My shift at the Backpacker campsite was ending but I was staying in the woods, working my way north to hike the 73 miles of AT in Jersey from the Delaware River in Pennsylvania to the New York border.
I move north, hoping to see a bear. The other Jersey ridgerunners have seen 40 bears between them and I am miffed at not having seen a single one this summer – or on my hike through here last year. My dismay was fueled by the glee of other hikers who delighted in sharing their daily sightings – “I saw a Mama Bear and three cubs this morning. Awesome.”
The Trail crosses the state line at the Delaware River and gently climbs 1200 feet and then follows the Kittatinnies, a panorama of lakes and farmlands unfolding across Pennsylvania to the west and Jersey to the east. Crossing Raccoon Ridge and Rattlesnake Mountain, the trail is rocky, but it gradually smooths and then flattens as it moves north.
The old man with a face filled with bushy white whiskers was standing in the middle of the trail watching me approach from the south. “Howdy, Pilgrim,” I shout! “With that beard, I am guessing you are a thru-hiker.”
“I’m Birdman. Who are you,” came the reply in a drawl so slow I thought I was back home in South Carolina instead of headed north across New Jersey.
“I’m Grasshopper. I am a ridgerunner.”
Birdman is from Tennessee, retired from a lifetime of quarry work and is thru-hiking to Maine. At 65, he’s four years older than me. We stop for lunch at Mohican Outdoor Center and I explain myself, making a new friend and gaining a hiking partner for the week. We walk on together and then I keep going when he takes a mid-afternoon break; I figure we’ll see each other up the trail.
Birdman rolls in late, joining me at a primitive campsite just north of a pond near Millbrook-Blairstown Road, and the next day we cover 12 miles and stay the night at Brink Road Shelter with three camp groups, six northbound thru-hikers and four hikers headed to Georgia.
I make my rounds, checking in with the counselors and scanning the wide-eyed stares of youngsters who are unplugged and facing woodlands isolation and solitude, perhaps for the first time.
Ever the trail ambassador, I prepare hikers for the perils ahead, including Joe to Go in Branchville, where the trail crosses Highway 206 at Culver Gap. This is both a prime spot for breakfast and a source of great angst to outdoor types who slip from the solitude of the woods unprepared for the urban crankiness of a man who earned his reputation for being unfriendly to hikers.
“He’s a nice guy, but he does things his way. Just order your food and keep in simple,” I advise. “It’s cash only and don’t even think about asking to charge your phone or to use the bathroom.”
A camper who passed by Gren Anderson Shelter is telling others to leave their trash in the bear box, a weird twist on Leave No Trace, and I only grouse a little before packing out someone’s leftovers. A northbound thru-hiker is carrying a six-pack of beer and he finishes two at the shelter, smashing his empties and then packing them away. I caution him about alcohol on the trail; he smiles, shrugs, and hikes on, opening a can as he goes.
A woman in sandals struggles up Sunrise Mountain with a large pack. With a thick Eastern European accent, Mary says she is on the second day of a hike across New Jersey. She complains that her feet hurt after 24 miles the day before. “Why so far?” I ask. “I only have four days,” she replies.
Good luck with that.
Mary pulled up lame the next day at High Point State Park and needed a ride to the train in Port Jervis. My truck was nearby and I considered taking her to the train, but thought that idea promised trouble so I helped her call a cab and then headed north with a clear conscience.
|Monument at High Point State Park|
At 1700-feet, High Point is the highest spot in New Jersey and the trail then drops to the valley and cuts southeast along the New York border, across farms and through fields and forests, board walks, pasturelands and along country roads. I cover seven miles in a steady rain, take a late morning break to dry off at the Jim Murray shelter and then stop for lunch in Unionville at Horler’s Store.
The trail passes near ridgerunner summer housing at the wildlife refuge, so I stop for a hot shower and a night’s respite from the rain. Up and over Pochuck Mountain the next morning, I take a mandatory ice cream break at the Heaven Hill Farms store and then climb the Stairway to Heaven and cross Wawayanda and stay the night near the shelter as my hike across Jersey winds down.
The New York line is four miles north and I plan to flip at the border and hike back to Wawayanda for a shuttle ride back to my truck, but then I meet Fred Schneider, a volunteer trail maintainer, and decide to hike down the State Line Trail with him. Lost in my reverie and feeling sassy about finishing my walk across Jersey, I stumble and land hard, snapping a trekking pole, bruising my bottom, blackening an eye, and spraining my hand.
The pain and indignity fade as we make it down the mountain and reach Fred’s car at the Greenwood Lake trailhead. He ferries me toward Warwick for something cold at The Creamery, an oasis where the AT crosses US 17A. The chocolate shake is a taste of heaven.
Limping but refreshed, I catch a ride to a hiker hostel in Vernon where a park worker from Wawayanda shuttles me back to High Point and my truck. I meet Birdman and three other northbounders for breakfast the next morning, picking up the tab as Trail Magic and then shuttle the four of them back to the trail and the hike up Wawayanda Mountain that will start their day.
August melted into September, and Labor Day ended my ridgerunner summer. I camped near the High Point Shelter my last night out and then hiked 12 miles back to the house at the wildlife refuge to pack up for the long drive south. I was barely a half mile down the trail when I saw a bear cub scamper ahead and disappear into the trees. My ridgerunning ended with my summer’s only bear.
Birdman and I are planning to hike together to Trail Days in Damascus, VA in the spring and then he’s going to New Hampshire to finish his hike to Katahdin. Me? I’m hoping for a return to Jersey and for more ridges to run.