Someone originated the good idea of hiking to celebrate the New Year. In Pennsylvania or regions that have a winter that’s not always easy to do. But this January 1 the weather was cold but clear, and I was full of energy. And to make the trip more fun, I invited my new friend Chris to join me. Since I had limited knowledge of his hiking experience I chose a short excursion. And since I had limited confidence in my abilities at this point in my recovery I stuck with something I’d hiked before.
Our destination was Mount Misery in Valley Forge National Historical Park. The grandly and ominously named hill is across Route 23 from General Washington’s Headquarters. We decided to start our hike at noon. Since parking was limited at the trailhead Chris parked at the Visitor’s Center and we drove over in my car.
We started at the far side of Mount Misery, near the Knox Covered Bridge. Despite having done the climb a half-dozen times before, I found the effort tiring, but not as tiring as Chris did. Lugging 430 pounds up a hillside is work, and we had to stop twice to let the big guy rest. That gave us a chance to wish “Good afternoon” and “Happy New Year” to the stream of people climbing the hill. It was encouraging to see so many people out enjoying the day, and enjoying it with their children and dogs.
The trails on Mount Misery are typical ‘Rocksylvania’ – I struggled at times on them. Chris, who was a Boy Scout as a youth, regressed to childhood and didn’t let the rocks bother him. Once he was done with the climbing portion he was a chatterbox, talking about anything and everything. When we reached the abandoned spring house he explored it, squeezing into narrow spaces like a ten year old.
It was just past the spring house I came to grief. I had trouble getting down one stretch of trail with a steep grade and I turned my right ankle. Once we got to the benches at the bottom of the hill I sat down and took off my shoe. There was no swelling, but enough pain that I limped through the rest of the hike. Fortunately, we were now on the flat Valley Creek Trail, and what started as a hike ended as a walk. We took breaks often, this time for my comfort rather than Chris’. But as always, stopping is a reason to use a camera.
Before we realized it we were at the Knox Covered Bridge and our hike was at an end. We were cold, tired, and in my case limping, but we had a great time. It was over dinner after the hike that Chris and I realized we hit it off when we hike and ride together. And so a friendship was formed, with a three mile hike on Misery.
In September and October I focused on hiking as my primary exercise. I did this not only because I was in one of my periodic bicycle funks, but also because hiking would help me smooth my gait. I still had the stiff-legged look, best described by W. S. Gilbert in Patience: “To cultivate the trim/ rigidity of limb/ its best to get/a marionette/ and form your style on him.” Walking on uneven ground would be fun and would pay off in my everyday life more than spinning on a bike would.
In looking for places to hike, I stumbled upon an oddly named state park, Nolde Forest, south of Reading. Since the Pennsylvania state forests and state parks are separate administrative structures, I wondered why “Forest” was in the name of the park. As usual, there’s a fascinating story behind it.
Jacob Nolde was one of many Germans who settled in Berks county during the second half of the 19th century. His life is the quintessential American success story. A weaver, he found work at a factory, rose to the top, and eventually started his own company knitting hosiery. By 1900 he was one of the leading citizens of Reading, employing hundreds of workers.
Just because you work in Reading doesn’t mean you want to live there, and so Nolde purchased land in the hills south of the city for his estate. Much of Penn’s Woodlands has been stripped bare by a century of lumbering, and two centuries of charcoal, iron, and steel forges, and Nolde wound up with barren hillsides. On one tract of land he found a single pine growing amid the meadow that sprang up when the trees were cut. Seeing that one tree, combined with his memories of Germany’s Black Forest, led Nolde to decide to replant his land with pines.
In 1910 Nolde realized that his enthusiasm and money were achieving results, but that continuing and caring for his new forest required a professional forester. He hired an Austrian, William Kohout, to manage his forest holdings and increase the size of his personal Black Forest. When Jacob Nolde died in 1916 the project was continued by his son Hans. In 1926 the Nolde mansion was constructed. Three years later William Kohout passed away, still employed managing the Nolde family forest. By the late 1960s the land and mansion was purchased by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and added to the state park system as Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center.
This October day was warm, and I set out in early afternoon. First up was a walk around the exterior of the Nolde mansion. The building, which now houses the park offices and rooms used for educational and public events, is an odd mishmash of styles. One could imagine the parties the Nolde family would host, and cars pulling up outside the building dropping off people who could have stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources hasn’t devoted much to keeping the exterior of the mansion in shape. Its a pity, as restoring the garden would take work, but give tribute to the Nolde family and add pleasure for the visitor. The Italian tile in the garden is chipping, the fountain doesn’t work, the ponds are full of stagnant water, and there’s a big hole in the ground where another fountain or a birdbath is missing. The hole isn’t barricaded and its a matter of time until someone steps in it and get hurt.
I’ve included photos of the tile at the fountain. The center of the panel is a tribute to the Nolde family heritage. German-American folk art, or Fraktur, often incorporates birds in the design, and the bluebirds in the panel are a stylized version. Note also the flowers, another common element in Fraktur.
Having spent time at the mansion, I drove to the trailhead at the mill on the property. I hiked about two miles along Angelica Creek, using the flat Watershed Trail, the slightly hillier Kohout Trail, and a couple of others. Whenever you hike at Nolde, bring a map – there are trails all over the park, and they intersect frequently. While trails are generally well marked, its easy to miss a turn, as I was soon to find out.
After my hike and extensive photography of Angelica Creek and the small cascade at the former mill, I drove to the far side of the park. I’d heard about an overlook, and I wanted to try to find it I headed down a muddy and spring-laden trail, only to find it wasn’t what I wanted. Having reached three miles, I turned onto what I expected to be a connecting trail that would lead me back to my car. Instead I was traveling further from the parking lot, further into the northern part of the park. I realized something was wrong when I looked down the cut in the photo below and didn’t see the road I’d traveled on to get here. I immediately turned on my heels and walked back the way I’d come.
While it wasn’t very dark, the sun was setting, and I began to have panicky thoughts. My walking was improved but I was far from sure-footed. If I fell no one would find me until morning, if then. I had no jacket if the night was cold. I had no flashlight either. And no food or water. Cell phone reception was very poor.
Fortunately I found the right turn once I backtracked, and I was soon at my car. As the sun set I even walked a short stretch of the Coffeepot Trail, simply because I liked the name. I finished the day with a bit more than four miles and a desire to hike at Nolde again.
During a previous hike Sayre and I climbed up the steps from below the Pagoda to the main grounds. To do so in 2010 meant I had to get my legs over a hip-high fence. When I attempted to repeat the feat, I couldn’t manage to raise my legs that far. Sayre kindly grabbed each foot and pulled up so I could get over the fence.
In addition to hiking, we talked. Sayre is a musician. I am a writer. Both talents, though different, require the souls of the poet and philosopher, and those souls tend to come out whenever Sayre and I meet.
Our hike ended as it began – in the parking area for the Pagoda. This is perhaps my favorite view of the building, taken from the trail that runs alongside the road up to the building. With a little imagination you feel you are in Japan.
I was visiting my friend Judy in Western Pennsylvania during July. I was five months out of surgery, and still so weak I’d fall asleep BEFORE I went for a hike. However, I knew I wanted to ride my bike on a trail for my first rides, not only because I wanted to be surrounded by nature but because I expected I’d be safer if I fell or had another problem. And I knew the Montour Trail was opening two new bridges July 28, so Judy and I headed out to the celebrations.
The Montour Trail is one of the great successes in Pennsylvania rail to trail conversions. The trail uses the former Montour Railroad route, and runs in a 46 mile curve between the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh and the Monongahela at Clairton. It connects to the Great Allegheny Passage via the on-road Steel Valley Trail at Clairton.
I’ve twice ridden large stretches of the Montour, and its a fun trail, with bridges, tunnels, scenic views and slag heaps and artifacts of the railroad days. Its also very much a work in progress, with six miles of trail yet to be constructed, and workarounds for unfinished segments. When I previously rode it in 2009, I joked it should be called the Detour Trail.
Among the most irritating of those gaps on previous rides were grade crossings at Morganza and Georgetown Roads. The crossings were steep, rocky, and came one after the other in less than a fifth of a mile. They were tough when hauling a trailer.
Fortunately the Montour Trail Council and the many volunteers working on projects accomplish great things, as shown by the morning I went to the bridge dedications. The grade crossings at Morganza and Georgetown Roads were no more, and shiny new bridges connected the isolated two tens of a mile of trail between the two roads. I took some photos of the opening ceremonies. They aren’t great photography, but I post them as a modest contribution to the historical record…
My riding wasn’t very long or very impressive. I’d ridden a stationary bike in physical therapy, but as anyone can tell you stationary bikes aren’t ‘real’ bicycles. The biggest problem I had was getting my right foot onto the pedal when I pushed off. Having lived with my right leg knocked since childhood, the muscles weren’t used to moving the leg in a different manner than they had. And when I put my right foot down, it was landing in a place I wasn’t expecting it to. It took about two minutes of fumbling to get under way. Once I was in motion I found out that riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle – you never forget.
When I stopped to turn around, I went through the same fumbling for the pedal. At one point I spent a couple of minutes perched on the side of one of the bridges, holding the railing, as other cyclists rode past me. I wanted the area around me to be clear in case I was wobbly or had to stop suddenly. Also, my confidence was elsewhere that morning. But again I eventually was moving and once I was moving I was fine. I rode a little more than one mile, but the longest journey starts with a single step. Or pedal.
One side benefit of attending the trail opening is that I rode, for a minute at least, with my friend Troy. The actor and organic farmer lives in Western PA and so I rarely get the pleasure of his company.
In September I took time off to camp, hike, and ride in Tioga and Elk Counties. I needed to be away from the city and in touch with nature. One of the best experiences from the eight days I was in the woods was riding a portion of the Clarion/Little Toby Trail. The rail trail starts in Ridgway and runs along the Clarion River until the confluence with the Little Toby Creek, when it turns and tracks along the smaller stream to the town of Brockway. It had been on my short list of trails to ride for years.
My friend Judy and I stated from the Brockway trailhead and rode six miles to the swinging bridge over Little Toby Creek. The trail surface was crushed stone, as is common on Western PA rail trails, and appeared to be well-maintained. The scenery wasn’t mountainous, but it was pretty, with the leaves beginning to change from green to the riot of fall.
I don’t know how long the wire and wood swinging bridge has hung over Little Toby Creek, but it appears to be well-used. I tested it, but first getting to the bridge tested me. The short walk down from the trail was steeper than I was used to, and then there was this step…. (The rest of the photos in this blog post are by Judy, who is a better photographer than I am.)
The far side of the bridge has an overgrown picnic area and what looks like bushwacked hiking trails. I didn’t explore them. Perhaps another day. So Judy and I crossed again. Feel free to imagine whatever metaphors you see in my journey across the bridge.
We called it a day at this point. My stamina was a lot less than before I was operated on, and I was afraid riding further down the trail would mean I’d not have the strength to get back. The ride back to the car in Brockway was slow but uneventful. I was tired, but glad I’d been out.
Since I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in my posts, I thought I’d provide an example of the knees I had to hike and ride with for years. In the photo below, I’m the hunched guy on the left. Note in particular the right leg. The knock was severe enough that by 2011 I not only had to give up hiking, but I wasn’t able to ride my road bike any longer as even with extenders on the spindles I couldn’t get my right foot on the pedal. I was able to ride my hybrid, since that bike had longer spindles to begin with.
I hate not accomplishing what I set out to do. I especially hate it when its something that should be within my abilities. And nothing irked me as much as not hiking all the way to the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain, the internationally known raptor conservancy.
Friends told me the North Lookout, which is where the Hawk Mountain volunteers conduct the annual raptor counts during the fall migration, was a do not miss view. “Its easy. Much easier than The Pinnacle, which is across the valley.” Since I’d heard The Pinnacle was amazing and the two overlooks faced each other, I figured Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout had to pretty impressive. Photos on the Internet showed it to be the case. So I put the trail on my short list for hiking.
I first tried to hike to the North Lookout in 2010. I was stunned by the view from the South Lookout, which is only 200 yards from the entrance to the trails. I’m reproducing that photo here, so you might experience what I did three years ago. The light was magical…..
But I didn’t get to the North Lookout that trip, because as the trail became rockier my knees hurt more and my confidence grew less. So I turned around and walked back to my car, defeat on my shoulders. By 2011 my knees had become so bad that I gave up hiking, and part of my soul died when I did.
In 2012, fresh after a bilateral knee replacement, I tried again. I got no further than I did in 2010. I turned back. It was too soon after surgery. I still had the stiff-legged walk of a marionette, and a dropped foot from the straightening of my right leg. At times when I put down my right foot I’d be surprised where it landed. Not a good trait for a hike on rocks. And it didn’t help my weight had soared due to the long recovery from surgery.
By April of this year I was ready again. My dropped foot condition was largely resolved. My weight was dropping like, well, a stone. And my confidence was back. I met my friends Dodson and Chris and we headed out.
The South Lookout, of course, wasn’t difficult to reach. And neither were the next few. But then the rocks began to increase in number and size, and soon enough this was the trail.
The climbing increased, and eventually we reached a set of stone steps to the Lookout.
Then it was a matter of crossing the rocks at the Lookout. On the edge was one of the most scenic views in Pennsylvania. I just had to pick my way through some rocks.
And in a few minutes I’d done it. I grabbed the rail to steady myself, and drank in the view.