It’s cold at 3am and quiet at the campsite along the Appalachian Trail. When I rise a few hours later to heat water for coffee, the sun is lightening the sky to the east. The scouts will be up soon quietly making an amazing amount of noise. We’ll eat breakfast, pack up and move south on the trail. We walk mostly single file along the spine of the mountain range that’s part of a trail running from Maine to Georgia. Today we’ll hike just a few miles to Harpers Ferry, WV where the trail drops to the Potomac river and then a couple of miles past that to where cars and ‘real life’ wait. But for now the sounds of boots on dirt and the sights of forest, rock, sky and valley are a world and an experience outside our normal reality, above it. Before we descend from the mountains, we’ll stop on Weaverton Rocks for lunch. We are over 600 feet above the river. Thirty miles east is Washington, DC, due west we can see the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers marking the town of Harpers Ferry. Below us, the wide, majestic, Potomac, flows east to the capitol, the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. We cannot hear the river yet, the breeze and the boys keep our ears full but we can watch and amidst the talk and lunch, a kind of solitude is possible. From this rocky vantage it is possible to imagine civil war batteries firing down on the town and armory, floods raging on the rain-swollen rivers, lives lived in the quiet hills.
The Appalachian Trail is an easily reachable treasure accessible at many points from Philadelphia. Whether you drive south-west to hike south to Harpers Ferry or drive north-west to Hawk Mountain to scrape your shins on sharp rocks, or drive north to Lehigh Gap where you can walk over the turnpike, or to a hundred other vista points far from your normal world, do it. Go there and find your solitude on this amazing trail. Walk, watch, feel the earth and sky and appreciate the gift you have so close at hand.