Day 99 – Thursday, June 16: Branchville, NJ to Stealth Camp, 5.3 miles, 1,326.7 total AT miles.

I woke at 7:30 – I was very aware I wasn’t in the woods. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t sleep well – I tossed and turned most of the night and noticed the sheets came off the bed. I was partially laying on the bare mattress. Gross.

I skipped the shower and packed quickly – I wanted to get the hell out of there. I dropped my keys off with a person I assume worked there and left in a hurry. I caught a ride to a local diner and sat in a booth. After sipping coffee, I ordered a huge meal (I was starving) and slowly ate as I updated the website. The server was very friendly – you can tell she’s the rare restaurant worker who enjoys waiting on hikers.

I wasn’t in a rush. It had rained overnight and we were supposed to have showers into the afternoon. Plus, I just didn’t feel like jumping back into the fray – I knew that, moving forward, I’d have fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy a day in town. I wanted to make the most of it.

At 10:00am, Champa texted me. Savage, McDoubles and himself were only a mile away from US 206 – they had been hiking since 7:00. I told them I thought the food was great and that they should hitch in for breakfast – they joined me half an hour later.

It was great to see those guys – I genuinely missed them. We occupied two booths (in the corner, far away from the locals) and caught up. Two nights ago, when I scared off that bear at Sunfish Pond, Champa chased two bears away from camp. So New Jersey does have bears (and turkeys).

They ordered and I continued picking at my food. By noon, we were all done and getting anxious to get back on trail. We filled up our water bladders from the soda machine and Champa asked a local with a pickup for a ride. Five minutes later, we were at the trailhead. I texted Black Santa – he was still at the MOC and bored out of his mind. His package wouldn’t be arriving until 3:00pm.

We stood in a gravel parking lot listening to music for a good fifteen minutes before hiking on. The plan was to hike 16 miles and camp on/under/near an observation tower marked in the AT Guide. The terrain looked similar to yesterday’s and we got moving in a hurry. The ascent out of Branchville was very gradual – I hiked with Champa (we talked politics) and made really good time.

Note: I’m a political person in the real world – before I decided to hike the AT a year ago, following politics was my hobby. Out here, I rarely discuss political matters. Today was the first day I had an extended conversation about it. I can’t believe it.

We caught up with Savage and McDoubles two miles away at the Culver Fire Tower. After psyching myself up, Savage, Champa and I climbed to the top flight of stairs (the observation booth was locked). I was terrified – this thing was probably built in the 40s. I snapped a few pictures and scrambled down. I made it back to Earth with my knees shaking. Good job, Cool Dad.

The four of us set off at 2:00. Champa and I re-engaged in conversation, but were stopped short by McDoubles and Savage a mile later. They were pointing at a trail register box attached to a tree – they told me to carefully open the lid. A mouse family had made a nest inside and was curled up in a small, cute ball.

As we hiked north, we got caught in a brief rainstorm and paused on the trail under a small grove of trees to wait it out. Fifteen minutes later, we were back on trail – we still had ten miles to hike to get to the observation tower.

It was about here that I started slowing down. I didn’t have the restful night in town all to myself I had been hoping for. For the first time this entire hike, I felt truly unmotivated. I decided to start looking for a place to camp.

I felt bad. I had just caught up with my hiking buddies only to find myself wanting to crawl into my tent. About a mile away, I found a suitable, flat spot just off trail. I set up my tent in a light rain. This was a good thing – I finally got to see if I could set it up rainfly first to avoid getting the tent body wet. It was successful. Good job, Cool Dad.

As I was unpacking in my tent, I got a text from McDoubles. They also decided to stop short and were camping at a pavilion ahead. I checked my GPS app – they were 0.1 miles away. Geez, if I knew that I would have pressed on.

It was only 5:00, but I got into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes. I woke up from my nap at 7:00 and felt better. I considered packing up and hiking to meet the rest of the group, but decided to stay put – I needed to finish updating the blog and I wanted to talk on the phone with family and friends.

And I did just that, eating snacks (instead of cooking) the entire time. After talking on the phone, I pulled out my keyboard and started writing.

* * *

So here I am. I’ve been in my tent now since 5:00. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t hike further today. It happens, I suppose. Not every day comes up aces.

I read a lot about thru-hikers experiencing what I’ve been going through these past few days. It’s all part of the “mental struggle”. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in hiking (although I’ve read that happens). I guess my mental struggle lies in the enormity of this whole thing. Tomorrow will mark my 100th day hiking – and I still have 45 to 50 days to go.

That and the trail got a little boring after leaving the mountains behind in Virginia. While PA had it’s moments, it was mostly painful and quite dull – I spent most of my time looking down to make sure I wasn’t going to trip on a rock. So far, New Jersey has gotten better, but it still feels like I’m hiking in a forest rather than on mountains.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been wandering into so many towns lately – I guess I’ve been trying to keep this thing interesting.

Looking forward, I have a mail drop (with my trail runners) coming to Fort Montgomery, NY 80 miles ahead – I’d like to be there by Tuesday afternoon. Doing so would mean I’d be close to the Appalachian Trail Railroad Station late next week. This station is actually right off trail and services New York City – I could be in Manhattan in two hours.

I’ve always wanted to go into New York City the same way we visited Washington D.C. – fresh out of the woods and with packs in tow. I’ve even budgeted both the time and money to do so. I’m gonna say “we’ll see” for now, but am pretty sure I’ll go.

Black Santa and Get Weird texted me – he’s 11 miles behind and claiming he’ll catch me tomorrow. And she’s just four miles ahead, having gotten off trail to eat homemade meatballs in New Jersey with another hiker she knows.

I’m looking forward to starting tomorrow with a clear head – I usually bounce back pretty fast.

I hear weird noises coming from outside my tent. It’s like a repetitive grunting followed by a cooing. It’s close. At first I thought it was a bear, but the cooing threw me. I’m pretty sure it’s turkeys and I’m pretty sure they’re mating.

Breakfast: Jumboland Diner – two huge pancakes with pork roll (it’s like a homemade piece to fried bologna), half pound bacon cheeseburger with a pickle spear, coffee, OJ

Snack: dried cranberries

Dinner: The last of my Dot’s Pretzels. I’m still really full from breakfast – the Jumboland Diner has been my favorite diner so far.

Day 98 – Wednesday, June 15: Sunfish Pond to Branchville, NJ, 22.3 miles, 1,321.4 total AT miles.

My alarm woke me up at 4:00am – and I was ready to go. I quickly packed up and was ready to hike at 4:30. Just as I was about to exit my tent, I heard some snorting coming from outside. I instantly knew what it was (I think) – I had a bear in camp. I sat upright in my tent, grabbed my headlamp and shined it outside. I saw what I thought was the profile of a bear and yelled from the top of my lungs just to make sure. It took off into the woods – now I was ready to go. The skies were just starting to get bright on the horizon so I strapped on my headlamp and started hiking north.

I instantly noticed a trash bag hanging from the trunk of a tree – I remembered seeing it last night, but didn’t give it much thought. Now it bothered me a lot (and probably explained the bear I had just scared off). The trash bag was full of typical day-hiker garbage (soda bottles, chip bags, beer cans) as well as a surprising amount of thru-hiker trash (Pasta Sides, tuna packets). It kind of ticked me off – all it would take was one hungry animal and Sunfish Pond would become littered with garbage. I took it down and decided to pack it out.

I initially strapped it to the back of my pack, but soon felt garbage juice dripping on the back of my legs – that didn’t work. I ended up just carrying it. I paused at daybreak and checked the AT Guide – I’d have an opportunity to throw the bag of trash away in five miles at the Mohican Outdoor Center. Bummer.

I hiked north, but was traveling very slowly. After Sunfish Pond, the AT got rocky again – not quite as bad as PA, but bad enough to slow me (and my trash bag) down substantially. I’m really glad I left early – I caught a spectacular sunrise from the top Kittatinny Mountain.

I also ran across a pair of turkeys, one hen and one tom, scrambling around in the bushes. I laughted out loud – Virginia has the bears, Pennsylvania has the snakes, and, apparently, New Jersey has the beavers and turkeys.

I eventually made it the Mohican Outdoor Center at 8:30 and was able to throw my trash away in the dumpster. An employee of the MOC asked what I was doing – I told her packing out garbage from Sunfish Pond. She returned minutes later with garlic bread and hummus. What a treat!

Now unburdened of my extra weight, I started hiking north again at 9:00. I was ready to put up some big numbers – I felt great. But, as is often the case, the AT had other plans for me. I hit PA-style rocks and had to slow down to accommodate.

I caught a nice view from the Rattlesnake Swamp trailhead and pressed on.

Three miles up trail, I paused again – more garbage. This time it was a grocery sack full of beer bottles and an empty water jug – I strapped them to my pack and carried on.

Not fifteen minutes later, I hit a paved road and was surprised to find a small group of hikers relaxing in the shade. I knew they all had hiked past the same garbage and just left it there. I was frustrated. I asked if anyone was planning on going to town – one hiker was actually waiting for a ride. Good, I said, then you won’t carrying this out and throwing it away – before he could respond, I unclipped the garbage and set it at his feet. He agreed and I hiked on.

The rocks stayed bad the rest of the day. It was noon and I had only hiked 13 miles so far – not good at all considering my early start. I decided to stop and have a quick lunch before pressing on towards Branchville.

Shortly after leaving, I stumbled on a rock and ripped the front of my boot – the sole came detached from the shoe. It wasn’t a big tear, but left a hole just large enough for small rocks and debris to get into my shoe. I tried plugging the hole with leaves, but that only provided a temporary fix. Thankfully, I ran into a hiker who carried duct tape (I used to – just ran out and never bought more) and was able to tape my boot back together.

I hit Rattlesnake Mountain at 3:00 and paused to check my GPS app – I still had six miles to go and the terrain was not improving. The whole point of my getting ahead of the group and leaving early this morning was so I could enjoy time relaxing in town. It looked as if it wasn’t going to be the case.

I put my headphones in and tried to make up for my slow start. I did eventually start making ground, spilling out onto US 206 at 5:30. I was tired and my feet ached – I was ready to get to the hotel ASAP.

I stuck my thumb out and caught a ride ten minutes later. I found myself checking into the Cobmin Ridge Motel at 6:00pm. This place was a dump. I’ve stayed in bad hotels before (Buena Vista, VA), but this place takes first prize by a long shot. I quickly met my neighbors and assured them I didn’t need any help “finding things” and that I didn’t “need company” – it was that type of place.

Note: I’m usually very kind when it comes to places I stay and eat at. I can’t do that here – it was that bad.

I took a long shower and walked next door to the Mexican restaurant to have dinner – it was actually awesome. I took the leftovers back to the hotel and laid on the bed (not under the covers) and started writing.

* * *

The whole litter thing really ticks me off. I get it – everyone has a different set of standards they hike with. And that’s fine. I didn’t shame or lecture anyone – I just made it known that I don’t tolerate that behavior. The people I hike with don’t tolerate it either – I’m sure they’ll be proud when I finally get to tell them. Packing out litter is what we do. I hike with some truly amazing people.

Do not stay at the Cobmin Ridge Motel.

I’m not too concerned about getting an early start tomorrow. I’ve been spending most nights the past few weeks in pain – it’s high time I took it easy. Plus, everyone’s behind me. And I know I’ll be able to put up bigger miles in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I’m still on schedule to finish this thing in less than five months. It might be only by a few days, but I still think I can do it.

My boots – ugh. I feel like I just got used to these Merrells and then this happens. I’ll need to buy duct tape before I leave town. I have my old trail runners (the ones I got replaced for free) arriving in a mail drop next week. I think I’ll be fine.

Breakfast: one 20 gram protein bar (I’ve stopped listing the flavors – they all taste the same at this point. Not true! Quest protein bars are awful across the board.)

Lunch: Garlic bread with beef jerky and hummus

Snack: Dried apricots and cranberries, Dot’s Pretzels

Dinner: Guacamole (made table side) with chips and salsa, chicken fajitas

Day 97 – Tuesday, June 14: Stealth Camp to Sunfish Pond, 12.2 miles, 1,299.1 total AT miles.

I woke to the early morning sunrise – our campsite was in a beautiful grassy clearing with a great view of the valley below. I was out of my tent by 6:30 to use the bathroom and packed to go at 7:00.

I really like my new Big Agnes tent. The Copper Spur UL 2 is a two-person, double vestibule tent. It’s similar to my old Dash 2 in that it has two entrances and can easily be set up in the rain (rainfly first). The primary difference is that it’s a lot bigger than the Dash 2 – I can easily sit up inside.

Note: I accidentally deleted a great picture of my new tent – it’s still up on my Instagram account. I’ll post a new pic of the tent in the coming days.

Black Santa and I started hiking north a few minutes after 7:00. My plan for today was to simply hike as far as I could (or wanted). I decided last night that I’d definitely take a personal day in Branchvillle, NJ tomorrow night. That meant I had two days to hike 35 miles before reaching town.

Today’s hike looked easy on paper. Three miles of level terrain followed by three miles of descent would bring us to Delaware Water Gap, PA and the PA/NJ state border. We made short work of the level section, stopping to have breakfast at Mt. Minsi at 8:30.

At 9:00, we started the gradual descent towards Delaware Water Gap, PA. It was a breeze – the famous PA rocks were all but gone. The trail was well-graded as this is a popular hiking destination for day-hikers.

I started catching glimpses of the Delaware River as I hiked – at 10:30 we finished our descent and walked into Delaware Water Gap.

Black Santa and I walked down Main Street and headed for the post office – he had mail drops and I had my bounce box to pick up. The lady at the post office was perhaps the friendliest postal employee I’ve ever met. After grabbing our boxes and having a pleasant conversation, we spread out on the grass out front and began repacking our food bags.

After packing back up, I walked down to the outfitter to look for a few gifts. As I strolled through town, the owner of a local restaurant came outside to talk to us – if we stopped in for lunch, he promised to give us a ride anywhere in town if we needed. While neither of us needed a ride, we were getting hungry. I checked out the menu – today was $.45 chicken wing day. Sold.

I made a few purchases from the outfitter and walked back to the post office to mail a birthday present to my father in Atlanta. It was noon and I debated skipping the wings and hiking on. But I just couldn’t do it – Black Santa and I grabbed a table and ate.

Other hikers wandered in – we got to see Who Dat. He’s been a day ahead of us since leaving Port Clinton, PA. We chatted briefly before I suited up to head out of town.

Black Santa would be staying behind. He only needed to hike 10 miles by Thursday – he had another package arriving at the Mohican Outdoor Center. Because it was sent to a private address, he couldn’t have it forwarded. He was stuck in town.

Champa, Savage, McDoubles and Get Weird were only a few miles away from town when I left. I decided I’d attempt to hike as close to Branchville as possible in order to take advantage of my pending hotel stay.

I crossed the Delaware River Bridge and officially entered New Jersey at 2:00.

The Delaware River is beautiful – despite being in NJ (and all that comes to mind when one thinks of the Garden State). The AT follows the river and hits a small park before crossing under I-80. As I hiked along the river in the afternoon sun, I really started feeling the heat and humidity. It’s amazing what a few thousand feet in elevation can do to the weather.

I stopped to use the bathroom and saw a nice shady spot in the grass by the river. I walked over and set my pack down. Before I knew it, I was laying on my sleeping pad, dozing in the afternoon heat – too many wings at lunch, I guess.

I woke from my nap at 4:30 and checked my phone. Savage, McDoubles, Champa and Get Weird were all hanging out with Black Santa in town. I really wanted to walk back and hang out with the gang, but knew I needed to make miles if I wanted to have a night to myself tomorrow.

I hiked on and entered the woods at 5:00. The ascent back up to the ridge line was easy – I ran into a few day hikers and some thru-hikers I didn’t know. Most of the hikers were heading to a backcountry campsite just south of Sunfish Pond. I opted to hike on.

And I’m glad I did – Sunfish Pod was georgeous!

I hung out with a few beavers as the sun began to set. I checked the AT Guide – I had just over 20 miles to go before hitting Branchville, NJ. But this was a really nice campsite. I decided to call it a day and make camp – I left the rainfly off my tent as tonight looked nice and clear.

By 8:00pm, I was in my tent and ready for bed. I made a quick dinner from inside my vestibule and laid down, staring at the stars, before I decided to start writing.

* * *

I’m setting my alarm for 4:00am. I want to make it Branchville, NJ as early as possible to enjoy my evening off.

So I’m officially ahead of everyone I’ve been hiking with. Savage, McDoubles and Champa are about five miles behind – they made it out of Delaware Water Gap and decided to tent at the first available site. Black Santa and Get Weird are staying at DWG.

I’ve been in communication with Push – after taking ten days off, she’s currently less than 100 miles behind and gaining ground fast.

Moon Boots! After taking a week off to nurse an injured ankle, he’s also about 100 miles behind and hiking with Juan and Oriole.

Remember Canuck? Savage just saw online that he passed through Harper’s Ferry about three days ago – glad to see he’s still hiking north.

I wish everyone else was here – while I generally enjoy hiking alone, I like camping with others.

Breakfast: 20 gram protein bar, dried cranberries, half bag of beef jerky

Lunch: 12 garlic/buffalo wings, 1/2 pound of hot peel-n-eat shrimp

Dinner: Chicken Rice Side with can of chicken