New Jersey, New York, Food, and City Life
I finally reached Delaware Water Gap, the easternmost edge of Pennsylvania. I was mentally and physically spent and in need of a day off. Thank goodness for church basement hostels and community potlucks.
A Philosophical Moment Along the Delaware
Walking into town I ran into a group of hikers I hadn’t seen since Fontana Dam. That’s roughly two months for those at home. It amazes me that I’m able to recall the exact moment I met someone for the first time, and when I’d last seen them. It’s as if the thru-hikers on trail are already apart of this extended family. We come and go. When we reunite it’s as if no time has passed at all.
I thought a lot about time on this stop. The trail, the seasons, the states, the miles, my life, everything swept up in a messy pile. A friend from Duqeusne, where I went to graduate school, came up from New Jersey and we related our year since graduation. He recounted confrontations with the fragility and finitude of life, recently losing a family pet that had been the cornerstone of his younger self. It had me thinking about the limited nature of this hike, who I was in the beginning, who I now am, who I am becoming. How quickly everything changes, how slow it is remaining the same.
A Taste of the End
It’s no secret to anyone that life on trail can’t last forever. Now, more than ever, the end of the trail is a reality for many. There is the feeling of the pressure of hard deadlines, as some need to return to their off-trail lives of school, family, work, and other commitments. This leads to hiking longer days, trying to maximize the miles while calculating potential end dates and necessary averages.
Hiking 21 miles means that, in a single day, I’ve covered one percent of the trail. Mathematically, this may seem insignificant. After a long, hard day, watching my “You Are Here” marker glide across the map, I realize how much closer I get, how real finishing this hike becomes. It’s still overwhelming, it’s still daunting, it’s still a hell of a lot of walking. I was expecting the trail to ease up as I crossed the Delaware as well. I was in for a serious surprise.
The Real New Jersey
I crossed the Delaware and the I-80 bridge swayed in waves with every passing truck. It was as if the concrete and rebar were made of soft sand. As I departed the road with a sense of optimism, my excitement was smashed as the trail tread was right back to Pennsylvania rocky. In addition to rocky trail, New Jersey throws a changeup.
The AT in New Jersey is rocks plus bugs plus incredibly questionable water sources. There are legion unexplainable things. Road walks, a stretch of boardwalk, abandoned houses, and an obelisk to demarcate the Jersey high point. I was dizzy and frustrated as I tried to comprehend everything in the buggy lowlands. I would lie in my tent, stripped bare with my legs burning from bug bites. It’s a short-lived state.
The Empire State
As you walk into New York, the border is a short line painted at ground level on an exposed rock slab. This is a precursor of what is to come. New York is less of hike and more of a class three rock scramble. A majority of the day is spent climbing up and over rocky hills as there are no actual mountains to speak of. Hundred-foot rock piles over and over again, through the Palisades and into the Hudson Valley make up a majority of the trail. My attitude and demeanor throughout this section was likened to Ralphie’s father in “A Christmas Story” as he fought with the furnace in the basement while black smoke rose from the baseboards. It’s tough going.
New York is also a total food-a-thon. Every day you can drop into a town, stop at a roadside ice creamery, eat at a deli or state park concessionaire. These stops were a welcome disruption, despite being slightly intimidated by women behind the pizza counters with thick New York accents and no-nonsense attitudes.
Coming across Bear Mountain the crowds picked up as I descended toward the Hudson. It’s an overload of people picnicking along the lagoon while children run free within the trailside zoo. The lowest point of elevation is at the zoo, right in front of the sleepy cinnamon-coated black bear exhibit.
To NYC, the Big Apple
Sweetness, who met me earlier in my hike at Erwin, was to be in Brooklyn and that was the excuse I sought to take the train into the city.
Quesadilla and Overdrive heard of my plan to take the commuter train in from Pawling. That morning, eating a three in one breakfast sandwich outside a deli, Quesadilla contacted a family member in Manhattan. To our surprise, we got a welcoming invitation to come in that afternoon.
I’d forgotten the last time I’d done laundry and they were fairing no better. We were caught in a thunderstorm as we waited for a ride to the train station. Like filthy wet dogs, we curled in the corner of the train. Together we fought off the stares with laughter and delighted in their impulsive decision to come downtown.
Coming out of Grand Central was like being burped up into another universe. I lived in Chicago, and Pittsburgh, so I know the rhythm of urban dwelling. Nothing cuts the edge of those first few hours. Stinking and with my pack in tow, New York is the type of place where you can do anything and no one will give you a second glance.
We caught the tail end of the Pride Parade, ate $20 cheeseburgers, and crashed on the wooden floor of a small Chelsea apartment. Classic hiker trash.
The next day I wandered around Lower Manhattan, where I met Sweetness. We went out to Queens where I crushed pizza and finally got a little rest.
Coney Island and Big Mile Zero Days
Sweetness and I went out to Coney Island to walk the boardwalk before his departure back to Chicago. I was torn between returning to the trail or taking another day off. I found a cheap place to crash at the Soldiers and Sailors Club near Grand Central. I dropped my pack and set out into the city. It’s hard not to keep walking in a town like New York.
I’m drawn to the intensive waves. People pressing against people along the sidewalks as the buildings press down into the street. Walking, walking, walking. I hit about 15 miles on my day off. So be it. Had to make the most of my last day of the New York food-a-thon. It’s easy to survive on bagels, hot dogs, pizza, ice cream, coffee, and black and white cookies. Thanks for taking all my money, New York.
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