A rough hike to Palmerton presents fallible excitement on the trail
April 20, 2012
“Dear Pennsylvania, How I loathe thee. If Virginia is for lovers, Pennsylvania is for haters. If Satan’s feces were rocks, then he must have taken a laxative and taken a big deuce all over your entire state. You will not be missed post-global warming.”—Wazi, an Appalachian Trail hiker
Upon walking across the bridge for the third time, I sighted the trail I was looking for on the Blue Mountain Ridge I had just descended. I was looking for the 1.5 mile blue-blaze, blue paint spots on alternating trees, trail to Palmerton, Pa., so I could stay in the Borough Hall, a community rec facility once a police station.
The trail plainly etched into the toxic mountain that the Palmerton Zinc Company had decimated so much that it turned into a Superfund site, seemed to lead to the haven I was seeking, Palmerton. I traversed the bridge again and took a right at the west end of the bridge walking along the Lehigh River. Having never hitchhiked at this point in my life, I was staunch in not giving it a try, but in earlier articles I note the rewards of doing such.
After walking for a tenth of a mile, I met a mid-forties mother and her tween daughter on the trail. I asked them if this trail led to Palmerton. Her reply was “more or less.” Was I that gullible to take such a vague answer? Yes, yes I was. I took the stance that a bridge would come “sooner or later.”
I continued on the converted railroad bed of rocks that were the size of small baby fists. I had walked over 16 miles that day and was no longer in the mood to humor such heel bruisers. Slowly the trail to dirt and rounded the mountain like rounding the circumference of a circle.
After walking 1.5 miles I saw Palmerton on the other side of the river. To me the obvious answer was to ford the river like I used to do in elementary school with the game Oregon Trail. I walked down the muddy embankment grasping onto weeds whenever I lost my footing. I busted out my $1 thongs from Walmart. I know, a durability test for a Walmart product is pure foolishness.
First step, my sandal got stuck in the coagulated mud, hastily pulling my back and tested for rockier perches. It might be pertinent to say that the river pumps 28,000 gallons per second, is waist high, and about 300 feet wide. Just a little over a third the size of the St. Croix River.
Soon after a few steps I was waist high, knowing no good would come of me getting keeled over by the current with nearly 40 pounds of gear strapped to my back. I shielded my eyes from the sun while looking up river spying some fishermen on a catamaran.
“Ahoy there, is there a bridge nearby?” I asked.
“About 3 miles up river or 1.5 miles south.” They yelled.
“Can I get a ferry to the other side?”
As if to spite them by obtaining some useful information out of them, I started fording the river right in front of them. They yelled to me again, “You’re going to die if you do that, go up river half a mile to where the rapids are its widest at that point.” I went up the embankment again and walked yet another half mile to the rapids. So, I rambled up to the widest point of the river that was covered in a swatch of rapids that came up to my thigh. I pulled out my $1 thongs from Walmart again, Ziplock baggied my valuables, and tied my boots to my back pack.
After many a slip on the rock but steadying myself with my trekking poles, I was able to pass through the 300 plus feet of river. I scrambled onto shore to see a sign, a rusty bent sign for the Palmerton Zinc Company in a soupy swamp. I walked another half mile to town. I walked several blocks to the police station to check into the Borough Hall, but it was closed.
So I continued onto the Borough Hall and found a brute of an old man who rose up to his full height of over 6-feet wearing a mean looking face. I asked him about staying at the Borough Hall.
“Have you signed up yet?”
“Well I just went to the Police Station to sign up, but they were closed.”
“That’s not what I asked you, now was it?” He said it in such an accusatory tone he looked like a bull dog growling with goop dripping down it’s jowls. He clearly did not like indirect answers.
“No sir. I haven’t signed up yet.”
“Well, then you have to sign up if you want to stay.”
I was supposed to be the one that was angry. I just wanted to leave his presence and cool down and sit down. He handed me a bag of goodies including a granola bar, new toothbrush and a small bar of soap.
I walked down to the basement which used to be an old policemen’s locker room. I greeted Rocker, Forty, Cool-Tool and Banana Cream Pie. Broken from the days toil, I laid down and went to sleep.
Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.