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Mountain Home Magazine

Over the Hill

Jun 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Phillip Hesser

“See you in Coudersport,” I promised, pointing westward and skyward on Route 6 at the entrance to Denton Hill State Park. “Take your time with breakfast; I’ll be a while,” I observed to Nancy, who had gamely dropped me off before her first coffee. I was the first runner at the start of the 2021 God’s Country Half Marathon on June 5.

Crouching above me in ambush was Denton Hill (perhaps named for H.H. Dent, who built his home Brookland nearby in the 1800s), which I had climbed running the God’s Country Marathons in 1998, 1999, and 2000. The behemoth inspired memories of those, and a lot more. Flashback to our shooting down Denton Hill in our car on the day before the race: As I studied the incline, Nancy interjected helpfully, “Don’t you say that hills look worse going down?”

As the race personnel arrived, I rewound my memory even more. I had fallen in love with “God’s Country” and its environs years before running, stopping at every crossroads: Austin Dam, Ole Bull State Park, Tom Mix Museum, Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, and the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, which is just across the highway from our start. And when you fall in love, you want to do things together. Having taken up jogging a few months earlier, I decided on God’s Country. (The Morris Rattlesnake Roundup was a close second.)

As the other runners appeared, I chatted with a few who also looked ominously at the three-mile climb ahead of us. I tried to distract them by informing them that they would be crossing the Eastern Continental Divide, a feature that attracted many motorists here when this stretch was paved in 1926. This section of Route 6 (a.k.a. the Roosevelt Highway—named for Teddy, mind you, as local people were quick to add) was, at 2,424 feet, the highest crossing of the “Lakes-to-Sea Highway” that connected Lake Erie with Cape Cod. I didn’t mention the elevation to the other runners, though, sensing that they wouldn’t derive any comfort from the numbers.

As we lined up for the start, I had other things on my mind. In my marathoning days, I chugged hills as if they were samples from the Straub brewery. Having lived in the flatlands for decades since doing God’s Country, I asked myself if I were up to Denton Hill toying with me between its paws. I had barely begun to mull this over when we were off and running toward the looming monster.

I looked for a distraction to take my mind away from the hill. I thought back to my visit to Headwaters Mountain in Gold Township—just ahead and to my right. The Susquehanna, Allegheny, and Genesee river systems all have headwaters on that hill. In fact, the Fuller family’s barn on the mountain made the papers in Ripley’s Believe It or Not in 1933 because its roof drained into all three watersheds. Mountains again!? I must think of something else, I thought to myself as I took a gulp from my canteen.

As I forged ahead on the final mile of the climb, I speculated what would reappear from my past: my muscle memory as a distance runner or those Old Gold cigarettes I smoked in junior high. As that hazy smoke of past vices began to clear from my memory, I saw that I had made it to the top! I wasn’t fast, but I was sort of steady. And there, in the place where Roosevelt And there, in the place where Roosevelt Highway motorists would drink from hilltop springs, was a water station for the runners sponsored by the Susquehannock Trail Club. Volunteering there was a friend I knew from the Keystone Trails Association, a great group of folks committed equally to hiking and to maintaining the many miles of Pennsylvania’s trails. Recalling our adventures on the Donut Hole Trail, she reminded me that we were going to do the Susquehannock Trail, just to the left of the highway. I was about to lobby for the Bucktail Trail (which I had sampled on a thirty-one-mile ultramarathon) but thought better of it and continued down to Coudersport.

Yes, “down to Coudersport”! At least, for the next few miles, I could enjoy drifting downstream along the Allegheny after having climbed along Pine Creek’s “Nine-Mile” Run—an apt psychological description despite the lesser running distance. Within a mile, I found myself at what once was Potato City (also the CCC Camp Potato), where scientists (with help from the corpsmen) experimented with the tubers and disseminated their findings to growers in the state. I had gone to the Potato City Country Inn, established in 1949, for one of the “carb-loading,” pre-race dinners in my full marathon years.

But where was the inn!? Demolished in 2018, it was now the site of the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop F, Coudersport Station. Seeing an officer watching the runners go by, I took a slight detour along the driveway and asked him if they were giving out potato soup to the runners.

“No potato soup here anymore,” he replied with a smile, likely seeing me as giddy from the altitude—or worse. I hightailed it out of the driveway before he had second thoughts about my condition.

The remaining miles through Sweden Valley and outer Coudersport flew quickly before I circled around to finish at the courthouse and a waiting Nancy. Where folks here once drove “over the hill” to visit or shop in Tioga County, this “over the hill” ex-marathoner had run the other way. I made my peace again with Denton Hill and recalled many other good times in the area. I would be back again next year—potato soup or not.

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