Laurel Highlands Thru-Hike, May 2022

Over the last few years I’d had my eyes opened to the wealth of public lands in Western Pennsylvania, and enjoyed discovering all the various hiking trails. One of my favorites is the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, a 70-mile route from Seward to Ohiopyle that winds through State Parks, State Forests, and State Game Lands. The diverse landscapes it connects include imposing rock outcroppings, tangled rhododendron tunnels, and quiet fern-filled forests. When I started a sabbatical a few months ago there were a lot of things I needed a break from — to stop doing — but one of the few concrete goals I had was to complete a thru-hike of the Laurel Highlands.

I’d never done any overnight backpacking, so this trip required a bit of planning, learning, and training to pull off. But last week I successfully completed the 70-mile hike, and really enjoyed myself! Below are some day-by-day notes for my own documentation that might hopefully help others who are interested in planning a similar trip.

The Route

The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail map has been hanging on my office whiteboard for over a year, where I mark off the sections that Molly and I have completed together. These are 6–8 mile out-and-back hikes, so while we’ve seen a lot of the trail it’s been fairly slow going, and difficult to fill in some of the more remote gaps.

The trail runs from Ohiopyle, PA (mile 0) to Seward, PA (mile 70) and I hiked it in reverse because the segments worked out a bit better for me and it seemed more celebratory to end in a bustling small town full of outfitters and restaurants, rather than a quiet parking lot.

One of the things that made this trip seem doable, as a first-time backpacker, are the eight different shelter areas along the trail. Each one contains a handful of three-sided Adirondack shelters with integrated fireplaces, which can be reserved ahead of time. The shelter areas are well maintained by the PA DCNR, who provide cut firewood, bear-proof trash containers, and clean outhouses.

The spacing and number of shelters allows for a variety of different itineraries, and I decided to do the hike in five nights, starting Monday morning and ending on Saturday afternoon.

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Building our own bot

When I first met Molly, nearly a decade ago, we didn’t live in the same place. She was on the east coast, I was in Chicago, and though she did move closer we still spent our first 3 years in separate cities. In an earlier era we’d probably have a box full of letters representing that period of our relationship. But thankfully, the medium of our time allowed for more continual connection, and instead we have a phone full of text messages.

I really didn’t text that much before we met, here and there to coordinate plans. But with Molly it’s always been something different, a steady stream of communication, a connective thread, a heartbeat. Even after moving to Pittsburgh together it was still important, with both of us traveling so much. I’ve probably exchanged 1000X more messages with her than everyone else combined.

A few years ago, having accumulated 7 years worth of messages, I wanted to find a way to look at this trove of texts. On the iPhone, Apple makes it hard to look back more than a few days, requiring screen-by-screen scrolling and no good way to search. The Messages app has a clear bias towards recency, but I wanted to zoom out, to sift through this virtual letter box that we’d built up bit-by-bit. Luckily, after some digging, I learned that deep within the obscured file structure of an iPhone backup was a SQLite database containing all of our messages. Stripped of its proprietary interface, I could get my hands on a searchable version of our distanced ephemera: every sleepy “goodnight,” anticipatory “boarding now,” and phatic “&&&” that meant nothing and everything all at once.

A database is funny place to find your memories. With this tiny SQLite file, I could effortlessly recall exactly what we we talked about 100 days after we met, analyze our most commonly used words, and map the frequency and times we were in touch. That was sort of interesting, but also not particularly surprising or revealing. After playing with it for an hour or so I discarded my initial ideas for potentially visualizing this dataset. There was certainly a lot to work with, but it seemed like it would result in the kind of vapid navel gazing found in most quantified self projects.

Instead, I decided to use the database not as an archive, to be cataloged and analyzed, but as a seed, to train an AI that would make new text messages based upon our history. This plan seemed like more fun, and was a chance to learn about new technology that had only recently become more accessible. The idea was to create our own private bot, trained on all the text messages we’ve ever sent each other. I wanted it to send us one text a day, not a verbatim Timehop-like reminder of something we’d actually said in the past, but an original quip — conjured from the mind of a weird little AI whose only knowledge of the world was the texts messages we’d sent each other.

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Time for a Sabbatical

Slippery Rock Creek in McConnells Mill State Park

Some years pass so quickly that annual rituals seem to fold on top of each other. It’s Halloween again? Dress the dog up in the costume that it feels like we just bought. It makes him look like a UPS driver and he freezes in place until we take it off. Snap some photos, pack it away, spin around the sun again. The suitcase is never put away: unpack, repack, download the podcasts, make the coffee, board the plane. Repeat.

It’s a cruel correlation that time can go quickly when things are going well. Being busy, productive, it’s a lubricant for your calendar. The slippery days glide forward, the summer is scheduled before it’s begun, and honestly it all feels fine because the rapids of life push us forward, through the shallow waters and treacherous whirlpools. We move, we maneuver, and it feels like advancing even if we’re not sure what towards.

Two years ago it felt like the world just stopped, and to a large degree, it did. The pandemic hit at the precise moment I was already making a major change. I’d been living and working in different cities for three years, and the travel had taken its toll. Year one was exciting, year two felt worth it, year three relied on routine and repetition to mask and cope with burnout. A plane is not a bus, no matter how much you distort the idea of a commute to include one. I spent half my time away from home, and the other half away from work. How could I bring my whole self to anything?

I needed to recombine into a single me, grounded in place instead of flying and fluttering in-between. The cure for burnout, I thought, was to live and work in the same city. That, of course, was back when we thought of our work and our bodies as coinciding, before Zoom made our forward-facing gaze the only corporal consideration that matters. I never got to find out if that’s what I needed, since the day I started a new job, in the city I live in, was the day the coronavirus shut the country down. The unification of work and life remained forever pending, a mirage that disappeared as my company evolved from local to distributed.

Working from home sounds nice, and some people love it. At another time, in other circumstances, that might even include me. But I’d already been remote half-time for three years, and that’s part of what I wanted to change. I kept telling myself I was lucky, that I could work from home, unlike so many others. But still. Days filled with video calls have a way of collapsing the boundaries between work and life, while precluding any natural sense of togetherness with coworkers. It’s convenient but isolating, efficient but stifling. It was not a cure for burnout.

There’s a joke about COVID Standard Time, where today is March 744th, 2020. It speaks to the stuck-ness of the pandemic, to the impassable obstruction that’s blocking the river we were floating down. For the last two years my world has shrunk to the inside of a row house, as I peered out through screens of various sizes to watch the world fall apart. A deadly virus, racial violence, an attempted coup, and now Putin’s war.

There is much about the world that I can’t change, so I have to focus on what I can. After two years, I’m still feeling burnt out, only more-so. I need a do-over, the chance to reboot and maybe take a different path. So I’m taking a sabbatical.

I don’t have a set time frame, but I want to give myself enough space that I might be surprised by the outcome. There’s not an explicit goal, but I want to do more writing, reading, learning, and making. I’m not sure what my work looks like at the end of this, but I know that I’m more motivated by learning and collaborating with people I like, than I am by profit or competition.

Most of all, I need to take some time to reorient. When the river gets jammed up it gives you a chance to ask if you’re even heading in the right direction. Maybe I missed a turn along the way, maybe I just need to stop for a picnic and keep heading downstream. Either way, I’m taking some time to figure it out.

Abandoned coal towns of West Virginia

The last movie I saw in a theatre, before the pandemic shut everything down, was a 4K restoration of the 1987 film Matewan at the Carnegie Science Center’s IMAX theatre. It’s a film about union labor organizing in a West Virginia coal mining town, and the violent struggle between the company and workers. It stars Will Oldham, one of my favorite musicians, in his first cinematic role. Both the director and Oldham were in person for the screening and held a Q+A after the film.

Although Matewan is a real place, the film was shot about a 100 miles northeast in the abandoned town of Thurmond, West Virginia. Both towns were built along the railroad, with the tracks in Thurmond acting as a “main street” for its commercial strip. Until 1921 those tracks were the only way to access the town, which served as a thriving hub for the local coal mining community along the New River. Thurmond’s peak was in 1910, when it supported multiple hotels, banks, and even a movie theatre. Over 75,000 people passed through the Thurmond depot that year.

A few weeks ago we visited the New River Gorge National Park, which Thurmond now sits within. After winding deep within the gorge you enter the town by crossing a one-lane railroad bridge, near a dramatic bend in the New River, to discover what is effectively a ghost town.

The Thurmond depot, built in 1904 after the 1891 original was destroyed in a fire. Thurmond remains an active Amtrak stop, so the depot is still in operation (although it was closed on the day we visited).
Main street along the railroad lines. These buildings housed a dry goods store, a telephone exchange, apartments, and the National Bank of Thurmond.
The coaling tower, where an elevator moved coal from a pit below into the coal tenders of train engines. The small building to the right was a town hall.
National Park Service sign detailing how the coal tower worked.

Thurmond is just one of the numerous coal mining heritage sites in the New River Gorge region. Down the river from Thurmond is an even more remote town called Nuttalburg, which has largely disappeared except for its restored coal tipple with a dramatic conveyor stretching from the hill top to the river. The buildings are nothing but scattered foundations, a dramatic reminder of how quickly a place can fade from memory, given that the Nuttalburg mine was active up until 1958.

The coal tipple in Nuttalburg
The history of Henry Ford’s involvement in Nuttalburg, during a period in which Ford attempted to achieve vertical integration for his factories.
Coke furnaces in Nuttalburg

Living in Pittsburgh, in a house built in 1890, makes the relative time periods of these abandoned coal mining towns feel somehow closer. We couldn’t help but compare the fortunes of our neighborhood and city with those of Nuttalburg and other still existing, but struggling, towns in the area. It’s dramatic when an industry ends, and in places like southern West Virginia coal mining was everything. It makes me want to learn more, to add more tangible history to my understanding of these places.


On a related note, I highly recommend the New River George National Park for it’s wonderful hikes and views. It makes for a nice mix, and we enjoyed pairing our hikes with visits to these historical mining towns.

The New River Gorge Bridge, seen from the Endless Wall trail
The main overlook at Grandview in New River Gorge National Park

One foot in front of the other

It’s easy to enumerate what the pandemic has taken away from us, but I’m trying to reflect on the positive effects of lockdown too. For one, I’ve never been able to spend so many consecutive nights with Molly and Emoji. When Molly and I first met, we lived in different cities, and even when we moved to Pittsburgh we were both traveling constantly. Spending an entire year together has been a silver lining; I can’t imagine going through this without her. Emoji has been very happy that we’re home all the time, and I don’t miss driving out to the doggie boarding place to drop him on the way to the airport. That fuzzy little guy is the best part of working from home.

Cemetery Walks

In terms of activities, the biggest new thing for me has been building a consistent walking and hiking practice. Every day, when I’m done with work, I go for a walk through my neighborhood. Usually I swing through the Allegheny Cemetery, which has enough wooded areas to attract wildlife. I like to have a consistent route because it helps me see subtle shifts in the changing seasons, and identify how my routine intersects with others. I often see the same people in the graveyard: runners, mourners, and that one guy who brings his guitar to serenade the unkindness of ravens (that’s actually what a group of ravens is called!).

There was one man I saw consistently for months. He would park in the same spot and set up his folding chair near a candle covered gravesite nearby. He was there when I arrived, and stayed until sun set. When I saw that Creative Nonfiction had a tweet-length writing contest I fired up the old Small Flock account to write a micro-story about it:

Forest Hikes

We also started hiking every weekend. I knew I enjoyed hiking, but it always felt like a thing I did infrequently, maybe on a trip, with much planning involved. We started going because it was pandemic friendly, but it was a revelation to realize—wait, we could do this every weekend!

Molly and Emoji on the Heritage Trail in Raccoon Creek State Park

Western Pennsylvania is chock-full of public lands within a 1.5 hour drive of Pittsburgh. National Forests, State Parks, State Game Lands, Wilderness Areas. There are so many options that we’ve never had to hike the same trail twice (unless we wanted to). I love being in the woods, and the landscape here is gorgeous year-round with its rolling hills, massive rock outcroppings, and cozy hemlock groves.

We hiked over 250 miles in the last year, all of them with Emoji on our side—pulling us along as fast as he can. Who knew that such a tiny dog could have the energy to hike up to 12 miles a day? It’s one of his favorite words now; if he hears us say “hiking” he’ll jump up in excitement. It’s definitely one of the things I hope we hold on to as the pandemic fades. It’s good for all of us, physically and mentally, to spend a few hours a week on the trails.

Emoji, in his Stormy Kromer gear

The Fireside Tapes

A YouTube account called The Fireside Tapes is posting videos from the Fireside Bowl in the late ’90s. That venue, at that time, was a big part of my life. I hadn’t yet moved to Chicago, so I’d grab a friend and drive 2.5 hours from Kalamazoo to catch a show. We always drove back the same night, blurry eyed but happy, speeding home on I-94 with the windows down to stay awake.

It’s great to see these videos since very few people recorded shows during those years. It was costly and cumbersome, so at most there’d be one person with a Hi8 camera or a DAT recorder. Aspiring photographers took photos, but the film and processing were too expensive for most people.

Even at very low resolution, seeing this era of the Fireside Bowl brings back a lot of memories and reminds me how young we all were, bands and audience alike. Venues like this tended to blur the lines between the two, with the stage barely a foot tall and no backstage area or green room. After a set, the band would move their gear to the side and join the audience.


The Fireside Tapes has an Instagram account you can follow, with custom title graphics for each upload. It’s such a great way to bring a bit of branding, consistency, and high resolution to these low-res archives. I’m not sure who is behind these accounts, but thank you!

Dear Lighthouse

Just before lockdowns started in March of 2020, after my last week at IDEO, I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and spent a week in Mendocino County. I stayed in the keeper’s quarters at the Point Arena lighthouse, which is situated alongside the beautiful Stornetta Public Lands, and was lucky to have my trip coincide with a twice-yearly lens tour at the nearby Point Cabrillo lighthouse.

I had planned to meet Molly in La Paz, Mexico the following week, but we cancelled the trip and I headed home, into a year of COVID-19 shutdown and everything that followed. It’s been just over a year, and reflecting back reminds me not only of the beautiful landscapes but the sense of possibility I felt, which has been stunted by this pandemic. I’m hopeful for the return of that feeling in 2021.

Below is my submission to the Point Arena Light Station “150th + 1 Anniversary Writers Invitation” within their “Dear Lighthouse” category.

Point Arena Light Station, March 5th, 2020

Dear Lighthouse,

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we met. I suppose the memory is stronger for me, given the circumstances. I had just left my job, a bittersweet choice to spend less time traveling. My trip to see you was a personal interregnum, a space left intentionally blank, a time to look neither forward nor backward. I knew that change was coming, but didn’t understand the scale.

I traveled by train, a long continuous line connecting a Great Lake to a great ocean. From the observation car I watched night blanket the Midwest, and morning sun reveal the Rockies. Snow covered mountain passes gave way to red rock canyons. As we wound around the San Francisco Bay, a cruise ship was seeking permission to dock, its passengers infected with the novel coronavirus. We didn’t yet call it a pandemic, just a scary story set in other countries.

You, of course, know about the calm before the storm.

As I drove up the coast to meet you, I managed to stay in the present, immersing myself in the beauty of your neighbors. I hiked rugged coastlines. I napped beneath redwood trees. When I checked into your keeper’s quarters, I was thrilled to learn that I could see your light from my window. I watched you work as the vibrant sunset faded to monochrome.

How many countless people have you guided home safely? As the storm of infection swelled, and the fog of danger thickened, I knew that our time together was short. The future was rushing towards us, and I needed to be home.

It helps though, to know that you’re there.Your steadfast presence on the peninsula, the predictable cadence of your light. A year is a long time to be adrift.


My view from inside the Point Arena keeper’s quarters.