Saturday, June 25, 2011

Chapter 100: Episodes

One may encounter numerous hazards on the Appalachian Trail, including severe weather; ravenous, man-eating black bears; ravenous, man-eating hillbillies; mosquitoes; ticks; deer flies; chiggers; spiders; steep grades; limited water; contaminated water; contaminated raspberries; poison ivy; giardia; disease; southbounders; and lethally venomous snakes.

Conspicuously absent from that list, however, is "dodging traffic while running frantically across a four-lane divided highway during rush hour." Yet that is exactly what I found myself doing on this particular morning, much to my considerable dismay and consternation. It was kind of exciting, though.

What's that? You expected me to say more? Oh, well...

Early that morning I found myself in the unenviable position of having the cross the Palisades Interstate Parkway, a four-lane divided highway. During rush hour. And, unlike virtually every other "dangerous" road crossing on the trail, the powers that be had inexplicably neglected to provide a bridge. Or tunnel. Or crosswalk. It seemed one simply had to wait for a break in the traffic, and then run for it. Easier said than done, especially when your knees are shot and you're carrying a preposterously bulky forty-pound backpack.

I can only imagine the mirthful confusion of motorists as they watched me dance nervously by the shoulder, before I sprinted (or, more accurately, waddled awkwardly) out into the road in front of them. In a moment of astonishing clarity, I was struck by the fantastic serendipity of my successful pre-breakfast privy run when—as I suddenly became hyper aware of the inexorable inertia of the several thousand pounds of angry metal screaming towards me—my bowels involuntarily loosened. Even so, I somehow made it safely across the road, bodily intact and compression shorts unsoiled.

Only to realize I had only made it to the island between the southbound and northbound lanes, and that I had to repeat this entire terrifying process all over again. And so what should have taken me fifteen seconds ended up taking more like fifteen minutes. Or indefinitely, as I may have actually died somewhere along the way, and am dictating this narration to my (clearly unflappable) next-of-kin from purgatory.


I caught up with Hobbit on my way up Bear Mountain. I hadn't seen him since Maryland, when we ran into each other while he was attempting the Four State Challenge. We chatted for a bit, catching up, commiserating cheerfully over our myriad individual failures.

Bear Mountain was underwhelming, and then infuriating. Underwhelming because the park was chock-full of clueless tourists who had driven right there to the summit, inadvertently undermining my (admittedly already meager) sense of accomplishment. Infuriating because the soda machines by the central observation tower were prohibitively expensive, and most of the marauding day-trippers didn't seem to understand my pitiful attempts at yogi-ing. Even when I sat in plain view, staring pointedly at the sun with parched lips aquiver. Well, except for a kindly middle-aged couple, who gave me a spare bottle of water.



Descending Bear Mountain was a treat, and then absolute torture once I reached Hessian Lake. A treat because the trail down had just recently been re-opened, and now featured a series of newly constructed, languidly twisting, wide stone stairways. Torture because approximately ten thousand people were having loud parties and barbecues and picnicking around the lake. Munching on enormous bags of crisp, crunchy potato chips. Tossing back ice-cold beers from their coolers. An intoxicating haze of smoke rising from innumerable grills. The audible fizz of freshly popped sodas lingered in the air, drowning out the blissful laughing of the children.

And yet nobody seemed to notice me, the shockingly emaciated homeless man walking through their midst. Despite the deafening rumble of my stomach. And my comically round eyes, as I stared in transparent envy at the buffet around me.

I might as well have stripped naked and danced around singing La Marseillaise, for all the attention I was getting. Well, except for that I can't speak French. Irritated beyond belief, I kept my head down and exited the park as quickly as possible.


The Bear Mountain Zoo was a quaint, mercifully brief distraction. I can't say I appreciated seeing all these wild animals I'd already seen on the trail locked up in cages, though. That was mildly depressing. But at least the zoo had water fountains.


A sign hung alongside the walkway greeting me as I approached the bridge over the Hudson River.

"WARNING!" it angrily proclaimed, "Nesting Peregrine Falcons are extremely territorial, and may dive bomb your skull at any second. Say your prayers."

The Peregrine Falcon is often referred to as the world's fastest animal, capable of diving at over 200 miles per hour. Getting hit in the head by a particularly well-thrown fastball can be near fatal, and a baseball weighs only five ounces; I shuddered to think what a two or three pound bird could do to me flying at twice that speed. It wasn't exactly like running across a busy highway, but crossing the bridge was similarly thrilling. If I had to go out—if a falcon had to kill me—at least I would die awesome.

Or should that be awesomely?

Once across the bridge, I looked back for any signs of the birds. I had no idea what I was looking for, but could see no evidence of any nests on the suspension bridge's tall towers. And the sky above me was clear. Well, except for...

It flew in from the north, looking initially like a peculiar, rather ungainly sea gull. But then it was much too large to be a gull, and only it's head was clearly white, the rest of its feathers a weathered russet brown. It definitely wasn't a falcon, but it soared like one, gliding majestically past me and over the bridge.

I felt a chill run down my spine—and a twinge of admiration, or something vaguely like pride—that I didn't understand at first. It was a Bald Eagle.


A couple miles further on, I was back in the woods, and had just discovered a cooler of sodas and beer left by a German day hiker. What a thoughtful man. I couldn't decide what would satiate my thirst better, a Heineken or a Coca Cola. I settled on both. It was... interesting.


At the end of the day, after an easy but eventful fifteen miles, I found myself at a convenience store on US9, waiting for a ride. One of my girlfriend's coworkers, Chelsea, lived in nearby Cold Spring, New York, and had offered to put me up for the night. I drank a couple of Mountain Dews while I waited, anxious but excited to get into town, eat real food, talk to real people, and sleep in a real bed.

Chelsea was very nice, and she and her husband extremely forgiving and accommodating. I assume I must have smelled like a week-old corpse, and not looked much better, but they graciously invited me into their home, allowed me to do my laundry, gave me juice, and let me use their computer. Unfortunately, they had a prior social engagement, or else they might have enjoyed picking my brain for stories and wisdom about the trail. And I would have enjoyed telling them.

Ultimately, I ended up walking alone to the grocery store in the dark. My resupply here was much more sensible—and lighter on the fluffy, fake chocolatey things—than my previous one had been in Jersey. On a whim, I purchased a quart of chocolate milk from a local farm. And drank the entire thing before I had left the parking lot. Delicious.

I went back to Chelsea's house, checked my e-mail, and tried to stay awake as long as possible, in case they came home and wanted to talk. But hiker midnight (eight or nine o'clock, for you normal folks) came and went, and I found myself slipping into an uneasy unconsciousness. I knew I would have another long day ahead of me—and then only two more until home!—so I quickly packed up and turned in, falling almost immediately to sleep.

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