the key ingredient.

If pressed for a single trail of residence, I'd certainly have to call the Horseshoe Trail home.

While not a true second home (I'm not made of trail money, after all), the Conestoga is like a cabin returned to season after season with a familiarity that makes it feel like "mine" even though, deep down, I recognize that as soon as I leave the next short term tenant arrives.

I'm also well aware of the fact that some other fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen log enough time on the Stogie to lay fair claim to it being their home.  Like Gary Bowman, for one.  If anyone has the right to roll out a proper welcome mat it's Gary and he did just that on Saturday evening, inviting fellow runners far and wide to tackle the 10-mile Conestoga Trail Run course under the cover of darkness.

A large contingent planned to gather at Pequea Creek Campground after some strategic pre-run shuttling and then switch on the headlamps and flashlights to guide footfalls up and down the many contours of the eastern side of the Susquehanna River from there to Holtwood Park.

A smaller group, consisting of a handful of more-than-able bodies and a dumbass with a braided beard.

Photo courtesy of Stacey Wilson Keener
Having arrived on the scene first, I got to bear witness to the mop-up of a rescue operation that sent emergency professionals down into Kelly's Run to fetch a Bear Grylls wanna-be hiker who'd managed to whack himself in the leg with the machete he'd decided to haul along on his misadventure.  I decided to NOT take that as an omen and quietly thanked the heavens that our scabbards held only water bottles.

As an aside, I'm still waiting on the punchline.  Bear grills...what?  I'd think on that for a bit during the long, hot hours ahead.

There were some strong, strong legs in this group and what was a slow, controlled pace for these guys was a nice, steady clip in my book.  Still, it's all downhill to start and the cruise down into Kelly's Run was good times.  Was it hot?  Yep.  But not nearly so hot down in the ravine as it had been up high.

I fought off the urge to stop and snap pics down in the run as I didn't want to fall off the pace early and we had plenty of ground to cover.  Scott and I discussed his good and my bad days at Laurel and agreed that it's one beauty of a course.  I couldn't help but think "and so is this one."

The clamber up over the slabs directly above Kelly's and the long, grassy slope beyond them led to the Pinnacle and an early opportunity to refill water bottles.  I never tire of this sweeping view and framing it with running partners helps to give it some scope.

On the long run down from there to Tucquan, John made first mention of some gastric issues he was having that were likely tied to an ill-advised meal not long before we'd started combined with the heat and humidity.  He was still running strong but also clearly uncomfortable.

And, when I get to that point, there isn't anything I look forward to more than soaking in a cold creek.  In Tucquan, it's not a matter of finding a pool but rather picking which one you like best.  I found my favorite hole and soaked for a bit before talking Rik and John into posing for this photo.

This little rest stop should have left us miles beyond Scott, Steve and J.J., so we were surprised to see them all again shortly after we'd made it up the next climb.  Turns out, machines that they are, they'd decided to run the full loop at Tucquan to tack on a bit of extra mileage.

Jesse humored me for a stretch, padding along behind me, talking shoes and second growth.  Come to think of it, with the miles he's logged in those river valleys, J.J. can stake a home claim there too.  We caught up with the others at House Rock where they were making small talk with a handful of day hikers.

I was still guzzling water when the crew headed out and it took me a couple of minutes to catch back up.  On the steep haul up to the ridge that fosters Wind Cave, I ran into John who again voiced his discomfort.  We hung together through that stretch and decided to round the corner before Pequea on the road, cutting out the short climb that then ambles down into town.  John made it clear at this point that he was going to try and catch a ride back to Holtwood and, feeling a bit cooked myself and more familiar with some of the runners we'd meet at the campground, I decided I might try and track down keys from someone running to Holtwood and drive John and I back there.  At the time, it didn't sound like a bad idea.

Our short cut allowed us to meet back up with Rik just before hanging the right onto the old trolley bed that leads from the river to the campground along the southern bank of the Pequea creek.  That last mile passed pretty quickly and we found the campground a bustle of activity with balls bouncing, golf carts buzzing and grills (no Bear) blazing.

Rik and I bee-lined for the creek and spent another few minutes soaking.  If not on the trail, look for me in water.  RUNNING water.

We'd arrived well ahead of the 10-mile crew and the longer we waited, the better I began to feel.  The night crew emerged, seemingly out of nowhere and it was full of friendly faces.  Steve and Cassie appeared with their trademark smiles and enthusiasm.  Chris pointed out that we only seem to see each other on this trail and passed me a chia energy bar that, honestly, seemed to add some immediate pep.  I hadn't seen Steve Lougee since we'd logged some time together up on Mole Hill and I threw him a wink.  Aimee grinned with pre-run anticipation.  Lane gave me the quick rundown on his recent immersion in trail running.  The man of the hour, Gary, delivered his customer bear hug.

At that point, I knew I was going back to Holtwood along the Conestoga.  Before I did that, however, I needed to help John find that ride.  J.J. and Monica Joan, who was joining us for the 10 miles back to Holtwood, agreed to turn their keys over to John.  I gave him a hug and we agreed to get in touch and stay in contact.  Just one more instance of translating a few hours together on a trail into a friendship to last.

And then, I suppose, I blinked because everyone was gone.  Once again, I was standing there watching the crew run away.  I scrambled to pull out my headlamp, put my pack back on, gather my bottles and catch up.  Steve and Cassie led the group off of the Conestoga onto Smith's lollipop start and I bagged it to get further out along the trail to set up my little tripod to see if I could get some shots of the group as it passed by.  Something about bobbing headlamps always gets me pumped.

Rik and Stacey came through first, having also cut the lollipop short.  They decided to shoot a couple of photos too and after the bulk of the group went through, we realized that we hadn't seen Gary.  We decided to wait on him and soon discovered that he had Carli and a couple of others with him.

The three of us brought up the rear for a bit before deciding to push out ahead.  We never did catch the others, but we must have put some distance on the four behind us as we never did end up reconnecting.

Over on the York side of the river, there was a pre-4th hootenany going down with a fairly impressive fireworks display and a peculiar concoction of radio-friendly country, hip-hop and pop.  It was pretty surreal, especially after having spent many quiet nights on these same trails with only the musical accompaniment of crickets, birds, far-off farm dogs and the occasional train.  While I prefer the quiet, the goings-on did add a festive air.

Rik, Stacey and I stuck together mile after mile, not pushing too hard but just enjoying a beautiful night out together.  Hard to believe that we only really met back in January and I can't imagine not thinking of the two of them when I think about local trail running.  They are good people and good company.

Once we'd slogged our way up and over the Pinnacle and temperatures had cooled, I was feeling really good.  We made the final water crossing in Kelly's Run and began power-hiking the long, steady climb up to Holtwood Park.  Before I knew it, that power-hiking had turned into shuffling and then full-on running.  I love having a lot of leg late in a run and, especially after having felt pretty legless earlier in the evening, it was really satisfying to be accelerating up the ridge.

I would have been ok with that stretch going on and on were it not for one little concern.  While slugging some water down in Kelly's I discovered that the empty zippered pocket on one of my handheld bottles was completely open.  This was really disconcerting because inspection of the other bottle revealed that it didn't contain my car key and I was about 98% sure that I'd put my key in one of those bottles.

My hope was that I'd arrive at the pavilion at Holtwood and, while basking in the glow of the post-run after party, I'd dig into my pack and find that I had actually stashed the key there.  Or, if the key wasn't there, maybe I'd find it lying next to the car or sitting on the roof, a spot I'd nearly left my key on a number of other occasions.

The after party glow was there waiting.

My key was not.

Once I'd confirmed that fact, I began begging a ride home.  Thankfully, Aimee obliged and I consoled my conscience with the fact that I could jump out of the car at the intersection of Mt Joy and Colebrook roads without ever forcing her to stray from her route home.

Finding Lindsay awake when I got home at 2:30 and learning that she'd been calling and texting and calling again the cell phone that was locked back in the car did not a thing to ease that some conscience.  Ugh.

What I didn't learn until morning was that shortly after Aimee and I left, Gary and Josh had arrived at the pavilion, key in hand.  How or where they found it, I've yet to learn and maybe it should stay that way.  They did me one last favor, alerting the rangers to the fact that my car was going to have to sit there overnight and slipping a "note" through the slight crack I'd left open in the driver's side window.

That's me, the owner who lost his key...

...only to get it (and my car) back today.

For the moment, I'm going to store that key with my new collection of favorite Conestoga Trail memories.  But I may seek out one of those magnetic storage boxes before next time.

Or tie it right into this dumbass beard braid.

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