“The miles won’t walk themselves.” “The miles won’t walk themselves.” I kept hearing this in my head like an alarm clock. Eventually, I succumbed to the voice, quietly packed up my belongings and hit the trail. Being the first one out of camp, I was sorry that I didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to Fake News and Priestess, but I felt certain that I would see them again soon.
Although I had done a lot of hiking yesterday, less than seven of my miles had been A.T. miles, so I felt the need to do a big day to make up for lost ground. The trail out of camp was flat and smooth and in seemingly no time I found myself in Gathland State Park at Compton Gap. A few days ago, when I was visiting Antietam National Battlefield, a ranger had pointed out South Mountain on the horizon as the site of an important battle prior to the Battle of Antietam. At the time, I didn’t realize that I would actually be walking across South Mountain on the A.T.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in September of 1862, had divided his Army of Northern Virginia in the hopes of capturing the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. A copy of those orders, the famous Lost Orders, were found in an abandoned campsite near Fredrick, wrapped around three cigars in an envelope. General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, received that copy of those orders on September 13th and quickly acted on the information in a way that was uncharacteristic of him at any time in his past (or future) career. McClellan ordered troops through Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain to defend Harpers Ferry, while Lee sent troops to stop him. Badly outnumbered, the Confederates lost the Battle of South Mountain but were able to stall the Union army long enough for Lee to capture Harpers Ferry, reconsolidate his army, and set up defensive positions for the Battle of Antietam.
Once again, I was standing on hallowed ground. In addition to the South Mountain State Battlefield, Gathland State Park also features the War Correspondent’s Arch. This monument, built in 1896, stands 50 feet tall and is dedicated to Civil War Correspondents. Probably more important to hikers though is that the state park has restrooms and a water spigot.
After leaving Gathland State Park, the trail begins an 800 foot climb to White Rock Cliff. My reward for that sweaty climb was to discover that the view was blocked by a half dozen day hikers who had beat me to the top. Continuing back down the other side of the mountain, I arrived at Fox Gap and the Reno Monument. This monument marks the spot where Major General Jesse Reno, a career Union soldier, was mistakenly shot during the Battle of South Mountain by one of his own men who mistook him for a Rebel in the fading light of dusk. When transported to the command post, he famously told Brig. Gen. Sturgill, “I’m dead” and he died a few minutes later. Ironically, Reno and Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson were close friends when they were classmates at West Point.
Just past the Reno Monument is the Dahlgren Backpack Campground. A couple of women who had thru-hiked last year were offering trail magic there, but I thanked them and declined their offer since I was carrying a ton of food (and because they had a couple of Pitbulls). I did eat lunch there though, to lower my pack weight.
Passing through Turners Gap, the last of the three Gaps involved in the Battle of South Mountain, I arrived at Washington Monument State Park. After visiting the conveniently located restrooms and taking on water, I climbed the hill to visit the monument. Built by the citizens of Boonsboro, MD, in 1827, this is the first monument in the country to be dedicated to George Washington. Through the years, weather and vandalism reduced the original structure to rubble until it was reconstructed in its present form by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. Two years ago, some hikers took refuge in the tower during a thunderstorm and they were seriously injured when the structure was hit by lightning.
One of the most interesting things about the A.T. is the diversity of the terrain through which it passes. But today, I believe, was the first time I remember going through someone’s back yard. When approaching I-70, the A.T. is routed through a residential neighborhood and drops down a ditch that is adjacent to a home. The people who live there must have seen some interesting characters pass by over the years. Just past the backyard is the picturesque I-70 overpass. When I initially arrived there, a couple with two young boys were standing in the middle of the overpass and the boys were delighted at their success in getting the truckers to blow their horns. I had to wait a while for them to clear out before I could take my iconic picture of the overpass.
If you happen to live in this part of Maryland and want a taste of what it would be like to hike the A.T., just park at the trailhead parking on US 40 and make the climb to Pine Knob Shelter. Once you get past this rocky aerobic exercise, the trail uncharacteristically flattens out and becomes as wide as a road. It is a good thing that it was wide because there were dozens of day hikers coming down from Annapolis Rocks.
Annapolis Rocks has 24 campsites, two privies, a spring, and an onsite caretaker. When I checked in with the caretaker, I was delighted to find out the day hikers had left the area and that there was only one couple sharing the camping area with me. Although my campsite was a little small, it was immaculately clean and surrounded by lovely blooming mountain laurel.
I have seldom seen a nice sunrise or sunset on the trail because most shelters are located deep in a valley near a spring. So tonight I was looking forward to watching the sun go down from Annapolis Rocks. About 30 minutes before sundown I made my way down to the cliffs and took my position to wait for the colors to appear. Several minutes later, a couple of incessantly chatty young girls walked up and parked their butts right in front of me. In lieu of a long prison sentence for tossing them off the cliff, I backed down a bit until they were masked by the rocks and got a pretty nice picture.