AT Week 9_New Jersey

Full circle. Self reflection

My favorite season of the year is fall which is why I chose to do a southbound hike, hoping that the majority of my trek would be done during the autumn timeframe. Consequently, because I was out on the trail hiking, I was also missing all the fairs, festivals and activities that traditionally happen back home in September and October. But that all changed in New Jersey.

At around ten o’clock one morning, I emerged from the trees after hiking down the Stairway to Heaven, a steep stone staircase that’s a very popular day hike, and was surprised to see a large ferris wheel off in the distance. Intrigued by the sighting, I walked down the road over to the Happy Hill Farm where hundreds of flannel-clad locals were enjoying a Sunday full of fall festivities. Excited by the sights, sounds, smells, and not wanting to miss the opportunity for gluttonous eating, I decided to stop in for a second breakfast. Dodging past the crowds, I made my rounds through the fairgrounds and bought some fried apple donuts, maple yogurt milkshake, a greasy corn dog, and fire roasted meat on a stick to munch on before returning back to the trail.

Mushrooms…my favorite.

Even though I was hundreds of miles away from home, the modern technology that keeps me connected crept up and got in the way of my progress. Because of a cell phone, I was able to find out some unfortunate news that set my day into a semi-tailspin, so I decided to turn my phone off and just focus on the task at hand, which was hiking.

Stopping to pray with my buddy ‘Mantis’

Leaving the fairgrounds, I reunited with the trail by passing through a large cow pasture with a sign warning not to approach the cattle. Putting my head down and “pounding the pavement” were techniques that seemed to work for a short while but you can only avoid your frustrations for so long before they creep back up on you.

Mosquito city boardwalk

After the farm, the trail followed elevated boardwalks that cut through low boggy wetlands. Adding to my frustrations for the day were swarms of mosquitoes and black flies. No matter how rapidly I swatted at my face, arms and neck or at what pace I hiked down the trail, I was constantly feeling the itch-inducing stings and pestering facial assault from the annoying insects. My poorly choreographed and only partially effective bug repellent dance amplified my discontentment for the day. Multiple times I stopped in my tracks feeling defeated, slamming my poles into the ground. Yelling many expletives into the silently empty woods seemed to work as a check valve on my building exasperation.

The swamps have the prettiest colors

The northern section of the AT in New Jersey hovers along the border with New York. Because my discomfort led to a faster than normal pace, after checking the map I noticed that I was coming up on the small town of Unionville, New York. Still with plenty of time left in the day, I decided to stop and take a break in town. I arrived at the aptly named Wits End Tavern and dropped my pack outside under a table. Another thru hiker, Buellit, was inside charging his phone by an outlet. I pulled out my electronics to follow suit, introduced myself, bought us a round of beers, and we struck up a conversation.

Almost at the shelter

After a few more rounds, I grabbed my pack and headed out of town to my final stop for the evening, the “Secret Shelter”. Following boardwalks flowing past colorful foliage, the trail crossed a dirt road where a small sign directed me to the right. My accommodations for the evening were neither secret nor a shelter but rather a private cabin on an idyllic small farm that is made accessible to passing thru-hikers by the land owner. Jim Murray has opened his property to the hiker community for over 30 years and provides lodging, water, and electricity free of charge. Aside from the short-term AT residents, a handsome donkey named Jake lives here full time. I brushed his fur and hand-fed him wildflowers so, needless to say, we formed a quick friendship. By staying in the cabin, I awoke the next morning well rested and dry, having avoided the heavy rains that passed through overnight.

The Secret Shelter
Meet Jake

The Appalachian Trail is known for using blazes or vertically painted stripes on trees to help guide hikers. Traditionally, white blazes are used solely to denote the path that the AT takes from Maine to Georgia. Often times you will encounter blue blazes which indicate side paths that lead out to viewpoints, summits the AT skips past, or trails leading down to parking areas. Trail lingo also includes the term “yellow blazing” which is used to describe avoiding sections of the trail on foot and instead driving ahead in a car. The yellow dashes in the middle of the roadway signify the blazes that they’re following. Another lesser talked about blaze color that I’ve heard on trail is “pink blazing”, but maybe you can check Urban Dictionary for that definition on your own.

Something I was very excited about through New York and New Jersey was the concept of “Deli blazing” where you stop at the many sandwich shops and delis that are relatively close to the trail to avoid carrying a heavier pack full of food. One such morning, I stopped at the Sandwich Lobby, which is quite literally a stone’s throw away from the trail as you cross Route 206 at Culvers Gap. The owner, Latifah, greeted me as I walked in and I immediately was overwhelmed by the delicious smell of smoked meat in the air. She explained that for lunch time they would be serving a southern style BBQ menu. I ordered a steak, egg and cheese sandwich, large coffee and ate my tasty breakfast inside the warm store.

Nom nom

Given that my food bag was running low and since they had some light resupply options, I bought a few things from their ‘camp store’ and also ordered a sandwich to go. Later, as I was hiking away, the wind was blowing from behind when I kept noticing a lovely fragrance in the air. A very pleasing aroma of smoked brisket and barbecue chicken kept reminding me of my morning detour. Hiking along a ridge the entire day, I hadn’t yet picked exactly where I would be camping for the night. Knowing I was in bear country and with my clothes and backpack smelling like tasty meats, I decided to push on a little further and not camp up on the ridgeline. Instead, I opted to hike the extra miles to the Mohican Outdoor Center where I could sleep safely indoors away from the clenches of a hungry bear’s jaw.

Only 1300 to go. 😁

At the main lodge building, I ran into a hiker named Frambo who I had seen twice before. The first time we met was in the 100 Mile Wilderness back in August and the second time had been just a few days prior as he was heading north in New York. We shared the four-room cabin with a section hiker and made our dinner in the common area, swapping tales from the trail while lounging on dormitory style couches. Frambo had flip flopped a few sections due to scheduling conflicts but now was completing his thru-hike heading full southbound.

The outdoor center had poor cell signal and advertised having Wi-Fi and a telephone back at the lodge. Being only one of three people in the entire campground felt eerie and the low visibility brought on by thick fog didn’t help alleviate my anxiety. It was after dark but I wanted to check emails and make a few calls so I grabbed my headlamp and began to walk the half mile up to the main building.  Scanning the campground, pairs of glowing eyes stared back at me through the dark as I walked. Pausing to inspect the creatures gazing at me, I saw they belonged to bedding deer in the woods, but the sets of green orbs in the trees still left me feeling uneasy.

Who brought the s’mores

When I got to the lodge, the lights were on but no one was present. I could connect to the wireless modem but the internet was not working. Looking around, I found the cordless phone and tried calling home but didn’t get a dial tone. Having seen way too many 80’s slasher movies as a kid, my imagination was racing. I was in the middle of the woods, with no phone service, on a stormy night, and staying at an old youth camp started back in the 1950s named after a Native American tribe. I swiftly hustled back to the cabin and retired for the night trying to focus on happier thoughts.

Sunfish Pond

Unvisited by spirits or hockey mask clad killers, I got up early the next morning and was the first one to leave the cabin, heading out into the thick fog and mist that would plague the next few weeks. Frambo caught up later on down the trail near Sunfish Pond and together we hiked the remaining miles out of New Jersey.

It was a busy morning with vehicular traffic flying by as we both walked across the Interstate 80 bridge high above the Delaware River. The numerous lines of heavy tractor trailers caused the bridge to bounce and sway as each barreled past. Stopping in the middle at the brightly painted state border for a photo opportunity, we took each other’s picture and then continued onward to reach our first trail town in Pennsylvania, known as Delaware Water Gap.

AT Week 8_New York

Repeat rounds of pain and swelling that I experienced in Connecticut followed with me into New York. Some evenings I would end my day of hiking and be shocked at the width and fullness of my left leg compared to my right leg. Knowing I had many miles ahead, I slowed my pace down in an effort to prevent further injury, only going as far as I could manage without having to push myself to make the daily mileage.

The trail at times reminded me of walking through an unendingly beautiful park. There were sections with numerous large trees separated by big open spaces with very minimal vegetation growing. In some places there were soft grasses filling the understory that felt out of place in the wooded backcountry. If you threw in a park bench here or there, I would believe it was a remote section of Central Park. Another obvious but welcome difference in New York is that most of the water crossings had a sandy stream bed surface causing the runoff to be very clear and crisp, making for refreshing water breaks.

Hiking after five o’clock is captivating.

With the cool fall weather, it had been a few days since I had last made my way into a town to take a shower, but that changed one morning with heavy rains and thunderstorms predicted. Miraculously, in between bursts of thunder and lightning, I received a text message. To my surprise, it was Janet, the trail angel I met in Connecticut. She had seen the stormy forecast and offered to have me stay at her house to rest and clean up inside for the night to avoid the rain.

Ducking under the cover of the Morgan Stewart shelter as the downpours intensified and the sky darkened, I responded to Janet, accepted her generous offer, and we made plans to meet around five o’clock at a particular road crossing. Waiting in the shelter for almost an hour as the rain slowly subsided, I ate my typical spam tortilla lunch and conversed with the two separate groups that were also waiting out the rain. Like clockwork, we all decided around the same time to pack up and head out as the rain subsided. I trudged back on to the wet trail with soggy shoes reassured that my discomfort would be short-lived, knowing there was a warm dry bed awaiting me.

Waiting out the rain in the shelter.

The remainder of my afternoon was occupied by weaving through sloped hillsides, around streams, and crossing many roads including major interstate highways. Shortly before five o’clock, I met up with Janet on the trail. She had hiked a little ways from the trailhead to meet me. We walked back to her car, I hopped in front and we drove about a half hour back to her house. a bridge.

Once settled in “at home”, Italian takeout was ordered while I got cleaned up and started my laundry. We sat together at the kitchen table discussing life, politics, and sharing much jovial laughter as I munched down on a meat stromboli appetizer along with a side salad, chicken fettuccine alfredo, and many portions of bread. After dinner, I retired for the evening taking care of my usual town chores of charging electronics and packing cleaned clothes while elevating and icing my injured leg.

Filled from a delicious breakfast of bacon, fried eggs and toast the next morning, I was returned back to the trailhead by my extremely gracious and generous host. We said our goodbyes, Janet snapped a photo to send to my mom, and I headed back into the wilderness ready to take on more. Less than a mile into the hike, I climbed up to a sunny rock outcrop with a large painting of the United States flag where I saw a hiker, Osha, who I had first encountered weeks prior. We met at the Vermont state line after separately completing the Long Trail section of the AT. Osha earned that name from a well-meaning and often recited statement he shares with other passing hikers, “Have fun, be safe.”

Osha and I reaching the 800 mile mark!

Reacquainting ourselves briefly on the hilltop, we decided to spend the morning hiking together, given that my pace was reduced with my injury and we both could stand for some talkative company. The terrain wasn’t as challenging that day and we spent the better part of eight to ten hours talking while hiking, regaling each other with the trials and tribulations of the pasts that we left behind to take on this journey. It was quite nice to share some in-depth and personal emotions with a complete stranger. We got to empathize with one another about the hardships we both had faced leading us to the trail. With each step taken and every sentence spoken, we grew closer as friends by sharing the things that identify ourselves as individuals. 

Given the proximity of my next resupply box at the Appalachian Market, Osha and I decided to stay at the nearby Graymoor Spiritual Life Center, a place “dedicated to the reconciliation, or at-one-ment, of people with themselves, each other.” The church allows long distance hikers to camp for free on the baseball field with access to electrical outlets, running water and porta potties. We shared the camp space that night with four other gentlemen who were doing a modified section hike. Two members of their group would park one vehicle at the northern end of the trail section and hike south while the other two would park at the southern end and hike north. Meeting halfway they would exchange car keys and then would regroup at the end of the day. By doing so, they were able to carry fewer supplies and essentially provide their own shuttle while they slack packed the trail.

A quite unexpected and but therapeutic moment happened the following dewey morning when Osha and I came upon the Telephone of the Wind. It’s an old rotary dial telephone posted to a signboard with no connection to the outside world. It’s meant solely to provide individuals a way to reconnect symbolically with lost loved ones by picking up the phone and calling them to help get through a tough time and to make peace with the afterlife.

Last year, around October, a friend of mine that I met at music concerts and who had kept in contact over the years informed me he would be visiting Maine. We made arrangements to have dinner together in Portland. At the restaurant, we shared stories, explaining to each other our past woes and our future hopes. After dinner, standing beside our parked cars on the street, I gave my good friend Chris two hugs as we made plans to go on a camping trip later that month, and we said goodbye to each other. A few days later, I got a missed call from an unknown number and, out of curiosity, I called back. A woman responded.  She asked who I was and asked if I knew her brother Chris, at which point her voice started to break. She then informed me, as my stomach tightened into a knot, that two days after our dinner together Chris had died in a tragic car accident.

Little fungi that could.

Fast forward to that day on the trail and I was hiking in New York, Chris’s home state. A sudden upwelling of emotions revisited me as that moment, which I had almost forgotten about, came back into clear focus. I picked up the Telephone of the Wind and made my peace with Chris, while thinking of the camping trip that we had planned to take together. It felt good to wish goodbye to my friend, although I knew no one was on the other end of the line. After sharing many sensitive subjects with Osha the previous day, I was glad to have an experience that felt like closure.

Still without a trail name, I figured my time spent with Osha would eventually land me with a new moniker for which my hike would be remembered. Often I led our two person group hiking through the woods where I would be so lost in conversation and eventually realize that there were no longer any white blazes ahead of me.   Consulting the map, we ended up having to backtrack multiple times throughout the day, retracing our steps to the fork in the trail where I’d clearly missed the proper turn. I assumed with my name being “Zac” that Backtrack was going to be a fitting name for me but I never earned such a title.

Crossing over the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge.

Looking ahead on the map, one of the spots I was really excited to visit was the Bear Mountain Zoo but unfortunately, after we crossed over the Hudson River, we read a sign saying that it was closed due to construction. We stopped for a lunch break at the Bear Mountain Park and then began hiking the beautifully manicured ascent to the summit. Large granite footsteps made the journey up quick and easy while also providing many picturesque vantage points to admire all the handiwork that went into its construction.

Something I had wanted to do while on the Appalachian Trail was to camp out at the top of a mountain so that I could watch the sunset and sunrise the next morning. Osha and I decided after summiting Bear Mt. that we would stop for the day at Black Mountain, which according to the AWOL guide, has one of the best views of the Big Apple.

NYC skyscrapers glowing at dusk from Black Mountain.

Osha and I reached the top of Black Mt. about an hour before sunset. We both picked a campsite, set up our tents, and started making dinner. Just as I was about to bite into my rehydrated Rice Sides, the sun was starting to create a pink hue in the sky. I set up my GoPro on a time lapse mode and pressed record as we both watched in awe. While we ate, the sky got darker and the New York City skyline started to illuminate. We watched the sky fill with beautiful colors of purple, pink and orange as the stars started to appear.

Sky colors atop Black Mountain.

I had made plans earlier in the week to meet up with my good friend Tom so, on that next morning, Osha and I parted ways, and I hiked ahead to meet up with my friend at a road crossing. Thankfully he didn’t arrive empty-handed and brought tasty trail magic. Tom had ice cold soda and a big bag of sun chips for me to snack on. We chatted for a while as I was filling my face with junk food and, when I was finished, Tom joined me on a brief hike up Buchanan Mt. At the peak, we had some more conversation, gave each other a good hug and said goodbye.

Later that afternoon, I had a brief run in with a large boulder. Two rocks made a narrow passage that caused my foot to get stuck and, as I tried to step forward, I tripped, fell, and my head smacked against the edge of a huge rock. Fearing the worst, I put my hand to my head and, when I withdrew my palm, it was covered in blood. Instinctively, I reached into my bag to grab the first thing I had that was absorbent and started pressing it against my forehead. Shaken up from the fall while out hiking alone, I checked the map and found that I was less than a half mile from the nearest road crossing. Gathering my things that had spilled from my bag, I quickly assessed my injury. Given that it was near my eye, I was very concerned about loss of vision. Quickly and mechanically I grabbed my bag and walked with purpose to the nearest road crossing.

Rock beats Eyebrow

I reached the road as dusk was setting in and multiple cars passed by, ignoring my outstretched thumb. Using my phone’s camera as a mirror, I inspected my injury and determined it was mostly a large gash that had caused the majority of the bleeding and nothing seemed to be broken in my orbital socket. Since the bleeding had stopped and being late at night with limited options for a ride, I decided it would be okay to just clean up the injury roadside, bandage it up and hike the next mile and a half to stay at the nearest shelter for the night.

Nothing like a New York bagel.

Concerned about the possibility of an infection near my eye, the next morning I called Tom and made a plan to have him pick me up down the trail and bring me to an urgent care facility. Since it had been more than 12 hours after the fall, protocol says not to suture the cut, so all they could do is clean up the wound and prescribe antibiotics. Patched up, we grabbed coffee and bagels for a late breakfast and he dropped me off back at the trailhead where I resumed my hike. I continued on bobbing in and out of the trees for the rest of the afternoon along a sunny rocky ridge until I reached the seventh state on my journey, New Jersey.

A rudimentary painted NY / NJ sign on a rock indicated my time in New York had ended but not without some good memories, healed wounds, and new scars to show for it. I left walking with my bandaged head held high by the pride of successfully handling what the trail threw at me and excited for what was in store next.

New York / New Jersey border crossing.