Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Amos - Trail Dog Extraordinaire


Amos appreciating Seven Mountains Vista

This week has been the week of Amos Moses, the toughest trail dog I’ve ever known. Well, perhaps I’m biased because he’s my Amos, but our experience which started out rocky both figuratively and literally, became only one of awe by the end of this week.

Amos joined me again in Detweiler Run Natural Area and together we hiked rhododendron-lined trail beside the trickling creek, marveled at painted trillium and goldthread in flower (well, at least I did) and navigated moisture-covered rocks. The temps were high and the bugs were prevalent and Amos enjoyed many a drink and splash in the creek. Amos likes nothing better than a good creek or water hole. At home, our neighbors have a pond and every chance he gets he’s trespassing for a dip, returning home with mud up to his pits.

Amos in Detweiler Run Natural Area

Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Goldthread aka canker root (Coptis trifolia)

We started out with smiles, but by the time we were just a handful of miles in, my high spirits dissolved. A storm was coming in, night was soon to fall, and Amos just wanted to stand there and look about. Amos loves to hike, but he is also what I believe to be an avid forest bather. When I lead a forest bathing session, I always stress to folks that it’s not about the destination, rather it’s more important to take in your surroundings with all your senses and if you feel compelled to stop and wonder, do so, if you feel compelled to change directions and wander off trail, do so. That’s Amos’ groove. It is not infrequent for Amos just to stop dead in his tracks on a beloved trail and just stand there for a solid ten minutes. Sometimes he decides its time to turn around or take a side trail. However, as you, my fellow hikers know, this is not really an option on a time-sensitive long-distance hike. So as the skies darkened and the drizzle began to fall, we plunked down right where we were on rocks and roots and still miles short of our destination.

The next day was even worse, probably the toughest day I have had on the trail yet. I was carrying more weight in my pack than I probably ever have thanks to Amos’ wet food, dry food, treats, sleeping bag, water, jacket, paw wax, insect repellent, and tie-out. Yes, he has his own pack, but he can only carry so much.  If there is a an award for the heaviest pack on this trail, I think I am a contender! And he was doing a lot of forest bathing. At first I utilized the time to pick the ticks off of him and me and swat black flies. I did a lot of cajoling, then tugging, then just sitting it out. We made it a whopping 7.5 miles that day.

tunnel with creek underneath route 322 through which the trail passes

On the third day, we crossed underneath Route 322 through a tunnel with a stream running through it and I ducked my head, well, just because I felt I probably should given the ceiling was so low. And when we got to the other side, and I tried to go the wrong way, Amos led us the right way. He would do this repeatedly throughout the week, saving me extra steps and sweat. And then, on Broad Mountain, his time a’wastin’ started wearing off on me. As we hiked along, I took notice of the green new sprigs of needles on the healthy eastern hemlocks beside me and when Amos paused, I took to nibbiling. What a zing of lemony vitamin C goodness that brightened my spirits. 

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) spring growth - delicious to nibble from healthy trees and packed full of vitamin C

With every vista side trail we passed on the trail, Amos, too, insisted that we stop and take in the view. He had his priorities straight. And then somewhere in the midst of the mountain laurel tunnels, it dawned on me. When he paused, he was nervous, taking in his surroundings before moving on farther - he wanted me to lead. So, I gently took his leash, said "let's go!" with enthusiasm, and just kept on walking...and he followed. He has a gentle leader I often use to stifle his pulling, but we soon abandoned this as we no longer had a need for it. I led, he followed, even down steep rocky mountainsides and days later on rock piles on the mountain. When ascending steep climbs, sometimes I led and when I stopped to catch my breath, he stopped too and then took the lead, tugging me the rest of the way up the mountain. 

Amos navigating a rocky scramble

He's bounded over blowdowns in the trail that neither of us were so sure he could clear and then pranced on proudly ahead. With the help of Rosemaries' Rescue Ranch, we rescued Amos two years ago from a kill shelter in West Virginia and when we took him out on his first walks, it was clear he'd never explored the woods (perhaps he'd spent his days in a cage), not knowing how to navigate fallen trees and such. But not only is he gaining confidence out here, so am I. It is a very different thing to hike with a dog, to be responsible for someone other than myself when making the miles and a creature whose well-being relies solely on me. I was excited to bring him out on the trail, but to be honest, filled with anxiety as well. He's tempered my choices in forging on farther when it's nearing the end of the day or in bad weather and as result we both have benefited. I have also learned that hiking with a dog is no different than learning to hike with any other hiking partner. The two of you have to find your flow, that pace that works best for both you and in the end, your experience on the trail is not diminished, nor the same, but heightened. 

Much of my energy this week was devoted to this process with Amos, but let me share with you some of some of the other highlights. Earlier in the week, just before Amos joined me, I marveled at the way in which the forest transformed as I approached Little Flat fire tower in Rothrock State Forest and continued until I descended towards Bear Meadows Road. Here, the forest was dry and filled with species adapted to fire - blueberries, pitch pine, chestnut oak, wild cherry, and wintergreen. The trail was lined with compacted yellowing moss and strewn with dry needles. With the orange blazes and abundant hot sun, I sometimes wondered if I'd stepped onto the Florida Trail. Quite memorable along this portion of trail, too, was the Tom Thwaites memorial. I stopped, left a stone and gave my thanks to his dedication. The inscription on the sign post, a quote from Ed Lawrence MSTA President, was so poignant: "As you crest the next Ridge, listen in the wind for the sound of his voice tangled with the breath of the earth, and hike on."

Trail through Rothrock State Forest

Signpost beside Tom Thwaites Memorial

Amos and I particularly appreciated a campsite near to the Hunter's Path in Poe Valley State Park. This fine campsite was complete with tall eastern hemlocks, their roots lining a trickling clear creek - and speaking of the Florida Trail - I will never take for granted the clear, sparkling, fresh-tasting water of our northern climes after hiking that trail where most water sources were sulfur-tasting and cloudy, filled with sediment, or the color of sweet tea. I am thankful for each spring and mountain stream I cross. We camped here so that I could readily pick-up a package that Scott had dropped at Reed's Gap State Park for me. There, the staff passed the package along to a ranger, who then delivered it to Poe Valley. Knowing that hikers don't always meet the constraints of office hours, the staff had so kindly placed the package outside for me in the event I arrived after hours. It was a long haul down and then back up the side of the mountain to retrieve it, but how wonderful to not have carried that food all week long. A HUGE thank you to Beverly and Josh at Reeds Gap and Ranger Dan Hartley. I will say it again, it takes a village to hike a long distance trail.

Campsite at near the Hunter's Path

We thoroughly enjoyed walking the Penn Central railroad grade and passing through the ominous Poe Paddy tunnel. Amos considered turning back halfway through, but we persevered and wow, what an experience to walk through a mountain rather than over it. The walking was blissful here and it seemed that somewhere along our long hike, spring had truly sprung, the path was so very green with many a tree leafing out overhead. Perhaps it was the oncoming rain adding to the greenness. 

Poe Paddy tunnel on the Penn Central rail trail

Penn Central rail trail

Which mind you, the rain this past week has been an added challenge as well. It rained four out of seven nights this week and on Sunday, Amos and I got drenched. Good lord. What started out as a light rain, turned into a downpour and we struggled so as we hiked "against the grain" over Naked Mountain and Nittany Mountain and whatever other unnamed knobs we clambered over, as we had the day before as well. We ended up on this evening throwing down the tent where we stood and tumbling inside, drying off with the assistance of a square of microfiber and spooning, swaddled in our sleeping bags like two pups in a pile. It rained until two o'clock in the morning that night. The Reichley Bros. logging railroad grade - a troublesome path of medium-sized odd shaped rocks, reminiscent of walking atop a flattened rock wall - is not much fun in rain either, and although fascinating, I don't find it much fun in any weather for long.

Walking the Riechley Bros. logging railroad grade, which the trail revisits periodically

But most every other day and night, the Trail Gods smiled upon us and we just missed the storms - either finding shelter beneath the awning of a building at the right time and place or setting up camp just before the black clouds rolled in. Our camp atop Thick Mountain midweek was particularly pleasant as we nested on its flat top in the cover of drooping eastern hemlock boughs. It may have rained for the evening, but we remained dry and warm and in the morning relished a forest laced with ribbons of fog. And I remind myself, that without this rain, my beloved plants would not flourish nor those creeks I so deeply appreciate flow.

Hittin' the midpoint on the Mid State Trail with Amos

And...I passed the Midpoint near a lean-to in Bald Eagle State Forest. That was a mighty awesome feeling and a little bittersweet. How quickly those miles have passed! It is a reminder to savor the rest all the more. Not long thereafter, I crossed paths with Teresa - the very first backpacker I have encountered of the entire hike. She was out for a section from Hairy John Picnic Area to R.B.Winter State Park, her first journey after a tragic fall, back surgery, and illness, although by her stance and spirits, one sure wouldn't know it! It was a pleasure to meet you Teresa and share stories.

Wise Man, Bot, and House the Cat at the Long Path northern terminus

And now, for the next exciting leg of this journey across Pennsylvania - my fiance, Scott (trail name Wise Man) and my father, Doug (trail name House the Cat) will be joining Amos and I for a good stretch. I am overjoyed to have this sweet company for a good while - my days will be rich! And we will certainly be a crew moving on down the trail, so keep your eyes peeled - likely we'll be hard to miss! 

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Wildest Trail's Wild Weather and Wild Plants

A view from Tussey Ridge

 Wow. What a trek it has been since my last blog posting. Firstly, one of my biggest challenges has been the ever fluctuating weather. I have faced high winds and hail and freezing temperatures, spent several nights grateful for the comfort of my tent in a rainstorm, and lathered on sunscreen while dripping sweat. This is Pennsylvania in April and May, and I was prepared for Mother Nature's mood swings when began this hike, but the reality is always driven home once on the trail. However, through all of these conditions the beauty of the Mid State Trail has persisted and continued to impress me.

Firstly, descending towards Loysburg on a grassy path rife with non-native, albeit delicious, plants such as chickweed, wild and garlic mustard, and naturalized sweet mint, I was most surprised to emerge in a rich cove filled with precious native plants such as wake robin trillium, black cohosh, solomon’s seal, and spring beauty. All of which have a long history of medicinal or edible usage.

Wake robin trillium (Trillium erectum)

Wake robin trillium is a spring ephemeral, which means that when our trees more fully leaf out, we will see this flower no more. There are numerous species of trilliums in these hills for certain, but we can identify this one by its maroon nodding flower. The leaves of trillium are technically edible, however I do not advocate eating. Firstly, this is a native plant not always so readily seen. Secondly, there are so many other plants we could eat! This trillium has been historically used medicinally – it also goes by the name birthroot – but given its preciousness, it is not one that I have experience in harvesting nor utilizing. At first I spotted just a few of these wake robin trillium at a bend in the trail, but as my eyes adjusted, I saw they filled the cove where the land dipped sharply.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginiana)

Spring beauty is a beauty indeed! This dainty flower, also a spring ephemeral, lined the edge of the trail as I descended toward the road. There are two species of spring beauty one many encounter – this one here with narrow leaves (Claytonia virginiana), or the Carolina spring beauty (C. caroliniana) with more spoon-shaped leaves. The corms (underground parts) of spring beauty are edible as are the flowers themselves, however like trillium, I suggest we find other wild foods to enjoy that are not native and precious. Nibble one here and there to get to know this plant better, but please do not make a meal of them.

Maple Run

As I said, my stay in Loysburg was a fine one. Then I ascended the steep mountainside only to dip down into Maple Run, where I was wooed with more special native plants. The trail here is a dream to walk, rolling and picturesque in woods through which Maple Run trickles. I reveled in the majestic eastern hemlock along the waterside, but felt great sorrow to see that these, too, were affected by the wooly adelgid. The adelgid is an aphid, originally from Asia, that infects our eastern hemlock trees and gradually kills them. Most of the hemlock I have seen along the Mid State Trail thus far – but there are pristine untouched patches – have been stricken by this pest.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) - undersides of needles show "egg sacs," a waxy residue the aphid secretes. The aphids both inject a toxin into the tree and suck sap, which causes healthy needles to fall off and make it more difficult for the tree to put on new needles. 

I spied my first bellwort flower of the trip, nodding its flowering face towards the creek and delighted in the many yellow violets I spied throughout the forest, some mixed in with blue violets. Rattlesnake plantain as well as rattlesnake weed periodically graced my path as well, but thankfully no rattlesnakes!

Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia)

Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) - a member of the orchid family

Rattlesnake weed (Hieracium venosum) - the root of which was historically used in treating rattlesnake bites. It is astringent in quality, so likely it played a role in reducing inflammation and possibly drawing venom.

The town of Williamsburg was a good break on a long day with a stop at Dollar General and Sizzler Pizza, and I tell you, that personal pie lasted me all the way until the top of Tussey Ridge the next day. Walking the rail trail for 17 kilometers was a treat and my goodness, what a gem of a path these locals folks have. Native plants graced the bank of the Juniata River: wild ginger, waterleaf, bee balm, bloodroot, and wild anise to name just a few, and what a gift that lean-to was on a rainy night in which I was still drying out my gear from the previous rainy night.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) - pinch the stem and you'll see why it's called blood root

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) -look beneath the leaf litter for this unusual flower
The morning that I parted ways with the rail trail, headed into picturesque Rothrock State Forest, and prepared to climb Tussey yet again, the weather forecasted high winds gusting at 50 miles per hour. Oh dear. But the weather appeared fairly calm in the valley and the sun shone bright and as any hiker knows, it takes a lot to deter mileage plans once they are set. I followed roadways into Rothrock, then trail through dark, damp, green moss filled forests, walked into the tiny hamlet of Baree, crossing its very active tracks, and then headed up the side of Tussey. As I climbed the temperatures grew cooler and the winds picked up. By the time I was admiring a hillside of early saxifrage amidst gnarly black birch and towering oaks, the wind was whipping and I started putting on the layers.

Saxifraga virginiana

By the time I was atop Tussey at Spruce Knob – which by the way, strangely has no spruces, but a number of white pine and black birch – it was spitting rain. Later that afternoon as I struggled to eat my leftover pizza, it started to hail and the temps turned so cold that I hiked in long pants, rain jacket, and warm winter gloves. The wind at times threatened to send me sailing over the top of large rock piles that grace the top of this ridge and tree limbs bent in its force like rubber bands. I took refuge at a campsite near to Brewer Path and was grateful to be in a shallow saddle, although as that wind relentlessly raged, I watched the treetops above in the hopes I hadn’t set up camp next to one with weak roots or brittle limbs.
A rock pile on Tussey

The night was a frigid one and the morning even more so, but the next day the sun returned, gradually warming my bones and the views were plentiful. My goodness, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found a bench erected atop one of these massive rock piles. Despite the still chill winds, I took a seat atop that handmade throne and reveled in a sweeping view of the valley and wondered at just how far I had come across this ridge.

A bench with a view

 I have since carried onto the State College area and beyond, but I will save that for the next blogpost. My most exciting news as of late is the return of my Amos. With sections two through seven out of the way and temperatures gradually warming, I decided it was time to welcome him back to the trail. I may have acquired my trail legs in the last week, hitting my stride with some eighteen mile days, but I will be slowing again with my companion to consider. Here's to exploring more of this trail with Amos by my side.
Amos hiking the rhodo tunnels

Thursday, April 29, 2021

An Ode to Tussey's Plants and People


One of the many views from Tussey Ridge

Okay this trail has truly proven itself as Pennsylvania’s “wildest” trail. Tussey Ridge has been reminding this hiker just what it’s like to hike in the mountains. And our mountains, that is. I have been sorely reminded over the last few days that the last long trail I hiked was entirely flat and never reached an elevation above 250 feet – the Florida Trail. I am out and about on a regular basis, but nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for hiking for days on end with a heavy pack, but doing just that. Tussey Ridge has had respectable steep climbs – and I’m not talkin’ switchbacks – straight on up. 

A climb onto Tussey Ridge

Sometimes carefully picking your steps over slabs of loose rock and sometimes forgoing your sticks to use all your limbs to climb. The top of the ridge is like a rocky spine, sometimes with long pointed vertebrae, other times with just a jumble of rock and you wonder if by the time you’re done, your spine might just resemble that: all misshapen and crooked. 

Walking along Tussey's spine

But enough with the hard stuff. Tussey Ridge is alive with plants. I foolishly thought that all this rock would make for a barren landscape. Quite the opposite. The plants thrive here – those hardy rock-loving natives and strangely enough, those adaptable non-native weedy plants too that one would usually only find down below amidst civilization. How on earth they came to inhabit this perch is unimaginable to me, considering I can’t envision people ever living atop this rugged cliff. My only theory is perhaps the many birds that frequent this ridge deposited seed collected from the lowlands. And the trees – oh the flowering trees – so many. So let’s get onto the good stuff: the plants.

My first long stretch on Tussey – 16 miles from Rainsburg Gap to the town of Everett – was by far the most vibrant. It was here that the non-natives truly ruled. However native trees also called this perch home and have persisted along the length of the ridge thus far. Garlic mustard was all prevailing – a weedy pest of a plant – it has the ability to not only claim space that our natives would inhabit but it also releases chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of other plants. Although, it tastes mighty fine. And for a hiker lacking fresh foods, it was pretty wonderful to just hike along and periodically pluck a flowering cluster from the tip of these plants. Garlic mustard is related to broccoli and before its flowers open, its cluster look just like a little broccoli floret. The whole plant tastes of garlic with a hint of bitter. Deelish.

Garlic mustard florets (Alliaria petiolata)

Then there was the chickweed. This stretch of Tussey was grassy and green, especially green after the steady rain that had come the night before. But sometimes there was more chickweed than grass. It grew like a carpet at my feet and around the bases of slabs of rock. Chickweed, as I mentioned in the last blog – and which I featured on my video with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy www.facebook.com/delawarehighlandsconservancy – is an edible non-native plant. One can eat any of the above-ground-parts. It is sweet and crisp and rich in nutrients that feed the glandular system. Medicinally it is considering a cleansing, cooling plant. It is also just what the hiker ordered when used topically for bug bites.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) - a daily occurrence on the Mid State  Trail

Ground Ivy was prevalent as well. This non-native plant is a member of the mint family and its leaves emit a strong aroma when crushed. However, its fragrance is different from mint, unique onto itself. Leaves and flowers may be steeped in hot water for an infusion that is a powerful diuretic and also helpful in clearing the sinuses.

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

And mullein. How of earth did mullein find its way up here? This is typically a plant that enjoys roadsides, old pastures, and construction sites. It really like railroad tracks. When mature, this plant can reach six feet tall with slender spikes of yellow flowers, however I saw only the fuzzy rosettes (first-year plants) on the ridge. Their leaf arrangement truly is a rosette. Mullein’s leaves also make a tea helpful in clearing the bronchial passageways and lungs.

Mullein rosette (Verbascum thapsus)

But let’s get onto some of those natives. The non-natives diminished some as I made my way toward Loysburg. Two of the most prominent trees I spied along Tussey Ridge thus far were Serviceberry and Black Cherry. Serviceberry is presently in flower with long floppsy white petals. Come roughly June, this tree will bear sweet edible fruits that look like a reddish-purple blueberry. The trick is to get to them before the birds do.

Serviceberry (Amalanchier) flowers.

Black Cherry ruled the mountain for sure. Young saplings stood spry and flexible and mature trees stood stunted yet strong. The inner bark and twigs of black cherry were historically used in cough medicines – hence while so many of our cough syrups and cough lozenges are cherry flavored. The bark is a powerful anti-spasmodic and anti-tussive. But be cautious. Cherry contains cyanic acid (think, cyanide), and although the bark is safe in moderate doses, the leaves and pits are not and could prove fatal if ingested.

Mature, but stunted black cherry trees (Prunus serotina)

 Young black cherry leaves and immature racemes preparing to burst with flowers

And oh, the polypody ferns and rock tripe that called these giant slabs of rock home. I am not familiar with the uses of polypody fern if there are any, but it is a darling fern that perches in clusters atop boulders and in soil amidst rocky woods. Another name for it, most appropriately, is rock cap fern. In summer, its sori (which contain its spores) are particularly prominent and look like perfectly round, brown, fuzzy circles on the underside of the leaflets. 

Common polypody (Polypodium virginianum)

Rock tripe, on the other hand, is that lichen that looks like wet leaves on its upper surface and like anti-slip paper on its underside (like what you’d put on stairs). It is technically edible but it must be boiled to death and is really considered a survival food. Considering lichen takes so long to grow, it’s really better off left to be.

Rock tripe (Umbilicaria) - a lichen, which is not a plant but an organism that is produced from a symbiotic relationship between an algae and fungus.

Now an ode to Tussey ridge would not be complete without the very special people I have met in its valleys thus far. In Everett, I enjoyed a night at Tenley Park and was greeted in the morning by Debra Dunkle – long time Everett Region trail manager, although she's now passed the torch, or should I say the pickaxe. Deb was so sweet to sweep me away to Marteens for breakfast and she gave me a good scoop on what I had ahead of me. I also had the pleasure of meeting Jake, her 12-year old pooch, who adores a day on the trail. Thank you Debra for your assistance and company!

With Debra Dunkle at Marteens Restaurant in the town of Everett

While in Everett, I quickly learned that Sheetz is the place to be. I chatted with Renee who had helped out a hiker last year with a home-cooked meal and a place to shower. I also met Curtis, lifelong resident of Everett who just couldn’t figure out how on earth I was going to get to State College given the direction I was headed. He made for good company as I devoured my disgustingly large and incredible delicious cheesy burrito stuffed with tater tots – that’s right, stuffed with tots – and he had his evening cup of coffee.

Along Yellow Creek - a popular fishing spot - here, a man had come with his horse and buggy
 to do some fishing. Follow this gravel path into town and to the the Loysburg Mobile Home Park and Campground.

Loysburg, too, proved to be a lovely stopover. I hit some really good plants on the way down the mountain, but I'll save those for the next post. I enjoyed a stay at the Loysburg Mobile Home Park and Campground thanks to owners Randall and Gloria Smith. There I was blessed with a shower with hot water, a place to charge my electronics, and a lift from Terry to and from the Dollar General and Subway, which mind you, is up a very long, steep hill. Terry has been coming to this park for fifteen years to fish in the creek. I also met Audrey, who has been coming here since her children were little – they are now in their forties. It is these moments of kindness, conversation, and generosity that can make a day a good one. I was awfully tired when I rolled into this campground – and Everett too – but these seemingly small gifts from these kind strangers kept me afloat. Thank you, Randall and Gloria, Terry, and Audrey!

In the last few days I have gone from wearing all of my warm clothes to sunburned and sweating. Who knows what’s next. One thing’s for certain, Tussey Ridge continues.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Spring Flowers in the Snow: Our First Miles on the Mid State Trail


Bot, House the Cat, and Amos at the Mason-Dixon line - the trail's southern terminus

Thanks to the weather, we have had an epic start to the trail. What started as a brisk morning at home in Milford, PA, gradually turned into a blustery, bone-chilling day as temperatures plummeted. It seemed with each pit stop we made on our nearly five-hour drive, it only got colder. As we drove onward, too, the mountains only grew larger, until we were quite literally driving through tunnels cut through the mountains themselves. When finally we wound down a narrow valley road cradled between rolling green pastures and looming ridges, we could just about taste the trail, and when we reached an intersection on Black Valley Road with a sign that read: Welcome to Pennsylvania, we knew we reached the trail’s start. Scott, my dad, Amos, and myself spilled from the car. It was a quick goodbye due to the temps and poor lil Amos’ legs were shivering in the cold wind as I strapped on his modest backpack. I kissed my love, Scott, goodbye - a hard one for me given that we have hiked the last two long trails, the Long Path and Florida Trail, together, but I knew it would only be roughly a week and a half until I would see him again.

Hittin' the trail

As we walked PA 326 and turned onto a gravel lane, what I thought were flower petals from the blossoming trees danced on the wind, then I realized they were snowflakes. We dropped packs so that my father could dig out some gloves. As he rummaged through his pack, I took in the scene – a sweeping valley adorned with redbud trees in bloom and lime green smudges of trees bearing young leaves. Up the hill was a big ol’ barn and farmhouse, a Mennonite woman in a dress and bonnet walking through the yard. At my feet were the pink mouth-shaped flowers of henbit and those blue and lavender ones of ground ivy, purple dead nettle too. Spice bush flowered at my shoulder, its twigs wearing tutus of yellow blossoms. And, all around me the snow blew. A little tabby cat wandered up to us, rubbed up on my father and walked right on up to Amos, touching noses. A good omen indeed.

A fearless and loving tabby cat - a good omen indeed

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) - edible raw or cooked

Spicebush flowers, aka feverbush (Lindera benzoin) - twigs make a delicious tea, helpful in raising body temperature

That night and the next were bitter cold and we awoke to snow both mornings and wind that blew so hard that little piles of dry flakes had collected in the corners of my tent. Amos rocked it like a trail dog champ and kept warm in his jacket and sleeping bag (rated to 32 degrees) and we snuggled tight together. My father took to his hand warmers and every article of clothing he’d brought. He has a tendency to overpack – but this time he was grateful for it all.

Amos wrapped snug in his sleeping bag

The start of actual trail through Buchannan State Forest was lovely and free of the many rocks that I know this trail holds. The trail was a bed of dry dense moss lined with mountain laurel – Pennsylvania’s state flower and from what I have seen so far, could be deemed the Mid State Trail’s official flower too, although they have yet to blossom -  blueberry bushes with clusters of bells at their twig tips, and wintergreen were scattered throughout. 

Young blueberry leaves and flowers (Vaccinium)

Wintergreen aka Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) - so much to say about this one, let's start with edible minty-tasting berries

Walking along Tussey ridge was beautiful, the sun shone bright at least giving us the semblance of warmth, and the trail was grassy and wide. Sassafras trees lined our path, each one just beginning to burst with yellow blossoms. This is one of my favorite trees. It’s roots and twigs are medicinal, excellent as a diaphoretic and digestive aid, Native Americans considered it a blood purifier – an herb to enliven the body – and it makes one heck of a tasty tea. Sassafras is also one of our ol’ time rootbeer plants – a tea was made using sassafras roots and wild sarsaparilla roots, then sweetened with black birch syrup and fermented, and there you have it, truly root beer.

Sassafras flowers (Sassafras albidum) elegantly supported on twigs resembling a candelabra

Martin Hill was a doozy, however, and I wondered if I might be in North Carolina or Tennessee as I looked out at the layers of mountains behind me as we climbed switchbacks up the mountainside. Martin Hill is the highest point on the Mid State Trail – 829 meters (roughly 2700 feet) high – and, according to the guidebook, higher than any point on the Appalachian Trail from the Shenandoahs to Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. Impressive, indeed. Here we snapped some pics in victory and staggered about for a good bit trying to find just where the trail went.

View from Martin Hill - highest point on the Mid State Trail (829 meters)

Bot and House the Cat on trail on Martin Hill - how many 75-year old men could climb that beast!

A steep descent carried us into Sweet Root Natural Area – a stunning holler through which Sweet Root Run carves its way. Here, I found some of the largest witch hazel trees I have ever seen. The edges of the creek were rife with edible and medicinal plants as were its mossy rock tops – wild anise, chickweed, mayapple, violets, and liverleaf to name just a few. Periodically, like great guardians stood towering yellow birch trees, their snaking roots reaching out over rock and water. Mountain laurel persisted, as did spicebush, and then appeared rhododendron in the rockiest part of the creek’s path.

Liverleaf (Hepatica americana) - historically used in the treatment of liver conditions in accordance with the doctrine of signatures (the lobes of the leaf are shaped like a liver) - however there is no scientific evidence that it is effective in healing the liver. 

Chickweed (Stellaria media) - so much to say about this greenie too, but most importantly, it is delicious raw

However, at Rainsburg Gap, I had to reluctantly say goodbye to my companions. I decided this trail is wild indeed, and as much as I wanted Amos to carry on with me, I knew sections two and three were notorious for its gnarly rocky terrain. Scott came to swoop him up and my dad decided to go along for the ride and make some gear changes at home before returning to the trail. My pack has been filled to the brim with nearly a week of dry food and a couple cans of wet (every hiker’s nightmare), and although I bought some of that fancy dehydrated stuff, Amos wouldn't have it. I have learned, in fact, when Amos hikes, he requires wet or he’ll just go hungry and pout. So although, I will miss my companions badly, I will most certainly have a lighter pack! And, in roughly a week, Amos will return to me. At least I got another bonus visit with Scott.

Amos in Scott's truck - all ready to go home - he looks a lil bummed though, doesn't he?

Tussey Ridge, here I come! These next couple of sections are allegedly quite challenging, strewn with rocks and lacking water for many miles. But that's alright, I got this. Better that my men be safe at home anyway - I am certain none are all too disappointed to be missing it! Here's to discovering Tussey all the more.