It’s my home away from home, my staycation, my stomping grounds, at least for Memorial Day weekend. Dead Woman Hollow is a narrow, wooded valley sandwiched between two smallish Appalachian mountains in southern Pennsylvania. And as it turns out, for this weekend, it’s my principal destination.
Thirty-two years and a couple of weeks ago, two women hiked into this valley to camp. After they set up their campsite, they settled down and began making out under the open sky. A drifter, a fugitive from Florida happened to see them and in a fit of homophobic fury, unloaded his rifle into the campsite. Both women were shot multiple times, one hiked out three miles for help, the other died at the scene. Now it’s a local mountain bike mecca with a badass name.
I mention the Florida connection because my kids are obsessed with googling “Florida Man.” They contend that the most bizarre news headlines on the web all begin with “Florida man…” They gave me a sampling a couple of weeks ago. Florida man pleads guilty to killing sawfish by removing extended nose with power saw. They’re right, pretty strange stuff.
The Hollow first caught my attention in February. The father of a girl on Eli’s mountain biking team posted a Facebook message on the team page. Rebecca and I are riding Mud Banks tomorrow at 10:00 if anyone wants to join us. Mud Banks. That’s what the mountain bikers call Dead Woman Hollow. I have no idea why. I mean, I know the reason they call it that: The parking area abuts two super tall and steep dirt banks that lead to the trail. I’ve ridden up and down one of them, I’m a little afraid of the other. But for my life, I can’t understand why they would call it Mud Banks instead of Dead Woman Hollow. I mean, really, which name sounds tougher?
When Eli and I went out riding with the team, my jaw hung agog the entire time. I’ve spent years looking for a trail network to run that isn’t simply up and down a mountain. Dead Woman Hollow features dozens of miles of trails, some quite steep, but most are flat enough to run comfortably. Increasingly since February, I’ve headed out to the Hollow to hike, mountain bike and run.
Yesterday, the weather led 2020 in perfection—seventy-five degrees, a light breeze and sunny skies. With Sophie driving, she, Susan, Eli and I rode up a long dirt road through the Hollow to get on top of the mountain. From the trailhead we hiked a ridge for the first time. It’s an out and back with a winding, wooded lollipop at the halfway point. Hiking this trail feels secluded and wild.
Today, with weather far less pretty—overcast, humid and cool—I set out on a run. It’s a trail Eli and I have biked together. It features a long, meandering uphill section, a period of flat across a different ridge from yesterday, and then a fast, two-mile descent through chest-high pine trees.
I haven’t planned a route yet, but tomorrow, I’ll go back and spend an hour or so mountain biking with Eli. I feel like I’m on Memorial Day vacation in Dead Woman Hollow.
Here’s the thing I like most about it. When I’m there, I’m alone. Really alone. On today’s run, I didn’t see a soul except during the brief quarter-mile where I hopped on a dirt road so I could cross a creek on a bridge. A couple of families played in the water, they offered me a smile and a wave as I ran by. On the rest of my run, no one. No structures, no garbage, no cell reception, nothing to suggest human presence except for me and the trail itself.
As I stop to consider the Florida man murdering a woman in these woods, part of me wonders how sound an idea it is to traipse off by myself. If I ran into trouble—an injury, getting lost, a chance encounter with sketchy dudes—I’d need to work things out on my own. But then I returned home this evening feeling recharged, reborn. I’m completely relaxed and at peace. And I know it’s worth some minimal risk. Where else can I do anything outside of my own home and see no one else.
Dead Woman Hollow is an introvert’s dream. It’s a magical escape from the sort of human connection insisted upon in our society. When I’m there, I can hike alone with my family, bike alone with my son, or run alone… just alone.
Photo credit: Pat Naugle