AT 2017: Day 80, Harpers Ferry to Dahlgren Backpack Campground

That path is for your steps alone

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Leaving Kim this morning in Harpers Ferry was entirely different than when I left her nearly three months ago on Springer Mountain.

Instead of cold and rain, it was a warm and sunny day.

Instead of being alone, my longtime friend, Ralph, and my new friend, Stick, were with me.

Instead of being untested, I had a body that had become well-conditioned over more than 1,000 miles of walking.

And instead of a small measure of uncertainty of what was ahead for me, I now had clear focus and a committed expectation I could, barring injury, reach Mt. Katahdin.

DateThursday, June 29, 2017
WeatherMostly sunny and warm, high in mid 80s
Trail ConditionsFlat along the canal towpath, then moderately rocky footbed over easy terrain
Today's Miles17.8
Trip Miles1040.9

So why was I feeling lonely and unsure? Why was my heart hurting again, just as it did that cold and rainy day?

It was hard for me to shake those feelings today.

Kim and I were up and out of the hotel early this morning. We had a 30-minute drive back to Harpers Ferry, where we needed to pick up Stick and Ralph.

We then returned to the Storer College campus to say our goodbyes. It was 8:30 a.m. when Stick, Ralph and I began our walk on the blue blaze trail back to the Appalachian Trail.

Returning to the trail at Harpers Ferry

Though we were still in Harpers Ferry, the first part of our walk seemed like an immediate return to the forest.

Harper Cemetery

Before long, we passed Harper Cemetery. It was named for the founder of Harpers Ferry, Robert Harper.

He wasn’t the area’s original white settler, though. The first European to live here was Peter Stephens, who was considered a squatter because Lord Fairfax owned this land.

Stephens sold the land he didn’t own in 1747 to Robert Harper for 60 British guinea.

Harper continued to operate the ferry Stephens had started and began developing a town. He had big expectations for it, and set aside four acres for this cemetery. But when he died in 1782 there were only three houses in the town.

Jefferson Rock

A short distance farther down the trail we came to Jefferson Rock.

Thomas Jefferson stood on this rock on October 25, 1783. Later he wrote of his view from this spot, "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

View from Jefferson Rock

From here we could see the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

John Quincy Adams was less impressed with the view than Jefferson. He wrote in 1834, "There is not much of the sublime in the scene, and those who first see it after reading Mr. Jefferson's description are usually disappointed.”

Jefferson Rock

Jefferson and Adams were by no means the only tourists to stand here. The shale slab became unstable because so many people stood on it, and sometime around 1860 four stone pillars had to be placed beneath it to stabilize it.

ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church

The trail then descended toward the historic district of Harpers Ferry, first passing by the ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church, one of the first churches of the town. It was damaged during the Civil War, but was rebuilt after the war ended.

The church was abandoned in 1895 when a new church was built nearby.

Walking down stone steps

Some stone steps took us down to the commercial area of the town.

Harpers Ferry

It was still early in the day, so there weren’t many tourists in the street.

Shortly after the end of the American Revolution and before he became president of the United States, George Washington became president of the Patowmack Company.

Patowmack was the original spelling of Potomac, and the company was formed to complete river improvements on and around that river.

As company president Washington traveled to Harpers Ferry in 1785 to inspect the site for the construction of bypass canals and sluices.

With his knowledge of the area, Washington recommended in 1794 putting a new federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry. The government purchased 125 acres from the heirs of Robert Harper and construction of the armory began in 1799.

Small arms were produced here for the U.S. Army. For the next 60 years, more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols were produced.

John Brown’s Fort

John Brown’s Fort was the next building we walked by.

In 1859 this building became the centerpiece of a plan to incite an armed insurrection against slavery. A staunch abolitionist named John Brown led 21 men on a raid of the arsenal with a plan to steal the weapons, use them to attack slaveholders, then enlist the liberated slaves into the revolt.

The plan failed and Brown was captured by soldiers under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, with assistance of J.E.B. Stuart, two future generals for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

After a trial, Brown was hung for murder and treason in nearby Charles Town, W.Va.

Another future general there to witness Brown’s hanging was Thomas J. Jackson. Just two years later at the Battle of Bull Run, Jackson would become famous by earning the nickname “Stonewall”, and would later die at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

I could go on and on with more fascinating facts about Harpers Ferry, but I’ll stop with just one more.

There was another person in Charles Town to witness John Brown’s hanging who would go on to play a pivotal role in American history. John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd as a member of a militia unit called the Richmond Grays.

Winchester and Potomac Railroad Bridge

Still following white blazes, we next headed to the Winchester and Potomac Railroad Bridge to cross the river about where Robert Harper’s ferry once ran.

Crossing the Potomac River

Once we had crossed the half-way point we were in Maryland, my sixth state of this hike.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

For the first few miles the trail followed the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The canal operated from 1831 to 1924 for hauling coal, lumber and agricultural products.

Potomac River

The Potomac was usually shallow but prone to floods, so it was unreliable for navigation. The canal made this area an important transportation center.

Though the original plan was to connect all the way to the Ohio River, the canal was only constructed to run 184.5 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md.

The towpath is now maintained by the National Park Service, and can be used for walking and biking.

Turtles on the C&O Canal

The canal, on the other hand, was mostly not maintained. It may have been a nice place for turtles, but it was certainly no longer navigable.

Dory and Splat

As we approached one of the canal’s locks, Lock 31, which is also called Weverton Lock, the trail turned away from the Potomac and left the canal towpath.

It was here that we saw Dory and Splat again. This was the first time we had seen them since Shenandoah National Park.


The lock was named for Caspar Willis Wever, an engineer and superintendent for the B&O Railroad. Wever attempted to harness the water power of the river to develop an industrial village here, but the project failed. At one time a hotel, store, train station and saloon were located on this spot.

From here the trail climbed a ridge and entered South Mountain State Park.

Ed Garvey Shelter

We stopped for lunch at a shelter named in honor of Edward B. Garvey, who was a long-time trail volunteer and advocate. Through his roles with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Appalachian Trail Conference, and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, he helped get the National Trails System Act passed and signed in 1968.

Garvey died in 1999 at the age of 84.

Lunch at Ed Garvey Shelter

The shelter was constructed from November 1999 to February 2000, with much of the work done by deaf students from Washington, D.C. and the Maryland School for the Deaf. It was built in sections and then hauled here for final assembly.

Gathland tomb

The trail continued along the long ridge, then entered Gathland State Park. This land was once owned by George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. In 1884 he bought the land and called it Gathland, which is derived from his pen name, Gath.

The first building we saw in the park was a tomb Townsend built for himself, but he was never interred here. He died in 1914 in New York and was buried in Philadelphia.

A white marble slab over the mausoleum door says, "Good Night Gath”.

George Alfred Townsend house

Townsend created an odd collection of buildings and structures, which was something of a hobby of his. Most are in ruins today, but one of the buildings that remains largely intact is his home.

War Correspondent Memorial

Nearby was a monument he built in 1896 as a memorial to his fellow war correspondents.

Girl Scouts

We were greeted by a small group of enthusiastic Girl Scouts and their leaders. They were offering Girl Scout cookies and other snacks to thru-hikers.

Gathland trail magic

There was a park pavilion here, so it was a nice spot to relax in the shade.

AT carved in log

The trail made a steep climb up to another ridge top. About a quarter-mile off the trail was Crampton Gap Shelter, but we passed by the side trail without stopping.

White Rock Cliff

The trail continued to climb as it followed the ridge. We stopped near the highpoint at an overlook called White Rock Cliff.


Here we met another hiker I had not seen since Shenandoah, Mechanic. Stick spent some time with him yesterday in Harpers Ferry.

Gravity caught in tree

Late in the day there was a light rain, but it wasn't enough to worry about. The only trouble I had was when a tree reached out and grabbed my pack. It took some twisting and turning to get untangled.

Monument for Union Major General Jesse Reno

At about 7 p.m. we reached a small clearing called Wise's Field, also known as Fox's Gap. There were a couple of large granite markers here and some information signs.

The area was a farm owned by Daniel Wise when on September 14, 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers fought in a skirmish during the Battle of South Mountain.

A large stone monument honors Union Major General Jesse Reno, who was shot in the chest and died.

Monument for Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland, Jr.

The other marker commemorates the spot were Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland, Jr. was killed while leading Confederate soldiers in the battle.

Dahlgren Backpacker Campground

It wasn’t until 7:30 when we finally reached Dahlgren Backpacker Campground, which had a wide, flat area for tents and a concrete block building with restrooms and showers.

Stick and Ralph at Dahlgren Backpacker Campground

Thankfully, nightfall doesn’t happen until late this time of year, so we had plenty of time to set up our tents and cook dinner before dark.

Dory and Splat were among the many hikers camped here tonight. There weren’t many empty spots for tents.

At last when the sun began to go down, we decided we should hang our food bags on the bear pole. Unfortunately, because there were so many campers here several bags were already hanging on each hook.

After some difficulty getting the first of our food bags up on a hook, Ralph scrambled up the bear pole like a raccoon, and we passed the food bags up to him to hang on the pole.

Ralph is the oldest of us three and this was his first day on the trail. Stick and I just stood there in disbelief of his agility.

Finally, after a long day on the trail with many interesting sights along the way, it was time for bed.

Unbeknownst to me until I was far down the trail this morning after leaving Kim in Harpers Ferry, she posted this on Facebook:

"A big part of my heart and life is back on the Appalachian Trail. Smooth travels, Gravity; we'll meet again at trail's end. Your Lazy Hiker will keep the light on and blow a kiss to the moon for you each night."

She also posted some lyrics from her favorite Grateful Dead song, which spoke to and for us both.

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall, you fall alone
If you should stand, then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way, I would take you home


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.