a walk in the woods
I’ll begin by saying this weekend was not at all what I expected. The purpose of this trip was to not only escape the city, but also relieve some stress and relax a little.
So… about that whole relaxing thing. It was a crazy adventure and I’ve come away super humbled and full of stories. The AT is no joke. Backpacking is no joke. Meeting other hikers is what makes the trail so special. Having your best friend by your side is everything.
On Day One, we spent the few fires miles in the hot, hot sun, getting used to the 30+ pounds on our back and enjoying the flat terrain. Then, we started to ascend up a mountain, saying goodbye to level ground for the rest of our trip. (Little did we know.) Climbing up steep hills, over ragged rocks with our packs, and through creeks was the first “aha” moment — we’re climbing over mountains. This is (surprise!) not going to be a walk in the park.
We were about four miles in when (and I was given full permission to tell this story…) Nicole got her period. And wasn’t prepared. We quickly went into planning mode: Option 1) Hike to the next town four miles down the trail, where I would then run the 1.8 miles into town (and win Best Friend of the Year Award) and pray there was a drug store. Run back. Option 2) Backtrack down the mountain to the road about a mile away, and try to find a store. While we talked over our options, we passed two day hikers, Matt and Jessica, who could see we were a little harried. Nicole explained the issue (“I just got my FREAKIN period in the WOODS”) and they offered to drive us into the closer town.
After our little pit-stop, we told Matt and Jessica we’d somehow “pay it forward” (foreshadowing!) and then continued on the AT. We re-climbed the mountain, continued meandering over peaks, across small creeks, and through beautiful, thick woods. I was also keeping my eyes out for bears, since nearly everyone so kindly told me I’d probably see one. I kept turning every corner waiting to see a huge animal with a huge appetite, wondering how I would react.
Alas, no bears — just the deep and dark thick of the woods. After 13 or so miles of hiking, we knew we were coming up to our shelter at Wawayanda. Unfortunately, we were probably about a quarter-mile from the shelter, but spent 1.5 hours of hiking looking for it. We finally found it, and soon learned we were sharing the lean-to.
Meet “Nitro Joe” (side note: everyone who does the AT has a trail name, so that was his. I am “Little Bear” and Nic is “Fire Ant”) a 71 year-old thru-hiker. He’s been an active junky his whole life, and started the AT last year when he broke his leg in Virginia — and kept going for 250 more miles before realizing something was very wrong. He came back this year to start where he left off, and is hiking all the way up to Maine.
And here we were, exhausted after 8 hours of hiking, and Nitro Joe and his 71-years have been on the trail since April the 2nd.
We cooked dinner, exchanged stories, and were asleep before the sun had set. Nitro Joe had plans to leave by 4am – he was going to bypass the shelter we were staying at (Wildcat) and continue on the trail. I remember waking up and seeing his feeble, yet somehow strong body hop down from the lean-to and disappear into the woods. I silently wished him luck and strength, and rolled over for another hour of sleep.
We woke up sore and tired — both of us hadn’t slept well. We quickly boiled water and made oatmeal, and then filled up our water and went on our way. We had 12 miles till’ Wildcat Shelter and had left a bit before 8am, figuring we could get to the next shelter in the afternoon.
If Day One was spent worrying about the bears, Day Two was all about hiking through swamps and slippery rocks, praying we wouldn’t slip and fall into the mud and break ours legs. The terrain and the heat had us walking at what felt like a snails pace. We finally reached a beautiful summit, and stopped to take our packs off and enjoy the breeze.
And then it finally happened.
After the summit, we walked about quarter-mile down the trail and when I looked up, there he was. The Bear. Now, when you see a black bear, you’re supposed to get big — put your arms up, make lots of noise, and scare the thing. But when your survival instincts kick in and you see a massive animal less than 100 feet in front of you, on the trail just staring at you, all signs point to “RUN AWAY.” I think I did something like throw my arms up, yell to Nic “bear, bear…” and then I started talking to it. “HI BEAR. YES WE ARE HERE. PLEASE GO AWAY.” (If you’re polite, they don’t eat you.) Then we started clapping, and turned our backs (bad idea) on the bear and sped walked back to the summit.
I was kind of a mess — that bear hadn’t budged, it wasn’t scared off, and I didn’t really feel like walking near it again just in case it was a bad berry season and he was particularly hungry. We sat on that silly summit for 30 minutes wondering what to do, when two Aussies walked through. We told them about the bear and their response was “COOL!” (crazies) and they offered to escort us down the trail. Alas, The Bear was gone by that point, and when we talked to our two new pals, we learned they also live in NYC. Then, we learned one lived in Williamsburg…on my street.
Yep, I escaped the woods only to have my next door neighbor safely escort us past Smokey The Bear.
The rest of the hike was a bit rough. We kept walking up and up and up — scrambling up rocks — and I was still convinced Smokey was coming after us. There were also limited water sources, and our water was running low. We had a nifty filtration system, but the creeks were tiny and we couldn’t get much fresh H20. Our packs felt like they were getting heavier and heavier, trail mix became less appetizing, and the elevation made our pace a lot slower than we wanted. The miles crawled by. Then, it started to pour.
We finally reached a road, and knew from our guide-book that we only had 2.5 miles until we’d reach Wildcat Shelter. We stopped to rest at the road, and saw a sign for a creamery. Figuring ice cream for dinner was the best idea, well, ever, we walked up the road to semi-civilization and indulged. It was probably one of the top 5 best moments of my life. And look at us – a bit…tired? #ICECREAM
After the ice cream, we continued back down the road and on to the trail to finish what ended up being nearly 12 hours of hiking. We found Wildcat Shelter neatly tucked away in the woods, only to find our old friend Nitro Joe there, too.
“I was worried you girls weren’t going to make it — that stretch is one of the hardest in New York.”
We threw down our packs, felt our backs and hips quietly throb, and smiled — grateful. Another pal was also at the shelter, “Bluegrass,” a 30-something teacher from Nashville who had done the whole AT last year and was taking a month off to do a stretch from Delaware to Vermont. The four of us shared stories, talked of our past travels, future dreams, and what it’s like to truly hike the AT – and how to do it right. You’re supposed to train with a pack for months, learning how to accustom your muscles to the new weight. Everything should weigh under a pound. Only take the necessities. Only have positive energy. Must Love The Woods.
It poured all night. The next morning, we watched the rain, sipped instant coffee together, and then Bluegrass, who I thought could’ve been my future husband, took off. Nicole and I only had a modest three miles to where her parents were planning on picking us up. Nitro Joe had pinched a nerve in his back and was looking for a hotel to stay at for the night, so he hiked with us, and then squeezed in the back seat so we could take him one hour out of our way to a clean motel.
Paying it forward. More stories, more friends.
Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for the experiences, sights, and stories we were able to devour while on the AT for a short three days. I’m also super humbled — I definitely went into it with a I’m in great shape, I love the woods, I can hike over hills for days! attitude, and quickly learned that carrying extra weight is super challenging. Getting devoured by the trail and not seeing people for hours unsettling. Running into a bear on the trail — slightly terrifying.
But, it’s also incredible. Spending three days with your best friend fully immersed in nature is truly special. Reaching those peaks and getting the gift of a beautiful breeze and epic view, along with the relief of taking off your pack for a minute or two, gratifying. And when Fire Ant, Nitro Joe, and I hiked those final three miles together, I could feel my sore hips and tight back start to get used to the walking. The weight. I started to finally feel in rhythm with the AT, a sense that one day I could do this. That I’d really, truly want to.
So thank you: to Nitro Joe for showing us it’s possible to find adventure at any age. To Matt and Jessie for driving us to a Shoprite so Nicole wouldn’t hate her life. To Bluegrass for reminding us that a working man can find time to travel. To the two Aussies-Brooklynites who helped us walk by The Bear and to The Bear for forcing me to face my fears head on. To the ice cream shop for being right near the trailhead and providing us with the best dinner ever. And of course to Nicole, for being my partner in crime and the only person I could ever imagine doing this with.
And then, thank you to the good ol’ AT — Mother Nature at its finest – for reminding me that the woods is in charge: ready to challenge, amaze, and open up its arms to anyone willing to take that first step.