Headed South--September 30
January 1, 1970As we hiked the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey, Laurie and I concluded that the state has an undeserved reputation. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, the state is not all suburbs and chemical plants. Herds of dairy cattle grazing in large meadows, bales of freshly harvested hay dotting open fields, and roadside stands selling ripe, locally-grown peaches serve to teach us why this is called The Garden State. There are vast woodlands here, too. We have seen more deer in New Jersey than in any place other than Shenandoah National Park, and the bear population is one of the largest of any state in the east. Sunfish Pond is the trail’s southernmost glacially-created lake.
I happened to glance skyward while taking a break on Catfish Mountain and was surprised to see dozens of broad-winged hawks winging their way southward just a few dozen feet above us. Later that day we came across a group of binocular-toting people who explained to us that this and the other overlooks on the mountains in New Jersey and Pennsylvania make great seats from which to watch the fall hawk migration. Heated air from sun-warmed cliffs and rock outcroppings couples with warm air rising from the lowlands to create forceful drafts, or thermals, that the hawks use to soar upward. In addition, by gliding near the crest of the ridges, they are able to take advantage of the northwesterly winds that strike the Appalachians where air currents are forced across the mountain crests, providing more uplift.
Sometimes as early as mid-August, ospreys, American kestrels, and a few bald eagles begin the procession southward. The migration begins in earnest in the middle of September as broad-winged hawks take to the skies. Peak daily sightings of several thousand are not uncommon. In the early weeks of October, peregrine falcons join the movement, while later in the month, one of the smallest hawks, the sharp-shinned, becomes the dominant migrant. Joining the procession at that time are the larger but less in number Cooper’s hawks. Making use of the cold winds of November, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, and red-shouldered hawks zip by leafless trees. Soaring over an Appalachian Trail that could be covered by December snows, northern goshawks and golden eagles bring the migratory season to a close.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the fall is a different, and more solitary, experience than earlier in the year. The hordes of northbound thru-hikers have finished their journey and gone back to routine daily lives, vacation time is over for most Americans, and college students have returned to campus. No longer do we interact with twenty or more people a day or have to worry if there is going to be space to spend the night in one of the trailside shelters. Occasionally we will meet a southbound thru-hiker on his or her way to Georgia, but many days pass without seeing another human being.
Hikers may be fewer in number, yet the kindness of strangers continues to abound. Dick Ludwick, the mayor of Unionville, New York, invited us into his home, saying he had only three rules for us if we wanted to stay: 1. Don’t try to pay for anything; 2. Don’t try to wash any dishes; and 3. Be sure to jiggle the toilet handle when you flush. As if providing us with a soft bed was not enough, the mayor prepared us a feast consisting of a fresh salad, shrimp over angel hair pasta, and glasses of red wine from Chile.
The Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, has been taking in hikers for close to 30 years (the pastor estimates more than 10,000) and letting them take showers and rest and relax in a bunk room before continuing their treks. We, of course, were no exceptions. John and Linda Stempa live close to a particularly dry section of the trail near Kunkletown, Pennsylvania and invite hikers to fill water bottles from an outside tap. Laurie and I not only did this, but were also asked in to take showers and enjoy an evening meal with them.
Eastern Pennsylvania can be a trying portion of the trail for northbound thru-hikers. Summer heat, insects, and miles of grapefruit-sized rocks that bruise ankles and make walking difficult have been the cause of many a thru-hiker giving up the quest. We, of course, have come through this area with cooler temperatures and fewer bugs, while restful views across the landscape make this a pleasant section for me. Acre upon acre of well-tended farms stretch across the valley floors, making me somewhat envious of the inhabitants that get to enjoy this scenery from their homes every day. From our viewpoints on the ridgelines, the valleys look so peaceful and prosperous that they get me to thinking of the way J.R.R. Tolkien described life in the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
MacAfee of Knob, the Amazing Appalachian Bouncing Dog, has rejoined us now that the rockiest part of the trail is behind us. Only 300 more miles left to complete our 2,174-mile trek.