New York-New Jersey
August 21 ~ Telephone Pioneers Lean-to at milepoint 742.1 south, 70 days since start of hike, averaging 10.6 miles per day
Day 70. Jake and I woke up in our tents at the edge of a sunny field and were greeted by sun for the third consecutive day. Very unusual, at least this summer. The campsite had a well with a hand pump and the AMC caretaker told us we did not have to disinfect or purify the water – also very unusual. At most campsites and shelters – essentially all of them – our water comes from a stream and is highly suspect. Giardia bacteria are the main problem; they come from animal and human waste and are very common in streams that collect run-off water.
Early in our hike today we met a most unusual thru-hiker: Jack Bivouac. He carries a small digital voice recorder, which he uses as a message board for other thru-hikers. He asked us our trail names, looked at a list, and then played us a message from two south-bound friends, Martha Stewart and Blue Light Special, who are ahead of us. He also let us record a message for two SoBo friends who are behind us, Gecko and Moss. His gizmo is smaller than an eyeglass case and can hold 200 messages. Jack is doing his third thru-hike and plans to write a book about the Trail after doing one more. Both his physique and his pack were lean – he said he’s got his pack weight, including the clothes he was wearing, down to 10 pounds. That’s very light. We thanked him for helping with the messages and asked him why he does it. “To make the Trail more of a community,” he said.
Another surprise today: I was hiking over a hill and down into a small ravine, and I saw Jake on the other side standing with a group of 4 nuns, dressed in full habit but with day packs and binoculars. They were very curious about our hike and very cheerful about getting started on their own short mid-day hike. We should have asked if we could take a picture but I was so startled by the sight of these hiking nuns that it slipped my mind. The mental impression will last a long time, however.
At lunch time Jake and I stopped at the Appalachian Trail station of the Metro-Line that runs into NYC. The “station” is just a bench, a bulletin board, and a huge metal sign that says “Appalachian Trail.” I’ve met two hikers who have taken the side trip to the Big Apple – most of the traffic appears to be NYC-based day trippers, based on the schedule of stops. Only a few of the trains stop here; one roared by at a frightening speed while we were finishing our lunch.
One of the things we discussed at lunch was a party scheduled for 8/23 for Martha Stewart, who is leaving the Trail to help her sister launch a new restaurant. Jake decided he would get off the Trail and hitch-hike to the party at Bear Mt. State Park on the Hudson. It’s actually on the Trail but too far for us to hike there in time. So, toward the end of the day, we rearranged our packs slightly (I got the lunch supplies and Jake kept the dinners), and he blasted ahead while I stayed here for the night.
This shelter turned out to be an enjoyable spot, with 5 other SoBo’s and a section hiker named Singing Bear, a folksinger/songwriter, who brought her guitar and sang for us. She also let several of us play her guitar, so there was a lot of singing – some of it on key, and much of it consisting of two half-remembered verses, accompanied by a few half-remembered chords. Most of us were quick to hand the guitar back to Singing Bear after we had sufficiently embarrassed ourselves. But voices and guitar did gel on a few songs: “Amazing Grace,” “Ripple,” and “I Shall Be Released,” among others.
Three interesting sights today:
-A pile of bird feathers in the middle of the Trail, apparently the spot where a yellow bird of some kind had an unfortunate meeting with a predator.
-The Dover Oak, a huge oak tree, the largest tree on the AT, according to the Thru-Hikers Companion, with a trunk that measures 19 feet around.
-A working farm, with a working tractor and 4 farm-hands, baling hay in a field while I hiked by on a path that borders the field. They seemed oblivious to the Trail, almost as if I inhabited a parallel universe that they could not see or was of no great concern to them. The Trail certainly feels like a world apart, and this feeling is reinforced whenever the Trail crosses a major highway and we see the trucks whizzing by. It’s good to know that the engines of commerce are still humming, as we knew they would be when we left. Nevertheless, it is unnerving to be reminded of how little the world knows or cares about what’s going on on the Trail, even though that’s one of the reasons for coming here in the first place. It’s a curious paradox that sometimes one needs to be lost to the world in order to find it anew.
Got off to a fairly late start this morning and both of us were hurting bad so we moved slow. We said goodbye regretfully to Dave the ridgerunner. I had really gotten to like him.
In the middle of the day I was standing at an info kiosk and signing the register when I heard some voices approaching from the south. I could tell they were dayhikers by the things they were talking about, but when I turned around to say hello, I was much surprised to see a group of four nuns. They were very interested in my hike and asked a lot of questions. I enjoyed talking with them. They were of the Sisters of Life in the Bronx, and were out in the country taking a class, and had decided to go for an afternoon walk. I gave them our website and they said they’d check it. A big hello and best wishes to the sisters if you’re reading this! When they heard our names were Jacob and David, one of them commented “Ah, two strong names hiking the trail.”
At the railroad crossing we had lunch and I came to the decision that I would try to hitch ahead to Bear Mtn. for the goodbye party for Martha Stewart, who is getting off the trail. Dad thus hiked only to Telephone Pioneers Shelter and I went on to Morgan Stewart shelter, where I am now. I left lunch supplies with him to make dinner with. In a field today I came upon a weasel or something of the sort. I couldn’t really tell what it was. It was brown and furry, slightly larger than a squirrel, with a pointed nose and a tail that was furry but not bushy and about half as long as its body. It didn’t run away when I approached, and indeed I didn’t see it till I was nearly on top of it. Even then it didn’t do anything for a few moments, then finally it noticed me and ran off into the under growth.
The next odd thing was when I was leaving Dad at Telephone Pioneers Shelter. All of a sudden this guy in a white T-shirt with a leafy twig in his left hand came running down the trail at a terrific pace and passed without a word. He had no pack on. I was completely mystified.
Also on the way to this shelter I came upon a person sitting against a tree. My first thought when I saw them was that it was someone taking a break. Then as I got closer and the person stayed completely still, I started thinking “Oh no, another hiker has died. What will I do?” Finally when I got to it I saw it was one of those creepy CPR dummies. My guess is that it was put there as part of a practice search-and-rescue effort, training Wilderness First Responders or something. When I got to the shelter Banjo Bill hadn’t seen the dummy, and he was just ahead of me, so it must have been recently placed.
When I got to the shelter I met Candyman and Li’l Debbie for the first time, which was neat. Banjo Bill was also here for a total of four tonight. Candyman built a fire and we sat around for a while. Tomorrow I hike down to the next road and hitch a ride.
August 22 ~ Shenandoah Tenting Area, NY at milepoint 760.2 south, 71 days since start of hike, averaging 10.7 miles per day
Day 71. When I woke up this morning I had a pleasant surprise: the lean-to faces east and so I got to watch a colorful sunrise as I dusted off my wits and re-loaded my backpack. I tend to be a little absent-minded at times, and so it is a miracle that I still have most of the items that I started with. Of course, it helps when you’ve reduced all your belongings to the point where you can carry them on your back. (I think this was Thoreau’s advice in “Walden.”)
It is an interesting discipline each morning to figure out whether I have everything. When you sleep in a shelter with several other people, all of whom have camping equipment and stuff sacks that look remarkably like your own, everyone’s gear gets mixed up a bit. My 32 pounds of gear includes about 150 separate items, and the last thing I want to do after hiking a few miles is to turn around and hike back because I forgot something. It’s that fear, I believe, that concentrates the mind each morning, and helps me get my act together.
This morning I added a bit of gear to my pack. Someone had abandoned a foam rubber sleeping pad at the shelter. I asked the other hikers last night if anyone wanted it and no one did, so this morning I cut off two chunks of it and fastened them to my pack to create more cushioning for my lower back. And this seems to have helped – my back was better today.
Hiking through the woods in the early morning hours feels like a privilege. Perhaps it sounds like a cliche, but the woods feel like a sanctuary at that hour, with the light just beginning to filter though the trees. I leave my Walkman turned off at that hour and listen for the animals – this is prime time for some of them. Off to my right two white-tail deer dart over the rocks when they see me. Yesterday morning a small snake coiled and prepared to attack my hiking poles. The spiders have been working all night, and now I know how a fellow hiker who rises early every morning got his trail name: Web Breaker.
As I walked along this morning I heard a growling noise, and then realized it was my stomach. Time for breakfast. I stopped at a lake where everything had a faint glow and looked in my guidebook while I ate. The lake is called – I’m not making this up – Nuclear Lake, because it was the site of a facility that processed low-level radioactive materials. The site was contaminated in 1972 but has reportedly been cleaned up. The wildlife in the area is still active. I saw evidence of beavers going after trees much larger than beavers ordinarily attack. Hmm.
Along the Trail today I was noticing the imprint of Jacob’s boots. He was probably the last south bounder to use the Trail last night, as he hiked ahead of me, trying to make it to the party for Martha Stewart. I know the pattern of Jake’s soles, because I am almost always walking in my son’s footsteps on the Trail – an interesting role reversal.
This stretch of Trail in NY is surrounded by highways – some near, some far. But the sound of cars and trucks is persistent for much of the day. Here in NY the Trail has crossed half a dozen roads each day, and sometimes a major highway or two. (In Maine, it was sometimes unusual to cross even one paved road in a day.)
Because of the prevalence of cross-roads, thru-hikers talk about the NY Challenge – to have lunch at a deli on each of the four days that it takes to hike across this state. I don’t think I’ll hit all four, but I decided to stop at one. It was only half a mile from the Trail, and it was delightful. Everyone working at the counter had a thick NYC accent, and this made the food taste even better.
I got a ride back to the trailhead with two weekend hikers from the Bronx who drove up while I was sitting at the picnic table outside the deli. They plied me with questions about hiking because they had just had a miserable experience trying to haul their 65-pound packs up the mountain I had just descended. “ Maybe I shouldn’t have brought the whole bottle of Pepto-Bismol,” one of them said.
This was a big day for eating because not only was there a deli en-route but my destination for the evening was the fabled RPH Shelter. (The “RPH” is the abbreviation of a hiking club that previously used the cabins.) RPH is well known on the Trail as one of the two shelters where hikers can order pizza and have it delivered. This miracle is the hiker equivalent of manna from heaven. A Trail angel named Big John lives near the cabin, and each night he stops by to see if any of the hikers want to order pizza. He must know by now that the answer will always be yes. An hour later, he returns with several boxes, we pay him for the pizza, his gas money, and a little extra, and everyone is happy. Big John, thank you.
I had another 45 minutes or so of daylight after dinner and pressed on to the Shenandoah Campsite, about 1.3 miles south along the Trail. A northbounder, Fungal (a cheerful young woman with foot problems and an appreciation of puns) said it was the best tent site on the whole AT. So I had to check it out.
The site was, in fact, quite lovely. It’s actually an orchard with a large grassy area that was recently mowed. There were picnic tables, a water pump, and a recently built privy. In a few weeks the peaches, apples and pears will be ready, but I did manage to find a couple of pears that were ripe. This is a Valhalla compared to most campsites on the Trail. I aimed my tent toward the east and settled down for the night. A half moon rose slowly above the trees, with a sky so clear that I left the rain fly off the tent so that I could see the stars through the mesh. Cool air and a feeling of peace descended into the tent – good sleeping weather.
August 23 ~ Graymoor Friary, NY at milepoint 777.7 south, 72 days since start of hike, averaging 10.8 miles per day
Day 72. This shelter is one of the more interesting ones that Jake and I have stayed in. It’s an open-walled pavilion with a cement floor, and it sits on the edge of a ball field at a Catholic monastery. The friars at the Spiritual Life Center here have made their grounds available to hikers for more than 20 years. Each evening Father Fred comes down to the pavilion at 5 p.m. and takes a head-count, and he returns an hour later with Tupperware containers full of food. Tonight’s dinner was rice, baked macaroni and cheese, and tuna roll-up sandwiches. There were five of us this evening, and two more arrived late, but everyone had plenty to eat. This was a big improvement over the PB&J which I otherwise would have eaten. Next to the pavilion there’s a shower, but with cold water only. As badly as I need a shower (very badly), I can’t face a cold one. I’ll have to wait another few days.
Father Fred, by the way, did not look at all as I expected. He was wearing an old golf jacket, and the kind of clothes I would ordinarily wear on a Saturday when I had a bunch of chores to do around the yard. With his NYC accent and outgoing manner, I would never have picked him out of a crowd as a member of a monastic order.
There are a few Bibles here at the pavilion and a copy of the Catholic Digest in the privy. But otherwise you would not know that you are on the grounds of a friary. This is actually a disappointment – I would like to see the main buildings, which are on the other side of the woods. Perhaps tomorrow.
This shelter was a particularly welcome site this evening because it rained all afternoon, and everything I was wearing was soaked. I could hear water sloshing around in my boots as I walked. This was the first time I have hiked in the rain without wearing raingear, and it worked. The rain kept me cool as I sprinted the last few miles, trying to reach the shelter before Father Fred’s dinner count. At the shelter I put on my other set of clothes and my raingear and managed to stay warm and dry despite the chill in the air.
One of the southbounders in the shelter, Banjo Bill, discovered today that he had a deer tick embedded in his shoulder. Fortunately, a northbounder had a pair of tweezers and was able to pull it out. It is frightening to see how small they are. We asked Banjo Bill how he could tell it was there, just above his shoulder blades. “Some sixth sense told me,” he said. So far my senses have not alerted me to any ticks, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I just don’t have the courage or perseverance to look in all the places they might be hiding. Instead, I slather my legs and arms with insect and tick repellant. I also tuck my pants into my socks. OK, so it makes me look like a nerd, but at least the ticks are going to have to fight their way in. Meanwhile, I’ll look for a pair of tweezers at the next drug store and hope for the best.
One of the things that helped me keep trucking through the rain this afternoon was my Walkman. Several of the radio stations in this area specialize in “ oldies” or “classic rock,” as some DJ’s prefer to call it. I can boogey up those hills a lot better with a strong beat playing in my earphones. Motown is particularly good, as is the BeeGees’ song “Stayin Alive.” I was never a BeeGees fan but when I hear that song, my feet start moving. A couple of days ago, that tune was playing on the radio and I was hiking in a syncopated rhythm to the beat, when I looked up and saw a northbounder coming toward me with a bemused look on his face. He saw my headset, immediately figured out that I was lost in a world of my own, and stepped aside as I bounced by him. “How are ya doin?” he asked. “Stayin alive,” I smiled, and kept cruising.
Today the radio is playing a little erratically because of the rain. It’s supposed to be waterproof but I have my doubts. It’s doing fine with cassettes, though, and Bob Dylan’s 1966 Live album pulled me through the last couple of soggy miles to the friary. He didn’t sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” on that album but it would have been just right.
P.S. Today the odometer on our hike turned up all sevens: 777.7 miles. Numerology, anyone?
No entry yesterday because I was too busy hiking. I got to Rt. I-84 and decided to move on to the next road. Then I found out that Blue Light and Martha had stayed at Graymoor last night (that is, the 21st), and Banjo Bill had told me they planned to zero at Bear Mtn. and go into the City. I figured I could push on to Graymoor, doing a 30-mile day, and thus be only a day behind, catching up when they did a zero. I did this, and it hurt. Along the way I passed the Three Moosekateers, who said they hoped Martha would stay on the trail. As always seems to happen when I concentrate heavily on hiking, I don’t recall anything interesting happening. I did see many deer though, but I didn’t count them. I got to the Graymoor monastery quite late, after dark. There were signs saying to follow the blue blazes to the hikers’ shelter, but I had trouble seeing them with just my little Pulsar flashlight and got lost many times before finally finding the shelter on the ballfield. Another hiker, Strollin’, was there already and was in bed but not yet asleep. I talked to him briefly before crashing. Before I fell asleep some guys in a pickup truck came by looking for “John.” It turned out to be John the Baptist, but they just laughed when I asked if that’s who they were looking for. They didn’t know his trailname. After that I fell asleep.
Today I was still hurting pretty bad, but I got up and hiked the 6 or 7 miles to the Bear Mountain Inn. When I got here there were plenty of people having barbecues, but no hikers. I looked around thoroughly and asked at the front desk if they had a hikers’ register, but no luck. I was up the creek. So I sat in the cafeteria for a while, eating trail food and hoping some compassionate soul would offer me a pizza (none did) and deciding what to do from here. Eventually John the Baptist showed up. It was great to see him. Evidently his friends had found him last night and he stayed with them. We hung out for a while and eventually Blue Light and Martha showed up. It was also great to see them. They had met a Trail Angel named Gene yesterday or today who had driven them to the Campmoor store to get some nice new clothes.
We hung out for a while, then Gene took John and I to the supermarket to get some food. Martha’s sister came to take her into the City, and John and I are sleeping in an old bus stop near here.
August 24 ~ Black Mountain, NY at milepoint 791.7 south, 73 days since start of hike, averaging 10.8 miles per day
Day 73. When I woke this morning at the Graymoor Franciscan Friary, I was glad I had set up my tent inside the open-air pavilion because the other hikers were rolling out of their sleeping bags with tales of fighting mosquitoes all night. The mosquitoes have actually been pretty bad ever since Massachusetts, but we’ re so worried about deer ticks, we mostly forget about the mosquitoes.
This is now the third morning in a row I woke up with Jake ahead of me on the Trail. Two northbounders gave me a message from him – he’ll be waiting for me at Bear Mountain Park. Jake hiked nearly 30 miles the day before yesterday to get there for a party. That’s a lot of miles in one day, especially with the heavy pack he’s carrying.
Two fellow southbounders – Little Debbie and The Candyman – and I went to see the main buildings of the Friary this morning. We passed a terrace with a large water fountain and a spigot. The sign in front of the spigot said, “Blessed Water,” so I filled up my water bottles. Probably no need to use the water purifier.
We found our way to the Information Center and asked for a couple of envelopes so that we could make a donation. The friars don’t request one, but the "Thru-Hikers Companion” says that they appreciate any support they can get for their mission, which includes looking after hikers and fostering understanding among religious groups. I noticed on their bulletin board announcements for a Quaker Meeting and a Buddhist Meditation session - both at the friars’ chapel. There were also a number of moving requests for prayers tacked up here and there on the bulletin board. One said: “Please pray for David who was in a car accident and broke his neck. Please pray that he can walk.”
We spoke with a couple of the friars in the building. They noticed our back packs, greeted us warmly, and asked us about our hike. Unlike Father Fred, Father John was wearing a long brown hooded robe and was immediately identifiable as a friar. I was surprised, though, to see one of the long-robed Fathers standing outside the front door smoking a cigarette. I guess tobacco is harder to give up than other things.
Before leaving the Friary we left a note that Candyman wrote and all of us signed: “Thank you for your kindness and hospitality…and continued unwavering support of those who seek fellowship with the woods and themselves.” We took with us some information about the Friary’s current difficulties with the National Park Service, which is seeking to take by eminent domain a 1,000-foot corridor of the Friars’ land where the AT crosses it. The U.S. government has apparently rejected the Friars’ offer of an easement to protect the Trail. More info is available at the Friars’ website(!): www.atonementfriars.org.
One of the buildings at the Friary is Pilgrim Hall, and before going back to the Trail, I asked Candyman to take a picture of me there. I wanted to spend more time at Graymoor, but I knew Jake was waiting for me so I pressed on. It was six miles to the Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River, but the river came into view soon after crossing the ridge past the Friary. The Hudson, a huge river, never looked huger than when crossing it on foot. With trains running on both sides as I crossed the bridge, a tug boat cruising beneath, and two work crews high up on the girders that keep the bridge aloft, I was walking through a world very different from the woods I left. I met a northbounder – Ramblin’ Rose – at the midpoint of the bridge. The walkway was so narrow, and (with our packs) we were so wide, we had to navigate carefully around each other. We exchanged info about the Trail, and she asked about deer ticks. She found six on herself last night and also found the tell-tale “bullseye” that they leave when they bite. In fact she found several bulls-eyes. I told her what I knew about Lyme Disease, which is precious little, and suggested that she visit a clinic. She looked discouraged by the news because she doesn’t want to take antibiotics. But the Lyme epidemic doesn’t leave much choice.
Jake was waiting for me at the Park on the other side of the bridge. We had a happy reunion and got caught up on each other’s news of the Trail. The Park is a fascinating place: the AT passes right through the center. At the entrance you walk through a zoo built in the 1930’s. I saw my first bears on the Trail today – in a concrete enclosure. I also saw a bald eagle, a river otter, a coyote, and some other creatures that inhabit the nearby woods. This zoo was the prototype nature center that was part of the original design of the AT. There were supposed to be 14 of them linked to the Trail but it appears that this is the only one that got built.
At the Park, Jake and I talked with a Trail angel, Gene Meyers, who gave Jake a ride to a supermarket. Gene is a section hiker who has hiked most of the Trail and now helps hikers when he sees them coming through the Park. He told us to give him a call if we need any help on the Trail in NY.
Our last seven miles of hiking today brought us to a clearing at the top of Black Mountain where we saw the last of a sunset. New York City is only 34 miles from the Trail and we can see some of the lights from here. But surrounded by the huckleberry bushes and mountain laurel on this summit and with katydids calling from the lush green hills all around, we are about as distant as we could be from the life of NYC, at least mentally if not physically.
August 25 ~ Island Pond Mountain at milepoint 799.8 south, 74 days since start of hike, averaging 10.8 miles per day
Day 74. Today we woke up on the summit of one mountain and pitched our tents for the night on another. Neither summit is an officially designated campsite but both have flat areas and good views. And the matted grass indicates that Jake and I weren’t the first hikers to camp on either mountain. Many of the lean-to’s in NY have no water and no privy, so there is little reason to stay there unless the weather is harsh.
But we’ve been blessed the last two days with balmy weather. We spent a lazy morning on top of Black Mountain making pancakes for breakfast and letting our sweat-soaked clothes dry in the sun. There’s no easy way to make pancakes over a tiny Whisperlite stove using a pot lid as a griddle. But the joy of it was being able to make them at all. We shared them with two SoBo friends who camped with us – Little Debbie and Candyman. The pancakes were a little greasy and the shapes were a bit odd, but they tasted like a delicacy. That’s the difference between trail food and real food. We were thrilled to be eating pancakes that we would have quickly sent back if they had been served to us in a restaurant.
As we packed up our tents this morning, a cloud of flying ants descended on the mountain top. Their swarming all around us was like a Biblical plague. We flapped our arms at them, but it did little good, and then they left as suddenly as they had come. They returned two more times before I left the mountain, each time turning me into a whirling dervish.
As I was leaving the summit, I saw through the haze the skyline of Manhattan. To see NYC from the distance of the AT is one of the reasons people camp on Black Mountain. Some thru-hikers have never seen it before, and for them it must look a bit like the Emerald City of Oz. It looked a little magical to me, and I’ve seen that skyline many times. As I looked out from the mountain, a hawk slowly floated by at eye level, almost 100 feet away, and hung motionless on an updraft, watching for prey. It was so near, but like NYC, in a world apart.
One of our goals for the morning was to find water. Jake suggested that we go off the Trail where it passes near a lake – he had heard it was a good swimming spot too. We hiked six miles to Lake Tiorati, where we found a public beach, picnic tables, a bath house, and a few vending machines. It seemed like a fancy country club to us. I was thrilled – I got the shower I had been waiting for. OK, so the water wasn’t exactly hot but it wasn’t ice cold either, and after ten days without a shower, I wasn’t going to be too picky. I was able to wash some of my clothes by hand in the sink and lay them out near the beach to dry. (I can’t remember the last time I washed clothes by hand, but I was astonished to see how black the water became as I rinsed them out.) We swam in the Lake, we lolled on the beach, and we read. Jake did not need much persuading when I suggested that we forget about hiking for the afternoon and just enjoy the extraordinary luck of finding ourselves at a beach near the Trail on a sunny day in August.
We met two NoBo’s at the Lake – they, like us, changed their hiking plan when they realized what a godsend the Lake was. We also met an Hispanic woman who, seeing our packs, invited us over to her picnic table for watermelon. But the most memorable encounter was with the group of “Cadets” that entered the men’s side of the bath house as I was taking my shower. The Cadets are a youth group organized by the National Guard. They dress in military fatigues, they have military ranks, and they meet once a week throughout the year for “boot camp” activities. Based on what I could see in the men’s room, those activities consisted largely of being yelled at by the sergeants, who tried to herd 40 or 50 cadets through the one remaining shower stall in half an hour. I think the yelling is supposed to instill character. It must take a lot of restraint not to respond in kind when you’re 14 years old and some kid who’s not much older than you is screaming obscenities at you and can get away with it because his rank is slightly higher than yours. I was trying to mind my own business in the open stall of the shower, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit pressured by the line of Cadets who were getting yelled at for not moving fast enough through the one remaining stall.
As I left the men’s room I asked some of the Cadets lined up outside about their group. They’re all from the Bronx or upper Manhattan. I think I saw one or two Cadets who were white; all of the others were Black or Hispanic. The ones I talked to seemed to like it, but they had the hang-dog look of weary GI’ s. These Cadets and we thru-hikers are definitely marching to the beat of different drummers.
We left the Lake at 6 and I find it hard to describe how delightful it felt to be clean for a change and to be hiking in clothes that no longer reeked from 10 days worth of perspiration. Jake and I passed up a shelter and decided to hike until we found a hilltop site where we could watch the sunrise in the morning. This is a lovely spot, but we each had to hide out in our tents to eat dinner because of the mosquitoes. It’s not so easy, however, to get in (or out) of a tent without letting some insects inside. Then, when you zip up the screen, you ’ve trapped them in for the night. This means an evening of vigilance as you play exterminator whenever you fell an itch or hear a buzz. But I managed to forget about the bugs when the sight of a bright crescent moon rising through the trees reminded me why I am willing – even anxious – to sleep in a small tent on a remote hilltop in the woods.
Noon – Tiorati Circle Beach
No entry yesterday because I was too lazy. I spent Wednesday night under the shelter of an old bus turnaround with John the Baptist. He left around midmorning and I hung around waiting for Dad. While I waited Banjo Bill and Candyman and Li’l Debbie showed up. Then Dad came and I had Gene take me to the grocery store for more ice cream and more soda. We waited till 4 or so to see if Team Kmart would be back, then hiked up to Black Mtn., where we camped with Candyman and Li’l Debbie. There was a very threatening cloud in the sky, and we were sure it would rain, but it did not.
This morning we witnessed a very odd phenomenon – there was this swarm of insects that periodically came over our campsite. They didn’t seem interested in food or anything, they just flew in and the air would suddenly be thick with hundreds and hundreds of these little winged insects and within 15 to 30 seconds they’d move on. They seemed to come back every 2 or 3 minutes, somewhat regularly. Not much else has happened today. I stopped at this beach for a swim and to wait for Dad for lunch. The swim was refreshing though cold.
August 26 ~ Arden Mountain, NY at milepoint 803.9 south, 75 days since start of hike, averaging 10.7 miles per day
Day 75. It’s almost midnight, and I am lying in my tent, on top of a mountain, watching the jets fly through the Big Dipper. A cacophony of insects blares from the low-lying trees, and a few car sounds can be heard from the NY thruway, only 2 miles away. I can also hear a scurrying noise – probably a small animal or two prowling near my tent. But it is not the sound of cars, or creatures, or jets that keep me awake. I am feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I am to be on the Trail right now.
This is the third consecutive night that Jake and I have camped on a mountain top under clear skies and warm night air. Wingfoot, the seven-time thru-hiker who created and manages the Trailplace website, is reported to have said about the Trail: “Just when you think it can’t possibly get any better, it gets better.” That’s how it feels tonight.
As I gaze toward the heavens, the fine mesh of the tent disappears. I can see only the dark silhouette of a few small oaks and the rest is sky. I am thanking my luck stars tonight for bringing me here. But, even more, I renew my thanks to my wife and family and to my colleagues at Hill & Barlow in Boston for making this soul-shaking experience possible. I am also feeling grateful tonight to all of the hundreds of anonymous Trail-lovers who have blazed and maintained the path we are traveling. And, big thanks to all the Trail angels who have magically appeared when we needed their help. Thank you all.
The angels and the Trail were particularly good to us today. We left Island Pond Mountain with only 3 miles to go before we reached Route 17 and a short hitch to our mail drop. As I walked down the mountain I spotted a single ripe huckleberry on a bush next to the Trail. As I ate it, the taste of the whole summer’s berry-picking rushed through me. The Trail is lush right now with opportunities for picking wild blueberries – they sparsely coat the bushes at the higher elevations, and everyday they slow my pace. I feel torn between trying to catch up with Jake and letting the bear in me prowl these bushes. This morning I discovered that I just need the taste of one. I let it linger in my mouth as I hiked on.
At the highway, a NYC fire fighter who lives in the area gave us a ride to a small grocery/deli in Harriman, NY, and to the Arden Post Office. Our mail drop box was not there, however. I knew there was a mistake of some kind because Beth had sent it by Priority Mail more than a week ago. Our NYC angel drove me back to Harriman and I started making phone calls. Without our next week’s supplies, we would have a lot of scrambling to do. But with some help from the folks in several Post Offices, we located the box – it was in Bear Mountain, NY because I put the wrong Zip Code on the box. It was Saturday and we had 30 minutes to get to Bear Mountain before the P.O. closed – a nearly impossible task. We tried calling a taxi – no answer. We asked folks coming out of the deli – no luck. Then I called the Bear Mountain Inn, and an angel named Lionel said he would walk to the P.O. and pick up our packages. He knows the Postmaster, and she said OK. This saved us from having to wait until Monday.
Two more Trail angels showed up to give us a ride from Harriman to Bear Mountain, quite a bit out of their way. More magic awaited us at the Inn. Among our letters and packages was a gift from a dear friend, Michael Bogdanow. Michael made a cassette tape of music to hike by – traveling tunes from James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and other favorite musicians of mine. Thank you, Michael – this will set my feet flying to Georgia. And there were letters from home – my heart is full.
Jake and I spent a few peaceful hours in Bear Mountain Park, writing letters and post cards, watching hundreds of picnickers grill hot dogs and lounge by the Park’s long lake, and hanging out with several SoBo friends who met us in the Park.
Just as we were about to leave the Park and hitch back to Arden, a church group invited us to join their picnic. Jake and I sat with three SoBo's and this small group of ardent Baptists from Brooklyn. After we ate, one of the members of the group – an Hispanic college student named Menachim – began preaching to us. He asked us if we had accepted Jesus as our savior. He pointed to the maps we use to find the Trail, and told us that the Bible is the map that will lead us to Heaven’s door. After about 15-20 minutes of preaching, I showed him my Trail map and pointed out that there is more than one path leading to the summit of Bear Mountain. I told him that I appreciated his preaching but I am on the Jewish path – that’s what I grew up with and that’s the path I am following. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible and thanked the group for their hospitality. “We have to be getting back on the Trail that brought us here before it gets too much later,” I said. Jake and I departed. We both enjoy listening to good preaching, and Menachim was a very engaging minister of the Gospel. But we could have been there a long time – neither of us was about to be converted, even though our ardent hosts would have gone the extra mile to save us.
What did save us this evening was a wonderful ride with two young people who stopped the minute they saw our out-stretched thumbs. With a car filled with books, clothes, and camping equipment, these were our kind of people. They had hiked a portion of the AT this summer (West Virginia thru Pennsylvania) and they took us on the long winding road back to Arden. Thank you, Reggie and Laurel, for your help and for the good time we had riding with you.
The last bit of hiking today was steep and full of boulders but with new music my step was light.
Among the interesting sights today was a rock formation just before Arden, called the Lemon Squeezer. It’s a series of huge boulders leading to a narrow path between two high rocks. The path gets progressively narrower as you proceed. Marilyn Monroe was reportedly seen hiking this section of the Trail many years ago – a thru-hiker saw her here. I prefer to think back to the year 1958 when another famous person – Justice William O. Douglas, one of my heroes – hiked the AT, not only through the Lemon Squeezer but from end to end. He was the 18th person to do it, according to the records of the Appalachian Trail Conference. In his opinions and dissents on the Supreme Court, as on the Trail, he was often between a rock and a hard place but found a way through.
Well, I have rambled enough for one night. It’s time for more stars and some sleep.
What a fantastic day! We had a few mishaps, but overall it was great. To begin at the beginning, we woke up and had an easy walk to Rt. 17. We got a great hitch pretty quickly to Harriman, where the grocery was, and he took Dad to Arden for the Post Office. The post office didn’t have our package because it had the wrong zip code, and the grocery store was rather limited. I managed to scrounge up the lunch supplies we needed plus a few goodies, but it would not do for long-term resupply. We found out that our package was actually in Bear Mountain, so I started hitching while Dad called the Bear Mtn. Inn to see if they could pick it up for us. There was considerable time pressure because the post office closed at noon. While I was hitching a police officer stopped and beckoned me over to his car. He said “You can’t hitchhike in New York” and asked for my ID. He wanted a driver’s license but I had none so I gave him my Cornell ID. He ran my name through the computer then came back and talked to me a little about the trail and so on, and asked me who I was with. Eventually he left, saying again, “You can’t hitchhike in New York.” It was rather awkward, as I certainly wasn’t going to say “Sorry officer, it won’t happen again.” We both knew fill well that as soon as he left I would start hitching again, only more cautiously. He left, and we decided at least to avoid hitching in the center of Harriman, as he drove through there frequently. We tried asking people directly, and eventually someone gave us some advice on where to go hitch. As we went there, not even sticking out our thumbs, some great guys pulled over and gave us a ride all the way to Bear Mtn. They even offered us a cold beer, though neither of us accepted. They were ready to give us a ride all the way back to the trail too, but we decided we’d need some time to sort through our packages and send some stuff home. We figured we’d be able to get a ride from Gene, anyhow. It turned out that Gene had been in a car accident and wrecked his rental car. He had the rental car because he had been in an accident with his normal car, and it was being repaired. So we decided to hang around the park for a while and try to hitch out around 5 p.m. as people were leaving. We had a good time. I transcribed some journals and Dad wrote some letters. I was ecstatic to find that Banana, a woman we had met near Bromley, had found my correspondence bag and sent it to Mom, so now I had my address book back and could send many letters which had been awaiting addresses.
While we sat around, Frog, Wetfoot, and two people I had not met before named Merlin and Moondance came along. They hung out for a little while, and left before we did. On our way out, I heard people shouting and saw a big group of picnickers waving. I thought they were just being friendly, so I waved back. Then some started beckoning, and I heard the word “food”, so I rushed over. There were our fellow hikers, being treated to a BBQ by a church group. I told them I’d be right back and went to fetch Dad. They gave me meat before I could explain I was a vegetarian, but I had some good potato salad and macaroni salad. After we had eaten, one of the guys from the church started trying to inform us about the Only Path to God, Jesus Christ. I listened politely for a long time, but eventually Dad broke in and mentioned that we had to go before sunset. The church folks seemed a little disappointed that we didn’t convert before their eyes, but they let us go. Hitching took a little while, but eventually a guy and a girl, named Reggie and Laurel pulled over. They were great; it turned out they had hiked WV – PA earlier this year. With many hitches it’s difficult to find stuff to talk about, but these two were very easy to talk to. We talked about hiking, pesticides and the West Nile Disease, the Internet Economy, and other things. They asked if we had any musical preferences and I said techno but they had nothing of the sort. Then I went for a slightly long shot: They Might be Giants. They already had “Flood” in their tapedeck! It was terrific. When they hit Play it was in the middle of Birdhouse in Your Soul. For the rest of the ride I was blissed out on TMBG tunes. When we got to the trailhead they said they felt like getting out and hiking with us, but they were late already. We exchanged contact info, took a picture, and said our good-byes. Anyways, Reggie and Laurel, if you’re reading this, send me an e-mail sometime! I’d love to hear from you.
We managed to find a decent tentsite about a mile out on Arden Mtn., and saw the sunset.
August 27 ~ Vernon, NJ at milepoint 830.1 south, 76 days since start of hike, averaging 10.9 miles per day
Day 76. I woke up this morning and decided I wanted to try and make it to Vernon, NJ. There is a hostel at the Episcopal Church in Vernon, and the northbounders describe it as the best hostel on the AT. I had the impression (based on my own misreading of the Thru-Hikers Companion) that the hostel was closed on Monday. This being Sunday, I thought I needed to hike the 26.2 miles to Vernon to see what the NoBo’s were talking about. I also thought it would be a good idea to catch up a bit on our schedule. And, I wanted to see if I could hike 26 miles.
I’ve heard a few thru-hikers talk about hiking even more than that – 30+ miles in a day. That’s very unusual. I’ve also been told by the NoBo’s not to worry about our schedule because we’ll be hiking 20-25 miles per day in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the terrain is relatively flat. The profile map for the 26 miles into Vernon looked flat – no more than 500 feet of elevation changes the whole way.
And, so at 6:45 this morning I went to Jake’s tent, woke him up long enough to tell him my plan, and he groggily said, OK. “See you in Vernon,” I said, and set out.
The morning sky was beautiful - decorated with puffs of pale blue clouds, lit up underneath in orange, arrayed across the horizon. A thin crescent moon floated up over the clouds through the morning sky and then faded from sight. It is a comfort to know that this apparition of moon is still watching over us even when we can no longer see it.
There is a hush in the woods this morning, and I try to hike quietly, to respect the silence.
At the first crossroad, there were 3 plastic jugs sitting next to a tree. A note on one of the jugs said “water for thru-hikers,” left by the “Sterling Forest Partnership.” The Trail is quite dry between Bear Mountain Park and the NJ/PA line, and my water bottles were almost empty. As I filled them, I thought how unusual it is for people to trust this water supply. But we do. I’ve never heard of the Sterling Forest Partnership, but I was prepared to believe that anyone who would take the trouble to bring water to an AT trailhead is probably not poisoning it.
The first 15 miles on the Trail today went smoothly, but it was hard work. The profile map looked flat, but the Trail threw me a curve ball, it went up and down an endless series of steep rock ridges, each no more than 100 feet but collectively enough to wear me out. I began to question the wisdom of my planned marathon. (By coincidence, the distance to Vernon is the exact length of a marathon: 26.2 miles.) I’ve run a few marathons – very slowly. It takes me between 4 and 4.5 hours to finish one. I had 13 hours of daylight, and so it seemed do-able, even with a backpack. Of course, when I am running a marathon, the last few miles aren’t a pretty sight, and so it was today. My back was aching and a flood of strange sensations coursed through my feet. I stopped at a farm stand at mile 18 to get water and asked if anyone was going to Vernon. I would have accepted a ride and covered the remaining miles tomorrow. My determination was faltering but there were no rides, and so I resigned myself to hiking the last 6 miles. It’s difficult to discipline the mind after a certain amount of hiking (or running). The body’s biochemistry tries to override that of the mind. So I cranked up my Walkman, the music served as an anaesthetic, and I pressed on. I saw the sun getting closer to the horizon, and the adrenaline kicked in. I definitely did not want to hike the last mile – a steep, rocky descent, according to the map – in the dark.
The challenge of trying to hike the 26.2 miles to Vernon was in some ways a microcosm of the entire hike – an effort to find, and stretch, the horizon of the possible. Many others have hiked the AT's 2,167 miles; can I? I don’t know yet. But the feeling I experienced today as I did my 13-hour “marathon” – exhilaration, exhaustion, discouragement, and relief, among others – recapitulated all that I have felt on the Trail to date.
I reached the road at dusk, and I was surprised when a car stopped for me. The driver, an outdoorsy second grade teacher who likes to hunt, drove me to Vernon and told me about the many hikers he has picked up. He said he was considering the idea of putting a trail register in his car.
One of the treats at the hostel was reconnecting with two SoBo friends – Blue Light and John the Baptist. The hostel also has a hot shower, towels, laundry, a big kitchen, a TV, and a computer! I was able to return a few electronic messages and look at the next three rolls of pictures on the Web site that Jake created.
Some interesting sights today:
-Autumn colors: in a stand of maple trees, a slash of red and orange leaves, a little shocking to the eye, like a wound inflicted by Nature in the heart of summer.
-A huge black beetle – the size of a ring of car keys – scurrying across the trail.
-A long patch of purple shale – it was almost as if someone had been fooling with the color tint dial in my head, because all of the rocks I was looking at were the same odd purplish shade for about 100 yards.
A final note: I did not pass a single northbound thru-hiker today. This was the first day without NoBo’s since Maine. The Trail is getting quieter again, especially with Labor Day approaching. This is a mixed blessing. The NoBo’s help us figure out what lies ahead, but Jake and I also appreciate the quiet.
August 28 ~ Vernon, NJ at milepoint 830.1 south, 77 days since start of hike, averaging 10.8 miles per day
Day 77. I took a “zero day” at the hostel here in Vernon, waiting for Jake to arrive and trying to make myself useful. The St. Thomas Episcopal Church deserves a lot of credit for trusting thru-hikers with their spacious carpeted basement. I spoke with their minister, who said they have had 850 hikers stay at the Church this year and 99% of them have been very respectful of the space and appreciative. So I tried to keep the faith of the parishioners in the project by doing some chores.
Jake arrived at lunch time. He had camped about 8 miles from here, and he wanted to call it a day. That was fine with me. It gave me time to read – a luxury in a schedule so dominated by hiking, sleeping and eating that there's time for little else.
I found the book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” by Annie Dillard, in a hiker box in Dalton, MA. Since my trail name is Pilgrim, and we’re going to pass Tinker Creek in Virginia, I decided to give it a try. It’s been slow going. The book is more like a symphony than a story or essay. It weaves complex and ponderous themes around a melody of observations of the natural world. Once every other page Dillard knocks me on my butt with the clarity and power of her search for the Divine. Consider the following passage from the chapter called “Seeing”:
“One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the morning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’ m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.”
Dillard’s brilliant prose, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize for “Pilgrim," fills me with excitement about the possibility of translating experience into words, while at the same time causing me to consider throwing away my pen. I cannot put the book down, I have to read every sentence at least twice, and even then I’m not sure I fully understand it. The book is an ideal prism – fallen into my hands by the grace that descends daily on the Trail – for the experience of this hike.
P.S. A northbounder suggested another book for my reading list when he heard my trail name: “On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage,” by Robert Rubin, published 4 months ago. Rubin took leave of his wife, children and job on April Fool’s Day in 1997 and hiked the AT from Georgia to Maine. Here’s a poignant excerpt I found on the Internet:
“We’ve walked the crooked trail to mend the crazing of our lives; we reek of sweat and smoke, wear Gore-Tex shells to turn the storm away, take on new names, our talk all aches, and boots, and food; and yet we yearn to strip the armor from our hearts, to wash ourselves in the mountain rain and air until, like the wild columbine and black cohosh, we can be merely what we are, until out of the stone-strewn ground we bloom again.” I’m going to look for this book when I get back home.
Again no entry yesterday because I was too lazy. Dad woke me up at 6:00 as he was on his way out. He said he was planning to do a 26 mile day and get to Vernon. I was still half-asleep and had just been having an interesting dream so I agreed just to get Dad to leave me alone and let me go back to sleep. I slept a little longer (probably too long) and got on my way. The terrain was flat but deceptively difficult, going over lots of boulders. I made my way, slowly but steadily, but chafing set in quickly and made the day miserable. Eventually I decided to stop at 18 miles and camp with The Reservoir Dogs, Sweatbox (a.k.a. Dan), Old Man Sam, and the Three Moosekateers. I slept poorly last night, as I had chosen a tentsite that sloped rather more severely than I thought. It was a fairly easy walk into town this morning.
I was picked up at the road by a guy named Red Rider who had begun a thru-hike earlier this year but had to get off because of an injury. The hostel here is an Episcopal Church, and is very nice. They’ve got showers, laundry, a kitchen, hiker supplies for sale, and Internet access. Dad was here already, and a Northbound section hiker. I took a shower and went to the pizza joint for a medium pizza with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Delicious, but filling. Checked the Trailplace guestbook and my e-mail. Jim Salem has done the necessary stuff so I can SSH into my computer and check e-mail. As I was using the computer, Old Man Sam, Sweatbox, Mr. Pink and Mr. Blonde returned from Burger King and the A & P, each wearing a cardboard crown.. It was quite a sight. They each found a spot on the floor and emptied their shopping bags and sat down in the midst of it to sort out and repackage their food.
August 29 ~ Secret Shelter, NJ at milepoint 844.9 south, 78 days since start of hike, averaging 10.8 miles per day
Day 78 was dominated by mosquitoes. When we reached this shelter this evening, there was almost no other topic of conversation. Jake and I first encountered the mosquitoes when we entered the woods after a long “road walk” – a stretch of Trail that coincides with a dirt road or paved road. (The National Park Service is trying to acquire land and build trails to eliminate as much road walking as possible, but there are still several miles of it on the AT.)
The mosquitoes attacked us mercilessly this afternoon on the slope of Pochuck Mountain. I put on some DEET, which is a fairly potent mosquito repellant and some of them were still coming after me. They found every part of my body that was not DEET-covered. Poor Jake – he doesn’t use insect repellant. When I met up with him at the Pochuck Shelter, where we planned to have lunch, he was pacing back and forth, swinging his arms at the mosquitoes. His pack, lying on a bench, was covered with mosquitoes. A cloud of them followed Jake around, and we quickly decided to skip lunch – or at least not have it there.
One of our SoBo friends, Mother Goose, who’s doing her 4th thru-hike, said she has never seen worse mosquitoes anywhere on the AT. As I was clambering down the rocks from Pochuck Mountain, the distraction of swatting the mosquitoes became dangerous because the Trail there was nothing but jagged stone. Trying to move fast sometimes helps – the mosquitoes are much more intense when you stop. But speeding up your pace over loosely packed rocks is risky, and perspiration washes off the insect repellant. Even breathing was hard – they flew in my mouth. I wondered what would happen if I fell and the mosquitoes covered me. Would I go mad? Would the mosquitoes drain my blood and then carry me off as a trophy? In a word it was hell – mosquito hell – for a couple of hours, and we never completely escaped them all day. I’m in my tent tonight because of them.
There are apparently two reasons they are so bad in this part of NJ. One is the much higher than average summer rainfall. The other is the rich boggy soil that covers this part of the state. The Wallkill River Valley, which we crossed this afternoon, is described in one of our guides, as “one of the richest agricultural regions in the nation. Black loamy soil goes down hundreds of feet.” This soil, when wet, evidently provides an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Tomorrow the Trail takes us through similar terrain.
Our day did not begin so badly, however. In fact it was hard to leave the Episcopal Church hostel in Vernon. The huge kitchen has a commercial style grill, and so I got to play short-order cook at breakfast time. Jake and I had omelets and potatoes and there was enough to share with the other hikers at the hostel. We all tried to do a good job of leaving the place better than we found it.
When I reached the trailhead, I looked out at what appeared to be a pretty easy path: a rolling pasture punctuated with the occasional fence. The barbed wire fences are crossed by climbing over “stiles,” a ladder-like structure that creates an “A” over the top of the fence. As I walked out into the pasture, however, I saw my new boots sinking further and further into mud. I thought: well, now at least they won’t be so ridiculously new looking. That was before the muck was running over the top of the boots and into my socks. I could have avoided the whole mess if I had looked up long enough to see the lay of the land. By retreating from the bog I could have taken higher ground around it. Instead, I clung to the hope that the next tuft of tall grass stood on more solid ground, and I pressed on. Another lesson learned: keep the big picture in mind, even when it’s hard not to focus intently on each next step.
One of the high points of the day was reaching this shelter. It’s not listed in any guidebook, and it’s not shown on any of our maps. It’s a grassy hillside with several tiny outbuildings, most of them locked. But the main building, recently erected, is open and hikers are welcome to use it. The property owner, a former thru-hiker named Jim, is thanked profusely in the Trail register here. The shelter is only 10’ x 10’ but it has a clothes dryer, 2 hot showers (one inside and one outside), a huge stainless steel sink for dish washing or clothes washing, a sleeping loft (no beds), an electric fan, a small porch, and a hammock. All of this is nestled in a hillside in the middle of nowhere. “Jim, ” one hiker writes, “you are an amazing guy, with an amazing place and an amazing heart…My time here rejuvenated my body and re-inspired my soul for the Trail.” Another wrote: “If you ever need someone to live here, please let me know.” Even though I’m tenting on the grass, it was wonderful to take a shower, wash our dishes, and throw my sweat-soaked clothes in the dryer. What’s remarkable is the effort Jim went through to design and build this structure – solely for the purpose of sheltering thru-hikers on the AT, which passes within a few hundred yards of his land. Thank you, Jim – hundreds, and in time thousands, of hikers will be nominating you for a special place in hiker heaven.
Had a great stay at the hostel last night. This morning looked to be the sort of a great day for hiking – I had clean clothes, dry boots, a new pair of socks, and the sun was shining. It looked to be such a warm day I began hiking sans shirt, seeing no point in getting my nice clean shirt all sweaty the first day out. This turned out to be a grievous error. The hiking was indeed good for awhile, but as I got close to Pochuck Mountain, the mosquitoes became a problem. They were such a problem that they defy descriptions, but I’ll try. Even as I was walking they swarmed horribly. The air was thick with them and you could swing your hand through the air and hit half a dozen. It didn’t matter too much if I kept moving; there were just certain areas where they would rise up to meet you and be three times as bad as normal. God forbid I try to stop for a second though, because they would all immediately start landing all over me, to the point where even if I devoted all my attention and all my limbs to the task, I could not shoo them off. There was one point where I came to a rocky section and the mosquitoes were so bad I thought I was in danger for my life because they were distracting me from my footing. There were a couple of times when I was on the verge of tears at the sheer unfairness of the situation. Here were all these thousands and thousands of bugs, all against just one me with only two hands. I stood no chance whatsoever, especially since I don’t use DEET and don’t kill bugs (although in this situation trying to swat them would have been the most futile gesture in the world.) Finally I got to the Pochuck Mtn. Shelter and threw down my pack. I planned to take out my shirt and put it on, but the skeeters started swarming so intensely that I didn’t even have time to take out my shirt. I had to keep walking around the site to be rid of them (or at least reduce the aggravation). I walked around for a while and saw, interestingly, that a huge contingent of the accursed insects had landed on the back of my pack. I won’t say most because there were more than enough bugs to go around, but there were a lot on the pack. I guess it was producing more moisture than I at that point, and presented an unmoving target. Eventually I got up the courage (once my pack had dried out a little and some of the frustrated skeeters had left its immediate vicinity, having found no blood in the pack) to go near enough my pack to take out my shirt. I walked figure-eight’s for a while, trying to avoid the bugs and wait for Dad. He showed up and did not want to stop for lunch on account of the bugs, so we moved on. It was at this point in the hike I passed into delirium, first contemplating tearing off my clothes and pack and wallowing in a mud puddle to escape the mosquitoes, then doing my best to think and act like a mosquito in the hope that they might mistake me for one of their own. Eventually we came to a road with a slight breeze blowing, and the bugs weren’t anywhere near so bad. We stopped there and had lunch. There was a kitten there with black and white fur. It had evidently been abandoned by its owners. I tried to give it food and water, but it wasn’t interested. It was also rather skittish. I convinced him to trust me though, and he let me pet him and scratch his head and he soon became rather affectionate. I decided to call him Spud, as that was the first name that occurred to me and therefore the best. I really wanted to take Spud with us, but knew he would not fare well on the trail. It was hard to leave him, though, to fend for himself. The man who lived next door said he was planning to call the Humane Society about the animals people left there – evidently it’s a common place to abandon pets. We dawdled a while, and finally said goodbye to Spud and moved on. The mosquitoes became bad again, though never so bad as on Pochuck Mtn. We eventually got to “The Secret Shelter”, a shelter/hostel spread only by word of mouth and not put in any books. It is really really nice here. There’s electricity, running water, a dryer – the works. I’m the only person in the loft. Everyone else is tenting to escape the skeeters. The fan up here is doing a decent job keeping them away.
August 30 ~ Gwen Anderson Shelter, NJ at milepoint 862.8 south, 79 days since start of hike, averaging 10.9 miles per day
Day 79. Having battled ferocious mosquitoes yesterday, I spared no effort this morning gearing up for a battle that never came. I put insect repellant on every part of me that I could reach, which left only a small part of my back uncoated. Jake doesn’t want to touch the DEET–based repellant, and I don’t know the other SoBo’s we camped with well enough to feel comfortable asking them to put the stuff on my back. The insect repellant is just like hand lotion – except that it contains DEET, a substance that inspires page-long warnings from the FDA. But even if DEET was considered as safe as Ivory Snow, I felt like it would be crossing a boundary of some kind to ask one of the other hikers to put some on my back. It’s probably just a guy thing.
I spent a lot of time today thinking about boundaries. The Trail that we hiked today veers back and forth across the NY/NJ border several times, then settles on a course that follows the NY/NJ line. Left foot in NJ, right foot in NY, for miles. I thought about the people who live on the crossroads. They’re next door neighbors but they have different state flags, they pay different taxes, they may have different health benefits, their kids probably go to different schools. Do they root for different sports teams? The boundary between these neighbors seems quite artificial.
What about the boundary between the AT and their backyards, or for that matter, the AT and the rest of the world? The AT is a narrow ribbon of land that passes through dense woods, open fields, rocky hillsides, and crosses the occasional road. Why do we behave differently on the Trail and off the Trail? When I am on the Trail, I try to pick up and pack out the occasional bits of trash that one finds here and there. Why not do it elsewhere? Is it because there’s so much more trash left about elsewhere that our pockets are not big enough? Or is it just a different feeling about the stewardship of land we call the AT?
People not only behave differently on the Trail, their attitudes are different. Perhaps the most fundamental attitude is captured in the saying “Hike your own hike.” You can expect to hear that saying whenever a conversation veers across the boundary from non-judgmental awareness of what another hiker is doing into the territory of criticism. We are all keenly aware of each other out here. We learn from each other’s successes and failures, we look to each other for ideas about how to manage our battle with the rocks and the weather, and (whether we like to admit it or not) we continually compare how we are doing with how everyone else is doing. (Does this sound a bit like “Survivor,” but with no million dollar jackpot?) While doing all this comparing, however, we remember: hike your own hike.
One of the benefits I hope to bring back with me from the Trail is this heightened sense of letting the people around me hike their own hike, wherever they go, whatever they do. It’s not a radical idea, or even a new one. It’s just a little different from attitudes that I’ve grown accustomed to in myself before I started this hike.
What will it be like managing the boundary in time between the hike and non-hike portions of this year? Will the relaxation and peace of mind that seem to come more easily on the Trail evaporate in the more brittle atmosphere of everyday life off the Trail? I have begun to wonder about this even though our hike is not quite half done yet. I guess I won’t know for a while. But I have at least begun to question whether there should be a boundary or whether it is just as artificial as the line I was walking this afternoon between NJ and NY.
Jake and I hiked 18 miles today, and both of us are feeling sore. For Jake it’s his feet. For me, it’s my lower back. I’m taking Tylenol and hoping for the best. But we received an alarming piece of information today. One of our SoBo friends, Mr. Blond, calculated the number of miles we will have to hike everyday if we want to finish by Thanksgiving: 15.7. That’s a big number, because every time we go into a town to resupply, we have a low-mileage day, or sometimes a “zero” day. Those short-mileage days mean we have to hike a lot of 18-20 mile days to compensate. I’m not sure my back is going to take it. Even to get back by December 1 (the end of my sabbatical) means averaging 14.3 miles per day. We’re still going to try to be home by Thanksgiving but I’m less sure everyday that we can finish by then. Again, however, this seems like an arbitrary boundary. We will have to let the hike take its own shape to some extent, or at least accept those aspects of it we cannot change. And, for me, there’s the rub. Because I feel like I have the ability to push the boundary of what’s possible or I wouldn’t be out here in the first place. The task then, for me, is finding the right balance between pushing a little harder than I thought I could go and keeping the larger picture in mind. A hiker left the following words, attributed as a Native American saying, in a Trail register: “ Go until you don’t think you can take another step. . . . And then take another step. It is there that the ego dies and the true self is born.”
Nice day today. I found a register box on the trail with no register, so I got to leave one. I figure the more registers I leave, the better my chances are of actually getting one back. I stopped in at High Point Shelter and someone had left a print out of The Onion, so I stopped and read that for awhile. We had lunch on an observation tower near High Point. We passed 3 more groups from UPenn toady, out on pre-orientation trips. One was on the trail, another was at Rte. 23 where we stopped for water (and as it turned out, a second lunch, since that group gave us some PB and pitas) and the third was at one of the shelters. I stopped and talked with them, and they were very friendly. Everyone seemed to be greatly enjoying the experience. At a road crossing today we came upon a bunch of potable water left by a trail angel named Desperado. That was nice. When I arrived at this shelter there was even more magic from Desperado – cookies and sodas in the bear box! There was also a fourth UPenn group. Their leaders were sitting in the shelter talking to Rabbit. They said they need a break from the group they were leading. All of these groups go back tomorrow to start Orientation and then classes on Monday. It’s so weird to consider being back in school and going to classes and dealing with junk like that. All of my friends will soon be doing that, and I’ll be out here.
Oh, also, I saw a bear today. It was off in the woods a little distance, evidently eating. I stopped hiking for a moment and looked at it, and it looked at me briefly then went about its business and eventually ambled off. I moved on, trying to make as much noise as possible.
August 31 ~ Catfish Fire Tower, NJ at milepoint 881.4 south, 80 days since start of hike, averaging 11.0 miles per day
Day 80. Seeing a rattlesnake on the trail this evening probably shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, I had just passed the junction where Rattlesnake Swamp Trail breaks off to the right. And, Jake and I had crossed Rattlesnake Mountain just after lunch today. But it did surprise me – in fact, it pretty nearly knocked the breath out of me to see it jump off the Trail as I approached.
I was strolling along, within half a mile of our destination for the evening. My back hurt and the Trail was taking another uphill turn. I was thinking about bears, not snakes. There are apparently hundreds – perhaps thousands - of bears in this little corner of NJ. There are bear warnings posted at all the shelters and heavy metal “bear boxes” too – these are for food storage at night. Jake saw a bear yesterday. Some hikers we met had left their packs unattended at a shelter, and a bear chewed up a water bottle and clawed through a pack. So, while I was periodically scanning the woods, not thinking about snakes at all, I heard a sound at my feet and in my peripheral vision a sudden movement in the tall grass to the right of the Trail. When I looked down, I couldn’t see all of the snake, but I could see enough of it, once I got my eyes focused, to recognize the dark bands as those of either a copperhead or a rattlesnake. Its body was about as big around as the circle that my thumb and middle finger make.
I froze. I stared at it. It started to make a soft rattling noise. That’s when I knew it was time to end my observation of this snake and get the heck out of there. You can bet that during the last half mile of my hike this evening I was thinking more about snakes than about bears.
Once I got my tent set up, I looked in my guide book. The colors of the snake were more like a copperhead (equally venomous) but then there was the rattle. I learned later that, from some other hikers, that it was likely a “timber rattlesnake.”
I should have remembered what Jake and I were told in Connecticut, where a hiker was bitten by a rattlesnake this year. The rattlers like to prowl the Trail at dusk because that’s when they see mice and other small mammals crossing it. The Trail provides an easy hunting ground, and the rocks on the exposed parts of the Trail store heat, which the snakes evidently appreciate at nightfall.
I should have remembered all of these things, but I didn’t because out on the Trail – as in life on the street – we get used to certain dangers and forget about them. If I thought too much about the risk of car accidents I would never drive. Driving is probably more dangerous than walking on the Appalachian Trail. But we drive anyway, and we usually forget about the prevalence of drunk drivers, careless drivers, and sleep-deprived drivers, just as most hikers (myself included) seldom think about snakes.
So, now I’ll be thinking about snakes much of the time – at least for the next few days. Perhaps that will make it easier for me to see a bear.
This encounter with the snake reminds me, however, of how much I need to let go of my fears and trust in whatever fate the world has in store for me. There is no other way to hike the Trail, because there are too many dangers. You could go crazy watching out for deer ticks, rattlesnakes, poisonous spiders, and the tricky rocks that want to grab your ankle and break it. A certain degree of vigilance makes sense, but beyond that, I am learning to accept what comes.
I had one other interesting animal encounter this evening. I was passing a pond and trying to decide whether to take a picture of it. The late afternoon sky – deep blue with bright puffy clouds – was bouncing off light ripples in the water except where the lily pads lay. I thought: haven’t I already taken about a dozen pictures of ponds just like this one, with the same afternoon sun and lily pads? That’s when I heard a splash in the pond. It must have been quite a good size fish, I thought. I could see the water rippling away from the splash. Then I saw a beaver swimming back and forth near the splash and near a mound of sticks in the water.
I’ve probably seen a hundred exhibits of how beavers make their homes and still this unobtrusive mound of sticks didn’t register until I saw a beaver swimming around it. Then I heard another loud splash, the beaver disappeared briefly, and then came back to the surface. Jake explained to me over dinner that beavers sometimes use their tails in this way to scare off potential predators, and I guess that’s what I looked like to this beaver. That possibility did occur to me when I was watching the beaver, and I felt honored – I know this sounds a little odd – to be taken seriously as a predator when I am clearly no match for this resourceful and talented creature. I guess that’s one of the reasons people invented guns, because without tools of some kind, we are pretty lame as predators go.
The lesson for me in watching the beaver was how much of what goes on in the woods goes unnoticed – at least by me. This poor beaver had to make a huge ruckus before I even noticed its home which, at least from the beaver’s stand point, couldn’t have been more obvious. I know so little about nature that only the most obvious things register – e.g. the change from evergreen–dominated forests in Maine to the mostly deciduous forests here. I’ve often wondered if a botanist, zoologist, or entomologist would have a hard time making it from Maine to Georgia on the Trail because there is so much to look at and explore. Perhaps they would have to put on mental blinders, just as we all put on mental blinders about the dangers on the Trail. I would like to understand more about what I am seeing, but I also feel like I have my hands full with just the hiking. For me at least, it is no mean feat to finish the day without falling or spraining my ankle, much less identifying some rare bug crawling across the leaves of a rare plant. I’d like to do it all, but I’m settling for getting from one end of the Trail to the other, noticing the things I already know a little something about.
P.S. I noticed that the average mileage Jake and I have been doing crossed the line from 10 to 11 today. We need to inch it up to 12.5 before the hike is over if we want to finish by Thanksgiving.
I slept poorly last night, partly because the UPenn group got up noisily at 4: 00 to hike to Sunrise Mtn. And watch the event for which the mountain was named, and partly because the mosquitoes decided to return at that hour.
At a road crossing this morning we stopped at a “Home Bakery” and each had a most-excellent jelly donut, fresh out of wherever jelly donuts come from.
On the trail I saw a group of five or so hawks circling just above the trees. Beautiful. I also saw some wild turkeys. Not so beautiful, but still cool. That ’s pretty much all for today. We’re camped near Catfish Firetower. The space on top is locked, unfortunately, but you can still go up almost to the top and get the same view, but no protection from the elements.
September 1 ~ Delware Water Gap at milepoint 894.3 south, 81 days since start of hike, averaging 11.0 miles per day
Day 81. Today Jake and I crossed the Delaware River, leaving NJ behind. We are now looking ahead to 230 miles of Pennsylvania. Although we hiked only 13 miles to reach the church hostel here, and even though several of those miles were on paved or dirt roads, I needed to push myself. My back pain returned after the first few miles, much of the Trail was viciously rocky, and a light rain last night and this afternoon made the footing even more treacherous. NJ is not known for its rocks, but the last 30 or so miles of the Trail in NJ are cut from the same geologic cloth as the Trail in Pennsylvania, which is notorious among hikers for sharp, angularly protruding, shoe-eating, ankle-turning, nasty, unavoidable rocks. Theologians who argue for the existence of a benevolent God have never hiked this portion of the AT. As I tried to dance over and around these rocks, it occurred to me that God may have lost some Job-like bet with Satan here, because the thru-hikers must curse His/Her name with abandon when they pass this way. As a result, Satan insisted that the rocks remain here forever. They look as though they spring up from the soil, like some diabolical crop. With a 35-pound pack the impact of these pointed rocks is even more pronounced. Cautious hikers see little of the terrain here because our eyes are fixed on our feet.
And that’s too bad, because on the rare occasions when I looked around, NJ offered some appealing views. If the weather had not been so hazy for the last few days, I might be more effusive about the views if not the footing. I have heard at least one thru-hiker describe NJ as his favorite state.
The folks who live here, of course, have a different view of this mostly woodsy state than those of us who saw northern NJ for the most part solely from the NJ Turnpike – all refineries, factories, and those marshlands near Newark that had turned a scary, toxic-looking bluish green. I can remember, as I was growing up, watching fires burn from dozens of smokestacks along the highway near the Meadowlands and Newark Airport. But the far corner of the state where we hiked was entirely different – with more farms than factories. I think the Park officials here may have gone a little overboard, however, with a sign that described the unremarkable glacial pond we passed today (Sunfish Pond) as one of the “seven natural wonders of New Jersey.” What are some of the others – Bayonne? Hoboken?
Among the other interesting sights today:
- The vapors of a cloud blowing through my tent this morning. I was reading by the light of my headlamp – it’s still rather dark at 6 a.m. I’ve never had a cloud visit with me indoors.
- A collection of frogs at Sunfish Pond, maybe a hundred or more, gathered in the water near the shore. Only their eyes and noses protruded from the water. Perhaps they had gathered for a meeting of some kind. They milled about like they were waiting for the plenary speaker to arrive.
- A gigantic brown fly, the size of a large bumble bee, that took a liking to my back. After biting or stinging me through my shirt, it continued to come after me. I must have looked more than a little silly waving my hiking stick frantically at the air all around me. The #%!*@ bug must have thought I tasted pretty good.
P.S. The caustic tone of today’s journal entry may have been caused in part by the fall that I took mid-day. The combination of rain, rocks, and my own innate clumsiness threw me to the ground, breaking a string of eight days without a fall. As usual, it was my pride that hurt more than my derriere.
We planned to sleep late, till 8 o’clock, but I was awakened at around 7 by the Moosekateers coming through. The day was mostly uneventful. We walked for a long time on a ridge with a pastoral view to our left. It was hot and humid, but every now and then a cool breeze would come though and feel very refreshing. I saw 3 more bears today. As I walked down the trail, they startled and started climbing a tree. One of them got very high up, and another got its front paws up on the tree, then I stopped walking to look at them, and the one halfway on the tree looked back at me. It was the largest of the three, and the other two looked like they might be cubs, so I figured it might be the mother. Black bears have litters of two, so that makes sense. After a bit of staring, the large one started growling quietly so I decided to move on. This meant getting closer to them first, and I was a little worried the mother might take it as a sign of aggression, but it turned out all right. It rained for a little while in the afternoon and I got pretty wet, but I was getting close to the hostel.
Last modified Thursday July 25, 2002