Shake, Shake It Down Now
They say that the AT is a roller coaster. Well, this weekend I rode the mini carnival version of that coaster from the Hemlock Springs Campsite near Bear Mountain Bridge to the Appalachian Trail Train Station, about 43 miles away on a weekend shakedown hike. Along the way, I “hitched” a ride for the first time, slept in a deserted campground for the first time, hiked 23 miles with a full pack in pouring rain for 9 hours for the first time, and slept in an AT shelter for the first time. Needless to say, it was one wild roller coaster ride.
I got on the train bound for Poughkeepsie around 6:15pm. The Manitou ‘station,’ which is close to Bear Mountain Bridge, is really just a wooden platform on a dirt road, and only two doors open when the train stops. I made a mental note to get into the right train car. An hour later when the train started slowing down, I was next to the stairwell, ready with my pack and headlamp. The train came to a standstill, but the doors didn’t open. I looked around, panicking. Then, slowly, the train started to pick up speed again. Shit. I’d just missed my stop on the only train that even stopped there. Weighing my options, I walked into the next train car, spotting another conductor.
As I was explaining my predicament to him, a woman waved to me, and said the most magical words I could have imagined at that moment. “I live in Cold Spring. Do you want a ride?” Thanking her profusely, I sat down one row ahead of her, and she told me that her husband was a huge hiker, which apparently was what she used to sell him on giving me a ride. Fifteen minutes later, we climbed into her car, and they kindly dropped me off at the trail, saving me a 2 mile road walk from the train station. I waved goodbye and, turning on my headlamp, night hiked my way to the campsite in the darkness.
The campsite was a small bare patch of land directly off the trail, and, unsurprisingly, entirely deserted. Tired and ready to settle down for the night, I hastily pitched my tent. It was only after I’d staked it and thrown all my stuff in, that I looked up. Great. The tree right above my tent was very very tall. And very, very dead. But I was tired, and it wasn’t windy, so I decided that a giant branch impaling me in my sleep was probably not going to happen. I hopped in my tent, and tried to think happy thoughts.
That first night went just like any other first night in a strange place— I didn’t get much sleep.
Every time I dozed, I’d wake to the sound of howling coyotes, or a falling tree nut, or some small snuffling creature passing through. I also spent a downright stupid amount of time worrying about a bear breaking into my tent to eat my food (wedged in a bag at my feet), and, in the wee hours of the morning when I was half asleep, about zombies breaking into my tent to eat me (thanks, Walking Dead).
The pitter patter of rain on my tent woke me up at about 5 am.
Munching on some cereal and dried milk for breakfast, I waited for the sun to rise so I wouldn’t have to start hiking in the dark. I knew today would be a long day; I was aiming for the Shenandoah campsite, which was about 22 miles away. I’d done 18-20 mile days with a full pack over a significant elevation before, and reasoned that the AT in NY was really pretty wimpy, since there wasn’t a lot of elevation gain.
Clearly, nature decided that I was being too cocky and unleashed some havoc on my sorry ass. It POURED. The ENTIRE DAY.
A few hours in, I gave up on rain gear and, grateful that the thunderstorm hadn’t materialized, accepted that my clothes and shoes would be soaked, and my glasses would be permanently fogged over. If I wanted to be warm, I’d just have to keep moving. The rest of the day pretty much played out that way, punctuated only by some impressive slip and slide maneuvers, wherein I managed to collect a few choice bruises, but otherwise escape more or less intact. I ran into one other person on trail the entire day, an equally water-logged thru-hiker heading south. We exchanged quick hellos and I handed her a s’more kit I’d put together for trail magic.
By the time mile 22 rolled around, it was RPH shelter or bust. Sleeping in my soaked tent was the last thing I wanted to do, so I decided to skip the campground and hike the extra mile for a roof over my head. I was definitely nearing the low point of my little carny coaster ride.
I got to the shelter at about 4pm. Unlike most other shelters in NY, RPH is like a cabin, but with an open back wall which leads out to a covered patio. It’s also the shelter famous for having pizza delivery, since it’s really close to the Taconic Parkway and reachable by road. I wasted no time in changing out of my drenched clothes into camp gear, and hanging my stuff out on the line to dry. No sooner had I finished, that the front door opened to reveal two stoic-looking guys with thru-hiker beards.
I said hi, glad to have company after a very quiet day, but they didn’t say anything back. Confused, I sat on a bunk and looked at my map, secretly studying them. After a moment’s confusion I realized that they were speaking sign language. Realizing my mistake, I asked them (via paper and pen) whether they wanted me to order a pizza for them. One of them excitedly wrote back that they were hoping I’d be cool with that. One pizza call later, we sat down and chatted via paper. Turned out they were SoBos, originally from Indiana, heading to Springer Mountain. I found out their names, and told them mine, and when their pizza arrived, they were kind enough to share a piece with me. Later that night, we played cards by flashlight. The roller coaster that had been hurdling to the ground was on the upswing; I was warm and dry, tummy full of food, and sleeping in a shelter with new friends.
Sunday rolled around clear but cool.
Knowing I still had 20 miles a head of me, I got up early, leaving the shelter at 7. As the morning broke, the sun shone brightly and backlit the forest in an incredibly beautiful way. Every time I hit a ray of sunshine I basked in the glow, willing my clammy hiking clothes to dry faster.
The rest of the day passed swimmingly— I saw a lot more day hikers on the trail, and spent a leisurely lunch at Nuclear Lake, which, in spite of its ominous name, was really very pretty.
With newly dry shoes and clothes, and my pack lighter by a lunch, dinner and all the trail magic I’d brought, I was able to book it to the Appalachian Trail train station by 2:30, and call my dad, who kindly offered to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to hitch to Pawling and transfer trains to get back to NYC.
I spent the ride home regaling him with the details of everything that had happened in the last 48 hours; the train incident, my campsite, the rain, the shelter. I was so psyched that I’d finally tested my gear, and, mostly importantly had a very brief taste of trail life. And all it did was leave me wanting more.
Till next time!
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