constantly bee.

"Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are."

-Gretel Ehrlich


Work, even work that you love, has a curious way of graduating from task to taskmaster, pushing us in whatever direction it chooses, sometimes by wheedling us with little victories to make it feel as though something is actually being accomplished and hence one MUST keep striving even harder.  Other times it simply tightens the figurative screws with deadlines and unspoken threats of the consequence of not plodding on.

My work screws get tightened every January.  No getting around it as competing priorities bottleneck.  Throughout most of the year which chore comes next is normally obvious and while they may not assemble in agreeable single file, my various duties, for the most part, do align in at least semi-orderly fashion.

But not in January.

I equate the first month of the year with regards to my work schedule to my driveway,  my family's two cars and the two cars owned by the tenants to whom we rent out our second floor.  Most days, the individual automobiles come and go freely without any obstacle, but every now and again, there's a car parked in the lane while its driver unloads groceries, a car idling in the road waiting to deliver its impatient, worn-out inhabitant from a day punching the cliche out of some clock, and another car waiting in the back with a passenger eager to escape to anywhere else but there.



The year wasn't even a week old and that old familiar weight was back.  Adding to the heaviness, there was snow and ice on the ground and temperatures were holding well below freezing with sustained winds that made it feel even colder.

I'm oddly fond of the cold anyway, but, regardless, the weekend would find me out of doors no matter the conditions as I desperately needed to expose my senses to something other than a monitor's glow, the obnoxious ring of a telephone, the bland scent of instant coffee being reheated (yet again) and the smooth, texture-less touch of keyboard keys.

My name had been added to the roster of a nearby trail race, but, not longing for only-talking-about-running company, directive flagging or stocked aid-stations, that entry was spurned for the lure of the percussive crunching of two and only two feet punching through crusted over snow, an unaccompanied, taxing uphill clamber and the nothingness-and-allness-all-at-once of a forest trail barren of billboards, traffic, machinery and chatter.

Early Friday evening I drove Lily, Piper Bea and their (and my) beloved Aunt Nancy north to Juniata for a weekend with my mother and stepfather at their cozy, forested retreat.  Peeling myself away from the no-don't-go charm of the cabin and its wood stove, I trudged back to the car, steered it home to Manheim and wedged in one final four-hour session at my desk before retiring to bed.

The scarce treasure of sleeping in found me rising refreshed at 8:00 and a couple more hours in the office ensured that I could wander away the afternoon in the woods unencumbered by obligation and spend all day Sunday sledding and playing in the snow with the kids.

The winds were howling along the Susquehanna River as I stepped out of the car in the lot that sits just beneath Route 322 at the eastern side of the Clark's Ferry bridge.  The southbound Appalachian Trail practically falls off of Peters Mountain and into that lot before crossing the bridge on a pedestrian walkway, hanging a hard left after departing the bridge, only to cross another bridge, this time over the Juniata River, before arriving in the community of Duncannon.

In order to reach Cove Mountain and leave humanity behind, you need to navigate the entire length of town.  The Appalachian Trail avoids the main drag by stepping one block further away from the river and following High Street to its end.  Perhaps it was the knowing that this was all just leading up to the elevation gain and quiet I was craving or an embracing of the simple act of movement after a week of too many sedentary hours, but, whatever the reason, this mile or two of sidewalk and concrete proved more enjoyable than I would have predicted.  Most of the inhabitants of Duncannon seemed content to spend the day indoors, protected from the biting wind coming up off of the icy river, and with rare exception the only faces I saw were hunkered down behind glass, staring obliviously at television screens, peering out the windows of their homes at the odd passerby (me) or fixed on the road ahead from behind-the-wheel perches.

Crossing the old, crumbling bridge over Sherman's Creek, I glanced to my left and caught sight of Peters Mountain in profile above the far riverbank from where I'd started.

A few hundred yards later, the AT left the road at last and, as though it was eager to lose itself as quickly as possible, it climbed 750 feet over the next mile and, not surprisingly, hadn't seen much traffic in the frigid conditions.  The grade was significant enough all on its own, but a couple of inches of snow and any icy sheath over every exposed rock, root and branch made me relieved to have lugged along Microspikes on the paved portion of the run that now emerged from my pack to provide traction.  Alternating between running and hiking, I inched my way around the ridge as it remained parallel to Sherman's Creek while climbing higher and higher above it.

There is basically only one switchback on the entire climb and a motionless runoff stood sentinel at that very bend in the trail.  Why I can't say, but the sound of water trickling covertly between rock and ice never ceases to give me thrills.  Pausing there for several minutes, drinking in the music, I did not fail to notice that it was THE only sound to be heard and for that I silently rejoiced.

After another short but steep slope, the trail passed right by Hawk Rock which offered a dizzying view of the valley below and, to the east, full visibility of Duncannon and the confluence of the Juniata and the Susquehanna.  If this vista could be accessed by car, complete with neat rows of vehicular parking spots and maintained bathrooms, it would no doubt be frequented by every inhabitant of this part of the state as well as anyone passing through.

Call me spiteful and selfish, but I'm glad it's harder to reach, its natural beauty already tainted by the spray paint and scrawling of disappointing (though enterprising) taggers.

There had been a couple of sets of aged footprints that had joined the AT from a bisecting trail a half mile or so before the overlook, but feet had gone no further and the track afterwards was completely devoid of any sign of recent ambulation.  Admittedly, Hawk Rock alone more than justified the effort but those other visitor had missed out on the easygoing miles that followed, as the singletrack ran the top of the ridge, slaloming gracefully through the trees while serving up just the slightest of undulations.  Even in the snow, I was able to move along at a brisk pace and my thoughts drifted for just a moment to the speed at which one could travel this section on surer footing.  No need to follow that thread as the day was too beautiful to waste wondering at others.

Because of my midday start and having taken many minutes decompressing at Hawk Rock, I gently reminded myself that I wouldn't be logging the miles my body wanted to as my heart and mind adamantly wanted to end the day in my children's presence.

I decided that reaching the Cove Mountain shelter would be goal enough.  It came up faster than expected, announced as all AT shelters seem to be with a proper wooden sign and indicators of the distance to the next opportunity for rustic lodging.

A spur trail to the left dropped down a 200 yard incline and led right to the open face of the shelter.  Two stacked bunks lined both of the interior side walls of the structure and hooks aplenty stood ready to hoist packs, clothes, gear and food out of harm's way or at least the reach of mice (or so the hooks would have you believe).

I lounged for a moment in one of the lower bunks and tried to determine which roost I would choose if I were to stay the night, on one of the upper bunks that were tucked slightly beneath the eaves or right where I was, closer to the floor and more exposed to the outside but with less room for cold air to swirl under me.  A matter to be decided some other evening with the proper gear in tow.

Having documented my stopping by, stating publicly my intent to return, and feeling refuled by some crackers, Gummi Bears and not-surprisingly-ice cold water, I was ready to be on my way when something pinned to the wall caught my eye.

Corny perhaps, but the sentiment made me smile and I hoped all at once to run into the WoodSpirit and to BE the WoodSpirit.  Maybe I would cross paths with another hiker making her or his way to that very shelter and he or she (or they) might look at that very sign and wonder, "could it have been?".

Who knows.

I hadn't seen another person since leaving Duncannon behind and I wouldn't see anybody until  getting back off of the mountain.  Did get another peek at Peters on the descent and the way it was framed so beautifully through a break in the trees seemed like all the luck I could have asked for.

The sun was slipping and sliding out of the sky, descending toward the river and casting Duncannon in shadows intermingled with hues of purple and orange.

Crossing back over the Susquehanna, the wind that had seemed subdued while in the forest reestablished its dominance in an intensity of sound and strength.  Hearing the whizzing of automobiles on the other side of the barrier on my left while gaping to my right at the current below, choked with creaking and colliding sheets of river ice, I shuddered at the thought of freefalling from the bridge into the dark water and  succumbing to its relentlessness.  I couldn't decide if the stark, miraculous beauty of the sunset was complement or contrast to the inhospitable cold and unapologetic gale.

It is what it is, as they say.

We are what we are.

As I always try to remember to do, I thanked nature for letting me be whatever it is I am.

January, do your worst.  February will be here soon enough.


general specific.

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.