Good morning folks. It’s still morning, right? I mean I’ve been puttering around in bed for the last couple of hours, ya know, because I can. I’m currently hanging out in my friends’ apartment in NYC, and I couldn’t be happier. Pennsylvania is a distant speck in my proverbial rear view mirror, and – did I already mention this? – I get to see some of my favorite people in the world, even if just for a quick visit.
In pre-trail life, I could easily jump on a bus or train from DC and spend the weekend in New York, but this visit has been building for months. Not only have I been relatively out of touch since being in the woods for such long stretches generally means keeping my phone off, but also I can’t emphasize how meaningful a hug from close friend is. And, let me tell you, it’s been way too long.
So, here I am, on a real computer (a real computer! not an iPhone!), excited to tell you all the reasons why New Jersey is awesome. I know I’m in New York, but this is the first chance I’ve had to put pen to paper…or I guess fingertips to keyboard. Yes, I’m obsessing, but seriously, I just have to tell you how much more agreeable the user interface is on a computer. It’s glorious, glorious I tell you!
Without further ado and in no particular order, how do I love New Jersey? Let me count the ways.
1. The Joisey Game.
Do you remember Lentil’s friend Sharky that hosted us in Waynesboro, VA? Well, he told us about this game he played during his most recent thru hike that goes a little like this: Upon entering the state of New Jersey, the game’s participants must only refer to the state as “Joisey.” Should any participant utter “New Jersey,” any other participant is obligated to correct him by adamantly stating “Joisey.” Participants can also correct other thru hikers or locals. One point per correction.
Simple enough, right? But adamantly “correcting” a stranger on the pronunciation of his state while simultaneously promoting a borderline insulting stereotype without offending anyone is no easy task, I assure you. In fact, it can be downright intimidating. When I explained the rules to my cousin, she informed me that we seemed bored. What does she know? She’s from Joisey.
As we made our way through the state, the competition became increasingly intense. And I’m not really a competitive person, so I was starting to get anxious when Lentil pulled ahead 7 to 3. But yada yada yada and then I won.
2. Cicadas aren’t welcome.
Cicadas are insects that spend years in a larval stage underground. I’m not positive, but I believe that they feed off of nutrients in tree roots. Then every several years they dig out from underground, mate, and die. There are various types on different cycles, and I’ve heard that they’re always prime numbers. This year’s brood is a big deal because they’re the “17 year brood,” meaning this batch of cicadas has been underground incubating for 17 years. Isn’t that awesome?
We first started hearing the cicadas way back around Front Royal, Virginia. The ground temperature has to be in the low 60s before they come out, and we’d had a batch of 90 degree days that brought them out. They make a loud, humming call that collectively sounds like a siren, high then low.
At first I was so excited. In the middle of the day, I’d be hiking along and hear this noise that would get louder and louder until I was upon a grove of trees or bushes that was swarming with these large insects, which I’d say are about 3 inches long.
And then there was the night that I was laying in my tent and heard a scratching noise. At first I thought that a mouse was trying to dig its way in to get at some food I may have had in there (I don’t know why I’d have food in there since, like every thru hiker, I religiously bear bag all my food all the time…). I was literally crawling around on all fours with my ear to the ground (visualize: not much turning space in a tent, even my two-person) trying to find the source. I finally realized that a cicada was literally digging itself out of the ground and hitting the floor of my tent. I was so tickled at the ridiculousness of the situation. Cool, right?
Well, after a few weeks, it occurred to me that the cicadas weren’t going away. It seems that we were hiking in sync with increasingly warm temperatures and that the cicadas were following us north. And after a while, the constant high pitched droning started to burrow into my brain. All I could think was, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” It was exhausting. And I can’t say that the thrill of being hit in the head by cicadas in heat (nudge, nudge, get it?) lasted long either.
So, guess what happened when we crossed into New Jersey? It was the strangest thing. All of a sudden I started noticing the sound of birds chirping again. At first I couldn’t place the difference, but then I realized that the cicadas had abated. Sure, there were a couple of small pockets in the state where they were still making hay, but for the most part, I was granted a respite.
3. The water is back.
It’s well known among hikers that it can be a challenge to get water in the state of Pennsylvania. Not only are water sources well off the trail (at one spot we had to hike .4 miles down a steep, rocky path), but also many springs and streams often dry up. I would say that I went through the second half of the state mildly dehydrated since I was conserving my water in order to safely make it to the next water source. At a couple of spots, I thought I might not be able to make it and considered hitching into town to get more water. Luckily, in both of those situations, a trail angel was waiting at the intersection with some water and soda that got me through.
New Jersey is a totally different story. There’s water aplenty.
Not all of it is pristine…like this sample, which is tainted tea-colored with iron oxide, but it’s all potable when filtered properly. Most importantly, it’s available without having to look too hard.
4. New Jersey believes in views.
I would describe the vistas in Pennsylvania as a cruel joke. I hiked through long stretches of rocky, canopied trail, only infrequently coming across a blue blaze that would lead to a view. And I came to consider a good view as one with only one or two smokestacks visible in the distance. So, not only was there often nowhere to sit to rest my feet, but neither were there many spots to rest my mind.
In New Jersey, on the other hand, a short, steep climb was often rewarded with a scenic view. And sometimes that’s all it takes to put a hot, humid I’ve-never-sweated-so-much-in-my-entire-life day back into perspective.
Back in Tennessee, I started seeing blackberry bushes lining the trail. Sure, they scratched the heck out of my legs, but I thought, “Soon enough, I’m going to be chowing down on delicious berries.” Yeah, well I said that for hundreds of miles, well into Virginia in fact, but nooooo, no blackberries for Jor. Kind of like the situation with the cicadas, we were hiking north ahead of the blackberries’ ripening.
And Lentil is confident and competent at finding edible plants and berries, but I am not. I’m fairly sure I’d end up poisoning myself. However, recently the mulberries and blueberries have come out. Lentil can spot mulberries from a mile away, and he’s always generous with sharing what he collects. As far as blueberries, I’d have to be blind to miss them; they lined the trail all throughout New Jersey. I’d be hiking through a section of trail in direct sunlight pouring sweat when I’d come across a patch of sun warmed and ripened blueberries (i.e. the best blueberries I’ve ever had in my entire life).
6. Bears galore
Before entering Shenandoah, the word on the trail was that I was almost guaranteed to see a black bear – at least once a day, some said. And many hikers did see bears – but not this hiker. I wasn’t too disappointed. I still had a great time in the Park. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited when I crossed into New Jersey and not an hour later saw a bear lumbering down the trail – and then another. And then another. By the end of my second day in the state, I’d seen five bears. In New Jersey. Who’d have thought?
(And, yes, I bear bagged my food while tenting in the state when bear boxes weren’t available.)
7. The secret shelter
A thousand trail miles ago, way back in Tennessee, someone told me about the secret shelter in New Jersey. When it was described to me, the whole situation sounded very “Joisey,” in a “you gotta know someone who knows someone” sort of way. Well, of course I completely forgot about it, but when I was planning my mileage a couple of days ahead, I noted a “private property” on the trail open to thru hikers. And then a southbound section hiker told me to look out for the sign at a nondescript gravel road intersection that said, “Water: 100 yards.” That’s it. OK, I can do that.
When we arrived, we were treated to a simple cabin with electricity (electricity! plugs to charge our phones! and to plug in the box fan that was there!), a shower, and a soft grassy area to tent. The day’s hot sticky air was replaced by a cooling breeze, and I spent the evening on the porch watching dark clouds roll through. Even moreso, I was just excited that I’d found the secret shelter I’d heard about so long ago.
8. It’s a small state.
When all was said and done, even with a Zero thrown in, it took less than a week to get through the state, which felt awesome. Hey, just because I’ve been waxing poetic doesn’t mean that there weren’t downsides that I was excited to leave behind. The one issue that really stuck is that the trail runs through many low lying swampy areas, which means that – with the humidity and heat – the mosquitoes came out in full force. I’d bought DEET lotion back in Pennsylvania, and my timing couldn’t have been better. Even so, I ended up with no less than a hundred mosquito bites clustered on my arms, neck, shoulders, and face. And I’m pretty sure I was working on a mild case of DEET poisoning (giggle, kind of).
9. I walked here.
The trail heads out of Delaware Water Gap, PA and enters New Jersey via a busy stretch of highway. As I was walking along watching cars speed through the Easy Pass lanes, I thought about all the times that I’ve done the same. Ya know, I have lots of family in New Jersey, so I’ve done my fair share of driving on its hectic roads. And for the first time, it really struck me: I walked there. From Georgia. With my own two feet. Literally.