@ The Outset
Photograph: A woman, in her twenties, sits under a tree at an overlook with her back to the camera. Her head is turned to the left, where she is pointing at something. The sky is full of fluffy white clouds; green tree-covered hills roll into the distance.

The Tri‑State Hike, Part I

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SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT FOR PIKE, PA:

... THUNDERSTORMS WITH HEAVY RAIN GUSTS POSSIBLE THIS AFTERNOON AND EVENING ... THE THUNDERSTORMS WILL BECOME MORE NUMEROUS AS THE AFTERNOON PROGRESSES AND PEAK IN COVERAGE AROUND EARLY EVENING ... IF YOU ARE PLANNING OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES THIS AFTERNOON AND EVENING BE PREPARED TO TAKE SHELTER ...


Word had gotten out. Or, I suppose, I had spread the word. I was sharing photographs of my increasingly ambitious Appalachian Trail hikes, and affirmation came in in the form of “Likes” and at least a couple of comments from people who wanted in. But then, I rarely invited people on hikes at this time.

I had tried once that May; arranged a meetup of gay guys who happened to enjoy hiking. A dozen expressed interest. Six joined a group planning chat. Four showed up, and we all made it to the top of West Mountain (the one in New York). But I fell out of touch with most of those guys after the trek. It’s a regret. There’s a part of me that looks back and sees someone who was afraid to trust or let people in. Tough to say for sure. Maybe he’s still here.

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Hiking near Doodletown in Bear Mountain State Park.

Anyway. Whatever my trust issues with people, there was one person who wanted in that I knew I would walk with no matter what: my sister Cristina.

It’s funny to reflect on how a sibling relationship evolves. As kids we tormented each other. In college we clashed. As adults we’ve grown to enable each others’ best instincts. From Niagara Falls on the east to Yosemite in the west, we’ve egged each other on into some of the best adventures of our lives, often in the moments when we needed them most.

The month was May, and the assignment was simple. We wanted to double my record, and hike eight days on the Appalachian Trail.

Background

Perhaps I should rephrase that. Doubling my record? That was how I saw the goal. I’d been spending the past few months on ambitious two- and four-day thru-hikes. Cristina, back then, was just ready to try something new after six years of living and working in Washington, DC. She had been reading about the App, and wanted to take to the trail in whatever form it might come. As the kickoff to a four month sabbatical, Cristina was hoping some miles on the trail — any miles — might serve as a reset.

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Brother/sister selfie, somewhere along the Appalachian Trail.

I recently caught up with my sister over a beer, and we reminisced about our collective misremembering of our goals for this hike. It’s a good story. But we’ll get to that in Part Two. For now, we still need to talk about the plan. For one thing: we didn’t yet know where on the trail we were going. We needed a route. For another thing: this would have to be another mass transit hike. Even if we’d had a car, we couldn’t very well end our trek eight days’ walk from where we parked.

So I set about scouring bus schedules and websites, looking for connections near Warwick and Pawling, the two ends of the trail I had thus far scouted. Briefly flirted with a walk in Connecticut, northbound from from the Metro North; but then came upon an even better option: the Delaware Water Gap.

The Plan

  • Take the Martz Trailways bus to Stroudsburg, PA.1
  • Day 1: Cross the Delaware River into New Jersey (1.3 miles); then hike 9.3 more miles to the Mohican Outdoor Center and camp there.
  • Day 2: Hike 9.3 more miles to Crater Lake; last night in the Delaware Water Gap NRA.
  • Day 3: 11.6 miles to the Gren Anderson Shelter.
  • Day 4: 8.7 miles to the Rutherford shelter in High Point State Park. Climb to the New Jersey high point.
  • Day 5: 9.6 miles; cross into New York near Unionville, before the trail loops back into New Jersey. Stay at the “secret shelter” near Wantage.
  • Day 6: 7.1 miles to the base of Pochuck Mountain.
  • Day 7: 11.6 miles to the Wawayanda Shelter, the last night in New Jersey.
  • Day 8: walk 10 miles along the State Line Trail; catch a bus at the intersection of Highway 17 and Striper Way near Warwick.

The hike would run from a Friday to the following Friday, and it was by far the most ambitious trek that either of us had considered. We would hike through three states by day five, and cover every mile of trail in New Jersey by day eight. I don’t think it will be the biggest spoiler to reveal at the outset that the trek did not go exactly to plan. But we’ll get to that soon enough.

In addition to the usual packlist, this trek bears calling out another list: the contents of the food bag. My uncreative diet of oats by morning and couscous at night simply would not do for eight days on the trail; the lack of variety would be maddening. So we added some extra things to the mix: a variety of dehydrated vegetables including carrots, spinach and green beans; mashed potatoes; a couple of packaged backpacking meals. For protein, tuna in foil packs is perfect for backpacking, and — Life Pro Tip — a handful of fast food mayo and relish packets add up to a cheap and lightweight tuna salad.

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Photo: Cristina Castillo

Composite image: some of our gear.

So on a dark Thursday night, Cristina took the Bolt Bus from the swamplands of DC to the island of Manhattan; then on a sunny Friday morning, we hoisted packs onto backs and headed to New York’s Wilderness Access Center, the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

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The Hike

If you follow our plan, you will take the Martz Trailways bus to Stroudsburg, PA. There you will disembark at the parking lot of a small bus depot, which offers vending machines and water fountains, if you need to top off your hydration. But the Martz Trailways depot is a mile from where you need to be. It’s this first mile of walking, down Main Street in Stroudsburg, that makes this hike a tri-state hike. You’ll join the trail where Main Street becomes Delaware Ave…

Day One; Mile 0

…and walk toward the Interstate 80 Bridge. You are now on the Appalachian Trail.

Owing to the fact that our hike begins on the cusp of June, there are two things to note. First: the weather. Hints of spring? Out. Hints of summer? Definitely in. Conditions were 85° and humid with full sun, which is comfortable enough without a pack, but quickly wears after a mile of road walking with 50 pounds on your back.

Second: owing to the date, thru-hiker season had begun, as evidenced by a woman with a blue pack and two trekking poles, walking just a bit faster than us across the bridge.

There are several ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps the most common is the northbound (NOBO) route. Hikers traveling this route begin at Springer Mountain in Georgia in March, and the quickest among them might have made it to the New Jersey border by June. There’s also the “flip flop” route, which begins in the middle of the trail in May — Harper’s Ferry is a popular start — that brings many folks through this area in early June.

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Photo: Cristina Castillo

Taking a picture for Beetle at the PA/NJ border.

Anyway, Cristina said hello to the woman with the blue backpack. The woman introduced herself as Beetle. Beetle was a “trail name”, she explained; when you hike with the same people for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, your trail mates bestow a name, and that’s the name you go by. Beetle explained that she got her name from the way she held her trekking poles before her, like a pair of twin antennae. Beetle was the mother of a daughter that had hiked the Appalachian Trail, and she was doing it now to follow in those footsteps.

But that was about all the conversation we got; as we crossed the border from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, Beetle outpaced us handily, leaving us to make our own pace to the first marker on our map: Kittatinny Point. I have no grand historical details or origin stories for you here: it’s the southern visitors’ center for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and you can get your national parks passport stamped there.

Mile 6: Sunfish Pond

We hit Sunfish Pond around lunchtime, and stopped on its tree-lined shore to enjoy the shade and a snack. It’s a beautiful pond. Unusual in the region for its origin: glacially formed, one of the last legacies of the Wisconsin Glacier that melted after the last Ice Age.

Also: this pond was worth fighting for.

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Not by us, mind you; six miles into the day’s trek, for us it was just another waypoint in the notepad. But in the 1960s, emotions over this pond ran high. A utility company once purchased the land surrounding Sunfish Pond, and planned to turn the whole area into a hydroelectric storage reservoir. They aimed to dike the surrounding hills, and then flood and drain the whole area to generate power. One local resident so opposed the plan that in 1965 he stood to the side of the Appalachian Trail, collecting signatures demanding the pond be returned to the State of New Jersey. Bumper stickers abounded: “Save Sunfish Pond”. The battle grew to involve the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who at one point marched to these shores in a demonstration with over 1,000 people.

The pond was saved.

The Delaware Water Gap region is full of stories like this, clashes between conservation, development and recreation. About a mile north, at Tocks Island, a decades-long battle was fought over a dam. It would have generated power, turned a section of the Delaware River into a lake for fishing and boating, inundated 12,000 acres of woods and destroyed one of the the oldest roads in America. First proposed in 1965, the dam project was not officially de-authorized until 2002.

Life Pro Tip: You don’t get what you don’t fight for.

Anyway, with lunch at the pond complete, we got back on the trail. Past the pond and through the woods, we came upon two more hikers at an overlook. “Where ya headed?” I asked, expecting the name of a camp site or shelter up ahead.

“Katahdin,” came the reply.

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Katahdin. The word was on everyone’s lips. The northern terminus of the trail, the highest point in Maine. Here we were on an 80-mile section, 1300 miles from the start of their trail and 900 miles from the end. For us, this was ambitious. For them? They would blow past our eight day hike in three or four, single-minded in seeking the goal.

Katahdin.

By the end of this trip we would meet perhaps a half dozen thru-hikers, with names like “Beetle”, “Piston Legs”, “Lonely Owl.” We met one thru-hiker who told us, 860 miles from the end of his walk, he was planning to pack it in. Another spoke of heading home for a spell and “maybe” returning to the trail. Finishing was the thing, Katahdin the dream, and yet. The reality. 2,200 miles.

Mile 10.6: The Mohican Outdoor Center.

There’s no shortage of good camping in this area. In our case the Mohican Outdoor Center, despite being a paid camp site, was at the right distance, and offered free clean water and a composting privy. For a first night on the trail, this choice was safe. We arrived at the camp site with time to go til sunset; Cristina stood up our tent while I set out the night’s food.

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Food note: You can overpay for readymade backpacker meals from your friendly neighborhood outfitter — for the sake of convenience, we packed a couple — but on this trip we also brought along a cornucopia of dehydrated and freeze-dried vegetables. You can find these in bulk from several suppliers online (ours came from a company called North Bay Trading); on night one, we added some bright green string beans to the usual base of couscous, and enjoyed a healthy green meal on our first night out on the trail.

Day Two

Now is probably a good time to mention the caterpillars.

We had noticed the sound the day before, when we had set out. Despite the crisp clear sky, we would hear an occasional plopping sound, like a fat raindrop falling to the forest floor. It was only later that we looked up and saw them. Caterpillars, writhing and innumerable, covering the undersides of entire branches of the surrounding trees. We could hear the sound of their chewing on the abundant green leaves. At times we would encounter them descending on thin strands of silk; have to stop our progress and walk around when to avoid colliding with the insects at eye-level.

The morning felt cooler than the day before, probably owing to the clouds that were gathering and at least partially blocking out the sun. In hindsight I think I should have recognized these as storm clouds. But at the time I think we were just grateful for the shade.

Mile 13: Catfish Fire Tower

Manmade features litter the Appalachian Trail. By design, the trail was built in the vicinity of population centers; sometimes it crosses roads or winds between houses. But by far one of the most exciting of the manmade features are the fire towers.

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In this modern age of satellite imagery and cheap drone surveillance, it’s easy to forget how earthbound our observations once were. Back in 1922, when the Catfish Fire Tower was erected, the only way to see that the forest was on fire was to station a person on top of a mountain to watch. The fire towers provide a small (~50 square foot) room with glass on all sides, where a lookout can survey the landscape for signs of smoke. The job gets easier if you have a couple of eyes on the fire; if you had two lookouts with different vantage points of the smoke, you could use their reports to triangulate the exact location of a fire by drawing straight lines.

I recommend people check out the fire towers because while the glass rooms are locked, the stairs on many of them are open to the public; climbing to the top of a tower atop a mountain is thrilling, and offers a stunning vista. I read one article suggesting that on a clear day, a fire spotter at this tower in New Jersey could see all the way to the Catskills. I’m not sure how much I believe that.

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Either way, we climbed the tower.

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SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT FOR PIKE, PA

The alert came in as we reached an island of cell coverage. But honestly, as the day wore on, Cristina and I had both noticed the gathering clouds. We were doing our best to make the waypoint at Crater Lake, but this made it certain: storms were heading our way.

... THE THUNDERSTORMS WILL BECOME MORE NUMEROUS AS THE AFTERNOON PROGRESSES AND PEAK IN COVERAGE AROUND EARLY EVENING ...

We felt fine, and recognized that it was early, yet: 5:00 PM, and we had been making good time. We could almost certainly cover the miles, but if the forecast was correct, we would be covering those miles in a thunderstorm.

... IF YOU ARE PLANNING OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES THIS AFTERNOON AND EVENING BE PREPARED TO TAKE SHELTER ...

Mile 16.6: Buttermilk Falls Trail

There was no arguing about the choice; we both agreed to err on the side of caution. When we passed the intersection with the blue-blazed Buttermilk Falls trail, we decided to stop and avail ourselves of the primitive camp site there. It’s a circle of flat, soft dirt with a couple of logs for sitting; no fire circle, that I can recall; just a spot to pitch a tent and not much else.

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We cooked dinner near the camp site, me wearing my heavy boots; Cristina in a pair of comfortable Teva sandals. Though heavy, they provided more relief than I would get walking around at camp that night.

Life Pro Tip: Pack a pair of lightweight shoes for use around camp; your feet will thank you.

When it came time to hang our food bag from a tree, we struggled with tying a knot around a rock to hurl over a branch. I never finished Boy Scouts; my knot-tying skills were next to useless. Cristina successfully fastened the rock to the end of our rope and lobbed it over a branch, only to have it unravel after making it to the other side. In the end another thru-hiker (“Piston Legs”) arrived to camp; he taught us a better knot, the Clove Hitch, and we hoisted our food out of reach of the bears.

As we went to sleep that night, I could hear at first the caterpillars falling to the earth in the surrounding forest; then the sound of raindrops falling; then the promised storm.

Day Three

The rainstorm had cleared by morning, but it left a different and more challenging forest for us to navigate. For a start, it left us on wet ground, and with that, a wet tent. We labored to keep it clean as we rolled it into a bag, but every dirt surface had become mud.

Once out of camp, the storm had left a series of mud and puddles along the way. Those slowed us down a bit. The rain on slick rock slowed us down more; even with careful footwork, I slipped and fell twice when we were forced to navigate across bare wet rock.

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Whatever the challenges of morning, the 100% humidity proved the most challenging thing come afternoon. Combined with the summer temperatures,the day’s weather conspired to make the wet forest feel almost subtropical.

Our plan was to cover 77 miles in eight days. That was pretty reasonable, but it did require that we hit our milestones day after hot wet day. We’d already cut short our day two. We would have to make up those miles now, on day three. Our target, the Gren Anderson Shelter, was more than 12 miles away.

We were behind schedule. But we kept walking. Past mountains overlooking the verdant landscape, still cloud-covered and soaking us in a light mist, we chased the white blaze through the forest.

Mile 26: Near Culver Lake

By 2:00 in the afternoon we had made it out of the Delaware Water Gap and found ourselves on a hill overlooking Culver Lake. Looking at the map in hindsight, I’m honestly shocked at our progress. We had made up the miles. By the time we reached the bottom of that hill, we would be just three miles from the Gren Anderson shelter, our intended destination for day three.

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The reason I’m shocked to see this is that back in the moment, as I recall, it simply didn’t feel that way. We were exhausted. Sweaty, grumpy, stinky, tired. Even if we made the three mile trek to the shelter — even if our bodies could carry us another five days down the trail — it wasn’t going to be a pleasant walk.

If not an offramp, we needed a break.

My sister had purchased an Appalachian Trail section guide; these books come in volumes by state or region, and describe the area in greater detail than my pre-trip notes could offer. As I recall, that’s where we found note of a small hotel, just a couple of miles down the highway from Culver Lake. We agreed that a shower and a night’s sleep in a real bed would help us to regroup and recharge. So we left the trail, carrying our backpacks down the impossibly thin shoulder of Highway 206.

The highway walk was not pleasant. There was one exciting moment: crossing a creek, we saw two bears in the distance; on seeing us, they stood on hind legs and retreated into the forest. But the highway was littered with trash, and my memory of the walk was all hot asphalt and direct sunlight, with cars speeding past what felt like inches away. From time to time we would hop over the median and walk in the grass; it was likely there that we picked the many ticks that we later discovered crawling on our socks and embedding themselves into Cristina’s arm.

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In the hotel room that night we ordered food from a local restaurant and plotted the rest of the trek. The hike would go on, at least a while longer. As we assessed our progress and our appetite for more, the inklings of a new destination started to take shape at mile 51: Unionville, New York. @

  1. While strictly speaking this is a mass transit hike, the bus stop is a little over a mile from the recreation area, all of it road walking. Nowadays you might want to take a Lyft to Kitanniny Point to maximize your time on a day trek. Or walk the road mile, seeing as it is technically the AT. ↩︎

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Joey Castillo

Texan by birthright, Joey now lives in Brooklyn, NY with four roommates and his truck, Ghost. He likes backcountry hikes, cold weather camping, dark starry nights and hot camp stove coffee in the morning. He’s carried a national parks passport since 1996.