|©1997 George Steffanos|
WEDNESDAY, 7/27/83, MILE 1253.5 --- STILL DELAWARE WATER GAP --- I slept more than eight hours last night. It was the longest period of uninterrupted sleep I had enjoyed in weeks, but it seemed to do little to restore me. Since my last day off in Waynesboro, Virginia early this month, I have walked more than 420 miles through the blistering cauldron of a mid-Atlantic heat wave. The nights have been little better than the days. Each day has taken a bit more out of me than the nights have given back. I have been running on reserves for weeks. They are about gone. I awoke stupid and disoriented, and headed out beneath a blazing mid-morning sun to try to get my errands done as quickly as possible and spend the bulk of the day in my air conditioned room doing nothing.
Yesterday evening, when I stopped at the village Post Office for my supply package and mail from home, I had received a postal money order. The little branch office in the village did not have enough currency on hand to cash it. The clerks advised me to try again this morning. I used up virtually all of my remaining money paying for the room and dinner last night. My ready cash had dwindled to less than two dollars. Cashing the money order was my first item of business this morning.
I stopped at the motel office first. The lady who ran the place told me I could pay for tonight when I returned with the money after running my errands. She was very understanding considering the fact that her motel enjoyed almost total occupancy, but that is just another example of how well I have been treated by the people of Pennsylvania. I will have to return one day and hike this portion of the Appalachian Trail during a month in which temperatures average less than ninety. I am willing to bet I walk away with an impression of the trail in this state that more closely matches my affection for its people.
I walked down the road about a mile to the Post Office. They still did not have nearly enough cash on hand to redeem my money order, and the letters that never made it to Port Clinton weren't going to make it here, either, apparently. This first, futile trip set the tone for the remainder of the day.
I caught the Stroudsburg bus at 11:00. I had been informed that a cobbler, which I so desperately needed, was available in that much larger town. Hopefully, their correspondingly larger Post Office would have enough cash to cover my money order. On a map, Stroudsburg and Delaware Water Gap are just five miles apart, but the bus ran one of the more complex routes I had ever seen. We did not arrive in downtown Stroudsburg until 11:30. I always make a point when near the front of the bus to tell the driver where I want to get out rather than pull that cord to sound that damned buzzer that must haunt their dreams. My buzzer theory gets proved over and over by the remarkable responses I usually get to this very small act of courtesy. I had a long friendly chat with this driver, and he took the time to give me directions for a shortcut from the bus stop through some alleys to the cobbler's shop which saved me ten minutes' walk. I dropped off my boots to have the soles reglued. The friendly people in the shop told me that the job would be completed in two hours.
The Post Office was located a block away. They were able to cash my money order with no problem. The window clerk gave me directions to the nearest laundromat, which was a few more blocks away. I threw my dirty clothes into a couple of the washers and started them up, walked down the street to a sub shop, and had lunch. Afterwards, I returned to the laundromat, only to discover that both loads had unbalanced during the first spin cycle. This started an incredible chain reaction in timing which wiped out a large chunk of the lazy day I had planned. I got them going once again and sat down to wait. At 1:30, when my laundry was washed and dried, I returned to the cobbler and picked up my boots. He advised me not to walk on them today, which was fine with me because I had no intention of doing so. I paid the very modest three-dollar charge and walked back to the bus stop.
After waiting for twenty minutes in the hot sun without seeing a bus, I asked a passer-by who materialized out of the heat waves about the timing of the next bus to Delaware Water Gap. He told me that they departed once every hour on the half-hour, which left me with more than thirty minutes to kill until the next one. I must have missed the previous run by a minute or two. I walked into an air-conditioned book store across the street to kill some time and browsed the paperbacks for a while. I returned to the bus stop at 2:20, just to be sure that I would not miss the next run.
The bus was more than five minutes late. When it did arrive, I discovered this interesting little tidbit of trivia: on one trip each day the bus runs an alternate route and does not pass through Delaware Water Gap. Guess which trip that was? Right. I now had another hour to kill before the next bus, so I walked into an air-conditioned Dunkin Donuts and nursed a coke for forty-five minutes. I returned to the bus stop at 3:20 and caught the Delaware Water Gap bus fifteen minutes later. It was past 4:00 when I finally got back to the motel. That killed any chance that I had of mailing my package for home today and getting an early start on the Appalachian Trail in the morning.
After paying for my room, I felt the need to lie down for a while. My big "rest" day in Delaware Water Gap had gone bust. I cranked the air conditioning and collapsed wearily upon the mattress. As the small annoyances of the day ebbed slowly away on a tide of exhaustion, I lay back thinking of ripples.
A pebble thrown into a still pond makes a small splash and is quickly gone, but the ripples linger for a long while, slowly spreading across the smooth surface of the water. Long after the pebble has been forgotten, the ripples are still spreading...
A warm, sunny morning in early June, when the relentless, brooding oppression of this tropical summer was as of yet a faint glimmer on the forward horizon. A short stretch of fine weather between the spring monsoons of the southern Appalachians and a central Appalachian summer of record drought and heat. A slightly-used backpacker is adopted by a small homeless puppy. A tiny pebble...
A soft velvet night on a high shoulder of a southwest Virginia mountain. The puppy has a new home, and the backpacker lies in his sleeping bag trying to remember. He tries to remember the people and the life he once knew and a place he called home all his life. A place more than nine hundred miles ahead on the trail; a place about a thousand years back in his past. He tries to remember and really cannot. It suddenly becomes important to touch base with this place -- not a constant driving need, but a small, barely-noticeable ripple in a vast, still surface...
A kaleidoscope of blazing heat and long, wearisome miles. The backpacker has been pushing just a little too hard for too long, and the spirit has slowly seeped out of the adventure. His home is now little more than 150 trail miles ahead, but he sorely needs the day off he has been forced to rake because his shoes are falling apart again. A blazing mid-summer afternoon in northeastern Pennsylvania. A washer load becomes unbalanced, a bus is missed, a tired backpacker loses a long-overdue afternoon of rest. The upcoming hikes are going to be a little longer; the end-of-the-day pushes for shelter or water just a little wearier. Ripples...
I dropped off like a rock and slept for a couple of hours, forced by exhaustion to pass up the free cookout that the local Presbyterian church throws at the hostel for backpackers every Wednesday afternoon in the summer. I woke up and headed over there at 6:30 to sign up for Roger's Appalachian Cottage.
Roger is a New York City resident who owns a summer home on Greenwood Lake a few counties to the northwest of the city. A while back, after discovering that the Appalachian Trail passed near his property, he began to invite thru-hikers to sleep in his guest room and use his cooking facilities. Now, he has become such a trail institution that he must limit the number of guests to the amount of spare room he has available. Northbound thru-hikers can sign up for one of the available spaces on a sheet of paper posted on the wall at the Delaware Water Gap hostel.
The cottage is seventy-two miles away. The long days of hiking under a broiling sun during my recent drive to reach Connecticut had begun to wear on me, so I was planning on taking four days to reach the place and arriving on Sunday. I learned that Roger now spends summer Sundays in the city, and the cottage is closed on that day. Saturday was completely booked, so I cannot even try for that night. I am too anxious to reach Connecticut to spend five days hiking that 72 miles, so I guess that I will not be staying there at all.
I am still going to attempt to hike that seventy-two miles in three days, just so I can get a look at the place and meet the man. That would be as satisfying for me as staying there would have been. I think that I can make it. The rest day that I had today seems to have helped my condition. I am beginning to feel excited about the trail ahead once again, a factor that has been somewhat lacking since Port Clinton. I am also fired up about the prospect of returning to Connecticut soon, and seeing all of my friends. That reunion is 163 AT miles away.
It is now a half-hour past midnight, and I have just finished loading my backpack and the box to be mailed home. So much for my possibilities of getting an early start tomorrow. I have just heard the weather report covering the next few days. The sweltering heat and humidity are forecasted to return on Friday, with no end in sight. The hell with it. For some reason, I am still feeling excited and eager to resume my hike tomorrow. I wish that I could head out now, but it is just a little dark. I have no idea why I am feeling this cheerful and upbeat after all that has gone wrong lately, but perhaps it may just be that I have become a drooling imbecile.
THURSDAY, 7/28/83, MILE 1273.9 --- I have failed in my first mission of this stretch of hiking. I did not manage to get in enough miles today to give me a shot at reaching Roger's by Saturday evening, so it appears I will not even get a chance to see the place.
To make matters worse, everything I own is beginning to fall apart at once. In Delaware Water Gap, in addition to having my boots repaired, I needed to replace the thin foam pad on which I sleep and the shoulder straps of my backpack. The foam pad, which sits atop my backpack as I hike, had been shredded by all of the thorns and tree branches growing over the trail in Pennsylvania. The shoulder straps were tearing from the weeks of supporting the heavy pack. No sooner did I take care of these three problems then my water bottle gave me trouble -- no major problem, but an annoying one: the loop of plastic with which I hang the bottle from my backpack broke. Now, I have to stop and take off my pack whenever I want a drink. Also, the neck strap for my camera broke, and that has to go in the pack. It is getting a little crowded in there. Today, as I was putting on my backpack, I noticed that the hip belt was beginning to tear. I can only hope that it holds until Connecticut.
I was a good boy this morning. I was at the Post Office bright and early (before 8:00), despite my late night last night. Unfortunately, I discovered that they did not open until 8:30. That set my departure back another half-hour. I was awake and dressed early enough to have been on the trail before 7:00, had I not been required to make this stop.
When the Post Office opened, I mailed my package back home. The letters which had been mailed from Connecticut almost two weeks ago still were a no-show. The United States Postal Service is the best damned operation of its kind in all of the world. Poor world. I left another forwarding card to have all of the letters sent to my home, if they ever arrive. I am not counting on it. [Note: The letters eventually found their sluggish way back to Connecticut. The ones I had mailed to home from Port Clinton arrived in Connecticut after a few days -- all except one -- a letter my mother. Being a mother, she was thrilled when all of my other friends and relatives received their letters and she got nothing. Years later, I still hear about this incident occasionally.]
The Appalachian Trail followed paved roads out of Delaware Water Gap into New Jersey. I passed a coke machine along the way. I soon reached the I-80 bridge over the Delaware River, which had a pedestrian walkway which the AT followed across. It was a long bridge: three-quarters-of-a-mile in length, and the coke was gone by the time I reached the New Jersey side. Seven states down and seven to go.
My late start on the trail (9:30) and a heavy backpack full of trail town supplies were two strikes against me right from the start. The apparent restoration of my sense of adventure following my two-hour nap yesterday evening turned out to be ninety-nine percent illusion, an apparently-solid structure like a sculpture of ice, which gradually melted to water and trickled away under the tender ministrations of a late July sun.
On the Jersey side, I stopped at the Visitor Center for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which now preserves and protects one of the most scenic stretches of river in the northeastern United States. As I have previously mentioned, the Delaware River makes a deep cleft through the surrounding mountains. Impressive cliffs tower over several miles of river bank. It is an attractively wooded, wild-looking area -- a surprising find in the heart of a massively industrialized chunk of country. The federal government originally bought up all of this land in order to construct a dam, intending to flood this scenic place and create a reservoir. Intense opposition from local groups and national conservation societies defeated the dam proposal after a long, bitter struggle. The gorge is now protected by its designation as a National Recreation Area, and the land which the government acquired for the reservoir is now the foundation on which the N.R.A. will rest.
A water fountain in the Visitor Center had one of those built-in coolers -- a luxury I used to take for granted, but one I had not seen since those long-faded days of life before the Appalachian Trail. That cold water tasted fabulous for the brief amount of time it remained cold once I had resumed hiking. The weather forecast I had heard last night said the heat and the humidity would not return until tomorrow. Sez you. At 9:30, the temperature was already in the eighties and the air was positively steamy. Since this is all supposed to grow progressively worse between now and Monday (at least), it seems I will be reliving once again those glorious dog days of southern Pennsylvania.
The Appalachian Trail followed an old woods road into the forest. Where the terrain was fairly level, the footway was good. Along the numerous steep stretches and most of the moderate ones, the footway was an eroded mass of loose rocks. The rocks were not nearly as bad as those just across the river in Pennsylvania, but my tee shirt was plastered to my back and chest before I was halfway up the mountain, and the day had not yet reached mid-morning. On a brighter note, the AT was relatively clear compared to all of those overgrown portions on Blue Mountain.
The Appalachian Trail left the woods road at Sunfish Pond, a large lake situated on a small plateau high up a flank of Kittatinny Mountain. It was not quite as nice as the guide book description had led me to expect. The surrounding area was fairly spent from massive over-camping near the pond. There were many barren patches with dirt packed like concrete, and numerous lower limbs missing from trees where countless idiots had obviously taken live wood to feed campfires. The vicinity is now closed to camping in an effort to allow the forest to recover, and if the effort succeeds the large secluded pond will no doubt become a place of beauty again some day. It may still have been an attractive sight on a nice blue-sky day, but today the water appeared a drab gray-white, reflecting the sooty, whitewashed sky.
There were frequent good viewpoints along the ridgecrest, but I could not see for great distances through the steam. I did manage to get several decent pictures. This corner of New Jersey is surprisingly scenic. The northern half of New Jersey is one of most heavily developed areas of the country, much like the portion of Connecticut I call home. I already knew that many lingering traces of a beauty far older than the smoke and grime and crumbling cities existed near my home, so I should not have been startled to find it here in a state so like my own. Yet I was surprised. Along the scenic ridgecrest walking was fairly easy, in spite of the rocks.
A word about the rocks: yes, they are still here. If you remember, I guessed as much when I was climbing down into Delaware Water Gap on Tuesday, when I realized that this ridge and Blue Mountain were in fact the same ridge, broken by the gap which the Delaware River had cut. When I opened the New York/New Jersey guide book after picking up my mail drop, I noticed that the name of this mountain is Kittatinny Ridge. In the Pennsylvania guide book, they mentioned that the old name for Blue Mountain was Kittatinny Mountain. Same mountain same rocks, I deduced. Strangely enough, though, the rocks here are not nearly as bad as they were just across the river. Go figure.
At 3:30, I reached the Catfish firetower. It had taken me six-and-a-half hours to hike a little more than twelve miles up to that point, so I was not setting any new land speed records during the day's hike. The Philosopher's Guide said that rumor was that the firetower had been torn down. If that was the case, I had one hell of a hallucination of sitting sixty feet above the treetops as a brisk wind quickly dried out my sweat-soaked shorts and tee shirt. Since I am no longer drinking or doing any drugs, my guess is that it is still there.
A half-hour later, I came to Rattlesnake Spring. It was the first water on the Appalachian Trail since the Delaware Water Gap N.R.A. Visitor Center, a distance of more than twelve miles. That would have been no big deal in the cooler, drier weather in which I had been hiking during the past few days, but today's heat and humidity were absolutely draining me. I had become quite dehydrated while stretching three pints of water over that distance. I spent an hour here, chugging Tang and stuffing my face with food. I had not been able to eat anything earlier, because eating would have increased my thirst. When I resumed my hike at 5:00, I had thirteen miles under my belt. That was okay for my first day out of a town, but it was nowhere near the mileage I needed to give me a shot at reaching Roger's by Saturday. Given a choice between taking two extra days to reach Connecticut -- now so close -- or skipping one of the more interesting and characteristic Appalachian Trail experiences, I guess I'll have probably pass on visiting the cottage.
I managed to tack an additional seven-and-a-half miles onto today's hike by 9:00, but that was it. I am making a waterless camp tonight beside an old, abandoned gravel road on a narrow stretch of grassy ridgecrest. I filled my canteen three miles ago at a spring on the Appalachian Trail crossing of a road called Flatbrookville Road, so I have enough water for drinking purposes. I do not have enough water for cooking, so tonight's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast will have to be makeshift.
I hiked a bit more than twenty miles on my first day out of a town, but I needed to do better to have a shot at visiting Roger's. I still have fifty-two miles remaining to be hiked in two days in order to arrive there by Saturday night, and I would have to be there early enough to have time to visit the place and hike on to the next campsite. Forget it. It's not going to happen.
And yet, in defeat I still have victory. With the mileage that I put in today, I am almost assured of reaching Kent, Connecticut by next Thursday, a full day ahead of schedule. I am looking forward to spending a couple of days hanging out with my friends. I feel fairly content. It's a shame about Roger's, though.
FRIDAY, 7/29/83, MILE 1296.3 --- It begins to appear that in defeat, I have more defeat. I could have handled some rugged trail today. I could have handled roaring heat and humidity. I could even have handled a considerable amount of both. What I got was both barrels, full-blast, right in the gut.
The character of the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey had changed abruptly yesterday when I crossed Flatbrookville Road. The condition of the trail, which had been decently graded and not too rocky, began to go downhill. Today, it became worse, especially towards the end of the day.
I set out at about 6:30 this morning, still feeling fairly used-up as a result of yesterday's hike. The trail was extremely rocky and poorly graded right from the outset. I got an early taste of what the weather would be like when I found myself sweating like a pig by 6:30 A.M. Today was a steaming hell. The haze was so thick that despite a lack of overcast I only saw the sun for a total of about a half-hour throughout the course of the day.
Early this morning, the trail passed over a rocky knob called Rattlesnake Mountain along the ridgecrest. There were nice views out over a wooded valley to a parallel ridge in the west. Beyond that ridge, I caught a few glimpses of the Delaware River glittering in the distance. The views along this stretch of trail were so pleasant that I enjoyed hiking it, in spite of all the rocks in the path and a sadistic ascent and descent at either end of the knob. I had been walking New England trails all my life and could hardly consider this path worse than the majority of those.
I arrived at the Brink Road Shelter At 8:30, after hiking the first 3.7 miles in two hours. I mention this because it was a strong early indication that I would not be breaking any land speed records today, either. The grading and the rockiness of the trail and the humidity, as well as yesterday's exertion were already taking their tells and the day had just begun. The heat was not too bad -- yet.
The shelter was small, but in fairly good condition. A couple of backpackers were just starting out on the trail when I arrived, two guys I had met at the hostel in Delaware Water Gap on Tuesday. They had hitched there from Atkins, Virginia, skipping 730 miles of trail, including a good portion of The Wall. Their thru-hike attempt was over, but they just wanted to spend the remainder of the summer enjoying the mountains of the northeast. I talked with them for a few minutes before they left, got some water from the shelter's spring and made myself the breakfast I had been forced to skip upon waking up in my dry camp this morning. Since the long drought began, I have tended to hike all day with a water deficit and restore the fluids at dinner and breakfast in camp. I spent an hour there, guzzling Tang and plain water. I had not intended to stay for that long, but it was just one more facet of my miserable showing today.
I reached Culvers Gap, the point where the Appalachian Trail crossed US 206, about two hours after I left the shelter. Directly on that road crossing was a place called Worthington's Bakery which carried a stock of groceries. As I was walking in to the store, I noticed a couple across the road shooting videotape of a thru-hiker starting back out on the trail. Don't ask me how I knew he was a thru-hiker. After three months on the trail, I can spot one a mile off. There is something about their eyes. I smiled at the sight and went inside. I will be seeing my people next week.
They did not carry a wide selection of groceries, but I was able to pick up the essentials: a pint of ice cream and a liter of coke. I spent the next forty-five minutes sitting in front of the store, attending to my feast. The other thru-hiker walked over after his relatives drove off, and we talked for a while. He was a college man from Atlanta named Tom who was hiking from Damascus, Virginia to as far north as he is able to get before his fall term begins. He had just spent a few days off of the trail visiting with his aunt and uncle who live nearby. He left after a few minutes, and I finished my picnic.
When I left the bakery, it was 12:15. I had hiked a mean seven-and-a-half miles in almost six hours. About a third of that time was spent at my two long rest breaks. Am I awesome, or what? I did not do much better this afternoon. I walked slowly and took numerous long rest breaks.
The initial half-mile from Culvers Cap followed paved roads. The AT re-entered the woods and began a rather long climb to the sixty-foot-tall Culver firetower. I enjoping up there above the treetops. Culver Lake, on the floor of the valley below, loomed through the haze a giant blob of deeper gray in a formless universe of white and gray.
I basically enjoyed myself today, although thin, high clouds of fatigue and depression were slowly drifting into my inner universe. They were the outriders of an ominous psychic storm just over the horizon, a tempest that I now find myself racing to Connecticut. If I can make it home for a few days, I think that the thing will blow over. Being in excellent physical condition turns out not to be an invincible suit of armor for a person who is trying to grind out one twenty-mile day after another, carrying a heavy backpack through the blistering hell of a mid-Atlantic July heat wave.
Connecticut turns out to be both my greatest hope of salvation and my most perilous emotional demon. My obsessive drive over the past few weeks to race towards my brief reunion has taken its toll. My growing physical exhaustion and increasing frustration with the snail-like pace of a backpacking trip have been each feeding off the other. My obsessive drive to get home had put me in the position of needing to reach home. One hundred miles away feels like the other end of the earth right now.
One of the factors that greatly contributed to my slow pace and growing exhaustion today was long expanses of overgrown trail. For instance, the mile before Sunrise Mountain was completely overgrown, one of several stretches that were virtual bushwhacks. Even those portions of trail relatively clear of underbrush featured many low, overhanging branches across the trail and the occasional large blowdown. It seemed I spent the entire hike either hunched over or picking my way over dead trees.
Nevertheless, as I said, I basically enjoyed myself today. The views from the stone pavilion atop Sunrise Mountain made up for that preceding mile. I took another ten-minute break up there because I had hiked a whole three-and-a-half miles since my last stop at the Culver firetower. I just never could get myself in gear.
I passed the last water on the trail four miles later at the point where the Appalachian Trail crossed a paved road known as the Deckertown Turnpike. The state of New Jersey had thoughtfully provided a hand-cranked pump at the road crossing. The final six miles of my hike were fairly uneventful. At 8:40, I arrived at the wooden observation tower located just south of the highest point in New Jersey, which is imaginatively named High Point.
Although High Point Shelter is less than a mile up the trail, I am spending tonight camping illegally on the observation deck of the tower. As in much of the central states, most of the shelters in New Jersey are ancient, dirt-floored relics. It is not supposed to rain tonight, so I am more interested in having a wooden floor beneath me than having walls and a roof around me. Up here, I have a cool breeze to refresh me on this warm, muggy night and a spectacular 360-degree view. The red blinking light atop High Point Monument to the north, the lights of radio tower to the south, and a few twinkling lights from houses scattered through the valleys to the east and west of this ridge all vie for attention with the handful of stars visible through the haze of this lazy July evening. A few dense concentrations of lights twinkle just at the fringes of both horizons. It is almost 10:00 -- bedtime for backpackers.
The downside of today is that I only managed to cover barely twenty-two miles in all of those hours spent on the trail. The Graymoor Monastery is still seventy-one miles away. That is another must-see trail institution, which I will describe when I get closer. I am not going to miss out on both Roger's and the monastery. Tomorrow, I will find out if I have what it takes to hike those seventy-one miles in three days. If not, I will have to make it four days, which will wipe out any chance of being home Thursday. I know that one more day should not be a big deal, but I have been anticipating this visit for hundreds of miles. I would like to keep the prospect of being home on Thursday night alive. We will see tomorrow.
SATURDAY, 7/30/83, MILE 1316.5 --- When I was in Delaware Water Gap, the televised weather report predicted no chance of rain until late Saturday night, at the earliest, giving me the freedom to spend last night on that observation platform with no protection from the elements. Last night, at 2:15, the rain came.
The winds intensified throughout the night, gusting powerfully at times. When the first raindrops splashed off of my face, I came awake instantly. Initially, I just lay there, hoping that it was merely a few stray sprinkles. A steady rain began to fall. Jumping out of my sleeping bag, I threw all of my gear inside my backpack and put the rain cover over the pack. I pulled my tent from out of its stuff sack and stretched it out above my sleeping bag and myself with the waterproof floor facing the rain. I lay there, miserable, wondering what I had gotten myself into, until the rain stopped after fifteen minutes. Fortunately, the wind continued to gust, and everything was dry ten minutes later. I went back to bed and slept through the remainder of the night.
Thanks to the sleep lost during that little episode, I had a fairly late start in the morning, hitting the trail at 7:15. The Appalachian Trail, which had been following the crest of Kittatinny Ridge roughly northward since it entered New Jersey, coming within a few miles of its northern border with New York, now swung towards the east, descending finally from the mountain. After more than 150 miles of coping with the rocks, thorns, and insects of Blue Mountain/Kittatinny Ridge, I was more than happy to leave it behind.
I lost the trail right at the beginning of the hike and blew ten minutes before finding it once again. The blazing has been very iffy in New Jersey. Most of the time, it has been fine, but every time that the trail route becomes obscure and I find myself needing the blazes, I cannot find one. With all the blowdowns and the chaotic overgrowth which must have predated this long drought, I am starting to suspect that the southern Appalachians were not the only portion of the AT which saw some wild storms this spring. I reached High Point Shelter at 7:45 and left at 8:00 after quickly sucking back three pints of water and refilling my water bottle. The stream at the shelter was dirty and the water did not taste very good, but it was the last sure water on the Appalachian Trail in the state of New Jersey.
A brand-new trail relocation just past the shelter removed a long paved roadwalk from the AT. At first, the walking was easy and the trail was well-cleared. A gentle downhill from the ridgecrest was followed by a stroll along level terrain through a pleasantly cool forest. The rocks had finally disappeared, and I had smooth sailing.
After a while, the trail began to cross overgrown fields. The route was marked with stakes as tall as a man. Unfortunately, the weeds were taller, making it difficult to stay on the trail. Briars were scattered throughout the other weeds, so I left a little more of my blood behind on the Appalachian Trail. The trail began hopping over a series of low ridges. New Jersey must have purchased an extremely narrow right-of-way for the AT through this stretch, because the trail never deviated one degree from the direct route up those steep slopes. The heat and the humidity steadily increased as the day went on, and the trail gradually worsened. In spite of all of these factors, my stamina had returned and I was flying along. The signs looked very promising for the one big-mileage day that I needed.
A few miles along the trail from High Point, I caught up to a fellow thru-hiker. He told me that he had just recently retired from his job, although he did not look to be much older than fifty to me. He was spending the first summer of his retirement hiking the Appalachian Trail. He had started from Springer Mountain about a month-and-a-half before I did, but a bout with pneumonia had laid him up for two weeks in Hot Springs. He is hiking well now, however, and I give him a good chance at teaching Katahdin. You have to give him credit for some strong determination to have overcome all of that.
One thing that impressed me about the man was something he said when we were discussing the problem of finding potable water in this portion of New Jersey. I mentioned that I was planning to get water from houses and from any stores or restaurants I passed. He smiled and told me, "I never pass a restaurant." Now, this was a man after my own heart.
A couple of miles later, the Appalachian Trail crossed Lott Road. I turned off of the trail to follow it north into Unionville, New York. Although I was still twenty miles from officially entering New York, this village was less than a half-mile off of the AT. This section of the trail very closely paralleled the state line. I stopped at the village grocery store for some munchies. During those waterless camps the preceding two nights, not having enough water with which to cook, I was compelled to make dinners from my supply of solid food. Now, it was time for me to restock some of those items.
I ran into three more thru-hikers at the store. One was that fellow Tom I had met yesterday at Worthington's Bakery. He had stayed at High Point Shelter last night. I was glad that I did not after he told me that a throng of weekend campers had hogged the shelter. The five or six real backpackers who showed up were forced to pitch tents. In spite of about fifteen bad minutes when that shower blew by, I enjoyed my stay up on the observation deck much more than I would have appreciated camping amid that horde of people.
All four of the thru-hikers I met today were likable guys. The other two men were presently traveling with that gentleman I had met on the trail this morning. One was a dark-bearded man in his late twenties from Allentown, Pennsylvania. The other guy was in his early thirties. He had grown up in Kansas, lived for eight years in southern California, and was presently residing in Maine. Talk about culture shock.
I spent an hour at the store, feasting upon a pint of chocolate ice cream, a liter of coke, and a box of Cracker Jack -- a small deviation from my usual routine which I had bought on a whim. I shot the breeze with the other three thru-hikers for about forty-five minutes, and then with the older guy I had passed earlier for the last fifteen minutes before I left. He showed up just as the other three were leaving. As I walked back to the AT, I filled my canteen from a water fountain I passed in the town park.
Once I had returned to the AT, it followed an old railroad grade for a while. At first, the trail was beautiful: a wide, clear path through the surrounding tall weeds. The weeds gradually closed in upon the trail, until the final half-mile along that railroad grade was another virtual bushwhack. This one was teeming with thorns and poison ivy, which were unavoidable due to the condition of the trail. Perhaps I should have put on my long pants and my long-sleeved shirt, but it was a singularly unappealing thought as the temperature climbed through the nineties. I was soon bleeding as freely as I had on any stretch of the AT on Blue Mountain.
A few miles later, the Appalachian Trail began the first of two long roadwalks today. I enjoyed my usual roadwalk weather of soaring temperatures, choking humidity and merciless sun. This stretch of simmering blacktop was only two miles in length, but seemed longer. Not a single shade tree lined the road, not a single store or restaurant to stop for a cool drink. Nothing but farms and fields of vegetables crisping beneath a harsh, glaring sun. The water in my canteen became bath water. My stomach writhed and squirmed every time I swallowed a gulp of that nauseating liquid. It was all I could do to keep it down.
I guess that now would be a good time to talk about the slight problem with water in this part of New Jersey. There isn't any. As I have mentioned, the stream up near High Point Shelter was the last water fit to drink on the AT in this state. I passed a few stagnant, muddy streams in the valley, but the drought has rendered them undrinkable. This is all farming and grazing country, so the water would probably give one the trots even without this drought. Fortunately, the Appalachian Trail passes a lot of houses in this section. I hate to bother people, but I do not have much of a choice. I need water.
Following that miserable roadwalk, the Appalachian Trail went back into the woods and began the climb over Pochuck Mountain. According to the Philosopher's Guide, this mountain is absolutely infested with hungry mosquitoes, but I did not find this to be the case during this hot, dry summer. That is just about the only good thing I can say about that damned hunk of rock. I came to a junction of two woods roads right at its base. I could see no blazes on either road. I knew I was supposed to be climbing, so I selected the one leading straight uphill. Ten minutes later, I knew I had chosen wrong. I still had not yet seen a blaze, which was too long to follow the AT without seeing one, even during this hostile summer. I collapsed onto the ground for a ten-minute rest before backtracking to that road junction. I felt giddy and nauseous from the heat.
When I got back to the junction and began to follow the other road, I finally found another blaze. It was 100 yards up the road cleverly hidden behind some bushes, invisible from the vantage point of the road junction. The Appalachian Trail followed woods roads for most of the distance to the summit, and the climb was decently graded. The last tenth-of-a-mile went straight up a slippery rock slide and then climbed steeply over rock outcrops from which there were no views. I was compelled to collapse upon the ground for another breather at the top, and time was now working against that big day for which I was trying so desperately. My one last chance to make up some time was on the five-mile roadwalk which followed the descent from the mountain.
I flew over that roadwalk, stopping only once. That was when a lucky occurrence gave me the opportunity to acquire some water. As I was walking along, I saw a large German shepherd mix sprinting towards me, barking and growling as if he was about to have me for lunch. Many people would have probably panicked and ran, but I know dogs. I noticed from a long way off that he was wagging his tail frantically as he ran and he looked friendly. Betting that I had guessed correctly, I bent down to pet him as he approached. I was tight. Like so many other dogs, he was just a big bozo at heart.
His owner was outside in the yard, and he came running over to tell me that the dog would not bite. I had pretty much already figured that out from the way he was licking my face (the dog, that is). The man was obviously relieved by my reaction (don't I just know that feeling), so I took the opportunity to ask him if I could get some water. He took my six-quart water bag and filled it from his garden hose. In ten minutes, I had drunk more than a half-gallon, filled my water bottle, and dumped the rest over the top of my head. I could have sat there for an hour, but I heeded to put some miles behind me.
The air had a lovely ambience of midwestern coal-burning power plants and northeastern factories, all trapped beneath a sprawling lifeless bubble of dead, steaming tropical high pressure. Slowly dehydrating vegetation contributed its own musky fragrance to the flavorful cauldron. But the piece de resistance of the mixture had to be a three-mile-long, three-inch wide strip of liquid cow manure lining the edge of the road towards the end of the roadwalk. I have no idea of where it came from or how it might have gotten there, yet there is nothing like the smell of cow dung frying on hot tar to make you happy to be alive.
I arrived at the end of the roadwalk and the beginning of the climb up Wawayanda Mountain early enough to be on schedule for that one long day I needed. I was feeling a real sense of elation at having beaten all of the obstacles of another miserable July day. The mountain had been visible across the valley during most of the roadwalk, and it was not large. I anticipated little difficulty.
I anticipated wrong. I am firmly convinced that the climb over Wawayanda Mountain was one of the nastiest climbs on the entire Appalachian Trail. Certainly, it was among the worst for a mountain of its size. For almost a mile, the AT went straight- up one rock slide after another. I was compelled to keep stopping in order to catch my breath, something that I never do anymore. My heart was pounding right out of my chest and my head felt as if I was experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage.
The adventures in sadism continued even after the trail had attained the ridgecrest. I climbed over some awkward boulder formations, and then the trail dropped steeply off of the side of the ridge for 200 feet and immediately climbed straight back up. I was a physical wreck by the time I had made it to the top. It was 7:30, I had one more usable hour of daylight, and my quest to reach Graymoor Monastery in three days had failed. That psychic storm which had been receding from my horizon all day now broke with full fury. I plodded along, yelling profanities at the top of my lungs. Eventually a small piece of myself seemed to break free, move off a few feet, and take a long, hard look. It told me that I was done.
The long weeks of mining the deep vein of my reserves had finally come home. The vein was spent, the well was dry, the chickens were coming home to roost (and I was mixing metaphors rather horribly). I was not only physically played out, but also emotionally and mentally spent. And I was still slightly more than one state from home.
I ran into Tom again, camped just past the ridgecrest in a quiet grove of hemlock along the bank of what used to be a stream. The drought had converted it into a few small mud holes scattered across a strip of sand and rocks. Less than five minutes later, the AT passed within twenty feet of the backyard of a house. I knocked on the door, and they agreed to let me fill my water bag. I brought the water back to the hemlock grove and pitched my tent beside Tom's. We talked for a while as I made dinner, mostly bitching about that final climb.
Dinner was ready just as darkness was falling. I ate inside my tent to escape from the swarms of mosquitoes which were attempting to make us their dinner. I managed to slip quickly inside with only three of them following me, so it only took five minutes to kill them all before I could relax.
After all of the struggles and promise of today, I only managed twenty miles. I feel as if I have hiked thirty. My gamble to hike these long days has severely backfired. I put a beating on my body attempting to get in one extra-long day out of these past three. Now, I am as run-down physically as I have felt on this entire trip, and I have failed to get that one big day to show for it. I was beginning to feel as if I could do anything, if I tried hard enough. I guess that I was wrong. Pennsylvania simply did too much damage to my feet, and the sweltering days throughout this past month have drained my reserves dry.
In addition to feeling physically drained, I am now running on empty emotionally. I need that visit to my home in Connecticut now more than ever, and I will have to wait an extra day. That feels like forever. My immediate problem now is to somehow find the strength to hike merely normal days, and to rediscover my excitement for the Appalachian Trail. If I cannot accomplish that second objective, my guess is I will never see Katahdin.
SUNDAY, 7/31/83, MILE 1332.1 --- I slept the sleep of the dead until after 7:.00. Tom and I did not hit the trail until 8:30. While we were packing up, the two guys who were with Tom yesterday at the store in Unionville passed by. They told us the climb was not any better in the morning. Tom and I had both decided to take it easy today, so we hiked together. I enjoyed his company. I just wish I had met him while my head was still on straight. I was generally in a fairly good mood as we hiked together, but that miserable feeling kept lurking in the back of my mind, and it was constantly creeping back and taking over.
The first few miles were mostly through Wawayanda State Park. Like those which I had passed yesterday, all of the streams along the trail today were dry. Ironically, my guidebook informs me that Wawayanda is a Lenape Indian word meaning "water on the mountain." Not this summer. It figures. After all of the rain in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, I am now hiking through one of the hottest, driest summers to hit the central states of the Atlantic seaboard in years. I cannot wait to see what northern New England holds in store for me. I can almost hear the sleigh bells now.
About five miles into our hike, Tom and I hit the point where the Appalachian Trail crossed a paved road called the Warwick Turnpike. I suggested that we check out a fruit "stand" which was mentioned in the Philosopher's Guide as being a quarter-mile down the road. This became an excellent side trip. I had expected to find a little shack sitting in front of some farm with a farmer selling a few apples. I had only suggested we stop there because we both needed water, and I figured we could buy an apple or two and then ask to fill our canteens. The place turned out to be a huge barn filled with almost every type of fresh fruit and vegetable imaginable. They had a refrigerator full of cold soda for sale and a policy of providing free water to backpackers. It was another of those small businesses along the Appalachian Trail that take a special interest in thru-hikers, to the point of keeping a hikers register.
The two thru-hikers who passed our camp this morning were already there when we arrived, and we sat down with them to pig out on fruit and trade stories. I had an ice cold soda, a small bunch of white grapes, two oranges, three bananas, and a large bag of cherries. That was more fresh fruit than I had eaten during the past three months combined. They left after a half-hour, but Tom and I kicked back for another half-hour before we started hiking again.
While we were hiking the four miles from the Warwick Turnpike to the New York state line, we passed a couple of southbound hikers who had stayed at Roger's the night before. They said that Roger told them to pass the word to any long distance hikers that he would be happy to meet them today, even though it was a Sunday. That was a nice surprise.
The trail just across the state line was a bitch. For two-and-a-half miles, the Appalachian Trail climbed over a series of small rocky crags projecting upward from the ridgecrest. There were a few nice views of the vast Greenwood Lake lying just below the eastern side of the ridge, but the trail was fairly dangerous for backpacking. Along one stretch the trail climbed about fifteen feet up an almost vertical sheer rock face. It was more like a rock climb than-a backpacking trail. Tom was leading the way, and he kept losing the trail until I gave him one simple piece of advice: when you can't find the trail ahead, check the route over which you would least like first. Then he had no problem following the trail route.
We finally arrived at the steep side trail which leads down off of Bellvale Mountain to Roger's Appalachian Cottage. Just below the Appalachian Trail, an old round table top leaning against a tree proclaimed a small clearing "The Oasis." Two lawn chairs were placed around another table alongside a metal box containing a jug of Kool-Aid, a jug of water, and the last two or three days' issues of the New York Times. It was an extremely civilized retreat from the rigors of a July backpacking trip, but we did not stop there. Our two friends had already been by, thoughtfully emptying both jugs and leaving us nothing.
As we descended the cliff face, I could see through trees the roof of a house below, with "Roger's Appalachian Cottage" painted in large letters across the top. When we arrived, we paused to admire the largest map of the Appalachian Trail in the world, painted on a large wooden wall more than thirty feet in length erected beside the cottage. Paintings of selected scenes from the trail were around the edges. The work was not yet completed, but enough existed to indicate to me that I am not the only person connected with the Appalachian Trail who is prone to obsessions.
We met our two thoughtful friends and warmly thanked them for the thoughtfulness at the water hole. Roger had been out, but was just arriving as Tom and I showed up. He offered us all a beer, but we all declined. Nobody wanted to tackle that climb back up the mountain with even one beer in their system. He gave us all soft drinks. Roger had some friends from England visiting him, so he was planning to sleep at the cottage tonight, a break from his usual Sunday routine. He told us we could all stay if we wanted to. He would be out all night and we would be on our own, but we were free to use the cooking facilities.
Regretfully, we all had to decline. We all wished to cover more miles this afternoon in order to be close enough to Graymoor Monastery to reach the place in two more days. In a normal summer, that would have been no problem, but this year's intense heat and humidity seem to double the mileage we walk every day. Personally, I was just happy to meet the guy and to see the place. I did not think that it was going to happen after failing in my attempt to make it here by last night.
Tom and I Planned to go on another six miles this afternoon. I began to experience problems soon after we left Roger's. My body has been losing too much salt lately. I am sweating horribly and cannot seem to hold water. All of the water that I drink seems to immediately drain right out of my pores. As we walked, I had a much belated revelation.
Some times, if you'll pardon the week pun, it's hard to see the forest through the trees. Having been intermittently obsessed for so many hundreds of miles with reaching western Connecticut, less than an hour's drive from my home, I had never stopped to consider that the part of New York in which I was now hiking was perhaps an extra hour's drive at most. Appalachian Trail miles are so much slower than highway miles that I had almost forgotten the automotive age even existed. I could go home a few days earlier than planned if necessary.
The spring at the campsite for which we were heading was reported to be dry, so we needed water for our camp, In my condition, I could not spend another night without plenty of water. I decided that if we did not pass a house where we could get water at the Appalachian Trail crossing of New York 17-A, a couple of miles before the campsite, I was going to hitchhike into Greenwood Lake Village and call home for my family to come and pick me up.
The area around the road crossing was heavily wooded. I was all set to start hitching when Tom spotted a house hidden in the woods just down the road. The owner was outside. He did not seem very friendly, but he agreed to give us water. When Tom took a sip from his hose, he commented upon how delicious the water was, and asked the owner if it was from a spring. The man's attitude immediately changed. Tom has struck the perfect chord. The man spent several minutes describing to us the process by which the water is pumped up from a spring 350 feet below his property. The public water supply in this area is not very tasty, and this water was delicious. The guy was justifiably proud of it.
We soon learned the reason he was touchy about hikers -- a constant stream of hikers abusing his hospitality. People park in his yard without permission and help themselves to water without asking. One guy barged right into his house without knocking to ask for something. He warmed to us even more when he discovered that we were thru-hikers. He has had good experiences with us. Most thru-hikers are careful about maintaining good relations with local people. We know how fragile the Appalachian Trail route is in those stretches which pass through private lands.
I filled up my water bag so that Tom and I would have enough for dinner and breakfast. It was a pain carrying all of that extra weight for two miles, climbing over two more of those miserable rock outcrops along the way, but I made it. The campsite did not turn out to be a great one. The spring is dry and the ground is not exactly level, but it is our home tonight.
I hiked a short fifteen miles today, and still feel terrible. Tomorrow, if this feeling persists, I am going home.
MONDAY, 8/01/83, MILE 1333.8 --- I packed it in today. I could not sleep last night; the humidity was terrible. I have had enough. The weather cannot possibly be any worse in a couple of days than it is now, so this seems like as good a time as any for me not to be hiking. I am physically and emotionally spent.
I hiked the two miles to the next road crossing, said good-bye to Tom, and hitched a ride into the village of Greenwood Lake, New York. I walked into a diner, called home for my family to come and get me, and sat down for a meal. I am waiting for my ride now.
This is close to being a moment of defeat. I feel so tired and miserable that I have no idea of how I will ever be able psyche myself to get back out on the trail. Probably the last great challenge to my dream looms a few days in the future. I don't even want to think about it now. I just want to go home.
|©1997 George Steffanos
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