route. This allowed me to skip the very short portion of established road and get right onto glorious singletrack. Before long I'd climbed past the cave (yes, there is a real cave that sits just off of and likely beneath the trail) and up to the vista at House Rock.
The panorama looking south toward Pinnacle, past the few dotted islands and up to the curve in the river before the Holtwood Dam was as lovely as ever. I progressed at a nice pace in the mid-40 temperatures but also stopped frequently to take in the view, listen to the subdued quiet of the river below and fiddle with the camera. Honestly, I only wanted to go so fast.
It was nice to see a number of other people on the trail, though all were hiking not running. As much as I love solitude and am susceptible to having a day downgraded or even ruined by excessive on-trail traffic, I often find it sad to cover mile after mile of trail without crossing anyone else's path and am left wondering how few people appreciate the beauty that while arguably fading is still all around us.
There were still many signs of the beating that the landscape had sustained from the hurricane and violent weather that came through in late summer and early fall, but it was also apparent that nature rolls with the punches and a bit of debris on the trail is of little consequence to the overall health of the forest and its inhabiting creeks.
Tucquan Glen, as usual, was lush and picturesque. It's a lot of fun to run here but this is also one of those cherished places that cries out for you to stay and it always feels a shame to rush through too quickly.
The long brutal climb up out of Tucquan to Pinnacle is less about lovely scenery and more about doing the work required to just keep moving forward and achieve the high point above. This is definitely a point during the Conestoga Trail Race, especially on a bad day, where you start to wonder if and when the race will ever end.
Without a clock ticking at the finish line, I was able to enjoy this section more than usual, but did break it into two parts, playing again with the camera at the top of one of the rockiest bits.
I still felt pretty good when topping out at Pinnacle though the circling vultures suggested otherwise.
I've always struggled with the next half mile to a mile of downhill trail after it changes over from the old fire road that departs Pinnacle onto loose scree and slabby rock that drops aggressively toward Kelly's Run below. The first time I did the Conestoga Trail Race I took a hard fall and bounced on my tailbone. Back in early September, while running with friends, it took everything in me to not recreate that fall. Dead legs during this year's Conestoga Trail Race had me unsteady and tentative through this segment.
This day proved no different as downed leaves and fir needles made the rock slabs even more treacherous than usual. By the time I arrived at the more level trail down in Kelly's Run, my ankles and shins had taken a pounding. I climbed well from there to Holtwood Park but knew that I'd lost a lot on the descent from Pinnacle.
It was time to refuel...
...and check my progress.
The food, drink and salt tabs went down well with my stomach giving its approval and my body immediately feeling improved. Considering the time I'd piddled away not running, I'd covered the "out" section in pretty strong fashion. I hadn't stopped having fun and everything suggested that the return trip would include more of the same.
Except for one thing.
I nudged the display buttons on the side of the GPS and discovered that it was 4:30 on the afternoon of one of the shortest days of the year. In other words, I had about 45-60 minutes of daylight remaining, maybe less with the heavy cloud cover, and, while slightly refreshed at the moment, my legs were definitely going to be showing fatigue on the way back.
None of this would've mattered in the slightest if I had been in possession of a headlamp which, aggravatingly, I almost always am when running with a pack. For whatever reason, I didn't have one with me today. Those overcast skies were going to ensure that I didn't get any help from the moon or stars, so there was no getting around the fact that sooner or later, I was looking at still being on the trail with little to no visibility.
Somewhere, Kelly Agnew was grinning. I imagined him the villain in some Scooby Doo-like cartoon, spying me through some far off computer monitor, bellowing out a vengeful cackle and perhaps even shaking a fist in the air.
And I, in my lack of preparedness, deserved it.
Nothing left to do but run and run hard while there was still enough light left to risk it. I made it back down into Kelly's Run, clambered back up to Pinnacle and pushed to get down into Tucquan Glen before the sun set entirely. I'd gotten turned around on that descent from Pinnacle on an overnight hiking trip with friends and that was with headlamps, so I was definitely relieved to put that section behind me with light to spare.
There was still light enough to run through Tucquan Glen but by the time I topped out on the next climb, I was alone in the dark. This didn't immediately prove problematic as even without a light the worn in groove of the trail was followable. I couldn't see enough to risk running over the technical surface and really injuring myself, but by keeping my strides close to the ground, I was able to power hike pretty briskly.
Eventually tricky water crossings and sections that skirted large rock slabs left me bushwhacking and/or staggering about trying to figure out how I'd literally just been on the trail and now could find no sign of it. Knowing that the blazes on the trees that are impossible to miss in the daylight hours were lurking invisibly all around me was fairly maddening.
I was frustrated but never panicked, as there was no missing the Susquehanna River off to the left and, so long as I kept within earshot and continued progressing northward, I was going to get where I needed to get.
Just not very quickly.
Though I managed several times to get back on the trail after losing it, I finally lost the track for good on the climb up the ridge that shelters the aforementioned caves. I'm pretty sure now that I initially climbed too steeply too soon and missed some aggressive switchbacks that would've taken me higher and also a bit further inland. My chosen route got me up and over the face of the climb more directly but also put in me in a couple of precarious positions and forced me through thorns and brambles that tore up my shins, knees and upper thighs. I'd stumbled on several occassions once the sun set but was falling with regularity during this leg of the trip. Twice I ended up having to do makeshift self arrests to keep me from sustained slides and on one of those flailings I bloodied my hand.
My lesson learned and a note driven with a mental steel spike to ALWAYS have a headlamp, the forest decided to spit me out onto familiar ground a few hundred yards from my car.
As I trudged up the road and fumbled for my keys, I remembered that it was just up the hill from this point back in September where I'd unsuspectingly come upon a nest of bees kicked up by the runner just ahead of me.
Perspective is everything and, wanting to end on a high note that reaffirmed that it had truly been a beautiful day in the woods, I focused on how nice it was to be returning home without a single sting.