A number of want-to-go-heres and got-to-go-theres have been taking shape in this rattletrap of a head of mine, but holiday bustle and proper priorities have the fruition of those schemings waiting on another day.
Opportunistically (always), I have continued in the meantime to explore bite-sized adventures more easily digested in the snack-length windows of time available in late December/early January. Sticking with the introduced theme and accepting the gift of mild post-Christmas weather, I went to visit a real-life rattletrap that lies mouldering a few hundred yards off of the Appalachian Trail in the St. Anthony's Wilderness east of Harrisburg.
But I'll get to that in a bit.
December had ushered in snow, melted it off, brought a bit more and then turned around and jacked up the temperatures. On the morning of the 28th, the sun was beaming and the prognosticators were calling for the mercury to top out well over 50 degrees. The only acceptable reason for not being out in it was putting in a few fun hours of indoor rock climbing with my wife and daughters.
While the girls headed from the gym to the movie theater for a viewing of the latest Pixar film, Mamie (a/k/a Sugar Pie) accompanied me to Clark's Valley between Peters and Stoney Mountains about 10 miles east of the Susquehanna River. I didn't have any specific mileage in mind, but our intent was to point ourselves east, following the Appalachian Trail northbound toward and perhaps past Rausch Gap. A couple years ago, I had come the opposite direction, starting in Swatara Gap and turning around just 4 or 5 miles shy of the parking lot from which the dog and I would be departing. The first few miles would be a retracing of the route Jefferson and I had followed the day I ran the Horseshoe Trail from its start/finish on the top of Stoney Mountain to Campbelltown to mark my 37th birthday. Many more miles had been logged on the AT since then, but it had continued to bug me, pettily I suppose, that those few miles in between had remained unexplored.
Mamie couldn't have cared less about what had or had not yet been covered, but she was ready to go wherever it was we were going. In the rush to get started, I had forgotten to fill the hydration bladder in my pack before leaving home, but the stream at the trailhead just off of Route 325 was running high and graciously lent a few liters of water to which I added a purification tablet before uttering the "go get 'em, girl" the dog had been patiently awaiting.
The first 3.2 miles came and went quickly, as Sugar Pie set a brisk pace climbing the 1,000+ feet to the summit of Stoney and the intersection with the Horseshoe Trail. Curiosity coaxed me to peek at the HT trail registry and, remembering how fun the initial descent is from there down to Rattling Run, I nearly modified our plans but shook off the temptation, nodded toward the monument that marks the terminus of the trail in a vague manner meant to indicate that I would return soon, and then jumped back on the AT for the first true ground-breaking mileage of the day.
The next section proved wonderfully runnable, tracking mostly along the top of the ridge and eventually downwards, all with little rock, comparatively, to the terrain with which I was more familiar in the miles that would come later. There were a couple of melt-fed streams to cross and passageways of rhododendron to glide through, but, except for a few slushy footprints, we had the trail to ourselves.
We clambered over the rocky gouge where an old incline used to once reside, shuttling coal from the mined shafts higher on the ridge to the waiting-to-whisk-away rail lines in the valley below. Soon we reached the ruins of Yellow Springs Village which was abandoned in 1859 after what coal could be harvested had been depleted. Except for some diminishing foundations and crumbling stonework, little remains besides the mailbox that has since been erected to house an AT trail registry.*
Another 5 miles would deposit us in Rausch Gap but, having heard many tales of an old stranded steam shovel (my research revealed that it's actually an early gasoline-powered shovel, but that's not nearly as aesthetically pleasing to the ear/eye) on a spur trail somewhere in between, I was strongly entertaining the idea of a side trip. After tiptoeing through a minefield of good old Pennsylvania rocks for the next 2 miles, Mamie and I were staring at the sign that signaled the arrival of our detour.
I wasn't entirely certain how far we'd need to travel along the Sand Spring Trail to lay eyes on the General, but with only 1.7 miles from where we stood to Route 325, I figured we couldn't be looking at more than a 3 mile diversion.
The trail descended from the AT and required a rock hopping across Rausch Creek. A two-foot-long panel of rusty metal wedged in a notch of a tree confirmed that we were still on the right track. I was surprised to see that the trail climbed steeply soon after and it was nearly an all-fours endeavor to gain the top of the slope. It was apparent that there hadn't been much recent foot traffic and between the severity of the grade and the leaf litter, my climbing was a pretty sloppy showing. Reaching the high point, I expected to see this rumored shovel greeting our (my) huffing and puffing arrival.
No such luck.
Faded blue blazes announced that we hadn't managed to lose the trail but there was no sign of any ancient machinery. Before we'd gone more than 100-200 yards, yellow blazes advertised a side trail heading in an easterly direction and I was sure that the General was waiting just around the bend. The trail dead-ended at a Jenga-worthy stack of conglomerate rock that provided a breathtaking overlook of Second and Blue Mountains to the south. It was a vantage point well worth reaching, but offered no sign of our quarry.
We backtracked to where we had left the Sand Spring Trail and hung a quick right to continue on our hunt. Almost immediately, the trail aggressively gave ground, heading down into Clark's Valley quite steeply. A few inches of snow and even ice on rocks and downed trees clung to this, the leeward side of the ridge. Sugar Pie vanished from sight while I struggled to keep feet beneath me. The sun had fallen low in the sky over the last half hour, but it was significantly darker with the shadows cast by the ridge now rising behind us. It didn't seem like there could be much more trail remaining before we would hit 325 and that either meant that we'd passed the General or that it rested much closer to the road than I had first believed.
A good spill was followed moments later by a second fall. I decided that pushing on and losing any more light would likely mean having to follow the road back to where we'd parked the car as clawing our way back up this side of the ridge and then picking our way down the Sand Spring Trail again on the other side was going to be some difficult navigation after the sun had set even with the headlamp that I'd brought along.
With a whistle to cue Mamie back my direction, I began the climb back the way we had come. The ascent worked out better than expected, mostly because I was guided by the holes I'd just punched in the snow moments before. The amount of sunlight still available when we topped out was a pleasant surprise and the differences between either side of the ridge due solely to their positioning to sun and wind was a marvel.
Still, more light didn't mean much light and I hurried to get back down to Rausch Creek before darkness arrived. As the hunk of metal in the tree came back into view, it became apparent where I'd made my mistake. That metal was actually the indicator of where to turn to find the decrepit shovel. Though there was nobody there to appreciate the gesture, I rolled my eyes at my "duh" and hustled to find what we'd come seeking. The trail was faint and grown nearly shut with rhododendron but after following it for no more than 50 yards, I discovered the path widened considerably and soon the old machine materialized.
In the low light, the dog cowered at the sight of the once-mighty General. The moniker, I've since learned, comes from the word now just barely visible on a rusty rear panel and the last visible remnant of the namesake General Excavator Company that manufactured the shovel. As noted, it isn't an actual steam shovel, but considering that GEC is said to have gone out of business in the 1920's, it is a pretty impressive example of an early gasoline-powered shovel. It rests in a slight depression and the surrounding area bears signs of the excavating that the General at one time must have been capable. Even with evidence that it was once fully functional and put in work right where it still sits, it is hard to figure out how the General ever arrived in its perch and at least as strange to understand why it was left there.
I nosed around a bit longer and, yes, in a fit of childhood imagining, I even pictured myself operating the old shovel. Not for long, though, as I decided to take advantage of the final moments of light to hop dryly back across Rausch Creek and return to the AT.
I checked the GPS. We'd covered just under 10 miles and had to be another 3 miles from Rausch Gap. My legs still felt great and Suge, no doubt, had plenty of gas in her tank, but I had been guilty on other occasions of pushing on because of feeling fine only to discover shortly thereafter that I didn't feel fine anymore and had that much more ground to cover in returning to the trailhead. I chuckled over the fact that due to my out-and-back modus operandi, the day I can say I've traveled every inch of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania is the day that I can also say that I've traveled every inch of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania twice (at least).
Fifteen to twenty minutes later we were back at Yellow Springs and the sun was gone. Mamie and I stopped to enjoy a makeshift in-the-dark dinner of water, crackers, cheese, Honey Stinger waffles and dog kibble (we both had some of everything, though I did pass on the kibble). I took advantage of the darkness to strip down and slip on a pair of tights under my shorts (don't be fooled, I am, to the world's chagrin, not so modest as to wait on the cover of darkness...consider yourself warned). Other than donning a pair of lightweight gloves and turning on my headlamp, I didn't need any other bolstering, as temperatures still hovered in the low-to-mid 40's.
The rest of the return trip to the car was lovely though uneventful. My fitness held up, but we did slow the pace considerably on the the final descent off of Stoney due to a thin and initially deceptive layer of ice that had begun building up on the rocks and logs that had been merely wet during the daylight hours. Not being careful in those last couple of miles would have definitely made for a tale full of events, but I was much happier (and healthier) for having nothing to report.
We got back to the car just under 5 hours after we'd left, having whiled away 19.5 miles.
An ever present grin kept me company the whole way home as Mamie snored loudly and contentedly from her backseat roost. Who knows if we'll be back specifically to visit the General, but we will definitely return to St. Anthony's Wilderness as there is much more exploring still to be done.
*Over the years I've found little snippets of information here and there on Rausch Gap, Yellow Springs and the surrounding area. The first half of my childhood was spent in nearby western Berks County and my father and uncle spoke reverently about this part of the state and I always hoped to do my own exploring one day. After we moved to Lancaster County, I spent much time adventuring closer to home and didn't actually get up to Raush until many, many years later. While doing a bit more digging in the days before and after this outing, I stumbled on the following page, compiled by J.W. Via, that included several photos, maps and illustrations that I hadn't before seen: St. Anthony's Wilderness
I'm grateful to have found it and encourage you to check it if you're interested in far more detailed information on the area and its history.