Stretching along Laurel Mountain, from the picturesque Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle State Park to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail offers backpackers a scenic and challenging 70-mile hike, just a little over an hour’s drive from Downtown Pittsburgh. Originally I was planning to do the trail with a friend over a five-day period. But then I learned of The Crucible — a three-day, complete hike of the trail held every September to benefit the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania. This was the event’s fifth year, and they were calling it “The Crucible — 5 Years of Pain.”
For some reason it sounded fun. (I shouldn’t be allowed to make my own decisions.) Plus, asking my wife to stay with the kids and let me go romping around in the woods for three days instead of five sounded a lot more reasonable. On top of that, they’d feed me and provide medical attention, should I need it. And it was for a good cause. So that’s how this past September I found myself barreling down the turnpike to the Route 653 Trailhead, which would serve as base camp for this three-day challenge.
Of course I got lost along the way (thanks, Google Maps) and found myself rambling aimlessly down some lonely, narrow, gravel road that brought James Dickey’s “Deliverance” to mind. Not exactly the way I wanted to kick off my adventure. I took it as a bad omen.
Eventually I arrived at base camp and immediately scarfed down a meal of pulled pork, brisket, potato salad and cole slaw, provided by Falls City Pub in Ohiopyle, which is where the hike would end three days later. After that I chatted briefly with several other Crucible newbies before darkness and mosquitoes forced me into the cab of my pickup where I’d be spending a long, anxious night.
The next morning at 6:45 I boarded the shuttle with my fellow hikers — 72 in all — as we left base camp and headed to the start at the 70-mile marker in Seward. Other than a few people sharing some nervous, pre-hike chatter, the rest of the bus was eerily quiet. I assume like me they were all thinking about (and somewhat dreading) the next three days, which would push our mental and physical capacities to the limit. The plan was to hike 24 miles the first day and 28 miles the second, before finishing up with a short (ha!) 19.5 miles to Ohiopyle. It sounded crazy, for sure. But, heck, they’d been doing this for five years now. How hard could it be?
In his book, Bryson mentions how the first day of any hike is the hardest. Well, it was too early to tell, but my 17-lb. pack was causing me considerable discomfort as I made my way up the first four uphill miles of the trail. How I’d be able to carry this load for the duration, I had no idea.
Yet, despite the pain, I was happy. After all, I was finally realizing my dream — I was doing a multi-day hike! As we winded our way through tunnels of glacial rock and mountain laurel, I couldn’t help but feel overcome with emotion.
Most of the first day I hiked alone, which was fine because the trail was relatively flat and I had my favorite podcasts to keep me company. Plus there were aid stations with food and water scattered every six or seven miles. But the last five miles, which featured some long, tough climbs, were brutal. It took everything I had just to stumble the last hundred yards or so to our first night’s camp at the Route 30 shelters.
It was blustery and cold that night on the ridge, despite it being warm and sunny at the base of the mountain. Thankfully, a man named Bob, one of the several volunteers supporting the hike, had gotten a nice bonfire going before I and most of the hikers arrived. After a dinner of brats and burgers, I took in as much heat as I could by the fire before climbing into my hammock around 8:30 p.m. With the wind whipping and rain in the forecast for the early morning, I was regretting not snagging a spot in one of the several shelters. I couldn’t help but feel somber with tomorrow’s 28-mile hike looming.
At 4 a.m. I found myself leaping from my hammock and high-tailing it to the relative safety of the campsite restroom as lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the mountaintop. Suspended between two towering trees was no place to be during an electric storm. Finally the weather cleared around 5:30 a.m., and I latched on to a group of hikers heading down the trail with headlamps ablaze. I wanted to get an early start, and I couldn’t imagine another day of solo hiking. Luckily the four of them — Clint, John, Scott and Jen, all members of the same gym (Innate Fitness in Latrobe) — were more than welcoming. And thanks to Bob, who offered to drive sleeping supplies back to base camp, my pack was noticeably lighter, which would turn out to make a huge difference as the day dragged on.
And drag on it did. For twelve long, feet-pounding, knee-aching hours. Pennsylvania trails are notorious for being rocky and unforgiving on joints. On top of that, the metal clasps of my 1970s-era, external-frame, Boy-Scout pack squeaked with every single step, driving me close to insanity. Worse yet, I had forgotten to lube up, if you catch my drift. Big mistake. Before long my nether regions were inflamed like the netherworld, making every step literally feel like hell. Then, as we neared the end of the day’s hike, Clint spotted a large bear track in the mud right in the center of the trail, reminding us that we weren’t the only large mammals in the area.
I was pretty much delirious as I stumbled back into base camp at 6 p.m. For hours my feet had been feeling like I was walking barefoot on broken glass. And I already mentioned the chafing issue. Thankfully Bob was waiting for me with an ice-cold Yuengling, which helped to ease the pain a bit. Once again I slept in the cab of my truck that night, having no energy to set up my hammock and more than a little unnerved at the thought of a large, hungry, ursine visitor roaming somewhere nearby.
The five of us left before sunrise the next morning, hoping to get a good start on the final nineteen miles and possibly make it into Ohiopyle in time to catch the Steelers game. I started off feeling surprisingly well, considering the previous day’s more-than-a-marathon jaunt. Besides, this was it — the final day! Surely I could stay upright a measly nineteen miles on my way to hiking glory. Then again, maybe not.
The first seven miles or so were relatively flat and enjoyable. We even paused from time to time to take in a secluded lake or scenic vista. Turns out this was just the trail’s way of lulling us into a false sense of security. It wasn’t long before it all went to hell.
With eleven miles to go, my dogs were already barking loudly. Howling would be more like it. Plus, the chafing had gotten worse and my right kneecap felt like it had a Ginsu knife stuck in it every time we descended a hill, which was often on this last, mostly downhill leg of the hike. That’s not to say there weren’t any lung-busting, quad-burning ascents. There were. Several, in fact. I’m convinced the designer of this trail was a masochist.
The final six miles were devastating. One particularly steep and stony descent seemed to go on for miles, setting my kneecap aflame with every precarious step. That was followed by another precipitous and lengthy climb that tested every ounce of my quickly dwindling strength. The last few miles the trail, which in places is nothing more than a narrow and treacherous goat path with plenty of rock and roots to navigate, took every ounce of my concentration. One misstep here could send you falling and flailing down to the rushing waters of the Youghiogheny far below. Remind me again why I was doing this?
Finally at 1:30 p.m., my new friend Clint and I stumbled across the finish line together, our 70.5-mile journey mercifully at an end. Seventy-two people had begun three days earlier; only thirty eight made it all the way. I was overcome with joy and quite certain I never wanted to hike again. Others, however, were already talking about coming back next year!
Clearly they were delusional from exhaustion.