The very first time the Blue Mountain was brought into my consciousness, I was a child, driving in the back seat of my parent’s station wagon, coming back from a family vacation at my dad’s hunting camp in Potter County, God’s Country. We were still 45 minutes out from our home in Pennside, near Reading, but we were rolling down the Deer Lake hill and the mountain ridge stretched before us like a painting. “I shot my first deer up there on the Blue Mountain,” dad told the carload of us kids. I don’t know if anyone else was listening, but I was. I was looking hard too. The mountain looked vast, and wild, and much bigger than Mount Penn where our house sat by.
On those drives across Pennsylvania, my dad would instruct us, “Look for deer,” and I’d search the open meadows, especially at the end of the day when they came out to browse. I could not believe I could actually find them all by myself, and so many of them, just by holding them in my mind’s eye. It was as if I magically conjured them up.
My dad took me deer hunting for the very first time when I was 16 on that very same mountain. We drove a small blacktop road, back to where Pa Gamelands 106was. We parked the car at my dad’s friend Ray Steigerwalt’s house- a brown rancher on Rockland Drive. I remember going inside and seeing his walls covered in dead stuffed animals. We only had one dead animal on our wall and that was a mule deer from Wyoming, where my dad went on his dream hunting trip, with Ray. It hangs in my library loft now, nearly sixty years after his big trip.
The Blue Mountain must have impressed me because years later, when I had just finished hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, I was drawn to this mountain again. In fact, I wandered off it lost. I was first following the AT’s white rectangular blazes and got sidetracked on to the white blotchy, state gameland boundary blazes. I decided to live in the Blue Mountain’s shadow and found an apartment in a farmhouse to rent.
I was living in the Singley farmhouse, at the base of Hawk Mountain only one day, before I set off to find some trails to walk. The dirt road that accesses the gamelands up from Drehersville was where I headed. In fact, it was the same access trail that my dad had taken me deer hunting in the grey light of early morning, ten years earlier. With my unopened mail in hand, I climbed the stone road, to a flat, where a pine plantation had been planted. In between the trees, I saw two bucks sparring. They locked horns and went at it, back and forth. I stood unmoving, mesmerized. How fortunate to be witnessing this sight. When the buck ran off, I went into the very same spot, sat down where they had dug up the soft pine-needly soil with their hooves, leaned back against a tree and opened my mail. I felt as though the Blue Mtn had given me a gift, a sign. I felt like I had come home.
I met my lifelong friend, Hop May on that road. He was a young man working for the game commission’s food & cover crew. He became my hunting buddy after my dad passed and was another gift from the Blue Mountain. Hop told me of a trail that cut down off the gamelands road and dropped deeply into a ravine, where old growth trees towered and native brook trout swam in the shadows of the tiny cold Pine Creek. We walked down in there after his shift was done, found a large mossy log to sit on by the stream, in the forest cathedral.
After I discovered this piece of secret heaven, I took my children down into that ravine for an after-school-adventure. I’d surprise them and pick them up in my car, and had fresh peach milkshakes in thermoses in my backpack. We’d head for that mossy log to celebrate the school day being over. It is very steep to drop down into the ravine and Bryce often slid down on his butt, grinding soil into his beige school pants. I never said a word. The adventure was worth it.
Todd and I trained our llamas on that gamelands road. We didn’t drop them into the ravine but remained on the road. It is about a 3.5-mile loop and we used it to get the boys in shape for our annual pilgrimage out west to hike the Continental Divide Trail. For awhile, this loop was referred to as “the lama training loop.”
In a few tenths of a mile, a trail branches off the gamelands road and travels up one of the “Fingers,” a name for the five valleys that are carved down the side of the Blue Mountain here by Hawk Mountain. There is a stream crossing along the trail that has sizeable rocks placed as a dam breast, so you can usually teter on them and not get your feet wet. We never know how high the creek will be, especially if its rained heavily lately. I think about a Veteran Wayne from the Lebanon VA Hospital that came out here with my non-profit, River House PA for a hike. Wayne only has one leg and was able to hike a mile fairly level stone road on a previous outing. This 3 ½ mile loop was like the big league for him, however. I figured he’d walk a bit and then return to the van and wait for the others. But he did not. His determination was unreal. He was able to ford this stream and maintain his balance, while the rest of the Veterans stayed close in case he fell. I was ahead with the faster group and had no idea this near miracle was unfolding behind me. I cannot cross that stream nor hike up past the slick mossy boulders without thinking how difficult it must have been for Wayne and his rubber-tipped crutches.
Shortly afterward the creek crossing, the trail comes alongside a deep pool, where trout hide on the edges. The freezing cold pool is deep enough for a dunk on a hot summer day, as this is our go-to trail when summer temps soar and every other trail makes you sweaty. My teenage kids were standing there, sweating one summer day, eyeing up the refreshing water. “Jump in!” I told them. “Just take your clothing off and take a quick skinny dip. I never see people on this trail.” I convinced them to do it. They jumped in and just as they were finishing up putting on their clothing, here comes somebody down the trail. Not just anybody, however, but a mountain bike race!!!! Multiple people. The kids could have killed me. But in the decades that I have been coming to hike this trail, I never have seen another person before or after that race, and certainly have never seen another bike race in there. Perfect timing!
After the trail crosses a stream, the hemlocks crowd in thick and low. It was in this stretch that Todd and I hiked in with a pruning shears back in 1983. We snipped the then-healthy boughs and used them in our table decorations for our upcoming wedding reception. Todd and I had a homegrown wedding, where we did everything ourselves, including making all the food for 125 guests, including roasting a pig, baking 60 loaves of bread from around the world and had not only a salad bar, but an ice cream sundae bar! Since we married in early December, we used the red & white decorative Moosehead beer bottles to hold our red and white carnations, as well as the green hemlock sprigs that we gathered on the gamelands trail- gifts from the forest as table decorations. I duck beneath the same hemlock trees, and think of that wedding day over three decades in the past. Although they are thinned and skimpy looking, sick from the wooley adelgid insect that has infested the forest, the same trees are still there, hanging in.
The trail in here is cool and wet, as it runs right alongside the creek. Boulders covered with emerald green moss crowd the stream and give the water a place to twist and turn around and give it a voice. At the second crossing, there is an earthen bridge. It is here years ago, that I sat with my friend Les, each of us playing recorders- him an alto, me a soprano. We sat there by the babbling stream and played music and I was so happy. I was single then and had many men friends that came to hike with me and some stayed overnight, like Les. But most were just friends. Les had a girlfriend and it wasn’t me. He drove from West Virginia to spend weekends with me, and we’d bake bread together, go on hikes, play music and lay in my double bed at night, holding hands, talking all night long. That was it. He told me he had wild sex with his girlfriend all night long. I found that hard to believe (ALL night long?) and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want someone like me who could share the important kinds of things that we shared. I had lots of male friends back then (and still do). But I was young and just learning about myself. I had this horoscope compatibility guidebook and it said that Sagittarius women have many male friends who see her as a buddy, as one of the boys. That was me and that was okay with me, for the most part. I understood and saw it as a gift. I just wanted someone to walk into my life and stay and that finally happened when Todd Gladfelter walked by on the Appalachian Trail.
I walked past that second creek crossing and came to a stretch that at the perfect time in the summer, the mountainsides here are blanketed in blooming rhododendron. As far as you can see into the forest, are white bouquets decorating the mountainside. It took decades of coming to hike this trail to finally hit it on the right week. Now we try to time it right ever since.
The trail eventually grows wider and intersects that same gamelands road that we turn right on. After awhile, it drops down a very steep hill. Years ago, Todd and I and our friend Dave Broomhall cross country skied this hill. It was crazy steep and we wiped out, busting the plastic basket off a pole. Most of that descent was spent on our butts, either fallen down on sitting on our poles in a very low snowplow. The next summer Todd and I were hiking and we saw what we thought was trash in the ditch, but it was Todd’s basket! I cannot descend this section of road without marveling how on earth Wayne managed on crutches.
Right before the gamelands road meets with the trail that we dropped down from the ravine, there is a clearing, right above the autumn olive groves that grow here in profusion. One lovely, lovely night, many years ago, I took a blanket and spent a romantic spring evening under the full moon here with a special friend. The smell of autumn olive will forever bring back the sweet memory of that night. My friend even dug up some saplings in an attempt to transplant on his property so in the spring, when their blossoms gave off their heavenly scent, he would be brought right back to that night.
The gamelands road finally deposits me back to the parking lot, where any years ago, we saw a car upside down on its roof, it’s windows busted from the weight. Farther up the trail, we saw a backpacker coming down the road, the first one ever. “Oh no, did you leave your car in the lot overnight?” We were sorry to say it was not in good condition. Here the local Blue Mountain HS had their graduation the night before and I guess that senior class had some pretty bad rowdies in it. We felt so badly for him. We’ve never left our vehicle there overnight and never will.
But it is also in this parking lot that Wayne cruised down to on his crutches, after fording that rocky stream and navigating the mossy boulders, after descending the very steep hill that wiped out the skiers, and he was met with applause, from all the other Veterans from the Lebanon VA Hospital who witnessed his amazing hike on this 3 ½ mile gamelands loop.
I think about all these memories every time I walk the gamelands loop. I sometimes share them with a new friend whom I’m showing this trail to for the first time, but only a few stories. The rest I hold close to my heart like secrets. But the others, like Rockstar Wayne, are celebrations and they need to be retold again and again.
If you have a piece of trail near your home, go there, in all seasons, in all types of weather and you too will make memories that can last a lifetime. For you never know when they will disappear, be cut for timber, burned in a fire, or developed into tract homes. It has happened on two other of my favorite trails near my home. I can never walk their path again. No one can take our memories from us, however, once they’re made.