Harpers Ferry: A Confluence Of Rivers, Hikers And Bikers

By the time they show up, they’ve hiked about 1,000 miles.

“This is the psychological halfway point,” says Lauren Post. Thru-hikers might meet Post, an information assistant at the Appalachian Trail Conference headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., a couple of miles from the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

Like Yogi Bear to a picnic, they come to the white and brick building laced with ivy at the corner of Storer College Place and Washington Street. But first they must get through Pennsylvania, a place many a hiker and biker have bemoaned for hills. Though the etymology may be off, there’s a chance that Pennsylvania is really a Greek word meaning “another diner at the top of another freakin’ hill.”

That’s not gospel, you know. Pennsylvania does have its flat spots among the miles of corn and soybean fields and dairy farms. It also has its mountains, such as South Mountain, in the southern part of the state. Whitetail deer are spotted frequently in the Michaux State Forest where hikers, bikers and hunters all use the land, speckled in colors of yellow and orange.

In it is a general store that has a story to tell. It’s the Pine Grove Furnace General Store. Though it was closed, outside was John Crider, a 71-year-old retiree from Lancaster County who has a hunting camp nearby. He’s no thru-hiker, but he likes walking the Appalachian Trail and meeting the travelers who frequent the store in summer.

Store Is Halfway Point Of AT
The store is the approximate halfway point on the trail, which the ATC says runs 2,167.1 miles this year. When hikers get there, they can try to join the Half-Gallon Club. Admission is pretty simple. Eat a half-gallon of ice cream. Think about it. Out in the woods for 1,000 miles. Now throw in 64 ounces of frozen dairy. Some stomachs may not appreciate any flavor. Crider reads the log book in the store and he says not every hiker who has tried it makes it. Good thing the store was closed.

Cross the Mason-Dixon Line and enter Maryland. Goodbye North. Hello South … grits, okra. Though grits and okra haven’t passed these lips yet, rebel flags do fly in the wind not too far from the banks of the Potomac and its miles of heaven — the towpath.

Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, is home to the Appalachian Mountain Club managed Bascom Lodge. Travelers of all sorts call it home for a night.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal runs along the Potomac from Cumberland, Md., to outside Washington, D.C. For 184 miles, bikers and runners can enjoy the dirt and gravel path. Many water sources, services and campsites can be found along or near its length. For 40 miles (well, a little more if you count the wrong turn), it was the path on an autumn Sunday. Families rode bikes to picnics. Anglers plied the waters and equestrians ambled by. The entire route would be an excellent journey unto itself.

This was a slice of paradise, a ride along America’s past. Though Maryland constituted only 66 miles of this trip, more than half of the miles were dirt. A footbridge over the river leads to West Virginia and Harpers Ferry. Tourists explore the town’s past. Rich in history, men such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, abolitionist John Brown and explorer Meriweather Lewis all passed through the town.

AT Headquarters Has Much To Offer
So does the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the footbridge and about a mile down a street in the historical park. Mecca is nearby in the form of the Appalachian Trail Conference headquarters, which oversees the entire AT. There, get the nickel tour by a volunteer like Wendell Ogden. Hikers have a scale in the restroom to weight themselves and gear. You can also: drink from the water cooler; sit at the hiker’s table and register your hike; rummage through the exchange box for ramen noodles or a water bottle; read books and magazines in the hiker’s lounge; get your photo taken. When you finish the trail, you can send in your photo and be on the hero’s wall for a year. I asked Ogden for some West Virginia back roads to cycle.

You also can get the lowdown on thru-hiker numbers. This year some 2,900 hikers started out northbound — the most popular way — from Springer Mountain, Ga. So far, 764 made it to Harpers Ferry. Completion rate of the trail is between 13 percent and 16 percent. About 20 percent of northbound hikers drop out by the 30-mile mark.

The trail, which some 4 million people use annually according to the ATC, is growing in popularity for people who want to do it end-to-end. In 1993, there were 1,000 who set out. By 1998, there were about 1,875 to try it and now it?s 2,900.

But for all the years the ATC has been keeping records, 5,482 have completed the entire trail as of late September.

That’s a lot of ice cream.

Marty Basch is riding his bicycle from Maine to Georgia, using the Appalachian Trail as a guide. He can be reached at [email protected].

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