Creating the Mid-State Trail

Republished with permission,
by Peggy Keating-Butler

Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for
gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent
this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine,
for example, one need be neither god nor poet;
one need only own a shovel.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Along the crest of Pennsylvania's Tussey mountain, blowing winds whistle the tune of a cold March morning. Seven figures hike along the mountain's stoney spine. Nearly generic in their dress of woolen caps and gloves, dark pants, jackets, and daypacks, these are not simply hikers. Some carry long handled, hedge-type clippers called limb-loppers. For them progress along the ridge is only as fast as their loppers allow. Each hurries dutifully behind his tool as it snaps at mountain laurel or striped maple, sometimes stopping to browse over the huckleberry. Two hikers halt before a fallen tree that intersects the trail. Soon they're playing tug-of-war across it with an oversized bow saw between them.

These are volunteers laboring to reclear a section of the Mid-State Trail, a cross-country hiking route in the ridge and valley region of central Pennsylvania. In 1969 students from the Hiking Division of the Penn State Outing Club began building the trail, and Thomas Thwaites, a veteran hiker, took the lead in directing their efforts. The aim: to build a trail through a nearly continuous corridor of state forest land, cutting diagonally (southwest to northeast) through the middle of the state. The objective was finally met on Memorial Day weekend of 1986. The 276 kilometer trail owed its existence not only to the Outing Club, but to such groups as CETA Trail Crews, the Penn State Faculty Women's Club, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts. Convict laborers, not exactly volunteers, from Huntington State Prison had no small part in the trail's creation. And Thwaites, who was there from beginning to end.

A retired physics professor from Penn State, Thwaites appearance suggests an eccentric scientist--eyebrows sprout with spring-growth exuberance above horn rimmed glasses--but his ruddy face belies the occupation of an indoor hibernator. His comments about the naturalist's highway are that of a boasting father. "The Mid-State is at least the second longest hiking trail in Pennsylvania," he says and is quick to clear any ambiguity: "It may be second in length, but it's a nicer hike than Pennsylvania's portion of the Appalachian Trail."

Just as the AT traverses the 2,187-mile mountain system running from Georgia to Maine, so the Mid-State Trail parallels the linear ridges of the folded Appalachians in central Pennsylvania. Many of the trail's features suggest it should be called the Pennsylvania State Trail. Its central location makes it accessible to all four corners, and via the Link and Tuscarora Trails, the hiker can connect with the AT and head towards Maine or Georgia, as he or she chooses.

Mountain-top hiking ensures the backpacker or the afternoon walker many a lofty view of the valleys below. But what makes this trail so special is its almost total forest cover. For persons wanting to hike all 276 kilometers of it, only a few miles of road travel interrupt their wooded passage. Few long-distance hiking trails can brag the same. Inevitably such routes are forced roadside to circumvent private property or restricted state lands. While traversing four state forests, the Mid-State Trail weaves its way through seven state parks and eight natural areas. Near its northern terminus, it leads the hiker through 25 miles of the most isolated country anywhere in the state.

Thwaites knows perfectly well that the Mid-State is the best in Pennsylvania. True, he may be biased; still, he has some authority to back his position. As author of 50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania and 50 Hikes in Western Pennsylvania, he has hiked many a trail in Penns Woods. And for the last 20 years, he, and countless others along the way, have worked hard on this "act of creation" which is the Mid-State Trail. It appears their efforts have paid off. Erick Meves calls it "The wildest trail in the state in his A Guide to Backpacking in the United States. And its inclusion in The Best Hiking Trails in the United States (edited by Dorothy Deer) is commendation itself. But the work, begun so many years ago, continues today, as volunteers work to keep the trail clear and open for hikers.

The Mid-State Trail Volunteer

Throughout the 1970s Thwaites recruited mostly student volunteers from the university. A group would gather to work on a specific section, then disband when the day's clearing was done. With each passing year, the trail followed one ridge to the next, dipping into the valleys between. Lengthening, it sprouted side trails, or spurs, until by the decade's end, the trail had all but outgrown its keepers. No longer could the periodic work crews subdue the ever-growing, overgrowing system. To complicate matters, as the 1970s waned, so did student involvement.

In 1982 Thwaites created the Mid-State Trail Association (MSTA) to recruit volunteers and attract supporting members. The volunteers of the 80s (and now 90s) differ from their predecessors. Dubbed "overseers," they adopt a particular stretch of trail. This volunteer is no longer one of a crew on call to open a new section or clean an old one but presides over his or her own particular domain of mountain stream rhododendron or ridgetop mountain laurel.

Not only has the volunteers' duties changed, but the volunteer has too. Jean Aron is the MSTA secretary and an overseer as well. "Today's volunteer," she says, "is someone undergoing a lifestyle change: a man or woman between careers, the graduating student who has not yet found his place in a career, the recently divorced, the mother whose children have all left home." Jean falls into the last category, and her new-found leisure has led to a book on trails, The Short Hiker. The title might refer to more than the trail's length, as Jean herself measures not quite five feet.

But the most conspicuous volunteer now, at least for the Mid State, is the recently retired individual who finally has the time to enjoy life. For this person, perhaps the fragile white blossoms of tiny rue anemones dotting the forest floor are incentive enough to get out on the trail with limb-lopper or bow saw in hand. One retiree who has walked away from the work-a-day world but who can't so easily divorce himself from the professional mind set forged through those years is Gene Huston. A retired electrical engineer, Huston doesn't clear his section of trail, he engineers it.

Huston became familiar with Pennsylvania forests while building substations and erecting electrical towers across the state. He's a tall, sturdy man with a squarish jaw, but one doesn't notice any sharp edges. He's got a comfortable smile and an easy way that invites a long gaze. He oversees six miles; the average allotment per volunteer is one to three. To manage the workload he "subcontracts" his own labor. "You know how it is with old retirees," he says winking a blue eye. "You've got to get able-bodied people." "Slats," Huston's friend and neighbor, is a long-legged, pipe-smoking, chainsaw-wielding powerhouse of a man, and he's Huston's first choice. When those two team up, some real work gets done.

Each overseer's approach to his or her trail work is different. Jean Aron, for instance, is ever mindful of the wild flower. She's sure to spot early spring's Pennsylvania Sedge, a blossom that looks like a yellow jacket's belly waving on a tiny green stem. But when Huston and Slats hit the trail, they're preoccupied with the work at hand. Prepared for any eventuality, the two carry chainsaws, limb-loppers, an adze for building bog bridges. They even have walkie-talkies.

Still, Huston is far from unmindful of the wonders about him. "In late May and June the grouse hatchlings are just coming out," he interrupts to stress, "and this is an experience I had never had before." With a smile he relives it: "Little fur balls, 10 or 15 of them flying in every direction. Then the mother goes into the old broken wing distraction routine in front of you." He shakes his head and smiles. He's seen the routine maybe three times now.

Keeping the Trail Clear

The overseer's job entails a minimum of three visits to the site, spanning all but the winter season. In addition, the enthusiast can join groups scheduled by Thwaites through the year to clear any pressing problem areas. For instance in the late 80s Thwaites was combating the damage done by Gypsy moths in the mid 80s. He scheduled fourteen work trips over four years along a 20-mile stretch where the trail begins near the little town of Water Street on the Juniata River. The insect had killed so many trees that sunlight, flooding the forest floor, promoted the growth of underbrush that choked the trail. As Thwaites explains, it can take as many as three or four seasons of defoliation by the Gypsy moth to kill a sturdy oak in the valley. But on top the mountain range, it's a different story. Tree roots have to dig deep to find water in the thin, rocky sandstone soil. Life on top the ridge is a struggle. Less hardy, and living more precariously, the oaks seldom survive a single deforestation.

Too few oversaw that section of the Mid State, and the rampant growth put the volunteers at a disadvantage. So the "cavalry," of sorts, was called in. Thwaites led each expedition, and Jean Aron was usually along to help. Work trips then and now are of varied activities. While one person saws a deadfall, another clips at encroaching black birch seedlings, while yet another, in the distance, reblazes an oak's trunk with the orange rectangle that guides the hiker's way.

Since much of the trail's footway is characterized by its stones (just like the AT), Thwaites devotes a lot of energy to a war of attrition against the valley limestone and ridgetop sandstone that give his trail bad press. Some of the work consists of tossing loose rocks from the trail for the hiker's surer footing. But even more, any rock is prone to eviction. A ten-pound sledge hammer will handily bust a rock too heavy to move; and for the respectable boulder, Thwaites can provide a come-along, a cable winch that will coerce even a ton of rock off the trail.

Some volunteers take Thwaites' vendetta against the rock to extremes. Gene Huston laughs about the over-zealous attempt of one who had perhaps taken Thwaites' advice too much to heart. "Some eager kid had tried to clear all the rocks off the trail," he shakes his head, smiling. "I got a kick out of that." One need only see some of the rockiest sections of the trail to understand Huston's amusement. Take, for instance, Jane Woods' section. Woods is a retired kindergarten teacher who got started in the trail business through her friend and neighbor, Jean Aron. Her section is the Jackson Trail, one of the spurs or side trails that lead off the Mid State on Tussey Ridge above Pine Grove Mills. It begins opposite the overlook atop Tussey Mountain, Joe Hayes Vista.

Initially, the trail's pathway is clear but soon becomes choked with the stones and rocks that preoccupy a hiker in his or her search for sure footing. Then, about a mile in from the highway, the trees open to a view north of the ridge and a 100-square mile expanse of the fertile Nittany Valley. From here, it's a short hike before an entirely different view opens to the south of Tussey Ridge. The trees fall away and a sea of boulders provides the foreground for a vista of rolling forests. A few moments of walking have taken the hiker from a view of the mountain's north side to its south, and to a window on two separate valleys.

In the fall and winter, the sun rises over the far ridge to the south of Tussey mountain. For the person who has hiked to the overlook before dawn, that ridge hides the world and sun behind it. At daybreak, the sky is a pastel swirl of blue and pink above the mountain's crest. With the rising sun comes a smearing and streaking of deeper colors--orange, purple, maybe a mulberry; it depends on the morning's mood. Whatever the sky paints for you that morning, it's a picture worth hiking for. And as you're hiking out on this, one of the Mid-State Trail's rockiest sections, it's not your feet you'll be thinking about.


© Peggy Keating-Butler, 1989, re-published with permission