The Mid State Trail http://www.hike-mst.org is Pennsylvania’s longest and wildest footpath, crossing the entire waist of the Keystone State from Maryland to the New York border.
In between tracts of public land large and small, the MST in central Tioga County also hopscotches among fields and hedgerows, but sometimes follows low traffic rural roads, hopefully temporarily.
Daryl Warren of Wellsboro, an outdoor enthusiast just retired from the insurance business, has for several years been knocking on farmhouse doors, seeking voluntary, willing permission from local landowners trying to get the trail off the road as much as possible. Our group can wiggle the trail around a lot of obstacles, such as streams, roads, and obstinate neighbors, as we seek finally to finish the footpath.
Then Daryl, with a few followers sometimes, will clear brush from the future trail, paint blazes on the trees, and erect signs reminding hikers of the courtesy expected of guests, between his considerable church and family activities.
In late 2014, Daryl finished 2.51 km of new path between two gravel roads, crossing the backs of three farms. We should note the MST’s founder, Penn State physics professor Tom Thwaites (1931-2014), converted the MST to metric measurement in 1973. The trail guide states: “Metrication is a patriotic measure designed to help end our cultural isolation and ease our chronic balance of payments problems.”
At the request of the landowners, this new trail section is closed to hiking in deer season. Now came the time to collect GPS information on the trail, in order to finalize the landowner agreements with the MST Association, and to create maps for hikers.
The dead of winter, in the Northern Tier, now becomes the ideal time, as the first available opportunity to check this new area out. Rarely, in the fifteen years I’ve been volunteer trail planning, does anyone else come out with me on such missions, but Neil seemed enthusiastic and willing, so off we went.
This long-settled area close to town is only a few minutes’ drive to the gravel road, checking ends of hedgerows until we see the blazes and sign of last year’s trail. We leave the 4WD pickup in the nearest snowbank as I fire up the GPS to find satellites while I strap on snowshoes.
Neil follows close behind wearing microspikes and using hiking poles.
We set off along hedgerows and field edges, occasionally spotting remains of stone fences. Sometimes I remember to warn him when there might be a ditch below a snowdrift.
At one point, we pass between two lines of obviously planted trees, once forming a shaded lane in the middle of the farmstead. Now, a tree stand reminds us of why the landowner requested hunting season closure.
Crossing to the next property, we climb through a woodlot, carefully spying new orange blazes. A cleared ATV trail parallels this part of our route, but it’s on the other side of a fence row where we don’t have permission. Rounding their property corner, we begin climbing more determinedly.
Shortly, some odd stone structures come into view. There are at least three dry laid stone prisms, near-vertical on 3 sides, sloping northerly into the hill on the top. I grew up hiking in the Finger Lakes region, where the state forests between the waterfalls were farmsteads for a hundred years or more before the state bought them up during the Depression. But even there, I never spotted any south-facing stone ramps among the miscellany of anthropogenic features. Could they be entries into an old hayloft? There’s no sign of a barn foundation, and the ramps aren’t totally on line with each other. The snow flurry becomes more persistent, advertising a forecasted storm, so we press on without solving the mystery.
We reach a 600 meter summit, according to the GPS, then begin descending more rapidly than we climbed. Maybe we could have looked off over the fields down the entire Tioga River valley, but flurries and fog inhibited confirmation of that supposition.
Entering another property, thicker brush and occasional tops and slash suggest logging within the last dozen years or so. The path steepens in spots, but remains clear of vegetation even as the snow on the north side seems deeper. Neil slides down at one declivity, proclaiming he’s getting too old for this.
Then I tell him that Daryl, the man who blazed this section, is 80.
Perhaps that doesn’t make him feel better, but I’ve been known to sit and slide myself in steep slippery situations. Once, I tell Neil, I fell onto the edge of the Pine Creek Rail Trail with a thud as bicyclists rolled past.
The woodlot ends in another hedgerow then we emerge onto another gravel road, our new path tracked in the GPS. We decide to circle around to the truck on the roads (or, rather, the yellow blazed hunting season detour) rather than reclimb the 600 meter peak.
It’s easy going downhill for a little while until we cross a township line where the road becomes icier. I envy Neil’s microspikes as I continue to carry the snowshoes.
Turning left, the road clearing becomes better. I realized the second road passes year round residences in that township, clearly a motivator to add a bit of salt in the cinders. With snow continuing to fly, as we pass an old family cemetery, I leave Neil behind temporarily as I speed up to climb the rise to retrieve the truck.
Driving back up the road, I find Neil nearly nose to nose with a bull on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Neil said the bull charged right at him, seemingly barely stopping at the fence. It has been a long weekend, and Neil says he’s had about enough of Tioga County for now as we begin driving out of the PA Wilds toward home.