White blazes mark the AT in Pennsylvania
I’m currently in Stroudsburg, PA recovering from finishing the Pennsylvania section of the AT. I’m now certain that the northern PA section of the AT was designed and built by sadists, but perhaps that is a topic best explored at a different time. Anyway, when I woke up Monday morning at the Leroy Smith shelter I decided to make a mad dash for Delaware Water Gap, just to be done with Pennsylvania once and for all. I made it, walking over an endless series of rocks and boulders for at least 90% of the 20 miles it took to get to the end of the line. The AT gods punished this lack of appreciation by drenching me in a thunderstorm just as I entered town.
After 12 days hiking in Pennsylvania, I’m now taking time off to learn how to walk on flat surfaces again. I’m not kidding. My gait was transformed by the AT in PA. I still pick up and put my feet down as if I were traversing rocks and boulders. This ends up looking a bit odd when you are striding down a sidewalk. The people in town must look at me and think “I wonder how long this man has been in rehabilitation since his stroke? He is very brave to be walking around like that in public”. This is the price you pay for getting through Pennsylvania. On a map the Pennsylvania AT looks like it should be “easy” – only modest elevation changes. But, it involves a huge amount of rock climbing. But it is almost exclusively (Lehigh Gap notwithstanding), horizontal rock climbing. That is what you do – each step is climbing over rocks. If you hike the AT in PA you are a rock climber. No ifs, ands or buts.
This brings me to today’s other topic – blazing. The trademark characteristic of the entire 2,190 miles of the AT are the white blazes painted on trees (and, yes, on rocks as well) to show you the proper path. Someone with some serious issues actually counted all the blazes he saw as he did his thru hike a few years ago and reported that there are over 80,000 blazes. That’s a fair number in my book. So “white blazing” is an active verb, suggesting that you are hiking the AT. However, there are other types of blazing as well.
Blue blazes mark the path off the AT to springs, shelters, alternate trails, outhouses, etc. “Blue Blazing” as a verb refers generally to taking a short cut on the trail to cut down on the miles or to avoid ominous features that misguided trail designers have worked into the AT. For example, to continue picking on Pennsylvania, one can avoid “Wolf Rocks” by taking a blue blazed bypass trail. For someone wanting to assert that they have thru hiked the AT, “blue blazing”, as it is called, is in kind of a gray zone.
Less sporting for those claiming to thru hike the AT is “yellow blazing”. This involves getting in a car to avoid pesky features like a 900 foot rock scramble of the vertical kind out of Lehigh Gap, or just cutting down on the total miles you want to hike. In the Shenandoah, there is a lot of talk about “aqua blazing”. Here you completely stop pretending to be on the Appalachian Trail and instead float down the Shenandoah River in a kayak or raft. You can get pretty much all the way to Harpers Ferry this way. I’ve been accused in some quarters as being a bit rigid at times, but I think even these detractors would agree with me that this isn’t playing by the thru hiking rules, so to speak.
Finally, we come to a type of blazing that doesn’t cause arguments about whether you are “really” thru hiking the AT. I refer here to “pink blazing”. Color aside, this type of blazing refers to the art of romance on the trail – and there is a lot of romance going on even when everyone is dirty, sweaty and hasn’t showered in 3, 4 or even more days. Speaking of which, TBS (“time between showers” for the uninitiated) is a way to prove how macho you are and does come up in conversations in the evening around the campfire. I impressed my shelter mates recently when I mentioned that my max TBS so far was 10 days. No one else had more than a 5 day TBS. I owned that night. A word of caution however to those seeking to improve their TBS – maxing out your TBS just before meeting your spouse for a day off the trail does not “max out” your chances for romance.
Okay, yes, I’ve digressed again. Back to romance, even with the TBS factor. Some pink blazing is obvious – for example when you are spending time at a hostel and can observe your fellow hikers at closer quarters (no, I am NOT some creepy stalker). More subtle is noticing the pairing up of hikers who previously seemed to be on solo thru hikes. As in “real life”, the romance on the trail can be long lasting, or tragically cut short. A hostel owner with whom I was chatting told of a hiker who showed her an engagement ring he was carrying, while passing through Hot Springs, NC. He planned to give it to the woman with whom he was currently hiking when they made it to the end of the AT – the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Very romantic indeed. Alas, by the time they reached Damascus, VA (200 miles north), the romance was over and his betrothed-to-be was pink blazing with another. Such is life.
So, I must make a confession. When I decided to write about blazing, I desperately wanted to cleverly work into the entry a reference to Mel Brooks’ movie masterpiece “Blazing Saddles”. I thought long and hard about how I could do this. Surely there was a connection to be made between white blazing on the AT and Alex Karras punching a horse, cowboys sitting around a campfire eating their fill of beans, or Cleavon Little looking smart on his horse with his Gucci saddle bags. But, alas, I must report that I failed. So, there will be no reference in this entry about AT blazing to “Blazing Saddles”. I promise.