Pine Creek Gorge, in northeastern Pennsylvania, was hollowed out by glaciers about 13 000 years ago. These days, the action here is more of a recreational nature, as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, as it is called, is a mecca for biking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, backpacking and general recreating. A 30-mile long hiking trail was built outlining the western rim above the gorge: the West Rim Trail. From certain spots on the West Rim Trail you can see Pine Creek a thousand feet below. It is a pulchritudinous trail and boasts some of the best views in my home state.
To set up a one-way trail hike, you park your car at the outfitters at the northern terminus and arrange for them to shuttle you down to the southern end. Then you take three days and walk back to your car. Neat.
Chuck Dillon is the owner of the outfitters. He has arranged for his crew to not only drive you around, but also to outfit you with whatever kinds of gear you might need. As my group of half a dozen hikers approaches, Chuck is behind the counter, smiling.
Chuck’s son and daughter, who are also part of the operation, are hanging around too. We’re all chatting away. Idly, I ask if anyone else had gotten on the hiking trail that morning or yesterday. I was wondering if we might run into other hikers.
“Yeah, a family of four biked down there this morning and will be getting on the hiking trail later today.”
Our ears perk up. “Family? Does that mean kids?”
“Yeah, I think there were a couple kids with them.”
“Aarggh,” we think. Kids, like dogs, are not always the best trail companions. They might be a bit unruly, uprooting stuff, making noise, smelling your crotch… And the dogs are worse.
But what the heck, we might not even see them. The woods is a big place. No sense standing around speculating. Let’s get started. The outfitter son drives us in the van from the northern terminus to the southern, so we can get things going.
Today has been a day of intermittent rain and it remains such during our shuttle ride. By the time we arrive at the parking area at the southern terminus, the rain has become steady. The sky is dark and continuous large anvil-like gray clouds make their way from one horizon to the other. We stand in the lot in a heavy drizzle, staring at the mountain where the first leg of the hiking trail is laid out. Our driver tells us that this steep uphill climb goes in about two miles. Then he just shakes his head.
The rain continues, the air holding the promise of lots more where this is coming from. Meanwhile, we notice a bedraggled man wearing a poncho that looks like a trench coat wandering around the parking lot, shoulder-length straggly hair hanging out from under his hat. We can’t tell if he is someone with bad intent, or just a guy. Soon, one of our hikers strikes up a conversation with him. Seems that he, along with his family who are currently huddled under an inadequately sized overhang at the public latrine at that end of the parking lot right over there, had bicycled down to this trailhead this morning and were planning to hike the trail back to the northern terminus. The shuttle left an hour ago taking their bikes with it to the outfitters. The rain has been falling ever since. They have been trying to decide whether a thunderstorm was going to break. Should they climb the long uphill in the rain or should they hope for some kind of marvelous stroke of fate that will rescue them?
When it comes to the weather, there is never enough information to make the right decision. Getting up that mountain and making camp in a thunderstorm could be very unpleasant business. On the other hand, there is nothing else for them to do. So they wait.
Then we come along. We are that marvelous stroke of fate.
This is the family Chuck told us about, who planned to hike the West Rim Trail. They are Dave, the derelict, and huddled at the privy, his wife, his son and a friend of the family. We spend a couple of minutes in the rain, talking, occasionally looking up, alternately at the sky and at the mountain. We are all waiting to see which one will change first.
Some big ole ugly clouds roll on through. There is even a bit of lightning. While I have been caught hiking in electrical storms, I have never started a hike in one. That would be dumb. We wait for the lightning to either kick in or stop all together — then we can make a good decision. The pesky weather doesn’t seem to want to commit.
Actually we can’t say that the weather doesn’t want to commit. The weather doesn’t want to do anything. It doesn’t give a hoot. It’s weather. We’re stuck with trying not to make a bad decision concerning the weather, which is a crap shoot. Even good predictions about the weather are risky.
We wait some more.
By now, we’ve got a lively discussion going with Dave. “Oh, you’re from York, eh? Kenn has a friend who lives in York. This is a long shot, but have you ever bumped into a guy named Perelman?”
“Perelman? Sure,” Dave says. “He is a patient in my practice. I’m not his doctor, but he sees one of my partners.”
(“You’re a doctor?”)
“How’s he doing?” I ask. I’m not asking for a medical report, just general stuff, so there’s no problem with confidentiality. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“He’s pretty healthy, I guess. We don’t see him very often either.”
All great fun. But we are still faced with the decision of whether to hit the trail, or ride the van back to our cars. The outfitter son is being very patient waiting for us to make our decision, but sooner or later he will have to get back to the store. Once he leaves, if we’re not with him, we are committed to getting on the trail and to whatever storm or no storm may descend upon us. Finally, one of our hikers says, “If only we could have some kind of sign. Will it blow over or are we in for a shitstorm?”
At which point, unlikely as it is, and this is truly true, a very loud, very scary thunderclap crashes right over our heads. You never saw a dozen hopeful backpackers jump into a van so quickly.
Both groups are smooshed into the vehicle, the engine starts and we are on our way back up to the northern trailhead. Arriving again at the outfitters, we pile into our respective vehicles and drive a couple miles up the road to a hotel which is recommended to us because the insides are dry. Rather than trailside camp food, we sup at a seafood buffet in the dining room while it thunderstorms outside. We are dry during dinner, much more comfy than had we been at camp.
After dinner, the sky clears. We see Dave and his wife Marilyn and the teenagers and invite them to lounge at the pool with us, and to sip a few margaritas. In no time at all, we feel as if we have known each other for years. We share hiking stories, political views, personal stories and more tales of this and that.
The next morning, Dave and I scour the map to see how we can still do the hike on our shortened time allotment. A trailhead several miles in from the southern terminus will allow us to do most of the trail, and it will fit neatly into our schedules. We shuttle to our new trailhead together…
…and we hike together for the next three days as if we had it planned all along. Lots of talk, word games, breathing the good air, relaxing. It is endless fun to mercilessly tease the Republican in our group.
Someone comments that Dave and I take to each other like brothers. That’s kinda how I feel. I even tell them the story of Sophie Labowitz.
This hatches an idea, a plan. Even though Perelman is in good health, he will eventually need a checkup. Everyone at Dave’s practice, the technicians, the nurses, the doctors, all are prepared for when Perelman might make his next appearance. While he would be in the waiting room, the office person would announce for the next patient, “Ms Labowitz? Sophie Labowitz?” Perelman, or course, would be thinking in amazement, “What a coincidence.”
Then Perelman would be invited into one of the exam rooms. As he would enter, there on the table, in her glass vial, would be Sophie. We giggled in anticipation.
On the third and final day of our backpacking trip on the West Rim Trail, the storm comes back. Or maybe it’s a whole new storm. Can’t tell, doesn’t matter, it’s a storm. The lightning flashes, the thunder booms and the rain rains. We’ve got a few miles left to hike. The closer we come to trailhead, the closer the heart of the storm comes to us.
Our final mile is in the raging thunderstorm. Then the mother of all lightning flashes/thunder claps blasts us so close, I’m surprised it doesn’t fry us. We are staggered by the noise, scaring us nearly senseless. When we calm down and are all accounted for, one of our hikers, amidst the tentative, embarrassed laughter, makes the only comment. “Good thing I used the latrine at camp this morning!”