AT: Family Bonding, Another Hospital Visit and a Fresh Perspective
Hiking with family, an unfortunate return to Massachusetts and a new beginning (July 19th — 25th)
After six long zero days at my mothers house in Massachusetts, I finally made my return to New York. Feeling well rested, rejuvenated and eager to hike, I was excited to repack my backpack and lace up the boots again. Not that I didn’t enjoy home cooked meals, cold beverages and good company, but enough was enough. As the great John Muir himself once said: “The mountains are calling, and I must go!” A week of antibiotics had done my ankle well, and the abscess receded with each passing day. The joint was still sensitive to the touch, but with the assistance of an air cast, I could walk virtually pain free.
Sharing the Experience
Since departing Georgia, I have tried to keep loved ones informed of my travels. Postcards, pictures and phone calls do a decent job of depicting trail life, but there is no way of truly conveying the reality of long distance hiking. Over dinner in Harpers Ferry, my sister had approached me about coming along for a short section. I jumped at the idea, honored to sharing my passion for the wilderness with her. She had never backpacked before, and perhaps I could cultivate a new and healthy hobby in her life. At the very least, we could catch up on lost time and enjoy a weekend in the mountains of upstate New York. Conveniently having four days off work, this week seemed to be the perfect fit. Conscious of her fresh legs and my healing ankle, we planned a 30 mile section between Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon. I was excited for the company and the opportunity to share the reality of my last three months with one of the most important people in my life. I wasn’t necessarily enthused about the added weight of two-person gear, but with less mileage to tackle on a daily basis, I was up for the challenge.
Setting off from Harriman, we were tossed curve balls from the get-go. Not only was the car thermometer registering 103 degrees, but the climb out of the gap was exposed, steep and rocky. For a first time backpacker, the conditions were flat out demoralizing. Needless to say, we took frequent breaks, fought our way to the top of Fingerboard Mountain and decided to cut the day short. Drenched in sweat and struggling to stay hydrated, the allure of shade, water and snacks got the best of us. We had intended to push a little farther that day, but difficult rock-scrambles like the “lemon squeeze” slowed our progress significantly. The next legal camp spot was over 5 miles away, and we feared running out of daylight. Getting to camp early ended up being the smart decision, as rolling thunder brought rain showers in the early evening. We stayed dry inside the tent, and passed time swapping stories over kava tea and mac n’ cheese. A relaxing culmination to our first day.
West and Bear Mountains
Back in Georgia, I heard tales of New York’s West Mountain Shelter. With panoramic views of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline, it was rumored to be the one of the most beautiful shelters on the Appalachian Trail. Located a convenient 10.5 miles from Fingerboard Mountain, Lauren and I eagerly set plans for West Mountain that evening. Another sweltering day followed, with temperatures scraping the mid-nineties. Stopping for lunch atop Black Mountain, it was difficult to stomach our bagels slathered in warm peanut butter. The heat has been diminishing my appetite for anything other than an ice-cold smoothie, and unfortunately I haven’t found a way to pack out ice cream… yet…
After lunch we were excited to see only 3 miles before the West Mountain summit. Although we could have hiked a couple more hours, we were more excited for the storied views. Packing a full water supply to the summit, we followed a half-mile side trail to a magnificent stone shelter perched over the Hudson River. Soaking up the view, we cooked dinner and settled in for the sunset. As nightfall ensued, the lights of NYC came alive. Obscured by daytime haze, Manhattan was a glimmering beacon in the distant sky, a remarkable view. Just 30 miles south of camp, Times Square was bustling with tourists. We on the other hand, hear only the faint whispering of the evening breeze. The real world is so close, yet so far away. Unfortunately, a camera couldn’t capture the spectacular nighttime scene… one for the memory bank I suppose.
Waking up to 5AM bird calls, we decided to pack up for an early start. Bear Mountain loomed in the distance, and we wanted to summit while the morning temps were cool. Completing the 5 mile climb, we were rewarded with more panoramic views of the Hudson River. From the observatory tower we were able to see our campsites of the previous two nights, and trace our route back to the parking lot in Harriman. After a quick snack, we descended 1200' to Bear Mountain State Park. Complete with museums, concession stands, gift shops and a zoo, it was an awesome place to escape the midday heat… hiker heaven! We entertained ourselves with vegan blueberry pie from an Amish bakery, views of Hessian Lake and a leisurely tour of the park’s attractions. Heading back into the mountains, I realized how much I’ve missed backpacking at a slower pace. Had I been alone, it’s unlikely I would have stopped in the state park for more than 15 minutes. We spent nearly 3 hours wandering the museums and exhibits, and explored every side trail we encountered that day. Taking a final break at Arden’s Nose (a 1.2 mile side venture), I reflected back on past backpacking trips, comparing them to the Appalachian Trail. On previous hikes, I’ve never walked remotely close to my current pace. I do appreciate the physical challenge of 20+ mile days, but I miss the freedom of long breaks and unexpected side trips. Going forward I hope to establish a healthy balance between hiking and relaxation, and be more open-minded to sporadic deviations from the regular routine.
On the Road Again…
Waking up at Hemlock Springs Campsite, we wrapped up Lauren’s final 5 miles to the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center. My mother met us here, and we enjoyed Sunday brunch as a family before they headed back to Boston. (We ate at the Birdsall House in Peekskill New York, two thumbs up for the beet-quinoa burger and outdoor dining!) Hiking into the wilderness again, I had 15 miles to reflect before reaching camp. Some truly magical things happened in the past 10 days. Getting injured afforded me time to reconnect with family, and help them understand my journey in further depth. Although I had seen them in Harpers Ferry, we were constantly on the move, consumed with daily activities. Relaxing at home for 6 days, I was able to share more about my experience in the comfort of the family home. I attended regular meetings, ate healthily and gave my body ample time for rest. Most importantly, when I did finally return to trail, I was fortunate to share the first four days with Lauren. We had several hours of long conversation, something we hadn’t done since I left home many years ago. The trail has a unique way of building and strengthening friendships. I regularly hear stories about family members “getting to know each other” and “mending relationships” on the Appalachian Trail. Freedom from daily distractions and technology seems to create a unique opportunity for pure, undisturbed interaction.
An Unexpected Turn for the Worst
Only 6 days since returning to trail, I was plagued with a sharp pain in my Achilles heel, centimeters from my former abscess. Particularly sensitive on uphill climbs, I struggled over one too many mountains before stopping short at the Morgan Stewart Memorial Shelter. Using my trekking poles to support my body weight, I limped into camp dejected. Sure enough, between my Achilles tendon and heel pad was a pronounced purple lump. Deliberating with fellow hikers, I decided to re-evaluate my ankle the following morning. Unfortunately, worsening pain followed, and after three excruciating miles to NY55, I began to fear the worst. Hitching a ride to the nearest medical office, I was given an unofficial diagnosis for Achilles bursitis and a recommendation for further medical attention. I sat in a deli for several minutes contemplating the consequences of pushing through the pain, but ended up heeding the advice and returning to Boston for another medical opinion.
“Achilles tendonitis and a possible stress fracture” read the diagnosis from Seacoast Orthopedics. Recommendations: limited exercise, Advil regimen, ice, elevation and time. With three weeks until my August 17th follow-up appointment, the hike is indefinitely suspended. All things considered, I am grateful the news wasn’t worse. The doctor estimated I should be back in the mountains before September, but seeing as Baxter State Park (home to Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail) closes on October 15th, my window for completion is shrinking. The closer I come to winter, the more I play Russian-roulette with the volatile fall weather of the Northeast mountains. Historically, Katahdin has closed as early as September due to snow, and falling 5 miles short of a completed thru-hike is not something I am willing to risk.
A New Plan: SOBO
Southbound. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservatory, only 12 percent of AT thru-hikers traveled Southbound from Katahdin to Springer last year. As my mind raced about the consequences of tackling New Hampshire and Maine during fall, I had a different idea. I can resume my hike at the northern terminus, summit Katahdin and hike south to Poughquag, NY to complete the trail. Although unconventional, “flip-flop through hikes,” (traveling northbound for one section and southbound for another) are growing in popularity, and have a number of advantages. The ATC has an article on their website about alternative hikes, saying:
“A flip-flop thru-hike allows you to avoid the unpleasant conditions created when large numbers of hikers clump together in the backcountry. You’ll be helping disperse the flow of hikers and helping preserve the natural environment of the Appalachian Trail.”
As I mull over the idea, I am becoming increasingly intrigued by hiking southbound. An article published on The Trek identified several advantages to hiking SOBO, the biggest one being “take as long as you’d like.” Baxter State Park is the only area of the AT that closes seasonally, so I won’t have to worry about any deadlines for finishing my hike. Escaping the congestion of the mid-Atlantic region also sounds terrific. Since New Jersey, I have been joined by 15–30 hikers each evening at the shelters. Should I chose to travel southbound, I can regain the solitary component of backpacking I fell in love with while hiking the southern states. Lastly, the fall colors of New England are perhaps the biggest allure of the Northeast wilderness. If I can avoid the snow and sub-freezing temperatures of the northern mountains, I will get to enjoy the beautiful autumnal scenery in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. All things considered, I think my decision is made. Now the challenge is staying physically fit enough to tackle the White Mountains. But hey, if my ankle and fresh legs can make it over Mount Washington, it will be all downhill from there… figuratively speaking…
Thank you to everyone for reading! My off time will be filled with rehabilitation, relaxation and hopefully more articles. Perhaps I can start an energy bar company… a solution to the “Clif Bar texture” must exist. As time draws closer to Katahdin, I will definitely be posting again. Thank you for the love, kindness and support!
“Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves”
— Henry David Thoreau