Recently I came across some old photos from the summer of 1950, when three of my friends and I thought it would be a nifty idea to hike for about a week along the Appalachian Trail. We were all of 15 years old, were between the 10th and 11th grades in high school, and had some previous camping experience with the Boy Scouts — so this seemed like a grand adventure. Actually, I had taken day hikes on the trail with my father several times before that and so had some idea of what to expect.
The Appalachian Trail extends along the top of the mountain chain for over 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Although maintained by local volunteer groups, it is actually part of the National Parks System. We limited our plans to a long hike in eastern Pennsylvania, from a point north of our home in Allentown to Indiantown Gap, east of Harrisburg. This was still about 50 miles over woodland trail along the Blue Ridge that was rarely level.
With the enthusiasm only teenagers can muster, we poured over maps and equipped ourselves with sleeping bags, knapsacks, canteens, flashlights and the like from a local army surplus store. That's us on the left as we set out on the journey from Route PA309, about 25 miles northwest of Allentown. From the left: Marshall Miller, Jim Trout, Erwin Braker, and me. Most of the photos here are badly faded and a bit fuzzy, but still serviceable.
From the start, Marshall and Erwin kept up a good pace, while Jim and I lingered behind taking photos and generally goofing off. We would catch up with them at the first rest stop, where we would spend the night. Or so we planned. It got dark, which happens early in the woods. We lost the trail, and even with flashlights couldn't find the blazes. Hollering was in vain — there was no answer. At that point I thought about some sort of device that let you stay in touch. Walkie-talkies they were called, but we didn't have any. So a new adventure began.
Jim and I would have to spend the night right where we were, and wait for daylight to find the trail. What we did find nearby was a small clearing with a soft, smooth bed of leaves. We rolled out our sleeping bags and dozed off into slumberland. But not for long. First a snorting sound, and then the outline of antlers against the moonlit sky right above our heads. Inside the sleeping bag I clutched at my sheath knife, cursing myself for not bringing a pistol along. Happily, the snorting beast soon walked away and found another inn for the night. At daybreak a black bear strolled by, but at a distance.
When we found our companions later that morning they were already installed in a luxurious lean-to with a fireplace, where they had enjoyed a comfortable rest. We then swore to never again get separated. Although a crude log structure, it seemed like a first class hotel to us at that moment. The photo shows Erwin preparing a meal. All four of us spent the night there before pushing on to Hawk Mountain.
Above, having lunch at a campsite. From the left, Marshall, me, and Erwin.
The Appalachian Trail passes right through parts of Hawk Mountain, a world-famous sanctuary for birds of prey that offers fabulous birding opportunities, spectacular views, and excellent hiking trails. I had been there a few times with my father before this hike, and have revisited it just a few years ago.
Here we see Jim tending to his aching foot. Proper footgear is essential on a hike like this, as we painfully found out. So is an adequate supply of food and water since grocery stores are few and far between. About the only civilization was at the bottom of the mountain, or on the very few roads that cross over its gaps. Water was less of a problem as most of the rest stops — spaced about a day's hike apart — have wells or are near springs. Still, you had to fill up your canteen at every opportunity.
We crossed the mighty Schuylkill River at Port Clinton, a friendly little town where Route PA60 crosses the mountain. This river later passes through Reading before joining the Delaware in Philadelphia.
As the miles progressed, the need for rest stops (photo, above) increased. This became a common sight. Besides the frequent blazes on trees, there were occasional mileage signs pointing the way, as the one on the left.
After about five days we arrived at our destination, Swatara Gap on routes PA72 and PA443, near the Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation. Today, the elevated Interstate 81 highway passes right over the trail, but in those days it was a much quieter place. Near the trail there was a roadhouse-type restaurant/bar where we asked to use their telephone to call home. They showed us to an ancient wooden thing with a hand crank that you turned to get the operator. Erwin's father answered and agreed to pick us up just as soon as he could get there, a distance of nearly 70 miles from home.
So we waited by the road. That's us in the photo above, clearly pooped out and ready for a nice bath and sleep. So ended this Little Adventure 57 years ago.
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