“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds
The Compassionate, the Merciful!
King on the day of Reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.
Guide thou us on the right path,
The path of those to whom Thou has been gracious – with whom Thou art not angry, and who go not astray.”
I found the sign for the long path, but could only find the trail in one direction (toward Albany), and we were going south. Darkness was approaching and we were without a flashlight, trail map, cell phone minutes, or a compass, not the ideal conditions for a trip, and certainly not those envisioned by the trail’s founder, Vincent Joseph Schaefer:
“There would be no cutting or blazing, for this trail would be a truly wild walk that wouldn’t erode the land or scar the solitude … and each found site would be an adventure in orienteering.”
My watch (a source of a little light for insulin injection) had also stopped working. We moved along the small section of the trail we had found, until we lost the trail on the highway. We kept hiking a couple of miles looking for a new trail marker, until we finally made camp and decided to try again in the morning. The next morning while Petey rested, I went to go look for film and a flashlight. There was neither at the only store within a 7 mile radius. I settle for a cigarette lighter (that I could use both for enough light for my insulin injections, and to start a fire if I needed to stay warm, get attention, etc.). Moving back along the road, I ask several people for the start of the trail. No one would admit to knowing where it was, even the person whose backyard it passed through. Finally, I looked down on the top of the railing on the side of the road, and saw the marker. Not a bad way to make sure a person can find and read markers before they get on the trail.
After I went back and broke camp, Petey and I started out on the trail. Within 200 feet, there was a steep embankment down to a pretty deep creek, and back up. I had the pack, and only one pair of shoes, and it was cold. I didn’t want everything to get wet. I manage to get down the embankment, and then halfway across the creek. At this point, I took my shoes and socks off and chucked them over to the other side of the creek. I stood perched precariously on a slippery moss-covered boulder in the middle of the gushing creek with Petey querying me safely from the shore. He had no experience crossing creeks and was clearly not one to explore. I took my pack and managed to lift it in front of me, swinging and aiming it at the next boulder. And then, carefully calculating the path that the acceleration of gravity was likely to propel us, I let go and fell onto the pack onto the boulder, pulling my legs over without falling in. When the pack was finally on the other shore, I move back across, and repeat the whole exercise with Petey in my arms. We had passed the second test to get onto the trail. Our company would only be those mentally and physically capable of negotiating these first two obstacles: reading hard-to-find trail markers, and traversing the creek.
Once on the trail, it was so beautiful and quiet. There was no one else – at least not anyone human. The solitude felt wonderful. We were alone, and I had no regrets of the decision that I had made. Unfortunately, the trail was not fully developed. We passed through several miles of natural area, and then the trail went onto the road again. This gave me a final opportunity to try to get some film, hence the pictures that I have from this section of the trip.
Carrying the old rugged cross a 2nd time
We go up and down a few hills, by a golf course, and then into the back side of a state park, then out of it, and along the side of the West Point military training area. This was not the nicest part of the trail, and I began to wonder whether this was really worth it. It was very slow going compared to walking on asphalt, and you could always hear the thruway in the distance. But, then we came down to a lake and a few weekend cabins next to the lakes. None of them was occupied, and I pitched the tent next to one. The next morning I was looking for water. There was no plumbing in any of the cabins. Although I never entered them, they, in all appearances, were harvesting rain water. The first water tank I found, the water was clearly several weeks old, covered with algae, and not safe. The next water tank looked a lot better. Someone had pumped water through a filter inside the cabin, and then filled the tank and covered it (probably within the last couple of weeks). I dipped the pot next to the tank into it, and filled my containers. I had 5 500 mL bottles.
First overnight on the trail
We moved onto the most beautiful section of the trail. The thing about the long brown path is that it was designed to be navigated with only a trail map and a compass – no trail blazes. I had neither map nor compass, but the trail had been recently redone with markers, and the trick was never to lose sight of a marker. As a consequence of the original vision of the trail, one climbs every high point to get bearings with a compass and topographical map that I didn’t have. Up and down, up and down…If you saw a peak, you would be climbing it. I became quite hungry of the course of the day, and at one point, a squirrel dropped its half chewed acorn onto the trail for me. I picked it up, but it tasted horrible to me. You apparently have to boil acorns to remove the tannins which produce the bitterness if you are human. I would not be competing with the squirrels for a food source. I have to laugh as I reread this. The day that I wrote it, I watched a squirrel dash across the street into the median as if to panhandle.
I spent the entire day climbing up and down without meeting a single other person – it was not easy work. I finally came to the Torrey overlook. We had officially earned the title of “Highlanders”, and I wore it with pride.
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me,
leading wherever I choose.
~Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”
lyme disease circle
I pitched a tent a little off of the trail, hanging my food outside in the event of a bear visit. When I woke up the next morning, and after breaking camp, I met a woman who gave me a little water and food. She was a nature writer. We talked for a little bit about hiking, and she asked me about ticks and lyme. The trail was replete with deer ticks. I was pulling about 10 ticks off of Petey and me every time we stopped, in all probably 50/ticks a day off of each of us. I told her that I was not using any prevention right now, that I thought that lyme could be pretty easily treated with doxycycline, and that the flea/tick prevention was harmful to the fish. This was an ecologically sensitive area. In retrospect, this may have been the wrong call for me. It was certainly the wrong call for Petey. Her husband had apparently published the trail map for the area (which I did not have). She gave me some pointers on finding water, and told me about the shelters. As she left, I looked down on my stomach to find a tick with a bright red circle around it. It was clearly a lyme exposure, although many people never see a rash. I removed the tick, and then took a picture. According to what has been published, it requires 48 hours of attachment for the lyme borrelliosis organism to transmit.
We move on, passing the painted rocks, and then up to the Stockbridge shelter. It was one of the first shelters built on the trail that extends from Albany to New Jersey. It was beautiful, a cave perched high up on the rocks. I found several tin cans of food in the shelter which I opened and ate without heating. The woman that I had met had mentioned a lake a few miles down another trail from the long path. I knew I had to get water, even if it meant going a few miles out of the way. I set down the pack, and headed off with Petey and my few empty bottles. At the lake, I dipped the 5 bottles in the lake water, collecting 2 ½ liters, and hiking back to the long path.
My friend, the nature writer, had given me a weather report, so I knew that it was expected to rain and storm rather severely the next day. I hiked up and down a few mountains to Fingerboard, the next shelter, and then made a very reasoned decision to boil the water that I had while there was still dry wood, and stay in the shelter that night instead of trying to make the next shelter in the storm and probably getting stuck on the trail in the storm. It was the right call. I gathered firewood and made my first fire of the whole trip at the shelter. As I experimented with boiling the water in tin cans from the canned food, burning my hand on rocks that I had not imagined could become so hot, I realized that one loses quite a bit between steam and transfer to bottles. The plastic bottles melt with the transfer of the hot water, and shrink. You are supposed to boil for 1 min. at less than 6000 ft.i to inactivate the Giardia. I don’t think I ever achieved a rolling boil, but both species of Giardia are apparently inactivated by 10 min. at elevated temperaturesii (95% at 50C, 98% at 60C and 100% at 70C). I was finally able to obtain a yield of 3 bottles of hot water that was decidedly brown and tasted like the tomatoes of the ravioli I had eaten for lunch. I pitched the tent in the 3-sided shelter to stay warm and hunkered down for the night. It would be a very windy, stormy, and cold night.
The next morning I waited for a break in the rain, and then set out. I had to keep moving – we would need both food and water. We hiked down the mountain, and after a couple of hours, I found a water tower and pump station. I’m standing under it collecting the rain water dripping from the roof in my cup while I wait for another break in the rain, and a troop of Webelos shows up – about 15 young 10-11 year old boys with backpacks twice their size, and trash bags professionally positioned over their packs to protect them from the rain. I was very tempted to ask them for water. I knew that their moms never would have sent them out on an overnight hike without extra food and water, and in the back of my mind, one part of me mused, “I could be a den mom if they would adopt me.” On the other hand, I could see the headlines now: “Woman walking across the state of New York rescued by Cub scouts.” My delusions of importance surfaced and I feared greatly for the reputation of my sex. My pride wins, and I gently murmur to them that I had left them some dry camp wood with which to stay warm at the shelter when they finally make it up there.
Petey and I keep moving. At this point, with the lack of both food and water, I am giving very little insulin so that I won’t have to eat, and so that my blood sugar consequently won’t go up, and I won’t get thirsty. As a consequence, I’m becoming rather weak from lack of energy. The light rain stops, and we completely run out of water. The dark and murky ground water was not looking very drinkable, even with boiling. I was already praying not to get Giardia from the lake water. It is supposed to take a week after cyst ingestion from water for exposure to set in. As I climbed the mountain, the weather now clear, just as we arrive at the top, The Great Spirit sends rain again, the rain water collecting in the indentations in the rocks at the top of the mountain. I prostate myself on the rock and, filtering the grit through my teeth, drink the fresh water from the natural bowls in the rock. It tasted great. I laughed, appreciating the lesson, that might otherwise have been lost on me had I brought water with me.
We walked up and down the mountains through the rain looking for the Appalachian Trail (a 2175 mile trail that passes through New York State for 88 miles) and Lake Tiorati. We finally arrive at the crossroads of the Long Path and the Appalachian Trail called Times Square. At this point, I wanted fresh water and maybe a little food. I observe the signs and inspect the list for close destinations likely to provide comfort. New Jersey was not far away, and the trip across New York might have been over in 2 or 3 days at this point without going through New York City, if we stayed on the Long Path. On the other hand, there was unlikely to be any civilization when we crossed into New Jersey. We would have to continue hiking for quite a bit. Finishing the trip without visiting the Big Apple would not have been the same trip. A little further down the list, the Lemon Squeezer sounded promising, as if it might be a lemonade stand or something. Although it was out of the way, I set the pack down, and we head off in this direction. To our dismay, we find that, the seduction that had seemed to promise was in actuality an unyielding rock formation. The Lemon Squeezer was a bad date.
We turn around, the little side trip not providing the respite we sought, and we finally arrive at the next shelter, William Brien, to find a man and his Eagle Scout college student son camping out at the shelter which leaked rather badly. Unlike the others, this half-open shelter had bunk beds positioned on both sides of it. The father moves over to the son’s side, offering me a side to myself, and I collapse after changing into the driest thing that I had. There was no way to make a fire with the wetness of the wood. They had propane, and cooked a meal which they ate while I watched. The son offered Petey and I some meat and cheese, and we shared some stories and tips. I felt a little easier. It was one thing to be rescued by Cub scouts, another to be rescued by an Eagle Scout and his father. Fewer than 1% of all boys who enter scouting become Eagle Scouts. There would be some dignity in this situation if I had to be rescued. Prior to this point, I had been praying that we wouldn’t have to go through snow. This was mid-October, after all, and it would not be unusual for it to be snowing by now in the mountains. Now, I was merely praying for the physical strength to complete, even if the weather stayed nice.
As it turns out, I felt pretty stupid. It rained the whole night, and one of the most valuable lessons that I learned from the whole trip was from this father – he told me about his first camping experience in college with a tarp. It had rained, and one of his buddies had gone to dump the water that had collected in the tarp on him as a joke for a shower. He had stopped his friend, saying “No wait, that’s drinking water.” Boy, did I feel stupid. I had a tarp with me.
Steep climb up the rock face out of the William Brien shelter
We part company the next morning with a few words of advice. Petey and I climbed the rock face for a couple hours out of the leaky shelter, and approached a group of older people on the trail ahead of us. The older woman called out to an older man: “This one here needs some work as she tapped the stone with her stick.” “Come on, now, pass me by,” she yelled down to me. “I’m trying,” I said, as I mustered the strength to pass, secretly wondering if she was safe on the trail. She must have read my thoughts. She remarked as I passed, “I think that this will be my last time out on the trail.” They were trail volunteers preparing the path for the hikers. It was all I could do to say “Thank you” – the trail, and completion of the trip, a literal impossibility without their work. The next corner was my first view of New York City: a spectacular experience, unfortunately not well captured by the camera with the haze.
We moved down the mountain, and then climbed up the next one. It was Sunday and we had passed the Mennonite church from across Bear Mountain on the trail at about the time for church. There apparently is a chapel in Harriman State park (St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness Church) which we were hiking through, but I did not know this since I had no map. It was probably just as well. This was the most physically draining day of the trip. The next shelter, West Mountain, was a little hike out of the way, but we made it, being very careful to mark the direction that I had come from when I moved off of the main trail. This shelter had the most beautiful overlook of the Hudson thus far. I was tempted to stay, but there was a couple already camping at the shelter, and I assumed they wanted privacy. I quickly made a fire, and cooked a package of mashed potatoes that they gave me. There were a couple of abandoned burned hot dogs on the rocks from some late lunchers who had been up to the campsite for the weekend. I shared them with Petey. The young Indian woman kindly gave me some peanuts, instructing me to eat just a few every now then to keep my energy up. I opt for solitude, and with the strength from the warm meal, I pushed on another 4 miles to pitch camp for Petey and me on a rock outcropping.
Fresh Bear droppings
Up early the next morning, I expected this day to be harder than the last. I was weak, and now out of water. The water from the rain the days before had largely dried up. The little standing water that was left in pools was probably by now unsafe for me even on top of the mountains. I passed a couple of hikers early in the morning as I started out – desperate, and yet still too ashamed that I did not have drinkable water with me in spite of the rain only 2 days before. How could I have been so stupid not to have collected water with my tarp? I couldn’t ask.
I note the very fresh bear droppings on the trail. It was just at the time of year when the bears would be going into hibernation for the winter. I imagine even a little late for this, but the weather had been warmer than usual, so perhaps that is why they were still out.
The hiking this day was easier than the day before, and we eventually arrived at Bear Mountain. The large mountain loomed before us, and as we began to climb it – the last big mountain of the trip, I noticed that there was a rock cliff with a tiny waterfall dribbling down the rock, and dripping a few yards up the rocks. I perched myself on the rocks under the dripping overhang, collecting and drinking the water without boiling it.
The AT had been well maintained up until now, but its path became more difficult to discern as it passed onto the Bear Mountain State Park land. Like someone at rock bottom, correct discernment was not the crisis that it might have been at other points along the trip. I was going to the top of this mountain – and it was the last one. The direction was up.
Coming off the trail at the top of the mountain, Petey and I climbed the fire tower, viewing both New York City and the Hudson River from the top. We toured Hessian lake, reflecting on the Hessians that we had negotiated to arrive to this level ground zero – each point being defined by a 3×3 matrix of these double derivatives reflecting the happily lessening or sadly increasing change in slope in 3 dimensional space and the concomitant changes in my heart rate. I had physically performed this integration with a 60 pound pack using my own strength countered by gravity. It had been a pretty decent work function. No more film, no pictures of the lake, or the bridge crossing over the Hudson. As we move down the highway that had no shoulder in the middle of the night, I wondered whether we were safer here than isolated on the trail. We found a parking lot on the river side of the highway, pitching our tent on the small patch of grass there. That night, I listened to a couple arguing about the fact that one of them was too drunk to drive from inside my tent. I was too tired to offer the support the girl might have needed to make a difference. They eventually left.