One of the timeless practices someone encounters while hiking a long-distance trail like the Appalachian Trail is its rich history of traditions and the stories passed down from one season’s veterans to the next. Before the internet and the proliferation of social media, most trail news, recommendations, warnings, advice, shout-outs, etc., were relayed through handwritten notes in the journals at shelters, word of mouth from ridge runners, hostel keepers, and from NOBO’s to SOBO’s and vice-versa. This was a brilliantly efficient and simple manner to keep track of your friends, advise others of news, or the various excursions and blue blazing that some are prone to take. In today’s world of instantaneous delivery of all things at all times, I think today’s hikers are missing out on a significant part of this experience and the more fantastic opportunity to unplug from society. I have talked to recent hikers of the long distance trails who say they are never without music, audiobooks, daily contact with friends and family, blog posts, Instagram updates, and regular resupply services from Amazon. It may be better now in some respects due to technology, or not, but it is certainly different.
Getting to a shelter and reading the posts and messages left by others replaces TV’s entertainment and the many trivial distractions of the “real world.” It’s also a great way to decompress from a long hike and to recenter yourself. There are some incredible artists and storytellers that provide a generous and bountiful quantity of joyful anecdotes and social commentary about the things we are all going through on the pages of journals up and down the trail. These journals are often left for people to sign by a hiker passing through, and it is a rare blessing to be able to get one returned to you, filled with the history of an irreplaceable moment in time. I am fortunate to have two that belonged to Baltimore Jack. I will tell you about these journals in more detail towards the conclusion of this book. What he wrote and what others wrote in return give us many clues as to who he was. These shelter journals can arrive in the mail without warning, and at times with no notice of who the trail-angel was that sent it back to you. It’s just a kind gesture of sincerity and fellowship, as well as a colorful record of a specific time and place in the world, re-lived through the stories and recollections of those who experienced them. Some of these stories have become legendary and mythical in their telling and retelling. One such tale is about what happened at The Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, PA, in the summer of 1999. It involved a person in a severely deceased condition.
The Truth Behind the Legend-Man and Story
I have heard so many hikers tell this story, even going so far as to change the year that it happened to the year they hiked and placing themselves at the scene of the incident. I don’t think this is done with any malicious intent. It has just become such a well-known story. The centerpiece of the story, Baltimore Jack Tarlin, told so many people that they simply live it vicariously through the retelling. That being said, it would have taken a football stadium to house everyone who says they were at the scene, rather than the 2 dozen or so rooms the Doyle had at the time. The reality is, only about ten or so hikers were truly there to experience this unfortunate episode in person, and I am one of them. It was over 20 years ago now, June 26, 1999, to be exact, according to my journal, but some things you just don’t forget. So please allow me to set the record as straight as it can be. My trail name for the record was Super-fly SY. I still go by SY.
Foreshadowing of Death
“Baltimore Jack” always seems to be involved in some of the most absurd, unlikely, and at times shocking (to non-hikers) trail episodes. This story is no exception, and indeed he is a pivotal character in the telling of the story.
Side note: Baltimore Jack- aka L.A. Tarlin is one of the most legendary characters of the Appalachian Trail, with 7 or 8 consecutive thru-hikes depending on how you count them. The first was over a two year period. Only a few truly new him, my wife, daughter and I are fortunate to have been able to call him family. Some of his history is included in my book In The Real World I Hike.
We have to visit the night before the unfortunate discovery that this story is about was made. It was June 25th, at the Thelma Marks Shelter, an awful wet, fetid little shack of a shelter (a shithole is how I described it in my journal); Jack was regaling us with anecdotes about the Doyle and its former historical glory; as well as the legacy of the Anheuser Busch connection to the establishment. The building was purchased by Adolphus Busch in 1880 and later named the Johnson Hotel, but closed in 1920 due to the horrific failed social experiment we know as prohibition. It became The Doyle in 1944 after it was purchased by an Irish immigrant who had recently won the lottery. Jack lamented that it was in such disrepair, but even considering its far from mint condition, it was a must-stop for all thru-hikers. “Visit the Doyle” was and perhaps still is a common mantra heard up and down the trail. Spending the night there was seen as a rite of passage and milestone of hiking accomplishment of sorts. It also had a cheap bar in the basement.
I commented to Jack that it couldn’t be as bad as he described it. He looked me in the eye and stated as seriously as one could, in his very direct and baritone academic professor’s classroom delivery, “Sir, upon entering the Doyle, it is immediately apparent that no fewer than 22 persons have come to their end inside this establishment. Either by suicide, natural causes, or murder.” Drawing out and emphasizing the word murder. If you know Jack, he was prone to err on the side of the dramatic to provide a useful embellishment to his narrative accounts of things. Boring, he was not. It may have taken far longer than necessary to tell a story, but it would not lack in detail. Jack was incapable of providing a concise account of things.
“…an awful little shelter”
No matter the place’s condition, I was looking forward to a town stop; and the opportunity to get a shower and some hot food that didn’t come out of my titanium MSR cook pot. Sorry for the shameless product plug. But seriously, that was $40 well spent, and 20 years later, I still use it! In the shelter, it was getting late, the bugs were out in biblical numbers, the fire was a smoky pathetic mess, and we all settled down for a damp, but hopefully good night’s rest. Did I mention this was an awful little shelter? A three-sided festering pox upon the landscape.
The trek into Duncannon was uneventful, and the weather was getting hotter, and things seemed to be dry everywhere except for the shelter we spent the night in. Pennsylvania is often called Painsylvania, due to the sharp rocky trails, steep exposed climbs, and long walks through open fields that bake in the sun, searing the skin and lungs of hikers that have little chance of escaping the blazing sun beating down like an inferno sucking the air out of your very soul. You can feel yourself cooking as you hike onward, one step at a time, and hear the crackling of the grass and whatever crops were in the fields, desperately attempting to not become desiccated stalks of chaff. It was hot. Really hot. Hikers have a different appreciation for cool, clean water when they are marching through a parched landscape. Any opportunity to jump in a creek, or pond, even a water trough was a welcome respite; and hikers would act like little kids splashing around fully clothed or bare ass nekkid.
The town of Duncannon is on the Susquehanna River, not far from Harrisburg. Its residents are very friendly towards hikers and annually welcome many hundreds if not thousands into their community. 20 years ago, the town was struggling a bit, and from what I have read recently, much has been done to revitalize it and its remarkable history. Jack would have stated at any time he told this story that this particular episode is in no way a reflection of the town, nor its residents, and in no way should be taken as a critique of the owners’ past and present of the Doyle Hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in town, and all the people we encountered were gracious and hospitable. I would recommend it as a must-see stop on the trail.
The prior week’s crazy hot weather would also become a crucial element in this story. As we arrived at The Doyle, we ran into a hiker who was a day or two ahead of us and had holed up for a while due to an illness. He ultimately would discover he had Lyme disease, if I recall. Fleischman was his trail name, and he was looking quite poorly and said that it “smelled like ass” upstairs. Jack said that was part of the charm, and we quickly noticed a chicken dinner sale being hosted by one of the local auxiliaries. Being hikers, we dove in like the starved, wanton, joyful savages that we were. It was pretty cheap, around $5, and I think most of us had more than one of the dinners comprised of ¼ roasted chicken, mashed taters, greens, rolls, and probably an apple side for dessert. Jack had a 2-liter bottle of fruit punch and drank the whole thing (foreshadowing). Most of us did not immediately check in to the hotel as there was no chance of not getting a room. Most rooms would have 4-6 hikers in them if it got crowded. Even a cheap room is cheaper when shared. We were all on the back porch in the shade, lounging around, feasting, and swapping stories. Generally having a wonderful time with each other. During the shenanigans, Jack managed to impale himself in the leg with a splinter as big around as a pencil on one of the weathered floorboards.
Our serenity was interrupted by him yelling at the top of his lungs, “pull it out; it hurts!!!!” This continued for a bit with some chuckling and jibes directed at his uncomfortable situation, “it can’t be that bad, don’t be a @#$%…” I commented about reciting lines for his part in the remake of Deliverance, and then I noticed just how big the offending object was. I reached over and yanked it out of his leg, and in Jack’s defense, it was about 3″ long, and only about 1 of those inches was not inside of him. So now he has ACE bandages on both knees, glasses taped together, severe chafing of the nether region, a gash on his forehead, AND a gaping hole in his leg that is gushing blood onto the porch. A bandana remedies the situation so that he can continue eating his and everyone else’s food scraps out of those Styrofoam containers that takeaways come in.
After finishing our chicken dinners and cleaning up the porch, we break up to go get rooms or run town-stop errands. I went to the post office to see if I had any care packages. Boom! My older brother had sent me one! I only recall that it had a small bottle of Jim Beam in it. A lot of the towns near the trail are dry or inconveniently located to acquire booze. Pennsylvania is not one of these places. Beer and booze are readily available everywhere. It’s great. I loved hiking in PA. Anyway, I go get a room and go upstairs. The place reeks but, I dump my pack and go to take a shower. I had seen Jack on the way up to the room and told him I got some Beam in the mail, and we could share a drink or three later. After my shower, it seemed that the smell was worse. There are less than a dozen hikers here at this point; most went to the campground because of the smell. Jack had gone to get the caretaker about the stench.
They come upstairs and eventually notice the smell is emanating from one particular doorway. Then it is quickly determined that there is a buzzing sound coming from the room, and one of them looks under the door. It was locked from the inside, and there was a clear indication a person was in prone on the floor up against the door and clearly not moving. Consider that this was in July, and it has been sweltering for many days. This unfortunate person had been expired for quite some time at this point.
Turns out that people could rent rooms by the week/month and that this was a semi-transient person who had been a short-term resident. No one had realized that he had not left his room nor been seen in quite a few days. This author did not know precisely how long he had been deceased, but it had been at least four or five days in the hot PA. weather. These rooms did not have air conditioners, nor were the windows open in this particular one. It was a mostly sealed unit, baking slowly in the Pennsylvania heat. Until they could get the door opened.
Jack bangs on my door. I was just a few rooms down the hall, and he has a frantic expression on his face as I open it. He grabs me by the shoulders, I’m in my towel, and says, “Remember the other night when I told you about the 22 stiffs at the Doyle? Yeah, I do. WELL MAKE IT 23!”
NOW, WHERE’S THAT BOTTLE? He yells at me with a frantic, “I told you so!” and a thirsty look in his eyes.
The caretaker called the police. Most of us decided to vacate the premises while the authorities took care of things. Another hiker (Maggie) and I decided to go get ice-cream down the street, and as we were leaving, we went out onto the balcony; several first responder vehicles had shown up. One was the coroner, in a black pickup truck with the logo of an Asphalt and Paving company on the door. The driver had on what looked like a baseball coach’s uniform and held a magnetic sign that said…CORONER. The entire situation was becoming more and more surreal. He tossed the sign at his truck, and it stuck to the side door, then yelled up at the caretaker who was in the process of prying open the second-floor window to the man’s room from the outside while standing on a ladder. Where’s he at? At this point, Maggie and I decided to abandon ship. Here is where it all starts to go to hell. Up here he yells. Looks like it’s ……. I do not recall the person’s name. But we would miss out on witnessing the next few scenes in person. But would bear a graphic telling of them shortly thereafter.
In this establishment, the stairs and floors are all hardwood and pretty well polished by many decades of use. Slippery, to be exact. About an hour after getting ice cream, we start to head back to the hotel and run into a couple of hikers carrying their packs. They warned us to get our gear as fast as possible because the hotel was now uninhabitable. Oh no, we both said. Fortunately, there was a campground not far away where we could all go for the night. Many other hikers had gone directly to the campground and had not the misfortune of this particular episode. Keep in mind that this is still the middle of the afternoon, and hot! The emergency vehicles and coroner had all departed at this point. However, a fairly large crowd gathered around the hotel still, and a few remaining hikers were collecting their things for the trek to the campground and discussing what had just happened. We could smell death from about half a block away.
As we get to the hotel, Jack is crouched on the sidewalk, and there is a generous Pollack like spattering of partially digested chicken parts and fruit punch all over the sidewalk and road a few steps away. Jack had projectile vomited off the edge of the balcony with an impressive display of viscosity, volume, velocity, and coverage. He had eaten the equivalent of an entire chicken and the leftover contents of roughly four other dinners, AND a two-liter of fruit punch less than an hour earlier.
This was a visually and sensationally unpleasant environment. It was not simply the odor of the decomposition; it was far worse. After opening the door, the corridor was filled with not just a vicious olfactory assault but thousands of giant black flies. They were everywhere and seemed to mass together in one of the skylights on the ceiling, drawn to the light I guessed at the time. The buzzing sounded like high tension power lines that we sometimes crossed under on the A.T. I have only seen things like this in horror movies.
Somehow, in removing the poor man’s body, the physical integrity of the remains was breached. A trail of body fluids ran with all the charm of the river Styx down several flights of stairs and all the way out the front door to the ambulance. Jack had grabbed his backpack and, in his haste, to evacuate the building, slipped on the fluids, and due to the polished surface of the stairs, became a human toboggan, sledding down an entire flight on his ass. Crashing to a heap, and then face planting into a puddle of fluids on the landing where the emergency personnel had rested for a brief moment. This resulted in a near-immediate rush to the balcony, where he left an indelible impression on the spectators below. He was covered in the morbid essence of the not so recently departed and dry heaving on the sidewalk. It was horrifying.
I offered to grab Maggie’s pack along with my own from upstairs; she offered little resistance. I tied a bandana around my face and took a few deep breaths and ran up the stairs as fast as I could. Paralleling the slime trail and trying to ignore the plague of flies and praying that I didn’t take a breath. Thank god both of us had repacked our gear, and all I had to do was grab both packs and haul butt out of there. I made it almost all the way back down before taking a breath and was subjected to an odor that you don’t ever forget. An oily, putrid smell that doesn’t want to let go. I kept everything down but trust me that it was horrible.
Fast forward, and everyone had taken their gear to the campground, Jack and I empty the bottle of Beam, and we end up at the local pub, where we would remain for about the next 6 hours. That is a whole other set of stories, but the Duncannon experience was not yet finished. The next morning at the campground, Jack chugged about a third of the contents of a plastic bottle of white gas that he thought was water, nearly incinerating himself. It was a rare moment where he did not have a cigarette in his hand. Thus, preventing his self-immolation. Any circus firebreather would have been impressed with his violent exhalation of the flammable mist. It must have mirrored the intensity of the previous days’ evacuation of his stomach contents.
The bad juju of death would strike me also. I would dislocate my ring finger on the right hand after falling on the infamous Pennsylvania rocks later that day. A first of this type of injury for me, I have still never broken a bone. This accident was a slow-motion disaster that I could see happening as if an out-of-body experience. I was scampering along the jagged rock slabs of PA, and one of my feet just slipped off the side of one. I fell forward and stretched out my arms to try and catch myself. I had wooden walking sticks in both hands; one was a stout hickory in my left hand, my right clutched a weather-beaten and very dry stick I had picked off the ground a few days back. I came down and caught myself with the stick in my right hand, each end of it was perched on top of a different slab of rock like the axle of a car, and there was about a three-foot V-shaped hole in between. I also slammed my knee on a rock, but I was not really hurt…then the stick snapped. My hand went straight down, and my fingers were split into a Dr. Spock salute on the pointy edge of a rock at the bottom of this hole. My ring finger snapped with an audible sound that freaked the living crap out of me.
I jumped up and looked down to see my finger pointing at my elbow and laid across my pinkie. Without thinking, I grabbed the finger and pulled it out and back into place. It made the same sound going in as it did going out. Even writing about it now gives me the heebie-jeebies!
So, to the best of my recollection, and my own journal entries and photographs from this day and night, this is the true and accurate story of Death and Decay at The Doyle in Duncannon. Hikers that I recall being present at this event, including Magnolia, Baltimore Jack, Too Hot, Hairy Strawberry and Toe Jam, Frog, Pale Rider, Last Exit, and Dog Bone based on my journal entry. The trail stories are a legacy to those who have trekked it and the extended cast of characters that are encountered throughout the annual journey.
keywords: hiking, Appalachian Trail, AT, PCT, Jack Tarlin, Baltimore Jack, Doyle Hotel, Trail Days, Duncannon, Thru-hiker