Dream called from Wingap, Pennsylvania. That was the first I'd spoken with him since our visit on the 4th of July weekend. He and RickRock left the Mech's home around 2 o'clock. A friend gave them a ride back to the point on the trail where they had departed earlier. They hiked until 9 o'clock that night, in record heat of 102 degrees.
With record degree temperatures, I knew that hiking through Pennsylvania would be difficult. But Dream said the most difficult encounter he'd had so far was shaving a nine-day beard with a disposable razor that he'd already used twice. As he does so often, he made me laugh. Then he told me about the rocks at Lehigh Gap.
Imagine a riverbed of stones, bleached white or ghostly gray, pebbles small enough to skim across a pond, rocks so big you'd need two hands to hold them, boulders so massive the only way to traverse them is to crawl hand over hand. This is the litter left behind by glaciers that made their own thru-hike eons ago. The area would freeze, then thaw, then freeze, then thaw, splintering rocks, jamming them into the earth at odd angles so that their razor sharp edges make a riverbed seem like a mine field. Now imagine all of these pebbles, rocks, and boulders stretched in a seemingly endless path, sunbaked for days. See the blistering heat shimmering in the distance.
The Pennsylvania section of the AT stretches for 223 miles. Not all of it fits that description, just the portion between Duncannon and Delaware Water Gap, but that's 145.8 miles. Somewhere along that stretch, RickRock turned to Dream and asked, "What was that noise?" Dream replied, "The sound of your boots wearing out."
Unlike the summer of 1998 when the effects of El Nino and La Nina drenched the area and thru-hikers boasted that they "swam" the AT, the summer of 1999 is dry. Water is not as plentiful as it has been. Reports from southbound hikers are not encouraging.
The record heat is slowing down most hikers. Dream and RickRock went from hiking 18 miles one day to 17 miles the next day to 15 miles the day after that.
The only place where Dream has felt something close to fear was Lehigh Gap. Prior to that point, the trail runs through a semiwooded area-nature's way, perhaps, of preparing hikers for another stretch without shade. From there, the trail elevates quickly in what hikers describe as "an up," in this case a serious "up."
The trail runs along the side of a cliff at a slight diagonal slant. The only way to proceed is by climbing hand over hand. Dream threw his hiking poles overhead and gripped the rocks with his bare hands. He took a deep breath, drew one knee up to his chest, and braced his foot against the wall of the cliff. He worried that he wouldn't have the strength to hoist himself up. His pack still weighed a good forty pounds. Failure could mean a fall of over 1,000 feet.
RickRock, who had already made it to the top, cheered Dream on. Though he had to try three times, he eventually did make it.
As Dream was congratulating himself, he noticed Samantha bounding up on all fours. Samantha is a dog. Dream estimated her weight at about 75 pounds. She, too, carried a pack. Her human, Blue Grass, climbed up behind her. He said she clearly had an easier time of it than anyone else.
At the last register in Pennsylvania, Dream left a note: "Thanks, Pennsylvania, for the 223-mile challenge." Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn't stop making rocks at the border.