Appalachian Trail hiker shares “happy trails” experience

New Jersey has the lowest elevation profile of any state along the AT. Still the views span for miles and reveal a greener New Jersey than most are familiar with.

Four Points News

There were so many reasons to worry as I embarked on my second Appalachian Trail section hike in June. Not for any of the reasons other people worry about when I go on the trail alone — not because of bears, or murderous convicts, or rattlesnakes around every bend — but because of the fact that I would hike 74 miles (the width of New Jersey) in five days and had not trained.

Last time I hiked the AT, when I covered 150 miles in 9 days, I trained for two months in advance, hitting the trails in Steiner Ranch and beyond at least three days a week, two hours a day, with a weighted pack and poles. By the time I got on the actual trail, my body knew exactly what to do, and I covered miles and climbed peaks with relative ease.

This year, as I walked away from my sketchy motel in Delaware Water Gap, Pa. at 9 a.m., my body felt like I was taking it out for a test drive. The morning air was typical to a trail town (what hikers call the many towns, mostly small, that are on or near the AT): green, humid and smelling of diesel and diner breakfasts.

Miles of wooden walkways traverse lush wetlands, one of several varying plant communities the AT passes through in New Jersey.

Because the AT crosses right through Delaware Water Gap, I walked the mile from my motel to the trail itself, at a point adjacent to Interstate 80. Instead of plunging into fragrant, cooling woods, as is typical of getting on the AT, the first half mile or so of the trail was on I-80, on a bridge over the Delaware River as it crosses the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I kept my eyes turned toward the river below, but as 18-wheelers blasted past me, the bridge rippled like a wave beneath my feet.

I was glad to finally reach the other side and within a quarter mile to have entered the terra firma of unpaved trail — though, paved or unpaved, to me there is magic in walking on any section of the AT. The white “blazes” of paint that mark the trail every 100 feet, each about the size of a dollar bill, whether painted on a pine tree or a utility pole, anchor me to the trail as a whole. At any point on the AT I can feel Georgia and Maine on either end, just as holding the string of a kite in flight feels like touching the sky.

Black raspberries are a mountain treat and were the only berries consistently ripe along the NJ section of the trail.

I made many mistakes this year. I carried too much food, which translated to too much weight on my back, about 35 pounds to start. I hiked too many miles my first day, 22 in all over a nine hour day, five spent in heavy rains. And as mentioned, I didn’t train enough, so that those 22 miles were a shock to my system, and I paid for that first day over the ensuing four in muscle pain and a cold that turned into bronchitis.

I made it! From PA to NY, with a lot of NJ in between, the adventure was over too fast but the memories will carry me until I can hike the AT again.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that none of that really mattered. My trail name (the name a hiker uses on the trail, self assigned or chosen by others) is Scout, not Whiner! Physical discomfort, too much weight, a wet cough — I’ve learned over many years of putting my body to good use as transportation, to ignore it when it complains.

How could I think about my aching shoulders when there was so much else to see? For many, the AT is about its expansive views, and I enjoy them too, my eyes casting out over miles of forested hills, farmland and sky.

What I really love, though, is the short view, the surprises that pop up just beneath or near my feet. NJ is a challenging section of the trail because it’s rocky in places. By rocky I mean that I spent many miles walking on piles of jagged stones, most bigger than a breadbox. This meant that, rather than keeping my eyes trained ahead, I had to keep them on the ground just in front of me.

What appears to be a rock slide or river bed is actually the AT, which in NJ is typified by long, rocky sections that require careful navigation.

Lucky for me, that’s where all the action is. Within inches or feet of my moving body were salamanders as orange as traffic cones, wavy rows of fungus growing the length of a fallen tree, half a robin’s egg, as blue as the bluest sky, ripe blueberries on the highest peaks, startling in their dusty purpleness. Black raspberries. Rust-colored chipmunks. Millipedes that seemed invulnerable in their armored shells falling prey, over and over, to the tiny black flies that, when they weren’t killing millipedes, were trying to land on my eyeballs.

For five days, we all lived together, those creatures and I, plus many deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, squirrels and birds. Other hikers saw bears. I did not. One hiker, trail name Valley Forge, showed me an iPhone video he shot of a porcupine. The most exotic thing I saw was a doe nursing her fawn next to a pond. Still it stole my breath, so private and sacred a moment.

I also happened to be getting on the trail just as several through hikers (those hiking the whole of the AT at once) were arriving in NJ. I shared meals with some, exchanged pleasantries with most and was lucky enough to spend half a day hiking with a 19-year-old from Vermont (trail name: Bad News) who knew everything there is to know about hiking and was kind enough to share it with me.

By then I had my trail legs, but it was nearly time to finish. Because I’d hiked so many miles up front — 22 miles that first day, then 16, then 14, then 12 and 10 — I ran out of trail before I ran out of time. Those last two days of low miles I stayed in towns, in hiker motels, and watched a “Say Yes to the Dress” marathon while resting my increasingly strong but increasingly sick body. I coughed and coughed, then flipped to the Food Network during commercials. Ah, the glamorous life of a backpacker.

For those of you who, like me before, only think of the NJ Turnpike when you think of New Jersey, let me tell you how stunningly beautiful the state really is. Over those five days I passed through hardwood forests, pine forests, hiked above tree line, past waving, rolling fields of hay and walked for miles on elevated wooden walkways through wetlands so lush I thought I’d discovered the Garden of Eden. I found tiny, perfect corners of the world, as quiet as a secret, that live in my heart still. I could try to describe them to you, but some things you just have to see for yourself.

These memories are like the coals people used to carry from place to place, a sure source of fire wherever they might arrive. They’ll stay warm inside me until spring and the oxygen of where I will hike next fans them into flames. Where I have been and where I’m going, the white blazes connecting me to a place and community where so many have come before me — this is where I feel truly alive. It’s my happy place, whatever the circumstances, my happy trails, and as the song goes, “Some trails are happy ones/Others are blue/It’s the way you ride the trail that counts/Here’s a happy one for you.”

If you haven’t already, I hope you find your happy trail too.


The border between PA and NJ on the Appalachian Trail as it crosses the Interstate 80 bridge over the Delaware River. Note the mileage given for hikers heading north- or southbound to the AT’s two ends in Georgia and Maine.

Small wooden step ladders help hikers climb over the barbed wire between pastures along the AT in NJ.