First Step on the ATSiler BaldSelf Portrait in WhitesWhite Mountains

Bird Man's AT Journal

Trail Updates and Photos from the 2002 AT "Flip-Flap" Hike
© Bruce Nichols - 2002

The Last 400 Miles - Part 1
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After my short break from the trail in September, I returned to Pawling, NY to begin the final leg of my thru-hike. I'm not quite sure exactly when it became a "thru-hike", but I had sensed a distinct change in my feelings about the walk in the last miles between the White Mountains and the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. I suspect that, though I would not admit it in the early days of the journey, it really was a thru-hike all along. But I did not want to set myself up to be disappointed by starting a walk of the entire trail in one season and then coming up short, so I partly fooled myself by admitting to shorter intermediate goals when I started out.

When I began walking north from Springer in May, I was saying, "I'll walk up to Damascus, VA and then see how I feel." In Damascus the new destination became Pearisburg, then Waynesboro, and then Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Even before I came home for four weeks in July, I had decided to go north to Katahdin and walk south "for a while". But, with every southbound mile, the lure of "completing the circle" back to Harpers Ferry dangled a little more clearly before me. And, though I wasn't quite ready to admit it when I crossed the Connecticut River into Vermont, mental images of walking over the Potomac River bridge and into West Virginia were already playing on the screen of my imagination.

Back on the trail in New York with over 1700 miles behind me, the remaining 400 did not seem all that daunting. When I though about it, it actually felt a bit strange in this age of the automobile, to view a 400 mile walk as being "not very far". But by then I had been walking for over 100 days and another 20 or so in the low, rolling hills of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland appeared more like a friendly little jaunt than a lengthy expedition.

The first section of trail from the Connecticut border to the Hudson River was one of the least interesting I encountered on the walk. Part of this had to do with an obvious lack of maintenance over this stretch. There were old blow downs - some of which needed to be crawled under - and brush and branches encroaching on the pathway. Though it was the official beginning of fall, the weather was still unseasonably hot and a persistent drought made water along the trail scarce. I often walked without a shirt to maximize cooling but still was usually drenched in sweat. Invariably my shorts were soaked and, at one point, I even developed a rash from the chaffing of the wet fabric on my backside. The cure was similar to that used on my kids when they were in diapers. A small tube of Desitin (zinc oxide) purchased in an off trail pharmacy quickly soothed the offending rash and had me smelling a bit like a little baby myself.

Just before the Hudson River, I spent the night on the grounds of Graymoor Monastery. The Franciscan brothers here have been offering shelter to the homeless and travelers for almost a century. A couple of decades ago they started offering a pavilion next to a baseball field on their grounds as an overnight shelter for AT hikers (the trail runs right across their property). They have installed a cold-water shower next to the pavilion and a spigot provides safe drinking water. During the summer months of July and August the monks also invite any over-nighting hikers to have dinner with them, and the register in the pavilion is filled with glowing testimonials to both the quantity and quality of their cuisine.

I was a few weeks too late to enjoy a monastery meal and had to content myself with yet another dinner of Lipton noodles, my evening trail staple. As I ate in the fading evening light (by now the days were getting distinctly shorter), hundreds of dragonflies darted, swerved, and sailed over the adjacent ball field - an aerial ballet that continued almost till dark.

Just before the last light faded, "Cheddar" came walking across the field. I had met her on the trail the previous day and we spent the night in a shelter near the Palisades Parkway. I had left early in the morning and did not expect to see her again, but here she was pulling in about 3 hours after I had. She was from Virginia Beach, had a couple of sons in their early 20's and needed to get back to Waynesboro to finish her hike. She had walked north from Springer to Waynesboro, then jumped up to Connecticut and walked to Katahdin and now was heading south to complete the remaining miles.

I had already spread my sleeping bag out on one of the picnic tables and we talked for a little bit as she started to cook. I must have fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of that conversation, since my next recollection was of waking in the middle of the night.

In the morning I agreed to walk with Cheddar as far as the west side of the Hudson. She had spent a lot more time on the trail hiking with others than I had and was feeling a bit lonely and down since leaving her north bound companions. I actually preferred to walk alone but was happy to keep her company for a morning. Cheddar also liked to talk and I am, fortunately, a good and patient listener so the seven or so miles to the Bear Mountain Bridge went quickly.

There was a Pepsi machine by the tollbooths on the west side of the river and the sweet, cold liquid was an unexpected treat. I bid farewell to Cheddar who was going to walk into Fort Montgomery to resupply and followed the trail into Bear Mountain Park.

Only 30 or 40 miles north of New York City, the park has a zoo, a lake, extensive picnic grounds, and a road leading to the top of Bear Mountain, it's main geographic feature. After encountering so many animals in their natural habitat along the trail, the small cages and spiritless captives in the zoo did not stir my interest. But as I followed the trail along the paved pathways of this part of the park I encountered a slightly larger than life size statue of Walt Whitman.

I've been an admirer and reader of Whitman since my college days and was thrilled to find his likeness right on the trail. A small display case next to the statue contained a brief biography and the following lines from "Song of the Open Road":

"Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose."

Those lines certainly resonated with me. I'd been walking a "long brown path" and it occurred to me that even though the physical path was fixed in space, one's journey on that path could most certainly lead in many different directions and dimensions. A saying on the trail is, "Do your own hike." There is no "right way" to walk the AT. Some blaze along at 30 miles a day, some saunter at 5 to 10. Some rarely take a day off; others stop in every town along the trail, often for days at a time. Walk with friends - walk alone. Go ultralight - carry the kitchen sink. The geography is the same for all; the experience is always what you make of it.

Leaving the developed areas of the park and starting the climb up Bear Mountain, I encountered a pair of hikers that would play a significant roll in the remainder of my journey. I'd heard about them while in Maine and had just missed them on several occasions while in New England. Our paths had crossed for the first time a day or two earlier as I walked south and they walked north.

"Red Truck" and "Green Truck" were a father and son team from Georgia who were hiking the AT in a somewhat unusual way. They were definitely "hiking their own hike". Using a pair of pickup trucks (one red - dad, Dale - and the other Green - son, Matthew - they would park at opposite ends of their daily hike and walk from truck to truck. What made this system interesting was that though they walked north along the trail during the day, they were actually headed south and would drive the northern truck south to a point that would let them walk north again the following day.

Since we were both doing about the same mileage, once we were in the same area, we would meet almost every day on the trail. Travelers on the trail had definitely thinned since leaving New England. Though there were a few other SoBo's (south bound hikers) on the trail, they tended to be spread much more thinly than the northbound summer herd, and I looked forward to these brief daily meetings with the "trucks". We would trade information about the trail we had respectively just negotiated letting each other know of any difficulties or "magic" that would be encountered in the coming miles.

I was pleasantly surprised by the remainder of the walk in New York. The trail passed through the open woods of Bear Mountain, and Harriman State Parks. The forest was mostly oak and just beginning to put on its fall colors. The trees were heavy laden with acorns that plummeted to the ground whenever the wind blew. As I walked they tumbled down all around me and I was expectantly waiting for one to land smack on the top of my head so that I could shout, "The sky is falling, the sky is falling!" just like Chicken Little in a story remembered from my childhood. But, as luck would have it, there were only some very near misses and I never got to sound the alarm. Those same falling acorns also scored many a direct hit on the metal roofs of the shelters I was staying in and I was often awakened by a resounding BONG in the middle of the night.

About half way through the 160 miles of trail in NY and NJ I decided to stop in Greenwood Lake to resupply, grab a hot meal or two and spend the night in a cheap motel where I could get a much needed shower and treat my "diaper rash". The road into town was narrow, twisting, and not a good place to try to hitch a ride so I walked the two miles down hill to the lakeside community after walking 17 on the trail. I found my way to the motel mentioned in the guidebook only to find a sign on the door saying that they were closed for the season except to weekly renters. Not quite sure what I was going to do about a place to stay - I decided to get something to eat and ask a few questions about where else in town I might find reasonably priced accommodations. I'd passed a small restaurant on the way to the motel and walked back and ordered up a large cheese grinder and a pile of French fries. I asked a couple of people in the restaurant about other places to stay and was informed that the only places still open in town were a fairly long walk away and also on the expensive side. I began to think that after my meal I'd be walking back up the hill to find a place to camp for the night.

But as I sat eating a fellow who noticed my pack by the table came over and struck up a conversation. He was a ranger in Sterling Forest Park and had also worked at Bear Mountain where he had often met AT hikers. We talked a bit about the trail, the upcoming hunting season, and then I mentioned my predicament and he offered to drive me around till I found a place to stay. He also said he knew the person who owned the motel I had visited and that after we finished eating he'd drive me back there first and inquire about a room.

When we arrived at the motel, Ranger Mike went to the owner's residence door with me and my pack trailing along behind. He knocked and we waited a bit and then he knocked quite a bit louder and the door finally opened. A brief discussion of my circumstances took place and I was soon thanking him before settling into a small comfortable room with a wonderfully hot shower - another little bit of the "trail magic" that often blessed me on this journey.

In the morning I was up at 4:30, eating breakfast when the restaurant opened at 5 AM, and walking those two up hill road miles back to the trail by the light of my headlamp so that I could get back into the woods just as there was enough light to see the trail. New Jersey, my 12th state, was just a few miles ahead though the trail, in fact, would weave back and forth between the two states for the next twenty miles.

About an hour into my walk I encountered my first bear on the trail since New Hampshire. Outside of Shenandoah National Park, the place you are most likely to encounter a bear on the AT is in New Jersey. The state's ban on bear hunting and an increase in habitat due to the forest's slowly reclaiming non-working farms has helped the bear population rebound strongly. This bear was a small one about 50 feet off the trail to my right. It looked up at me for a moment, made a little snort, and then bolted quickly away through the woods.

Within half a mile of that sighting I walked out onto a high rocky outcrop and could see the skyline of New York City about 60 miles to the southeast poking up over the intervening ridges. I'd also met a number of deer on the trail in the early morning hours and, as I looked out at the distant skyscrapers, it struck me as a strange juxtaposition - one moment wrapped in forest and encountering large mammals, and the next mentally diving into a world of concrete, steel, crowds, and traffic. I snapped a couple of pictures and peacefully stepped back into the woods.

I walked almost 70 miles in the next three days. The hot weather had eased, but the skies had grown darker and darker and by the third day I was walking in the rain. I was fortunate to have dry shelters to stay in at night when the rain seemed to come down the hardest and I always kept at least one dry set of clothes to crawl into at the end of the day. But mornings were always a bit of a challenge when the dry clothes went back into their waterproof sack and the wet shorts and shirt that had been hanging on a line during the night were pulled back on. I'd put this off as long as possible and then try to start walking right a way. It would not take too long to begin generating enough body heat to at least warm the dampness up a bit.

For the entire hike I'd carried a $3.00 Wal-Mart umbrella that I had modified to reduce its weight. On several occasions I'd seriously thought about sending it home or abandoning it in a hiker box since there were few opportunities to use it in the first 4 months of my journey. There had been a few occasions in Tennessee and Virginia where I would have liked to use the umbrella but branches crowded so closely around the trail that I could not open it.

But the trail in New Jersey, and later in Pennsylvania and Maryland was clear enough for my lightweight rain shield and I had plenty of opportunity to use it in the last two weeks of my walk. The advantage of an umbrella over a raincoat and rain pants has to do with ventilation. Even the best of the waterproof/breathable fabrics quickly become steamy and uncomfortable when walking in warmer weather with a pack. With the umbrella deployed over my head and pack, I could continue to walk in shorts and a tee shirt keeping reasonably dry and considerably cooler than if I was wrapped up in rain gear.

I spent my last night in New Jersey at the Mohican Outdoor Center run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. I had one end of a large bunkhouse and a couple that had planned to camp out but had opted to be inside because of the heavy rain had the other. The place was equipped with a full kitchen and several bathrooms and a very nice shower. I spread my wet things out around the room, cooked up a hot bowl of noodles, and stretched out on a comfortable mattress to finish John Steinbeck's "The Winter of Our Discontent" which I had picked up in a shelter about a week earlier. All night long the rain beat down relentlessly on the building and I decided to delay my departure in the morning by a couple of hours. I only had 10 more miles to walk to Delaware Water Gap and my next state, Pennsylvania. There was a free hostel there in a church basement and I needed to resupply so was planning on a short day anyway.

In the morning, when I left Mohican, it was still raining but not nearly as hard as the previous night and within an hour had subsided to a misty drizzle. The rain of the previous few days had washed the world clean and in the soft morning light everything seemed to me to be aglow. I was especially enjoying the thick carpet of ferns that spread across the forest floor. Richly green, glistening with droplets of water, and bobbing gently in the light shifting breezes, the beauty of these ancient plants spread among the dark wet tree trunks made filed me with a quiet joy.

I passed a rock-encircled pond that drifter in and out of misty cloud, and skirted ledges that opened out onto views of fog shrouded valleys. By noon I was walking down the final mile of woods road that would lead me to the Delaware River and the Interstate 80 Bridge that would carry me across into Pennsylvania. As I approached the bridge a little while later, an eagle sailed by overhead then banked across the river of water and rode an invisible river of wind up over the opposite ridge. The fall raptor migration had begun and I would see many more birds of prey as I walked along the rocky Pennsylvania ridges over the next week.

On the long bridge over the Delaware River, I stopped from time to time to peer down into the cool blue water streaked with green where aquatic plants grew up from the bottom and billow slowly in the flowing water. At my back cars and the ubiquitous interstate tractor-trailers flashed by at 70 miles an hour. When the big trucks passed you could feel the bridge make a little bounce as the shock mounts absorbed the heavy loads of the speeding behemoths.

In Delaware Water Gap the church hostel was only a few blocks from the highway and the trail ran practically up to the door before turning left on a side street the lead back up to the southern side of the gap. I opened the door into the basement where the hiker hostel was housed and met "Shrek" a big, gangly, gentle hiker that I had last seen at a place called "the beauty spot" just north of Erwin, Tennessee.

Shrek had never been in a hurry and, in many ways, I admired his approach to the trail. He rarely did more than 5 or 6 miles a day, often stopped for hours at a time to enjoy a particularly nice view or just amuse himself by a stream. He would usually spend a day or two or three in hostels, taking it easy, reading, and enjoying the company of other hikers who were passing through. When I first encountered him he was sitting contentedly on a grassy hilltop slowly eating lunch and contemplating the grass. I'd plopped down about 15 feet away, eaten a hasty snack, exchanged a few words and been on my way north. Shrek's trail register entries, which I read going south from the Water Gap, were always filled with delight and wonder and the comments of those that encountered him were always positive and uplifting.

But it turned out that Shrek would be the person to deliver some of the saddest news I encountered on my journey. As we sat in the basement talking about our respective journeys and the people we had mutually encountered, Shrek asked about who I had passed that he might encounter during the remaining weeks of his north bound walk. He had no intention of trying to get to Katahdin, but would just keep on his own leisurely pace to Connecticut or maybe Massachusetts and then return the following year to finish the trail.

As I ran through the list of people I had passed coming south, I mentioned meeting Pete Harley and his dying little dog GiGi in the 100-mile wilderness of Maine. Shrek gave me a bit of a strange look as I talked about Pete and then said, "I hate to have to tell you this, but Pete died in the White Mountains." I sat, quite stunned for a long moment while Shrek explained that word had just reached him a day or two earlier and that the pastor of the church had even called the ATC office in Harper's Ferry to find out if the rumor was true and had received confirmation but not a lot of detail. When I arrived in Harpers Ferry at the end of my walk I learned a little more about his death.

It seems that Pete had made it up to Madison Hut sometime during the day on September 11th. He had apparently taken a fall on the climb up to Madison and arrived with a slightly bloodied head. The hut crew patched him up and tried to convince him to stay at Madison, but Pete decided to push on over Washington toward Lake of the Clouds. Conditions were not good in the Whites on September 11th. High gusty winds and cold rain from the same storm I had encountered in Massachusetts, blasted across the open rocky slopes. When Pete left the crew at Madison called Mt. Washington and told them to be on the lookout for Pete. Hours later they called again to see if he had arrived and when the answer was negative they decided to mount a search. Pete was found only a few hundred yards from the shelter, still alive, but unconscious and severely hypothermic. Before any serious resuscitation measures could be taken he went into cardiac arrest and died.

The news left me feel a little down, especially since September 11th had been one of the most joyful and memorable days on the trail for me. It also sharpened my awareness of the wonder and frailty of life. Every step and every breath are both a gift and a miracle. But there are no guarantees of continuance and it seemed even more important to live as fully in the present moment as possible.

Continued in The Last 400 - #2

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page created - 11/09/2002
updated - 11/22/2002
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols