I loved the New Jersey section of the AT, but mostly I loved New Jersey because it was not Pennsylvania. That being said, the Garden State had some lovely features, including marshlands and the Pochuck Boardwalk—a mile of easy, flat walking through cattails and swamplands, which was a very pleasant change from the unforgiving and unexciting hills of Pennsylvania.
We hit a hot spell towards the end of New Jersey and the beginning of New York, and I stopped writing regularly. It was difficult to make it through the day, much less have enough cognitive function left over to write at night. I only wrote one entry in New Jersey, and a series of jumbled thoughts in New York. The first entry here was written hastily as I was walking, and the second is a more coherently arranged version of the notes I took while walking on that day in New York.
17 July, somewhere in the forests of New Jersey, 11:19
I can’t take a picture, and I can’t find what I’m looking for to show you how happy I am to be walking on pine needles, the light filtering through conifers. All I can think about is the Sierras. The Range of Light, dominated by pines and firs at lower altitudes, water rushing through canyons and over rock faces. I will never smell this smell and not think of sunsets over clear mountain lakes and ice-cold stream crossings. I will never smell it and not think of Tuolumne and Evolution Meadow and Selden Pass and Sapphire Lake. I don’t yearn for that trail unless I smell this, and then when I do, my soul lurches westward.
23 July, New York: The Day of the Blueberries
Everything is blueberries.
Everything inside me curls irresistibly upwards into a smile.
I can’t stop eating them. Bushes everywhere, offering their fruit on thin tendrils extending towards the trail. They brush against my legs as I navigate around rocks. Here we are for you, they say. We offer ourselves.
The trees: a neon mat of uniform green. The kind of green you could sail ships on. The trunks: black matchsticks, standing sharp against the verdant field. We walk up, up, going up Bear Mountain. At the top of the ridge, there is a view of New York City. The force of the feeling strikes me: we walked here from Georgia. We’ll be going to NYC in a few days, but for now we are here, treading in a sea of green. And blueberries.
Yesterday the elements of on-trail misery exploded all at once. Steep, pointless hills led to the Lemon Squeezer, a small tunnel of rock that requires the removal of one’s pack to get through. A thunderstorm exploded out of nowhere, unleashing cold wet fury for the last six miles. A branch fell and broke on Patches’ head, causing what was probably a concussion. We slept in a full shelter, dingy with human-smell and mouse-smell and never-dry-walls-smell.
I love this trail, but sometimes I hate it. You can love a person all the time and hate them sometimes too. It is the same here. Yesterday I hated the trail. I hated its humidity and wetness, its unforgiving extremity. I cursed it and questioned. I went to sleep as soon as I could because I couldn’t deal with the wet coldness of consciousness any longer.
But then there is today. It is overcast, but I feel no threat of rain. The trail lopes over hill crests, saying, hello, you are alive. Saying hello, I am sorry for what I put you through. Saying, I do love you. I am sorry. Offering me blueberries in apology.
At the top of Bear Mountain the trail levels out. I walk over the ridge and feel gravity relent. The sun appears, and there are still blueberry bushes everywhere. I climb the Perkins Tower and look out onto valleys. How this trail takes, and gives. It gives, over and over, like the blueberries; views, friends, trees, people.
How much do I give, like the trail? How much more can I give?
The days that hurt the most are always followed by the sweetest mornings. Here on trail, we are tested and beaten and made new. We are promised nothing but the passing of time. A thunderstorm will end, and there will be blueberrries.
I feel amazing right now. Sitting on a curb next to the Bear Mountain Bridge, feet planted on asphalt, holding a spork with peanut butter on it and smacking it onto my tongue. I feel magisterially alive, feet all the way down into my shoes and watching the tollbooth arms raise, lower, raise, lower, raise raise, lower. So many people going to and from and everywhere, but they have to cross this bridge first, and so do I. Hello, world: feet on the ground here, eating peanut butter and Sour Patch watermelons here, smelly and disgusting and full of life, hello, yes, we belong here and here we walk.
We’re trying to figure out where the trail goes next. Eyes squinted, we peer around the area. I spot it across the street: a white blaze painted on a signpost. The way becomes clear, and uncertainty abates.
And I think: hikers imagine this trail like a large and grandiose ribbon, something that just simply is. A blaze here, an arrow there. But who thinks about the little things, like getting across rivers and painting coherent blazes and making rocks and putting in stairs and telling people where to go?
There are people behind these scenes, those who love distance and those who map it out. There are hands behind the blazes. Trail maintainers. I salute you and I thank you.
Across the bridge, the day begins to draw to a close. We are headed for a spiritual center that allows hikers to camp for free. We have one more hill to climb, and I climb it slowly, walking with my friends.
The green of the trees is still vivid, though less neon in the sifting evening light. The tree trunks still stand out, though they are less contrasted. I feel a settling.
At the beginning of this hike I wanted to know exactly what was going to happen. I wanted to know how far I could walk and where I would end up at the end of the day. I wanted to match Krazy Glue’s pace, I wanted to go fast, I wanted to be headstrong and sure and achieving. And while I still set goals (I don’t know how else to be, and I don’t know if there even is another way to be), I feel less demanding. Plan all you like; the trail will treat you how it treats you. Every day is different, with unique joys and frustrations, and every day is hard.
And every day is beautiful. Every day gives gifts, some bitter and some sweet. Step by step, the stubbornness is being beaten out of me, and leaving a smooth space, which I can fill with whatever I choose.
I want to fill it with gratitude. With grace, with kindness. Want to scrape out the judgment and replace it with thanks. Want to give. Like the blueberries. Like their tendril arms and selfless apology, giving, over and over, to those who walk past.