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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.