The Appalachians Deserve Respect
I’m spoiled by experience. As an adult Tacoma, Washington is the first place I called home. Then it was Colorado Springs, Colorado. Now I’m on the East Coast and I find myself spoiled and missing the mountains. But, if I’m perfectly honest, I dramatically underestimated just how enjoyable the Appalachians could be.
Pennsylvania is a beautiful state. A friend of mine and a local wanted to do a backpacking trip and flyfish along the way. The combination of backpacking and fly fishing refreshed a lesson for me that I had learned but almost forgotten; the setting, not just the risk or racing the clock, is what makes these experiences beautiful and wonderful.
The outdoor landscape was dominated in the two different states I lived, both in terms of topography and visually, by mountainous terrain. Washington’s Mount Rainier stands so proudly above the surrounding landscape that it would stretch from edge to edge of my windshield at certain points of my drive to work each day. On a clear spring morning, it would call and challenge you to a life of adventure, even living a fair drive away.
Colorado was different. The Rockies still dominated the views from anywhere in the Springs, but it was with less challenge and more simple acceptance that at some point you’d find yourself among their peaks. The less “outdoorsy” among Colorado’s residents even end up in the mountains sometime.
I wasn’t yet convinced about the Northeast before this trip. For all their prominence among the backpacking community, I didn’t find the draw and inspiration in the rolling and forested mountains of the Appalachians. I was used to the West’s tendency to hit you in the face with the stunning visual landscape. But it’s all a matter of perspective.
Eric is clearly much better at fly fishing than I am.
Photo: John Seward
“We’ve lived up here for forever,” said Eric. My friend and guide for our trip, Eric is from this part of the country.
“Yeah, that’s the house that my dad grew up in,” he says as we drive down to the trailhead. I ask if it’s the house he also grew up in.
“Yup. Same one. It’s almost weird being back here and seeing it like this,” he says.
“We played baseball in that yard, just across the street.”
I started to learn some of the history tied to having a house in the family for multiple generations. “Yeah, just down the street was a bar and the owner used to be in the Army,” Eric’s dad explains. Eric and I met in the Army, at Fort Benning.
“Used to have two pairs of boots above the bar, and people’d ask him about it. ‘Why the two boots?’ they’d say. And he says, ‘Well those I wore in World War II, and those I wore in Korea.’”
The boots were gold. His dad said folks would ask about how expensive they were. “And he says ‘Oh, ‘bout $8.’ They were just spray painted!”
The boots, bar, baseball yard, and house are all near the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania. We’d be spending the next four days following the river. The trail runs just beside the river and is well-maintained. It offered an easy hike and access to decent fishing. It also wasn’t too far from Eric’s childhood home.
Our route through the gorge. An easy hike on well-maintained paths.
Known more for its scenic railway, the Lehigh Gorge State Park is a jewel in Pennsylvania’s park system. 6,107 acres of park follow along the Lehigh River from the Walter Dam south to the tourist town of Jim Thorpe. Jim Thorpe is crowded in the fall, with many folks coming from all over the world to ride the open-air rail cars and see beautiful leaf colors found in the gorge. But the state park lets you escape the crowds. 26 miles of trails, and we hiked through 16 of them.
I wasn’t holding my breath for enjoying the hike. I was excited mainly to be trying to get back into fly fishing. When we started it wouldn’t have made much difference to me if we spent most of our time at the same campsite. That was a horribly wrong assumption.
The afternoon that we set off the leaves were starting to fall to just cover most of the trail. I had never spent time backpacking in fall leaves out East. The colors went from vibrant yellows to fiery reds and all the shades in between. This landscape that I thought only held dense, dark forest and an occasional peek of a view was embarrassing me with its vibrance. As a soft breeze drifted the leaves across the trail, it almost looked like you’d stepped straight into a passage from the Lord of the Rings. The Misty Mountains might be a ways off, but this was Mirkwood or Lothlorien.
We quickly bumped into cyclists enjoying the beautiful weather. The trail is wide enough in most places to be two or three across whether you walk or ride, so there were no issues of feeling stuck in a traffic jam. As we hiked, we noticed just how fast the water in the Lehigh River was moving. Eric had mentioned that the dam above the river had to release quite a bit of flow. Recent rains had risen the water level by as much as five inches. Spots he knew along the trail and had planned fishing from were now partially submerged.
We always had the luxury of pourover, with Eric’s expertise and his coffee roasting business providing much-needed caffeine.
After walking most of the day we found a suitable campsite. Tucked away from the trail and behind a stand of trees, it was a comfortable private spot. Getting our beds ready for the night, we talk about how the Army’s sleep system is functional but not half so useful as what we’d brought. We laugh about hiding bright-colored, privately purchased sleeping bags inside ACU bivy sacks, hoping we wouldn’t get caught.
The next day we spent most of the day walking from one fishing spot to the next. The state fisheries stock the river year-round (spoiler: none of which we caught). Just the simple prospect of fish was enough to motivate us though, novice as we are. As rafters and kayakers floated by, we stopped for a coffee and threw lines some more. We joked to one another that we hoped “We would make Brad Pitt proud.”
That evening, we looked for our next inconspicuous campsite. Further down trail we ended up near a boat launch and found a small hillside to give us some masking from the main trail. We set up shop and decided on dinner and cigars next to the river.
We found a spot where clear skies offered us a little more ambient light, letting us save our headlamps for only the delicate task of pouring boiling water into our food pouches. Sitting by the river, we both felt like nature gave us back something that life in town drained out of us. The moon had started to rise immediately behind the cliff face opposite us on the river.
“Those headlights are making me nervous,” I said looking behind us. “Dude, I don’t think those are headlights,” Eric responded. “I think the moon is about to pop up over the ridge.”
“Well, I better grab my camera then.”
To our surprise, an almost perfect full moon rose from behind the ridge line. The light was so bright that you could almost read by it, casting a pale glow over everything. I tried to capture what we both thought the river looked like. An oil painting in black and white of the rushing, powerful river. In that moment I realized my mistake. While the Rockies are imposing and the Pacific invites adventure, the Appalachians offer moments of surprising beauty that are more unexpected.
These images hardly capture the amazing effect of the moonlight on the landscape.
Almost no one looks toward a major mountain range out West assuming “Well, it’s an ok view.” But while hiking the rolling hills and mountains of the East, the landscape is dominated by forest. Even so, those unanticipated opportunities for grand or complex beauty are so impactful that it’s hard to ignore or imagine. That moon rise will stay with me the rest of my life, in a similar way that summiting Mount Rainier will.
Our joke of making Brad Pitt proud was proven out toward the end of our trip. Tourists on trains had waived to us with some even pulling out their phones to snapshots of these two backpacking fishermen amid all the fall colors. Part of the trail wound through Jim Thorpe and as we stopped for a few final casts, tourists’ cameras came out hoping to catch us in our cast mid-loop.
The town of Jim Thorpe was completely jammed up with people as Eric’s dad picked us up. Funny, we hadn’t seen that many people on the trail in days.