New Jersey & New York on the Appalachian Trail
New Jersey & New York
The trail continued in much the same vein as it had in Pennsylvania, though thankfully the rocks eased off at last. The trail remained relatively easy, with occasional climbs onto and off of ridges, but mostly level going. The abundance of food continued, but water was becoming ever more difficult to find.
Having gorged ourselves in NYC and DWG for days, it was probably unnecessary for us to stop, first day back on trail, burgers at The Sunset Grill. With hindsight it was as well that we arrived too early for ‘The Sir Loin’ steak – a meaty behemoth that could only have ended in heartache (and heart-burn). By the time we made it up to Sunrise Mountain pavilion, Will was struggling with the same awkward chafing problems that had blighted me in West Virginia. To alleviate the problem he changed his shorts. I failed in my duty of keeping lookout and a poor southbound couple nearly suffered a traumatic episode by stumbling upon William and his equipment.
The parking lot behind the pavilion served as the perfect place to try out the latest and greatest addition to our gear. How we had done without a Frisbee for so long is beyond me. We had tied every kind of faddish entertainment from books to electronic gadgets and chess sets only to be disenchanted within minutes. This, however, was a winner from the outset. We jumped, sprinted and dived around the lot until we really had to move on.
The next day saw us eating yet another terrible concession stand meal – this time at High Point State Park – before pressing on to Unionville. This is a nice little town that allows hikers to camp in the local park (with permission from the mayor – a sound chap I’d met in 2002). We didn’t need to stay, but we did make use of the park to play yet more Frisbee. The hike out of the park is through the Walkill National Wildlife Preserve – a large swampy area, apparently dedicated to the preservation of millions of mosquitoes. Will and I were swathed in DEET, but poor Billy was unprotected and got eaten alive. Will did his best to keep our spirits up by providing a David Attenborough style commentary as we followed the nature trail –it was, perhaps, not entirely accurate, but certainly funny.
Yet more food was on offer in the town of Vernon. We made use of the facilities of the church hostel before filling our greedy selves with Italian food at a local restaurant. By now we had gotten quite adept at wasting hours playing, eating and lazing - yet still getting 20-mile days done without any great stress. Steadily though, the trail was beginning to toughen up again – there were now lots of short sharp climbs over rocks and some relentless up and down – often made harder by lack of water. However relentless the climbing was becoming, it was nothing compared to the constant onslaught of Boars Head delis that we contended with through this section. Scarcely a day went by that we didn’t have the chance to visit one of these establishments. As they went though, the Bently’s North deli proved to be a very good place to stop for some franchised meat –due more to the pleasant and friendly owner than to the quality of the chain’s wares.
At the NJ17 road crossing, Billy made use of the phone to call his folks, while Will and I were left to relax in the sun. Relax, that is, until a pick-up pulled up and a local trail-angel leaped out and to our aid. He foisted cold drinks, apples, water and cookies upon us and set about talking at us. He had apparently dropped out of an attempted thru-hike a few years back due to problems with heel-spurs. This, he told us, was his third year of doing trail-magic and his reasons for doing it were a ‘long-story’. He left a pause at this point which rather suggested that he might be willing to elaborate at the slightest provocation… Will and I weren’t biting. Whatever questions we did ask him though seemed to be ignored and he continued on his own agenda for the ‘conversation’. He told us that James Earl Jones had, until his health problems, been a regular maintainer of the trail in the area – with some effort we managed to escape the lecture before he digressed too far down a Darth Vader related path. He was a very nice well meaning person, but I have to admit that he had a slightly unnerving quality about him that had me sleeping lightly that night.
When we reached another road crossing to find a large cache of cartons of orange juice we thought we really were having a bumper day for trail magic. Curiously, our benefactor omitted to leave a note so we didn’t know who we should be thankful to. Billy passed on the juice, but Will and I grab a carton each and merrily swigged away as we went – well, merrily might be going a little far as the stuff was pretty grim ‘fruit-flavoured beverage’. As we hiked, we started to pass groups of southbound schoolchildren. Many of them stared and pointed at us as we walked by. Very slowly it dawned on us that the juice was, perhaps, not a gift from a trail angel, but the kids’ rations. Stealing juice from kids isn’t the sort of thing we wanted to be associated with, so we quickly hid the empty cartons. A long way behind the main group was the obligatory fat kid in flip flops - no school trip is complete without one! Some poor teacher with rapidly failing patience was desperately trying to marshal this wheezy creature onwards – probably using the promise of the refreshing juice waiting at the road… I wonder if there were tears when they finally got there to find the rations to be short by two cartons.
The Lemon Squeezer is an Appalachian Trail landmark – a comically narrow corridor through the rock that one really does have to squeeze to pass. This proved easier to negotiate than the 12ft rock wall that immediately follows it. The option to go around it is left open to hikers, but we felt that to be a cop-out. Billy sprang up it without any drama and made it look easy. By contrast, I made it look like a hazardous ordeal and came away with shredded fingers to remind me of a near-fall. Will and I both came close to a tumble on another climb that day. Will was pressing close behind me as we tackled another vertical ascent. My big push up the rock face was accompanied by some particularly sonorous flatulence - inches from Will’s head. It was all we could do to cling on for dear life as we helplessly shook with laughter.
Harriman Park is a large and popular recreational area set on a lake. We were passing through late in the day and it was relatively quiet, though we came across (and avoided) plenty of our fellow hikers. One wandered over to us and asked where we were headed. “The next shelter” we replied. He looked very confused, “you’re going the wrong way” he informed us. This seemed an odd assertion to make and we insisted we were going the right way. “What trail are you hiking?” he asked. When we told him we were on the AT he looked to sink even deeper into his confusion. We aborted this exchange and hiked on – the squeaking cogs in the guy’s mind clearly audible as he tried to process all that had just passed between us.
The good weather broke and we left to negotiate the rocky going in slippery conditions. One series of downs claimed all of us as victims as one-by-one we landed on our asses, picking up more cuts and bruises for the collection. Soon we were out of the mountains and into the slightly surreal setting of the Bear Mountain Zoo. The trail is routed right through the busy zoo and we filed in alongside a mass of tourists. This experience probably more than any other of the Trail highlighted how far separated from the rest of ‘normal’ society we had become. We stood out like bizarre aliens. It wasn’t just our clothing and layer of trail patina that did it either. We were all nominally ‘on vacation’, but we were worlds apart from the regular tourists. They seemed to drift vacuously around the zoo with no purpose, no real interest and taking no real enjoyment from the experience. I don’t think we took too much enjoyment ourselves either, but for different reasons. The animals of the zoo held little interest for us – they were like pale imitations of the same creatures we’d been spotting in the wild for hundreds of miles. More than that though, the distance we felt between ourselves and our fellow human beings was quite disheartening. On a more positive note, Will enjoyed the ‘brown trout’ exhibit immensely.
We lunched at a Boars Head deli and sat outside to consider our strategy for the coming days. We had two issues to work around: Firstly, Billy had decided to attempt to hike the length of the trail in Connecticut in a single day. At a length of 52 miles and routed over much more challenging terrain than we encountered in Maryland, this was a huge task. We had argued about the feasibility of the challenge for days. I have an unhealthy like of statistics and every way I looked at it, it seemed just plain daft. Discounting any breaks, and assuming a steady hiking pace of 3 miles an hour, it would take 17.5 hours to cover the distance. He wouldn’t be getting up until 4am at the very earliest which would leave him just 2.5 hours’ leeway to rest and collect water. But Billy wasn’t having any of my fancy logic – he had set his mind to accomplishing it so he would try it and see what happened. Our second complication was that Will needed to get off trail and head home in the next few days. We needed to find a town with transport links that could get him back to Savannah. Billy and I then needed to plan exactly where and when we would meet up again. It was a logistical headache that needed mulling over, so we checked into a motel and thought about it – well that and watched a lot of TV, ate ice cream and drank…
While we lounged around outside the deli where we had breakfasted, a car pulled up and the driver offered us a ride back to the trail. It took me a while, but I finally recognised the guy as being the same fellow who had picked me up hitching the year before – considering that the trail spans the length of the country, it really is a small community…Back on trail and it was time for us to split the team for a while. Billy was going to get to the Connecticut border half a day before us so that he could rest up in preparation for the challenge. I would follow with Will at a more leisurely pace and aim to arrive the afternoon before Billy’s departure. As we were in no hurry, Will and I took time to visit the shelter at the ballpark of the Graymoor Spiritual Life Centre for lunch and Frisbee. We enjoyed our game and planned to hike on, until one of the monks from the monastery came down to tell the assembled hikers what the drill was for dinner. We thought it sounded too good to miss so went along. We were glad we did too. The centre has a huge dining hall with one table set up for the hikers that they very generously entertain every evening throughout the summer. We were waited on by the troubled individuals that were being rehabilitated at the centre. They looked a motley crew, but proved to be the very model of diligence and courtesy. We hiked on after an excellent dinner with the previous day’s concerns at the state of humanity largely forgotten.
The next couple of days’ hiking without Billy were odd. We’d been hiking together for 3 months now and it was a strange feeling for him to suddenly not to be there anymore. It was a shame that he wasn’t with us to make fun of the people we came across at the umpteenth Boars Head of the trip. Some of the clientele were distinctly unusual and probably drawn to the store by the truly World-Class pornography section that it could boast. I mean this place had a smut-cave; it was really quite something for an ostensibly family-joint. We resisted stocking up (for weight considerations alone) and pressed on to meet Billy. He was waiting for us at a shelter a little over a mile from the Connecticut border. When we arrive, the place was packed – a couple of former thru-hikers from Missouri had driven up with their grandchildren to put on a bar-b-q for this year’s hikers. They were fine people and it was a very nice gesture, but the resulting crowds didn’t make for the most restful preparation for Billy. Furthermore, the kids ran amok and wouldn’t give us a moment’s peace – our own faults for letting on that we had a Frisbee. Billy’s food shopping for the challenge also left something to be desired. His choice of peanut butter and jam to spread on crackers was good – the idea being that he could pretty much eat on the move, but he had taken the opportunity to trial a form of marshmallow spread he had been seeing in the stores for a while. In an attempt to save time, Billy had tried mixing the jam and the mallow paste together. The result made me queasy even to look at it - surely not ideal fuel for a major athletic challenge… Billy and Will said their goodbyes, I wished Billy luck and eventually we all settled down to sleep. I hoped Billy knew what he was letting himself in for…
Continue on the Appalachian Trail: Connecticut & Massachusetts