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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 27 - Out of New York and into New England
They told us to be prepared for a lot of road walking through the rest of New York State.
Ralph's Peak Hiker's Cabin
As Dave and I walked away from Graymoor Monastery on the morning of June 25 around 8:30 in the morning, we had some intelligence about the trail ahead. We had dined with two southbound hikers in the monastery cafeteria the night before. They had started in Massachusetts, had been on the trail for a couple weeks, and they were concluding their trip the next day at Bear Mountain Bridge. They told us to be prepared for a lot of road walking through the rest of New York State. We were now hiking through the Taconic Mountains on the eastern side of the Hudson River in New York State. We hiked through a lot of farmland and over many country roads in that region.
The day started with a short stint through the woods, but then we came out onto a road and stayed on it for a long time. After that there was another short section of woods followed by another long road walk. By the end of the day the white blazes led us back to trail and we finished the day traveling through woods and fields until we came upon a small white house at the edge of a large field. The house was set back from the trail about 50 yards or so. There was a sign indicating that the building was a shelter for AT hikers. At first Dave and I were unsure because AT shelters are always open faced lean-tos, but this looked like a small house. There was no one around so we walked over to investigate. Sure enough, the sign on the door welcomed AT hikers to Ralph's Peak Hikers Cabin, and inside it was quite comfortable. There were some beds and couches, and candles for light. Some reading material describing the plans for the shelter proved to be very interesting. The trail club that set up the cabin and maintained it was planning to put in running water, electricity, an oven, a stove, and a refrigerator. They also planned to plant a garden in the field in front of the cabin where hikers could pick fresh vegetables for their meals and tend the garden when they stayed there. It sounded like the trail club was very creative, and envisioned the cabin as a kind of commune for hikers – people who would stop in for a night or two, take advantage of the relative comforts of the place, and hopefully contribute by doing a few chores. We thought that if the trail club could make all that happened, it would be one of the best stops on the trail.
Dave and I often wondered after that whatever became of Ralph's Peak Hikers Cabin. Recently, through the Internet, I discovered that it is still a thriving shelter, famous for its comforts. From what I’ve read on-line, it doesn't sound like there is running water or electricity, but furniture is still there, and there is a pump for water. I'm not sure if the garden ever became a reality. I have read reports that there are take-out menus there now, so hikers with cell phones can call for take-out and hike a little ways to a spot along a nearby road to meet the delivery guy and pick up the food. After a short hike back, those hikers are enjoying a pizza or a sandwich at the shelter. Dave and I would have loved that when we stayed there.
Dave and I were left looking at each other, wondering what we had just heard.
Swapping Stories in Holmes, NY
The next day was filled with more roadwalking, once again interspersed with short sections of trail through woods. At one point during the day we came across a general store in Holmes, New York. While most general stores that we came across were sleepy little places with few to no customers other than ourselves, the store in Holmes was a hub of activity. There may have been a festival or celebration going on to attract so many people. The gravel parking lot next to the store was full and there were many people coming and going. We went in and got our usual assortment of snacks and ended up talking with a number of friendly people. The most memorable was a lady who started out asking us a lot of questions about our trip. She listened attentively to our answers for a while but before long she started telling us about some of her adventures. She told us how great she thought it was to live close to nature, and that she had lived in the interior of Alaska for a while as a kid. It sounded really cool to Dave and I, but as she went on, the stories became more and more outrageous. She claimed that while in Alaska she had lived with an Indian tribe. The Indian tribe had taught her to survive in the wild, and that they often ran with a wolf pack She told us that she had learned to run all day through the forest and rejuvenate herself by sleeping under a tree after drilling a hole into the trunk, then sticking one end of a reed to into the hole with the other end in her mouth. The sap from the tree would drain into her mouth while she slept. She would awake hours later completely rested and energized by the nutrients in the tree sap. She also said that once she had been caught out too far from shelter on a cold night. She had been rescued from freezing to death by the wolf pack when they came and formed a pile of warm furry bodies all around her while she slept on the ground. Dave and I listened politely and nodded throughout the conversation. Finally she wished us well on the rest of our trip and walked away.
Dave and I were left looking at each other, wondering what we had just heard.
"What was she talking about?" we asked each other.
Wolves? Drinking tree sap out of a reed while she slept? It was another case of meeting someone along the trail that loved to spin yarns. We had met a few people like that in our travels. We even knew a few from back home, but usually they were guys with big blustering personalities. This had been what seemed to be a polite, rational, and soft-spoken lady.
In contrast to us, the man in the lean-to, with his cross legged position and the wisps of smoke rising like incense all around him seemed to be engulfed in a bubble of peace as if he were some sort of Zen Master.
Mosquitoes and the Zen Master
We moved on from Holmes and by the end of the day we were beyond the long road walking sections of the trail and back in the woods. The trail led through some low land areas that were swampy, and for the first time on the entire trip we started having trouble with insects. We were swarmed by mosquitoes as we hiked that evening. We hadn't needed to use any insect repellent on the entire trip up to that point. I can't remember now whether we didn't have any that evening, or if we did and we tried it but it didn't work. Either way, we found ourselves swinging our arms and flapping our hands around our heads as we hiked along. We intermittently slapped at various spots on our arms, legs, and faces when mosquitoes got past our flailing hands and landed on our exposed flesh. We begin hiking as fast as we could – almost running - to keep ahead of them. Finally, later in the evening, we came to a shelter. It had been a 25 mile day. The mosquitoes were still all around us, but when we walked around to the front of the shelter to look inside, we discovered an island of serenity – a mosquito free zone. Sitting cross legged in the middle of the lean-to’s wooden floor was a guy calmly cooking his dinner, completely unmolested by mosquitoes. Surrounding him were about five small coils that looked like they were made of flat green plastic. The ends of the coils were smoldering, sending up thin wisps of smoke that spread and merged to form a haze around his head and shoulders. Dave and I had been frenetically hiking and swatting the past few hours. We were tired and streaked with sweat, and even at that moment we were still batting our open hands at the clouds of whining insects. In contrast to us, the man in the lean-to, with his cross legged position and the wisps of smoke rising like incense all around him, seemed to be engulfed in a bubble of peace as if he were some sort of Zen Master.
"What are those things," we asked the man.
"Mosquito coils," he replied, "you just light the ends and they slowly burn. The smoke and smell keeps the mosquitoes away."
Dave and I had never heard of them, but we resolved to get ourselves some at the next opportunity. For the time being however, we shunned the open faced lean-to and set up the tent. Once inside, we were able to enjoy our own bubble of peace from the mosquitoes.
For the first time in a long time I thought about our final destination in Maine, and it was starting to feel like we were getting close.
The next day we left New York state after just a few miles of hiking. We had left the mid-Atlantic states behind, and had entered New England. Every border crossing on the trip was a milestone, but this one felt more symbolic. There are many ways to break the Appalachian Trail down into sections. State-by-state is the most obvious way, but it can also be broken into three larger sections – the South, composed of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, the mid-Atlantic, composed of West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and New England, composed of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. By crossing into Connecticut we felt like we were crossing into the final section of the AT - the portion that travels through New England.
Just over the border the trail crossed a road close to the town of Kent Connecticut. Dave and I went into the town and spent most of the day there. Kent is situated along the Housatonic River. The AT follows the Housatonic through most of Connecticut. Kent was a quaint little New England town where we found a nice diner. We ate there and just sat around for a long time. While we were there, we spotted another hiker. He was a skinny guy with curly blonde hair and glasses. He asked us if we were thru-hikers and we said we were. He told us he was just concluding his hike and he was killing a few hours before catching a bus to his home in Pittsfield Massachusetts. He had hiked from the Massachusetts-Connecticut border to Kent over the past few days. He went on to tell us that the year before he had spent his summer as a Massachusetts Ridge Runner. He explained that a Ridge Runner was someone employed by the state to hike the trails in Massachusetts and provide advice to people using the trails and shelters. Ridge Runners also reported on trail and shelter conditions that they found.
Once Dave and I heard about the Ridge Runner job, we peppered the guy with questions. We wanted to know if he was paid, if he was expected to enforce any rules, or to maintain trails or shelters. From what he told us, it sounded like he got paid a very small amount and that he didn't do anything more than report on conditions and try to inform people and keep them safe while they used the trails and campsites in the state. Dave and I thought it sounded like a pretty cool job and we spent a lot of the afternoon talking with the young man who was not much older than we were. Finally it came time for him to catch his bus and we decided to move on ourselves. We shouldered our packs and walked up the road back to the trail. We then hiked about three more miles to Chase Mountain Shelter for a total of 10 miles on the day.
That night Dave and I slept on New England soil. It was always a psychological boost to enter a new state, but being in New England gave me something extra to think about. Our ultimate destination on our journey was Maine. Maine was New England state. For the first time in a long time I thought about our final destination in Maine, and it was starting to feel like we were getting close.