Totts Gap to Blue Mountain
Rocksylvania Finale Camp to Too Good To Pass Camp
AT miles: 28.5
Total miles: 1329.3
Elevation change: 4360ft gain, 4114ft loss
It is with great pleasure that I announce that I am officially finished with Rocksylvania. As much as I enjoyed the AT through that state, the final rocky miles really did wear me out. When I reached the border with New Jersey today, I didn’t drag my feet or linger. Ready for the next phase, I charged ahead, without much more than a glance behind me. And you know what, New Jersey is just as rocky as Pennsylvania. However, without carrying a reputation as such or a flashy nickname, the rocks of NJ just felt like rocks. They still sucked at times, and my feet still received more abuse than they deserve, but there was no larger reputation to overcome. Mentally, that gave me a lift. It also helped that New Jersey is beautiful. The sprawling suburb that I imagined has yet to appear, even in the distance, although I haven’t given up on that possibility just yet. Much to see, much to learn, much to hike, much to eat. My stay in NJ will be short, and that’s okay as long as it’s sweet too.
I awoke well before my alarm, feeling rested and refreshed. I was surprised by how well I had slept after making the switch from my inflatable to my foam pad, which can take some getting used to, and wiggled luxuriously without fear of falling off. The horizon glowed a deep orange in between the distant hills and gray clouds. The weather threatened rain, but not enough to worry me. Besides, Pennsylvania wouldn’t rain on me during our last day together, right? Furthermore, New Jersey wouldn’t rain on me during our first.
I packed up after eating breakfast and popping my heel blisters. They still ached sharply though, even on the smooth dirt road that started the day. That was a bummer, but what could I do? The pain would either dull or remain. I would hike regardless. The trail got rocky again for the huge descent to the Delaware River. The big stone steps through the rhododendron were worn smooth, and I soon found out why as the stream of day hikers coming uphill thickened. They all smelled clean. I smelled awful. A few raindrops speckled the stones and rustled the leaves, but no one seemed concerned, and neither was I. I was more bothered by the small clumps of shriveled rhododendron flowers that appeared to have come and gone. I refused to believe that I missed the rhody bloom, deciding that these few had jumped the gun and frozen for their impatience instead. I caught an awesome view of the epic geology of Mount Tammany and Delaware Water Gap, then finished the hike into town, sniffing the perfume and feeling the crust in my socks.
With no reason to stay or visit, I turned out of town before really getting in. The old buildings looked cool, but that was all they would do for me. I joined the rumbling cars and trucks and crossed the Delaware River on a long concrete bridge. It flexed and shook with the passing semis, and my left ear took a beating from all the roaring and the screaming. As I walked, I considered my feelings the last time I had crossed I-80 on foot. That was in Rawlins, WY on the CDT. At the time, I felt the pull of home in distant California, knowing that the highway would take me there if I chose to let it. I didn’t feel that this time, though. This I-80 was too distant, the scent of CA all but dried up by the time it reached here. I walked on, crossing into New Jersey, focused on the future rather than the past.
A few full parking lots were a dead giveaway that it would be a busy day on the trail. And why not, it was Saturday and the weather was getting beautiful. I turned off the pavement and up the trail along Dunnfield Creek, impressed by the smooth tread and natural beauty. What can I say? It was a nice creek. The surrounding forest remained the familiar mix of oak and beech, still bare, just now budding. After a mile or two I caught up with Grease Pig, another nobo thru-hiker who was absolutely flying. He’d eaten through my 11-day headstart from Springer like it was nothing, and, importantly, was still smiling. We fell into easy and engaging conversation about our hikes and lives, covering everything, but always circling back to the trail. He’d hiked some interesting routes, including one following the footsteps of a young John Muir from Indiana to Florida. It didn’t sound fun to me, but the spirit of adventure that inspired his pilgrimage was something I could appreciate.
We hiked together for the rest of the morning, both of us finding humor in the sign announcing Sunfish Pond as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of New Jersey, then admitting that it was a pretty darn beautiful spot. Apparently it is the first natural mountain lake encounted by a nobo hiker. I thought back. That fact checked out. The trail was rocky at times, but like I mentioned already, these just felt like rocks rather than an entire rock monster that needed to be slain. If I needed to gird myself for miles upon miles of treacherous rock hopping, then I was blissfully unaware.
I left Grease Pig at the open summit of Kittatinny Mountain, where he made the right choice to eat lunch. The view next to the large stone cairn was close to a full panorama, and one of the best since Virginia. There was nothing for me to recognize, but the space to let my neck turn and eyes wander was appreciated. I then continued along Raccoon Ridge, hoping for an equally epic spot for my lunch in thirty minutes. Why didn’t I stop there too? I still don’t know.
The open forest with a green grass carpet was as good as it comes. So far, New Jersey was blowing me away. Even when I got stuck behind a rippling train of jabronis, making crude jokes and yelling loudly, the universe helped me out, inserting a large black rat snake on the trail to distract them long enough for me to get by. Then I found my spot, a secluded campsite with plenty of flat dirt, all for me.
The clouds were gone and the afternoon baking by the time I got hiking again. A rocky ridge guided me past some more excellent campsites and stupendous views to the east, still no suburbs in sight, and I longed to take another break or spend the night. Unsurprisingly, I saw more day hikers than I had the capacity to speak with enthusiastically about my thru-hike, finally reaching my limit when some guy mansplained the weather in the White Mountains at me. I resolved to change my story after that. I was now just a local out for the weekend. I grumbled along, working out what I wished I had said in response, trying to balance kindness with tact and assertiveness, preparing my lines for the next similar encounter. Buzzing above all of this was my dismay and understanding that the unsolicited advice was merely a taste of what SpiceRack (and so many other non-dude hikers) would experience on her hike. Well intentioned as this guy was, it felt degrading.
Grease Pig pulled me out of these deep thoughts when I caught up with him again. We filled up at Rattlesnake Spring, and he gave me the scoop on some of his favorite short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. We hopped more rocks, and wandered around a few beaver ponds. I ogled at the felled trees, chewed until they could stand no more, and couldn’t recall ever having seen something like it before. It was surreal, like meeting a celebrity or fictional character. I’d never thought too hard about it before, taking for granted that beavers chew down trees. What an awesome, strange creature.
The rocks finally got to me as we climbed a cliff and traversed above Crater Lake. My feet ached and felt worn by my cruddy socks. When the trail reached an open grassy ridge a few miles later, I couldn’t pass it up. The spot and timing were perfect, and I dropped my pack with a relieved sigh. Grease Pig carried on into the gathering darkness, intending to reach the shelter in less than a mile.
I pitched my tent and sat without my quilt, airing my feet in the warm night air, watching the last color fade on the horizon, like the morning in reverse. Not a breath of wind. Beans for dinner, and sleep for bed.