AT Sobo Part 19 – New Jersey broke my spirit and heart for a while…
You’d think that being able to camp at a drive-in movie theatre in New Jersey would make me as happy as a clam. You’d be right, but you’d also be wrong. What a cool place to pitch up; the movie owners were great trail supporters, and every night the grassy bank at the back of the big movie field would fill with between 5 and 15 tents, and the hikers would be given radios to tune into whichever big screen they wanted to watch. We were only disturbed by car headlights of vehicles arriving late or leaving after the first showing. It was a 1950’s kitsch dream in 2019! I, however, wasn’t in good spirits.
People going Northbound on the AT often get what’s called the ‘Virginia Blues’ – the state is long and the initial lift of the trail has worn thin. It’s a long, green tunnel that doesn’t relent physical or emotionally. I was SOBO, so I was having my blues in New Jersey. I missed home, I was sore and constantly dehydrated because the temperatures were so high and the water sources scarce. No sooner had you put fluid in your body than you’d sweated it out again double. No one was peeing enough, and everyone was dizzy. For me this had dire consequences because my chronic physical pain is flared up by dehydration and tiredness. I wasn’t sleeping in the heat, and I was hurting badly all round. I was also excited for Hambone’s return, and return he did, finally catching up to us at the movies that night after weeks of long hiking days to narrow the gap.
However, my close friend from our intense days in the deep wild mountains was gone, and in his place was someone I didn’t really recognise. He’d met new people in the interim and so had I, as the trail never stops moving and evolving. There was distance I hadn’t anticipated, and I sure missed our old kinship. We spoke briefly and awkwardly, and I left him there and hiked away at dawn the following morning without saying goodbye, weeping into the woods for a time past and for all the energy and excitement of the early trail. In fact, this small experience released a wave of grief inside me that didn’t stop for many days. I didn’t cry much with my hiking friends, but I would sob with my heart breaking every day as I walked deliberately alone for hours at a time until I reached camp in the evening, totally broken. The trail was challenging and changing me. I missed my friend but I was also reshaping myself and I didn’t really know what I was doing or who I was becoming. It was so hard, but these times made me stronger, and I’m still growing and responding to how the trail has altered me. I realised however that the things I had outsourced to Hambone and those things I was excited about him returning for, were things that I could now provide for myself. This was an incredible realisation and it made me appreciate all that had been and what was coming – he had taught me so much, and now it was time to pull myself together and forge on with all I’d learned.
Sure enough the Jersey blues ebbed after a time. I was hiking with a bunch of folks including Maple, Cruise and Wag; an amazing mix of trail families old and new. The state was stunning – I thought NJ would just be highways and industry, but it’s chock full of nature reserves and stunning flat boardwalks through marshes and grasslands filled with birds and animals of all descriptions. One huge highlight was the ‘Secret Shelter’ slightly off the AT. It’s a cabin and land on private property that you can camp at, where the owner has a pet donkey called Jake who wanders freely around the field and tries to help you eat your dinner. He likes to play cards and get his ears scratched. What a scene!
NJ turned into Pennsylvania in short order. It was a state that NOBO’s passing us had complained about for 1000 miles. It’s loathed by most hikers because it is filled with the sharpest and most difficult to navigate small rocks on the whole trail. Every step is a potential ankle turn, and the sharp sides of the rocks cut through the your shoes and snag your ankles. We were often crying with pain walking the miles at the end of our long 25+ mile days. This was also where the snakes lived in their droves. They curled up in the heat between the cracks and crannies of the rocks where your feet would slip. We would gasp and shriek through the days as we saw black slick bodies wend across the trail in front of us, or freeze when we heard the warning rattle from just under where we had stepped. Terrifying, but also beautiful to see them move and definitely wise give them room to go wherever they wanted!
Pennsylvania wore us out. It ground us down to dust in the heat and it was here that I first damaged my foot – an injury which wouldn’t leave me alone and dogs me still. I was careening down the mountain slope towards the town of Duncannon, to stay at yet another church hostel in the basement on the floor, and I was tired after a 29 mile day communing with the rocks. My shoe was in the process of falling apart, and caused me to hit my foot fiercely on a stone as the sole caught under a root, meaning that I couldn’t swing my leg forward as intended. Agony. At this stage of the day however, all I wanted was a cold beer. I hobbled towards the legendary ‘Doyle’ hotel and tavern where Charles Dickens himself had once stayed, and staved off the pain with some camaraderie and cold suds. Unfortunately I’d be paying for not taking care of that foot injury for a long time to come.