The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
In his memoir, “Awol on the Appalachian Trail,” David Miller remarks that the trail through much of New Jersey and New York doesn’t get the respect it deserves — it can be tough going.
But all that changes north of RPG Shelter, according to Awol: “(T)he trail is much less difficult than it had been in the southern part of the state. There is less rock on the footpath and more packed dirt and grass. The trail rolls over small hills and cuts through pastureland.”
On the whole, I find Awol to be a wealth of impressively accurate information about the Appalachian Trail, in both the memoir and his widely used guidebook. Yet I ran into a surprising number of hikers, mostly younger, who casually tossed off the accusation, “Awol lies!”
While there may be a few minor inaccuracies in the guidebook, most should be attributed not to Miller, but changes that occur between the time he publishes the guide and peak hiking season. The book usually arrives in January, which means Miller has had to assemble information on every hostel, restaurant, outfitter, water source, shelter, mileage change and so much more no later than October or November, at the outside.
His pampered critics whine about a puny percentage of misinformation (though I didn’t encounter any mistakes) and seem to assume it’s deliberate. They know nothing about the exigencies of publishing or the amount of time it must take Awol to gather such granular details, year after year. These are no doubt the same hikers one hears bitching about the mysterious “they” who have placed an inconvenient rock or hill or puddle before their delicate tootsies.
So, if Awol said things got better after RPG, I believed him. And thank goodness. Generally, my glutes, calves and quads make uphill my best gear, but the accumulation of miles was now making every climb a chore. This was the kind of long-term wear-and-tear that AT veterans warn about, which I had so far ignored. But just as I should have been backing off or taking a zero, I had foolishly entered myself in an unspoken competition with speedy Achilles and BASA.
Awol was right; the terrain did get much less arduous after RPG. What’s more, that day offered lots of varied scenery and curiosities — the Appalachian Trail Amtrak stop, for one — and what PUDs (pointless ups and downs) there were weren’t too severe. Honoring my get-wet vow (Gollum was right: “Stream and pool is wet and cool, so nice for feet”) I stopped for a pleasant early afternoon swim in the cool waters of Nuclear Lake (mile 1442.1).
The unsettling name stems from the fact that in 1972, a chemical explosion at a nearby nuclear research lab spewed an unknown amount of weapons-grade plutonium into the lake and nearby woods. An intense cleanup and monitoring effort ensued, and in 1986 the Associate Press reported that, “Tests of soil and vegetation in 1984 showed that radiation was no higher than normal background levels.”
Radioactive or not, the waters of Nuclear Lake soothed my overheated body and rinsed away corrosive salt. I was charmed by the laid-back little bluegills that nibbled at my feet and hands (none of whom appeared to have more than two eyes). And I found that I still had to use my headlamp that night — no glowing — so I figured I must be OK, as well.
At County Road 20 near Pawling, trail angel Sidetrack provided a much-needed dose of magic, including Gatorade (why is that stuff so much easier to drink than water, anyway?), fresh water — scarce in New York thanks to a drought — chips, candy and more. A couple of miles later I crossed a boardwalk through a lovely marsh full of croaking frogs and rolled passed the Amtrak platform, thinking about Skeeter. After meandering through a cattle pasture, I stopped at the Native Landscapes and Garden Center, where I bought a Klondike bar, some juice, a pear and a fuel canister.
That night at Wiley Shelter (mile 1454.0) I scribbled down an alphabetical list of things people hope to find on the AT:
A – adventure
B – beauty, beasts
C – challenge, compassion
D – divinity (as in, a spiritual quest)
E – equanimity, excitement
F – fun, fitness, family
G – glory, goals, God
H – happiness, health, humanity
I – introspection
J – joy
K – knowledge, Katahdin
L – love
M – mastery, mindfulness
N – nature
O – optimism
P – peace
Q – quiet
R – romance
S – survival, spirit, sex, strength, stamina
T – tenacity, toughness
U – understanding
V – valor, victory
W – wonder, wildlife
X – exhilaration, experience (give me a break; everyone cheats with X)
Y – youth, YOLO
Z – zest, zoology
I thought it was a pretty good list, though I suspect it only scratches the surface.
On Day 76 of my Appalachian Trail thru hike, I began to hate my beard. I hadn’t liked it much in the early days, when it was pokey and irritating, but once it filled out I’d grown rather fond of it. Now, in the relentless heat of the mid-Atlantic states, I was constantly scratching at the sweat trickling through that tangle of hair, and by the end of New York, I began giving serious thought to shaving it off.
Eight miles into the day I passed a sign welcoming me into Connecticut, “Gateway to New England.” Nine states down, five to go. I’d come 600 miles in 29 days since returning to the trail in June, with no zeroes. After crossing the Ten Mile River on the Ned Anderson Memorial Bridge, I found a spot for an early-morning swim in the Housatonic River, which parallels the trail well into Massachusetts.
Although mosquitoes had not found my undersexed, booze-free, type-O+ blood particularly appealing (see episode 20), on this day I learned that deer flies did, and swarms of tiny, fanatical black gnats wanted nothing more than to suck the nectar from my eyeballs. Thankfully, I’d risked an ounce of weight on a headnet; it made me sweat even more, but at least it kept the insect menace from my eyes, ears and neck.
I caught a quick hitch into the pleasantly pastoral town of Kent. After asking an older SOBO section hiker named Jim if I could share his table at The Villager Restaurant, I wolfed down an enormous breakfast burrito platter, orange juice, a biscuit and several cups of well-creamed coffee. Following the feast, I resupplied at the IGA grocery store, genuinely excited about my dinner of avocado, tomato, cheese and bagels.
After scoring another quick ride back to the trail — to my great relief, hitching on the AT proved far easier than it had on the Colorado Trail — I trudged through blazing afternoon heat to Calebs Peak. Descending St. Johns Ledges, I was happy to be a NOBO: it’s rocky, blocky, and technical, the 41st steepest half-mile on the AT.
The next four-and-a-half miles, walking a dirt road alongside the Housatonic, are among the easiest on the entire AT, comparable to the stroll along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Maryland. After about a mile, I came upon Al and Sandy, local angels who had put out an incredible spread.
“Where are all the hikers? We’ve hardly seen anybody today,” Al said.
This meant I could have my fill, no questions asked. Beer, soda, Gatorade, juice, watermelon, oranges, candy, cookies. And they had parked their white pickup just a few yards from a swimming hole, just across the river from a knot of Hispanic families seeking relief from the 95-degree heat. I ate and drank, then wandered down to the water, where I swirled and lazed for 15 minutes before returning to eat some more while reclining in a camp chair.
After about an hour, a trio of SOBO slackpackers, 30-something married couple Optimist and Purple Mist and their companion, 18-year-old Sunflower, arrived, faces shiny with sweat after jogging the last several miles of trail.
“We heard there was magic,” Purple Mist said, settling into a camp chair. “And we didn’t want to miss it.”
The trio had joined up earlier on the trail, then later split. When “the Mists” heard via the miracle of texting that Sunflower was feeling discouraged and ready to quit, they invited her to walk with them again. Sunflower’s mother shuttled her north and they’d been together ever since, slackpacking as much as they could, just one more unique, HYOH trail family.
I enjoyed listening to Purple Mist, a physical therapist, opine on the subject of feces.
“You can touch your own poop, no problem,” she said. “You just can’t touch anyone else’s. Not if you don’t want to get sick.”
Pretty good advice, I’d say, and easy to follow.
I hung out until Al and Sandy started to pack up, nearly two hours after I arrived. At their invitation, I stowed a beer, a couple of Gatorades, chips and candy for the road. Walking north along the Housatonic, I saw two blue-black crows hassling a bald eagle and a pair of spotted fawns fleeing into the wood behind their mother. I openly cursed the insects that forced me to remain inside the stuffy confines of my headnet.
After a few miles, I came upon a group of young hikers taking a “safety meeting” at the bottom of the steep, one-mile climb up to the Silver Hill Campsite (mile 1477.0), where I planned to stop for the night. I declined Goodtalk’s kind invitation to participate and ground out my EoDMoFo (End of the Day Motherfucker, i.e., a last, long or steep — or both — climb).
There was already a family at the site, which had a privy, a water pump, picnic tables and an open shelter for cooking. The OSHA committee arrived a bit later in good spirits, as did another family of weekenders, with their big, happy, slobbery pit-bull mix, Mojo. I worried about the dog when he went baying off down the hill, but he returned of his own accord.
Though not always the most careful reader of Awol, I had noticed his remark that the water pump at the campsite could be tricky — “May take many pumps to get water flowing” — so I’d filled up down below. After watching others flail briefly at the handle before giving up, I decided to give it a try. I yanked that thing up and down as hard and as fast as I could for a minute or more and was on the verge of quitting when suddenly, cold, clear water came blasting out of the pipe.
“Hey!” I shouted, continuing to pump. “If you need water, hustle up. We’ll have to take turns filling up and pumping … hurry!”
You’d have thought I struck gold. People ran to the spigot with pots, bottles and bladders. Eventually someone took over the pumping, so I could top off my own supply. I felt like a hero (really, I was just stubborn) and a festive mood prevailed for the rest of the evening. I enjoyed talking to an earnest Czech woman with John Lennon spectacles named Vera (for the moment; it changed frequently), whom I would see many more times, as well as Goodtalk.
That night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard a loud snuffling sound and a sturdy snout poked the top of my head through my tent. Bolting upright and skittering to the bottom of the tent, I jerked my sleeping bag around me, heart racing.
“Hey, Mojo! Come on, boy! Leave it!” someone shouted.
I unzipped the tent, whereupon the big lug shoved his huge, grinning, slobbery head into my face.
“Hey, buddy, you trying to scare me to death?” I said, rubbing his ears.
That night I had bearanoid dreams for the first time on the AT. I can’t imagine why.
I was out at 6:15 the next morning, in for 22 miles and more than 4,000 feet of climbing. Only after 12 solid miles of PUDs did the trail relent with another smooth glide alongside the Housatonic. I soon picked a spot, dumped my pack, and paddled out to the middle of the slow-moving, foam-flecked current just downstream from a small hydro-power plant.
Just after the plant, I crossed the “iron bridge” near Falls Village (mile 1492.1) and immediately saw that the swimming was much better here. I followed a short side trail down to a low, chuckling cascade, where I left my pack on a broad, flat, sedimentary rock shelf, took off my shoes and socks, and fell into a cool green whirlpool.
After about 20 minutes, with the sky threatening rain, I saddled up. It was time to face today’s EoDMoFo, a 1,000-foot climb to Mount Prospect. But two-tenths of a mile on, I came across an even better place to swim, where scads of teenagers were cavorting and splashing in deep pools below a high, tumbling waterfall. Rain or no, I had to get wet again, which made for three separate swimming breaks in less than two miles. Gollum surely would have approved.
The rain began falling not longer after I left the falls. But it was gentle and cool, absolutely perfect for regulating my body temperature as I bore down for the three miles to the summit. And here I’d thought of Connecticut as a flat state.
I considered hiking past Salisbury, but my feet were sore and my legs were tired when I hit Undermountain Road. Pulling out Awol, I saw that there was a home hostel run by an older Italian-American woman named Maria McCabe (her second husband was Irish) half a mile down the road. In a snap decision, I turned off the trail.
Maria loves thru hikers and has opened her home to them for years, though now she’s getting older and worries that she won’t be able to keep it up for much longer. She greeted me at the door, told me to take off my shoes and leave my pack on a covered porch, then showed me upstairs to my mothball-scented room. After I showered, Maria drove me into town, where I ate an enormous meatball sandwich at Mizza’s Pizza while doing my laundry next door, then returned to pick me up. It was like having my own personal grandma for the night.
Back at the house, I locked myself in the bathroom and scraped the hair from my cheeks and chin before I could change my mind. When I was finished, the naked visage that gawked back from the mirror looked gaunt, immature and absolutely ridiculous.
Nobody’s going to believe I’m a thru hiker now, I wrote in my journal. But at least I’ll be cooler.