Mothman Trail Update: Mahwah, NJ (again), 29-Jul-2003

Editor’s note: This is a reprint (with Jim’s permission) of an email from Jim Heaney sent during his “through-hike” of the Appalachian Trail.

I should confess, I procured a Walkman radio in Pennsylvania. The Trail is very beautiful and peaceful, but especially for this mid-Atlantic stretch, it has become pretty clear that we’re, you know, doing a lot of walking every day; and the occasional clear radio signal makes the time go. Well, this past Sunday, hiking out of a quiet camp in a series of hills in the Hudson Valley, I was able to pick up only one radio station, which, as I was hiking out, was broadcasting Dick Clark’s America’s Top 20. Dick Clark. OK. In the Top 20 were the artists — I’m really not kidding about this — The Eagles, Hall and Oates, and Santana. When the number one song was announced, and it was “Drift Away” by Dobie Grey, I thought to myself, Have I been walking BACKWARDS THROUGH TIME? Then this afternoon, I got behind a group of school girls out for a backpacking trip, and they were singing songs… three Beatles’ songs, then “I’m a Believer” by the Monkeys. All was made right, though, when the next song they sang was “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. Whew! Never been so happy to hear the Backstreet Boys.

So, if you’re keeping track at home, I hiked into Kent, CT this morning. Big, big shoutout to Mothmom, whose willingness to drive to and from unknown Trail crossings of roads throughout the area, and encounter hairy and smelly “hiker trash” along the way, has allowed me to either slackpack or backpack with two or fewer days of food for the 172.6 miles between Delaware Water Gap, PA and Kent. In between, I took a total of five zero days. I enjoyed it so much here that I came back home tonight! (This was, among other reasons, to avoid a hotel stay in Kent, “an upscale New England village” with lodging prices to match, this evening. It was only 7 miles out to the next shelter, but there were 20 or more hikers in town, and I saw myself just not leaving if I hung out any longer.) Hey, can’t beat home cooking.

In summary, the AT in New Jersey can be divided in two. The first half walks a ridge line up the western half of the state; is absolutely stunning with vistas of rolling hills on the east (the NJ Turnpike safely out of view) and the PA Poconos on the west; and brought us out first glacial lake. The ridge was “blueberrific” and the weather I had was generally perfect (but for a little thunderstorm as I was crossing High Point; this is becoming a trend for me). The second half featured a slightly rockier walk with a few steep climbs, overlooking large and suburban Greenwood Lake, but basically was just a way to get into New York, so we could start using our hands to climb through boulder fields. New York had some tougher climbs, some great views (now of the Catskills), and some nature walks. Maybe I just had better weather for the first half of NJ; probably I just like my home state; either way, I heartily recommend that hike from Delaware Water Gap to about Unionville.

One common theme there was mosquitos, which were consistently pretty bad, and at the first shelter in NJ best described as “other-worldly”. The typical journal entry at that shelter read “In for lunch… aaaaaaarrrrrrggghhhh! Heeeeeelp!” In the few minutes I was there (before deciding to keep hiking to a better spot — note that I pulled in after hiking 24 miles; got there at 8pm; and had to dusk-hike hoping that I could find a less rocky spot than I had seen practically all day in the fading daylight), I actually noticed a mosquito trying to sting/bite me THROUGH MY FINGERNAIL. With apologies to any, I don’t know, congressional lobbyists for PETA who happen to be on this mail list, I killed the mosquito; but then had regrets. That one, I decided, should have stayed in the gene pool; we’d be better off if more of them went for the fingernails. Alas.

Despite all of the rain we had in the spring, water hasn’t been particularly plentiful during this stretch, and that leads me to FINALLY discuss drinking water. There are a variety of water sources we use: springs (preferred), streams, pond outlets, wells and water pumps, one cistern, and the trusty water fountain; some very friendly businesses keep spigots available for us outside of their buildings. Of these, only the last two sources are treated, so generally speaking, we treat water from the other sources. (We try not to drink from ponds, still waters like puddles, and big yucky rivers like the Hudson or the Potomac.) The traditional two methods of water purification — iodine tablets and boiling — are not in use by anyone out here. We’ll generally use one of these methods instead:

  • pump filtering, with one hose to put in the water source, one hose to output water to your bottle, and in between a ceramic or fiberglass filter that blocks giardia and cryptosporidium, the two most common causes of water-bourne illness
  • in-line filtering, where the filter sits in the middle of a drinking hose from a water bag such as a Camelback or a Pladypus
  • gravity filtering, basically the same setup, but instead of drinking from the hose, the hose feeds your water bottle
  • chlorine-based sterilization, using either AquaMira (a commercial product that is currently only approved as a water treatment by the California EPA; federal EPA approval pending; $11 for 30 gallons of water treatment) or household bleach (which of course is way less than $11 to treat a lot of water)
  • no treatment at all, also known as “giardia roulette.”

I started with a pump filter, which I hated using, and it weighed 11 ounces. Then I switched to an in-line filter that I used as a gravity filter, which I liked a lot, but filtering became a hastle during the day because of the time involved, plus I managed to clog up the filter; it weighed 4-5 ounces. I’m now using the AquaMira (around 2 ounces), which slightly alters the taste of the water, but I really think the spring water is the tastiest water, and I haven’t seen a spring in a few hundred miles now. I’d use bleach if I didn’t think I’d accidentally use too much and hurt myself.

It should be noted that I’ve also taken water “straight from the source” in the case of really nice, really cold springs. Mostly, these have been cases where there is a pipe (PVC or metal) protruding from an underground water source, rather than the typical spring where you might see water running out of a pile of rocks. The earth is a good filter of bad stuff, so the risk of bacterial or diatomatic contamination of this kind of water is very low. There is still a risk, and I’d be negligent if I led you all to believe that you could safely drink out of any pipe in the ground. However, the water is soooo refreshing, and so much better tasting that city water.

Still, when we get city water, we tend to “camel up” (drink as much water as we can at the time, minimizing the amount we have to carry). Water is very heavy — one of those Nalgene bottles has two pounds of it, and we’re drinking three or four of them a day in the summer — so I’ve been camping mostly at water sources to avoid having to carry water for cooking and washing.

There you go. On the people front, everyone I know is still on the Trail, although Constant Motion (have I started calling her “CMo” in these emails yet?) had an ankle twist and took a few days off; Stripe had a swollen tendon; Shifty got off to work for a few days; Seabee’s mother is ailing; and Monster Button feels like he has lost his vigor of the early days. The weather has been pretty consistently hot and often humid, and most of us are dragging now; which makes us really nervous about Vermont and New Hampshire, where the climbing gets hard again. However, since it’s happening to most of us, we’re all feeling better about it.

Today’s slack into Kent brought me, King Homer, Indiana Slim, Scubaman, Oreo and Buttercup into a big group that includes the likes of Mello Yello, Blink Blink, Takereasy, CC, Chicken Legs, Morph, Skittles, Karma, and Mothmom’s (hopefully) second favorite 2003 thru-hiker, Tipperary. It’s funny seeing so much hiker trash walking around this town, mixed in with vacationers who are carrying these little purses, and wearing such un-sensible shoes, and driving these huge SUVs that are always trying to squash us at the road crossings. A big pack of us will be leaving town tomorrow, including me if my escape from Mahwah is a success.

I’m just looking at the clock now and it’s way past “hiker midnight” (9pm). Best wishes to all of you in the real world.