A lonely day calls for a lonely peak, so I head out to Pochuck Mountain in Vernon, which stands alone in the mucklands without any brother peaks nearby. Its uncrowded position elevates its modest profile, which, at 1,194 feet, just meets the definition of a mountain. It’s the remnant of a once-extensive mountain range, a beguiling rock surrounded by bog.
I was excited to see that the Appalachian Trail crosses right over the top of little Pochuck – which, in Lenape, means “out of the way place.” I imagined it crowded with roosting hikers, like so many grackles in a tree. And so it was. Sprites like Mudbug lived there, at least for a night, and so did Tater Tot, Peach, Tripping Yeti, Mr. Fabulous, No Trace, Unbreakable, Dropout, Trailer and Hitch. The monikers tell us we are in the hallucinatory realm of the long-distance hiker, whose separation from civilization produces sentences like these, entered into the shelter notebook by a traveler named Flipside:
“Well the Flipside is right back here. The Great Spirit would not let me leave the trail so here I am back where I left this morning. What a day. When I meet you I will tell you all about it.”
Is there something wrong with me, that I feel connected to people like this?
I start with a long, flat trek around the Wallkill Wildlife Refuge, an old sod farm now populated by herons, sandpipers, and mosquitoes. The trail eventually dips under the trees and continues along slippery puncheons through dense swamp. After a road crossing at the base of the mountain, the trail is more in keeping with my habits: steep, wooded, and rocky.
After a stiff climb I find myself at “Fort Pochuck,” as nobos and sobos – northbound and southbound hikers -- call the shelter. Many of these wayfarers have written a line or two in the shelter notebook, the elementary school kind, with the marbled covers that don’t lie flat. The writing is executed in pencil sharpened by penknives. Here is the story of a year on the trail, told by many, but with common complaints, opinions, warnings, and announcements.
Most interstate hikers, like Revere, seem to like Jersey. “Short storm led to wine, rum, blazin’, and a shelter full of crazies. I’m digging New Jersey and all of its exposed ridge walking.”
Klan Chaukah disagrees. “Worst state in union. Has no redeeming qualities. Lots of rocks, expensive butts, and no fires. I’ve never wanted to go to NY so bad in my life.”
Nu De-Knee fills us in on what we’ve missed. “Made this a nudist resort for a few hours today! Blessings to all, spring-summer-fall!”
Sir Hiladgo recommends the Wit’s End Tavern. “Very interesting cast of characters & nice dive bar types. They let you stay in the storage room if you need to.”
Glacier is all business. “Stopped in for a quick snack. Steadily and stubbornly advancing south.”
A geezer named Doc that through-hiked in ’75 dispenses wisdom. “Thru hikers and end to enders – slow down! The real world can wait. Enjoy this chapter of your life.”
A hiker came out to mourn. “Wish I could share this experience with Dad. Just lost him to brain cancer last week. Guess he is hiking with me up above. Anyway it was great to get back to normal and clear my head.”
Scout is annoyed by, well, Scouts. “Too many actual scouts from Ohio here. Pushing on to Unionville.”
A full page invitation to a birthday party promises whiskey, bullfighting, and music by Hiker Trash: “Be as loud as you want!”
Honeybadges has inflamed plantar fasciitis. Weezy has a hangover. Rhyme and Reason are hungry, hot, and tired.
I look up to see that an hour has flown by. I was happy in this company, but glad to be here only for a day. I put the notebook back in its waterproof bag. Captain Duckett knows when it’s time to go:
“Unfortunately firewood is quite a walk from the shelter. And I’m out of hand warmers. Time to hike right home to Vernon. May the bourbon be my guide. And may the trail treat you well. Just take the time to listen. Love, Peace, and Bacon Grease.”