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Getting mail on the trail

June 02, 1999

PostmasterBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: MARIA BROSE / staff photographer




SOUTH MOUNTAIN, Pa. - Tom Ruetenik stopped by the South Mountain Post Office Wednesday, not to pick up mail like most Appalachian Trail hikers passing through town, but to get directions to the nearest cafe.

Ruetenik, 48, of Delhi, N.Y., just wanted a warm meal.

But about 10 percent of those who cross the trail in Pennsylvania stop for mail at the South Mountain Post Office, said Postmaster Kathleen Crager. The little white concrete block building has been serving postal patrons in this southern Franklin County mountaintop community since 1952, Crager said. She's been postmaster since 1990.

The post office is one of about 200 that snuggle up against the trail, and about half are popular among hikers, said Brian King, spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference, the trail's headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

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Weight is important, so hikers carry as little as possible. They stop at post offices along the way about every 10 days to pick up mail, food and supplies that they had arranged to be sent to them through general delivery. They also use the post offices to ship winter clothes home as they hit the warmer climates. By the time they hit Vermont, they begin trading back for warm clothes, King said.

The pile of packages in the South Mountain Post Office marked "Please hold for AT Hiker" gets bigger as the summer progresses, Crager said.

Often a hiker bypasses the post office and calls or drops a post card asking that a package be forwarded to a post office further up the trail, she said. Post office rules require that packages left more than 30 days be returned to the sender, but Crager said she tries to hold them a little longer when possible. "Sometimes the hikers get sick or hurt and get off their schedule," she said.

Crager calls the hikers "an interesting group of people."

"Many are college graduates who hike the trail before heading to the real world. The oldest hiker I've met was 80 years old. He was doing the trail by sections. Last year, a woman in her 60s came by. She was doing the trail by herself and said it was the third time she's done it."

The trail runs 2,160 miles from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. Most hikers begin in the spring in Georgia to avoid the bitter Maine cold and end up on Mount Katahdin in the fall.

About 1,600 hikers start out to hike the length of the trail each year, King said. Only about 20 percent finish, he said. This year, about 2,000 set off, he said.

Most drop out before they reach Virginia. By the time the rest reach southern Pennsylvania their numbers are down to about 600, he said.

Wednesday was Ruetenik's second day on the trail. He started Tuesday at the Maryland line and planned to hike the entire 223 miles of the trail passing through Pennsylvania. He said he's doing the trail in sections. "I've done all of Maryland, most of New Jersey, half of New York and all of Connecticut," he said.

Crager said the only time she's been on the Appalachian Trail was when her children were in scouting. "We took a short hike from Blue Ridge Summit to here," she said.

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