Saturday, February 27, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: Pennsylvania

Hot, hazy, late summer days awaited, as we continued walking south through Pennsylvania. I saw Lux for the last time at the hostel in Delaware Water Gap. He would later finish the AT a few weeks before me. I began to slow down and really enjoy the trail from here to the finish. H2Camo and I started hiking more together and became friends, sharing a common bond of an enjoyment of a slower pace, playing guitar, listening to tunes, and campfires. Tennessee Jed and Hobo were still around, and we also met Hakuna, Matata, and their dog Nala. Due to the slower pace that Camo and I began to enjoy, several southbound hikers would begin passing us, a trend that would continue all the way to the end.

Tracks near Port Clinton PA
My memories of Pennsylvania include rocky trail, ice cold springs, hot days, long forested but grassy ridges, and spider webs. Its true Pennsylvania is rocky. Despite my hopes that the rumors were exaggerated, I knew it would be true, and it was. Sections of New Jersey foreshadowed what was to come, but the real rocky stuff started just south of Delaware Water Gap and continued all the way to Front Royal Virginia. Thankfully, the trail was relatively flat through PA which balanced things out a bit. Adding to the frustration though was spider webs. there were spider webs everywhere along the trail so it was common to catch dozens of webs in the face, or be covered with strands of webs by the end of the day.
1000 mile point for Northbounders

Water was pretty good through Pennsylvania. There were some really nice springs along the trail. There were some horrendous springs as well, the water completely orange and filled with iron. For the most part, I remember my thirst being quenched by an ice cold spring more often than not. I will say it again, there is nothing like a drink from a mountain spring. One woman who gave us a hitch into town mentioned how much she loved to drink a glass of water after eating ice cream. My evening ritual after dinner included eating a package of gummy bears, followed by chugging ice cold water. I couldn't believe how much it hit the spot after a long, hot day of hiking!
Hot, hazy evening near the Susquehanna river

Walking through the Cumberland Valley
We were relived of the rocky mountain ridges of Pennsylvania when we hiked through the Cumberland Valley for a couple of days. The trail took us through corn and grass fields, and over major road ways. It rained our first day through the valley which probably was a mixed blessing, as we did not have to worry about getting baked under a summer sun. It was a nice change of pace, taking us into open spaces rather than constantly walking through the green tunnel.
Boiling Springs PA: An incredible spring pumping out enormous amounts of ice cold, crystal clear spring water in the middle of town. Had a funny taste to it though.

H2 Camo and Matata talk with caretaker Jim. This was one of the nicest looking shelters on the trail. Jim has put in years of work at this spot. Unfortunately we had to push on since it was mid morning when we passed.

Morning after being treated to the greatest trail concert I have ever heard in my life. Camo and I met Quiet Earp and Stank here, two fellow Southbound thru hiking musicians. Those guys were professional players, and it was a trail highlight to be able to hear them play.

Delicious ice cold spring water

Crossing the bridge into Duncannon PA.

H2Camo, Slugbait, Flyboxer, Hakuna, Trail Angel Mary, Mata, and Nala the trail dog. Trail Angel Mary hosted all of us for the night. She is an amazing woman.
We had the honor of meeting Trail Angel Mary in Duncannon. I received a text from Lux to giver her a call when I reached town and I'm glad I did. Her concern and care for us thru hikers was clearly evident. She shared a story with us how she met her first thru hikers over a decade ago when she was struggling in life and was homeless living in a campground. Eventually she found steady employment again and got back on her feet. She began hosting AT hikers as they passed through town, and set up trail magic coolers in a couple of different locations along the trail. When we stayed with her, she fed us dinner and breakfast and gave us a roof over our heads for the night. We completed some chores for her in return. Its rare to meet truly selfless people in life, and she is one of them.

After passing the half way point on the AT, the half gallon challenge awaits. The challenge is to eat a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting. It wasn't really a challenge to be honest. The challenge was that it was a cold rainy day when we arrived, making eating the ice cream an icy test of will power.

AT halfway point

Rocky Pennsylvania

Eventually, Camo and I reached my home state of Maryland on September 14th, 2015. Weather was beginning to change ever so slightly. Some of the trees were beginning to show signs of fall. We had a couple of those memorable cool, crisp, cloudless September mid Atlantic days that remind me of football season, and going back to school. We were just over half way finished the AT. We also were still in no hurry to finish...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: New Jersey

The hike through New Jersey was unexpectedly very pleasant. New Jersey supposedly has the highest percentage of black bears per acreage along the AT. My first bear encounter occurred during my second day in the state when I saw a mother bear and two cubs. Another highlight was walking around Sunfish Pond in Worthington State Forest. It immediately reminded me of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, a place I used to visit regularly when I studied there for a semester in college. Sunfish Pond is also a glacial lake, the water crystal clear. The lake is also considered one of New Jersey's seven natural wonders. It is a popular spot, but fortunately the large crowds were absent when I walked around it.
While in New Jersey, I also met a few hikers which would leave lasting impacts on my hike. The first was a Marine named H2Camo, who I would hike the rest of the trail with once we reached Pennsylvania. I also met Tennessee Jed and Hobo, who I would see from time to time. I also bumped into Lux once again, who I hadn't seen since Vermont. I hiked in front of him after he had a bought with Lyme disease and had to stop hiking for a few days to recover.
Weather was very pleasant during this time. There were a couple of memorable stops along the AT during this section as well. One was at a Episcopal Church hostel where I stayed for one night with one other northbound hiker. It was just one of those relaxing stops that rejuvenate the hike. Since there was only one other person there, we just lounged around, did the usual trail chores, ate a ton of food, and watched movies all day. The hostel was very clean and spacious, and the folks who monitor the hostel pretty much left us alone.

The other stop was a private cabin owned by a former AT hiker named Jim Murray. It's a simple structure, the only furniture being a small table. Hikers are welcomed to grab some water, take a cold outdoor shower, and spend the night if they choose. Amazingly, no one was there when I stopped by in the evening. I stretched my sleeping bag across the tile floor and slept restfully there, played some guitar and enjoyed the fantastic acoustics. However, there was a hummingbird that somehow got stuck in the cabin and couldn't figure out how to get out. It was fluttering next to a high window that was probably ten feet off the ground, near the ceiling of the cabin. It was acting pretty much like a moth, banging against the window, getting stuck in spider webs, and unable to understand why the window was blocking its escape to the outdoors. It was starting to stress me out, and I couldn't figure out how to help the little guy, as it was too far out of my reach. Once night fell, the moon came out and hummingbird gave up and all was quiet. As soon as the sun came up, the bird was back at it, although seemed to be exhausted. Thankfully, someone had left a head bug net on the table in the cabin. I duct taped my two hiking poles together and attached the head net to the end of the extended poles. Miraculously, I was able to pin the hummingbird next to the window 10 feet above my head and the bird fell into the head net. As soon as I lowered the pole, I walked to the cabin's front door and was able to let the hummingbird out where it immediately flew to the nearest tree to hopefully recuperate. It was a great start to the day!
Sunfish Lake
Black bear in tree.
While hiking through the forest I heard a snap to my left and saw a black bear up in a tree (pictured above). He seemed to be eating something and resting on the branches. I watched him for a minute but he didn't seem to notice me. Emboldened by many of my previous bear encounters, I called out to the bear. He looked over at me for a couple seconds and then went back to eating his snack. Continuing our conversation I said, "You look like a monkey!" Just then the bear let out a loud "Hmmphhhh!" jumped up and starting barreling down the tree. I hightailed out of there, feeling like a little kid who had just insulted his older brother and was about to receive a beating.
Delaware River at Delaware Water Gap.
Overall, New jersey was great. The forest just before the Delaware Water Gap was really nice. Tall,  tall pines, ferns, moss, and waterfalls. Reminded me a little of the redwoods. When I reached the Delaware River, I had one of those moments wondering what this spot must have been like to the Indians who once lived here. probably a very special spot. Now a highway roars next to the river and through the gap, the river showing signs of pollution a direct result of the highway. Nevertheless, several people were in canoes paddling down the river and fishing...

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: New York

Spoon, Footloose, and Taco hiking in New York on a perfect summer evening...
A few memories come to mind when I think of hiking through New York on the AT last summer. Heat, few water sources, delis, hiking with and eventually saying goodbye to Footloose, Spoon, and Taco, losing my camera and then finding it, crossing the Hudson, and hiking through a zoo. Civilization never seemed far from the trail either, in fact, much of New England felt that way to me except for Maine and New Hampshire. It was a strange feeling at times to literally be walking through people's backyards at times.

Footloose, Taco, and Spoon relax around a fire playing tunes

Crossing the Hudson River
I started to develop and be consumed by what felt like an unhealthy expectation on the trail: Daily access to roadside stores. I simply could not get enough ice cream and soda, and just straight up junk food walking through New York. In fact, I drank 4 Dr. Peppers in one day near Bear Mountain, which usually left me feeling kind of disgusted with myself. It really seemed to disrupt any hiking rhythm I had hoped to develop. At the same time, there were excellent trail side stops like Tony's deli and Bellvale Farms that really hit the spot after a long, hot day on the trail.

Bellvale Farms: a perfect trail break

Spoon, Footloose, and Taco hike towards Tony's deli
Once again, I really enjoyed the company of Footloose, Spoon, and Taco, and camped with them on several occasions. After a long day, sitting around the fire playing songs or telling stories always hit the spot. Unfortunately, I had to say goodbye to those guys shortly after Bear Mountain. I accidentally lost my camera one morning along the trail and spent half a day looking for it. Miraculously, I found it along a highway median after having about a 2 and a half mile search zone which I walked back and forth on twice. By this time, Footloose, Spoon, and Taco were half a day or more ahead. I also started feeling real worn down around this point. I guess my age was finally starting to catch up to me. The next day I had to set up camp at 4:00pm and slept until morning. My hiking style changed from this point on, I stopped really pushing myself and took a more relaxed approach. It wasn't long before Footloose and company were days ahead. I fell into more of an independent rhythm again, focusing on my body's needs. That is simply the nature of these trails.
The most magnificent trail tree in my opinion: the Dover Oak.

Another awesome Oak tree in New York
One of the more bizarre sections of the trail was hiking through the zoo near Bear Mountain. There were bears, snakes, owls, eagles and other animals.  For some reason, there were huge vultures all over the place. I'll never forget the visual of seeing a young deer on exhibit at the zoo. The deer was lying down under a small wooden overhang in a pile of straw. There were at least a dozen, enormous, black vultures quietly standing around the deer. They all looked at me when I stood there almost with the expression "What are you looking at, does this seem strange to you?" I also remember feeling like a wild animal compared to the other tourists. I was ready to get out of there ASAP.
Footloose and Spoon at the Hudson River Bridge

New York City skyline
As I mentioned, water was hard to come by in New York. At the time, I was sad to leave the fantastic spring water of New England behind. New York seemed to be an anomaly in retrospect, as pretty much every other state on the AT had great regular water sources. There were several water caches set up by trail angels along the trail as a result. Once again, before I knew it, another state was in the rear view mirror as I entered New Jersey on August 23rd...