I woke up feeling stuffy with a bit of a headache. That seems to be the norm for me on the first night on any camping trip. Something about whatever allergens are in the air or the fact that I almost always forget to bring a proper pillow that would keep my head tilted just right so fluids don’t build up in my head. (Our bodies are weird.)
The headache was certainly my fault—one too many beers. I knew four craft beers by campfire the night before a twenty-plus mile hike probably wasn’t a good idea, but alas, they found their way inside of me anyhow. I will say it probably added to the euphoric feeling of seeing the Milky Way spread across the northern Pennsylvanian night sky. The best glimpse I ever had of the Milky Way came just this past May when I was out in Jordan’s Wadi Rum. I had to wake myself up after moonset, sometime after half past four in the morning. Unlike in Jordan, there was nothing more than an especially thin crescent moon, making it that much easier to see the cosmos beyond.
LET’S GET LOST IN THE WOODS
Jarret, my thirty-four-year-old hiking companion, did most of the planning. I can always count on him whenever I have the masochist need to punish my body out in the wilderness. This time we were at the Willow Bay Campground in the Allegheny National Forest just two miles south of the New York state border with Pennsylvania.
I will, however, take credit for at least spurring the idea. My wife had plans to be away for a friend’s bachelorette party, so I wanted to seize the opportunity to do something I knew she wouldn’t be too crazy about. We generally have the same tastes and interests from travel to what to binge on Netflix, but we differ at times on acceptable distances when it comes to bike rides or hikes. A ten-mile hike is okay, but twenty miles is unnecessary in her book. So while she would be taking shots with the inevitable penis-shaped this or that flying around, I’d go get lost in the woods.
My other contribution was selecting the general area. Allegheny National Forest grabbed my attention while fiddling around on Google Maps, as I so often do when I get the itch to go do something. That tremendous green blob over the map of western Pennsylvania filled my imagination with possibilities.
The Allegheny National Forest is massive with five hundred thirteen thousand acres comprised of old-growth forests and streams. Oil and natural gas lie beneath the surface in some corners, which is of course controversially being extracted. (You can never trust Man with a natural resource, can you?) But before man took to poking holes in the earth, wolves and cougars populated the forest, chasing after deer for supper.
Though European settlers of the eighteenth century created the earliest written accounts we have today, Native Americans had been living in the region for thousands of years. The Seneca Nation appears to have had the most prominent and recent role in the region, having dictated relocation of others tribes into the area before Europeans showed up with their gunpowder and flimsy treaties.
The forest received protection in 1923 following a string of purchases by the federal government to establish National Forests. Early and industrial Americans had tarnished the land so greatly, residents called it the “Allegheny Brush-patch.” There were concerns the forest would never reach its original glory. Thankfully it seems the forest has, indeed, recovered substantially thanks to the many protections against human interference, such as logging and mining, though drilling has resumed after a number of court challenges. (Basically it was determined that the federal government may own the forest, but not a damn thing underneath it, so private companies can drill as they please.)
Despite growing up relatively nearby in Northeast Ohio, I constantly have to remind myself how positively alluring the Pennsylvania wilderness is. Perhaps, too, I was subconsciously looking for an excuse to further my Pennsylvanian explorations after a recent Amtrak ride through the southern edge of the state en route to Washington D.C. The endless rolling hills and forests were begging to be hiked.
The rest was all Jarret. He got us to Willow Bay with the intention of finding our way to the North Country Trail for a hike along the Allegheny River Reservoir. His map showed a number of junctions where we could extend the hike as we wished in order to match or surpass twenty miles.
Why twenty miles? Jarret had recently set a personal record of nineteen miles on a single hike during a trip to the Hocking Hills of southern Ohio. This corner of the Allegheny National Forest certainly had enough trails for him to beat his record, so why not give it a go? I for one had never considered what my personal best was—maybe twelve?—but twenty would absolutely prove to be a personal achievement.
“A GAZILLION MILES PER HOUR”
Directions out of the campground weren’t exactly clear. We wandered a bit with our daypacks full of food to get us through the hike, asking some passersby if they had any idea where the North Country Trail starts. Most, to my surprise, admitted they had never hiked in the area before. One woman, early sixties with short gray hair, proved a little more helpful. She had a tee shirt on with the park management’s logo and shared she started working there a couple of weeks earlier.
“Just go up this road and out of the campground,” she offered. “You’ll see a sign giving you a heads up about the trailhead not more than a couple thousand feet away. I just walked by there myself to go to the store.”
“Okay, we just thought there’d be a way to get there from the campground,” Jarret admitted.
“I know! Right? I mean, there is a little lot where you can park if you want.”
“What’s another half-mile or so when you’re already planning on twenty?” Jarret offered.
“Well, you get so many people today who hear ‘quarter of a mile’ and get all flustered. ‘What!? That far!?'” she mocked to my amusement. Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me whenever I witness the horrified expression of someone who has discovered they need to walk further than the distance between their garage door and their car.
We proceeded with her instructions, heading up to Washington Street where we were told we’d find the trailhead.
Now I have to ask: does Washington Street need to have a speed limit that’s a gazillion miles per hour? I mean, it sure seemed like the speed limit was a gazillion miles per hour the way those passing trucks and cars created their own gust of wind as they passed us by. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to put a popular trailhead off the side of the road, maybe the speed limit shouldn’t be a gazillion miles per hour.
That said, the trailhead did indeed present itself rather noticeably on the southern side of Washington Street complete with a sign and wooden steps to help hikers over the guardrail (though I couldn’t help but wonder if someone should be hiking the North Country Trail if they needed help getting through an obstacle shorter than many of the fallen trees that we’d later find blocking the path).
“YOU BE YOU, ALLEGHENY”
The North Country Trail and its offshoots can be easily and summarily described as such: primitive with stones and roots jutting out from the ground; tall trees whose green leaves provided consistent shade throughout; and generally forgiving with only a handful of sharp declines or ascents. There were minimal crossings over streams, and even calling what we traversed a “stream” is incredibly generous. I chalked it up to the dry summer we’ve all been having in this corner of the U.S.
The Allegheny Reservoir makes its first appearance about five miles into the hike. My first thought was, “Yep. That looks man-made.” There was an eerie stillness to the water unlike its more natural counterparts, but that didn’t stop folks from taking it over with their speedboats and fishing rods. And at twenty-four miles long covering about twenty-one thousand acres at its peak, its presence is commanding.
I definitely don’t want to be dropped in the middle of that thing, I randomly thought.
Our only mutual complaint the entire hike was the misleading camera icon at a number of points on the map. This indicated to us that we’d see something worth taking a picture. A dramatic vista, earth-pounding waterfalls, or maybe even something related to the forest’s Native American history.
Nada. Not even an interesting rock formation. For all intents and purposes, everything looked the same as the step before. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Sometimes a hiking trail is best as a trail with no distracting fluff; something where a hiker can let their mind wander a bit. So why the need for false advertisement? You’ve already got a good thing going on! We wouldn’t have thought anything of it had the map not told us to get our cameras ready. I mean, I don’t tell people I’ve scaled Everest or swam with crocodiles to make myself seem more interesting. People will find out and be disappointed when you don’t match that high bar. You be you, Allegheny.
(As always, I leave open the possibility that I’m a dullard who missed something astonishing right in front of my stupid face.)
JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
In all, the Allegheny National Forest delivered precisely what the doctor ordered: fresh air, a peaceful environment (we couldn’t hear so much as a buzz of a motor for about ninety percent of the hike), and aching muscles that let me know I’ve sufficiently challenged my body. (I could’ve done without the aching toe, however, a result of my bashing my feet into the various rocks and roots along the path. I must have tripped fifty times, so much so that any onlooker might wonder if I get some kind of thrill out of making myself look incompetent.)
Not only did we match twenty miles, but we blew right by it—topping off at just a hair under twenty-five miles. That water waiting in Jarret’s cooler tasted like heaven. I made the mistake in thinking there would be points to fill up on water throughout. Wrong. Had it not been for that last apple I packed, in which I ate it only to suck the water out of it, it’s entirely possible I’d still be out there.
Most daunting of all was looking at my recorded hike in the aftermath. You couldn’t even call what I did scratching the surface of the mighty Allegheny National Forest. Ironically the blue line that represents my hike looks like something of a hangman’s noose coming off New York and into Pennsylvania. I hope there’s not an applicable metaphor there.