I was 10 or 11 when I went on the camping trip. We had been camping before. My entire family would pack into my dad’s orange ‘73 VW Beetle. The trunk, which was in the front, would barely close and we usually had at least one trash bag stuffed with gear and tied to the roof. My sisters and I would pack into the back, we’d pick up my mom from work in center city and head out. Nomads. Off to some campground for the weekend where we’d meet family or friends and the weekend of living in a five person dome tent would commence. The adults would settle in under the awning of my uncle’s permanently parked camper and the kids would disappear into the surrounding woods. For a kid from the city, even the smallest stretch of woods held ideas of adventures that were enough to make my wandering mind wish that my wandering feet could keep up. These are the memories of my childhood outdoors.
This camping trip though was different. For this trip, my sisters and my mom were not coming along. They were not included. This trip was too much for them. This trip was beyond what they’d think was fun. It would be different than all of the other camping trips. This trip was for boys only. The men. Not for the faint of heart. In the mind of a ten year old boy with two sisters close in age, this was music to my ears and sure sign of the epic adventure that would ensue. Bow and arrows, knives and fire. Sleeping under the stars. We were going to a place called Worlds End. For a kid from southwest Philadelphia, this name alone held in it stories of survival, adventure and fortitude plucked from the pages of Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson.
Worlds End State park is situated in northern Pennsylvania, slightly north east of Williamsport. It is in a region known as the Endless Mountains. The majority of the park is intersected by the Loyalsock creek, a big, rocky and at times tumultuous flow. On my way to Worlds End for this latest adventure, I wound my way through backroads from home to these endless mountains, forcing Google Maps to avoid highways, conjuring the ideals of William Least Heat Moon and Cactus Ed. The race, which was the reason for this trip, would begin before the sun, and would find me wandering along the Loyalsock Trail, up onto ridges and deep into the valleys and endlessly meandering in these appropriately named mountains.
Another race. Another opportunity to be isolated. To be alone. To be forced to tap into something innate but forgotten. To test the mettle. To experience, albeit self inflicted, some semblance of a story of perseverance and survival.
The connection is hard to overlook and as I careen briefly along the banks of the creek, I think back. I am consumed by the memory of the first trip. The first and perhaps most important wander into the wilderness at world’s end. The trip that helped to form a connection to the outside world that would be hard to move past. Hard to push aside and quiet its unending call.
I remember in vivid yet fragmented images. The clips that comprise memories logged and and categorized, waiting to be recalled. Each time a bit shorter, a bit less clear, a bit harder to quickly conjure to the top of the playlist. Except for some.
We pulled off of the road, the gravel crunching under the tires as we made the switch from blacktop to shoulder. We stood around briefly. There was pointing towards the creek, discussion that did not matter to my 10 year old brain and finally movement. Towards the creek. Towards a small raised plateau. The rocky stream bed encircled the high spot on most of its perimeter and what wasn’t bordered by the stoney stream bed was bordered by the flowing creek. The Loyalsock flowed quickly and cold around the right hand side of the platform of land where we would make camp. In high water, this platform would undoubtedly become an island and I was thankful for the blue skies that greeted me when I gazed to the sky.
The details of this first semi-backcountry trip blend and blur, broken into segments and flashes centered on key details.
I remember making a bow and arrow. I remember jumping into the creek on the upstream side of our “island” and floating around to the downstream side, then shortcutting across the top to do it again. I remember a snake in the water feet from where I was swimming, it raising its head to get a better look as I frantically splashed towards shore. I remember fires, big and warm. I remember being lost in the embers, my mind drifting along as if carried on the whisps of smoke that escaped the flames skyward toward the flickering stars just beginning to form in the early night sky.
In my memory, this first trip really has no beginning or end. The particulars have been washed away like the remnants of our camp by an early spring flood. Details carried on the surging flow of time whose speed increases continually and without stop. But what is firmly lodged in my memory of this first wilderness trip is the budding sprout that would grow over time into what it is today. A deep connection and need to be in and appreciate the wilds that surround us. It is an appreciation and awareness that was built on the foundation of this trip and would become the base for the cumulative experiences to come.
Like the early camping trip this race moves past in a nebulous flash.
The 5am start time seemed early as I slid into my sleeping bag in the back of the Subaru just as the sun was setting on Friday night. But as is often the case, I slept uneasy, waking multiple times, my legs restless and ready to run and my heart thumping its staccato as if the climbing had already begun. Finally, it was close enough to my scheduled alarm and I decided to get up. I prepped as usual. Same foods, same planned clothes, same routine. I headed down to the race start and waited for the day to begin.
Like my childhood Worlds End experience, this race is similarly cloudy. The details of the story obscured not by the passing of time but by the passing of miles. Blurred by hard effort. By deep breaths. By burning legs. By mountains climbed and streams crossed. There were times of overwhelming struggle followed by times where I moved as if disconnected from the ground, the technical trails passing underfoot smoothly and effortlessly. There was the friendly and much needed banter and support of the folks at the aid stations. There were the tables of food which always had just what I needed, just when I needed it. There were huge vistas and never ending stream valleys. And eventually, yet sooner than expected, I had one final steep descent. One final plummet from the top of the ridge to the valley floor. I pushed as hard as I could, my legs swollen and chest full of as much air as my lungs would allow. I passed beneath the finishing arch just as it began to rain. I bent down, elbows to knees, hands pressed together as if in prayer and breathed in deeply the accomplishment of the day. I sat on a bench and let the steady rain wash the salt from my skin. I remember the connection formed long ago. The awareness to acknowledge the penetrating quiet, embrace the fear of pushing oneself too far. To yield to the strong bond with all things wild. To embrace the need to be up against the limit, the boundary of what we can, should or allow ourselves to do. To be grateful for the foundation which formed on the little plateau in Worlds End 30 or so years ago and the love for wide open spaces it has cultivated that is now, in this very spot, coming full circle.
The rain increased. The roar of the downpour now far louder than my memory of the sound generated by the stream that passed the elevated plateau on the banks of the Loyalsock creek.