The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I crossed beneath the rumble of traffic on I-80, remembering the time I’d driven this same road more than three decades earlier. My girlfriend, best friend and I were in my two-toned green ‘73 Ford F150 pickup, on our way to New York.
The long, gentle climb to the flat summit of Kittatinny Mountain was refreshingly open, compared to the suffocating woods of the state-that-shall-not-be-named. Five miles into my day, I spied the largest bear I’d seen, sitting on his haunches perhaps 30 yards off trail. Violating a well-known rule of bear encounters, I just couldn’t take my eyes off him as I continued up the trail. Plenty of time to take a photo, but once again I didn’t. In fact, my overall photo production was slipping every day — I took only six photos in all of New Jersey, none of myself.
In his AT thru-hiking memoir, David “Awol” Miller frets that he hadn’t seen any bears by Standing Indian Mountain (mile 87.8), where he met two SOBOs who didn’t see a single one in 2,100 miles. He sees his first near the 300-mile mark: “A small bear is running away from me. But the time I get my camera, the bear is out of sight. … that may be the only bear I see.” As soon as he puts his camera away, two more appear, the first of many more.
“I’ll catch the next one,” I told myself.
Alas, No. 7 would turn out to be the last of my bruin encounters. I was happy to have seen seven bears, though wish I’d seen more; Awol saw 21; some 2016 hikers saw 30 or 40.
Although there were rocks aplenty on the trail, walking in New Jersey was a joy. There were sprawling ponds, shimmering meadows, and generous views from nearly every ridgetop. I began to see a heartening number of frogs, toads and snakes, as well as many deer.
Ten miles into that pleasant day I came upon the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mohican Outdoor Center, which I’d managed not to notice in Awol. After downing two quarts of Gatorade, eating some snacks and charging my phone at the visitor center, I stepped wildly out of character and detoured a half a mile to the swimming beach on Catfish Pond, where I spent the next hour lazing in the cool, clear water and drying in the hot sun. I resolved that day to swim at every available opportunity for the rest of my hike.
As I’d heard from several trail-hardened SOBOs, New Jersey was hardly less rocky than the previous state — ditto for most of the final 900 miles of the trail — and my feet were throbbing by the time I reached Brink Shelter (mile 1317.8) after a 25-mile day. But New Jersey was just the right balm to soothe wounds inflicted by the purgatory to the west. Who knew the “armpit of America” was so lovely?
“Well, we are the Garden State, after all,” a friend remarked when I expressed my newfound admiration for her native state.
My Jersey high tailed off somewhat on the second day, as the trail traversed rocks through a green tunnel, causing a certain amount of PAPTSD. Still, occasional views to enticing lakes far below helped break the monotony. I was tired, having rather foolishly averaged more than 20 miles a day (except for the long nero to Delaware Water Gap) since starting treatment for Lyme. And though I’d dismissed warnings that the antibiotics would make me sun-sensitive, every bit of exposed skin now burned uncomfortably. My spirit was burning out, as well.
Maybe I’ll leave NH-ME for next season, I wrote. But I’m committing to VT!
On the spur of the moment, I stopped and called Mosey, a ’15 thru hiker who had posted a handwritten sign at the foot of Kittatinny advertising her “home hostel” in Port Jervis, N.Y. Mosey, a retired postal worker, picked me up at the headquarters for High Point State Park just before it started to rain.
For the next 15 hours, it was like having a personal assistant as she shuttled me to a fantastic local burger joint (mind-blowing strawberry shake) and we talked trail. Back at her place, I took a much-needed shower and did laundry while she rescued four sodden young hikers from the rain. We all stayed in the same room and watched the ridiculous Jaws 2 before I fell asleep.
And though it was not promised, Mosey had pancakes, bacon, coffee and fresh orange juice ready for me when I rose at 6 a.m. Thanks to her hospitality, I felt refreshed and ready to run all the way to Katahdin when she dropped me off just before 7 a.m. After passing beneath the 220-foot spire of the High Point State Park veterans’ monument, the trail takes a 90-degree turn and hugs the New York border for the next 30 miles or so.
For the first time in weeks I wasn’t boiling over, as temperatures peaked in the mid-70s. The dewpoint had tumbled to a mere 50 degrees (very comfortable, according to OSHA) and a sweet little 10 mph breeze blew throughout the day. Eleven miles in I was feeling no pain, singing to myself as a strolled merrily along.
The trail pops out of the woods for a .7-mile roadwalk before turning straight south into the Wallkill Wildlife Refuge. As I walked along Oil City Road, Mudpuppy rolled up behind me. Tall, laid-back, with a mop of curly brown hair, we’d met all the way back at Partnership Shelter. We walked together until I stopped to buy a tomato at an honor-system farmstand. But soon I saw him coming back down the road.
“We’re not on the trail,” he said.
I whipped out my phone to look at Guthook’s, which has the advantage of showing you precisely where you are in relation to the trail (courtesy of GPS that works even in airplane mode). Sure enough, we were nearly a mile away from where the trail turned into the preserve — how had I not noticed all those missing blazes?
“Shit,” I muttered.
But at least I was in good company. After three more right angles and two miles through in the preserve, the trail emerged onto Lake Wallkill Road — just three-quarters of a mile from where Mudpuppy had turned around. On the other hand, I hit the first magic I’d seen since southern Virginia just before the road, a cooler full of soda left by a former thru hiker named Pigpen, who requested only that hikers leave a note in his logbook. This was mine:
There once was a hiker’s good friend,
Who went by the name of Pigpen.
Soda pop he’d provide,
And those who imbibed,
Thought they’d died and gone to hea-VEN.
Another thing the crazy couple Bonnie and Clyde had raved about was the terrible, hot hassle of New Jersey’s boardwalks. But I found the mile-long elevated walkway over the marshlands between the Pochuck River and Wayawanda Creek both beautiful and fun, a truly new experience on the trail. After a pleasant walk through a pasture full of cattle, I turned left on NJ 94 and walked one-tenth of a mile to Heaven Hill Farm, beloved among hot hikers for its ice cream and fruit.
I was already packing a fat, ripe tomato from the farmstand, and had an avocado in my bag. Now I added grapes and a nectarine to my personal produce section. I also downed a Dr. Pepper and snapped up a bit of candy for the road.
Checking my phone — I kept it in airplane mode almost of the time, checking for messages when I could get wifi — I saw a text from Mosey: She had found my solar phone charger still plugged in to the wall. In an incredibly angelic gesture, she offered to drive it out to me the following day if we could agree on someplace to meet.
Feeling energized, I crossed the highway and began the 900-foot climb up the side of Wayawanda Mountain, aka the “Stairway to Heaven,” the 74th steepest half-mile of the AT. The view from the Pinwheels Vista blew my mind: That 220-foot tower I’d passed in the morning was now a barely visible splinter on literally the farthest horizon.
It’s hard to believe I can walk that far, I wrote later, and I would walk another three-and-a-half miles to Wayawanda Shelter (mile 1361.9). In a welcome change from my usual convenience-first diet, my dinner that night consisted entirely of actual food, grown in dirt: fresh tomato, avocado, grapes and nectarines.
Mudpuppy showed up a little later and declared his intention to hike 26.4 miles the next day to Fingerboard Shelter. Naturally — and foolishly — I took that as a challenge to do the same. Having promised to meet Mosey at 11 a.m. at a hot-dog stand on NY 17A, I left the shelter at 6:20 a.m.
But the going was surprisingly tough and slow, especially after I crossed into New York (mile 1365.4). Rolling through miles and miles of forest, the trail constantly crosses short, very steep, sometimes technical, ribs of granite — including the famous Lemon Squeezer, which I managed to eke through without removing my pack — all of which slowed my pace considerably.
“Despite the unimposing profile,” Awol writes in a note marked with a (!), “rocks, abrupt ups & downs make this section challenging.”
The grouchy old man at the hot-dog stand wouldn’t let me sit at his picnic table unless I bought something, so I ate chips and drank a Coke while waiting just under an hour for Mosey. She showed up right on time, then, out of the goodness of her heart agreed to drive me down to the tiny burg of Green Lake. It was an expensive place to resupply, but I had stupidly neglected to shop while staying with her. I tipped her $20 before waving goodbye again.
But New Jersey and New York, which I’d heard were somewhat inhospitable, were turning out to be a magic kingdom. Exhausted after battling the terrain, I was deeply grateful to find Chief Two-Sticks and Paddy-O, each of whom had set up on remote roads, offering Gatorade, soda, Oreos, candy and even Yuengling beer.
More worrisome than food, by far, was the fact that New York was experiencing an extreme drought, and many of its seasonal springs, brooks and streams were turning out to be dry, as were some sources listed by Awol as reliable. Angels were on top of the problem, and I hardly crossed a road where someone had not set out jugs of water — alas, sometimes they were empty by the time I got there.
When I left Paddy-O at 3:30, he predicted I’d reach Fingerboard Shelter (7.6 miles away; mile 1387.7) at 7:30. I doubted it would take me that long. Four hours of hiking what I described as Tough fuckin stuff, not even 2 mph! later, I ruefully admitted that Paddy-O knew this terrain better than I did.
There was one, last 700-foot EoDMoFo (End of the Day Motherfucker) after I entered New York’s Harriman State Park. Near the top, I ran into some guys handing out Yuengling beer. Among the other takers were thru hikers BASA (for Big Ass Stone Arrows, a name he got on the PCT), a retired firefighter from the Bay Area and Achilles, a young college-cross country runner from North Carolina — an odd couple who had walked together since meeting near the beginning of the trail — and a cheerful, friendly Japanese couple with enviably small packs and minimal English skills.
Although it was hot, the long, steep hillsides in the park in Harriman were open and beautiful. Late-day filtered sunlight sprinkled through a canopy of well-spaced trees, dappling acres of silky grass. It looked like something out of a long-lost Maxfield Parrish print.
Built in 1928, Fingerboard is the oldest shelter on the trail, and it shows. But despite its lumpy construction, sagging roof, crumbling mortar and a healthy population of rather Shelob-like spiders, the place had an undeniable charm. BASA and Achilles rolled in not long after I did and pitched tents, as did the Japanese couple. Mudpuppy never did show up, though I would see him again. All this meant I had the funky old stone shelter to myself.
No idea what I’m doing tomorrow, but after 52 miles in two days over tough terrain, I need to back off. Legs are hammered and my hands, nose, arms and top of my head are sizzling with doxycycline-induced photosensitivity, I wrote. Do like the Eagles, dumb-ass — take it easy!