An AT Mosey in New Joisey

Having packed the night before, I was on the road by 6:30am on Saturday; I was driving to an AT section trail head close to High Point State Park on the NJ 23 / CR 443 just south of Port Jervis, NY.  Friends and fellow backpackers/hikers, Jeff and Erin, were joining me for this weekend trip and I was excited for the time on the Appalachian Trail again.

Since returning home in June I think about my time on the trail quite often, sometimes just bringing up my blog on my iPhone while on the train and reading from a random day or two.  Good times indeed.  But what’s really special to me is the actual trail: the blazes, the mountains, the sights and sounds.  Unless you’ve spent [a considerable amount of] time on the AT it’s difficult to appreciate the gravity of how a life on the Appalachian Trail can change you.

As I arrive at the trail head parking lot I notice the temp has dropped to 27°F and the wind has picked up. Spotting Jeff’s car in the corner of the lot I parked up alongside.

Jumping out of my car and into the tundra was enough to send a jolt through my body: my god it’s freezing. After the cold meet and greet, we tied off our packs and slung them over our shoulders. There was a group of day hikers gathering near the start of the approach blue trail and I managed to finagle a group shot from one of them.

As we headed up the blue blazed trail our boots were sinking into the crunchy mud that had frozen during the night before. This made for challenging hiking as it was like we were walking through sand. After a few minutes we t-boned the AT and headed left, and southbound.

The wind had died down and we’d picked up a great starting pace so we warmed up pretty quickly. We were hoping the forecast was accurate and were looking forward to clear blue skies – no dice, cold and gray today.

The terrain became rocky underfoot as the trail headed south. We rounded and summited a section of rocky balds and stopped awhile to admire the view.

A few snaps and we were off again, southbound with a spring in our steps.

I always like hiking with Jeff and Erin, a young couple that I’ve been friends with for a few years. I’d met them for the first time during a Catskills weekender that another hiker friend, Anton, had organized. They’re both heavily into the outdoors, fit, and I enjoy the pace at which they hike – swift. They’re also a riot to hang with, and it’s not long before we’re onto the topic of food; Jeff and I discussed the many ways one could prepare a burger – multiple cheeses and fillings, always good trail banter.

Quickly we’re into our stride and we crossed Deckertown Turnpike — a winding country road that slices through the AT — and after a short climb beyond we hit Mashipacong Shelter and we had the whole place to ourselves.  We dropped our packs and broke out our lunches and discussed what we’d do afterwards.  We decided to continue southbound for at least an hour given we’d made such good time, but the remaining ~5.5 miles to Gren Anderson Shelter may run us into night hiking – which none of us really wanted to do.  Plus, the temps started to drop.  I reached for the trail journal hanging in a box in the far right corner of the shelter to see if I could find any names I’d know; sure enough, I found three:  Acorn, Nimbles, and one of my besties, Rainbow Bright.

So with full bellies and an invigorated spirit we hoisted our packs and headed south.  About a half hour in we came upon a pretty bleak looking stream which trickled from a stagnant pond – the water was orange, and none of us fancied using it to filter water for dinner tonight.

After some umming and ahhing we decided to head back to Mashipacong Shelter where we’d make camp, and hopefully, we’d still have the place to ourselves.  Once we got back we felt a tad bummed as fires aren’t allowed here – damn.  It was getting pretty chilly, too.  The sun had come out but we could feel Jack Frost’s bite rolling in.

I pitched my hammock gear in the woods a ways to the right of the shelter as I was hoping to sell some of it on GearTrade, so I needed photographs.  Once the shots were out of the way, I hoisted the hammock into the awning of the shelter — from left to right — while Jeff and Erin laid out their sleeping pads and bags inside on the platform.

We drank wine and shared stories, and we laughed into dusk.  It was early when the sun hit the horizon, cold blue hues spreading out through the woodland.  It was bedtime, aka “hiker midnight”.  The second my head hit my pillow I was out, and the slight sway of the hammock was enough to rock me to sleep in minutes.  It was 8:00pm.

I woke to the sound of an owl echoing through the frigid night.  To my chagrin, I pressed the backlight button on my watch and found it to only be 11:00pm.  Good lord, it was going to be a long night.

Coyotes are bloody loud, and when they’re in a pack that sounds ominously close, it’s quite disconcerting.  Another glance of my watch and it’s 1:30am.  Come on, man.

I started to feel the cold in my arms and torso a little which was strange as I was wearing literally all of my clothes and covered by my 30°F bag.  Unbeknownst to me, the temps had dropped to a not-so-balmy 23°F.  Without a 2nd thought I hoofed my tired self out of my cocoon and tossed my bag onto my own sleeping pad which I’d laid out on the shelter’s inner platform “just in case”.  I threw down my pillow and climbed into my bag and off I drifted, a little warmer than I was earlier dangling in mid air.  My watch said 3:00am.

It was about 6:30am when I woke, and I’d been tossing and turning all night; I get pressure points on my hips and knees as I’m a side sleeper when I go to ground.  “This is why I sleep in a hammock”, I grumbled to myself.

Jeff and Erin stirred shortly after and we shared morning pleasantries.  We’d all heard the howling and screaming last night.  And some of us (read: me) had heard snoring all night, too (read: Jeff and/or Erin).  Water was quickly on the boil and we enjoyed warm coffee; I enjoyed a couple of frosted raspberry Poptarts with mine – ooh look, it’s in one piece!

Warmed up, fed, and ready to go, we broke down camp and packed our gear.  We were off my 9:00am and heading northbound in the cool wintery air.  About a half hour in we stopped to enjoy the view at a pipeline clearing and snapped a few shots.

The trail seemed more rocky today than it did yesterday, but we still managed to get a good pace going; we hit the side trail for Rutherford Shelter in no time and calculated we’d been hiking at 3mph.

We stopped at a bubbling stream about half way back to the cars and filtered some more water; Erin had a crack at using my new Sawyer Squeeze Mini and I think I have a couple of converts!

Shortly after filling our water bottles we pressed on and it started to drizzle.  Now I don’t normally mind the rain, but when it’s 30°F, it’s bloody uncomfortable.  We double-timed and made it back to the parking lot in no time.  Cold, wet, and shivering we decided to head for the Ranger station up the road to change into drier clothing.

Warm and dry, Jeff suggested we head on over to a local diner for breakfast – amen to that.  We wolfed down an appetite-busting biscuits, gravy, and corned beef hash.  Human food tastes so good after a good hike.

Great hike with great friends, and the weather played nice, well almost.

Climbs, smiles, and ~15 miles (566.5m)

I rolled out of bed at around 6:00am and Specs was still asleep (we’re sharing a double room to save money), so I tended to my morning doings in a quieter fashion than normal.

Teeth brushed I opened the front door and spied the sunrise; and it was stunning. The sun was just above the horizon and was throwing yellows and oranges over the Appalachians in the distance. The hills were still blanketed by rolling mist as the humid forest floor shed its moisture from the downpour the day before.

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It wasn’t long before Red Specs and Tie Dye emerged, and we were also joined by Double Dare — a class of 2003 AT thru hiker — and breakfast was on the cards. There’s not much to do in Bland, VA – a Dairy Queen, Dollar General, a gas station, and a Subway. We hit up DQ and pounded breakfast sandwiches and burritos. Specs, Tie Dye and I saved some of our burrito breakfast to take on the trail for lunch.

We headed back to the motel where Double Dare was being picked up for his shuttle to the trail — a spot farther north than we were heading today — and Bubba rolled in at around 8:30am. Bubba provides a shuttle service for hikers in and around the Bland area.

We had to wait until Bubba returned for our shuttle to Walker Gap. We were on the road by 9:30am, and I hopped in the back of his truck as Tie Dye and Specs shared the cab up front. How often do you get to ride in the back of a pickup truck?!

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It took literally 45 minutes to get to the trail head at Walker Gap, and the ride trough the mountains albeit bumpy and long, was gorgeous. I spotted three deer (one of which stood majestically, and starred at me as we followed the forest road) and the smell of freshly dewed fauna was spellbinding. We arrived and hopped out of Bubba’s truck like three teenage gymnasts – we were ready to take on the day.

We’d decided to slack pack and flip flop today as the elevation map looked a little kinder southbound than going north. Our goal was to reach VA 610 where we had finished yesterday, 14.9 miles away. Given we were staying at the motel again tonight (I’m expecting some packages on Wednesday), it didn’t make sense taking a full pack; slack packing is easier on the body, and bigger mileage can be enjoyed with less stresses on the muscles and joints.

I led our trio up the first climb (remember, there’s always a climb out of a “Gap”), and I was going great guns. The 1.3 miles and 890 feet of elevation gain was easy, making the summit in 20 minutes. It felt great to get so much clean trail air in my lungs. At the top was Chestnut Knob Shelter, a fully enclosed concrete block shelter. The views from the summit were, as always, beautiful. We snapped away before heading out.

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A slowly descending rolling hillside was gorgeous to hike trough, and views to the east were plentiful. We passed many AT hikers going north and most of them looked wiped out; their climb (our pending descent) was a lung busting 4.4 miles over a 2,077′ elevation gain – ridiculous.

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We took our sweet time going downhill, and we spent at least a couple of hours making our way down. We stopped by a small stream to refill our water bottles and grabbed a bite to eat: burritos! They were cold but a couple drops of Texas Pete’s hot sauce turned them into gourmet food.

We came to a gravel road (VA 625) and Soul Sister was here talking to some section hikers. It was nice to see her and she and Tie Dye caught up. Photo op and we continued on.

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The trail was muddy and wet as it wound through the forest alongside creeks and streams and I pretended to be a tightrope walker along many of the notched log crossings. I was having a great day.

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Slight descent for about a mile and we came upon a gorgeous footbridge which crossed the wide and deep Lick Creek. We stopped and took some more photos and enjoyed watching the abundance of small fish swim about.

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From there we had a pretty steep and long climb, and the day had become very warm – it was at least 80°F and humid. For 1.2 miles we climbed 736′ and the heat was brutal – the cork handles of my trekking poles were soaked and slippery with sweat which had rolled down my arms and over my hands.

Once we got to the top of Lynn Camp Mountain we realized that we’d taken our sweet time all day – not starting until 10:40am didn’t help, either. We’d scheduled a 4:00pm pickup with Bubba from VA 610, 7 miles away, and it was 2:45pm. We were not going to make it, not a chance. Tie Dye called him and we were given a 5:30pm alternative. Chugging what water we had left, we ran — and I mean ran — down to Lynn Camp Creek. I was down in 15 minutes and my ankles, knees, and everything else was holding up nicely. Then came a 2.5 mile climb to Brushy Mountain – we didn’t think to stop at Knot Maul Branch Shelter to say our hellos to two other thru hikers – we were on a mission. The climb was long, humid, and prolonged. It completely kicked my ass and drained whatever was left in the tank. I was spent. I took some video while descending through open meadows and without the tree cover it was awfully hot.

O’Lystery Pavilion was at the bottom and to the side of VA 42, and the trail continued on the other side. The trail was level for the next mile, then it went up, and I had nothing left. Absolutely nothing, my body yearned for the hike to end. I bumped into Nutella as I climbed — I’d met her a few times before, nice girl — and asked how far the road was. She was it was “just up there”. I hate it when people say shit like that. I need to learn to stop asking stupid questions like these, because it’s never just up there or just around the bend.

I had to climb over another two stiles, which at this point of the day felt like climbing over giant wooden ladders. They weren’t, they were only 5-6 rungs at most. The meadow by the side of VA 610 came into view, as did the road shortly thereafter. I let out a WHOOP! and with my head down and body aching, I made my way to the road where Bubba was waiting. One more stile to climb over, I seethed in disgust. It took all I had left to pull myself into the back of the truck, and my knees were completely shot. They throbbed, and I had a headache, too. Tie Dye and I exchanged some conversation in the back as we headed “home”, and I fidgeted the whole trip trying to find comfortable positions for my beat-up legs.

Red Specs raided the hiker box inside the motel office and finagled some shower gel, which is a luxury out here.

Showered, changed, and smelling like “fresh mountain spring”, we took a (painful) walk down to the gas station to pick up a 12-pack of Heineken and I ordered two large pizzas and garlic bread for the three of us. We enjoyed the rest of our evening woolfing pizza and beers outside on a picnic bench in the parking lot and watched the night roll in.

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With full bellies we turned in. My right knee feels swollen, and I intend to zero if I’m in worse shape in the morning.

I was out like a light.

Miles hiked today: 14.9

First day back, hello Virginia (542.2m)

I woke in my hammock at around 6:00am and realized I needed to be at Crazy Larry’s in half an hour.

Shit!

Breaking down my shelter in record time and pack fully packed (15 minutes flat), I said my farewells to Stink Bug and also to Honey Bun as she poked her head out of her hammock.

Walking through Damascus’ high street felt eerie, a silence had fallen on the town between last night’s festivities and today’s mass hiker exodus (Trail Days was now over).

I’d almost reached Larry’s when Tie Die pulled up next to me in Co Pilot’s car which was a nice surprise. We got to Larry’s and hoisted our packs into the back of SG’s (Snake Girl: a name she picked up during her 2012 AT thru-hike after stepping on a rattler), and off we went.

Co Pilot — who looks uncannily like Bill Murray and Tom Hanks — dropped Tie Die, myself, and a new hiker friend, Red Specs (a German photographer over to hike the trail) at Partnership Shelter. Saying our goodbyes we headed north and up – something I hadn’t both written, or hiked, in three weeks.

I’d felt extremely anxious about getting back on the AT, and I just didn’t feel ready; to be frank, I wasn’t quite sure I belonged anymore.

We came across a box of goodies right off the bat which contained Oreos, apple sauce pouches, candy, and other awesome stuff – I love trail magic, and it helped my much cultivated doubts about returning to the AT.

The first 3-4 hours were very, very hard emotionally. All I could think about was being back home in New York; home, the place I’d just enjoyed three weeks of being with loved ones and friends. The trail hadn’t felt like home for so long, and I wasn’t feeling it here. Not one bit.

I spent most of the morning catching up with Tie Dye and also acquainting with my new friend Red Specs. We’d started very early — 7:20am — and I realized about six miles in that I was becoming winded up the smallest of climbs. My knees started to hurt, too. Good grief, the time away had softened my body. This was the first time I’d used my new pack, too, so everything felt strange to me. Home didn’t feel strange: I didn’t want to be here at all.

This went on for another mile or so until we reached the top of Glade Mountain and I was smacked in the face with a view that almost floored me. I can’t explain it but my body and soul felt as if they were finally drawn back into what made me fall in love with the AT during my early days in March: the sheer beauty. I let out a scream of happiness and we took pictures and threw our voices through the hills and valleys below.

I was back.

For another few hours we hiked down until we hit Lindamood School and Settlers Museum. Many pictures later, we continued through a meadow and downward again. We reached I-81 at around 2:30pm and I decided to stay at the motel close to the trail – my hamstring had started to hurt and I got a blister – my first, I was pissed. These new Sportivas are a half size too small, I need new ones and stat.

Tie Dye and Red Specs decided to join me and we enjoyed a hot shower and laundry. We ordered two large pizzas and enjoyed a few Heinekens, also.

We talked, planned a little, and we were out before the sun went down. I was planning on staying at the motel and have some new gear shipped to me and allow the pain to dissipate, but I felt great the next day and decided to head out.

Miles hiked today: 12

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