Near Vernon, New Jersey
Afternoon on a hot July day. The sun bakes the swamps of northern New Jersey. Humid air blankets the countryside. I’m in the cool basement of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The basement is clean and comfortable, a haven for this hiker after last night’s storm. I want to stay. I do not want to hike another five and a half miles to the next shelter in this heat. I had a shower and am clean after five days on the trail. So are my clothes. I’m stuffed from a big meal of real food at a local restaurant. I want to savor these feelings and bask in the comfort of this sanctuary. The few times I ventured from the basement, it was way too hot. Now it’s 4:00 pm and still hot, hot, hot.
I’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail for 15 weeks now. After more than 1,300 miles, I am in reasonably good shape but the summer heat and humidity is wearing me out. Even the morning was oppressive and offered no respite. Last night’s storm just added moisture to the air. It feels like a gazillion percent humidity. We–Red ,Gary and I left the Pochuck Mountain Shelter around 7:00 am and started to climb Pochuck Mountain immediately. We were sweating profusely in the early morning heat. The air was thick with humidity, simply walking required an extra effort. The morning did have some great moments, though. We crossed a large marsh on a well built, wide boardwalk. We even broke into a spontaneous rendition of the few lyrics of “Under the Boardwalk” that we could recall. Heading into town, we were in a good mood despite the heat.
We had to dodge the wasps as we crossed the Pochuck Creek suspension bridge. Below us, dark water flowed over a carpet of long, thick grasses undulating in the current. Back into the woods and across a few fields and we were on the road with our thumbs outstretched. A couple in a very nice Chrysler pick all three of us up. Their air conditioning was refreshingly cool but we opened the rear windows a bit to spare them our sweaty aroma. They dropped us off in the center of Vernon, NJ and pointed us to our destination just down a side street. The white walls of St. Thomas Episcopal Church were blinding the late morning sun but it’s cool basement hostel was a welcome relief.
So was the sight of many friends from the trail. Zeus, Kinky and Two Timer spent the night there–they passed us yesterday while we lounged in the Unionville, NY town park. Cheetah and Bugbite were also here last night. Our companions from last night’s shelter, Montreal and Kutsa arrive right after us. Radar, Bill and Ursula, Heidi and Flash, Pickle and Pinata show up later. The church offers hikers sleeping space on its basement floor. A sofa and easy chairs provide comfort during the day. The basement has a full kitchen and a dining area. There’s even a computer with internet access. I shower and do laundry. Red, Gary and I walk to the strip mall to eat and shop. We’re wasted by the mid-day sun and hunker down in the cool basement upon our return. We debate staying but know we need to make more miles today. It’s tempting, though. The prospect of staying clean and comfortable for another night is hard to resist.
Four-thirty. If we’re going to make those extra miles, we need to be out walking. We shoulder our packs and head for the main road. The sun blasts us from the west as we stick out our thumbs. Heidi, Flash and Radar cross the street on their way to eat. We envy them, they’re staying. A truck stops and we pile into the back for the short ride to the trail. Red and Gary make a pack adjustment a the trailhead while I head out on my own. It’s after five now, way late to be hiking. I motor on. The trail goes steeply up Wawayanda Mountain; it’s rocky and slow going. I’m soaked in sweat within minutes, the memory of clean is rapidly fading. Up top, the walking is easier and I move briskly. Still hot and humid but the sun is low and it’s starting to get dark. The trail follows an old road and I can really step out. I cross an iron truss bridge, a remnant from the days when this route was a thoroughfare. Up a small rise, the trail turns off the old road. I’ve rarely hiked this late. I’m moving fast. I don’t want to be looking for a shelter in the dark.
I round the corner, intent on making the shelter. And I come face to face with–a BEAR! Less than 10 meters ahead. I freeze. I carefully begin stepping back, uncertain whether I’m supposed to make eye contact or not but definitely trying not to panic and run. I slowly back around the bend and move down the hill a bit, wondering if Red Gary are nearby. Three of us should be sufficiently intimidating for one bear. I wait. No one comes. But now the bear has walked out to look at me. I stand my ground. The bear meanders around at the top of the hill but doesn’t come closer. It munches on some berries. I can hear it taunting me, “I’m here and you’re not. Nyahh, nyahh.” It finally heads back up the trail. I wait a long two minutes and gingerly walk back up the trail and peer around the bend. No bear. I walk a bit farther and see it lumbering ahead. It senses me, speeds up a bit and turns off the trail. I keep walking, much slower than I care to. The bear stands about 30 meters away as I pass.
Somehow, I manage to keep my eye on the bear and the trail simultaneously. Once it’s out of sight, I pick up my pace, considerably. I’m sure it’s following me. Lurid images of death by fang and claw overtaking me from behind race through my brain as I hurry through the increasingly dark forest. I look back. Nothing. I speed up anyway. The images continue to haunt me, my overactive imagination running on a huge dose of adrenaline. Where is that shelter? Will I ever see it in this gloom?
A small, almost imperceptible, sign points to the shelter. I pull in and meet a volunteer from the local trail club. He’s seen no bears today but says they are active in the area. Now, the only threat I face are the swarming mosquitoes. I eat quickly while mosquitoes feast on me. I kill a few but my efforts are meaningless against the relentless horde. Red and Gary arrive. They didn’t see the bear. I hastily set up my tent in the dark, unlimber my gear, stow my food in the shelter’s bear proof metal box and dive into the tent ahead my airborne assailants. Once inside, I can finally stop. Mosquitoes buzz outside. I enjoy their frustration as they hit my bug screen but I know that I will face them again tomorrow morning. This night will never cool off enough to stop them.
But that’s nine hours away. I can relax now. Late as it is, I manage to write a couple pages in my journal as I wind down from the evening’s excitement. Montreal and Kutsa arrive. They missed the tiny sign on the trail and had to backtrack. Everybody is in now. It’s been a good day despite the heat, bugs and bear. No telling what tomorrow will bring but, right now, I’m happy.