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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.