AT Day 68 – Welcome To New York
Quarry Road to Mount Peter
Clean And Muddy Camp to Breezy Cedar Camp
AT miles: 26.3
Total miles: 1382.4
Elevation change: 5282ft gain, 4646ft loss
New Jersey finished with a flourish, providing an eclectic array of interesting and easy hiking to take me to the end of my short visit. New York kicked my butt right off the bat with a totally new sort of rocky challenge. In my experience, crossing a state line has only ever demonstrated how silly and arbitrary our drawn borders actually are. While they might be important for government, the invisible lines through the wilderness have always felt like just that, invisible. The forests and deserts don’t care where California ends and Oregon begins any more than the squirrels and hawks. So it was surprising and interesting today, when the landscape did shift almost precisely at the NJ-NY border. Maybe that’s the result of clever trail building alone, but it threw me for a loop and made this border crossing feel more significant than most. It was hard to say goodbye to New Jersey after such a fine finish, and I’m curious to see what New York has to offer, in terms of terrain and burritos.
My wet and muddy shoes were still wet and muddy when I packed up my roadside camp and got hiking in the morning. I’d slept great on my soft bed of deep leaves and felt just a little bit stiff in the back when I straightened up after stuffing all my stuff into my pack. I was amazed by my small load after the birthday gear swaps. My new quilt only took up half the space of my old one, which was a game changer.
The overcast day was not warm, but I heated up quick on a short and steep uphill to start the day. Then it felt like I was practically walking through Unionville, NY as the trail skirted the edge of the suburb and the state line. But New Jersey wasn’t done with me yet. Backyards and fences quickly gave way to pastures and a solar farm as I left the small town behind on the smoothest of trails through the greenest of shrubbery. A few muddy patches slowed me down as I picked my way carefully across the stick and stone islands laid by those who came before, but mostly the trail was as fast as could be.
Then it got even faster after I joined a paved road for a mile, using its bridge to cross a wide creek, away from the scattered homes and into the wide and marshy expanse of a national wildlife refuge. I munched on my breakfast cookie as I followed the grassy levee around the soggy wetland, wondering what was making those loud sashing sounds in the dark water, looking for birds more interesting than the Canadian geese that had pooped everywhere. The new environment was a welcome change of pace from the hills, and I again thanked New Jersey for changing up the scenery.
I returned to the hills, but not for long. A few quick miles up and over some classic forest terrain on soft dirt and leaves put me back on the edge of a wide flat expanse of mud and water. This time, the impressive Pochuck boardwalk wizzed me across the marshland, safely above the deep muck and ooze. Even though I was a few feet above the water, the swaying rushes still towered above me at times. Red wing blackbirds twittered all around, flashing their flamboy shoulder pads in short spurts as they escorted me through their home.
The wooden planks transitioned to soft dirt after almost a mile of good boardwalking, but the cruisy flat wasn’t finished yet. I wandered around tall trees, cutting a meandering line through the dense green carpet of sprouting new growth. The air was filled with the rich aroma of wet earth and productive expansion. It was clear to me that I would never be as excited for spring as the seasonal salad-like greens that would grow fast and whither quickly. This was their time, and I was happy to be an observer. When a perfect backrest of a round boulder appeared next to the trail, I whipped out my pad and plunked down to observe. And eat. Mostly I stopped to eat. I’ll admit it.
With a belly full of peanut butter, mushroom jerky, licorice, and swelling chia seeds, I finished of the glorious flats of New Jersey through an aromatic cow pasture. Craning my neck skyward as I walked through a small stand of small juniper trees, I tried to get a sense of how the trail would tackle the cliff in front of me. I knew that a feature of the trail called the Stairway To Heaven was directly ahead, but I couldn’t believe that there was either a stairway or heaven up there. I think that even the reduced wisdom of 31-year-old me could have figured that out.
And my intuition was right. However, Stairway To Heaven does sound a lot better than Crappy Pile Of Junk Boulder Trail, so I conceded the generous definition of “stairway” in this case. It was a tough climb, but would have been a tougher descent, so I didn’t grumble about it too much. Besides, the view up top was worth the effort. Obviously I could see the full expanse of the Pochuck, tracing my path through the reeds, but I could also see all the way back to the highpoint monument, which was doing its job splendidly. Even the covering of cloud was something to see. The surface dipped and cupped with smooth clarity like an upsidedown pond of ripples. A breeze chilled my sweat and gave the vultures something to ride.
As the next several miles scrolled by with the ease of a smooth trail, I became angrier and angrier with the rocks of PA. As I was reintroduced to how pleasant a trail could be, I began to reexamine Rocksylvania for what it was. Sure, I had enjoyed my time there, a lot, especially the southern portion, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I had developed a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome. I’d fallen in love with my captor, and needed to break free before I could see it for what it was. Those rocks were tough and crappy, no doubt about it. That much had seemed clear at the time, but now I could see that I had been generous with my review. Those rocks were tougher and crappier.
No matter, I was in New Jersey now, soon to be in New York. I crushed hard, up and over many rollercoastering rises and troughs, around big humps of granite, letting my legs find their natural stride, rather than micromanaging every step with care. The oak transitioned to pine, then I climbed up a short cliff. One hundred yards along a fin of stone and I was there. Painted on the ground was a short line, “N.J.” on my side, “N.Y.” on the other. I looked ahead and around me. Yep, this was a different environment entirely, and it happened in a blink. The pine trees whispered in the occasional gusts of wind. Around me, all I could see where hills and treetops. I knew that I was still only in New York, but the vibe was of somewhere much farther north, much more remote. Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York welcomed me to New York, and I stepped across the line.
I let the song loop five or six times as I scrambled and dodged up and around huge rocks. This hiking was completely different from any that had come before. It was challenging and slow for sure, but it was fun and exciting. I loved using my hands to pull up a short scramble, or help keep balanced on a narrow fin. However, I could see with sobering clearness how even this fun stuff would get frustrating if it persisted. These were hard miles.
A wide open view from a rocky bald was all that I needed to forget those scary thoughts. Greenwood Lake hummed with life below, and I could even make out the skyline of Manhattan, the geometric gray of skyscrapers just barely contrasting with the uniform grey of the sky. It might have been the scariest sight yet. So unnatural, it even challenged my view of how tall and skinny buildings could be built. Even as far as big cities go, it is extreme. After months in the mountains, it was practically science fiction. I pressed on, feeling good about the day, feeling good about New York. I filtered water from a rocky brook with water the color of iced tea, then continued into the gathering gloom for the final two miles of the day.
I found camp, right where it needed to be, a flat patch of green grass under a lone cedar. The lights of the town blinked below as I beamed my headlamp around, making final gear arrangements in my temporary home, or nesting, as the homebound folk call it. I ate my beans, finished off my Oreos, and lay down to rest. Something about this state felt ominous and exciting. I couldn’t identify the source of that feeling, but noticed it, and was grateful. That’s the reason I’m out here, to feel those feelings. Okay New York, let’s do this thing.
This post was originally published on my blog hikefordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.
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