Mount Peter to Seven Lakes Drive
Breezy Cedar Camp to Alaskan Chickpea Camp
AT miles: 28.3
Total miles: 1410.7
Elevation change: 6686ft gain, 7188ft loss
Today might go down as one of my proudest days on the AT. After 1400 miles at least, it certainly stands alone on top. Not only did I achieve an ambitious goal, but I had a blast doing it. The rocks, cliffs, and scrambles of New York thoroughly kicked my butt, yet they also provided some of the most engaging and memorable portions of the trail yet. I’m positive that there are more boulders to scale and fins to balance coming up, but this first true taste of the boulder playground was a treat, still fresh and yummy. Hot food and a warm shower can be powerful motivators. Today, they pushed me to approach my limit, and I am pleased to report that it all worked out.
Anxious to get the day started and moving towards my scheduled resupply rendezvous with SpiceRack, I was awake and alert earlier than usual. The glow of Manhattan reflected off the cloud ceiling like a weak sunrise, but was impressive and terrifying nonetheless. A light drizzle prickled my tent as I made moves to start hiking. I was putting the finishing touches on my backpack, stuffing my puffy away, when I looked to my left instinctually, perhaps after hearing a rustle of leaves. Twenty yards away was a juvenile black bear, amorphous and dark against the pale brownness of the slumbering forest. It turned its nose in my direction, and I could see the tip of the sniffer point and pulse with curiosity, sampling, searching. I was calm with awe. My first bear of the AT. It lifted to its hind legs and used a tree for a quick back scratch. Then it dropped back to all fours and moseyed away, following its nose to the next interesting scent. I finished packing up, waved, and said goodbye. I wished the bear well.
The trail was nothing like it had been yesterday evening. It was smooth, flat, and fast. I’d made plans to meet Spice just 19 miles north based on what I had seen of the New York terrain last night. Now, with the foolish optimism of morning, I made the choice to push our meeting spot ten miles further, to the next suitable trailhead. If the trail kept up like this, it would be a long but standard day. If New York returned to its old, rocky self, then I was in for a fight that I was uncertain I could win.
Of course, right after I sent the text revising the plan, the rocks came back in a big way. I scrambled up and along humped fins of granite, following white blazes painted directly underfoot. The dampening drizzle didn’t help either, but I soon learned to cautiously trust my traction on all but the steepest of slabs. I remained optimistic that this sort of stuff would prove to be an aberration. Besides, I hadn’t heard that New York was particularly arduous. I figured that it was bound to ease up.
A smooth trail to a popular waterfall gave me a brief hope that I was right. However, I was wrong, oh so amazingly wrong. The next ten miles of trail proved to be the most challenging and slowest of the entire AT so far. The rocks of PA slowed me down and punished my feet, sure, but this section of NY was total madness. That word, “madness” repeated in my brain over and over again as I hauled myself up and over countless cliffy bulges of stone. Ancient gnarled pine grew from mossy cracks. Fluffy red pine needles added a bounce to the stone. Lichen painted all rock Statue Of Liberty green. Even when I wasn’t using my hands to pull up a massive step, I was relying on my arms, through their trekking pole extensions, to keep me on my feet when skiing down incredibly steep slopes of slippery leaves. I may have cursed a few times, but I was actually having a blast. Taking my time would have been a hoot, but with the pressure of a deadline, I was totally engaged, using my abilities to their fullest.
I did some mental math as the rocks took a break around Little Dam Lake. I had been hoping for 15 miles by 1pm, but I had only managed 12. I guessed that I might reach Spice between 7-10pm, depending on the terrain, and whether or not the predicted rain showers showed up. That was a sobering calculation, but I decided to stick with the plan. My pack was light, and I was revved up to give everything. A few more tough climbs tested my mettle, but then the long awaited mellow occured as the trail entered Harriman State Park. I cut my lunch to a ten minute food slam, then got moving up the smoother trail, hoping that my luck had changed for good.
Besides a short scramble that involved navigating around a tight squeeze, where the trail slithered through a crack in a humongous hump of stone much too narrow for my shoulders, the trail was mostly fantastic cruising across the tops of aforementioned humongous humps of stone. Green grass and sparse trees sat like mini savannah hats on top of each. The trail cut across large flats of rock, worn bare only where footsteps had pulverized the verdant moss. It was glorious hiking, and I powered hard, totally in the zone, committed and confident.
Around 4pm, I stopped for a five minute break to eat a bunch of chocolate and licorice. The final push was here, and I wanted to be fueled until the end. I froggered across a screaming four lanes of commuter traffic, then powered up the final climb of the day. I’d never felt so strong, especially after such a trying day. Maybe it was the chocolate talking, but I felt like a hiking god. Kanye has called himself a god. Eminem too. Now it was my turn. I am a hiking god. I panted at the top, sweat pouring from my brow, observing my kingdom below. There wasn’t much to see, just mushy hills of budding hardwoods and curtains of rain washing a distant ridgeline, but it was all mine. I had hiked it all, had my way with it. It had had its way with me too, but getting through without a broken leg or smashed up face felt like a tremendous win.
As if to cure me of my hubris, a few drops of rain hit their mark, and one last, gut-gulping trip almost launched me into an epic faceplant. Then I was at the trailhead. Blackbird was there, rear doors open. I gave a whistle as I aporoached, receiving a questioning answer. I whistled again and here came Tango, bounding around the rear wheels. Spice followed, giving me a generous hug despite my dampness. 6:22pm. Crushed it.
I showered away the grime of the day(s) while Spice put the finishing touches on dinner. Alaskan chickpea curry over brown rice, salubrious and warming, was worth every ounce of effort it had taken to get there. The pitter patter of rain alternated with the chirping frogs as we relaxed with our feet up on the couch. I was full with delicious food and the satisfaction of pulling off a major challenge. I hate to think about outdoor recreation in terms of conquering and overcoming, but I couldn’t help but feel a little triumphant. Maybe it wasn’t triumph over nature, but rather triumph over my own perceived limitations. I could get on board with that kind of thinking. I’m stronger, faster, hungrier, and better looking than I think I am. We all are. You are too.