I’m walking down the street in Delaware Water Gap, when I feel someone following me. I turn around. “Fun Size?” It’s La Copa, who I met when we bailed back to Damascus. He’s staying in town too, waiting out weather. We have a little hiker party with Sail, a hiker doing the International Appalachian Trail, and a rotating cast of characters including Scratch and Czech Mix.
La Copa and I head out together in the morning. Somehow, we have talked each other into doing 31.5 miles today. I love big days and he is meeting family and trying to space shelters appropriately. We keep up a steady stream of chatter and the day flies past, just like the miles. It’s sunny and we are on the top of a ridge, but now we are in New Jersey and it is different from the Pennsylvania ridges before. Whereas Pennsylavia was flat, New Jersey has little climbs. The rocks slowly start getting better. There are views of forest, and I can’t see an interstate anywhere. It feels like we finally are getting back to the wilderness.
We catch Scratch just before the shelter, but he’s planning on going one shelter further. Someone has left Mountain House dinners at our shelter and I immediately claim them.
In the morning, the sky threatens rain. It holds off til mid morning, but really starts to pour just as we reach the high point visitor center. We duck inside and eat lunch until it lessens. We drop down to farmland, then duck into Unionville for resupply and pizza. Czech Mix shows up as we’re leaving and let’s us know he’ll be at the same shelter. “Pack us out a beer!” I shout, joking, as we walk away.
We walk around a wildlife preserve, where geese honk at us and gophers scurry. Then we climb up to the shelter. Half an hour after La Copa and I are settled, Czech Mix shows up. “They only have good beer in bottles,” he tells me. “You’ll have to share.” He hands me a canned margaritas and La Copa and I pass it back and forth until I am a little tipsy.
We catch Scratch a few miles after the shelter in the morning. He sets a blistering pace along boardwalks and up hills. We do 12 miles by 11am- a 3mph pace that is fast for the AT. We say goodbye to Scratch at lunch, and then La Copa and I walk along ridges, scrambling over rocks and up rebar. It’s hot and we flag as thunderclouds build overhead. There’s a creamery just 2 miles before the shelter, and we think we can make it before the storms kick off.
One large cone later, and we are scrambling along exposed rocky ridges as the storms build up overhead. We make it to the shelter well before the rain starts. It patters down and lightning flashes in the distance, but the rain stays light and the storm far off.
We’re up early in the morning, La Copa, Walkie Talkie and I rolling out together. La Copa’s brother in law is meeting him to hike with us, so we try and hustle. Walkie Talkie stops for breakfast and we lose him. New York seems to be upping the scrambling- we have multiple short, steep climbs and sharp drops down.
After lunch (avocado and cheese sandwiches, courtesy of La Copa’s brother in law) the terrain gets mostly easier. We pass through the lemon squeezer, a short section of close together rocks. There’s a 7 foot cliff just after. La Copa is over a foot taller than me, so he bounds up, but I have to find a crack and lean back, using my rusty climbing skills to make my way up.
We finish at a shelter. It’s 0.6 off trail, but worth it for a great view of New York City. La Copa’s brother in law cooks steak and shares it with us. I lie in my sleeping bag and look at the distant city. It looks like an alien planet. I think about the people there: clean, well fed, part of the rat race. I’d much rather be out here, cold and hungry.
I head out first in the morning in the snow flurries, hoping to get enough of a head start to poop off trail. I step off and immediately see everyone pass me. Oh well. Guess I’m playing catch up today. I run down West Mountain, then up adjacent Bear Mountain. It’s very developed for a mountain I’ve heard so much about. There are even vending machines at the top, though I’m so preoccupied with catching my friends that I don’t check them out. I run down, along the lake and then bypass the zoo, since it is still too early for it to be open. Then across the Hudson, on a terrifying bridge. There’s still no sign of either La Copa or Walkie Talkie. Where are these guys? There’s a deli we’d planned on eating lunch at where I’ll see them, but this is hurting my pride.
I climb a hill where I see a day hiker. He tells me there are two hikers five minutes in front. I run and run, and as I start going downhill, I see two unfamiliar backpacks. Then I hear a noise behind me: it’s La Copa. He got off to poop too and has been behind me the entire time. We cruise into the deli together, well ahead of schedule.
We hang out a little more in the afternoon. It rains and rains, despite being forecast to be nice. We make it to the closed state park where we are allowed to camp. The field we are supposed to be in is sodden, with no protection from the sheets of rain blowing across. But up the hill is the lodge (closed, of course) with a large overhanging porch. We bump into Walkie Talkie walking up to it and decide to set up camp on the porch. It’s dryish and mostly out of the wind and has great cell service.
I take my phone off of airplane mode and see a message from Overhill. He’s been 200ish miles in front of me for a while, but now he tells me he’s done with the trail. He’s been having lots of problems, but there is too much snow in Vermont for him to continue. This is obviously concerning.
We all head out together, Walkie Talkie running out ahead and taking breaks in the way he does. La Copa and I duck into a shelter right by the road to sign the register. There are pizza boxes and a trash can. La Copa goes to toss his trash and jumps back with a yelp. A possum sleeping in the bottom of the can lifts its head to hiss at him.
I struggle a little to keep up some times, but both of these guys are over 6 feet and their long legs eat up the miles. It’s hot today, and we have miles to kill. La Copa has friends in Pawling, in a boarding school he used to work at.
We sit by the side of the road until one of La Copa’s friends shows up. We pile into her car, drop Walkie Talkie at the train station, and head to the school. It’s possibly the fanciest place I’ve ever been. Emily and Keith take us in, wash our stinking clothes and feed us. In the morning, they drive us back to the trail.
We’re hiking by 7:30 and it’s already so hot. We climb up and I flag behind. We stop at a shelter at 10:30 and I’m soaked in sweat. But there’s another 4 miles ahead where we can siesta. I nap fitfully, drinking all the water I can. It doesn’t seem to be enough.
By 2, it’s cooled enough to head out. A snake lies across the trail. It looks like a baby copperhead. La Copa does not like snakes, so I nudge it with my trekking pole until it slithers off. We make it to a shelter 20 miles from our start point, despite our late start and long breaks. We throw ourselves down on top of our sleeping bags, exhausted.
La Copa sets an alarm for 5am. It’s already so hot I don’t want to move. We climb up a hill, sweating. The sun isn’t even really up yet. We wander along the top of a ridge, then scramble down steep boulders to the river. There’s a shelter and we stop, exhausted by 9am. I make coffee. It’s 10 miles to the next shelter. 17 miles is nothing, but this heat is destroying us.
We climb back up again, and throw down our packs in a patch of shade. Footprint comes up behind us and joins us. He camped after our shelter, but somehow we talk him into staying at our shelter tonigjt, despite the fact that he normally does 30s. La Copa checks the weather: 10am and 83 degrees. We cross a river, splash water on ourselves and climb way back. We make it to the shelter by 3, a while before the thunderstorms are supposed to start. Evan, a flip flopper, shows up too, and the four of us hang out, sweating in the shelter. The heat builds and builds, humidity pressing down like a fist, until it breaks into torrential rain.
In the morning, little orange salamanders dot the path, scurrying from our clumsy feet. It’s hot again, and so humid that my dress is as wet as if I’d jumped in the river. We do 8 miles before 9 and detour to a little cafe for breakfast. We hike out as the humidity is dropping and the clouds are building. We reach the shelter by 3 again. It’s not so hot today that we can’t hike, but thunderstorms are forecast to start by 5 and we can’t make the next shelter. I am antsy, eating dinner far too early and grumbling at La Copa, but when thunder rolls far off at 5pm on the dot, I’m glad we’ve stayed.
It’s not easy going in the morning. We climb up yet another Bear Mountain and scramble down the other side, slick rock worn smooth by too many footsteps. We drop into a ravine and immediately have to climb back up. And then again. By the time we stop for lunch, we’ve only done 11 miles, despite starting at 5am.
We make up a little time in the afternoon, but not too much. I have a meeting planned, so we all but run the last five miles. I feel a tick crawling on my thigh, and barely even stop to flick it off. But at a river a half mile from a road, we see Safety Pin, Leapfrog and Aspen the dog, and our fast pace is worth it. They load us into their car and ply us with food. I met Safety Pin and Leapfrog in Shenandoah and it turns out La Copa met them in the Smokies.