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New Jersey & New York
Volume 41: Sat August 9, 2003
Our saga last ended with myself living it up at Delaware Water Gap, just short of the New Jersey border.
The area around Delaware Water Gap has a dramatic lack of shelters—31.2 miles without any—so I got an early morning start to crank out the 25 miles I'd have to hike to the next shelter.
The trail followed I-80 out of town over the Delaware River. I went across knowing that my crossing of the Delaware River would never make history like when George Washington did it. Having done it myself now, I'm not sure what the big deal was.
After crossing in New Jersey, the trail then veered off into the woods on the left and into the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The place was incredibly beautiful, teaming with birds, bears, and plant life. Bears have actually become a problem on this part of the trail and all shelters in New Jersey had bear boxes for people to put their food in. Who'd have thought—a bear problem in New Jersey?
Shortly into New Jersey the trail skirts around Sunfish Pond, the first glacial pond encountered going north on the AT. And it was scenic. Incredibly so. It looked like one of the glacier-carved lake from the Sierra Nevadas and was the first naturally made lake I remember seeing on the trail.
A sign proclaimed that Sunfish Pond was one of the seven natural scenic wonders of New Jersey. I thought this was unfair since New Jersey only had seven scenic wonders, but still, it was a beautiful area.
But seriously, though, everything I thought I knew about New Jersey (mostly from reading Stephanie Plum novels) was being challenged with every step. Except for the little traffic jam I had seen the day before (created by a toll station at the Pennsylvania border—so theoretically you could blame the traffic jam on Pennsylvania), the state was proving absolutely stunning with fantastic geologic formations and incredible views. I concluded that they must have named the area Delaware Water Gap, because if they named it New Jersey Water Gap nobody would have taken the area as seriously.
On the far side of Sunfish Pond I found CC filming the lake for the documentary he's making. In the foreground people had built elaborate cairns—a very Blair Witch-ish kind of thing—balancing delicately as much as ten or fifteen feet high surrounded by circles of stones.
Once again I demonstrated my acting abilities hopping among the rocks and ten-foot cairns for his film. But I still had 20 miles of hiking ahead, so I said goodbye and continued on.
This is the documentary, and you can see me hiking along Sunfish Pond in it. =)
Further up the trail I bumped into Alpha and Trench, who had a few more chapters of Harry Potter that I relieved them of. They'd been doing the same thing I was, reading parts that people had left in shelters, and they had an additional seven chapters I needed. Score!
I wandered into the Brink Road Shelter near sunset, the first shelter in over 31 miles. As soon as I sat down, a battalion of mosquitoes immediately attacked, quickly followed by reenforcements.
Rubberband Man was there, wearing all his rain gear in a feeble attempt to keep the pests at bay. I quickly changed into long-sleeved shirts and pants and sprayed liberal amounts of DEET everywhere, but I could see those blood-sucking bastards probing for weaknesses in my defense lines. I started collecting a pile of dead mosquitoes on the corner of the table to keep a tally of the pests I'd manage to kill.
The shelter lacked a fire ring—something I would not see in the entire state of New Jersey—so we couldn't make a fire to keep the bugs away.
And also, bear warnings were everywhere. I'd been warned by south-bound hikers I had passed, but these shelters even had bear boxes installed because they had became such pests. Several people that day reported seeing bears. New Jersey, of all places, has a bear problem! One hiker, I would learn later, set their pack down at the shelter to get some water a couple hundred yards away and came back to discover a bear pawing through his pack. After that, nobody ever left a pack unattended again, not even for a couple of minutes.
After dark the mosquitoes went away to wherever mosquitoes go at night, and I went to sleep, exhausted.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of buzzing mosquitoes—plenty of incentive to an early morning start.
Four miles down the trail I stopped at Culvers Gap where a bakery stood. Worthingtons Bakery, serving thru-hikers for more than 45 years. It was closed when I arrived, but it was supposed to open in another five minutes, so I killed a few minutes using the pay phone outside.
The bakery opened, and I bought ice cream, apple juice, and a couple of their famous, gooy buns. After devouring those, I read a bit more from the Harry Potter pages I had acquired the day before and filled up my water bottle from the spigot on the side of the building.
Frankly, the water looked brown and yucky, but I was in New Jersey—what could I expect? I'd carry it as far as the next shelter where I planned to replace it with nice, clean spring water.
I continued on. I caught up to Rubberband Man near the Culver Fire Tower, and we started hiking together telling war stories from back home and on the trail.
Somehow, in our deep, philosophical discussions, we walked right passed the shelter turn-off. Normally, this isn't critical, but Rubberband Man didn't like the water at the bakery either and didn't bring any. I had the extra liter as an 'emergency backup' which now looked like it would be essential. The next water source, so far as we could tell, was another seven miles down the trail. Ugh!
We continued on, heedless of our lack of water and unable to bear turning around to backtrack. At Sunrise Mountain, a half-mile further down the trail, we stopped under the shaded pavilion enjoying the views and the breeze.
Several locals were milling around as well, a couple of them asking us the usual sorts of questions they ask thru-hikers. One man looked at my bottle of water and asked us, "So, do you guys need anything?"
Rubberband Man and I looked at each other. He spoke first: "Yes! Water!"
Within seconds the kind stranger was giving each of us a bottle of clear, cold water—even with ice cubes still floating in the water. His wife handed out apples to us that we also readily accepted.
Resupplied and happy, we said goodbye and continued down the trail. Twice we would cross roads with bottles of water provided by trail angels that we used to supplement our water. I even poured out the yucky brown water, never having actually had to try it.
Near the end of the day I reached High Point State Park, reputedly the highest point on the AT in New Jersey. I rounded a bend and was floored to see the Washington Monument in front of me—or at least something that looked remarkably like it stretching over a hundred feet into the air.
I had to investigate this further. The trail didn't actually pass the monument, but only came within a half mile of it. I followed a side trail called the Monument Trail—I suspected it might lead to the monument, although I didn't have a map of the area to verify that.
Sure enough, it led to the base of the monument where a plaque told me I was standing at the highest point in the entire state of New Jersey.
I walked around the monument (the door to go into it was locked off) then retraced my steps to the Appalachian Trail before hiking into the High Point Shelter where I spent the night.
The next day the trail would touch New York state and follow the New Jersey/New York border for several miles.
At Lott Road I hiked a half mile off the trail into Unionville, New York, to resupply some snack items. It was a patriotic little town with lots of red, white, and blue flying. The post office there became a meeting place for thru-hikers where I found a half dozen of them lounging around examining their maildrops or grocery store purchases. I resupplied some food at the grocery store and ate another pint of ice cream along with Twinkies and a Coke.
Then I headed back to the trail where it meandered over paved roads for a mile or two before heading back into the forest. I'd spend the night at the Pochuck Mtn Shelter.
It stormed well that night, with all of us thru-hikers crowded into the shelter and cheering 'Bring it on!' whenever lightning struck particularly close and would shake the shelter.
By morning the sun was shining again and I headed on. The trail followed what seemed like miles of boardwalks—flat, easy walking without any rocks, twigs, trees, or anything to trip on. Perhaps even THE easiest section of trail to date! The trail crossed Pochuck Creek on a suspension bridge (and suspension bridges are always fun) before emerging on NJ94 where I stopped to buy a cold drink and snacks at the nearby store.
The rest of the day I wandered over scenic viewpoints before finally leaving this fireless land and entering the state of New York.
Shortly after passing into New York there was a large, flat rock with an array of bottles, plates, and other randomly assorted glassware precariously balanced. It was not only unexpected, but bizarre and images of the Blair Witch came back yet again. It was very cool, though, in a spooky sort of way.
I stayed the night at the Wildcat Shelter. There I met my first two south-bounders: Wheel and Bojangles. They summited Mt. Katahdin the last week of May and are working their way to Springer Mountain, our paths intersecting in New York.
I fully expected to see the first south-bounders any day down, and we swapped war stories about our adventures so far and information about what the terrain ahead is like.
I also met a girl named Wildflower who was hiking northbound, apparently following my registry entries for months wondering who that character with the stamp of the green turtle is. She said she thought I was an old man—probably in his 60s or something. Hmmm. Well, I guess that's better than Sidetrack who assumed I must have been a woman, because what sort of self-respecting man would walk around with cute little turtle stamps. I guess I'm never quite what people expect me to be. =)
Wildflower, I also learned, is from Seattle which spurred all sorts of discussion about 'home' (a vague concept at best when you haven't slept in the same place for more than a couple of nights in over three months). And in addition, she's thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and I pumped her for information about that hike. Not that I plan to hike that 2600 miles anytime soon, but who knows, perhaps I will someday. =)
The next day I hoped to see New York City—or at least views of the city from some of the mountain tops I'd be traversing. I hummed New York themed songs such as Old Blue Eyes's New York, New York, or Broadway musicals while hiking along. The city of New York was probably 30 miles away, but it was infectious even from that distance.
At the entrance for Harriman State Park a woman pulled up beside us—I was using an unexpected pay phone found on the side of the road while Wildflower was unloading her tent to dry in the sun (it rained the night before, but it was hot, humid, and sunny at this time)—asking if we had seen any Boy Scouts behind us. We told her that yes, we saw them, but they were a good two or three hours behind us.
I guess they were having a hard time on the trail and had fallen severely behind their planned itinerary. The woman, we called her Boy Scout Mom, offered to drive us to a deli market a couple of miles up the road while she killed time waiting for the boy scouts.
We jumped into her car and was whisked away to the market! I bought a sandwich, snacks, and a couple of cold drinks, and we chatted with Boy Scout Mom for a bit learning that she worked at the Pentagon but she'd have to kill us if she told us more about her job. Just kidding, but she said she was an auditor for the army and was there during the September 11th attacks. She was even supposed to be in a conference room in the wing of the Pentagon that was hit by the airplane but wasn't for whatever reason, a sobering thought.
Boy Scout Mom took us back to the trailhead and we said our goodbyes. The trail meandered through the Lemon Squeezer where Wildflower found herself wedged between two rocks and only with great difficulty making it through. She marveled at my ability to squeeze through the tight squeeze without even having to suck in my breath. =)
We hiked a bit off trail near the end of the day down to Lake Tiorati to stock up on water since our guides said the next shelter might be dry. And that's where I saw Her.
She was sitting by the lake, glistening in the light, her sexy curves drawing me in. I dropped my pack, fumbling for my wallet, hoping I could afford her pleasures. Yes! A dollar! I slipped it into the vending machine, pushed the Pepsi button, and greedily drank from the can.
While indulging my gluttonous sins, Wildflower went off to stock up with water and scored some trail magic for us. A group of people were at the park, filming a BMW commercial, and were closing up shop. They offered us all of their leftover food—fruits, chicken, lasagna, and more. We ate a hearty dinner before heading out to the next shelter.
At last we arrived at the William Brien Memorial Shelter where we set up camp and spent the night. I was stunned to learn that Papa John was there, a character I had met way back in Georgia but hadn't seen or heard of since. He's the kind of guy that thinks he's cool, but he's not. Harmless to others, though not exactly an outdoor kind of person.
He had gotten off the trail for a couple of weeks due to 'sickness and injury' then skipped most of the section between Virginia and Pennsylvania to catch up and plans to go back after finishing Maine to do the section he missed. I'm skeptical, to tell you the truth. He also renamed himself Freeway and started writing rap lyrics in the registries. No wonder I didn't realize he was ahead of me!
Anyhow, I set up camp and went to sleep. The next day I'd continue hiking with Wildflower.
A couple of miles down the trail we reached the Palisades Interstate Parkway, a divided highway with cars zooming past at amazing speeds that hikers had to sprint across Frogger style.
Before our mad dash across the highway, though, I saw a wonderful, huge mileage sign in large letters: "New York City, 32 miles." Wow. New York City. The Big Apple. And only a long day's hike away! Start spreading the news....
But now was not the time for a sidetrip to New York City. For the time being, I walked up to the sign and pretended to hitchhike into the Big Apple while Wildflower took a picture—this was one photo op I didn't want to miss!
I put my camera away before we waited for a break in the cars long enough to dash across before one could hit us. I briefly thought that going to New York on the grill of a car wasn't exactly what I had in mind.
On the center divider we took a breather before we would have to dash through the traffic coming from New York. Someone even thoughtfully provided a register, nailed to a tree, where one could brag about making it halfway through without getting killed.
Except the register wasn't in it. Instead there was something small, furry, and alive.
Wildflower and I discussed what it was—not a chipmunk, squirrel, or mouse. I thought it looked like a gerbil, but what would a gerbil be doing out there? Unable to extract the animal without putting our hands within biting reach, we wisely decided to leave it there.
Now it was time to dash across the speeding traffic coming from New York City. I went first, but Wildflower hesitated too long and couldn't make it. She waited for another small break a few minutes later before dashing across the road, the highway safely behind us.
The trail then climbed up several more uninteresting mountains before heading up Bear Mountain which was interesting for the Perkins Tower and views from the top. One sign proclaimed the spot to be 'the highest point within 75 miles of New York City', which sounded like someone was desperate for bragging rights of some sort. Makes me wonder if somewhere else is bragging about being the highest point within 100 miles of NYC, or 125 miles, or whatever.
But it is an interesting tower with old photographs of the area and of the tower being built near the turn of the century. Wildflower and I went up to check out the view—but alas, NYC was still not visible on this cloudy day.
We then got sodas from some vending machines, where I also saw my first first vending machine that doles out candy bars. I've seen snack vending machines that doled out candy bars, don't get me wrong, but this was the first one I've seen dedicated solely to handing out candy bars. I wanted to try it, but alas, it was not working. I'd have to my candy bar fix later....
Then it was off to the town of Bear Mountain, New York. The post office was closed for lunch when we arrived, so Wildflower pulled out her tarp-tent to dry while I enjoyed the serenity of hundreds of children running amok around the merry-go-round and play areas.
I was plenty happy to leave this tourist mecca an hour later. A local warned us that we were lucky to arrive on a weekday, because the place was really a zoo of people on weekends. I bet. We dropped by the post office then hit the trail again—this time it would lead us through a—well—a zoo. A REAL zoo, of all places. Go figure.
The trail routed us directly through the 'wildlife center' where the guy at the admission booth waved us through. (Thru-hikers get in for free, and anyone with a nose would have had no problem identifying us as thru-hikers.)
As far as zoos go, this is was rather pathetic and it was rather sickening to see all those animals cooped up in such small cages. However, I've been told that the zoo gets animals that otherwise would have had to have been destroyed or else would have perished on their own in the wilds because they were found as babies without parents. Or something like that, so I guess the place is doing a decent thing by finding a place for them to continue their lives where they can be fat and happy.
Two bears had their own exhibit, which I surmised was for the benefit of the rare thru-hiker that didn't see any bears in the Shenandoahs or New Jersey, they'd be guaranteed to get their chance here.
And the trail in front of the bear exhibit is actually the lowest point on the Appalachian Trail. If these fat, ugly bears weren't depressing enough, I could now look around me and honestly say, "Well it's all uphill from here!"
With that happy note, the trail left through the back of the zoo onto the Bear Mountain Bridge that crosses over the Hudson River.
But Wildflower and I took a detour half a mile off trail to Fort Montgomery that saw some of the last fighting of the Revolutionary War. We didn't go to learn history, though, we wanted food, pure and simple.
We stopped at M&R Grocery where we got slices of pizzas, junk food, and drinks. While sitting there, eating our take, I heard someone call in an order for pizza and was thrilled to death when the guy on the phone yelled back to the cook in that distinctive New York accent, "The lady wants a large cheese pie!"
I turned to Wildflower: "Did you hear that? He called a pizza a pie! We're so totally in New York!" And we beamed with excitement. We weren't actually in the city of New York, but the proximity was infectious for us—a couple of west coast people who'd never been to New York before.
More New York related songs flashed through my head.
After we finished eating, we continued on. We walked back to the Bear Mountain Bridge—that for years was the one place where thru-hikers had to pay a ten cents toll to cross over (the only place on the AT that wasn't free). Cars still must pay a toll, but pedestrians may now cross for free.
Which is precisely what we did. We did the usual spitting off the side into the Hudson River a hundred feet below. I had to refrain from peeing off the side, unfortunately, since there were too many witnesses around.
We were now on a 31 mile section of trail without shelters, and finally decided to call an end to our adventurous day at the Graymoor Friary.
My guidebook says it's officially called the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center (formerly Graymoor Monastery), home of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and birthplace of the Christian Unity movement. It sounded like a real party place, so how could we say no?
They also feed hikers a free dinner, but Wildflower and I arrived too late to enjoy that. I later learned they had tuna something or another, so it was just as well that we missed it. I'm not a big tuna fan.
I set up camp on the ballfield with the other hikers and promptly went to sleep. Wildflower finally caught up with the friends she was trying to catch, so this is also where our paths diverge.
I woke early to push on the 20 or so miles left to the next shelter. Freeway, aka Papa John, had also spent the night there, and I was itching to put some miles between us.
Where the trail crossed Dennytown Road was a nice break in the trees and a grassy area to lay in and rest, which I thought was a grand idea. To my surprise (and regret), Papa John was already there—even though I had left the Graymoor Friary before him and he didn't pass me on the trail. Obviously he'd been taking some shortcuts along the way.
But still, I laid down and started to watch the clouds drifting by. One of them looked much like a heart—then I had an idea.
I turned to Papa John and said, "You know, I just love finding images in the clouds. For instance, that one—" as I pointed to the heart-shaped cloud, "—that one looks like a bad car accident where the driver's head is flying out the windshield."
Papa John looked at me with a strange look, then looked up in the sky, pointing to the cloud. "That one?" I could hear his skepticism.
"Yeah! And that one over there—" as I pointed to a teddy bear shaped cloud "—looks like someone who's stabbed a thru-hiker to death and is now pushing the body off a cliff."
"Yeah, uhh...." Papa John seemed at a loss for words. "Well, I guess I should be getting back on the trail again."
"Yeah, I understand," I replied, "I'll have to be doing the same thing myself soon enough."
Papa John picked up his pack and headed into the woods, at which point I watched the clouds pass by and looked for more hearts and teddy bears in them.
I stayed there for an hour or so before deciding to continue on to the RPH Shelter for the night. Oddly, I didn't see Papa John there, nor did I pass him on the trail, so he obviously had to have taken another detour somewhere else at some point. But I wasn't complaining—I wouldn't miss his company.
The next day I'd have a leisurely 16.6 mile stroll, so I took a half-mile detour to a convenience store and pizzeria. New York had road crossings like this quite often, and I took advantage of them every chance I got.
At the pizzeria, I ordered a 'pie', thinking how cool I'd look using the local lingo. Imagine my surprise when they brought out a slice of apple pie! Just kidding—I didn't order a pie, but I always wanted to be able to tell a story like that. =)
Near the end of the day I passed Nuclear Lake. One local jogger warned me not to drink or swim in the lake, unless you believed the government's claims that the plutonium cleanup really was effective and the water is now safe.
I wanted to reach the Telephone Pioneers Shelter by dark, so I didn't have time for a swim. And I had no intention of drinking the water when there were plenty of better sources available.
But at the shelter, there was much discussion about Nuclear Lake and who was glowing from swimming in it. Those that hadn't taken a dip enviously looked at those that had and said mosquitoes wouldn't dare bite them, while those that had taken a dip claimed the mosquitoes were still bothersome, but they'd die from the now radioactive blood.
Papa John was there, and he pulled out a can of soup bragging about his 'score' from the hiker box at the RPH Shelter. I glanced over and immediately noticed that it was bulging at the seams.
"You're not really going to eat that!? You'll get botulism or something like that! Look at it bulging!"
"What? You think it's bad?"
"Hell yeah! I've NEVER seen a can do THAT before!"
Papa John asked if it would be okay to eat if he cooked it really well, and I told him it was okay by me—survival of the fittest and all—but I didn't have a flashlight and if he went into convulsions or something, I wouldn't go down for help until morning.
I told him point blank I thought it was stupid for him to eat the stuff when he had plenty of other safe and non-poisonous food to consume, but he whined that he carried the extra pound up and didn't want the effort to go to waste, and since boiling water was supposed to kill any pathogens, cooking the soup should do it too.
He borrowed a can opener from a weekend backpacker (VERY few thru-hikers carry something like can openers) and the can immediately shot out a jet of soup as it escaped the confines of the can. Papa John set the can down—far away near the fire ring—and said, "Yep, something is definitely wrong with this soup! I think I'll eat something else."
I rolled my eyes and said, "I hope you plan on packing that can out of here."
"But, it weighs a lot and it's messy..."
"You carried the dumb thing up here, so pack it out. Put it in a ZipLock and pack it out."
I wished he ate the soup and died during the night. It probably would have made the world a better place.
The night wasn't quiet—it sounded like World War 3 broke out shortly after sunset with bombs going off and heavy artillery firing back. After an hour or two of this, things got quiet and we fell asleep at last, never quite knowing exactly what had happened.
The next day I passed by the Dover Oak—supposedly the largest tree on the Appalachian Trail. It's certainly big by AT standards, but I'll just have to take their word for it being the largest.
Shortly beyond that was a train station that looked like it was set up strictly for thru-hikers wanting to go into New York City. A wooden platform less than ten feet long sat next to the railroad tracks where the trail passes. There was no area for people to park or anything—like I said, it looked like it was set up strictly for hikers.
As tempting as New York City was, I promised to visit it at another time after my hike was over and continued down the trail—at least until I took another half-mile detour to yet another deli where I picked up a pint of ice cream and some drinks.
That done, I continued out to the Gates of Heaven. It's an old cemetery the trail passes by, marked by an old, wrought-iron gate labeled 'Gates of Heaven'. Fascinated by heaven (having heard so much about it yet not getting a chance to visit so far), I walked through the gate.
Yes, folks, I've visited heaven, and my conclusion is that it looks remarkably like New York. Take it for what it's worth. *shrug* =)
My playing over, I continued on and crossed into Connecticut. Nine states done, five to go. I headed into the Ten Mile River Lean-to for the night.
I wasn't there for more than ten minutes before a woman walked up asking if one of us was Green Turtle. I admitted my guilt, wondering who was looking for me.
It was Ceil, a letterboxer I had been exchanging emails with, who hiked out to kidnap me off the trail. While I knew she wanted to meet up with me, her arrival at the shelter was unexpected to say the least.
So we hiked another mile or so back to her car where she whisked me away to her place. I took a shower and got cleaned up—my first since Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania.
Connecticut was already looking like a very friendly state, but you'll have to read the rest of THAT adventure in my next volume of Ryan's Great Adventures. =)
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