BOONSBORO -- In three months on the Appalachian Trail, Jim Parkins has met a federal judge, a doctor, countless Boy Scouts, marijuana-smoking college graduates, and a married couple who celebrate their anniversary each year by feeding hikers for a week.
"People who would never talk to each other in the world get along great," said Parkins, a 53-year-old resident of Derby, Conn., as he rested his legs and smoked a cigarette near Annapolis Rock, a popular landmark with a spectacular view of the Cumberland Valley.
The many characters of the 2,180-mile path from Georgia to Maine meet up with day-trippers from Baltimore, Frederick and Hagerstown on this busy stretch of trail near its crossing with U.S. 40.
On weekends, cars and trucks fill a trailhead parking lot and overflow onto the shoulders of the road. Hikers pass over Interstate 70 and then under a U.S. 40 bridge, somewhere between the trail’s unofficial midpoint in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and its actual halfway mark in southern Pennsylvania.
The promise of moderate hikes and easy highway access draw outdoor enthusiasts from near and not-so-near.
"That Route 40 access point is one of the most used — and I’ll say overused — access points along the trail," said Sarah Rodriguez, a park ranger for the state's South Mountain Recreation Area.
One recent weekday morning, the trail connected Parkins, swarthy with a long, salt-and-pepper beard, and 6-year-old Liam Hudson of Towson — one of the encounters between "through hikers" who are making the six-month trek of the entire trail, most speeding northward, hiking poles in hand, and day hikers on the trail for a leisurely walk or perhaps to camp overnight.
"Are you hiking to Maine?" the Rodgers Forge Elementary School student asked Parkins, the same question he had already posed to half a dozen others on the trail.
Going north from U.S. 40, the trail traverses the border between Frederick and Washington counties in a wide, sometimes rocky section. A steady climb brings hikers to the long ridge of South Mountain, and to Annapolis Rock, about two miles on foot from the road, and to Black Rock, a mile farther on.
On busy days, visitors number in the hundreds. Clare Arentzen, one of two "ridge runners" who work for the state keeping watch over the trail from a camp near Annapolis Rock, said she counted 200 passersby on a recent pleasant Saturday, and 250 the next day — and that doesn't include those who hurry along without stopping to catch a view from the overlook.
Dick Gaylor used to have hikers sign a log book as they passed through his yard, on Boonsboro Mountain Road just south of U.S. 40. In the first year, he tallied 2,300 names. Another year, the total reached 3,500. Eventually, he couldn’t refill the paper fast enough to keep up with a surge of day hikers, he said.
That can take a toll on the trail, said Peter Johnson, immediate past president of the Mountain Club of Maryland, which is responsible for maintaining a nearby section of the trail in Pennsylvania.
"The ideal scenario, I think, would be that primarily usage of the trail would be relatively evenly spread across [its] length" he said. "Usage gets concentrated in popular sections, and then there’s other parts of that trail that really give you more of that wilderness experience."
Problems include graffiti and trash, and about a dozen years ago officials had to fence off sections of forest near Annapolis Rock where hikers would camp and build fires, Arentzen said. Now camping there is allowed only in designated areas, and no fires are permitted — the only such restriction at a Maryland campsite, she said.
But there have been fewer problems in recent years, Rodriguez said. Nothing but leaves from a recent storm could be seen littering the path from U.S. 40 to Annapolis Rock.
This section of trail also includes a small lean-to for campers — the Pine Knob shelter — and multiple privies. Wildlife sightings can include copperheads, rattlesnakes and black bears.
Mike Hudson, a Baltimore firefighter, said he spent a lot of time on the trail and around Annapolis Rock as a boy, and recalled visitors having less respect for the “leave no trace” rule of the wilderness. He brought Liam and his other son, Jacob, 11, to the scenic spot to mark their first day of summer vacation and to bask in the natural beauty.
"We literally just decided yesterday we were going to do this," Hudson said. "It's nice."
"It's not just nice," Liam said, "it's fun."
During the week, through hikers have the trail more to themselves. And together, they partake in a common culture, swapping stories and sharing campgrounds along the way. Many know each other only by their “trail names,” often rugged and outdoorsy tags that must be given, and not chosen, explains Global Leader, a 23-year-old from St. Louis who is known as Jake Hughes off the trail.
His trail name comes from letters he has received along the way from a teacher friend’s fifth-grade class. "They were learning about Nelson Mandela and Obama, and they decided I was part of that rank of people," he said.
When he shared the letters with fellow hikers, the name stuck.
The experience creates camaraderie not only among the hikers, but also with others they meet. One stranger recently gave Hughes food, a shower and a ride from Harpers Ferry to Washington in a stop along his journey; another gave him an extra pair of trail shoes to replace the sneakers he was wearing.
Parkins recalled coming across the couple who offer hikers a meal year after year. Gaylor said he has given away thousands of gallons of water over the years and made many trips to transport hikers to the emergency room.
"The trail really provides in ways like that," Hughes said.
A little help can go a long way on the grueling journey, hikers said. There is little you can do to prepare for day after day of a dozen or more miles of hiking.
Parkins lost more than 50 pounds over the first half of his journey, about equal to the weight of the pack he carries. But he said the physical strain isn’t the most difficult aspect.
"The hardest part is the mental part, making yourself get up every morning," Parkins said. He focuses on maintaining a positive attitude — otherwise, what's the point of the journey?
His mantra: "You can either look forward to the steep hill or to the view at the top."
If you go
Visit the Appalachian Trail at U.S. 40 about midway between Frederick and Hagerstown, near the entrance to Greenbrier State Park. A small parking lot at the trailhead can be found at the coordinates N39 32.130 W77 36.223. For more trail information, go to www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/at.asp
About the series
Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share.