We are thrilled to share the 8th update from Gerry and Rex Leonard who are hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise funds and awareness of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) and the disabled veterans we serve. In this travel log entry, they check-in from the symbolic halfway point in Harper’s Ferry, WV; review their time in Pennsylvania, and tackle the 4-State Challenge! Be sure to view the incredible photo gallery at the bottom of this post!

Let’s show our support and wish Team Leonard our best as they continue with this courageous feat in support of the many disabled veterans whose lives will be changed as a result of their sacrifice.  

Read all their dispatches from the AT here:  Gerry and Rex Leonard Hike to Heal Veterans


Family and Friends,

Greetings from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia…the symbolic (and psychological) halfway point on the Appalachian Trail! Since our last update, we have hiked 276 miles, passed the 1000-mile mark, crossed the true halfway point (mile-marker 1,096 in PA), walked across the Mason-Dixon line, and closed out Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. We also hiked 44 miles in a single day, a new personal best for us (our previous high was 25 miles). Here are some highlights of our journey:

Pennsylvania Rocks! After taking five-days off to recuperate from a foot and knee injury, getting back on the trail in northern PA was no picnic. We quickly discovered that PA’s reputation as “Rocksylvania” was well deserved…particularly the northern two-thirds of the state. While not physically demanding from an endurance perspective, northern PA was brutal on the feet and the mind. For the most part, the trail in northern PA ran along a ridgeline, with very few mountains and valleys to climb. What made Pennsylvania so brutal was the trail itself. It was littered with ankle-twisting rocks of every size, shape, and form. Trying to hike fast was out of the question. Slow and steady…watching every step…was the only way to go. Over one 18-mile stretch, which included “Knife’s Edge”, rocks shaped like knives pointed out of the ground in every direction. One old hiker described it this way, “the devil came up from hell and threw every knife-shaped rock he could find down the trail”. Outside of a few postcard views, we would not recommend the northern PA to the casual hiker. 

In contrast, southern PA was awesome. Here, we walked across rolling hills dotted with farm fields, meadows, hardwood forests, and small towns like Boiling Springs. Gorgeous. Most importantly…smooth trails! Besides the nice terrain and great views in southern PA, we enjoyed overnighting at two famous “hiker hostels”, the Doyle Hotel and the Ironworks Mansion. Finally, we learned a valuable lesson…pay attention to the AT guidebook when it says, “trains may pass this campground.” On one of our last nights in PA, we camped about 30 yards from a railroad track and were woken by a slow moving freight train every hour. Neither of us slept a wink. I felt a bit like Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny”!

4-State Challenge. The 4-State Challenge is a gruelling 44-mile race/hike, which starts at the PA-MD border and ends at the WV-VA border. While we did not set any records, Rex would have made Stonewall Jackson proud. He finished the hike with his full kit (~40 lbs) in under fourteen hours, at a 3.1 MPH pace. I, on the other hand, finished in eighteen hours at a 2.4 MPH pace. Jackson would have been kicked me out of his army! Here’s Rex’s perspective on the Challenge:

The day before the 4-State Challenge we prepared by hydrating, resupplying with high-calorie energy bars at Walmart, and carbo-loading at Applebee’s. Having done everything we could to prep for the Challenge, we set up camp on the Mason-Dixon Line (starting line) and went to sleep.

I slept like a kid on Christmas Eve, full of excitement and anxiety. 4:00 AM couldn’t come soon enough. When my alarm sounded, I rolled out of my hammock, ate my oats, and packed up camp. Although the moon was full, the tree canopy blocked all light. It was pitch black when I stepped off.

Stumbling along the semi-rocky trail with my headlamp leading the way, I began to hear noises throughout the woods. Because this was one of my first times hiking alone at night, my nerves began to kick into high gear. I looked around for the source of the noises. I could see glowing sets of eyes staring at me from the dark woods. I tried to convince myself the eyes belonged to a family of deer and not a family of bears. I pressed on…knowing my fears would disappear with the rising sun.

Right after sunup, I passed my Dad (he started hiking at 3:00 AM) and I began to pick up my pace. The terrain was generally flat, which allowed me to pile up some big miles rather quickly. I began to think the Challenge wasn’t so hard…I decided I could afford to stop along the way and enjoy the sites and scenery of Maryland.

Two sites stood out in particular: the original Washington Monument and a Civil War battlefield. I spent time wandering around and taking pictures of the Original Washington Monument, which was built in 1827 and rebuilt by the CCC in 1930. While the view from the top of the Monument wasn’t extraordinary, it was a nice break from speed hiking. Not long afterwards, I slowed my pace again to soak up some Civil War history (the AT crosses over two small Civil War battlefields where a few engagements took place prior to the Battle of Antietam). 

By 1:00 PM, I had hiked 27 miles. I took a much needed lunch break. Physically and mentally I was feeling great! I was excited and confident I could finish the Challenge with a solid time. I pressed on.

With less than seven miles to reach the finish line atop Loudoun Heights (WV-VA border), I sat down to take a mental break. I could see the finish line in my mind. Seven miles was nothing compared to what we normally walk. Boy was I wrong! Those seven miles were most challenging miles I’ve walked since we started our journey in June. The only thing I could think about was laying in my hammock and drifting off. The desire to stop was strong, but I set out to complete the Challenge…I was going to finish it.

Slowly shaving off the miles and taking breaks when needed, I made it to Harper’s Ferry, WV, the symbolic halfway point and home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I had been looking forward to this moment since we left Maine. Halfway! Happiness was soon followed by misery when I realized my day was not done. I sat for a while looking up at Loudoun Heights. It looked like a steep, steep climb. I began to walk…and climb. 

Step by step, I made my way up the mountain, eventually reaching the peak. There was no “welcome to Virginia” sign. Disappointed, I continued to walk south along the ridge, hoping I hadn’t missed it. I asked a hiker heading in the opposite direction if he saw the sign…”no” was his response. I began to feel defeated. Walking slowly forward, I prayed to find some sign or indication I had reached Virginia. Finally…fourteen hours after I started and twenty miles longer than I had ever hiked in my life, I found the “welcome to Virginia sign”. I Finished!!

I was proud of myself. I was happy to be done. I hung my hammock up and went to bed. I remember thinking, “where is Diesel” as I dozed off.

Way Ahead. We made it to Virginia four days later than our goal, but at least we made before the first day of Fall. At roughly 540 miles, Virginia represents a quarter of the entire AT. We expect to spend the rest of September and most of October hiking through it, but we look forward to the adventure and for a planned rendezvous with our partners at Project Healing Waters in Troutville, VA in early October.

Until our next update, happy trails,

Diesel & Pony Express

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Let’s show our support and wish Team Leonard our best as they continue with this courageous feat in support of the many disabled veterans whose lives will be changed as a result of their sacrifice.  

Read all their dispatches from the AT here:  Gerry and Rex Leonard Hike to Heal Veterans