Taking a tour of my “Tiny Home in a Bag”
In case you haven’t been following along, I am posting daily vlogs on YouTube from my thru-hike last year of the AT.
Here is a short recap showing some highlights during the Granite State.
The lengthy editing process is underway and I am very excited to release my first video in a series covering my thru hike last year. I plan to upload a new video at least once a week with a few surprises planned along the way.
Thank you for following my journey and I hope you enjoy 🙂
There are more videos to follow so be sure to like and subscribe to my YouTube Channel.
Coming off the excitement of reaching the AT halfway point, my confidence level was high as I approached Pen-Mar Park on a Tuesday evening. The setting sun was shining warm orange and pink light across vibrantly emerald blades of grass. I thrust my pack down onto a bench, rummaged for my stove and began heating water for dinner. My mind drifted toward the epic day to come. Many hikers who reach this point have built up the stamina to hike long days and, given the proximity of multiple statelines, the Four State Challenge was born.
To complete this challenge, willing participants start hiking in one state and end their day three states away in less than 24 hours. Close to 44 miles separate the Pennsylvania and Virginia borders with Maryland and West Virginia sandwiched in between.
Leafless trees allowed the full moon’s light to illuminate my tent the entire night making sleep a chore. Restless, I got up around four a.m. and began my morning stretches. I made my breakfast in the gazebo at Pen-Mar Park before walking back to the Mason-Dixon line to start my four-state attempt a little after five on Wednesday morning. A long day ahead of me, I clicked on my stopwatch, and then set off by way of my headlamp with the intention of not stopping until I reached Virginia.
In the dark, quiet calmness of the early morning, my thunderous momentum startled many groups of bedding deer that lay in clusters a few yards away from the trail. Each time an eruption of crunching leaves and snapping twigs grabbed my attention, I would stop and survey the woods around me. Occasionally the noise would cease and, with my headlamp on its brightest setting, the deer’s reflective glowing green eyes would appear floating formlessly among the trees. Wanting to avoid becoming a “deer caught in headlights” myself, I put on some music and kept my eyes locked on the uneven trail in front of me.
After two hours and six miles of rock hopping, the daylight was bright enough to shut off my headlamp so, right on schedule, I stopped for a second breakfast and water break by a flowing stream. With a Clif bar, meat stick, and peanut butter happily in my belly, I set a timer for another two hours and started up again. I knew that if I paced myself with water, food and short rest breaks, each chunk would feel more manageable and let me focus on little wins throughout the day.
Meandering through some fields and void of any high peaks, the Maryland section of the trail was relatively easy hiking. The Mid-Atlantic states feel like the valley of the Appalachian Trail, nestled between Mt. Katahdin and the Whites up north and the Shenandoahs and Great Smokies to the south.
At around one o’clock, I stopped at the Washington Monument State Park to eat lunch and take a brief rest. Twenty-two miles completed and a similar amount remaining, I sat at a picnic table in the warm sun studying the map and planning out my next water stops when a golf-cart-driving man, who could have been Santa Claus’ brother, pulled up and said, “Hello”. Krispy Kreme, a former long distance hiker, introduced himself and explained that he is the caretaker of the area and was just checking in to see if I needed anything.
As I added mustard to my second spam and tortilla sandwich, another gentleman walked up and sat at the picnic table with Krispy Kreme and me. His trail name was Otter and, sensing from the conversation that I was a thru-hiker, he inquired about the trail conditions heading north and I offered up a few interesting places for him to stop at along his section hike.
Lost in conversation with the two visitors, an hour quickly passed, so I started to pack up and get ready to leave. On the way back to the trail, Otter wished me well and handed me a twenty dollar bill, encouraging me to treat myself to a real dinner when I reached Harper’s Ferry. I thanked him for his kindness and proceeded southbound. The boost in calories from lunch and unexpected trail magic put me on cloud nine as I sailed on my way.
In two and a half months on the AT, I had over eleven hundred miles under my belt and had hiked on average seventeen miles a day. This fact dawned on me while trotting through sun speckled foliage shortly after lunch as I checked the map and realized I was at mile 25. Some quick mental math revealed that, even with the nine hours I’d already been hiking, I still needed to hike another full day’s worth of miles to complete the Four State Challenge.
Headphones securely lodged in my ear canals, my pace increased at the cost of my form. Desiring to finish the 44-mile gauntlet, I began rushing my steps, walking roughly on feet that had not yet fully recovered from the beating they took back in Rocksylvania.
At around five o’clock, the War Correspondents Memorial Arch came into view as I descended towards Gapland Road. Lumbering down beneath the shade of a large tree, I refueled on all the essentials (snacks, water, and vitamin I) while elevating my throbbing feet. My barking dogs caused the planned fifteen-minute break to become forty-five. Checking the time, I got up and headed down the trail again with a baker’s dozen worth of miles left to go.
Riding on top of a six-mile ridge, the next two hours crept by with the sunlight diminishing as the day slowly blurred into night. Dusk was basically dark by the time I took out my headlamp. The city lights were getting visible through the patchy autumn forest and my excitement built during the quick descent down the switchbacks of Weverton Cliffs.
Spilling out of the trees on to the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath lost its charm rather fast. The wide smooth dirt trail leading three miles to Harper’s Ferry would appear to be a welcome site at first but my swollen tired feet hurt more walking on hard flat ground than they did back in the woods. Hovering over my shoulder, the moon cast a shadow of my form ahead. In the dark, without anyone around, it was a reminder that I am always on my side.
Moonlight glimmered on the Potomac like a river of flowing obsidian as I crossed the bridge into West Virginia, reaching the “spiritual halfway point” of the Appalachian Trail. Navigating through the dimly lit cobblestone streets lined with Civil War era buildings and walking ghost tour groups, I got a small sample of the town before linking back with the wooded trail paralleling the Shenandoah River.
Harper’s Ferry is a peninsula with two great rivers forming its northeast and southern borders. Anytime the trail crosses a waterway or enters a town, it usually results in a steep descent in and equally steep climb out. The effort is offset most of the time by the reward of a resupply stop, hot shower or town food, but I was on a mission with no stopping planned until I reached the border of Virginia, just a few miles away.
Hiking up Loudoun Heights took all the energy I had left. My feet were screaming and my lower back and shoulders were sore from wearing a pack all day, but I kept pushing through pain and “embraced the suck”. Glancing at my GPS every five minutes to get a status update of my slow progress didn’t help and only made the last hour drag on. As the incline started to ease, I knew the end of my long day was near.
Nothing on the map signified the border but, rounding a bend, my eye spotted a brown placard with white embossed letters. Adrenaline and joy brought a tingling sensation that led to lone triumphant cheers. Pausing my stopwatch, I couldn’t believe my accomplishment. In exactly sixteen hours and sixteen minutes, I had hiked through four states, covering close to 44 miles. I had achieved my goal!
After the elation of completing the biggest physical challenge I had yet faced subsided, the reality of life on trail set back in and I remembered I had not decided where I was going to camp for the night. It was getting close to ten o’clock and, with no energy remaining, I glanced around for a suitable stealth site, pitched my tent and crawled in. I longed for rest more than food at that point so, with a smile on my face, I lay down, closed my eyes, and instantly fell asleep.
Before starting my thru-hike, the Four State Challenge held a mythical status in my mind. The level of fitness and strength required to join the ranks of successful hikers who finished this test seemed unreachable. I proved to myself that I have what it takes. Determination and grit saw me through the challenge and I felt empowered to tackle anything the trail could throw my way next.
Sometimes things don’t go exactly according to plan but we have to make the best of it. This was the case for me upon reaching Pennsylvania. When looking at the AWOL guidebook, it appeared that the small town of Delaware Water Gap (DWG) would be a great place to resupply and recharge after completing another state.
My excitement at reaching Delaware Water Gap quickly faded as I walked through town to my hotel and realized the bulk of the businesses were closed. Not knowing the area, I checked the internet and saw that the town’s numerous shops and restaurants, thanks to Covid, were only open on the weekends. Sadly, I had arrived on a Wednesday.
Making do with what was available, I enjoyed some overpriced pizza and beer before retiring to my rundown hotel room for the evening. The place where I stayed had onsite laundry but the hotel’s dryer had apparently caught on fire and was not useable. So, taking life’s lemons and juggling them, I spent the rest of the night cycling my damp clothing in front of the room’s heater to finish drying all my wet gear.
Pennsylvania is referred to amongst the thru-hiking community as “Rocksylvania” due to the abundance of small rocks that make up the trail surface for much of the state. With over 600 miles of wear and tear on them, my tattered trail runners were ready to be replaced. Expecting this in advance, I had a new pair mailed to meet me in DWG along with a food resupply box. Due to a snafu with the postal service however, I received the food but not the shoes, so I left town with my old dilapidated pair of foam and rubber, feeling the point of every rock jabbing up into the soles of my feet.
Knowing this situation required a change sooner rather than later, I studied the map to find a town close to the AT that would have an outdoor store. Two days further down the trail, in Palmerton, there was a retailer who confirmed they had “something you can hike in” available and in my size.
By chance, on the way out of town, I linked up with Frambo who had decided to spend the night at the local church hostel. We hiked together the rest of the day, swapping stories, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company while cranking out twenty miles to reach the Leroy Smith shelter. When we arrived, there was one other hiker, named Gary, setting up for the night who happened to be a fellow Mainer. The three of us ate dinner around the fire ring, discussing worldly topics, and then retired to our tents.
With differing goals guiding our plans, we each left separately the next morning. Pushing through the foot pain, I hiked solo for the next 15 miles, mostly following along an open ridgeline. Looking down to my right, I could see the farmlands and factories slowly give way to my destination of Palmerton which was visible off in the distance. Stopping to survey the land, I snapped a few pictures before descending the steep and rocky Lehigh Gap then walked into town along the idyllic Main Street to reach “My Store”. With new shoes on my feet, I ventured around to fill up on town food, and stopped at the post office to mail home the old pair for my collection.
Just outside of town was the George Outerbridge shelter where Gary had mentioned planning to stop for the night. We all had discussed our fondness and longing for New England style IPA beer the night before and, since it was a Friday night and a beer store was within a short walk, I grabbed a four pack, a bag of ice, and hand carried the boozy goodness another three miles through town and up to the shelter. Needless to say, Gary and Frambo were pleasantly surprised by my canned care package, and we all sat sipping cold brews as the sun began to set, listening to the competing sounds of chirping insects against the murmur of a high school football game announcer off in the distance.
Having filmed myself while hiking some of the New Hampshire 4000 footers, I thought it would good to capture my AT hike the same way. Each day I had been recording bits of my journey to look back on in the future. Before the hike, I upgraded to a newer camera that captured better images but came with some annoying bugs. My frustrations peaked one afternoon when I pressed record but instead the camera turned off on its own. Slightly irritated, I got it to turn on again only to realize that the memory card had been corrupted and I had lost weeks of footage.
After multiple loud outbursts into the empty wilderness, my temper slowly subsided and I continued down the trail, swearing to myself silently as I blew past a pair of day hikers. All I could do was keep hiking and focus on moving forward. The anger, although an unpleasant feeling, added about a half mile an hour to my pace and made the rest of the day go by quickly.
Things improved that evening as I arrived at the Eckville shelter. One hundred yards away from where the trail crosses a paved road, you’ll find this shelter which is a private piece of land that is free for thru-hikers to use for camping. Running low on fuel, I was weighing my options for getting to a store to resupply the following day but at dinner Hoon, another south bounder, offered up his spare canister saving me the lengthy detour.
A light rain fell that night, and I awoke to another foggy drizzle filled day. The weather was a mixture of fog, mist, and “slow rain” for the bulk of my time in Pennsylvania. Most days I would walk right past any viewpoints because the lack of visibility meant the extra footsteps would be in vain. The tedium of walking along a loose stone covered trail made the hours drag on. Focusing on maintaining balance while keeping my eyes locked in front of me to avoid an ankle-spraining, hike-ending fall meant most of the day was spent looking down and six feet ahead at all times.
Before leaving to hike the AT, people asked me questions about my preparations and gear choices. I often was asked how I would handle a bear sighting but had always stated that people, more than animals, gave me a reason for concern while on trail. This fear was understood by more people this fall during the national manhunt for Brian Laundrie when it was thought he was using the Appalachian Trail as a means of evading authorities.
After a particularly long day of hiking alone in dense secluded woods, without seeing another person for hours, I ventured down a one-third mile side trail just as dusk was setting in. By cell phone light I approached the Eagle’s Nest shelter and noticed another person inside. I said “Hello” but knew instantly the figure in the shelter was not a thru-hiker. Rummaging through my pack, I grabbed my headlamp and took a few stretches, looking around with my light scanning to assess my situation. Noticing that the other guest lacked proper hiking attire, and given the incoherent nature of his conversation, I decided to make my exit.
Gathering my gear into my bag, I expressed the need to go find a more suitable tent site away from the shelter. In short haste, I silently proceeded back to the main trail. It was dark by now and the unexpected run-in had me startled and unsure where to go. Without an obvious option presenting itself, I continued into the night, hiking with the eerie feeling of being followed and stopping often to look behind me and listen for any noise beyond the worry in my head.
It was close to ten o’clock when I decided to stealth camp at a random foggy clearing set a few hundred yards off the trail. My tent was soaked from the night before and the stress of the evening zapped my appetite. I had been hiking for fourteen hours, making it my biggest day up to that point, slightly further than a marathon. After 26.4 miles on trail, I was tired and feeling defeated. I crawled into my quilt, and shut my eyes, waiting for sleep to take me away to dreamland.
Back home in Maine, my parents had been helping mail my food resupply boxes and tracking my daily progress on the map. Seeing I was near the fifty percent mark, we made plans to meet at Pine Grove Furnace State Park which houses an Appalachian Trail Museum and is roughly the halfway point of the AT. I thought it would be nice to have my family there for a big milestone but also to have them witness and cheer me on during the only challenge of my hike that involves sitting. I am talking about the infamous Half Gallon Challenge, which the self-enforced rules require that the hiker “must consume a half gallon of ice cream in under one hour” to successfully complete the challenge.
Before reaching the state park, the trail passes through Boiling Springs which gets its name from a prominent natural spring that feeds a lake in the center of town. The mostly wooded and rocky trail takes a delightful detour and, for roughly a dozen miles near town, the AT passes along massive open farmland. Hiking between fields of corn and soy beans as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, I stopped and savored the beauty, allowing the moment to imprint itself into my memory.
I started the next morning like any other, awake in my tent before sunrise, stretching briefly before rising to fetch and filter water. Water was destined for my daily “first breakfast”, consisting of instant coffee with breakfast powder packets and pop tarts, except that each bite into my maple cinnamon sugar pastry tasted different on this morning. The excitement of seeing my family after weeks apart and the upcoming achievement of hiking close to 1100 miles to get there brought me happiness and a sense of validation. Reassurance that I would be able to see this to the end.
The state park was bustling on Saturday morning with fall festival visitors bouncing between vendor tents but, through the crowd, I could spot two familiar outlines. Hugs and hellos were exchanged with my beaming parents before we walked together along the paved sidewalk the trail follows. We visited the museum before making our way over to the main event for the day, the Half Gallon Challenge.
It was about noon when I picked out my flavor choices from the limited options at the General Store. Due to rising fuel prices, ice cream servings are smaller than in the past, so contestants pick out a large carton plus a plastic party cup filled up to the top to make an entire half gallon. My large portion was a classic flavor, Neapolitan, but my small portion was something called “Blue Tornado” (basically cotton candy with cookie bits).
A curious crowd formed as I drove my plastic spoon into the mostly frozen solid block of sugar and cream. I had planned accordingly and skipped out on my “second breakfast” and lunch so that my hiker hunger was sure to help out. My technique involved warming the outer edge of the carton with my hands and scooping in a circular manner to get at the softened deliciousness as it began to melt. My family/cheering squad proved their support by assisting with hot coffee delivery and being there for every bite.
Only forty-four brain freezing minutes later and to the sound of applause from passing onlookers, I finished the last spoonful and took a bow in front of my adoring audience. Grinning happily, I went inside the general store to retrieve my prize and returned with my tiny wooden commemorative spoon…it was totally worth it!
Pine Grove Furnace isn’t the actual halfway point of the AT and, given it was only a few miles more to get there, I grabbed my pack, threw on my poncho, and hit the trail as the drizzle progressed into a steady rain. My parents planned to meet me at Shippensburg Road and, fueled by the 2500 calories of pure sugar I consumed only moments prior, I hiked the 8.5 mile distance in a little over two hours.
The Boston family spent the next 48 hours together in Gettysburg, sightseeing and shopping along the historic downtown before strolling through history on the reverent battlefield at sunset. It had been four weeks since I last took a day off from hiking and, over the course of those 28 days, I had hiked an average of eighteen miles a day. Without question, the zero day was well deserved and much welcomed.
As a field tester for Hyperlite Mountain Gear, I have been providing feedback on new designs they’ve had me test during my thru-hike. Hyperlite wanted to see how a new type of Dyneema fabric would hold up in the wild so at the halfway point I swapped out my beloved black Windrider with a shiny new white Northrim pack.
It was bittersweet timing to exchange backpacks at the midpoint because I was at a crossroads with my hiking experience. My black bag represented the time on trail spent learning how to get this far. I shared blood, sweat and tears with that bag as we both got through the hardest part of the trail together. Now after reaching halfway, I could regroup knowing all the lessons learned up to this point. The new white pack was a clean slate on which to keep improving my methods. A blank canvas yet to be filled…and stained.
Monday afternoon, I was returned to the road crossing after a scrumptious meal of biscuits and gravy. I hoisted my restocked pack from the trunk, saying one last goodbye to my parents as I set off down the trail, gloating on having reached halfway, and wondering what the next half would bring me. The time off spent with my family in Gettysburg felt like a major celebration. Even though there were still roughly thirty miles remaining in Pennsylvania, my attention turned to what lay beyond. I felt the difficulties already faced had strengthened my drive to see what else I was capable of doing.
The weather through most of the state was wet and miserable but during my zero day the air turned cool and crisp. I took my time and enjoyed the clear skies as I thought about the next difficulty ahead. In two days, I planned to do something I never believed I would be capable of attempting. The Four State Challenge, a twenty-four hour, forty-four mile test of a thru-hiker’s endurance.
Setting my sights on Pen-Mar park, I cruised through the rest of Pennsylvania so fixated on this next hurdle that I almost walked right past the Mason Dixon line. It was a warm Tuesday evening as the sun was setting when I reached Maryland. Happily leaving Yankee territory and setting foot back in the south, I felt like I’d walked home.
Cresting the grassy hill, I sat on an old wooden park bench underneath an American flag flapping in the humid breeze. I thought about the unpleasant history of our country represented by this spot and how, for me, it will become a place of pride. At this point on the trail, I had gone further than I ever imagined, and in less than twelve hours, this would be the spot where I continued on to go further than ever before. Taking it one step at a time while learning from the past.
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.
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.