A white painted marking on the exposed bedrock indicated the point of transition from New Jersey into New York. “A fantastic new world,” I thought to myself as I proceeded through to the Empire State. Starting a new state brings a fresh sense of optimism, and there is a rush of excitement for the unknown—the next act in the great drama.
New York intrigues me as it does for a great many people. It’s mind-bending to think that even New York City was once a swamp covered with forests. It is said that the Carnarsee Indians (part of the Lenape tribe) who inhabited the land traded the twenty-two square miles of soggy Manhattan Island to the Dutch for twenty-four dollars’ worth of cloth and trinkets. The part of New York that I was penetrating on the Appalachian Trail (AT), although much further to the west, likely resembles a similar environment to that of Manhattan before it was built up with superblocks of high-rises and brick edifices. The Dutch settlers founded Nieuw-Nederland on the island Manahatta, which according to the original Native American inhabitants, meant “island of many hills.” The New York that I would see would not be a land of buildings and pavement but of dense tree canopy and jungly undergrowth. It was mostly pristine wilderness. Moss-carpeted logs lay gracefully on the forest floor, and bright green ferns sprouted up from the detritus-enriched soil.
Water fell heavily from the New York sky, bucketing down such that much of my gear—at least during the episodes of rainfall—was rendered ineffective. Rocky outcrops naturally paved mountain ridges. In one tricky spot, bent rebar was cemented into drilled holes to create a sort of “hiker ladder” to aid in a precipitous climb. Descending a steep blue blaze trail to the village of Greenwood Lake, I stopped at Country Grocery to resupply and to recharge my devices in the store’s exterior outlet. The proprietor of the grocery mart, a kindly New Yorker of Indian persuasion, fixed me a spicy Italian sandwich, which was tightly packed in meat-packing paper such that it could be preserved and eaten later that evening. Deli-blazing is common while hiking through New York since there are seldom grocery stores along the trail; however, there are numerous delis. Deli-hopping from one sandwich establishment to the next is common practice and the way in which the hiker staves off hunger on the AT while in New York. In delicatessens there, a customer must decide if he wants a roll or wedge. This is customary and I ordered the wedge; here it is not called a sub, hoagie, or grinder! The clerk checked my groceries at the cash register, then offered me some bottled water to take along. It was a balmy day and a pint of ice cream was mandatory in the summerish heat! The Bellvale Hotdog Stand is another hiker favorite but one that I passed up due to my recent food replenishment.
Low-lying wetlands were crossed using bog bridges, constructed of two-inch thick wood planks set on top of wood sills. The trail also has numerous footbridges that have been built by the Boy Scouts over the years. One such footbridge had an engraved sign mounted on it that read: EAGLE SCOUT PROJECT FROM MAHWAH TROOP 258.
Tiny bright orange salamanders dotted the trail, which were fascinating for me to watch. As shy and cryptic creatures, known as Eastern newts, the salamanders hardly even look real. The first time I saw one of these orangish Lilliputians, I thought it was a rubbery plaything that had been dropped or discarded. It reminded me of a machine-dispensed capsule toy, the kind a kid cranks out of a toy vending machine at the entrance of a drug store.
Fitzgerald Falls is a water-cooled spot where hikers can find relief from the northeast humidity. Mombasha High Point afforded dramatic views of Harriman State Park. Passing through a tight rock formation at Harriman known as the Lemon Squeezer, the trail goes through an opening created by giant rocks, and the hiker must “squeeze” through the narrow ten-foot section. After the Squeezer, one can scramble up the rock face per the white blaze, or skirt off to the left to take the easy way. As a purist, I climbed the rock face without giving a second thought!
Reaching the top of Bear Mountain, the summit was punctuated by a monumental observation tower called the Perkins Memorial Tower. The mountain is a popular area for day hikers, and there were porta johns and vending machines at the top. Before heading down the rock-staired path on the other side, I cracked open a cold soft drink and walked around the tower which was obscured by the early morning fog.
Near the base of the mountain, but without ever stepping off trail, there was something of particular interest to me. Since I have worked extensively on hiking trails in the past as a volunteer and am interested in the various methods of trail-building, I became fascinated with what is called the Demonstration Trail. It’s just that, a miniature trail to “demonstrate” to the public what it would be like to hike the AT (all while technically on the AT) and to give a non-hiker a better sense of trail construction. “What a clever idea,” I remember thinking, “like a Lawn and Garden Show for hiking.” The main signage for the demo trail communicated the educational intent:
Continue along the path to discover the Demonstration Trail portion of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). This section of the A.T. was specifically designed and built to showcase trail structures and features in a real-world setting.
Numerous methods and techniques were presented including rock splitting, stone paving, and climbing turns. On-trail structural components were showcased such as stairs, stepping stones, a bridge, crib wall, puncheon, bog bridge, open culvert, corduroy, and step stile. In the fourteen states through which an AT hiker walks, these built devices of trail infrastructure are frequently encountered. The “display trail” furnished a creative and tactile sampling of how trails can overcome natural obstacles and combat erosion.
At the bottom of the mountain was Bear Mountain Recreation Area, a sweeping grassy area overlooking Hessian Lake. There were picnic grounds, pavilions, playgrounds, and snack tents. Folks from many diverse nationalities were picnicking, barbecuing, frisbeeing, and conducting leisurely outdoor gatherings. Joggers were trotting along on their morning routine circuits alongside the lake while others were leash-walking terriers and poodles. Bear Mountain Inn, a trailside hotel, was located just off to the side of the recreation area. Inside was the Hiker Cafe, which included a coffee bar with made-to-order hot foods and a tabled sitting room. I charged up my iPhone and battery brick while sipping a macchiato topped with frothed milk.
Still further up the path was the Trailside Zoo and Museum, one of the peculiar sights along the entire trail. The trail zigzags through the zoo for about a quarter mile, exhibiting local wildlife, especially animals that were injured or were in rehabilitation. There were also small science and history museum buildings within the park. As one enters the zoo grounds, there is an enormous crystal blue in-ground swimming pool with the classic bent-aluminum life guard stands, but the water had been drained out. Maybe the pool was closed because it had seen its heyday or, in the tradition of public pools, was not set to open until Memorial Day weekend. An eight-foot bronze statue of Walt Whitman, the “poet of the outdoors,” was erected to commemorate the zoological park. A quotation of Whitman was inscribed on one of the kiosks:
Afoot and light-hearted,
I take the open road,
the world before me,
The long, brown path before me
leading wherever I choose.
—Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
At 160 feet above sea level, the Trailside Zoo holds the distinction of being the lowest elevation on the entire AT. The bears behind the bars at the zoo appeared depressed, which is understandable considering the vast territory that they roam in their natural mountain habitat. One sign, which highlighted the history of the Appalachian Trail, explained the origins and progression of trail markers:
Diamond shaped metal markers bearing the trail logo originally distinguished and directed hikers along the Appalachian Trail route. Major Welch designed these first trail symbols with the AT monogram and the legend ‘Appalachian Trail—Maine to Georgia’ that became the standard emblem of the conference. In addition, vertical rectangular white blazes, six inches by two inches, painted on trees, posts and rocks label the trail. A double blaze—one above the other—is placed before turns, junctions, or other areas that require hikers to be alert. Blue blazes mark AT side trails. These lead to shelters, water supplies, or special view-points.
The Local Amphibians and Reptiles building featured numerous turtles and snakes. Behind one of the glass cases was a long black rat snake just like the ones I’d seen on trail while hiking. The black rat snake looks dangerous but is actually considered harmless. The slithery reptilian carnivore constricts mice and rats in powerful coils and can climb trees to feed on birds.
The Geology Museum featured scientific theories on the Ice Age; rock formations of the Lower Hudson Valley and rock-forming minerals were also included. There was evidence for a “supercontinent” in Harriman Park with an exhibit called The Lost World of Rodinia. An illustrative curation presented an organized display of the process by which sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks are formed.
The Nature Study Museum, a low-profile building with a stony facade, housed a motley of pinned-on chloroformed insects and stuffed taxidermied birds. Monarch butterflies, with their brilliant orange colors, black veins, and characteristic wingspreads bordered with white spots, quickly attracted my curious eyes. Classification charts organized the animals and organisms using Linnaean Latin nomenclature. A sense of wonder came over me when examining the carefully preserved insects and birds up close, especially the life forms that I’d personally encountered on trail. A hiker ought not be a passive looker; rather, he should be an active and informed observer—a naturalist. Having a scientific mind striving for intellectual precision, the thoughtful hiker rationally engages with the natural world, identifying what he sees and explaining his en route observations. As for the insect kingdom, there were back-lit plexiglassed display cases of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets), and Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, hornets, and ants). A case of Rodentia (rodents) displayed a gray squirrel and a variety of field mice and moles resting peacefully in their limb-stretched positions! Bird specimens were abundant within the museum and included sparrows, buntings, grosbeaks, finches, crackles, tanagers, jays, herons, bitterns, crows, gulls, hawks, bats, woodpeckers, ducks, and geese. Outside the nature museum were roofed signs with still more illustrative posters, one explaining how a tree grows and the dating and study of annual tree rings, known as dendrochronology. Another “learning station” focused on fungi (i.e., mushrooms, molds, and lichens).
The Historical Museum, yet another annex building on the zoo’s periphery, had a scale model of the Clermont, regarded as the first ship to be powered using steam propulsion. The Clermont was built and put in service in 1807 and operated on the Hudson River. Much of the exhibition space within the history building was allocated for curations and historical artifacts pertaining to two nearby battle forts—Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery—existing in the Hudson Highlands during the Revolutionary War. The two American Revolutionary fortifications were erected by the Continental Army on the west bank of the Hudson River in the year 1776. On October 6, 1777, Forts Clinton and Montgomery were attacked and destroyed by the British. An iron chain that was strewn across the Hudson by the Continental Army for defense was dismantled; however, the Rebels installed another blockading “river chain” further upriver. The pair of fortifications guarded a lengthy wrought iron chain that spanned the Hudson from Fort Montgomery to Anthony’s Nose on the river’s east edge. The topography of the Hudson River Highlands provided strategic military advantages during the American Revolution. Filled with intrigue about the enemy-blocking chain, I read further about its wartime use:
In 1776, Forts Montgomery and Clinton were built on the Hudson’s West Bank and a massive iron chain was stretched across the river here. The chain was designed to restrict the movement of British ships. The British hoped to end the Revolutionary War by controlling the Hudson River and dividing the northern and southern colonies.
Exiting the zoo park, it was time to cross the Hudson River, a body of water that was much more expansive than I had ever imagined. One grasps how, in the midst of a hilly terrain, the Hudson provided a makeshift runway for Captain Sully and the miraculous landing of US Airways Flight 1549. With a commanding view of the river, I crossed the Hudson using the Bear Mountain Bridge. AT’ers walk along the pedestrian sidewalk on the north side of the bridge; it’s about a half mile to get across the river. On the opposite side of the bridge, accessed by a blue blaze, is Anthony’s Nose, a rocky 900-foot peak above the Hudson. The Bear Mountain Bridge, designed by Howard C. Baird, is a parallel wire cable suspension bridge with a utilitarian Warren truss design. The long-spanning structure is now operated by the New York State Bridge Authority (NYSBA). Although not as famous as the Brooklyn Bridge designed by John Roebling, the Bear Mountain Bridge was impressive by its sheer size—its length is a staggering 2,257 feet and its width 45 feet; the height between towers totals 355 feet. The informational sign on the bridge was telling:
Built by the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company in 1923-24, the Bear Mountain Bridge was the first vehicular highway bridge erected between New York City and Albany. When completed, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and the first to have a concrete deck. It is the oldest of the five bridges operated by the New York State Bridge Authority.
Further up trail, the greening hills invited me back into solitude. Gushing streams and babbling brooks were too numerous to count; piles of behemoth rocks, speckled with clumps of green moss, adorned calming creeks and rivers. The ground was matted with a mosaic of browned crisp leaves, many of which have apparently been fed on by insects as indicated by tiny round holes and entymological chew marks. Leaf holes can also be an indication of disease. Vascular leaf veins display their network of alternating patterns, called venation. Dendrology, the scientific study of trees, and phytomorphology, the study of leaf structures, can be explored by the hiker to improve his skills of tree identification.
Stone ruins of an old building foundation turned out to be part of an inoculation station once used for the Continental Army. “When a smallpox epidemic threatened his army in the winter of 1776,” a plaque read, “Gen. Washington ordered that all troops be inoculated.” Picturesque rock walls were ubiquitous in this region of New York, perhaps serving an agricultural function or a means for water retention.
A lakeside winter resort that rented out skis and snowshoes had closed for the season; however, the public restrooms were unlocked for the hikers. The opportunity to wash my sweaty face with soapy water was invigorating. Outdoor outlets were used to plug in for a charge. The nearby Raymond Torrey Memorial Shelter had just been completed and so I took a quick peek inside. Although it was tempting to stay at the newly constructed shelter, I did not crash there since it was too early to call it a day. On one mountain top while “slabwalking” on exposed bedrock, I found solitude next to a hand-painted American flag mural, dedicated for the remembrance of 9/11. Under the painting were the words: IN MEMORY OF SEPT. 11, 2001.
Deli-blazing at the famous Appalachian Deli and also at Tony’s Deli provided me with the calories and nutrition my body needed to sustain the difficult New York terrain and climate. New York is the state that has surprised me the most; it’s seldom talked about in the trail community and one’s mental preparation is important to maintain morale and high spirits. The state is replete with scenic stops and points of great interest. The people are as diverse as they come and there is so much to learn from them. It’s a beautiful state and I will always have a part of New York in my heart!
Finally, while hiking near the Appalachian Train stop, part of a route that runs all the way into Grand Central, I bumped into a local couple who were in their golden years and were enjoying an evening walk together on trail. Upon seeing the man and woman after hours of being alone, I somehow lost my footing and almost fell flat on my face but caught myself at the last second. “Practicing your dance moves, are you?” With a tinge of embarrassment from my clumsy approach, I introduced myself and quickly became acquainted with the delightful couple. The two were longtime members of a poetry society and had just attended a poetry meeting earlier in the day. In the course of the conversation, I asked them if they knew of any poetry for a fellow like me; by that I meant an outdoor roamer who finds much inspiration in the natural world. “You should read Wendell Berry,” the woman recommended in a prescribed manner, “I think you will like his work.” Berry writes mostly with themes relating to farming and agriculture. The piece of Berry’s work that stuck out to me the most comes from a poem entitled The Peace of Wild Things:
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This noticeable sense of peace and freedom of wild things that Berry describes validates my outdoor undertaking as a worthy ambition and is a recurring feature of my hike along the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT) from Key West to Belle Isle.