Saturday, Feb 10th 2018
This report is a follow-up to the one concerning my first hike on the AT which concerns the Harriman - Garrison section. I still had the Garrison - Pawling section to complete. Please refer to previous report for more context on what the AT is, where Pawling is located, etc.
So, to quickly summarize, I have opportunities to be around NYC with my job, so I used a free week-end to hike a small section of the AT, spending one night outside.
What I "have to do" represents roughly 40 miles. I tried to be conservative so I opted for "only" 20 miles a day. Knowing that on Saturday I would be travelling by train in the morning, so would start hiking only shortly before noon. And conversely, on Sunday, I need to be back early enough to catch the last train and have enough time to rest and be on time at work on Monday morning.
So during the first section, in November the previous, it had been very cold. So this time I invested into better gear. Among other things, bought an Osprey Softie 12 which is given for "comfortable at 10 degrees" (fahrenheit). This is not lightweight gear. But, mark my words, this thing is warm. More about it later.
About the weather forecast, well, it's changing. In Februray, around New-York, you can have a wonderful, super nice weather. Or, something awful. This week-end, it is not that cold, the temperatures are getting warmer and warmer. Only, snow is already there. So now we're just at the point snow is melting. Just a little below at night. Just a little over it during the day. So it's still rather cold. But, and that's the most noticeable thing, everything is covered in white. As in, Christmas picture, white, white, white.
Once you get there, the ground is covered with melting snow, and also melted snow which turned into water then re-iced and re-melted and converted to ice once more. And mud in some places, but that is rare.
During my first steps, there's no doubt about one thing: I am alone. There's nobody Out There. On the first day I think I saw just one human being on the trail, near a road. And on the second day, barely more. From time to time, you can encounter somebody walking his or her dog. Apart from this, nothing.
And also, this time, I am traveling alone, I did not bring my co-worker Marek with me. For 2 reasons. First, I think he had his load of semi-prepared adventures last time. And second, I am even less comfortable this time bringing somebody with me. With that snow and everything, it could even get slightly dangerous, and I don't want to carry the burden of the responsibility of engaging somebody else into this. In a way, this is stupid, because hiking together reduces the risk for accident as one guy can take care of the other, and it mitigates any issue. Yeah but I do not know any experienced fellow around New-York, who would be insane enough to be my buddy on this... "thing". In France, it could have been different.
So anyway, I keep cautious, I know that worse case, the trail is not *that* far from the road, which is always within a 2 hours walk reach. And also, you know what? YOLO!
First day is just, magical. I enjoy this beautiful snow, endless landscapes covered in white. I am just a real kid planted in the middle of a Christmas story. Despite the cold and my wet feet, I love it.
Since I plan for a 2-days-only hike, I have everything I need, including drinks and food, in my backpack. I do not need to find any shop, I have 100% complete autonomy. Liberty. Awesome.
Tonight, I have planned to sleep in a shelter. But I still need to get there. The bare truth is that I have no real choice, I did not take a tent, so in a true lightweight "micro-adventure" motto, I either sleep in a shelter or outside in my bivvy bag, but a tent would almost be cheating. And anyway, planting a tent in this melting snow would not be such a great move. A hammock might have been great though.
But this is theorical anyway, I have no tent, no hammock, just a good sleeping bag, so I need to get to the shelter. That is when things got complicated. Because, this snow is slowing me down. I am dead slow. To give you an idea, I can reasonably imagine moving at a pace of 2.5 or 3 mph, on average. But terrain is just a landmine. Snow melted, then froze again, then melted, then froze... ad lib. This trail has the smell of an ice rink. It can be as thick as 3 inches of solid, unbreakable ice. Also there's this little subtle pouring which covers the ice with one thin layer of slippery water. In case ice was not good enough for you to slip on it. And this is the Appalachian. Clearly not high, peaky and rocky mountains such as my home Alps or Pyrenees. But some places require your attention and you need to watch your steps. In short, don't slip, don't fall. So I keep cautious, as nobody is going to get me here, should I take a wrong step. So I am not taking any risks, but the direct consequence is that my pace is ridiculously slow.
On the bright side of things, I have no chances at all to give up. I mean, there is no escape, either I walk until I reach the shelter or, at my option, I walk until I reach the shelter. So simple, no gambit. The shelter should be on the bank of a torrent, near a small road. After hours of zombie-walk in the dark, I finally reach it, soaked wet.
This shelter has 3 walls only, like the previous one. But for the hikers comfort, somebody had the great idea to install a tarp where you'd expect wall number 4 to be. At the end of the day, it almost sounds like you're inside a real small house. This place must be great in summer!
Inside the shelter, there's even a small bed-like structure, so I can even sleep *above* the ground and not right on it. On a table, there's a shirt and just on its side a small paper saying "free shirt". This is sooooo cool. I love this state of mind. I am alone in this shelter, but given the conditions, I was not expecting anybody to be there already.
I heat up some food, not using a "beer can stove" like last time, but using a "real" alcohol powered stove. That titanium thing prevents me from boasting around as being the new Indiana Jones, but agree it's super lightweight and convenient. Side note, alcohol-based gear seem to me much more efficient than gas devices. It heats up things pretty much as fast, but the game changer is that it's super easy to find alcohol. You can find it in any drugstore, service station, anywhere. Whereas most gas devices require you to buy cartridges with a specific possibly brand-dependent format, and unless you're in a "hiking area" with enough tourists shops, there's no way you can find fuel. Only drawback, I think, is that a wrongly handled alcohol stove can quickly escalate to a forest fire. That being said, in February in New-York state with everything covered with snow, the risk is not immediate.
I spend an excellent night, naked in my dry sleeping bag. I sleep like a baby, really. I wait until it's full daylight before hiking again.
So in terms of slipping around, this is a festival. I mean, in some places, the trail is just a glass pane. I need to try and find small spots of snow to anchor my feet. This is openly dangerous. And, it lasts hours, lasts forever... My experience with hiking is that you sometimes get a tricky spot, and then it's over. But this is continuous, slippery, sloppy ground.
I start calculating at which time I may be back. I had planned an ultimate small loop in the North to spend maximum time on the trail, but it looks like I am going to be late and miss my train. And, there are not many trains. One every 2 hours. So as I face 2 options, option A being a trail packed with snow leading in the middle of the forest, and option B being a gentle road going straight to the train station, I choose option B.
I am a little disappointed as I did not complete the full, planned course but night is coming soon, and I think a falling stupidly, sprain an ankle, or just miss my train and wait 2 hours more in a desert train station, or even spend the night there waiting for the first Monday morning train, are not great alternatives.
So I walk straight to Pawling, which is really a small town. On my way I pass houses, some of them openly abandonned. Who would live there? To travel to New-York City, it's definitely too far. To live in the countryside, it might still be too close from the urban areas.
Arrived in Pawling, I check at which time my train is supposed to show up. I have one hour to spare. Maybe a little more. So I can grab something to eat. I install myself in the single open restaurant here. Looks an ancient saloon. Other shops in the town are, if I remember well, a chinese restaurant, a barner, a clothing store. That's it.
I order a giant burger. Fat. With fries. And a pint of beer. On my left a couple. There's this lady, bleached blond. She's telling the most atrocious stories about the waitress. She's a whore, she doesn't know sh*t about her job, etc. etc. And there she comes. And this lady just switches to a genuine gentle hypocrite tone "how are you darking, you look so beautiful today!" and the music goes on. Looks like in a cheap sitcom, and the character on my left has escaped from Desperate Housewives or something.
I leave all these local people with their own business, and walk to the train station. Melancholy all around. So I have no finsihed the AT chunks which are "easy to do" starting from NYC. Next time, I will need to find something else.
I wrote down in my training log, 40 miles, 6000 feet elevation. Which reveals one key point: numbers mean nothing. This was one of my most beautiful solo hike, ever. 2 days of magic.