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A Giant Among Hikers

by on June 11, 2014 6:15 AM

Walt Whitman and Vince Lombardi can have their rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Jean Aron has a path named after her in the Rothrock State Forest, which is way cooler.

Aron, who lives in Boalsburg, is the author of my current favorite book, "The Short Hiker."

I did several of her suggested hikes shortly after I moved to State College in the mid-'90s, then got into a Shingletown Gap rut: This, I decided, was the prettiest place in the area, so there was no need to explore other places.

There's something to be said for really getting to know a place, in all its seasons and weathers, but getting married last summer was in every sense a fresh start. My bride, a Californian, had her sacred places in the High Sierra and on the coast. I wanted to reassure her that Central Pennsylvania has some pretty sweet spots as well. For that I returned to Jean's book.

In the past few weeks we have hiked at:

  • Martin Gap, past Whipple Dam and Greenwood Furnace over the mountain from Pine Grove Mills
  • Poe Paddy State Park, accessed from the Seven Mountains section of Rte. 322
  • Little Juniata Natural Area, near the town of Alexandria off Rte. 22.
  • Alan Seeger Natural Area, beyond Bear Meadows in the Rothrock State Forest.

All four places were gorgeous, especially in the month of May. In fact, we picked the Martin Gap hike because "The Short Hiker" told us that the wildflowers there "reach an ecstatic peak of glory in May."

Who could resist?

"The Short Hiker" describes 40 hikes beginning with those that are within five miles of State College and radiating outward to those that are within 40 miles. Each description includes a summary of what makes the hike worth doing, driving directions, some history and a running account of all the birds, flowers, trees and formations you might see if you keep your eyes open and take your time.

Here's a typical snippet from her Martin Gap entry:

The 300-ft. rise can be a significant climb for a short hiker. But there are plants to see and birds to hear. Part way up you may chance upon some yellow lady slippers. Squawroot is usually found here, too. A red-bellied woodpecker gives a giggling, tickly sort of call. Various warblers move through the trees. Take your time going up. It is worth the trip. We once encountered a box turtle coming up the trail even more slowly than we.

As you can see, part of the reason Aron promotes short hikes is that she believes in slow hikes. If you're not going to stop and look at the wonders of the place, she told me when I reached her by phone, you might as well stay inside and walk on a treadmill. And if you are going to stop, you're not going to get very far.

When I asked her if she still hikes, she told me the next day was the weekly Centre Region Senior Center outing. I invited myself along.

As soon as I saw Jean Aron I realized the title of her book is a pun. It's called "The Short Hiker" because it's a guide to short hikes in Central Pennsylvania. It's also an apt description of the author, who is 4 feet 9 inches tall.

But one of the senior hikers called her "one of the giants of my life."

She is certainly one of the giants of the outdoor life in Central Pennsylvania. Before she started hiking with the seniors, she devoted decades to the Ridge and Valley Outing Club, the Mid-State Trail Association and the Penn State Faculty Women's hiking club.

The day's destination was Black Moshannon State Park. Despite a threat of rain, a dozen hikers carpooled in three vehicles from Westerly Parkway Plaza to the park.

On the trail, true to form, Jean, 76, brought up the rear, along with an 83-year-old hiker named Leona.

"I'm not the oldest," Jean told me, "but I'm the slowest."

It began to rain, as predicted. No one seemed to mind. The main things to look at this day were the pink lady slippers, though we also stopped to admire the red partridgeberries and one thumb-sized brown frog.

"I would love to see a painted trillium," Jean said.

As you can probably tell, I strongly encourage everyone to follow Jean's lead and get hiking, but I must, in good conscience, say a word about ticks. They're out there. I found one on my leg after the Poe Paddy hike. It was the size of a freckle.

Some of you, fearing Lyme disease, will say, no thanks. But I'm a Lyme disease alumnus. The telltale bull's eye on my belly was so pronounced I looked like a Target ad. I hike anyway, showering immediately after and inspecting my skin for hitchhikers. Not hiking in Penn's lovely woods is not an option.

And if you're going to hike, you need "The Short Hiker." It's out of print but you can download it here.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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