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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 25 - Hiking Through New Jersey

Updated on November 9, 2013
When the Appalachian Trail first enters New Jersey, it travels along the crest of Kittatinny Mountain.
When the Appalachian Trail first enters New Jersey, it travels along the crest of Kittatinny Mountain. | Source

Across the Delaware

After staying most of the morning in Delaware Water Gap, Dave and I left Pennsylvania behind us via the I – 80 bridge over the Delaware River. We bid farewell to Mark, who had been our hiking partner over the last two months, since we had met him just outside of Hot Springs, North Carolina. We made some vague arrangements with him that we might meet him at the highway crossing at Culver's Gap New Jersey or if not there, in Unionville, New York.

Once on the New Jersey side of the river, the trail started climbing a ridge. As we climbed there were nice views of the Delaware Water Gap, and we found ourselves at the top of the ridge quickly. Once we were on top of the ridge, the hiking was fast and we found ourselves at a small lake called Sunfish pond. It was a hot day and as soon as we came to the pond, Dave announced that he was going for a swim. I decided to pass on the swim, but I occupied myself by snacking, reading, and looking at our maps. After our break, we went on to Mohican shelter. It was a total of 11 miles of hiking for the day.

The next day we hiked the 16 miles to Culver's Gap very quickly. There were restaurants clustered around the road crossing at Culver's Gap, and Dave and I took advantage. I don't remember where we ate, but my journal entry said that we ate at "some restaurants" while we waited to see if Mark would show up. By evening he hadn't appeared so we decided to move on and perhaps meet him in Unionville, New York the next evening. We left Culver's Gap and hiked three more miles to Gren Anderson shelter. It was a 19 mile day.

While at Culver's Gap, I made a call to my Uncle Paul who lived in Midland Park, New Jersey to arrange our visit with him, my Aunt Janet, and my cousins Laura and Paul. We arranged to meet where the trail crossed route 17 in New York State. It was actually a more accessible and more familiar landmark to my uncle from where he lived in New Jersey than any part of the trail that was actually in New Jersey. The meeting was to take place on June 20th, four days later. Dave also arranged a visit with his family. We would meet his parents and his grandmother and his uncle at the same intersection on June 22nd. My Uncle Paul was going to drop us off at the trail after a two-day visit and then we would wait to be picked up by Dave's parents. Of course we were anticipating our upcoming visits with a lot of excitement. First though, we had four more days of hiking ahead of us.

I turned and started tramping along the small path that seemed to follow the edge of the pond. The last thing I heard from them was "We already tried that Dave! That path doesn’t lead anywhere!...."

My encounter with a beaver pond in the Adirondack Mountains the previous year influenced how I handled some situations on the Appalachian Trail.
My encounter with a beaver pond in the Adirondack Mountains the previous year influenced how I handled some situations on the Appalachian Trail. | Source

Separation Anxiety

From Gren Anderson shelter, we hiked 18 miles the next day and ended up in Unionsville, New York. The highlight of the day had been reaching High Point, the highest spot in New Jersey. Getting there, for me, had been an adventure. The AT followed a mixture of trail and road along that section, and as often happened when Dave and I hiked, we became separated. That usually was not a big deal, because whoever was in the lead would typically stop at a good place for a rest and wait until the other caught up, usually within a few minutes.

I was following the white rectangular AT trail blazes along a road that went on for a long time. After a while, I started to realize that I hadn't seen a white blaze in a good amount of time. I hiked some more, now looking carefully for markers, but after a few minutes more I still hadn't seen any. I realized that I had missed a turnoff. By that time it was afternoon and I wasn't sure how far Dave was ahead of me.

I started getting a sinking feeling. We had no way to communicate and we each had things the other needed. He had most of the equipment, and I had most of our food. I thought about turning around and hiking back the way I had come, but I chafed at how much more time I would lose doing that on top of the unknown amount of time I had already lost hiking down the wrong road.

There was one bit of certainty. I knew that High Point was a major landmark not too far ahead. I figured that would be the place where Dave would take a break and wait for me. He would expect me to be fairly close behind. If I could get to High Point as fast as possible I could avoid the possibility that Dave might backtrack to find me or that we might somehow fail to meet up before the end of the day.

The road was lightly traveled, but there were a few cars that came by. On an impulse I stuck out my thumb and very quickly I got a car to pull over. It was a guy in a little Volkswagen beetle. I felt sheepish going up to the window of the car and asking him how to get to High Point. He didn't bat an eye, he just told me to hop in the car and he would take me there. As I climbed in, I felt partially relieved to be getting back on track. Still, I couldn't be sure that Dave would be there, I just had to hope he would be. I also felt uncomfortable because just a few days earlier I had been preaching to Dave and Mark that we shouldn't take any more rides, and now here I was doing just that. In this case, though, I felt like I had to. Sometimes the necessity of a situation has to trump principle when there is a larger issue at stake or when you recognize that the path you are following is leading you to an unknown fate.

My mind went back to a previous trip in the Adirondacks over a year before, when Dave and I had hiked the 134 mile Northville - Lake Placid Trail with some of our buddies. A few days from completion, we were hiking through a remote area that wasn't well-maintained. The trail led straight into a beaver pond with no bridge across. At one point it had probably just been a stream, but when the beavers built their dam, the area had flooded and the trail had been submerged. My friends were all on the other side when I arrived on the scene. They told me that there was no way to get across except to wade through. They were all wet and one of them was getting a fire going to dry off their clothes. Dave had his camera all set to get some action photos of me forging through the pond. I thought I knew better. My father and I had hiked through that section the summer before and we had waded through the same beaver pond. He had heard from a guy he knew that since then there had been a path worn around the edge of the pond that someone could follow instead of wading through. When I arrived at the pond, I saw the path I was looking for branching off from the main trail. My friends called across to tell me to just wade through, but I hardly listened. I turned and started tramping along the small path that seemed to follow the edge of the pond. The last thing I heard from them was "We already tried that Dave! That path doesn’t lead anywhere!...."

I was too certain to listen. I was locked into what I was going to do. Sure enough, within about 15 min. the little path emptied out of the woods where it had been following the edge of the pond into a wide open flat marshy area filled with hummocks of grass, slow winding streams, and clumps of alder bushes. At that point I should've recognized my error and turned back, but I was stubborn. I figured I would just keep going, trying to cross the main stream that led out of the beaver pond and get back to the trail on the other side. I thought that I would find the edge of the pond again and follow it back around to the trail. The trouble was that there wasn't a single stream that led out of the beaver pond. In the marsh there were several streams winding in multiple hairpin loops. Before long I was completely disoriented and just as soaking wet as I would have been if I had waded through the beaver pond in the first place. I ended up wasting the entire afternoon, first getting turned around, then trying to figure out which way to go to get back. When I started getting cold in my wet clothes, I knew I had to stop and dry off. I found a clump of trees in the middle of the marsh and I set up a little camp. I never reconnected with my friends. They ended up hiking out and notifying the state forest ranger in that region. He came out with a state trooper the next day and found me. The experience was humbling and provided a firm lesson to quickly recognize when a course of action is going wrong and change course instead of doubling down. It also taught me to think about my actions from the perspective of how my partners will be affected.

That experience was in the forefront of my mind as I evaluated my situation on the way to High Point. There was no way I was going to keep hiking when I knew that Dave would be wondering where I was. There was no way to predict what he would feel compelled to do if I didn't meet up with him before the end of the day. I didn't want any rangers alerted or any phone calls to my family or his. My immediate priority once I realized I was off the trail and separated from my partner, was to get back on the trail as soon as possible at the spot where I would most likely find him.

When the guy in the Volkswagon drove me to the top of the hill and dropped me off at the monument, Dave was there. I pulled my pack out of the back and thanked the guy. As he drove off Dave came up to me.

"What happened to you?" was about all he said.

"I got off the trail," I replied, "I ended up on some road somewhere. That guy picked me up and gave me a ride here."

High Point, the highest spot in New Jersey is crowned with an obelisk monument.
High Point, the highest spot in New Jersey is crowned with an obelisk monument. | Source

Unionville

I looked around me and saw that High Point was not as busy as I expected it to be. High Point is a popular tourist attraction - the highest point in the state of New Jersey. There is a monument there, an obelisk, like a small version of the Washington Monument. The road to the top leads to a parking lot and, of course, a nice view. What neither of us expected was that High Point was closed. The monument and snack bars did not open until the public school year in northern New Jersey ended and all the kids went on summer break. It was getting close to that point, but there was still a week or so of school left in the year. We stuck around for a short time, drank some water, and had a few snacks from our packs. Then we moved on toward Unionville.

Unionville, New York is just across the New Jersey border with New York State. I thought that the trail actually passed through Unionville, but it didn't. We had to walk a ways along the road from where the trail crossed route 284. We considered not going. We had resupplied in Delaware Water Gap and we had gotten snacks and eaten at some restaurants at Culver's Gap the day before. According to one of the unofficial trail guides, the American Legion in Unionville would put up AT hikers. That and the possibility of running into Mark again decided the matter for us, so we set off down rt. 284 for a short side trip to Unionville.

Unionville was a nice quiet little town. In fact it was very quiet. I don't remember seeing many people and hardly any cars on the road. We finally located the American Legion building but it was closed. We knocked but there was no one around. We went around to the back of the building and found that there was a small parking lot that was empty, and a set of concrete steps that led to a concrete landing in front of the back door. We decided to sit on the steps and hang out just in case someone showed up. While we sat there, we took out the stove and fired it up. We cooked dinner and ate and still no one showed up. The evening turned to night, and the parking lot, as well as the whole town, seemed bathed in silence. We finally unrolled our sleeping bags and laid them out at the top of the steps on the concrete landing. There we slept undisturbed until the light of the dawn woke us up.

There was also a sliminess that congealed on my skin that felt like the outer layer of a fish.

Wawayanda Mountain

The next day was hot, probably the hottest we had experienced on the trip so far. We hiked about 10 1/2 miles during the morning hours along a mixture of road and trail until we came to an intersection with a road that led about a mile into Vernon New Jersey. We stopped there where the trail plunged into the woods and rested in some shade. It was midday and the heat was uncomfortable. We decided to take most of the afternoon off from hiking. We hung around the shady spot we had found trying to motivate ourselves to walk the 1 mile into Vernon and find a restaurant. While we were sitting there a lady came hiking by. It took us a second to recognize her because we hadn't seen her in months. It was Connie, a retired schoolteacher from New Jersey, who was thru-hiking the trail with a support crew who met her at road intersections at the end of each day and dropped her off back at the same spot every morning. We had first encountered her in North Carolina. We had seen her a few times there but hadn't seen her since. Her friends that were supporting her had bought groceries for us and met us in Wesser, North Carolina to hand them over. They had been very friendly and helpful at the time. It was good to run across her again and get caught up.

Finally our stomachs prompted us to brave the heat and we walked a mile into Vernon for dinner. It turned out to be worth it. In town we found a restaurant that served all you can eat fish and chips. We returned to the trail intersection at about 6:30 in the evening and started hiking again. Our goal for the evening was to climb Wawayanda mountain, which we had heard was a short but steep ascent. The heat had dissipated some, but it was still humid and the sweat poured off us. Our T-shirts became like stopping wet washcloths plastered to our backs. On other hot days I had tried hiking without my shirt, but that had its own discomforts. Pack straps rubbed against shoulders and whenever I took off my pack for a break and then put it back on again, it was like getting an icy shock against my bare back. There was also a sliminess that congealed on my skin that felt like the outer layer of a fish. The pack would slide around on my shoulders until I got it cinched up tight. Wearing my T-shirt masked the sliminess and reduced the icy cold shock of putting the pack on after every water and "bathroom” break.

We felt good going up Wawayanda. We didn't stop to rest at all. We just attacked the slope, our legs moving like pistons. We were breathing hard when we reached the top, but we weren't out of breath. I remember realizing that the climb up Wawayanda was a good measure of how much my physical conditioning had improved since the start of the trip. In the beginning I would have had to stop and catch my breath several times going up that slope.

We didn't linger for long on top of Wawayanda. We kept hiking. It was my favorite time of the day to hike, with the sun sitting low in the sky making the light golden and soft, and making the shadows longer and deeper. The air was warm, but comfortable and after the steep ascent, our footsteps seemed to fly along the path as we traveled a wooded ridge.

A view from the top of Wawayanda Mountain.
A view from the top of Wawayanda Mountain. | Source

Dave and I could relate to these kids because if it had been four years earlier, we could have been them.

A Reflection of the Past

It wasn't long before we were reminded that we were on the part of the AT that wended through a populated area. Through the trees we started seeing the backs of people's homes. We were hiking right behind a suburban neighborhood. Just after we noticed the houses through the trees, we came across three boys playing in the woods. We stopped to talk with them for a while and found out that they were all 14 years old, and they were planning to have a campfire and camp out next to the trail for the night. They were enthusiastic kids with lots of questions for us about our trip. Dave and I could relate to these kids because if it had been four years earlier, we could have been them. To an adult four years seems almost insignificant as an age gap, but at that time in our lives it was a bigger deal. Dave and I were just about full-grown, while these kids were just starting their teenage growth spurts. We had been on our own on the trail for almost 4 months, and they were still living with their families and going to school. Even with those differences, Dave and I were still teenagers ourselves, and not so far removed from school. When the boys asked us if we would camp with them for the night, Dave and I shrugged. Why not, we thought. It was about time to look for a camping spot anyway. It seemed like a fun thing to do, so we agreed.

The kids built the campfire and they had some hot dogs and marshmallows. Dave and I pulled out the last of the hot dogs we had. We usually boiled them in a pan on Dave’s stove, but that night we all sharpened some sticks and roasted the hot dogs over the fire.

For the most part that evening, we just listened to the chatter of the three boys. There was a lot of clowning around. Dave set up his camera on this tripod and used the timer to get some group pictures. The kids all made funny faces and one of the kids held up a hatchet like he was about to attack the rest of us. I remember having this odd feeling throughout the evening, like I was looking backward through time at myself just a few years earlier. I wasn't used to being one of the older, experienced members of the group, but that was the role I found myself in. If I thought that they would treat Dave and I with some kind of special respect, I quickly found out otherwise. They only seemed impressed with us and our journey for about 5 minutes, then they just treated us about the way they treated each other, and our presence didn't seem to alter any of their antics. The next morning Dave and I woke up and had breakfast with our three young companions. We then packed up, said our farewells, and moved on down the trail toward the New York State border.

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