The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I was surprised to find that BASA, Achilles and the Japanese couple were already breaking camp by the time I got up at 5:30. They were long gone by the time I got going at 6:30, and it was already hot.
After walking for about 15 minutes, I came upon BASA and Achilles at a road leading down to Lake Tiorati. They headed on, but I decided to walk three-tenths of a mile down to the beach area. When I got there, I found it fenced off and locked up.
Refusing to waste my sideways investment, I walked to the end of the fence, shrugged off my pack, took off my shoes and socks and waded in. Well outside the artificially sandy bottom of the designated swimming area, I sank ankle-deep into oozy mud. I dived out and otter-rolled a few times, hoping to remove at least some of the sweat from my shirt and shorts, but it wasn’t very satisfying, or fun. At least my clothes were cool for the next mile or two.
The walk to Bear Mountain, like so much of the trail in New Jersey and New York, dipped and rose frequently between granite-ribbed ridgetops. With temperatures ticking toward 90, I was sweating like a horse. I’d left the lake with 2.5 liters of water, but drank it all before reaching the steep stone steps up Bear Mountain.
I always carried a tall, liter-size bottle in a side pocket of my pack, where I could easily reach it. When expecting a long walk to the next water source, I also filled up the bladder in my pack to 1.5 or even 1.75 liters, securing the pinch-valved tube to my pack strap for easy access.
(Embarrassing aside: Throughout my hike, I made the mistake of setting my loaded pack on the pinch valve, causing water to drain out of the bladder all over a shelter or hostel floor. You’d think, like leaving poles behind, this would be a rookie screw-up, but I would continue to do it until well into Massachusetts.)
Usually I treated water with Aqua Mira drops, an excellent, virtually tasteless system that requires only a five-minute pit stop, followed by a 20-minute wait to allow the chemicals to do the job. I also carried a Sawyer Mini filter, which could be screwed right onto the liter-bottle, but like so many other hikers, I lost the use of it after the O-ring fell out without my noticing. (Hey, Sawyer, are you paying attention?) Sometimes I drank unfiltered, untreated water from springs, and occasionally streams, when on a mountaintop or high ridge.
Near the summit of Bear Mountain, I came upon a pride of hikers panting like savannah lions around the oasis of two overpriced vending machines. Heedless of the price gouging, I glugged two quarts of PowerAde and greedily filled my face with the blessedly salty contents of two stubby canisters of Pringle’s potato chips.
Exhausted and half-delirious with heat, I nonetheless forced myself to walk up the stairwell to the Bear Mountain observation tower. I’d had my doubts, but sure enough, on this clear, dry July day, I could actually see the distant skyline of New York City some 40 miles away.
A little woozy from the heat, I tramped as quickly as I could down the other side of the mountain, drinking in occasional glimpses of dark, blue Hessian Lake 1,100 feet below. On the way down, I passed a gaggle of teenagers perched on a hairpin turn of the trail.
“Don’t go down there,” one kid said. “There’s a hornet’s nest in that dead tree trunk.”
I have some kindness in my heart for virtually every living thing, except for fleas and ticks. My wife used to tease me about my efforts to save “your beloved hor-nays” when I balked at putting out a yellow-jacket trap, but I’m no fan. I moved cautiously down the trail far enough to see the broken trunk sizzling with a cloud of seemingly pissed-off hornets.
But here on this steep hillside, there was almost literally nowhere else to go, unless one wanted to bushwhack down through brush and weeds that were probably teeming with something even worse, say, ticks. In a moment of bravery—or perhaps stupidity—I just decided to run for it. The tread was smooth enough, and if I didn’t fall and break my face, maybe I would escape the little bastards. To my great relief, my scheme worked; the kids further up the trail shouted down at me, “You are fucking crazy!” and “Nice job, dude!” and “No way I’m doing that!”
When I finally staggered out of the woods at the bottom, I found its shores studded with signs prohibiting all swimming. But I was able to pour water from a drinking fountain over my head, after which I cameled up — i.e. drank as much as I could — filled my bottle and bladder, and continued on. The two bandanas I had tied on didn’t do much to shield my head from the relentless sun.
Then, as I approached the pedestrian tunnel under US 9, I heard the unmistakable sound of children swimming. Stepping up to a jog, I turned a corner to find a vast, wedge-shaped, pool filled with sapphire water and more than a hundred revelers, mostly kids. This was magic of a different sort, and I wasn’t about to miss it. I got in line to pay the $4 fee.
“Hikers get in free,” said the girl at the cash register. “You’re a hiker, right?”
I was too hot to bother showering before stripping down to boxer-briefs. Ignoring the disapproving looks from a few stick-up-the-ass types, I plunged into the bracingly cold waters of Bear Mountain Pool. I lolled there like an overfed seal for 10 minutes, got out to lie on the hot deck, then repeated the process. Twice. I leisurely ate an ice-cream bar from another overpriced vending machine before reluctantly scraping back into my salt-encrusted clothes and headed up the trail.
When reading about the AT before you’ve hiked it, it’s difficult to envision what it’s really like. My vision of the Pennsylvania rocks was completely off, as was my impression of the famous “zoo walk” at the foot of Bear Mountain, at 124 feet the lowest elevation on the trail. The Trailside Museum, as it’s called, houses animals native to the area that cannot be returned to the wild due to injury or disability. The place had a desultory feel to it; the poor deer, foxes, bears, raptors and other critters barely moved. But they seemed well cared-for, and were probably just reacting to the extreme heat.
After crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge (sporting signs for suicide-prevention hotlines; apparently it’s a preferred spot to leap 129 feet to death), I began climbing the flanks of Anthony’s Nose, the 71st steepest half-mile on the AT. That cool jewel of a pool was just a memory, now.
I kept walking until I reached US 9, where a number of hikers had gathered at picnic tables outside the Appalachian Market. I ordered and ate half of an enormous quesadilla, drank two big Gatorades, and hung out with Five Fingers, the quiet hiker wearing minimalist sandals, whom I’d met way back in Virginia. He told me about the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center, a Franciscan monastery just a mile’s walk away, where hikers could pitch tents on an unused ballfield free of charge. There were portable toilets, a small pavilion with electrical outlets to charge a phone, even a solar shower.
It was a fine night. I talked with Five Fingers and got to know BASA and Achilles better. That dynamic duo, three decades apart in age, were putting up the kind of miles I had with my crew in Virginia, but even more impressively: They’d given themselves a challenge to walk 300 miles in 12 days — 25 miles a day, every day — then gone out and done it.
There also was an older hiker who I learned was from my hometown, Boulder, Colorado. When he said I looked familiar, I explained that I’d worked for the local paper, and my photo had appeared weekly with my column for more than 20 years.
“Sometimes people recognize me from that,” I said.
When he asked my name, I told him.
“You’re not Clay Evans,” he said.
I assured him I was.
“You don’t look like your photo in the paper.”
“Yeah, well, that’s a pretty old picture.” Ten years old, in fact, and since then, I’d started hiking and lost considerable weight. Also, I said, wouldn’t it be odd for someone who wasn’t me to claim my identity on the Appalachian Trail? What would be the point? He decided to believe me.
Alan, 69, didn’t go in for trail names. Already a veteran of a PCT thru hike, he was now was nearly two-thirds the way through the AT. He typically hiked 20 miles a day, and almost never took zeroes, which, I thought, was pretty damned impressive, given his age. I enjoyed talking with him and we would stay connected long after we were off the trail.
Although we never really formed a cohesive group, BASA, Achilles, Alan and I would see each other off and on over the next couple of weeks. It was as close as I would get to joining another trail family, and I enjoyed the continuity. The trail was telling me once more that maybe I wasn’t quite the lone wolf I told myself I was.
That night, my body felt totally thrashed. I had just hiked 22 miles in extremely hot, dry conditions, and halfway dehydrated myself on the way up Bear Mountain. I’d walked more than 90 miles in the past four days.
This would be a good time to take a zero, I wrote in my journal.
But of course I didn’t.
The next day was even hotter, with a high temperature of 95 in nearby Peekskill. Rambling through a suffocating tunnel of forest, the trail rolled through an endless series of small, steep climbs and descents, the kind of hiking I find most taxing.
But major props to the state of New York, which has an excellent, well-managed system of state parks. It was a full mile downhill on a rocky blue blaze to Canopus Lake in Clarence Fahnestock State Park, but I desperately needed to submerge my baking brain in cool water. Speedy BASA and Achilles were already there, and Alan showed up not long after.
I ate lunch, a burger and fries, a few snacks and, grudgingly, an overpriced Adidas cap made of technical fabric. Still photosensitive from the antibiotics, the sun had been drilling a hole in the top of my head through two bandanas.
After buying three quart bottles of Gatorade — my tolerance was rising — I walked down to the sandy beach. Dumping my pack in the shade, I headed for the water with Achilles. Barefoot, we found ourselves yelping and sprinting the last few yards across the sizzling sand. But then I stood in the cool, clear, chest-high water in shirt and shorts, a strand of weed dangling from my new cap. I felt like a contented moose.
I stripped off to boxer-briefs and tried to lie in the shade for a while, but I am not a nap person. After dipping myself once more, fully clothed, I retraced my steps along the shore, and climbed back up the hill to the AT. Looking down on the lake from a rocky perch at mile 1423.4, I was already streaming with sweat. Swimming is great, but it doesn’t last….
RPH Shelter (mile 1428.7) is actually a small cabin, formerly known as Ralph’s Peak Hiker’s Cabin. But I couldn’t help thinking of it as RPG (as in Rocket-Propelled Grenade) Shelter. It’s famous for being just two-tenths of a mile from New York’s Taconic State Parkway, which means local restaurants deliver take out. Achilles and BASA had set up their tents on the broad lawn where several other hikers lay about in hammocks. Although the interior of the building was hot, I hoped it would cool down once the sun disappeared. I tossed my stuff on a bunk, opened every window in the place, then called a Chinese place whose menu I’d plucked from a stack on a table.
Only two other hikers decided to brave the stifling confines of the cabin. One was Skeeter (not her real trail name), who hailed from a Nordic country and expressed deep and genuine gratitude when I’d offered her my leftover Chinese. The other was a young guy with a big red beard who put in earplugs, rolled over, and never said a word.
Skeeter was in mourning: Her visa was about to run out, and the next day she was going to board an Amtrak train at the official Appalachian Trail RR Station. After staying a couple days with a friend in the city, she would fly across the Atlantic. Perhaps that’s why she was so eager to talk, even after nightfall.
“I’m really going to miss the trail,” she said. “Where I’m from, we have nothing like this. Even in the country, you can barely go five kilometers without houses or roads or towns. I wish I had time to keep going, but I’m going to come back and finish.”
On the other hand, she said, she would not miss the mosquitoes that had been plaguing her. While she was eating the leftovers, I’d noticed myriad scabs on her legs and arms and long, thin trickles of blood from too much scratching.
“Mosquitoes are attracted to people who have been drinking and who have a certain blood type,” Skeeter said in her sing-song, but grammatically precise, English from the shadows behind my head. “Also people who haven’t had sex.”
“Who have not had sex?” I asked, never having heard this theory before.
“Yes. That’s why they like me, I think,” Skeeter said. “I’ve been really, really horny. … You know?”
“Yeah,” I said, now paying closer attention.
“It’s hormonal,” she cheerily pronounced. “Like, when you don’t have sex, your body keeps producing hormones that attract the mosquitoes.”
Lying there in the stifling dark with summer insects screaming in the high trees, it struck me as extremely unlikely that this smart, fun, 20-something woman was coming on to a grungy, skinny, unshaven guy more than twice her age. It was just her refreshingly frank Nordic attitude about sex, I told myself. Then again, who knows? Maybe this is how you really thank someone for a gift of food where she’s from.
Sex on the trail. I know it happens. Easy-E had a month-long relationship with Bambi, widely reputed to be the most attractive woman on the AT in 2016 (I would nominate Kaleidoscope, though when I really think about it, everybody I met on the trail was pretty damned beautiful by simple virtue of being out there and helping to create the experience for everyone else). But considering the general lack of energy after hiking all day, and quandaries concerning hygiene, I’m guessing it mostly happens in town. Which doesn’t mean that hikers don’t think about it. There were days when that’s virtually all I thought about.
As Easy-E so colorfully put it, “All these dudes out here are up to their eyeballs in baby-batter.”
Taking care of your own business, so to speak, isn’t exactly something you can do in a shelter — unless you have it all to yourself; anyone who pulled that kind of stunt would be strung-up like a bear bag right-quick. But tents are private and the woods are vast….
I surveyed a handful of women (including my wife) about Skeeter’s mosquito/sex theory and they were unanimous: Telling a man, no matter how pungent or old he may be, that you are horny is a bold and indisputable come-on. My own baby-batter levels were peaking, and I confess that had I not been married, I would have been happy to serve as Skeeter’s experimental mosquito repellent….
“Well,” I began dutifully, feeling just a tad pouty, “the mosquitoes don’t bother me much.”
“Oh,” Skeeter said after a pregnant pause. “I guess that’s a good thing….”