Mid-Atlantic: Delaware Water Gap to Kent

June 12, 2004
I woke up in the motel room, and wished I was somewhere in the woods instead. The only saving grace was that I could have some more food at the Trails End Cafe before hiking out. Today is Saturday, and I have a pair of shoes waiting for me at the Unionville, NY. postoffice, which means that I can't hike very far for the next couple of days. It is only about 50 miles to the Unionville road, which means that at a normal pace I would make it sometime on Sunday afternoon. So, I lingered in town for a while, taking an extra long shower before buying a newspaper and heading to the cafe. I wolfed down an order of blueberry pancakes and was on the verge of ordering another set, when the waitress told me that the cook wanted to make me something special: Mango pancakes. Mango it was. I ate down the second order and spent another hour finishing the paper and drinking copious amounts of coffee. I had to leave eventually, and set out down the road, which was also the official AT.

The road walk last for about two miles before rejoining the woods. Being a brilliant weekend day, the trail area had quite a few day hikers and backpackers on it, but I quickly separated from them when the trail began to head gently uphill. I was in new Jersey now and I had nothing but bad thoughts for it in my head. However, things were surprisingly pretty. The trail ran by a very clear, very blue, highly serene lake, by whose shores I lounged for a while in the warm, not hot, sun. A few hikers came by and rested, although at a bit of distance.

As I wandered down the trail, I kept being surprised by New Jersey: It actually was scenic. And not just by comparison with Pennsylvania. It was scenic and pleasant on its own. I suppose my happy state of mind might have had something to do with the excellent weather, but I always liked being on open ridges, and the AT was traversing a lot of them. The hiking was easy and the rocks had disappeared and everything was, to use my far too frequent adjective, pleasant.

Although I had not meant to hike any significant distance today, the late afternoon found me on top of Rattlesnake mountain and a facing a choice. I sat where I could have a view of the horizon and pondered my options for the night. There was a shelter not far from here, but I really didn't want to stop hiking for the day. I was feeling good and wanted to run with it before the rollercoaster led me down once again. On the other hand, if I pushed on much further I would be spending a lot of time sitting around waiting for the postoffice in Unionville to open. And so rather than deciding, I simply sat in the early evening air and did nothing. This was best, I thought. I was enjoying hiking again, and if I couldn't hike further, I could at least sit somewhere and be happy for a while. There would be people at the shelter and it couldn't possibly be as pleasant as the top of Rattlesnake.

As the sun started to arc toward the hills in the distance, I decided I had probably better scamper down to the shelter and eat some dinner. I found a large party of older section hikers encamped at the shelter. They had been here for quite a while, perhaps since before noon, and seemed to have grown bored with their surroundings. This meant that I was an object of attention. Playing nice, I answered their repeated questions about gear and distances in between slurps of ramen noodles. Although they were all good people, I don't think they realized that not every hiker wants to explain how their alcohol stove works and how much fuel it takes. Still, I remained cheerful and went to bed without any grumpiness, even if it occurred to me that the top of Rattlesnake mountain would have been a nicer place to camp for the night.

I really didn't have anywhere fast to go today. Less than 20 miles to a shelter close to the road to Unionville, and I would be done for the day. On a normal day, I would be there sometime around two in the afternoon, leaving me with a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. I tried hard to sleep in, but just couldn't and ended up leaving by 6:30, thinking about where to get off the trail. I liked the idea of hiking up to Vermont and eventually settled on Manchester Center, about in the middle of the state. I wasn't sure how I felt about stopping my hike on the AT, but I had other plans for the summer and would have to get off before Katahdin to do them. Unless, that is, I wanted to pick up the pace and really move hard over the rest of the AT.

The rocks were back and the footing difficult and the sky gray and the views mostly non-existent, though this was due to the thick haze more than the lack of openness of the land. I sat around at a shelter for an hour hoping that someone might come by to entertain me, but no one did and I had to keep moving. I reached a war memorial of sorts and sand on an observation deck doing nothing for another hour. This was about as dull as it could get. I couldn't see how people could spend six months of their lives on the AT, but I can't understand Russian either, which doesn't make it a unimportant, invalid language.

I tried to amuse myself as best as I could, but nonetheless I found myself at the Highpoint shelter at two thirty with nowhere to go and nothing to do. After reading the shetler register through and through, I sat by a stream and soaked my feet, even though they felt fine. I gave my socks a good scrubbing. I sat at the shelter. I sat at the stream. I fidgeted and moped. I read the shelter register again. I went back to the stream. I was bored out of my skull and was even more perplexed that people could consider this "smelling the roses." Around five I ate dinner and the woman thruhiker from Delaware Water Gap showed up, giving me someone to pay attention to, just like the weekenders from last night had latched on to me. She was an interesting woman and had lived a colorful life. Last year she hiked southbound, and I prodded her for stories for a while before realizing my thoughtlessness and let the shelter lapse into silence for the night. I was needy, and I knew it. I was waiting for it to turn dark so that I could go to sleep and close the door on another day of the summer. A phrase from a movie that I liked was stuck in my head: "This is your life, and it is ending one minute at a time."

It was time to roll. I was happy to see the sun come up and get moving once again. I raged down the trail and hit Lott road early in the morning, which led less than a mile into New York and the small town of Unionville. I got my shoes at the post office and bought supplies at the store, along with some coffee and pastries and retired around back to repackage the food and drink my coffee. While I sat there a man came up and started chatting, and it turned out that he ran a "secret shelter" on his property. The information was in Wingfoot and, though I had known about it, had declined to stop in as it was too close to town for my comfort. We chatted for a while before I went off to call my mother and ask her to buy me a Greyhound ticket from Manchester Center. For some reason, Greyhound, at least in 2002, wouldn't sell tickets over the phone. I talked with my mother for thirty minutes before I set off back down Lott road for the AT in my new shoes and with a pack full of supplies. The shoes felt good on my feet and were more protective than my battered trail runners that I had been hiking in since Pearisburg.

The trail crossed a large amount of swamp lands (or wetlands, to make them sound nicer), though always on wooden walkways. I knew these were coming and had dreaded them, but found them to be really rather nice. They were different and there were plenty of fun birds to gawk at. Even though it kept threatening to rain, it never actually did eventually even cleared for me. I reached NJ94, which many hikers take into the town of Vernon, but which I instead walked for a couple of minutes to reach Honey Hill Farms, which sold a variety of things. Important to me were the discounted baked goods that they had. The woman thruhiker from the night before was here, as was another thruhiker, and I joined them on a picnic table outside the establishment for afternoon eats.

I sat for an hour and then headed out behind the other two hikers, winding my way slowly into the hills of New Jersey. Rumors of a bear were reported by hikers passing in the other way, but I didn't particularly care about this. Instead, my focus was on the terrible mosquitoes that flocked around my sweaty body and kept me from enjoying the early evening in real style. To make matters worse, I was feeling rather stupid and decided to stay in a shelter that had a couple of citronella candles, rather than hiking on and putting up my bug proof, mosquito netted tarp. There was a GQ magazine inside Wawayanda shelter and I read this to the woman thruhiker amidst the swarms of mosquitoes. Stupidity was rampant, with mine being the dominant one, I think. I was simply passing time now and had given up all hope that my remaining time on the AT would be at all fun. Why didn't I just pay the extra money for an immediate ticket and take a bus from somewhere close by? Why had I decided to get off at Manchester Center? This was just inane.

I continued to mope along in the morning and found the hiking rather unpleasant. Since I had asked my mother to buy a bus ticket, I no longer saw any point in moving along a trail that I was beginning to hate. I just couldn't see the purpose in doing something that was becoming more and more unpleasant as time went on. Not only was the trail unscenic and cluttered, but it wasn't even pleasant. With good weather, I could always count on this pleasantness, but now the very design of the trail was hindering this. It seemed to deliberately take the worse course possible through the woods and hills, as if trying to assert something or other, or teach me some kind of lesson. As the AT began as a sort of social experiment, perhaps this was justified. However, I didn't like it and was in a funk by the time I got to the New Jersey-New York stateline.

The trail continued to annoy, with lots of small ups and downs that I suppose would be challenging for the section hikers that the AT was meant for, but served only to frustrate me. I was drawing within myself and trying as hard as possible to shelter myself from the world around me, rather than facing it and simply flowing along. I tried, and eventually succeeded, in getting my mind around to a neutral state, neither happy nor sad, and considered this a major victory. Last summer I had ridden a constant high and had found myself constantly comparing the two summers. This was counterproductive, and I knew it, but I couldn't help myself at times. The New York AT designers were determined to route the trail over every pile of rocks that they could find, and do so in the shortest amount of space possible. The heat became oppressive with the advent of the afternoon and I was thankful to a local hiking club who stashed water near various road crossings as natural sources were scarce. This thoughtfulness marks the AT as something special and I tried to focus on the kindness of people rather than my own unhappiness.

As the AT rolled into Bear-Harriman statepark, I began to feel refreshed with the coming of afternoon rains, and by the fact that I was leaving the sounds of roads for a little while. I reached the famous Lemon Squeezer just as the rain came and cooled off the land. This is a big pile of rocks that, for some reason, the AT threads its way between. It would have made much more sense to route the AT around them, but that just wasn't the style, it seemed. I hid inside the rocks and out of the rain and tried not to feel sorry for myself. I wasn't very successful, despite trying to think of all the people in the world who had legitimate complaints about how life was treating them. I tried to reflect on the fact that I was doing this voluntarily, and that my unhappiness was not coming from the AT, but rather from something within me. Identifying this thing was more than I could undertake and so I simple aimed for neutrality, rather than taking a shot at victory.

When the rain passed I set out through the Lemon Squeezer and filled up on water at a rather poor looking stream before beginning the climb up to Fingerboard shelter. I found the shelter in an open field on top of a small plateau, quite empty except for some garbage and food left by others. A tent was set up near by, but the occupants were nowhere to be found. I should have hiked on, but simply couldn't muster the spiritual strength needed to both maintain my forward motion and the neutral state in my mind. I ate dinner and sat about for a while before a thruhiker showed up who was fun to talk with and took my mind off of what was an unpleasant task. I sat and stared out at the fading sunlight without desire and without feeling. Maintaining neutrality was not fun, nor beneficial in the end. However, by maintaining it I was able to pass the time before dark without dark feelings, but also without joy. It was simply as if I did not exist.

With the breaking of dawn the darkness was lifted and I enjoyed the early morning hiking, as I usually did. The two hours between 6 and 8 am usually provided the most certain joy of the day and today was no exception. I hungered for some display of beauty and got in the form of the pale light and emptiness of the trail. Perhaps it was my perennial hope in a good day that colored my vision and heart. Perhaps the park was beautiful. It didn't matter in the least to me, as long as I could feel the beauty of the world around me and inside of me, radiating forth from the branches and leaves and swaying grass. From the immobile rocks and downed logs and even the dirty trail. From the birdsong and windsong and the tunes I whistled as I moved along. I felt reborn with the day, even if I knew that it could not possibly last and that by the afternoon I would be struggling to stay in Switzerland once again.

As the morning moved toward noon I found myself beginning with the daily struggle, especially as I knew that the road ahead would not be a pleasant one. I was going to be passing by Bear Mountain, a nexus for the dwellers of New York City looking for country air. It wasn't far ahead and the poison floating started to sour me. After a last hill walk in the semi-open air, I began the road walk (the AT really did just take the road) through the park and began the descent to the main area.

Families began to appear. The smell of charcoal grills wafted up. Rather than making me hungry, I began to feel ill. Crowds were found by the time I dropped out of the woods and began hiking along shoreline of sorts. Kids played and laughed and adults struggled to keep up with them, or took furtive drinks out of unmarked containers. A man stepped in front of me and asked me if I needed a lift into town. I said no and walked around. I felt the eyes of the hundreds of people upon me, as if I was a sort of moving, walking exhibit. Indeed, I was. I was something they didn't see frequently and in the controlled environment of the park, with hundreds of their kind around, I wasn't threatening in the least and they could stare to their hearts content. All I could do was to keep moving.

Unfortunately, in order for me to get back to the woods, I first had to get through a zoo. I wanted to go straight through, but got turned around and ended up walking past all the displays. The fat, waddling black bears that brought so much amazement to the families and kids who stood out of reach of the corpulent creatures. I was a better representative of wildlife than those fallen animals. The bald eagle looked to the sky, wanting to hunt, but hemmed in by a cage. Every creature was without meaning, without anything special. The zoo keepers put up signs that said the animals would die if released. I thought them dead already, as anything special within them had been killed long ago. It was like looking at a brain dead human. Nothing was left except for the form.

I stared at my feet as I made my way out of the zoo, not wanting to look any more. I wanted everything to be over. To steal a car and drive away from here as quickly as I could, for my feet were not moving me fast enough. I crossed over the Hudson River, stopping in the middle for no good reason other than the fact that there was no one around. No one near by, that is. For car after car after car rushed by a few feet from me, but the occupants were isolated from me by far more than that. Eventually the sounds and the exhaust were too much and I had to continued on down the road.

When I finally reached the start of the woods, I was very thankful. I didn't want to dwell any longer on the zoo and tried to forget everything. I tried to forget where I was and who I was and what I was doing, and more importantly to ignore the question of why I was out here. I stumbled through the woods for a while, sitting occasionally after some of the steeper climbs to regain composure. I broke out of the woods and reached a road to Graymoor. Graymoor is a Friary. What a Friary is I don't know, but did know that they let hikers camp in one of their ball fields and that they were some sort of monastic order. It might be a place of peace and that was all that I wanted. A hiker was coming down the road and I blurted out a few incoherent words before continuing on to Graymoor.

I found the ballfield empty and sat under the pavilion there, taking some time before eating to read the register. Entry after entry after entry described how wonderful the experience at Bear Mountain had been and about the most excellent zoo. I wrote my name down and little else. I put the register away and started some water boiling for my dinner. And with the flame of my alcohol stove, my mood lifted mysteriously. I moved to the grass and the sun to eat dinner and felt normal. I do not know why, but the place screamed serenity and I could not help but be overcome by it. I didn't do anything, or think of anything, to cause it. It simply happened. I stayed for an hour and couldn't remember why I was so distraught when I got here. I recalled the hiker that I had babbled at on my way here and hoped that I would run into him again to give a better impression of myself. I thought about staying the night at the ballfield, but sensed that this wasn't necessary. And so I walked on.

I walked and walked and walked in serenity until the sun went down and the world was dark. Time had passed. It was time to sleep and when I decided to stop there was a perfect place under some trees and away from everything except myself. I put up my tarp and settled in underneath it, underneath its shelter. Graymoor had been powerful, even more powerful than Bear Mountain, the Zoo, and the Hudson. And that gave me hope for the first time in quite a while.

I was up and rolling early from my pleasant campsite which, as it turned out, was only a few minutes from a road to an official campsite at Clarence Fahnestock State Park. As I crossed the road in the early morning mist, a voice called out to me. Spooked, I almost jumped out of my skin. No ghost was attached to this voice, but rather Captain Hook. Hook was the hiker that I had run into yesterday before reaching Graymoor and he was taking down his hammock from some trees next to the trail. I talked with him briefly and then continued down the trail. But Hook was not a slow packer or a slow hiker and he caught me shortly there after. We hiked along chatting about the PCT and the West, ignoring the fact that the trail was going upward. It wasn't until sweat started to roll down my face that I realized how much I was enjoying the conversation.

On top of the climb was a large rocky area and some local graffiti, or a memorial, if you will, about September 11 and Hook and I stopped briefly here before motoring on down to the fabulous RPH shelter. More like a summer home than a shelter, this was one of the poshest yet, even if it wasn't very fancy. The water pump had a warning sign on it which I ignored, to the mirth of Hook. I was completely soaked in sweat from the humidity and the climbing, and was actually hoping for an afternoon rain, which seemed to be on its way.

After lounging at the shelter for a while, we set off again, talking constantly, again, and time flew by, yet again. We reached NY 52 and made a right turn for a pizza place, making it about a half mile before a man in a fancy SUV picked us up, just as the rain came, and drove us the rest of the way. I hopped out of the backseat, but the man delayed Hook in the front seat for a moment. It sounded like he asked him if everything was ok. I thought this tremendously funny and almost broke out laughing. It appeared that the driver thought that I had kidnapped Hook or something.

I sprung for a extra large pizza with the works and a 2 liter of root beer as Hook didn't have any cash and they didn't take credit cards. Not the best of pizzas, but it was hot and it was food and I didn't have to make it. Watching the rain come down, in the air conditioned pizza joint, I felt grateful for small things: Someone fun to talk to, warm food, and a roof over my head. I didn't need much more, and that too made me feel hope. After chowing and waiting for the rain to stop, I bought a few supplies to get me to Kent, wished Hook good fortune, and set out down the road for my own trail.

I probably should have stayed with Hook. The hiking just went down hill from the road, despite the fact that it continued to be easy hiking. I think I just missed having someone to talk to. But it was more than that. It wasn't just having someone who would listen. Rather, Hook seemed to understand. He knew, intuitively, what I knew. We didn't talk much about gear or distances or resupply or of any of the inane, meaningless topics that come up frequently when hikers are together. I missed him already, and I had only known him for a few hours.

I walked around the edge of Atomic Lake and reached the Telephone Pioneers shelter to find it full with thruhikers. I got the last space in the shelter, and there were several tarps pitched behind it. I don't know why I bothered to stop, but perhaps I was just needy at the moment. This probably wasn't it, though, as I sat in the shelter and cooked without saying too much to the others. They had their own conversations going, anyways. It eventually came out where I had come from today and someone was able to do the math in their head to come up with a 27 mile day. This brought for a few remarks, which I tried to ignore and concentrate on my food. Although I had decided to pack my stuff and leave, rain started to fall and I didn't want to leave a dry place, so I sat in the crowded shelter and listened to snoring most of the night, even through my earplugs.