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Appalachian Trail through-hikers, from left: Conner Powell, Austin Homkes and Jordan Bowman. PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE Appalachian Trail through-hikers, from left: Conner Powell, Austin Homkes and Jordan Bowman. PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE

Bud's View: Near and far

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 by BUD COLE Special to The Press in Focus

Appalachian Trail accessible to Lehigh Valley hikers

Lehigh Valley residents are fortunate that the Appalachian Trail passes through the northern section of the region.

People travel from all over the United States, North America and many foreign countries to hike it, one of the longest continuously marked trails in the world, passing through 14 states over mountains and through valleys from Maine to Georgia.

The trail snakes across the Blue Mountain in an east to west direction. This is a peculiarity since the trail stretches approximately 2,180 miles north to south. I have hiked a few miles of the trail from Lehigh Gap, where the Lehigh River cuts through the Kittatinny Ridge, east to Smith Gap, about midway between Little Gap and Wind Gap.

I've read several books written by "through-hikers," those who hike the entire trail in one year. The books' authors did not motivate me to want to duplicate their hiking achievements. I was not even tempted when I was a young man.

Trail stories describe terrible blisters, loss of toenails, ill-fitting boots, horrible weather and other nasty conditions. I'm into day hikes. I don't wish to sleep on the ground.

People are drawn to the Appalachian Trail for different reasons, including: escaping the hustle and bustle of city life, reconnecting with nature, deepening old friendships and making new ones, experiencing a simpler life, and contemplating life changes.

The Appalachian Trail annually attracts three million hikers. About 1,800 attempt through-hikes each year. A low percentage complete the goal.

The Appalachian Trail, part of the National Park System, was completed in 1937. Thousands of volunteers contribute an estimated 220,000 hours each year to maintain the trail.

The trail portion that winds along the top of the northern section of the Lehigh Valley is maintained by the Philadelphia Hiking Club. Hikers use more than 250 three-sided backcountry shelters along the trail. There are hostels and other lodging along and near the trail. A former iron master's mansion is a hostel in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Cumberland County.

I recently visited the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace, about two miles from the midway point of the trail between Georgia and Maine. It is in a former grist mill that dates back more than 200 years.

Exhibits include those about the early founders of the trail: Benton Mackaye and Myron Avery, and some of the first through-hikers: Gene Espy, Ed Garvey, Grandma Gatewood and Earl Shaffer. One of Shaffer's three-sided shelters has been reconstructed. There is hiking equipment, photos and information. Museum docents Rayne and Roy Debski volunteered during my visit.

The museum is across the road from Pine Grove General Store. The store is steeped in trail lore. It's said that through-hikers celebrate reaching the midpoint by eating or attempting to eat a half-gallon of ice cream at one sitting.

Three young male through-hikers had hiked eight miles from the Birch Run shelter where they spent the previous night. Each was charging his iPhone at one of the store's outside electric outlets.

Jordan Bowman, of Atlanta, Ga., an English teacher with a Master's in English, began hiking the trail March 8. His trail name is "Yo Teach."

Austin Homkes, a Michigan native majoring in biology and environmental science who graduated from college in January, started hiking the trail March 9. He is a bird enthusiast and recognizes most of the birds and their calls and songs. A yellow flicker feather was stuck in his hat. His trail name is "Birdman."

Conner Powell, of Buffalo, N.Y., a geography and environmental science major who graduated last May from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, began hiking the trail March 12. His trail name is "Lighthouse."

Although each started on different days, they arrived together at the trail midpoint in Pine Grove State Park.

Said Bowman, "I have not met anyone I did not like. One of my main reasons for hiking the AT [Appalachian Trail] is to meet new people. The people who hike the trail seem to be in transition, looking for the next chapter in their life."

Said Homkes, "After four years of college, it's great to have no worries. I'm just working my way toward Maine. No studying and no tests."

Said Powell, "The trail isn't just walking. It's a traveling community of hikers. You meet new people each day."

Although he had started later than Bowman and Homkes, Powell caught up to the other two hikers. He hoped to complete the trail by late July. On his fastest day, he covered 31.7 miles.

If you have not taken advantage of the proximity to the Appalachian Trail, you may want to ride to one of the trailheads and do some hiking. One day, you even may decide to become through-hiker.

That's the way I see it!

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