As promised, Brian and Eric were waiting for me (and Sugar Pie) at the Dauphin Boro/Stony Creek exit off of 322. The sun hadn't been below the horizon for all that long, but the darkness after we passed through the town of Dauphin and proceeded into the valley between Second and Stony Mountains had the deep quality of a much later hour.
The road we followed would only remain paved for a few miles before transitioning to dirt pocked and grooved from an unforgiving winter and a lack of maintenance. Neither the dark nor the broken track fazed us much and it surely didn't dissuade the sizable black bear that rose up in the glow of our headlights from continuing on its search for easy-to-be-had scraps in the trash cans that accompanied the few houses colonizing the western end of State Game Lands #211. Suge seemed to sense the bear's presence without actually casting eyes upon it, perhaps having caught its scent through the window I had cracked to let the night air creep in to acclimate us to the cold.
After weeks, months, seemingly years of winter, the day had actually been surprisingly moderate, but relatively clear skies had let the fleeting warmth escape back into the atmosphere. Having reached the end of the road, the closed gate that marks the start of the Stony Valley Rail-Trail, a recreational re-purposing of the long abandoned Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad line, we stepped out into temperatures hovering right around the freezing mark. Cold, yes, but, without the determined wind that had seethed most of the preceding week, it was brisk without being bracing.
|Rattling Run Road in the light of day - Photo courtesy of John A Kilmer|
Rather than progressing along the remote but flat rail trail, we were headed up, up, up along the Rattling Run Trail which begins as a smooth, runnable (but not without work) uphill grade until nearing the top of Stony Mountain and bending off to the north east and rolling across the top of the ridge for several miles.
I'd run with Brian and a few other friends the weekend before and it had been one of those days that my body just didn't have any interest in cooperating. This night felt very different and it was a joy to run steadily along, gaining ground all the way while, as is always my want, laughing and chattering the entire time. My legs felt much more responsive after the relatively low key week of running and climbing that had followed the aforementioned disheartening performance.
It wasn't until we topped out and transitioned from the broader jeep road to gone-to-wild double track that we encountered snow, ice and the muck that lurked beneath the two. Though it slowed our progress...what, oh...right, it didn't slow Sugar Pie's progress in the slightest...anyway, though it slowed our progress, the messy conditions didn't dampen our spirits as the relative stillness and the moonglow off of the snow added to the captivating beauty of the night we'd wandered into.
We passed various trail intersections and tried to piece together the topography from differing memories of past visits to paths in the valley that may or may not have overlapped with one another. I don't think we actually drew any solid conclusions and our mental maps remained full of question marks.
The footing became a bit more treacherous as the trail headed downward and the terrain, more sheltered from the sun than what we'd already encountered, stubbornly clung to a blanket of polished ice. Our slipping and sliding eventually delivered us to the place where the Horseshoe Trail collides with (or departs from, depending on the direction you are traveling) the Rattling Run Trail.
This intersection lies just below the Devil's Race Ground, a long boulder field that shelters the headwaters of Rattling Run beneath it. You can literally hear the rushing of the invisible river under your feet but are unable to catch a glimpse of the water itself despite endless cracks and openings between the pile up of thousands of tons of rock. I attempted to capture an audio recording of the stirring music, a music that early settlers feared was emitted from the devil himself, but, I did so in vain.
Sugar Pie whined her plea to move, move, MOVE along and we fell in line behind her as she led us down the shared route of the Horseshoe and Rattling Run Trails as they descended to the rail trail that had paralleled the course we'd traveled. Along the way, we passed the cool old historical marker I hadn't seen since running the first (or last) 34 miles of the Horseshoe Trail on my birthday two-and-a-half years earlier.
My imagination likes to picture the hearty individuals who stood there on that October day back in 1934 being the very "interested" people who still returned each year to pay tribute. It's a cruel math that makes that improbable and so my leaning-to-the-left brain did what it tends to do and left the arithmetic undone.
A 90-degree turn had us reoriented to the southwest. Persistent tree cover, a resting point in the shadow of Second Mountain, and the ever present moisture of Stony Creek just a few yards away made the rail trail a rather nasty sheet of unsure footing that required a subtle but constant focus and consistent, tiring auto correcting to remain upright. I don't believe any of us took a legitimate fall but the threat was persistent and our pace definitely suffered, making the 2-3 mile straight line feel like twice that.
Our only diversion was a quick visit to the creek itself at the point where the Horseshoe Trail breaks ways with the rail trail and crosses water to begin its climb up Second Mountain. We gave Sugar Pie time to hydrate while we enjoyed a momentary respite from skating.
That break didn't last long, as another round of whimpering signaled that we had dallied long enough and it was time to get back to work.
We had another mile to go before we could put the rail trail behind us once and for all. Not that doing so meant any relief, as our escape route was the Water Tank Trail, a relatively short pitch of mangled singletrack that mirrors the route of an old lumber incline that had one intention which was to get from the top of the ridge to the valley below as directly as possible. Switchbacks are nowhere to be found. Rocks, roots, downed limbs and runoff gouges are prevalent and the sustained grade is not even remotely runnable. Hell, it's barely hikeable. On the bright side of things, it was free of ice and snow. Had it not been, it may very well have been completely impassible. Regardless, it was a punishing climb and I felt the first tinges of leg cramps well before the top and wondered how much more climbing we'd need to do and how interesting things would get if the severity of the cramps progressed. I knocked back a couple of salt tabs, knowing full well that it was too little too late.
As is always the case (I always tell myself to remember this, but sometimes it's harder than other times), the grade did finally relax, announcing our arrival at the top of the ridge. A sharp left returned us to the Rattling Ridge Trail we'd been on an hour or two earlier and we began again to navigate the mixed bag of snow, ice and mud.
Brian, having vowed to take things easy ahead of the Terrapin Mountain 50K a week later, was not taking things easy, at least not comparative to Eric and me. I kid, but, well, no not really. Thankfully, his cool badass-meets-kind-heart personality convinced him to check in with us now and again as we crept across the ridge. I chased the salt tabs with the last of the water I was carrying and throttled back from running to hiking whenever the cramps threatened to intensify.
Our little group reassembled at the western edge of the ridge and together we tackled the downhill plunge to the parked cars waiting below.
We had covered 16.5+ miles and those 4 hours had passed by in what in hindsight felt like half that EVEN with the slogging that had happened on the rail trail and the Water Tank.
That disconnect from the clock is one of my favorite magical aspects of running "out of doors" at night. The minutes pass imperceptibly when there aren't any pending appointments, shift starts/ends, or television show airings that demand to be adhered.
With my fitness not yet where it will be after months and miles of glorified hiking but little real running, I was definitely fatigued and happy to be done, but my mind was already plotting a return to Stony Valley and further exploration of its network of trails. After a long drive home and a couple hours of sleep, that hadn't changed one bit and I decided to do a little multitasking at breakfast.