2017-11-12 - hiking the Appalachian Trail, episode 1

Friday, Nov 10th 2017

Before I start -> this report is split in 2 parts. First this Nov 2017 advendure and then a follow-up happening in Feb 2018.

In 2018, my main objective is RAAM with its 3000 miles and change, cycling.

Preparing for it takes time, so in 2017, I am already on it. How can I prepare? Different ways. Some racers have very clear schedules and try to stick to it. This is often complicated when you need to combine this with professional, familial and other personnal constraints. Others, and I am of this breed, just see, real time, last minute, how they can adapt to live context, to dynamically figure out when and how to train.

I know that until June 2018, I need to bike a lot, but any physical activity is welcome, and nice to have. So for example, a good old hike in nature is cool, and allows me to keep moving, feel alive, etc. Also, I have read with great enthousiasm Alastair Humphrey's book on micro-adventures so well, my head is packed with ideas of fun things to do.

And it happens that my employer, Datadog, has headquarters in NYC, and I travel there quite often. Technically speaking, I am employed by Datadog France, we have a wonderful office in Paris, but I also have lots of american co-workers, and I get to meet them IRL on business trips. So, sometimes, I have an opportunity to spend a week-end, alone, in a Manhattan hotel. So how does that relate to training? Well, a free week-end, is a free week-end, so let's fill it with interesting stuff! Cycling in the East Cost in winter might not be your best option.

However, not far from New-York city, one can find the famous Appalachian Trail, which is about 2200 miles long, and navigates, as it names suggests, along the Appalachian mountains. It's hilly, beautiful, and what's more, it's a real legend. There's this "thru hiker" culture, with people living a real experience along that mythical trail. Traditionnally, those walking the complete trail would have a nickname, a thru hiker name, I read an excellent book on that subject, by Jennifer Phar Davis, Becoming Odyssa, which I really found inspiring. That reminds me a bit of that ompostela pilgrimage concept we have in Europe. Also note that there are other similar giant trials in the US: Continental Divide Trail (3000 miles) or Pacific Crest Trail (2650 miles).

I have no immediate plan to become a true Thru Hiker (tm), one needs several weeks or months to complete the whole "AT" (that's how it's abbreviated). However, in just one week-end, one can already pack a lot of fun. My plan: use the train to go to some place, hike pretty much as far as I can, in the countryside, and then come back from another train station, a bit further on the trail.

I identified 3 possible start or stop points, where one can find a train station at less than 3 miles of the trail. It is complicated optimize more. The USA is a country where roads & cars rule. You fly on a plane whenever you need to travel across states, and drive your own 4 wheel vehicle for anything below 300 miles. But train, is just an old leftover from the Far West good ol' times. Trains are old, tickets even get punched by a real human controller walking the whole train as you travel. Travelling by train in the USA is also time-travelling 30 or 40 years backwards. It clearly reminds me of the 80s and my childhood.

So well, to identify those 3 candidate stations, I searched not-too-far-from-NYC, on both sides of the Hudson River, what could exist in terms of railroads, and then I chose the stations closest to the AT, where the railroads actually cross the trail. The railroad system, in this area, is similar to what happens near Paris where I live. It's just a star, and its center is NYC. So the stations:

Going further South or North would be complicated. You can also view the path I had planned to follow, on OpenRunner, which is about 65 miles.

This is our camp. This is our fire.

In short, Garrison is just half-way between Harriman and Pawling. What I was thinking: let's start Friday evening, at night, we sleep as soon as we've put in a good hike, then we walk up to the river during Saturday. Then we walk further and sleep in another place, somewhere in the woods, and we're up for another good hike on Sunday. Arrival in Pawling somewhere around Sunday afternoon. Then a good night sleep at the hotel in Manhattan, and we're in perfect shape for a standard job day, this is Monday!

My co-worker wakes up. That was a cold night. Like, cold.

You might have noticed I said "we". Because, yes, I am bringing a co-worker in this adventure. He comes from Poland, but has been living and working in New-York for years, so from my point of view, he's a true American. He just has a small accent and rolls "R"s. If you're curious, take a look at his facebook profile. I do not directly work with Marek, however we have an internal company chat where we discuss running etc. so I know he's quite involved in endurance, runs marathons, does triathlons, and I highly suspect that on small distances, he's much faster than I am. So when I called "hey friends, I am up for a jumbo hike around NYC, who's in?" he just jumped in and said yes. I totally trust Marek to be a good hiking buddy, and it will be a good opportunity to better know each other.

Making friends on the trail is part of the experience.

So we finish our job day, buy a lighter and a newspaper in the first drugstore we stumble on, and hop in a train, towards Harriman. We need to go through New-Jersey, and change for another train. For those who are not familiar with NYC geographical layout, New-Jersez is just "the other side of the river". Strictly speaking, this is not New-York, but in practice many people live there and cross the Hudson River, in a tunnel or over a bridge, and commute this way every day to work in Manhattan. In my opinion this is the worst life balance ever, you end up depending on a railroad/subway system which is packed, uncomfortable and unreliable. Or, at your option, you can try and face the worst traffic jam in the world, and ruin your mental health by (slowly) going through the Lincoln Tunnel or one of the equally packed bridges that cross the Hudson River. After 40 years of that sh*t, you'd find out there was no point saving money for when you're retired, because there's no way you can survive this way of life, and chances you get past 70 are dim. But well, working this way makes your rich. Or maybe it doesn't.

Anyway, we hop in another train and now we're heading to Harriman. I was happy Marek was here because their ticket system is anything but clear. And sounds sooo old. It had been years, even decades, since I had not seen somebody punch a train ticket. I am not saying our national French railroad company is perfect, but electronic tickets have become the norm quite some time ago. I guess as our whole system becomes private, we'll be able to reach the same level of quality as in the US.

Beer can stove
DIY stove. A beer. A knife. Alcohol. A lighter. You're all set.

So we get to Harriman. I pull my GPS out of my pocket. About 3 miles before we actually reach the official trail. Marek bought a paper map, just in case. I have literally no idea how well marked is the trail. You can always browse the Internet or read about it, as long as you have not been in the place for real, it's super hard to appreciate when marking is "good" or "bad". You need to check by yourself.

The marks are white. So at night, there's no way you can see them. At least, the painting marks are large. We start by a moderate yet long climb. This is not surprising, the railroad is using the bottom of the valley, while the trail is just going across the mountains, going the roller-coaster way, and trying to give hikers good opportunities to have nice points of views. Which implies being on top. But as of now, it's late and pitch dark so we see nothing.

Cool shelter
The place we slept in. Only has 3 walls. Who cares about the wind?

At some point, in the night, we see a pair of eyes in front of us. With our headlights, we can really only see the eyes, as they reflect light. We do thing the animal is quite far. Because, yeah, we suspect there is an animal around the eyes. Logic. But what animal? It's hard to tell. But it should be something big as there's a significat space between the eyes. This is not so reassuring. It should not be a bear anyway, as we're in November alrady, and bears should be sleeping by now. But anyway, let's play it safe. I play the "bee noisy" card. As in, we're big scary mammals, we did not even notice you, please just give way as nothing would stop us. The animal leaves. We're at night and can't see details but by staying on the trail we're pretty sure to not stumble on any animal home, or anything similar. Animals are not stupid enough to settle right on the only human trail tenths of miles around...

I think this is when Marek realized that I am a total wildlife ignorant. Sorry for the misunderstanding, but if you planned to hike with Crocodile Dundee, you'd better choose someone else. I love being Out There, feel that adventure thrill, and generally speaking I think I do reasonably well, but here, let's face it, I was just trying out something and had no significant previous experience in this very specific context. You need to learn some day.

This is what Marek saw for hours. My butt and a big green bag.

Next, we spot an orange, in the far distance, on our upper left. We think it might be a camp fire or something. We're going to meet people! I would appreciate that, because, you know what, since we left the train station, it's been freezing. The weather forecast said it would be around 15 degrees (Fahrenheit). Temperature litterally dropped this Friday. On Thursday you could see people wearing shorts in Manhattan. And now, only about 24h later, we lost almost 40 degrees. This is a typical pattern in this area, not unusual. But anyway, we're just feeling cold, and would love to enjoy this camp fire, or whatever that is, that generates this warm orange light.

And then we realize: this is the Moon. So much for the outdoor newbies.

On the map, I had spotted a "shelter". We arrive in this shelter's zone after some long hours of walking. It must be around 3 am now. It should be on our right. I see a sign. We search for it a little bit but then it's there, we found it.

The new trend, take pictures of yourselves totally obliterating the landscape behind.

It's a little building with only 3 walls and a roof. The 4th wall does not exist. It sounds like a giant bus stop. And also, there is already someone in there. If we make a fire, we're going to wake this person up. So we decide to make a fire outside, a few steps away.

We try and gather wood. There's not much dead wood around. I take whatever I can. It takes time. I am just freezing, it's pitch dark, I need wood, there's no escape. I start the fire with the newspaper we bought in Manhattan. And also with a good deal of 90 degrees alcohol. Finally, the fire is up! There's a genuine, primitive, savage joy of witnessing a fire start in the middle of a lonely cold night. The only thing I can think of is warming my body up. I put my hands near the fire to have blood flowing in them again, and get ready to cook diner.

Tonight, the chef is proposing you: cousous! Well, not really. I had to skip on the sauce, the vegetables, the chicken, the everything. The only thing I have to offer is semolina but it's already a thing. I put loads of butter into it, because with this temperature, fat is good for you, and you never get enough energy. Also to heat up the food and get the water boiling, I opted for a "beer can stove". As in, transform a beer can into a portable stove.

The forest. NYC is somewhere far in the distance.

If you look at videos on the Internet on how to build such a stove, it almost looks easy. But pay attention to details. Most of the people demoing this do it in their living room. It's a warm, calm place. Now as far as I am concerned, in a true fundamentalist spirit, I decided to bring beers, bring a knife, and build the stove on-premise. Since I would never waste a beer, I need to drink the beer before I build the stove. Frankly, at this point in the hike, feeling tired and cold, I am really not, absolutely not up for a beer. I drink it anyway. I can not complain, the beer is cool, perfect temperature. Now I start working the can with the knife. With frozen fingers. Let's face it, it hurts badly. But it had its fun side as well. The stove is not ready. I fill it with alcohol, light it, and... it's a success. The water gets warmer and warmer. I put the Semolina in. I add butter. "Marek, diner is ready!"

My hiking partner tells me he finds it delicious. Either he is lying blatantly. Or, his perception has been altered by hunger and cold. In any case, it's nice to hear. I feel sort of responsible for this whole thing, after all he signed in without really knowing all the details and I think I have some sort of responsibility to just get us sorted out. So well, I handled the diner part, and now let's get some sleep.

Hudson River
View on Hudson River.

As quietly as possible, we install ourselves near the person who is already in the shelter. Clever hiker, sleeping in a tent which is mounted inside the shelter. This way, he is protected from the cold, and more precisely, from the wind. On our side, we only have sleeping bags. Mine is a lightweight one, designed for gentle summer hikes, when it's 50 degrees. I slip my body into it, still wearing my pants, jacket, I kept everything but shoes. I shiver all night, and morning is a true deliverance.

And so, as we wake up, we get to meet the other person who was sleeping in that shelter. He's hiking long distance, has been on the AT for weeks, maybe months. But now, he's going to stop. Too cold, as he says. I agree, weather does not make you feel welcome. I offer him a coffee prepared with my brand new high-tech stove. I also give him some alcohol, we have loads of it, and we're very likely to walk close to a store today, so nothing we should worry about.

We leave in a good mood, the night was a tough one, but the Sun helps us forget all the bad parts of it, so we happily hike toward the Hudson River. We meet a few big animals on the road, which I fail to take pictures of, as my camera is in my back pack. I am not concerned, what matters is the present, just now, being alive and outside in this beautiful nature.

Tracking bears
On the way up Bear Mountain, found this natural sword.

As we get close to the river, we have some beautiful views on the forest. It is quite amazing, at 2 hours and change from New-York, how this place can seem remote and lost in the middle of nowhere. Humans gather on the coastline but as soon as you get into the back country, it's a green desert. Well, not quite green, rather brown, as this is autumn. Seasons matter.

Next, we decide to walk up to Garrison, but come back directly with the first train. So we won't try and spend another night outside on the way to Pawling. I think the weather, more specifically the temperature, played a significant role in this decision. And it's always the same good old story: on paper, a 30 miles walk looks like an easy go, but when you're in the place, with your backpack on your shoulders, the perspective is quite different.

The train
The train that took us back "home". Well, a similar train, as we traveled later, at night.

We do a small extra and climb to the "summit" of Bear Mountain, which is your typical Sunday family hike for New-Yorkers. I'd say the French equivalent would be Fontainebleau, it's beautiful, you can get unique points of view, the forest is great, let's drive back home.

So we walk down Bear Mountain, walk the bridge across the Hudson River, and there we get two options. Either we continue on the trail, or we walk on the side of the road until we reach the station. We choose to follow the trail. The road is too big to be safe, and the trail does not add so much extra distance.

Garrison train station. Pretty quiet tonight.

So we're in for a few extra uphills and downhills, and cross people who are gathering around a real fire, not the Moon this time. Finally we reach the point where we have to leave the trail and switch for a paved road. We buy some food in a small service station. We still have a good hour walk. I love it. I love roads. Sounds stupid but I feel great walking on pavement. Marek notices it. I think he's getting a little bored with this. I can understand this. Not sure he'd sign up again for this. In my training log, I wrote down 25 miles and 4500 feet elevation for this hike.

And then the adventure is over, finishes in a cold small train station. Fun fact: given the local climate, there are heated shelters where we can wait for the train without freezing outside.

Going back to NYC is straightforward, so simple. But now, I did not complete the hike I initially intended to do.

Hopefully, a few months later, I am on a NYC trip again, and so I have an opportunity to finish the unfinished business. So you can read the follow-up !

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Updated on Mon Nov 15 2021.