Day 99: The Log of a Good Day
Portents and Signs
Trailhead boondocking, a cool morning, and no rain in the forecast. What could be better?
I crossed NJ 284 and stepped onto a janky two-plank boardwalk over a wetland, a portent for the kind of day queued up for me. Boardwalks through swamps and marshes, that is, not anything janky. Today’s wetlands would be both underfoot and in the air. The morning chill was refreshing, but I could sense that New Jersey was going to turn up the humidity.
I happened to notice the date – July 24th. My projected Katahdin summit is September 24th, two months from today. In one month, I should be in New Hampshire. The last few days, I’ve found myself thinking about the drive home and what comes next. I’m in no hurry to finish, but I’m starting to feel it coming.
Woods and Meadows
After the planks, I walked through some woods and into a hayfield by a small farm. A flock of turkeys ambled through the knee-high grass, and a pair of small deer bounded across the meadow behind them, flashing their white tails high in the air. The simple dirt path along the field border was lined with wildflowers and wineberries. I do love the meadows.
The trail intercepted a road and crossed the placid Wallkill River. I need a canoe and a shuttle to explore all these small rivers. The internet tells me that “kill” in river names is a Dutch word for “water body.” But it also means “wood” or “church” in Irish, or perhaps Scottish. Ah, the internet. Regardless, with morning mists still hanging over the river, I’d kill for a chance to explore some murky quiet waters.
Marshes and Swamps
Next, I walked three sides of a National Wildlife Refuge constructed wetland rich with waterfowl, songbirds, and bellowing bullfrogs, and ringed with wildflowers. I stopped to stare at something large and brown moving through the reeds. A local hiker carrying a huge camera came over to look, so I asked him if those were deer. He said the deer go into the marsh to hide from packs of coyotes. He’s watched the coyotes surround and take down deer, egrets, and other birds.
After the wetlands perimeter walk, the trail headed back into the woods for the first climb of the day, a moderately steep 700-foot ascent. It felt good to climb, though by the top I was drenched in sweat. Again. Still. I’ve accepted that I’ll be walking soggy for at least another month.
Near the top of the climb, I saw Manbun and Chatty (my names) just leaving their camp. I’d seen them a handful of times over the past three weeks, but could never get a word out of them. Yesterday, I’d walked up on them as they left camp just before my blue blaze adventure, and had gotten a “Hello,” a small victory.
Today, I saw them coming out of camp again and said, “How’s that for timing? What time shall we meet tomorrow?” That got a little chuckle and a smile, which led to a short conversation. I told them I’d seen four bears along the blue blaze, and they said I’d missed an afternoon trail magic by going too fast. They both speak with a thick European accent, which probably explains their normal reticence.
A few minutes later, Splat appeared ahead of me in the woods. Suddenly, she bent over at the waist and tilted forward like she was going to earn her name. A stream of sailor-worthy invective followed, echoing loudly through the woods. She turned and saw me, and shouted, “Stop! Hornets! No! Don’t stop there! Run!” I walked, figuring her array of commands averaged out to walking. The ground hornets got her but didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s the long pants and long sleeve shirt.
Then I passed Thriller and Cheater, and Espresso a few minutes later, followed by One Love after that. Splat told us that One Love is 70 and hiking with one lung. He’s killing it. Cheater and I might be the only ones not wearing head nets yet.
The trail soon spilled out of the woods, crossed a small road, and turned into another wetland. This time, the trail crossed through the marshlands on a miles-long boardwalk that must be the pride of the New Jersey ATC. Every AT vlog I’ve ever watched includes a segment about walking the Appalachian Trail Boardwalk. I’d been anticipating hiking it ever since I crossed the Delaware River.
I’ve talked to a few hikers who hate the boardwalk because it is too flat, too artificial, and boring. I loved it. I thought it was fun and different. I spent my time staring down into the reeds and muck from above, looking for critters. I saw one black-faced little rodent I couldn’t identify before he disappeared as my shadow crossed over him. A hedgehog? A musk rat?
Halfway across, I met a trail maintainer whacking weeds to keep up the three-foot buffer from the planks. He gave me a little history of the boardwalk and talked about his daily battle trying to keep it from disappearing into the swamp. As we chatted, another hiker approached and we left him to his chores, thanking him profusely for his efforts before we hiked on.
As we left, the hiker mentioned that she was heading to a hot dog food truck at the next crossing. Suddenly, the room-temperature tortilla and tuna fish bouncing around in my pack lost its luster. I’d be eating hot dogs off the grill in minutes. The boardwalk ended at a small woods bordered by a railroad and then another meadow.
A signed posted by the meadow read, “Hikers – Do Not Approach the Cows.” I supposed some people must be told not to walk off a solid, dry plank trail through a wet bog toward huge animals that could hurt them. But seeing the sign kind of made me want to try. Also, what if the cows approach me? Do I reject them? Refuse their overtures? I wouldn’t want to be rude. Then again, I was heading toward grilled all-beef hot dogs, so the chances of building a long-term relationship with cows was slim.
The hot dog truck was locked up tight and wouldn’t open for another hour. Crushing disappointment. But then, a ray of hope in the distance. A sign up the road said “Farmers Market Today.” I recalled that farmers have food and stumbled deliriously toward a big barn, which turned out to be the Heaven Hill Farm Market. And they were flying the ice cream flag. Salvation.
Espresso and two other hikers eventually joined me at the picnic tables for ice cream, Gatorade, and other treats. Espresso told me stories of living in Italy while in the Navy. I might be going to Italy next.
The Stairway to Heaven
Fueled by sugar, I returned to the trail and the notorious “Stairway to Heaven” climb. Would “Stairway From Heaven” be a better name, considering where I’d just been fed? The climb was steep, but not particularly long, though a warning sign at the base told us to watch for rattlesnakes and copperheads. Just what a steep climb on a sweltering day needs – vipers.
I passed Thriller on the climb but saw no sign of Cheater. When I’d passed Cheater earlier, he’d put on the afterburners, chasing me down with all eight cylinders firing. Just as he got within a stone’s throw, but was still out of sight in the woods, I heard him briefly yelling about something, but he never reappeared. More hornets? It didn’t occur to me until later that I should have gone back and checked.
Might As Well Be Raining
Thriller was standing off to the side of the trail downing some water. He looked up at me wearily and said, “Might as well be raining.” I knew exactly what he meant. We were both rainstorm wet – clothes plastered to our skin and sweat forming puddles around us when we stopped.
I like that line. Expect to see it in my blog frequently until Fall.
It’s a real problem. When I’m this sweaty, I can’t use the touchscreen on my phone. I can’t open food wrappers without using my teeth. I can’t answer the phone or take pictures. I need a different way to carry my phone to keep the sweat off it. And to dry off my thumb before trying.
How Far Am I?
I stopped at the top to take a drink and gasp for air. A day hiker coming the other way stopped and asked if I was thru-hiking. When I said yes, she asked how far along I was. People should not ask questions like that when I’m hot, tired, and more than a little befuddled.
How far am I? Uh, I’m here. I’m this far. I couldn’t figure out what else she might have meant. I appreciated the conversation but struggled not to say something snarky. Fortunately, I’d just looked at FarOut and knew the mileage, so I said I’m almost at 1,400 miles. She looked a little confused, so I might have misunderstood. I wished her a good hike and hurried off.
A Full Cooler
At the Warwick Turnpike I had a first. I found a trail magic cooler that still had cold drinks left in it. I’ve seen at least 20 coolers near crossings and never found anything but garbage in any of them. I sat down and had a second lunch with a chilly soda. And I met my first south bounder, a friendly guy who lives the vanlife when he’s off trail. He’d seen Northstar and the van waiting at the next road crossing and had lots of questions about amperage and such that I couldn’t answer.
A Full Heart
As I left the cooler magic, I realized that I’d spoken to nearly everyone I’d passed today, and I knew almost all of them by name. Northstar said that she’d seen Fizz and Lucky McShorts at the Unionville Deli and that they’d said hello to her. That hasn’t happened to me anywhere on the AT. I’m putting that down as part of New Jersey’s magic. I hope New York keeps up with its neighbor.
I met Northstar at Longhouse Drive around 2:00 p.m., and we drove to Warwick so Gus could play at the park and I could write in the shade. After Northstar made dinner, we drove over to the Appalachian Boardwalk and walked it again, this time stopping frequently to watch dragonflies and evening birds.
Gus managed to fall off the Boardwalk trying to avoid a yappy little dog, but he was leashed and I caught him before he hit the muck. I’m pretty sure I heard Gus curse for the first time ever. It’s always the little dogs.
I’m still loving New Jersey. I love the pine woods, the wetlands, the plank trails, the Boardwalk, the climbs, and small towns. Also, the wildflowers are back. And the variety of mushrooms has been stunning. The trail is well-blazed and signed, with a few interesting alternate routes. It didn’t hurt that the weather wasn’t as punishing as it was in Pennsylvania.
I felt good on the climbs today. I could have done another eight miles if I had to, but I sure didn’t feel like it. My feet are a little tender from last week’s rocks and this week’s miles. I’m looking forward to our next zero day.
- Start: NJ 284 (Mile 1,349.7)
- End: Longhouse Dr. (Mile 1,367.3)
- Weather: Sunny, chilly early then warm. Humid by mid-day.
- Earworm: Girls Just Want to Have Fun (Cindi Lauper). Ugh.
- Meditation: Lk 6:37
- Plant of the Day: Cattails
- Best Thing: Appalachian Trail Boardwalk (twice)
- Worst Thing (besides the humidity): Mosquitos
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