It ended with a search-and-rescue.
It’s so embarrassing that I haven’t had the courage to talk about it until now, 17 years later.
It wasn’t a legitimate search-and-rescue, where someone is significantly injured, no…
It was the kind of search-and-rescue that occurs when people are stupid and unprepared, the kind you read about and think “Those people are idiots!”
We simply lost Dave… he just… disappeared.
Just vanished, as if the Blair Witch had taken him.
We waited for hours, backtracked for miles.
When we reached the road, we knew he was gone.
We had no choice but to get help.
It was my second summer out of high school and I was 19 years old. I’d never been backpacking before. I’d never even gone camping before – never slept in a tent – but I knew that I wanted more than anything to hike the Appalachian Trail. I wanted every step of it from Georgia to Maine.
I lived in Pennsylvania where the trail was a mere 30-minute drive from home. In the summer after my senior year, my friends Zach and Mike spent a couple nights backpacking (Without me, I didn’t have any gear yet). So the following year I talked Mike into doing another trip. Zach declined but our friend Dave was enthusiastic about it.
I’d been keeping my desire to hike the entire Trail a secret, but I began acquiring gear with the Big Trip in mind.. I got myself the popular Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight tent and a fancy $300 Gregory Shasta backpack. I got Raichle boots (The ones my friends had, from the local “Army & Navy” store) and an assortment of items from the local outfitters.
We had some neat stuff in addition to the absolute necessities. We had a snake bite kit, designed to suck the venom from below your skin. It would pull the venom out before the poison had a chance to work its way into your bloodstream – very important, yep. Don’t leave home without one.
Mike may or may not have carried a real firearm pistol too. His dad worked as a guard at the local prison, and I think it was his influence that insisted upon it.
We had little orange shovels to dig what the gritty outdoorsmen called a “cathole.” We were to squat above such holes and bury our shit into them. We were going to shit in the woods. Rough, woods-shitting men we’d be.
We thought we were ready.
We were wrong.
We’d dabbled in some day-hiking excursions over the previous few years, occasional encountering the smelly thru-hikers. They were like gods to me.
Once at Bake Oven Knob Shelter we met a hiker who told us there was a “spring” down the hill. Wide-eyed and naive, we thought this spring would surely be something to see. Mountain springs, like they show on the bottled water commercials! Awesome!
The hiker who told us about the spring also warned us about some “unsavory characters” down there. We went to check out the spring anyway, despite the warning. We only discovered some nasty mud puddles. There were no picturesque fountains like the commercials, and not a soul to be seen… no unsavory characters. The phrase “unsavory character” became a running punchline of ours for years to come.
Later on a day hike to Allentown Shelter we met a solo old man, already stopped for the day in the early afternoon. We were the annoying kids asking the 20 questions about thru-hiking – where do you get food, how many miles do you do, etc. He’d started the trail in Georgia on January 1st. He intended not only to hike from Georgia to Maine, but to turn around in Maine and hike all the way back to Georgia! I think his trail name was Albatross?
For my first backpacking trip we decided to go big. We were young and fit, and had heard plenty of accounts of hikers doing 15 or even over 20 miles a day, every day. We planned a one-way trip over the course of five days with a handful of long days toward the end of the trip. Crank up the mileage after we get broken-in over the first few days, we thought.
We shuttled my car to what would be the far end of our trip, in south-central Pennsylvania. We drove to the trailhead at Hawk Mountain Road the next morning to get started.
It was mid-summer, and that morning there was a heavy thunderstorm with pouring rain. An uneasy feeling settled over us as we parked the car at the trail. Buckets of rain fell and hammered the vehicle’s roof.
We figured that since we’d opted to live in the great outdoors for the next week that we may as well get started, rain or no rain. Best to get used to it now, we thought.
And there you have our first mistake.
It was incredibly stupid of us to start out in the middle of that storm. We were drenched in mere seconds. The storm was intense with thunder crashing all around us. The trail was a river of mud. Our so-called waterproof boots didn’t stand a chance.
The blisters began to form almost immediately.
We were hiking for less than an hour – probably even less than 30 minutes – when the storm abruptly quit. We were soaked from head to toe and the damage was done.
After a few miles we arrived at The Pinnacle, often referred to as the best view on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. I’d never been there before and was certainly excited to see it, but the view was mostly socked in with clouds.
Welcome to the Appalachian Trail
A couple of copperheads snakes were nestled in the rocks, the first venomous snakes I’d ever seen in the wild. They didn’t bother us, and we didn’t bother them… but thank goodness we had our handy snake-bite extractor! Whew!
We moved on to the next overlook called Pulpit Rock, now in some more familiar territory. We’d been here on day hikes in the past. The weather remained humid throughout the day, but at least it wasn’t raining anymore.
We descended from there to the first shelter of our trip at Windsor Furnace. It was tempting to spend the night there. We were still wet, exhausted, and developing nasty blisters over the relentless Pennsylvania rocks.
At that point we’d only done nine miles for the day. Our itinerary called for us to do three more miles on this first day, an “easy” day. We sucked it up and trudged on.
Finally we arrived at the Pocahontas Spring, our pre-ordained destination. Mike and I got there okay but Dave was a long way behind. We waited for what felt like an age and even grew a little concerned, but eventually he showed up.
We set up camp and had a relatively pleasant evening in good spirits. We did the best we could to hang our food up in a tree. You know, to keep it away from bears. We were successful in this, but not without breaking off a sizable limb in the process. I suppose it takes a strong tree branch to accommodate three 60-pound backpacks… who woulda thought?
Maybe instead of shitting gracefully in the woods (Like tough mountain men), we were front stage performers in a bona-fide Shit Show? Nah. Impossible.
It would be my first time sleeping in a tent… ever.
It rained all night.
The next day we got started as best we could. Lots of stuff was wet. We followed the trail for four miles until it descends to the sleepy town of Port Clinton. The descent was murder and wreaked havoc on my knees and blisters. I can only imagine how the others felt.
Still, there was a flat section approaching town that was exceedingly pleasant along the Schuylkill River. Port Clinton is a quiet place with no services, and we simply moved on through town.
If the descent into town was murder, then the climb out of it was a holocaust. It was steep and sweaty and more challenging than any of us had imagined. Dave seemed half-dead, wasn’t saying much, and seemed to have entered an internal sort of hell.
We staggered into Eagle’s Nest Shelter at sunset that night with just 12 miles behind us. The shelter was full, so we were forced to set up our wet tents in the gathering darkness. The campsites were soaked and muddy from last night’s rain, but they were our only choice.
There were more violent storms that night. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked. I feared being struck, and nobody slept. Those in the shelter howled like wolves in the middle of the night, energized by the storm. I think we considered running in there at one point, but simply hunkered down instead.
Rain continued into the following morning and I remember feeling miserable. Everything was soaked. The hard rain caused balls of mud to shoot up off the ground on impact, caking my tent, backpack, and shoes in a layer of sludge.
Eventually we packed up and pressed on.
The 501 Shelter was our intended destination for the night, a daunting 15 miles away.
After about six miles we reached a paved road, PA183, and waited for Dave. We had a nice break near the road and continued on together past the Fort Dietrich Snyder marker. We all agreed to meet up and regroup (AKA wait for Dave) at the Hertlein Campsite for lunch, about 3 miles farther along the trail. Regrouping at designated landmarks had become the routine.
Mike pressed on ahead, and I followed as best as I could. The day was hot and humid, the hottest of the trip. The rocks never ended, my knees hurt, and my feet were screaming. Again, I can only imagine how the others felt.
I caught up with Mike at Hertlein and there were several campsites. There was even a small dam with a deep pond behind it. A fun-sounding rope swing was in place, and we heard local campers splashing into the water and screaming with delight.
Mike and I sat in the shade and waited. An hour went by. Two hours. Dave had been behind us for most of the trip, but this was getting ridiculous. Where was he? We came up with several scenarios. Maybe he got hurt. Maybe he got lost. Maybe he gave up and turned back to the road. Maybe he passed us here? Impossible, we were watching out for him.
We were exhausted, hurting, and had no desire to retrace our steps to look for him. After enough time passed, it became clear that that’s exactly what we would have to do. We shouldered our packs and went back.
We had a bad feeling about this, and with every step it just grew worse and worse. We encountered a hiker going in the opposite direction, and he hadn’t seen a soul. Not good.
We came to the road, and still there was no Dave. It was basically the last place we’d seen him. We were dumbfounded. He hadn’t caught up with us. He wasn’t in the last place we saw him, or anywhere in between. What happened? It was as if he just up and vanished.
We stayed there for another hour or two, considering the situation and hoping that he would magically pop out of the woods. He never came.
We were left with three choices:
- Continue to retrace our steps to where we stayed last night. No, he wouldn’t have gone back that way. Besides, we were exhausted.
- Turn around and go back up to the Hertlein Campsite, walking the same stretch of trail for the third time today. No, we’d been up there all afternoon and he hadn’t come that way. No way he could have passed us. Besides, we were exhausted.
- Hitchhike down the road and get help. Maybe something happened and he needed to bail out. Besides, we were exhausted. If we went down the road then we wouldn’t have to hike anymore.
We dejectedly went to the shoulder of the road and stuck out our thumbs, defeated.
A nice old lady picked us up. We’d never hitchhiked before. She took us down the hill, where there was a motel near the interstate.
We got a room, thumbed through the phone book, and called the state police.
We gave a physical description of him, like they do in the movies and on the milk cartons. This had gotten very serious, but what else were we supposed to do?
Maybe it was us that got in touch with his parents, or maybe it was the police. I remember that Mike and I argued for some time over which one of us would have to make the call. My memory is foggy on it, but I think I was the one who called the police, so I talked Mike into being the one to call his parents.
We skipped calling our own parents. They didn’t need to know.
There was nothing to do now but wait. We took our turns showering and getting cleaned up, feeling guilty about doing so when Dave was likely still out there somewhere, terrified.
Eventually an officer showed up at our room. He took us back up to the trailhead at Route 183, where the guy in charge wanted to get some more details from us.
We were embarrassingly alarmed to discover that the trailhead had now become the headquarters of a rather elaborate search. It was now dusk, and the man in charge told us that there were four search teams out. One had started from the trailhead where we stood. Another started from the opposite end of the trail at Route 501. There’s also a perpendicular pipeline track that crosses the trail and the mountain ridge. They had two teams going up that as well – one up each side. All had flashlights and were presumably yelling “David!”
The officer took us back to the room and we waited.
Later that evening we got the call that they found him.
He was comfortably camped and set up for the night at the Hertlein Campsite. “At the place where you were supposed to meet him,” the man on the phone said.
The tone of his voice said something else entirely, of course.
It said “You kids are fucking idiots.”
Dave’s parents drove out to meet us the following morning. He hiked out to the 183 that morning, over the stretch of trail that Mike and I covered twice.
What had happened was that Dave DID pass us. How we missed each other we’ll never know. He said he got to Hertlein and didn’t see us. He assumed that we must have pressed on without him, because we had so many miles to do that day. He made it all the way to the next shelter at 501. We still weren’t there at 501, and he hadn’t talked to anyone who’d seen us, so he turned around and went all the way back to Hertlein. In the dark.
Mike and I had left Hertlein by the time he got back there. Dave was rightly scared by then too, wondering what the hell had happened to US. He met a group of other campers there. They fixed him up with a tarp for the night, since he didn’t have the tent.
He’d amazingly done over twenty miles that day… 20.5, to be exact.
So we all met up that morning, drove out to pick up my car, and headed home. We picked it up at what was supposed to be at the far end of our epic backpacking trip. It sure was epic, but certainly not in the way we intended.
I remained determined to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and went on my next backpacking trip only a few short months later. This time I’d go solo… nobody to get separated from, I suppose.
To this day I still get nervous when a backpacking partner proposes that we split the group, even for a short duration.
I suppose the right thing for us to do was to go back to Hertlein, because that’s where Dave ended up. I think we acted rationally, but our premise was wrong in that we thought it was impossible for him to have passed us. We should have been more mindful of positioning ourselves near Hertlein at a place where his approach absolutely could not have been missed.
What do you think is the lesson here?