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A Bridge Too Far
¤
Should a man's dreams really exceed his grasp?

Bellvale NY to Delaware Water Gap NJ

As spring fades into summer, our thoughts turn north, the NJ section coming to mind. With its many swamps and bog bridges, it's a good segment to get done before the mosquitoes come out in force. With the excellent weather we've enjoyed on the last several segments, I've always told Coleen that some day we'd hike an entire section in rain every day; but she writes me off as a pessimist. She'll be found wrong.


5/20 Bellvale NY - Waywayanda Shelter (9.9 miles)

"We must never be afraid to go too far, for success lies just beyond."
Marcel Proust

For logistic reasons, we'll hike this section from southbound, our car left at Delaware Water Gap (on the NJ/PA border), and a shuttle up to the NJ/NY border to begin our hike. The drive to DWG is easy enough until crossing the Delaware, which proves about as difficult as it was for George Washington himself. The planned exit (another of those "you can't miss it" deals) eludes us, and already short on time, we're well past before finding another. Even when we find it, we have to backtrack down a one-way road to get to the ranger station where we'd agreed to meet our shuttle, Barbara. There's no sign of her yet, so we sign in with the rangers and unload in a light rain.

A few minutes later she pulls up in a red VW Jetta, resembling the aftermath of an explosion in a homeless shelter. The interior is strewn with trash, the exterior similarly distressed, and Barbara herself is probably not among Time's 50 Most Beautiful People edition. She is quite jovial though, and after profuse apologies, we toss our packs on the garbage heap in the back and we're off. Barbara could easily talk the entire 80 mile trip, enlightening us on her job as a teacher and on the sections of the AT she's hiked. From her bulk and the extent of her nicotine addiction it looks doubtful, but she's well enough informed that it's obvious she's done it, even if not at a fleet pace. A quick stop enroute gives me a bathroom break and Barbara the necessary Twinkies, and we proceed, hearing of her trail name (The Boss), acquired during a shuttle given by an inebriated waitress in Pearisburg. (She convinced their host that only by driving herself could she avoid car-sickness, and thus saved both riders from terror or worse). Approaching Warwick Turnpike, she questions our decision to start there, convincing us of the wisdom of continuing to Bellvale NY, a more common start. Coleen's sold that the extra 9.5 miles is a worthwhile investment, so Bellvale it is.

Here we unload, tender our payment, hear her evaluation of how great the NJ AT is, and we're off (3:05). It's still very misty out, making a good day for our return to the woods, with all the aromas of the wild at full intensity. The woods are full of rushing streams, and soon we ascend the ridge overlooking Greenwood Lake - it's long, with plunging forested ridges to either side, much like the Finger Lakes of NY; and would be of stunning beauty in good weather. Now it's barely visible, our route continuing on the rocky spine of the ridge, with cloud and fog periodically blowing across to obscure all but a few feet around us. We pass a couple girls heading north on a week-long hike, and also pass the scent of a skunk for a short ways.

Soon the NJ state line passes underfoot, and passing Warwick Turnpike, darkness falls quickly in the fog (we're startled momentarily as we flush out a deer from the underbrush). After only one wrong turn we finally find the shelter path, marked by an invisible blue blaze in the shape of a lean-to. A short hike uphill finds our lodging, and Coleen expresses our good fortune of having the shelter to ourselves. It's short-lived however, as our flashlights reveal a tent erected inside the shelter on the left, and a hiker in a sleeping bag on the right. Both occupants are awake, and from within the tent orders are barked at us about use of the bear box (a NJ alternative to hanging food away from the bears). We can't get a sound or even a name out of the hiker on the right - we'll later find him to be Warren, whom I originally suspect to be mute.
Throwing our packs outside we get dinner started, served by candlelight on the wet seats of a steeply sloping picnic table in the mist. We won't physically see the tent occupant until morning, when we'll find her to be the aged Elderberry, with quite a reputation on the trail. Until retiring, she continues to bark orders at us from behind the tent fabric, reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz; and even then we're serenaded by her snoring, as varied in tone and quality as the birdsongs we listen to each morning. Some of the timbres are new to us both, evoking some chuckles as we turn in at 10:35.

5/21 Waywayanda Shelter - Unionville Hostel (18 miles)

""Two and two are four. Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane."
GEORGE ORWELL - "1984"

Above Greenwood Lake
In a perfect world I'd wake to the sound of my wife gently singing sotto voce, the smell of bacon and coffee wafting about. In our world however, it's a pounding on the floor on which we sleep that rouses us at first light. It's Warren, hammering duct tape patches onto his stuff sack with his fist just inches to my left, raising his fist high above his head to get a good swing at it. His fist must ache, as the shelter shakes with each impact. Now we're all up, and we attempt to converse with Warren, getting at best a mumble or a monosyllabic answer. After breakfast, we're ready to go when Elderberry suggests a trip to the visitor's center (.4 miles away) for water. As all the water we've seen has been tinted brown, it seems worth the walk, finding it shorter than we thought, though the center's not yet open. We find the tap nearby, and soon we're back to the shelter, where after an extended lecture by Elderberry on the need for 2 hiking poles and her opinion of the upcoming accommodations, we're off at 07:45.

It's a pleasant walk in the morning mist, the forest paths giving way to the mix of forest, road, and meadow; and we cross many of the stepstiles and stone fences for which NJ is famous (it's said that NJ has as many rocks as PA, they're just piled up into fences). At low elevations the bugs attack mightily, and we begin our test of light swabs of DEET along with the Bounce sheets on each of our pack straps, which holds them at bay (Note to self: never store toothbrush in the same pocket with Bounce sheets). Before the easy meadow trails however, we have one more assault on Waywayanda Mt. Approaching the top, a side trail to Pinwheel Vista promises stunning vistas, but for us it's nothing but fog and cloud in every direction (the western face is immersed in cloud, with only 20-30' visibility). It's beautiful in its own way, with majestic rock faces looming ominously from the fog; and it proves a steep climb down, with steps provided, - even a ladder in one place. At the base the trail fans out across a field with the escarpment disappearing into the cloud behind as we continue across NJ 94.
Descending Waywayanda Here the bog bridges begin in earnest as we cross a pasture hosting the first Jersey's we've seen in Jersey, and I can't resist a pix of Coleen by one. The puncheons (bog bridges) never extend quite to the end of the bog (leaving a small lake at the foot of the stile), and soon our boots and socks are soaked not only from the mist, but from tramping through mud. Canal Road marks the beginning of a planned trail relocation that we've been anticipating for days. A magnificent suspension bridge is being built spanning Pochuck Creek, and our map shows this relocation which promises to avoid two miles of road walk. There's no indication as to when this relo will be complete, and we find to our dismay that the blazes follow the old route. A chipmunk sits atop an adjacent boulder, watching our perplexed looks as we debate which way to attempt. Though there's a chance the relo might be open (we'd like to see the project), we have to go with the white blazes, so we begin the long road walk around the marsh.

After a little confusion at the closed Maple Grange Rd bridge, we continue on a road devoid of traffic, walking dead center in the road, but this soon changes. At the busy County 517 we turn north, passing the beginning of a gaggle of thru-hikers. They're the leaders of the northbound pack; and as such they're totally focused on speed, rarely wanting to stop and chat. Several pass with just a wave, but we manage a quick chat with a bearded European sort (Bert "the Bavarian") who shares a little info on the Unionville hostel for which we're bound (we'd love a dry bed tonight, even if it's marginal). Finally the path returns to the meadows, taking our lunch there on our poncho.

Back to the meadows, hills, puncheons, and hemlock groves - eventually we begin a gentle climb up Pochuck Mt. Again, the promised vista is immersed in cloud, and we try to imagine the joy with which the northbounders often receive their first view of the Manhattan skyline. At the Pochuck Mt Shelter we laugh at the register entries - the standard "Here comes Elderberry!" entry, along with a poison pen diatribe by Warren assailing the local trail club with anal complaints (other hikers taking arms against Warren in defense of the trail's proprietors). Back on the trail, we pass a number of water jugs left at the mountain's base - some well-appreciated trail magic for which, alas, we have no need. We return to the bogs, where an extended walk on the bog bridges proves slippery, and finally results in me taking a tumble on my pack, leaving me lying on the puncheon, my pack beneath me with its top in the mud; totally unable to get up due to the leverage of the packframe beneath me. Coleen helps me up with a chuckle as we reflect that, had our positions been reversed; I'd have taken a pix before aiding her up. No blood, no foul, so we continue, passing a thru-hiker intent on exchanging intel, and a local lady trying to keep her two dogs on the puncheons.
A walk in the woods?
Beyond Waywayanda
The puncheons end in a road circling a large swamp, and on the road we find our old favorite, the Prairie Home Companion to entertain us. We finally reach the road to Unionville, heading into town as a light rain begins to fall, but nothing on the road matches the map, and we stop to ask at a house where we've just seen the owner pull up. Despite the barking of his dogs, he won't answer the door, and we stand in the rain reflecting on our error for a few minutes before deciding that we're at 284, not Lott Rd, leaving us with another mile to go. Coleen's feet hurt terribly, and I hate to reveal this to her, but at the other end lies our warm hostel, so off we go for the final mile.

Finally we reach the real Lott Rd for the final .4 miles into town. We've no idea how to find the hostel (and worried about it being open on a Sun evening), but it's a very small, rust-belt town, and can't be too hard. While still blocks distant, we hear loud music playing; and sure enough, it's from a small tavern to our right. We spy the Back Track Inn, and hobbling that way, we find it the only place alive in town, a small crowd of pickups clustered about. On its left face is a Hostel sign, so we drop our gear and head into the tavern to find out the deal. The marquis says that "Little Sammy Davis" is playing tonight until 8:00, good for us, as no sleep will occur until his set is over. The din is deafening, and there's no lack of good cheer, with lots of urging to join the party, and one drunk very insistent about buying us a drink. When we finally get to the barmaid, she and the owner arrive at a $3 charge each for the hostel (normally $5, but the shower isn't working, and the only lav is in the tavern - open noon to midnight).
Bog bridge
Beats wading through the swamp
A Jersey in Jersey At the "hostel", the big shock occurs - it's a large closet, with storage racks on the wall now intended for our sleeping comfort. There's a small table at one end, one bare light bulb, no window shade, a couple of old chairs, and some trash and odd hiker items left by previous hikers. It's dry however, and we rig a shade and find room to change clothes, though we really don't have much dry to change into. Coleen wears her rain pants, myself my shorts, and with our cleanest shirts and jackets, we head out in search of food. They've rolled up the sidewalks in town, and we end up back at the revelry at the Back Track. Asking for a menu, we're told that there's plenty of food left in the buffet; so without even a cover charge, we're soon eating steak, pork cutlets, and baked potatoes as Little Sammy Davis belts through far too many encores. The band is deafening, but fairly good; and it's a Kodak moment for us (besides which, a couple of gin/tonics really mellow the mood). We're there about an hour before retiring to the Gulag, where we set out everything possible to dry, secure the door as best as possible, and retire lightly medicated at 10:35.

5/22 Unionville Hostel - Mashipacong Shelter (14.3 miles)

"Wherever your journey takes you, there are new gods waiting there, with divine patience - and laughter."
Susan M. Watkins

Coleen's awakened at midnight by some commotion involving a screaming lady and the adjacent fire station, but I don't even remember it. My first recollection is a couple of girls waiting for the school bus at 07:00, but I fall back asleep for another hour. Looking around our corner of a room, the phrase "Muddy, but unbowed" comes to mind as we pack for another rainy day. Coleen has numerous blisters on her toes, so I suggest wrapping small rolls of duct tape around each one - surprisingly effective.
Yes, it needs milking
Unionville Hostel
The hostel's on the left - no, really
By 09:22 we're back up to the trail, with a quick stop at the edge of the forest to use the facilities (the tavern being closed till noon). It's a bit more woodsy as we begin, and we pass more small groups of thru-hikers headed for Katahdin. The sky is lighter, with occasional glimpses of the solar corona visible for mere seconds through the gray. The trail follows the NY/NJ border northwest, crossing Vernie Swamp with another extended puncheon walk, after which the sky darkens and the wind rises. This marks the end of the improving weather, and the beginning of the climb towards High Point. It's steady but well-graded, and we keep a fast pace, hoping to make the Visitors Center for a late lunch. Coleen is already getting ticked over the fast pace, but I find a good radio station playing Russian Easter Overture, and this calms us both as we climb. The terrain becomes more alpine, with hemlock and cedar groves replacing the marshes, and as we pass the trail to the High Point shelter, a beautiful mountain stream surges through a small canyon below.

The trail winds its way uphill, and soon we hear the voices of a small group ahead - a group of boys, scouting age, all black save one, and loaded with gear as for an extended stay. We catch them just after the side trail to the High Point monument, (obscured in the low cloud) before starting a steep descent towards the Visitor's Center, with Coleen particularly irritated at my fast downhill pace. Luckily, it's a short walk from here to the center, arriving at 2:00 feeling cold and wet, and finding the center virtually deserted.

High Point is as the name implies, the highest point in the state of NJ at a mere 1803', and would be a beautiful park in good weather. In the office several personnel are working, but where we park behind a huge fireplace we're unnoticed; and here we have our lunch. Coleen's hurting a bit and totally demoralized, and it's obvious a long break is needed aimed at inspiring her. I'd like to position our stop tonight to allow us to finish in 2 days, and she'd just as soon quit right now. After lunch, we linger as I get info from the rangers (bear problems at Rutherford campsite - the result of a camper abandoning his tent, food and all). Coleen's still cold, so I stealthily set up our stove on the hearth for coffee. Coleen's far from being ready to commit to a 2-dayer, but willing to consider it, and we shove off again into the mist after a long 1:40 break.

The extended break has done Coleen a world of good, allowing me to duct tape my blisters as well, so we start out, evaluating our options for the coming nights. We'll definitely bypass Rutherford shelter, as it's only 1:20 ahead, but we'll probably stop at Mashipacong (accent on the "ship") shelter tonight, tenting out the following night. As we walk we scare up a small fawn, and at 5:15 we pass the trail to Rutherford shelter, which heads straight down the steep incline, easily convincing us to forge on. Soon the rain begins, gently at first, but gradually increasing to where a shelter sounds excellent for the night.
After the Deckertown pump it's a short walk up to the shelter - a stone structure with a corrugated roof - most importantly, unoccupied. The register has no mention of the dreaded shelter mice (does mention the over-full privy though), so we spread out, allowing room for others (when it's raining, "the shelter's not full till the last hiker's in"). I erect a clothes line for our wet clothes, and start the water boiling, leaving a quiet moment to sit and watch the pouring rain. It's actually quite nice, in our relative comfort, and as darkness falls we have our dinner and cocoa. The bear box has a broken lid, so I fly our food, and soon the clouds obscure our mountain home, the visibility dropping to nothing as the rain continues. Our lights project an eerie conical beam into the fog, giving one the feeling of wielding the ultimate Jedi light sabre. It's oddly cozy here, shrouded by fog, and yet protected as the rain gently drums on our roof. Bed 10:25.

5/23 Mashipacong Shelter - Hemlock Falls campsite (17.4 miles)

"'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you -- shelter from the storm."
Bob Dylan - "Shelter From the Storm"

We're up at 06:00 with first light, after a restful night for me, and somewhat less for Coleen. With the spacious shelter to ourselves, morning prep is easy, and Coleen opts for hot oatmeal rather than oatmeal cookies. Our gear is no drier than before, so it's another day of climbing wet rocks in wet socks. We start with an easy forest walk, climbing through a birch grove for variety (the birch are numerous, but most are downed or dying). The fog thickens as we climb into the cloud layer, and a couple of local hikers give us some info about what's ahead, along with a weather report, suitably gloomy. Passing the Sunrise Mt parking area, a small bus awaits another group, and again we find jugs of water left by trail angels. A little further along is the Sunrise shelter - a huge open building, which would be great for lunch if only there were tables.
Mashipacong Shelter
Putting the ship in Mashipacong
Mashipacong interior
Trail housekeeping at its finest
Sunrise Shelter With town food ahead at Culvers Gap, we make a lively pace, descending to a nice forest walk in a hemlock grove where we soon spy the hiker-popular Worthington Bakery. It's now closed on weekdays, sending us to Gyp's Tavern, where we find a meager menu of the usual burgers and pub chow. It's overpriced and fat-encased, but heavenly for our purposes, and we wolf it down, entertained by our neighbor at the bar. He shares some bear stories, telling us of one treed by the dog next door a few days ago (promptly falling asleep until the dog tired of the game).

We head out revived, with the usual climb out of the gap, moderately steep, but a mere 350'. Back on the ridge we see several lakes in the improving weather, along with our first efts, their tiny orange bodies slowly crossing the trail in utter ignorance of their potential destruction under our feet. We pass the Brinks Rd shelter, the last shelter we'll pass, but by now Coleen is sold on the idea of finishing tomorrow (well, at least amenable). A few minutes later we find a good spot for our pm break - lengthened for first aid on our feet. I've a long, slender, painful blister formed on a wrinkle (from wearing wet socks) on my LH sole, and there's no good remedy. Passing the summit of Rattlesnake Mt, the rain begins as last night, and the pack covers come on.
A little "froggy" up at Sunrise shelter
We descend through a beautiful hemlock grove along a stream - an excellent camping spot, but we need a few more miles if we're to finish tomorrow. The trail turns uphill and rocky; and the rain intensifies, making the rocks slippery and slowing us considerably. Luckily, the trail joins a gravel road, a real boon to our spirits and speed. We hear voices ahead, finding a large tarp with several campers, who tell us we're about to pass a no-camping sign ahead. We'd known of this restriction, but it seems merely a bureaucratic morass, so we're both content stealth camping. We start looking for sites, and as darkness falls, our standards fall with it, finding a good clearing at 7:45. We quickly get the tent up, moving essentials in to begin dinner under cover. All goes well for our 1st use of the new Coleman tent a snap to set up compared to our previous one. We're comfortable and dry, and after dinner comes dessert and hot chocolate (with our excess food we can eat like kings). A lull in the rain allows me to hang the bear bag, finding a pea-soup fog out, and stymied a little finding no branches high enough. It'll be mainly a raccoon bag tonight, and if any bear of size wants our food, it's his, hanging about 7' high. We're in bed at 10:30, sleeping comfortably until awakened by a violent thunderstorm at 03:00. With the lightning comes the rolling thunder, echoing forlornly through the mountains as we drift back to sleep.

5/24 Hemlock Falls campsite - DWG (18.7 miles)

"To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it -- who can say this is not greatness?"
William Makepeace Thackeray

We wake at 06:00, finding the fog thinning quickly, the birds singing, and the morning taking on considerable light. It's plenty warm, but everything's wet, and we make quick work of breakfast and packing. I've put more duct tape on my feet, though there's no way to adequately cushion the long, slender blister on my sole. Its shape prevents first aid, and the pain is continual; but being homeward bound, it's bearable. The trail descends to Buttermilk Falls, a steep but short climb down which would have been tough in last night's darkness. Off our right is the Harding Lake Rock Shelter, an ancient home to Indian hunters circa 3000 BC, but with all the rocks to dodge it remains unseen.
Passing Blue Mt. Lakes Rd we find a pump said to have potable water, so we tank up after purging it to reduce the metallic taste. The trail follows a dirt road as it climbs, the clouds begin to thin, and suddenly they break up completely, with the glorious sun emerging - what a sight after 70 miles of gray! Soon the rocks and woods reassert themselves, as we descend to circumnavigate a beaver pond before climbing back to the ridgeline. We stop at a beautiful ridge (where the Rattlesnake Swamp trail diverges) for pix just before lunch.

The quality of our pump water is seriously lacking, so at Camp Road, we stop at the beautiful cascading stream to put the filter to work (though the mosquitoes swarm us as we do). At least we've clear, cool water for the climb back to the ridge, with the day turning hot and steamy. We then enter Worthington State Forest, climbing to a stone cairn atop the ridge for our last break. The radio spells the doom and gloom of building thunderstorms, and indeed, as we sit the sky quickly darkens to the west. It's good to have relief from the sun, but we know this portends a real downpour, so we hurry back on course, descending into the woods.
Ridge by Rattlesnake Swamp
Finally - sunshine and a view
Suddenly Sunfish Pond emerges - the southernmost glacial lake on the AT. The trail turns rocky, and it seems the goal of its creators is to stay on the water's edge, whatever the cost. It's a horrid scramble over boulders and glacial debris, and we soon find a small field of stone cairns apparently erected as a sacrifice to the gods of the difficult trail doctrine. After depleting my film here, we laugh that now, with no film, we'll probably encounter an epic hailstorm, dancing bears, or some other Kodak moment.

The state of the trail worsens, bypassing a smooth placid meadow above in favor of this boulder field; and to add insult to injury, it's poorly blazed. At its far border are signs prohibiting the remotest thought of camping here, and the sky further darkens. The rain begins in earnest, preceded again by the majesty of the rolling thunder - impressive indeed. The wind rises, forcing us to don our jackets, yet we slug on towards the goal. Finally we pass the Holly Springs trail - the 1 hour-to-go point, and soon after the rain stops and the skies clear.

Passing the mile-to-go point, we hear the roar of a large waterfall, and suddenly we're treated to a cascade which is beyond a doubt, the most beautiful scenery I've yet seen on the AT - and me totally without film. The cascade is not an isolated slice of beauty, but one which intensifies, showing new facets all the way down Dunnfield Creek. It's a stunning ending to our day, and we forget all our previous aches and pains. The water is aquamarine blue, crystal-clear, and possessed with awe-inspiring force as it thunders down the rock faces, surrounded by the solemnity of a Pacific NW rain forest. We will return.

Suddenly the parking lot is in view, and we hate to leave this Eden, but we both know the exact distance to that red Eclipse with the dry clothes and the cooler of Diet Coke - we're unstoppable now. Finding the Visitor's Center locked, we make a quick shoe and sock change, and load and go. In no time we're making our typical post-hike hobbled walk into a nearby Burger King for hi-cal food and monstrous drinks. The drive home clears the thunderstorms, but not before giving us a beautiful view of the setting sun, its orb barely visible in golden splendor through the last of the rain.

The waters had yet one final revenge for us - on return to our garage, we heard a hissing sound emerging from the laundry room, and on opening the door we found the line to the washer had burst, flooding the basement beneath. Just when we were looking forward to a hot jacuzzi and a dry bed, we'd spend the wee hours of the morning with a wet-vac cleaning out the basement. Welcome home?!?
 
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