AT Days 20-23: Trail Math – Does Nearo + Nearo = Zero?

This four day stretch between Pennsylvania and New Jersey feels like a positive turning point for my AT hike. Here’s the summary:

Day 20 Hammock spot on ridge to Kirkridge Shelter (23 mi)
Day 21 to Delaware Water Gap and Church of the Mtn hostel (6 miles – Nearo)
Day 22 – to AMC Mohican Outdoor Center (11 miles – Nearo)
Day 23 – Mohican Outdoor Center to Brinks Road Shelter (14 miles)

Aiming for zero

As I was approaching my third full week on the trail, I was again planning a rest and recovery day.  Just to clarify Trail terminology for some of you:

  • A complete rest day for a thru-hiker is called a “Zero Day”, or “Zero”. This is because the hiker will log zero trail miles.
  • A partial rest day for a thru-hiker is called a “Nearo Day”, or “Nearo”, short for “Near Zero”.  This could be used to describe any day where the hiker does less miles than what they typically average.

I needed resupply, laundry and access to ice for my leg.  Unfortunately, given the tiny towns dotting the route ahead, there wasn’t a single place that looked adequate.  I tried calling the Mohican Outdoor Center to ensure that I’d have space there, but their phone line was constantly busy.  With this uncertainty swirling, I’d also be attempting a 23 mile day.

Day 20 started well enough but this would turn out to be my toughest day yet. I had a cruising first 7 miles as I had some appropriate head music about making my departure:

  • Already Gone (Eagles)
  • Goodbye Stranger (Supertramp) “… and I must be movin’ on”

And Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes buzzed in as well as it perfectly fit my cadence over the flat road. Despite my rapid pace that morning, I still had over 13 miles to cover to the shelter:

An added complication arose because of a report that the water had been shut off at my destination shelter.  Thus, I’d plan to carry about 3 1/2 liters from Wind Gap, adding 7 pounds to my pack weight.

Getting access to that water at Wind Gap was a bizarre exercise, and definitely my MMM (Most Memorable Moment) of Day 20.  My Far Out app noted that the Gateway Motel provided water for hikers. Typically this is a labeled water spigot outside.

Finding none, I entered the motel office where a man named Satish offered me a half liter bottle of water, but suggested I also download a PDF of an Indian prayer book, then provided me motel business cards plus a metal nail to post these at the shelter.  I practically expected him to provide me a hammer as well, but thankfully he stopped at the nail.  I used a sink tap to get the extra water I needed, thanked him, and went on my way.  The man was passionate about his religion and his business — I guess I was OK with that.

I still needed to cover nine miles to get to my target shelter.  That stretch would turn out to be the most mentally challenging to date.  After a rigorous straight up climb out of Wind Gap to the ridge, the trail offered nothing to a hiker except for the endless truckloads of loose rocks that covered it.

In an earlier post I noted Day 4’s miserable stretch of trail on my second day in Pennsylvania.  This section, on my second to last day in Pennsylvania, was the ugly bookend:

  • An oak forest with few budding trees (and therefore, no cover from the sun)
  • No water or animal activity
  • No intersecting trails or roads for over 8 miles!
  • A painfully straight course

And those rocks!  At one point I screamed into the woods “I am SO DONE with these rocks!”  My frustration also mounted because I hadn’t yet worked out that Zero Day plan. And I was carrying two motel business cards and a nail in my front right pocket.  Arrgggh!

On later days two other hikers told me that they’d also yelled out loud on that awful section of trail.  A few hidden recording devices in that barren stretch would probably capture some interesting stuff!

Ultimately I made it through.  23 miles, eleven and a half hours of hiking.  At the shelter I decided I’d have to do a Nearo Day in Delaware Water Gap – which had a place to resupply, and then another Nearo the next day at Mohican, where I could ice my leg.

Why is there nothing listed on this sign before 6.8 miles?  Because there is NOTHING to see, except miles and miles of rocks like you see in the picture above.

The Tale of “Crawler”

The contrast to my survival on this stretch was played out by a thru-hiker I’ll call “Crawler”.  I met Crawler about a day south of Duncannon PA.  He’d already hiked a 600 mile stretch of Virginia and appeared trail-hardened.  When I met him on the trail I asked him his trail name, and shared mine – “High Road” – with him.  He said “I won’t forget it” – and he never did. I ran into him numerous times in the days ahead and he always greeted me by my trail name.

At the Outerbridge Shelter on Day 18 I met him as I pulled in. He was looking ahead, figuring his resupply options in the NJ/NY section.  And he was helping a couple other hikers, advising them where they might get the supplies they needed.

Now fast forward just two days ahead from that point to Day 20.  At the end of my 23 mile hike, I was greeted by a much humbler and subdued Crawler in his bag at the shelter.  We had a brief conversation- in which he told me his next destination was “a Trailways bus”.   I couldn’t believe it … he’d done 800 trail miles and it seemed like he was in “cruise mode” just two days ago.   At one point I caught him limping painfully.  “The rocks got me”, he said.

Later, lying in my hammock as the sun set, I heard a shelter commotion below me.  Slamming sounds, like equipment being pounded into the wooden floor.  I thought a new hiker had just arrived (there were two close behind me) and had some equipment issues. Maybe 20 minutes later, in complete darkness, there was loud cursing – very unusual on the Trail.

Later as the faintest light touched the edges of the horizon at 4:30 A.M., I heard a person trudging past my hammock.  I thought this was a privy trip for a hiker but never heard return steps.  Maybe I dozed off? When I awoke an hour later I headed to the shelter to figure out who the late arrival was that caused the commotion.  Except the shelter was totally empty?!?!

Only then did I fit the pieces together:  Crawler’s emotions had spilled over, the anger leading him to curse, bang the shelter walls with his poles and likely his fists. He’d toiled for two months, 800 miles, on the Trail and was headed home with an “Incomplete”.  Those 4:30 A.M. footsteps I heard were his, a one way trek to the bus station at Delaware Water Gap.   I hope he heals quickly and is back out here soon – the Trail is better with him on it.

Nearo in Delaware Water Gap

On Day 21 I had an easy six mile hike to this hostel in Delaware Water Gap, run by the local Presbyterian church.  In addition to a bunkroom, it had a great little lounge area as shown below.   A congregation volunteer even dropped in that afternoon to do some light cleaning.  This is just one example of the really great network of supporting organizations, businesses, and people who help out thru-hikers.  Thank you all!

After I showered (oh yes — what a luxury!) I spent some time talking with Oorah (he’s a former Marine) about his Trail experience so far, coming from Georgia in February.  Later we went together to Doughboy’s Pizza to fill up on pizza calories and a couple of beers.  It was a relaxing, enjoyable stay in that little town!


Off to New Jersey – and immediately nicer terrain!

On Day 22 I had to start my day by walking alongside Interstate 80 to cross the Delaware River into New Jersey.  Thus far, I think that walking along highways is my least favorite AT activity to date.  The noise is deafening, the cars move frighteningly fast, and when an 18-wheeler flies by you get a wind blast that tosses you and your pack around.  I was so happy to get off of that road and cross into New Jersey forest.

And what a difference in those woods!  Within the first half mile of trail, I was walking up a river valley with green trees anywhere from 50-100% in bloom.  Smaller green plants abounded and grass lined the trailsides.  Dunnfield Creek swirled below me, dropping over rocks, swirling into pools in an aqueous downhill dance.  New Jersey really is the Garden State, I thought — this is heavenly!  I suddenly felt like I was hiking terrain back home in New England!

In a few miles I reached Sunfish Pond, a glacial lake that is one of New Jersey’s seven natural wonders.  As I stared out at the wide quiet pond I quickly realized what had been missing throughout the first 3 weeks of my AT hike — this!  A pond!  With all of the ridge views I had in Maryland and Pennsylvania I saw farmland, rivers, and towns but never any ponds.  And this is why we need to step back a second and give some thanks to some old, old friends.

Praise for the glaciers

When the last Ice Age ended about ten thousand years ago (which is not really so long ago, if you think about it), the glaciers got about as far south as this Pennsylvania-New Jersey area that I’ve been describing.  Glaciers moved huge rounded boulders and dirt thousands of miles, covering the prior ground terrain which essentially was ocean floor hundreds of millions of years earlier.

What they also did was shape mountains, valleys, deep ravines and cirques in the northeastern states.  These left behind beautiful rocky streams flowing into glacial ponds, forming vibrant mountain landscapes.  And the new boulders covered many of those sea-floor limestone deposits.

I’ve been guilty in my past business life of using the word glacial as a negative term – often to describe some painfully slow organization I’d be working with.  But it turns out they did great work, albeit slowly!

So thank the glaciers for providing the northeast its mountain and water beauty.  If they hadn’t arrived, I never would have been a hiker.  And I wouldn’t be on this AT hike now.  And you wouldn’t be enjoying this blog post!

Another Nearo, then a full day to explore the New Jersey AT

I spent the night of Day 22 at Mohican Outdoor Center, sharing a cabin with Terrapin – a fellow Red Sox fan and part time Cape Cod resident.  I felt fortunate that I could ice my still-swollen left leg in the lodge most of that afternoon.

When Day 23 broke, the weather was foggy, misty, and cool — but I didn’t care at all.  In fact, I was ecstatic that it wasn’t hot and sunny.  For I was traveling in NJ rattlesnake country, and often these snakes come out to sun on the rocks when the weather is hot and sunny.  Here are just some of the landmarks I’d pass on this day (I can’t make this up):

  • Rattlesnake Spring
  • Rattlesnake Swamp Trail
  • Rattlesnake Mountain
  • Rattlesnake Shelter

So I enjoyed the fog, the wonderful greenery, and the voluminous birds (especially hermit thrushes, which were everywhere!). I even saw the first rabbit of my trip – which seems ridiculous!

And best of all, the two shorter hike days had allowed my left leg to heal.  I was hiking at full strength for really the first time in almost three weeks!  I appreciate the concern that many of you have voiced as I’ve limped through much of this first stretch.  As I noted in the introduction, the change in my health and the terrain bodes well for me going forward.

And now we know the answer to the math question in the title:

    Nearo + Nearo may be greater than or equal to Zero !!


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