|©1997 George Steffanos|
SATURDAY, 8/6/83, MILE 1340 --- I spent Monday afternoon in that diner in Greenwood Lake, waiting for my ride and rehoning my rusty social skills with a very pretty and friendly waitress. Having spent three months in the forest playing Nature Boy, my hormones can sometimes revert back to teen-age levels at the sudden appearance of feminine beauty. It's sort of like deep water diving. If you come up too fast, you can get the bends.
My mother and my brother Mike drove up from Connecticut to meet me. My mom asked me if I wanted to drive home. That was a remarkable adventure. After months of the leisurely Stone Age crawl of the Appalachian Trail, I suddenly found myself thrust into the technological marvel of New York City and Connecticut traffic. Driving about sixty miles per hour felt like flying. I was marveling at the breathtaking rush of miles blurring past. I was just about the slowest car on the road. People were rocketing by me, and the usual lunatics were cutting me off with the usual insane maneuvers. I had no opportunity to lose my temper -- I could not stop laughing. It was like a sick video game. I never dreamed that sharing a road with all those morons could be such fun.
I was back at home Monday night, lying in air-conditioned splendor and being fed by my Italian grandmother. The days drifted along pleasantly. Each night, I told myself that I would go back to the trail . . . tomorrow.
This morning, I woke up and knew that this was it. if I did not drag my butt back to the trail today, I could kiss the thruhike good-bye. Each day, it was becoming easier to stay off the trail. My mother and brother escorted me back to the trail. I drove again, laughing all the way. I sure wish I could bottle that feeling and use it for the rest of my life as I drive in Connecticut traffic.
I got some more miles out of the way today -- a whole six of them. Nevertheless, the fact that I did any mileage at all today was the crucial factor. Overcoming my lethargic inertia at being back home was probably the last great battle I needed to win in order to finish this hike. Now, it is just a question of staying focused for about two more months.
They dropped me off at 4:00 this afternoon, at the point where I left the trail on Monday. While I was getting my gear ready to resume my hike, a thru-hiker came by. I won't use his real name or real trail name in this story. For the purposes of this tale, let's say that his trail name was Crazy Charlie, and he was just possibly the biggest b________er who I have met on this trail of b________ers. He spent about fifteen minutes regaling my family and myself with tall stories about hiking forty-five-mile days with a seventy-five-pound pack; while my brother and I just looked at each other and tried not to laugh.
It quickly became obvious that Charlie was one of those guys who constantly hitchhike around large stretches of the Appalachian Trail. Unlike most, he refuses to admit it. Therefore, he has to make up these stories to explain sudden thirty-five and forty-mile leaps he makes in one day. Unfortunately, not having hiked these stretches, he is unaware of what an idiot he sounds like. For instance, to cover the distance he claims to have covered today, he would have needed to average better than four miles per hour over a stretch of trail that included the climb up Wawayanda Mountain and those rock climbs on Bellvale Mountain, among other insanities.
Resuming my thru-hike, I discovered I had lost an incredible amount of conditioning during five days off the trail. I could hardly breathe on the steep climbs, my legs felt weak all day and my feet were suddenly tender again. On top of that, it was another oppressively hot, steamy day, which felt all the worse after spending five days in air conditioning. The trail was not much help, either. Two long, vertical rock climbs welcomed me back to the Appalachian Trail. Thanks to a combination of all of these factors, it took me three-and-a-half hours to hike those six miles, even though I took no long breaks. That is depressing. I have not hiked at that slow a pace in hundreds of miles. Good thing I have two fourteen-mile days planned. That will allow me to ease myself back into shape.
It is 9:00 P.M. Crazy and I have our tents pitched next to a busy road known as the Old Orange Turnpike. What with all of the traffic and the racket coming from a nearby rifle range, it is not an ideal spot for sleep. However, a piped spring a half-mile down the road is actually running, and water is the key factor on this part of the Appalachian Trail during this hot, dry summer. In spite of the noise, I am having a pleasant evening. Crazy Charlie turns out to be an amusing companion when he is not wrapped up in spinning fables about himself.
It appears that I still have one more major challenge remaining on this adventure: finding my good hiking pace again. It will probably take a few days, so I will just have to hang in there and do my best for a while. When I do find it, the history of this hike tells me that it will probably be on a day when I need to get somewhere by a certain time, and it will come when everything looks hopeless. That will be fun. I would like to have one more finest hour on this trip. It has been a while since the last one.
SUNDAY, 8/7/83, MILE 1355.8 --- I did not sleep very well last night. The firing at the rifle range died down about dusk, but the traffic on the Orange Turnpike continued all night. When morning came, I had trouble dragging myself out of my sleeping bag. Some of this difficulty was no doubt due to reading in the guidebook some highlights of the trail today, like "Agony Grind" and "The Lemon Squeezer." Remembering all of the sick stretches of trail in New Jersey and New York that did not rate the name "Agony Grind," I kind of had to wonder what the hell that would be like.
Physically, I was still only fifty percent today. My legs continued to feel weak, but my feet were less tender. Several stiff climbs in the first one-and-a-half miles helped me warm up. When I came to "Agony Grind," it turned out to be no worse than countless other stretches of trail around here. It helped that I was climbing down, rather than ascending. At one spot, I had to hang down a rock outcrop from my fingers and jump a few feet (never pleasant with a heavy pack); at another spot, I had to crawl under a huge tree which had blown down across the trail. Nevertheless, I encountered nothing life-threatening.
I crossed New York Route 17 just after descending Agony Grind and entered Harriman State Park, a place historic on the AT. When the idea of this long-distance trail was conceived in 1921, only a few sizable stretches of existing trail could be incorporated. The first section of trail to be constructed specifically for the Appalachian Trail was blazed in this park. Harriman State Park in 1983 is a sad, lovely place that is just too close to a major metropolitan area: New York City. The woods are mature, open, and airy, and filled with stately old trees. All of this beauty just makes the large amounts of trash strewn all over the forest more depressing.
I saw a couple of deer along the trail today, but no views worth mentioning. The tall trees and their high canopy of leaves kept the underbrush from growing along the trail, so it was fairly well-cleared, for a change. A lot of stiff little climbs, though, and many scrambles over rocky outcrops.
After ten fairly rough miles, I arrived at the Appalachian Trail crossing of the park's Arden Valley Road. A snack bar and a water faucet were located a quarter-mile down that road from the AT. It was a steaming-hot day, and my water bottle was empty. I stashed my backpack in the woods and headed over. The facilities were alongside a public beach on the shore of the enormous Lake Tiorati. I expected the place to be fairly lively on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in August. In this expectation, I was not disappointed.
It is said that the best time to visit New York City is on a weekend, because all of the New Yorkers are out of town. Today, I found out where they all go: Lake Tiorati. Thousands of people thronged all around Tiorati Circle, the park road on which the snack bar was located. I have been to Central Park in New York City many times on beautiful summer Sunday afternoons and have never seen anything close to the hordes of people at Tiorati Circle today. You could not walk two feet in any direction without bumping into somebody. It was like rush hour on the Manhattan subway.
Somehow, I found the snack bar. I bought a large coke and asked the girl behind the counter for directions to the water faucet. She offered to fill my water bottle, an offer on which I was quick to take her up. I do not know if I could ever have found one little faucet in that sea of humanity. I drank the coke and walked back to the Appalachian Trail, grabbing a quick snack out of my munchies before resuming the hike. It was the first food I had eaten since breakfast, a result of the insufficient amount of water I had been carrying earlier.
I arrived at William Brien Shelter at 5:00, completely spent. It was a relief to have completed my fourteen miles and call it a day. I was a little depressed in having needed to hike most of the day in order to cover those fourteen miles, but I was pleased to have found the willpower to push my layover-softened body that far. What a wonderful surprise I had in store after lifting the cover off of the shelter's water supply, a spring-fed well. Not only was the well dry, but the thick coating of dust on the bottom told me that it had not seen water in quite a while. Maybe I should have taken the bleached white cattle skull crawling with scorpions lying nearby or the circling vultures overhead as an omen.
It is ten minutes to six as I write this. I have less than a half-cup of water remaining in my canteen. So much for my planned fourteen-mile day. The guidebook mentions a brook two more miles up the trail. It is labeled as a reliable source of water. I am not optimistic. I have passed several muddy trickles in New Jersey, and New York that have received the same rating. Nothing is dependable this summer. I am probably just wasting my time, but I cannot camp here.
I am not angry, though. It is pointless to lose your temper over factors which you cannot control. There is too much beauty in the world to let a little thing like hunger and thirst (okay, two little things) ruin your day. Still, I don't like the way that squirrel over there is snickering at me. I think I'll go over there and pound the little b_____d. HEY, ROCKY!! ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?! ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?!
LATER --- I left the Brien Shelter at 6:00. It had taken an hour for me to regroup -- psychologically more than physically. All day long, I had been driving this out-of-shape body towards a single goal: that shelter. Then, I discovered that I had to push it farther to water that probably did not exist. It was a somewhat discouraging prospect. Actually, another more immediate psychological hurdle confronted me : the depressingly impressive rock climb just past the shelter. I wanted no part of it. After an hour of resting and staring at that daunting climb, I slunk back out on the trail.
The climb was rough. A short while later, I hit another climb similar to the first, but longer. This one was actually worth the effort. There were beautiful perspectives to the south and west from the top, followed by comparable views to the southeast a bit farther along. The humidity cut down on the visibility, however. I could barely make out the Hudson River less than ten miles away.
After quite a steep descent, I arrived at the crossing of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. It was an extremely busy, four-lane, divided highway, but the Appalachian Trail did not go over it or under it -- it went directly across, making for an exciting experience of picking an opening and darting across the two southbound lanes with a fifty-pound pack on my back. I was immediately treated to a repeat of that adventure while crossing the northbound lanes from the center island a moment later.
A note was tucked up on a tree at the point where the Appalachian Trail re-entered the woods on the other side. I knew what it contained before I read it: bad news about Beechy Bottom Brook, the "reliable" water source for which I was striving. The note said that the stream was bone-dry and the next source of water on the trail was a drinking fountain at the summit of Bear Mountain, more than four miles ahead. I had no chance of making it that far today. The note mentioned a service area a quarter-mile down the parkway with a gas station that had water, as well as candy, soda, and snack munchies. I hiked about five minutes to find a good campsite and dropped off my pack. Throwing my wallet, water bottle, and water bag into a stuff sack, I returned to the road.
As the rest area was between the northbound and southbound lanes of the highway, I was treated to that dangerous crossing of the northbound lanes two more times on that round trip, but it was better without the pack. They had the nerve to ask 65 cents for a twelve-ounce can of coke. I was so outraged that I only bought three of them. The-ice cream machine was out of order, and I already had candy and snacks in my pack, so I did not buy anything else. I filled my water bottle and my water bag from the faucet in the men's room and headed back to the trail to make camp.
I arrived back here at 8:00, pitched my tent, and became very angry at myself. I had thrown away my empty lighter just before leaving the trail Monday, and I forgot to pick up another. I got lights for my stove from Crazy last night and this morning, but he had gone on ahead today. About a hundred people must have been at the service area, but it did not even occur to me to try bumming a book of matches from one of them. Bread and coke for dinner tonight. What a dork.
I started coming around towards the end of the day. I estimate that, physically, I am now at about seventy percent. Because of the extra miles I was compelled to hike today in order to reach water, only twelve hiking miles stand between me and the monastery tomorrow. Even in my current condition, I should have no trouble making it there by 4:00. That is the time at which I have been told I must arrive in order to receive dinner and a room for the night. That twelve-mile hike is my modest goal for tomorrow.
MONDAY, 8/8/83, MILE 1367.3 --- The little hollow in which I pitched my tent screened me from most of the traffic noises of the nearby roadway. Nevertheless, I apparently grew too accustomed to sleeping on a bed in an air-conditioned room during those five days home. I had great difficulty in falling asleep last night and could not manage to remain asleep on those occasions when I did nod off. As usually happens at such times, I dropped off very nicely just when it was almost time to wake up. It was past 8:30 by the time I hit the trail this morning. Thanks to my recent loss of conditioning, that made reaching Graymoor Monastery by 4:00 a very difficult proposition. As the day went on, the prospects became steadily bleaker.
The first climb was a bear, even when compared to the rest of the trail in this park. By the time I reached the ridgecrest, I was exhausted, and I had only come little more than a mile. It was depressing. I had the idea in the back of my mind that one ot two days of hiking would restore all of the conditioning lost in those few days at home. This expectation was somewhat overoptimistic.
Fortunately, West Mountain had a lot going for it. The views from up top were the best in the park to that point, and a nice breeze rapidly dried out my sweat-soaked clothes. I needed that breeze. One of-the worst aspects of these steep climbs is the way the mountain walls block every wisp of air unless it is coming from right behind me -- which, of course, it never does this summer. I shot many pictures on that summit, partially because of the great views, and partially because my light meter was on the fritz and I was forced to bracket my exposures. I think my camera needs new batteries.
The climb down the other side of West Mountain was almost as bad as the climb up. On such trails, I become just as tired and sweaty, and move just about as slow, on the downhills as on the ascents. It was a relief to cross Seven Lakes Drive and begin the climb up Bear Mountain, simply because I knew it was the last mountain the Appalachian Trail passed over in the state park. Happily, this climb turned out to be the best one. The few steep sections were short and sweet.
Bear Mountain is the highest mountain in Harriman State Park. The summit is 1284 feet above sea level. The view is impressive because the mountain rises directly adjacent to the Hudson River, which at this point is only a few feet above sea level. On top of the summit stands a monument. The summit, the views, and the monument can be reached by an auto road. As a result, a lot of cars and a lot of people were up there when I arrived. I took a quick ten-minute break and got started again, even though I was dead tired. The clock was ruthlessly working against me. I was still trying to get my act back together, on my third day back on the trail. My last-ditch effort to make it to Graymoor by 4:00 actually had begun on the one-and-a-half-mile climb up Bear Mountain, which I forced myself to do without stopping for any rests -- a major undertaking at this point.
A water fountain stood near the monument on the summit. I filled my canteen and took a drink. The water was not very cold and had a bitter flavor, but it tasted fine to me after that long, hot climb. By the time I headed down the mountain, reaching Graymoor by 4:00 had become next to impossible. I would need to average two miles per hour over the remaining seven-and-a-half miles. Before my five days at home -- no problem. The way I have been hiking since I have returned -- no way. But I had to try.
The trail down Bear Mountain was far worse than the trail up. The footway was steep and badly eroded, and the path was covered with dangerously loose rocks. It was a discouraging scramble coming at a point where time had become such a pressing concern. Eventually, the descent came to an end.
Once again, the central states of the Appalachian Trail played games with my head. I emerged from the woods onto some paved paths, skirting a large body of water called Hessian Lake. Dozens of rowboats were out on the lake, which was surrounded by beaches with hordes of people. I passed park benches also swarming with humanity, most of whom seemed to be staring at me, wondering what the hell I was doing walking through that park with a backpack on. I did not do much to reassure them. I could see that most of them thought I was a psycho, and that had me constantly breaking out in fits of laughter, which no doubt convinced them. I did not care -- I was having fun. I was in a New York state of mind. HEY, TOURIST BOY!! ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?!!
The trail grew even weirder. It passed under New York Route 9W through a tunnel, a concept which seemed so totally New York that it was perfect. I emerged from the tunnel at a snack bar next to a huge swimming pool filled with screaming kids. I just cannot get enough of these wilderness experiences. I bought a twenty-ounce coke at the snack bar for $1.25, but passed up the $2.00 hamburgers. I drank the coke as I walked; I did not have the time to take any breaks.
After the pool, the Appalachian Trail followed concrete paths through a nature zoo. I finally saw my first black bear on the Appalachian Trail -- three of them, as a matter of fact. I also saw, a red fox and two bobcats, none of which I had yet seen on the trail, either. The fact that they were in cages detracted a little from the thrill of the experience, but at least I have a true story with which to impress people: "There I was, hiking along on the Appalachian Trail, when suddenly I was face to face with a full grown black bear, not ten feet away. No, I wasn't afraid . . ."
The zoo was also packed with people who were gawking at me. I just smiled and laughed at them as I walked along. What the hell. I might as well make their experiences truly memorable. It was an experience I myself will never forget. I finally reached the pedestrian walkway of the Bear Mountain Bridge, on which the Appalachian Trail crossed the Hudson River. It was not quite as huge as the Hudson River bridges farther south near the city, but it was still a fairly impressive half-mile in length. As I was walking across, I saw a kid in the back seat of a passing car taking my picture. I smiled and waved, trying to look deranged. It was no huge stretch for me at that point. I can just imagine the slide show when they get back home to Kansas...
By the time I reached the other end of the bridge, all of the attention was beginning to wear a little thin. It was a relief to finally follow the Appalachian Trail back into the woods, but that feeling of relief was tempered by yet another sick climb. I just put my head down and bulled up that incline, finally reaching a level area after much steep climbing. I had to take a ten minute break there, needing the rest more for psychological reasons than physical, for what to my tired eyes did appear, but another rock climb -- the steepest of all, just when I thought it was safe to go back into the woods. I saw it and my mind said, "Break Time."
I had hiked the preceding four miles without stopping, in one-and-a-half hours. I now possessed a half-hour cushion with which to work in my attempt to reach the monastery. I stumbled to the top of the ridge, where the Appalachian Trail came out onto an old dirt road. Now, I faced a dilemma: the views from a cliff called Anthony's Nose were reputed to be spectacular, but they were a one-mile round trip off of the Appalachian Trail. If I went for it, I would blow the entire cushion I had just worked so hard to acquire. Did I really want to push myself to the limit just as I was finally starting to find my good hiking pace again?
I dropped my pack, grabbed my camera, and headed down the road towards Anthony's Nose. I did say earlier I wanted another finest hour, after all. If my exposure bracketing worked, and the pictures of Bear Mountain and the bridge come out, it was worth it. Even if they do not, I am glad I did not miss that vista. It was one of the best views since Shenandoah. Nevertheless, I definitely needed to haul butt by the time I got back to the Appalachian Trail. It was 2:30, and I now had one-and-a-half hours in which to hike the final three-and-a-half miles.
There was a great deal of relatively flat trail the rest of the way, and my need for speed today had done much to restore my lost hiking ambition. I was cranking along and would have covered those miles with time to spare, but it was not necessary. Graymoor was closer than I expected. I thought it would be at the point where the Appalachian Trail actually crossed New York Route 9, but I passed it along a stretch where the trail paralleled the highway a quarter-mile before the crossing.
I arrived at Graymoor at 3:50, thinking I was ten minutes early. I climbed the long driveway up the hill to the place, and found Crazy Charlie waiting on a bench outside. He had just been informed that the monastery does not accept hikers until 4:30. I was actually forty minutes early. My all-day sprint had not really been necessary, but I didn't regret the experience. My layover had left me flabbier mentally than physically. Rediscovering a little grit and determination was the last great psychological hurdle between me and Katahdin.
The forty minutes of waiting passed pleasantly. I gulped down about a quart of cool water from a nearby water fountain and joined Charlie on the bench in the shade. As he was not spinning any of the usual tall stories about his imaginary exploits, we had an entertaining conversation. While we were waiting, another thru-hiker showed up: a guy from New Jersey named Pete. He had just resumed hiking after taking eight days off from the trail, so he was in much the same condition as I. He seemed like a good guy, so maybe I will have someone with which to hike for a while.
At 4:30, a priest came out to greet us and show us to the cells in which we would be sleeping tonight. I had time for a nice, hot shower before we headed down to dinner at 5:15. The father who had shown us to our rooms was seated at our table. He was a likable fellow with an engaging personality and tons of enthusiasm about everything, so he was fun to listen to. And we had a lot of fun, because he talked about a mile a minute all meal long. He told us candidly that he had held down a very responsible position here until the pressure caused him to have a nervous breakdown. His superiors put him in charge of the backpackers who stay here in order to give him a stress-free job.
We were curious about the reasons for the special kindness and generosity shown to backpackers by the monastery. For no charge, they provide us a room (they call them cells) with a bed for the night, shower and laundry facilities, dinner, and breakfast. The father informed us that his order was formed in Europe during the Middle Ages with a special mission to aid travelers. Learning that the Appalachian Trail passed near their property here, it seemed like a logical extension of that original mission to do something special for the hikers. As candid as ever, he also told us that, in a day and age when so many people are turning away from religion, his order was desperately in need of new priests and monks. They were hoping to find a few possibilities in our ranks. All I can say is that they definitely picked the right guy for the recruiting job. He was a man impossible not to like.
Nobody minded the sales pitch. It was certainly a soft-sell approach. Were I not an agnostic, I may have even considered it. He mentioned his mission in passing and spent the rest of the meal asking us a million questions about our experiences. The meal itself was chicken, mashed potatoes, and zucchini. It was very good, and the father kept encouraging us to eat all we wanted. We all laughed. Okay, twist our arms.
Two thru-hikers at the table were hiking south from Maine to Georgia. Southbounders must start much later than we northbounders because spring comes that much later to the higher latitudes of Maine and New Hampshire,than it does to Georgia and North Carolina. Thus, these were the first two southbound thru-hikers I had met, even though I was one of the later northbounders to leave Springer Mountain and was now almost two-thirds of the way to Katahdin. As usual, I was able to pick up a lot of information about the trail up ahead.
It is now 9:15, and I am back in my cell. I have to be up early tomorrow in order to squeeze out a nineteen-mile day and reach another special place where I want to spend tomorrow night. Thanks to my strong effort this afternoon, I would say that I am back up to about eighty-five percent of my physical condition before leaving the trail, so I feel fairly confident.
Graymoor is one of the quiet and unexpected highlights of the Appalachian Trail. All of my clothes are now clean. The laundry facilities were right next to our bathroom and the good people here provided detergent and even fabric softener sheets for the dryer. I need not worry about chafing my soft, white butt hiking the trail tomorrow. The LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINE is once again ready to roll. 771.2 miles to go.
By the way, Charlie and Pete were able to fill me in on the further adventures of Mark, the likable sc____g with whom I hiked through Shenandoah National Park. While hiking with Mark, I had become aware that he carried a large pistol in his backpack. Apparently, before I met him, he used to sleep with it under his pillow. I do remember that he seemed very paranoid about bears. Perhaps that was the reason. At any rate, somebody saw the gun and ratted him out at A.T.C. Headquarters in Harpers Ferry. They, in turn, notified the police, who are now looking for Mark. Some people have no sense of humor. Speaking of no sense of humor, of all the hikers that have met Mark, Crazy Charlie seems to be the only one besides myself who liked him. I wonder what that says about me?
TUESDAY, 8/9/83, MILE 1386.4 --- I woke up in time to catch the earliest serving of breakfast at 7:00. All of the other thru-hikers were again there, along with our friend, the priest. He did not seem to harbor any hard feelings over the fact that none of us joined the order this morning. He chattered away again all through the meal, entertaining us with anecdotes and listening to our stories. He had an amusing touch of naivete about certain matters. At one point during breakfast he suddenly blurted out, "What happens if you're in a shelter with a queer or like that?" He seemed to think that there are hordes of aggressive homosexuals on the trail badgering straights for sex.
Charlie started hiking at 8:00, just before a lively little thundershower kicked up. Pete and I waited it out a while before we left. Pete's small transistor radio, on which we heard the forecast, called for widely scattered showers, so we had reason to believe that it would blow over fairly quickly. It did. When it stopped, we were quickly on our way. We were both happy that Crazy left before we did. After only one night, Pete was already tired of listening to his tall tales, and I had heard about all that I could stand.
As we were walking, we discussed Charlie's stories. Pete asked, "Doesn't he listen to what he's saying? Doesn't he know what an a_____e he makes out of himself every time that he opens his mouth?" We then proceeded to tell each other stories such as the time I hiked seventy-two miles in three hours over Roan and Hump Mountains in Tennessee. Charlie entertained us more in remembrance than he did at any time when he was actually with us.
This morning's portion of the Appalachian Trail was a number of brief roadwalks connected by short stretches of woodland path. One of the dirt roads it followed was a portion of the old post road between Albany and New York City, dating back before the Revolutionary War. Part of the woodland hiking today included a stretch on an old mine railroad bed from the Civil War era. Although spectacular scenery was lacking there was a lot of history along the trail today, and I enjoyed it.
We ran into Charlie on the second roadwalk of the morning. Don't ask me how we caught up to such an amazing hiker so quickly in spite of his forty-five-minute head start on us. No doubt he was giving his thumb a rest in preparation for his next fifty-mile day. Fortunately, he spent relatively little time entertaining us with his fantastic stories. As I have already mentioned, he is an amusing and entertaining guy when he is not piling on the b______t. He was an engaging story teller, and he wasn't a bad hiker, either. Had he not at some point given in to some moment of weakness and stuck out his thumb the first time, he undoubtedly could have legitimately hiked the AT. He seemed to be in some strange, pathetic form of denial towards these incidents. Out of the blue, he would launch into stories about how all the other hikers he met were jealous of his hiking prowess and would accuse him of hitchhiking around portions of the trail. Then the fantasy hike tales would come flooding out. It wasn't so much the stories themselves that were annoying as much as the pathological persistence with which he kept spinning them. Sometimes it was hard to figure out who he was really trying to convince. To his credit, Pete seemed to sense this, too, and neither he nor I ever questioned Mike's illusions openly. We did, however, occasionally quietly entertain ourselves and each other by "remembering" some completely imaginary feature on some section of trail Charlie claimed to have hiked over on one of his marathons and watching him squirm and contort reality as he joined us in these "reminiscences".
At about 12:30, we reached the end of the third and longest roadwalk of the day: a two-and-three-quarter-mile stretch along paved and dirt roads. A state park campsite was just up the road from the point where the Appalachian Trail turned into the woods. We decided to have lunch there. It was a good decision. The site featured a hand-cranked pump which poured out cool, delicious water.
The water situation is definitely looking up since we crossed the Hudson River, and the trail has also taken on a new complexion. It has mellowed a great deal. The steep climbs are much shorter, and there are not nearly as many. Things in general seem to be on the upswing, now, as I near New England. Even the weather is better. It was much cooler today. The sun came out about midmorning, bringing with it a memorably fine afternoon.
Things got a little strange during lunch. Just before the campsite, we had passed the entrance to a summer camp. As we were relaxing with our meal, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of about fifteen teen-age girls returning from a hike. Within seconds, we were surrounded by a wall of sound. They were all firing questions at us, talking at the same time, fifteen separate simultaneous conversations.
It was rather challenging trying to follow all of those individual torrents of words. The situation had its humorous side, but it was exhausting. The only one who thoroughly enjoyed the experience was Crazy Charlie. He had a whole new, fairly gullible audience for his stories. The funniest moment occurred when one of the girls asked the three of us who was the best hiker. Pete and I glanced at each other in anticipation. Charlie did not let us down. He instantly and cheerfully informed them that it was he. Pete and I just looked at each other and laughed. Nevertheless, we did keep silent and allow Charlie to have his little moment.
Things finally settled down. Charlie and the girls had a delightful time talking over, around, and through each other's conversations while I chatted with the older girl who was leading the group. She was close to my age and actually possessed the ability to hold a conversation where the participants take turns talking and listening. I felt for her. After a few minutes in the middle of that uproar, my nerves were thoroughly jangled. This poor girl would almost have to eat valium like candy in order to cope with that day after day.
The next three-and-a-half miles were an easy walk through pleasant forests with no distant views. The Appalachian Trail then crossed New York Route 301 and ascended a very rocky trail alongside Canopus Lake. After a couple more miles, we stood on a rock outcrop overlooking a public beach below. A very steep side trail -- virtually a rock climb, led down towards the beach. We dropped our packs and headed down off the mountain.
Our objective was a snack bar adjacent to the beach. Sadly, we arrived at 4:30, just after the grill had closed. I had to content myself with nothing more than a huge, icy coke, three ice cream sandwiches, and bag of potato chips. I am becoming inured to tragedy, so I was a brave little soldier. While eating, I tried to call home in order to inform my family when to meet me in Kent, Connecticut with my next supply package, but a phone company strike was in progress. A recorded message said that an operator would eventually come on the line and put my call through if it was urgent, but I was not in the mood for dealing with that type of hassle. It was 5:00, and I still had five miles to hike today.
The trail up to the summit of Shenandoah Mountain was a breeze. The open summit featured the first real views of the entire day. We sat up there for a half-hour, enjoying the sunshine, cool breezes, and some rare haze-free vistas. I was the last to leave, heading down the mountain at 6:00 with three miles remaining to tonight's destination: Ralph's Peak Hikers' Cabin.
The path down was the best maintained trail I had yet seen in New York or New Jersey. I made tracks. It was the best hiking I have managed since my layoff. I arrived at the cabin at 7:00. It felt great to move like that again, especially at the end of a long day.
I cannot say enough about this cabin. The two southbounders at Graymoor Monastery told us about this place, and I am very happy that they did. The club that maintains this section of the Appalachian Trail (the Ralph's Peak Hikers) has restored an old farmhouse and furnished it with beds, a kitchen table, and various other amenities. A caretaker who stops by every day to clean up leaves water, fruit (today a bowl of delicious apples), and goodies (soda and pretzels), which are all free. They do accept donations, so I gladly kicked in a few bucks. I am told that a well will soon be operating and the place will even have electricity. As an added touch of thoughtfulness, the club leaves a bicycle outside for any hiker who wants to make the one-mile trip to a nearby grocery store.
A man named John Perry was visiting the cabin with his wife. He maintains a section of the Appalachian Trail up ahead in Connecticut, and he comes here often in order to meet the thru-hikers who will soon be hiking through his section. A fervent supporter of the trail, he carries a register which he asks all thru-hikers he meets to sign. The section he maintains is one of the toughest in Connecticut to keep up, because two miles of it runs through dense weeds along the Housatonic River. He is one of the most enthusiastic and conscientious volunteers I have ever met. With dedicated people like him on the job, I get the feeling that the Appalachian Trail is going to continue to flourish.
Thru-hikers must hike a lot of miles every day -- day after day. The experience makes us as a group some of the biggest babies in the world when the trail is not laid out and maintained perfectly. We all left Springer Mountain constantly whining and complaining about the performance of some of the clubs who maintain the trail. As we hike along, we meet more and more of their hard-working members and most of us gradually change our tunes. I cannot understand the few that do not. How can you meet people like John Perry and not grow to respect the difficult and thankless job that these people do, donating their time and labor to the Appalachian Trail?
WEDNESDAY, 8/10/83, MILE 1411.3 --- I left Ralph's Peak Hikers' Cabin this morning at 7:45 with Crazy Charlie. Pete was a few minutes behind us. After that little burst at the end of the day yesterday, I finally knew I was back into hiking form, so I spent the day on Charlie's heels, really forcing him to move. After all of his big talk, he could not let me leave him in the dust. It was fine for him to tell Pete and me what a good hiker he was when we were too out-of-shape to make him prove it. Today, I finally felt strong enough to make him sweat.
The initial six miles were almost all on forest paths, climbing over a couple of mountains with no real views. The trail was well laid out, however, and even contained the first real switchbacks I can remember seeing since Virginia. I had an enjoyable time on the climbs. I hiked them at my good old pace without any rest stops. Charlie was too short of breath to spin any yarns. The next section of trail was a twelve-mile roadwalk. Charlie actually became desperate enough to suggest to me that we try to hitch a ride over it, but I just laughed. Then, he tried to play it off as a joke, so I pretended to believe him.
Finally: a day with a high only in the seventies and low humidity for one of my long roadwalks. Hell, it felt downright chilly waking up this morning. It was the first real break in the long heat wave since early June. It was a quiet, rural stroll, mostly on small, shady lanes through attractive forests and quiet residential neighborhoods.
About five miles into the roadwalk, we hit a little grocery store in the village of Holmes, New York. I bought my usual ice cream and coke store lunch, and threw in a couple of small bags of pistachios for variety. Pete caught up to us during our break at the store. He was also feeling back in form, having recovered from his eight-day layoff, and the two of us gleefully conspired to drive Charlie mercilessly to keep up with us. I am willing to bet money that Charlie hitches ahead tomorrow. Now that Pete and I are both back in shape, he can no longer talk the talk to us without walking the walk. Bon voyage, Crazy.
About two miles from the end of the long roadwalk, the three of us stopped at a little town park in Pawling, New York, about an hour's drive and two or three universes removed from New York City. Edward R. Murrow Memorial Park contained a small lake with a tiny beach, a snack bar, and a picnic area. It had been just slightly more than an hour since I ate lunch at that little store, so I only managed two burgers, two orders of fries, and two cokes from the snack bar. I also called home to arrange tomorrow's supply drop.
We had sixteen miles already under our belts and masses of food as well, so we took an hour break. The local Lions Club was having a picnic, and the day sparkled with perfection. That little patch of manicured green, blue water and cool woods was one of the loveliest spots on earth this afternoon. At 4:00, we were preparing to leave and begin hiking the final nine miles of the day to Wiley Shelter. Then, fate stepped in to delay our departure, as a nice old lady brought us some coke and potato salad that were left over from the picnic. Although for once food was not high on our lists of wants, we had some of that, too, and sat there chatting with her until 4:30. That extra half-hour made it very difficult to get those nine miles in before dark, especially considering the awesome amount of food I had just put away in the last few hours. On top of all that, we accepted her invitation to stop by her house, which was a mile ahead, directly on our roadwalk, and have a cold drink.
We did not leave her house until 6:00, and we still had eight more miles to go in order to reach the side trail to the shelter, and another half-mile on the side trail. About two hours of daylight remained. At the house, we learned that it was supposed to rain tonight, so we were determined to make it.
The rest of the day was a blur of fast hiking on aching feet. There is nothing like a eight-mile sprint when you have already hiked more than seventeen miles that day and personally put away enough food to feed the average Ethiopian family of twelve. There was another mile left on roads, followed by a short stretch of trail through fields and woods, and then another twenty-minute roadwalk. Finally, the Appalachian Trail re-entered the woods, passing through the Pawling town nature preserve, and stayed on forest trails for most of the final four-and-a-half miles.
Less than a mile from the side trail to the shelter, I crossed a dirt road and met a young couple who were standing outside their house waiting for me. All of that fast hiking had finally torn off the three remaining toenails from the nine I had smashed on Pennsylvania rocks. The limping was slowing me down, and Pete and Charlie were about five minutes ahead of me. This couple had offered them water, informing them that the water supply at Wiley Shelter, a stone cistern built to catch rainwater, was of course bone dry after two months of drought. Pete and Charlie asked them to fill my six-quart water bag when I came by, providing the three of us with water for cooking. They waited, which put a final exclamation point on a day remarkable for the thoughtfulness and kindness of the people we encountered. On the other hand, wasn't that swell of Charlie and Pete? Leaving me to carry the weight of all of our water at the end of a grueling evening. Thanks, chums.
I arrived at the shelter at 8:30, walking the last mile was in the dark. For some reason, nobody felt much like eating dinner. We lay there reminiscing about our day of legendary gluttony as the first raindrops began tapping against the tin shelter roof.
TUESDAY, 8/11/83, MILE 1420.0 --- KENT --- It was cool and damp with constant showers today, but nothing too heavy. I set out this morning at 8:30. As usual, I was the last one to leave the shelter. I am growing tired of hanging out with all of these morning people. They make me feel decadent.
The first mile of the day's hike was on a forest path. Swarms of biting deer flies harassed me relentlessly during that stretch. It was a relief to come out on the beginning of a three-mile roadwalk and leave the little b_____ds behind me, but the escape was only temporary. I caught up with Charlie and Pete about two miles into the roadwalk. They had stopped to talk to that couple with the nice dog who kept ruining my sleep in northern Virginia. They turned out to be okay, at least when you are not trying to sleep in the same shelter.
The rains came on steadily just as we completed that final New York roadwalk and headed up the trail over Schagticoke Mountain. It was the beginning of the first all-day rain I have encountered since the Blue Ridge south of Shenandoah. Everything since then has been brief summer thundershowers or thunderstorms brewed up by the sizzling, soggy air.
In spite of the rain, hiking was fairly pleasant today. It was nice to feel a bit chilly again while backpacking. I would have enjoyed the trail immensely were it not for the most persistent and obnoxious deer flies on the entire Appalachian Trail. Swirling masses of them surrounded us whenever we were in the woods. Pete and Charlie were eaten alive, but I kept my trusty bandanna in hand to chase them off when they tried to land. Once my bandanna began soaking up the rain, it became heavy and lethal. I killed two. Warding off their constant attacks had become so annoying that perhaps my mind slipped a little bit over the edge. I did not wipe their blood from my legs. Instead, I left it as a warning to their friends. Do you feel lucky today, punk? Their unnerving persistence placed those two fly executions among the most satisfying moments of my entire Appalachian Trail hike.
The first few miles of Connecticut trail was typically rough New England trail, but there were good views through the rain from some ledges called Indian Rocks and from the summit of Mount Algo. Descending to a paved state road, we left the Appalachian Trail to walk into the town of Kent. Thanks to our long day yesterday, we only had nine miles to cover in the rain today.
My early departure from the trail at Greenwood Lake, New York had eliminated Kent from my planned list of trail towns, but my mother wanted to meet me here, at the closest approach of the Appalachian Trail to my home town, so I agreed. It wasn't a bad idea, at any rate, for me to be carrying a rather light load of supplies those first tricky days back on the trail. Today's cold rain made the extra stop more worthwhile. Although I rather enjoyed the long-lost feeling of being chilly, I can always manage to do without the thrill of being wet and clammy. A hot shower tonight and warm clothes for the morning was an attractive prospect. I arrived in Kent at 1:00. My mother was four hours late with my supplies, so I had a very large lunch and sat down out of the rain beneath the awning of a laundromat to wait.
A muddy, dripping anomaly amongst the upscale shops and shoppers of a tidy little mall in an affluent western Connecticut village, I felt nothing but contentment. My heart and soul once more belonged to the Appalachian Trail and my dream of Katahdin. My return to the trail had come with a restored sense of peace and patience. I enjoyed drifting through the quite forests and villages of eastern New York, and the anticipation of my imminent return to the highlands of the Appalachian Trail. Now back in southern New England, the rugged mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine loom ever closer. It is not quite the middle of August, and I have up to two months to hike the final third of the Appalachian Trail and beat the first snows to the top of Mount Katahdin. Barring utter disaster, one of the cool, clear autumn days of early October will see me standing atop Baxter Peak at the end of a very long road. 718.5 miles to go.
|©1997 George Steffanos
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