Don’t Sleep on New York: A Peak Fall Season AT Section Hike
With the end of the world back in March (don’t you remember?) came the end of a TON of thru-hikes and other adventure trips. While filling my time after getting off the AT with local adventure projects (check out these cool caves) was productive, I still wasn’t getting my fill of traipsing about the great outdoors for miles on end and earning my horrid hiker BO. You see, I had made it through those frigid Winter nights, climbed Blood Mountain in a freezing thunderstorm, and pushed my body uphill until the everyday mileage felt almost autonomous, but where were those nights in good company by the campfire? Where were all the crazy bear stories and Summertime swim breaks? Where was TRAIL DAYS?! Ok…. tone it back ‘Val.
The only reasonable cure to my ailment was OBVIOUSLY to pack all my stuff into the back of my rather small Mazda3 and head up the East Coast to New York for a week on trail with my long lost hiking homie, the great and powerful “John Mayer.”
This time we were going to do it, well most of it. We were going to condense the Appalachian Trail experience into a week-long microcosm of our previous six-month endeavor, and I have to say we got pretty close.
Considering how casual the trail is heading beyond the road crossing at Highway 17A, we saw no reason to push ourselves out of the gate with a crazy high-mileage day. The weather was all but perfect (for once). The leaves had coated the ground in a mesmerizing golden carpet that stretched endlessly in every direction. The pop tarts were reduced to sugary dust in my food bag before I had enjoyed a single one. Some things never change.
Beautiful Fall foliage aside, the trail here also felt rather fantastical as we found ourselves buried atop boulder scrambles in the dense fog that had swept through. In a moment we were reduced to the only things left in existence as far as we could observe. Us and those eerie white rectangles that is, and we followed their guidance blindly remembering what it was like to be standing beside them some 1,000-miles south of where we were back when we had begun writing this chapter in our lives.
We exited the fog along the banks of Lake Tiorati and were transported to a new landscape. The soft rolling hills along the lake’s border felt to transcend Man’s fleeting existence. The soft evening light sauntered betwixt the solemn branches which clung to their leaves while the world turned cold around them. The wind carried a veil of scarlet and gold through the sky as the leaves attempted to clothe the waters below, and every so often we would hear another lost soul collapse onto the forest floor as the gales cut trees down from their roosts to slumber on the cold ground. Night fell as it always does, and in almost an instant the first day had passed.
Unfortunately for us, it seemed that no matter which day we made the climb over Bear Mountain we were guaranteed to fall into crowds near the tower at the mountain’s pinnacle. The silence and solitude we had experienced the previous day melted in an instant flash of folks drinking beers on the mountaintop and taking endless photos. One group was even doing a fashion shoot (and they didn’t invite us to join. How rude).
While I have been known to drone on about my abhorrence towards crowds while backpacking, the silver lining of this encounter flashed across our minds almost instantaneously. You see, where there are townies, there will also be town food, and town food is possibly the second greatest thing about being on trail. A quick bound down the mountain followed by a short Uber landed us in a small mound of BBQ. Barnstormer BBQ was our locale of choice, and it didn’t disappoint.
This now lands two fat and sleepy hikers in need of some accommodations. The Trailside Zoo had already closed for the evening, and I’ll be damned if I missed such a cool feature of the AT. Naturally, this landed us at the Bear Mountain Bridge Motel where a friendly gent by the name of Grandpa welcomed us both with tales of other hikers who had gone by this season. There were a number of names we recognized in the logbook. Some were even folks we had met during our previously derailed thru-hikes earlier this year. It was interesting to see the signatures of people we had shared the trail with so far from where we had last stepped on it.
Graymoor Spiritual Life Center
As I had previously mentioned, this section hike encapsulated much of what we had hoped to experience on a full AT thru-hike, and we got much more than we bargained for at Graymoor. Nestled over the hill just a half-mile from trail, the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center offered us that genuine hikers by the campfire social experience. But first – Baseball.
Fun fact: I am dogshit at baseball.
Funner fact: The prior statement doesn’t make clobbering a massage ball with a branch any less satisfying.
We eventually resigned ourselves to the fire pit for the evening. Interspersed moments of intense silence in the flame’s warm embrace were separated by the god awful jokes that only a couple of hiking dorks could have found so funny. We were just about ready to pack it in for the evening as not one but two solo hikers stumbled into our camp at nightfall. “Whelp, guess we should get that fire going again” was the shared response between Mayer and I.
We emplored each of them to join us, but only one did. There was a religious ceremony of sorts going on at the center itself, and this attracted one of our wandering guests. Fair enough.
I wish I could describe the event in full, but how could I really? How could I encapsulate voices praying in unison emanating from the woodline as the church bell blasted the hour through our camp at the stroke of seven? The chill in the air was offset by the warmth of the fire and our ever-growing intrigue towards what may have been happening over the hill. The three of us gave our own stories of what it all meant, drawing up fireside tales of cults and religious doctrines akin to a Stephen King novel. A couple times we laughed at our own foolishness and the subject turned over to our respective origin stories. The night went by quickly, and as I found myself being the only remaining member at the fire, I contemplated how these experiences would shape me to the tune of hot coals rolling around in ash as I extinguished our union and sent myself off to sleep.
The final day of our trek landed us at Canopus Lake, and while that day’s journey was relatively underwhelming (the vast number of blowdowns aside), sleeping by the lakeshore was incredible.
We descended out of the woods, now four days deep in a cloudy overcast, to be greeted by sunbeams tearing through the clouds and settling upon the water. The light waltzed across the surface of the lake animatedly. It was if a thousand crystalline figures were jumping up and down in celebration of our arrival. I waded into the water and felt the wind rush through me. People often tell me I have no idea how to stop and appreciate these places I travel to, and they’re probably right, but I can distinctly recall that first breath at the end of the trek and how good it felt to experience these places.
I’m truly honored to live in a part of the world where I get to call such natural beauty my own. These places belong both to everyone and no one. We have both the right to enjoy them and the responsibility to care for them in whatever capacity we find ourselves capable. Sometimes that is as simple as volunteering to clear debris from our trails or helping a cleanup crew remove trash from our rivers. Sometimes you may find yourself compelled to do more.
If our public lands have impacted you in any capacity, it seems right to return the favor, no matter how small the deed is. Take a morning walk through your local park and pick up litter. If you would like some information on the current state of our public lands, click the link below and watch this documentary.
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