Rock ‘n Sole hostel to Well-I’m-in-New-York Scorecard
In case you haven’t noticed, I usually like to set the scene for these blogs by explaining where I am now, but I don’t want to do that quite yet, and while I’m currently in Danbury, Connecticut, trail-wise I’m actually still in New York. “Trail towns” are less of a thing up North, especially in this mid-Atlantic stretch, so naming my blogs using town to town spans continues to make less and less sense. Full disclosure: not being able to name this blog well almost bothered me enough to delay writing it until I was somewhere else, but I’m currently zeroing, which is pretty rare stuff these days, and writing a blog here wouldn’t feel like pulling teeth.
Current Mile Marker
1429.3, meaning I’ve hiked 226.3 miles since my last blog.
I crossed from Pennsylvania into New Jersey and then from New Jersey into New York. After Pennsylvania’s 230 miles, the next 4 states (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) each have less than a hundred miles of trail in them, meaning that border crossings are happening more frequently, which is obviously fun. I’m currently only a day or two from the New York/Connecticut border.
The last 50 or so miles of Pennsylvania were, as advertised, maddeningly rocky. I’ve learned it’s the unexpected difficulties that are the most frustrating and since I knew this was coming, it wasn’t as terrible as it could have been. But it did rain very aggressively the last couple of days and I got a cold. I would give just those 50 miles 1 out of 10 fudge stripe cookies. My phone gallery is full of pictures of rocks from this stretch, which I would send to friends and family in very righteous anger. I did actually Google the definition of “trail” to see if this stretch actually counted and was slightly frustrated to see that it did. Anyway, here’s a lot of pictures of rocks:
The last bit of Pennsylvania also included some of the best that thru-hikers have to offer in terms of logbook entries. There was a wonderful haiku dedicated to PA I wish I had taken a picture of. (I could recreate it but would feel guilty not giving the author proper credit. I will say that every word was “rocks.”) I did take this picture of a fantastic breakdown of the types of rocks the AT offers:
I crossed Delaware Water Gap, sneezy and congested and very terrified because that bridge moves a LOT as cars drive over it. I was immediately taken by New Jersey, which is kind of the bees knees. I used the word “dreamy” a lot. I only spent four days there but the terrain was varied and constantly changing and my navigation app was filled with the little binoculars that mark a view. Photo dump of New Jersey loveliness:
An old roommate and friend now lives in New York and we had been vaguely organizing getting together. I hadn’t seen him in years and was pretty excited to show him this trail that has been my home for months now. The last minute plan we came up with required me to hike three 20+ mile days in a row, but the New Jersey terrain had been pretty mild over the previous few days and I wasn’t too worried about it. I swear, the rock scrambles literally started at the New York border. Remember how I said hard terrain isn’t that bad if you know it’s coming? I went through both the Stairway to Heaven and the Lemon Squeezer without realizing they were “things” until after I was past them. It was all really hard and very much a punch to the gut after my dreamy jaunt through New Jersey. The AT is basically a living being in my mind now and I talked to it like a crazy person as I clambered up rock faces in direct sunlight, over and over and over. “I haven’t seen him in years,” I pleaded very earnestly with the trail under my feet (and frequently under my hands as well). “I need you to let me get there on Monday. Preferably in the late afternoon.” I leaned my face against a rock wall I was about to have to pull myself up. “I just want to spend as much time with him as possible,” I explained to a white blaze near my nose. My forehead left a sweat mark. I was possibly suffering from heat stroke.
I ended up hitting the trail at 4:30 am on the last day in an effort to avoid some of the heat and so I could get in early enough to shower before he tried to give me a hug. But it was obviously very worth it to see his face.
We did a day hike together on Bear Mountain, which is a bit of a New York tourist trap. While most thru-hikers scoff at the touristy sections of the AT, I love them. There’s usually some place that sells ice cream cones and I mean, it’s not often you get to the top of a mountain and find a vending machine there.
We finally parted ways and I did three more days of hiking. I was getting very frustrated with New York (as followers of my Instagram are aware) and truthfully, I just hurt. All over. Except for my feet, which continue to hurt so much less than I thought could be possible two months ago. (I’m letting it go, I swear.) I had made it a full month without zeroing and felt really good about the progress I had made. And so today I zeroed and it’s been pretty glorious.
Happy Pants Milestone
There is a thing I’ve had a very hard time discussing in this blog, but it’s something I’ve really, really wanted to discuss. It’s very difficult to explain, but mentally it’s been one of the hardest things for me since I’ve been out here and I think it’s important to put into words, since I know I’m far from the only thru-hiker to struggle with it.
I’m incredibly close with my friends and family back home and they’ve been an incredible support system for me out here. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows my parents are heroes. My friends are spectacular and send me amazing care packages and silly supportive texts, and I love and adore them so, so much. But I sometimes struggle with the fact that they don’t always “understand” exactly what’s happening out here. How could they? My parents come the closest, but even they have moments where, not to sound like a sulky teenager, they just don’t get it and no one understands me AT ALL.
I’m about to share some examples but I think it’s important to note all these people are beautiful, sweet souls that I wouldn’t be here without. Never the less, picture me fresh off my summit of Blood Mountain. I had spent most of the morning crying and then having my tears freeze on my face. Five miles had taken me five hours. The ice had made the rock faces slick and treacherous and the blazes were covered with snow and I’d gotten lost several times. I was sitting in the cabin my friends were staying at in Neels Gap, still kind of in shock. I hadn’t removed any of my snow gear or showered or done anything beside sitting there comatose, thinking I had bitten off so much more than I could chew. I turned my phone off airplane mode and a text popped up from my friend.
“Are you having so much fun?!” Such a sweet, innocent question that shattered me into a million pieces.
On the day I was doing that huge climb into the Smokies, I got another text from a different friend. It was so hot and the climb was so hard. I was a couple days away from the 200 mile mark. I had put what felt like every single thing I had into making it to that point. I was trying to ignore the fact I still had 2000 miles to go. If I had to think about that, I would have gotten completely overwhelmed. I would have laid down in the middle of the trail and spend a while convincing myself this journey wasn’t never-ending. I couldn’t let myself, at that point, think much further than the next day or two. The text from my friend read, “Hey, would Bland be a good place to send you a care package?” I used Guthook’s to see where Bland was. It was in Virginia, over 200 miles from where I currently was. Further than I’d even walked yet. And I felt all that dread and sense that this was just too huge an undertaking. I did lay down on a flat rock and work for awhile to convince myself this journey wasn’t never-ending.
There have also been well meaning comments that have also not always been well received, ranging from “Aren’t you used to the rain yet?” to “Well it’s summer, so it will stop raining soon.”
I don’t know how to talk about this because I feel like there’s no way to do it without sounding like an asshole. And I also don’t want to sound like I’m rebuking my friends, who are glorious angels from above. But when I’m in a really bad mental space on the trail, I know it because I spend a lot of time trying to make my friends and family understand that this is SO. FREAKING. HARD. It agonizes me that they can listen and understand what I’m saying without actually really being able to understand what I’m saying. I’ve had two people come out and visit me so far on this trail, and it’s secretly frustrated me that they both got easy stretches of trail with nice weather. That’s awful, right? Really terrible. But I couldn’t help it. They would never know what it was like to puke in their tent on accident while it was pouring outside and their tent had already let in about a half inch of water. They didn’t know what a low was.
So my friend Charlie came after what had been a couple of rough days. Aside from New York terrain being annoying, I was suffering from a pretty bad case of food fatigue. One of my toe nails has some kind of infection. One of my thighs had been chafing so bad during a long day it had started to bleed. Our hike together could have easily turned into, “Look how terrible everything is!” But it didn’t. I lovingly showed him a shelter and read out loud log book entries my friends had written. I pointed out all the weird mushrooms I’d been seeing and talked to chipmunks and secretly hoped we’d see a bear because I kind of adore them now. I was bursting with love and affection for the trail, like a new homeowner giving a tour.
At some point the documentary “Paul’s Boots” came up, which is a pretty lovely and short introduction to the AT and the wonderful community that makes it what it is. It’s up for free on YouTube and I told Charlie he should watch it. He messaged me a couple days later that he had and I had a bit of a start. Had I actually done a good job introducing someone to the trail?
If you’re wondering if I’m trying to say that my own personal milestone for this stretch is that I introduced someone to the trail without also feeling the need to convince them it was the worst thing ever, the answer is yes. That is what my personal milestone for the week was.
I’ve had it in my head for a while now that I’d like to hike 31.6 miles in a day. I’m really not one for crazy mile days; I prefer to do modest miles more consistently and I’m not the kind of person who can do 31.6 consistently. But 31.6 miles is the distance from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap, the first stop on the AT. That span took me four days at the start of my hike. I knew I could do that many miles in a day at this point. In retrospect, though, I’ve already passed through the parts of trail that were made for record mileage days (to all future thru-hikers with a similar mileage goal, just do it in the flat stretch after Boiling Springs; what a wasted opportunity that I only did 19 miles there.)
New York is not the place to attempt such a mileage goal. But New York is also sneaky because like most of the mid-Atlantic, the climbs never go above 2000 feet. But 2000 feet of going straight up 50 feet and then straight down 50 feet is still climbing up a 1000 feet and then down a 1000 feet and doesn’t even leave you with the same accomplishment as climbing an actual mountain. And it has the gall to look pretty easy on an elevation map. So after five days of getting frustrated with New York, I still managed to convince myself it was a good idea to do my 31 mile day here, mostly just because I knew I was due for a zero and could rest immediately afterwards.
I decided to start at 2:00 am because I wanted to be done by the afternoon so I could make my off day feel as long as possible. I thought I had night hiked before. Just a couple days earlier I started hiking at 4:30 am. But I found out that there is night hiking and then there is night hiking. First of all, it turns out that 4:30 am dark and 2:00 am dark are different things. I actually got to see the difference as I walked along. At 2:00 am everything that wasn’t in the circle of my headlamp was just a giant sheet of dark. By 4:30 I could see the shadows of the trees against the sky.
Second of all, it turns out I am a Giant Weenie. I felt fine packing up my stuff in the dark. I felt fine walking about the first 500 feet. Then I felt like when you’re swimming in the ocean and the water is murky and you look down and see all the nothing below you. As I mentioned earlier, I’m really unafraid of bears at this point. I’ve seen a handful of them and they’ve always come across as kind of pathetic creatures, quickly sprinting away from this 5’2″ and 120 pound girl who didn’t even have time to bring her trekking poles above her head or make any noise. But suddenly I was sure I was surrounded by millions of bears. I tried to make noise while I walked and periodically whacked my poles on things. I tried not to walk too fast in case I accidentally got between a mama bear and a cub. There’s always a lot of noise in the woods. Anyone talking about the quiet out here is kidding themselves. It’s loud. Most of the times the noises come from squirrels or birds or the wind, but at that moment in my mind it was bears. All bears.
Once, back in Maryland, I walked off the trail to pee and found myself face to face with a perfect replica of one of those weird branch things from the Blair Witch Project. Somebody was messing around, I mused as I examined it and then walked away and forgot about the whole thing. Until this moment. I never even actually saw the movie, but I assume it was about some kind of witch. At one point, I glanced to my left and saw eyes reflected back at me. That’s the witch, I thought. Worst case scenario. Best case scenario: a bear.
So I was really scared, the kind of scared of the dark I was when I was a kid, which was a little embarrassing. I wanted to stop, but then I would just be a sitting duck for the witch and wouldn’t be making any noise to ward off the bears. (On a more practical note, I was also rolling my ankles and tripping repeatedly on rocks and roots I was having a hard time seeing. This would be a very silly way to get hurt, I reasoned as I stumbled on. But the witch…)
Finally, around 4:30 I sat down, right in the middle of the trail because it seemed the safest option. I sat there for about a half hour, whacking my trekking poles together every minute or so, until it felt light enough to continue at a normal pace and not risk a face-plant. I was not attacked by a witch or a bear during that time.
I hadn’t really accounted for how much slower I’d be moving in the dark, especially in such a rocky section. By 9:00 am I had basically abandoned the idea of 31 miles, although not forever! I think I’ll try it again in Massachusetts or early in Vermont, as recommended to me by a southbound thru-hiker. And I will probably not start so early, because I am never night hiking alone again.
I’d say about 50% of the time when I hike out in the morning, I’m not actually sure where I’ll be setting up camp that night. Sometimes, I’m very sure where I’d like to end up, and sometimes I try to get an idea about the terrain and how I’m feeling before settling on something around lunch time. Sometimes I walk until 6 pm and only then start looking for a spot, which does backfire occasionally. But sometimes the opposite of backfire happens. I had two of those moments this week.
The day Charlie left, I knew I’d get a pretty late start. We had breakfast and hung out until his train left, so I didn’t get going until about 11 am, which is ridiculously late in the thru-hiking world. I also immediately walked into a zoo the AT passes right through and spent about an hour hiking the next quarter mile. Whoops.
There was a retreat center in 7 miles that lets hikers camp in their baseball field and I decided that would be a nice place to end the day. As I hiked I could see and hear a whopper of a storm coming up behind me. I will say nothing feels more bad ass than out-hiking a storm, which I did for about four miles. Then I found a deli a half mile from where I planned to camp, and my sprint was completely derailed for a quesadilla.
I ate inside as the rain hit, and I got texts from a friend behind me warning of downpours and dime-sized hail. The deli was open 24 hours but I suspected they’d probably draw the line at me sleeping there, so I pulled on my raincoat and sprinted the last half mile. I had read on Guthook’s that the baseball field flooded when it rained but you might be able to set up under a small pavilion.
When I got there, I was surprised to find a pretty huge pavilion, the kind you’d hold weddings and events under. There were three hikers there.
“This isn’t it,” one of them explained sadly. “The actual pavilion is full. But we were hoping we could set up here. No one’s kicked us out.”
“No one’s kicked us out” isn’t actually a good standard for “places that are good to camp in” and I’ve been hearing some stories about thru-hikers ruining some of these free to camp places by acting a bit too entitled. But my tent has been letting in puddles of water every time it’s rained lately and this was just about 200 feet from where we were supposed to camp. The three men seemed very nice. One of them was talking about his grandchildren. I thought if we got in trouble, I’d just let them do the talking. No one will get mad at a nice grandpa.
Two of their friends showed up later with chips, salsa, two kinds guacamole and stuff to make margaritas. There is something amazing about going from less-than-happy circumstances to happy circumstances in the blink of an eye. Suddenly I had a dry place to camp and a beer in my hand and I was surrounded by a tramily that seemed very determined to include me and kept yelling at me for not eating enough chips.
The second instance happened at the end of my futile 31 mile attempt. I’d fallen asleep around 6 pm the night before since I was getting up at 2 am. I was also planning to zero immediately after, in part because I was due and in part because I was in desperate need of a resupply. I wasn’t going to end up in a town, which was fine. The one thing New York has going for it is that Lyft works basically everywhere, which is good because hitchhiking is illegal and hikers gotta get around somehow!
I found a cheap motel close to the AT and as I double checked to make sure it was the cheapest option, I found a hotel listed for just $15 more. It was clearly a business hotel trying to book out some last minute empty rooms because it’s August and a weekend and apparently business hotels are not that busy during August and on weekends. That looks awfully nice, I mused, flicking through its features. Bar and restaurant downstairs. Continental breakfast. Pool. A Trader Joe’s next door! Expedia asked if I wanted to use my accrued points, which would make the whole thing cheaper than the other motel. Done deal.
As soon as I abandoned the idea of hiking 31 miles, all I could think about was that hotel. It was going to be the nicest place I’d laid my head in ages. By noon I was feeling very spent. I was cranky my 31 mile attempt had been foiled by my weenie-ness. It was really hot, again. New York was being just the worst. I had also been hiking for about 10 hours at that point. But it was only noon and check in wasn’t until 3:00.
As someone who has worked in the service industry, I’m very sensitive to ever being that person. Everyone in the service industry knows who that person is. I was already going to come in smelling awful and covered in mud and the carcasses of hundreds of mosquitoes. I didn’t want to show up early and demand my room. But I really wanted to be in said room. I called and asked if there was any way I could check in early, trying to awkwardly explain my predicament. “Normally, I’d just hang out at a coffee shop or something but I haven’t showered in a couple of days and I’m pretty gross and I don’t really want to subject myself on anyone. Oh! Because I’m a hiker! I don’t just not shower and smell bad!”
I’m not a good phone talker and this was not going well even by my standards. I was trying to make it better by rambling on. Finally the woman on the phone cut me off.
“We have an unused executive suite we could stick you in for no extra charge,” she said brightly. “Then it can be ready when you are.”
I’m not sure if it was to get me to stop talking or, as my dad suggested, she was worried about the risk of biological warfare. Nonetheless, about 15 minutes later I was at the closest road crossing, after another 8 minutes I was in a Lyft and 20 minutes later I was at the front desk trying to maintain a 5 foot radius of space between me and anything with a nose.
“You’ll also have access to the executive lounge,” the same woman explained to me, clearly trying not to laugh. I wasn’t sure if it was the idea of me being in the executive lounge or because of my extravagant swooning.
I actually asked where the stairs were to avoid being enclosed in an elevator with another human. “It’s on the tenth floor,” the woman said, still clearly amused. I awkwardly swooped an elevator by myself after waving off a nice family that held the door of theirs for me. I then proceeded to take the best shower in the history of showers.
Oh, the Appalachian Trail. You never know where you’ll end up
I give it 8 out of 10 fudge stripe cookies. The witch was the only reason I can’t give it 9.
One Last Thing
Those that have started following this blog recently may not know that I’m also fundraising for the International Rescue Committee. OG readers may have forgotten. To be honest, in the hullabaloo of my feet and the ensuing campaign to get back on track, I’ve also forgotten. Let’s help each other remember by including a little shout out to them in all ensuing blogs. https://www.crowdrise.com/walking-for-irc/fundraiser/jeffreybooroojian
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