Laurel Highlands Xperience – 2018.
It’s taken me well over a week to be able to focus and put my thoughts together. Part of me didn’t want to. That meant reliving a wonderful experience while I was reluctantly back to the real life daily grind. It’s too depressing coming home from the woods. Work and duty takes over when a week before, there was no such thing as a schedule or a text message. Waking with the turning of the earth’s horizon kissing the sun was my alarm clock. I carried everything I needed on my back (and then some…)
Just days ago I was napping on giant warm rocks next to a country road waiting for a hitch. Today I sat at my desk praying for a few minutes to myself and even more hopeful for a quick lunch break before my next client came in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t enjoy my job. It’s just that I have finally come to the conclusion that I don’t fit in to what “life before backpacking” is anymore.
Last Friday I left town for Springfield, IL to meet with Scott (founder of Gear Forward) and his wife Joanna. They were gracious and kind hosts and let me crash on their couch in their beautiful historic home the night before Scott and I had an 11-hour roadtrip to Pennsylvania.
We woke up early and hit the road around 7am. We were losing an hour in Indiana so we wanted to be well on the way. Scott and I had a pleasant trip east. We talked Gear Forward, future plans, and the magic of a Horseshoe (spoiler alert: I ate one for the first time when we got back to Springfield a week later!) The last leg of the trip seemed to take the longest as we were ready to be out of the car with some beer, new friends and some real food. We drove under part of the trail at one point which was neat. We would cross this footbridge over the Pennsylvania turnpike on Monday.
When we pulled into Brian Ford’s beautiful homestead we were greeted by Brian, his wife Robin, and Adam who arrived just 15 minutes before us. We had yet to meet Rachel (she would be pulling in later after an event she was doing in New York) and Dane – who we would meet in the morning at the trailhead.
After a delicious dinner of spaghetti and made from scratch sauce, salad and garlic bread, the team as it were – myself, Scott and Adam – began to unpack our packs, remove things we decided we may not need, and repack with some of the great items sent to us by our wonderful sponsors. We had merino wool kerchiefs donated by NxN, 3 nights of dinner from Sasquatch Fuel, water filter systems, sunblock, tick preventative and pre-treatment from Sawyer, water purifying drops from Purinize, LivBars, Crazy Richard’s peanut butter, and a backpack, tent and sleeping bag we were welcome to use from Teton Sports that would be donated to Gear Forward post trip. Truly, this event wouldn’t be possible without Brian and without our sponsor’s and partner’s support and their sharing to their followers of our “why.” Cannot thank them enough!
Rachel and Harlee (her Jack Russell mix) arrived while the rest of us finished packing and finalizing our things. She and I stayed down the street at Brian’s parents house in their downstairs apartment; which was glorious. We each had our own room, and shared a bathroom and living/kitchen area stocked with coffee. (It’s the little things!) I asked Rachel if she minded me taking a shower while she organized her gear. I proceeded to wash the long day off of me and took the longest, hottest shower as I knew it would be my last for the next week. I went to sleep fast that night, exhausted and excited for the following days to come.
Sunday morning came quick. We dressed for the trail and met everyone down at Brian’s at 7:45am so we could have breakfast and load up the van the Ford’s rented to get us all to the trailhead an hour and some minutes away. We hit the road around 9 and made it to the trailhead to meet Dane Cramer. Dane (at that point) had thru-hiked the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) 6 times and this time was special as he would be making it 8. Yep. You read that right! Dane started south a few days before meeting with us, where he would travel along with us until we got off trail, and continue again north making for a 140 mile yo-yo hike.
Did I mention it was nearly 20 degrees when we started? Oh, and flurrying. We loved every second of it. Right there showed everyone’s true character – “Wow. It’s cold. LET’S GO!” We were a spirited force to be reckoned with, our group of 6. And so we began LHX 2018.
Our first day was great, although chilly. We would work up a sweat and when we would stop to break we’d feel the cold passing through our bones. Our breaks were short-lived that day. We finally arrived to the shelter after 8+ miles and the guys began working on a fire. With our sleeping pads and bags out we all huddled in a single shelter, absorbing the warmth of the fire, digesting hot food and feeling sleepy from the long day. We ended up being a can of sardines that night, smushed together in the below freezing night. The next day, we woke a little before the sun rose and moved a little slower knowing we had plenty of time to get back on the trail.
We started day 2 off with freshly filtered spring water, weather that was quite a bit more pleasant than the day before, and the knowledge that we had a shorter mileage trek. That night I set up my tent since it was warmer, but ended up being pretty cold when night came. I desperately wanted a good night’s sleep, as in the morning we would start our 15+ mile day.
Although the longest, this day was by far my favorite. I love a challenge. And I love hiking. And I LOVE eating good food before a hike.
We hiked maybe around 3 miles, and got off trail by a quarter mile to hit up a local market for lunch, resupply and coffee/cold sodas.I devoured a ginormous hot Reuben sandwich, a ginger ale, a bunch of fresh raspberries, and a Gatorade. (Photo above of Scott and Adam’s chip rig!) In the immaculately clean air conditioned bathroom, I washed my hands and arms and face with clean running water. I felt like a new person!
This break set the mood for the rest of the day. We had a lot of hiking left to do, but eating some real food and enjoying each other’s company in the perfect weather and late morning sun was a great morale boost. We left Dane behind at the market so he could charge his camera gear. He would meet us on the trail later that day.
Our challenge that day was a climb up the ski slopes. It was a workout; exposed with no shade but the reward at the top was the closed lodge/diner with a running soda machine filled with cold Gatorade. The buildings power was off otherwise but the bathrooms were working. I washed my gross socks in the sink.
The day began to drag a little when we hit the halfway point. We had been hiking 8-9 miles per day so far, so we definitely felt the extra miles on our tired feet and legs. We had one last team break and then everyone got in their zone and took off with one goal in mind: make it to the shelter. We were getting trail magic at the campsite. One of Brian’s wonderful friends, David (and his girlfriend Marisa) was bringing food and beer in to us! After the final 2 and a half achy miles of leapfrogging Dane, I followed him down the steep, rocky descent into our campsite for the night. Scott beat us there by 45 minutes and soon after Brian, Rachel and Adam came in.
We had a wonderful dinner of brats and beer and fresh fruit parfaits! What a treat after what ended up being a very long day. Long, but fulfilling.After dinner, Brian pulled the team together. 1 of our 6 had an obvious overuse knee injury. Another had a past injury acting up. We still had 2 days and about 16 miles to complete the section hike – but as we discussed: the “X” in “LHX” stands for “Xperience.” (Oh boy were the next couple days just that!) while we would have loved to do all 50 miles, at that point we had put in a solid 35+ in 3 days and with even hotter weather moving in for the most strenuous section yet, we unanimously decided if one of us has to get off the trail; we all get off the trail. Our new game plan was an exciting one. The next day we were gonna get a ride into Ohiopyle (thanks to Tyler – another amazing friend of Brian’s!), get a yurt at the campground, and spend the day at the pub and hanging out. David (who brought us our trail magic!) decided he would also camp out with us the next night.
When it came time for bed after our crazy long day, Rachel and I took to the shelter up the hill from the boys and stayed up for a couple hours chatting. I am so grateful for meeting Rachel. I wish we lived closer. We have SO MUCH in common. The weather was so comfortable that night. I slept like a baby on the shelter floor with the mild breeze lazily wafting in occasionally. We woke early and had breakfast together before packing and meeting the guys down below.We took all the time in the world that morning packing slow, chatting about the events to come and then headed to the road to wait for Tyler. h
We got into Ohiopyle, secured our yurt for the night and unloaded all of our packs – then headed to the main road where all the restaurants and beer could be found.
Ohiopyle sits on the Youghiogheny River.We were loving the yurty dirt life!
Tyler and his sweet lady friend Haylee then drove us to a couple “locals only” spots. WOW!
When we got back to the yurt, David met us there with more food to share and some good conversation. I was feeling full and sleepy from the hot sun, the beer and the overall relaxing day. I took top bunk and Rachel and Harlee were below me, and Scott and Adam took another bunk. Brian, David, and Dane shared the yurt next to us.
We were all giggling and laughing like it was summer camp until we finally fell asleep. The most adventurous part of yurt sleeping in a top bunk – definitely has to be waking up in the middle of the night, climbing down and walking to the bathroom across the street with no shoes on using the light of the moon. Just pure hiker trash at it’s finest.
The next morning we loaded up and David took us in shifts back to Ohiopyle where we chilled out at the outfitter off the river to wait for Danielle and Dawn (again, more of Brian’s amazing HBF team!) where we would get breakfast and hike around until Brian’s wife Robin came to get us to take us back to their place.
At this point in time, the boys had showered off the day before. Rachel and I decided to be super gross and walk around everywhere stinkin’ and being proud of it. We were greasy, sweaty, smelly, tangled and loved every second of it. We proved that girls are definitely grosser than boys. If backpacking is one thing: it’s wildly unattractive!
We took a final team photo (minus Dane – who was heading north now on the LHHT to complete his 140-mile yo-yo!) in front of the Cucumber Falls sign. The photo above it is from our first day on the the trail. My favorite thing besides the clothing/weather change (60-degree difference between the two!) is the stance everyone has. We are clearly much more relaxed and comfortable with each other. When you spend 5 days together; coming in as strangers on a wilderness trip, winging the days where things go awry, bunking up in shelters in below-freezing weather and yurts…ya get to know each other quick. And well. These people became much more than Facebook friends that week. They became my trail family. Living a very simple life, even for just a week – puts a lot in perspective.
Soon, Robin arrived and we started off on the 2-hour drive back to the Ford’s homestead. That night pizza was on the menu, as well as actual showers and real beds! We hung out on the patio for the rest of the night, laughing about all of our shenanigans past and looking forward to our survival fire-starting class the next day with Dan Wowak of Coalcracker Bushcraft/Alone.
Our last day, Friday, May 4th was super chill. We had breakfast and coffee down the road at an amazing bakery. Then we lazed on Brian’s patio and went through all of our photos, food bags, and sponsored gear and item donations.
We were expecting the Coalcracker crew around noon. It was a super windy day – comical almost, especially because we were learning to start fires with different tools and methods. We had a GREAT time!Robin cooked up an incredible Cinco de Mayo spread. Taco bar, with all the fixings! As dusk rolled in along with a thunderstorm, Rachel and I headed back down to our little basement apartment and packed our things so everything would be ready for the trip home the next day.
She had a 5-hour drive to New York and Scott and I had an 11-hour drive back to Springfield, IL where Turkey was picking me up and meeting us for dinner. (Horseshoes at Darcy’s Pint!)
Finally, we made it back, and I made it home from Springfield where I had every intention of beginning my blog entries but I wasn’t ready yet. I had to process what this trip did for me and what it meant to me. I still don’t think I have all the words. I’m kind of winging it.
There is not one negative thing I could say about anyone I met on this adventure.
Brian – with his passion for connecting, guiding and building a pleasant experience for people. His desired payback comes in the form of others’ joy. Without him this trip wouldn’t be possible. I can’t thank him enough for this experience. Secret hippie. Friend to all!
Scott – knows when to be sincere and when to be the ultimate joker. The constant laughtrack. The heart and soul behind Gear Forward. Awesome storyteller. Cruise Control.
Adam – the kindest and most genuine person I know. Forever friend. A caretaker and super genius. Movie quote extraordinaire. Fellow snack bagger. Llama fanatic.
Dane – a gentle and wise individual. I felt safe always when Dane was near. His words true and soft spoken, his love for the trail so very evident. A true LHHT Sherpa. Best pun/joke maker.
Rachel – my lady counterpart. So unexpectedly strong and HILARIOUS, in tiny form. Amazingly fierce, she owns everything she conquers. Nothing holds her back. Fellow dog mom. Appreciator of all day snacking. May have a tapeworm.
Harlee – woof woof! Bark! Grrrrrrr. Woof!
And here we are now.
Days after the dirt, sweat, and stank of long days in the woods are rinsed off, a faint and sweet reminder of my home for that week catches me and holds me still. A bittersweet whiff of near-washed out campfire in my long and forever tangled hair. J
Category: UncategorizedTags: adventure, backpacking, camping, epic social adventures, Featured, Hbf outdoors, hike, hiking, Laurel Highlands hiking trail, LHHT, nature, Ohiopyle, opt outside, optoutside, outdoors, Pennsylvania, roadtrip, stories, trail family, tramily, travel, vacation, yurT