Going the Distance
Hiking for two weeks is a lot different than hiking for a few days over a long weekend. You have to worry about getting clean periodically, resupplying your food bag, taking rest days, emotional ups and downs, and getting the right amount of nutrition.
All of these things really came to a head for me in southern New York when I hit the wall about 85 miles into my hike. I quickly figured out that I needed to change my eating habits and eat less processed sugar (candy bars) and eat more complex carbohydrates, protein and fat. After I made that change, my endurance and mood improved substantially, even though the weather continued to be bleak, cold, and wet.
I also took a half day of rest, just north of the Hudson River, which helped break the monotony of the trip and gave me little rest. After an afternoon off, I enjoyed my hike a lot more and really started to amp up my daily mileage. All part of the journey, I guess.
About the New York Appalachian Trail
The New York section of the Appalachian Trail is 88 miles in length and passes through a remarkably rural region, despite being within 100 miles of Gotham (New York City). The trail mainly runs through the ring of parks surrounding New York City including Sterling Forest State Park, Harriman State Park, Bear Mountain State Park, Hudson Highland State Park, and Clarence Fahnstock State Park. Along the route, it also crosses several major motorways including Interstate 87, the Pallisades Parkway, the Taconic State Parkway, Interstate 84, and the Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River.
Hikers walking north from New Jersey will find noticeably less shelters in the southern half of the state, when compared to New Jersey. Many of these are the oldest shelters still in existence along the entire Appalachian trail and are in poor repair.
Terrain-wise, the New York section does not have any peaks higher than 1,500 feet in elevation, but there are still a lot of ups and downs on the trail that make for moderately difficult hiking.
Day Six: Lakes Rd to Fingerboard Shelter (13 miles, 2,000 feet of elevation)
After a night off the trail in a motel in Greenwood Lake, NY, I got back on the trail at Lakes Rd, a few miles north of Rt 17a. This is about 5 miles beyond where I’d left the trail the previous day before heading into town for my resupply.
Some people object strenuously to skipping mileage like this on the Appalachian Trail. Called purists, they believe that you should hike every single mile from Georgia to Maine. It’s a difficult standard to maintain though for 6 months and accordingly, the governing body that oversees the trail, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), only requires that you hike 2,000 of the 2,180 miles of the trail to “count” as a complete hike. I’m not a purist, but these were the first miles I ever skipped, of the 700 or so miles of the trail that I’ve hiked so far.
I made the decision to skip this stretch of trail because I really wanted to get to the next shelter, called Fingerboard, which would have otherwise been beyond my reach in a single day’s hiking. Although I was out of New Jersey, I still wasn’t all that comfortable with the prospect of tarping in bear territory, especially in southern New York where there are no steel bear boxes at campsites or shelters. Bears don’t care about state lines.
I got back onto the trail that morning at about 8:30 am, just south of Fitzgerald Falls, shown above. The weather was grey and cool again, but I was determined to press on for another two days until I got to the Hudson River, where I hoped to take a day off and rest. This is the formula I used to hike across Scotland last May, also a 173 mile journey, and I figured it would work again.
After a few hours of walking, I made it to Harriman State Park and crossed over The New York Thruway, Interstate 87. I had mixed feelings about spending the night in the park though. I don’t like camping near urban centers very much and I particularly don’t like New York. Unfortunately my route passed as close to New York as you can get on the Appalachian Trail by foot. In fact, the shelter I was aiming for that evening is only a 45 minutes bus ride from New York City, and less than a mile from a parking lot.
Sleeping in a park outside of New York wasn’t high on my agenda. During the rest of the year, there are a lot more people around and safety in numbers, but I had not seen anyone on the trail for days. I was uneasy about having a weird encounter with someone in the park at night.
While I did see a few people when I crossed over into Harriman, they were runners or dog walkers, and didn’t even bother saying hello to me when we crossed paths. I couldn’t help feeling like the Appalachian Trail wasn’t open this early in April, budget crisis or not.
When I did make it to Fingerboard, I was bonking, even though I had been consciously eating more food during the day. My pace had slowed considerably as well, from 2.0 mph to 1.5 mph. Somehow, the extra calorie intake wasn’t working. I was tired and discouraged.
The final straw was the shelter itself, which is a complete dump. It’s a stone shelter with two fireplaces, that people apparently still use. There was garbage everywhere and someone had left a huge plastic tarp in the shelter, which they’d obviously nailed over the front entrance to keep the heat inside during the winter. The floor of the shelter was covered with soot and ash and I got dirty as soon as I put my pack down on the floorboards.
I was close to camping outside because I was so disgusted with the place, when it started to rain. I gritted my teeth, cooked dinner, got in my bivy sack and tried to keep my gear clean the rest of the night.
I subsequently read somewhere that Fingerboard Shelter is the oldest shelter on the Appalachian Trail. If that’s the case, it’d be nice if the maintainer, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference restored it or at least monitored it’s use during the off-season. Seriously, if you’ve ever seen the Governor Clement Shelter in Vermont, which the Green Mountain Club tells people to avoid, this was far worse.
Day Seven: Fingerboard to Bear Mountain Bridge (14 miles, 2,000 feet of elevation)
It was cold the next morning, but the sun was out and I was hopeful that we’d have a warmer day for a change. I had made it through the night intact and unmolested, but I wanted to get to Fort Montgomery, on the west side of the Hudson River, and resupply before it got dark.
The previous night I’d decided to spend the night in a cheap motel there to get off the trail and avoid another sketchy night near New York. I’d called the Bear Mountain Bridge Motel and arranged to have a shuttle pick me up at the bottom of Bear Mountain later that afternoon. If the Motel proved decent and there were things to do in Fort Montgomery, I was also considering staying a second night so I could rest up for a day.
I packed up my gear and headed out, meeting up with a southbound hiker shortly thereafter, the first I’d seen hiking the AT in days. His trail name was White Will, since his name was Will and he was readying Moby Dick. The first thing he said to me, even before hello, was “I have to lighten this backpack.”
The guy was in agony. He had just started the trail a few days north in Pawling, NY, and was headed to Georgia, before heading up to Maine and hiking southbound and back home. The chief source of his problems was a 10 lb tent which seemed to fully fill his 5,000 cubic inch pack. He vowed to dump his heavy gear at the next outfitter and I offered a few suggestions about economic ways that he could lighten up.
We chatted for a while and he filled me in on the campsites and shelters that I was approaching up north, but he really couldn’t remember much except that the RPH Shelter was exceptionally comfortable. This would prove to be true and is really a marvelous place to stop.
Will and I parted ways and I continued through Harriman, eventually crossing the Pallisades Parkway just 34 miles north of New York City. It seemed to me that all of the sights in New York, The Empire State, were mostly of man-made constructions like highways and bridges, instead of mountains or vistas. Maybe it’s different later in the year when there are leaves on the trees and there’s more natural beauty to look at.
By mid-day the temperature had gotten up to 80 degrees and the sun was out, finally. I’d stripped off all of my upper layers and was walking in a short sleeve shirt as I climbed hill after hill en route to Bear Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River. It was a Saturday, so the area was swarming with families and children, all out enjoying the warm weather. People kept waving maps at me and asking where they were: I just told them I had no idea and kept following the White Blazes. Honestly, after being completely alone on the trail for nearly a week, I was overwhelmed by all of the people I encountered that day.
Bear Mountain isn’t actually much of a mountain, only rising about 1000 feet above the Hudson River. But all of the ups and downs required to hike over it were hard going and I was happy to head down the other side towards the river. The view was pretty awesome, overlooking the Bear Mountain Bridge, and I could see big freighters traveling up and down the river and hear the sound of freight trains along the river banks.
When I got to the foot of the mountain, I called my motel and they picked me up within 10 minutes, driving me the 4 miles to Fort Montgomery, where a hot shower, food stores, and a hearty BBQ dinner awaited me.
There was one slight hitch with staying in Fort Montgomery, though. There isn’t a real supermarket in town and the food store listed in the AT Guide doesn’t have much substantive food in it. I was bummed and asked the motel owner to drive me to Peerskill, 4 miles away. When he declined, I decided to push on the next morning and try to find a better resupply further down the trail.
Then I decided to canvas the town to see what kind of food I could pull together anyway. In the end, I visited three more stores and managed to assemble 4 days of pretty decent food that would see me through the rest of New York and to Kent, CT which has a proper supermarket.
For example, I found an all butter pound cake which I like to eat for breakfast on hikes. I bought a loaf of bread, found the last jar of peanut butter in town and the only honey bear. I bought a bunch of peanuts, wheat thins, three boxes of Fig Newtons, granola bars, more tea and a few snickers bars. It wasn’t the salami and cheese I wanted, but it would do. I had so much food in fact, that I had to carry some of it outside my pack in the mesh pockets of my pack the next day.
After that I went to dinner at a good BBQ place and amazed my waitress by eating three huge orders of french fries, in addition to a pulled pork dinner and some beers. Those extra carbs really helped!
After dinner, I went back to the motel and repacked my pack. I then decided to hike a short day and stop at the Graymoor Spiritual Center the following day and take a nero, a near zero rest day, there. They have a shelter, actually a picnic pavilion, that they let AT hikers use. I decided I’d hang out, eat., read a book and doze the day away. I certainly wasn’t going to stay another day at the motel.
Day Eight: Bear Mountain Bridge to Graymoor Friary (6 miles, 1,000 feet of elevation)
The next morning I was on the trail by 8:00 am and walked across the two-lane Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River. From there, it’s a steep climb up a big hill called Anthony’s Nose before you come to the Graymoor Friary, a Franciscan Monastery that has been providing Appalachian Trail hikers shelter since 1972, or nearly 40 years
Although I was alone, I immediately felt comforted on the Graymoor grounds. I set up camp in their Picnic Pavilion, which is an open-sided, roofed structure, set off at the far end of their compound. During the warmer months there’s running water here and a cold water shower, and plenty of room for hikers to pitch their shelters on a large ball field.
I set up my sleeping bag and bivy sack on top of a collapsed picnic table in the Pavilion and read a “book in bed” the rest of the day, finishing my mystery, Faceless Killers: The First Kurt Wallander Mystery by Henning Mankell, while drinking cups of hot soup and tea. I like murder mysteries by foreign authors.
I listened to the song birds and the Friary’s bell tower ringing out the time all day, and although it was another cold and dreary day, I was warm in my sleeping bag. I’d saved $65 by not staying in Fort Montgomery and I was confident that the half day off would help me recover my endurance and enthusiasm.
Day Nine: Graymoor Friary to RPH Shelter (18.5 miles, 2,000 feet of elevation)
The next day I was back on the trail early in the morning, having enjoyed pound cake and a big pot of earl grey tea for breakfast. Pound cake is a great trail food because you can smoosh it real small in your food bag and it’s loaded with calories from all the butter used to make it.
The weather however was frightful and the trail was shrouded by thick mist until mid-day. I had to be especially attentive to the blazing because visibility was at most 25 yards. However the sun started to peak through by afternoon and the walking was pretty easy, so I was able to rev up my mileage and hike over 18 miles in 9 hours. I felt back in the game.
The trail also changed appearance when I entered Fahnstock State Park in the afternoon. It looked like someone had been out doing trail maintenance, especially around Canopus Lake. There was fresh gravel on the trail, blow downs had been cleared by a chain saw, and there ware some freshly blazed side trails.
By 5pm, I arrived at the RPH Shelter, which was by far, the best shelter I slept in or saw during this entire trip. It’s got windows, bunk beds, books to read, it’s super clean, and has lots of different places to sit, indoors and outside. It looks like a bunch of former thru-hikers maintain the place without the help of other agencies, and is a wonderful place to spend the night.
I was so touched by the obvious love that went into building and maintaining this shelter that I sat down and wrote a long entry in the shelter register when I arrived. I read through the other entries and saw that I’d be trailing Nina, Billy, and Buster for a few days already. I never did meet up with them, but like me, they are section hikers and were out for a long hike at the same time I was.
Although you can get a local restaurant to deliver hot food to the shelter (which is located right next to the Taconic Parkway), I opted to eat Peanut Butter and Honey Sandwiches for dinner and they were absolutely divine. I felt well refueled and puttered around the shelter, reading the Introduction to Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers, before crashing at sundown. Apparently Roger Peterson drew most of the flower illustrations in that book himself, driving all over North America in a station wagon to collect specimens, and drawing them at night in motels rooms across the country. It’s a neat story.
Day Ten: RPH Shelter to Telephone Pioneers Shelter (16.5 miles, 1,500 feet of elevation)
I woke up early the next day, eager to do a long day. I was getting close to the Connecticut border and had been in touch with the people who would shuttle me back to my car, about possible pickup times in Connecticut.
The change in my diet was clearly paying off: I felt a lot better and my walking pace was back up over 2 mph. I made fantastic time to the Morgan Stewart Shelter, arriving at 11 am in the morning, and decided to push ahead to the next shelter, another 8 miles further on. It started to rain again, but that doesn’t really bother me too much and I arrived the Telephone Operators shelter before 5pm, cooked dinner, and crashed before sundown. By this stage of the hike, I was motivated to finish, and I was certain that I’d reach my intended destination.
One thing that had changed noticeably since I passed the RPH shelter (going north), was the quality of the shelters in New York. They were newer and cleaner and better looked after by trail maintainers and visitors alike. It was a comfort knowing that I was walking through an area that demonstrably cared about the trail.
Day Eleven: Telephone Pioneers to Ten Mile Lean-to in Connecticut (13 miles, 1,400 feet of elevation)
The next morning, I was up and out early again. It was raining again and had been all night, and the waterfall and stream that serve this shelter with water were cranking.
I crossed the bring over the stream without thinking about how slippery the wood gets when it’s wet, and saw my feet fly up over my head, before I crashed on the ground. I landed on my hip and my titanium pasta pot, denting it yet again on this trip. Luckily, I didn’t hurt myself or ruin the pot. It had been a spectacular fall though: most of the other ones on this trip so far had been regular face plants.
I continued down the mountain, a little more cautiously after that, passing by the Appalachian Trail Railroad Station, a train stop in the middle of nowhere, where you can catch a train into New York City. They’ve just built a boardwalk there like the one at the base of Pochuck Mountain in New Jersey, and although it’s not completed, it’s looking mighty nice.
From here, I passed through a cow pasture at Hurds Corner, before continuing through the very muddy Pawling Nature Reserve. My original route plan had called for a stop here at the Wiley Shelter, but a friend had told me that it was a dump, and urged me to hike another 4 miles into Connecticut to the Ten Mile lean-to. That was good advice. Wiley is one of the worst shelters I’ve ever come across on the AT. It’s close to a road and apparently attracts homeless people and drinkers that trash the surrounding area. It’s a damn shame.
The Ten Mile lean-to in Connecticut was much nicer and I spent a pleasant evening there before heading in to Kent, CT the following day for a resupply.
(To be Continued)
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