Saturday morning I met my friend Mat for a geocache hike. My first geocache event was at Marsh Creek State Park in April, and I enjoyed it enough to try it again. And when Mat told me that the hike was short, relatively easy, and involved an abandoned railroad tunnel, my interest was heightened. And even when I was told there might be some mud I said “game on!”

We met at a small park off of High Street in Phoenixville and after walking along the road a couple of hundred feet we ducked under a barricade on the north side. We found ourselves in a field, and I thought “this isn’t so bad.” The day was cool but sunny, and the fall colors were around me. We made good progress and soon enough found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine, the remains of a railroad cut.

Then I stepped in mud. One step. And the next, and the next. We slowed our pace.

The mud was deep in spots. Phoenixville Tunnel was abandoned by Conrail in 1984 after a century of service, and when they removed the rail they left the ties behind. Some in place, and some scattered. For thirty years the cut and tunnel were allowed to be used as a dumping ground and drainage ditch. Like many slate railroad cuts and tunnels, there are problems with runoff and springs.

Mat turned to me. “This is probably more than you bargained for. Its OK if you want to turn back.”

“My boots are muddy already, and I’m having fun. I want to see the tunnel.” And so we pushed on.

The mud became worse. And then before we knew it, there was standing water. Black and green and smelling like decay. I’d worn my old Timberland boots, and so when I went into a pool with water near my knees I didn’t care.

After slogging through the mud and pond and debris, we reached the tunnel. Since Mat is the geocacher of the two of us, I let him explore the tunnel while I waited inside the mouth. Phoenixville Tunnel is a little over 800 feet long, flooded, and in poor repair. The ceiling is partially collapsed under Filmore Street. Mat climbed over the collapse looking for an ammo box while I stood on rotting railroad ties to keep out of the water.

Mat was gone for five minutes, but it felt like forever. I’d call out to make sure he was OK. After the hike I discovered that in August someone had become trapped on the slopes near this tunnel and it took two fire companies to get him to safety. I prefer to write, not be written about.

Mat returned with a long face. The ammo box either wasn’t there, or he’d missed it. The cache was to have been in the wall, but we couldn’t find it. So we turned around and began the hike out. My feet were cold and wet, so getting colder and wetter didn’t matter so much. I fell once when I stepped from a submerged tie, but I caught myself with my hands and avoided going face first into the water. I suppose that would have been “a taste OF the woods.”

The second thing we did on returning to our cars was change our boots, socks, and pants. The first thing was pose for the finish line photo. I met Mat for the first time on this hike, and I think we hit it off. As time and schedules allow, we’ll probably do more hikes and rides together. He’s a little younger than me, lighter than me, and more physically fit, but like me he’s rediscovering the outdoors. What’s more, we get along. And for one and a fifth miles that morning our friendship was baptized by water.

 Once home, I sorted out the damage from the hike. The socks I threw out. The jeans, sweatshirt, and jacket went to the washer. The boots are sitting outside drying out. They are an old pair that doesn’t fit me properly and has the old pre-surgical wear pattern from my knock-kneed days, so I might throw them out as well. But they could be useful next time I hike into a swamp, so if I can get them dried and less foul-smelling I’ll keep them.