It was a perfect spring day. Temperatures were in the low 70s with sunny skies sparkling off the azure blue water of the Potomac River. Harper’s Ferry was bustling with weekend tourists and adventure seekers bicycling, rock climbing, kayaking, fishing and hiking along, on and above this life giving water. Birds sang joyfully in the trees overhead; especially abundant were the bright orange and black Baltimore orioles. Butterflies fluttered and danced from flower to flower, while Canada geese tended to their young and floated on the currents. All of God’s creatures seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this fabulous spring day.
The train had arrived around 11:00 am and I made my way from the stationo to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy office for the traditional post card photo. I was enjoying the sights and history of Harper’s Ferry. My plan was to stay at the Harper’s Ferry Hostel just outside of town and begin my northward journey the next morning on my birthday. (I definitely reccommend the hostel which is capable of accomodating large groups and is very reasonably priced, $20.16). On the west side of the railway bridge where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac, there is a double white blaze marker indicating the turn in the trail that will carry you east across the railway bridge that spans the Potomac and brings you into Maryland from West Virginia; my first state border crossing.
Now I don’t know if it was because I was so distracted by the gorgeous environment or if someone may have blocked the view of the next blaze, or what, but for whatever reason, once I crossed the bridge and descended the spiral iron-grated stairs – (a personally challenging obstacle for me…I tend to freeze up on these types of stairs, but today, my fear only caused minor quivering in my knees) — I instinctively headed upstream along the C&O towpath. I knew the Potomac flowed south toward Washington, D.C. so I naturally headed north. I was, afterall, a NoBo, right?
There are over 84,000 white blazes marking the trail between Georgia and Maine and you would think with such a large amount of markings, that it would be impossible to get lost or make a wrong turn, but in reality, it happens more often than you would think.
I kept watching for blazes and knew I would be making another turn to the hostel near another bridge, but I didn’t see any blazes or bridges. I heard the teachings of previous hikers echo in my head, ‘If you don’t see a white blaze within 1/2 mile, you are probably off the trail and should turn back.’, but I brushed the thought aside KNOWING that I was heading NORTH and rationalizing that because the tow path was so wide, graded and heavily traveled that there really was no need for blazes to guide you along it. Surely, I would see a blaze near the turn to the hostel.
1 mile, no blaze…1 1/2 miles, no blaze…maybe I’ve misjudged the distance…2 miles, no blaze, no bridge. Ok, something isn’t right. I ask a couple approaching my from the opposite direction; ‘Is the Sandy Hook bridge nearby?”
“Yes, there’s a bridge just ahead.”
Ok, just a little further, I think to myself. I round a turn on the path, only a small foot bridge is visible on my right. Definitely not the large bridge required to carry the Route 340 traffic for which I was searching. I confer with the next gentleman approaching me and he looks at my map, studying if for a moment to orient himself, then informs me that what I’m looking for is on the SOUTH side of the Harper’s Ferry railway bridge.
Again, I hear voices of advice in my head, ‘The trail doesn’t always go cardinal or geographically north on the way north.’ I thank the gentleman and turn south to retrace my steps to the railway bridge. As I pass the railway bridge, I see a white blaze on a post just a few yards south on the towpath. Before long, I would be at the hostel.
I chuckled a little at my wrong turn and how I became ‘lost’ on the A.T. with over 84,000 blazes to mark the way. I had added 4 miles to my walk that day and didn’t regret a minute of it. The water was beautiful, the weather was perfect, the wildlife abundant and the people were happy.