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."