Trailhead at the Pawling train stop
Lunch spot above Canopus Lake in Fahnestock State Park
Boardwalk through The Great Swamp in Patterson, N.Y.
Tricky parking at the Appalachian Trail trailhead
Lessons from the Trail
By Jana Seitz
Apply bug spray and carry a big stick.
Be prepared, and be prepared to improvise.
I spent October and November hiking on the Appalachian Trail, ‘on’ being the pivotal word in this sentence. I have not, nor have I ever, intended to hike the whole 2,190 miles from Maine to Georgia. I am a day hiker. There is no part of me that aspires to be a Through Hiker, although I stand in awe of them. I do daydream of asking my husband to drop me on the trail and pick me up a few days later to try my hand at a couple of on-trail, in-shelter overnights. But for now, the modest goal is to complete the 84 miles of trail in New York before it gets too wintery. I’ve done one whole side of my Official A.T. NY/NJ Map, from Kent, Conn. to Fahnestock State Park, and hope to finish the other side, the 46.5 miles to New Jersey, by Christmas. I’m stuck on the crease right now, grounded by rain and deadline, but itching to get back out there. Meanwhile I study my “Appalachian Trail Guide to New York-New Jersey, Eighteenth Edition” and compile notes of my completed hikes. Honestly, if there were one thing I’d grab from my house if it caught fire right now, it’d be this guidebook. Sorry family.
I’m not gonna talk about the ticks that fall out of the trees or the snake on the trail. That’s just part of the deal. Apply bug spray and carry a big stick. The most concerning thing for day hikers is figuring out where to park — one car at the start and one at the finish. Even with the map and book, it’s not always obvious and there’s not always parking. Planning your day is like mapping out a treasure hunt.
My mileage often differs from the guidebook’s. It’s not an exact science, or maybe it is and I’m not an exact scientist. Either way, it keeps you on your toes. Finding your beginning requires some fumbling about, so leave time for it. The map is arranged in numbered sections, conveniently marked with a red arrow at start and finish. Each section is manageable in a day (5 to 15 miles) and each drive to the trailhead maxes out at about an hour from Rye. They (the New York New Jersey Trail Conference people) make it super easy. The book gives explicit descriptions of each section, elevations, history, and photos. But, as with life, you have to be prepared to roll with the punches. Tree falling = trail obscured = bush whacking. You can plan all you want, but new stuff will come to light. Prepare, then be prepared to improvise.
Your main job is to keep an eye out for the A.T. blazes, white 2 x 6–inch vertical stripes marking the trail. It’s a walk through the history of our country on an old game trail. Native Americans, Dutch settlers, Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, pioneering railroaders, and industrial entrepreneurs in search of iron ore explored these hills long before the A.T. was built. Much of what they left behind is now overgrown and abandoned, but there are plenty of hidden jewels to find. The trail puts the landscape in historical context, connecting the dots of geology, natural history, and ecosystem to those made by man.
The first section of the A.T. was built in Bear Mountain Park in 1923 at the lowest point on the entire trail, 124 feet above sea level. Perhaps the low elevation is what gave founder Benton MacKaye the juice to continue north to Maine and south to Georgia — he must’ve forgotten about the mountains in between. The dream and tagline were his:
Georgia to Maine
A footpath for those
who seek fellowship
with The Wilderness.>
In 1948 after returning home from World War II, veteran Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire trail in one season. He headed out in Georgia to “walk the army out of my system” (Forrest Gump plot anyone?) and didn’t stop ‘til he hit Maine.
The first woman to do the same was my personal hero, Emma Rowena (Grandma) Gatewood, who, in 1955, at the age of 67, told her grown children she was going out for a walk. She left wearing a pair of KEDS, carrying an army blanket, raincoat, and plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over her shoulder and walked to Maine. She had read an article about the A.T. in National Geographic, which gave her the impression it was a series of easy walks with clean cabins to sleep in at the end of each day. So, she headed out — woefully unprepared. “I thought it’d be a nice lark,” she said when interviewed years later. “It wasn’t. For some fool reason they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.” Truer words were never spoken. Regardless of why you head out on the trail, the same pearls of wisdom will fall into your lap. Lessons from the trail are lessons for life.
- Find the balance between looking down and looking ahead. The former is required to not stumble and fall, the latter to find the path forward. As in life, you can’t do one without the other.
- Pace yourself. Rest. Take in the sights.
- If you lose the trail (the truth, the way), stay calm — panic is the enemy. The trail is there — even if you can’t see it. Stop, breathe, and think. Look at the trees/obstacles from a different point of view – squat down, peer around, look at both sides. If you still can’t find the next blaze, retrace your steps to the last one known and begin again. You will find it if you look hard enough.
- There are always well–meaning strangers on the trail, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to find your way. It’s wise to hike with a friend (my trusty companion is Kimberly Vanneck with a sprinkling of others thrown in) but make a point to put some distance between yourselves for portions of the day to have some quiet time to think…or not to think…or speak. At the end of the journey (life), you’re all you got. Probably best to get comfortable with yourself.
- Always <<prepare>>: study maps, books mileage charts, compass, download apps, bring plenty of supplies, and <<improvise>>: look around obstacles, climb over or under or around, and don’t panic if things turn out differently than you imagined.