7/16 & 7/17: High Point Shelter to Pochuck Shelter to Wawayanda Shelter

  • 7/16: Mile 1340.7-1353.0 (12.3 mi.)
    Ascent: 1627′; descent: 2067′
  • 7/17: Mile 1353.0-1364.7 (11.6 mi.)
    Ascent: 2694′; descent: 2388′

Forget “Garden State”: New Jersey’s nickname should be the “Land of Characters.”

Yesterday, we met Medic (also known as “Captain Crazy”), who’s as gregarious as he is mysterious, and as fit as he is astute. He’s been a fish breeder, boxing coach, metal detectorist, and combat medic. He’s a strong hiker over a short stretch but easily exhausted by chronic kidney disease.

He has less than six months to live, he claims, and he’s hiking the AT to live it up.

At Unionville, Medic bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of food to give away. He carried a dozen pizzas up a mountain, earning him the attention of a bear, to surprise hikers with at the next shelter. He offered a homeless veteran $200 and a steak dinner to come with him to apply for veteran’s disability benefits.

Medic is also what I like to call a superconnector: He can and did call up 50 Cent, a world-famous boxer whose name I didn’t catch, and a biology professor.

He’s also, if you spend more than a few minutes with him, terrifying.

Medic claims to have a violent past he wants to leave behind. He knows a little too much about money laundering, weapons, poisons, and the “Italian restaurant” business. He changes phones often and pays exclusively with Cash App. He aspires not to be a husband or parent, but to find the right “breeding stock” — a Sub-Saharan African teen, evidently — to produce the perfect boxer.

Rachel and I hiked much of the day yesterday with Medic, who’d decided I should help him write a true-crime book “from the criminal’s perspective,” while quietly looking for opportunities to extract ourselves.

One strategy we’ve been using, until the opportunity arises, is to hang out in groups. In Unionville, we spent the afternoon at a two-room general store. Drinking OJ and eating sandwiches on the porch — and hoping Medic would move on without us — we met another boxer-turned-hiker and George, a local drinking brown-bagged “milk.” Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly, Medic found much to talk about with them.

Someone produced a guitar — packable guitars aren’t uncommon hiker accessories — and George reached for it. He, and then everyone else, began belting out “Sweet Child of Mine” over the din rain on a metal roof.

No recent moment struck me as more “Appalachian Trail”: spontaneous, welcoming, ragtag, and ridiculous. Everyone on that porch was waiting out the rain, and yet nobody was in any rush to move on.

Eventually, the rain did stop. Realizing we had just a couple of hours of daylight left, Rachel and I bought two more sandwiches — Medic offered to buy them, but we refused — and started hiking again, our companion as unshakable as ever.

We hiked up a slippery hill and past a fallen-in home, and the rain began again. We filled water from the house’s hose, which spookily still worked. Someone suggested the National Park Service had bought it and left the water on just for hikers.

We sat briefly on moldy computer chairs under the home’s remaining eaves, before the shower became a downpour and we decided to push on. The only thing worse than hiking in cold rain is hiking in cold rain in the dark.

The storm had begun to whip trees into unnerving curves, but we had no choice but to hike faster. We broke into a run as dusk gave way to dark, Medic lagging behind, until, mercifully, the shelter’s outline appeared.

At the shelter, we met another New Jersey character: Paw, an emaciated but sharp self-described schizophrenic. Embedded in his chest was a clump of his favorite pet’s ashes surrounded by a large dog-face tattoo.

Paw and I spoke hesitantly at first, and then at length. He seemed to enjoy discussing the advantages of his condition: paranoia keeps him safe (at least in the woods), and bouts of mania help him hike populated areas at night with little food. His lucid periods are floods of intuitive understanding, such as the concept of time as the means and measure of change.

Our breakthrough came when he accused most hikers of being sellouts; I admitted as much was true of me, but this was my quest for a new way. Sharing our snacks, which he at first rejected and then devoured, didn’t hurt, either.

As other hikers emerged from the darkness, Paw grew visibly nervous. He moved on, despite our the rain and our insistence that he — not a thru-hiker, but a hiker nonetheless — was welcome.

The last straw seemed to be two young, female hikers named Luna and Kit-Kat, who taught SCUBA at a Boy Scout camp my dad and I had attended together. Both had also hiked at Philmont and done some venturing activities, like canoeing and orienteering.

Eventually, the shelter grew so crowded that Rachel and I decided to pitch our tent. Medic, of course, followed with his own tent.

Today — yes, all of that happened yesterday, July 16 — we started early and quietly so as to escape Medic and further night-hiking. As we’d hoped, we had our packs on before the first signs of life from Medic’s tent.

The other reason we began early is that it’s a Saturday, and today’s stretch — the boulder-strewn “Stairway to Heaven” — is popular with locals. More challenging than the climb was making decent time while observing trail etiquette with so many day hikers.

Thanks to our early start, we made it in by 1 p.m., beating the storm in today’s forecast and leaving me plenty of time to write this entry. Medic, to our quiet chagrin, showed up at our campsite but found no room in the shelter. We’re staying in the shelter tonight, no matter the crowd.

Tomorrow, we’ll meet my uncle Matt in nearby Warwick, New York, a B-level historic retreat for New Yorkers, which has a drive-in theater that lets hikers tent for free — on the assumption that they’ll spend more than their share at the snack bar — and a Mexican restaurant with “habaneros” in the name.

May New York be spicier and drier than New Jersey, but no less full of characters.

By Bob

Bob is a newly married word herder who's gone looking for himself where anyone who knows him would: in the mountains and around the campfires of America's greatest trail.