Signals From Sputnik: 100 Days In!
Who would have thought New Jersey could be so beautiful? I’m currently stretched out in a church basement hostel in Vernon, NJ, on what I just realized is my 100th on trail day since starting out in Georgia. It’s not quite as scenic down here in the basement as the outdoor part of this state, but it’s a heavenly slice of pleasure for the hiker crowd – cold soda, a TV with a good DVD collection, AND recliner chairs all at the same time! This has been a little overwhelming for me, but over the course of my zero day here I am getting used to living the high life.
A lot has changed since I last wrote in from the trail. The long, long state of Virginia has come and gone, as have West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. I unfortunately no longer hike with my old pals Butter and GGG, both of whom are now off-trail pursuing things in the “real world” and presumably bathing with relative frequency. I have, though, met a ton of new friends on trail. And, predictably, it’s really warmed up. With the exception of a few recent days of chilly rain, it feels like we are on the cusp of summer. The heat will worsen, I’m sure, but hopefully I’ll be high up on a ridge in New Hampshire before we have any 90-degree weeks. Pushing on through hot afternoons, along with the bugs and the one billion-percent humidity that seem to accompany the heat, has been my greatest challenge so far.
No, I never got the Virginia Blues. At least I don’t think I did. It certainly felt like a boost to finally cross a state line at the end of it all, as well as to pass the 1,000-mile mark and Harper’s Ferry at around the same time. I think the fact that spring came about in the middle of the state helped me out, as it made the first and second halves feel and look a good bit different. And putting length aside, Virginia was certainly one of my favorite sections so far. I loved the long ridgelines visible at many viewpoints that seemed to stretch on forever, along with the good water sources and shelters.
Shenandoah National Park was pleasant, although after hiking out I still wasn’t quite sure what all the hype is about (it’s not all that different from the rest of the state, aside from Skyline Drive, the waysides, and the abundance of people). I much preferred the Grayson Highlands. Imagine a shorter Shenandoah with much fewer trees, and with ponies instead of Reebok-clad tourists, and there you have it! Beautiful. Virginia was also where I first started to do 20-plus-mile days with any real consistency, which felt really good, and of course is additionally home to Waynesboro’s Ming’s Buffet, where I had my most-anticipated town meal yet. It was good. It was a lot – a LOT – of generally low-quality, Americanized Chinese food, but I remain in full support of all that – with or without running a calorie deficit.
So I didn’t get the Virginia Blues, and … no, I haven’t seen any bears yet, either. This seems to amaze every non-thru-hiker who asks, so I guess I have just been lucky – or unlucky, depending on who you ask. At so many points in the past couple months I’ve been reassured with comments like, “Well, you won’t leave Shenandoah National Park without a sighting,” or, “Oh, you’ll see tons in Jersey for sure.” But here I am, just miles away from crossing back into New York for good, and I haven’t seen scat. Not any bear scat, at least. I’m far from complaining – the closest thing I have to bear repellent are some packets of black pepper from Wendy’s – I’m just intrigued over what it is about me that the bears don’t seem to like.
What have I seen? Plenty of bugs, for starters. Gnats, swarms of mosquitoes, and a whole array of other unknown critters. Caterpillars have been absolutely everywhere for almost a month. Some stretches of trail have had me pulling dozens of them off my body every day (they love to suspend themselves at a perfect height above the trail so that they stick onto anyone passing by). And at many points, the sound of their collective poops hitting the dry forest floor below from up in the trees has, for a moment, convinced me that it was starting to rain. It literally drizzles caterpillar poop out here. But I’ll take that over ticks any day, which are now out in full force, it seems, and continue to scare the crap out of me. Checking myself for them has rightfully become a new pastime.
To anyone who, like me, grew up hiking in rocky places, fear not the infamous Pennsylvania rocks. Sure, they weren’t as nice as the smooth treadways I’d gotten used to from many southerly stretches of trail, but at least it was pretty flat when the dirt disappeared. I guess I just expected something much worse than what I found, based on all I’d heard about the state. I found Pennsylvania to be quite nice overall, and generally not a bad place to experiment with bumping up the daily mileages. Whatever one’s opinion may be on rocks, there are some undeniably pleasant sections, provided it’s not too hot and buggy. I found the Cumberland Valley to be one of my favorite stretches so far, as the trail there takes you through some beautiful farm country and provides something to look at besides just trees. And unlike the few field-studded parts of Virginia, it was dead flat.
As for New Jersey? As I mentioned, it’s been very nice. Not necessarily the most pleasant state for me due to recent weather, which has been either in the high eighties and relentlessly humid or rainy and chilly, but the state’s been full of views, lakes, and wildlife. Throw out all your preconceptions based on Jersey Shore.
It’s pretty wild to be so close to New England, which in my mind has always seemed like the final chapter of the trail. I loved traveling through the South, and the Mid-Atlantic has been very nice, but I’ll admit I do now take a little comfort in seeing a Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner when passing through town. I’ll be back in my home state of Massachusetts before I know it, provided the mosquitoes don’t eat me first, and headed into the Whites – the Whites! – before too long. I’m looking forward to my beloved Great Green North, where I grew up hiking, very, very much. I’ll have to say goodbye to mildly-graded trails first, but I think it’ll be worth it.
As I sign many of the hiker logs:
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Cool post !!!